Getting to Know RILEY THE MUSICIAN, the Boy Behind the Wig

Kansas City’s RILEY THE MUSICIAN has been one of the most interesting acts to follow over the last year, from releasing his sophomore album, collaborating with FROMTHEHEART, and playing at several of PC Music’s festivals. Ringtone wanted to know more about the man behind the white wig, so, back in November, we sat down on a Zoom call to talk about hyperpop, inspirations, and Montana!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Illustration of Riley

Illustration by Grace Wahlen
Graphic by Zoe Axelrod

Ringtone Magazine: What's the story behind the wig?

RILEY THE MUSICIAN: Oh man, the wig. Okay, we had a shoot for a song called “Thin” back when I was making Art Is Dead and I was super obsessed with Andy Warhol and I was like, “What's the best way I could like look like Andy Warhol?” So we went to Party City down the street and we bought like a mad scientist kit with the wig and everything just kind of worked from there. I really liked the way it looked and, ever since, I’ve just been using it in every video because, beforehand, I hadn't used it, so it was just like, “Oh, this is a cool costume,” and then, all of a sudden, like when I took photos without the wig, they were like, “Where's the wig?” Stuff like that, so it naturally progressed into just becoming my brand.

Your album, Ana Kennedy, was it written for anyone in particular?

No, it wasn't written for anybody in specific, the way the album name came up was I was super obsessed with the ‘50s and ‘60s and the Kennedy family. I’m like, “I know who shot that shot at John F. Kennedy,” things like that, so I wanted to somehow reference it in the title but not like directly say the name, because, on the distribution, you can't just put like “John F. Kennedy,” you have to make up a name, you can't put somebody else's name, so that's really how it came about and it felt so ‘60s and it felt so natural, you know it.

Going off the branch of your releases, is there a reason why you chose to be self-released instead of signing to any labels?

I really like having full control of what I do, at least right now. I feel like, if I sign to a label right now, it wouldn't really do me much because I don't have a brand off the ground yet. I really want to build up my base before I do anything like that. I’m all about control and all of my appearances, all of my features, like it has to be very very specific and I don't want anybody to tell me, “Oh you should you should work with this person and then go work with this person.” I’m super artistically directed when it comes to my work.

You mentioned your features, you recently worked with FROMTHEHEART, how did that come about? and do you have any stories from the project?

It was just super spontaneous. I was just dmed one day and it was just like, “Hey, do you want to work on this song?” And that was sent to me and then it all sort of unraveled. There wasn't really any prenotion to anything; it was so spontaneous.

Throughout the year, you've been featured in several online events from Lavapalooza to the recent PC Music’s Halloween event. Do you feel like COVID had anything to do with that, and do you feel like that could be possibly the future?

Absolutely — the music industry is really turned on its head right now. Going into this year was so bizarre because everything went from IRL to URL, like everybody just started doing things online. The strangest thing was just adapting to it because I’m so used to playing live sets and interacting with people in front of me, things like that, because I used to DJ. Doing it with just a chat room and a bunch of little lines coming down the screen, it's such a different environment but I also think it's really cool and I think it's going to be around for a few years.

You mentioned that you used to DJ; how did you first get involved with music production?

I’m sure you're familiar with it, but PC Music back in like 2013, 2014; I would have been 13 or 14 and it's all I listened to. I just stumbled across Soundcloud and I just listened to A. G. Cook mixes all day and I’d play Minecraft just back to back and I would just listen to it and then I was like, “Oh man, this is so future and nobody knows about it. I love the sound of this.” So I brought up FL Studio and I just got super into it and making mixes and remixes and things like that. If it wasn't for that and if it wasn't for projects like Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters” or Porter Robinson’s Worlds, I just wouldn't be doing it. It was a turning point in my head that just pushed me into this scene and it's just really what I grew up on. It's just so interesting to me and I want to give back to it somehow because they did so much for me; I want to be able to tell my own story as well.

Do you have any tips for beginning hyperpop producers?

There's a million things that could be said. I think the best thing to do is just to believe in what your brand is and be very sensitive about who you work with and what your sound is. It's the hardest thing and being an artist is just getting people to be interested in what you do. If you can knock that out of the park, then you know you're set. Just focus on being yourself because that's really the only way you're gonna get there; nobody's gonna get there by sounding like one another.

How do you see hyperpop in the coming years?

I was having this conversation with my friends. I was like, “Where is this gonna go?” and we looked back when Rico Nasty's “iPhone” song came out; that was produced by Dylan Brady and we were like, “This is like the next big thing.” And things like that and you know it just kind of went along with the current. So I honestly have no idea. I think people like Dylan Brady and gecs will explode even more because they're so notorious. Even in scenes, like if you look at like twitch streamers or just like casual people, it's gone into the meme status, but I think other acts, like glaive was just signed to Interscope and just put out a project through them. He's gonna explode. He's got the backing, he's got the sound. I think there's going to be a few artists on top that really push it; I think PC Music was the prototype, honestly.

If you could release any project with any artists dead or alive, who would you choose?

Oh man, this is so hard because I have so many heroes. A lot of my heroes, I don't want to work with because I feel like I’d ruin my, you know, “I’m looking up to them so hard.” I would say it would have to be Passion Pit, like the indie band from the 2010s. Michael Angelakos — I would work with him in a heartbeat. He's a genius.

Where would you see yourself if you weren't a musician?

That's hard. Before I was doing music, I was super into tech, so I was doing a bit of programming, but honestly, I think I would stick in the tech world. I think I’d be programming games because I’m all about entertainment and media. Maybe even like TV; I’ve always loved it. As a kid, all of my usernames were like @rileythemusiciantv or like things like that, like I’d act like I had my own TV network on sites. It's always been a dream of mine since I was like six or seven, so, from the moment I was born, I was like, “I was born to be an entertainer, like that's what I got to do.”

Do you have any shoutouts to any smaller hyperpop producers?

Right now, I’ve been listening to torr’s new stuff. torr is amazing if you're familiar with them. Honestly, it's not smaller, but me and my girlfriend have been bumping the food house album back to back. It's so great; it's so much fun. One of my friends is doing some of the most interesting stuff in the world; their name is Ajhani Azure. Amazing pop production; I just explode over it. We have a group chat of like 70 people, just producers thrown into an area, so I just love talking to them and seeing what they're working on. Really just any of those kids. James Takateru — he did production on “Rendezvous” for Ana Kennedy; he's doing production for my next project. He's insane: he's 16 and he's like the best producer I’ve ever met in my life, so I’m just like, “I don't know how you do it but I wish I could do that when I was 16.”

Did you play any instruments growing up?

I was trained for only a few years. I just wanted the basics, but piano, I kind of got all the basic music theory and chords and stuff and then I was like, “Okay, I can go incorporate this into songwriting.” I feel like piano is the best instrument for this kind of music because everything is keyboards. It's like the universal language.

Do you have any preference over DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations)?

I’ve been through too many, but I’m on Logic right now; I love it. But actually, my friends are trying so hard to get me on Ableton and I tried it for a day and I’m loving it.

It’s scary!

Oh my gosh, it's so much. But it is so much fun, like, in Logic, it takes me like 30 seconds to do a certain task, and then, in Ableton, you just click and it's done, so it's night and day for sure.

What would you say has been your biggest achievement so far in your career?

I think the thing that's resonated with me the most was being told by people I look up to, “You’re doing the right thing.” That reassurance from people I listened to when I was a kid being like, “I really like what you're doing here, this is such a cool track, your stuff is interesting.” Things like that, hearing that from people that I looked up to and I heroize and I went to their shows and things like that, it’s like, “Wow, I can actually do something and I’m actually trying to give back,” and it's finally making an effect. That's all that matters to me. I’m all about legacy and just connecting with people. That's the biggest thing for me, honestly.

Do you think that COVID has had an effect on the way that hyperpop has morphed over the last year?

Oh for sure, a lot of hyperpop is like thrown together in URL sets. I think it's given more exposure. I remember, back in the days of PC Music, there was a radio station called Radio Jack. They would have to fly people out and only certain people would make it to the shows, like that was the scene. But now that everything's so on the internet, anybody can have an equal shot at it and, because of that, you get so many more opportunities for people to shine. I think Twitter has done a really, really good job at exploding those people and keeping them in the interest and things like that.

So earlier, you mentioned your new project. Can you disclose some information about it?

I can't do everything, but it's called Montana. So the idea is, I’m taking all of my friends up to Montana. It's gonna be three or four of us in December and we're going to pretty much finish recording the album. We've been working on it since this summer and we are gonna shoot little music videos up there and things like that, but the idea is to get us to a desolate location in the middle of nowhere during a pandemic, like a cabin in Montana, and just hideout and just make art together. I think when I make projects, they always scream an era of my life, or, when I look back at anybody else's projects, it's like you can be in the room with them. I want this to feel like, from the moment you boot it up, like you're in Montana with me and feeling the same things I do.

Can't wait to hear it!

Thank you!

Not a lot of people do albums based on states; I know Sufjan Stevens has a couple.

Yeah, my friend actually put me onto those records. One that inspired me the most was Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska; it‘s from the ‘80s. He recorded it in a hotel room with a 4 cassette recorder and he took it to a fancy studio and he didn't like how it sounded, so he put it out how it sounded in the moment, and that was like my direct inspiration to, like, “Let's do that, but modern-day.”

Back at Lavapalooza, you played a back-to-back set with I’m Rylee. Can we expect any other releases from that?

I don't know how much I can say, but we're definitely working on stuff. She's super cool; she's the best. We’ll see.

What's your biggest inspiration in music?

Ever? It has to be a few things. Definitely like PC Music, A. G. Cook, Porter Robinson’s Worlds. The biggest thing for me was honestly, and I know this is like a similar sentiment to a lot of people in the scene, Skrillex. Growing up, when I first heard Skrillex, I was 11 in my car with my family, and my brother played it on the radio. I was like, “This is the most outrageous music I’ve ever heard.” And so I started listening to it some more, and I was like, “This is really interesting,” because, in the states at the time, dubstep hadn't really fully migrated over, so, by the time I was put onto Skrillex, I started hearing it on the radio and you had all these EDM DJs come up and that really put me in the moment. I want to do something that's as interesting and groundbreaking as that, but on my own terms, with my own words.


Be sure to follow Riley on Twitter, Instagram, and stream Montana when it's finally out!

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