Music is the weapon: Major Lazer on creativity, clichés, and collaboration

“We want to make the world smaller by making the party bigger.”

I don’t know what the soundtrack to 2020 will be, when they finally come to make the contagion thriller/Sacha Baron Cohen satire/slasher horror adaptation. A low, ominous Gregorian chant? A blitzkrieg air raid siren? Lots of Hanson? Pots and pans (lockdown balcony remix)? That silent thing by John Cage that people seem to think is really clever? Looped Republican wails? Something Tik Tok-y from Drake?

But I know the soundtrack we deserve. And it’s probably Music is the Weapon, the new album from Major Lazer. Walshy Fire, one third of the group, said in a recent documentary that Major Lazer wants “to make the world smaller by making the party bigger”. Amen to that. A party is just what the doctor ordered right now (even if a party is absolutely the last thing the doctor ordered right now).

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And Major Lazer — Ape Drums, Diplo and Walshy Fire— know this fine art better than most. “We were just always finding the weirdest music and playing it at parties,” says Diplo. “Walsh was dropping rock songs at dancehall parties; Ape Drums was always flipping world music I’d never heard. Me, I was always playing things I found off YouTube and breaking them out.” In Music is the Weapon, the trio throw all of that at the wall (and much, much more). And everything sticks. Come on in: the dance floor’s lovely.

How have you all found this very odd year?

Ape Drums: For me, it’s been interesting. To get into the deeper stuff, the questions I ask are: What kind of music are people going to be into after this? What are we going to be playing? What kind of music will we all be making? I feel like it’s going to be a big turning point.

Walshy Fire: I’ve found it more creative, definitely more creative. But shout out to people who found it less creative. I don’t understand that — but I definitely know they’re out there. But creatives create, man. We’re different. We were creating with nothing from before! It’s really a back to basics moment. People like ourselves have no problem thriving in those scenarios where things go back to zero.

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Why that title — Music is the Weapon?

Walshy Fire: We had tons of names. This is a name factory over here! But this was something that happened about five years ago. I think someone might have said it in an interview as a joke. Someone said ‘peace is the mission’ as we were doing that album, and someone in the interview said “…and music is the weapon” as a response. The journalist ran with it.

Ape Drums: I feel like it speaks for itself. With everything going on in the world, music is the only thing we have to bring us all together.

Walshy Fire: If peace is the mission, you do have to do something to get that peace. Music is the weapon to accomplish that mission. You have to have some kind of revolution. Music will do that.

"It’s not until recent happenings that we’ve seen that our comfort in the world was misguided — it was a fake comfort."

Is music less politically charged now than, say, in the 1960s? Pop music often seems to have left the protest behind…

Walshy Fire: Absolutely. Think about what was happening in the Sixties with civil rights. Think about Sam Cooke’s last song, A Change Gon’ Come. No-one’s going to come with something as powerful as that. What humans were going through at that time, what humans were doing to other humans, is just mind-boggling and insane.

If you look at the music coming out of the Vietnam protests, out of civil rights protests — that stuff right there is that ‘pressure makes diamonds’ kind of thing. We don’t live in a world right now where people feel they need to topple governments. We live in a time where the majority of the first world is very complacent and comfortable. It’s not until recent happenings that we’ve seen that our comfort in the world was misguided; it was a fake comfort.

We shouldn’t be comfortable about the treatment people get. Maybe a lot of music that comes from this moment will have some importance. But it’s hard to compare this to the Sixties. My mom was a person you could ask — she moved to America in ‘67, and she remembers what it was like in New York City at that time. It’s hard to compare.

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Who’s making music right now that sums up what it’s like to be an American in this day and age?

Ape Drums: When Kendrick Lamar did that song at the Grammys — I think it was Alright – that was a really powerful performance. I think a lot of rappers are talking about everything that’s going on in America right now, and they’re definitely the artists speaking out.

What do you look for in collaborators?

Ape Drums: As far as traits go, it’s just talent. There are three of us, and Wes and Walsh know a lot more people than me. But regardless, everyone has one mission when we collaborate — just to make the best song possible. On the album, some songs took two years to finish because both parties were trying to make it the best that they could. We don’t want to put it out regretting not adding this or not doing that, so we take our time. Our collaborators always have a good work ethic — we’re on the same page, in that way.

Young musicians and creatives must come to you for advice a lot. Are there any mistakes you think they often make? Or any cliches they fall into?

Walshy Fire: I think the first mistake they make is asking us for advice. Look at us, man!

Diplo: As far as I know, it’s hard to be a young musician right now, because you lose a lot of the skills that we have — the history. We’ve been doing this forever. Walsh and I have been DJing for almost 20 years, before the internet, when you had to be a really good DJ.

Walshy Fire: You had to be a good crate vinyl digger!

Diplo: You couldn’t just go to the top ten charts, or find something on Tik Tok, and work it out that way. Major Lazer just solidifies our need to progress with music as creators.

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Is there too much repetition in music at the moment?

Ape Drums: Oh, 100%. That’s the problem with these young kids. They try to do what the other guys are doing. I remember I made the same mistake. But I realised right off the bat, that if everyone’s trying to do the same thing, I’ve got to do something different, over here. I can’t keep making the same thing a thousand other kids are trying to make.

Is the visual element of Major Lazer — the album art, the characters, the comic book, the clothes you wear — as important as the music, in some ways?

Diplo: In the beginning, for sure. We were anonymous, and we loved the visuals of Eighties dancehall; the obsession with westerns, and comic books, and punk artists. We’re obsessed with this visual superhero version of what dancehall, what reggae, is. We really exploited that in our artwork, and created another universe our fans could follow.

They could listen to the music and it could transport them to somewhere crazy.

We had no idea we were going to have huge records and the hits we did, so we had to kind of pivot into being the stars of the show ourselves. So now we’re trying to balance both — the art aspect, and then us as features. We’re always trying to find a balance. But it’s hard, man. It’s hard doing marketing in 2020, because for one there’s no place to perform, no place to push your marketing to people, everywhere is overrun by Tik Tok and stuff. A label’s marketing plan is like “hey, let’s get you on Tik Tok”. That’s the only thing they do.

"Walsh goes to the bathroom. Ape Drums drinks a fifth of tequila. And I meditate, to the point where I levitate a couple feet off the ground..."

Do you have any pre-tour or pre-stage rituals?

Diplo: Walsh goes to the bathroom. Ape Drums drinks a fifth of tequila. And I meditate, to the point where I levitate a couple feet off the ground. That’s how we do it.

What were your first impressions of each other when you first met?

Ape Drums: We all met each other at different times, and we all respected each other’s work. But the main thing is that we all had similar interests in music. I was a super big fan of Major Lazer years ago. We had a very similar sound, and they were very motivating and inspiring. I think that’s it. If you share the same taste in music with someone, you automatically have a very good relationship with them, regardless of anything else.

What will surprise people about the album?

Diplo: To have Marcus Mumford, some big Indian singers, all the way to rappers like French Montana… it’s the most random selection of features you could ever have in music. Marcus Mumford was a fan of ours, and a fan of African music. That was awesome for us.

Ape Drums: It’s what Major Lazer has been doing from the beginning. Trying to mash up different worlds. That’s what people expect from Major Lazer. Mumford on an Afro track. People are going to love it.

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