This interview has been paraphrased for consistency and clarity. You can listen to the full interview with Alvaro!
Joey: Hey Jasper, how are you doing?
Alvaro: Hey Joey, I’m good!
Joey: Where is your studio located? In your home?
Alvaro: No, this is in a wooden factory. Outside they’re cutting wood and stuff. Now and then, I hate them. But my volume goes louder. So you beat them.
Joey: To give the audience some context about who you are, who is Alvaro?
Alvaro: Well, I used to be a DJ, and I’m still a producer. I think most people know me by my big room sound. The first big room song I did was ‘Make the Crowd Go.’ I think the second biggest one was ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ which was released on Revealed with Hardwell. Basically, all my songs were big room.
Joey: You already mentioned that you were a DJ, and something changed. When did you quit? Are you entirely done?
Alvaro: Well, I haven’t played in like two years maybe.
Joey: And that was a conscious decision to stop playing?
Alvaro: Well, not right away. You have to go back to the beginning when I started DJing and was traveling the world. At some point, the whole big room scene was so repetitive, and there were a lot of people joining in, which kind of saturated the entire thing.
Joey: Are we talking about 2012,13?
Alvaro: Yeah, I think it was later when EDM went down. 2015 maybe. A lot of people stopped. But at that moment, it was a whole combination of things. I was playing for five years already and didn’t really enjoy it. I also wanted to do something else.
So at the point of Spotify coming up, I started producing pop music and stopped to DJ. Because for me, it didn’t really make sense to DJ anymore. I had some friends telling me like, yeah, you should do some shows, so people know you’re still here. And I was like, “Yeah, but what’s the point?” If I’m going to play there, while not releasing any music, my career is going to end anyway. Let me just start producing right away and not waste any time on doing shows that don’t matter. I also had money from all the years I was playing — a buffer where I could spend some time off. So actually, I told my manager not to accept any more bookings.
Joey: So it just always stayed like that.
Alvaro: Yeah, I kind of went through this whole new direction. It felt like starting all over again, which was pretty cool.
Joey: What made you feel that way?
Alvaro: First of all, it’s a whole new genre. You have to do pop music or commercial music, which is totally different than EDM. EDM is a bit more straightforward. I remember starting with a friend of mine and producing ten commercial songs. Even then, I felt like we were not good enough yet. If you make the switch to pop songs, you’re going to compete with Katy Perry and Rihanna’s music. The production quality needs to be over the top. It needs to be perfect.
Joey: Did you think at that moment, that your production quality was at a high level?
Alvaro: No, because it’s also a producer problem, right. You never think it’s good enough.
Joey: So even with having multiple successful releases, a collaboration with Hardwell, already touring the world?
Alvaro: Yeah, but that was different. I felt like I was on different grounds, a whole different field. So that was the reason why I didn’t figure it was good straight away. It’s the same as starting producing again. You have to take a couple of years to be at least good at it.
Joey: At the end of your EDM career, were you happy with the result of your tracks? Or still insecure about how it sounded?
Alvaro: That’s a good question. Actually, I thought EDM tracks were terrible. Even my own songs, really. I still like them and understand why they work. I think they’re cool, but I didn’t like the pressure of people expected me to do the same thing. So I started making other stuff. And at that point, it seemed like every different artist was coming out with a big room song. I was getting depressed by everything I heard. I realized it wasn’t going to work.
Joey: So you went over to pop music?
Alvaro: Yeah, and that was a whole new challenge since it involved different techniques and arrangements.
Yeah, everything from songwriting to the arrangement and the use of chords and topline melodies. It’s a whole new life. For example, you can have a really huge big room song with the right drop, but if the break is kind of weird, it doesn’t really matter. The drop is what people are waiting for. With a pop song, every little thing needs to be perfect. From the hi-hats to the snares, kick drum, and overall feel of the song. Everything needs to be perfect.
Joey: So that’s a huge difference. What did you struggle with the most in the beginning?
Alvaro: I guess the production quality. I made some good pop songs, but I could hear the difference between other pop songs, and that’s just in production quality. That’s what I said before, like, if you do trap right now, and you never made it, I can hear that you’re another trap producer. You have the same kick and snare, but it doesn’t have the feel of it. That’s how you hear the difference between guys that have made trap for ten years already. So I knew that everyone could play a four-chord melody, the most basic pop chords ever, but that’s not going to make it a good song. At that point, I knew that production quality was the reason why some songs didn’t sound right to me. So the first step was to bring up the quality. I wanted to make pop music, but I didn’t want to sound like a generic pop song. My ultimate goal was to make it a little bit special, make it weird, make it different. And that’s kind of how we started and working towards where we are right now.
Joey: What were you doing specifically to improve the quality of your music?
Alvaro: I feel like pop music is all about small details. It’s the same when you listen back to old songs, you can hear a lot of stuff missing. Like oh, it sounds so empty, it’s only a kick drum and a snare. And that’s actually the same thing that happened to me; we started making those songs, but they were super empty; they had no body. So eventually, I figured out that we have to add a lot of detail to it, like ambient stuff and extra melodies.
Joey: Was that more a process of trial and error, or was that learning from YouTube tutorials?
Alvaro: Well, mostly listening to other songs, I guess. I think there’s basically no tutorial that tells you how to make pop songs.
Joey: But you already knew how to make music.
Alvaro: Yeah, I remember when we started three years ago, we found this vocal chop. Everybody at that time was doing vocal chops, for example, Kygo. And then I remember hearing the song from Lauv. And it sounded to me like a violin in or something, but it was actually his vocal. That really triggered me. Like, this is something new, right? We have to start doing this instead of doing the basic vocal chops that everybody does. So in some way, I was really getting inspired by all the songs that were coming up. So we started basically doing the vocal chops but more organic. Organic sounds became really important. I didn’t want to sound like the standard Nexus sounds. We also started to make new sounds sound like they’re old. Like lowering the quality and adding some flutter like a wobble in between them to make them sound like an 80’s synth.
Joey: What kind of plugins did you use to do that?
Alvaro: Well, it’s funny how you discover plugins. And then a year later, you see everyone using it. At that time, it was manipulator.
Joey: I’ve heard of it. But which one is it?
Alvaro: It’s from those Infected Mushroom guys. Basically, it’s just a pitcher with formant knobs. We started using it on vocal chops. I would sing a melody in a microphone and then format it up and Melodyne it. Basically, I began to do more sound design. I think nowadays if you listen to pop songs, it’s a lot of sound design.
Joey: I agree that the combination of organic and digitally created music is really big right now.
Alvaro: That’s the funny thing about music in general, but also pop music. It’s always evolving. I remember the first song I heard from Afrojack, which was Pon De Floor, it was the same vocal chop but stretched. And then Skrillex started doing that. The difference was someone was singing the melody. Instead of programming the melody, someone started singing the melody. That makes it so much more organic because I feel like a voice is the best instrument because it’s never perfect. It makes it sound so natural for people to listen.
Joey: The most important thing is staying ahead of everyone.
Alvaro: We had this super poppy song with Kalimbas in it. Nowadays you would be tired if you heard another track with a Kalimba. We were the first doing that, even before Ed Sheeren did it with ‘Shape of You.’ And I think the beat was like Afro beats. It never released. That’s the funny thing. There was a vocalist on it that was from another song. I pitched the speed up because the new commercial project had a higher BPM, and somehow, he sounded like Post Malone. So I thought, let’s send it to Diplo. See what he thinks, right? So we sent him the song, and he was like, “this is dope!” I might get Post Malone on this one. And we were like, okay, well, I guess the music is good enough right now.
Joey: That’s interesting to me as well. How did you decide, okay, now my music is good enough? Did you need confirmation from someone else?
Alvaro: No, I think it was eventually my manager making that decision or me. I knew Diplo before, I knew what he liked, and I think I’m good at knowing how somebody else thinks or what they want. So at that point, we were just like, fuck it. Let’s just send it, you know? So yeah, we just made that decision randomly. Eventually, it was a good decision. It’s always hard. There’s not really a perfect time to say now it’s good.
Joey: And how do you decide that for yourself?
Alvaro: I mean, when there’s nothing else more to add to it. Or if sometimes it doesn’t even matter if the whole concept is good. In pop songs, I feel like it’s about the concept in general.
Joey: I see that happening with a lot of artists as well, like, defining the moment when you say, okay, it’s done. It’s finished.
Alvaro: Back in the days, I sent all my songs to Hardwell, Tiesto, even DJ Snake. They were not even finished, but he played them live. For example, DJ Snake did a lot. And I believe Tiesto also did it. But it also happened a couple of times where Hardwell or Snake just never reply to me. I feel like that’s the point where you get insecure. Where you’re like this guy played all my other songs, but now I’m sending him new stuff, and he’s not answering. It’s probably trash. And I think that’s also really hard. Like, even Snake last week sent me a direct message, “yo send me some new shit.” And I was like, yeah, but I don’t really make club music anymore. But then I did a song, sent it to him, and he didn’t reply. So, what does that explain? Is he too busy? Does he like it?
Joey: I think the problem is that it could be 1000 reasons. And because it’s tough to live without an explanation, your mind starts to make assumptions. Assumptions are the mother of all fuck-ups; if you begin to feel the thoughts of someone else, you’re done.
Alvaro: Yeah, exactly. And I feel like nowadays the more knowledge you have, and the more experience you have, also, the more doubt you have. You’re already thinking in your mind about Spotify, YouTube, or whether Spinnin wants a song.
Joey: So you started to focus fully on the production side, and you’re still making money right now right?
Alvaro: Yeah, I signed a publishing deal.
Joey: So it’s still possible to make a living from just making music? Let’s establish that right now.
Alvaro: I feel like you need a perfect combination of branding along with releasing songs. Like, look at Marshmallow, for example.He basically has everything; he’s like a gimmick with the helmet, he has pop songs, and he’s doing live shows. That’s the whole circle of money. That’s the only problem when you’re a producer: you don’t do any shows. So I feel like if you’re producing music, you have to make a lot of music to make money eventually.
Joey: And now you sell those beats or how does that work?
Alvaro: Yeah, we put them on Ebay haha. No, actually, it started like when I told you about that song with Post Malone that didn’t make it at all. That kind of got me in with Diplo. And from thereon, I got an invite to the Cayman Islands to go on a writing camp. I was like, oh shit, these are the biggest songwriters in the game. That’s kind of like how we got into it. So we did one writing game, then we did another.
Joey: How did you get your foot between the door? You already knew Diplo from, like, months or years before. How did you get in contact with him? What was it through your music?
Alvaro: Just emails. Yeah. Social media. And then I did this song for the PartySquad which eventually ended up being a Major Lazer song called Original Don. I guess that’s the first moment when I met Diplo. I guess he always knew me. It’s always been weird. Like, even DJ Snake direct messages me. I feel like, in the whole scene, everybody knows each other. It’s a small world. People are always checking in on each other. A lot of people don’t even know I’m doing this.
Joey: To me, it’s a complete surprise as well. I’m not even sure how I ended up on your Instagram page. And I was like, what’s this guy doing? So I was really curious to hear your story. It’s still fascinating to see how things can turn up.
Alvaro: Yeah, it’s kind of weird. For example, I worked on the Ellie Goulding song with Diplo and Swae Lee, which has almost 400 million streams right now. And I was wondering, should I post something? What are people going to think?
Joey: Is that legally possible for you to do?
Alvaro: Yeah, of course. I’m official. I’m in the credits. But yeah, the other question is, is it right to do it? Is it morally correct? Because you’re working on a track for somebody else. It’s like a combination of a bunch of people.
Joey: Even the most prominent artists have writers and stuff. Even Beyonce has like 13 writers.
Alvaro: And nobody cares about it. No one asks. In this time, it’s really hard to make the best song on your own. You need to work together with others.
That’s where you get the perfect song because the bar is set really high right now with pop songs.
Joey: And I think you keep challenging each other as well.
Alvaro: Yeah, that’s why I love working with my friend Bas [Will Grands] on those songs. Because with the two of us, it’s just so much easier to make a good song than just all alone.
Joey: And it’s just so different. Like being in the studio on your own is, to me it is less fun. I think I think the results are even better when you’re with more people. But isn’t that an agreement nightmare if so many people work on the track?
Alvaro: Yeah, it is. That’s also a difference. I mean, it will never change. Like, even for Spinnin Records, if a track gets 20 million Youtube views, you get zero money from the video.
Joey: Zero. How?
Alvaro: I don’t know if they do the same, but I remember back in the days it was in the contract where you earn nothing on the YouTube views. Maybe that’s changed. You cannot run away with money like that. There’s a lot of labels that put a lot of pressure on you.
It’s a process. That’s the same with everything; you need to invest in the beginning. For example, Max Martin is like one of the pop gods, and he has so much control, but he never started like that. He made his way up. I feel like that’s the same in pop music. To get your name out there, you have to make number one hit songs, and then people will start to recognize you. You can then do different negotiations in contracts, or whatever.
Joey: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the last two years?
Alvaro: Well, I think for me, the most important thing is just to do whatever you like and what makes you happy. That’s eventually the most important thing. I remember the stuff I did before, and it didn’t make me happy. I feel like what I’m doing right now makes me a different person. And it’s not easy. Like, even when I was in that whole EDM thing, I knew I wanted to do something different. But you don’t know how right? That’s the problem. Everybody wants to do something different, but have no idea where to start. What’s important is finding your way.
Joey: How did you get to find your way? You mentioned how you also didn’t know how to do it. So how did you do it afterward?
Alvaro: I think I just somehow ended up doing something I liked to do. My main problems were traveling; I didn’t like traveling. So not doing that makes me a little bit happier now. I also work in different genres now. I was always getting angry about doing the same thing. I would load up this 128 BPM project, and it’s the worst thing because I was getting limited by everything. Now I start a song totally different. I just play whatever, I think is cool like doing some weird drums at maybe 100 BPM. That’s the perfect thing about it: I can do whatever I want. I also get bored pretty easily. So it’s also a little bit personal. I don’t like to stick with something for the same period.
Joey: I have the exact same thing!
Alvaro: Like, I’m bored pretty quick and need to challenge myself every time. And even I still think of DJing again when I’m at home. Every fucking weekend I’m at home I want to travel again and start thinking about how much fun it was to travel. But I think that’s a big pitfall because you start to think about the fun things, but you also have to think about the worst things.
You learn from all the mistakes, right? For example, now, I would tell my manager not to accept every booking, only the bookings I want to do, and I feel like I could enjoy them. I think there’s a big difference, and you can still do it. It’s just so hard to do something 50%; I feel like you have to put 100% in something to really get the best out of it.
Joey: I want to thank you for taking the time to share your story because I think it will help a lot of artists clear their thoughts and maybe hear other options in the industry. I really admire the choices that you’ve made for yourself and to follow your dreams.
Alvaro: Thank you for having me!