Sonny Moore seems exhausted, yet he insists he's pumped, psyched, rarin' to go one more round. He's just arrived at the First Bank Center in Denver, an arena the young DJ -- spinning under the name Skrillex -- quickly sold out, like most of the stops along his mammoth Mothership Tour this fall. He sticks a fork into a salad, pauses and sighs.
"It's been a f---ing insane year, man," he says.
He's speaking for himself, but he also could be echoing the weary amazement of DJs the world over. After umpteen previous declarations that various forms of electronic dance music -- techno, electronica, trip-hop, Chicago's own house music -- were poised for a takeover of the nation's popular tastes, 2011 has been the year it finally happened on a wider scale.
Moore, 23, started his musical life in Los Angeles leading a screamo punk band called From First to Last, then switched to his DJ alter-ego -- crafting a sledgehammering style of dubstep, one of electronic music's many niches -- just a couple of years ago. He signed to Deadmau5's label this time last year, and though he's only released a handful of EPs thus far ("Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites," "More Monsters and Sprites") his concert crowds have quadrupled.
But one thing made Moore realize he'd really hit the big time.
"When I saw myself on 'Beavis and Butt-head,' " he says.
The revival of the MTV cartoon series premiered last week, and Skrillex's video for "First of the Year (Equinox)" was one of the videos spotlighted by the chuckling chumps. "They didn't really heckle it much. It was kind of cool."
with 12th Planet, Two Fresh and Nadastrom (Friday);
Dada Life, Dillon Francis and Koan Sound (Saturday)
• 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11, 8 p.m. Nov. 12
• Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee
• Sold out
In the big picture, Moore says he saw the tipping point for dance music when he got his tour schedule.
"Have you seen where we've been playing?" he asks, incredulous. The Mothership is landing in the big cities, but also in San Antonio, Norfolk, Raleigh, Buffalo, Spokane and Knoxville. Dance music is actually huge in the heartland.
Meanwhile, even faceless DJs are becoming huge stars in the hinterlands. Most people don't even know what Deadmau5, a k a Joel Zimmerman, looks like under that big-eared helmet, but that didn't stop them from selling out two back-to-back Aragon Ballroom shows a few weeks ago. Or shrugging off the downpour as the DJ headlined opposite the Foo Fighters at Lollapalooza 2011 in Chicago's Grant Park.
DJs on the main stage is something, but the real story at Lollapalooza this summer was the nonstop frenzied crowd at Perry's Stage. Capacity at the giant tent nearly doubled this year to 15,000, and the crowd regularly overflowed.
Skrillex was the first act to attract a crowd bigger than the big-top that first Lollapalooza night -- so big and so energetic, jumping up and down to the DJ's hard beats, that Moore had to warn them against hurting themselves. Spin magazine reported: "The photo pit was quickly shut down because the crowd was too raucous. Fans were trying to climb the tent. There was blood. These kinds of things are ceasing to be news for a Skrillex show."
"Like this place tonight, I just come in and try to make it really big," Moore says. "You know, like how can I make this room look big, sound really big? I've got to make it so people think it's worth coming out to see me. Give them something to feel and remember. ... People definitely react to what I'm doing."
Do they ever. As many people love Skrillex's music and flock to his shows, many purists despise him.
Considerable online sniping and arguing focus on parsing the various and precarious definitions of dubstep, a decade-old British subgenre of electronic music. On one end of dubstep is a figure like James Blake, the polar opposite of Skrillex in almost every way. Where Blake exemplifies the mother country's dubstep roots -- heavy beats but slow, moody, ethereal and soulful sounds -- Skrillex amps the form into a frenetic, glitchy, hard-hitting assault worthy of his punk roots.
"The definition [of dubstep] changes every day in my head," Moore says. "The basic one is just this: It's 140 beats per minute. It's halftime music. It has a lot of bass in it. When you get into the cultural part of it, there are a million definitions. ... I just use 'bass music.' It's becoming all tempos and grooves from electro to slow stuff, and a lot of beat music now has a lot of low end. When you experience that live, it makes you want to f---ing move."
The common denominator on both shores is the dominance of these bass lines, which are slightly processed and warped to give them a trademark "wobble."
"The wobble -- I first heard that and fell in f---ing love with it," he says. "It makes everything work. It's the coolest thing. Even if you don't listen to dubstep, you can go to a dubstep party with that vibe and it gets everybody moving. That's what's so f---ing cool about it. Everybody can feel that vibe. That's what makes it so big."
Moore is in demand not only by fans but by a wide variety of other artists seeking his magic remixing and writing skills. Moore first gained notice as Skrillex by remixing tracks for stars as big as Lady Gaga. Earlier this year came the bittersweet news that the band Korn had recorded again (bitter) -- and it's a dubstep album produced by Skrillex (sweet).
A few weeks ago, Moore wrote and recorded a new song with a very unexpected collaborator: "I got to hang out in [the Los Angeles neighborhood] Venice for two days and did this track with the Doors!"
Part of a new documentary, "RE:GENERATION" -- in which five popular DJs and producers are matched with artists from different genres to record new music -- Moore crafted the new song with the Doors' Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore. Tenatively titled "Breakin' a Sweat," the track will be the first new Doors recording since "An American Prayer," the 1978 album cobbled together with scraps left behind after singer Jim Morrison's death seven years prior.
"[The film's producers] were like, 'Who do you want to work with? Anybody you can think of in rock.' I immediately thought of the Doors. I remember hearing 'Riders on the Storm' when I was really young, probably my first song," Moore says. "We got together. I came up with a couple bass lines, and we jammed over the top and made a song together. It was the coolest experience of my life."
(Serendipity: Skrillex plays Chicago's Congress Theater Nov. 11-12. Manzerek and Krieger play together at the same venue Nov. 13.)
Who does Moore want to work with next? "Everybody," he says. "Everybody I like. That's a lot of people."
Meanwhile, Moore is starting to sign artists to his own label, the newly created Owsla (yes, named for the rabbit army in Watership Down), and perfecting the technology for the visuals -- including the motion-capture suit he wears on stage -- featured on his current tour.
"I think the Congress [Theatre] is going to fall apart," he warns. "We're going to have the most bass that venue has ever seen."