In the heart of an intense North American tour, DJ and producer Frédérik Durand (a.k.a. Snails) is making waves internationally thanks to “vomitstep,” a musical anti-genre he developed after trying to reproduce the metallic sounds of his biggest influence, Skrillex.
When we reach him on the phone in Albuquerque, the Montréaler (by way of Sainte-Émélie-de-l’Énergie, a small town 90 minutes north of the metropolis) is about to embark on a stretch of 20 gigs in 21 nights, and he’s especially enthusiastic. Who wouldn’t be? Ever since the release of his debut album The Shell, last October, the musician – who’s used to playing festivals and opening shows – is now headlining a tour with a budget of almost a million dollars.
“The challenge was to convince people who came to see me over the last three years to come see a real Snails show,” he says. “So far, it’s been way beyond my wildest expectations: 6,500 people in Seattle, 3,000 in L.A., 2,300 in Vegas… Seeing that many people, night after night, is energizing. That’s where I get a boost from when I’m feeling tired.”
But beyond their very presence, it’s the kindness and loyalty of his fans that motivates the man born Frédérik Durand. He’s received an impressive amount of “kandys” – hand-crafted bracelets and pendants that are an emblem of the rave culture and its “PLUR” (peace, love, unity, respect) leitmotif. “[Being offered those] truly is a huge display of respect,” says Snails. “It’s not very common in Montréal, but in the States, it’s a real craze. I’d brought a small jewelry case to store them, but it’s almost full and we’re not even halfway through the tour! It goes to show how passionate my audience is.”
Far from taking that audience for granted, the 29-year-old musician and graphic designer went all-out for this tour, developing a unique stage concept around his alter ego, Slugz. The hero of a planet inhabited by snails, under threat by a regiment of frogs that have acquired the salt spear, a special weapon that could wipe them out, Slugz embarks on a cosmic journey to reach planet Sluggtopia, where there’s an armour (“The Shell”) that will protect his people.
“The show is divided into six chapters, and I’ve created the visuals and sound collages that flesh out the story,” says Snails. “It starts with war sounds, a light show, a spaceship lights up,” explains the man who worked with two Montréal companies, Solotech and 4U2C, for this production. “I absolutely wanted to take my concept as far as I could, to give the audience all I could give. It’s partly in reaction to a lot of EDM shows I’ve seen over the last few years. More often than not, their stage show is nothing but smoke and a few visuals. I sometimes wonder if I’m too weird, or if it’s them who are too laid-back.”
The Skrillex Influence
One thing’s for sure, Snails shares neither their approach nor musical background. As a teen, he started out as a guitarist who was crazy about Led Zeppelin and The Doors, before moving on to “heavier and more intense bands” like Metallica and Slayer. Towards the end of his teens, he had an epiphany when he discovered the bold electro sounds of Boys Noize, The Bloody Beetroots, Justice and MSTRKRFT, to name but a few, as well Skrillex’s dubstep a few years later.
“When I saw his Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites project entering the Billboard 200, it really piqued my interest,” says Snails. “He burst onto the underground scene intent on smashing and revolutionizing everything. The sound he had was unheard of, and it obsessed me… so much so that I tried to reproduce his sounds! I never managed to pull it off [laughs], but it was a blessing in disguise, because that’s how I developed my own sound.”
Such was, after many trials and errors, the genesis of “vomitstep” – a musical anti-genre that he created for himself in order to stand out among other electronic genres he finds too restrictive. Using his “throat” synthesizer, this genre is akin to dubstep, yet different, with its even more guttural basslines, the influence of trap, and less metallic sounds. “There’s something more organic and grainy in vomitstep,” he says. “You can hear the substance, as if you were in someone’s throat. It’s kinda hard to explain,” the artist admits, laughing.
Increasingly recognized as its own, this musical signature made its way to Skrillex’s ear a few years ago. Having been invited to collaborate with his idol when he was in Los Angeles, Snails still remembers the stress he felt when they first met. The result was the song “Holla Out,” which was featured on the first and only Jack Ü album, the collaborative project between Skrillex and Diplo.
“I stood by the door for, like, 30 minutes after saying ‘Hi,” says Snails. “I was speechless. The man who changed electronic music was right there, in front of me. After awhile, Diplo and him played a few demos on which we could work and, unsurprisingly, I chose the weirdest. I sat on the couch and, totally by mistake, I created a sound that ended up becoming the main sound of the song. I wrote that in, like, 20 minutes, but for the next three hours, I was too scared to play it for them. Skrillex made me feel at ease, and we ended up jamming until 10:30 the next morning.”
Emboldened by the experience – which earned him thanks from both artists during their acceptance speeches for two Grammy awards last year – Frédérik Durand feels privileged to have had the opportunity to make a name for himself on the international electro circuit. Still, he admits being slightly disappointed by the lack of media attention in Québec. “No man is a prophet in his own land, but I was expecting that, because I think my music has a more Anglophone audience,” says the artist, whose tour will enter its home stretch on December 28 at Montréal’s MTELUS. “I’d obviously like to have more exposure in Montréal, have people here recognize the value of my work, but I’m not gonna let that get me down. It just motivates me to work harder.”