What So Not: Late nights, Toto and everything in between

Words by Justin Daly.

2017 was an action packed year for What So Not. Between touring and travelling, he was putting the finishing touches on debut album Not All The Beautiful Things.

A matter of weeks before the album landed, I sat down for a convo with Chris Emerson, aka Emoh Instead, aka What So Not. We chatted inspiration, experimenting with sound, Toto’s Africa and Daniel Johns

Massive congratulations on getting your album together and completed, how does it feel to have it ready to go?

Thank you! It’s crazy dude, I mean this is one of the first times I’m even talking about it on this call today. It’s wild. It’s something that I worked on for so long, something that meant so much to me. And really, on this album, I dived into so many different things I’d never done before; I’d never sung on a record before, I’d never written so many music video treatments as I have for this one. I co-directed some of the short film aspects of it. I even got into the aesthetic of the artwork and then converting that for as the arch or for the creative for the whole body of work. 

I love the title, Not All The Beautiful Things, can you explain the title a little bit?

Man, this is the first time I’m explaining it by the way so I’m so glad you asked that [laughs]. The ethos of the album is the dramatic end to important relationships and all of the emotions and feeling and trauma that sort of comes along with that. What I did was I paralleled that to hyper-reality, where everything was even further dramatised, everything was accentuated, attributes of certain people were combined to create new characters that were even more developed and serious, and epic. That’s the world that the whole project exists in, that’s where all the stage design fits – I have this whole peacock-horse-monster truck thing that I put together and had a team in New Orleans build it with me.

All the show visuals are this huge clash of natural and mechanical elements. The way this ties in with the album is Not All The Beautiful Things is about when we go through life and we’re plugging away at things we think are really important to us and we’re trying to achieve things with our work, with buying a house, with our relationships – whatever it may be. And sometimes we strive so hard for these things that we don’t really realise that we’ve been losing the moment, we’ve been losing the days. Sometimes five or ten years can go by and sort of look back and say, “What did I even do, what did I even achieve?” Things might have fallen apart. Relationships might have fallen apart that were really important and you let them slide because you are so focused on this thing that maybe wasn’t even that important, it’s just something you thought was important.

I have really noticed that you have experimented with a few more sounds. It’s got a mix of the old and new What So Not even with some guitar sounds blended in. What do you think seasoned fans are going to be most surprised with about the album?

I am not sure what they’ll be surprised with because I feel like I have been leading towards this for a moment. The Divide & Conquer EP for me was a bridge into where I knew I was going to take this album. I love that you mentioned  guitars; I grew up on rock music like Nine Inch Nails, At The Drive In, Tool and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I just feel like it’s time for that to come back. I feel like it’s time for guitars, it’s time for non regimented in the box sounds. It’s time for solos. It’s time to bring in musicians with extreme talents to lay down something special and then flip it and twist it and reprocess it in a new age way. I spent so much time on this album really becoming the songwriter and really steering the way in terms of the narrative and that was so exciting as well. I think there is a lot of stuff on this album that old, old fans will be so into and i’m very much trying to lead things into the direction id really like to take things from here. 

It sounds like the culmination of what you’ve been through. The What So Not project has really evolved immensely from doing little tiny club shows in Melbourne wearing a sombrero.

Oh man, that would have been probably in some small train tunnels down in Melbourne. You know, it’s all valuable and important. So much of what I put into the music I learned by just being up so late, playing horrible slots, playing in tiny back rooms around Australia and Asia. I think you really learn a lot of valuable lessons about, honestly, about life, about music, about everything – when you are performing for people that don’t give a shit and just want to dance and you’ve just gotta tastefully put together things that you’re really passionate about amongst things that are gonna keep them moving, dancing and excited into the wee hours of the morning when everyone is getting so exhausted. 

I wanted to talk about the background of some of the tracks. Especially ‘Goh’, because I remember hearing you drop that out of nowhere for a long time before releasing it. How do you refrain from releasing a song you’ve got that obviously goes off when you play it live? How do you select what goes into an album and what gets held back?

That particular song, I actually wrote after my first trip to America – and this is gonna sound kinda corny – but I was actually really inspired by EDM. I’d never really been exposed to EDM as much as when I first went to America. I was like “wow, this really a thing over here”. We had our own thing going on in Australia that was a lot more beats-y and indie and kind of band meets electronic production. But when I went over there, people were just slamming heavy, heavy records with giant kick drums. So I wrote that [‘Goh’] and actually did that one with KLP at first. I did a session with her and it was at Groovin’ The Moo I think in 2015 I was opening the show with the first demo of that. Then I ended up giving the part to Skrillex and he did a little flip on it and we ended up to turning that into a collaboration between the two of us. I was never convinced on the version we had until this album — where I added a bunch of different components and sections to the song that finally made me say “Yes, I am happy with this, this feels like me, this feels like where I am at”.

It’s kind of like that for all the songs, in my eyes there’s so many great songs that I am excited to put out that aren’t even on the album. Everything that’s on the album is what I think is meant to be on the album. It’ part of this giant cohesive narrative and that  was really what determined me choosing what belonged on it. 

Well, the final version of Goh is amazing!

Thank you so much man! I’m glad. You know, sometimes people, and artists in particular, fall in love with things because we have heard them before rather then because they’re better!

I have to ask, how do you go from dropping ‘Africa’ by Toto in your sets, to creating a song with them? How did that happen?

It was kinda wild. It was actually Skrillex and his A&R, Chris Morris, who just hit the band up. It kinda came about from just playing “Africa”. I started playing it, then Skrillex started playing it sort of right in this peak moment of his career where he just put out is second album. It actually put “Africa” back in the charts. Then Rolling Stone hit us up because they’d heard it was because of me and Skrillex [laughs]. Then we got in touch with the band and they were all for it, which was a shock! Remember when they first suggested hitting them up, I was like, “Really? You can do that?” And they just said, “Yeah man, it’s LA, you can do anything” [laughs]. So they hit them up and a week later we were in the studio. It was kinda this new age way of jamming where I just plugged my laptop to the Pro Tools session the engineer was running. Then we were tracking guitars, two vocal mics and synths. I was playing loops of chords, beats and sections of this one particular song that they were drawn to that I brought in. By the end of the session there was 130 tracks or so that I had to sort through that took me years. It took me years to put that song together. There was a version that was 11 and a half minutes long that we were basing around ‘Evie’ [by Steve Wright] part one, two and three. Eventually I managed to get it down to the most impactful components in this nice little four-minute pocket.  

‘Be Ok Again’ is the first single off the album featuring Daniel Johns. What was it like working with such a seasoned musician who has been around for years? What was it like getting in the studio with him?

Immediately, a bunch of people asked me if it was intimidating. And it wasn’t, in the sense that he seemed so excited in some of the things that I would consider more basic. He doesn’t own a computer. He’s very excited by dance music and computer music and all the crazy things you can do quite simply now with soft synths and processing. Immediately getting in there, we were just vibing and just diving into the narratives of songs and really thrashing around different little vocal takes and processing them in strange ways. It was so exciting, man! We were both just so amped and were worked on so many different ideas and ‘Be Ok Again’ is the first one that we put out as the anchor for the album. Of course, there are a couple more songs on there that Daniel worked on with me as well. 

2018, is it going to be a big year for What So Not?

I think 2018 is probably not only biggest year of my career the biggest year of my life. I think that 2017 was when I was putting everything together. And all the different creatives for this project are being unleashed now and I am so excited to be just jumping around the world and expressing all this stuff I’ve had behind the scenes for so long now. 

Finally, what’s it like coming home to play shows after being overseas for so long?

Oh man, it’s insane! Coming back for the New Year’s run I did and Listen Out this year with a couple of little club shows, it’s just wild, man. I couldn’t believe I head lined that festival [Listen Out] when Future pulled out, it was such an honour and to see so many thousands of people there just singing the lyrics of songs – I’m not here much so I don’t know if stuff is working over here – and it just blew me away to see all that. 

Not All The Beautiful Things is out now.