Interview: Big Wild’s Jackson Stell expands into a new frontier

Big Wild, Jackson Stell

Big Wild, Courtesy: Little Green Eyes.

A casual listener of Big Wild might listen to “No Words,” the fourth track off his long-awaited full-length debut, 2019’s Superdream, and internalize it as an ironic statement by the producer-DJ.

Outside Lands Music Festival
12 p.m., Aug. 9 to 11.
Golden Gate Park
Tickets: $155-$1,595.

“We got a lot to say, but we don’t need words,” the artist born Jackson Stell sings over a thumping beat and electric guitar. The potential for irony is that all of a sudden, Stell needs words more than ever. After kicking his career off in 2015 as a purely instrumental electronica musician, he refocused in late 2017 and decided he had a lot to say, and… needed actual, literal words.

While Superdream, which Big Wild released in February, is filled with personal stories rather than moods as inspirations, “No Words” isn’t an inside joke. Instead, it’s a love song about bonds so close that they don’t need to be acknowledged verbally.

“We say, ‘I love you’ to each other; we express out affection through words, but there’s a lot of communication where there’s body language and an intuitive knowledge of two people together that we don’t actively speak about but we just know,” Stell explained in a recent interview a few weeks before his first appearance at San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music Festival. “It’s just touching on this unspoken but strong bond between two people in a relationship that doesn’t even need to be said—it’s an understanding.”

It’s fitting that Big Wild is making his biggest festival in the Bay Area, to which he had relocated from Massachusetts around 2015, and where he played his first concert—at the Monarch dive bar, with six in attendance, most of whom he knew and were there for moral support.

“I had a broken wrist, too, so I was in a cast, and that’s back when I had short hair,” the 28-year-old long-locked artist said. “I was very green at that point in time.”

Stell had followed his girlfriend—now fiancé—to California. The two spent more than two years between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, and another two in Los Angeles, before moving to Portland more recently.

As the well-told story goes, Stell visited his girlfriend and saw Big Sur. He was instantly taken with the region, and was then inspired to start a project known as Big Wild.

Q&A: Jackson Stell on his favorite Bay Area memories.

My favorite memory is just being by the ocean. That’s probably the thing I miss the most being in Portland. It’s an hour and a half away. When I lived in Santa Cruz, it was right there. Even when I lived in L.A., I lived in a neighborhood where I could bike 20 minutes and be at Venice Beach. The Pacific Coast, to me, has this very special place in my heart. It’s a place of solace for me. It’s where I can go and feel like I’m disconnecting from a lot of stuff.

He had talented musicians in his family. His dad played guitar in bands when he was in college—and the first time he came to a Big Wild concert, he was invited onstage to play guitar. His grandmother sang in Big Band groups in the ‘30s and ‘40s. But no one before him pursued music as a career. Everyone in the family had their own music tastes. For Stell, that was hip-hop.

He’d been producing rap beats since middle school, looking to the likes of Dr. Drew and the Neptunes as inspirations, and studied music industry studies in college. His first instrument was the trumpet—with his high school band, but it didn’t stick. It wasn’t the only band he’d ever played in, either.

After visiting California, he changed gears from hip-hop to lush, gauzy and rush-inducing electronica. His big break came when Odesza heard his music on Soundcloud. He ended up opening for them, remixed a couple of their songs and then released what would become his first hit, “Aftergold,” a collaboration with Tove Styrke, on the duo’s label. An EP, Invincible, came in 2017. By the end of that year, he was looking ahead to a full-length album and beginning to realize that to tell his stories he was going to need a voice.

“Being only a producer, I felt like I was hitting a creative wall. And there was something inside me that wanted to go further in expressing myself,” he said.

Having lyrics and having someone to sing them was the obvious choice. The album includes a couple of collaborations, with Rationale and iDA HAWK, but Stell does the rest of the singing—something he’d never even attempted prior to coming to the realization that he could. So he dove head-first into vocal lessons and on-the-job learning from others.

Q&A: Stell on his recent move from California to Portland.

We wanted to get a house, and we couldn’t afford one in the Bay Area. We wanted to stay on the West Coast, and I still wanted to be in a city that had a solid music scene and had plenty of nature around. Portland was my best option. I’ve been really enjoying it so far.

“After the first few shows of me singing live, I grew to really love doing that and have that kind of connection with the crowd,” he said. “When I played drums or when I played keyboard, I couldn’t create as deep a connection, because I think we’re all naturally tuned in to the voice. It’s been really exciting to bring my vocals into the show … and add this human element to everything.”

Superdream is richly inspired by Stell’s personal experiences. The Rationale partnership, “6’s to 9’s,” is about having his world flipped upside down by love, a topic also broached on “Alley-Oop.” “Purple Sand (My Home)” is about his move to California. There’s a song named for his pet bunny; “Mopsy’s Interlude.”

The most well-known story is told on “Maker,” in which Stell wrote about his pre-move thyroid cancer diagnosis, putting thoughts of mortality and Stell’s place in the world front and center.

But it’s album opener “City of Sound” that served as a guiding light to Stell as he made the new Big Wild album. Outwardly, the song is about Stell having confidence in himself and being able to embrace his individuality. It was one of the first songs for which he finished writing lyrics and melody.

“It’s about believing in your literal voice, but also your metaphorical voice,” he said. “[It’s] believing in what you have to say and having the confidence to bring it out in the world—aka, the city of sound—where everybody has a voice, but you’re confident on your own to chime in and be yourself.

Q&A: On his first Outside Lands performance.

When I was living in San Francisco, my friend gave me a ticket, and I checked it out. I loved how eclectic it is. … One thing I really liked about it is with a lot of festivals, if you have a set in the middle of the day, it can still be kind of thin because everyone comes out at night. But I remember being at [Outside Lands] when it was 3 or 4 p.m., and it was full. I have a good slot, but it’s nice to know that I’m playing to a crowd that wants to be at the festival the whole time. The lineup is great, and Golden Gate Park is really beautiful.

“Because I was making a step toward lyrics and vocals that was very different from what I was doing before as strictly a producer, the song was almost like a mantra that I would come back to as a reminder,” he said.

If someone would have even thought to ask Stell in 2015 about a desire to sing, he would have laughed it off. He never even sang at home. But now he doesn’t see himself writing instrumentals. Fans can expect to see an increased focus on lyric-writing going forward.

“I’m always trying to come up with different ways to integrate it with my production and create something unique to me but that still has that classic groove that I’ve always been attracted to,” he said, adding that he’s writing every day. “That’s where my current main inspiration is coming from.”

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