Popping Up: Thomas Azier

Carl Williott | March 5, 2014 6:00 am

Popping Up is our recurring look at new artists making noise on the music landscape. Because, hey — Madonna and Britney were once unknown, too.

When you watch Lorde giving one of her trance-like performances, or hear Lady Gaga philosophizing in an interview, it’s easy to think, “Hey, chill out, it’s just pop music.” But if this era of poptimism has taught us anything, it’s that pop music can be just as transportive and transformative as the most subversive rock or euphoric electro or revolutionary rap. I haven’t seen 25-year-old Dutch musician Thomas Azier perform, but after talking to him, it’s clear he also comes from the Pop Is A Very Serious Matter school of thought.

Of course, once you accept the seriousness of the genre, it’s easy to be playful within that framework. For instance, Azier, who has lived in Berlin since he was 19, jokingly refers to his music as GDR&B, as in, R&B spawned in communist East Germany. And he’s right about that — his epic synth-pop debut, Hylas (out March 10), has some of the hooks and raw emotion of R&B, mixed with the synthetic churn and metallic clanging of ’80s European electro.

Azier recently stopped by our New York studio on what was, very literally, the sloppiest day of this disgusting, demoralizing NYC winter, but he handled the slushy trek from Brooklyn to midtown with the stoic efficiency you may expect from a Berliner. We chatted about his debut album, the factory he recorded it in and the thin line between love and pain. Shit got deep. Check out the interview up top, and read on for more about the pan-European pop wiz.

ORIGIN: Azier was born in a small town near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. “There was nothing out there other than a bunch of cows and endless green fields,” he told me. “I don’t know if you ever been to Holland, but you can look kilometers ahead and there’s nothing there. We lived in a town with like 5,000 people. So there was not that much other than my music. That was what I did actually until I moved to Berlin.”

CURRENT HEADQUARTERS: An abandoned bell factory in Berlin, Germany.

EURO PRIDE: “I really consider myself very European in my sound. And I’m also quite proud of that because I used to grow up with, we are always looking at the UK and the US and we would try to imitate. I was really more excited about what’s happening here and trying to do something with it.” He added: “We have such a rich history in Dutch electronic. Hardcore comes from there, industrial sound, you know. There are guys like Diplo always digging in the Dutch music scene. They are taking stuff and bring it to America. And also the German scene is so rich, the French scene is so rich.”

INFLUENCES: Just as he melds sounds from all over Europe, Azier draws his influences from all over the place, and not necessarily just music. “There’s a lot of stuff. It can be a conversation like the one when we’re having, if I go home and think about some stuff that was interesting,” he said. “Or the architecture in Berlin, the GDR communist architecture really inspires me. And there’s this one book by Ovid called Metamorphoses, it’s all stories about changing, about transforming, the transforming of the body, the transforming of a person. Because that’s the only thing in life we know is true, right? Change, that’s the only thing that will happen. That’s the only thing we can confirm… So that’s what I really started to understand, the process of change during writing the record.”

GDR&B IS NOT GERMAN SEX DUNGEON MUSIC: In America there tends to be a stereotype that, if electronic music is coming out of Germany, it’ll sound like it should be played in a dark basement club full of leather-clad patrons, or perhaps as the score to a slasher flick. Despite his Berlin location and penchant for industrial grind, Azier’s music is warm and melodic, not the stuff of dark, sweaty caves. “You have the hard German club sounds, which I’ll try to combine with beautiful, romantic melodies or a haunting melody,” he said. “I’m  just constantly looking for a contrast — cold and warm, aggressive and sweet, electronic and acoustic. So I clash those into each other, that’s what I’m looking for.”

To hear this contrast in action, listen to “Angelene” off his debut album, which pairs tumbling 16-bit bloops with faraway church bells.

DREAM COLLABORATIONS: Production could be on the horizon for Azier, who’s a big fan of hip-hop and R&B’s boundary-pushing sonics of late. “I feel because I know the process so well, after doing the album, that I’d like to take the helicopter view a little bit for other people, because that’s exactly what I’ve missed over the years.”

WHAT’S NEXT: In addition to touring around Europe for the next six months or so, Azier is already plotting his next release. “I have a lot of new tracks done already. So I’m seeing if I’m gonna use them for next thing, if it’s gonna be part two,” he told me. “We’ll see. There are so many possibilities. I’m writing all the time, it never stops.”

Get an eyeful of even more pop music coverage, from artist interviews to exclusive performances, on Idolator’s YouTube channel.