There is hope for the next generation of electronic music producers, and he goes by 3LAU (pronounce the 3 like a B). Within the first few minutes of speaking with 21-year-old Justin Blau, one can already tell he’s not the average fan-turned-DJ. A Las Vegas native, 3LAU is more recognized on the national/international circuit. The articulate 3LAU is wise beyond his years, so much so that he could be mistaken for an insightful industry vet. We got some time with the worldly spinner before his Dec. 3 gig at Marquee.
How did you first take an interest in DJing and producing? Were you involved in the underground all-ages scene in Las Vegas at all?
It actually didn’t come from [growing up in] Vegas. I was in college and took a trip with my best friend to Sweden. That was two years ago, so not very long. I’ve been playing instruments all my life; I play piano, guitar, I sing, I play drums. When I went to Sweden I was blown away by my experience and decided I wanted to be a DJ—just like everyone else does. [Laughs.]
Was your interest also piqued by the DJs on billboards around town, or did you read about them in the magazines?
I always noticed it, and was listening to dance music before I was into dance music: Deadmau5, Boys Noize, Justice, some of the classic stuff. I was listening to all kinds of music, but I was never really listening to house proper—not Hardwell, Chuckie or any of the club DJ superstars of our time. It’s funny going around and seeing all the billboards of some DJs I’ve never even heard before; it’s part of their marketing and however they get paid.
You attended the Meadows School before leaving with a full scholarship for finance at Washington University in St. Louis. Are you still in college?
I’m technically not; I would have been a senior this year. I’m currently on a leave of absence without a specific date of potential return. I’ve been touring, playing three or four shows a week sometimes; it would be impossible to do school at the same time.
What kind of music did you make before getting into electronic?
I was essentially making indie-folk music—piano, guitar, atmospheric vocal. Radiohead was an influence, but I don’t want to say similar to Radiohead because that would be insulting to them. But similar to the Antlers and indie-folk groups. That was my favorite kind of music when I was in high school.
Do you feel your musicality gives you an edge over other contemporary producers who are good at painting with MIDI files, but have no sense of traditional composition?
It is the biggest edge. It is the No. 1 thing that separates a producer/DJ from a dance-music musician. I know that’s kind of pretentious-sounding, but you look at kids like Madeon and Porter [Robinson] and they’re musically talented and production talented. Then you look at some of the older guys who are just making house beats for a really long time and that’s why they’re plateauing. You have people like Zedd, who does an acoustic version of “Spectrum” on the piano and destroys it [in a good way]. People are starting to think, “Oh, techno is just techno and I don’t like it, it’s not real music,” and then you have videos like Zedd’s that make those people realize the representation of dance music isn’t just the club, it’s actual music.
In my opinion, DJs like Chuckie or Aoki—he’s had great marketing for a long time, but at the end of the day he barely makes his own music and the music’s really bad. This can be on the record; I don’t care if these people don’t like me [laughs]. A lot of my mash-ups and remixes were really pop-y, but my new stuff is good. It’s not perfect yet. Fuck, I’m 21! I’ve got a long time to learn! But at least I recognize where I want to be. I think a lot of these producers are just putting out music and have amazing marketing, but they’re not really thinking about what kind of talent is going to last in the long term. A lot of the songs I’m writing, I sit down and write them on the piano. All that music now just needs to be produced, and I’m not the best producer yet. I’ve only been doing this for two years. I’m happy I’m learning as quickly as I am.
You’ve said that you’re a “big room” kind of guy. Would you say that’s still an accurate assessment of your music?
The thing is, when you say something, it automatically curbs whoever else is listening’s perception of what my music will be or is. Saying “big room” now has so many different things attached to it that people don’t even know what it means anymore. So instead of trying to title myself or classify my music, I would say it’s trance at 128 beats per minute, and has a little bit more oomph. That’s the only thing that I can say at this point; I don’t really know how to classify it to be honest. Some of my remixes are out and you can listen to it, and you’d probably say, “Oh yeah, this is just big-room,” but my future stuff is not. My future stuff is very different; I don’t really know what to call it yet.
When can we hear some of this future stuff?
I have one single I worked on, tentatively named “Escape.” It’s a collaboration with some friends of mine from Montreal. I visited for three days, and we somehow came out with this track, and we’re all so excited about it. It’s easily the best thing that I’ve ever been a part of, and there’s going to be a couple of videos that come out. One’s going to be a teaser, but one’s going to be a video of me at the piano playing the piece just to show people that it’s a lot more than just sitting in the studio. The way I would classify it is a fusion between the melodic awesomeness of an Alesso track and the hard-hitting kick-and-bass relationship of a Hardwell track. I cannot wait for it to come out. It’s been done for two months, but it takes a really long time to get all the elements in place. While I’m waiting for that to come out I’m working on other stuff, but I can’t really come out with anything until that song comes out.
What are you ultimately trying to accomplish sonically?
Once this tour is over I’m going to get working on my main project. I think a lot of dance music is very club-oriented. It’s always about what’s going to get people moving, and I think dance music has a lot more capacity than just club music. It’s about creating something that’s unique in the sense of its musicality, as opposed to unique in its sense of club appeal. A lot of the clubby stuff sounds very Dutch. Dutch house—it all ends up starting to sound the same musically. My goal is to bridge the epic music of Sigur Rós and Radiohead with the drive of club dance music.