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A conversation with Wiwek, the Dutch producer who invented 'jungle terror'

With a Skrillex co-sign, Wiwek will soon be a much more recognizable name

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When I met Wiwek at a nondescript Holiday Inn off I-35 in Austin, Texas yesterday, the sun had already begun to set and Wiwek had just woken up. The Holland-based producer (born Wiwek Mahab) had flown in to play a single set at SXSW that night, and was leaving early the next morning, so sleep was a precious luxury. We sat down at the hotel restaurant (an empty, cafeteria-looking thing with LED waterfall displays), Mahab ordered a coffee, and the waitress brought him an entire pot of it. "You’re gonna be awake all night," I said. "Well, that’s good," he said. "I need to be."

If Mahab was worried that several cups of hotel coffee wouldn’t keep him awake through the night, he shouldn’t have been. That night, I popped my head into a windowless, concrete-walled club called The Main where he was playing (my own feat of stamina, having woken up at 3:30 the night before to get on a plane), the room was packed, sweaty, and the walls were buzzing with bass. Mahab told me he wants his audiences to feel a rush of adrenaline when they see him live, so it’s a good thing his music seems to work like a medical-grade stimulant. Excluding my own, there was not a heavy eyelid in that room.

Sorry I woke you up

Mahab, who has lived in the Netherlands his entire life, grew up in a musical household. His father is a traditional Indian musician, and you can hear that influence in his maximal, feverish dance music. Take a song like "Pop It" where steel drums trip over synths that sound like mangled kazoos and samples of animal noises. He’s dubbed this sound "jungle terror," a term that originated because SoundCloud required musicians to label every upload with a genre, even a made-up one. The phrase stuck with Mahab for years, and has since grown into a real, recognizable category of music (although Mahab says it’s more of a vibe than a genre). Last year, he signed to Skrillex’s label OWSLA, and released the Free and Rebellious EP. And what new sound is official without a Skrillex co-sign?

Although the EP is the closest thing Wiwek has to a structured release (his SoundCloud is full of remixes and one-offs) he says he’s not looking to put out a full-length anytime soon. Wiwek’s the kind of artist you’d want to see live anyway, because his sets are often improvised and chameleon-like, adapting to the mood in the room. We chatted about his recent piano lessons, how streaming services have changed dance music, and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs.

When you’re writing a song, where do you start?

I’m inspired by everything. All kinds of music, I listen to everything. Mostly, I’m inspired by vibes. It could be a really gangster hip-hop song that inspires me to make a house song. It’s more the vibe or feeling of other music that inspires me. That said, it could be a movie or, you see something on the street, or whatever.

What did you listen to on the plane ride here?

Some stuff for my set, some promos. They’re from other artists. You know, you get a bunch of emails and you finally have time to download stuff. Nothing special. I watched Steve Jobs.

Oh, how did you feel about it?

I loved it! It’s a lot of talking and talking and talking and talking, but it’s good.

What do you want audiences to get from your live sets?

Adrenaline. It needs to give them energy to go full out and party. That’s what it’s all about. Go crazy, and dance the night away or jump the night away. I can adapt real quickly, so if something’s not working, I can play softer stuff or harder stuff.

Let’s talk about "jungle terror."

It basically started by explaining my music to friends, because nobody was really listening to my music online, but I used to play it for my friends. And I was just explaining it with the term "jungle terror," and it described the songs I was making. And then when I put my music on SoundCloud, I think it was 2011 or 2012, you had to put in a genre. You were obligated to pick a genre. Nowadays you can put in anything, it doesn’t matter. But back then you had to put a genre otherwise you couldn’t upload your songs. But you could still use your own words, so you could make up weird shit, and so I just called it "jungle terror" because I couldn’t find another genre for it. And so that’s how the term got online.

Do you feel yourself moving away from jungle terror at all?

I’ve always said I would do whatever I felt like. Maybe this year I’m doing [jungle terror], maybe next year I’m making rock ballads. It has to be fun for yourself, you need to make what you want to hear. The terms I come up with, it could be anything this year. It doesn’t mean I’m always making jungle terror.

You mentioned SoundCloud earlier, but your music is also on Spotify. Do feel an obligation as an artist to put your music on Spotify because so many people use it?

Yeah, it really shifted how I make music. We used to make a lot of long intros, like one minute and 30 seconds. DJ intros, so that’s really boring. And then it became like one minute, and then it became 30 seconds, and nowadays sometimes there’s no intro, the song will just start. Because of streaming services, because [songs] are heading more to a radio sound, I think that changes things for producers too. Because it changes where people are hearing songs, it’s not only in the clubs anymore. I think it changes my whole process, but it’s fun. It’s not like I’m doing it against my will.

What about SoundCloud?

That’s where it all starts. Because it’s still a lot of underground, playful music. SoundCloud users are experimental and just want to find new sounds.

Has using a lot of samples in your work affected your decision to put songs up on SoundCloud?

I use almost only samples. I don’t really use synthesizers. I use synthesizers for the wrong reasons, almost. I use them for effects, for risers. And then I use samples for the melodies, the drops and everything. I used to have a lot of issues with takedowns, because a label would put a song on SoundCloud, and I’d put it on there too, and SoundCloud would take it down automatically because your label already claimed it, but it’s still your music. That happened last year a few times, but I haven’t seen any takedown claims for a year or so. I don’t put any unofficial remixes on SoundCloud either, so I think that’s why.

What did you grow up listening to?

Rock ballads (laughs). A lot of trance music. In Holland, we’ve had dance music since I was born, so we grew up with dance music. When I was 12 or 13, dance music became really huge. Tiesto was the rising star, and guys like Armin van Buuren just came up. And that’s when trance was so huge. That got me into dance music, that got me into producing, into DJing, everything. My dad is also a musician, an Indian musician. He sings, he plays some instruments. So we had a lot of Indian music in our house.

Did you learn any instruments from your dad?

No! He tried to teach me to sing, but I sucked. He was teaching me and my sister. He taught us the basics, how they teach Indian singers. They have a different tone than European singers and in the US. But no real instruments, no. I was pretty quickly getting into computer music and then that was it for me. I didn’t really think of learning an instrument. I’m doing it now though. I’m having piano lessons. I used to play the keyboard, but in a really wrong way. Like, if a piano wizard saw me, he’d be like ‘No, please stop." (laughs.)

When you’re playing a live show in Holland vs. a live show here do you need to change what you’re doing? How do the audiences differ?

They’re very different. Europe, let’s say Holland, has had dance music for so long, so they’re so much more used to it, and they’re so much cooler. They just stand with their back to the DJ. It’s so normal to be in a club, they’re more into each other than the whole vibe and the DJ. And in the USA, it’s all about the DJ. The whole room is designed to make you pay attention to the DJ. So the crowd interacts so much more with the DJ. In Europe and Holland, the interaction between the crowd and the DJ is so much less. It’s more like, when they hear a popular song they’ll sing along but that’s it. In the USA, it’s crazy, it’s all adrenaline, it’s so much more fun for the DJ. That’s why everyone loves playing in the USA. They’re like, (throws hands in the air) "Wooooo!" You don’t see that in Holland.