We caught up with Jeff Montalvo of Seven Lions in Nashville, TN, one of the first few stops on the Worlds Apart Tour, prompted by the April 29th release of his Worlds Apart EP. The 26-year-old California native is most notable for the element of darkness that he creates in his productions through a fusion of trance and dubstep, paired with airy harmonies and enchanting yet haunting vocals. His 90-minute set featured an array of his catalogue, including his newly released material, which was well received by the audience. His energy was infectious; the room never stopped moving. Fans were crowd surfing all night, and shockingly enough, the night included a couple stage dives from Seven Lions himself! We sat down with Montalvo moments before his set to squeeze in an in-depth look at the guy behind the bass heavy persona. At first impression, he appeared to be a soft-spoken individual, but with a brief introduction and the company of his wife, Emma, our conversation flourished and he seemed at ease. We covered all things vocals, Burning Man, and the journey from his roots to where he is in his career now.
CYM: You initially came on the music scene when you won a remix contest using Above and Beyond’s ‘You’ve Got To Go’, borrowing a copy of Frooty Loops from a friend. Was there an early motivation to becoming a producer prior to this contest?
A friend gave me a copy, probably when I was in highschool, so I ended up buying my own copy by the time I was in college. But yeah, I just really like Above and Beyond, and I always have. I didn’t actually plan on even finishing the competition and submitting it, I just wanted Zoey Johnston’s vocal, because she’s an amazing vocalist. So that’s kinda how that came about. I saw there was a competition, and was just like ‘Oh cool, I can get her vocal.’
CYM: You bring up a great point regarding your interest in certain vocals, you’ve said some of your favorite vocalists are those that are immediately recognizable, like Imogen Heap, Ellie Goulding, and Zoey Johnston. What to you makes a vocalist sound distinct?
It’s a lot about tone and character of the voice. A lot of people are really concerned with how many tones they can hit, and a lot of that diva stuff, like pop vocals – but that doesn’t really do anything for me. Its all about the actual sound of the voice and that’s what’s recognizable. You know, when somebody sings a phrase and they can sing it in the same key as you know, a hundred people, but you know immediately who it is, that’s what I really like.
CYM: Following the contest you were put on several festival rosters and began touring. You pretty much blew up instantly. What’s been the most memorable and rewarding experience since you began your career as Seven Lions?
I’d say going to India with Above and Beyond was a dream come true. Just to be touring with those guys, in a different country like India and have the response so awesome just blew my mind. That was definitely the most humbling experience so far. They were all there for Above and Beyond but I got to open directly before and the crowd was great. They might not have known all the songs I was playing but the energy level was through the roof. And the thing is, when you go to another country you never know how its gonna be of course, like even a show like tonight, you don’t know how its gonna be. But going to another country and connecting with people through music – and being in a different culture, and not even knowing how to really act or represent yourself because you don’t wanna offend anybody – there’s just so much disconnect it seems. But when you get there and you’re onstage and you have that connection…it’s awesome.
CYM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews wanting to create a ‘darker world’ for your electronic music to stem from, sort of how death metal kind of has a dark feel to it. Care to elaborate on your plan of action?
Yeah that’s only for the very specific ‘Gathering Darkness’ project that I have. As far as the Seven Lions thing goes its not necessarily about dark music. But I feel like there’s no occult side of the EDM world and its just a bunch of either anthem stuff that’s cool, or silly fart around, or ‘Oh I’m so funny, look at my Instagram video.’ There’s no super serious, gnarly, black metal, satanic stuff, and I like the occult, so I really want to explore that realm.
CYM: I’m sure there’s a fan base out there that has been untouched almost because it hasn’t been explored very much.
Yeah totally. When I put out the first one a lot of people were really stoked, but then, at the same time I’ve never actually lost fans on Facebook, until this point I remember seeing it go ‘bloop bloop’, and I don’t give a shit. Some people will find that really offensive, but some people really love it.
CYM: You collaborated with fellow West Coaster producer Minnesota on ‘Fevers’, who you met within the burner circuit. Do you connect with a lot of your burner friends and family on tours and cities you play?
It’s always a great experience to meet somebody that’s been to Burning Man, because you have that connection where you can totally just geek out and talk about what its like, and they understand so it’s really nice. There were actually two people with us on the Krewella tour, that were setting up the stage and I actually became really close friends with them. It’s just a pure connection.
CYM: Just like everybody has their festival families that they reunite with every year at ‘this one festival’, etc, do you see yourself running into a lot of your burner community, or is that something you just reach out to when you’re in the same place, or is it more organic?
It’s pretty organic, it’s hard to keep up with friends and stuff on the road to be honest. Once we go to Burning Man we’ll all try and link up, but as it is on the road, since it’s so many shows back to back, I’ll get to a city and immediately want to sit down and work on music, get some sleep, and then go play this show. I’m not the kind of guy who gets to a city and calls my best friend and says ‘Hey lets hang out!’ because it’s just work. It’s a lot of work. Even though we’re traveling so much and going to a bunch of cities, it’s more isolated than it’s ever been. I’m just excited for the playa though, I’m not sure I’m gonna play because it’ll be my chance to just run around. If I do play, it’ll be like a Tuesday on a small stage.
CYM: Any advice for first-time burners?
Prepare! Go to theplaya.com and read all of the preparation tips. It’s an official Burning Man forum and has a ton of information. First year I went that’s all I did, I read everything in preparation and when we got there we could tell we had prepared quite a bit, but some of our friends hadn’t. So we ended up caring for a lot of friends but that’s what its all about, it ended up being awesome. If you can be the first timer that’s self sufficient, you can enjoy yourself a lot more. You’re not wandering around like ‘Oh shit, what do I do’.
CYM: Is it strange being a part of the Burner community and then jetsetting to places like Miami for Ultra?
Yeah, it’s really weird. I feel like missing Burning Man last year was probably one of the biggest mistakes I could have ever made. It’s one of those things that’s really refreshing and kind of reminds me of why I do this, and we missed it last year because we had started the Krewella show and I felt like I was missing a part of myself big time. It’s so refreshing to go to a place where everyone is just doing art, because they wanna do art, not because they’re getting paid to. They’re not trying to sell you anything, it’s just really nice. It’s definitely weird. I can’t bite the hand that feeds you know, but places like bottle service clubs are not where my heart is at all.
CYM: You grew up in the punk/metal scene. Have you ever thought of incorporating a spontaneous metal drop in place of what fans are usually expecting?
Yeah for ‘Running To The Sea’ the last remix I did for Röyksopp, I added some metal elements in there. I wouldn’t go anymore than that, like adding electric guitars to one of my tracks doesn’t sound very appealing – I’d actually rather go more into an acoustic side of things. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Opeth but they’re really heavy and then they’ll add some really beautiful acoustic stuff.
CYM: Skrillex signed you directly after being sent your tracks. He has his early start in metal as well, do you guys ever talk about producing anything reminiscent of those roots?
I don’t know, I barely link up with Sonny and when we do it’s always a ton of people around, so no. But the few times we have hung out it’s all just been talk about OWSLA and stuff like that.
CYM: Have you thought of any collaborations you’d make leaning towards that side of EDM?
There’s a couple industrial artists I’d like to collaborate with, like Combichrist would be cool, Velvet Acid Christ, all the really heavier, like Skinny Puppy, any of that stuff, Front Line Assembly, that’d be really cool.
CYM: Alright, so that’s the end of the normal part of our interview. Now to top it off, I’d like to ask some random lightning round questions. Is that cool?
Sure, let’s do it.
CYM: If you could kidnap any artist for a collaboration who would it be and why?
Above and Beyond, of course, just because they’re the best songwriters that I know. I think they’re phenomenal and they don’t collaborate with anyone, so it would have to be a kidnapping situation.
CYM: If you could live in any video game world, which would it be?
I’d say The Witcher. That’s like the last video game I played. It’s really nerdy, dark fantasy stuff.
CYM: One thing you would never be caught doing?
I don’t know, I’ve kind of done everything. I’ve gone through so many phases of my life, like I’d say I’d never go to a tanning salon or pierce my nose or dye my hair blonde, but I’ve done all of that shit. Nothing’s off limits. I was in college.
CYM: What’s your fascination with Game of Thrones?
It’s the most well done fantasy series of our time, for sure. It’s like adult, mature themed and done with a high budget. It’s badass. It’s just phenomenal. My dog’s name is Khaleesi. They just upped the level with so much shit happening, it’s incredible! The characters are amazing, like, going back to your question of what world you’d want to live in, I’d never want to fucking live in Westeros, because its like the most brutal place ever, but it would be really interesting for sure.
CYM: If you could be any Game of Thrones character, which would it be?
Probably John Snow, for sure. Actually, no. Yeah, John Snow.
CYM: If you were Oprah and could give away anything to your audience, what would it be?
Damn that’s a good question. I’d give them all Opeth’s Still Life album. I’m sure maybe 1% of the people in my audience would really get it, but those 1% would love Opeth forever, so that would be awesome.