For three decades, the duo Daft Punk was a household name for the genre of EDM, producing hits like “Get Lucky,” “One More Time,” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” Their announcement that they were breaking up in February 2021 felt like yet another devastating cultural loss in the midst of the current pandemic.
But from the shadows, other duos sit poised to take on the Daft Punk mantle, to fill the vacuum they’ve created. Daft Punk hasn’t released an album in eight years; perhaps it was time for them to move aside for other artists to help the genre of electronic music continue to evolve.
What does artistic evolution mean in a time when the artists themselves can’t even leave the house?
I sat down with one of the Daft Punk legacy hopefuls, James Patton, member of the emerging EDM collaboration Little Big Monsters, and head singer of Brazilian alternative rock band Clashing Clouds. Along with lead guitarist Bruno Menescal, James has big ideas for what’s next for electronic music. More importantly, he shared his vision of inspiration, production, and creativity in the time of lockdown.
This is the story of an artist’s journey to evolve in a time when much of the world has come to a grinding halt.
Q: So, tell me about Little Big Monsters. What’s the story behind this collaboration?
A: When the pandemic struck, like everybody else, we were shocked, and had to put everything on hold. Me and the leading guitar player, [Bruno], who is a very good friend of mine, decided to keep on making music remotely. When we started, we were just joking around. We are big fans of the eighties and nineties, and we were messing around with that aesthetic. But then it started to shape up and we ended up with some songs we actually believed in. We decided to push it forward.
Little Big Monsters is made up of me and Bruno [the lead guitarist of Clashing Clouds]. But we also have a really good producer behind us from Dubai, Rami. And we also have this ghost singer who will appear in a few songs, called Ventura. Ventura is just basically… a ghostly member. It has no gender, no face, it’s just someone that’s going to be singing with me, mysteriously, like from the shadows.
I’ll be very honest with you about Ventura: life is crazy. My life is like a cartoon. Crazy things happen all the time and I gave up trying to control how they happen. I just go with the flow. There was a song, one specific song, that I liked a lot. Bruno wrote the guitar line and I was listening trying to come up with lyrics, or a melody, and I couldn’t. I got stuck. I had a bassline and the synthesizer. It was a beautiful song, but with no lyrics, and I could not get through to them. So I decided to look up people who could sing. I sent it to a few people and Ventura was one of them. Ventura sent me back lyrics an hour later. And I had this beautiful, beautiful song. It wasn’t me singing, but I didn’t care. I just wanted this song to exist. That was enough. That’s how Ventura came on, and how Little Big Monsters started.
I’ve always wanted to have an electronic music project. I was just not skilled enough to do it. I needed time, and I needed a reason. And then the pandemic struck and I was unemployed, stuck at home with my computer, so I was like… time’s now. If I didn’t do it, I would go crazy. So it was a therapy and at the same time a project. I was like, “Man, I’m making songs every day, and they don’t make any sense if they stay in this computer. I have to put them out there.”
When James discusses working with others, his features become more animated. Always quick with self-deprecating quips, he is equally generous with compliments. He describes, without hesitation, his collaboration partner Bruno as “angelic,” his guitar riffs “beautiful.” Unsure of whether to call themselves a duo or a band, he eventually settles on calling them a “team,” including Ventura and the producer. He praises Ventura’s voice and lyrics, even suggesting a hint of good-natured jealousy. There’s an almost desperate, eager need to connect with others, and this need is easy to trace back to the fact that James has been living in quarantine since the start of the pandemic. He has not seen Bruno physically in over twelve months.
Q: Where did the name Little Big Monsters come from?
A: The name came way after we already had the project. We talk a lot about issues we all go through, like sexuality, social phobias, social pressures… and anxiety. I would say that’s the root of everything we talk about, because that’s the life we have, you know? We kind of orbit around anxiety issues: what causes them, and what makes them worse. And “little big monsters” is kind of like a joke. When we have to explain what we go through on a daily basis, it may seem like a little thing, but it’s actually kind of huge to us, personally. There’s a difficulty, a dichotomy, we have in explaining to others what we’re going through and how we feel, when they haven’t gone through something similar, because they don’t have our frame of reference.
Q: What’s your experience of being an artist during lockdown? How does being in quarantine affect your process?
A: Oh my God, if you were to open the Google Drive between me and Bruno, you would be amazed. Every time we have an idea we just drop it in the Google Drive. We kind of work on each other’s pieces and – it’s like creative spam! In a week, we can put down ten or more different ideas. Sometimes just a riff, sometimes a full song with lyrics, bassline, drums, everything. And sometimes I listen to them and I’m like, “Okay, from the ten songs you put out there, I like this one.” That’s how we filter ourselves.
I give full freedom to the others to work with me on the songs. I say, “Whatever comes to your mind, just give it a try. If you can come up with something good, just let me know.” And I’ve been surprised – no, not just surprised. Overwhelmed. I was listening to Ventura’s lyrics, and I was like, I can’t believe it, this is really, really cool. It was almost like a religious experience… an epiphany. It’s magical. It fills you up with something.
Something that would take nine months can now take just two weeks. We’re actually making more progress in this situation than we were with the band, back when we were actually seeing each other and practicing every week.
I’m having a lot of fun moving this project forward, because it’s a new situation, mainly because we’re doing everything remotely. Look – I’m a poor Brazilian guy, and I don’t have a lot of resources. I have friends who have amazing home studios and everything. But all I’ve got is a microphone, that’s this baby here. [He holds up his “babies” one by one for me to see.] It’s faulty but it works. And I’ve got my headphones, a recorder, and my old PC. So… That’s pretty much it. I’ve got my guitar, a couple of acoustic guitars, and they’re not very expensive. But the thing is – it may sound like a dreamy thing to say, but – if you want to do something, if you’re passionate about something, you’ll face limitations like everybody else, but you can get by. You can get around with creative solutions. I record everything at home. Obviously, the sound isn’t as good as it would be in a studio. But that’s not what I’m aiming for right now. I don’t need brilliant quality or technical beauty. I just need the song. And the song can be made this way. So that’s what we’re going for.
James’s vision for Little Big Monsters is a 12-song album made up of 2 serialized EP releases. When I ask about performing the songs live, he eagerly describes his experiences both performing with Clashing Clouds, and enjoying the musical performances of others, mentioning Radiohead, Kin, The Cure, and of course, Daft Punk. His excitement over the idea of performing Little Big Monsters’ dance music with a full, live band turns morose when he realizes it’s only a dream. But he catches himself. His dreams, he says, “are plans, too.” He sees lockdown as a time to shore up one’s ideas, with the intention of having them ready to go when quarantine finally ends. He firmly believes in being patient because he thinks the payoff is just over the horizon; he thinks there’s a new world ahead of us, and that things will change. For the better.
The delightful contrast between his stubborn optimism and personal frustrations and anxieties while in lockdown feels like someone personified lockdown and put eyeliner on it. Despite not being able to leave the house for a year, James is still made up like a rockstar, something he’s clearly doing just for himself. And perhaps to maintain his creative mindset.
Q: Let’s get specific for a moment about the music. What’s your favorite lyric and what does it mean to you?
A: There’s a song called “Dear Brain.” That’s the second song to be released. I would say by the beginning of April, maybe the end of March. It’s a song that tackles anxiety. I’ve been dealing with anxiety for the past twenty years. The chorus goes like, “Dear Brain, what’s with you? What’s the deuce when I can’t let you loose for a sec? Who are you with? Can you just shut the fuck up and put me to rest?” It’s the feeling I have every day when I go to bed, if I don’t have medication. I don’t even remember what it feels like to sleep normally, something that people take for granted. The whole world, they sleep. And I can’t. And the song is about that. Whenever I try to fall asleep, to take a nap, I have a panic attack and it hurts me, physically… it’s hard to explain, even for me. But the song is very meaningful to me because I think it’s quite relatable to people that suffer from that.
And also, the thing is – well – that’s – it’s just – [stammering]. The song is kind of hard to talk about actually. I didn’t realize that until now. The reason it is personal is because a lot of people go through something like this, and I’m pretty sure you can relate to something you’ve been through. Because it’s about how the world sees you. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to suffer from anxiety to identify with the song. The song is about having issues the world doesn’t understand. How the world minimizes things that are actually huge, to us personally… you know, little big monsters.
What you might find striking, after hearing all this, is that we have a lot of vibey, dancey songs. We have this concept that I came up with Rami, the producer: a heaven and hell theme. We’ll release a “heaven” song, and then a “hell” song. But I’ll give you a spoiler: we’re never talking about heaven. [laughs] It may sound happy, yeah, but in general it’s not. Not that we’re pessimistic, but we like the idea of embracing the problems so that we can get over them. I don’t see a reason to be overly happy. 2020 was a freaking hard year. I wouldn’t be able to write anything happy. So the best thing, I think, was to write songs about your wishes but not necessarily [set to] dark or sad tunes. We have the heaven songs and the hell songs, and they’re the same songs.
“Dear Brain” is very modern-sounding. We jokingly call it “Tim Burton track” music. You have a kind of a dark, eerie, somber sound to a very modern beat. And the lyrics are very straight-forward. There’s no in-between. It’s just – we’re talking about shit, real shit. You hear it, and you know it. There’s no need for interpretation.
Sometimes the songs come out fully formed. Like “Dear Brain,” for instance. It felt like I was just venting out, honestly. And obviously there are minor technical corrections to be made. But we don’t change things due to aesthetics. If we change something, it’s because of the information contained in that material, to make it more specific or direct or poetic. We’ll never change something because people might not like what we’re saying. I don’t care. Honestly. Sincerity above everything. If it wasn’t like that, why would I bother making it anyway?
James grows surprisingly open with me in the course of our interview about the “little big monsters” that he personally faces. All of them – insomnia, anxiety, an abusive past with his father – have clearly grown with him in quarantine. Now too big for the small home he’s trapped in, he’s chosen to face those monsters through his music. Daft Punk, he says, took the genre of EDM and breathed a new life into it. He hopes Little Big Monsters can do something similar. Artists in 2020, he notes, are operating under unique circumstances and facing unrelatable challenges, which in turn may seed exciting new developments… in every genre. He acknowledges that many of the conflicts of 2020 as well as the technical challenges of production may cast a shadow over the art itself. Nonetheless, he feels every cloud has a silver lining, and that it would be an oversimplification to call something purely “good” or purely “bad.” This is, in so many words, the “heaven and hell” theory he and Rami came up with when they discussed their release schedule.
Q: Are any of these darker issues difficult to talk about in the songs?
A: There is one song specifically, called “Scarecrow,” that I had a hard time with. I was kind of depressed for a while. But it was a temporary thing, because it was like a healing process in the relationship I have with my dad. And the song is ultimately about him. I had an abusive father when I was a child, and I still have my dad. We’re actually living in the same house, which is insane, but due to the Covid situation, I decided to stay with him. We’re a very small group, just me and my mom and my dad, and I want to be around, you know, just to make sure everything is okay. And I could never actually talk to my father about my childhood. I just can’t. So the way I found to actually forgive him for the things he’d done was by writing this song. It was a very complicated thing to write, but I felt like I needed it, and I wanted it. I felt that somehow, maybe some people out there go through the same thing, and they probably have the same problem I have: a hard time in actually facing that person. It gets to a point where you wouldn’t want to have this old man feeling guilty for something he had done, and something I’ve already gotten over. I don’t want to cause more pain. I have to stop that cycle. But I don’t want to be left with this grudge, this heavy feeling on me, either. So I talked it into the song and I was relieved. I was free from it. It was a very rewarding experience. It was painful but it worked.
Working on these songs can be difficult because I’m not only a perfectionist, but also struggle with self-esteem issues and stuff. You know, everybody does to a certain extent, and I have a very hard time finding the stuff I make actually good enough. And the fact that I have people like Bruno by my side helps me a lot because I trust him. He’s like a brother. And we are very different. I consider him to be a person I can sort of outsource my criticism to. If he says it’s good, I might not think that, but I’ll go with him. If it was up to me I never would have released anything because I would hate everything.
We have one song that talks about love, but it’s about the feeling I’ve had, and Bruno, that we’ve all had during the pandemic, being away from the things and the people that we love but knowing that we’re going to meet soon enough. Sooner or later. That’s even the name of the song, by the way.
And it’s about self-esteem too. By being stuck here, in this lack of social life that we’re enduring right now, it’s taking a toll on a lot of people and undermining their self-esteem. I’ve seen a lot of friends get depressed, and every day there are more complaints and more people are feeling like shit. And this song was just a message to basically tell people the concept that… well, “Life is beautiful and so are you. And sooner or later, I’ll get to you.” This is a message I would like to send all my friends and to everyone out there. And it may be taken as a love song, even though it’s more of a general idea on loving. Not love. You know? It’s a broader vision.
Q: Are all the songs in English?
A: Yeah. So far. [laughs] There’s a reason for it, though, actually. I told you, I’m a poor guy in Brazil, so why the hell am I writing songs in English? That’s kind of weird. But basically, when I started working at 18, I met this Irish guy and he invited me to work in this pub. His pub was basically the pub, and himself. So he needed to take some time off, so he was looking for someone to mind the pub. I didn’t speak any English back then, just a few broken words. By being there, at that point, all my life experience was based on being around the places I grew up, the favela. I’m not saying that favela people are small-minded but we are kind of encapsulated in this ecosystem of the favela itself. And just like the people in any other country, I think, poor people, we’re trained to think there is a limit. You can only go so far. And then all of the sudden I was there in the middle of a bunch of foreigners and I had to make an effort to learn the language so I could speak to them, and I was learning about new cultures and that’s when I actually started learning about music in a different way. And I was introduced to so many different bands and so many different genres. I was just like, blown away. I didn’t even know those things existed. And they were accessible. And since most of my musical culture originates from this experience, I believe I naturally grew with the idea that the music in my head is connected to English language. Not saying that I wouldn’t want or am not able to write stuff in Portuguese; I just don’t feel that’s my thing.
Waxing philosophical, James comes to the conclusion that his music – and, indeed, the art made by all artists – can be traced back to a need to express one’s feelings to a broad audience, to connect with them. When the project began, he described it as heavy. Working with others, he feels that some of the heaviness has lifted… both emotionally, and literally. Bruno was a breath of fresh air to his darker ideas, giving the music a lighter touch. Now, it’s coming together as a 12-song album designed to explore the human psyche in a relatable way, set to a poppy baseline, dreamy guitar riffs, and ‘80s-inspired synthesizers.
“I didn’t want to have a dark, weird, sick project,” he confesses at one point, but admits that this is easier said than done. Psychological issues can’t be run away from, and he finds himself unable to describe any reality other than his own. Being isolated from his bandmates has emphasized his need for them. Working with others, even remotely, has offered him a new perspective. Ultimately, quarantine has underscored his need as an artist to create art, as well as his need to have the art consumed, critiqued, related to, and interpreted by others. This rings true of all creative types, he thinks; art is a way of expressing oneself, and shaping issues into manageable, bite-sized pieces.
Our interview ended on a note of hopefulness.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to tell people about your project before they listen to it, or any words or wisdom you have for other artists who are struggling to produce while in lockdown?
A: No matter how small you think you are, no matter how poor or broken or limited you are, you have to remember that those thoughts are not necessarily compatible with reality. You can do pretty much anything you want with your life, and you’re free to choose. You don’t have to follow any standards that the establishment tells you to follow just because, you know? You have to question things. And you have to do what’s better, what’s best for you, and believe in yourself… I don’t want to be cheesy and be like, “Just follow your dreams, honey, and everything will be fine.” No, it’s not like that at all. You have to acknowledge and know who you are, know your issues, and embrace them. Don’t fight them. Embrace those issues and understand why, the mechanisms and dynamics of them, so that you can actually really deeply know who you are, the flawed self you have. Like I’m flawed, we are all flawed, there’s no such a thing as the image people sell: always happy, always perfect. Those internet coaches telling people that everything is fine if you think or meditate – fuck that shit! It’s not like that at all.
But. What I’m telling you, it sounds dark but it is not, is that it’s okay to be sad. It is okay to feel hurt. You have to feel hurt to grow out of it. If I could summarize everything I’ve just said in one single phrase, it would be: It is okay to be sad. As long as you know that, then, that’s when you start getting out of it, and that’s when you know the path to your own happiness.
In the course of our hour-long conversations, James never stopped smiling. It was an impish sort of grin, and it broadened when he spoke about his influences and his bandmates. He also spent the whole time chain-smoking. In some ways, he struck me as a manifestation of his music: both light and dark, anxious and hopeful… heaven and hell. The oxymoron in the name of his collaboration, “little” and “big,” became apparent to me as we spoke. Little hurdles can be made bigger and seem insurmountable, while at the same time, big ones can be made little.
The central takeaway from our talk was that, from conflict, passionate, meaningful art can emerge. Everyone has monsters… but in taming them, harnessing them, and training them, they emerge as something beautiful. Big monsters can be made little, even cute, helpful, or inspiring; big monsters carry a bold message, and translated, that message can say something truly meaningful.