“Everyone's so mad at me,” says Henry Laufer, better known as Shlohmo, from his couch in L.A. “Everyone tweets at me all the time: 'Did you forget about the record?' And it's like, 'Nope, I'm listening to the masters everyday.”
Laufer has a problem many would envy: His fans are grumbling about the long-promised release of a new EP with Jeremih, the Chicago warbler behind such sensual fare as “Fuck You All the Time” and “Birthday Sex.” And they don't understand why it's taking so long.
We have, after all, become used to a certain immediacy with Laufer and his ilk in the web-connected world of electronic music: Someone makes something, they quickly post it to SoundCloud, the fans like it, the blogs blog it, the commenters go, “Damn, this is dope.” Then we all move on to the next thing. Occasionally, though, a sizable part of the ecosystem gets hung up on one song: Disclosure's “White Noise,” say, or (more obscurely) Jon Hopkins' “Open Eye Signal.” The track circulates and recirculates, fueling demand for more like it. And if the Internet maw even has time to register want for a product, it's already late.
The first fruit of Laufer's collaboration with Jeremih was “Bo Peep (Do U Right),” a fairly conventional R&B-meets-avant-trap grind that has racked up more than 2 million plays on SoundCloud. Their second is an almost-banger called “No More” that's hungrier, more distraught: Shlohmo's beat is unsettling, half-humane and half-mechanical, until it dissipates completely into a fog of bass. Jeremih wails through the whole thing, tortured, inconsolable, love-famished, eventually losing any ability to form words. “No More” is a pinnacle for both artists — not as popular as “Bo Peep (Do U Right),” but better in every way. Blogs like NPR and SPIN and Stereogum posted it, raved about it. A few of them mentioned a March release date for the upcoming Shlohmo and Jeremih EP … and therein lies the rub. The EP is a joint project of Shlohmo, represented by the informal WeDidIt collective, and Jeremih's label DefJam, an arm of the incredibly powerful and bureaucratic Universal Music empire. “It's all shenanigans and bullshit and paperwork and lawyers,” Shlohmo says of getting the record out. He sounds more bemused than upset, though. “It comes with the territory. To have the WeDidIt logo next to the DefJam logo is going to be fucking hilarious to me, so you know it's all worth it.” As for when the EP will actually come out, Laufer says May 20, or at least, “I've heard this date thrown around more times than any other.”
The anticipation for this new EP is one of several signs that Laufer, the 24-year-old L.A. native and erstwhile San Francisco resident, is having a moment. We spoke with him in between Friday night sets at Coachella, where he was given an enviable 7 p.m. time slot. (Nothing ruins nighttime music like the daytime, after all, and Shlohmo's electronica is far too melancholy and amorphous to play well with sunlight.) This week Laufer will also do two nights in S.F. at the Great American Music Hall; in May he'll play two shows in New York, both of which are going to sell out, he says. Not bad for a dude with one album, a few EPs, and a pretty active SoundCloud page.
To say it's surprising that this kind of success has reached a musician like Laufer is no insult. He's even surprised at it himself. This is partly because most of Shlohmo's catalog sounds rather different from the music he's made with Jeremih. It's far less beat-driven, mostly instrumental, and somewhat bleak. Not oppressive or grating, just sadly pretty, a bit listless.
His first album is called Bad Vibes, and was produced while Laufer was living in San Francisco. He loved the city, he says, but not the dubstep-obsessed dancefloors he encountered between 2008 and 2011. This was a transitional time for Laufer: He'd dropped out of college and was trying to figure out if music was “even a thing for me.” His father is a guitarist and songwriter, but he was slow to pick up music. And Laufer's interest in pairing live instruments with electronic textures, a favored method still, didn't help him flourish in a club culture focused on DJs. “I was bringing guitars to a table with CDJs on it and trying to set up,” he says. “I think a lot of the album was like 'Okay: opposite, please.”
If there's a key to Shlohmo's sound — at least to the stuff he makes on his own — it's his obsession with atmosphere, with sounds that aren't quite music. Bad Vibes is full of field recordings, and many Shlohmo tracks seem to exist as self-contained ecosystems, terrariums of moody geography and weather and, yes, a beat and a melody lurking somewhere, too. A kid who grew up on instrumental hip-hop, Laufer is interested in what music can say without words, without even notes. “I remember driving in a carpool one time [as a teenager] and listening to music, and my friend was like, 'Do you ever listen to anything with words? Doesn't any of your music have fuckin' words?'” he remembers. “Until then I don't think I'd ever thought of music like that. Like, oh wait, other people like music that talks to them about things.”
As an L.A. kid who likes beats, Laufer has been casually tied to that city's bass scene — and he did spend years going to the famed Low End Theory party. But he wasn't as determined as some of what he calls the “older cats,” and he wasn't as interested in making straightforward instrumental hip-hop, either. Laufer began making music more intently after his first album earned positive reviews. Now he simply wants to do it better than he has before. You might call him dedicated, but he's not serious, exactly. “I don't make music every day, I'm not that compulsive,” he says. “I don't feel like a musician. I feel like a kid who's in his room making drawings out of sound.”