An interview with the misfit singer-songwriter, poised for the big leagues
Gus Dapperton loves words and has a knack for names. The 21-year-old, bowl cut-sporting musician actively keeps a notebook full of characters, stories, and phrases that would otherwise just live in his head. Some names help Gus pin down specific feelings or moments in time, and others just appear “there in the back of my head,” he explains to me one balmy April afternoon in New York. He approaches songwriting with a similar method. From his debut EP, Yellow and Such, to his latest release, You Think You’re A Comic!, his cozy pop melodies were born from what he heard in his head. Like his notebook practice, his songs are like a transcription of what materializes within his imagination.
Dapperton grew up in Warwick, N.Y., a conservative town upstate that he describes as “afraid of changed and obsessed with traditional values.” Curious about the arts from a young age and frustrated with his environment, Gus surrounded himself with a group of like-minded, creative friends and taught himself how to produce hip-hop beats, before embracing the textured, sleepy rock and synth-laced bops he’s gaining attention for today.
Just looking at photos of Gus, it’s obvious that he is particular about how he comes off. From his youthful haircut to a twinkling earring or a freshly painted manicure, he embodies a character he says is inspired by the purity and innocence of his inner toddler. Spend an hour talking with him, and you’ll see that his particularity isn’t just limited to his style. Gus pauses to think, and clarifies his statements whenever he answers in a way that he finds unsatisfying. The vision he has for the music he makes is specific and grounded—so much so that he’s not even interested in collaborating with anyone else right now.
The day we speak, Gus is gearing up to hit the road again after a two-week break spent in between New Jersey, Philly and New York City—places he’s rooted in because of family and friends. Over a Skype call from Chelsea, Gus details his creative process (from monikers to song arrangements), the importance of his music videos, and the moment he found his voice.
What is it like in Warwick, NY? How did music become something that’s important to you?
Warwick is a really rural farm town only about an hour and a half outside of the city. [It’s] not too far upstate, but for some reason, everyone thinks we’re in the midwest. It’s very conservative. The society is structural functionalism, meaning everyone is afraid of change, and they’re obsessed with traditional values. I hated growing up there. At times, I’d find peace by myself, but, all around, the society there was not very stimulating to my creativity. But, I always had some form of creative outlet to release my energy into. I first studied art: I was filming and editing. Then, in 8th grade we had a songwriting contest. Me and my friends, who were obsessed with MF Doom, Madlib, and producers [in general], all went super ham and stayed after school to do it. The winner of the songwriting competition got to go on the town radio station. I ended up winning that, and just wanted to do that for the rest of my life. The next couple of years, me and my friends would just make music everyday after school. I would produce and they would rap.
At some point I kind of went through this weird existential crisis in high school where I was just really depressed. And then, I came out of it [with] a form that was really natural to me, and I started making [different] kinds of music.
So you’ve been making music for…
When you first started, what programs were you using to make music?
Initially when I started, we were using Garageband and just messing around with loops and things. We were sampling in Garageband, even though we didn’t really know how. Shortly after, for Christmas, I got Logic Pro and I’ve been using Logic ever since. But, I mess around with like, all of them. I use Logic Pro a lot because it’s good for recording live instruments and not as old school as Pro Tools for that.
You’ve mentioned that Yellow and Such was the first project you put out as yourself. What, or how, did you release previously?
Yeah, [before that] I was putting out beat tapes, back when I was low key making hip-hop beats. Me and my friends would put out other projects where I would just produce and they would do vocals on them. I put out a lot of songs as myself with that same kind of sound, but I didn’t put out a full project until Yellow and Such.
You’ve also mentioned embodying characters or alter egos. Can you tell more more about them and their importance?
Basically, growing up I would just embody different characters with different sounds and different styles and different colors that would influence me. So, the first one was called “Spazzy McGee,” and that was one I kind of ran with for a while. I had a couple others along the way. There was one called “Oliver Twistless.”
How did you come up with the names?
I always have a lot of words in my head (a lot of names and characters and stories), so I just write them down in my notebook. I have a lot of names in my notebook. There’s another one called “Pablo Pistachio.” But, “Gus Dapperton” was right there in my head when I came out of this existential crisis.
Is there a story that goes along with it?
Not really, it just made sense to me. It was there in the back of my head. I feel like I had finally put in my “10,000 hours” and had mastered making what I would hear in my head, and what I would like to make in my head. So, that was just right there in the back of my head, too, when that happened.
What led you to transition from producing hip hop beats to songwriting and using your voice? Can you remember the moment you made that decision?
I was just going through a really tough time. I was 17 in the fall and I tore my ACL and my meniscus. I had to get surgery and I was out of school for a month and I was on a ton of Percocets. I was just not in school—not that I talked to anyone in school anyways—but, I was out of school and alone. My ex-girlfriend started dating one of my good friends, and I’m a hopeless romantic so that was a very traumatizing experience. [Also], a family member passed away and I was just running away from home a lot because I didn’t want to go to college. It was like the flip of a switch after that. I was like, I’m the only one that can portray true emotion into this piece of music and sound, and although I would like to share it with other people, I know I’m the only one that can portray it to the best value, as far as lyrics and songwriting go. I was like If I wrote them it wouldn’t be true if someone else was singing it, so I just have to sing them regardless of whether or not I’m a good singer. At first, I was a pretty horrific singer, and then I got a little better.
Was there anything specific you did to improve your vocals?
I just practiced, but my sister is the best singer that I know. She helped me a lot. She helped me practice with small things, like how to breathe. She would tell me if I was doing something good or not good, and basically just encouraging me to keep doing it.
Younger sister, or older?
Younger, but we both take on those roles of older and younger once in a while. She’s 17, but she comes on tour with me and she plays keyboard in my band. She has to keep me in check most of the time, and then sometimes I keep her in check.
How did she get so good at singing?
I hate saying people are “naturals” at things, but she’s just a natural-born, incredible singer. She did end up taking lessons. She’s like a classically-trained, amazing vocalist.
Are there any artists or songs that inspired you to make that change, listen to yourself during that hard time in your life, and express it in the way you wanted to?
There are a lot of current artists that I really looked up to that definitely encouraged me to start singing, because they didn’t have easy-to-digest voices. I think my voice isn’t that easy to digest. King Krule and Spooky Black—those are just cats that I thought sounded weird, but amazing. And I just thought, Oh, the tone of your voice doesn’t really matter as long as you’re getting the message across and making exactly what you want to make. So, they definitely helped me. And then, I look up to singers like Morrissey and David Bowie, just as artists not as people.
You play guitar in most of your songs. Do you play any other instruments?
Yeah well, I just hear [songs] in my head and then transcribe [them] through instruments. So, I know shapes and how to get from one place to another, but I don’t know what I’m playing. So, I do “play” piano, drums, bass, and guitar and I record those myself on my songs, but I wouldn’t say I really know how to play any of them. Some people ask me what instruments I play, but usually I’ll just say I’m more of a producer or a composer or songwriter—those are my strongest suits: arranging and composing.
What are the tactical things you do to arrange a song? What does making a Gus Dapperton song look like, from start to finish?
I’ll hear a melody in my head and then a phrase that sums up that moment in time. And then, a chord progression with come shortly after that, whether it’s on the guitar or the piano. I honestly make songs differently each time, but the arrangement comes really fast. I’ve never really broken it down, but usually I come up with a chord progression, then a rhythm or beat, using drum machine sounds—like, vintage drum machines like Linndrum samples or Drumtraks or DMX or TR-09 samples. Then, I’ll come up with a bass line for that chord progression, and then I’ll come up with lead synth lines to highlight the melody. And then, I’ll come up with some drone pedal tone sounds that make the song more full. And then, when I do the vocals, I usually add a lot of vocal layers and harmonies, nowadays. I used to not. I used to just do one lead vocal.
What electronic or other analog tools do you find useful in your music-making process?
I use a lot of analog equipment. I have this Juno-106 that’s a synth from the ‘80s that I use a lot. And then [one] that I’ve been using on all my tracks lately just to make it very specific, is basically like a toy drum machine. It’s called a TR-626. It sounds terrible, but I’ve figured out how to make it work with what I’m doing. So, yeah, I’ve just been using those back and forth a lot, and then my guitar. At my parents house, I have a stand up piano and usually I write songs on that first.
You do a very interesting thing with your voice on “I Have Lost My Pearls,” using it as an instrument in a way. It’s raspy and rough, unlike the vocals on your other songs. What made you take that direction there?
I just wanted there to be a lot of dynamics between the the movements of the song. The verses are one movement that are kind of angelic and inspiring. Then, the chorus is a little more conclusive and harsh. So, I wanted to just make a lot of dynamics between the cadence and approach I had singing on that. Because, all the instruments are the same in both parts, just the chord progression is different. So I thought using my voice to make a lot of range in that was nice. Then, the outro is kind of like the last movement, which is a summary.
How do you come up with the lyrics you write? Some of the song names are pretty funny, but a lot of the lyrics are very emotive.
Usually, I’ll hear a phrase from someone around me, that is intriguing to me. I’ll write it down and then curate that moment in time under that phrase. For example [with] “I’m Just Snacking,” one time I was about to go out to dinner with someone, and I was like, Hey, we’re about to go out to dinner. Why are you eating right now? And she was like, I’m just snacking. And, I kind of came up with this idea that she was just warming up for the big meal. It wasn’t spoiling her meal. I like to have a literal meaning, a metaphorical meaning, and a secret meaning behind the song. The secret meaning is about falling in love with a prostitute, and the literal meaning is about just snacking on food. [With] “Prune, You Talk Funny,” I just had the word prune written down in my notebook, because a prune describes someone who absorbs and makes you weak. That’s just how I felt when communicating with someone. It’s just words that describe moments in time. It’s like phrases that are titles to a moment in time. I guess they mean more to me than some other people, because they’re very specific. But, I also try to keep my songs fairly vague so people can copy and paste their emotions into the songs as well. Then, I have more straightforward songs. “I Have Lost My Pearls” is literally about this one time I lost my pearls, and [how] I felt when someone gave me their pearls, and why I cherish them so much. Sometimes they’re literal experiences and sometimes they’re just metaphors that summarize a moment in time.
You’ve mentioned needing to wear socks while writing songs because you need your feet to be warm. Do you have any other specific things you feel are necessary to your process?
Yeah, I have a lot of little quirks, and some more new ones recently. The socks thing was always a thing. It’s kind of like, I wouldn’t be able to sleep without a comforter, no matter what the temperature is because it’s comfortable and I feel safe underneath a comforter. Same thing with wearing socks, like bare feet touching the ground is… I feel like I would just be fidgeting the whole time. It’s basically about being comfortable. My sock drawers is just like 100 clean, white socks. I can’t wear socks twice in a row. So, that’s one thing.
More recently, when performing… this is fucked up. I have these Capezio jazz shoes that I wear when I perform. I wore them a lot out and about in my daily life, and then I realized that was a bad idea because they’re dance shoes. The bottoms would fall off, and I had to get them fixed a bunch of times and glued back on. I would wear them for every show when we went to Europe. It wasn’t like a luck charm or anything, I just wanted to wear them for every show. And, they ended up falling apart. I would tape them! They had duct tape all over them. And then we got to Philly and all of the sudden I’m onstage and I realize I’m not wearing the shoes and I was like, Ah, fuck I forgot to wear the shoes today. So, my sister has hit double decker keyboard stand that she plays when we perform. All of the sudden, the top one falls onto the bottom one and it changed all the settings and just knocked off. But, whatever we keep playing. Immediately after, my bassist pops his bass string, which is kind of unheard of. Breaking a guitar string is fine, because there are six strings and they’re thin, and just up in the high end of the whole thing. But, the bassist carries the entire low end of the whole song. Popping one bass string is like… you need four bass strings. I was like, Ah, fuck, Ian just grab another bass string. He was like, Dude, I don’t have other bass strings. And then I was like, Does anyone have another bass guitar? This is in the middle of the show. He was just like, Fuck it, I’ll just play with three strings. He’s an incredible musician, so he murdered it and just played the rest of the show like that. But then, throughout the show, my fucking microphone stand fell down, so I walked over to use my bassist’s microphone. We played a good show, but there was just a lot of technical difficulties. Also, something happened with the drums. Literally, something happened with all of us. And then, we get back downstage, and they were like Yo, why weren’t you wearing your shoes? It’s because you didn’t wear your shoes. Now, everyone is convinced of the superstition about the fucking shoes. I literally have to wear them for the rest of my life. I’m fine with it, but they’re fucked. There’s duct tape on both of them. They’re really bad. It’s crazy. We played like 50 shows, and the one show [where] anything went wrong, it’s because I didn’t wear the shoes.
What’s one major thing you’ve learned in your transition from production to touring and performing your own songs for live audiences?
I’m definitely just getting better as a musician, performing live and learning about performing to people with my band… being comfortable up on stage. I’d say that I’m honestly more of a performer than a musician. Performing to people is something that I’m pretty comfortable with. I’m still getting better at it, but I definitely feel good up on stage, and about how I portray myself to everyone. When we first got to Europe, I didn’t know what to except. The first show we played sold out. I’m already inspired to do this forever. This is what I always wanted to do for the rest of my life, but it definitely was important to see that it was connecting with people from all over the world.
Where was that?
Dublin, Ireland. That was the first show we played on the Europe tour, and it was crazy. I played a lot of shows in New York City before. The first time I sold a show out in New York, I was hyped about it. But, it’s more of a family crowd there and I know everyone that comes to the shows and stuff. Going out to Europe and seeing people I’d never seen before was definitely important.
How do videos play a role in your music making process?
I think any sort of visual component to your music and your art adds a whole other level of personality and character to songs. I think if musicians are making music that’s true to them, it’s weirdly cohesive with the visuals too. I don’t know if it really makes sense, but I think I represent the music that I make visually, because I just embody myself [from] when I was a toddler—I still look like that and dress like that. That was just a time when I knew no evil. It was pure learning and pure knowledge. All those inspirations [I had] as a child influence me the most now, because they’re embedded inside me. All the people my parents would play around the house growing up, I think that’s where I have the most inspiration. My music now weirdly coincides with how I look, so I think when people can see that, they can understand the song on a more personal level. I think showing my mannerisms gives the songs more character, because you can see the person behind the songs.
What films or music videos have inspired you most?
I’m always going to see new movies and music videos with my friends and my creative director, Matt. I just watched a bunch of music videos last night. Toro Y Moi’s “So Many Details” is one of my favorite music videos. It’s so simple, but that’s my favorite style. Just really vulnerable, long, cinematic shots. I like Sonder’s “Too Fast.” I thought that video was super good. There’s a video I watched by The Blaze called “Virile.” It’s so simple. It’s these two dudes in this apartment just smoking a blunt and dancing. It’s so personal and so good. Fatima Yamaha’s “Love Invaders” is a random, house track with a really good music video.
How did you link up with Matt (the director Matthew Dillon Cohen), who you’ve worked with for all of your videos?
I was looking to do a music video in 2016 for a song called “Faceless” with my friend, Beshken. I just sang vocals and played guitar on it, and he produced and mixed it. And I was like, Hey, we should do a music video, and he was like, Word, you’re right. So, we met with a director who flaked on us a bunch of times—super unprofessional. And, I was looking for people and my friends were like, Hey, you should meet this dude, Matt. He started his own production company. And, I was like Okay, cool. He didn’t have any videos out. He [had] produced on a couple of videos. But, he did have one video that wasn’t out yet that he showed me, by this artist NoMBe called “Miss Mirage.” It’s just one take of him in the subway. It’s really good. I didn’t have to say anything for Matt. We had the same exact taste. We became good friends immediately. We met a couple times about it, and my ideas were much bigger than we could afford for the budget. I didn’t really know how it worked at the time. We still really wanted to do it, and we ended up making a GoFundMe, raised $4,000, went to L.A. and made a video. Matt directed it, and killed it. We just made music videos ever since.
I moved in with him shortly after that for a couple months in New York, and then we just became best friends and started doing a bunch of videos. He’s the only one I trust to portray myself on camera, visually.
What’s your position on collaborating right now? Do you have plans to collaborate with other artists? Who would you want to collaborate with?
I haven’t met anyone yet who I trust enough to collaborate with sonically. I would like to in the future, and I hope to do that someday. But, when it’s for my own vision, I just can’t collaborate with anyone because I have such a strong vision in my head that I want to transcribe. I can’t move away from it too much. I’m definitely comfortable helping other people accomplish their vision. I work with my sister. I produce and write with her for her own project. I would definitely be into that with other artists, but just for my own artistry, I haven’t really found anyone yet who I can work with. Or, just at this point in time, I’m really focused on my own stuff right now.
If there were someone who you’d be excited to work with on their project, who would it be?
I can give you some people that I’m really fond of. Joseph Mount from the band Metronymy. I look up to him so much. Chela is a really good artist from Australia. She makes sick dance music and she’s a super good dancer and does good videos. My friend Elijah Bank$y is a rapper, and I used to produce for him a lot. He’s just a good friend of mine, and I look up to him a lot as an artist.
Can you talk more about your plans for a debut album?
I’m an independent artist and I make all my own music, so I don’t care. I love talking about that stuff. I’m definitely trying to release a full-length album in the fall. I’ve been making so much music. I’m super excited about all of it. All the songs mean the most to me. I don’t hold it forever. When it’s finished, I’ll put it out like a week later. So, hopefully I finish it this summer when I have some time off.
Are you releasing it as Gus Dapperton?
Yes, definitely. At this point in my life, I’ve just fully embodied Gus Dapperton. I can’t really shake it. I’m just 100% there. It’s true to me. It’s maybe the part of myself that’s fully comfortable with who I am, and not the part of myself that’s hiding it. I would say my real self is someone who’s not comfortable being themself, and this is just the part of me that is comfortable being myself.
What’s one thing you want people who are just discovering you to take away?
Just try to understand that in order for there to be pleasure, things have to unpleasurable. If everything was pleasurable, everything would be normal. That’s why I love New York and hate L.A. That’s why sad music makes you feel more than happy music. Love and tragedy put together is a more powerful feeling than love and tragedy separately. Just be yourself and come to terms with reality.