Montreal Artist Snails Is Saving Bass Music, One Vomitstep at a Time

Chris Yoder
Snails

In the spring of 2014, I pressed play on OWSLA's Soundcloud and stumbled upon sound design that left me speechless. The song was called "Wild" and one of the culprits behind the "twisted trap monstrosity" was Snails, a rising Montreal producer named Frédérik Durand who has since emerged as one of bass music's most significant new stars.

During Skrillex and Diplo's second-ever Jack Ü performance at Ultra Miami 2014, the duo dropped the Snails & Antiserum collab alongside inveterate crowdpleasers like Toto's "Africa." No one was more surprised than Durand: "I heard 'I'm a wild mother,' and I was like, 'that's my song,'" he tells Billboard Dance. "I didn't know at all. I was just laughing, crying, doing everything."

Snails has racked up an enviable array of co-signs since. When Jack Ü released their much-anticipated debut album last year, Snails was the only featured producer to make the cut. In addition to Skrillex, DJ Snake, Datsik, Adventure Club, and Kill The Noise have played his tracks, while Flux Pavilion -- one of Durand's biggest inspirations -- drunkenly tweeted at him that the two should collaborate.

"I read it, I'm like, he's not gonna remember it tomorrow," Durand recalls. (He did, however, and their resulting "Cannonball" collab recently topped Beatport's dubstep chart).

The hallmarks of Snails' signature "vomitstep" style? Guttural bass gurgles, crushing 808s and synthesizers oscillated well past the point of absurdity. A Reddit user once amusingly described it as if "someone dropped a spoon in a garbage disposal to the rhythm of the Space Jam sound track." 

"I get excited when I hear something I have never heard before, sounds that I never knew existed," says Flux Pavilion. "That's what listening to Snails for the first time was like. His sound is unique and creative which is getting rarer and rarer [with] the more music I hear, it's dope.

That Durand has managed to forge a singular sound (which he describes as "growly, weirdo, vomit sounding") in the genre is no easy feat. In a cookie-cutter climate where many producers use the same synth plug-ins like Serum and Massive, Snails credits his use of less-heralded software Reason with helping him stand out.

"I feel like Reason gives the Snails sound because nobody uses that," he explains. "So everybody was thinking 'how could he do that in Massive?!' and from there I was thinking outside the box... I wanted to keep doing it crazier and push the limit."

The music's ferocity stems in part from Durand's teen years spent playing guitar in various metal bands. Unsatiated by the limits of guitar licks, Durand turned to electronic music in search of an even more powerful sound. He first took up DJing on the side while working as a graphic designer. Neither pursuit was fully satisfying. His mother, an accountant, came up with a plan to help him start his own production career. "You have all the dollars you saved during those two years [as a graphic designer]," she observed. "You can have one year without working if you start now. And if after that music doesn't work, then you go back to work." "It's a deal I had to win," Durand says. 

"I left my girlfriend, I left my friends, I left everything," he continues. "I locked myself in the studio for like three months, and did 'Dirty Raxxx,' 'RUBBR,' 'KRMT,' 'Wild' — all the songs that made me break through." 

Snails found early supporters in Colorado music blog This Song is Sick and local Montreal label Kannibalen. This Song is Sick's Jordan Chaffin first heard Durand's productions in the email submission inbox and immediately played them for the blog's founder/CEO Nick Guarino. Guarino and Chaffin went on to premiere much of Snails' music and now comprise his 4th Level Group management team.

"I hadn't heard music like this ever before and it was so refreshing to hear someone doing something new in a very oversaturated time for bass music," says Chaffin

Impressed by Durand's output and aiming for a 2014 live debut, Guarino and Chaffin sent "Wild" to Skrillex. A couple months after Jack U debuted the track at Ultra Miami, it was officially released by Skrillex's OWSLA label.

"He's the king," Durand says of Skrillex. "He's a bass music general. I’m lucky to be able to call him a friend and have him in my cell phone and like, never thought it [would] had been possible. The movement he created and how he pushed dubstep and brought it to the next level — that's why he really influenced me."

Durand describes the experience of joining Jack U in the studio to work on "Holla Out" as "the best night of [his] entire life," despite being too nervous to speak initially. 

"They showed me the album and I was like 'dude that riff is sick, just give it to me,' he recalls. "I stayed in the studio working for like eight hours. To be honest, that was the fastest eight hours I ever experienced -- it felt like one minute."

Following recent team-ups with Big Gigantic, Pegboard Nerds and Botnek, Snails is readying two new singles on OWSLA and talks about tackling a full-length LP. "We never stop the party," he says. "My goal is an album [with] 6 or 7 original songs, a couple collabs with artists I’ve been looking forward to [working with for] a long time. I just have too much in my head. Always trying to push the new sound, too."

One way of pursuing the last goal is by reincorporating his early love for metal. "When I play, I want to play metal songs, and when I produce, I want to go hard — do some riffs, make something similar [to metal]. I come from the background, and I feel like a big part of bass music is in that genre. When I see all the people head bang and break their neck and be like, 'oh my God!', it's good." "That brings me back to when I was going to see Slayer," he adds. 

Snails has become somewhat of a road warrior since his rise to prominence, playing more than 97 shows so far this year. His marquee festival appearances have included Ultra, Electric Daisy Carnival, Lollapalooza, Life is Beautiful, and, of course, Coachella -- where he was joined onstage by Skrillex, Marshmello, Flosstradamus and KSHMR over the course of two weekends.

Snails fans are often surprised by his approachability. Rather than retreat to his green room after playing EDC New York, the affable artist plunged into the crowd to conduct a processional train of shocked, selfie-shooting attendees. At a recent Safe in Sound tour stop, he waited by the exit to sign merchandise and snap pictures until every delighted attendee had their fill. He regularly treats fans to VIP taco parties that far outstrip typical meet-and-greets' time and access.

In return, Durand has attracted a diverse following whose devotion resembles the cult molds of more established acts like Bassnectar and Pretty Lights. His diehard fans regularly festoon him with handmade tokens of their appreciation, from kandi amulets to life-size helmets.

Guarino attributes Snails' following to his engagement with fans and the weirdness of his sound and brand: "He loves gross, weird, visually stimulating graphics, similar to a metal band. I think his fans are a bunch of awesome weirdos that love this about him. We've seen a lot of metal fans turn electronic lovers."

Although he now graces major festival stages, Snails hasn't forgotten the person who originally encouraged him to take the plunge into music: his mother. "Mama Snails," as he affectionately calls her, has been a crucial supportive force in her only child's life, even getting matching snail tattoos to show her solidarity. Durand brought her to EDC Las Vegas this year and was moved to see her crying and dancing onstage.

"She doesn't want to get too much into the night because we go hard," he admits with a sheepish grin. "I play at like 1:30; she goes to bed at 9 p.m. It’s not [always] on her schedule, but when it happens, I'm like, 'Mama! Go nap a little bit.' I want to bring her more to show her: everything she does, everything she did in the past, it wasn’t done for nothing."