On this hazy day in Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles lies half visible in the late-afternoon glow. Marshmello stands, unmasked, in a maroon sweatshirt and Off-White Nikes alongside his manager, marketing guru — and dance executive of the year — Moe Shalizi, who sports Louis Vuitton sandals and a collection of clinking gold chains.
The duo is upbeat, having just returned from an impromptu New York promo trip to perform Mello’s new single, “Friends,” featuring Anne-Marie, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. It’s the new normal for a mystery artist who ascended the ranks of DJ royalty over the past year with sold-out shows and hits like “Wolves” with Selena Gomez (which peaked last December at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100) and “Silence” with Khalid (No. 30 on the Hot 100, also in December).
We paused on the drive to Hollywood to snap a pic of a billboard promoting Marshmello’s Los Angeles Convention Center show on March 31, his biggest headline play in L.A. to date. “I always tell him, ‘You don’t even know how big you are,’” says Shalizi, who grew up in Corona, Calif., and met Marshmello through SoundCloud.
It has been a dizzying rise since three years ago, when the friends were brainstorming DJ monikers like “Sad Panda.” “We still make fun of each other for the bad names,” says Marshmello, laughing.
After releasing music accompanied only by his logo, and earning co-signs from Skrillex and Diplo, Marshmello’s breakthrough arrived in 2016 with “Alone,” a saccharine trap singalong on Vancouver indie Monstercat that tallied nearly 1 billion YouTube views and peaked at No. 60 on the Hot 100. Shalizi, 27, says he turned down multimillion-dollar major-label deals to stay independent and work with labels on a single-by-single basis.
“They weren’t genuine,” says Shalizi of the offers. “It was like, ‘We don’t know if you’re real, but we’re willing to throw shit at the wall and see if it sticks.’” “We bet on ourselves,” Marshmello adds succinctly.
Marshmello’s identity is speculated on by his fervent “Mellogang” fan base and is an industry open secret. Sleuthing bloggers cross-referenced tattoos and birthday tweets to finger Christopher Comstock, a 25-year-old DJ-producer who previously performed as Dotcom. Forbes reported the same in 2017, citing songwriter credits now removed from BMI’s website.
While Shalizi has happily fanned interest with mock reveals, using star stand-ins like Tiësto and Will Ferrell, he thinks that exposing Marshmello misses the point: “It doesn’t matter who’s under this helmet. The ethos of the brand is creating something that doesn’t symbolize one person as an icon, but a movement of people.”
Ironically, Marshmello is now every bit an EDM icon. In a scene crowded with 20-something white males, Shalizi made his client instantly recognizable. Harnessing Instagram’s platform for viral marketing, the masked DJ has scaled into a walking, seldom-talking meme who commands a highly engaged fan base over 6 million strong.
“It’s like Coca-Cola,” says Shalizi. “When you see red and white, what do you think? We created an unforgettable character; a logo, essentially.”
?Marshmello’s feeds feature him with celebrities from Floyd Mayweather to Rick Ross. (Shalizi: “We had a photographer on the road even before a tour manager.”) He regularly collaborates with YouTube stars like Lele Pons and recently launched Cooking With Marshmello on the platform, where he’s averaging over 200 million monthly views. “It’s not every day you see something like Marshmello,” the artist explains. “You’re like, ‘Wait, what does [he] even do?’ You search and find the music.”
Marshmello’s overt marketing has earned him some enemies. Fellow helmeted artist deadmau5 famously said he’d “rather be associated with a pile of dog shit.” But Khalid attests to the human beneath the helmet: “What I see offstage is a down-to-earth individual who I respect as a creative person and a friend.” Says Anne-Marie: “He’s really talented and a really nice human — well, marshmallow.”
There’s a wholesomeness to Marshmello’s real-life persona that comports with his cartoon counterpart. After 2017’s Coachella debut and drum-off with Travis Barker, he celebrated by shooting water guns with friends and family poolside in Palm Springs, Calif. (The Mello-emblazoned Maybach parked outside was a distinctly Shalizi touch.)
That geniality has helped create the “organic opportunities” the duo often cites as instrumental to Marshmello’s rise. “Silence” resulted from the producer reaching out to Khalid on Twitter and offering him a couch to crash on during Coachella. (“We just became homies,” explains Marshmello. “I didn’t show him one idea.”) When the artists later found themselves together in the studio, Khalid told Marshmello to pause a track and wrote the song on the spot. Ditto for “Wolves,” which came together in a single session with songwriter-guitarist Andrew Watt before Gomez heard the record. “I met her at a party after that, and she was like, ‘I’m a huge fan, I’m excited for our song,’” says Marshmello. “And I’m freaking out, like, ‘Whoa, did Selena Gomez just say that?’”
Marshmello admits it’s “still hard to grasp” how much his character means to strangers. He lights up as he recalls visiting a 9-year-old with leukemia who decorated her hospital room in his image. “These kids are feeling this connection to something,” says Marshmello. “I can’t take that away.” Anonymity also allows him easy escape from the spotlight. “Everybody says, ‘Man, you have it made,’” he says, flashing a gratified grin. “[Fame] is such a volatile situation, and it’ll usually change people for the worse. I’m happy not to be in that.”