An antique school bus painted Day-Glo orange cuts through the craggy landscape 10 miles west of Denver, blaring dubstep and the gleeful whoops of college-aged music lovers. They’re partying their way up the canyon that leads to the Red Rocks Amphitheatre to see The Chainsmokers, who currently have the No. 1 song in this country and a few others with “Closer,” a swoony EDM-tinged anthem featuring alt-pop heroine Halsey. As the bus climbs, a crumpled can hits the dirt. Cheap beer? Nope. It’s a cocktail in a can, and the sun’s still way up in the September sky.
“We rage every night. My mom’s going to hate reading that,” says Drew Taggart, 26, “but she already knows.” He’s the baby-faced half of the duo — the producer, songwriter and, increasingly, singer of The Chainsmokers. He’s sitting in a massage chair in the venue’s greenroom, sipping tequila from a red cup and chewing on beef jerky. Sitting on the black leather couch next to Taggart: Alex Pall, a 31-year-old with bedhead and neck scruff, whose role is a permutation of DJ, A&R rep (he books the collaborations), art director and bon vivant. “It’s always ‘work hard, play hard,’ ” says Pall after a pull of vodka. “But you’ll never see us getting carried out of a club. We’re way too good at drinking.”
These good-time bros, whose website bio includes the words “17.34 combined inches”(Pall clarifies: “Oh, that’s our penises combined… tip to tip”), are also astoundingly good at making hits. For hugely impressive, far less icky stats than what’s on their website, take a look at “Closer” as it rounds its fourth week atop the Billboard Hot 100: five weeks leading the Digital Songs chart with a peak of 208,000 downloads (best for a group since One Direction in August 2015), according to Nielsen Music; four weeks dominating Streaming Songs with a 40.5 million-click peak (only the fifth track to reach 40 million in a week); and No. 9, and climbing, on Radio Songs. “Closer” will be their third title to go double-platinum in 2016, following “Roses” and the euphoric trap-pop gem “Don’t Let Me Down.”
“Only Justin Bieber and Drake can hold a candle to what we’ve done,” says Taggart, naming the two artists who banked more top 10s this year. The Chainsmokers even unseated Calvin Harris as all-time champ of the Hot Dance Songs chart. “Now we’re influencing the industry, putting out songs everyone copies.”
And with apparent ease. “Closer” co-writer Shaun Frank says that in November 2015, after Taggart made the beat in a 30-minute session with Freddy Kennett of Louis the Child, they did the rest on a tour bus in an hour, peppering in lines about Taggart’s experience hooking up with an ex, then “realizing he actually still hates her,” as Frank explains. “He wanted to finish the song, and I was like, ‘So why don’t you just sing it?’ Drew’s like, ‘No way, I’ve never sung.’ But we set up a mic in the bus, cut it, and that’s the vocal we used.”
The New York native duo offers something simultaneously fresh and familiar to contemporary dance-pop -crossover. The pair isn’t linked to a trendy sound like trop-house. The songs are stylistically elastic although generally midtempo and vaguely sentimental, featuring autobiographical lyrics and non-household name female guest singers like Daya and Rozes. Broadly speaking, the group is a little like a sanitized Diplo and Skrillex. (Or a more relatable Kygo. Or a less turned-up DJ Snake.)
Whatever it is, The Chainsmokers sold out Red Rocks four months ago, and the guys are suffering from an abundance of “good problems.” Chief among them is launching this show — the first in a roving series called Dreaming, in which they curate the lineup and play atop a new multitiered LED setup to rival the nearby natural monoliths — while also settling into two freshly bought Los Angeles homes (a move partly inspired by how much easier it is to fly back there after rocking Las Vegas). Also: deciding who to work with next. Pall doesn’t mind sharing that Linkin Park unexpectedly called him while he was on the toilet; Big Sean blew off his management to confirm a session (so did Dua Lipa); and Weezer circled back after refusing a cameo in The Chainsmokers’ 2016 Coachella set.
“They were like, ‘Yo! We should do a track together,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, really?’ ” says Pall. “I can’t blame somebody for saying no early on, but it depends on how you said no and how you came back to us. If you own it, like, ‘I didn’t see the vision, but it’s clear now and it’s super sick,’ I get that. It feels good when those people are like…” Taggart finishes the thought: “Thirsty.”
The respect is a change for two dudes who broke through in 2013 with the wacky, satirical electro-house cut “#Selfie,” which Pall variously refers to as “our stupid novelty song,” “perfect for its time” and “an annoying-ass record,” and peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100. Its reception was mixed but huge (accounting for a full third of their 1.5 billion YouTube plays), and it’s easy to chalk up any gawkiness to growing pains. As Taggart explains, “We’ve had people looking at us longer than we’ve known who we are.”
Now that The Chainsmokers are sitting at the top (a mile high, in fact, at the moment), it seems suddenly important to figure out who they really are. Brilliant underdogs quickly building something from nothing, or savvy shortcut-takers hacking the system? Cinderellas? Svengalis? They tag-team another zinger: “It’s like if LMFAO just started making…” says Pall, and Taggart finishes: “…the illest shit and stopped dressing like idiots.”
The Chainsmokers are omnivorous music nerds. They talk about other artists constantly, and not just because they’re name-dropping. They’re students of everything, from Kanye West’s general “dopeness” to Blink-182’s honest lyrics to Twenty One Pilots’ theatrical shows.
Pall didn’t know what a DJ was growing up in New York’s Westchester County as the son of an art dealer and a stay-at-home mom, but he and his best buds dubbed their own cassette mixtapes constantly. When he was 12 or 13, he saw an ad in the back of a music magazine for legit mixing gear that blew his mind. At the next sweet 16 he attended, he made a beeline for the hired DJ and “grilled him about it all,” says Pall. “He was a pedophile for all I know, but I shadowed him, and before long my mom was bringing me to my own gigs, helping me carry my records.”
He graduated to house parties, then clubs. In between, college happened — New York University for art history and business — and he began working at a gallery while DJ’ing most nights. An early iteration of The Chainsmokers, founded in 2009 when he was DJ Pall Mall, was making brisk money at bottle-service clubs but taking too many requests and playing none of the songs he loved. It was time to evolve the “brand.”
Taggart has said he would have pushed for a name change if he had realized how big the group was going to be — he has never smoked a cigarette in his life. Raised in Freeport, Maine, “a beautiful place on the coast,” by a teacher mother and a father who sells prosthetics, he dabbled in soccer, theater, drums and guitar, and even started the investment club at his high school (“Yeah, I’m one of those guys”). He cycled through every type of popular music but didn’t experience dance until he was 15 and doing a year abroad in Argentina. Taggart could legally go clubbing there and was exposed to David Guetta, Daft Punk and Trentmøller. “I was hooked,” he says.
Inspired by Jeremy Piven’s Entourage character, Ari Gold, Taggart figured his in to EDM would be as an agent or manager, so he majored in music business at Syracuse University. But he spent most of his time in his dorm, producing on Abelton and lurking on relevant Reddit forums. He was also interning in Interscope’s management department while trying his hand at remixes for the label. The first check he got in this industry was for a rework of “Sorry for Party Rocking.”
Current Chainsmokers manager Adam Alpert, 36, managed Pall at the time and set him up with Taggart (whom Alpert discovered in 2012 through a friend) “on a man date.” As Alpert recalls, “The next day I called Alex and said, ‘How did dinner go?’ And he’s like, ‘I love him. We’re doing this.’ They immediately holed up in Alex’s apartment and started making stuff.”
Alpert would eventually launch Disruptor Records in a joint venture with Sony, then parlay his signees, The Chainsmokers, into a deal with Columbia. The group’s strategy came to them after remixing a favorite song by Sigur Ros singer Jonsi: They would make dance versions of the indie tracks charting on music blog aggregator Hype Machine, catapult themselves to the top of the same charts and, as Pall puts it, “peel off a couple of Phoenix fans, peel off a couple Two Door Cinema Club fans and, in the process, garner some attention from the label and agency side of things.”
It was a joke song that took The Chainsmokers the rest of the way. Pall and Taggart tense visibly when asked about that time they did “#Selfie” on American Idol — hitting play, then posing for photos with Ryan Seacrest and Jennifer Lopez. Famous DJs reamed them on Twitter. Deadmau5 wrote, “The only thing @TheChainsmokers and pop EDM have in common is probably cancer.” Pall remembers it as “that week of hell.” Taggart is defensive: “I don’t hear [criticism] now.”
“Of course it was difficult,” says Steve Aoki, 38, who released “#Selfie” on his Dim Mak label. “But I’m a DJ that throws cake at people. You’ve got to love what you do, and do it with heart and soul. These guys do that.”
Maybe so, but four nights before the Red Rocks show, The Chainsmokers played “Closer” at the MTV Video Music Awards and bombed. There was no stage production to speak of, some awkward non-chemistry with Halsey and, as Taggart tells it, “It sounded like shit. We were told my voice was going to be mixed well, but there was no reverb and it was way louder than the track for the broadcast. I was set up to fail. Nearly every other person lip-synced it, and we knew because we had them in our ears. So now I know why you lip-sync.”
He points out that was only the second time he has sung live but doesn’t realize that’s part of the issue: Who gets to give singing a try on a nationally televised awards show? (Pall saw Kanye West in a hallway but was too shy to introduce himself.) “It’s funny,” says Taggart. “Everyone said congratulations, and my mom was like, ‘Keep up with your singing lessons.’ ” He is, for the record, sticking with the lessons.
It’s dark in Colorado. While we were talking, the sun went down and the lasers came up, projecting a rainbow of colors on the massive tilted stones that loom above the crowd. The kids from the bus and about 9,000 others are outside, chanting and stumbling. Backstage, friends, family and associates chatter giddily. Taggart has been feeding his pals THC-laden gummy bears from a local dispensary and is pouring shots of tequila for anyone within shouting distance. Things get quiet. A circle is formed.
“I had not planned a speech. I’m just going to wing it right now,” says Taggart. “It’s crazy to see this group of beautiful faces celebrating this glorious moment, which is only one rung on this ladder that we will continue to climb until we die” — he pauses — “of alcohol poisoning. Until then, I just want to say thank you for being part of our journey.”
Amid cheers, someone calls the toast an “EDM sacrament,” and indeed, much of The Chainsmokers’ gospel could be plucked from collegiate men’s blog BroBible. There’s the story they tell about punching each other’s faces, for fun, until they were bloody in the backseat of a car in Mexico, “probably coming from a strip club,” Pall guesses. Taggart does every sport that involves a board, and while he won’t vote for Donald Trump, he doesn’t claim to be a Hillary Clinton booster, either: “I’m not saying she’s the best candidate of all time,” he says. “I’m just saying this guy’s a f—ing idiot.”
At the time of the interview, both had live-in girlfriends but copped to being “girl crazy.” “Even before success, pussy was number one,” says Pall. “Like, ‘Why am I trying to make all this money?’ I wanted to hook up with hotter girls. I had to date a model.”
YouTube abounds with clips of the duo spitting liquor into people’s mouths, slapping crotches and jumping off tall things. They used to make sketches and pitched a Rob & Big-style show to Comedy Central. After playing one fraternity, they shot a bit as investigative journalists Hard and Deep, there to expose the “E-bro-la” epidemic. But they swiftly pulled that video when a commenter called them “insensitive pricks,” which highlights another vital strand of Chainsmokers DNA: market sensitivity.
“Some artists are purely about creativity, and others ask questions and learn about the business,” says Joel Klaiman, executive vp and GM of Columbia. “The Chainsmokers are the full package.” They play test songs on Snapchat and will “pivot” for opportunities or to let “the fans dictate where we go.” Pall adds that whether or not they release an album (so far it has been singles and 2015’s Bouquet EP) is “a matter of whether [listeners] want it enough.” Says Taggart: “We know every metric about our music. About our shows. We read every tweet. Every comment on Instagram and Facebook. We see everything. That’s how we’ll know.”
But he’s equally adamant that they don’t tailor their music to make hits: He says they make what they want to hear, and what they want to hear inevitably storms the charts. You believe that he believes this, just as it sounds perfectly natural when they drop jargon like “deliverables,” “topline” and “smash,” or when Pall says, “We’re just frat bro dudes, you know what I mean? Loving ladies and stuff.”
All of which brings a certain character to mind: the bro who has it all, equal parts geeky artist and savvy capitalist, as lovable as he is insufferable, iterating on his product and making stupid money while he’s at it. Is it a coincidence that The Chainsmokers’ label’s name is Disruptor? That Pall’s “tip-to-tip” joke alludes to a gag from Silicon Valley? With these two, music has found its very own tech bros.
Finally onstage, Pall fist-pumps at the top of his neon LED mountain, plowing through a never-ending, everything-sampling rave set while the bass burps and fire-cannons fart. Taggart, stalking the futuristic structure, yells into the mic: “If you think you’re more f—ed up than I am, make some noise!” The response is deafening.