As a child, Grant Kwiecinski enjoyed extensive private lessons preparing him for a career as a classical musician — he played the alto sax and piano — and it was all paid for by his very supportive mother. However, these days Kwiecinski, a.k.a. GRiZ, lives a life far away from the typical stuffy concert hall. His kinetic dance pop isn't an extension of his early training. It's the sound of him rejecting it.
"Classical training can really get you into this mind where you have to create songs in modes or go through certain chord progressions. But I think that the best way to do it, especially within punk, soul, and jazz music, is to just go for it and see what your heart feels like," he says.
GRiZ's love for electronic music stems from his ability to continuously rework and refine it. In high school, his musical experience was based almost entirely on formal performances, concerts that he'd work toward and then move past immediately. Then, at 14, he discovered Free Loop Studio, an open-source audio production program that allowed him to create samples, manipulate them, and — most importantly — save them for later use.
"I'd get really high and play around with this computer program, and you could actually save your work," he recalls with excitement. "You could create any kind of sounds you ever wanted, any kind of drum pattern you wanted to — percussion elements, snare drums, soundscapes, whatever. It would play back for you in this orchestra of noise. It was fascinating. I couldn't believe it."
He began to approach recording more seriously when he got to college. He released his first effort, 2011's uneven but energetic End of the World Party, and quickly became a hit on the festival circuit. But while his opening salvo helped him nab a bit of EDM fame, he considers his more recent efforts (2012's Mad Liberation and this year's Rebel Era) to be his first proper albums. "That's where I want the story to begin as far as the GRiZ career," he says.
True to his word, Rebel Era finds Kwiecinski solidifying his style, stretching melodies and momentum with veteran confidence. Dense and demanding drum machines build until the bottom falls out, making room for a revolving door of arresting elements: cataclysmic bass knocks, smooth sax solos, and well-timed rap verses are all on the menu, and they all go down smooth and easy. His approach is meticulous, but he allows his melodies room to breathe, a dynamic quality that sets him apart from other electro artists.
"My favorite part in any music is turnarounds, just those eight notes at the end of a phrase that bring it back into the next phase. You can use those things to introduce big melodic leads," he explains. "The biggest thing for me is the idea of the pocket, the way the bass and the drums and maybe your guitar or saxophone or horn elements mix in this groove, creating the base of the thing that the rapper would hit. You can build a melody on top of it. That's the biggest thing, starting there and then having fun with it."
For GRiZ, every part of the process is an opportunity to experiment. His live shows incorporate saxophone fills and counter-melodies from guitarist Dan Hacker, moments of improvisation that enliven his fussed-over creations. When he has to work around unauthorized samples — as he did for Rebel Era's "Gettin' Live" — he strives to improve upon the part he's replacing. In this instance, the brash horn blasts inserted to replace a part borrowed from Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained are delivered with punchier staccato, giving the song additional bite.
"It opens up your eyes," Kwiecinski says of these reworked elements. "Maybe we can change it a little bit, make it sound a little bit different. Maybe we can do something completely new."