Norfolk — Sonny Moore, the 23-year-old better known as Skrillex, wears his hair in long, inky knots. Traces of lunch form a crusty archipelago down the front of his shirt. To see the world through his eyes is to spend countless hours staring at a laptop through a pair of black-framed glasses — lenses smudged cloudy with fingerprints.
And his computer is a mess, too.
“Each song has, like, 50 versions,” he says, searching for a particular project file in Ableton Live, the software program he uses to create the sounds that have helped define America’s current electronic dance music boom.
He cracks the files open like Easter eggs and out come dragons: riotous digital beats and cartoonish belches of bass powerful enough to cast a spell on the hyper-stimulated children of the Internet.
Electronic dance music — or EDM — has never been more popular in America than it is right now. The music of Deadmau5, Bassnectar and other producer-DJs like Skrillex has managed to penetrate Middle America in a way that late-’90s electronica and the fragmented U.S. rave scene never did. Now, EDM festivals are popping up all across the country and drawing massive crowds — and Moore has become the literal face of the movement. You can find him triumphantly smirking on the latest cover of Spin.
He’s two weeks deep into a sprawling 51-city tour that will bring him to places such as Syracuse, Asheville, Spokane — towns not traditionally associated with dance-floor futurism. (He performs in the District at Fur on Thursday.) But for a generation of Web-addled teenagers in desperate need of recession-era escape, Skrillex’s arrival couldn’t have come sooner. “Everybody is coming out to these things,” Moore says. “Girls that like to dance, metal dudes . . . hip-hop dudes . . . ravers. Everybody, man!”
But along with that quick embrace has come an equally rapid backlash. Skrillex’s breakout 2010 EP, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” earned Moore the immediate scorn of the dubstep purists — fans of the dizzying, bass-centric British music that Moore has mutated into new, juggernaut forms. Meantime, some bloggers have mocked his hair as mercilessly as his music.
But Moore, who endured a tumultuous family life and has been on the road since he was 16, dismisses the naysayers. “It’s just someone’s opinion,” he says.
Backstage at his Tuesday gig in Norfolk — hours before fans arrive — Moore is planted on a couch, furiously clicking away at his computer as he hunts for that missing beat.
He opens a file, hits play, lets the bass serrate the greenroom silence, tweaks the levels, hits save, closes the file, opens a new file, hits play.
He spends nearly all of his waking hours making music this way — like a crazed painter darting around his studio adding a brush stroke to one canvas, a dab to another. He’s currently at work on more than a hundred songs, some of which have nearly a hundred individual tracks.
He probably sees Ableton’s candy-colored grids in his sleep. Only, “I can’t sleep, man,” Moore says. “I can’t sleep until I’m about to pass out.” He compares working himself toward exhaustion on a daily basis to life on a farm: “If you miss one day, your crops will go bad, your chickens will get sick. And it’s every single day of your life.”
He can barely keep his hands off the laptop — eyes darting, feet tapping, lips sucking on a cigarette. He flicks the ashes of his Camel into someone’s drink without knowing it.
“I don’t know what it is,” he says of his restlessness. “A lot of people think I’m on a massive amount of coke all the time.” He reaches for a silvery can and takes a loud sip. “It’s Diet Coke,” he says.
Moore says he’s been “hyper” since childhood. Born in Los Angeles, he grew up poking at the family piano and took the guitar at 9. “I played in punk bands since I was 12 and started programming [music on a computer] when I was 14,” he says. After initially falling for the rock theatrics of Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and Korn, he moved on to the angular electronic music of Aphex Twin, Prodigy and Squarepusher.
But just as Moore’s musical career began to take shape, his family life unraveled. He not only discovered that he was adopted — something his adoptive parents had been hiding — but that he had also known his birth parents his entire life. They were family friends.
“I had good reason to be [angry],” he says. “When you’re young, you’re 16, and you find out you’re adopted and everybody knows that except for you, you want to go out and say, ‘[Expletive] you, I’m going to get in a van and tour across the United States.’ ”
So Moore dropped out of school and hit the road as the frontman of From First to Last, a screamo band signed to California punk mainstay Epitaph Records. But by 2007, he had decided to strike out on his own as a DJ and producer.
Moore says his family strife has healed slowly over the years. “Everything is cool and clear now,” he says, but adds that his nonstop tour schedule prevents him from being close to both sets of parents.
The sun hasn’t set and the queue wraps around the block at the NorVa, a 1,450-capacity venue Skrillex is set to headline in a few hours. It’s one of the smallest clubs on the tour. Young fans fidget in line, wearing Iron Man masks, sailor suits and T-shirts decorated with fluorescent craft store paint — a rough approximation of ’90s rave fashion.
“As big as this [music] is, nothing’s force-fed,” says Moore of his organic 12-month rise through the EDM ranks. “People want to like it. It’s not like [there are] billboards of me [that say] ‘dubstep king.’ ”
But onstage, he’s venerated like one. He performs perched in the center of a hulking stage set dubbed “the Cell,” a series of towering white hexagonal columns made of drywall. It’s like a portable version of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and it makes the elfin Moore look even more diminutive. Once he takes the stage, prismatic computer animation is projected onto the columns in what looks like an Imax hallucination — even if you’re not on drugs.
The music is just as as bold. Moore’s opening acts have gathered in a private room above the balcony, mouths agape at the sound, the spectacle, the crowdsurfers below. “It’s like a rave and a metal show at the same time!” says 12th Planet, a veteran DJ who acts as if he’s seeing all of this for the first time.
As Moore bangs his head to the beat, it’s clear why he’s become the paragon of this scene. He boasts the stage moves of a traditional rock-and-roll frontman while pumping out blistering 21st-century sounds.
“Tonight, we’re all best friends!” he shouts into the microphone, and later cups his hands into the shape of a heart — a gesture he may or may not have borrowed from pop-country superstar Taylor Swift.
The music stops at midnight, and teens gleefully bounce out into the streets drenched in sweat. But backstage, it’s strangely serene. There isn’t any post-show revelry — just the sound of Moore, sitting alone on the couch, clicking away on his laptop.