Dillon Francis may be the lovable jester of EDM, but clowns cry too.
Like most humans, in 2020 the producer questioned his place in the world, searching for something to shift his mood amidst the heartbreak of social injustice and a deadly pandemic. Piano house — a joyful subgenre, launched with Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body (The House Anthem)” in 1986 in Chicago as a balm for hard times — became the “Get Low” producer’s pandemic soundtrack, inspiring him to try his hand at making it himself, to spread that joy to others.
The result is his upbeat third album, Happy Machine, released via Mad Decent yesterday (October 5), on Francis’ 34th birthday. It is as much a gift to his fans as to himself, a project that made him happy and re-inspired. The eight-track set features 10 stellar vocalists on music perfect for dancing solo around your living room, or surrounded by fellow revelers.
Billboard Dance caught up with the Los Angeles native about the inspiration for Happy Machine, how the collabs came together, why Calvin Harris didn’t want to meet him originally, and more.
How are you?
I’m really good. I shot a music video yesterday with Jack Wagner. He did “Need You,” and we finally got back together to do the video for the song “Real Love “with Aleyna Tilki. It’s an ode to old Eurovision-style music videos, like ’90s dance music era… especially “Captain Jack” by Captain Jack, it’s kind of an homage to him.
Aleyna went all out. She’s from Turkey and she’s like, “Oh yeah, my friend has an army base where I can rent a Turkish airplane, and I’ll get a bunch of dancers in front of it.” She was DMing me while she was shooting, and it’s insane.
I definitely hear a late-’90s, early-2000s dance bassline in “Real Love.” What were your points of reference for that song?
I’ve always loved the Korg M1, it’s just such a classic dance staple. I was working on that song with Phil Scully, who’s a big collaborator on the whole album. Shout out to him, he’s been incredible through the whole process. We originally had made a completely different version of the song that almost was like, toned-down progressive house, something CamelPhat style.
I was sitting with it and I was just like, “This does not sound like something I would make” — even though I did make it.When Aleyna sang on it, it just helped us get a different sense of what to do to it. And that’s where I was like, “Let’s go back to the M1.” We’d already been using it in a couple songs already. We had the M1 bass done for the drop, but we didn’t have any vocals on it. I was in Ableton and I started basically cutting up the vocals and repeating stuff. And I basically put, “I want somebody, want somebody’s body.” Right when Phil heard it, he’s like, “Dude, take that! Figure it out with that, that’s such a good line.” And then it all kind of came together.
It’s what happens. Music is so fun to make, because of the way that it falls in place. I say this every time: Your music’s gonna suck until like 85 percent of the song is done. You’re gonna feel hopeless during that whole time, and you’re gonna question you if you should even be making music anymore. And then all of a sudden, something will click, and the dominoes will fall into place — and that 25 extra percent will basically finish the song, and you’ll finally be like, “Oh my god, I did it.”
I want to talk a little bit more about the vibe and vision for the new album overall.
The vibe and vision was the world was in one of the most horrible states ever — pandemic, social justice, everything — and I wanted to try to figure out a way to be able to contribute to making people happy, without it seeming forced or like something that wasn’t genuine. I’d also been listening to a lot of euphoric piano house music at the time. I was like, “Well, this is making me super happy. I feel like if I make this, I can try to make people happy.”
I was writing in my Notes app trying to like figure out names for the album at the beginning; they’re really horrible titles. I wrote one of them was I’m Happy, I Think. Sad. [Laughs.] That’s not a good name. Another one was Made This to Make You Smile. But yeah, that’s really where it started from. Everything was really sad and piano house music was making me happy. I really love that that style of music so much.
And it was just incredible that a lot of the artists that were involved in the project had the exact same vision as I did.When [“Unconditional” collaborator] 220 KID and I were texting back and forth, he was like, “Oh my god, this is going to be so incredible to finally play it for people. I feel like it’s going to take people out of whatever sad moments they’re having or whatever they’re feeling.” I don’t know, piano chord progressions for me are always undeniably amazing; whenever I hear ‘em, I kind of don’t think of anything else.
Happy almost birthday! Libras are known to be creative, stylish, social butterflies, among other things.
They are very balanced.
How do you feel that, if at all, your sign impacts your music, your aesthetic, your public persona, you know, what you’re putting out into the world?
I’ve always remembered that Libras are social butterflies; I definitely am. In high school, I could go from like the kids who played Magic group, to the cool kids group, to the underground outside kids that hated everybody else group. I definitely think that that’s helped a lot in terms of my life, and how I kind of came up with making music, because I hustled super hard at the beginning. I was the guy passing out mixtapes. I’ve always been a social butterfly, and I’ve always loved making people laugh. That’s a big driver for me, making people laugh and be happy.
You’re definitely known for being funny on social media. How do you feel that humor helps you engage with your fans and with the weird thing of being a famous DJ or whatever?
I think anyone that takes themselves too seriously, it’s a recipe for disaster. I mean, there are people that do. But for me personally, I just can’t. I also don’t want to do that, because I feel like I wouldn’t have as much fun doing what I’m doing. And I don’t think my fans would connect with me as much if I was Serious Guy all the time. I don’t want to be. So f–k that. [Laughs hard.] I think it helps with everything for me.
Collaboration, especially with vocalists, has been such an important part of your career and your music. How did you choose who to bring into Happy Machine?
As I said, this whole album was super-duper collaborative. My manager Nick has been the most integral part of this; Nathan, Nick and Phil were my pandemic team. Nathan and Nick were the A&R masters, they were sending me artists and were crushing it each time. Nick had sent me Bow Anderson and I was immediately like, “Yes, we got to get her on a song.” And “Reaching Out” happened and she crushed it — we got the vocals from her and we didn’t have to do anything to them.
The one artist that I went and made sure we got was Bryn Christopher. He is a falsetto god. He and Brendon Urie can hit notes that I wish I could. I can’t even sing, I wish I could just sing. His vocals have been some of favorites. He is so awesome and just such a pleasure to work with. And same with Aleyna Tilki. Nathan was the one that that showed me her stuff.
When was your first performance back?
It was a was a show in San Marcos, Texas at The Mark. It was incredible. I also f–ked up in the beginning. I forgot how to use a CDJ because it’d been so long. [Laughs.] The song started at 64 BPM, it was just really slow. So that was like, “All right, we’re back?” But it was such an incredible show and so good to be back out there. It was right as cases and everything looked like it was going to be getting back to normal. It was that nice little grace period of, “We’re doing it guys, we’re beating COVID!” And then the Delta variant came back.
How do you feel that your sound and your approach to production has evolved since back in 2010, when you put your first release, ’til now?
I think my sound’s really grown and matured. And going through the pandemic was a big thing that happened for me of being like, “All right, where do I want to take my sound and my music, and what style do I want to be making?” And this euphoric piano house stuff was something where I was listening to it enough and I know this is something that I would want to keep making into the future.
To make a full album that is in the house range is not something that I’ve done before. My first album was all over the place; I first started with a Twista and The Rej3ctz record, and then went to a song like “Not Butter,” then to a house song with Major Lazer — then to a downtempo song that sounded like it should be on the Drive soundtrack with Brendon Urie. And then my second album was all in Spanish, and most of the records on that are all moombahton tempo. So this is definitely a complete departure from that — especially [since] most of the singers on this are all from Europe, besides Marc. E. Bassy.
Where do you see yourself going next, is there a style you want to try that you haven’t yet or do you want to do more in the vein of this album?
I’ve already actually started Happy Machine 2.0 or whatever it’s gonna be. I definitely want to keep going in this direction. This has been really fun and I like having fun and being inspired in music. This has really satiated my appetite for that. So I think [I’ll do it] until it doesn’t.
There’s only so many moombahton records I can make until I’ve made too many. I’ll probably go back to it someday, but right now that’s something that doesn’t really inspire me that much, because a lot has been done in that.
What’s something you feel most people don’t know about you or something people think they know about you that’s wrong?
People think that I am insane. [Laughs.] This is a good story: Calvin Harris did not want to be my friend, because he thought I was insane. He was like, “I don’t want to meet this guy, I don’t want to talk to him.” He and his manager liked me from afar, and then when they met me, they were like, “Oh he’s normal. He’s not f–king insane and a weirdo.” I think people don’t realize that I am normal. I think I’m just a nice guy that likes to smile. A lot of people think that when they meet me, I’m just going to be crazy wacky guy.
Did you and Calvin eventually become friends?
Yes, we did.
What do you think is the biggest difference being a dance music DJ/producer in your 30s versus in your 20s?
Oh man, this is a good one. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot, where I wish it was back then again. The great thing about back then was the come-up. The come-up is the most fun time, and you get away with more, instead of it being like, “Oh, he’s been in music for a while.” You don’t get to be the up-and-coming music producer anymore, you never will be again.
I feel like a lot of my firsts are gone, and I don’t know how many other firsts I have. [Laughs.] As sad as that sounds saying it out loud, I don’t think I have that many firsts left. I’m very happy to have played Coachella — I think I’ve played it four times now. The only festivals I think I haven’t played yet are Bonnaroo and a couple in the U.K., like Glastonbury.
I miss that — I miss the come up, I miss the energy I had when I was 20 years old. And I miss how hangovers felt when I was 20 years old, they felt so much better than they do now. But then there’s stuff I wouldn’t trade now. I’m so happy with where I’m at physically, mentally, all that stuff, finally listening to my dad — my dad’s an alternative medicine doctor, so I’m finally listening to all his tips. I wish I had the mindset I had now when I was 18 or 20, because then it would’ve helped ten-fold. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.