It's a late June evening in Budapest and Chris Emerson is about to play at Balaton Sound, one of Europe's largest electronic music festivals.
Like many live music events, the beachside camping fest is holding its first in-person edition since 2019 after the pandemic scrapped its 2020 plans. For the Australian producer, who performs as What So Not, this year marks four years, even before the Covid outbreak, that he's been to Europe, so it's a big moment.
Coincidentally, Emerson is about to put out his first record in four years. In September, his sophomore record Anomaly arrives, the followup to his 2018 debut Not All the Beautiful Things, and in a lot of ways, that's a lifetime ago.
"It's such a vibe to be back here," says Emerson, speaking with Variance before playing a late-night set in Hungary. "I'm just so grateful to be traveling again, but I got here the first day, and I was like, 'Oh my god, I love Europe!' You walk into cafés and you hear music you've never heard before. And every country has a different style and culture, different foods. It's so nice."
While the return to live music and to Europe and to traveling internationally and to releasing music seems like a long time coming, Emerson admits he's been holding on to parts of this record for years.
"I actually had the title for this album before I put out the last album," he confesses with a smile. "I kept coming back to Anomaly. Each individual existence that we have is an anomaly. The chance of us existing is something wild, like [one in 400 trillion, by some estimates]. And the things we do in our life, so much of it can result from one chance, one decision, one spontaneous event."
He continues: "I worked a desk job for five years straight out of high school. And I starting making music. And at some point, for some crazy reason, I decided, 'Oh yeah, pursuing the arts is actually a career. I'm gonna give it a go! And quit this desk job,'" he says bursting into laughter. "Why? Who knows! But here I am in my 30s, and I feel like I've had like five lives. It's fucking madness."
Emerson is at the pinnacle of his career, but by his own admission, he's never been more hungry, more excited. Perhaps the uncertainty of the last couple of years has contributed to that thrill. And perhaps he's also allowing himself to take bigger leaps and therefore make bigger moves.
In May of this year, Emerson teamed up with Oliver Tree and none other than Killer Mike for their collaboration "Mr. Regular," something Emerson has called "one of the biggest songs" he's ever been a part of. And he only further commits to that outlook as reflects on the song's origins.
"Mike, to me—and I said this to him the other day," he recalls. "I knew him from his speeches and the way he has talked about such important issues and breaks it down, political, social issues. And I just respect him as an artist and activist. He's an important figure, and to be able to work with him and Oliver Tree together, it's been an honor."
It's technically not the first time Emerson and Mike's worlds have collided, as What So Not remixed Mike and El-P's Run the Jewels standout "Ju$t," featuring Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, which appeared on RTJ4.
For his part, Emerson also hasn't been shy about speaking out, defying the Laura Ingrahams and other shut-up-and-dribblers of the world, even if it's by accident.
Last month, the producer posted an old photo of himself on Instagram, recalling the last time he was in Alaska and had an accident which put him in a wheelchair temporarily. But it was America's health care system which caught his attention.
"I went to three different hospitals before we found one that would accept my type of insurance," he wrote. "They wouldn’t even give me ice to stop the swelling, 'cause apparently that makes them liable—had to get ice from a gas station! LMAO AMERICA," he quipped.
"The craziest thing about that post was, I was just talking about windsurfing," says Emerson, noting the intense reaction he got in response. "That's what I was talking about. But because of this madness on social media, the post seemed to attract bots from both political sides and it had all these, 'insert blanket political statements' about the health care system. I was like, oh my God, this is nuts!"
He continues: "I think some people find it hard to voice their opinions because you can really alienate yourself," he says. "I think, as well, you have to do so much research now before you even mention anything, because God forbid if you are slightly off on one particular part of your topic or didn't cover something or didn't realize something else, and it's a bit of a shame because like, we're all learning and there's this sort of shaming going on rather than conversation."
He adds: "Everyone's trying to get to the top by putting others down rather than just talking about it until we come to a nice, little middle ground—because it really is in the middle. We're not going to get to one side or the other. It's in the middle somewhere. But yeah, it's also kind of hard for some people because, music is life and music is fun and music is joy and happiness and dealing with emotions and things, and I think can be hard for some to step out of that and deal with such dreary and ominous topics that might seem endless and pointless, to some degree."
Ultimately, Emerson is excited about where he is at in his career, and more importantly, where he is going. Pointing to his recent travel experiences in a time of surging flight cancellations and delays, he sees it as reflective of so many industries, including his own.
"I'm trying to get my connecting flights and they're like, 'Oh, there's not enough flight attendants for the planes right now. So yeah, this one's an hour and a half behind and then you might miss the next one.' So we're coming back into regular life again but every industry is struggling and having new challenges, and I find myself saying, 'Alright, who's hungry? Do I want it? How much am I willing to do to make this happen?'"
He says of his upcoming live show, it's bigger than anything he's done yet, as he recently brought on new people for his team to handle graphics and building his live visuals. "This is the most exciting thing I've ever been involved in," he notes. "I haven't been in this frame of mind since I first started making music. It's just balls to the wall! Loud, unapologetic. I had so much time during Covid to just become a student again and just study my craft."
He adds: "I think after Covid, people just want to rave and live ... We did our first show in the world, back in Australia in November 2020. They had opened up one state that was allowed to host events. And I was playing all these little TikTok edits, but then I would play this new, unreleased material, and they would lose it. And I was like, damn. It made me realize people just have this hunger for the unknown again. It feels amazing."■
What So Not today released a new song called "As One," featuring Herizen, the latest preview of his upcoming album Anomaly, which out Sept. 16. Hear the new track below.