Alan Wilkis does not seem dangerous. Bespectacled and bearded, he looks more like the hipster archetype known to inhabit his hometown of Brooklyn. Maybe even a little nerdy, like the paranoid tech guy that rambles on with warnings about NSA surveillance and net neutrality when he’s supposed to be fixing a glitchy program. And in a way, Wilkis is that guy, except he’s not in IT — he’s the main brain behind Big Data, a synthpop project that uses technology itself to put a very danceable beat behind ideas about technological fatigue and disillusionment. Written with a clever perspective and a tongue-in-cheek tone, Big Data’s debut album, 2.0, was released this week and features a slew of big-name contributors from Brooklyn’s music scene and beyond. Propelled by Joywave collaboration “Dangerous,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard U.S. Alternative Songs chart last August, Big Data kicked off their biggest tour yet with a sold-out show at Bowery Ballroom last night.
With material on the record hinging on guest appearances from the likes of Rivers Cuomo, Jamie Lidell, Kimbra, and Twin Shadow, Wilkis often takes on the role of producer rather than frontman, so there was some question as to what the live show would entail. What could’ve easily been a very bland setup with Wilkis turning knobs and sampling those star-studded vocals was thankfully made into a true production instead, with a live backing band and a brilliant vocal counterpart in the charismatic Lizzie Ryan. She both harmonized with Wilkis and took lead duties on many of the songs, with nearly operatic range.
MC’ing the night’s set was an animation of Big Data’s logo — a simplified outline of Wilkis’s countenance — with a Siri-like voice that prompted the audience to take selfies and nonchalantly threatened to steal showgoers’ data. These humorous interludes were a thoughtful way to integrate the songs, essentially studio creations whose scope of influence expanded through internet marketing into the live experience, without obscuring their subject matter.
Opening with banger “The Business of Emotion,” the dual purposes of Wilkis’s project stood out immediately: Wilkis wants to make you feel good, as the hook states, and you’ll find yourself dancing whether you “like it or not,” but it’s not quite that simple. He juxtaposes the idea of websites mining data to advertise to their users with the narrative voice of what could be a very intuitive, obsessed lover. Though Wilkis had some mic issues early on, the interplay of his vocal with Ryan’s on the track was immediately arresting, and by the eerily resonant bridge (“Heart and soul/Is good as gold/Bought and sold/This business of emotion”) this oddly meta thing was happening. “Emotion” encourages its listeners to “participate” and “play the game” and as such makes for a festival-ready hype track that works on a visceral level. But there’s a dark bent to those lyrics: You can’t always get what you want, but if a program can monetize your desires, it can at least tell you what you need.
From there, the band launched right into “Clean” and “Snowed In,” two early singles off 2.0. There were no appearances from Lidell or Cuomo, who handle these tracks on 2.0, respectively, but the relentless beats kept the party going before taking it down a notch with more contemplative tunes “The Glow” and “Big Dater.” With “Sick for Me,” the crowd got its first guest appearance of the night in Bear Hands’ Dylan Rau, who rap-sang over the feverish track with the air of a bored coffee shop employee. Things got a bit heavier with an emboldened version of “Automatic” and the slightly industrial “Perfect Holiday.” Having run through most of 2.0, Big Data opted for an apropos Hall & Oates cover of “Private Eyes” that reimagined the song for a new decade, both sonically and thematically.
Martina Sorbara of Dragonette joined the ensemble to close out the show with “Get Some Freedom,” its rock-oriented riffs blazing through the Ballroom. Much like the set’s opener, it preaches a kind of acceptance with the state of modern living, a reminder that we’re all complicit in the way information is shared in 2015. Without it, Alan Wilkis would likely not be making music at all, or else there’d be no way for audiences to connect with it. Uploaded by one user and downloaded by another the next instant, accompanied by this ad or sponsored by that brand, we give away little pieces of ourselves online every day, and the tradeoff is an instant gratification that feels like freedom. We have more access to information now than ever before, but because that access is afforded everyone else, our privacy gets lost in the shuffle. As the first generation that’s had to examine that give-and-take, it remains to be seen whether it will be worth it, and 2.0 will likely stand as a sort of document of this exact cultural moment in time while it all shakes out.
It’s hard to say which aspects of Big Data’s music audiences connect with. Wilkis is Harvard-educated (in fact, he was an early adopter of Facebook when it was first developed), and he’s making incredibly smart dance music with an increasingly relevant theme. But on stage, he isn’t just an egghead. Wilkis sweats right along with everyone in the audience and conjures a party atmosphere, and nowhere was that more apparent than the show’s “Dangerous” encore. The satire he couches in infectious beats certainly makes it easier to swallow, and that, too, is a product of marketing. On the backdrop behind the band, Big Data appropriated the logos of Google, Netflix, Twitter, and others in its own name; it doesn’t exist to dismantle the status quo, only to remind its listeners that the future is here, it’s happening, and we might as well dance about it. And that’s a very dangerous idea indeed.
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