Interview

Q&A: BloodPop (FKA Blood Diamonds) On The Indie/Pop Divide & Working With Grimes, Justin Bieber, & Madonna

When Justin Bieber released his almost-number-one single “Sorry” back in October, I wrote an impassioned screed on the song and Bieber’s Redemption-era sound. “Sorry” was announced as a Skrillex x Blood co-production, to which a lot of people responded: “Who?” Though Michael Tucker has worked on some of the biggest pop records of the past year, he hasn’t necessarily outgrown his early moniker: Blood Diamonds. That persona originated when Tucker was a video game design student DJ-ing the occasional party, but is often cited in relation to Grimes’ divisive single “Go,” which he co-wrote and produced alongside Claire Boucher after the two collaborated on “Phone Sex” back in 2012.

In the year-plus since “Go” incited what can be somewhat dramatically referred to as a “controversy,” Tucker has been working among some of the most revered pop producers in the game. He counts Skrillex and DJ Dahi (who produced Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees” as well as Drake’s “Worst Behavior”) as good friends and collaborators, and has produced tracks for Tinashe, as well as newcomers HANA and Pia Mia. But Tucker’s greatest feat thus far might be his work on Justin Bieber’s new album, Purpose, which just surpassed Drake for the best first-week sales of 2015 (so far). That, on top of Tucker’s work with Madonna on this year’s Rebel Heart, is a near guarantee that, if he so desires, he’s poised to take on equally massive projects in 2016.

Tucker might become one of the most oft-cited examples of a crossover producer, a guy who can navigate the indiesphere just as well as he does the mainstream. But from his perspective, those two worlds aren’t really separate. In an age where you can’t so much as glance at a newsfeed without reading the now-tired, often accusatory term “poptimism,” Tucker is a preeminent example that it’s possible to build a career with one foot grounded on each side of an increasingly blurry border. Whether or not Tucker continues to oppose that distinction remains to be seen. Right now, he’s working on his first solo album in three years, which he promises will be feature-heavy and is slated to drop in 2016, on top of collaborating on a forthcoming LP with DJ Dahi. I caught up with Tucker last week and talked about his work with Grimes, Bieber, and Madonna, and the projects he has lined up for 2016.

STEREOGUM: You started your career under the name Blood Diamonds and then you were credited as Blood on the “Sorry” single, at least when it dropped, and now you’re going by BloodPop. What’s driving that?

BLOODPOP: The Bieber stuff came together so fast it was such a whirlwind and I think the change got lost for a moment there, so I was just credited as “Blood.” When I started out as Blood Diamonds I was never really planning on being successful in the least bit. The 19-year-old me was planning on making video games and putting out records on SoundCloud anonymously. But in recent years I felt a need to be more socially responsible because of the conflict of blood diamonds, the actual blood diamonds. I decided that out of respect, I shouldn’t share that name. I stopped putting out my own records for the last two or three years as Blood Diamonds not only because of the name conflict, but because I didn’t just want to just be a beat-maker. Beats are fun, and they’re great to listen to, but purely instrumental tracks don’t connect with as many people. So the “pop” aspect of the new moniker is just a literal reflection of what I’ve always wanted to do: make good pop music and not be ashamed of it. I feel like there’s kind of an unspoken belief that certain pop music isn’t cool, but back when I started out in 2011 I was listening to Ke$ha and Swedish House Mafia. And back then I didn’t really understand what EDM really was, what Dr. Luke actually did. I was oblivious to that. I didn’t understand the difference between Arcade Fire and something really corporately produced. I just knew they sounded different.

STEREOGUM: In the years since, the line between “pop” and “indie” seems to have blurred a lot. How do you see yourself fitting into that?

BLOODPOP: When I was young, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that pop music was something ordinary people could make. But with this generation, 18-year-olds who were born close to the thousand mark, they grew up with fucking DSL. You know what I mean? Not only did they have the internet, they had fast internet. They could download terabytes of shit in minutes. That gives you so much access to like, not only sound, but culture. If you look at pop charts abroad, they are really similar to America’s pop charts and Canada’s pop charts and Japan’s pop charts.

STEREOGUM: Have you been working with any musicians abroad who sing in languages other than English?

BLOODPOP: I’ve worked a lot with CL. We’ve become good friends and she kind of goes back and forth between the US and Korea. I think she could bridge the gap. She’s so swaggy and smart in English but also such a good rapper in Korean.

STEREOGUM: Maybe you’re tired of talking about “Go” and “Phone Sex” since both came out so long ago, but I saw Grimes earlier this week and she performed both of them live and the reaction in the audience was really explosive. People were so excited to hear both of them performed. Did those songs open a lot of doors for you when they first came out? “Go” was kind of controversial.

BLOODPOP: I’m extremely proud of both of those songs and I feel like “Phone Sex” was kind of like my first attempt at a vocal pop record. I just saw Claire at the Mayan Theater and it was really cool to hear both of those songs performed. “Go” is a record we made very quickly and falls into the narrative of “pop” verses “indie.” Fans didn’t know where to place it.

STEREOGUM: Now that Art Angels is out, that distinction is even less noticeable in her music, in a way that’s really cool and interesting and engaging.

BLOODPOP: Right. There are songs on Visions that I think that are no better or worse than, you know, top 10 songs on the charts at any given time. A lot of the time, when a quote-unquote “indie artist” makes a hit and it’s too successful, then it’s, you know, a different thing.

STEREOGUM: What’s you favorite song on Art Angels? Or what’s your number one hit that you hear?

BLOODPOP: That’s tough. I’m really between “Kill V Maim” and “California.” I think everybody can connect to “California” immediately.

STEREOGUM: Speaking of success, Purpose is probably your highest profile project to date. How did you get involved with that album?

BLOODPOP: I got on that album through Skrillex. We’d been talking about working on something together for quite awhile. Then “Where Are Ü Now” came out and it was the kind of the record that already leaned into my sound a little bit. It had some tropical elements and vocal elements that I’ve been doing for a long time and it felt kind of like a right fit to put me in there. And the first night we went in there, the first thing I did was I just started playing chords. That became the first song on the record that night, “Mark My Words.” I was happy to be involved but I didn’t really know what to expect or what the record was going to turn out to be. But I think it came out great.

STEREOGUM: It’s a really long album.

BLOODPOP: It is long, and that’s something I wasn’t expecting. That’s one of the things I would just never know in advance is how many tracks are on the record. Because I think an album should be eight to 11 songs. [Laughs] As a producer, you can really get swept up in the numbers, but I made a really conscious decision just think of each song as a contained work.

STEREOGUM: Well, if you’re not looking at numbers, “Sorry” kind of must of blown you away because that would have debuted at #1 if Adele didn’t drop “Hello” in the same week.

BLOODPOP: Yeah. That Adele song is tight though! [Laughs] When we wrote “Sorry” I was kind of blown away. I was like: “Wow, this is like the perfect kind of thing for Justin right now. This is what the record’s missing.” Everyone kind of knew it was the one. I was in Glendale, Arizona the day it was released, opening for Madonna. I was in an Uber on my way to the venue and “Sorry” came on the radio for the first time, like the world premiere or whatever, on the Arizona station. I was texting my girlfriend and then started taking a video. I asked the Uber driver: “Do you like this song?” during the chorus. He looked back and said: “Ehhh, it’s OK.” [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: What was it like working with Bieber?

BLOODPOP: It was cool, there was a lot of IO Hawks.

STEREOGUM: A lot of what?

BLOODPOP: IO Hawks, the mini segways. I’m conflicted about IO Hawks, but do you know what it feels like to be on one? It feels like when you ride a bike downhill and your brain releases a little bit of serotonin because of the motion or whatever. I treat them like a fedora or a vaporizer. Well actually, not a fedora. I would never wear a fedora for fun. But, a vaporizer — people who vape know what they look like. But they’re having a ton of fun. They don’t care. IO Hawks are like vaporizers for your feet.

STEREOGUM: Moving away from Purpose, you co-produced music on Rebel Heart and toured with Madonna.

BLOODPOP: Yeah, I think I did 13 dates with her.

STEREOGUM: How did you get hooked up with her? How did touring go? How was recording that album?

BLOODPOP: Madonna is one of my favorite artists of all time. She’s the queen of pop. So I was stoked to work on it. And DJ Dahi, one of my best friends in recent years, had called me up for that because he thought I would be a good fit for that project. What was supposed to be three days ended up being six weeks in total. We were in New York. It almost felt like summer camp because Dahi and I, we’d walk 15 minutes to the studio every morning and 15 minutes back every night. Madonna is so fucking tight because she is just so involved in every small thing. I didn’t realize that at the time, because that was like my first big pop production. I had no idea what the protocol was or what usually goes down but, you know there are 18-year-olds who are massive and they don’t even come to the studio to meet the writers or the producer or engineer. They just get handed a phone by the label and the management are like, “Cut this record, it’s a hit.” And they’re like: “OK, fuck it.” But Madonna, she’s at the studio every day, right on time. And she’d sit on a drum stool two feet away from me and we’d go through clap sounds and we’d go through bass drums and bass sounds and all this shit and to this day, I’ve never worked with an artist who takes the time.

STEREOGUM: You were involved with “Iconic,” the song on Rebel Heart that features Mike Tyson and Chance. How was recording that?

BLOODPOP: We were getting a sample of something iconic, like an iconic speech. And then everyone decided that we should get a living person to recite a monologue. I kind of half-jokingly suggested Mike Tyson and everyone was like: “Fucking done. Let’s get him to come in tomorrow.” Outside of the critical world and album sales I feel like Madonna deserves more credit for making her own fucking record. Even like the art direction, it’s her. On the other hand, you have brand new artists with a team of thinkers behind them who have no artistic inclination for their own project.

STEREOGUM: Because they can just slap their name on it at some point?

BLOODPOP: Yeah. I mean, Claire [Boucher] is this generation. She’s setting the example that it’s OK to do everything yourself no matter what. You know? Teenagers aren’t going to recognize Madonna as that kind of force because of when they were born.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned that you’re pretty good friends with DJ Dahi now, and you just dropped a single together as DiamondDahi, “N.M.B.D..”

BLOODPOP: Yeah, we’re working on a record. It’s mainly rap features. We’ve known each other for awhile now and we make so much music together that a full-length seemed like a good idea. We just kind of naturally have this bank of beats and fun ideas that we’re like “Oh shit, this is like a cohesive sound, why not put this out and share it instead of letting it rot away on our hard drives?”

STEREOGUM: And how is the solo album coming along?

BLOODPOP: It’s been coming along. Taking the time off from my personal work to craft songs for other people has taught me so much. The material I’m working on now is my own, instead of just working on beats with drops, or like production tricks. This is what I’ve been working towards: making songs for my record.