Approaching Nirvana Talks Upcoming Album, Gaming and Topping iTunes

Sam Willson and Andrew Sinclair of Approaching Nirvana are an anomaly in the music industry. What began as a just-for-fun file sharing experiment has blown up into a music career that’s taking the electronic dance music arena by storm, and the process has been anything but traditional. Their fan base (or shall we say, “Army of ANimals”) has grown to over fifty thousand without the aid of any press or promotion whatsoever, and it’s that fan base that helped provide almost all their funding during their early years producing together. In a world where nearly anything can be illegally downloaded for free, they’ve managed to sell 50,000 albums, along with 250,000 singles, propelling Approaching Nirvana to the top of the iTunes Bestseller List in the electronic music category. Less than a week after announcing the release date for their latest album, ANimals (which made Top Selling Album on Bandcamp in pre-sales within 24 hours of going public), the Miami-based duo met up with DJOYbeat to talk about their rise to fame in their most inclusive interview to date.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves. How did you meet up and decide to start making music together?

Sam: I’m from South Africa where the house music scene made a huge impression on me while I was growing up. My family moved to the US when I was 15. I’ve played the piano since I was six years old and got into writing music in 2005. I was basically making tunes on the guitar to impress the ladies. I was introduced really early on to DAW 2006 by my best friend (who happens to also be from South Africa and immigrated to the US) and got into producing electronic music. I ended up meeting Andrew in 2008 on a site called Newgrounds where we had both been uploading our music. I reached out to him and said we should collaborate on a song; I loved his cinematic take on music and figured we could come up with a unique take on electronic music. This was right before EDM blew up. The collab went great, and we formed Approaching Nirvana. We were finally met in person in 2012 when our fans Kickstarted us so that Andrew could move down to Miami where I was living and we could start producing together full time.

Andrew: I grew up in Columbia, MD. My father played guitar and my mother played piano a long time ago (though she’ll never touch it now [laughs]). My dad could play songs by ear and had taught himself guitar on his own… I have that skill now as well, thanks to him. With him as an example, I chose to teach myself how to play guitar when I was 14, and that’s how I got into making music. Eventually I got curious about piano and taught myself how to play that as well. That, in turn, encouraged me to learn how to start producing. This was all while I was working my way through college… a few months after I graduated, I met Sam on Newgrounds and things just clicked.

What’s the story behind the name?

Sam: Both Andrew and I were working normal 9-to-5 jobs and realizing we weren’t happy with the direction it was taking us in. We both saw making music as a way to be happy, and it just clicked that we all have the same emotional goals and that we should allow ourselves to follow those paths and make the decision to pursue our passions. In a nutshell, the name represents us, our direction and everyone brave enough to follow their dreams on this journey of life.

Andrew: Since then, the meaning of the name has sort of evolved with how we’ve grown. Approaching Nirvana isn’t just us now. Our families, our friends and most importantly our fans are really shaping this journey.

ap1What kinds of music influenced you each (respectively) growing up?

Sam: I listened to a broad mix of music. My dad had a kick ass stereo and record player; he listened to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys etc. on it. My friends got me into techno music. Darude, ATB, Tiësto, Bass Hunter. I also really liked more punk and alternative rock groups like Incubus, Sum41 and Fall Out Boy later on.

Andrew: I grew up listening to a lot of ’80s and ’90s music along with some stuff from the ’60s and ’70s that my parents were into. Mostly, I remember listening to a lot of the Beatles, Billy Joel, The Doors, The Who, The Police, Rod Stewart, Elton John, etc. My favorite from back then has got to be Billy Joel… the Beatles as a close second. During my teenage years I got into a lot of alternative rock like Blink 182, Linkin Park, Trapt, The Offspring, etc. My sister also got me into electronic music with ATB and BT (woo! he’s from Baltimore – basically my home town!). My favorite electronic artist from that time would definitely be ATB, and I feel like you can hear a lot of his influence in our music. I also listened to a lot of Armin van Buuren, Tiesto, Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and a bunch more. During high school and college, I played a lot of video games and really started to connect with the music in games; game scores were always emotional because they weren’t just good – that music also allowed you to connect with your experiences in the game. Most notably, I take a lot of inspiration from Halo soundtracks (Martin O’Donnell) and Final Fantasy soundtracks (Nobuo Uematsu).

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How would you describe the “AN” sound?

Sam: We’re all over the place within the electronic genre. It’s hard to nail down. We like writing melodies, and we love telling melody driven stories with our music. We sometimes have a more pop-y dance style, but then sometimes we get a bit more indie… and then, why not throw in some cinematic feelings on top of that sundae?

Andrew: Like Sam said, it’s a bit hard to describe in terms of genres. It’s music with strong melodic progressions that express strong emotions with spots of high energy sprinkled in.

Tell us a little bit about the new album, ANimals. How is it different from some of your past 

Sam: It’s the first one we’ve written in a studio and not in a bedroom, so right from the start, you can tell the quality of production is much better. The name, ANimals, has an interesting story; our fans created that name for themselves as a way to identify – kinda like Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters. It’s pretty awesome how we have been able to have such a close and intimate relationship with our fans online. The artwork was created off of ideas from our fans and past album cover art. The two characters on the cover are from Minecraft skin ideas that our fans made for us to use when we played Minecraft. Musically, we pushed the boundaries on the emotions our songs convey. So some are more happy, more sad and more energy driven than they ever have been. We love to bring a range of emotions to the tables with an album.

Andrew: I think the biggest thing for us with this album is that step up in production. Also, the whole album has been put together with careful consideration of our fans. We included some throwbacks to tracks we’ve done in the past, tried some new things here and there, and have really put a lot of effort into branding the album as something that the fans would want to be a part of. After all, they’re the only reason that we’re here.

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Is there some kind of story line behind ANimals? What message or idea did you want listeners to 
take away from it (if any)?

Sam: The message we want listeners to take from our album is that we are all human. We experience a range of emotions and situations and its okay. We want people to find their inner core of contentment, not through just focusing on one euphoric emotion (which EDM tends to push), but through experiencing and accepting a range of them. We think EDM is greater than just big drops (although I love big drops), and it’s more than a driving dance beat or groove. It’s a tool to communicate and share.

Andrew: The scope of the album is really vast. As musicians, we want to provide people with a truly unique and worthwhile music experience. When you listen to the album from start to finish, you’ll find ups and downs; the album will take you on an emotional journey that is similar to what Approaching Nirvana is really about.

Going back to what you mentioned about your fans calling themselves ANimals – what’s that all about? And what’s the story behind the giant animal heads on your album cover?

Andrew: Yeah! About a year or two ago we were talking in one of the live streams about what our fans call themselves; a bunch of funny ideas were thrown around and some mentioned ANimals. Our logo is AN, so they like playing off the AN initials. The heads were from a Minecraft skin design contest we had with our fans.

ANimalsYour fanbase is enormous and you said its 100 percent organic. How did that happen, with absolutely 
no press or promotion behind you?

Sam: We seriously have the best fans in the universe, hands down. I’m blown away every time we spend a Friday live stream with them, or take a moment to think about where we are today because of their support. As to how we got that fanbase, its kind of an interesting story. In 2009, when were just making and uploading music to YouTube, we reached out to gamers that we watched make videos. We offered them our music to use and we just became part of that community of YouTube gamers. We play a lot too – whenever we get a free moment, it’s gaming. I think what has worked for us is being authentic, providing as much quality content to our community as possible and allowing it to be used without being greedy. We just love our fans and love the community that we are a part of.

Andrew: Sam covered it, pretty much. I just want to echo that without our fans we wouldn’t be here today. They are incredible and we are still just amazed at the support they give us.

Any particular reason why you’ve never considered doing press and promotion?

Sam: The traditional music scene is a bit of a maze and its so commercially competitive. We love being independent. We really do enjoy having full control over what we do and when we do it. It gives us much better access to our fans and allows us to not have think twice about what others will think and say. I feel like now we’re in a position to bring our brand of EDM to the scene, uncompromising and authentic. We were wary of that before.

Andrew: Also, a big concern of ours is being true to our fans and doing right by them. We’re in a position now to burst onto the mainstream EDM scene and still accomplish that.

You recently made it into the top 5 on the iTunes besteller chart in the dance music category. How does that 

Sam: I’m absolutely floored. This is entirely because of the support of our fans and the gaming community. We’re surrounded by amazing people.

Andrew: I’m just shocked. When I started out just trying to do something I love for a living, I never thought something like this would happen. We owe so much to everyone around us and it drives us to keep doing better.

Did you ever expect to sell so many albums when you first started producing together?

Sam: I didn’t. The first goal was figuring out a way that we could make music together and get it to people that would like it while still being able to pay the bills. I never once thought that it would get this big.

Andrew: No, we never expected it. My goal was just to be able to write music for a living. Being able to share our music with so many people has been nothing short of amazing.

How many albums/singles sold is that, exactly?

Sam: Before this latest album, we sold over 250,000 singles and we’re nearing 50,000 albums.

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So far, which track hold the most emotional significance to you (respectively), and why?

Sam: These are always tough, because we have written so many songs and they’re all special. Right now it’s actually “These Last Days” feat. Brenton Mattheus off the new album. We wrote the lyrics and they really captured some hard times, but put into a really strong track that let’s you know it’s going to be okay. I hope others get the same feeling when they hear it.

Andrew: The answer to this question always changes for me. “You,” a track we wrote back in 2012, holds a lot of significance to me. There’s so much emotion in that track… the melodies are so beautiful and the song sends a really powerful message to listener. At least, that’s what I feel when I listen to it [laughs].

Whats the dynamic in the studio like?

Sam: [Laughs], we’re totally opposite, but we have found a nice common ground. We’ve learned to work really well together and use our different perspectives and skill sets to come together and create something that’s really unique. Sometimes we start on a track together, other times we bring ideas we’ve made separately and just splice it up together. We have a lot of fun in the studio and warehouse though, too many inside jokes…

Andrew: Working with Sam is rewarding and challenging at the same time. We both come from very different backgrounds and have very different personalities. It’s taken some time to learn to work together but it really helps our productions shine. I can count on Sam to bring the energy to a track or to help me out of a rut when I’m stuck on a song or an idea. I feel that both of us bring new and different ideas to the table when we’re working on music and also when we’re running and developing our business strategy. Without Sam, I wouldn’t be here today and it’s because of our dynamic that we are where we are in the music industry. Together, I think we’ll always be presenting some fresh, new ideas for many years to come.

So its just you two doing everything?

Andrew: Not entirely – we’ve also been lucky enough to have  another person help us out with things within the business like video content, branding, administrative things, etc. Conryd has really helped add to our business; he provides a new perspective and lets us focus on music and business development tasks.

Talk to us a little bit about your weekly Friday radio show in the studio. What happens in there? How many people usually tune in?

Sam: So its a weekly DJ set/podcast show on the web every Friday – or at least most Fridays. We run it through, which is a gaming community that live streams playing games. It’s a cross between playing the best new tracks we find from around the world and us just having fun and DJing what we’re in the mood to play. About 3,000 to 5,000 people show up every week over the course of a one to two hour set, so there is constantly between 400 and 500 fans in the room watching at any given moment. It’s a really great time. We chat with people while we’re playing and have unique giveaways for subscribers and people that support the stream through watching or donating.

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Tell us about the music video you filmed with DeepSleep Studio. What was the vision behind that? How did working with DeepSleep come about?

Sam: I love the track in that video. A lot. It’s got a really unique feel for us, but has a familiar sound too. It’s kinda a throw back, wink and a nod to Benny Benassi’s Hypnotica album. We felt we wanted something sexy, but clever & current. And I think we really wanted something that demonstrated that through visuals. We had a basic idea of doing something with a smart phone (“Slide your finger, unlock me…”). DeepSleep then developed and pitched the idea, and we collaborated and nailed down this final result. They did an amazing job. Meeting the guys at Deepsleep is a long story, but the short version is. Nero -> Caligula -> Teal Blue -> DeepSleep.

Given all the success you’ve had with your music, why hasn’t there been a world tour yet?

Sam: Great question. We’d like to change that. We’ve spent so much time in the studio writing music and perfecting out art that maybe it’s time we get out there and meet more fans in person. Because our fans have mostly found us through the internet they are extremely spread out and a bit younger than the typical night club crowd. So if we hopped on with a regular touring company and hit up typical 21 and over venues, we’d miss out on a huge part of our audience. Now that ANimals has been released we’re planning on ways to get a more festival or arena style road tour accomplished.

Andrew: Touring has been on our list of things to do for a long time now. We want to get out there and meet and play shows for all of our fans. It’s been a challenge finding the right timing and the right way to incorporate a regular touring schedule into our business. But it’s something we’re really looking forward to.

When did you realize you were really on the cusp of becoming something big in the music world?

Sam: It still hasn’t really hit me. We’re just two normal guys that make music and play video games. I’d love to affect positive change around world, and being able to do that through music is something incredibly special to me.

Andrew: I don’t feel like much has changed for us. No matter how big or small we are, we’ll always be producing music and we’ll always be trying to share our vision to whoever will listen.

Pre-order ANimals now here. The album is scheduled for release August 22. 


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