It’s not surprising that two-thirds of Major Lazer look a little bored. Chris “Jillionaire” Leacock is an eye contact-avoider, Leighton “Walshy Fire” Walsh an under-table phone-fiddler. Both have learned to accept that the bulk of any conversation is going to revolve around their band’s founder, fellow DJ and producer Diplo. The Miami-raised fast-talker returns to his group fresh from producing a hefty chunk of Madonna’s new album, releasing a joint album as Jack U with superstar DJ Skrillex, appearing in the gossip mags as a brief dater of Katy Perry, and playing an ongoing role in the hoped-for coolification of Justin Bieber. Not for nothing did he release a compilation album last year entitled Random White Dude Be Everywhere.
“I work all the time. I got a lot of deadlines to make at the moment. I’m finishing a remix for somebody tonight,” says the 36-year-old also known as Wes Pentz, his elaborate trousers gleaming beneath the table. He’s got that celebrity skill of being the most casually dressed person in this swanky hotel restaurant, while also looking like his clothes are the most expensive. Putting on club nights almost every weekend in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas, where the EDM explosion has made multimillionaires of the current generation of DJs, he can afford them.
But for the next few months at least, Major Lazer is his focus. Initially a collaboration with English producer Switch to mix the pair’s love for Jamaican dancehall music with up-to-the-minute electronica, it’s now Diplo’s baby and is looking like being far more than just another side project. A third album is coming next month and this week they scored their first UK top 10 single, with the relatively calm Lean On landing at number six. “It was definitely a hobby the first time, a little bit like, ‘Whatever’. Second time we were just trying to figure out how to make it work. And this time we’re trying to establish Major Lazer as a really big deal and an awesome experience for people,” says Diplo.
“I think Major Lazer might have a chance to be really big and represent something unbelievable for a lot of kids,” he continues. “Our crowd’s really young. I think our music represents something really new.”
The youthfulness of their fans might explain their lack of high traditional chart placings while at the same time, their internet numbers are exploding: 27 million YouTube views in a month for their Lean On video, 3.2 million followers on Soundcloud, 1.4 million Twitter followers for Diplo. Their live shows are huge draws too. Today they were supposed to be doing three gigs in one day around London, having just come from a heart attack-inducing 12 in three days between Brussels, Paris and Amsterdam – but it’s been cancelled. Nevertheless, they’ll be back to play high on the bill with Drake at this summer’s Wireless Festival, then their own autumn party in 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace.
“With London, we wanted to be scarce to make it more special. London is our biggest show of the whole European tour, but it’s a harder market than the rest of Europe,” says Diplo. “The thing about people in London, everybody cares way too much about what other people are gonna think about what they like, instead of just liking it. People should just go ahead and listen to what they love.”
In a past interview, he has said, “England doesn’t like us for some reason.” Now that they have a real hit he’s changing his mind, but he still thinks his band’s spicy melting pot of Caribbean clatter, edgy electro and fizzy pop ought to be dominant here more than anywhere. “We did Carnival three years in a row and they were insane parties,” he says.
“Notting Hill is very different from Carnival anywhere else,” adds Walsh. “This is an international city, so it represents everybody. You walk around every corner here, you’ll hear something new. It’s awesome.”
Even if you’re unfamiliar with Major Lazer’s songs, you’ll have heard their fingerprints on a great chunk of current pop music. Beyonce’s hit Run the World (Girls) samples Major Lazer’s song Pon de Floor. Usher’s daring worldwide hit Climax was a Diplo production. Ever since he made Paper Planes in 2008 for M.I.A, his ex-girlfriend, A-listers from Rita Ora to Iggy Azalea, Bruno Mars to Snoop Dogg, have been asking for a taste of that futuristic fusion sound.
He tries his best not to name drop but it’s not easy. “I was in the studio with Rihanna two weeks ago, still playing the game. I was trying to convince her why she should do so-and-so, and thinking, ‘Lean On is biger than any of her songs around the world right now. Why am I even sitting here trying to negotiate?’”
Madonna, surprisingly, sounds like an easier collaborator. “I honestly was not that interested in working on her record but I’ll never say no to anybody until I’ve gotten a vibe from them,” he says. “Literally the first day I was like, wow, she’s really cool. She was really open-minded and really fine-tuned everything to be as quality as it could be. We tried a lot of things, she’s a trendsetter. When we did Bitch I’m Madonna, she was like, ‘Yo, let’s hear the craziest shit you have on your computer right now.’” The result was a bizarre song, all alien buzzes and awkward rhythms, that kept the 56-year-old at the cutting edge but unfortunately not at the top of the charts.
“I realised as I produced it that no one gives her a fair chance,” he says in hindsight. “They don’t think she’s current.”
That was a breeze next to working with Justin Bieber, however. Diplo worked on the wayward heartthrob’s songs Thought of You and Memphis and featured him on February’s Jack U album with Skrillex, which he says earned him death threats from dance fans. “He’s another artist who everyone wants to fail. For me, I thought, there’s nothing more middle-finger-in-your-face than to do a really cool record with him. That’s punk, in my opinion.”
On the new Major Lazer album, Peace is the Mission, a focus on less-well-known guest singers allows the fire of the songs to dominate. One big star, Ellie Goulding, appears on the dramatic Powerful, but only because she’s an old friend as an ex-girlfriend of Skrillex. Otherwise they want to raise up new stars such as Denmark’s MØ and Jamaican reggae singer Chronixx.
They’re putting so much energy into the project now that there’s even a cartoon series, starring sunglasses-wearing commando Major Lazer himself, pitted against baddies such as Killscreen, the Suckoids and General Rubbish (named after the notice Diplo kept seeing on British bins). It’s just started late at night on the US channel FXX. “It’s really stoner-y, but it’s funny,” says Diplo.
In a final indication of his devotion to this band, he’s even named his second son Lazer. That’s commitment. When Major Lazer’s new songs become the sound of the summer, as they should, all that work will have finally paid off.
July 3, Wireless Festival, Finsbury Park, N4 (wirelessfestival.co.uk); Oct 17, Alexandra Palace, N22 (0870 444 5556, alexandrapalace.com)
Peace is the Mission is released on June 1 on Because Music