“I see us as two dirty trolls.” Jahan Yousaf is kicking it with her sister, Yasmine at home in LA. Hailing from Chicago, the Yousaf gals are known to the world as Krewella, or to the millennial blogosphere as something like this: EDM poster kids who had some scandal, and there was a third member and since it was a male third member… he did all the grunt work… he quit or was fired or something for sure, but yeah, they’re hot.
“There’s this assumption that the only reason we’ve been successful as a group is ostensibly because we’re female and using our sex appeal,” Yasmine says. “Which I don’t see.”
Full disclosure: this Chicago-based author has known Jahan and Yasmine Yousaf since before the world, or even their own city, knew who Krewella was. Seven years ago at a tiny, dark bar called The Tonic Room on Halsted Street – a hole built out of wood permanently soaked with the stench of stale beer – DJ Mag USA watched as a band, shoved in a tiny corner amid a floor snaked with cables, performed with all of the vigor of a frenzied A-list group at a sold-out arena. A girl doubled over and clutched her stomach while belting out lyrics. Another practically did calisthenics while darting around the piles of equipment, letting beaded sweat fly off the tips of her swinging hair. A guitarist kept up pace; swinging his arms with equal amounts of abandon and stinging precision. Sitting at the sticky-topped bar, sipping on a vodka and Red Bull, we were quietly impressed; Who were they? Where did they come from? Mostly, we thought: They are going places. We were right.
At a time when dance music mania was consuming the United States and the silky, gilded pop-hybrid of Calvin Harris, Lady Gaga and David Guetta made anyone with a radio an entry-level EDM fan, Krewella, then comprised of Jahan, Yasmine and Kris “Rain Man” Trindl, offered the opposite. Here was a group, crafted with the same care and marketing as any Top 40 act, but with searing, dubstep-inspired and head-banging bite. They didn’t sing about tenderness, the way Rihanna gracefully did on ‘We Found Love,’ they snarled into the microphone, inviting listeners into a dangerous den where they were in control. In the ‘Killin’ It’ music video – shot on a budget of $45 – Yasmine, clad in black leather and torn leggings, clings to a chain-link fence in the dead of night while intensely looking into the camera. “Love drunk in the craze when you get a taste / I’m an earthquake, feel my rage ‘til I get my way.” They were the modern-day version of Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, and ‘Killin’ It’ was their ‘Cherry Bomb’, a spit in the face to the niceties of youth and feminine expectations.
Krewella’s brand of anti-pop dovetailed right into the swelling drive towards dance music reaching a mainstream tipping point, and those eager to find something diametric to it. By the time their debut EP ‘Play Hard’ dropped in mid-2012 fresh off the success of debut single ‘Killin’ It’, the hype surrounding them was palpable and the album immediately found homes on both Billboard’s Dance Radio Airplay chart and Pop Radio Airplay. If Chicago didn’t know who they were before, everyone else did now. Krewella had arrived. “We never got an in-between,” says Yasmine. “Our first Chicago shows were for 20 people, then it jumped to Logan Square Auditorium, then the Spring Awakening main stage.” The sisters sound wistful when they reminisce on this point in their lives, a period fueled by the mania that accompanies the combination of adolescence and success. “It was a really fun time,” Yasmine continues, “and we were touring like crazy. Life felt like a dream.” Jahan nods fondly. “We were in la-la-land,” she says, “On cloud nine just touring all the time. I felt like we were such a team, Kris, Yasmine and I…”
Jahan and Yasmine were still riding that high when only a year later, their full album ‘Get Wet’ dropped on Columbia Records coupled with a tour that seemed to all but cement their future as the scene’s biggest crossover act. It was a trajectory most musicians only dream of. They tapped Lady Gaga’s choreographer, worked with famed V Squared Labs to construct The Volcano – an impressive, behemoth stage setup that mimicked the disco ball innards of a geode – and scheduled 40 dates on the back of 100 they just completed. A year prior, they were huddled in a van carting themselves cross-country for enough money to buy McDonald’s value meals, and now, they were literally standing on a mountaintop – albeit one glittering and kaleidoscope-like.
But behind the veil all was not well, and Trindl’s involvement began to decline. Missed rehearsals turned into missing half of the Get Wet tour, and Billboard piqued public suspicions when they confirmed that one member had been noticeably AWOL. “Absent from this rehearsal as well as several recent tour dates [is]… Kris ‘Rain Man’ Trindl” the outlet printed. “The pace of the past year has led to a bout of exhaustion.” And then the lawsuit hit.
SURRENDER THE THRONE
Jahan and Yasmine learned about Trindl’s combined $7 million lawsuit at the same time the rest of the world did, and in the same way: TMZ. Suddenly, they were shoved into the spotlight in a distressful scenario in which they had no real control, at the mercy of trending topics and drama-happy fingertips. While they had been discussing his involvement moving forward, no one expected paperwork to force their hand. The 18-page packet was digitally slapped in their face along with accompanying raunchy headlines from rags eager for clicks, like Jezebel’s (not so) delicate “Krewella Kicked Out Their DJ For Not Partying, Says Lawsuit” (cue boos and hisses).
Trindl admitted to alcohol abuse as the cause for his disengagement, but claimed that he was ousted once sober as part of a larger conspiracy to tip the spotlight toward the Yousaf sisters. It was blogger jackpot: a combination of juicy celebrity gossip with a high-stakes payout and jabs that read like epic burns (Trindl’s lawyer famously said, “When they met, [the Yousaf sisters] didn’t know what a middle C was on the keyboard. They still don’t. The only notes they know are bank notes.”)
“Every couple of months I’ll get super, super down about it, and think, ‘What the fuck happened?’” says Yasmine. It was certainly an abrupt, severing move, and a messy one, like a shotgun wound. In an instant, Krewella had been redefined as only containing the surname Yousaf, and Trindl was definitively, separately, Rain Man. “The hardest thing at that time was watching people say we kicked him out, having fans believe we were a bad influence,” she sighs. “I would never want anyone to think I could morally do that to someone who was that close to us.”
No matter who was right and who was wrong (and despite the public’s never-ending desire to be the moral compass on behalf of celebrities), fans felt compelled to either pledge to team Rain Man or team Krewella, inviting a landslide of insults in the process. “The lawsuit exposed the reality of how people view women in dance music,” says Jahan. “A lot of people thought that the issue was us being butt hurt, people saying ‘Krewella sucks’. We have no problem if people don’t like our music, or our voices, or our writing. It was when there was conversation about sexuality…”
“Also that we never worked,” chimes in Yasmine. “And that we were just a face to what Krewella was… that was the stuff that cut more than anything.”
A sampling of comments taken from Krewella’s Facebook:
“Who’s gonna hit play?” “Dumb bitches who can’t DJ.” “These hoes ain’t loyal.” “Wannabe pop-EDM skanks.” “Am I the only one who thinks they should pursue a porn career and call it a day?” “Goodbye bitches, hope you learned something.” “SLUTS.”
Even Deadmau5 felt compelled to chime in, tweeting, “EDM pro tip: if you’re going to make a group/trio act... don’t fire the guy who actually does shit. #themoaryouknow.”
Do they still talk to Trindl? “The last time he answered me was March, 2015,” says Yasmine, “so it’s been over a year.”
“We’ve reached out and congratulated him on his [recent] release,” echoes Jahan, “and there’s no response.”
Yasmine pauses, then adds, “Most days, it feels like things happened the way they were supposed to. You have to accept it, or else you’ll lose your fucking mind.”
CAN’T FORGET YOU
Trindl’s removal from Krewella, self-imposed or not, was a grievous blow to the group. For an act that had been known for always being several moves ahead, placing not only them, but their management team, Th3rd Brain, on a “take notes and listen” watchlist within the music industry’s inner circles, this was a sucker punch that left them damaged, open and exposed. “The lawsuit was really devastating,” says Jahan, “and it’s been two years of building ourselves back up. I feel like having a male in the group protected us in a way that made us look credible to the outside world. He wasn’t the only producer working on the project, but he was ‘the’ producer in the group. Losing Kris, people automatically stripped away every other creative capability that we had.”
It’s true, to an extent, that dance music imposes qualifications on its musical creators not found in other genres. Pop in particular is a slickly designed machine with handfuls of producers, engineers, topliners and musicians at play, often on a single song. Kanye West’s ‘All Day’ has 21 credits. Beyoncé has been rumored to hold writing camps – flying in a team of creative talents to live in a house together while she dips into rooms, laying favor to or nixing ideas with a snap. No matter how much you worship ‘Yoncé, you can’t think ‘Lemonade’ was a singular effort. Yet somehow, within dance music, perhaps because it was born out of an underground, scrappy DIY mentality (never mind its relative transformation Stateside into blissful homogeneity), if you’re not the person physically crafting every iota, sculpting each scoop of the waveform, it’s Sisyphean. Nice try, but try harder.
“Our work isn’t seen as valuable as someone who is sitting down and working behind a computer,” says a frustrated Jahan. “Within dance music there’s this high level of respect for engineers, for people who program, and anyone else is seen as not possessing as much artistic merit. It’s like saying someone who uses Photoshop is more worthy and deserving of respect than someone who uses film. There shouldn’t be a hierarchy for what skill is more important than another.” Her balking is understandable. Under everyone’s microscopes for years, they’ve had to not only over-prove their complex vocal prowess and songwriting dexterity, but the most mundane of technical tasks, like... knowing how to connect their CDJs. (Here, Deadmau5 again wedged in his opinion when he mistakenly called out Krewella for not having their equipment plugged in at Ultra Music Festival. We bring this up and Jahan interjects with “Yeah, check your facts first!”)
Yasmine muses on the arc of our discussion. “If you put us in a different genre, say pop… with the same music, same vibes… I think we’d be less of a target.” It’s hard to disagree.
If any good came out of the breakup, it’s that it provided, well, ammo for their new ‘Ammunition’ EP. “We got really personal and vulnerable with a lot of the songs,” says Jahan. “A lot of that had to do with the breakup, and not receiving closure. As an artist, in order to not linger in certain experiences, you have to create a permanent piece of work that stays frozen in time. It’s a way to move on.” They deftly graze the topic of did-you-or-did-you-not-write-this-about-Kris, and when pressed, won’t definitively say if any of it is directly about him. In fact, they don’t even know if he’s listened at all.
“I gave it everything, everything / But we still lost the way,” Jahan croons on ‘Broken Record.’ “You tell me that you’re sober / When you’ve had another.” There might be polish to their responses sitting here, knowing their faces will be splashed across a cover, but at times it’s hard to imagine parts of ‘Ammunition’ aren’t one, giant subtweet.
We ask about the new logo. It’s distinctly Arabic; golden calligraphic curves against black with a few well-placed dots (technically, i‘jām) nestled above letters. The Yousaf sisters have never been shy about their half-Pakistani background, but this feels bold, especially in today’s Trump-infested climate. “When we had Kris as a third member we couldn’t fully represent ourselves as Pakistani American women who grew up Muslim,” says Yasmine. “Those are three things we couldn’t totally get into before. Not to say Kris was holding us back by any means, but that didn’t represent all of us at the time.”
The EP pays homage to their new cultural brandishment as well, albeit with a touch more fragility. Bollywood samples dart throughout like the flicker of a cobra’s tongue. ‘Marching On’ dumps layers of tablas - ancient, Arabic goblet-shaped drums - atop cinematic plucks and sandy, constant shakers. ‘Broken Record’ sports some of the same percussive backbone, but with winding, twisted vocals. This breadcrumb of the hand’s touch to drums, bells and other adornments is sprinkled throughout, mixed with hints to the Byzantine scale.
Though they’ve come to a point of reinvigoration, it shouldn’t be mistaken for complete reinvention. ‘Beggars,’ done with U.K. producers Diskord, is a buffet for longtime fans who have been eager to slurp up new dubstep fusion with the duo’s signature choral call outs, while ‘Surrender The Throne’ has a particular Monstercat-like vibe to it in a poppy drum and bass outing. As a whole, the EP is brash dubstep meets indie rock meets tearful vulnerable diary with a dash of mysticism, that leaves no doubt about who the Yousaf sisters are or where they come from.
If Krewella was unapologetic before, this new Krewella - sporting golden scripts and posting photos of cloaked women with peeks of henna-adorned skin while themselves remaining emotionally disrobed - is unmerciful in their take-us-or-leave-us attitude. And of all the things in this equation they might have to defend - from bruised fans to overzealous xenophobes - it’s face-palming what seems to be the thing that still crawls under peoples’ skin.
“Oh!” Jahan pulls out her phone. “I just got this tweet. Sometimes I screencap them to save as a reminder that attitudes have not changed.” She reads the following with more than a dash of dry scorn: “@pegboardnerds hopefully you fucked @krewella because adding them to ‘Superstar’ was a bad move.” Jahan rolls her eyes and slumps her head into her hand. “What,” she says, “does fucking us have anything to do with anything?”
To confirm, while we are conducting this interview, Krewella receives a tweet equating their presence on a new Pegboard Nerds song to… sexual favors? We think? In a year where equality is arguably trendy and #girlgangs and #squads are celebrated, all it takes is a tiny, 140-character gesture to remind us that misogynistic monsters still lie under the murk. Yasmine sidetracks the talk to bring up the time she was heavily groped while crowd surfing and instinctively karate-chopped the offender square in the head. The belly-shaking laughter that follows brings us to tears.
They laugh these things off now, maybe in part because they have no other choice, knowing that every public move will result in some form of the above because that’s just the way it is. They also still refuse to remain quiet on the subject, at a time where some female peers are tired of rehashing the topic in interviews and others would insist that culturally, in 2016, we got this. “Times have not changed enough for women to feel liberated,” Yasmine says. “People think it’s a stale argument because we’ve been talking about it for years, but the reason we’re still angry about it is because attitudes haven’t changed enough.” (Refer to the previous paragraph for confirmation of this.)
But what of the current wave of rising female talent? Destructo’s all-women pre-party to Holy Ship? The new cultish followings to women DJs and producers who have found fame while sporting both technical prowess and dad hats with oversized shirts? “This is nothing against any upcoming female producer,” Yasmine speaks in intervals, choosing her words carefully, “because I think all of them are fucking awesome, but if you look at all the names getting big, they’ve been co-signed by a huge male DJ. Why is it we will only take a female artist seriously when she is co-signed by a Skrillex, or an A-Trak? As electronic listeners, why do we not trust from the jump that a woman artist is good enough to listen to? Why do we have to be told by a man?”
The sisters then go off on a tangent with each other, joking about how amazingly “epic” it would be to have an anonymous producer a la ZHU rise to fame, only to unmask at the height of popularity and reveal it was a woman. “Oh my god!” yells Jahan. “YES.”
This fall, the new Krewella will hit the road with a hybrid live/DJ performance in support of the ‘Ammunition’ EP on their Sweatbox tour. They’re a touch wiser, and perhaps a bit stronger, as a bone is after it heals from being broken. Yet, despite everything the past two and a half years has brought, it hasn’t transformed them into old souls. “We are still children, I would not call us adults,” chuckles Yasmine.
This tour, in fact, seems to be the furthest thing Krewella could get from adult-ing. Seeking out 300-500 capacity rooms, largely in venues more known for rock versus glammed-up EDM extravaganzas, is a nod to those earliest days back in the bar on Halsted Street where the only thing they had was a dream to run toward.
Rarely do people get a second chance at anything, but like everything the Yousaf sisters have accomplished in life, it would be disingenuous to say it was given to them. They created it. We come back to the parallel of Joan Jett. “When she wanted to release ‘I Love Rock n Roll’,” says Yasmine, “no major label would sign it. They said it wouldn’t work for a woman, so she released it independently and it went to number one.”
So, here is a new Krewella, nakedly honest not just in their words, but in who they are as musicians... as artists... and it seems the world is ready for what they have to offer. The ‘Ammunition’ EP debuted at #2 on the Billboard Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart, and dates for the Sweatbox tour sold-out completely. In eschewing The Volcano, the stadiums, and the high-tech production, they’re not losing anything in the race of bigger, better, faster, stronger, but solidifying their resilience by being themselves in a way many artists don’t even know how to do. “This is going back to those die-hards,” explains Jahan. “This is our chance now, and we’re starting from the ground up again. We’re finally rebuilding this thing that collapsed halfway.” Killin’ it, indeed.
WORDS: DANI DEAHL PICS: CHRISTOPHER PARSONS
Catch Krewella on tour this fall:
9/1/2016 - Austin, TX - Summit Rooftop Lounge
9/2/2016 - Dallas, TX - Stereo Live
9/3/2016 - Houston, TX - Stereo Live
9/8/2016 - Seattle, WA - Foundation
9/9/2016 - San Francisco, CA - Ruby Skye
9/10/2016 - Los Angeles, CA - Create
9/15/2016 - Washington, DC - Soundcheck
9/16/2016 - Boston, MA - Royale
9/17/2016 - New York, NY - Marquee
9/22/2016 - Denver, CO - Beta
9/23/2016 - Phoenix, AZ - Maya Nightclub
9/30/2016 - Toronto, ON - Uniun
10/1/2016 - Las Vegas, NV - Omnia Las Vegas
10/6/2016 - Miami, FL - LIV
10/7/2016 - Atlanta, GA - The Atlanta Opera
10/8/2016 - Chicago, IL - The Mid
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