11:29 AM CDT, June 13, 2013
There were several turning points in the ascendant career of Chicago trio Krewella (which plays at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the Spring Awakening Festival this weekend at Soldier Field). But perhaps the most significant unfolded in the first few hours of 2012. It was the night the threesome wrote "Alive," their breakthrough single, which just a few days ago topped 500,000 sales.
"In some ways, it was the most depressing, dark time for us," says Krewella's Yasmine Yousaf, 21, who was bedridden with a nasty cold in the Near West Side loft she shared at the time with her bandmates: her sister Jahan, 23, and Kris Trindl, 25. "I remember being really sick. Kris and Jahan woke me up a few minutes before midnight to drink $5 champagne. It was just the three of us, and we were happy, we felt like all one. But we weren't playing a show; we didn't have enough fans to want us to play a show on New Year's Eve. It was a little glum. But that song came to birth that night."
Now a rising star in electronic dance music, Krewella got its start at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, where Trindl was playing in metal bands.
"We would try to play shows in surrounding suburbs every weekend, any time someone would have us: VFW halls, libraries, people's basements," Trindl says. "I kept seeing Jahan at shows; we started talking."
A year later, Trindl says, he was looking to do something beyond metal. "I was begging her to sing on these poppier tracks I was making." He had been programming guitar and drum parts for his bandmates but became fascinated with the work of hip-hop producer Timbaland on albums by Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake. He began creating his own lukewarm impressions of Timbaland beats and was eventually introduced to electronic dance music.
"We did stuff that sounded like the Faint and Chromeo, with an indie-dance vibe, then more radio pop, but when I heard Deadmau5 and Skrillex, I realized that's what we needed to do, make our own DJ music and sing on it," he says. "I couldn't think of anyone doing that."
By then, Trindl and Jahan had recruited Yasmine, who also had attended Glenbrook North. Jahan and Yasmine came out of an indie-pop songwriter background. Trindl's beats had an edge to them, as he morphed his metal guitar riffs into programmed rhythms. They nailed down their wide-ranging sound in 2011 with two tracks, "Strobelights" and "Life of the Party."
At first the group played DJ gigs, though the bookings didn't pay much, maybe $100 split among the three of them. Their first out-of-town show, as an opening act in Nashville, Tenn., drew 30 fans. By late 2011 they were barely scraping together enough money to pay the rent.
"Those were pretty dark times," Jahan says. "We thought it wasn't happening fast enough. We were so impatient, frustrated. We thought of giving up. Fortunately, we're three people, so when one falters, the other two pick them up."
The new year brought "Alive," which consolidated the gains made six months earlier on "Strobelights," what Jahan calls "a juxtaposition of opposites — prettier vocals with Kris' metal-inspired production."
Jahan and Yasmine began singing over the programmed beats at shows, a departure from the typical EDM event.
"When we started, people weren't ready for live vocals at raves, clubs," Jahan says. "People wanted to be in their own little world dancing. Raves weren't about celebrity DJs, rock-star DJs. That was the origins of the dance scene. But now a lot of DJs are doing the same things, and we felt we needed to do something more."
The high-energy Krewella shows, combined with the release of the 2012 EP "Play Hard" that included "Alive," helped turn Krewella into one of the more sought-after new acts on the EDM scene. Eventually the group signed a deal with Columbia Records, which will release the trio's debut album in a few months, followed by a 70-date headlining tour.
"We had interest from other labels about six months before signing with Columbia," Jahan says. "We were desperate for money, but we decided not to do it. We weren't ready. We wanted to create a fan base on our own, figure out our sound."
This year the trio moved to Los Angeles, where they've been collaborating with an array of producers and songwriters on their forthcoming album, including Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump and Toby Gad, who has worked with Beyonce and Alicia Keys, among others. The idea, they say, is to move beyond the bubblegum EDM of their early music into something weightier and more adventurous, to keep the dance vibe but with a deeper lyrical perspective.
"'Introspective' is a perfect word for what we're going for in some of the songs," Yasmine says. "We still have party songs, fun songs, hooky dance music. 'Alive' touches the surface of saying something, but I want to go deeper."
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
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Spring Awakening Festival
When: 3:30 p.m. Friday and 12:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Where: Soldier Field, 1400 S. Museum Campus Drive
Tickets: $65 (Friday), $90 (Saturday and Sunday), $190 (three-day pass); springawakeningfestival.com
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