On a recent March afternoon, Sonny Moore bounced through the front door of his loft turned music studio knowing he had something good up his sleeve. The electronic-dance-music producer had just released an official app to his fans that appeared to be no more than a mobile video game called Alien Ride, pitting players against flying asteroids. Yet ominously, the top of the game screen displayed a timer frozen at 72:00:00. It soon began counting down, foreshadowing something significant. “This is suspicious, man,” read one of a flurry of comments in a fan chat room. “What does it mean!?!?!?” asked another.
What it meant was that Moore, better known as Skrillex, was hours away from releasing his most extensive record to date. When the clock expired, the app unlocked songs from Recess every half hour–a full week before the record went on sale. With that unlocking three days away, Skrillex headquarters was working hard to keep a lid on the mystery that fans were trying diligently to solve. Meanwhile, Moore, sporting a black-and-white-striped shirt, his signature black, fat-rimmed glasses and half-shaved hairdo, was in a state of cheerful anticipation and couldn’t decide whether to stand up or sit down. “The kids feel like something’s coming right now, so they’re excited,” he said, grinning.
At this point in his career, Moore doesn’t need to rely on unconventional marketing to sell records. Yet he’s always enjoyed bypassing industry middlemen to reach his fans directly, and this was his most elaborate scheme yet. When he gave away his pioneering debut release, My Name Is Skrillex, as a free download in 2010, it helped propel him from unknown DJ to winner of six Grammys, praise from the biggest names in dance and hip-hop and even a personal invitation to Africa alongside Bono. A regular iTunes release wouldn’t have been any fun for Moore because it wouldn’t have pushed the envelope. That constant drive to create something novel is perhaps Moore’s greatest asset, and it’s why he’s become the avatar of electronic dance music in America.
To uninitiated, often older music fans, Skrillex’s melodies might sound like imperial storm troopers firing blaster rifles over the din of convulsing drumbeats and bass lines that feel like a pit-of-your-stomach free fall from the top floor of a skyscraper. To those more familiar with the electronic-dance world, there’s an obvious comparison to the British dance genre dubstep, which combines half-time drumbeats with sub-bass frequencies. But further dissection of Skrillex reveals a complex web of musical elements, including electro, progressive house, hip-hop, reggae and even rock. The amalgamation makes for a nonstop, heart-pounding live show that healthy hearing and dry T-shirts are hard-pressed to survive. In that vein, Skrillex recently announced his latest batch of summer festival and amphitheater tour dates following an upcoming gig at California’s premier festival, Coachella.
The new record is proof that Moore’s concoctions translate well to the studio too. While it retains the in-your-face assault of previous efforts, Recess also takes more chances. It features guest appearances by musicians as varied as Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos and Chance the Rapper, whose chorus on “Coast Is Clear” asks a question too lewd to be repeated here. Sections of “Stranger” feature pretty vocals that could pass for experimental indie rock, while the final track, “Fire Away,” offers piano riffs and a lonely, almost jazzy feel. “The stuff that’s explosive and loud is supercrazy,” Moore says in rapid-fire speech that barely clears his mouth before his next thoughts become words. “The last song sets a whole different mood that I don’t even think I’ve touched melodically.”
Like anyone out to shift artistic paradigms, Moore has attracted his fair share of skeptics. Dubstep purists have condemned what they call an American bastardization of their genre, disparagingly labeling it “brostep.” The criticism disturbed Moore at first, but he says he now sees it as further evidence of his originality, and he even pokes fun at it by titling a new track “All Is Fair in Love and Brostep.”
Moore brings a distinct lack of pretentiousness to his work. Quick to give tribute to his musical forefathers, he can excitedly recount the big break he once got from producer Deadmau5 as if it were happening in real time. While Moore certainly has the money to seclude himself in the Hollywood Hills and fly around the world in a private jet, he still lives and skateboards in downtown L.A. His Grammy awards sit on a corner bookshelf in his modest loft, sharing space with abundant collections of alien figurines and black hoodies.
Skrillex’s melting pot of diverse genres has fueled exponential growth of his fan base. As a teenager, he was front man for a post-hardcore punk band, From First to Last, a link that now helps bring rock and emo kids into the electronic-dance-music fold. He’s also helped extend bridges to metal, hip-hop and pop artists. As important as those elements are to his strong following, the close relationship he cultivates with his audience may go even further. Growing up in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Moore was often mocked for his bad skin, short stature and unique musical preferences. He’s been open to talking about the emotional fallout from this, making him a safe conduit for fans to express their own anxieties. Kids with suicidal thoughts have reached out to him online, girls struggling with anorexia send him notes, and he has answered them. “I’m a short kid, so it’s that underdog mentality,” he says. “I want to give back to those uncool kids, the punk-rock kids who are passionate and feel like they don’t have a place. That’s where I came from.”
Skrillex’s magnanimous personality has also spawned a management crew that behaves like friends joined at the hip. “He wants to take people on an adventure, a journey,” says his longtime manager, Tim Smith. “It’s kind of magical. You just want to be a part of what he’s doing.” His fans do too. They threw so much IT support behind a popular effort to decipher the Alien Ride mystery that a fan ended up cracking the app’s code and revealing the album plans just hours before release. Skrillex was honored that they cared enough to figure it out. “No one’s really taking themselves too seriously,” he says. “This music is supposed to be fun.”
This appears in the April 21, 2014 issue of TIME.