Curtis Waters on Popstar role-playing game and new EP Plastic World
It’s a sunny Saturday when I sit down to chat with Curtis Waters about his latest project, Plastic world. He’s our generation’s response to the only kid in the effortlessly cool scene from the start: the self-effacing wuderkind has a penchant for a very conscious brand of irony, and grew up in Nepalese culture, which is one world (and few shades of melanin) away from the predominantly white pop-punk that captured his musical imagination growing up. Her warm, sunny laugh brings the sun inside in a way that lets me forget I’m embarking on what feels like my millionth Zoom call from pandemic purgatory. Curtis is the accomplished gentleman and immediately likeable.
“Since I became popular, the Internet has not been fun for me,” the 21-year-old tells Complex. “I feel like I need to be in real life. I’ve turned off my notifications and need to be with my girlfriend and hang out with my family. ”
The Nepalese-born, Calgary-raised artist’s phone has undoubtedly exploded since uploading his song “Stunnin ‘” to TikTok last year. Tens of millions of views and streams later, he received three recent Juno nods, a placement in a Mercedes Benz commercial, an article in Rolling stone, and an agreement with BMG in his name. But it also has a lot less privacy.
This tension between our immersion in a consumer-centric online reality and the vulnerability and isolation that can accompany offline browsing is fundamental to Plastic world, the continuation of his first album Feast of pity. Although only two songs, you can hear the influence of Yeezus-the Kanye era and the beginning of Tyler the Creator, an ornate and pleasant chaos interweaving the bravado and impetuosity of punk, pop and hip-hop. “I wanted it to be something that you could tell was inspired by this line of music,” he shares. “It’s so easy to get lost in your own self-mockery… the songs in this project validate this obsession I had growing up and make me feel less alone. I hope people can be comforted by this. I want the weird stuff that I do to turn into success because it resonates with people.
Nothing in the frenetic trash is unintentional – on the contrary, Waters meticulously self-produced and layered the instrumentation throughout the project’s soundscape in a hyperactive study of isolation in overdrive. The end product is surprisingly smooth; a hard shell hiding a sparkling sea stone. Waters reveals it all, exploring self-glorification, suicidability, and the tender absurdity of feeling anger at your own loneliness.
We caught up with Curtis to discuss Harmony Korine’s weird movies, DIY culture, and how he pushes the pop-punk sound.
What inspired Plastic world? And how do you think it grows on your dope album Feast of pity?
Feast of pity was what I did before I got any honors or recognition. It was very self-deprecating. Plastic world more like the death of the ego – I’m struggling between being an insecure person and saying to myself, “Oh my god, I’m a god, I’m a maniac right now. It was a great way to explore this insane insecurity and paranoia. It’s compensation, and definitely overplayed – there’s a lot of crazy visuals in the album that play on that. It is really about the death of the ego and the manic and depressive cycle.
What prompted you to explore this in music?
Music is my coping mechanism: if I’m having a good day, I make music; if I’m having a bad day, I play music. I don’t know how to express myself very well outside of that. If I have too much validation, you may come to depend on external validation. My take on vulnerability is that there are two sides: there’s one where you see yourself as worthless, and the other where you compensate and are truly selfish.
So, do you think that shows up in the “pop versus anti-pop” hype around your music?
I never thought I would make pop music! I fell into this character and I guess… I’ve been doing pop star role-playing for a year now? I wake up and I’m like, “I’m Curtis Waters and I’m going to go on the internet and create parasocial relationships for profit. I’m strangely aware of it because it’s so strangely odd and not human. It’s funny because I’m like ‘celebrity culture is bad’ but at the same time I’m like ‘buy my stuff and shit’. I don’t know if it’s good that I’m aware of it. I wish I could turn it off sometimes. Plastic world that’s really how I felt about the world at the time: just organized and wrong. But there is also both anti-pop and pop.
“Even though I’m a brown-haired immigrant kid, I have no idea why I identify with this skinny white kid who complains about his stepdad and his small town in California.”
Celebrity culture is crazy! How do you balance this self-awareness with your own growing popularity?
It is a blessing. I am a sensitive person and have always been vulnerable, but now I have thousands of people in the know. I can have a bad day and post that I’m feeling suicidal, and people will respond by saying, “Oh, that makes my teeth so cringe. But I’m just trying to normalize it. I don’t know if it’s pretentious but I feel this responsibility not to glorify my life. Maybe I do it in my music, but at the end of the day, he’s a character. One thing I love about this project is that as biographical as it is, there is also an exaggerated character that the project is based around.
Since I became popular the internet has not been fun for me and I feel like I need to be in real life. I turned off my notifications and need to be with my girlfriend, hang out with my family. I have real friends who don’t care if I have a hit or not. I have people in real life who don’t care about my music and I think that really balances me out.
What role does your character play in your music?
Artists can put a character and do 100 songs in that character. But for me, if I’m manic, the character will be manic, and if I’m depressed, the character is going to be depressed. It’s very personal to me. I know my fan base can be split over this version because it’s so weird and aggressive and punk and digital and there are people who have come to me for a sweet pop sound. I think it’s cool but I also need to express myself so as not to die.
Where are you inspired to take your sound now?
Lately I’ve been in industrial rap. I’ve been in Godly the Ruler. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved pop-punk and emo stuff. Growing up I was watching 20 white guys playing drums in their basements, playing guitar and complaining about their stepdads and I was like, “Wow, this is how I feel, for some weird reason. . Like, even though I’m a brown immigrant kid, I have no idea why I identify with this skinny white kid complaining about his stepdad and his little town in California.
I also really like Jean Dawson. When this album came out I was depressed because it’s a masterpiece and I’m not on it. But it also makes me want to work harder at what I do. Once you know how to make a little music, you know how to make a hit, in my opinion. It’s just mentally taxing: I could do more songs that would explode, but I would be sad because I wasn’t able to express myself. That’s why I love this project so much: I didn’t think of mass calling, streaming or algorithms. I sat down and played guitar and bass and did the coolest shit. I start a verse by saying, “These are the chronicles of brown skin! If I was a young dark-haired boy with no one to look up to and there was an artist opening a line like that… I feel like I’m making music for kids like me, you know?
It’s amazing that you reproduce all the colored kids who love alternative music!
We’re into all kinds of things, and I don’t want us to be held up because of the color of our skin. Like right now I’m literally doing UK rap house with my friends, writing songs for female singers. and we make Disney XDS music. I hate being stereotyped and put in a box. I don’t like to think of it in technical terms of success, but I’m proud because I’ve played guitar and bass, said so much cool stuff, and produced it all on my own.
What was it like working with your friends and family?
We recently shot a music video in Vancouver. Our best friends we got drunk with had this house and it had a red carpet and a red couch and it was so filthy. We found random friends on Instagram and we did it all day. My friends gave me fake blood. It’s very DIY. It’s like a village and like we are building something together. I work with my little brother at home, he is still in high school. I bought him a camera and he takes pictures all the time. Everything is very homemade.
And do you carry out all these projects under your own label?
Yes! This is Curtis Waters Inc licensed by BMG. Nobody signed on the label, but later I want to sign people on the label because I love producing. I want to be like Pharrell. There are so many things I can’t do: I would love to make sexy R&B music. I can do rap, pop and punk, but I want to broaden my scope to do everything. I would love to work with artists who have a very whimsical fairytale vibe but who contrast with the harsh industrial style. I’m a big fan of soft vocals.
Tell us the story of the rabbit costume?
I watched Rubber like a teenager. I have always been inspired by it. He was also inspired by Clockwork Orange: it’s weird to have a spooky person drinking milk, so I thought I could explore that with a cute bunny outfit with some aggressive music. There’s also a nod to the Kubrick Stairs – much of the album was inspired by weird movies. One of my fans actually sent me a bunny hat in my PO Box and I liked it so much that I decided it had to be a character. I made a photoshop version of myself with red makeup and a star on my forehead and asked her if she could make me a custom character for this album.
What are you going to do in a post-containment world?
I exploded before I put on a show. I wanna do a bunch of punk songs and tour. I want to go back to Nepal; I miss my family there. The last time I was back was in 2014. I want to have a booth somewhere at random, play guitar and disappear a bit.