NME Radar: Breakout

Sub Urban is the TikTok-conquering star making horror-infused, macabre pop

The New Jersey star's horror-themed music videos are an eerie introduction to an artist ready to put the frights into mainstream-pop

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

A few days into 2019, Sub Urban (aka LA-based, New Jersey-raised 20-year-old Daniel Maisonneuve) uploaded a new song called ‘Cradles’. Set to a bed of creepy music box notes and dragging, distorted melodies fit to score a horror movie, it quickly snowballed into a new, macabre sensation. Its video – which sees Maisonneuve sitting in a cradle surrounded by flames and shot at from disembodied hands in a pram – has over 120 million views on YouTube, has seen him compared to teen-of-the-moment Billie Eilish, and become the soundtrack to over 1 billion videos on TikTok, making it the second biggest track on the platform behind Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’.

Success like that on his debut single proper (the musician had previously released tracks under the Sub Urban moniker, now deleted from the internet), might have hit like a bolt from the blue, but Maisonneuve was confident he would find that kind of staggering success at some point in his career. “I had faith that eventually I would be able to make a hit song in my lifetime, if not a few,” he says matter-of-factly from self-isolation in LA. “But I didn’t expect it to be my first single.” He tells us what it’s like to become a viral star, dealing with “toxic hipster thoughts”, and what inspires his use of baroque sounds.

‘Cradles’ was an immediate success. Were you prepared for how quickly it blew up?

“When I was about to put out ‘Cradles’, I had the faith that it would get at least 10 million views. There was no real promotion when we first put it out, but I was confident it would do well. I did not expect it to do whatever the fuck it’s at right now – 120 million, 150 million. I didn’t expect it to become an alternative Number One. It was definitely a lucky break.”

How do you even begin to process numbers that are as big as 120 million, or even 1 billion views on TikTok?

“At a certain point, you just accept that virality is virality and butterfly effects happen. It definitely comes down to the human psyche when you can’t put a reason behind something and I’m just grateful that this one hit.”

Are you enjoying seeing it have that ever-revolving life or would you prefer it to die down a bit so people will focus on your other songs a bit more?

“I want people to focus on my other songs more but I’m not gonna reject a freebie when it comes to ‘Cradles’ revived. I definitely do want to move away from it finally because my EP just dropped and ‘Freak’’s going strong. Who knows, maybe ‘Cradles’ is the only one that’s going to go viral. You never know! But I’m pretty confident in my songwriting and the production so I’m gonna say I can predict it and then I’m gonna invest a lot of money in music videos. I just kind of wish that ‘Cradles’ got a different dance – a less wacky one.”

‘Cradles’ is about the parallels between adulthood and childhood – what inspired you to write about that?

“I was going from childhood to adolescent right before I wrote that song. I was 16, 17 and I still considered myself a child. I mean, I felt like I was a 12-year-old until I turned 19. I don’t feel like a 20-year-old now, I still feel like a 15-year-old. It scares me. It terrifies me how fast time goes and how I’m somehow magically supposed to operate as a new entity when I’m thrown into a new environment that requires me to act as what you call an adult. I guess the charm behind me is I still feel like a teenager, I still feel like a kid. It’s what’s definitely gonna keep me youthful in the times when I become a fucking grandpa. Or maybe I’ll be dead by then, we don’t know.”

There’s snobbery around songs that go viral on any platform, but particularly on TikTok right now. Is that an attitude you’ve had to deal with?

“Yeah, it was very constant at first. It’s a lot less constant now. I feel like I’ve developed a good fanbase that is very defensive. I mean, currently the only thing I don’t like is seeing the constant comparison between me and other artists – I won’t name who. But I wish that people could stop discrediting and really just listen to the music for a second and realise that it has a life of its own. It was made sincerely. It was never meant to be popularised on a platform like that, but it did. But yet again, it adds to the exposure so I cannot be angry at it, but I don’t want future projects to be considered insincere because of the origin of my popularity.”

If other songs went viral, people might assume you wrote them to replicate the success of ‘Cradles’.

“Yeah and it’s absolutely ridiculous. My song is definitely a pioneer on the platform next to Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’. I think it’s still one of the biggest songs on TikTok. But I’ve seen literal comments that say: ‘Good thing I was here before TikTok stole the song… hopefully they don’t because it will just destroy the style of the song.’ No, it won’t destroy the style of the song. I don’t know where people get this tomfoolery! It’s ridiculous to think that just because something becomes popular in a place where you don’t want it to become popular that automatically makes the song bad. That is just a pure toxic hipster thought. It’s completely out of my control and to give me a one-way path hurts my career.”

You released your debut EP ‘Thrill Seeker’ last month. The songs on it were all written between the ages of 16 to 18, which is a time when people are still very much trying to figure out who they are. Do you still feel connected to those songs lyrically?

“All the actual songs I feel very strongly about but I know for a fact I wouldn’t have written ‘Cirque’ now. There’s no way I would have written ‘Spring Fever’ the way it was written. The way it’s written is dumb. It portrays a kid who can’t express themselves poetically so it leads to a very blunt delivery. With my song ‘KMS’, I don’t feel like killing myself anymore. I do deal with constant manic depression but I don’t want to die anymore. I’m grateful I’m not still in those spaces but, unfortunately, it creates what I consider to be good art. Sometimes there has to be a little bit of turmoil to continue the cycle, continue that place where I want to write from.”

Your music often has this baroque, eerie, horror-infused sound to it. What draws you to using those sounds? 

“There’s an egoism to it. There’s a lot of reasons I connect to it but one of them is definitely because I grew up learning music classically – maybe that had an impact. I think I actually connect more with some of my more alternative, rocky songs, more hip-hop songs. But I drew a lot of inspiration from video game series, Bioshock. There’s a lot of culture I’ve experienced through video games – the realism of going back in time, that same thing you would do with films. I thought that vintage Tim Burton feeling was something that wasn’t being explored in music, especially in the mainstream. It wasn’t only driven by nobody had done it yet though.”

You write, produce and creative direct everything. Why is it important to you have control over everything you put out?

“It’s incredibly important to me because I don’t feel like anybody can do it better than me when it comes to music production. Especially for myself. I know how to produce every genre. If you ask me to make a song for a certain type of genre, I could do it. I feel very confident in that – drum and bass, trap… If you want me to make a rock song I could write it, I couldn’t play it.

As far as the visual control, it’s still just as much of an expression to me as the music is. Even if it’s considered an add on or promotion, the music videos are absolutely an expansion, a visual platform that I’m able to express even more than an audible experience can display.”

What kind of artist would you like to be remembered as in 50, 60 years time?

“Someone who took pop and made it their bitch.”

Sub Urban’s new EP ‘Thrill Seeker’ is out now

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