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Sunglasses Off: Channel Tres on Kicking His Addictions & How His New EP Is ‘Me Realizing I’m Ready For The Big Stage Type of Energy’

todayFebruary 23, 2023 1

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“Cheers. Happy Valentine’s Day,” says Channel Tres with a cheeky smile as he holds up his coffee for a toast. The artist’s demeanor brings warmth to an otherwise overcast morning in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village, where he’s sat down with Billboard for the first time since 2019

Between sips, he offers bite-sized commentary on Beyoncé making history at the Grammys (“It’s beautiful”) and his hometown Lakers (“They trying to figure it out”) while sharing videos of his puppy Willow, who he adopted during the pandemic. The conversation turns to his outfit, a bright orange shirt and white floral skirt wrapped in a dark denim, kimono-style jacket. More interesting, perhaps, is what he’s not wearing: sunglasses, the cool-affirming accessory which at this point is signature to his persona — like Dalí and his mustache, or Pharrell and his giant hat.

“I used to wear beanies and shades all the time, but then I got known for them — so it was like, I didn’t wanna break character,” Channel says. “But now, I’m healthy. I stopped smoking weed like a year ago, so my face got brighter. Usually I was high or something, so they would hide my eyes. I still wear shades, but I like looking at the world in its natural color sometimes.” 

For Channel, managed by Talya Elitzer of L.A.’s Godmode Music, the last few years have been full of transformations. From humble beginnings in South L.A., the DJ/producer/singer found international success nearly overnight with his 2018 debut single “Controller.” Tastemakers such as Australia’s triple j radio station and the U.K.’s BBC Radio 1 put the song on heavy rotation, with Pete Tong crowning it with his Essential New Tune. Elton John even co-signed it, calling the artist “fresh and brilliant.”

From this auspicious start, Channel honed his sound — a West-Coast blend of house, funk, soul and hip-hop anchored by his suave baritone — in the studio, while onstage he delivered live shows filled with choreography and high energy. Working with artists ranging from Disclosure to Tyler, the Creator to Terrace Martin made him one of music’s in-demand collaborators. 

But, as the artist explains, he had spent little time processing his previous hardships until the making of his 2020 EP i can’t go outside, which coincided with the peak of lockdown, as well as that year’s social justice protests and his own personal vices. Over the next year and a half, he worked to reinvent himself physically and mentally. This past April, he made his Coachella debut, before completing his first North American headline tour in December. He also recently entered a partnership with RCA Records.

Channel’s latest EP, Real Cultural S–t, out tomorrow (Feb. 24), sounds like a byproduct of this ongoing journey. As with his previous work, it brims with heavy grooves, slick bars and big choruses. In the cheerful defiance of “6am,” in the horn-filled seduction of “Just Can’t Get Enough” and on new song “All My Friends,” a sentimental record for the homies, Channel gets to fully enjoy himself.

It seems he’s doing more and more of that these days. He discusses his new EP and new outlook with Billboard below.

You recently wrapped your first North American headline tour. How did it feel to be back on the road?

It felt like a goal got accomplished. We did the tour, everybody started happy and stayed healthy. It was very motivating. I learned a lot about merch. I learned a lot about crowds. I learned what my fans look like, because at some shows I would go to the merch table and say “hi” and things like that. I learned how to conduct an audience. I learned that I really like back-to-back-to-back shows, when I’m in one venue and I gotta play three nights. I did that in L.A. and New York. I just love entertaining.

I’ve seen you live twice, first in 2019 and then in December at the Fonda. You were already so good in 2019, but the improvement from then to now is staggering. What did you do for that to happen?

I think it’s sweat equity — you know, once you do something a lot. In 2019 I was really starting out, so I’m happy I was good then. But you know, that was 2022, last year. So two years have passed. I’ve been all over the world, had a lot more experiences. I’ve been able to sit under other people, study more, take more dance classes, spend more time on my dancers, and just break free from things I thought I had limitations on. I think it’s just a product of continuing to do something. When you are starting something it doesn’t just happen; you have to do things to achieve certain things. I just stuck to the plan. I didn’t plan on being a really good performer as soon as I started. I know it takes time. It’s just the product of continuing to do it and when I’m off, taking care of my body, taking care of myself, learning and studying, being a student of performance.

It’s been almost four years since we caught up and a lot has happened in that time. You hit a decade birthday milestone, 30, during a pandemic. How did you use that time?

The pandemic really helped me see where I was mentally. The twenties were wild, crazy. [Laughs.] I was very fortunate to have that time, because I was able to sit down and really look at my life and see what I can keep going with in this next decade, and what I need to let go. Like, my drinking got to a really crazy height. My smoking got to a crazy height. There were things I wanted to do during the pandemic but I found myself paralyzed, and I was just like, “Man, what is going on with me?” 

I made a project, [2020’s] i can’t go outside, but that project was made just, you know, waking up every day, taking an Adderall, going to the studio and just sloppy — like rock star, f–king, I-don’t-give-a-f–k punk, just give me whatever I need to get to the studio. After that was done, I never wanted to make a project like that again, because it was just really at the height of my addictions. 

Then I got back on tour after the pandemic, and I was like, “OK, well I’m with Thundercat, he’s a little older than me, he’s having the greatest time,” and he had been three years sober. I was just like, “I’ve had fun doing the drug thing and the psychedelics and all that s–t. Now that I’ve exhausted that part of my life, let me do this new decade differently. Let me start going on walks, working out, getting rest. Let me start taking my job more seriously.” So the pandemic just really helped me mature as far as that. 

Being in music is like a fantasy. I could drink, and because I’m talented, I can still make it to the studio, you know? But you can be talented and not live a good life and be unhealthy. I just wasn’t happy. I stopped drinking, started working out and surrounded myself with more positive people. It changed my whole life.

Your upcoming EP, Real Cultural S–t, was originally supposed to be your debut album. What happened?

Creatively, those songs were made in a different time. I went on tour and wasn’t able to finish them or act the way I wanted to, because I got in a new situation. I got signed, and then I wasn’t working with the producer that I worked with anymore. Things just happened and it just wasn’t right, the vibes wasn’t right. It felt like this moment was helping me get to another moment. It didn’t feel like this was the moment to put all my energy into making an album. I was doing shows at the same time I was making this music, and this music was made during a period of my life where I was just mentally different. The new music I’m making now is just on another level.

How so?

I’m just in a different place. The way I’m attentive in the studio, the collaborators I’m able to work with. Now my ideas are coming to more fruition — not more easily, but more naturally… It’s just like, you change over years, and I’m someone who always just tries to get better at what I’m doing. I’m working in new environments, I’m working with different people, so I’m just making a different type of music. I don’t like to go too long without putting out music, so I was like, “all right, since I’m performing these songs already and they have a certain vibe … let me leave them there and let this new person just blossom.”

Tell me about the creative process around making the EP.

It started during the pandemic and then post-pandemic. I was bouncing around. I was in New York. I was here in Atwater. I made a lot more songs, but only five of them I got to finish. It was just me, a songwriter and another producer. It was made after i can’t go outside, during that process.

So was it made alongside your refresh EP?

Yeah, refresh was something I did by myself in my room. This one was made at the Godmode studio in the past year and a half.

The title kind of gives it away, but refresh was, well, a refresh for yourself, going back to all production, no vocals or collabs. Does Real Cultural S–t continue that idea of a new start for you?

I think it’s the beginning of a chapter. Because the records are big. Like “6am,” “All My Friends” and “Big Time.” This is more so a precursor to the next wave I’m on. Like a thesis statement, like this is where we going. Like, get ready for big s–t, big time. You know? This is me realizing that I’m ready for the big stage type of energy.

What inspired you during this time?

Teddy Pendergrass, Rick James. Just old times with my friends. “Real cultural s–t” is like, when you have a group of friends, y’all start to have terms that y’all use together. Y’all start to do things and only y’all know about it. During the making of this project, I was reminiscing on a lot of those friendships, ‘cause I had just come from grieving them. But now I’ll call my homies up and like, the way we talk, to somebody else it might look like scribble-scrabbl,e but I know exactly what they mean. And so I would always say, “Man, that’s real cultural sh-t.”

You mentioned listening to a lot of Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem in another interview. How do they factor in?

Daft Punk was able to do these big choruses but keep this underground-type feeling. When they got big, it just felt big, you know? But they started off with Homework and s–t like that. I could relate to that. And with [LCD Soundsystem frontman] James Murphy, just the freedom and creativity… Their song [“Someone Great”] is about his friend dying, but it sounds so happy. I can relate to that because a lot of my songs sound happy, but they have sad undertones where I’m going through something.

Exactly. Which is why I feel like Real Cultural Sh-t is the first record where you get to fully enjoy yourself. What was the turning point?

Getting back on tour and seeing that I got into music to entertain people, to make people happy. I was like, “Oh, OK, this is really what it’s about. It’s not about just sitting in my room and making all these beats to myself and keeping them to myself. It’s about community, bringing people together and me being brave enough to do the things I want to do so other people could be brave in their own life.” It’s just really about giving back, you know?

Absolutely. You recently said, “I feel like every project helps me get closer to the person I want to be at the time.” Who is that person now?

I wanna be a star — a mixture of James Brown, Prince and Kendrick Lamar, but also like, David Bowie… But also I just wanna be myself, you know? 

I’m really less stressed about making it. I feel like I’ve made it. Everything out of my goals, I’ve crossed them out, so a lot of this stuff now is overflow. It’s beautiful. I’m just grateful.

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