Most music journalists trace the origin of the infamous term "chillwave" back to a 2009 piece on the tongue-in-cheek music site Hipster Runoff. So it's easy to understand Knoxville electro-funk chameleon Dylan Dawkins' frustration with potential pigeonholing: Ever since that infamous blog post, critics have run wild with the "chillwave" tag, slapping the word in big, bold letters onto any down-tempo electronic track with a gooey '80s center.
"I have nothing to do with ‘chillwave,'" Dawkins writes in a recent e-mail interview. "Nor do any of my friends. As far as I am concerned (along with, I'm pretty sure, every other artist labeled into the ‘chillwave' category), that genre doesn't even exist and was coined by a joke blog."
Dawkins (who also plays synth in local reverb-pop outfit Yung Life) may accidentally evoke some easy comparisons with his intimate keyboard atmospherics, but for the most part, he's operating on a much more sophisticated level of craft and musicianship than most kids doodling around on their laptops. His tracks may be instrumental, but it's rare to find electronic music this lyrical: Dawkins' loose-limbed synthesizers, which stretch and crawl in luxurious waves, rarely sit in idle ambience, recalling at turns both the spacey fog of Animal Collective and the eye-popping finesse of Herbie Hancock. When he samples, he samples spiritedly, dusting off forgotten R&B and soul hooks that blend seamlessly with his druggy, sky-high backdrops.
"My natural writing style is very loose, funky, sexy, flowing arrangements," Dawkins writes. He types his responses, jarringly, in all caps—disconnected, almost like a ransom note. Maybe it's a simple stylistic preference, but it's also likely that Dawkins just wants to remain mysterious; he also refuses to state his age, the closest response being, "I AM INFINITE." (Though in a previous Metro Pulse story, Cari Wade Gervin revealed he is 20.) In a way, his words feel a lot like his music, which, in spite of the physical, visceral presence of his funky, bass-fueled grooves, is slightly ethereal.
Dawkins has never released a proper "album," instead posting all of his tracks to Soundcloud and Bandcamp (mostly for free), occasionally sending out droves of freshly written material to his Facebook followers. Dawkins writes and produces songs at an impressive pace. (A head-spinning new jam—the soul-sampled banger "Spirits High"—has just been posted on his Soundcloud page).
"I am spontaneous, and I have ideas to record fun, sexy funk jams that I will eventually put all together in a formal release of some sort," Dawkins says. "I can bust out a funk jam in a day or two."
In spite of his dizzying production rate, his tunes sound like labors of love, as if they've been crafted over the course of months. But Dawkins, slowly but surely, has reached a creative breaking point.
"I used to be impatient with releasing material and would release something almost every other day," he says. "Now I have slowed down and started concentrating on the full album again. This next album I am working on will be released soon. It's a concept album pretty much, called The Second Sun. It will be an instrumental album about the destruction of this world and the search and journey to repopulate the next world.
"It's in two parts: The first part being about the good times of this world and the population learning about the destruction of the planet and their reaction to it. Then the second part is the journey through space to get to the new world and the exploration of the planet."
It's hard to imagine an instrumental album with such a dense storyline, but perhaps in an effort to connect that story to his music, Dawkins has been hard at work on a series of visual effects for his live set, which features samples and an effects processor "to remix the songs and make them more improvisational."
Though Persona La Ave remains his most prolific project, Dawkins has focused a lot of his recent concentration on Yung Life and their quest for bigger things.
"We are pushing for a lot of things right now and really working hard to get an album out soon and tours planned for the summer," he says. "Things are happening."
Despite having a day job at a grocery store and working with Yung Life, Dawkins has managed to play monthly Persona La Ave shows, first at lesser-known venues like the Poison Lawn and more recently at Pilot Light. Dawkins is certainly entrenched in his own weird, artistic corner of the Knoxville music scene, one where experimentation is encouraged and rules don't exist—nothing but "artistic expression 100 percent."