Huge in the USA, underrated in Belgium: an interview with dubstep all-star Eptic

Pictures by Simon Leloup

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Headlining multiple tours across the States does not equal fame at home.

If you’re not into the heavier kind of dubstep or drum ‘n’ bass, the name Eptic might not ring a bell. Yet Michael Bella racked up 500.000 monthly listeners on Spotify, headlines USA tours and collaborates with some of the world’s biggest EDM artists. DJ Snake for example, famous for hits like ‘Turn Down For What’ featuring Lil Jon, and ‘Taki Taki’ with Cardi B and Selena Gomez. And Dillon Francis, known for tracks like ‘Get Low’ and ‘Coming Over’ featuring Kygo. If it weren't for the current crisis, the Waasmunster native would have moved to Los Angeles and enjoyed the biggest summer of his life.

It's been more than ten years since you released your first track. How do you look back on your career so far?

“I never realized it has been this long already (laughs). I was just 17 when I dropped my first track, but it feels like it was only yesterday. From the start, I received great feedback from some producers I looked up to, like Cookie Monsta (a dubstep producer pioneering the heavier sides of the genre - and who sadly passed away recently, ed). I soon started playing gigs every single weekend. When that happens to you as a teenager, it's very easy to get starstruck, dropping everything and pursue a career in music. I remained realistic, though, making sure I got through college first. In uncertain times like these, I’m happy I’ll always have my design degree to fall back on if needed”.

Which achievement are you most proud of?

“Well, I’m proud of the way I got to collaborate with an artist like DJ Snake. Before I ever met him, he had already been giving me a lot of compliments on my music, and he played a lot of my tracks in his DJ sets. Then one day, I randomly saw him on a transit bus in London. Usually I’m quite shy, but this was my chance, and I took it. He wanted to collaborate with me – and that's how it happened. I learned to stop overthinking these things and just ask. It may not be the craziest story, but it genuinely felt like a personal victory”.

Never stop asking, who knows what crazy things might happen next?

“After DJ Snake, I met Dillon Francis on a gig. Learning from experience, I gathered my courage and just told him "we should do a collab together". Next thing I know, I'm in the studio with him, making music together. When he headlined EDC Las Vegas not much later, he called me out on stage and premiered the track in front of 30.000 people. I've rarely felt that nervous (laugh). The moral of the story is: never stop asking, who knows what crazy things might happen next”?

You have another collab in the works with Marshmello, who according to Spotify is the 10th most streamed artist in the world. Is working with these top tier producers the most efficient way to reach ultimate stardom?

“I used to believe that for a long time. I've been thinking about this a lot recently. Now, I'm starting to realize that may not be true. When I drop a project with just my own music, it actually generates a lot more buzz in my fanbase. Don't get me wrong, it's amazing to see your collabs get millions of plays on Spotify, but in the end, it's not something my fans are waiting for”.

How do you feel about having such a massive audience, yet you remain relatively underappreciated in Belgium?

“Given the state of the bass music scene in Belgium, I’m happy I get to play RAMPAGE (which hosts over 30.000 ravers over two days, ed.) and Tomorrowland, which are the only real moments for me to shine over here. That said, when I hear that Boris (Netsky, ed.) is barely able to enter a bar in Antwerp without having to pose in other people’s selfies, I consider myself lucky. The only thing that annoys me a little bit is when Belgian media applauds artists after they got booked for one gig overseas. I don’t want to throw shade, but I can’t help to feel weird about it when you take my two sold-out USA tours into account. In the end, I know I shouldn't care about that".

You can manage many things with just an internet connection, but making real things happen always starts by meeting people in person.

“Two years ago, I decided I wanted move to Los Angeles eventually. During that time, I was flying back and forth between Belgium and the USA almost every weekend. I realized that with the money I paid for all these flights, I could easily rent an apartment over there. Most of my contacts live there anyway. To give you an example: a year ago I received a text from Skrillex, asking me if I wanted to join him in a Los Angeles studio that night. I was in Belgium, but I replied I was flying back next week. Unfortunately, that didn’t work for him. With artists on that level, you don’t get many chances, and you have to be ready when opportunity knocks. On moments like these, I realized that I would only be able to grow my career’s potential if I moved there. You can manage many things with just an internet connection, but making real things happen always starts by meeting people in person”.

Where does the average Eptic fan come from?

“If you look at the numbers, most of my listeners are American. I’ve always had the idea that most of my fans are relatively young because that's the image dubstep (and by extension, bass music) has in Belgium. On RAMPAGE, for example, you see a lot of teenagers and early twentysomethings. In the USA, that's not necessarily the case. Crowds over there tend to be a lot older, and it feels like the whole genre is perceived as a bit edgier over there”.

Since its heyday in Belgium almost a decade ago, dubstep has been called dead many times. Yet, you still have a very active local fanbase, and you headline the biggest indoor bass music event in the world (RAMPAGE at Sportpaleis). So what is it?

“It's a little bit of both. Of course, the scene is not dead, and RAMPAGE's success is proof of that. On the other hand, there are barely any small independent promoters left in Belgium. When I was 17 years old, I was getting booked in youth centres all over the country every single weekend. I have the feeling those small and middle-sized parties with up to 1000 visitors have completely disappeared. In the USA, this is very much still happening. Last time I did an overseas tour, I was afraid we wouldn't sell any tickets because so many other dubstep artists were touring at the same time. Sometimes they would play the same venue two days before or after my date. To my surprise, this hardly affected ticket sales”.

Playing headline slots on the world's biggest festivals was going to be the crown jewel after years of hard work. But then all plans were cancelled.

Fast forward to 2020. How have you been dealing with the current situation if you're used to travelling around the world playing gigs?

“Normally, I would pay Belgium a quick visit before moving to Los Angeles. Over 30 festivals had been confirmed, and in my mind, I was already in the studio making new music with other artists. It was going to be the first time I would capitalize on my popularity over there. Playing headline slots on the biggest festivals was going to be the crown jewel after years of hard work. But then all plans were cancelled, and so I'm currently back home with my parents in Waasmunster, eating patatjes every day. I know I shouldn’t complain because I do value my time with my family, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting a little. On the bright side, I'm making so much more new music now. If you're constantly on the road, finding time to be creative can be difficult”.

Your music is clearly intended to be played in big stadiums and on massive festivals – none of which are taking place now. How does this impact your time in the studio now?

“I'm very aware that (laughs)! Many other artists don't care and just release these big-drop anthems, but you can see these tracks don't do as well as they would normally do. I haven't felt so much freedom in the studio for a very long time. Finally, I’m truly able to make whatever I feel like. I know it should always be like this, but it's tough to break old habits. I could never stop myself from asking myself "what would happen if I drop this track in front of thousands of ravers"? That pressure has disappeared completely. Despite all the bad stuff going on, it’s refreshing to feel like a teenager again, making new music without any biases or boundaries”.

Let’s end on a motivational note. If there’s one piece of advice you would give to the young bedroom producers reading this, what would it be?

“Don’t listen to anyone and trust your instinct (laughs). When you're young, you have this idea that you need a good manager to get to the next level. From personal experience, I can tell you that's not always true. Some of my most-played tracks in my discography were initially dismissed by my former management because they thought it wouldn't work. There are so many emerging talents who are managed by only their best friend, yet their careers are peaking. That said, there are some great managers out there – but I wish artists wouldn't set their minds on getting one, thinking it will solve all their problems”.