Most Harvard graduates don’t parlay a degree in African American studies into a thriving music career. Then there’s D.A. Wallach, the 30-year-old musician/actor/tech investor whose band, Chester French, once caused a bidding war between Pharrell, Kanye West and Jermaine Dupri. Before graduation.
After the band’s 2013 split, Wallach focused on investing — in SpaceX, Spotify and PopChips, to name a few. At Spotify, he’s managed the company’s artist relationships since before their stateside arrival. His other passion? Healthcare, an industry Wallach astutely describes as “desperately in need of creative minds.” He’s the current champion of a mobile app called Doctor on Demand that provides video conferencing with physicians during non-critical situations (i.e. that time you sliced your finger on a beer can).
The just-married multihyphenate recently returned to music with his first solo album, Time Machine — a self-proclaimed “expensive to make” record that channels the soulful sounds of 1970s Los Angeles. (Jared Leto’s a fan; Pharrell collaborates.) Playboy spent Black Friday with Wallach, unearthing everything from the album’s inspiration to the shocking truth behind Pharrell’s hat.
Your first band, Chester French, has kind of a crazy story. Tell us about it.
Five of us started the band our freshman year at Harvard. I actually auditioned to play drums, but was bested by Damien Chazelle, who ended up writing and directing Whiplash. So I guess I can’t be too sour about that. They wanted me to sing instead, although I’d actually never sung before… definitely stumbled my way through that for a while. After our sophomore year, we reduced the band to just Max and me. We made money as sound engineers for Harvard’s recording studio during the day and spent nights and weekends recording our first album, Love the Future. Our big break came senior year when, after working on the record for about two and a half years, we sent out a huge number of demos. Serendipitously, we were approached by Pharrell, Kanye West and Jermaine Dupri, causing something of a bidding war. We ended up signing with Pharrell because, c’mon. Pharrell.
Were your parents pissed?
My parents were really happy and supportive — just wanted me to pursue my dreams. It also helped that I was going to make more money than my friends at investment banks. Max and I were super lucky to sign with Pharrell and Interscope right before graduation. In another universe, we would have waited tables for years. I can imagine so many other scenarios that would have been far more treacherous. But in reality, there was very little risk. We got to skip that intermediate period and go straight to making music.
If you hadn’t been so lucky, would you still have pursued the band?
One hundred percent. We were dead set on Chester French — had already put in four years and an endless amount of work. Starting a band is like running a small business. You manage a brand, create websites, register copyrights. So even without the record deal, we would have moved out to LA to pursue things for at least a couple years. It also helped that we had a big online audience by the time we graduated, so we knew we were doing something right. But honestly, signing with Pharrell sealed our fate.
Speaking of Pharrell, what’s it like working with one of the world’s most celebrated musicians?
I mean, it’s a real honor. It still shocks me that Pharrell likes and supports my music. It’s super gratifying to work with one of your favorite artists from high school. And Pharrell is just the best teacher I could possibly imagine in terms of fashion, music and just how to be cool. Although I have to say, I take credit for his hat. He and I had a debate seven years ago because I wanted to buy that hat — that amazing, 40-year-old Vivienne Westwood hat. A mutual friend of ours, Japanese fashion designer Nigo, showed it to us, and Pharrell talked me out of buying it. So when he bought it, and made it a phenomenon, I was like, “Dammit, that could have been me.”
Why did Chester French break up?
We moved to LA and made music as Chester French for three years. But four years ago, we had a falling out with our record label over our second album, Music 4 TNGRS. Max and I actually bought the record from Interscope to release it independently. And at that point, we were tired with the band. We’d run our creative distance. Max and I are still really good friends, though. We see each other all the time.
After Chester French, music became a hobby for me again. Because really, other than those three years after college, there was no other point in my life when music was the only thing I was doing. I always had other hobbies. After Chester French, I had the opportunity to focus on investing, and to teach myself to play piano. I started writing songs on the piano, but didn’t plan to release them until a friend of mine, Chris Clancy, convinced me the music was good enough for a release. I hooked up with Harvest Records, which is part of Capitol, and the rest is history.
Tell us about Time Machine.
This album was loosely inspired by the ‘70s, by Carol King and folks in her camp. A lot of the music at that time was centered around Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, which is actually about five minutes from where I live now. And it’s not that I romanticize that period — I’m not walking around dressed like someone out of that decade — but that being in that same place puts me in that same state of mind. But more than anything, this album was about getting back to basic songwriting. If making music is like building a house, I choose to focus on the frame.
Would it be bad to say I have no idea? Because I have no idea — in a good way.