Last year, Shawn Wasabi went from unknown bedroom electronic producer to viral sensation virtually overnight when the video for his song “Marble Soda” hit 1 million views in under 48 hours. As of this writing, it’s at nearly 10 million.
He doesn’t have an album or even an EP to his name, but he’s developed a fervid audience with several YouTube videos of his upbeat, nerd-culture-influenced electronic music. All of these videos two things in common: 1. They are single-take live performances played at lightning-fast speeds on Wasabi’s pad controller. 2. All are named after food. “Burnt Rice,” “Marble Soda,” “Mac n’ Cheese,” “Pizza Rolls.” Truly, there is no other electronic artist on the scene like him. Wasabi is carving out a niche of his own: happy dance music for kids who like to geek out on PlayStation all day and eat at weird fusion food trucks at night.
A few hours before a recent Wasabi show in Santa Cruz, California, we meet at a downtown pizzeria offering surf décor and enormous slices. Now in in his early 20s, Wasabi is tall and skinny with shaggy wasabi-green hair that covers the top of his face. He’s wearing skinny jeans and a sparkly T-shirt with a large ice cream cone on it. He immediately strikes me as shy and a bit nervous.
“I eat out so much,” he says. “I go out of my way to find restaurants that are not very well known, but seem really cool to try out.” He speaks with an odd rhythm, stopping and starting mid-sentence as though he’s continually following a new train of thought. “I moved to L.A., and that place is like a center for ethnic fusion foods and food trucks and neat little hole-in-the-walls.”
Up until a year ago, Wasabi lived in nearby Salinas, a small farming town best known as the setting for many of John Steinbeck’s novels. Before the millions of YouTube views, Wasabi and his friends played DIY electronic shows around Salinas, usually drawing crowds in the range of 10 people. It’s been an entirely different story this past year, much of which he’s spent getting flown all over the world to play festivals and established clubs.
But let’s get back to food. “I make a list of food names I think would be cool,” Wasabi explains, back at the club for tonight’s show. “I’ll see something on a menu and I’ll say, ‘I need to write that down.’ So I do. I want everything to make a cohesive theme.” The more we talk about food, the more he lights up. “I’ve been doing so much food adventuring. There’s a neighborhood in Los Angeles called Sawtelle. They have some Asian foods that are really cool, like kimchi rice balls. I love Korean barbecue spots, like around K-Town. There’s a great curry place called CoCo Ichibanya. There’s so many ramen spots…it’s all sort of an L.A. food palette.”
The song that changed Wasabi’s life, he tells me, was “Marble Soda.” It’s a bubbly, happy high-energy house-influenced song, full of video game samples and whatever random sounds Wasabi was able to cram in there. It’s the musical analog of the man himself: An explosion of spazzy dance music, gaming culture, cartoons and sugary-sweet foods. And it’s a breath of fresh air in a sea of the macho EDM that currently dominates nightclubs and electronic festivals.
I suggest that his music sounds like his personality and he laughs. “I used to play so many video games, and watched so many cartoons growing up. I love sampling things that I enjoy and bringing it all together,” he says. “Each little sound bite has its own space. I’ll find things on the radio. I’m looking for stuff that sounds neat—like a toaster, even. I get creative and do stuff that no one would think about.”
“Marble Soda” wasn’t the first song Wasabi uploaded to YouTube—it wasn’t even the first to rack up a sizeable amount of views—but it quickly broke new ground, and it did so fast. Part of the appeal is just watching Wasabi’s hands. He’s playing a square controller with 64 buttons (arcade buttons, it turns out), and playing it with an ease and dexterity worthy of Hendrix.
These videos are no easy feat for Wasabi. It takes him a long time to write out these songs, map out the samples and program the lighting sequences on the controller, which adds to the visual appeal. Unlike a guitar or a piano, there are no obvious markers where all the sounds are located, and he’s playing everything—the beats, the samples, the melodies—with this one machine. When he’s finally ready, it usually takes him several takes to get it right. “It has to be perfect,” Wasabi says. The result is mesmerizing. One YouTuber comments, “h-how…how even? It’s amazing.” Another: “The movements are entrancing I can’t stop rewatching.”
When Wasabi uploaded “Marble Soda” on April 21, 2015, he was still living at his parents’ house in Salinas. He’d had the “Shawn Wasabi” moniker about a year already; his real name is Shawn Serrano. (“It’s an alter ego of my last name. Serrano is like a spicy pepper that’s green. So Wasabi’s the alter ego of that.”) Within a week of uploading “Marble Soda,” he was getting calls from promoters wanting to fly him to New York, Montreal, L.A., China and the UK. He’s played SXSW, #GRIDLIFE Music and Motorsports Festival in Michigan, the Summer Sun Celebration in Manchester England and Pa’l Norte Festival in Monterrey, Mexico, to name a few.
Since his first blush of success, Wasabi has gradually pulled away from the sample-heavy mashups. These days he’s working more on remixes and producing original songs with sounds produced 100 percent by Wasabi himself. His Santa Cruz set reflects this direction. He plays originals and remixes and even spins some friends’ tunes. He calls it a “DJ set.” It’s still an offbeat rave of sorts. Wasabi’s energy level is high, but he wears an earnest, dopey grin, and dances like he’s in his room in front of a mirror. The crowd’s stiff at first, but by the third song, they follow his lead and cut loose.
His opening track is a pumped-up remix of Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” which the crowd loves. There’s some “Who Let the Dogs out” and some Daft Punk, and several left-of-center electronic songs I don’t recognize. His crowd is mostly his age and looks similar to him: confidently nerdy. These are the weird kids that would never be caught dead at Electric Daisy Carnival.
Wasabi likes the attention and enjoys getting to play music for a living, but he seems more excited that his music has catapulted him from Salinas to L.A., where he can live out all of his food fantasies. “Before I moved, it was a lot more basic, like Olive Garden and Red Lobster. I haven’t been to those places since I moved.”
I ask him what it all means. Why does he continue to name all his songs after food? What does that say about his music? He thinks about it, but looks at me like it’s a ridiculous question to even be asking.
“It’s something that someone who isn’t me has to analyze and tell me that it’s something that’s deeply buried in my psychology,” he tells me. “‘This is what fills your void, naming things after food.’ To me, it’s just really appealing. That’s as far as I know.”