Theoretically (not sonically), Bill Dess, known to the planet and streaming services as Two Feet, is punk AF. Dess, 26, has conjured a sound that grabs at your heart and a couple of other places. While his work has a late-night pleasure vibe to it, it’s his sheer determination to make it work that’s truly remarkable.
When this writer uses the modifier “punk” to describe Dess, we’re talking about a brazen DIY spirit. His amazing guitar proficiency coupled with hip-hop, bass and trap music underpinnings has made heads swivel. Here’s a guy who was given a free ride to the Berklee College Of Music and walked after half a semester, citing the school’s culture of maintaining old ways of doing things.
The first Two Feet track he ever uploaded to SoundCloud (with the radio-hostile title “Go Fuck Yourself”) widened some eyeballs. The next one, “I Feel Like I’m Drowning,” lit the fuse, resulting in a major-label bidding war. Bill Dess went from having enough money for a can of tuna and some coffee left over to cover the rent on his Harlem apartment to opening for Panic! At The Disco’s last tour. His major-label debut, Pink, was recorded at his leisure in said apartment. It wasn’t because he was trying to pocket some extra cash: He had the vision and knew how to execute it in the best way. No focus groups, consultants or other industry parasites needed, thank you very much.
Like everybody else, Two Feet is in a bit of a holding pattern as the world tries to navigate the coronavirus pandemic. He’s still keeping busy, writing music, embracing technology and playing his guitar. His tales of heartbreak and betrayal have a strange power to simultaneously jump-start libidos and tear ducts. You say you just saw your honey making out with someone else in a bar? Dess is going to play you a song to set your mind on edge. By the end of it, you’re still hurting but with the realization that you’re going to be fine. With a streaming history of over 1 billion (and over a million TikToks), he’s doing quite well on his own two feet.
Have you played guitar yet this morning?
BILL DESS: Of course I have.
What did you play? Did you play something minimal and slow? Did you decide you were going to play some grindcore? Whip out your Segovia licks?
I just like to play some comp jazz and blues stuff and have some coffee. It’s how I warm up my fingers every morning.
There’s lots of elements to Two Feet. Obviously, there’s the very resonant guitar playing. There’s a lot of space in it, but it creates a texture and also truly an emotional context. With a billion streams, there’s not just one exclusive type of fan who’s coming to you. The guy who just got off the third shift at the auto-manufacturing plant has a different vibe than the registered nurse or the 19-year-old college freshman. Why do you think people come to you?
It really depends. A good way to look at it is you should come to my shows. You have a lot of kids who come for the guitar playing, like you’re saying. There’s lots of kids with Tool and metal band T-shirts that come to my shows. Like you just said, there’s that 19-year-old freshman. I think they like it for the beats and the lyrics. It’s relatable to them in whatever way. I have a very diverse group of fans, and I think they find different things in it that they like because it’s such a mix of sounds and genres in a different way. It pulls people from all over.
The obvious one would be the sex vibes people seem to get from it. [Laughs.] You know, “the music is sexy.” Two Feet is on a ton of different “sexy” playlists. I have my own sexy-time playlist that I started six weeks ago and already has almost 60,000 followers and has a bunch of guests on it and stuff. So if there’s anything overarching over the whole sound, it’s definitely that kind of smoky bar, chill, relaxed, sexy time. That is definitely something everyone finds in the music.
Many Two Feet songs are incredibly melancholy and dark in the way that the relationships seem anguished. Having that intimacy and passion and eroticism, a lot of Pink feels like the end of a series of relationships. Or maybe it was just one. But it seems really dark that people would find joy in that kind of misery.
Yeah. In a weird way, a lot of the music is about breaking up or poisonous relationships. I think people still find that sexy because I know breaking up is kind of sexy. [Laughs.] Sometimes breaking up isn’t the end of a relationship—it can be a turning point. There’s a lot of longing and desire in the act of breaking up or the end of a relationship that I think people still find that sexy. It’s like a dramatic point in any [romance] movie where everything falls apart for a second and then they come back together. You make songs about that point in the movie. They’re still sexy, even though they make you sad or melancholic.
There’s definitely a cinematic vibe about Two Feet. That darkness where you can create the pictures in your head. You’re just lighting a fuse for people to react to the music, however they feel. But there is something about that darkness that’s… What is it, Vantablack? That’s not saying anything bad about your music. It’s saying that you can conjure these things that are so incredibly real. I just wondered if you have a girlfriend right now.
I do. [Laughs.]
Is writing these songs cathartic for you personally? Or are you like a film director creating a mise en scene?
It’s definitely both. Lots of times it’s imagery in my head or a scene from a movie, and I try to paint a sonic landscape of that moment. So that is definitely more like feeling like a director, creating a moment. And then a lot of it too is catharsis and real-life experiences. I sit sometimes, and I think back in my life and draw experiences or try to revisit emotions even if they were painful as I’m writing music. So I would say both of those things, for sure.
You made Pink in your bedroom in your apartment. The technology is available to do that. It’s not a “new” way of doing things. It’s a reaction against the old guard, the old structures of how the music business is run and the elements of how creativity and the business mix. You don’t have to go to a $700-an-hour studio to get a sound you can get in your bathroom.
Exactly. I think you can get a more honest sound at home actually because you don’t have as much equipment. The [studio recorded] records feel pieced together. And to the listener, when there’s more mistakes on a record, it just feels more honest. And when things are more honest, you can connect with them more. So I think producing at home and making a record at home is definitely a more emotional experience. It really lets people into your home and into your apartment. I just think it’s a way more personal way to record.
I wanted to ask you about the Berklee experience. You got a free ride to Berklee, and you walked after half a semester. The quote that I’ve read from you about this was that “nobody was taking chances.” Do you think those kinds of institutions were just like going to vo-tech school? If you’re going to be a plumber, go to plumbing school. I wondered what you got out of the experience versus what you figured you weren’t going to get out of it.
Right. So I got a full ride there. I put together this crazy piece where I was tapping on my guitar and using an acoustic guitar to play drums on at the same time I was playing a song on it. And so they let me in and gave me a scholarship like that.
I went there, and I think it was important to do that because I was introduced to SoundCloud. A lot of the kids were putting music up on SoundCloud at the time—this was 2014-2015. I was right at the time of SoundCloud really blowing up. So at the time, I was aware labels were signing artists, and I just saw random kids who had no real experience and didn’t know anything about music theory taking off by just putting up good music. I was at an expensive school, learning scales and crazy music theory. And it felt like a waste of time. I guess if I wanted to become a music teacher, that would’ve been a great place to graduate from. So I saw the path I needed to take in that moment.
So I took the risk. I left the school [and] moved back to New York City. I worked as a cashier from 8 to 10, sometimes 12 hours a day, for two-and-a-half years. Couldn’t even afford a subway ride downtown to go visit friends. My gamble obviously paid off. “Go Fuck Yourself” went viral online, and I got signed to a major label and just moved forward that way. When it comes to the Berklee experience, I just felt like it wasn’t the most expeditious way to get what I wanted with my career.
A year ago, Two Feet were on tour opening for Panic! At The Disco. That seems weird.
[Laughs.] Thank you for saying that!
I’m certainly not throwing shade at Brendon Urie. The whole vibe of a Panic! show is a lot more celebratory. “But first, here’s Two Feet, and we’re gonna bring the room down so hard.” He must have genuinely liked you if he wanted you there.
My manager reached out to me and said, “Panic! At The Disco asked you to open for them on their tour.” And to be completely honest with you, I had no idea who Panic! At The Disco were. I looked up the music and thought, “Oh, yeah, I know who this is.”
Their crew is really nice, he’s really nice, [and] everyone over there was really nice. I just personally think it didn’t really make any sense. Most of the nights we played, it felt like we were fighting a lot of the crowd. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t get a lot of fans from it. And Panic!’s fans are super-nice and really friendly and supportive. Our show functions almost like half a jam band, half an alternative-rock band-type thing. You know the scene in Back To The Future where Michael J. Fox is playing guitar and he goes off crazy soloing and everyone stops clapping for a second and he’s like, “Oh, sorry”? I had that feeling a lot of nights. It was a big learning experience, too. By the end of it, I learned how to command an arena, which is very difficult. Especially when no one’s really there necessarily to see you. The hardest job in the music business is being an opening act. Everyone knows that. But like I said, the fans are wonderful. The crew is nice. I ended up learning a lot.
You’ve done some daring stuff. Do you think this is the best time to be a musician right now in terms of everything that is available to you? From technology to the consciousness of today’s music listeners and no gatekeepers?
Absolutely. I think if I was born 10, 20 years earlier, I probably would have just ended up being a guitarist in some band. The tools available to me allowed me to have no money and produce records on my own in my bedroom. Which, you know, obviously wouldn’t have ever happened if I was born earlier. And also the open-mindedness of people for the exact reason you said. They grew up with playlists that had metal right after a pop song. So people have an open mind to mixing genres and stuff like that. My initial come up was obviously a big part of SoundCloud culture. Two Feet probably wouldn’t have worked 10 years beforehand. There would have been no way for me to show it to people. “Go Fuck Yourself” got all those streams without any labels supporting it. It’s one of the biggest songs ever in the history of the internet without virtually any radio play.
Last question. I’m sure you’re going to pick up a guitar in the next 20 minutes after we hang up. What are you going to play?
I was planning on working through a Stevie Ray Vaughan book I found in my apartment and relearning some of the little licks in there.