The experience of listening to person’s music while they’re sitting in the same room has the potential to be equally awesome or awkward for both parties. What if the music is terrible (or, worse, mediocre) and the listener feels compelled to pretend to like it? What if the listener says something idiotic and the artist then has to endure that person’s presence for the duration of the session? Such scenarios are challenging enough when it’s your friend playing their demo — when it’s a world-famous artist, those elements are ramped up exponentially.
All that notwithstanding, The Weeknd’s Variety cover story was important enough to him to dedicate two hours of listening and conversation about his new album, “After Hours,” with this writer, two weeks before it came out — and not only is the album arguably the best and most accomplished of his already impressive career (as critical and commercial reactions attest), he was relaxed and very open throughout the entire experience. Not to mention gracious: When a staffer came in, halfway through the album, and said, “Can you wrap it up in the next five minutes? We have to be at ‘SNL’ at 7:30,” he initially said okay, but quickly picked up the phone and said, “I’ve gotta play him the whole album, so we’re gonna be late.”
The conversation that follows — which took place at New York’s Jungle City Studios on March 6, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S. — is a companion piece to Variety‘s cover story: While not literally a track-by-track, it’s a deep dive into the album, its concept, its videos, its inspiration and creation, but also The Weeknd’s influences, musical background and even what’s in his iTunes. It has been edited for content and clarity.
Before we start, can you explain how the album ties in with storyline of the videos and the character on the album’s cover, with the red jacket and the broken nose?
It’s just a story that we’re telling from the beginning of the “Heartless” video and continuing through [“Blinding Lights,” “After Hours,” “In Your Eyes” and “Until I Bleed Out“] and [his appearances on] Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert. This character is having a really bad night — all these videos are taking place in one night — and you can come with your own interpretation of what it is. Especially in the “After Hours” video, I went full-on film geek: There’s the “Chinatown” reference with the broken nose, the “Jacobs Ladder” reference with the subway, “King of Comedy” for Jimmy Kimmel, “Trouble Every Day,” “Possession,” “Dressed to Kill” with the elevator — and of course “After Hours,” Martin Scorsese’s  film, is the obvious inspiration, with all this madness taking place in one night. That was the only on the nose reference — pun intended!
But Scorsese’s “After Hours” is a comedy, this seems much more dark.
“Blinding Lights” is kinda funny, “Heartless” is funny. It’s still dark but the viewers definitely have never seen me in that light: very animated, you’re watching these goofy guys all f—ed up and drunk and it’s like the quintessential Vegas trip, very “Mask” inspired, falling over and laughing. But then it gets really dark and “Oh sh–, this is not fun,” y’know? There’s a breakdown moment in “Heartless” where I realize what’s going on, and that’s when you know you’re watching a Weeknd visual. And “Blinding Lights” gets animated but again, not fun, and then we kind of blurred reality with fiction with the Jimmy Kimmel performance. And then I was like, “How do I make this night even worse?,” so [in the “After Hours” short film] we have this guy go through a complete breakdown, which looks like a possession — I’m being dragged by an invisible force through the subway. Is he possessed, or is he just broken? Is he imagining it? My perspective as a viewer is that it’s actually happening to him, but to a third person watching it’s just some guy going crazy. I don’t like to explain too much.
Do the videos tie in with the lyrics?
Yeah, but sometimes it feels like the music is more the soundtrack for it, the [musical] score. “Heartless” feels very tied in, this person who’s heartless, and he’s like ‘F— love,’ but you can see there’s a sadness to it. I’m obviously telling a story in the singles, but the bigger story is this album.
(He cues up album and plays through the end of “Hardest to Love”).
Who did you write this song with? It’s one of your best melodies.
Wow, thank you. This one I did originally with [co-writer/co-producer] Oscar [Holter], and then Max [Martin] finished it with me. I wrote this song very fast and it was the last song on the record that I finished.
What inspired it?
Sonically, or what’s it about?
It’s about whatever you want it to be about (laughs). When I made this song I was nervous because I felt like I went overboard with the ambition — I’m ambitious, but I thought maybe this is too much. It wasn’t until “Blinding Lights” [became one of the biggest hits of Weeknd’s career] that I knew, a) I could finish this album and b) I could put this song on it.
[The] drum n’ bass [rhythm]? You know how it is, man — people don’t wanna hear what they’re not used to hearing.
Sure, but sometimes there’s a song that’s like nothing that came before it, like Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” that people didn’t know they wanted to hear and it becomes one of the biggest hits of all time.
I know, and I agree with you and I want to do that and I’m going to do that whether people like it or not. But it wasn’t until people liked “Blinding Lights” that I was like, “This is so not what now is, and people loved it anyway.” And sometimes it just comes down to the melody. This was the fastest melody that I ever made — I went into a room for 20 minutes and wrote the entire song, and then Max produced it.
You’re so prolific — do you write quickly?
They’re all different, sometimes they’re very fast, sometimes the ones that take the longest… like, I can write a song very fast that isn’t finished, if that makes sense? But the problem is, I then live with that unfinished song for a very long time, and if there are wrong notes in it, the wrong notes are tattooed in my brain because I’ve been listening to it for so long, and now that is what the song sounds like to me. So those songs take a very long time to finish. If I have an unfinished record for a year, that’s the song — but it’s not done (laughing). It has to be better: I didn’t sing it right, or the production and the sounds are messy because we did it in a little room, and there’s a weird frequency that I like, but that’s a wrong frequency and now that frequency is in the song, and now I’ve gotta make a new one and — it’s a mess. Do you wanna hear how insane I am?
There are 67 versions of “The Hills,” arguably one of my biggest songs — sixty-seven! Why? I premiered [a demo] at a South by Southwest [party in 2015] as part of the rollout of “Beauty Behind the Madness.” I played it over the speakers, I was like “Let’s play it, just for fun, to get fans excited.” That version was called “Mood Music” — [longtime friend and creative director] La Mar [Taylor] recorded it on his phone, it was a snippet, just half the song. It was posted on Soundcloud and it got the most views SoundCloud had ever seen or something — a sh—y phone recording. So then the whole world has that version — but the version I’m still working on in the studio doesn’t sound like that version, even though it’s the same song. I lost my mind making that record because there are noises in the [SoundCloud] version that I tried to replicate in the studio — somebody in the crowd screaming right before the drop, that wasn’t there before, so I had to put a fake scream in the song! That’s what I deal with when I make music. And that’s just on a public level — now just imagine a song that I’m living with by myself! [Laughing]
Is there a reason like that why there’s so much echo on your voice in the first two songs on “After Hours”? Are you intentionally obscuring the lyrics?
I didn’t really think about that. I’m not an intellectual so I can’t really explain some of the things I do — it’s just emotional. On “Alone Together” I don’t even want you to hear what I’m saying — it’s more about the sound, you know what I mean? On some of Michael Jackson’s best songs, I don’t know what the f— he’s saying, it’s about how he’s saying it. For “Alone Again” it’s about the beat, the melody, the feeling, the sonics, it’s like some Cocteau Twins sh– — [Sings] “I don’t know if I can be alone again.” If you know I’m saying that, nothing else matters. But on “Scared to Live” and the next few songs, I want you to hear what I’m saying. I’m telling a story.
[Plays “Scared to Live,” with its interpolation of Elton John’s “Your Song” on the chorus.]
Is that an Elton John sample?
It’s an interpolation — I didn’t realize it was until I made it and I was like “Oh sh–!” So he’s credited, obviously. Before I played it for him, I was like “F—, I hope he likes it!” But he was freakin’, he was like, “Mate you’re the one! You’re gonna be doing this for a long time!”
Do you often play songs for Elton John?
(Sheepishly) No, man! This whole album process has been so surreal in the best way possible. I learned so much about myself: They say your 30s are your best years and I think people say that because you’re really becoming the person that you’re supposed to be. In your 20s you’re still figuring everything out, it’s all about “I need to get out there!,” and at 30, you realize that for every problem there’s a way to deal with it. Even the way I made this album, for any issue I had, it was just: Okay, step back, how do we solve the problem?
[Resumes playing album through the middle of “Faith.”]
Woah, what’s going on there? “Faith, losing my religion,” death, cross references — what’s going on?
Let’s keep listening. [Song plays to end.] So, this is really the only song on the record that isn’t about right now. It’s about the darkest time of my entire life, a time when I was getting really, really tossed up and going through a lot of personal stuff. This is around 2013-14: I got arrested in Vegas, it was a real rockstar era which I wasn’t really proud of, and at the end of [the song] you hear sirens. That’s me in the back of the cop car, that moment. I always wanted to make that song but I never did, and this album felt like the perfect time, because of the setting of Las Vegas, and [the character needing] a kind of escape after a heartbreak or whatever, “I’m gonna go to Vegas and drown all my sorrows,” and by the time you get to the end of the album you realize it’s more of a redemption.
But I wanted to go to Vegas and be this guy again, the “Heartless” guy, the drug monster, the person who hates God and is losing his f—ing religion and hating what he looks like when he looks in the mirror so he keeps getting high, and hating to be sober because “I feel the most lonely when I’m coming down” — that’s who this song is.
People spend their entire lives running from demons — not many want to go back.
I didn’t want to, it was like, “This is who I am.” Sometimes you try to run away from who you are, and you always get back to that place. And by the time you get to the end of this album you realize I’m not that person. I was, but now I’m growing and older and wiser and I’m gonna have children some time, and I’m going to tell them that “You don’t have to be that person.” I really wanted you to feel uncomfortable when you heard it, I really wanted to get inside the head of the person who hates himself and hates life and hates the person who made him that way.
And turning 30 made you able to come to this —
Self-realization, and see it from this point of view? Of course. I’ve always been self-destructive. I’ve never brought harm to others, my problem was always hurting myself. So at 30 I realized I’m genuinely happy, I have my family, my friends, my company, I’m making the smartest music I’ve ever made, and I feel like my career is just starting. This is the beginning of another phase — not just a chapter but my second decade. A song like “Faith,” which is so misleading in the title [laughs], the religion aspect of it is … everything is a test, and if you are religious or spiritual you have to go through things.
Are you religious?
[Long pause] I dunno.
Were you raised religious?
Yeah, very religious. Orthodox.
You’ve used cross imagery before.
You mean [on the album cover of] “Starboy”? Nah, that symbolizes being reborn. It wasn’t deeper than that. So that’s what that song is, in a rambling answer.
Earlier, it seemed like you didn’t want to talk about what the songs are about, but you talked about that one a lot.
I know, right? It’s easier to talk about songs that are just about me. I don’t like to talk about what I’m going through with other people. When I’m the only person in the song, that’s easy to talk about. How do you like it so far?
[Resumes playing album, stops after “In Your Eyes.”]
Well, that’s the wedding song right there.
[Laughs] But when you look deeper into the song, it’s more complex than it seems. It’s basically about two people who are in love with each other who are just f—ing each other over. The first verse is from [one] perspective and the second is from the other perspective.
It’s like the way people think the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” is a love song, and it’s not at all.
And I love that, that’s how I feel about a lot of Prince and Michael [Jackson]’s music too. This is deeper, but you wanna dance to it and make love to it. That’s the trick of it.
There are so many ‘80s references on some of these songs, more than ever before. Why now?
I think that just comes from being an ‘80s connoisseur and hearing the Pretenders or Roxy Music or Hall & Oates. I was finding that alt-rock synthwave character, all these weird ideas, me being goofy and not knowing if people were gonna like it.
Were Roxy Music a big influence?
[Roxy Music’s 1982 hit] “More Than This” is a banger, dude! The reason I keep using it as a reference on this album is because you press play and you know it’s a hit almost immediately — you don’t have to wait to get the chorus to know it’s a great song, and I wanted to get that with a song like “In Your Eyes.” The demo didn’t have that [‘80s sax hook] beginning, so I was listening to things like Roxy and A-Ha, “How do we make it sound amazing right away?” “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes” didn’t [originally] have those melodies in the first verse.
What have you been listening to lately?
Right now? Let’s see [pulls out phone] … Anita Ward, I can’t stop playing [her 1979 hit] “Spoiled by Your Love,” those types of disco records, like Donna Summer’s stuff with [legendary writer/producer Giorgio] Moroder. [Scrolls through iTunes] … Oneheotrix Point Never, Billy Idol, Roxy Music… have you heard of Space? They were like the first French robot group, it’s pretty funny (plays “Magic Fly” from video 1977, which sounds like a Daft Punk prototype).
You’ve really gotta tap into what makes Daft Punk Daft Punk, or what makes Prince Prince, you know? You just start diving into it, really digging in, and then you forget that nobody else knows it! [Scrolls some more] … Lots of Hall & Oates, a lot of deep house, Chicago house, Cocteau Twins, Eazy-E, Kraftwerk — Kraftwerk was a huuuge influence on this album, like “Man Machine” — Egyptian Lover, Human League, Strawberry Switchblade, lots of electronic stuff… and Rick Astley! (laughter) I shouldn’t have let you see that!
Why is the album called “After Hours”?
Oh, there are so many reasons for it. The main reason is these are all emotions and thoughts and feelings that I had late at night — [like the video] is all one night and I’m going through all the emotions, after the club, after the fight and after a long day, it’s like these are my thoughts from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. “After Hours” the song is absolutely my thoughts at 4 a.m., alone, after everything is done. And the movie, of course. Anyway, this is the last song.
What’s it called?
“Until I Bleed Out”… [laughing] The look on your face just now was priceless!
[Song plays through.]
So, judging by the title and the abrupt ending, I’m guessing the end of this story is pretty dark?
Maybe! It’s a question. “I keeps telling myself I don’t need it anymore,” and then it just ends. I wanted this album to be very concise and very direct and leave you wanting more, and wanting to know what’s next.