Today is October 2nd, 2014, and I’m at Hugo’s on Santa Monica Blvd. I’m here with local artist Don Vaughn which I understand is your real name.
Don: My dad’s Don Vaughn, my grandpa’s Don Vaughn… there’s a lot of Don Vaughns. My first born, woman or man, will be Don Vaughn.
Karl: How old are you, feel free to approximate?
Don: Approximately 27.
Karl: I know you have a number of them, what are your occupations?
Don: Predominantly, I am a music producer and DJ – primarily in dance music and pop. I just released an album, it’s called The Don Vaughn Experiment. As the title kind of eludes, my other full time job is being a PhD student at UCLA in neuroscience. I’ve been studying neuroscience since I was sixteen. Only recently I decided I might as well get the piece of paper, that receipt that shows all of the time you’ve put into it.
Karl: Is there a specific branch of neuroscience you’re into?
Don: I study questions like, “How much free will do we really have over problems?” Are you really free given that we’re at a point where we’re able to scan your brain and predict by chance what you’re going to do in a lot of situations before you’re consciously aware that you’re going to make a decision? For example, in one experiment we have you sit down and press one button or another button whenever you feel like it. There’s no reward, it’s just for the fun of pressing a button. We can start to predict around 65% what you’re going to press.
Don: I know, it’s spooky. And if you ask the person, “When did you become consciously aware of your urge to press one button or the other?” It’s always way after we already knew that you were going to press it. So we ask a lot of questions like that.
Karl: What neuroscience we’re you studying at 16?
Don: I went on a high school science day, originally just to get out of class and eat pizza. We went to the Salk Institute in San Diego just to check out stuff, and it sucked. You know, it was, “Pour the blue beaker into the red beaker… now it’s a purple beaker.” But the last guy to talk was David Eagleman, who has been my mentor since that day. He just talked about the brain, how there are a billion neurons and ten thousand connections with each neuron, and something like one hundred trillion connections in your brain which is more connections than there are grains of sand on the entire planet. It’s what makes you you. It’s a 3 lbs. thing encased in darkness that somehow holds your hopes, dreams and aspirations all in one little spot. What a sexy problem to try and figure out.
Karl: I can see how that talk would inspire a 16-year-old’s interest.
Don: Yes! I continued working with him through my summers. I studied physics and economics at Stanford and taught a course on neuroscience there actually.
Karl: And the music? When did that come into play?
Don: When I was 15 I started playing guitar. I was okay at it, but one day I sat down at a drum set and start tinkering. This girl who I always thought was super hot said, “You’re kind of cute!” and then walked off. And I was like, “Sold!” I’ve been drumming ever since. Then I saw Travis Barker and DJAM in Las Vegas, and they used to do this set where AM would DJ and Barker would drum over top and I thought, “That’s sick.” I love DJing but there’s not enough of a live component to it. I drummed with DJs for a couple years but I thought, “Well fuck, I can do the DJing.” So I learned to DJ and realized what I really want to do is fuse the two together in interesting new ways. So with my new album, not only am I thinking in terms of neuroscience by changing frequencies in a way that is interesting to brains, but it all has live drums in it.
Karl: And your drum set lights up while you’re playing from what I’ve seen. You create a whole atmosphere.
Don: Yeah, totally. I love DJing but I think I may be a little more A.D.D. than the average person. I can’t just sit there and hit two or four decks, I gotta get on the drums and play around. It brings an energy. It says, “I’m here with you. I’m rockin’ out as hard as you are!” Everyone is dancing in the crowd and I’m dancing with the drums. There is something called McGurk effect… Let’s say you make the sound “ba.” If you show the visual of a “ba,” but you have the audio be a “da,” then you hear something in the middle like a “ga.” The effect shows that different senses can completely change the way you perceive something. So I thought it was really important for everyone to see my music and hear it, so I programmed all of my drums to light up when I hit them.
Karl: Your album is getting great feedback.
Don: Yes, it hit number twenty-eight on iTunes charts which I was really excited about. It was surreal to wake up at noon… I sleep late because I stay up late… I watched it hit ninety-six on the charts and stayed up ’till 5:00 in the morning just watching it go up and up and up. It passed Avicii, and it passed Zedd, then it passed Krewella, then it passed Deadmau5 and just kept going. It never passed Calvin Harris who is totally my hero, so that’s cool. That will have to be the next album. When it hit twenty eight, I was just super excited that everyone was digging it.
Karl: Has your life changed with the album’s success?
Don: No. It hasn’t. Well, I guess I spend more time touring now than I do in the studio, which is wonderful. But I still just love music and I love neuroscience. I love the two together and I love them apart. If anything, I feel a little bit more stressed out. I try to figure out where all of my time is going by logging every 15-minutes of my day. It helps me prioritize.
Karl: I should try doing more of that myself.
Don: It’s hard in LA. People are here to make it. This is a work city so having fun is hard. Everyone is here to make their careers and get to the next level, whatever that level is.
Karl: On that note, tell me how you ended up here.
Don: I was born in San Diego. I left when I was eighteen and went to Palo Alto. I back-packed around South America for awhile, then moved to Houston in 2008. I was there for six years and I loved it. It was a great place to start out. I got into my PhD program here and I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I dropped out of neuroscience for a year and just produced music. I really wanted my music to take off, but I really wanted my neuroscience to take off. I realized that LA is the spot to make it happen. The opportunities here are incredible.
Karl: Have you had a difficult time here?
Don: In LA, you have to spend enough time to encounter the type of people that you vibe with, just like work. I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, “Put in your 10,000 hours and you’ll be an expert.” In my mind I think anyone can do anything, aside from a couple of really tough physical tasks. If you put in the time, you’ll be good. The key is to find the right environment that makes you want to put in the years and years of effort it takes. I kept talking, and kept sharing, kept producing and one tv network, then another tv network just happened to find me. So now I’m working with two networks and some wonderful people at Ping Pong Productions on a ‘social experiments’ show that tries to uncover a little more about human nature. What do people really find attractive in actual life and not in a laboratory? Getting people turned on to interesting science is one of my dreams-come-true. I didn’t even go out and look for them. So you don’t even know where it’s going to come from – just take every shot.
Karl: That’s a great way to live.
Don: I try to live as strongly as I can under the motto, “I don’t know shit.” Almost every problem comes out of people thinking they know more than they do.
Karl: What sorts of things would you like to see more of in West Hollywood?
Don: I love West Hollywood – definitely my favorite place in LA. I think it’s kind of what everyone pictures when they think of LA… ridiculous amounts of palm trees, gorgeous people, nice cars, boutique cafes, celebrities. The only thing I want to see more of is parking. I think I get a ticket every time I’m partying in Weho. I do math all day and I still can’t figure out the damn parking signs. It pissed me off so much I finally started taking pictures of the insane, quadruple-decker parking signs with 15 time-zones to make into art. Who has time to read that? Especially before the person behind you starts honking for you to move? Underground parking. Please.
Karl: What would you like to see less of?
Don: Give guys, Starbucks, McDonalds. Weho is badass because it’s so unique and independent. There’s not a ton of chains but the trend is that more are showing up. I guess it’s just supply and demand and who doesn’t love a Starbucks in the morning but most of me wishes those were all replaced with local versions.
Karl: What do you think this city will look like in 30 years?
Don: Not much different. Sure, GoogleBots will probably yell ads at us as we walk down the street, but otherwise mostly the same. If you look over the last 30 years, not much has changed. In the 80s it was still unique, adventurous people, working hard and enjoying life in SoCal. I think most people that live here are happy and don’t want it to change, you know?
Karl: Where do you think you’ll end up after you finish school?
Don: I honestly did not like LA for the first year I was here. I had to adjust to way more traffic, way more people, way more competition… And it took awhile to appreciate the openness and the people. Now that I’ve been here over a year I’m really loving it. So hopefully I’ll either end up in Los Angeles, or back in San Diego with my family.
Karl: What part of San Diego is your family in?
Don: Point Loma, south of Ocean Beach, south of Mission Beach, south of La Jolla. San Diego is beautiful. It’s a lot quieter than Los Angeles. While growing up there, I always thought, “What a big city, why do people always talk about LA being the center of things?” Then you get here and there’s just a buzz in LA. West Hollywood is great because you feel that buzz. Everyone is walking here. When you look at other parts of town, maybe Beverly Hills a little bit, maybe Hollywood a little bit, but here people are excited to be going to their audition, excited to shop. It’s like people talk about New York. You see people and steal their energy.
Karl: Are you happy here? Are you happy at UCLA?
Don: *shakes head while looking at microphone* Yes, I’m very happy.
Don: LA is wonderful. UCLA has some really intelligent faculty. Unfortunately, the building I work in, where a lot of the neuroscience goes down, was a hospital or psyche ward in the 1930s. It’s been retrofitted as a research space so it’s a bit of a downer. So… *speaks into microphone* I think we should fund public universities even more. I don’t know. Having come from Houston which is the world’s leading medical center where there is always building going on and everything is dedicated to research, it’s different to come back to a spot where research is cool but it’s not deserving of a nice building.
Karl: After graduation, are there a lot of research opportunities in LA?
Don: Absolutely. With Silicon Beach as they call it, there are a lot more start ups happening. And Google just bought up 4 or 5 blocks in Venice, so I think we’re going to see a lot more entrepreneurship going on in LA. That’s wonderful because while academia is good, it feels like it’s waning. There are not as many spots, and there are a lot more professors that want those spots. We’re in a time period where there’s data everywhere and everything you do is logged and stored. But it takes a human to go in there and figure out how to do something useful with it. LA presents a lot of opportunities analyzing all of the cool data we have. I’ve been helping my friends at a start-up called Vision Fleet Capital. They look at corporations with gas fleets and start selectively replacing all of the gas vehicles with electric vehicles. They actually pay for them themselves, but by reducing the total overhead, they get some portion back from the city. They asked me to help them select what vehicles to replace. Now that they know what all of the vehicles are doing, what trips they’re going to take, what their habits are, they asked me, “How can we eliminate the most gas miles?” I’ve already eliminated ten thousand miles of gas consumption by rerouting cars or selectively replacing some with hybrids or pure electric vehicles. A lot of the techniques that I used to analyze the data came from having a PhD in neuroscience. So analyzing data is my third job I guess.
Karl: Are you finding any professional conflicts as your music career blows up?
Don: I’ve thought about that a lot. If the music blows up, I can always just pause my PhD. You know, in light of the fact that there is murderous civil unrest going on in Africa and journalists being decapitated, it feels weird to say that the hardest two years of my life were the ones I spent producing music. I know, you think, “Really? It was really hard to sit at a keyboard?” But it was the hardest two years of my life to just do music. In the world of science, there is a lot of creativity to be had, but once you’ve established your idea, there is a pretty accepted way to go about getting into the journals. No one is going to accept your paper unless you’ve taken the proper steps, but you need to do them in the right order… But with music, there is just no right answer. It’s just all creativity. As someone who has grown up shaped to follow steps, it was a gut-wrenching two years. I think the music will take off, and I will have to pause my other two jobs, but I will always use the science. For example, as someone with access to both worlds, I’ve been putting an EEG on a really hot model, and having her listen to my music on stage while I perform. The EEG translates her brainwaves into a visual that goes up on the screen behind me. So you get to see how her brain experiences my music.
Karl: That’s seriously awesome.
Don: There will be some sort of feedback, unless my music sucks, as the crowd experiences the visual, and then she’ll get the vibe from the crowd, so it creates this infinite loop.
Karl: On the the hot model topic, you’ve done a lot of modeling yourself I read. Do you have a difficult time in West Hollywood? I imagine you get a lot of attention.
Don: LA is just generally filled with really beautiful people, so I don’t know if I stand out so much. Sometimes I want to be less attractive. I want people to just love my music, or not love my music, or just treat me the way they would treat anyone. I think it makes people feel more distant from me. My look doesn’t foster connection, so I’ve tried to develop a really outgoing, positive personality. Otherwise, people are very standoffish as if I’m going to knock them down or crush their ego or act like a bully. It sucks sometimes. When I walk up to a circle of people, I feel like the other guys are put off. Like they think, “Who’s this guy coming up and being friendly?” I don’t mean to be like, “Oh it’s a really tough life being good-looking,” but there are times that people act differently, or they just think you’re an asshole from the start. And sometimes, because of that, I think, “Well screw you then.” In which case, I guess I am the asshole. *laughs* So thank you for the stereotype. No, I don’t think I stand out much here. I actually started acting when I first came out here. I signed with Osbrink and they were sending me on all sorts of auditions. I had never had this experience before, but I walked into a room and there was like fifty of me.
Karl: *spits out coffee*
Don: *laughs* I looked around and was like, “Well, that’s Don, and that’s me with longer hair, and that’s me who works out more, there’s me with a tan… and there’s me who’s a much better actor.” They have a type they’re looking for, so man… When you walk in, you are not alone.
Karl: Do you enjoy acting?
Don: I have a hard time acting. I was good at commercial acting. I acted for Adidas, Academy Sports, Men’s Wearhouse… I did some cool commercial stuff but the thing I could never get over is that I just like being me. I know you’re just pretending to be someone else, but the thing that turns me off most about life is when you have to pretend to not be yourself.
Karl: Well, I think you touched on that with your music. You can’t cater to people, you have to just put out what you are and what you do and hope people respond to it.
Don: Yes. And originality costs time and effort. It’s a lot easier to just do what’s safe and what’s already been done. To be original you have to figure yourself out. It’s a lot more work… But it’s so worth it.