Dressed in a black leather punk jacket, Al Walser leans conspiratorially across a glass table in a Mid-Wilshire office suite. It’s stacked with paperwork, golf clubs and a placard deeming the space an Honorary Consulate of the Principality of Liechtenstein. This is the home of Cut the Bull Entertainment, the production, management and marketing firm of this year’s most improbable Grammy nominee.
“Have you read that book ‘The Mouse That Roared’?” asks the aspiring music mogul from Liechtenstein. “It’s about a tiny European nation who declares war on the U.S. to rebuild their country. And they win.”
With no major record label backing him — but plenty of photos of himself posing with famous faces, including Mariah Carey, Snoop Dogg and even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — Walser waged a campaign through social media and old-fashioned handshaking to earn enough votes for a Grammy nomination in the best dance recording category for his single, “I Can’t Live Without You.”
“I’m not doing anything that movie studios don’t do at Oscar time,” Walser says. “I’m not going to throw money around, but I have [Grammy voters] laser-targeted.”
Walser was able to lobby Grammy voters directly as a member of Grammy365, a networking group for the Recording Academy that hosts year-round events. He was also an active participant on the 365 website, where his frequent posts reached more than 4,100 members who friended him.
"[I] would be more than so honored to have your vote,” he wrote in one dispatch. “I put my heart and soul in to the production.”
Walser was confident that the big hooks of “I Can’t Live Without You” could compete with EDM (electronic dance music) superstars Calvin Harris, Skrillex, Avicii and Swedish House Mafia — his fellow dance recording nominees — if voters only gave it a chance.
He was at home in the bedroom of his Encino condo on the night the Grammy nominations were announced. When he spotted his name on the list of nominees, he had to refresh the Grammy site three times before he believed the news.
Surrounded by DJ equipment, his son’s artwork and the white keytar he plays in the self-produced video for “I Can’t Live Without You,” Walser cried. “I called to my wife, and my 4-year-old was jumping around with me.”
But among EDM insiders, Walser’s nomination was seen as a cosmic joke. “This song got nominated for Best Dance Single @TheGrammys? Pls tell me this is Borat,” tweeted dance producer Morgan Page.
“The song’s clunky rock / trance fusion and low-budget video make Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ sound and look cutting-edge in comparison,” wrote Spin magazine’s Philip Sherburne, “and a video of Walser performing looks like something ‘Saturday Night Live’ might come up with if it revived ‘Sprockets’ for the EDM era.”
“From our vantage showcasing emerging talent in dance music, and booking DJ shows week in and week out, I can safely say that until the nomination came out I had never heard of Al Walser,” said Damian Murphy of the influential electronic music club Avalon Hollywood.
A booker at downtown Los Angeles’ the Vault confirmed that Walser had performed at that nightclub. But Erika Raney of the L.A. dance-music promoter Insomniac, with a 20-year history of producing EDM shows and events, including Electric Daisy Carnival, said, “We have never heard of nor have we booked this person to perform.”
Bloggers initially suspected a hoax when it came out that Walser had lobbied for votes on the Grammy365 website.
But the Grammys’ Bill Freimuth, vice president of awards at the Recording Academy, said Walser broke no rules and there are no suspicions of fraud.
“I think that people voted for him, that’s how he won,” said Freimuth, who affirms that Walser has been a voting member of the academy in good standing since 2008. “What he did was market himself aggressively.”
There is precedent for obscure artists using boots-on-the-ground nomination tactics. Country fans were startled last year when the unknown Linda Chorney waged a meet-and-greet campaign and got a best Americana album Grammy nomination.
‘A threat’ to scene
This year’s Walser nomination underscores EDM’s uncomfortable place in the music establishment. Though the 2012 Grammy telecast included performances by EDM artists Deadmau5 and David Guetta, Walser’s out-of-nowhere nomination is proof to some that dance music categories are still seen as marginal and even mysterious by many Grammy voters.
“I’m a threat to the EDM scene,” Walser says in the Wilshire Boulevard office he shares with attorney Donald K. Wilson and Leodis C. Matthews, the honorary consul of Liechtenstein to the Western and Southwestern United States, and a longtime friend of Walser.
When asked why “I Can’t Live Without You” resonated with Grammy voters, Walser belts its yearning chorus — “I can’t live without you, no I can’t breathe without you” — with expert pitch.
“It’s just a beautiful melody,” he says when he finishes. “If you take Justin Bieber and another artist with one-tenth the fame but a song of equal quality, the other one will get the nomination every time. This proves that you can’t just buy a Grammy nomination.”
“The ambassador is thrilled about this,” says Matthews, who is also an attorney specializing in international business. “I was in Liechtenstein in November, and everybody knows Al Walser; this means a lot. People are hearing about Liechtenstein for the first time as something other than a finance center or for Olympic skiers.”
There’s a “Where’s Waldo?” element to Walser’s travels in the music business, which reflect a lifetime as a self-inventing go-getter.
He says he was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, to a white mother from what he describes as a prominent banking family, and a Congolese father, Sala, who attended a Swiss school. An early promotional website listed his full name as “Alexander Walser-Rothschild,” but he won’t confirm or deny a connection to the famed finance family beyond saying, “I was not given any money, and I’m glad, because that stops your ambitions.”
His father befriended the Jackson family on their journeys in what was then Zaire (Jermaine, whom Walser describes as “an uncle to me,” appeared as a vocalist on Walser’s single “Living Your Dream,” but did not reply to requests for comment).
Walser says his paternal grandfather was legendary Congolese musician Franco Luambo, often called the “James Brown of Africa,” though news reports say that Franco’s only son was named Emongo Luambo (Walser wouldn’t clarify the lineage when asked about the discrepancy). As a teenager, he says he hosted a radio show devoted to American soul and R&B; music, in an attempt to connect with an African identity in a country with few black peers.
“My mom didn’t know how to prepare me for that,” he said. “This great-looking girl goes and has a child with a black man? Black role models were impossible for me to find in Liechtenstein, and that’s when American music came into my life.”
He joined the German pop group Fun Factory as a singer-songwriter in its second incarnation, which found success in Europe and Japan in the late ‘90s. After, he turned to entertainment journalism and moved to L.A. in 2006 where he covered the Oscars and Grammys from the red carpet for the German newspaper Bild.
His extra-artistic pursuits include writing a book of music-biz advice, “Musicians Make It Big: An Insider Reveals,” available on his website for $9.99, managing the German singer Joelina (whom he called “the Miley Cyrus of Germany”) and the L.A. all-female DJ ensemble Glamour Girls and providing artist-consulting sessions via Skype.
He also hosts a dance-centric Internet radio show, “Al Walser’s Weekly Top 20,” and acknowledges splicing recordings of other outlets’ interviews with artists like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Madonna into his broadcasts, which could make it appear as if he conducted the conversations himself.
Walser concedes he sometimes signs media inquiry emails as “John Carragan,” an alias he uses to handle publicity, but insists there is a real person named John Carragan who helps handle press matters (requests to speak to Carragan in person went unanswered).
The Grammys’ Freimuth acknowledges he’s been deluged with complaints from dance music fans, artists and business figures about Walser’s nomination, and suspects that the growing category will soon have an intermediary subcommittee between the balloting and nominations process (similar to the R&B; and, after the Chorney nomination, Americana categories) to review and vote on the nominees.
But he added that dance artists grumbling about the academy’s choices should join up to improve it. “If you’re not voting,” he says, “it’s hard to say you’re displeased with the outcome.”
Walser knows many dance fans see him as some kind of a lark, or perhaps living evidence of Grammy voters’ failure to adequately judge contemporary dance music. But on Sunday, he’ll walk the red carpet while most of his naysayers stay home.
“I haven’t thought about what I’m going to wear yet, or what I’m going to say. But I want everyone to know that I’m huge fan of all the other nominated artists, I’ve played all of them on my show,” he says. “This is a victory for the independent artist. When you write your article, can you title it ‘Rendezvous With Destiny’?”