Criss is also set to executive produce, write and star in Quibi musical comedy Royalties

By Tomás Mier
July 15, 2019 10:30 AM
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Cue the ’90s nostalgia!

Darren Criss is no stranger to the decade — he’s celebrated it playing songs with his brother Chuck in band Computer Games and explored its darker side in his role as killer Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Now, he’s throwing it back with an EDM cover of Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me.”

PEOPLE sat down with the singer — after a Barry’s Bootcamp workout where he debuted the track — to talk about his upcoming show Royalties and his single with Steve Aoki.

“It’s something that, like most things in my life, started with me just having fun and not taking anything seriously,” he tells PEOPLE. “It was just a sort of silly idea that I’ve had forever.”

“I just love smashing unexpected forms of music together to have people re-contextualize themselves with music,” he adds. “I like getting people’s minds in different modes to experience something you thought you knew.”

Darren Criss
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty

The 32-year-old explains that the plan to convert the ’90s “unconventional ballad” into a “club banger” was something he has always wanted to do.

“‘Crash Into Me’ has this really special place in the hearts of a lot of musicians and people my age,” he says.

From movie and TV show remakes (The Lion King and All That) to musical reunions (The Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys), nostalgia has taken center stage in pop culture these days — and Criss understands why.

“Pople really hold onto the things that really defined their adolescence and it’s a huge part of what they celebrate as adults,” he explains, sporting a sleeveless Beavis and Butthead shirt. “As those adults get the front seat of the cultural zeitgeist, f— yeah, you’re gonna see a lot of those things.”

As for the single: if there’s anyone who knows how to cover recognizable tracks, it’s the Glee star. From his early starts on YouTube with StarKid Productions to his role of Blaine Anderson on Glee, Criss has made re-imagining music and storylines part of his career.

“It’s fun for friends of mine who know the song, just the look on their faces when they’re like, ‘No f—ing way, is this Dave Matthews?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ because you would never hear this kind of version of Dave Matthews in a club setting,” he says.

And to make the track into an EDM hit, Aoki was the perfect pick since the Emmy winner and Aoki “share a penchant for flying in the unexpected for audiences.”

“We started to record it almost immediately,” he says.

Darren Criss and Steve Aoki
Roy Rochlin/Getty; David Livingston/WireImage

“I’m not really a club kid, but if I was at a club… I mean obviously, I’m biased, but if it wasn’t me, and I heard this version, it would keep me at the club,” he laughs.

Criss will hit the stage with Aoki pretty soon at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, which Criss has attended as a music fan for a long time.

“They’ve given me kind of like a punch card, where I’ve done enough in a row where I get a free smoothie, but instead of a free smoothie I get to actually perform at it,” he jokes. “So yeah, I’m excited to do that, man.”

Aside from working on the track, Criss says he’s “neck deep” into an upcoming project with platform Quibi titled Royalties.

Aside from Criss, other stars such as Idris Elba, Chrissy Teigen and Steven Spielberg have all confided in the new platform to bring content to life. And if we’re still talking ’90s nostalgia, Quibi will also feature a modern remake of Varsity Blues.

Criss — who is writing, starring in, executive producing and making music for the show — says Royalties has “been a pet project forever and ever and ever.”

“This is the closest I’ve ever come to maybe admitting I may have spread myself too thin,” he explains. “I’m doing everything for the show.”

Criss has been working closely with his friends from Starkid Productions to bring the musical comedy series to life. The show follows the satirical story of songwriters behind their biggest hits.

Darren Criss and StarKid Productions
Justin Kahn/Getty

And the creation of this show has been quite similar to his work on StarKid Productions — “we’re basically doing the same thing we did 10 years ago,” Criss says.

“This time, we’re putting our big boy pants on with some amazing talent and amazing creatives and a lot of my friends,” he explains. “That sort of flavor and humor that makes the spirit of StarKid, and that we invite into our shows is very much present in Royalties.”

And though Quibi won’t be released publicly until April 2020, Criss says “he was blown away” by the new technology and interface.

“What’s nuts is that everything sort of [happens] at the right time,” he explains. “Have we made the show any earlier, Quibi wouldn’t have been around. This is how we did things on the internet 10 years ago and now Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman have flown into the picture being like, ‘we want to do this but like on a way bigger level.’”

As to who fans can expect to see on Royalties: “definitely some heavy hitters.”

“It’s manifest destiny,” he says. “If I say this to you guys, maybe it’ll happen.”