The Colossus Returns: An Interview with RJD2

The Colossus
RJ's Electrical Connections

Ramble John is very much the modern incarnation of a one-man band. Best known by his performance name, RJD2, RJ has mastered the art of a perfect snare hit, blaring horn hook and soulful vocal all from the comfort of his sampler and Technics. He also handles his own business, which now includes his label, RJ’s Electrical Connections. Four years ago, however, RJ abandoned his indie hip-hop foundation in pursuit of a new amorphous sound — part indie rock, part singer-songwriter, part DJ. It threw many fans off, but this January’s The Colossus, released on his own label, was a blend of everything RJ has ever tried to sound like. He took time last month to talk to PopMatters about his tour, The Colossus, online collaborations, and the eternal analog vs. digital debate.

First off, where does your first name Ramble come from?

My leftist-artist-performer-weirdo parents. Gotta fit the lifestyle, baby!

What’s the response been like to The Colossus tour?

It’s been really great, once we got into the groove. The show is really complicated so it took us four or five days before we really got the set down. Now it’s like a well-oiled machine, and the response has been phenomenal.

Are you playing a fixed set every night, or are you switching it up?

A couple things we change, but the set is pretty challenging as it is now. It’s close to 90 minutes, and we touch on all four records and some remixes and some other stuff — but it’s a pretty fixed set list. I would feel like an idiot going out there and not playing “Ghostwriter”. To a large demographic, that’s the song that they came to hear. I respect bands like Radiohead that don’t want to play the song anymore, but I don’t know if I feel comfortable saying I’m not going to play it. People pay good money to see you, so I have a healthy respect for that.

Do you like performing better in a band or as a DJ?

Whatever I’m doing at the moment is probably what I’ll end up saying I prefer. I feel like this tour is the most prepared live performance I’ve ever done in my life by far. But at the same time there’s something to be said for doing the DJ-oriented stuff. On my deathbed I’m going to look back at this as the pinnacle of what I’ve achieved as a performer.

Your horn parts are usually sampled. Are they recorded live on any of the songs on the new record?

Not the song “Let There Be Horns”. Some of the others—“Tin Flower”, “Crumbs Off the Table”—have live horns. I would love to be in a situation where I could take a horn section out on tour, but then you’re getting into high costs in terms of overhead. I also find horns secondary to drums in the sense that they’re very, very hard to translate live and have them sound a particular way. So there’s something to be said for having a sampler and being able to reproduce those sounds that are very identifiable. Horns are also a very difficult instrument to record and engineer. If I could get to the point of making drums sound like Hot Buttered Soul and horns like ’66 Stax Records then that would be it.

What part of achieving that distinct sound is a discrepancy between digital and analog recording?

I’ve come to the conclusion that what’s required is a holistic approach. If you were to dumb this issue down to one sentence, like digital vs. analog or a particular brand of saxophone or even a particular player, we wouldn’t have this conversation. What I’ve learned is that you really need a holistic approach to get anywhere.

As a listener do you have a preference between digital or vinyl?

I definitely prefer vinyl. I have a couple of iPods and digital music on my computer, but again it comes back to a holistic issue for me. It’s very labor-intensive. You would never skim through 30 seconds and then change the song or change the band on vinyl because it’d be so labor-intensive it’d be ridiculous. You would do that on an iPod because the format lends itself to that kind of listening. And that’s very normal, so it becomes a part of your listening habit, and then your listening habits can actually affect the way music sounds. For me, just as much as I like the way vinyl sounds, I like the fact that it forces me to listen to an entire record in one fell swoop.

What about for performances? I’ve read that Tiesto relies almost exclusively on digital tracks these days.

I’m not aware of a working DJ in America that doesn’t use Serato [Scratch Live]. Well, no, Kid Koala is the only working DJ I know of in America that doesn’t use Serato at all.

Most collaborations are now done through email. Does that compromise either party’s input or control in the process?

Not at all. In fact, I prefer it. Here’s what I find is the best working scenario, and I just finished a record with one of the guys on The Colossus, Aaron Livingston: I would write the instrumental parts of the song here by myself. And what I like about working by myself is that the instrumentation is where I feel like my strong suit is. I don’t really need anybody else around either second-guessing what I’m doing or having conversations about it. If I’m working by myself, I can get into a flow where I’m trying out ideas and figuring out what works and what isn’t working. If somebody’s around, that can kind of fuck up the flow of that process. Then what I would do is send the track to [Aaron], and he would write vocals and then send back a demo of what he wrote, lyrically and melodically. Then we would record the vocals at my house together. It maximizes the time we have alone, which is very good writing time, and it also maximizes the time we have together. As a vocal producer it’s something I feel confident about, helping people build harmonies and putting the finishing touches on the song. But being in there and offering up ideas for lyrics? I don’t want to be doing that.

As a licensing wizard. What product/ad campaign/film/program were you most excited about licensing?

In retrospect, definitely Mad Men because it’s arguably my favorite show on TV. OK, I guess my bank account would also like to give a shout-out to Wells Fargo.

What is the strangest licensing deal you’ve been offered?

Here’s a good one: A guy that I used to work for waiting tables calls me up a few years ago. He says, “Hey, listen, I want to use your song for a local TV ad, but I don’t have any money. I’ve heard that it’s really hard to sue someone if the ad is local. So, would you like, sue me if I used it without paying you?”

The lead singer of OK Go just penned an op-ed in the Times deploring EMI’s control of their YouTube videos, but also lamenting the fact that the role of talent investor is declining for record labels. What or who do you see fulfilling that role for burgeoning artists in the future?

It’s not a vacuum that something like capitalism would fill, by nature. We may end up with a lowest common denominator effect for art in the U.S. If Wal-Mart can effectively go into a town and put local hardware stores out of business against the will of the members of the community, nah, that shit is a wrap.

Any other collaborations we can look forward to?

I just finished the debut album of a group I have with Aaron Livingston (“Crumbs Off the Table”). Our group is called Icebird. That will be out at some point in the future. It’s some of the most exciting production work I’ve ever done, hands down.

I’ve read you have quite a surplus of recordings awaiting release. Why does it take so long to release something these days? Is the rate of record release something you’re eager to control more with your label, RJ’s Electrical Connections?

Yes. Also, I don’t want to rush out records, because it can do them a disservice. The whole process of getting out of my XL deal and starting my label took more time than I wished, so I didn’t have a record out in 2008 or 2009 — thus the slight backlog. I’m expecting two more releases in 2010.

Can we ever expect to see an RJD2 club residency?

No. I’m not built like that. I feel like my best foot forward is not as a music discoverer, but as a producer. That’s what I really want to be doing with my life.