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Traveling at Different Speeds: An Interview with Icebird's RJD2

Kevin Curtin

After producing countless underground-rap hits, scoring the Mad Men theme, and putting out iconic albums of his own, RJD2 decided to write songs with singer Aaron Livingston before they formed a band. RJ talks about the creation of the one and only Icebird.


The Abandoned Lullaby

Label: RJ’s Electrical Connections
US Release Date: 2011-10-11
UK Release Date: Import

RJD2 is the type of artist who makes the title of "DJ" insufficient. Auteur is a better designation for the producer, instrumentalist. and singer who, in the past decade, has stated himself in the highest echelon of electronic music creators.

From the triumphant hip-hop instrumentals of Deadringer to the indie-rock influences that crept into Since We Last Spoke and The Third Hand to the panoptic comeback Colossus, RJD2 has only crafted albums that are exploratory and unique.

The Ohio-raised artist has never had a reputation for being cautious, constantly putting his genre credibility on the line to do something that he hasn't done before, or better yet, something no one's done before.

This time he's teamed up with the smooth-singing Aaron Livingston to create Icebird. Their album, The Abandoned Lullaby is typically uncaged: heavily dosed in soul -- but not retro, catchy -- but hard to digest. Just when you think it sounds like Otis Redding mixed with Grandmaster Flash, it starts to sound like Tina Turner singing over a Led Zeppelin sample, then you realize it's ineffable.

Perhaps RJD2 himself can lend some perspective on his intentions and the methods that have shaped his trajectory as a musician ...

* * *

The Abandoned Lullaby is very soul oriented. Do you have an affinity for that style of music?

Yeah, I do. In a lot of ways, I consider it one of the building blocks of rap music or hip-hop, the field in which I cut my teeth. So both Aaron and I are big fans of soul music, but at the same time I feel compelled to state that we weren't trying to make any retro or revival soul record or even anything that's faithful to modern R&B or soul. The things that we trend the most toward is stuff like Funkadelic or the Rotary Connection and, I think it's even safe to say, Hendrix -- soul music that is expansive and exploratory. So while we're both big fans of Otis Redding and the Isley Brothers -- more straightforward, traditional soul -- it's most important for me to note (and I think it comes across on the record) that this was an expressive record. We didn't put ourselves in a box.

How did you and Aaron come together? I know you are from the same city, but how did the collaboration begin?

When I got that Roots album, the Tipping Point, my favorite song was "Guns are Drawn" which has a strong hook on it. A mutual friend of ours gave me a CD of The Mean, which is one of Aaron's groups that he heads up. So I listened to it and I liked it. I thought it was an interesting amalgamation of a bunch of different styles and very hard to pinpoint, but I also recognized the voice and when I put two and two together that the same guy singing in the Means was the guy singing on "Guns are Drawn". I said, "I need to hit this guy up", so I got his number and I gave him a call.

From there we ended up cutting a couple tunes that I had written for the Colossus album that came out last year. One of which being "Crumbs Off the Table". And in that same period, I said why don't we keep recording songs and see what happens and eventually we ended up with an albums worth of material. And we had collaboratively done this so it made the most sense to bill it as a new group because, from our perspective, that's what it was. We had, in essence, formed a group, it just wasn't a conscious thing. You know, when your 16 you decide you're forming a band before you have any songs. We did the opposite. We wrote a bunch of songs and then decided, "Hey, we should call this a band!"

And why did you call it Icebird?

Do you want the real answer?

I guess as a journalist I should always request the real answer, but you can give me some bullshit if want.

I don't need to bullshit you. For some reason, I'm obsessed with all things related to ice. I don't know why. Arctic things and frozen rivers and stuff like that, I'm into it. The idea of iceberg came up, but that seems kind of obvious. Seems like the kind of thing somebody could come up with. Somewhere along there Icebird came up. It was intended to be a bird that lives on the ice. The avian equivalent of a polar bear, if you will. It sounded kind of tough and kind of menacing. At the same time it sounded cool.

To me it sounds like the name of a women's hockey team.

Yeah and it gets mistaken for iceberg all the time, for better or for worse.

In my research I learned that and Icebird is a type of boat.

Yeah and that's what's super weird. So we came up with the name and then I had bought a couple of paintings by this guy Caleb Neelon years ago. He'd done a show in Philadelphia and we loved his artwork so we bought a couple of pieces for our house. When it came time to figure out the art for this album, I dug Caleb back up and discussed licensing some of his artwork for this album. One of the pieces that picked was a ship -- we didn't know why it just fit. Then after that is when I found out that an icebird is a ship that breaks up ice to lead in front of ocean liners or something. So it was a bizarre little piece of irony.

Who are your idols?

Jim Henson, Stevie Wonder, John Bonham, John Carpenter. That's a good question. Those are the first people to come to mind.

I like that they are not all musical.

To flush that answer out more directly, the composition of a song is more analogous to the contours of a drama. I learn more from TV shows and movies when it comes to the arrangement of a song than I do from good music arrangers. That's not to say that I haven't absorbed things from my favorite musical arrangers, but at the end of the day ... OK forgive me if I'm going off on a tangent, but are you familiar with first record called Deadringer?

Yes, of course.

Okay, there is a song called "Smoke and Mirrors" on that album and it starts off with this long monotonal intro and it doesn't have anything percussive in it really, just a drone of one note and it goes on for sixteen bars and it's not a slow build. It kind of dies out and then everything comes in at once: the drums, the bass, the vocals, all the instrumentation -- all at once. This is an example of, from my perspective, maximizing the drama for a song. The equivalent of a plot twist really. It's the same concept as in The Game when you realize its all fake. You know, the movie with Michael Douglass? When you realize that it was all a rouse and it had been put on for his own benefit and it wasn't real. There's all sorts of devices that I absorb from movies and TV shows and books and not from music.

On this album, we're you using more samples or playing guitar? How did the music come around?

It was a smattering of a lot of different techniques. Songs like "Charmed Life" and "Find Yourself" started on a sampler. The groove elements of it all started on a sampler and then got flushed out with keyboards and guitars and synths and such. It was kind of all over the place. Songs like "Gun for Hire" or "The Return of Tronson" those came out of exploration into synthesizer sequences, particularly older sequencers. So it really is all over the place.

What visual do you get in your mind when you listen to this record?

I don't know if I get visuals in the sense of imagery. You know how your body has sensations, like the sensation of going down a slide at a waterpark or maybe you have the sensation of being in a hot tub or going 80mph in a car -- these different physical sensations. The closest I can describe is different songs seem to evoke different physical sensations that are akin to those kind of things. If I had to put it in super primitive terms, I would say that different songs make me feel like I'm traveling at different speeds.

There's a lot of variety in what you do and I think it makes it hard to pin you down and mostly for your fans to have expectations of you. Do you think of your audience's reaction when you make music?

I think about my reaction, first and foremost. That's what excites me at this point. I've made all these records so I've listened to them a zillion times. For me music is the kind of thing where the effect of it wears off. The law of diminished returns applies to music as far as I'm concerned. If you were to smash a watermelon with a hammer, you're not going to have the same impact on every stroke. Sooner or later you're smashing smaller bits into smaller bits and become less effective even though you are swinging the hammer at the exact same velocity.

For me, music is the same in the sense that the more I listen to a song, the effect of the song starts to wear off. Making a song is an experience that you are having a relationship with a piece of music in the same sense that when your listening to someone else's song your having a relationship, but those things diminish for me. Because of that, I can't make the same type of song over and over again. I can't get the same physiological response out of myself. I naturally end up gravitating to different sounds, different textures, different types of songs because that's naturally what excites me. It's the normal experience for music, I'm not out of the ordinary in any way. So no, first and foremost I'm looking for my own enjoyment and I don't think there is anything wrong with that because I assume most other people have a similar type of experience.

There's probably a lot of people who would say "I wish Radiohead would make OK Computer over and over and over and over." I don't necessarily believe them. I don't think that's actually what they want. I think what's really going on is they are actually saying, "I want to have the experience of the first time I heard OK Computer over and over and over and over." What they don't realize is that Radiohead could make OK Computer over and over and their experience would change. It's impossible, as far as I'm concerned to have that reaction again.

That begs the question, are you enjoying the new record?

Absolutely. I'm thrilled with it. I'm playing the songs all the time to rehearse for the tour and granted, some of them I'm bored of already, but there are songs on this record that get a rise out of me. So I'm very proud and excited for people to hear this record.

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