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“I Don’t Like There to Be Artifacts”: An Interview with DJ Shadow

DJ Shadow pieces together his sonic collages from a veritable mish-mash of samples and formats. His new album The Less You Know the Better is no less a compelling puzzle than his previous works. And so we set out to know more about this album by asking none other than Shadow himself ...

With every new album he releases, Josh Davis must have endure a lot of unwanted pressure.

Critics and his fans have been hoping that he recreate something similar to his 1996 debut album Endtroducing…, an album that ranks pretty high in various Best Of and Must Hear album lists. That album, with its the haunting, cinematic soundscapes, served as my introduction to the work of Josh Davis back in the late 90s. Tracks like “Organ Donor” and “Midnight in a Perfect World” remain favorites. Later on, I found his collaboration with James Lavelle as the duo UNKLE (Psyence Fiction) and also picked up the Bollywood music compilation, Bombay the Hard Way, he and Dan the Automator reworked. I finally saw him live after he released The Private Press in 2002 and walked out amazed at his turntable wizardry.

Exploring the mish-mash of samples, genres and artists Shadow was working with expanded my own listening tastes (I found the artist Deadly Avenger because of a comparison to Shadow) and I continued to follow his work (picking up his Radiohead remix via his site). Jump ahead to 2006, Shadow put out a divisive, eclectic album, The Outsider, which included more hip-hop heavy songs and even presented hyphy songs, a niche genre from the San Francisco Bay Area which I understood to mean “get dumb” or “get crazy”. It was a bit of an obtuse effort but it showed that Shadow was not confined to mere basements crate digging, no. It proved that he was in touch with the current scene (as Bay Area resident). The album didn’t linger long in my CD player and for several years, I continued to wait for another artist album from Shadow.

Then in 2010, I caught DJ Shadow on tour for the third time (in Baltimore) and was pleasantly surprised by the snippets of new work in the mix. One new track in particular, “Redeemed” as I later learned, really had me hooked. But it was almost half a year more before I got my teeth into Shadow’s fourth album The Less You Know, The Better. After replaying the album, I found several songs just stood out. Curious to know more, I spoke with DJ Shadow in an attempt to get insight into his creative process on the new album.

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Your last album The Outsider came out in 2006. I know I heard songs from [your new album] The Less You Know the Better in your sets last year. How long was the gestation period for the new album?

I really didn’t start working on the new album till spring of ’09. After The Outsider came out in the summer of ’06, I toured behind that for a year and then I jumped right into a tour with Cut Chemist for The Hard Sell for a year. So I was on the road all the way up until the end of ’08. Then I started working on DJ Hero in early ’09. I started poking at [The Less You Know] in spring of ’09 but didn’t get really serious about it because I was still doing other little things here and there until the end of ’09. It was about a year and a half all told. Every time I do an album, there are things that make it on the album that actually have their roots much earlier. For example, “Six Days”, which was on The Private Press, actually had its origins pre-Endtroducing; and similarly, on this record, “Border Crossing” had its roots pre-Outsider.

Is there any connection between your track “Run for Your Life” and “Mashing on the Motorway”?. I sense a bit of urgency in both tracks and was wondering if there was inspiration for “Run for your Life” from “Mashing”?

Not really. I think they just have certain musical qualities that are similar. They are both fast. They both have a kind of hyperkinetic feeling to them. I don’t think there is any real connection to them. Inevitably, there is going to be fast songs on every record and there is gonna be slow songs on every record. Hopefully they don’t seem like they are fulfilling the same exact space.

There are a wide variety of sounds on the album. When I received the press copy it had “I’m Excited” in it. How come that track didn’t make the final album or was it not supposed to be in the promo?

It was a case of a heartbreaking sample problem. We were in the process of clearing the sample and had been given some assurances that it would eventually be cleared. As the person who has the most to lose by infringing against somebody — once it became clear that it was not going to be resolved before going to press — I had to yank it. It probably would have filled a space that some people may feel is missing on the record. As I do.

Does the issue with the sample clearance apply around the world? Or is it just a US licensing issue?

The people who own the rights for the sample don’t care where it gets released. It’s the same problem whether it comes out in the US or in the UK. The bottom line is that its not resolved. I still hope to resolve it but at this moment its not.

I’m interested in your politics. I don’t think you’ve shared much of those views, at least in recent press. You express some criticism of immigration policy in “Border Crossing” especially in the video. Can you explain that? Is it an expression of your feelings or was it something Dean Fernando came up with it?

It was something we discussed and it is something that I do have an opinion on, without getting into too much detail, because I think politics can be sort of corrosive when it comes to musicians speaking their mind about politics unfortunately. I have been lucky enough to travel around the world. My work and what I do and what I love has taken me a lot of places. I think at a certain point you start developing universal truths about human beings and human dignity and what seems to work and what just seems like it never works. I think that any policy that is based on discrimination against a group or a group of people, or any apartheid sort of practices where a particular group of people becomes demonized or criminalized, is a probably not policy that I, as an American, am willing to endorse.

How did you got about working with Dean Fernando?

Dean is just someone I’ve known for about six or seven years now. He had reached out actually wanting to curate some sort of project. I actually don’t remember too many of the details now, but he had a contest for pitching something that was going to involve me and some other filmmaker. That was the context under which we met. We became friends and he actually documented a large portion of the 2006-7 Outsider tour.

“Border Crossing”, “Warning Call” and “I Gotta Rokk” are all pretty guitar heavy sampling-wise. What was the inspiration for going in this direction?

They are all samples. Twenty years into my career, I’m always sort of surprised when people ask about guitars in my music because they’ve always been there. I sampled Metallica on “The Number Song”. Even on “Lesson 4” there are prominent guitar samples in there from other breaks. I’m not sure if its that, in the era we are in, DJ music has become so heavily associated with electronic music and club music. The UNKLE record has tons of guitar samples. Its something that some people criticize about the music I make. I can only assume its because, in some cases, rock critics wanting me to stay in my own lane and, in other cases, its people just going “Well wait a minute, this is not what I’m used to coming from a DJ or someone with DJ in their name!” I think there has been a real consistency throughout my career. I like drum breaks; I like pianos; I like guitars. I think those three instruments are very evocative and they channel a lot of energy and a lot of emotion.

You seem to part ways though from earlier sounds on “Scale it Back” with Little Dragon. It sort of reminded me of a lost TLC track.

I hate to be contrarian but I’ve never understood the Prince / TLC and R&B connection there. I mean I don’t hear it at all. I don’t want to dictate to people what to think or what they should feel or what the music should remind them of so I’m not going to say its wrong. But I’m very familiar with that idiom, music like TLC and Prince and artists like that who are wonderful artists, but I just don’t hear that. She [Little Dragon] does have a soulful voice. But the music to me is in a completely different world. Its not in the R&B idiom.

I do like that track, its very soulful as you put it. Another standout is “Redeemed”. It’s a really spiritual, lovely song. What’s the background of the female-vocal sample source?

The sample is from a gospel record. I don’t even remember the woman’s name unfortunately. It is a nice vocal. I had been trying to figure out what to do with the guitar sample that’s in the song “Redeemed” and just happened to find that vocal and put it over the top. I heard that it worked. But “Redeemed” is an example of a song that, for me, was particularly difficult to assemble. All the different samples had issues; they all had inherent problems. Occasionally they went out of tune or the timing was totally off. When I make music I don’t like there to be artifacts. I don’t like for people to be able to perceive time stretching. I don’t like for people to be able to hear how I stitch things together. For me, a similar analogy would be its like the difference between cheap-looking computer animation and world-class computer animation. It’s something that I take a lot of pride and a lot of effort to make as good as I can.

Is the vocal sample [in “Redeemed”] something you had to clear or was it out of copyright? I know for the track “Sad and Lonely” you had to speak to the family of the woman [who was sampled].

Well the reason this is different is because it’s a cover. It’s always a judgment call. It has to do with how many other samples I need to clear on the same song. It has to do with where we are at in the sample clearance process. Unfortunately there are many examples in my catalog of judgment calls I’ve made that I ended up having to hassle with or remain uncleared to this day. That’s part of the nature of what I do unfortunately. I wish I could clear everything but it literally is impossible.

How “old” is the newest musical sample you’ve included?

I’d have to think. I imagine it’s probably something like the chopped and screwed sounding vocal on “Enemy Lines” which is probably only from a few years ago. I do still listen to contemporary music obviously and occasionally, if something is laying around and I play it and I hear some isolated bass kick or snare sound or high-hat or crash, it could be from a record from this year, if I feel like if it works with something I am working on I’ll go ahead and grab it.

With vocals from the lead singer of Stateless [Chris James] on your last album or Little Dragon now, do you feel you are helping to bring new artists to the foreground?

For some people, sure. I think part of being a good DJ is being a gateway by which some people can discover some things. Obviously, I’m not necessarily digging as deep as you could. You could go to a pub down the road and find someone playing their first gig and introduce them to the world if you were so inclined but, in my case, I wanted to work with people that all had made something I had admired. By virtue of that fact they all have records out. Through the samples that I use sometimes and just through what I choose to use and not use, I think that makes a statement as well. If I came out with a record that where I was sampling nothing but James Brown, Ohio Players, and P-Funk, I’m not sure how much of a statement that would make. On this record I sample everything from 50s folk to punk rock. That’s not something I walk around bragging about but I think inevitably that makes a statement.

You will be touring through Europe later this year I noticed. Do you find there is a different audience between the States and foreign crowds? Is there a preference you have?

Its funny because every time I think I have it figured out something will happen. I think every tour artist will tell you there’s always gonna be head scratchers, where you are expecting the show to be really lame and its incredible or all the conditions are right for it to be an amazing show but somehow it just doesn’t feel like it ever pops off. I’ll never understand the psychology of what makes a show be as good as it can be. I’ve always had more of a cultural significance in the UK than I’ve had here. I think there [are] a lot of reasons for that. But on a purely logistical level, my contract has always been in the UK. I’m signed in the UK and have been for 16 years. The way my music is introduced to the US is as though I’m a foreign artist. The label keeps changing because Universal keeps shrinking. There tends to be not a consistent thread. Every time I show up, I’m on a different label here. Some critics use that as an excuse to think that there is something faulty about my whole program or what it is that I’m trying to do. Which is unfortunate but that’s just the way things are.

It may be part of the shuffling but how do you feel being on [the label] Verve?

It’s either that or Interscope, which is LMFAO kind of artists which I obviously don’t fit in with. Or there is the rock wing which I don’t necessarily fit into as well. Really Verve was the only place I could come out and still be on Universal. Sometimes people will look at that and go, ‘Oh, why did he sign with Verve?’. Well I didn’t sign with Verve. Verve is a Universal affiliate and they need to find a place to put out my record in the US and this is really the only place it could come out.

What would be your favorite moment on the record?

I don’t have a favorite but I have favorites. “Scale it Back” is definitely one of my favorites. “Redeemed”. I like what “I Gotta Rokk” does. I put a lot of energy into that song. I’m happy with the way it plays out when I DJ or when I play live. That song sort of did what I needed it to do. And “I’ve Been Trying” as well is a song that, when I hear it, I feel like I’ve made a lot of right decisions to get it to the finish line. I feel like I held back from overproducing it and I’m happy about that as well.

We’ve talked a lot about the new record but I’m also wondering, are you planning any collaborations with Cut Chemist or anyone else? What’s your next project?

I’ve got this year pretty well mapped out. Beyond that I haven’t really got anything set in stone. I don’t like to fill up years and years in advance [laughs]. It’s great to have a little bit of luxury to kind of pick and choose things and to be a little bit impressionable and allow things to grab my attention. Maybe I’ll go down this road for a while or that road. People like Cut Chemist and Solesides, I’ve not closed myself off from anyone. I think everybody is just doing their own thing. The music industry has shrank obviously and people have to work twice as hard to stay where they were in terms of their profile and their income and everything. I see a lot of artists touring a lot and a lot of people really having to hustle to make ends meet.

Do you anticipate any film scoring? I know that you did the Dark Days score and they just rereleased [the film] for its tenth anniversary.

Its possible, but there is nothing I can tell you. There is nothing bubbling under that I can tell you about.