DJ Shadow on new ‘Our Pathetic Age’ album: “we live in surreal times, which I needed to address”
DJ Shadow, the producer, DJ, and vinyl-digger known from his legendary debut album 'Entroducing....' and tracks with Run The Jewels, De La Soul, and Nils Frahm, has released a brand new album on November 15. We met up with him in Brussels, a month before the release of Our Pathetic Age: "I was ready, I felt like there were things I wanted to say".
Interview by Helena Verheye, picture by Matthias Hanssens
WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO SINCE THE RELEASE OF YOUR LAST ALBUM ' THE MOUNTAIN WILL FALL'?
DJ Shadow: "I was touring for a year and a half after my last record came out. I started working on Our Pathetic Age around February of last year."
HOW WAS IT TO GO BACK INTO THE STUDIO AFTER ALL THIS TIME?
DJ Shadow: "I was ready, I felt ready. There were things that I wanted to say. When you're on the road, you want to be in the studio and when you're in the studio, you want to be on the road. The first six months of whatever you're doing are always fun. But personally, I'd rather be in the studio than on the road."
WHAT IS IT THAT YOU WANTED TO SAY?
DJ Shadow: "Inspiration can come from so many different things, whether it's other types of art or other music, or even current events. I think as an artist, it's my job to interpret the world around me and to hold up a mirror. This mirror is almost like a funhouse. There are curves and waves, based on my own ideas and personality."
WHAT WAS YOUR INSPIRATION FOR OUR PATHETIC AGE?
DJ Shadow: "A lot is going on in the world. As a human being, I feel like I'm sympathetic to the plight of other human beings on this planet. We are in a very surreal and dangerous time and I can't make a record and not address it. I can't pretend as if everything is OK. For instance, an album called sign at the times was 'There's a Riot goin' On' by Sly and the Family Stone. Once in a while, artists feel the need to look around and try to make sense of what's going on."
IS IT IMPOSSIBLE AT THIS MOMENT FOR YOU TO MAKE AN A-POLITICAL ALBUM?
DJ Shadow: "Yes, but I feel like everybody else is doing it. As artists, we have a particular obligation to occasionally look around and be sensitive to what we are all going through. Otherwise, it's just escapism. At a certain point there needs to be some kind of open dialogue so that we all can feel that together, we can find a way to move forward. But to me, 'Our Pathetic Age' is not a-political but it's also not necessarily in-your-face political either because I don't feel that's my strong suit.
What I like to do is to hold up a mirror and say "Here is what I'm seeing, what are you seeing?". I'm not necessarily telling people how we can fix everything. It's more like "I'm feeling this and maybe you are feeling this". If so, maybe Our Pathetic Age can provide some kind of relief or some kind of positive direction for someone."
DID YOU MAKE ESCAPIST MUSIC BEFORE?
DJ Shadow: "There is escapist music on this record, for example, the song with De La Soul is not a political song. There are also some mini songs on the record that are just there to have fun. Because during a day, people have fun in their lives but also trouble and difficult times. I like it when art reflects all of it. It is insincere to me if it's all just party, party, party. That's not my life and probably also not yours."
THE VOCAL AND INSTRUMENTAL TRACKS ARE SPLIT INTO TWO GROUPS ON THIS DOUBLE-ALBUM. WHY SO?
DJ Shadow: "My first album was mostly instrumental but at the same time - through time - I have done a lot of different vocal collaborations as well on my albums of 2006 and 2011. On my last album, I wanted to force people to listen to both sides. I enjoyed just producing an instrumental set of music and a vocal set of music because it can be quite difficult to segway through instrumentals and vocals. I wanted two cohesive pieces of music, both of which reflect me."
WHO IS ROSIE FROM THE SECOND SINGLE?
DJ Shadow: "Rosie is the girl they're singing about in the sample so I don't know who she is. She's probably just some girl from the 1800s because it's a very old traditional folk song. It's the very last song that I made for Our Pathetic Age and I wanted to have fun with the unusual sound of the sample source. When I started working on the song it felt very 'me in my normal mode' and not really pushing anything or doing anything new. Sometimes it doesn't have to be rocket science. But I did want it to take a new direction in some way. That's why the three sections of the song are so different, I enjoyed the challenge of that."
THE SAMPLE IS A FOLK SONG?
DJ Shadow: "It's a record from the early 60s but the song itself is much older. Something about the sample had a gospel feel to it but the vocals didn't sound like something we still hear these days. They're very forceful, dignified and strong."
WHO DESIGNED THE ARTWORK FOR OUR PATHETIC AGE?
DJ Shadow: "The album cover was my idea and then Paul Insect - whom I have been working with since 2006 - did the outside of the album cover. I gave him the concept to design it. He is a UK artist and has also worked with Banksy a lot."
WHY IS THERE NO FEATURE WITH A FEMALE ARTIST ON OUR PATHETIC AGE?
DJ Shadow: "Good point. I really wanted a female presence on the record, so I sent beats to five different female artists. But for whatever reason, it just didn't happen. One of them had a really bad throat and sinus infection and she even needed surgery so she couldn't perform. Two or three artists really wanted to do it but their manager didn't. For every person on the record, I reached out to two other people. In some cases, I got my first choice but in other cases, I didn't.
It's my one regret about Our Pathetic Age. It didn't have to be 50/50 male and female artists but I wanted at least 25% female on the album. I love female mc's and singers. Rap is mostly a male-dominated field which is why I wanted to give females a voice."
WHAT WAS THE IDEA BEHIND THE CINEMATIC 'FIRESTORM' TRACK?
DJ Shadow: "It is a good example of something being inspired by current events. I live in Northern California and due to climate change, we now have a really long fire season. It doesn't rain for eight months and it can be 38 degrees Celsius every day. When I was four years old, a powerline went down on a windy day. The town I lived in was wiped out overnight, completely erased off the earth. To me, it was very surreal and I wanted to write a song that addressed it in my mind. It's possible to listen to the song and not have any idea about the inspiration but still be moved by it."
COULD YOU TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR COLLABORATION WITH BARNY FLETCHER?
DJ Shadow: "He is somebody that my manager looked after. He had sent me a demo and I thought it was very good so I produced a song for him called 'Found It'. At the same time, we did a little song together. Even though I really like it, I didn't think it worked in the main set of music so it's a bonus track on the digital version. It's not on the vinyl or on the CD. Unfortunately, we did not 'physically' get to work together because he lives in the UK. We had to send files back and forth to each other. Most tracks are made like that these days actually.
What I do to make it feel like a genuine collaboration with everybody in the same room is sending a partially finished track. The vocalists will then do their part and then I like to finish the music based on what they do. For example, the De La Soul track, the only thing they rapped over was the main sample and the drum scratch. I then added the scratching, the horns, I moved things around and totally arranged it based on what they did. I also did this in the past. I've never sent a finished track to a vocalist and called it a day."
IF YOU COLLABORATE WITH OTHER ARTISTS, DO YOU GIVE THEM A TOPIC?
DJ Shadow: "First and foremost it's a collaboration, but I do try to give a few sentences about what they can talk about or what I have in mind for a topic. Most people are OK with that because they want the song to work. I tend to find people that don't have such a big ego that maybe they would not be receptive to that. In my own mind, I'm worried about older artists being more set in their ways. But I've found out that it's harder to get younger people to listen to your suggestions. They're not used to anybody giving them ideas. They're used to doing what they want to do.
The De La Soul collab is an example of working with an established group, it was super easy. They totally knew what they wanted to do and I trusted them. I didn't worry about it. I got back the track and I was super satisfied and I didn't need to ask for any changes. As far as new artists, it takes way longer for them to get the song finished."
WHICH TRACK ARE YOU MOST SATISFIED WITH?
DJ Shadow: I was out of ideas as far as guests so I asked my label if they could think of people they want to reach out to because I had no luck. So they gave my song to a guy named Stro. I talked to him about the song and he said he was going to write the song that night. The next day he sends the vocals and it was better than I ever could've imagined. It went from being a track that wouldn't make the album because nobody wanted to work with it, to one of my favorite songs on Our Pathetic Age. It's called Jojo's World."
SINCE IT'S SO HARD TO FIND THEM, WOULD YOU GET FEWER FEATURES NEXT TIME?
DJ Shadow: "Doing a double album was something that was suggested to me about a third in the way in. By then, I had about 15 minutes of instrumentals and 15 minutes of vocal demos. I don't think anybody thought I would really do it. In the back of my mind, I told myself OK this is my goal. I'm going to try to do this. So for the vocal disk, it became a necessity to reach al these people for features. I don't know what the next album is going to be like. Maybe it'll be completely instrumental, I don't know. I wouldn't refrain from doing it again but I don't know if it's going to happen."
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