By Jeb Gavin
One of the most inventive electronic musicians working today, RJD2 is coming to the 9:30 Club on the 23rd of February. Depending on from when you’re counting, his latest effort More Is Than Isn’t and the subsequent tour marks over a decade of brilliant albums. He was kind enough to let me pepper him with alternately inane and overly thought out questions, about both his own music and the state of electronic music as a whole. I managed to avoid mentioning a certain television theme song for which he’s known. I’m proud of myself; had we not gone full-on music-nerd early, who knows what kind of fawning, sycophantic hamster I’d have become while we talked.
First off, how do you like playing DC, specifically the 9:30 Club? You’ve been there at least once or twice that I know of, ’cause I’ve been to the shows.
I love DC, and I love playing the 9:30 Club, but I will say I have, to some degree I feel like I’ve kind of got something to prove at the 9:30 Club.
I had a rough show there once, so I really, every time I go into a 9:30 show I gotta bring it.
OK, I’m fine with that if you feel like bringing your A-game.
Well I always want to, but there was one show- on one of the tours we started in DC, and the 24 hour lead up to that show was just completely fraught with difficulties. So that was kind of one those things, that I… in a good way I feel like I’ve got something to prove.
Should we expect the same half DJ/half live set, or something new?
Yeah, but with a new band, a new cast of characters. But similar format, part live and part DJ/sampler/digital stuff, and kind of a hybridization thing with control effects.
I don’t know if anyone else cares but it blew my mind the first time you did it, this Super Mario Brothers [it’s actually Donkey Kong, and I feel like an idiot for mixing them up], little thing you did- did you have anything else planned like that, was it an accident- or do you have any other multimedia stuff planned out?
That one thing is kind of, because of the nature of it- because of having to put a coat or image on to the MPC there’s no way that I can, not really an effective way to do multiple incarnations of that same idea. So I can basically do it or not. Hopefully there’ll be some multimedia things to offer…
So maybe expect Mario Brothers 2, where he’s in dreamland?
I wouldn’t say expect anything other than… y’know the focus for me is always going to be on the music- taking the songs and presenting them in a way that live is interesting and brings something new to them that can’t be heard on a record. That’s first and foremost- y’know I love the Mario thing and the spinning MPC suit, and it’s fun to do but to some degree they’re kind of parlor tricks that break up the kind of, monotony isn’t the right word…
It’s an interlude.
Yeah, yeah. It’s an interlude and it’s to breakup the format of the show.
To the point about the music, is there ever a point at which you’re playing a song live, and obviously you’ve created this music, you’re building these beats and this music out of samples and sounds, but is there ever a point where you’re in a new room or perhaps an old room and you’re playing it and something new pops out of it that you weren’t expecting, or you had never heard it that way before, and suddenly you have to chase that sound?
Occasionally there’s new ways to do things in a song- by the time we’re out on the road with something, I’ve lived with the song and heard it enough in mixing it, et cetera et cetera, there isn’t much new for me to discover in the song, but particularly one of the things I like having a live drummer -and I’m also going to have a bassist on this gig- having those elements allows me to push things out of the realm of on-the-grid. It allows for, it let’s me push the song to places that allow for a maximum of improvisation and for things off-the-grid to happen, basically. And I like that, because that keeps it interesting for me and I also feel it gives it more of a performance- in the world of electronic music it’s tough to take something that’s basically a studio creation and then re-envision it in a way that makes it feel like an alive, organic, non-quantized type of creation. And it’s a fun challenge and it’s a thing that I like to do, and I feel like we need- occupying a place as a producer that straddles the line of- I don’t strictly make quantized electronic music. Y’know, I’m not strictly a house or electro producer or whatever; I’m comfortable not working against a click track and working without a safety net.
To that end, that you can transmute a track from the recording to a live show in an interesting and fresh way- sort of a pet theory of mine that I’ve been badgering friends about: newer electronic music, you listen to the record and it almost feels as though you’re peering into a tool bag, you’re seeing everything that could be happening, and then live they actually perform and then suddenly it becomes an experience- as opposed to the record which is just sort of a skeleton. Do you see music going in that direction? Is that a concern when you make a record, that you’re thinking too far ahead into the live show? Or are you focused on making the sound in your head come out on the album, and then if something develops further live, excellent?
Very much the latter. At least in terms of the studio, the late era, ’66 to ’69 Beatles is my format, my template. I have no concern for how things are going to be presented live. It doesn’t even cross my mind when I’m making a record. Making an album for me is a very, very important thing. To use an analogy I feel it’s the difference between speaking on the record and off the record. I feel like a record, making an album is like testifying in court, whereas a show is talking to your friends at a bar. So I think very seriously, I’m going to have to live with my recorded albums for years, decades to come. The live thing isn’t even a component in all honesty. So there’s this completely radical shift in thinking when it comes time to tour a record, when I have to figure out how am I going to do something fun and interesting with these songs in a live concert.
You’re a fan of the genre, you like music obviously- do you see it as an issue that people occasionally do it the opposite way, where the album is simply a tool kit as it were for a live set, or is that not a concern of yours?
I don’t have any concerns with the “state of music today”. Frankly speaking, what other people do by and large doesn’t impact me. And if anything, I feel like when I see things from either the hip-hop world or the electronic world move into the live realm with varying results, it doesn’t bother me. If anything part of me feels it creates an avenue or lane for me to do things that are… y’know, if there were a bunch of people doing what I was doing, I would feel much different about it, I would feel much worse about it. Seeing a bunch of guys from the DJ/producer world move over to a world of Ableton plus one laptop- if anything it makes me feel like it opens up a lane to do something different. This is kind of where the Commissioner Crotchbutton suit and the spinning MPC and the Donkey Stuff, all these things came out of a desire to really do something that was jarring and foreign in that genre.
You mentioned hip-hop, do you have any interest in -for example, like El-P- crossing over to be a rapper and a producer, or are you just focused on the music?
Do you mean do I have any interest in rapping myself?
Yeah. If you were to create an album you felt someone needed to rap on, would you want to do that, or go looking for a collaboration, almost like El-P with Killer Mike?
Oh, no no no, no. Not in a billion years would you ever hear me rapping. Rapping, I cut my teeth in a hip-hop group. That was my entry into music. I think rapping is just as skilled a discipline as producing; I would never want to do something half-assed basically. Good rappers are born at the age of 12 or 13, 14, 15, once you’re in your thirties that door is pretty much closed. Blueprint for example -we’re working on a new Soul Position record right now- he’s been rapping for close to 20 years at this point. I don’t harbor any hope that I would be able to, for one step in and become a good rapper. For two, even more to that point, I don’t really traffic in the world of words. To be a good MC there’s a lot of components of it, but really you have to love words, you have to love the English language. I don’t have that burning- I have that burning passion, it’s just not about the English language, it’s not about putting words together, it’s about putting sounds together, putting chords together and grooves- all the components of… all the ways Eminem is fascinated putting syllables and rhymes together into a rhythmic scheme, I’m fascinated by putting tonal sounds and rhythmic pieces into a constructed rhythmic pattern.
Is there anything outside of hip-hop or electronic music that you listen to and admire, say something like Sun O))) or Icelandic bands making sonic landscapes- is that something you’d ever consider doing?
The list of things I’d like to achieve musically, it grows year by year. There’s so many things I want to do that’re not crossed off my musical bucket list. You mention Sun O))), I grew up listening to classic rock music, so there’s lots of modern rock bands that I love, so that’s something I’d love to do. I listen to a lot of jazz music, so that’s a thing that informs what I do but at the same time that’s another thing I aspire to do is to make a really great jazz record. I love singer/songwriter music, but I might not be the ideal person to do that. Very little of what I listen to is in my same genre card in a record store.
Constantly digging outwards?
Yeah, outwards and backwards. And that’s not to speak poorly of electronic music. When I look at art from a bigger picture, what guys like Thelonious Monk and Dylan achieved musically and compositionally [it’s a word now, deal with it,] it’s light-years beyond the best record I’ve ever made. The best records I’ve ever made aren’t even close, so naturally I would aspire to do something that grandiose.
Going off the idea of going backwards as well as outwards, to a certain extent it feels as though pop music has swallowed rap whole, and rap took a rather large bite out of electronic music taking all the samples it possibly could. Do you see that as concerning, a sort of Ouroborian circle of the same sound?
No, that’s not a concern of mine at all. I think that exploratory nature is the thing that drove hip-hop in the first place. That’s the thing that made hip-hop so fascinating for the first 15 years, it was continually trying to absorb other fields, other genres of music. If rap music sounded like Howie Tee for 10 years straight, that would’ve been a problem. It wouldn’t have made the mark it made nationally, internationally. I see what you’re saying, there’s a sort of bandwagon-esque thing that happened there- a tidal wave of hip-hop producers absorbing the influences of electronic music and pop. That doesn’t bother me when people follow suit. It’s the first guys that say, “oh, I’m gonna sample a 2011 indie rock record for this hip-hop track,” those are the things I take note of. Then the next 10 people that do it I don’t care. There’s not that much on my radar, frankly.
When you say the first person and then you don’t think about the next 10 people doing it, would you be looking for something unique in the 11th person doing it. Let’s say the first person, the first 10 are unknowns, or just doing a middling job of it, and then that 11th person really makes something out of this new sample or idea and suddenly it’s impressive…
There’s always going to be exceptions to the rule, I was just making an example speaking to the point about producers and records absorbing influences outside of their genre. Your point about pop music sort of absorbing rap music at a point and then hip-hop producers kind of absorbed electronic music- what I was speaking to was I’m much more happy that first wave happened than the next 10.
So it’s better that somebody try it and others follow than no one trying something new?
Exactly. I’d rather have people experiment with a genre and then have a bunch of copycats than have people walled off in some sort of genre-specific landscape.