After five years of anticipation DJ Shadow is set to release his seventh studio album ‘The Less You Know, The Better’ this September.
Speaking about how he hid himself away for seven months while writing and recording the record, DJ Shadow – aka Joshua Davis – is both refreshing and forthcoming about his feelings towards the current state of the music industry and how he feels that technology is taking over. Here he speaks to Gigwise about performing at Glastonbury, using guerrilla tactics to get his releases into stores and the enduring appeal of his 1996 album ‘Entroducing’…
You’ve played sets at Glastonbury and Rockness over the last few weekends – how did they go and if you previewed any new material, how did that go down with the crowd?
DJ Shadow: I think that they both went well, the thing that worried me about Rockness is that I know that it was taped! And I can’t remember now whether I thought it was good technically or not, so I’m a bit afraid to listen to it now in case I don’t like it. I remember it going down well though, and I thought that Glastonbury was very good. The John Peel stage takes all the edge out of it and the pump out of it so that you feel as though you’re just playing at a friend’s benefit or something, so from the very beginning I felt very good about it, and very at ease. I thought that they did a really great job on that stage and the whole area was nice, I even had my kids with me. The songs and the whole tour, it’s been good. I’ve been out here for almost two months, and I’m going home tomorrow. It’s been a bit long, but hey, this is what we do!
Visuals are a key part of your live performances. Have you restructured these at all for your forthcoming tour over in the US, and are you using art designs by Ben Stokes again?
DJ Shadow: Well everything’s always being redefined, I know it sounds a bit sort of crass, but like any business it’s always wise to keep reinvesting and I try and do that every run. I was just talking to Ben the other day and we were trying to work out what we could do in just 10 days, but we’re going to wait for the next big refresh after Australia, cos they haven’t seen anything, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to not wait.
What are your anticipations about playing Pitchfork Festival and the US tour?
DJ Shadow: My hopes are that the audiences are as good as they’ve been here. I have had some experiences in the States where I feel like I’m playing to the walking dead in comparison. And I think that that’s just symptomatic with societal strain in the States. It just seems as though people are passionless and a bit bombarded by technology and are getting a bit hollowed out by it all. Sometimes you’re participating in amazing things – imagine a bunch of people watching a sunset and then there’s always somebody sitting there staring at their cell phone instead. It just gets a bit like you just feel like slapping society as a whole and going “Snap out of it! You’re being manipulated by a tech industry constantly telling you that your life’s incomplete without this phone, or this app.” I feel like something is probably going to change fairly soon, at least I think it ought to. This reminds me right now a lot of what it was like in the 60s and 70s with television. Television itself didn’t have a conscience or the ability to critique itself, it was just simply “We’re the biggest, we’re the best. You want more of us, buy more from our advertisers.” That’s also how I feel about the internet as a whole right now, it’s actually not very convenient anymore, it’s not owned by us, it’s owned by corporations. It’s really not what it was, and I think that there’s a bit of a lag in people actually realising that.
Your new album ‘The Less You Know, The Better’ is due out in September. Does that title reflect that idea of too much technology that you were just discussing?
DJ Shadow: Yeah, the title refers to what I was just talking about, just sort of tuning out a little bit, and readdressing the balance, but not just in my life. I deprived myself of a lot of distraction in the process of making the record and I rented a little one-room cottage in a little town in the Wine Country in California. It was a real rural environment, actually it was gorgeous and I really miss it sometimes, but I was there for seven months. It’s the kind of environment where the bed’s there, and the sink’s there so you kind of wake up, work for a while, make food, work for a while, go to sleep. I hadn’t allowed myself that kind of dedication since probably the early 2000s and I think that it was necessary for this record and I think that it really reminded me of what’s required. I think, like anything else, the erosion is slow and almost imperceptible, in terms of my time. You know, as you get older you feel like you ought to do this and then before you know it you’re only working like five or so hours a day, even though it feels as though you’re working 12, and in my life that was becoming a real problem. It was a bit painful, but I just needed to deny myself all these things, these little breaks and these little treats, all these little things that we do just to get ourselves through the day, like walking to the water dispenser, or grabbing a coffee or chatting to a workmate. The next thing you know you’re always away from your desk!
So how will it differ musically from your previous releases? Did you decide on a certain sound or new direction that you wanted to create, or was it more of a natural progression?
DJ Shadow: I think that musically it’s very strong. I’m always trying to say something different. The more music that you make and the longer you’re doing it for, the more you realise how seductive it is to sort of slip back into old habits or slip back into a mode that feels nostalgic or familiar. And that for me is the real challenge – being a long-term artist is realising that being in class never stops and it shouldn’t stop. There’s no such thing as mastering your craft or taking in enough. For me it never ends, and it shouldn’t end. So I suppose it’s been five years since the last record, I’ve experienced that much more music and the more music you take in the more interested you are in travelling down roads that you would have denied yourself previously. I wouldn’t have been interested in some of the music I am interested in now and prior. All of that slowly informs. And then of course in addition music transforms there are new sounds and you have to be open and receptive to those as well. And that in itself can be challenging. The ego part of our brain likes to imagine that we’re always on top or whatever, and Hip Hop and DJing with that mentality, it can be hurtful to your ego when you realise that someone else is already introducing a new vocabulary that you don’t understand, and then you have to go back to class and learn it, but without imitating. And that process is what I feel as though I’m always going through.
So is it also a backlash and your own critique on how you personally view the music industry?
DJ Shadow: I think that the argument has got a bit silly. I think that there are a lot of archetypes, where people like to imagine record company people as mafia guys with pinky rings, smoking a cigar and sitting behind a mahogany desk. And then they like to imagine artists as these Steven Tyler types where it doesn’t actually matter if you buy the music or not, because they don’t need it, they’re rich anyway, they have their Bentley and their mansion. All this stuff is just so absurdly stereotypical, and certainly nonexistent, and you just want to scream it out loud because I think that so many companies online keep perpetuating that stereotype because they want to become to new model. And that just goes back to what I was talking about earlier; the new boss is exactly the same as the old boss as far as I’m concerned. All these companies are talking about saving the industry, but they’re really all about people making that initial big offer, and they get sold to the same companies and then it’s more of the same shit. And in the meantime music, and the artists, are actually the ones who provide all of this content and then just keep getting disrespected.
Do you tend to think visually when you’re writing new material, imagining the production and how it’s going to look onstage or is it more of an afterthought?
DJ Shadow: No, but I do like to imagine a whole audience are listening. I was really affected by a Radiohead gig I saw. I was supporting them on their arena tour in 1997, when ‘OK Computer’ came out so I had an opportunity to watch them every night. And I remember being really affected by one time in particular in Manchester when they dedicated the encore to a kid who had passed away at one of their shows, or had died right after one of their shows, and it was ‘Street Spirit’ which is already amazingly evocative and an emotional song, and so in that context, seeing the way that it affected that audience, it was like not a dry eye in the house type thing, and when you’re talking about 15-20,000 people it’s pretty profound. And it really just goes to show you that everything doesn’t have to be like “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” So I actually think about audiences as being held captive in a room and absorbing the music, no matter what sort of style it is. That’s not to say that I’m trying to make the music satisfy a nameless group of people, it’s just that I do find that it helps me to finish the music.
You’ve spoken in the past about your guerrilla tactics when it comes to getting your releases into record shops. Is this something that you’d still consider?
DJ Shadow: At the time, last year, it struck me as the purest way that I could think of for distributing my music. I was giving it away for free in a sense, but it wasn’t some speck-in-the-ocean sort of download alongside 10 million other downloads. I really like the karmic element of people finding it and stumbling across it and it resonating with them because of that. Not like this used-car salesman type tactic, “Hey, buy this, and I’ll throw in this and you can then get this free.” I liked imagining people finding it a few days later, or even a few years later depending on some of the places I put them, or some of it getting lost, or whatever the case. I always find it amazing some of the things that I’ve found in thrift stores, and why I found them at that time. There’s a couple of songs on the album that really benefitted from these chance encounters – these pieces at just the right time – and how they ended up there, and how obscure they are and where they came from. I’m always fascinated by that.
And is that the same regarding the homemade sleeves for the 12”?
DJ Shadow: It’s a similar thing, I was on tour around this time last year and then instead of turning on the television or something I’d just grab a blank sleeve and just start doodling. Or I’d have my daughters doodling and then I’d add to it. It just became something to do to pass the time between shows. And some of them I became quite fond of, and others not so much!
Your official website’s currently selling newer versions of merchandise – photos, prints, hoodies etc – of ‘Endtroducing’-era stuff. Although it’s been years since its release, do you find that it still holds the same power and intrigue now as it did in 1996?
DJ Shadow: It seems to. I mean there are still people discovering it, younger brothers of older brothers, kids of parents… but I mean how could I be mad at it? For some reason, and perhaps I’m just objecting to this a little bit too strongly, but people always seem to suggest that there’s this pressure, and that ‘Endtroducing’ is some kind of albatross, and I’ve just honestly never felt that way. I think that I have a healthy enough respect for the lineage of the music and how rare it is that you can connect with an audience. If that will always be ‘the record’ then so be it, that’s cool. It took me a long time to reconcile with the fact that people are often fans of records rather than artists. For a while I used to go, “How come the same people who bought ‘Entroducing’ don’t wanna buy ‘The Private Press?’” And it took me a long time to sort of go, “Well listen, it was a zeitgeist album,” just like this week it’s a different album, the one album people feel that they need to buy, even if they just buy one album a year. It was that type of a record, and naturally there’s going to be tons of people who bought the record who aren’t fans of mine necessarily, rather they bought it because they felt that they needed to and then moved on in their life. But it took me a long time to be able to reconcile that.
So besides the album release and a lengthy tour schedule, what’s next?
DJ Shadow: I won’t be taking any time off any time soon! The album’s out in September, so naturally there’s tons to do between now and then, and then when it comes out you’re obligated to do your best to nurture it along. I never like to make it sound as though it’s some kind of burden or anything, I genuinely feel very fortunate that I’m able to make an album again, it’s not easy to make an album especially with the method that I use and it’s not easy to put a tour together and convince promoters that it’s worthwhile, so I always feel very fortunate.
'The Less You Know, The Better' is due for release in September.