Album Reviews Q&A: DJ Shadow
Music history is dotted with pioneers, but few have been of this generation. But DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis, is one such artist - his debut album of 1996, Endtroducing..., was the first release of its kind to be entirely comprised of samples. If that sounds like some sort of cheat, just think about it for a few seconds: how much time, care and attention goes into creating wholly original songs, running to just over an hour, from the material of others? The mind boggles. It was - it is - and entirely unprecedented achievement which still sounds amazing today. Shadow's latest long-play set is titled The Less You Know, the Better, and represents something of a return to form for its maker after the muddled nature of (and muted critical reception to) his third album, 2006's The Outsider. To mark its release, he spends a few minutes on the phone with us, all the way from Tokyo, for a little Album Reviews Q&A action.
This album was delayed slightly, as there were problems with clearing certain samples. But was there any worry that it would become bogged down to an irretrievable level?
Not really. I started working on it in the spring of 2009, and prior to that I'd toured for two years: one year for The Outsider, and another with Cut Chemist with a show we'd originally put together for the Hollywood Bowl. So I was on the road for two years, and then I worked on a video game, called DJ Hero, for some time. Then I came to this album. It's been delayed for about five weeks in total, because of various sample issues - it was supposed to come out at the start of September, when I was actually in the UK. One time it got delayed because of a production issue, and then again when I had to pull a song called I'm Excited off the album.
And does having to remove a track at such a late stage weigh heavy on you? Is it an important part of the album's DNA which is missing?
It certainly weighs heavy, but I do hope that we can retrieve the situation. That said, little progress has been made on clearing the samples since then. It's one of those heartbreakers.
From the outside looking in, it seems sample culture was a lot easier some years ago - when you made Endtroducing... entirely of samples, and before then with albums like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, which I can't imagine could be made today.
It doesn't tend to be much of an issue for me anymore, because I go to great lengths to use stuff that is out of the reach of the mainstream... I'm not sampling James Brown or Funkadelic, y'know. And to be completely honest, that sort of stuff is far easier to clear now than it was. When you're sampling songs that were never intended for mass consumption, or were just demos, or were never properly released, as was the case with much of what I was working with, it just comes down to someone's ability to grasp what's being asked for. Some people are very suspicious, others are very welcoming; some people are just confused by the whole thing and need to be coached a little bit. The most frequent one these days, though, is when people who have been in the business since the 1960s can't quite comprehend how much the industry has shrunk. They remember the days when Fleetwood Mac would sell 10 million albums in a month, so you have to educate them to the fact that nowadays you'd be lucky to sell 1,000. So that's one of those things we need to deal with.
You mention the shrinking of this industry. Do you feel you have to give a lot more to maintain an audience's attention on your material? Everything's got to be bigger, from the live show to the release of the album itself. Endtroducing... felt as if it'd come from nowhere, and while that's probably not quite the case there's no doubt the run-up to this album has seen a lot more activity, with EP releases and gigs, than preceded previous albums.
I think it's a combination of factors. Going back to Endtroducing..., there was a long history building up to that record, and obviously everything after that album has it as a context. So, (second album) The Private Press didn't need much to introduce it, as it was easy at that time to just sell it as the follow-up to Endtroducing...; but when The Outsider took so many people by surprise, I suppose it made me a little gun-shy of just delivering something out of the blue. I wanted to really prime people for this album, and I think that's the way it should be. You want people to have a story, and for there to be a bit of history associated with a record. So it was nice to tour before this album was out, not once but twice.
After all, that's the hardcore audience you're playing too, the fans who've been there probably for quite some time.
Absolutely. When I do a show, it doesn't matter how I'm feeling on the given day - I might be in a foul mood, or depressed about something - the bottom line is that the people are there for you. There's nobody else that matters in that moment, on that evening; those are the people who have spent their hard-earned money to support my art, so I have to acknowledge that on a regular basis now, as they really are all I have. Those are the people who really, really matter.
I first saw you play between Teenage Fanclub and Radiohead, when the latter were supporting OK Computer, so you'd have been touring Endtroducing... then. Was the step from the studio to the stage something that came easily? Endtroducing... never sounded like an album that'd make any sense live; but I remember being really impressed with what I saw.
Well, for that OK Computer tour... let's see... I was in the middle of working on the UNKLE record (Psyence Fiction), and I'd just slipped a disc in my back, so it was a harrowing time! I'd just gotten a new manager, for the first time, and she was coming out from the States. There was this talk of me needing a light show because of the size of the venues - but this was all new to me. It's good to know you liked it - I remember either NME or Melody Maker though, who wrote that the set was "unforgivably lazy", which sent me into something of a spiral. But I feel like, on a certain level, I've been judged throughout my career by people who have very little inkling about what I do and what it takes to put that together. But, anyway...
That sounds as if you've been someone who's read their reviews in the past. Many a band will steer clear of checking out their press...
You know, I do my best to avoid reviews - but unfortunately it's very much like this scene in Extras, where he's at this little gentlemen's club and this guy next to him says, "Hey, I have the review right here," and pulls it out of his pocket. People will let you know, no matter what. And it seems over the last eight years or so there have been countless instances where, with me minding my own business, someone will say something to the effect of, "He must be feeling really terrible," you know, because somebody's written this really vicious stuff. I'll hear that, and go, "Ooh, yeeeah, cheeers..."
While I'm sure you wouldn't trade the success that Endtroducing... has brought you for the world, you must be sick of it being held up as the marker against which all of your work since has been compared to. I mean, it's a very different album from what you went on to create; and besides, repeating the formula would surely have taken some shine off the original?
Um, well, I don't know. I feel like the minute I relent and say yes to a question like that, that I do wish everyone would stop comparing my albums since to Endtroducing..., people will say: "See, it is an albatross, one that he's been denying all these years." I mean, I made something that people seem to like, and I wouldn't trade that for anything. But I have to continue, and I have to keep making music. Really, all I can do is keep taking in music, and trying to manifest what I've learned from my peers into making my own music - not only from my contemporaries but also from the past - and to try to make something compelling. I kind of feel like I'm groping in the dark for my own understanding of these complexities, but I've always looked at this as a long journey. But we live in an era when everything is black and white - if something isn't a success, it's considered a dead-ass failure. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't struggle to understand some people's context when it comes to covering my music. Beyond that though, everybody is entitled to their own opinion. I continue to learn, and I try to learn from these experiences.
You've got Talib Kweli and De La Soul's Posdnuos on the album, which makes sense on paper easily enough, but also the recently resurfaced Tom Vek on the track Warning Call. How'd you come to work with him?
Well, I was familiar with his first record through working with a producer called Jim Abbiss - I met Jim in 2005 and asked for some stuff from his iPod that was inspiring him, and he gave me that and TV on the Radio's first album. Tom reached out to me in February of this year, asking for a remix - I had to decline because I was still finishing my own record, but I had this instrumental laying around. I'd tried various sampled options for vocals, but nothing was really hitting it right. A couple of days later I was thinking about his voice... This happens quite a bit to me, because I always assume nobody likes my stuff or knows who I am, so when someone reaches out to me for a remix and I know who they are, I'm always chuffed. Anyway, I was thinking about his voice and wondered if he'd actually want to work with me. I asked, and he was kind enough to relent.
Just before you go, what have been your favourite albums of this year?
I picked up Watch the Throne actually, at some airport. I personally think Kanye West is... is... Well, he's someone I really admire. He never takes the easy route, and is always getting bashed around, but he wears his heart on his sleeve. He seems to have done a pretty good job of navigating some particularly treacherous critical seas, and I admire those sorts of people. I'm an eternal Kanye apologist.
Read the BBC review of The Less You Know, the Better
Listen to Matt Everitt in conversation in with DJ Shadow on The First Time With...
DJ Shadow - Official Website (external link)
Read more Album Reviews Q&A articles on the BBC Music Blog