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Interview: RJD2 Chats About The Colossus
RJD2 I Photo by Dan McMahon
It's been ten years since you've first started. Is there anything you would have wanted to tell yourself 10 years ago?
Yeah, the things that you expect to be small deals end up being very big deals. For example, it's in my nature to be the kind of person who usually says yes if someone asks me to do a project. If I like it then I don't care if it's a small little thing and it'll only come out in Japan. However I wish I had told myself ten years ago to copy-write and take ownership of everything! I also would have told 1999 RJ to trust your instincts. A number of times in my career something has intrigued me and for whatever reason I've turned it down because I wasn't very sure of myself. If something is exciting or intriguing or fun you should just do it. Even if the first five people you show it to don't take to it at all. Sometimes when something gets released or whatever it gets validated, but it wasn't apparent that it was going to do well right off the bat. It's a confusing thing to navigate, because people seem to define things as either good or bad. There is no art that is universally bad or good, it usually falls into different mediums.
After doing nearly everything yourself on your last album, Third Hand, why did you choose so many collaborations on this album?
The whole collaborative thing was a big priority for me. On the last album I was doing all of the duties: writing, producing, and performing which was appealing because it was something I'd never done before, but I definitely don't want to repeat myself. I thought a full length rap album would be too monochromatic, so I decided to do something sample based, but also indicative as where I'm at. I wanted to touch all of the bases. I'm a fan of records that throw extreme curve balls. When I was a teenager I used to listen to this jazz composer John Von Ohlen who introduced me to the really abrasive world of jazz. He would go from speed metal to traditional beebop at the drop of the hat. I saw him play in Columbus, OH. It was a quintet that he had and the first thing he said to the crowd was, "This is a great looking crowd. 95 percent of you are going to leave after the first song," and he just went balls to the wall and it was utter noise for two minutes. All of these jazz guys were trying to play speed metal. In those first few minutes all of these older folks walking out. Which was a shame because four minutes in they settled into playing songs. It was this sort of schizophrenic music that was very appealing to me. Like De La Soul's records or The Beastie Boy's album Paul's Boutique these where albums that were constantly challenging the listener. What starts out as abrasive or out of place in the beginning begin to sink in half way through and your ears acclimate to that. Suddenly it felt safe and secure to put these different elements next to each other. The common thread being the production ears of the person putting these things together.
RJD2 I Photo by Ben Mistak
Where did you get the idea to start your record label, Electrical Connections?
Well it was originally to put out a couple of reissues, but now we've started getting into a good rhythm. The Collosus will make the fifth album that we've officially released. It's a real learning process. Especially now in the climate that we're existing in the music industry. You really need to think about things like, "Do we need a publicist for this record?" Because we're only going to be able to afford to hire on big records. The price of the physical product shrunk so small that we're suddenly having to think about whether we're going to release on CD and vinyl, which is something a record label wouldn't have thought twice about a few years ago. But I suppose we're all in for a big lifestyle change in the future anyway. Who can predict that? However, I'd like to hope that Americans will become not so work obsessed and have some leisure time to listen to a record or an album on huge stereo speakers.
Are you going to have any other bands on your label eventually?
Right now I'm just using it to release my own music. It suits me, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility. If it was the right place and the right time, then maybe. Me too. Why name your album The Colossus?
It's from a video game title that I was obsessed with Shadow Of the Colossus. It just seemed to fit, but I carry around literally seventy five to a hundred band names, label names, and record names around in my head. I like lists.
Have you ever been inspired in a random place? Like heard something in a grocery store or on the street that you didn't recognize and then put it in a song later?
Absolutely! I heard this drum break on a KFC commericial that ended up being on "True Confessions." It was from a rock record that was released in 1997 or 1998 or something and I used to wait in front of the TV for that ad to go on so that I could tape it.
I used to do that too when I made mixed tapes. I would wait for the radio station to play a certain song for hours.
Me too! I still remember waiting for the Depeche Mode song "People Are People" to come on so that I could tape it.
Do people give you records to sample now?
(laughs) Never once in my life has anyone given me a vintage record. Nobody. I get all my samples from the dollar bin in the record store. That is the best place to look because I don't want to get stuck looking at one genre or category. I also don't really know what I want to find.
A lot of your songs have really vintage sounding organic samples, is there a reason for that? Do you have any criteria for a "good" album to sample when shopping?
Oh yeah, I try and look for obscurities that are usually released pre-1984, usually between 1952 and 1975, small label stuff. with isolated instruments. Genre doesn't matter. I usually will take home two psychedelic rock albums, one ambient, a couple experimental, and a bunch of soul records.
I have to ask you about the song, "The Glow". What is he singing about specifically?
Oh man, I'm embarrassed about telling you this.
It might reveal a mildly bad bias about me.
I'm sure it'll be okay.
Well, I'd like to start of by saying that the song wasn't necessarily tirade or talking down or derogatory in any sense. It was just an observation that I found interesting. Most of my songs aren't happy or sad or funny, they're just about things I find interesting. "The Glow" is about this phenomenon that I've noticed by hanging around people with old money. It's bizarre. It's almost like you can actually see it in their complexion. You can see it on their faces. It's just there. i just started noticing this and thought that it was a a peculiar observation. It's just freaking weird. There's something about never having to worry about money or doing manual labor, that does something to your skin.
Yeah I think that's true. It's also true of people who have worked hard all their lives. It also reads on their faces.
What is your writing process like?
I write everything in a notebook. I use tabs to catalog different types of things. I usually have between fifteen or twenty songs in there in rough format. There will be chord progressions at the beginning and then in the middle grooves or idea of grooves to fit over a drumbeat and then at the end lyrics.
So you write your lyrics seperately from the music?
Yeah, this is where my writing process becomes this horribly obtuse thing. I will look through all the lyric sheets and see if a song jumps out. It might be something as functionally simple as the rhythm of the words because when I write the lyrics I have no idea what the music will be like, so I try and craft each sentence, each line, to have the same pacing and syllables so they can fit better. It's a horribly convoluted process. I don't think that it's normal. Most people write lyrics to the music. I don't. Which is why I've got to capture the mood if I'm in the mood to write because it doesn't happen often.
What's the story behind the cover art on The Colossus?
I was looking for a piece of art that would well represent something that I liked, and I saw Judith Schaechter's stained glass windows and thought they were great. I'd never seen anything like it. All of the glass was painted and etched and cut to be a 3D stained glass window. So I used on of her pieces. I really like the symbolism in it. It's kind of like a wall of hieroglyphics. It's one unified piece that has within it a much more complex meaning or story. The could be said about the record. I just like to give the listener way too much information. That's always been my goal.
Well I think you've achieved that.
Thank you! I always hesitate to tell people what my influences are because I think movies and books are much bigger influences on what I want to present to the world.
influences are. I want my music to challenge you and throw a whole bunch of stuff at you, like Momento or sci-fi movies or Lost, not hold your hand and explain to you what it's about. Big pop records are fine, but I don't really care if your boyfriend is an asshole or texted you or not. I want you to hear my music and write your own narrative, not have it explained to you.
How involved are you in the video's concepts?
I'm the okay-er. I'm the sign off guy. I haven't generating anything as far as visual images thought. It's not my world at all. I don't mind being involved in the actual process, but I let the videographers do what they're good at. Nine times out of ten if you just let people run with it, it'll turn out well.
Are you in the bull suit in the "Let There Be Horns" video?
He was one guys on the team that built the suit. It was crazy! He had to learn how to walk on stilts for the video. Well not just stilts, because they have weird bendy joints that go backwards. It was nuts.The guys is actually little bit shorter than me and I'm not tall at all. Oh man and the minotaur head was a feat in itself. It was built onto a skateboarding helmet and was super top heavy so he could only see at a 45 degree angle down. It was insane. And the mask in front of the helmet had two RC radio receivers to work the eyes and the mouth. So when the minotaur is walking around there are actually three people operating it. Those guys are geniuses.
Is it odd seeing your music on TV and movies or is it satisfying?
Both. I can tell you though it's surreal as all get out. I'm slowly acclimating to it. Especially when I hear something that's mine and I didn't know it was coming on. It's very disorienting. It's just weird...and good.
What did you do with the award you won for the Mad Men theme song?
It's hanging on the wall of my office. And by office I mean, repair bench for all of my instruments.
What is your process for translating your songs to live versions?
It's been a process. I go through each song and any element that was sampled which is critical to the experience of the song or is hard to reproduce live is left in the sampler. Otherwise I try and have a band play it live. Most of the drums and bass translate and come off okay, but the sampler is still really important. But I never want to be just hitting a button along with the band. It should never be sequenced. There has to be a breath-ability to the music. Live shows are such unique experiences that they shouldn't just be listening to samples.
What is the strangest thing you've seen at a show?
I've seen some weird stuff. One time in New Orleans, this married couple was having some kind of negotiation process and whatever the conclusion was came to it ended with the decision that the wife was going to flash us. That was odd. Oh and one time in Florida this really super short guy, probably close to four feet, was dancing on the monitors on the front of the stage and pulled down his pants, so his ass was face level. What was weird was that nobody seemed to care. It was like it was expected. Now usually, I've got no problem saying something if I'm worried about the rest of the audience. I mean it's my show, you paid to get in, and it's my responsibility to police it. But I couldn't actually tell if this butt was a problem or not. It was really weird.
If you could change one thing about the music industry what would it be?
I would make all the liabilities surrounding sampling music go away. It would be nice if it wasn't possible for someone to file a law suits for recording. I mean, I've already been bootlegged, but my ethos about the whole thing is to forget about it. I've already chosen not to sue people. I mean sometimes people sample me and they do something I don't care for, but I would never take it to court. If someone is pissed that I sampled their record, that's fine. We should come to an agreement. Something where they make a percentage. That makes perfect sense. But going to court is so stressful. We should be able to talk about it without lawyers.
That would be nice. Okay last question, what was the best album that you heard last year?
Does it have to be new?
No, just new to you.
Journeys to Love by Stanley Clark. I discovered that last year and it's great.
Thank you so much for talking with us!
Be sure to catch RJD2 tonight at the El Rey Theatre with Bus Driver. Doors are at 8pm. Tickets are $22.
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