Five Questions: DJ Shadow

Producer/DJ Josh Davis talks about the evolution of his rhythmic vocabulary and his move away from sampling to create 'The Mountain Will Fall'
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Producer/DJ Josh Davis talks about the evolution of his rhythmic vocabulary and his move away from sampling to create 'The Mountain Will Fall'
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Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow, borders on being a mythical character. The longstanding DJ and producer changed the face of music 20 years ago with his groundbreaking debut album, Endtroducing… and no one has come close to being able to replicate his identifiable sound since. Two decades on, his latest album, The Mountain Will Fall, fits tidily into today’s electronic/underground hip hop landscape, yet it remains quintessentially DJ Shadow—unlike anything else out there.

Why had you not played a traditional DJ set for about a decade until your Low End Theory sets in 2012?

If I’m doing a show as DJ Shadow, people expect me to play my music. I felt I had an obligation to live up to that. It served me well in the sense that there weren’t a lot of DJs in the late ’90s/early 2000s that could play festival stages in Europe alongside big rock groups. It was something I embraced and felt was an honor to do.

I never stopped DJing, but there wasn’t an avenue for me to just have fun. With Low End Theory, there’s a built-in context that opened up a new way to express my love of music, which is why I became a DJ in the first place.

How did the subsequent DJ gigs lead to the development of the album?

I did more of what I was already doing: looking for music on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, wherever music is found. Through the course of doing that I started to zero in on a sound I was comfortable representing. Inevitably, some of that rhythmic vocabulary started to inform the way I make beats. That’s also why I started working on Ableton. It was a very organic process of hearing music I was being inspired by, adding it to my lifetime of musical knowledge and sensibilities then trying to incorporate just enough of it so it still felt like me and not some radical self-conscious departure.

In addition to crate digging and the sources you mentioned earlier, where else do you look for your sounds?

It comes down to music as a quest. For me, music is like a puzzle. It’s like a constantly trying a key. I feel the same way about a stack of records and trying to find a sample, or a different plugin or another synth that’s going to get me to the next step. I’ll always employ the same tactics. But at the same time, I’m a curious individual and I’m impressionable. When I hear music being made in an interesting new way, I don’t want to say I can’t do that because I limited myself to this discipline only. That’s a creatively bankrupt way of thinking about music.

What are the main components that figured into the creation of this album?

The first thing I do is play through some records. I’ll grab a handful, drop the needle, and see if something inspires me. I’ll sit down to music that’s been sent to me in emails or links to people’s stuff to balance things out.

I made the big switch to Ableton Live in 2013. It’s the most intuitive platform for making music I have used since the MPC. I tried and failed on so many different platforms and went back to the MPC saying, “What am I doing? This is ridiculous. I don’t want to go back.” All the beats I make and every track on this record was made on Ableton. I still find Pro Tools to be a little easier and quicker to edit, especially if you have to do batch editing.

I did a couple of sessions at my friend’s studio. He has these incredible, almost one-of-a-kind modular synths. You have to take the synths right then and there because you’ll never be able to retrace your steps to get it back to where it is. I like to build with my own eyes and ears. The time you put into sample chops is going to pay off later when you start loading a track with sonic ideas and textures.

This album is a long way from your sample-based debut.

When I did Endtroducing… I only knew left/right, bass/treble, and up or down. That was it. When I started the Unkle record in a big, expensive studio in London, the first day we walked in, the tape ops and assistant engineers were cranking Endtroducing… I was embarrassed because that record is so rudimentary. I totally understand there’s a homogenous warmth to it which is impossible to replicate, but when I’m putting my set together now and I have to reference Endtroducing… I have to do so much to those songs to make them be able to sit with the music I’ve made in the last 10 years because they’re so simple. There’s only one chance and one time in your life where you can get away with that.

Read our extended interview with DJ Shadow at http://www.emusician.com/DJShadow.