It's the first time that DJ Shadow has put the recording process of his new album into words, and it takes him a minute to figure out which way to go with it. “Forgive me if my thoughts aren't really … like, I don't have my lines down pat,” Shadow (aka Josh Davis) confesses. After all, a lot has happened since the release of The Private Press (MCA, 2002). For starters, the Marin, Calif. — based producer's wife delivered twin baby girls this year, which is a lot for anyone to handle, let alone a touring musician. After doubling his family, Shadow was inspired to do something really different for his next album, scheduled for release on Geffen in May 2006. ���I'd say where Private Press was inward, this record is very outward,” Shadow says. “I've had a really kind of crazy year. I'm not short on inspiration; I can definitely say that.”
Like any artist who gets major respect for a first release, as Shadow did with Endtroducing (Mo' Wax, 1996), the pressure to stand up to fans' expectations can seem insurmountable when going back into the studio. Although releasing a collection of singles from his work prior to Endtroducing — Preemptive Strike (Mo' Wax, 1998) — may have alleviated the stress a bit, pressure mounted again with his jump to a major label. “I didn't feel at the time like I was feeling a lot of pressure with Private Press, but I think, in retrospect, I was feeling more than I could understand at that point,” Shadow admits. “Right now, I can honestly say that I don't feel any. I'm having a lot of fun making this record.”
Whereas his previous albums were masterful sample collages with few vocals, his new album (title TBA) is almost an about-face. “I don't have any technical limitations on myself, so there are tracks with no samples, tracks with all samples, tracks with a mixture,” he says. To help change up his process, Shadow bought a slew of new equipment. “The last thing I wanted to do was to record in the same way that I did Private Press, because that's never a good idea,” he says. “I knew with this record that I wanted to really ratchet that up. If you change the way you make music, inevitably, it's going to change the way you think about arrangements, and you're going to try things you never really thought of trying before.”
Shadow bought his first Digidesign Pro Tools rig in 1998, followed by Digi's Control|24 console and an HD system in 2003. He also took the time to “properly learn MIDI,” he says, and opened the floodgates for new keyboards and his arsenal — including Native Instruments Reaktor, Kontakt and Battery and the GForce M-Tron virtual Mellotron plug-in. “I was getting frustrated with the natural limitations of having a stand-alone sampler like the MPC and decided to investigate the world of keeping everything in the computer and using programs like Battery and other sort of virtual MPCs,” Shadow says. “I still use the tactile surface [of the Akai MPC3000], but the samples don't live inside of it.”
His MPCs have been workhorses for years, but Shadow didn't want to get complacent with his methods. “I felt at a certain point that it was becoming counterproductive to try to force myself to stay on this piece of equipment, which holds back my creative flow,” he says. Now, rather than spending hours finding the perfect samples to shoehorn together, Shadow has a lot more options. For starters, he is playing parts and commissioning musicians to replay samples and his own ideas much more.
Such is the case with his new song “You Made It,” which started with a sample and ended up becoming a live piece. “I like the sample because it's just a very different type of rhythm and type of sound than most people would associate with me,” he says. “But I was trying to figure out what to do next, so rather than do the traditional thing, which is to plow through records, I wanted to create something rather quickly and ride the vibe that I was getting off the sample itself.” So Shadow recorded a bass-synth line and a string arrangement, added a drum sample and then hired a London orchestra to replay the string arrangements and a live drummer to replay the drums.
“There's a combination of synthesizers, samples, live instrumentation, vocals,” Shadow says. “The few people who I've played it for are like, ‘Wow … it sounds so real.’ It sounds stupid to say, but it's fun for me to come from such a humble start to … the kind of production I couldn't have thought about doing even, like, two years ago.”
Other than collaborating on the UNKLE project Psyence Fiction (Mo' Wax, 1998) and one song on The Private Press, Shadow hasn't worked with vocalists. But on his latest album, you'll hear between six and 10 different vocalists. For now, though, Shadow's keeping his cards close to his chest about who they are. “It runs the gamut, but I would say it leans mostly toward the nonsuperstar,” he says. “But there are a couple of people who were definitely dream collaborations.”
Shadow reveals that the album has everything from hardcore rappers to “practically folk vocalists,” with an overall harder edge than The Private Press. “The main thing is that I'm doing what's comfortable as opposed to putting a lot of restrictions on myself about how I do what I do, and I'm enjoying the result because the music is flowing in a kind of effortless way that it hasn't in a long time.”