exclusive interview with the DJ Spooky

interview by dimmSummer
date: 12.07.03
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: This is ethnotechno's interview with DJ Spooky. First of all, do you want to divulge how old you are and how long you've been doing music and what kind of instruments you play, if you play any? And where do you want to go with your music?

Spooky: Let's put it this way: I'm 33 years old, been kickin' it on the DJ scene since the ancient early '90s. A lot of my style is about creating, I think of DJ culture as a pan-humanist project -- many nations, many ethnic groups, many cultural zones, many social hierarchies, whatever you want to call them. To me it's a language that moves between every culture in a way that politics doesn't, economics doesn't, all sorts of other cultural things don't. But DJing, you drop a needle whether you're in Goa or Russia in Moscow, Kabul, Afghanistan, you name it, but people will search out what means something to them in the sound. So that means DJing really goes beyond all the normal little barriers that we put between ourselves. And so when I'm going forward, when I'm making mixes, when I'm making my albums, my last album was called Dubtometry, for example, and that was a project where I had people like Karsh Kale and all sorts of other heads. I like building bridges between zones and scenes, and that's what I think of my mixes as.

ET: I think you gave me a mix, maybe 2 or 3 weeks ago, it was this political Indian mix about the subcontinent, and I was wondering -- you're talking about bridging cultures and bridging heads and bridging people. Do you ever have the feeling that you don't know much about a certain culture so you go investigate it and then look at the music and then build something? Or do you just discover it while you're building it?

Spooky: Yeah, well, I read a lot, because that's where my background is. I did one degree in philosophy and the other in French literature. I've always been checking out websites, checking out books, literature, all sorts of stuff going on, and of course mix CDs, but they're my portals into different worlds. The mix that I gave you is called "Abstrakt Blowback" and that was all about this film "Mutiny", inspired by "Mutiny" and this idea of the Indian diaspora and the way it's been a mirror site for a lot of what I believe has been going on with African-American culture. If you look at, for example, John Coltrane's compositional techniques based on "Aum" and all those kind of ashram issues that he was dealing with, and his wife Alice Coltrane and their compositional styles of jazz and maximalism and overload jazz, that comes out of all sorts of issues of mantras and different interventions in what they viewed as an Indian reflection of mysticism. Or on the other hand you could look at how the Indians were involved with a lot of what was going on with the Jamaican dancehall scene, because a lot of them owned record labels, Indians, Chinese and Africans and Jamaicans, you can see how dancehall reggae has come up out of that fusion and you can hear how certain rhythms...it's funny, when I hear the term raag, I automatically think of ragga, you know? Just as a sense of humor but also the structural links and minimalism and how people will play with beat patterns and stuff. And if you then think about how Jamaican music influenced so many other people right now, so there's an Indian angle on that too. You can even think about rock and stuff like Cornershop, a lot of rock bands in the '60s were heavily influenced by that. That came home to roost, everything from Hendrix's record cover sleeves to the Beatles going out there and working on stuff. So as an American, I really want to make our culture face it's sense of hybridity, so I'm always using mixes as my way of exploring that -- just saying hey, it's an homage to how truly diverse we really are, and I think that's a good thing. There is no one America. So mix tapes are just a way of communicating across all these illusions that we put up. My America is not necessarily a Top 40 Clear Channel station.

ET: With so much information that you have, so much knowledge, you don't know which way to go because every way has a valid story to tell.

Spooky: Yeah, but that's what makes life fun and interesting. Otherwise you'd be just sitting around listening to a bad Top 40 station or something. All I can say is to keep it fun and open and interesting, is what gives my life some spice, and that's why I'm always travelling. I really look forward to doing gigs in weird places. Some of the more interesting gigs this year, one was outside of Kentucky in a huge festival called Bonnaroo, about 50,000 people. I just DJed this weekend down at this museum on the history of propaganda called the Waconia Museum. One was super-artsy and the other was just kind of the huge mass culture scene. I like this idea of being culturally nomadic and thinking about our culture as made of patterns. So intellect and being engaged with thinking about all of that, I don't think it's a bad thing, I don't think it's about information overload, I think it's just much more a matter of accepting the fact that we live in an Information Age and that's the air that we breathe at this point. The arts side of my stuff, though, I'm in the middle of remixing a whole bunch of different artists like Tony Allen and this film called "Birth of a Nation" which is an old Ku Klux Klan film. It's always about pushing the envelope and making sure that people can see there's an arts side of what I'm doing.

ET: In these other projects, are they something you find, or people come to you and say "We want you to help out with this?"

Spooky: It's an open-ended situation. Some of it sometimes is me sitting there chatting with folks and seeing what's going on, or other times I'll say "Hey Paul, what do you want to do? We have a museum here and we have an evening and a budget." It's flexible, and that's what makes me more of a hybrid person in general, checking in with all this stuff, because at the end of the day, that's what makes things fun. I think the DJ culture right now, a lot of people are really in this microniche thing where they'll just be strictly drum and bass, or strictly hip-hop, or whatever. I guess you could say I'm strictly music. I just like music. It doesn't matter what style it is.

ET: Now with the political...is it anti-war?

Spooky: Yeah, I think right now we're bombarded with media that's so affirming of Bush, this kinda weird war stuff, it actually doesn't make any sense. The war has been devastating on the Iraqi community, lots of soldiers getting killed, they still haven't found Osama bin Laden, and they're spending billions and zillions of dollars with no exit strategy in sight. Meanwhile the populace is quite numb, everybody's sitting there thinking "What's going on?" Sometimes people pull back and go "Why does everybody hate America? Why are they mad at us?" And I travel a lot, and I go outside the country, and they're like, "You guys, what is going on? Why are you letting this president...?" Most people realize that people in the United States are very different than our actual government, but they're just like, "Why do you let these guys do this?" I just say, you know, the populace doesn't know. If you look at TV, if you read a newspaper, it's sports, it's weather, a little bit of political scandal every once in a while, but you have no outside information. And so because of that, you're left with this happy feel-good sense of America just kind of coasting, everything's just fun and relaxed. So what I try to get out in my mixes is news and all this other stuff from all sorts of scenes as an underground audio anti-propaganda, bypassing all the normal systems. It's in fun, but there's also this idea that it's a different form of information. So you can listen to a mix and dance to it, or you can listen to it and just think of it as a reflection of the mix culture, mix CDs as a way of carrying this new information out in the world, in hopes that it will inspire other people to make their own versions of things and to stop being passive consumers and start being proactive people making their own messages instead of just receiving.

ET: Do you think that maybe people hear, at least they know that there's something going on, but then the media just throws so much stuff out there right after another -- like, "There's something going on, but coming up in a minute there's something else that's gonna make you feel good." How to make muffins or something like that, and then the next episode of "Friends." It kinda drowns it out after a while, you kinda forget. But then it's a very news-saturated culture, it's like, how many news channels are there? But they're all saying the same thing.

Spooky: With this media consolidation that's in the works with the FCC, you pretty much have everything all the same. So the only really interesting news bases will be DJ mixes where you're gonna be getting out this alternative information, or just strictly word-of-mouth stuff and crazy websites. But the mainstream media, TV, radio, newspapers, those are all gonna be just like, "Everything's great, global warming doesn't exist, the environment's OK, buy a new SUV."

ET: The really really big ones, the Hummers.

Spooky: Yeah, burn all that gas you need, no problem.

ET: Because we're going to Iraq to get more, it doesn't matter! (laughter)

Spooky: But the rest of the world is looking at us and then emulating our stuff, so what do we do?

ET: They're emulating what they see on a screen, so it's hollow to begin with.

Spooky: Yeah, that's what the American dream is about -- changing the channel on a global TV set to a combination of "Dallas," "Cops," "Friends." I was in Germany a little while ago and I was channel-surfing when I got back to my hotel room after a gig, and one of the funniest things I've seen, they had "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" dubbed over in German, so Will Smith was speaking crazy German. Or Bugs Bunny in German was really funny. Then you go to Venezuela and the same shows are there, but in Spanish. Or you go to Japan and they're dubbed over in Japanese. That shows the consolidation of what's going on now, not just with the media in the United States, but the media in all of these countries. So if there's a debate here about media concentration, forget it, it's already happened. What we need to think about is new messages and new forms. Again, I don't want to be seen as some shrill guy going "Burn everything up!" I'm just saying, within reason, you can live and breathe and have possessions and make some money and everything's cool, but by respecting the environment, creating different kinds of ecological strategies, say for example solar energy -- there's all these roofs in New York, they could easily put trees on them and that would reduce the pollution here in a second. Or put plants on all these roofs. There's so much wasted roof space, and the funny thing is, the roofs are usually dark, so it attracts more heat so more people turn on their air conditioner. The more air conditioning, the more electricity. The more electricity, the more gas. Need more gas, you gotta go bomb another country and take it over. (laughter) And so on and so on. But these are simple things, solar panels, all sorts of stuff -- hydroelectricity, using the currents of the waters. But we don't even want to think about it, it's amazing.

ET: I was gonna ask you, where does this term the Subliminal Kid come from? Is that related to this, or is that something completely different?

Spooky: The Subliminal Kid is a character in a William S. Burroughs novel named "Nova Express," and it's all about this kid who finds out the whole world is being projected from a studio and the whole planet's brain has been programmed by this group of people who are living off of their dreams. It kinda reminds me of "The Matrix," but earlier. And so he finds out where the reality studio is and finds out that there's this one film that everybody's watching and he remixes the film and cuts it up and messes up the signal of these people and causes big problems. I took that nickname in college because I just thought it was funny to always be using mixes to create new myths. And subliminal means you can pop up in all sorts of areas, which I always try and do.

ET: What are your musical influences? I know it's probably a huge huge list, but if you just boil it down to like three or four, maybe five major major influences, people that really speak to you, and why do they speak to you?

Spooky: Top 4, definitely Hendrix, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Afrika Bambaattaa. Each one for a radically different reason. Duke Ellington mainly because he had such an interesting compositional strategy combining jazz and orchestral works and in a way that I call "down with the brown." His orchestra was always viewed as a very high-end, African-American enterprise that was supportive of African-American avant-garde high culture. And then you can look at what Afrika Bambaata was doing in the ghettos up in the South Bronx, and by giving kids some sort of meaning in life, by giving them sound systems, by giving them costumes, by giving them the Zulu Nation, he created a new culture that is still going on to this day. He influenced the absolute core of hip-hop worldwide. And then John Cage was the one who really wrote the first composition for turntables, back in 1939. It's called "Imaginary Landscape." I'm just really keen on that as kind of a reflection of what can be done, when you think about turntables and compositions. He wrote all this fragmented stuff and then you went to his show and each record player was playing different frequencies mixed with all these weird radio wave frequencies as well, so the whole room was just crazy sounds of weird bleeps and stuff. But it's funny, for 1939, if you jump-start up to 2003, here we are with cell phones going through our bodies, we've got wireless everywhere, I'm just checking if somebody's got a wireless network around someplace. A turntable composition based on frequencies back in 1939, that's some serious avant-garde. I like that, it's conceptual, it has all this resonance. Hendrix, his whole critique of noise, influenced all of rock. You've just gotta think of the way he used alternative tuning systems, you can hear everything from My Bloody Valentine, Bad Brains, Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers -- everybody was influenced by Hendrix. I love The Doors too, they always had a really intense sense of poetry and psychedelic multimedia and stuff going. They're in my Top 10, but not my Top 4. Prince, I love what he's always bringing up with his androgynous, strange, his whole guitar-hero thing. But he's influenced by Hendrix too. And regardless of what anyone says, I still like Michael Jackson. (laughter)

ET: All of it, or maybe up until '86?

Spooky: His earlier stuff is wicked, yeah. Then at the same time you can flip it to stuff like Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, more current stuff -- I actually have to admit I'm a big fan of 50 Cent and Ludacris. I didn't like Ludacris for a while but I like his stuff now.

ET: Why now?

Spooky: It just kept bouncing off my brain and it finally just went through.

ET: Let's talk about you and the other people that you're producing. Again, do you look for people to produce, or just wait for them to come to you because you're busy with all of your other projects and your own music?

Spooky: Basically I'm always in dialogue with all sorts of people, that's what keeps things fun and fresh. Right now I'm producing a gentleman by the name of Dave Lombardo, he's the drummer for Slayer, and he was in a lot of Matthew Barney's films. Matthew Barney is an artist who just had this retrospective at the Guggenheim, for example. Then I'm working with Joan Osbourne, who's a pretty renowned singer, that's sort of more mainstream. Then I've worked with quite a few jazz musicians, dub reggae guys like Mad Professor, Lee Scratch Perry...and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Yoko Ono -- all these are different conversations about alternative avant-garde culture. That's what I always look for.

ET: You write quite a bit as well, yeah?

Spooky: Yeah, yeah.

ET: Is there anything you don't do?

Spooky: (laughter) My three things are pretty much music, art and writing.

ET: OK, so what do you write about?

Spooky: I write about contemporary art and cultural criticism, but I'm also in the middle of writing some fiction, but I haven't finished it yet so I don't want to get into it too much.

ET: A secret, huh?

Spooky: Not really a secret, but I just kind of want to let it take its course when it's ready. I just finished my first two books, one is called "Rhythm Science" (including a mix CD that goes with the book that has material from Trilok Gurtu, Vedic and others from the South Asian scene -mixed with other things...more info @ rhythmscience.com) and the other is called "Sound Unbound."

ET: And these are strictly about music?

Spooky: Well, about music and multimedia culture in general. That's one of my concerns, to always sort of point out that once it's on your computer screen, you can make an essay become architecture, you can make architecture become music, you can make music become DNA code, you know? There's a really good website called genomixer where this guy took his basic DNA code and assigned it to music values, and I thought that was an interesting conceptual project. There's a really good website called pinknoises.com about how women have influenced the course of electronic music, and so on and so on. So I'm always checking in on that as a writer because I'm really curious about what everybody's up to. As a musician, it's about seeing what I can do with my archive because you're only as good as what you collect, in a certain sense.

ET: Have you ever been approached or had any aspirations to score movies or small films?

Spooky: Yeah, several times. Mainstream stuff was "Scream 2," I'm in the middle of a dialogue about doing "Blade 3."

ET: Are these the entire movie, or just a song for the movie that they'd cut up and put on the side?

Spooky: A little bit of both. I score films a decent amount. I did this film called "Quattro Nosa" which is gonna be coming out in a little bit, that's all about the L.A. racecar scene. Basically what I'll be doing is figuring out all sorts of different angles on how to make a scene in a film really manifest with the sound. I'm really influenced by the way Alfred Hitchcock would create environments with sound, or Francis Ford Coppola's use of the strange atmospherics and later stuff like Ridley Scott. I love what they did with "The Matrix," for example. The music I always felt really highlighted the tension and the scenes and better than some of the actual scenes themselves. So I go for that sense of total switching of styles, but very subtly. Some of it's acoustic, some of it's electronic, but the idea here is that the visual and the sound should be exactly seamless. I did the score to a really renowned film called "Slam," that I love. That was with Saul Williams, that was one of the funnest projects I've done and it won all these awards. "Quattro Nosa" is about all these Hispanic and Asian kids who are crazy about cars so I had to come up with hip-hop to match that.

ET: So you do quite a bit. How'd you find yourself? Was that your goal, or you just had fun along the way and eventually people said hey, this kid's got a good head on his shoulders?

Spooky: Well, fashion shows need music, clubs need music. In the art world it's much more of a conceptual issue about how music flows in our culture of information and that's a whole different thing. The thing that ties it all together and the literature I write about is that I'm just thinking about environments. That's what lets you flow between things, is that once you realize that the networks and the information moving in these networks means more than the actual context, then it doesn't matter what you do or where you do it, as long as the patterns you create, whether it's a mix or records or writing, somehow flow in a way that gets people different kinds of information. I know I'm being vague about it, but I also feel like I want people to think about the nuances of that. It's funny, I saw Nitin Sawhney's lecture about his music and film scoring and it was fascinating because in Indian mythology you guys have a game like kismet, which became Snakes & Ladders and it was a game that was meant to teach you about reincarnation. But sampling is another kind of reincarnation, you're taking people's voices and you're recycling them and you're recycling their gestures and elements, creating a whole new element of someone. Just look at how technology has taken all this ancient historical stuff, thinking about it with these digital computers, with the networks we use, you can think of like, Indra's Net, that's another interesting Hindu gift to things. All the multiple arms and faces that all these divinities had, these days when a kid goes online they'll create six or seven personalities, it's the same kind of thing. (laughter) So I just like seeing how those patterns flow, and that's what holds my artwork together, whether it's writing or music.

Fade into "Abstrakt Blowback '03: the Satyagraha Mix" (excerpt)