Big Think Interview With DJ Spooky

A conversation with the sound artist.
  • Transcript


Question: Where did you get your stage name?
DJ Spooky:
  The name comes from well back in university I was doing a series of essays and writing about Sigmund Freud’s idea of the uncanny and I was really intrigued by this idea of “The Unheimlich”.  It’s an essay that Sigmund Freud wrote about E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story called "The Sandman" where someone mistakes an inanimate object for a living, breathing human being. And one of the things that Sigmund Freud really felt was that in modern life people assign qualities to objects around them that may not exist there whatsoever. So he called this "the uncanny" and he also referred to cities as well, like the idea of walking through the city and the way the urban landscape could lead you to a sense of disorientation and to a kind of, you know, sense of repetition. And the way a city can unfold as you walk. So stuff like that.  It was basically meant to be like when you press play and there nobody there.
Question: How is DJ Spooky different from Paul Miller?
DJ Spooky:  First and foremost one, I was never planning on doing this as a long term, so Spooky, I was in college... It was a fun name.  I thought it was you know just a fun thing.  When you say what is the difference between me and my stage name the idea is that as a musician you always think of yourself as inhabiting a certain cultural space in the kind of a cultural landscape, so when I say cultural space what I mean to imply there is that you exist within certain parameters of how people think of culture.  Downtown New York, I’m within certain styles of music and I’m also within certain cultural, you know, and literary context.  So DJ Spooky was meant to be a kind of ironic take on that.  It was always meant to be kind of a criticism and critique of how downtown culture would separate genres and styles because it was ambiguous.  You couldn’t fit it into anything and that was the point.  It’s like the iPod playlist has killed the way we think of the normal album, so let’s think of this as just saying you go into your record store and all those categories and all those different ways of segregating music have been thrown out the window, so the difference between myself in real life in that is that I’m the opposite.  I usually am very specific about how I engage information, how I engage people, what context I’m engaging and, above all, the research that goes into each of those. So, one, that DJ Spooky is a lot you know this sort of wilder persona and then Paul Miller is more of a nuts and bolts kind of person, meaning just making sure all these things work. 
Question: How is DJ'ing an art form?
DJ Spooky:  Well let’s look like back at the history of the idea of the record.  In my book "Sound Unbound" we traced the guy who actually came up with the main concept for the graphic design of the record cover sleeve.  His name is Alex Steinweiss. And one of the things in my book that we really tried to figure out was the revolution in graphic design that occurred when people put images on album covers.  Now if you think about the 20th century and the idea of visual vocabulary the album occupies a really important space in the cultural landscape and, above all... Try this experiment: one day go in a record store and just try and guess what the music sounds like by looking at the album cover.  You’ll get this kind of psychological relationship to the imagery of the music, but that idea is translated to iPhone apps.  It’s translated to the small, you know, kind of icons on your computer.  You name it. The idea of a visual icon that gives you a sense of information very quickly and that you can easily just say "That's what the style is."  That is something that I think record cover sleeves really led towards, but at the same time the album as we know it didn’t come into being until mainly after the Second World War because record labels realized they’d be able to make a lot more money putting all the singles of an artist onto one album and selling the whole album as a kind of a concept. So by the time the 60s rolled in that became a huge art form in its own right with bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Hendrix doing total concept albums, same thing with Pink Floyd.  Now if you fast forward to the 70s and Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Caz, all these guys that were essentially, like, the DNA of what we’re doing now.  One of the main things that differentiates them from artists before is that they made albums based on the fact that they didn’t care about the band as a thing in its own right.  They cared about manipulating the recording and that became the album.  Usually bands would make a song to record for an album, but what happens with the deejays you say "Well the album is everything we need.  Thanks band.  You can go away now."  You know you don’t really need the band or the singer/songwriter in the same way, so you look at everything as part of your palette.  When you think about a composer you know like Wagner or Pier Boulez or something like that most of the issues a composer is working with are about discreet, notated music that someone else will play. But if I take that person and play them as a record I’m becoming not only a conductor and composer of collage, but at the same time I’m looking at a whole layer of what goes into copyright law, who owns those memories, who owns the way that that sound gets remixed and transformed and above all how much fun it is to actually just mess with other people’s stuff.  So yeah, I like the idea of it as a trickster motif.  You know like you’re kind of just messing around with people’s memories of songs. 
Question: How does science fiction influence your work?
DJ Spooky:  I’ve tended to find that myths of the near future give people the ability to really kind of explore the present, so say for example if look at William Gibson and his book Neuromancer or if you look at J.G. Ballard or Samuel Delaney those are probably three of my favorite writers in that genre.  All of them project slightly to the near future as a way of talking about the current moment and I think science fiction and sound is a really interesting thing.  You might as well think of it as sonic fiction.  When you’re coming up with different ways of getting old memories to transform—you’re scratching, you’re doing all this kind of sampling—what ends up happening is that you’re becoming a kind of writer with sound.  In fact, if you look at the root word of phonograph it just means phonetics of graphology, phono-graph, writing with sound, so graphology.  You know graffiti, same root word.  Phonetics, you know speech, all this kind of stuff, phonograph, simple, but when you unpack the meaning it actually kind of expands out and that is what I was going for in my book "Sound Unbound" was to try and get people to figure out how do we unpack some of the meanings that go into these kinds of sonically coded landscapes. So yeah, science fiction or sonic fiction.  I kind of like punning on that. 
Question:  What are the origins of "Terra Nova," your Antarctic symphony?
DJ Spooky:  What I wanted to try and figure out was, okay, in contemporary 21st century life the alienation between the self and the land around you or the self and even the urban landscape.  You name it.  Most people walk around with headphones on.  They’re barely encountering or dealing with their fellow person, or if they’re in a car they’re in this kind of cocoon, stuck in suburban rush hour traffic or something.  The landscape of their current experience is just really compartmentalized. And what I wanted to do with Antarctica was say let’s hit the reset button on that and see what happens to your creative process.  Let’s go to the most remote place that you can imagine, set up a studio and see what music comes out of it. So I took a studio down to several of the main ice fields, and the basic idea was to give myself four weeks in these ice fields to create a new work and see what happens. And, you know, it was really important to me to kind of think about the urban landscape on one hand versus this hyper-abstract ice landscape on the other. 
Antarctica, one of the things that was so remarkable about it was that the ice itself is a kind of pure geometry, so say, for example, if I was facing someone wearing I don’t know, a Joy Division t-shirt with the mountains on it or something like that... Seeing that as a computer abstraction versus actually going to these continents and seeing a 40 mile chunk of ice break off that is the size of mountains the sense of scale was just awe-inspiring.  I mean just…  I remember one time it took us several hours to walk out into a major glacier field off the Weddell Ice Sea Shelf, all right, so this is Antarctic summer, if you fall in the water you die in about two minutes, so you’re walking, the ice is creaking, the landscape is like subtly you know shifting and if anyone out there has ever been in an earthquake this is like kind of a slow motion earthquake, but the land is shifting and groaning and creaking and you know if you ever walked on ice and you’re like whoa, you could fall through.  It really you know puts you in that for lack of better word, very cautious mentality. So the physicality of that and the just the sheer lack of urban noise and machinery—just the wind, the water and your breath, you know that kind of thing—it was pure poetry and you know I treasure that.  It was just…  I can only wonder what astronauts must feel like or something like that when you’re really in the space of silence and you are feeling and breathing in a way that you’re really aware of your muscle and bone and the breath and the body and the movement and all of those things that just you take for granted in the urban landscape. 
I felt like on one hand the clarity of thought was amazing, but on the other we went during Antarctic summer, so the sun didn’t set the whole time we were there.  It was permanent afternoon. And when I say permanent afternoon, you know, I’m talking like crystal clear, crispy blue sky.  All the sudden you didn’t need to sleep as much because it just was difficult. And how that translated into my creative process I still am not quite sure, but it made my relationship to sleep a kind of abstract you know bizarre…  I can't put my finger on it, but I ended up dreaming very intense dreams because I only needed about four hours of sleep.  Meanwhile, we’d take you know four to eight hours hikes way out into these you know kind of glaciers and so on you know all day and you come back and you’d be tired and you still couldn’t sleep because the sun was up and it felt like you know it’s like two in the afternoon or something, even if it was midnight. So, yeah, quirky.  Sleep is crucial and I tend to find when the sun is shining I find it much more difficult to get that sense of sleep. 

Question: Is the  piece classical?

DJ Spooky:  What I’m going for with the string arrangements for my Antarctic symphony is a pun here.  On one hand you have a string quartet, which is not a symphony.  On the other hand is you have me sampling them and making it sound like there is many more people playing, so the whole notion of, kind of, sampling applied to classical music is very intriguing to me because composers throughout history have borrowed motifs and quotes from one another. So Bach, Beethoven, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, these are all people who would sort of rearrange or take riffs from people. Same thing with rock, if you look at the Rolling Stones doing a cover of Otis Redding or you know if you look at literature James Joyce is pulling fragments of text from other people. So the Antarctic symphony has a geometric relationship to the landscape.  It’s saying that this landscape and the minimal kind of, you know I’m talking like seeing ice, is visually kind of eerily minimal. But there is a complexity and layering that goes on with this kind of thing, so the music is slightly repetitive and when I say repetitive it’s in the same tradition as people like Steve Reich or Erik Satie or even WC. So what I wanted to do is kind of invoke that and then dive into that kind of repetition as a DJ thing because DJing you hear beats, like "boom, boom, boom, bap, bap."  You know hip hop, house, techno.  So how do you translate between those electronic motifs and the motifs of the landscape itself?  That is what I wanted to go for.
Question: What do you want people to get out of it?
DJ Spooky:  Antarctica is one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth.  I don’t think that everyone should go there.  I also think that we need to respect it as a kind of a national park for the planet.  It should be you know put in parentheses.  You know, in the sentence of humanity this place needs to be a parentheses. And when I say parentheses I mean I’m talking like you go around it.  Leave it alone.  Let it exist.  And what I want people to see with this film is not only a respect for this place from the bottom of my heart.  I’m talking like just the beauty, but at the same time to get people to realize that we should treasure it.  Maybe visualize it, but leave it alone. And it’s… there is a sense of awe with these huge landscapes and open spaces.  Maybe someone living out in the American deep Midwest desert can imagine the same thing, or somebody living in Namibia or the Arctic is very different... but yeah, just awe of the landscape.  I know that sounds like nerdy and corny and stuff like that, but you know let it be nerdy and corny.  It’s a beautiful place.  I could just sit on an ice glacier and just watch the land for like days, months, years. 

Question: Is there a basic philosophy behind your work as a sound artist?
DJ Spooky:  I’d say most of my work is just trying to make sense of the disorienting and overloaded world that we inhabit.  We’re bombarded with sound at every level.  Sound... if you look at bats you know that navigate with sonar, they’re like you know they’re very precise.  They can even see a bat head towards a building and swerve away, but you’ll see a bird that doesn’t… you know smash right into a glass window.  It’s very funny.  I mean I don’t…  Anybody out there that has probably seen that is like oh, it’s terrible.  Like if you’re ever in a skyscraper and you see a bird just flies right into the side of window.  Whales, for example, also navigate with sound, but they’re now beginning to be beached because the ocean is getting too noisy.  Weird things like that.  I mean this is very real.  Like, if you look at the satellites in the sky at night you know it’s an eerie sense of we’re…  You know we’re in a planet surrounded by certain kinds of frequencies and noise.  The earth’s magnetic sphere makes weird sounds.  The sun you know the heart of our solar system makes noise.  Even interstellar phenomena like black holes.  You know people have studied them and a black hole can emit sound in like the range of 20,000 octaves below B flat.  You know I mean that’s a lot…  That’s a very low tone.  So yeah, how do I think of my environment and what happens with sound art?  I love to play with the idea of elusive and intangible things.  That could be psychological.  It could be perceptual.  It could be just the way your ears help you just navigate around.  Try this experiment, closing your eyes and navigating with your ears.  It’s eerie because walls, you can actually hear your footstep maybe bounce off of or you can feel the vibration of your voice and help that… use that to navigate. So sound art I’m always intrigued with how little we use of other senses and we just prioritize the eye and you just want to see everything and navigate.  You know the art world is similar.  Like I wish people would use their ears a lot more. 
Question: What inspired your film Rebirth of a Nation?

DJ Spooky:  My film "Rebirth of a Nation," amusingly enough, was a component of a show I had at Paula Cooper Gallery and one of the things that really goes into my mind when I think about contemporary art and music is how weirdly divided they are.  The art world likes music sort of, but when they do they usually go for sort of I call white bread art rock.  They don’t get…  You’ll never see hip hop in normal Whitney Biennial or whatever.  I mean they don’t…  The art world has problems with rhythm.  Now at the same time you have really interesting electronic music and multicultural, specifically multicultural, takes on contemporary art.  My film "Rebirth of a Nation" was a critique of the way Bush had gotten into office playing off of racial politics and the fears that whites have of being… becoming a minority. And I think the code words for the Bush Administration and people like Karl Rove was that State’s rights and devolution of federal powers would make these kind of white…  Now all the sudden you notice with the Obama Administration they’re having a rise of all these white militias and stuff like that.  Yeah, I mean white Americans feel anxiety about some of the issues and I think that that needs to be addressed. 

"Birth of a Nation," the film by D.W. Griffith is one of the most important films in American History.  It set the tone for how America views racial politics in cinema. So I got the rights to the film.  We remixed it... when I say we I guess, well, me.  And the whole idea was to apply deejay technique to film in a way that kind of self implodes the film and get people to think about as a you know maybe something that needs to be looked at a lot more closely, so with Bush you have to remember: they played games with the black vote, they disenfranchised a large amount of people by playing those games, and again it was a lot of it happened in the old south that were in places like Ohio. So Birth of a Nation was the first film to show a flawed election and in 1915, I mean, you know, a lot of games were being played with the black vote.   So disenfranchisement, black face, you know if you fast forward and update it you could easily see the same resonance with "Avatar" where most of the main characters were in blue face, those were black actors for example. Or Jar Jar Binks this annoying creature that is like a minstrel on the "Star Wars" thing.  The racial politics is still very much prevalent in American film.  "Terminator" or you know, what is the "Transformers" where they have the kind of minstrel robots who had this annoying black sort of almost-gay voice or something.  When I say gay I’m not… no disrespect.  I’m just saying it’s a minstrel kind of emasculated male voice where they always make a black character like a Jar Jar Binks an annoying, “What’s up you all?”  You know those kind of very annoying creature or something like that that has a high pitched and like yeah, really annoying like you know. 
So anyway, "Birth of a Nation," what makes this Antarctic project different than that is they’re both critiques of the nation-state's relationship to the individual.  Antarctica is the only place on earth with no government.  It’s the only place that really says: "You are you."  The subjectivity that goes into that I mean once you step off a boat and you’re on an ice field in the middle of nowhere you are without the idea of the nation-state anymore.  And I think "Birth of a Nation"... obviously "nation," you know, nationalism, nation, state, the environmental politics that go into how nations play with carbon trading, how nations play with the idea of pollution and all these kinds of things you could say that the divisions now are even more encoded because of the North/South divide. Like the industrialized nations of the north versus the more multicultural countries of like China, India, Russia.  Well Russia is still considered European, but if you go slightly outside of... you know there is plenty of Russians that look very Asian.  So the racial politics that go into environmental issues is something that hangs like a specter over a lot of the process right now.  So I had a big gallery show at Robert Miller Gallery called "North/South."  It was a pun about my "Birth of a Nation" versus Antarctica.  Sense of humor in the title, but nonetheless, I’m very concerned about the way environmental politics shapes out with industrialized versus non-industrialized nations.  It’s something that really we have to think about. 
Question: Is the proliferation of digital media threatening individuality?
DJ Spooky:  Yeah, I mean I think we’re really the crisis of 21st century culture is standardization.  On one hand that’s a crisis precisely because it really flatlines and just deadens a lot of amazing stuff. But on the other hand as the next couple of years kick in you’re going to be seeing what I like to call mass customization, where everyone can have you know their phone or their iPad or whatever—but they’re going to pull it into their own orbit in their own way. And they’re pulling material that is out there in the world as their own vocabulary.  I didn’t make this phone, you know, but I’ve customized and transformed it. So I’m always intrigued with saying that nothing stays the same in this era.  In the 20th century, you know, someone like, you know, Ford would say you know what, you can have any color car you want as long as it’s black, you know. And they had the whole sense of humor about the production line all making the Model T Ford car there was the exact same machine rolling off the line.  Now that was amazing because it was high-tech at that time, but for the 21st century where we can just retrofit and reboot anything, why stick to one thing?  I mean just always transform and change everything.  That’s the DJ model as well.  So by customizing and transforming it adds new life to I think the way we function right now.  When I say the way we function I’m talking about going down the street, walking around... everyone has a little computer, which is essentially is a cell phone.  Most people, I’m sorry.  There is a class division here, but even in economically, you know, low income and so on most people have some kind of communications device. And I think it’s transformed the way the world works right now and this is just the beginning. So within the next five to seven years you’ll be seeing probably a massive revolution in getting rid of sameness and just having this wildly creative and inventive era. 

Question: Who are you trying to reach with your music?

DJ Spooky:  I’d say my audience is pretty much anyone who thinks, which is a big audience, and luckily and happily people have been very supportive of the idea of a writer, artist and musician making conceptual music.  I’m not art rock.  I mean art rock dominates in the art world.  I’m a kind of insurgency, like an electronic music insurgency because I’m trying to push a lot of boundaries simultaneously. Racial politics, economic politics and above all the psychology about how people assign criteria and value and what people say is cool or good.  I love the idea that you know your cell phone is disrupting the entire sort of consumer pattern of people or I love the idea that you know what, a curator or a museum director or some art dealer the value isn’t for them create.  It’s the value that we, each of us, brings to something.  So it’s disruptive of all these kind of top-down hierarchies of how power forms in you know the normal corporate model of saying this artist or this book or... so my book is turning the world of Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey upside down and saying you know you are the mix. 
I enjoy writing and it’s one… another weird thing, a beef I have with normal critics is that they’re like, “Why don’t you just do the music?”  You know I’m like: "Look, I’m an artist.  I like to write.  I also do music, so they’re not separate."  To me music is writing.  Writing is art.  Art is music.  Simple. 

Question: How do you consume music?
DJ Spooky:  In massive volumes.  Again, as a DJ you have to be current and keep aware of what is going on and that means you know just massive amounts of information, so a DJ is kind of obsessive about information.  I tend to think that if you look at Michael Jackson he is called the King of Pop precisely because he had millions and millions of people listening to the same record, or same songs.  If you play “Billie Jean” for example everybody knows that.  Even in India or Nepal or the most remote parts of Timbuktu you know people know that song, so millions of people listen to that.  I’m the opposite, where it is like instead of millions of people listening to the same song it’s millions of songs being scratched and spliced and diced and you have to keep track of it all. So it’s like an information ocean or data cloud.  You know there is… I think iTunes now has passed its several billionth download you know, so think of all those people.  It’s the biggest record store in the world, and, amusingly enough to me, again as a deejay and artist the top selling album of all time right now is the blank CD you know so, you know, it’s number one on every chart. 
Question: Should digital content be free?
DJ Spooky:  I’m a big pro-open source, pro-creative commons kind of artist.  I think that it’s important to realize that copyright law as it is written relates mainly to the 18th century’s relationship to physical goods. And as things move more and more to a digital media, hyper-connected world we need to transform the models of how we think of ownership.  Copyright law is something I respect, but the way the law is written versus the way we live in this rip, mix, burn kind of scenario, you know... It’s all about I think thinking of digital music as the kind of new folk culture where everyone should share, and by sharing they create a more rich and robust, you know, narrative. 
Question: Even if they’re downloading your music?
DJ Spooky:  Yeah, sure, but I get value out of that.  I get a different kind of value.  You get branding.  You get advertising.  You get word-of-mouth viral marketing.  Hey, you know you couldn’t pay for that. 

Recorded on April 8, 2010