Big Think Interview With DJ Spooky

Question: Where did you get your stage name?
DJ Spooky:
  The name comes from well back in university I was doing a\r\nseries of essays and writing about Sigmund Freud’s idea of the uncanny\r\nand I was really intrigued by this idea of “The Unheimlich”.  It’s an\r\nessay that Sigmund Freud wrote about E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story\r\ncalled "The Sandman" where someone mistakes an inanimate object for a\r\nliving, breathing human being. And one of the things that Sigmund Freud\r\nreally felt was that in modern life people assign qualities to objects\r\naround them that may not exist there whatsoever. So he called this "the\r\nuncanny" and he also referred to cities as well, like the idea of\r\nwalking through the city and the way the urban landscape could lead you\r\nto a sense of disorientation and to a kind of, you know, sense of\r\nrepetition. And the way a city can unfold as you walk. So stuff like\r\nthat.  It was basically meant to be like when you press play and there\r\nnobody there.
Question: How is DJ Spooky different from Paul Miller?
DJ Spooky: \r\nFirst and foremost one, I was never planning on doing this as a long\r\nterm, so Spooky, I was in college... It was a fun name.  I thought it\r\nwas you know just a fun thing.  When you say what is the difference\r\nbetween me and my stage name the idea is that as a musician you always\r\nthink of yourself as inhabiting a certain cultural space in the kind of\r\na cultural landscape, so when I say cultural space what I mean to imply\r\nthere is that you exist within certain parameters of how people think\r\nof culture.  Downtown New York, I’m within certain styles of music and\r\nI’m also within certain cultural, you know, and literary context.  So DJ\r\nSpooky was meant to be a kind of ironic take on that.  It was always\r\nmeant to be kind of a criticism and critique of how downtown culture\r\nwould separate genres and styles because it was ambiguous.  You\r\ncouldn’t fit it into anything and that was the point.  It’s like the\r\niPod playlist has killed the way we think of the normal album, so let’s\r\nthink of this as just saying you go into your record store and all\r\nthose categories and all those different ways of segregating music have\r\nbeen thrown out the window, so the difference between myself in real\r\nlife in that is that I’m the opposite.  I usually am very specific\r\nabout how I engage information, how I engage people, what context I’m\r\nengaging and, above all, the research that goes into each of those. So,\r\none, that DJ Spooky is a lot you know this sort of wilder persona and\r\nthen Paul Miller is more of a nuts and bolts kind of person, meaning\r\njust making sure all these things work. 
Question: How is DJ'ing an art form?
DJ Spooky: \r\nWell let’s look like back at the history of the idea of the record.  In\r\nmy book "Sound Unbound" we traced the guy who actually came up with the\r\nmain concept for the graphic design of the record cover sleeve.  His\r\nname is Alex Steinweiss. And one of the things in my book that we really\r\ntried to figure out was the revolution in graphic design that occurred\r\nwhen people put images on album covers.  Now if you think about the\r\n20th century and the idea of visual vocabulary the album occupies a\r\nreally important space in the cultural landscape and, above all... Try this\r\nexperiment: one day go in a record store and just try and guess what\r\nthe music sounds like by looking at the album cover.  You’ll get this\r\nkind of psychological relationship to the imagery of the music, but\r\nthat idea is translated to iPhone apps.  It’s translated to the small,\r\nyou know, kind of icons on your computer.  You name it. The idea of a\r\nvisual icon that gives you a sense of information very quickly and that\r\nyou can easily just say "That's what the style is."  That is something\r\nthat I think record cover sleeves really led towards, but at the same\r\ntime the album as we know it didn’t come into being until mainly after\r\nthe Second World War because record labels realized they’d be able to\r\nmake a lot more money putting all the singles of an artist onto one\r\nalbum and selling the whole album as a kind of a concept. So by the\r\ntime the 60s rolled in that became a huge art form in its own right\r\nwith bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Hendrix doing\r\ntotal concept albums, same thing with Pink Floyd.  Now if you fast\r\nforward to the 70s and Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool\r\nHerc, Grandmaster Caz, all these guys that were essentially, like, the\r\nDNA of what we’re doing now.  One of the main things that\r\ndifferentiates them from artists before is that they made albums based\r\non the fact that they didn’t care about the band as a thing\r\nin its own right.  They cared about manipulating the recording and that\r\nbecame the album.  Usually bands would make a song to record for an\r\nalbum, but what happens with the deejays you say "Well the album is\r\neverything we need.  Thanks band.  You can go away now."  You know you\r\ndon’t really need the band or the singer/songwriter in the same way,\r\nso you look at everything as part of your palette.  When you think about\r\na composer you know like Wagner or Pier Boulez or something like that\r\nmost of the issues a composer is working with are about discreet,\r\nnotated music that someone else will play. But if I take that person\r\nand play them as a record I’m becoming not only a conductor and\r\ncomposer of collage, but at the same time I’m looking at a whole layer\r\nof what goes into copyright law, who owns those memories, who owns the\r\nway that that sound gets remixed and transformed and above all how much\r\nfun it is to actually just mess with other people’s stuff.  So yeah, I\r\nlike the idea of it as a trickster motif.  You know like you’re kind of\r\njust messing around with people’s memories of songs. 
Question: How does science fiction influence your work?
DJ Spooky: \r\nI’ve tended to find that myths of the near future give people the\r\nability to really kind of explore the present, so say for example if\r\nlook at William Gibson and his book Neuromancer or if you look at J.G.\r\nBallard or Samuel Delaney those are probably three of my favorite\r\nwriters in that genre.  All of them project slightly to the near future\r\nas a way of talking about the current moment and I think science\r\nfiction and sound is a really interesting thing.  You might as well\r\nthink of it as sonic fiction.  When you’re coming up with different\r\nways of getting old memories to transform—you’re scratching, you’re\r\ndoing all this kind of sampling—what ends up happening is that you’re\r\nbecoming a kind of writer with sound.  In fact, if you look at the root\r\nword of phonograph it just means phonetics of graphology, phono-graph,\r\nwriting with sound, so graphology.  You know graffiti, same root word. \r\nPhonetics, you know speech, all this kind of stuff, phonograph, simple,\r\nbut when you unpack the meaning it actually kind of expands out and\r\nthat is what I was going for in my book "Sound Unbound" was to try and\r\nget people to figure out how do we unpack some of the meanings that go\r\ninto these kinds of sonically coded landscapes. So yeah, science\r\nfiction or sonic fiction.  I kind of like punning on that. 
Question:  What are the origins of "Terra Nova," your Antarctic symphony?
DJ Spooky: \r\nWhat I wanted to try and figure out was, okay, in contemporary 21st\r\ncentury life the alienation between the self and the land around you or\r\nthe self and even the urban landscape.  You name it.  Most people walk\r\naround with headphones on.  They’re barely encountering or dealing with\r\ntheir fellow person, or if they’re in a car they’re in this kind of\r\ncocoon, stuck in suburban rush hour traffic or something.  The\r\nlandscape of their current experience is just really compartmentalized. And what I wanted to do with Antarctica was say let’s hit the\r\nreset button on that and see what happens to your creative process. \r\nLet’s go to the most remote place that you can imagine, set up a studio\r\nand see what music comes out of it. So I took a studio down to several\r\nof the main ice fields, and the basic idea was to give myself four weeks\r\nin these ice fields to create a new work and see what happens. And, you\r\nknow, it was really important to me to kind of think about the urban\r\nlandscape on one hand versus this hyper-abstract ice landscape\r\non the other. 
Antarctica, one of the things that was so\r\nremarkable about it was that the ice itself is a kind of pure geometry,\r\nso say, for example, if I was facing someone wearing I don’t know, a Joy\r\nDivision t-shirt with the mountains on it or something like that... Seeing that as a computer abstraction versus actually going to these\r\ncontinents and seeing a 40 mile chunk of ice break off that is the size\r\nof mountains the sense of scale was just awe-inspiring.  I mean just… \r\nI remember one time it took us several hours to walk out into a major\r\nglacier field off the Weddell Ice Sea Shelf, all right, so this is\r\nAntarctic summer, if you fall in the water you die in about two\r\nminutes, so you’re walking, the ice is creaking, the landscape is like\r\nsubtly you know shifting and if anyone out there has ever been in an\r\nearthquake this is like kind of a slow motion earthquake, but the land\r\nis shifting and groaning and creaking and you know if you ever walked\r\non ice and you’re like whoa, you could fall through.  It really you\r\nknow puts you in that for lack of better word, very cautious\r\nmentality. So the physicality of that and the just the sheer lack of\r\nurban noise and machinery—just the wind, the water and your breath,\r\nyou know that kind of thing—it was pure poetry and you know I\r\ntreasure that.  It was just…  I can only wonder what astronauts must\r\nfeel like or something like that when you’re really in the space of\r\nsilence and you are feeling and breathing in a way that you’re really\r\naware of your muscle and bone and the breath and the body and the\r\nmovement and all of those things that just you take for granted in the\r\nurban landscape. 
I felt like on one\r\nhand the clarity of thought was amazing, but on the other we went\r\nduring Antarctic summer, so the sun didn’t set the whole time we were\r\nthere.  It was permanent afternoon. And when I say permanent afternoon,\r\nyou know, I’m talking like crystal clear, crispy blue sky.  All the\r\nsudden 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\r\nsure, but it made my relationship to sleep a kind of abstract you know\r\nbizarre…  I can't put my finger on it, but I ended up\r\ndreaming very intense dreams because I only needed about four hours of\r\nsleep.  Meanwhile, we’d take you know four to eight hours hikes way out\r\ninto these you know kind of glaciers and so on you know all day and you\r\ncome back and you’d be tired and you still couldn’t sleep because the\r\nsun was up and it felt like you know it’s like two in the afternoon or\r\nsomething, even if it was midnight. So, yeah, quirky.  Sleep is crucial\r\nand I tend to find when the sun is shining I find it much more\r\ndifficult to get that sense of sleep. 

Question: Is the  piece classical?

DJ Spooky: \r\nWhat I’m going for with the string arrangements for my Antarctic\r\nsymphony is a pun here.  On one hand you have a string quartet, which\r\nis not a symphony.  On the other hand is you have me sampling them and\r\nmaking it sound like there is many more people playing, so the whole\r\nnotion of, kind of, sampling applied to classical music is very\r\nintriguing to me because composers throughout history have borrowed\r\nmotifs and quotes from one another. So Bach, Beethoven, Duke Ellington,\r\nThelonius Monk, these are all people who would sort of rearrange or\r\ntake riffs from people. Same thing with rock, if you look at the\r\nRolling Stones doing a cover of Otis Redding or you know if you look at\r\nliterature James Joyce is pulling fragments of text from other people. So the Antarctic symphony has a geometric relationship to the\r\nlandscape.  It’s saying that this landscape and the minimal kind of, you\r\nknow 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\r\nthing, so the music is slightly repetitive and when I say repetitive\r\nit’s in the same tradition as people like Steve Reich or Erik Satie or\r\neven WC. So what I wanted to do is kind of invoke that and then dive\r\ninto that kind of repetition as a DJ thing because DJing you\r\nhear beats, like "boom, boom, boom, bap, bap."  You know hip hop, house,\r\ntechno.  So how do you translate between those electronic motifs and\r\nthe 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: \r\nAntarctica is one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth.  I\r\ndon’t think that everyone should go there.  I also think that we need\r\nto respect it as a kind of a national park for the planet.  It\r\nshould be you know put in parentheses.  You know, in the sentence of\r\nhumanity this place needs to be a parentheses. And when I say\r\nparentheses 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\r\nfilm is not only a respect for this place from the bottom of my heart. \r\nI’m talking like just the beauty, but at the same time to get people to\r\nrealize that we should treasure it.  Maybe visualize it, but leave it\r\nalone. And it’s… there is a sense of awe with these huge landscapes and\r\nopen spaces.  Maybe someone living out in the American deep Midwest\r\ndesert can imagine the same thing, or somebody living in Namibia or the\r\nArctic is very different... but yeah, just awe of the landscape.  I know\r\nthat sounds like nerdy and corny and stuff like that, but you know let\r\nit be nerdy and corny.  It’s a beautiful place.  I could just sit on an\r\nice glacier and just watch the land for like days, months, years. 

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

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

"Birth of a Nation," the film by\r\nD.W. Griffith is one of the most important films in American History. \r\nIt set the tone for how America views racial politics in cinema. So I\r\ngot the rights to the film.  We remixed it... when I say we I guess, well,\r\nme.  And the whole idea was to apply deejay technique to film in a way\r\nthat kind of self implodes the film and get people to think about as a\r\nyou know maybe something that needs to be looked at a lot more closely,\r\nso with Bush you have to remember: they played games with the black\r\nvote, they disenfranchised a large amount of people by playing those\r\ngames, and again it was a lot of it happened in the old south that were\r\nin places like Ohio. So Birth of a Nation was the first film to show a\r\nflawed election and in 1915, I mean, you know, a lot of games were being\r\nplayed with the black vote.   So disenfranchisement, black face, you\r\nknow if you fast forward and update it you could easily see the same\r\nresonance with "Avatar" where most of the main characters were in blue\r\nface, those were black actors for example. Or Jar Jar Binks this\r\nannoying creature that is like a minstrel on the "Star Wars" thing.  The\r\nracial politics is still very much prevalent in American film. \r\n"Terminator" or you know, what is the "Transformers" where they have the\r\nkind of minstrel robots who had this annoying black sort of almost-gay\r\nvoice or something.  When I say gay I’m not… no disrespect.  I’m just\r\nsaying it’s a minstrel kind of emasculated male voice where they always\r\nmake a black character like a Jar Jar Binks an annoying, “What’s up you\r\nall?”  You know those kind of very annoying creature or something like\r\nthat that has a high pitched and like yeah, really annoying like you\r\nknow. 
So anyway, "Birth of a Nation," what makes this Antarctic\r\nproject different than that is they’re both critiques of the nation-state's relationship to the individual.  Antarctica is the only place on\r\nearth with no government.  It’s the only place that really says: "You are\r\nyou."  The subjectivity that goes into that I mean once you step off a\r\nboat and you’re on an ice field in the middle of nowhere you are\r\nwithout the idea of the nation-state anymore.  And I think "Birth of a\r\nNation"... obviously "nation," you know, nationalism, nation, state, the\r\nenvironmental politics that go into how nations play with carbon\r\ntrading, how nations play with the idea of pollution and all these\r\nkinds of things you could say that the divisions now are even more\r\nencoded because of the North/South divide. Like the industrialized\r\nnations of the north versus the more multicultural countries of like\r\nChina, India, Russia.  Well Russia is still considered European, but\r\nif you go slightly outside of... you know there is plenty of Russians that\r\nlook very Asian.  So the racial politics that go into environmental\r\nissues is something that hangs like a specter over a lot of the\r\nprocess right now.  So I had a big gallery show at Robert Miller\r\nGallery called "North/South."  It was a pun about my "Birth of a Nation"\r\nversus Antarctica.  Sense of humor in the title, but nonetheless, I’m\r\nvery concerned about the way environmental politics shapes out with\r\nindustrialized versus non-industrialized nations.  It’s something that\r\nreally we have to think about. 
Question: Is the proliferation of digital media threatening individuality?
DJ Spooky: \r\nYeah, I mean I think we’re really the crisis of 21st century culture is\r\nstandardization.  On one hand that’s a crisis precisely because it\r\nreally flatlines and just deadens a lot of amazing stuff. But on the\r\nother hand as the next couple of years kick in you’re going to be\r\nseeing what I like to call mass customization, where everyone can have\r\nyou know their phone or their iPad or whatever—but they’re going to\r\npull it into their own orbit in their own way. And they’re pulling\r\nmaterial that is out there in the world as their own vocabulary.  I\r\ndidn’t make this phone, you know, but I’ve customized and transformed\r\nit. So I’m always intrigued with saying that nothing stays the same in\r\nthis era.  In the 20th century, you know, someone like, you know, Ford\r\nwould say you know what, you can have any color car you want as long as\r\nit’s black, you know. And they had the whole sense of humor about the\r\nproduction line all making the Model T Ford car there was the exact\r\nsame machine rolling off the line.  Now that was amazing because it was\r\nhigh-tech at that time, but for the 21st century where we can just\r\nretrofit and reboot anything, why stick to one thing?  I mean just\r\nalways transform and change everything.  That’s the DJ model as\r\nwell.  So by customizing and transforming it adds new life to I think\r\nthe way we function right now.  When I say the way we function I’m\r\ntalking about going down the street, walking around... everyone\r\nhas a little computer, which is essentially is a cell phone.  Most\r\npeople, I’m sorry.  There is a class division here, but even in\r\neconomically, you know, low income and so on most people have some kind\r\nof communications device. And I think it’s transformed the way the world\r\nworks right now and this is just the beginning. So within the next five\r\nto seven years you’ll be seeing probably a massive revolution in\r\ngetting rid of sameness and just having this wildly creative and\r\ninventive era. 

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

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

Question: How do you consume music?
DJ Spooky: \r\nIn massive volumes.  Again, as a DJ you have to be current and keep\r\naware of what is going on and that means you know just massive amounts\r\nof information, so a DJ is kind of obsessive about information.  I\r\ntend to think that if you look at Michael Jackson he is called the King\r\nof Pop precisely because he had millions and millions of people listening\r\nto the same record, or same songs.  If you play “Billie Jean” for example\r\neverybody knows that.  Even in India or Nepal or the most remote parts\r\nof Timbuktu you know people know that song, so millions of people\r\nlisten to that.  I’m the opposite, where it is like instead of millions\r\nof people listening to the same song it’s millions of songs being\r\nscratched and spliced and diced and you have to keep track of it all. So it’s like an information ocean or data cloud.  You\r\nknow there is… I think iTunes now has passed its several billionth\r\ndownload you know, so think of all those people.  It’s the biggest\r\nrecord store in the world, and, amusingly enough to me, again as a deejay\r\nand artist the top selling album of all time right now is the blank CD\r\nyou know so, you know, it’s number one on every chart. 
Question: Should digital content be free?
DJ Spooky: \r\nI’m a big pro-open source, pro-creative commons kind of artist.  I\r\nthink that it’s important to realize that copyright law as it is\r\nwritten relates mainly to the 18th century’s relationship to physical\r\ngoods. 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\r\nownership.  Copyright law is something I respect, but the way the law\r\nis written versus the way we live in this rip, mix, burn kind of\r\nscenario, you know... It’s all about I think thinking of digital music as\r\nthe kind of new folk culture where everyone should share, and by sharing\r\nthey create a more rich and robust, you know, narrative. 
Question: Even if they’re downloading your music?
DJ Spooky: \r\nYeah, sure, but I get value out of that.  I get a different kind of\r\nvalue.  You get branding.  You get advertising.  You get word-of-mouth\r\nviral marketing.  Hey, you know you couldn’t pay for that. 

Recorded on April 8, 2010

A conversation with the sound artist.

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Credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY via Getty Images
Personal Growth
  • Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
  • It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
  • By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
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