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DJ Spooky

DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) is a composer, author, producer, and electronic and experimental hip-hop musician. His stage name, "That Subliminal Kid," is borrowed from the character The Subliminal Kid[…]

A conversation with the sound artist.

Question: Where did you get your stage name?
 
DJ Spooky:
  The name comes from well back in university I was doing arnseries of essays and writing about Sigmund Freud’s idea of the uncannyrnand I was really intrigued by this idea of “The Unheimlich”.  It’s anrnessay that Sigmund Freud wrote about E.T.A. Hoffman’s short storyrncalled "The Sandman" where someone mistakes an inanimate object for arnliving, breathing human being. And one of the things that Sigmund Freudrnreally felt was that in modern life people assign qualities to objectsrnaround them that may not exist there whatsoever. So he called this "thernuncanny" and he also referred to cities as well, like the idea ofrnwalking through the city and the way the urban landscape could lead yournto a sense of disorientation and to a kind of, you know, sense ofrnrepetition. And the way a city can unfold as you walk. So stuff likernthat.  It was basically meant to be like when you press play and therernnobody there.
 
Question: How is DJ Spooky different from Paul Miller?
 
DJ Spooky: rnFirst and foremost one, I was never planning on doing this as a longrnterm, so Spooky, I was in college... It was a fun name.  I thought itrnwas you know just a fun thing.  When you say what is the differencernbetween me and my stage name the idea is that as a musician you alwaysrnthink of yourself as inhabiting a certain cultural space in the kind ofrna cultural landscape, so when I say cultural space what I mean to implyrnthere is that you exist within certain parameters of how people thinkrnof culture.  Downtown New York, I’m within certain styles of music andrnI’m also within certain cultural, you know, and literary context.  So DJrnSpooky was meant to be a kind of ironic take on that.  It was alwaysrnmeant to be kind of a criticism and critique of how downtown culturernwould separate genres and styles because it was ambiguous.  Yourncouldn’t fit it into anything and that was the point.  It’s like therniPod playlist has killed the way we think of the normal album, so let’srnthink of this as just saying you go into your record store and allrnthose categories and all those different ways of segregating music havernbeen thrown out the window, so the difference between myself in realrnlife in that is that I’m the opposite.  I usually am very specificrnabout how I engage information, how I engage people, what context I’mrnengaging and, above all, the research that goes into each of those. So,rnone, that DJ Spooky is a lot you know this sort of wilder persona andrnthen Paul Miller is more of a nuts and bolts kind of person, meaningrnjust making sure all these things work. 
 
Question: How is DJ'ing an art form?
 
DJ Spooky: rnWell let’s look like back at the history of the idea of the record.  Inrnmy book "Sound Unbound" we traced the guy who actually came up with thernmain concept for the graphic design of the record cover sleeve.  Hisrnname is Alex Steinweiss. And one of the things in my book that we reallyrntried to figure out was the revolution in graphic design that occurredrnwhen people put images on album covers.  Now if you think about thern20th century and the idea of visual vocabulary the album occupies arnreally important space in the cultural landscape and, above all... Try thisrnexperiment: one day go in a record store and just try and guess whatrnthe music sounds like by looking at the album cover.  You’ll get thisrnkind of psychological relationship to the imagery of the music, butrnthat idea is translated to iPhone apps.  It’s translated to the small,rnyou know, kind of icons on your computer.  You name it. The idea of arnvisual icon that gives you a sense of information very quickly and thatrnyou can easily just say "That's what the style is."  That is somethingrnthat I think record cover sleeves really led towards, but at the samerntime the album as we know it didn’t come into being until mainly afterrnthe Second World War because record labels realized they’d be able tornmake a lot more money putting all the singles of an artist onto onernalbum and selling the whole album as a kind of a concept. So by therntime the 60s rolled in that became a huge art form in its own rightrnwith bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Hendrix doingrntotal concept albums, same thing with Pink Floyd.  Now if you fastrnforward to the 70s and Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ KoolrnHerc, Grandmaster Caz, all these guys that were essentially, like, thernDNA of what we’re doing now.  One of the main things thatrndifferentiates them from artists before is that they made albums basedrnon the fact that they didn’t care about the band as a thingrnin its own right.  They cared about manipulating the recording and thatrnbecame the album.  Usually bands would make a song to record for anrnalbum, but what happens with the deejays you say "Well the album isrneverything we need.  Thanks band.  You can go away now."  You know yourndon’t really need the band or the singer/songwriter in the same way,rnso you look at everything as part of your palette.  When you think aboutrna composer you know like Wagner or Pier Boulez or something like thatrnmost of the issues a composer is working with are about discreet,rnnotated music that someone else will play. But if I take that personrnand play them as a record I’m becoming not only a conductor andrncomposer of collage, but at the same time I’m looking at a whole layerrnof what goes into copyright law, who owns those memories, who owns thernway that that sound gets remixed and transformed and above all how muchrnfun it is to actually just mess with other people’s stuff.  So yeah, Irnlike the idea of it as a trickster motif.  You know like you’re kind ofrnjust messing around with people’s memories of songs. 
 
Question: How does science fiction influence your work?
 
DJ Spooky: rnI’ve tended to find that myths of the near future give people thernability to really kind of explore the present, so say for example ifrnlook at William Gibson and his book Neuromancer or if you look at J.G.rnBallard or Samuel Delaney those are probably three of my favoriternwriters in that genre.  All of them project slightly to the near futurernas a way of talking about the current moment and I think sciencernfiction and sound is a really interesting thing.  You might as wellrnthink of it as sonic fiction.  When you’re coming up with differentrnways of getting old memories to transform—you’re scratching, you’rerndoing all this kind of sampling—what ends up happening is that you’rernbecoming a kind of writer with sound.  In fact, if you look at the rootrnword of phonograph it just means phonetics of graphology, phono-graph,rnwriting with sound, so graphology.  You know graffiti, same root word. rnPhonetics, you know speech, all this kind of stuff, phonograph, simple,rnbut when you unpack the meaning it actually kind of expands out andrnthat is what I was going for in my book "Sound Unbound" was to try andrnget people to figure out how do we unpack some of the meanings that gorninto these kinds of sonically coded landscapes. So yeah, sciencernfiction or sonic fiction.  I kind of like punning on that. 
 
Question:  What are the origins of "Terra Nova," your Antarctic symphony?
 
DJ Spooky: rnWhat I wanted to try and figure out was, okay, in contemporary 21strncentury life the alienation between the self and the land around you orrnthe self and even the urban landscape.  You name it.  Most people walkrnaround with headphones on.  They’re barely encountering or dealing withrntheir fellow person, or if they’re in a car they’re in this kind ofrncocoon, stuck in suburban rush hour traffic or something.  Thernlandscape of their current experience is just really compartmentalized. And what I wanted to do with Antarctica was say let’s hit thernreset button on that and see what happens to your creative process. rnLet’s go to the most remote place that you can imagine, set up a studiornand see what music comes out of it. So I took a studio down to severalrnof the main ice fields, and the basic idea was to give myself four weeksrnin these ice fields to create a new work and see what happens. And, yournknow, it was really important to me to kind of think about the urbanrnlandscape on one hand versus this hyper-abstract ice landscapernon the other. 
 
Antarctica, one of the things that was sornremarkable about it was that the ice itself is a kind of pure geometry,rnso say, for example, if I was facing someone wearing I don’t know, a JoyrnDivision t-shirt with the mountains on it or something like that... Seeing that as a computer abstraction versus actually going to theserncontinents and seeing a 40 mile chunk of ice break off that is the sizernof mountains the sense of scale was just awe-inspiring.  I mean just… rnI remember one time it took us several hours to walk out into a majorrnglacier field off the Weddell Ice Sea Shelf, all right, so this isrnAntarctic summer, if you fall in the water you die in about twornminutes, so you’re walking, the ice is creaking, the landscape is likernsubtly you know shifting and if anyone out there has ever been in anrnearthquake this is like kind of a slow motion earthquake, but the landrnis shifting and groaning and creaking and you know if you ever walkedrnon ice and you’re like whoa, you could fall through.  It really yournknow puts you in that for lack of better word, very cautiousrnmentality. So the physicality of that and the just the sheer lack ofrnurban noise and machinery—just the wind, the water and your breath,rnyou know that kind of thing—it was pure poetry and you know Irntreasure that.  It was just…  I can only wonder what astronauts mustrnfeel like or something like that when you’re really in the space ofrnsilence and you are feeling and breathing in a way that you’re reallyrnaware of your muscle and bone and the breath and the body and thernmovement and all of those things that just you take for granted in thernurban landscape. 
 
I felt like on onernhand the clarity of thought was amazing, but on the other we wentrnduring Antarctic summer, so the sun didn’t set the whole time we werernthere.  It was permanent afternoon. And when I say permanent afternoon,rnyou know, I’m talking like crystal clear, crispy blue sky.  All thernsudden 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 quiternsure, but it made my relationship to sleep a kind of abstract you knowrnbizarre…  I can't put my finger on it, but I ended uprndreaming very intense dreams because I only needed about four hours ofrnsleep.  Meanwhile, we’d take you know four to eight hours hikes way outrninto these you know kind of glaciers and so on you know all day and yourncome back and you’d be tired and you still couldn’t sleep because thernsun was up and it felt like you know it’s like two in the afternoon orrnsomething, even if it was midnight. So, yeah, quirky.  Sleep is crucialrnand I tend to find when the sun is shining I find it much morerndifficult to get that sense of sleep. 

Question: Is the  piece classical?

DJ Spooky: rnWhat I’m going for with the string arrangements for my Antarcticrnsymphony is a pun here.  On one hand you have a string quartet, whichrnis not a symphony.  On the other hand is you have me sampling them andrnmaking it sound like there is many more people playing, so the wholernnotion of, kind of, sampling applied to classical music is veryrnintriguing to me because composers throughout history have borrowedrnmotifs and quotes from one another. So Bach, Beethoven, Duke Ellington,rnThelonius Monk, these are all people who would sort of rearrange orrntake riffs from people. Same thing with rock, if you look at thernRolling Stones doing a cover of Otis Redding or you know if you look atrnliterature James Joyce is pulling fragments of text from other people. So the Antarctic symphony has a geometric relationship to thernlandscape.  It’s saying that this landscape and the minimal kind of, yournknow 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 ofrnthing, so the music is slightly repetitive and when I say repetitivernit’s in the same tradition as people like Steve Reich or Erik Satie orrneven WC. So what I wanted to do is kind of invoke that and then diverninto that kind of repetition as a DJ thing because DJing yournhear beats, like "boom, boom, boom, bap, bap."  You know hip hop, house,rntechno.  So how do you translate between those electronic motifs andrnthe 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: rnAntarctica is one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth.  Irndon’t think that everyone should go there.  I also think that we needrnto respect it as a kind of a national park for the planet.  Itrnshould be you know put in parentheses.  You know, in the sentence ofrnhumanity this place needs to be a parentheses. And when I sayrnparentheses I mean I’m talking like you go around it.  Leave it alone.  Let it exist.  And what I want people to see with thisrnfilm is not only a respect for this place from the bottom of my heart. rnI’m talking like just the beauty, but at the same time to get people tornrealize that we should treasure it.  Maybe visualize it, but leave itrnalone. And it’s… there is a sense of awe with these huge landscapes andrnopen spaces.  Maybe someone living out in the American deep Midwestrndesert can imagine the same thing, or somebody living in Namibia or thernArctic is very different... but yeah, just awe of the landscape.  I knowrnthat sounds like nerdy and corny and stuff like that, but you know letrnit be nerdy and corny.  It’s a beautiful place.  I could just sit on anrnice glacier and just watch the land for like days, months, years. 

Question: Is there a basic philosophy behind your work as a rnsound artist?
 
DJ Spooky: rnI’d say most of my work is just trying to make sense of therndisorienting and overloaded world that we inhabit.  We’re bombardedrnwith sound at every level.  Sound... if you look at bats you know thatrnnavigate with sonar, they’re like you know they’re very precise.  Theyrncan even see a bat head towards a building and swerve away, but you’llrnsee a bird that doesn’t… you know smash right into a glass window. rnIt’s very funny.  I mean I don’t…  Anybody out there that has probablyrnseen that is like oh, it’s terrible.  Like if you’re ever in arnskyscraper and you see a bird just flies right into the side ofrnwindow.  Whales, for example, also navigate with sound, but they’re nowrnbeginning to be beached because the ocean is getting too noisy.  Weirdrnthings like that.  I mean this is very real.  Like, if you look at thernsatellites in the sky at night you know it’s an eerie sense of we’re… rnYou know we’re in a planet surrounded by certain kinds of frequenciesrnand noise.  The earth’s magnetic sphere makes weird sounds.  The sunrnyou know the heart of our solar system makes noise.  Even interstellarrnphenomena like black holes.  You know people have studied them and arnblack hole can emit sound in like the range of 20,000 octaves below Brnflat.  You know I mean that’s a lot…  That’s a very low tone.  So yeah,rnhow do I think of my environment and what happens with sound art?  Irnlove to play with the idea of elusive and intangible things.  Thatrncould be psychological.  It could be perceptual.  It could be just thernway your ears help you just navigate around.  Try this experiment,rnclosing your eyes and navigating with your ears.  It’s eerie becausernwalls, you can actually hear your footstep maybe bounce off of or yourncan feel the vibration of your voice and help that… use that tornnavigate. So sound art I’m always intrigued with how little we use ofrnother senses and we just prioritize the eye and you just want to seerneverything and navigate.  You know the art world is similar.  Like Irnwish people would use their ears a lot more. 
 
Question: What inspired your film Rebirth of a Nation?

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

"Birth of a Nation," the film byrnD.W. Griffith is one of the most important films in American History. rnIt set the tone for how America views racial politics in cinema. So Irngot the rights to the film.  We remixed it... when I say we I guess, well,rnme.  And the whole idea was to apply deejay technique to film in a wayrnthat kind of self implodes the film and get people to think about as arnyou know maybe something that needs to be looked at a lot more closely,rnso with Bush you have to remember: they played games with the blackrnvote, they disenfranchised a large amount of people by playing thoserngames, and again it was a lot of it happened in the old south that werernin places like Ohio. So Birth of a Nation was the first film to show arnflawed election and in 1915, I mean, you know, a lot of games were beingrnplayed with the black vote.   So disenfranchisement, black face, yournknow if you fast forward and update it you could easily see the samernresonance with "Avatar" where most of the main characters were in bluernface, those were black actors for example. Or Jar Jar Binks thisrnannoying creature that is like a minstrel on the "Star Wars" thing.  Thernracial politics is still very much prevalent in American film. rn"Terminator" or you know, what is the "Transformers" where they have thernkind of minstrel robots who had this annoying black sort of almost-gayrnvoice or something.  When I say gay I’m not… no disrespect.  I’m justrnsaying it’s a minstrel kind of emasculated male voice where they alwaysrnmake a black character like a Jar Jar Binks an annoying, “What’s up yournall?”  You know those kind of very annoying creature or something likernthat that has a high pitched and like yeah, really annoying like yournknow. 
So anyway, "Birth of a Nation," what makes this Antarcticrnproject different than that is they’re both critiques of the nation-state's relationship to the individual.  Antarctica is the only place onrnearth with no government.  It’s the only place that really says: "You arernyou."  The subjectivity that goes into that I mean once you step off arnboat and you’re on an ice field in the middle of nowhere you arernwithout the idea of the nation-state anymore.  And I think "Birth of arnNation"... obviously "nation," you know, nationalism, nation, state, thernenvironmental politics that go into how nations play with carbonrntrading, how nations play with the idea of pollution and all thesernkinds of things you could say that the divisions now are even morernencoded because of the North/South divide. Like the industrializedrnnations of the north versus the more multicultural countries of likernChina, India, Russia.  Well Russia is still considered European, butrnif you go slightly outside of... you know there is plenty of Russians thatrnlook very Asian.  So the racial politics that go into environmentalrnissues is something that hangs like a specter over a lot of thernprocess right now.  So I had a big gallery show at Robert MillerrnGallery called "North/South."  It was a pun about my "Birth of a Nation"rnversus Antarctica.  Sense of humor in the title, but nonetheless, I’mrnvery concerned about the way environmental politics shapes out withrnindustrialized versus non-industrialized nations.  It’s something thatrnreally we have to think about. 
 
Question: Is the proliferation of digital media threatening individuality?
 
DJ Spooky: rnYeah, I mean I think we’re really the crisis of 21st century culture isrnstandardization.  On one hand that’s a crisis precisely because itrnreally flatlines and just deadens a lot of amazing stuff. But on thernother hand as the next couple of years kick in you’re going to bernseeing what I like to call mass customization, where everyone can havernyou know their phone or their iPad or whatever—but they’re going tornpull it into their own orbit in their own way. And they’re pullingrnmaterial that is out there in the world as their own vocabulary.  Irndidn’t make this phone, you know, but I’ve customized and transformedrnit. So I’m always intrigued with saying that nothing stays the same inrnthis era.  In the 20th century, you know, someone like, you know, Fordrnwould say you know what, you can have any color car you want as long asrnit’s black, you know. And they had the whole sense of humor about thernproduction line all making the Model T Ford car there was the exactrnsame machine rolling off the line.  Now that was amazing because it wasrnhigh-tech at that time, but for the 21st century where we can justrnretrofit and reboot anything, why stick to one thing?  I mean justrnalways transform and change everything.  That’s the DJ model asrnwell.  So by customizing and transforming it adds new life to I thinkrnthe way we function right now.  When I say the way we function I’mrntalking about going down the street, walking around... everyonernhas a little computer, which is essentially is a cell phone.  Mostrnpeople, I’m sorry.  There is a class division here, but even inrneconomically, you know, low income and so on most people have some kindrnof communications device. And I think it’s transformed the way the worldrnworks right now and this is just the beginning. So within the next fivernto seven years you’ll be seeing probably a massive revolution inrngetting rid of sameness and just having this wildly creative andrninventive era. 

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

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

Question: How do you consume music?
 
DJ Spooky: rnIn massive volumes.  Again, as a DJ you have to be current and keeprnaware of what is going on and that means you know just massive amountsrnof information, so a DJ is kind of obsessive about information.  Irntend to think that if you look at Michael Jackson he is called the Kingrnof Pop precisely because he had millions and millions of people listeningrnto the same record, or same songs.  If you play “Billie Jean” for examplerneverybody knows that.  Even in India or Nepal or the most remote partsrnof Timbuktu you know people know that song, so millions of peoplernlisten to that.  I’m the opposite, where it is like instead of millionsrnof people listening to the same song it’s millions of songs beingrnscratched and spliced and diced and you have to keep track of it all. So it’s like an information ocean or data cloud.  Yournknow there is… I think iTunes now has passed its several billionthrndownload you know, so think of all those people.  It’s the biggestrnrecord store in the world, and, amusingly enough to me, again as a deejayrnand artist the top selling album of all time right now is the blank CDrnyou know so, you know, it’s number one on every chart. 
 
Question: Should digital content be free?
 
DJ Spooky: rnI’m a big pro-open source, pro-creative commons kind of artist.  Irnthink that it’s important to realize that copyright law as it isrnwritten relates mainly to the 18th century’s relationship to physicalrngoods. And as things move more and more to a digital media, hyper-connected world we need to transform the models of how we think ofrnownership.  Copyright law is something I respect, but the way the lawrnis written versus the way we live in this rip, mix, burn kind ofrnscenario, you know... It’s all about I think thinking of digital music asrnthe kind of new folk culture where everyone should share, and by sharingrnthey create a more rich and robust, you know, narrative. 
 
Question: Even if they’re downloading your music?
 
DJ Spooky: rnYeah, sure, but I get value out of that.  I get a different kind ofrnvalue.  You get branding.  You get advertising.  You get word-of-mouthrnviral marketing.  Hey, you know you couldn’t pay for that. 

Recorded on April 8, 2010