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In Their Own Words

DJ Shadow's Reconstructed: An Oral History
Laurie Tuffrey , October 23rd, 2012 06:32

Ahead of his Rough Trade East in-store tonight and his slot at Relentless Freeze Festival on Friday, we asked DJ Shadow to give us a personal rundown of Reconstructed: The Best Of DJ Shadow

Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, has been casting a retrospective glance over his career as of late. This year he's released Total Breakdown: Hidden Transmissions From MPC Era, 1992-1996, collecting early material from before 1996's landmark Endtroducing....., as well as Reconstructed: The Best Of DJ Shadow, distilling Davis' choice moments from his five albums and his collaborative LP with Mo' Wax's James Lavelle and Tim Goldsworthy as U.N.K.L.E, alongside a couple of new cuts, 'Won't You Be' and 'Listen', the latter featuring 60s rock veteran Terry Reid. We thought we'd take the opportunity to ask Shadow to bring his sense of sonic analysis to bear on his own back catalogue, and ask him to give us an oral history of his best of before he plays a couple of London appearances this week. For a man whose personal record collection (and potential sample mine) extends to around 60,000 records, though, it turns out that recalling the origins, the what, where and when of the tracks, is no mean feat. "Oh man, that thing..." he says, when I remind him of the task at hand. Afraid so.

1. 'Midnight In A Perfect World', from Endtroducing.....

My studio was, for about four years, at a friend's house whose parents lived in Davis, California, because I was constantly moving from dorm room to apartment to wherever every nine months or so, and I had so many records, it would've been a nightmare to shift 'em. So I had all of my gear and all of my music stuff and I would just get a ride over there or ride my bike over there, until they finally got fed up with me and kicked me out! A lot of the demos from Endtroducing..... were done in their little attic space.

The main sample I remember finding around '92, maybe a little earlier, but it was quite early on in the process of owning an MPC and I just thought it seemed like a really lovely little loop. Looping was a fairly common technique back then; at that time, there wasn't a need to do a great deal beyond that, and then you just stack samples up over it and do the drum programming and what not. I had the beat, but I'd flipped it in a way such that I could never do it again, I can't even remember how I did it. I was really happy with it, and at some point decided to apply that loop to that beat and that's how 'Midnight' was born.

I'd say it's one of the top three most recognisable songs that I've made, and I wanted to start the album off on a friendly note, if you will, a kind of a warm note. I wanted a song that most people would recognise right off the bat, but hopefully not a song that was completely rinsed.

2. 'High Noon', from Preemptive Strike

This was the first song that I ever made that I felt I had achieved the sound in my head. Nothing on Endtroducing..... ever gave me that feeling. As a body of work, I'm very proud of it of course, but 'High Noon' was the first singular song. It suddenly became interesting to me after doing all of these ten minute tracks from 'In/Flux' to 'Lost And Found' to 'What Does Your Soul Look Like?', and all that stuff is really dreamy and interesting to me, but suddenly with 'High Noon' it became more about trying to edit and arrange in such a way... that was my challenge, can I get it in under five minutes?

I suppose it was also kind of an angry song. When Endtroducing..... came out, it made a bit of a splash here in the UK, but then I found myself back in the States, the album wasn't out yet and I felt as though I'd gone through this vortex and somehow ended up exactly right where I was - a crappy, cheap apartment in a community where no-one understood what I was doing or identified with my reference points and I felt a bit manipulated and used, and I found myself compelled to make 'High Noon' as a way to express some of that.

Mixing that song was a 'mare though - it came together really quickly in terms of taking all the elements, doing all the programming and really pouring myself into it. I remember I mixed it feverishly, and Mo' Wax requested that I take another crack at it and it was very difficult and actually I think the person who mastered it was Mark 'Spike' Stent's personal mastering engineer or somebody like that. I remember Mo' Wax or A&M pulling all these favours to get somebody really on their shit to master it because it was so muddy, and their notes said something like "obviously this was a challenge, but here's what I've done"!

3. 'I've Been Trying', from The Less You Know, The Better

What I was valuing at that time was trying to stay out of the way and let the music just take shape and guide it rather than trying to put my stamp all over it. When 'I've Been Trying' came together, it just struck me as one of the most elegant pieces that I'd done. I mean it's quite complex in terms of what's happening sample-wise, but I felt as though I really reined myself back. I'm really proud of that song for that reason - when I play it, it just goes down so smooth, and I feel that's not something I've been able to achieve very often in my career.

[The opening guitar riff] just comes from something I had thrifted - my process when working on The Less You Know, The Better was that I was in a small town about an hour from where I live with my family and I was forcing myself into semi-seclusion and forcing myself to be in an environment that I was unfamiliar with so that I would just stay and work and not distract myself with all this other stuff. But I would periodically, at least once every two days, go out to any one of a number of thrift stores in the area and I liked the karmic element of finding some record and taking it home immediately and seeing if it would apply itself to what I was working on. It's sort of an unremarkable sample on its own, but I would take all these little elements that I like and put them on a timeline on ProTools and just start moving them around to see if they would fit together. Before you know it, you have a sort of 15-minute palette, and then you start seeing if there's any sort of serendipitous connections between them in terms of things like the swing: the manner in which the guitar is played - are there other elements that retain that swing?

4. 'This Time (I'm Going To Try It My Way)', from The Outsider

The vocal sample comes from a reel-to-reel tape that was found in a studio and it had a piece of masking tape on it that just said 'Joe'. They were simply three little rough concepts that this singer had - it sounded maybe as though he just came in, booked $20 worth of studio time just to get these ideas down and none of them were fully-formed; in fact, in all three cases, he stopped halfway, started talking to the engineer... If you listen to the original tape, I was able to get that entire thing out of about 40 seconds of sung vocals and it was quite a feat, I'm quite proud of it. There are certain things that are so obvious and immediate that you don't need to change them and then there's other things that you really, really have to work with and massage and inevitably think it isn't going to work. I think I tend, if things are too easy, I feel as if I'm cheating or something. I found it a real challenge - the gauntlet was thrown when I found that vocal to really make it something and realise it into some fully-formed idea 40 years later.

I've gotten more and more into sampling from cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes and video tapes and things of that nature, simply because it's no fun always having your samples blown on the internet by other diggers. I like to try and outfox them. I don't let it prohibit me from using something common if it works, I don't want to get in the way of things happening. It's like, I really do feel that during the two years or so that it takes me to make a record, I'll put all kinds of music on my turntable and not all of it's going to be rare or one of a kind.

5. 'You Can't Go Home Again', from The Private Press

I think my copy of it was wrecked, and I think you can tell when you listen to it. It's just one of those things where I thought it was odd to take such a long sample and put it over such a syncopated beat. Something about it just worked with me. When I think about that track, I think about that was as far as I could go on the MPC, the piece of gear I was using at the time. I was pulling in every possible millisecond of sample time, used every sequence bank I could - that track is as good as anything I've ever done on the MPC or ever will do.

In general, I've always felt that The Private Press was leaps and bounds more sophisticated in every way from Endtroducing....., and that's not to minimise - somehow people always seem to think I'm giving short shrift to Endtroducing..... - it's merely that that was my first thing and you learn and you grow as an artist and your work should evolve and progress. I always felt that The Private Press was, track-for-track, maybe not as cohesive or as much of a calling card/statement record, far superior.

6. 'Scale It Back' (featuring Little Dragon), from The Less You Know, The Better

Unusual track; I just love it. I love making music that seems simple but isn't; that's kind of what I value. I used to value complexity as a statement, and now I value, or I think up till The Less You Know, The Better, things were progressing more to deceptive simplicity.

I first met Yukimi in 2006, when she was with another band. Then I met her in 2007/2008 in Japan, and she gave me Little Dragon's first album, but what really did it for me is that I had about $1000 worth of credit at a big record store in San Francisco from doing in-stores there throughout the years. You would do an in-store and they would hand you a $250 credit slip, and I had three or four of these saved up. My whole goal was, I'm just going to go and buy a bunch of new music: everything from dance 12"s to some hip hop stuff to rock CDs to this vinyl, that vinyl, 7", 10", whatever. Anything that looked interesting - and I spent like six hours there, bought a lot of stuff. Their 45 'Fortune' was my favourite single thing that I bought out of all that music.

Out of all the collaborations that I've done between U.N.K.L.E. and my own stuff, I've had the full gamut between getting stuff back or being in the moment with the person in the studio, thinking "is this even going to work?", all the way to "oh my god, this is fucking genius", and this was totally on that end of the spectrum. I knew it was going to be good, and I got it and it was this "oh yeah, this is brilliant".

7. 'Listen' (featuring Terry Reid), previously unreleased

The demo was created during the making of The Less You Know, The Better, and it was hands-down my single favourite demo. Sometimes I do something that I like so much that I become really protective of it; if I feel that waiting to put it out because its time hasn't happened yet is the best thing for that track, then I'll do that, and that's what happened with that song. It just simply didn't fall into place in time to make the album.

I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine, and his name [Terry Reid] came up, and my friend was saying he had come to Chicago and he was really excited to see him. I sort of thought "Jesus" - I didn't realise he was still out there doing it. I was able to find him rather quickly, and it was just one of those lightbulb moments, like "why didn't I think of this sooner?" I love that song, there's not a single thing about it I would change, and that's only happened a handful of times in my whole twenty years of putting out records, it's not very often that I feel that satisfied with something that I do.

With people like him that had a measure of success but never became a household name, they usually fall into two camps: thankful for what they have or bitter for what they don't have. He's definitely the former. He has a great life and he's proud of what he's achieved and he still has that positivity and he's just up for it. He doesn't see an end to what he's doing.

8. 'Stem', from Endtroducing.....

The programming on 'Stem' was inspired by doing a tour that the Foo Fighters were on when the first album came out. Their live drummer was William Goldsmith, who was a member of Sunny Day Real Estate also, and I was familiar with punk because growing up in school, my circle of friends, we were all misfits. One of my friends aligned himself philosophically with punk rock while I aligned myself philosophically with hip-hop. And even though we didn't really care for each other's music, we learned about it and respected it. So I had been exposed to a fair amount of punk rock - not the original, UK wave, but hardcore punk in California in the 80s, Black Flag and the like. It occurred to me that I had never attempted to program a punk rock-style drum beat. So to what degree that was really successful, I don't really know, but the end result is that 'Stem' feels very different than anything else I had done up to date, or since, really.

If I'm not mistaken, the drumming only took the better part of one evening. In fact, it was almost an afterthought. Most of the pre-production of Endtroducing..... was done at my house and then a lot of final touches were done at the studio that I was working out of. It wasn't a proper studio in the way you'd think of it - it was one third the size of this room, just a little tiny place. It was that time when you had to start making the final decisions and I sort of went off on a tangent, decided that it needed it and did it. Driving home that night, I listened to it, decided what needed to be tweaked, and then finished it up the next day.

9. 'Six Days', from The Private Press

My grandmother has Scottish ancestry and she grew up always lamenting that she never got a chance to go to Scotland, so she surrounded herself with Scottish things and 'Drummer's Salute' [by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, sampled on 'Six Days'] was one of her records. I think it originates from the 60s, and at a certain point she gave me her records. Most of them I had no use for, but at some point I decided to put that on and I liked being able to work in a little piece of family history in that way.

Usually my favourite things are things that I think couldn't possibly work, and it may seem as though the drums on 'Six Days' are quite straightforward but, as you can imagine, those drums are slowed way way down and they're playing at such a speed. It's very much a live-spirited atmosphere in which bands like that are playing and they drift all over the tempo map. So getting those drums to actually work was extremely time-consuming, much more so than 'Stem'. When you work with a longer sample, getting it to feel live and not be able to perceive the same bits coming around again... That was far more difficult. Again, I felt quite sure when I started it that I was in over my head and that it wouldn't work, and throwing down the gauntlet and forcing myself to put in the sweat equity to make it work is one of the things that I value. I don't think my grandmother has heard the track, I don't think I ever mentioned it to her!

10. 'Won't You Be', previously unreleased

I sampled a record that falls into the category of tax scam records that came out at their peak in '77/'78, when there was a tax loophole in the States where the mafia got involved. They would take any old master tape that they could get their hands on, press up a bunch of copies of a record under somebody else's name and then destroy the contents as a tax write-off. They would literally press up 100,000 copies of an album, burn it all down and then claim full value, and make money. These records are quite rare for that reason because most of them were destroyed. You come across them very occasionally; they run the gauntlet from being insignificant to being exceptional. But because the artists' names are usually changed, that was the case with this. We did eventually figure out who controlled the copyright for the publishing - most of the album is by a group called Together - and cleared it.

I liked it on the album, because it doesn't feel like anything else I've done. By adding all these soft porn samples near the end and scratches and stuff, it took it out of the context of being too straight. It felt like I was able to kind of get my own personality in there as a DJ and take it out of the realm of being something that was too straight and frivolous.

11. 'Organ Donor (Extended Overhaul)', from Preemptive Strike

The original version came out on Endtroducing..... and this is a self-remix. Basically, James Lavelle loved that track and used to play it, but it was short - it was only a minute and a half long. As a gesture to him, I fledged it out more and extended it and this version came out as the B-side of 'High Noon', the year after Endtroducing......

Again, a lot of the stuff on Endtroducing..... I felt was not club-playable. I wanted something that people could drop in clubs and I was happy to do it. In retrospect, it's sort of unusual. I don't often revisit my own stuff in that way. I'm glad I did it now, because I could easily see myself going I don't want to do this, I'd rather do a new track. For whatever reason, I felt it was important enough to do at that time.

Once the song or the album is done, and it gets to its release date and disseminates around the world and gets into people's hands, at that point I'm very much at peace and at ease with it. My real time of anxiety is when I'm creating the music and that's when my quality control and my obsessive attention to detail is there and I feel really good about the fact that I've been able to hold on to that quality control. That's not to say that they aren't a couple of moments in my catalogue that I feel I could've done better, but I don't regret anything and I don't feel I've ever put any tripe out.

12. 'Lonely Soul' (featuring Richard Ashcroft)

This was an early demo for U.N.K.L.E. and I was just getting my head around the new MPC, I had had the MPC 60 and then I guess I skipped the 3000 and went right to the 2000. It was a very different way of working and suddenly I had a whole new arsenal, so to speak, and much more sample time, but it was a lot more complicated to work with. That song represented me getting my head around the new MPC.

James Lavelle and I were huge fans of the Verve album A Northern Soul, so James really wanted to have Richard Ashcroft come down and sing. He came down and did a guide vocal and we built a track around it. 'Lonely Soul' is definitely one of my finest achievements during this twenty-year period and in the process of going back through a lot of DAT tape during the course of putting together the greatest hits, I found this radio edit that I had forgotten about and was never released and I liked the way it felt. I remember when we did it in the studio thinking "wow, I wonder if this will be the version we end up with on the album?" I really liked the way it ended and felt like it was a complete vision without being a sort of butchered version of the album version.

13. 'Blood On The Motorway', from The Private Press

This is another track that is a crowd-pleaser when I do my shows, but again, The Private Press, represented to me at that time, I thought, a huge amount of growth and 'Blood On The Motorway' is definitely a centrepiece on that album. I've always really loved it and it met a lot of criteria for being included.

One sample, I think it came from a bell-ringing [compilation]... It's sort of sad in a way, it speaks to what we've lost in the States: there used to be a real premium placed on the arts and colleges, high schools and junior high schools had a huge amount of resources dedicated to encouraging everybody to learn an instrument. So in the 50s, 60s, 70s, whatever, there'd be any number of - in this case it was a bell-ringing choir - 70 students all with bells learning how to ring bells together. That's completely disappeared now because the only thing that matters in the States now is personal wealth, which is a farce, of course.

14. 'You Made It' (featuring Chris James), from The Outsider

There's a whole culture of people that see the darkness inherent in the Carpenters' music, and I love music that has surface light but a lot of internal dark, and this is that sort of track for me. It was a kind of gut-wrenching track and there was a lot of personal motivation behind it. The greatest compliment ever given to the track was that I saw it on a list of songs to play at funerals - that really sums up that track for me; "you made it", that sentiment has a lot of dual meaning. I think for its detractors, they think it just sounds like some sort of Coldplay imitation or something, and I couldn't disagree more.

15. 'Redeemed', from The Less You Know, The Better

'Redeemed' is another track where the drums are a nightmare, the vocals were a nightmare - I was positive it wasn't going to work. To get it to the point where it got was such a personal victory for me that it became just absolutely essential that it get my full attention and all my energy and my efforts to realise and arrange it. One of my favourite points on the album and one of the things I'm most proud of in terms of finding samples that work together is the drop into that sitar-y guitar sound at the end. So there's a million reasons why I love that song - I also think that's one of the most underrated songs I've ever done... I don't think I've ever had anybody come up to me and say "'Redeemed', man!" To me, I'm just like, I know that in the era that we're living in, it's so hard to get people's ear and to get their attention and to have people even pay attention to an album and I'm sure that plays into it.

16. 'Dark Days Main Theme', from Dark Days soundtrack

I thought it felt like a good note to end the album on. It was another song I was really proud of and I thought it was more infrequently heard than a lot of the other music on the record and I felt as though fans of The Private Press, fans of Endtroducing..... and fans of my sound would appreciate that song if they had the chance to hear it. I think my favourite single sort of technical feed on the song was the sample-based piano solo which was totally reconstructed and played and programmed to feel like a live solo. I remember again sort of coming up with that idea and thinking to myself "that sounds like a nice idea but it's never going to work" and spending a lot of time on it and then sitting back, playing it through and going "fuck me, it works!" I'm sure people just think I play a 30-second sample all the way through, but that was something I was always really proud of.

DJ Shadow is playing in-store at Rough Trade East tonight at 7pm and at the Relentless Freeze Festival on Friday, October 26, at Battersea Power Station.