I’ve always been a fan of Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, and his ever-changing collage of auditory sketches. I was lucky to be part of the team that brought his Private Press Tour to the Belly Up
in 2002, was absolutely blown away by the multi-screened, artistic envelopment of that show and have wanted to see him again ever since. So when I found out he would be spending one of only a precious few dates on his current North American Tour at 4th and B on Saturday, I was elated.
Oddly, the conversations lately about the one-time untouchable, enigmatic producer have been more about a supposed move away from his core sound on 2006’s The Outsider (which I actually don’t understand -- I mean, it’s not his best, but the three-song punch of “Seein’ Thangs” into “Broken Levee Blues” into “Artifact” stands up against any three-song set in his catalog) and his recent decision to talk about the ills of music sharing, it’s effect on artistry, and technology’s overall detriment to music’s current downtrodden situation. Hopefully, his just-released The Less You Know, the Better will get people refocused on the art. But for now, here is our recent conversation in which Davis thoughtfully and carefully discussed the current state of music and his place in it.
Scott McDonald: Glad to be able to catch you before you leave for Mexico and the UK.
Josh Davis: It’s an honor and a blessing to be able to do it, but the travel aspect of it all gets really old. After you’ve been on a certain number of international flights, there’s absolutely no glamour to it. You’re packed in, uncomfortable and tired. Any touring musician will tell you that it gets old pretty quickly, but it ends up being worth it, because the shows are always great.
SM: There was a massive visual component the first time I saw you. Keeping with that tradition this time around?
JD: The first time I toured on a broad scale was 1999. That’s when I started playing in front of European festival audiences that are quite large. On that run, it was novelty enough to see a DJ onstage next to rock groups. Visuals weren’t really needed. It was just me and two turntables and a mixer. But I quickly realized that if I was going to do it again, I would want some kind of visual component to the show, just so people had something to look at other than me. I came up in an era where I wasn’t trying to be a celebrity DJ or famous in that way. I didn’t grow up wanting to be an entertainer or bigger than life. So I came up with visuals for the 2002 tour, and we did a bigger and better version of that in 2006. We had nine screens, and I was on top of a one-story platform. It was quite a spectacle. But when we were planning this tour, I sat down with my same visual collaborator and told him that we didn’t want to go bigger, but more conceptual. What we came up with is something I’m pretty proud of and something that seems to work well when I’m playing before and after all kinds of different groups. It holds people’s attention.
SM: This new record sounds like an old-school mix tape.
JD: Honestly, I feel like that’s what I’ve always gone for -- and that’s all the way back to my very first record. I’ve always tried to follow up any single with one that sounds nothing like the one before it. To me, Entroducing’s “The Number Song” sounds nothing like “Midnight,” which sounds nothing like “Stem.” And that’s the same with every record I’ve ever done. I think The Outsider got knocked for having that quality, among other reasons, but I’ve always been curious as to why having different styles on one record is OK for certain artists but not for others. I think rock critics, particularly, don’t care for when people like myself claim to come from hip-hop or another area. It’s almost like they’re saying, “You’ve got to stay in your lane. Don’t be trying to do rock stuff and don’t be trying to do this over here.” I’ve never identified with that sentiment. To me, at this point, I can’t close my ears off to any style of music -- even country/western. Now, I don’t particularly care for the current breed of country pop, but there is some '50s and '60s stuff I think is amazing, both on a songwriting and performance level. Now that’s something I wouldn’t have been able to say 10 years ago, but you mature and learn from music, and let your prejudices go. Everything is there to be taken in, admired and learned from. I feel like sometimes people want me to apologize for having that attitude, but I can’t. I like music a lot, I feed off of it and have a healthy diet of it. To keep things interesting, I like to switch up both what I listen to and what I make. And that’s the way it’s always been for me.
SM: For me, by putting “Border Crossing” [a song comprised entirely of metal guitar samples] second on the record, it said, "I’m not catering to people who didn’t like The Outsider." Is it a statement song?
JD: I think it is, just because of where it ended up on the disc. It’s funny, because the guy that used to run A&M Records -- the label Mo’ Wax used to go through -- would call that my “here comes trouble theme.” On The Private Press, it’s that "bom bom, bom-bom, bom bom." I never really identified it like that, but on records I like, there’s always a point near the beginning that says, “This is gonna be some crazy s---. Watch out.” I like that about music. I want to give people that, “Uh-oh, oh, s---, what’s gonna happen?” feeling. I know that probably sounds pretentious, but it’s something I admire in other music. In the process of trying to make this record make sense for myself, in terms of the sequence of songs, I always thought “Border Crossing” was going to be somewhere on the first one-third of the record. It felt good to have it where I have it. I like that in real time, people are redefining what they think I am and what they think my music can be.
SM: I personally prefer an artist to reach instead of play it safe.
JD: Me, too. But I don’t think we’re in the majority on that. I think we’re living in an era where people feel like they have an ownership over people who make art in the sense that fans are there to dictate to the artist what to do. I’m still of the mindset that I have no other choice than to do what I want to do first and hope that it coalesces with peoples expectations. However, if it doesn’t, I can’t modify my own taste to try and fit it to the majority. I have to be true to who I am and make music that I can stand behind first. And while that might make sense to some people, you’d be surprised how many people think that translates as: My fans don’t matter. And, obviously, that is not my sentiment or intention at all. I just have to please myself first, the same way that when an artist sits down at a canvas, hopefully they make something that they have artistic ownership of, and not some kind of advertisement that will please as many eyes as possible.
SM: You’ve been incredibly vocal about the negative aspects of technology lately. At what point do you commit to talking publicly about it?
JD: I think sometime in the last two years, the number of conversations I was having with my peers -- and a lot of times they’d be household-name type of artists -- where they were saying they couldn’t do it anymore, was what got me started. And I’d say that we needed to go on record and talk about it, and I’d always get “No, I can’t. Nobody wants to hear about that.” These are people I respect and need to keeping making music because they inspire me and keep me going. It reached a tipping point, where to me, it became this great, unspoken truth. You can now be in the Top 100 in America by selling 3,500 units – and that’s including downloads. Thirty-five hundred units is what we used to sell of a 12-inch in one shop in L.A. in a week, and that wasn’t that long ago. When people hear this, they always say the same thing: “This is just pampered, spoiled artists going wah, wah, wah.” But for me, this is about trying to move beyond that and letting people know that no one is trying to take your candy away. This is about finding a way that music can continue to thrive and artists can be rewarded for putting time and energy into their art. Otherwise, the art, on certain levels, will cease. And I think, in a lot of ways, it already has. Music is not moving forward at the clip that it used to. Sure there are people making music in their dorm room on a laptop, but it’s becoming almost untenable to be a band that goes to a studio, rents a tour bus and does all of the things you need to do. I just want to have a rational dialogue about it instead of this irrational, binary true/false, love/hate communication that seems to define the Internet.
SM: Can this conversation really change things?
JD: There are times when you look at a topic and say it had its heyday between this period and that one. I’ve felt for a long time that there’s really no job -- other than maybe a barber -- where you can say that people will always need this, that it’s safe. But if you would have said to me 15 years ago that this gigantic music industry and everything else will someday cease to matter, I would have laughed. I think anyone would have. I would’ve said that people will always need music in their lives and will continue to define their lives through music in some way. And to see the way it’s gone down … I love music. I don’t care about what people have decided is more worthwhile. Music is my life, so I have an opinion on the subject. But it doesn’t really matter what I say. People will read into it as they want to. And if they want to write it off as a bitter rant, that’s cool. I jut hope it isn’t a Lars Ulrich vs. Chuck D. kind of mindset. I’d like to find a middle ground. At the core, I’m trying to get to somewhere that we can all figure it out collectively. The current situation doesn’t work for anyone.
Blogger Scott McDonald covers music in San Diego for a few different publications and is the editor of