By Miné SalkinRadiohead. George Bush. Chinese lyrics. A complex narrative of the current economic chaos without getting boring. DJ Spooky, aka Paul D. Miller, has always been a bit of a wild card. Aside from being the creator of illbient sound - an offshoot of hip-hop heavy electronic music that uses dark themes and dissonance - he's a noted writer on digital music culture in the academic world. His latest album The Secret Song, is no stranger to this notion of shifts in culture in relation to the fine art of sampling. Using myriad influences from the literary to the real, Miller weaves together a fine piece of intelligently crafted atmospheric music without getting too cerebral. Blending sounds from ATM machines, to other familiar dub and hip-hop riffs and rock legends like Sonic Youth, Miller articulates current social thoughts on commercialism, materialism and other human obsessions.
Tell me a little bit about Secret Song. Did you try anything new with it, or take any risks? There's so much that we don't really think about - how we wake up and put on clothes made by workers in Indonesia, China, the Philippines, or the way our computers are made from small fragments of labour - computer chips are made from precious metals mined in strange spots all over the world, the metals used for soldering the motherboards of your hard drive together come from all over the place, the metal "coltan" that comes from mines in Congo that are in the middle of a war zone, the way bits and pieces are assembled from all over the world into one device someplace in a factory in China. That kind of thing fascinates me. It's just sampling "materials" instead of sounds, and I wanted to make an album that reflected that kind of thing.
What was it like working with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore? What kind of synergy is created when experimental rock collaborates with sounds in electronic music? Think you'll do this again? Thurston is an old friend, and I'm a fan of what he's been up to with Sonic Youth. We've done concerts and projects together before, so this is just an extension of the vibe. There's art rock, so now I do "art hip-hop" - it's that simple.
Your books weigh heavily and are strongly regarded in the academic community. How do you balance the academic with an artistic life? Basic vibe: I'm into ideas - music and art, literature and digital media, whatever drives this kind of creative process - at the end of the day, it's all about ideas. I think that concept - ideas - is the most elusive quality of 21st century life. You have one idea, and you do a google search and you realize that there are 20,000 other people with the same motives and same drive. What makes you different? That's something I'm thinking about a lot these days. We've moved so far into mass production of experiences; copies, copies, copies!!! That we've somehow lost the thread of how we got into this 21st century headspace of the "net" as a reference point for all experience. As an artist, I think its cool. But hey, I'm just creating material all day, every day, so my whole take on this kind of thing is that it's all about making everything connect. Sound, image, literature, etc. Nothing is outside the framework of digital media at this point. Including "spirituality" - it's just a different bandwidth.
What do you hope to say about digital culture with Secret Song? Music is what connects so many things. It's deeper than language, more flexible than painting or sculpture, and more elusive than literature. I wanted to do something that would shine a light on this kind of 21st century strangeness of being able to hear anything anywhere, and what that means for creativity. I guess you could say I'm just looking at the post-playlist mentality.
I heard you sample failed ATM transactions in the album, is the global economic downturn a big theme in the Secret Song? The "Global Financial Crisis" is what the album is all about. There's a trickster scenario going on with the idea that music made of samples can really speak to the fragments of the ponzi scheme that is modern financial life. I'm inspired by writers like Ben Elton with his novel Crisis or J.G. Ballard's Super-Cannes, stuff like that, but when you really look at how our modern economy works, nobody really knows what makes it all tick.
Remix music gets a lot of flack from copyright law. What do you think it says about human creativity when a whole music culture justifies itself by creating something new by recycling previously existing ideas? Is this a digital renaissance, a paradigm shift, zeitgeist or other artists getting ripped off? Everything is sampling: we borrow words, we stress connections and quotations in everyday life, we exchange information at every level by citing facts. It's all sampling. Copyright law is written for a world of physical objects, and we're moving into a realm where control of software and how it unfolds, whether you're Google or Danger Mouse, will make or break the way your bottom line rises or falls. I love the complexity of it all. I wake up every morning and think about how wild it is that I live in the 21st century and the whole planet can relate news and information and music and style at the click of a mouse. This is just the beginning, and copyright law will be sidelined more and more as countries like China, India, Brazil and others come into this mix who are less invested in the normal American/European model of copyright protection.
Now that music is digital, do you think it detracts from the music in any way? Too many people are listening to frequencies that are missing. Most people experience music these days through their data player, and that means they are basically hearing a really compressed file. Which is crazy! When you think about how complex vinyl was, it's pretty intense that we're actually moving into a digital realm where we're still trying to recreate the signal to noise ratio of audio fidelity that our parents took for granted. But, at the other end of the spectrum, a lot of really high-end digital media can be better sounding than anything that was recorded in the past. It's eerie to see Miles Davis sessions put into super high quality software patches (drums, horn, bass line separated and put into multiple file formats where anyone can take that material and sound just as good). But again, I can only say: this is the beginning, and the Secret Song is just a mirror held up to a society that has been uprooted by the very technologies we use to hold everyday life together. Dig?
Free download from Sussan Deyhim here. It's about the elections in Iran and it's one of the lead singles on the new album.
Translation of the Chinese lyrics for "The Secret Song" are here.