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Best of 2023: Today, sampling means something very different than it did three decades ago. When Josh Davis was working on his debut album, Endtroducing….., his samples were dug out in record stores, lifted from vinyl’s dusty grooves and squeezed into little more than a megabyte of memory on the Akai MPC60.
These were the methods that Davis, better known as DJ Shadow, used to create the world’s first entirely sample-based album, a monumentally influential record not only in the means of its production, but the sample-flipping, genre-flexing genius of the music itself.
Nowadays, many of us are more likely to open up Splice and slice a WAV on our DAW’s timeline than drop the needle on a record. Davis, though, isn’t the least bit precious about preserving the tools and techniques he used to make his masterpiece, telling us that any “old-school mentality” he once harboured has long since evaporated.
“It’s not so much about what you're using or where you're taking it from, but more the ideas that you're adding on to it,” he tells us. “It’s about the way it's being used and the way it's being manipulated. The ideas, more than ever, are what drives interesting music for me.”
It’s this philosophy that guides Davis’ latest project, Action Adventure. His seventh solo LP, the record explores Davis’ personal relationship with music, not only as a producer but as a lifelong collector and curator.
With no scene-stealing features and far fewer samples than previous releases, the project finds Davis sharpening his focus on the fundamentals, digging deep into designing unique sounds, crafting captivating arrangements and writing chords and melodies that evade the obvious. It’s another stage in the evolution of an artist driven by the relentless desire to evolve, broaden and perfect his craft.
We caught up with DJ Shadow from his home in San Francisco to find out more about Action Adventure, talking through the serendipity of discovering the perfect sample, the importance of fine-tuning your bullshit detector, and why he’ll never go back to the MPC.
You’ve said that Action Adventure is about your relationship with music as a collector and curator. Could you elaborate on that significance for us?
“It’s a natural byproduct of where I'm at right now as a collector and as a musician, in the sense that pretty much I start every day by looking at any of the stuff around me and trying to learn more about it. Listening, trying to understand more about what I'm listening to, thinking about arrangements and melodies in ways that I probably didn't five, ten or twenty years ago. It's part of the lifelong process of being an artist, and trying to be an artist that contributes to the music that inspires me every day.
“I'm looking around right now because I'm surrounded by it. Literally, a moment before this call I was looking at a 45 that I hadn’t seen in a long time. At the same time, I'm always being sent new things to listen to and check out. I think that's what makes my listening unique, is that on the one hand I might listen to a ‘50s big band or swing record and then ten minutes later listen to some new band that was inspired by Death Grips or Nine Inch Nails or Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. That in itself ends up making a weird and unique blend.”
We’re told you stumbled on a treasure trove of 200 mixtapes on eBay that inspired you for this record. Tell us more?
“A friend of mine who I’ve spent a lot of time with, and who understands who I am as a collector and as a music lover, saw this batch of tapes being offered and said, ‘if anybody should have these, it's you’. It could have been anything – just a picture of a stack of tapes and a vague description – but it basically was some somebody saying they’d taped these off the radio between 1984 and 1987. I really didn't have very high expectations and I ended up being the only bidder.
“The tapes came and I started playing them while I was driving around, and the energy that was put into the mixes, and the love and the youthful exuberance that came out of the mixes was so palpable. The music selection was so different from what they were playing in LA at the time, or what they were playing in the Bay Area at the time. So I was hearing all this music that I rarely get to hear anymore, put into a blender, and making this incredible result.
“It was at the peak of everybody's COVID depression, and at the time, I really wasn't listening to any new music. Everything felt so fraught and gross and I didn't want to imprint my memories of that era onto any music that I liked. But I started listening to these tapes, and it kind of brought me back out. It was a little mainline into something pure and nostalgic and kind of wonderful in its own right.”
Talk us through your home studio setup for Action Adventure?
“It's pretty basic. I'm not much of a gearhead. When I do want to experiment with old outboard gear and stuff like that, I have friends locally that have some incredible vintage gear. But on this album, I mostly just limited myself to ideas. Sometimes it's fun to put sound into things and mangle it and have these interesting accidents that you can then sample and edit and make something new out of, and I appreciate that.
“But I think on this record, I mostly wanted to concentrate on stripping back some of the sound design and some of the more show-off-y elements of production – although there are a couple of moments on the record that do have those qualities – and instead focus more on the songwriting and the melodies.
“Not relying on samples to steer the track, but instead sitting there and going okay, ‘if I were to write a bass line, or if I were to write a secondary melody that's in harmony with this synth line, what would be the obvious thing and what would be the less obvious thing to do?’ When you're not classically trained and you're not a natural musician in that way, it's a fun process to work through because you're just completely relying on your own ear and your own sense of what sounds a little too obvious or that sounds a little too easy. I know I strayed away from your question there -- I mostly work inside the box.”
You’re using Ableton these days, right? But you used to be a Pro Tools guy?
“I started out on Pro Tools really early on, when it was just four tracks. Dan the Automator’s bedroom studio was the first that I used outside of my own, in the early ‘90s. He was really, really early on Pro Tools. At the time, the only thing you could really do on it was edit things together and do very simple overdubs. But then, of course, from ‘93 to ‘95 it grew and grew to be similar to what we know it is now.
“I still use Pro Tools for certain things. I've played around with Fruity Loops and played around in the past with Logic and other DAWs. It's good to be as well-versed in as many different different platforms and different ways of making music as you can.”
Do you still use any hardware? I read that you stopped using the MPC a fair few years ago.
“The last project I did that was very MPC-intensive was my second album, The Private Press. I had two or three MIDI’d together, and it was very much like, ‘on this record, I'm going to do everything that can possibly be done on the MPC’. After that project, I was really keen to make music in other ways, but it really did take some time.
“Think back twenty years, and even fifteen years, if you updated your computer, you had to go back and update every third-party plugin, every little piece of outboard gear that was USB-powered, nothing ever spoke to each other correctly. It was really a nightmare. That's what I hate about gear, at a certain point, is when it gets in the way of the creative flow. It seemed like every time I sat down to make music, some plugin was out of date. It was this constant process of chasing your tail.
“So I think around 2008, I said alright, I've had it, I'm gonna go and get the newest MPC and go back to doing it that way. I lasted about a day and a half. When you know what the possibilities are, and then you try to go back in time to something that's constrictive, it just doesn't work. Ever since that experiment about fifteen years ago, I just said nope, I'm gonna stick with it. Around 2012 was when I finally decided, okay, I've heard about this Ableton, I'm gonna sit down and read the manual front-to-back. Everybody's mind works differently, but to me Ableton solved so many issues about my workflow and the way I think about music.”
The new album is pretty synth-heavy. Is that mostly software synths?
“Yeah, mostly software synths. I like some of the vintage Korg plugins. I got a suite of all the classic Korg synths a few years ago, and it's just fun - and again, easy. I have a friend who has a lot of those old vintage synths. I'll go over there and be like, ‘hey, can we hook this up?’ And he's like, ‘no, the fuse is out’, or it’s got this problem and he’s ordered this part from the UK and it's going to be here in six weeks.
“I appreciate the whole concept of using vintage gear. I first started doing it a lot on the Unkle record, and even before that, stuff like the Space Echo. Actually the Major Force guys from Japan were really the first people I knew that were really into obscure gear from the ‘60s and ‘70s. They would always be bringing things around the Mo’ Wax studio in the early ‘90s. Things like the Echoplex. I appreciate the vintage gear, but yeah… I'm not very patient. I have to deal with vinyl, and that's hard enough.”
We’re told this record is less sample-based than some of your other albums. How much of the music is made up of samples as opposed to your own material?
“Every track has at least one sample in it. But it’s like anything. If you're a painter, and you work your whole life in oil or acrylics, and then one day you’re like ‘oh I've never done anything with watercolour, let's start using that’. I didn't want to limit myself to only samples anymore. At the time when I was starting out in the ‘90s, I was eager to demonstrate that samples were a legitimate form of making music. I wanted to articulate that in as many ways as I could. But I also knew that at some point I wanted to get into recording live instruments.
“If I'm making a song and I need a kick drum, well, I could sample a kick drum, I could use a vintage drum machine emulator, I could mic up a drum kit and record a kick drum… At a certain point sound is just sound. It really just comes down to what qualities you are looking for from the sound. That's really the way I think about music at this point. It isn't like, ‘oh I need to limit myself to only things I find on vinyl’. I’ll open it up to include tape, or things I find on YouTube – it really is just whatever fits the situation. I don't look at any of the sources any differently anymore.”
You’ve talked before about being excited by the possibilities of sound design, saying “it's cool to sample something, but way cooler to sample it, fuck with it, re-sample it, then fuck with it some more”. Could you talk us through some of those techniques?
“Let's see. I try to mess with almost everything a little bit. There's not very many instances I can think of where anything is straight off the record. That quote sounds like something I might have said on the last record. There's a song on that record called Juggernaut, which was very much a sound design fest.
“A lot of the sounds were run through this giant EMS synthesiser with a joystick on it, which I think there’s only 10 of in the world, or something. It sounds great when you put a sample through it. We were recording the output of it and manipulating it, and then I got that session home and just treated it as a new sample and messed with it some more.
“There's so many little devices that people make now that have simple inputs and outputs, and you can just mangle things completely in real time. I've worked with some kids that are younger than me that came from dubstep, and they're really good at that kind of thing. I definitely see the appeal of it. But again, I think for me, it just really comes down to the idea.
“Very rarely am I looking to only impress with sound design. The song has to still be a good song, the beat still has to be a good beat. It's not enough to just mangle a sample, and then that's your song. So it really comes into play when and where it's appropriate.”
You’ve said that stumbling across the right sample at the right time for You Played Me captured the joy of "serendipity" in your approach to music-making. Tell us more about that?
“I guess the most famous example of this in my catalogue would be Six Days. The music was looping on my computer, and what I like to do when I'm not sure what direction to go, but I know I have something really good as a basis, is just start playing other records over the top of the music that I'm looping.
“In the case of Six Days, I didn't realise it but one of the channels on my mixer had gone and I was only getting one side of the record. On the vocals that I used, they're hard-panned, so all the music is panned to one side of the record and all the vocals to the other side. As luck would have it, I dropped the needle and it just sounded like an acapella, and that ended up leading to what the song became.
“Ever since then, I've always picked certain tracks and certain moments to try that method with, and it happened again on You Played Me. It’s totally dependent on the records that I bring home. It just so happened that the vocals were sitting here, and in this case, it was a dance 12”, so there was an acapella mix. I actually wasn't sure if I could make the vocals work, because the timing is quite different. I don't like time-stretch artefacts or anything that sounds manipulated. I like things to sound natural.
"It took a good twelve hours of trying all kinds of different things to get the vocals to sit and feel just right with the beat. It’s just another one of those moments where it's one hundred percent serendipity. Out of all the hundreds of thousands of records in my collection that I could have chosen at that moment, it ended up being that one.”
One more track that stood out to me was Fleeting Youth (An Audible Life). That piano part is gorgeous. Talk us through how this one came to life?
“The original piano sample was something I had wanted to work with for a long time. It's been sitting in my session of potential samples since about 2016. I was probably about three-quarters of the way through this record and went back to the sample folder and thought, I've got to do something with this, but I don't think replaying it is really the way to go, so I just started working on it.
“Sometimes you’ll sit down to work with a sample and try half a dozen different things or treatments and nothing's really sticking. A few hours goes by and you start feeling sort of down about it because you've just thrown away an afternoon and can't seem to really get anything going. Those types of days can be kind of depressing. But then you have other days where three hours after you sat down you're like, ‘I don't even know what I did here, but I really like it’. It might be simple, it might be something complex. But this is just one of those songs that came together really nicely and quite quickly.
“I decided to think of the song as like a lifespan. The first minute is ideas starting to form, and it kind of reminds me of when you're young, and you start thinking about things a certain way… before you know it, you're putting two and two together and all the neurons are firing.
“Then there's a long section in the middle where you hear this kind of monotonous television voice that's chopped up to infinity. To me that represents middle age, maybe 40 to 70, where you're not as productive and you spend a lot more time passively sitting there and letting television and radio wash over you. I know it's a bit dark in that respect, but I think we've all seen family members resign themselves to that fate.
“It’s a song I really like on the record. On all my records, I try to have moments that are, for me, quite personal, quite heavy, quite emotional. I very rarely get asked about those, and it always bothers me because some of those songs are my favourites.”
You’ve talked before about the desire to constantly evolve as a producer. Did you learn anything new working on this project?
“When I think of every album, I think of certain challenges and certain gauntlets that I threw down for myself. In a very broad sense, this album was really about melody. I wrote more music on this record than any other record I've made to date.
“Not only just writing music, but a song like Ozone Scraper where I almost tried to think of it in terms of: ‘I don't want a synth patch for this melody, I want a wall of synths that could never be replicated or discovered’. I never wanted anybody to go, ‘here's where he got his sound’. There's literally eight or nine different synths providing the engine for the main melody. Everything is scooped out, it has its own frequency, everything is sitting just right. It took some time to get it there. But I think those were my challenges, more than anything, on this record.
“There were a lot of moments on this record where I was trying to make a sound that’s new. I don't mean it to sound like, ‘oh, I'm doing things that have never been done before’. But I like it when my music has characteristics that are unduplicatable, either by me or anybody else. To use the analogy of sampling, in the old days, it was like: ‘nobody's ever going to find this break, everybody's going to wonder where I got it from’. Well, of course, over time, people do find the breaks, and they identify it, and then it’s on WhoSampled, or whatever. So this is kind of a way of continuing that.
“That’s a dialogue that's always happening between producers that I respect. Most of it is imaginary, it's in my head, but I always like to imagine that other producers are sitting there going, ‘what is that sound? I don't know where it comes from.’ That’s something that I'm always striving for in my music.”
Back in the day sampling meant digging through records, but for a lot of people, sampling now means loading up Splice or downloading a sample pack. What are your views on how sampling has evolved?
“I don't really have any judgement. Any old-school mentality that came from hip-hop about using samples got flushed away when I started working with some kids that were a lot younger than me. I had a label called Liquid Amber and I was putting out music by a lot of young producers, and sitting in sessions and watching them work and seeing how they manipulated things really convinced me that it isn't so much about what you're using or where you're taking it from, but more the ideas that you're adding on to it. The way it's being used and the way it's being manipulated.
“The ideas more than ever are what drives interesting music for me. We've all heard breaks used well, we've all heard breaks used really lazily and badly. Laziness in music is always very identifiable and it's something I'm always trying to avoid. I also recognise that most people who listen to my music, don't necessarily think of my music in that way. They're not thinking about, ‘oh, I don't know where these sounds came from’. They're just listening to music.
“I think it's healthy in whatever type of art you make, or whatever you do as a job, to try to aim for the most sophisticated people that are going to be taking in your music or taking in your art or taking in your craft. I'm often trying to imagine the most critical fan listening to my music and imagine how they would react. Would they appreciate the programming, would they appreciate the subtle details, would they appreciate the arrangement? Would they sit there and go, ‘hmm, that was clever, I've never heard that before’?”
A lot of artists will say they’re only making music for themselves, to satisfy their own expectations. It’s interesting that you’ve got this image of an advanced listener in mind as you’re writing. Is that something that you feel drives you to do better with each project?
“It's situation-dependent. There's also a lot of music I make that I feel very firmly is for myself and I'm making the decisions I want to make. That's one of the reasons that I don't have any collaborators on this record. I really just wanted to make a record that was one thousand percent me. It's actually been years since I've done that. But I think it's healthy to have the occasional critical voice, too.
“In the old days when I used to work with the SoleSides guys, we would sit around and talk about how as a producer, you have to have a good bullshit detector. What I mean by that is you can't convince yourself that something you’re making is good when you know inherently that it's not. So I've always tried to apply that. It actually gets harder and harder the more music you've made, because I don't like to ever feel like I'm repeating myself or going down a path that I've been down before.
“I have to be invested in the music I make, or I can't do it. It’s about enjoying what you're doing, and I can only enjoy what I'm doing if I feel like the bullshit detector is functioning as it should, and we're going down a unique path that feels like there's some growth happening. Making music can be quite oppressive if you don't feel like you’re doing something new.”