DJ Shadow’s long-awaited album The Mountain Will Fall is set to drop on June 24. We caught up with the elusive producer and DJ in London to chat about the album, working with Run The Jewels and what it’s like to have such an opinionated fan base.
It’s been five years since the last album, why has it taken so long?
It always does for me. To be honest, I didn’t really get into making music to be an album artist. My first single came out in ’91, and then it was five years before I did Endtroducing, so that’s kinda always been the pattern.
I personally feel the need to experience life and new music and ideas before I can sit down and start writing music again.
So it’s not like…
Like I’ve been hanging out on a beach somewhere? [laughs]
I was going to say you might have had lots of ideas, but didn’t want to rush into recording a new album.
Actually, you can take any amount of time between the albums. For my album in 2011, I was already on tour and I toured another year after that. A couple of months later I got asked to do a contemporary DJ set. That ended up taking off and I toured for a few years with that; I started a label, did a tour with Cut Chemist where we played (Afrika) Bambaataa’s record collection and did a load of remixes and collabs.
So, in addition to being a full-time father of two and everything else in life, it isn’t so much that I’m sitting around plotting an album. I just kinda follow my muse and wherever my interests lie, and at some point I decide, “Right. It’s been a while, time to figure out how to get serious and make some music.”
‘The Mountain Will Fall’. That feels like a message.
It’s just one of those truisms that struck me through the years. I mean, I’m sitting here looking at what I believe you affectionately refer to as The Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe, London), all the concrete and all the glass and everything, and the one thing that you can definitively state is that all of it will eventually be dust.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be blown up or there’ll be some kind of world war or meteor, but however it ends up happening, it will happen. There’s no arguing it, it’s a definitive truth.
It’s a very eclectic album, was that a conscious thing?
I always consider every album to be a snapshot. From Endtroducing on, every album is a collection of songs that articulates what I’m valuing in music at that time. My main thing is constantly looking forward and trying to make music that I couldn’t have made at any other time. Either because of what I’ve learned, or how I’ve matured, or how I’ve changed in my thinking about music.
So your music is a journal of sorts.
Certainly, most good records are that way. If you think of any long-term artist that makes music throughout several decades, you would hope that it’s autobiographical and a form of self-expression, and that’s certainly how I approach my music.
That’s one of the reasons I’m not more prolific than I am. When I make music, it takes me two hours to get into the flow. To me it’s like tapping into some kind of subconscious frequency: I just have to turn everything else off, open up part of myself, expose my fears and try to work through it in the music that I’m making.
There are tracks within the album, like “California,” that are individually varied, where tempo, instrumentation and vibe all shift in the space of a few minutes.
I’m glad you brought that up, because it’s one of the main things that I wanted to bring to the table. I could be inspired by all these beats I’m hearing from the beat scene, all the different micro-genres that people have terms for, but one of the things I felt I could bring was the unique perspective on arrangement.
Does that focus on arrangement tie into your choice of featured artists on the album, like Matthew Halsall and Nils Frahm?
That really comes from a desire to collaborate with instrumentalists who don’t come from my world. I liked the idea of reaching out to people whose work I admired, and the fact that they’re instrumentalists. In the case of Nils coming from a neo-classical perspective, and Matthew coming from quite a purist jazz perspective, I felt that by collabing with them we would end up with something that we couldn’t have done on our own.
That was another objective I had. I said, “Go into the studio and try to make some music that’s affecting to you, and then I’m just gonna mangle and rip it to pieces; it’s gonna be unrecognizable.”
And he was happy with that?
Yeah, he was quite up for that.
How about working with Run The Jewels?
It was great. I basically wanted them, or no-one. If they didn’t agree to do the track, then the track wouldn’t have been on the album. One of the rules I had with the record was I didn’t want to collab with anyone that wants to be paid [laughs]. I want them to want to do it; to see the value in it. I didn’t want to just get hot names or the rapper of the minute, I didn’t want it to be that kind of record.
What’s it like having such an opinionated fan base?
What word could I use? It’s equal parts gratifying, frustrating, surreal. I would rather that they have an opinion than they had no opinion, and to be honest, I felt as though the last record (The Less You Know The Better) was almost the worst possible scenario. I almost felt like nobody even heard it. I would much rather people kick and scream and tear their hair out and accuse me of all kinds of blasphemy, than just have no opinion whatsoever [laughs].
So the label had a certain amount of input on ‘The Less You Know’ that maybe compromised your vision?
No, no, not at all. I love the record, I’m not making any apologies for it. The best way I can say it to you is that I asked to be off Universal – which I was on for 20 years – to be a free agent and find something else, because I would rather have 10 people working on a record that are really committed and believe in it and love it, than 50 people who have no idea who I am or what I’m for.
Do you think you’ll ever be able to escape the legacy of ‘Endtroducing?’
I would never want to escape its legacy. I don’t resent that record. I could never imagine it as a burden or as anything negative, because it’s given me so many positive things. But I also feel like I have a healthy perspective on it, and there was an element of right place at the right time with that record.
I don’t want to cheapen the legacy of Endtroducing by making a pale copy of it. For me, it’s just creatively bankrupt to pretend I haven’t learned anything in the last 20 years.
There are so many bedroom producers out there with identical sounds at the moment. What are your thoughts on the state of beat music today?
I would agree with you that there’s 90% imitation and 10% innovation. That’s true of any genre.
When I’m looking for DJ sets and stuff to drop, I look for music that I feel is gonna get the reaction I want from the crowd. I’m looking for music that is gonna make even the most jaded 22-year-old that goes to clubs four times a week be like, “Holy shit, what is this?”
What are your plans for when you’ve finished your upcoming tour?
I actually think an interesting experiment would be to jump quite soon into the next album. I’ve said this before and it’s never ever panned out, usually because something comes up that I can’t turn down. I would like to shorten these five years to two or three years if I could. Even if it’s just this once, I’d like to try to do that.
For more in the way of music, check out why Zayn Malik may be worth all the hype.
- Words: Ian Hsieh
- Gallery images: Ollie Adegboye