Out of the Shadows

Joshua Davis has come a long way since DJing for his college radio station in the ’80s. As soon as he adopted the name DJ Shadow and released his first LP Endtroducing…. in 1996, he began altering the musical landscape with his highly sampled tracks. Now, he’s achieved cult status. Each release is met with the height of the towering debut he made at age 25, and knowing that, it’s unsurprising that he would equate creating new music with standing at the foot of a mountain, looking up at what’s to come. Twenty years after releasing Endtroducing, this Friday, DJ Shadow will drop his latest effort: The Mountain Will Fall (Mass Appeal Records).

“It’s daunting and that’s the best analogy I could come up with,” he says of album’s title. “[Putting] one foot in front of the other is the best way I can think of it. I follow my muse and my interests, wherever they might go. I try to switch things up so I stay enthused and don’t ever feel like I’m in a rut,” he continues.

Growing up, DJ Shadow never imagined becoming an entertainer or performing for thousands of people. “I’m not an extrovert, but I do it to represent the music. I don’t want my fears to get in the way of my music being what it could be to the people,” he says. This summer, however, DJ Shadow will tour The Mountain Will Fall throughout Europe and come August, he’ll be playing shows in North America.

When we meet in New York, he’s animated when speaking about the new material, which ranges from the throwback rap track “Nobody Speak,” featuring Run the Jewels, to the instrumental “Bergschrung,” featuring Nils Frahm. Touring, too, is an exciting prospect this time around. “It’s fun,” he tells us. “It feels like there’s something to play for again.”

HALEY WEISS: I read that working on The Mountain Will Fall began after a DJ set you did at Low End Theory in Los Angeles. What about that experience kicked off the album?

DJ SHADOW: Whenever I talk about a new record, because people always want to know how the process started, I always go back to [the last record]. Every record is a response to the prior one. My mind goes back to what I was thinking about when [The Less You Know, the Better] came out in 2011. I continued touring with that until 2012, but my mind was the furthest thing away from a new album at that time. One of the things that had been frustrating was that you get locked in to your program of music. When I form a show as an artist it’s all my music, but you hear a lot of interesting music while you’re touring and promoting the record and my DJ mind goes to that. I didn’t have an outlet for that until I was asked to do this DJ set [at Low End Theory].

The reason I demurred from doing DJ sets through the years was that starting in ’97, after Endtroducing came out, promoters were getting a little overexcited like, “DJ Shadow is here!” I used to just turn up at a club and DJ. So there would be fans in the audience and I’m just there playing 45s. There’s all these disappointed faces at the end of the night because they thought they were going to hear “Midnight in a Perfect World” and all of these songs [of mine]. That scared me away from doing freeform stuff for a long time. But then I did the set and it allowed me to go back to my original mode as a DJ, where I was playing new music that I liked. In the early Mo’ Wax days we used to incorporate everything from brand new, underground hip-hop, to a drum and bass record, to a funk 45, to some kind of rock break from the ’70s. It was very freeform but also allowed us to touch on new, emerging things.

With the All Basses Covered DJ sets that I was doing it was an opportunity for me to play a little bit of dubstep, a little bit of proto-trap, a little bit of contemporary rap, footwork. I had to listen to tons of music to curate these sets. Part of the theme was that I didn’t want anything I was playing to be more than a few months old, so every few months I was listening to 1,000 songs to pick the 100 that I wanted to play. I felt more in tune with what was happening than I had for quite a long time. This was an ultra-contemporary era of listening for me; it’s where I was finding my inspiration. Then when it came time to sit down and make the record, a lot of it just came out because it’s the vocabulary of speaking and living with [that music] for a few years.

WEISS: What did you find most interesting about the songs that were coming out while you were doing those sets? Was there something recurring? 

DJ SHADOW: I grew up in the Sacramento Valley in California and it was a classic rock mainstay. As a youth, it was drilled into my brain that “This is the pinnacle of music. It will never get better than this.” I always thought it was a closed loop to say something like that. I distinctly remember, in 1980, listening to the top 100 countdown right before New Year’s and the number one song was “Stairway to Heaven,” which had already been out for almost a decade. I remember feeling like, “There’s something inherently wrong with this picture.” Then I heard hip-hop, and I think everybody would agree, it replaced the swagger of rock ‘n’ roll. It out rock ‘n’ roll’ed rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll, to me, after hip-hop seemed tame and show biz-y. I’m always looking for music that is the new agitator, the new attitude, the heavy bully on the block, and I was hearing that in a lot of electronic music.

From the early ’90s onward, when hip-hop crossed over into the mainstream, club culture—stuff like trance and most permutations of house—didn’t speak to me. But starting with the U.K. dubstep and grime scene, when those influences started to work their way into club music and the tempos dropped, there was attitude in club music again. I use this analogy that I put my head down to work on the album that came out in 2011—I kind of withdrew from everything—and then when I poked my head out in 2011, really aggressive dubstep had found its place. When you hear that for the first time, it evokes that Public Enemy feeling of the gorilla in the room; it’s smashing the sound system and nothing else can compete.

WEISS: With the artists featured on the new album, what were you looking for in a collaborator?

DJ SHADOW: It was important that the record feel like me. I’ve learned throughout the years that the more collaborations there on a record, the more people are inclined to think that the record is somehow less you. So I wanted the record to feel like me, but I also wanted it to feel open in terms of ideas and influences. When I first sat down to start working I didn’t know I was going to make “Nobody Speak,” I didn’t know I was going to make “The Sideshow,” those kind of just came out, but I like that part of the process to be open. If something is trying to come out when I’m working on music, I don’t suppress it. I like to see what happens and go from there.

One of the concepts early on was, “What if I reached out to other instrumentalists, not necessarily other beatmakers?” I wanted to reach out to instrumentalists that were operating in a different [way]. Obviously Matthew [Halsall] is doing almost traditional jazz and Nils Frahm is doing what I think you could call neoclassical music, but I also know that they’re aware of what’s going on musically in other spheres. My ultimate goal, when I work with somebody, is that I want the end result to be something unique—in their catalog and mine. By reaching out to people like [Matthew] I thought, “I’ve intentionally avoided jazz because I so detested the acid jazz stigma when I was first starting,” but “Ashes to Oceans” [featuring Matthew] is one of my favorite songs that I’ve made in a really long time. Those are the songs I love, because I’ve been making music for quite a while, and I always look at my catalog as ideally being this massive, multifaceted, multisided shape of which no two angles are the same. If I went out and linked up with the hot producers that I’m inspired by I don’t really know what I’d be bringing to the table.

WEISS: One of the samples on the song “The Mountain Will Fall” is from a 1975 orchestral song by Dario Baldan Bembo. What drew you to that sound in particular and how did you even find it?

DJ SHADOW: The sample process is always serendipitous. I start every workday pretty much the same way: I ease into the process by innocently grabbing records at random, putting the needle on them, and cleaning up the studio a little bit. I put stuff away from the day before, turn on my computer, and check email while I’m listening to music. Once in a while something will speak to me in some way or another and I’ll put a post-it note on the jacket. Once I have many things I’ll batch put them into Pro Tools, clean them up, name them, and then over time it becomes this massive file, and then I start bouncing stuff down. [The orchestral sample] was one of the records that sort of bubbled up. I have enough [records] to go through probably for the rest of my life. I go into storage and pull records off of the shelves or out of boxes and bring them to the studio. In some cases I don’t remember when or where I bought them, but I like that element of chance; it feeds into the music in weird ways.

The sample process is something that people like to talk about, and I know you didn’t ask this specifically, but to me, all sound is samples. Some people get fixated on, “So why are you using less samples? Why is there more of a synthetic texture on the new record?” Whether I’m using a kick drum off of a record, a live kick drum that I recorded, or a drum machine kick drum, to me, with the way I make music, it’s all a sample. Once I realized that a few years ago it really freed me up to no longer be like, “People expect me to only live in the sample vocabulary so I’m going to live there.” Now, if I’m looking for a sound that’s going to get me into a bridge to get me to the next verse or another part of the song, I’ll listen to samples for a while, then I’ll listen to synths for a while, and then find the right texture or combination of textures.