Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Jason Gross (September 1997)

It seems pretty pitiful that I'd have to defend someone I admire as much as Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) but a lot of people just don't seem comfortable with him. Yes, he's 'verbose' but that's only because he's got a lot of interesting ideas that are worth hearing. Tired as he was during our interview, the guy was still much more lucid than most people I talk to who are wide awake. His writings, ideas and theories would (and should) alone make him a revered music critic (who's already written for The Village Voice)- he goes from the very beginnings of recorded music up to (and connecting it to) its possible futures. Not surprisingly, his music reflects his own wide-ranging interests. He puts together some remarkable soundscapes, full of shifting dynamics and moods. You know what? The hell with his detractors. I'm sold on him as being a real, worthwhile artist (whose music can be heard in museums just as well as parties) and hopefully you are too or you will be after reading on.

Read one of Spooky's manifesto's: DARK CARNIVAL (19K, MS Word format)

PSF: What kind of things originally got you interesting in performing/making music?

My first interest came from reading. When I was in college, I was studying a lot of philosophy. I felt more and more that music was a dynamic expression of what I was reading, like Kant and Hegel. I liked that dry, rationalist approach to things. I had a radio show in college called 'Dr. Seuss' Eclectic Jungle' from '88 to '92. At first, it was just a hobby but then I became more and more enchanted with the whole thing. It was a chaos radio show. It was really noise-orienated with three turntables (playing at wrong speeds) and a sampler-like device. I would find out the source of the samples of a lot of the hip-hop I was hearing at the time- I really liked EPMD and Public Enemy. The radio station had a big archive so it was easy to find this stuff to play and mix it in. So you'd hear this distorted hip-hop with these extra loops when I put it together.

PSF: In your writing and music, you make the connection between such seemingly disparate sources as Thomas Edison, Xenakis and Afrika Bambaataa. Could you talk about some common threads here?

I was interested in Edison mainly because he was the inventor of the phonograph, which eventually became this mass-cultural phenomenon. I also liked him because he was really involved in a lot of electronic weird stuff. On the other hand, you have Xenakis who would create music from purely mathematical forms. He hoped to find a universal algorithmic structure underneath all music and in that way to bypass normal cultural barriers. There's this sens of idealism with that which I found really beautiful. I really enjoy his music also. Afrika Bambaataa's early work engaged Kraftwerk's dynamic side of things with stuff like 'Looking For the Perfect Beat' and 'Planet Rock' (even the song title says that music was a way for him to create a truly global aesthetic). From his viewpoint in the Bronx, 'think global, act local' was his way. The common thread between the three of them is this obsession with technology as a way to unfold human areas.

PSF: Do you see yourself picking up on this and carrying on this tradition?

It's just something that's part of my aesthetic. I'm obsessed with music as an inner space for people to work out various passions and obsessions. Otherwise, without music as a mass-culture therapy, we'd see a lot more wars. I think that music is one that people can create psychotherapy that allows a lot of things to be worked without being massively destructive.

PSF: Sounds can produce everything from pain to healing- how do you see your music as communicating to people?

I really view it as an extension of science fiction. It's been said that science fiction is the literature of alienation- that's not a positive or a negative. It's for someone who doesn't relate to the world as it currently stands. It's for creating an alternative zone of expression. My music parallels that in a way because it's music that says 'there could be another way.' It's a music of permutation. Just like science-fiction creates alternative worlds derived from what's going on currently in that writer's mind or environment, music can also point to different realities.

PSF: How do you objectively see the music you make? Background, atmospheric, dance, all of these?

It's music that makes all of these distinctions blur together. It can just as easily fill these different spaces but that's the point. Whether you want to dance to it or chill out to it, the idea is that the psychological backdrop is what becomes most important. It's not just whether it fills a certain social function or not at a certain time. It's variable music. That's the whole point. In a way, the word 'illbient' was creating to fill the gap that I felt most music from the pop culture milieu right now which is hyper-commodified and empty. To make a caricuture of it or critique it, you have to go one step beyond it with music that's infinitely variable.

PSF: How do you compose your music? What do you use as inspiration?

I always felt that an idea can be moved into a physical form around it. There's no one specific rule structure. Sometimes I'll be thinking of an old comic strip and I'll want to make a track that evokes that kind of comic, absurd universe in my mind. Sometimes I'll be trying to figure out the atmospheric flows of wind- like how the sound of tons and tons of air pressure moving in the atmosphere must feel like. We're already immersed in air but if you think about several tons per square inch of your body, you can make music that acts as a metaphor for that kind of immersion or density. There's so many different ideas driving each song or track. At the end of the day, your average person just pressing PLAY on the CD wouldn't care what I was thinking about. They're just going to see if they like it or not.

PSF: You do a lot of work with creating soundscapes- (how) do you visualize these things?

Definitely there's a sense of imaginary projection, otherwise it would just be a musical autoton at work behind a computer. Without imagination, everything is empty.

PSF: Do you try to recontextualize sounds in your music?

Yeah. Litearally, the whole point is to show things being put together in different combinations. To me, music is ALWAYS a metaphor. It's an open signifier. It's something that can be molded and shaped. It's invisible material that is utterly malleable. It's not fixed or cast in stone. To recontextualize it, that's the science fiction aspect of it. It's always pointing to other areas. It's saying there's different ways we can do things and we don't have to stick to one model. Using that as a core of compostion, the artists of this generation are willing to jump around genre defintions and styles at the flip of a hat (like Aphex Twin) rather than sticking to the same venacular all their life. But for most pop culture, I'll see a band keep cranking out the same style over and over or just work within a very small vernacular of a certain style. I think with a lot of electronic music makers, just because we have access to so many different cultures, we're much more willing to jump around and try and create this kind of psychological collage space.

PSF: Do you see the DJ as a groit (story-teller)?

Yeah, most definitely. Whether these stories are conscious or unconscious, they're implicit in the sampling idea. Every story leads to another story to another story to another story. The same with music.

PSF: What kind of story do you think comes out of your music then?

I think I'd call it 'music before the impact of language.' It's like a psychology or stream of thoughts before you can even put a structure on them. I guess you could call them pre-linguistic stories. Core myths from the binary opposition at the core of the human mind. But again, each object or sound means something radically different to each person that hears it. That's why I like this notion of cultural entropy. Everyone is going to interpret it slightly different and the music is transient as well. So it's stories that disappear and evaporate as soon as they're heard. In the late 20th century, I think that's a perfect reflection of the culture that's going on right now.

PSF: What kind of things attract you to certain sounds or textures that you use in your music?

A lot of it has to do with mass, like having a physical density but at the same time leaving it open for interpretation. Mass as a kind of abstraction of the human environment. Mass as an abstraction of hyper-commodification. You walk into a record store and look around and there's so much shit that your memory just implodes. You walk into your average bookstore and there's an average of 20 new books a day. It's life in the data-cloud, as I like to call it. That's the underlying idea. Life in a such a dense place that the human mind acts as kind of an osmotic unit, absorbing randomly but at the same time with some sort of underlying structure.

PSF: Your tag is the 'that Subliminal Kid'- that's from William Burroughs, right?

Yeah, it's from NOVA EXPRESS. The Subliminal Kid breaks into the Reality Studio. The Nova Mob is taking over planet Earth's mind screens and it's sending out hate signals. It's this kind of comic-absurb style of writing. The Sublimal Kid breaks their loop structures. It's a really interesting metaphor for a lot of stuff. You think of your average blockbuster with things blowing up on one hand and then there's music on the other one. One is utterly violent and the other is utterly disposable pop songs, like 'baby, I miss you.' The other extreme of that is 'I wanna kill you and blow your head off.' (laughs) It's a move between those blockbuster extremes in music. It's really hilarious. But you try to reflect that and try and critique it instrumentally. 'Subliminal' is to move beneath the average threshhold of perception of the mind. By having no words in a lot of my stuff, it's saying 'where have the words gone? Who took the words?' Also with the word 'sublime,' a lot of philosophy of aesthetics is based on that whether it's Kant or Hegel who critique the sublime in Western Culture from a neo-rationalist viewpoint.

PSF: Do you feel that you have have been influenced by 'minimalists' such as LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, John Cage?

Sure. Also Charlemagne Palestine who does these extreme piano compositions. Also Morton Feldman and the whole New York tradition. I really view hip hop as an extension of the New York tradition of minimalism. There's something about the urban landscape here that guides the mind towards this kind of extreme minimalism for clarity of though. Otherwise, it's always this howling cacaphony.

PSF: There seems to be a strong dub influence influence in your work, breaking up the time-space continuum. How do you see this?

Human perception organizes sense out of space and time. If you change the ratios (as McLuhan would say), you change the person. 'Ratio' is the root word of 'rational.' It's repeated experience. If you look at David Humes work, he says that 'custom is the only thing that holds the human perception together.' With the kind of music that we're doing, we throw in so many different sytles and rhythm progessions and tone structures, I think that perception becomes this fluid, malleable thing like you see in these strange, after-hour environments. Most of the time, it's an unconscious thing. You don't have someone standing in a room saying 'oh, my sensory perceptions are being changed.' It's actually subconscious or beneath the average threshold of perception. If it was made conscious and formal, it would be really boring.

PSF: How has your music or your thoughts about music evolved?

It's become a little bit more realistic. Most of my stuff started out as conceptual art projects where I'd have these ideas about multiple narratives, time flows going in different directions, past, present and future blurring. Things like this especially for the first couple of years after I graduated college. Now, after seeing those things become resident with pop culture, those themes are standard fodder. So it was like 'What's next? What now?' I actually want to engage pop culture on its own merits when I do this album for Geffen. It's starting from the premise that 'let's see how this evolves into art rather than the other way around.' I want to start from the opposite end of the spectrum.

PSF: Could you talk about art installations where you've found appropriate settings for your music?

Each environment has its own resonance. What I try to do is bounce off of that and see what music comes from that experience. Some of it can be horribly clustrophobic music and some of it can be really expansive, open music.

I did a show that was based on gestural patterns ('Death in the Light of the Phonograph' at Annina Nosei Gallery) in September '96. The main room was made of a series of loops in an invisible maze structure I created. You could run loops through different reverbs and in different chambers. If you yell, your voice will come back to you in a couple of seconds. That's a sonic map of the room by physiology. Bats do it all the time by bouncing their sonar waves off the landscape. I made a series of pre-existing loops that were maps of different geographic areas, put them in the room so they were on automatic repeat. So these loops would be subtely swifiting as you walked through the space and also if you were just standing still. The back room was made of a series of music notation paintings and structures that I did on cardboard in imitation of the African-American artist Bill Traylor (an outsider from the early 20th century).

PSF: With today's music, there doesn't seem to be a line anymore between what is and what isn't music or what is foreground and what's background. What's your thoughts about this?

There's certain pioneers like Cage and Boulez and Luigi Russolo- all of those guys changed the perception of the environment around them and made it into music. After that, it's like 'what's next?' That's why I like someone like Xenakis because he can precisely organize noise and silence. There's many others too. In terms of that stuff, much of it has been absorbed into youth culture as a permanent critique of silence. That's what I find really fascinating in this late 20th century zone.

PSF: Where do you think that's going to lead to?

I really think it's going to lead to the notion of bio-metrics- music that's reflected in statistical, biological experiences. Like someone continuously experiences heat or sound and you can have sounds for each specific instance of a day and just have these continuous, evolving emotional soundtracks playing. But it's almost going to be more like where you see music becoming a permanent notion of industrial psychology.

We can already make the human voice into anything. You can synthesize any type of sound. It's just going to get more and more refined. I also have a feeling that there's going to be doing a lot more behavioral research- how human beings respond to tone structure and such. It's going to go into this kind of strange, scientific locale.

PSF:Any advice to aspiring mixers/DJ's out there?

'Act global, think local.' Local can just be the thought patterns bouncing around in your head at the moment or the radio that you're able to get in a certain geographic area. It can also be stuff that you receive from the Internet. The options are almost infinite in terms of sound construction. The best way would be to implode and see what's inside.