Writer, DJ, composer, artist, magazine editor, soon to be filmmaker, you name it, New York based renaissance man Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky has been not only been creating art since the early 90’s, but also developing conceptual ideas that both feed on and contribute to the maelstrom of noise that surrounds us. He first announced his presence as part of the New York illbient scene, thanks to his seminal debut LP Songs of a Dead Dreamer, which featured an ambient wash of forward thinking electronics engulfing tunes like In Heaven from Eraserhead. He has subsequently expanded his vision and concepts of audio collage and layers of meaning, collaborating with the likes of Kool Keith, the Freight Elevator Quartet, Scanner and Thurston Moore on a series of albums throughout the late 90’s such as Riddim Warfare and The Quick and the Dead. More recently he has produced and cofounded Origin magazine, which focuses on the intersection between art yoga and new ideas, founded the Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation, created a DJ Mixer IPAD app, and visited Antarctica from which he has produced the multimedia Book of Ice project and Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica. With an imminent tour of Australia performing his Arctic Rhythms project, Cyclic Defrost had the opportunity to speak with Miller and began by asking about his unlikely appearance on fellow New Yorker Arto Lindsay’s 1997 Mundo Civilizado album.
Bob Baker Fish: It seemed like a very strange eclectic mix with you and Arto, the elements that you were bringing to the album were very different to what he was bringing. I’m just wondering how that came about.
Paul D Miller: Arto is old friend. As much as possible I try to bring an eclectic mix to an eclectic mix. Right now I’m producing a project called Pioneers of African American cinema and it’s all about African American film and I’m going to have all sorts of different young composers score that. As with Arto, I just have a broad net, and I have a group of people who I check and listen to and I’m always intrigued to see how they respond to the call. Arto asked me to help out with that, I did and its all good. It’s the friend’s network of sound, all the people you work with.
Bob Baker Fish: It seems that you also seek out people from diverse genres. Is part of the interest thinking ‘well these people don’t normally go together, let’s see if they do?’
Paul D Miller: Yeah, but that’s what DJ culture is about. It’s a mix, a collage, but above all it’s made more interesting by the unexpectedness of the sounds. So yep I’m all of that.
Bob Baker Fish: So listening to some of your albums, they very much feel like collage. So is that it, your DJ work very much influenced your production technique?
Paul D Miller: Yeah sure at ever level. If you think about the last couple of decades what’s really come home to roost is that the whole idea of digital is now the basic theme of all culture, so you can’t really step out of it. It’s not going away, it’s getting deeper, so collage is just the way we edit the way we think. As much as possible I’m a big fan of saying this is the new vocabulary, it’s just an extension of language as we really know it.
Bob Baker Fish: But there is an element that its frowned upon too if you look at Negativeland and U2 or plunderphonics who got into trouble for utilising things that were considered intellectual property, so as much as there’s noise that gets thrown out into the community all the time and you can’t escape from it, also there’s a degree of ownership to it. Does that create problems?
Paul D Miller: I’ve had some issues here and there, but at the end of the day it’s never been a situation that would block any creative situation at all. They’re very specific sins of copyright. And that specific style of copyright is something that I view as very 20th century or very 19th century. So anything written before pre digital, it’s not going to reflect what’s happening now. It’s like the constitution of the US talking about how many slaves we can own. It’s not really how we live right now. So I always think we have to evolve as technology enables us to have different tools. And that’s great. I love that.
Bob Baker Fish: In preparation for our interview I went back and listened to Songs of a Dead Dreamer, and again I was totally engulfed by it. I think it’s remarkable. When you were making it what were you thinking about?
Paul D Miller: Well songs of a Dead Dreamer is sort of a dark science fiction novel. I always think of the idea before the sound. So you have to remember with hip hop, with techno and now with dub step, the basic idea is that you have to innovate in a very strict sense of rule sets, like 4/4 tempo. But what ends up happening is that rule allows you to have a lot of permutations. So my peer group, who I think are reflections of what I’m into, people like DJ Krush or DJ Shadow, RJD2, people like Wax Taylor or Gramatik. That album was before anyone else. I think the album has stood the test of time and still sounds fresh today. It’s remarkable how much technology has changed since then. I mean I was walking down the street today, I live in Tribeca and there’s a lot of music studios. And I was waiting at the traffic sign and next to me was this whole shopping cart of old musical sequencers and stuff like that. Someone had just thrown it in the garbage. In the 90’s that would’ve been tens of thousands of dollars of equipment and now it would all fit on your iphone, every single device on that. And it would take hours and hours to edit a beat or taking something apart etcetera etcetera. And today it was in a trashcan. The fun part of all of this is that I’m a big fan of acoustic ecology, recycling and repurposing, just pulling anything you can out the huge swirling cloud of garbage we call modern society. So recycle, reuse everything, your body, your mind, your heart your words, it’s all a part of the idea that it’s recirculating. And personally I love that. I think it’s a really important statement about ownership and the fact there is no unique self, unique identity, unique sound or anything, it’s just all fragments.
Bob Baker Fish: Almost any sound can live forever then.
Paul D Miller: Any sound can be you. Let’s put it this way. Any recorded sound from the 20th century, from the beginning of the recording era; they were meant to be very specific. If you heard a blues record, it’s like it’s Otis Redding or whatever. Now if you hear a blues record it could be fragments of 20 different musicians who have been spliced and diced and everything, made new and you can’t even tell who’s who anymore. And on top of it, it’s not even about you per se; it’s about your relationship with all these different collage elements. They’re you, they’re not them. They’re elements of a cut and paste. You read the writer William S Burroughs?
Bob Baker Fish: Yeah.
Paul D Miller: They’re kind’ve like that.
Bob Baker Fish: The cut up stuff, reusing and who’s identity it is, or who’s authorship we’re looking at?
Paul D Miller: Yeah, that’s kind’ve where I came at it.
Bob Baker Fish: I understand that you went to Antarctica and did a bit of recording there; can you tell me about this experience?
Paul D Miller: My whole experience of Antarctica was life changing. It was two things. One it’s the most remote place on earth I’ve ever been, and second it was the quietest, but filled with these different sounds, and you realise that you have to deprogram out of your hearing the sound of machines. It was eerie because of the way silence works in nature. You have to imagine a couple of things happening when you’re in a city. You wake up in the morning and you’re drenched probably with wifi signals, radio frequencies, traffic signals, the rumbles of engines, things like that. And they become part of the acoustic signature of your life. But when you leave it that silence is so big that you’re left with a huge void in your mind. When I was in Antarctica I wrote a series of compositions to reflect that. I wanted to go to the most remote part of earth and hit the reset button on my creative process, and that’s what came out of it.
Bob Baker Fish: So it sound like quite a challenging experience, just developing the realisation that the void is there in itself.
Paul D Miller: To me Buddhism is not a religion, it’s a philosophy. Those are things that are very, what would you day? Secular humanism. We shape it, we create it, and in turn it shapes us. But it gets deeper than that. When you go away to these remote places, it’s what lingers.
I made it as a free open source download because no one controls the ice. The whole idea was to create an open source project that reflects the fact that Antarctica is the only place on earth with no government. And you have to imagine as a composer, as a writer, as an author, everything we do is controlled by laws, governments and copyright and things like that. But as soon as you arrive on Antarctica, it is the modern equivalent of utopia. And you’re left with this whole sense that it is an open space, an open system. It’s pretty profound. Super quietest place I’ve ever been.
Bob Baker Fish: I did have a listen to a few of the tracks and I was expecting more field recording. I was quite surprised by the electronic elements.
Paul D Miller: The whole idea as is as much as possible electronics is just data. And what ends up happening is that the data is a whole bunch of 0’s and 1’s. But at the end of the day it is still a kind’ve intuitive relationship to making the world mathematical. And that mass of maths is something that is stunningly beautiful. When you hear a hip beat or techno beat you’re just hearing an algorithm. You’re hearing something that is distilled and put into a quantified rhythm. It’s made into 4/4 tempo, a very specific chord progression, its these electric sounds just a computer crunching numbers. I think that’s pretty cool. In Antarctica I’m using ice as the major material, and ice is an incredible powerful geometric form. Because it’s powerful its easy to read as pure geometry. If you ever think about it you would see, how should I put it? Look at the crystalline structure of ice, and zoom in a bit you’d know what I’m talking about. It’s pure mathematics, a slightly fractualised situation.
Bob Baker Fish: So you did do some field recording? And used that as a base and arranged it in a more musical way?
Paul D Miller: Yeah exactly. I took that and added it to these algorithms that I generated with this software called Wolfram Tones. It’s software that takes maths and music and makes pretty interesting sequential analysis. Free open source software made by a very renowned mathematician Steven Wolfram. For my book which came out of Antarctica, called The Book Of Ice, and that won a big award with National Geographic, when I’m in Australia I’ll be representing several of the compositions that came out of the project.
Bob Baker Fish: So when you’re doing a DJ set what does that consist of these days?
Paul D Miller: A lot of remixes, mashups and so on. Because I’ve been focussing on my art and writing I haven’t been DJing so much. That’s not a negative or a positive, its just because you have multiple contexts. If you’re a writer, you might be writing every day, you might not. I started a magazine Origin, that’s me and a friend doing it, we’re up to 4,000 an issue, it’s been very popular in the United States, so that took up a lot of bandwidth. I’m also shooting a film later this year. So a lot of it is not really music right now. But sometimes it’s good to take a break. It’s like hitting the reset button.
Bob Baker Fish: In chatting with you now for the last 19 minutes or so it’s becoming clear to me that for you it’s very much about the concept first.
Paul D Miller: Yeah exactly. Music is a kind of compositional idea anyway. Everybody and their mother has a computer now, so what’s the next thing we can do to make it interesting? It’s about ideas. That’s what I’m coming out of.
Bob Baker Fish: Some of your ideas are quite complex.
Paul D Miller: Well at the end of the day complexity is a kind’ve expression of innate or inner sense of poetry, you can always speak it, and sometimes the words might not be the most obvious, there’s layers and layers of meaning. That’s why I love complexity. I embrace it just makes life a little more interesting.
DJ Spooky Australian Tour
March 4, 2015 DJ Spooky Imaginary App Book Launch Galerie pompom Sydney, Australia
Sun. March 8 11pm-1am DJ SET Speakers Corner Stage, Botanic Park, Adelaide, SA WOMADelaide Festival
Mon. March 9 7-8pm ARCTIC RHYTHMS Stage 6 Planet Talks Tent, Botanic Park, Adelaide, SA WOMADelaide Festival
Mon March 9, 8:45pm CD + Book Signing Mr V., Botanic Park, Adelaide, SA WOMADelaide Festival
Thu. March 12 8-9pm ARCTIC RHYTHMS ft. Silo String Ensemble Howler, Brunswick, VIC Brunswick Music Festival
Sun. March 15 7-8pm ARCTIC RHYTHMS Spiegeltent, Hobart, TAS Tasmanian International Arts Festival
Mon. March 16 7-8pm ARCTIC RHYTHMS Spiegeltent, Hobart