In the fickle world of dance music, where consumers and producers chase after new sounds and styles, only to abandon them once something fresher and edgier comes along, DJ Shadow (born Josh Davis) has admirably stuck to his guns. After two decades in electronic music, he remains relevant as ever, as evidenced by the excitement surrounding his latest release, this month’s The Less You Know, The Better. But as well-regarded as he is in the States, he approaches deity-like status across the pond. It was in 1996, with London’s legendary Mo’ Wax label, that Shadow recorded Endtroducing…, an album built solely on samples, and widely considered to be one of the best of the decade. We recently sat down with the notoriously press-shy DJ in the back of his tour bus to talk about his new album, his ambivalence towards technology, and why a laptop doesn’t make you a DJ.
Could you tell us a little bit about your new album, The Less You Know, The Better? Well the last album, Essential Mix, was a provocation—it was designed to be one. So it was, I guess, a bit of a deviation in terms of what I consider to be the lineage of Endtroducing to The Private Press to now this album. Which is not to say I think in any way that this record is not challenging or that I’m just sort of giving up and going back to a default mode. Definitely not. I do think that every record has a different design and this record was more about going “OK, I cleared the air. That was accomplished.” Now it’s just time to kind of get back to refining my art with samples and making music that will resonate with people. Because ultimately that is always what I want—for the music to matter to people and for them to feel invested in it and for it to speak to them.
Let’s talk a little bit about the campaign illustrations that accompany this new album. It’s really just to have a little bit of fun. I’m the subject of the satire.
Like with that “You’re either with us or against us” line I saw on one of the drawings? I live in Silicon Valley, and it’s well-established as the world’s best testing ground for any new gadget. So as a result, the message that I receive on a daily basis is that my life is incomplete and my soul is unfulfilled unless I have this new product or this new app. It’s just sort of accepted, especially in this country, that that is our salvation, and I think that has come at a cost for a lot of art. I didn’t grow up wanting to start my own tech firm. I grew up loving music. So I think naturally, my reaction is to be a little suspicious. I think it’s OK to have a little bit of pushback and to say that maybe this isn’t the healthiest message. I think it’s just kind of not going to rock the foundation of any of these major corporations by one artist saying, “You know, hey, if anybody else out there is feeling a little bit ripped off by this whole philosophy, then you’re not alone.” And I think that for some reason, I feel like a lot of artists are sort of afraid to take that stance because they don’t want to be beaten with the Metallica schtick. And I just sort of feel like it’s apples and oranges and it’s really not about that for me.
I see you have these big cases of cassettes on the bus, which you rarely see anymore. Let’s talk a bit about how much DJing, and music in general, has evolved—not only the sounds but the actual forms—how DJs started by spinning and scratching vinyls, to hopping onstage with just a laptop. And just pressing play. What’s astounding to me about all of that is not so much the methodology or the technology. It’s the fact that we have access to 10 millions songs, and yet they’re still playing the same fucking 100 songs over and over and over again. That’s the part I don’t get. It’s not like they’re going out there saying ‘I’m gonna expose these people to 50 songs they’ve never heard of.
And now you don’t even have to get your hands dirty crate digging. You can just go on the Internet, so I’m sure the lack of astonishment is compounded by the fact that it’s so easy to access some pretty obscure music now. I understand where technology has a place, and it’s hard for people to understand that you can say these things without being a Luddite. Technology isn’t going to make you less of a lazy person. And if you are a DJ that really doesn’t care all that much about making a personal statement or trying to break any new ground with your audience, then essentially you’re just a glorified wedding DJ. There’s people who are like, “What’s wrong with giving people what they want?” Nothing. But that makes you a wedding DJ. For me, it’s a compulsion to expose people to music.
What are some particularly memorable finds during your career? It happens almost every other day. But where it really matters is, for example, working on this record. One of my ways of sort of clearing my head and stepping away from my workspace would either be to make some lunch, or go out and just wander into a thrift store and there’s kind of this karmic element of “Am I going to find the ingredient that’s gonna get me out of the arrangement issue I’m having.” So there’s been so many times where I go to a thrift store that I went to last week, and there’s a box of new records there and it’s like, “Woah, this looks really crazy,” or “This looks interesting.” Or you just get this sort of vibe where you’re holding it and you’re like “I think I know what this is but I’m not sure. It’s only 50 cents so I’m gonna buy it.” So many times I’ve taken those records back and within the first 5 minutes, it’s like “Ah, that’s it.” You know what I mean? And I really like that. Like I said, it’s almost like this karmic element that you’re meant to find that record at that time. And I just don’t personally feel like the same thing would happen if I just start googling peoples’ names.
You’re from Northern California but you’ve made quite a name for yourself in the UK. How does the UK scene compare to the scene in the U.S. for a DJ? You know how they used to say about New York, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere?” I feel like London is that for electronic music. It’s the most discerning and most forward-thinking—and not just London but other cities in the UK. The UK is a music-loving country, there’s just no other way to say it. As an artist, you want to go where people care about what you’re doing and it just seems like people care there. These days, when you touch down in the States—no matter who you are, I’m sure a lot of artists would identify with this statement—that it just seems like people care a little less about the arts in the U.S. right now. It just seems like it’s not a priority, it’s not where people are getting their emotional fulfillment. I don’t know what that means, but for me, it’s a truism. I don’t see a lot of people running away from home and defining their life on any one genre of music right now. I don’t think anybody’s gonna be doing that for your average pop catastrophe that’s ruling the charts right now.