Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, is a contemporary renaissance man. As a writer, musician, and visual artist, he represents the new artist, the multimedia-ist. He’s worked with everyone from Metallica to Iannis Xenakis. Spooky has hybridized the academic and popular idioms in music to create a style distinctly his own.
What have you been up to lately?
Mainly I’ve been working on two things. One is the File Under Futurism project, which is a string quartet I’ve been working with, which we just released on Caipirinha, which is a really cool experimental label. It’s with a string quartet that runs Columbia University’s electronic music department, which is one of the oldest in the country. I’m talking about using computers the size of a whole room to make beats. They are some of the oldest computers in the country up there. It came out a little while ago and it’s really cool, sort of drum n’ bass and hip-hop stuff made using a lot of these really, really old computers, some of which are from the late ’40s, early fifties.
And you did the Subliminal Minded EP?
Yeah that’s with a lot of remixes from my last album. It’s has Pharaohe Monch, who’s really big right now, Prince Poetry, DJ Wally, who does a lot of the jungle for Rawkus, which is this really good hip-hop label.
Why do you use turntables?
I use turntables because they are the “meta-instruments.” The turntable and the sampler are two instruments that can play any instrument.
So it’s like a post-modern thing, using pre-cast materials to build something new.
Well, I call it “trans-modern” rather than post-modern.
Because it moves between two different versions of things. In general, everything’s versioning. You know, like the Jamaicans call it “version.” And version to version is how you create tracks, and do remixes and sampling. When you think about it, it’s all just playing with memory, and fragments of memory to create new memories.
Yeah, it’s like you’re incorporating different kinds of historical themes into the music.
That’s what I try to do.
What is the Elementz series on Manifold?
It’s just a series of what I call “DJ Tools”
I have the one with you and Alan Licht on it. Who else is going to be a part of it?
There’s one with Arto Lindsay, one with Nobakazu Takemura, one with Scanner, Susan Deyhim, Bill Laswell, and some other people.
What do you think of some of the other experimental turntablists, like Otomo Yoshihide, Martin Tetreault, and Christian Marclay?
I really enjoy their stuff. I look at them as what I call “asymmetric reflection.” I consider myself very experimental, but I have to do more of a critique of rhythm, and I find that sometimes if it goes to far in to that sort of noise situation, you end up losing some of the people and your message gets made more rarefied. I try to focus on mass culture.
Is the message important in what you do?
Yes, very much so.
On your Subliminal Minded EP, there was a sample about education. What do feel about the state of education?
The US is at a real crossroads, because a lot of people have no idea what’s going on. You ask most people about how everything from their light switches to their toilet works, they have no idea, and that’s a bad situation to be in. I have friends from Russia and West Africa, and if something breaks, they learn how to fix it. Here, if something breaks, you just buy a new TV, you just buy a new thing, you don’t figure it out.
Do you think it’s a problem with the schools?
No, schools are just a reflection of the society. I think the schools are fine. People just need to value information and knowledge more. It’s a psychological issue more than an educational issue.
So it’s like consumption is taking over…
Yeah that’s one. And people who try to combine information with…or… Rage Against the Machine, for example. They show people that it’s not all about jumping around and dancing. That’s not to say that I don’t like dancing, but there’s a lot more going on these days.
Going back a bit, how did you get involved with Iannis Xenakis’ Krannerg ?
You have to remember that at the end of the day that I’m mainly a writer and artist, and music was meant to be an extension of my conceptual art. Xenakis’ people knew about that. There’s a guy, Charles Bornstein, who was the conductor, who knew me from my art side. So he called me up and we did it. It was meant to be more of a conceptual arrangement. And it was, it was a beautiful situation. And so, Xenakis’ people were talking about that stuff, and we did it. I wrote the liner notes, too.
Has the old school of composition influenced the way you do things?
Yes and no. I mean I’m really influenced by John Cage and his notion of music as total text, but I’m also really into Ornette Coleman. I’d say that the four composers who have been most influential on me are Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambataa, John Cage, and Ornette Coleman, but from radically different areas, because I don’t think you need to write a notation of a 16th note or an 8th note, or a 32nd note. That’s why I like John Cage, he opened up western music to a much wider variety of situations.
Will there be another Synthetic Fury with Panacea?
Me and Panacea have been talking about doing some more stuff, but there’s only 24 hours in the day and I’ve been crazy, crazy busy. I intended to definitely do something again with Panacea.
Are there any other imminent projects?
Yeah, some more drum ‘n bass stuff I’m going to be doing, again, like tech-step, rough-step shit, dancehall reggae, some EPs and 12″s and stuff like that. My next album’s not to be out for a while. I’m just really swamped and I’m traveling a lot.
Have you been doing a lot of live stuff lately?
What is the DJ Spooky live experience like?
Expect the unexpected. It’s one of those situations where…for lack of a better word, we used to call it Illbient, where it was meant to be a critique of music with no rules, somehow, some way to create a situation where people can be open to the sounds. I call it nomadic sounds, it moves between different zones. Some of it’s hip-hop, some of it’s dancehall reggae, some of it’s jungle, some of it’s noise, some of it’s ambient. It goes all over the place.
How does the live performance differ from the CD?
My CDs are a lot cleaner than the live sets.
Do you think “illbient” is still a good way to describe what you do?
Well… yes and no. It was meant to be a fun thing, but these other groups came and it became a drag because they started bickering about stuff and it wasn’t really meant to be about that, so I moved on, and when I moved on, it kinda dissipated a little bit. So basically, the idea for me is it’s a term I can use to reference things, it’s not the end all, be all. I think instead of being frustrated with labels like hip-hop and techno, people should just make up their own names to describe their style. These days, I think I’m playing “neurological osmotic music,” or something like that [laughs] or “teleplex.”
What sort of writing do you do?
There’s a magazine called Artbyte: The Magazine of Digital Arts that me and some friends are doing, I’m the editor of that. It’s a cross between Wired and Artforum . I used to write for Rap Pages , I had a column for a long time, it’s a pretty big hip-hop magazine. The Source , I used to write for a lot. There’s a big cover article of me and Luke from 2 Live Crew a while ago. I write all over the place, different magazines. These days, I’m trying to focus on my own mags, I hate dealing with editors.
That’s all I have, any final words?
At the end of the day, like I say, it’s all about the music as a total text; writing, art sound. The idea for me is to have no idea, just let it be an open situation and see how things evolve. These days, I think there’s too many rules about music, whether you look at hip-hop or techno or noise or ambient, everyone is fixed to a small format and wants to claim that it represents the world. It should be more fluid. That’s what my mix is trying to represent: a world of possibilities.