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The Bomb

Touring in support of his seventh full-length album, The Message at the Depth, DJ Krush talks about musical abstraction and geopolitical anxiety.

By Marc Weidenbaum

DJ Krush had concerns about touring, and he wasn’t keeping them to himself. Before traveling from his native Japan to the United States in the spring of 2003, he posted a message on his website:

I’m a bit reluctant to go on a US tour especially right now. … I have this feeling that something terrible might happen during this US tour… When the Oklahoma bombing by terrorists took place back the mid-90[s], I was in NY recording my album, and I read about it on the newspaper at the studio. I saw a photograph of a baby charred with fire being carried by a fireman who seemed to be in a complete loss. My mind went white as well. So I made a track I entitled “OCE 9504” and included it on the album I was making, Meiso. Then that World Trade Center attac. [sic] Only 2 days before that, I was at the foot of that very building doing a photo session for a hiphop magazine. I flew back home, right before that terrorist attack happened, so it was through the news on TV back at home that I saw what had happened. I just couldn’t believe I was there only 2 days ago, truly shocking. And I still remember like yesterday, how my children sitting beside me stared at the TV screen without a word. My last album, Zen, its US street date was September 11. … I know it’s gonna be a long tour in a lot of ways. I feel an unpleasant air surrounding the Earth.
The tour, due to start February 15, 2003, would support a new Krush album, The Message at the Depth. His seventh full-length, it was released in September 2002 on Sony Japan, and on Red Ant in the U.S. on February 11.

It’s evident from the lyrics on the record that geopolitics were on Krush’s mind long before the tour commenced. One track, “Song for John Walker,” features members of Anticon rapping about John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.” Another, sung by vocalist Angelina Esparza, “Alepheu (truthspeaking),” begins with memories of the war between Japan and the U.S.

The tour brought Krush to New Orleans for a March 17 show. He was on his way to Miami, where he would perform at the Winter Music Conference, the dance-music community’s biggest annual stateside event. He was unable to conduct an interview that day, due to the lack of a translator, so he called from Miami three days later, the day after the war began.

Krush has distinguished himself as one of Japan’s premiere DJs and producers, known for his richly nuanced industrial textures and unlikely syncopations. For each album, Krush has called upon rappers and singers to enliven his tracks, as well as guest musicians. Also on The Message at the Depth are vocalists Anti-Pop Consortium (on “Supreme Team”), reggae rhythm section Sly and Robbie (on “The Lost Voices”), and Japanese rapper Inden (on “Taki No Tabiji,” or “Journey of Time”).

On the phone from Miami, Krush talked about DJing in today’s political climate, about employing computers for the first time on the new album, and about his preference for vocal-less tracks when performing live.

A transcript of the interview, lightly edited, appears below.

Marc Weidenbaum: At the concert you played in New Orleans on March 17 of this year, you opened the show with cacophony, with layers of noise. Is that the way you’re generally starting your shows these days?

DJ Krush: I always do that. I basically want to make my own start line for my set, and I use sounds like that to tell everybody it’s not the past DJ, it’s my set now. It gives it a starting point for me, and I think for the crowd.

Weidenbaum: It sounded like those tumultuous moments at the end of rock songs, or like an orchestra tuning up.

Krush: It has all kinds of instruments, from Japanese taiko to flutes, to percussion, to drums, and then on my left turntable I mix some stronger flute into that whole jamboree of sound. It is part of a song that has all of that in it.

Weidenbaum: I wonder if the audience was disoriented by the concert being less dance-oriented than your recordings might have suggested it would be. The concert was less about pop and rap and more about “sound art” and “sound sculpture.” Are you actively trying to surprise with these sounds, or are the recordings simply one aspect of where your head’s at?

Krush: When I was a DJ in regular clubs, my job was to make everybody dance, but right now I don’t feel that is what I do. And I feel bad for the audience members who really wanted to dance, because that’s not what I do. I like your term “sound art” because I want the audience to feel the air of DJ Krush, the atmosphere of DJ Krush, and if we can share that in a room, that’s what I want to get across, rather than have people raising their hands and going crazy and dancing. My interpretation of the atmosphere, the air, of what I want to get across is the basis of my DJ set.

Weidenbaum: The CD of yours I listen to most often is Kakusei, which consists almost entirely of instrumental tracks, and I was glad the concert focused on instrumentals.

Krush: [Laughs] I enjoy making and also DJing instrumental tracks, because I consider making music like this, it’s almost like I build the pool up with water and I actually swim in the pool — it’s under my control and I can basically sculpt every aspect of the instrumental. I do a lot of songs with singers and rappers also, but the process then is: I build the pool, I may fill the pool up with water, but it’s almost like letting the rapper swim in my pool. So, these are very different types of production, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Weidenbaum: It would be great if you’d release the instrumental versions of your albums that had vocals on them, like Meiso.

Krush: I think that would be a great idea. I would love for people to listen to an instrumental version of the tracks I made for vocalists and rappers.

Weidenbaum: The new record is political, most notably with the “Song for John Walker,” or John Walker Lindh, that you recorded with Anticon. I wondered if you avoided playing many vocal songs at the New Orleans show, in order to give people a break from politics, given that war was looming that night.

Krush: Yes, it had a little to do with it, of my not playing those tracks. But at the same time, also, I tend to play more instrumental tracks in my DJ sets, because having lyrics in the room, those words become staples or “strong points” of the flow of the set, and a lot of times that gets in the way of what I’m trying to achieve, a one hour and a half flow. I tend to play less rapping or vocalist tracks. A lot of people get upset, but that’s the way I set up my DJ set. I like the fact that instrumentals leave a lot to the audience’s imagination, and everybody can imagine for themselves what it means or where they want to go, and that freedom — even when I’m in the audience — I love to do that, so that’s what I try to do.

Weidenbaum: Kakusei is great background music. Whenever I travel, I carry a copy with me.

Krush: I’m so happy to hear that, because that was a very difficult and serious undertaking for me, that record, and if you like it so much as to take it where you go, that makes me very happy.

Weidenbaum: One of the things I love about the track in Japanese, “Journey of Time,” is how abstract it sounds. Because I understand no Japanese, the vocal took on the feeling of the cut-up vocals used by Amon Tobin and Prefuse 73. Are you comfortable knowing that the lyrics will be unintelligible to the majority of your audience.

Krush: Even when I, as not an English speaker, listen to an American, or English, rapping track, you feel if it’s cool or not, and that’s what it’s all about. If you really want to know what they’re saying on “Journey of Time,” it’s on my website, and it’s easy to find, but I think the purpose of having a Japanese rapper on there is to keep it abstract, to see what people feel or can get out of something like that. I think a lot of people in the world aren’t used to listening to other languages, and I think it’s another spectrum.

Weidenbaum: In some ways, that track fits in better with your instrumental work than the “Alepheuo (truthspeaking)” track does, because it’s in English.

Krush: I totally understand what you’re saying.

Weidenbaum: This record surprised me. It differs more from your previous records than they had from their predecessors. The new record is harder, more assertive, the beats more straightforward — not rudimentary, but strong and strong-willed. With the political nature of some of the songs, does that all come together? Are those coming from the same part of him?

Krush: It probably does have a lot to do with what I was feeling when I was making the record — some politically, some not. Also, I started using some computers in my work, which I had never done before, so that may have made it a little stronger in that sense, from analog to digital. I didn’t plan for it that way, I didn’t set out to make a political record, but maybe those feelings kind of found their way into the music and into the record that I made.

Weidenbaum: The way I’d describe it is that the music on the new record is less background and more foreground.

Krush: [Laughs] Yeah, the way you describe it — my music used to be in the “mid-part” of the stage, but on this record it’s come up front. That’s probably true.

Weidenbaum: How much of what you played at the New Orleans show was your own music, and how much was other people’s music?

Krush: Of course, some of my tracks, some by other Japanese artists, American artists. I also played a record from a group in the Andes that I like. Miles Davis was in there.

Weidenbaum: There were some great moments with trumpet sounds, where the trumpet would get multiplied, layered, like in a prism. Was that something you were doing right there, with effects?

Krush: For the Miles track, I was doing it right there, the effects, the echo and all that.

Weidenbaum: Is your live setup just two turntables and an effects-mixer?

Krush: That’s all. The mixer, a Vestax PMC 20SL, has an effects box and also a sampler, so I can sample on the spot as I go along. They don’t sell it anymore. It’s probably like 15 years old. There was a sampler in there, but it was so expensive, it wasn’t a hit product. Mixers now are a lot smaller, but I use this one.

Weidenbaum: There was one moment when you were using just one turntable and the mixing board — was that for show, to have fun as a performer, or was it an experiment to see how much you could do with a small amount of equipment?

Krush: I don’t really remember. How I do it, or what I do, is different every time. I may have just wanted to do that at that point it time.

Weidenbaum: Are you anxious to get back to Japan, given what’s going on?

Krush: I’m watching CNN in Miami, but what is going on?

Weidenbaum: It’s seems like it’s mostly air and missile attacks so far. It doesn’t seem like the troops have gotten close yet to Baghdad.

Krush: So it’s started, huh?

Weidenbaum: Yeah.

Krush: Nobody in Miami cares. Seems like they’re partying.

Weidenbaum: Japan is a country that was rebuilt by the U.S. after World War II, which is somewhat analogous to what’s going on in Iraq — do your parents have memories of that period of time in Japanese history?

Krush: I’ve been on the road for so long — in answer to your earlier question, I do want to go back home. And the things you just asked me, I probably do want to sit down with my parents and talk about that, because you don’t get to do that in your everyday life, but you bring up a good point, something I probably want to do when I get back.

Weidenbaum: Do you compose on the road?

Krush: I used to. A lot of music does come into my head on tour, and up until this tour I used to have my portable computer, where I would put in ideas, what I felt that day. But with the security at the airports, I didn’t this time; I didn’t bring my PC, because I’d be late for all my flights. This time I haven’t been able to do that, but up until this tour I have. I have to think about how to put these thoughts in my head down, somehow, but again, I don’t want my computer to get broken, and for it to take three hours to get it through security check. I hope I can remember the ideas I have on this tour, but my mind isn’t as strong as a computer.

Weidenbaum: I have wondered if you feel an affinity with Beat Takeshi?

Krush: I respect his work very much. I feel close to him somehow. His father is a painter — not an artist, but a carpenter-painter — and my father is a carpenter-painter. I met Takeshi one time, before I even started making music, when I was myself a carpenter, and I met him in the outskirts of Tokyo. He was already big back then, and I shook his hand.

Weidenbaum: There’s a certain parallel between your work and his. Both draw from American street — or hip-hop — culture, and both involve an urban, philosophical, deadpan picture of Japanese society.

Krush: It’s the first time anyone has put it to me that way, but maybe. Takeshi is a lot older and has more experience than I have, but it’s an interesting observation.

Weidenbaum: Money Mark started as a carpenter, too.

Krush: I didn’t know.

Weidenbaum: Yeah, he was a carpenter for the Beastie Boys when they first moved from New York to Los Angeles — that’s how he met them.

Krush: I do tile; I do brick; I paint. Call me anytime. In my closet at home I still have all the tools. All my equipment these days, though, is turntables.

Weidenbaum: During the New Orleans concert, there was a point early on when you stopped between tracks. People applauded. This wasn’t just a momentary dramatic pause, but it was as if one piece of music had come to an end, and another distinct work was yet to begin. That was much more like a concert than a DJ set, because in a traditional DJ set one tends to segue from one track to another. Did you do this because you don’t see yourself as a DJ, per se, but more as someone working in the realm of popular music, of concert music?

Krush: I don’t really think about it that much, of what kind of artist I am. I just like it when something stops, and then you go on a different journey with sound. No grand concept there. It’s different every time. It’s a little like painting. With paint, if you make a mistake, you can white it out or whatever, but sound, once you throw it out there, it fades for a period of time. It’s like that, and it’s different every time I get up there to paint the room with sound. It really feels good, stopping everything, like I did, to change where I’m going with the music. I’d love for you to see my other live performances, which I do with live musicians, and which is a totally different experience. I do a lot of these things in Tokyo, but it’s hard to take it on the road, with trumpet players and other musicians. That’s another deal I’d love for you to see. It’s more freestyle. Sometimes I provide the beat. Sometimes a percussion player provides the beat. I may have a trumpet player on stage, but I may actually play the trumpet part. It’s almost like jazz.

Related link: DJ Krush's homepage, mmjp.or.jp/sus/krush.

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