RJD2 | Photo by Benny Mistak | courtesy of the artist
Interview: RJD2 talks his new album Dame Fortune, collaborating, and the Columbus music scene
If you’re into RJD2, you know the electronic producer / songwriter is big on collaborating. Even longer than his list of studio albums (which clocks in at 10 with this year’s Dame Fortune) is his list of production work, and the names are big: Aesop Rock, Mos Def, Massive Attack, Elbow, Yo La Tengo and Son Little just scratch the surface. So when he started work on the new project, the Columbus native and former Philadelphia resident called up some old (and new) friends to fill in the gaps. The result is a synchronous, soulful album full of twists, turns and eclectic surprises.
We spoke with RJ about how his production and songwriting methodology has changed from 2002’s Deadringer debut to Dame Fortune, his long list of Philly collaborators and what it’s like to be back in Columbus. Read the interview below, and see the master in action at Union Transfer on Saturday, May 28th.
The Key: So starting off with something musical about the new record, I think “A Portal Inward” is a totally cool way to open the album because, for me anyway, it feels so different than anything I’m used to hearing on an RJD2 record. Like it feels prog or almost krautrock, and it seems like a way of announcing, “Ok, we’re trying some new things on this outing.” Is that why you chose to open the record this way?
RJD2: Kind of. I would say it was less intended to be a statement of “I’m trying new things” if I’m being totally honest. What lent itself so perfectly for being an intro was that it was built from the most basic building blocks of music. It literally starts with one sound and one note. If you were to analyze the first two bars of that song, it’s not a chord, it’s just one note. It all starts with that pedal tone. It starts out in this very primal, basic, uber-simplified place and then the this C-minor chord kind of fades in and out and kind of trickles away. And then from there on out it builds up very slow. So in that sense you are right that usually my modus operandi is very often to just overload the listener with a huge amount of content right off the bat in an attempt to get people’s attention. Shout to get their attention. So this was kind of the opposite, it was purposely very smooth from a reserved and very minimalist place with the intent of it almost forcing people to listen on the terms of the song, if that makes sense.
TK: So like “quiet down everybody you need to pay attention to this one.”
RJ: Exactly. In the same way that you go see [Brazilian metal band] Sepultura and you have to fight to not give them your attention. That’s a particular way of getting people’s attention and it can work. But at the same time I’ve seen performers, particularly singer-songwriters, who play very quiet music in front of crowds that are talking and they kind of lose it and melt down and they get really frustrated. But I’ve also seen singer-songwriters, just a guy with a guitar, perform to crowds where people are talking and they are spaced out and they actually do the opposite, like they play quieter and quieter and things get more forceful and they don’t battle to get your attention. they wait until the people are ready to pay attention and when it works it’s an incredibly powerful thing to see. Have you seen that?
TK: I’ve definitely seen both of those. I feel like the first scenario is more common, unfortunately.
RJ: It is more common and this is perfectly analogous. When I think about the first album I made, Deadringer, the whole point of it was to be very loud, bombastic, that was my meltdown moment. To be loud and bombastic to get your attention. This record starts with this piece that is functioning in an opposite way and it could only come about from making records with the other approach.
TK: It’s interesting that you tie this back to the idea of your earlier approach of coming right out of the gate with a lot of sounds to get people roped in on Deadringer. Does that come from the background of you being not just a recording artist but also a DJ? Like you don’t want to let the beat drop, you gotta keep it moving – is that where that thought process comes from?
RJ: For sure. When I was a DJ and I wasn’t a producer making records, the name of the game was building up your arsenal of surprises. The great Philly DJs like Matthew Law, Sonny James, or Cosmo Baker, they are all masters of surprise. It’s all about that dynamic between familiarity and surprise. So that just got built right into my musical DNA.
TK: Moving onto collaboration, two of your recent releases have been very collaborative. You’ve worked with STS, and you had an older project called Icebird with Aaron Livingston. When you have those collaborations that call for their own separate projects, how does that affect the work that is more specifically RJD2?
RJ: The two inform each other in a way that is very complimentary. “A Portal Inward” is a great example – making records like the STS record facilitate my confidence in making songs that are a little left of center. Songs like “Doin’ It Right” with Slim [of STS] are their own type of challenge. The goal there is to find an elegant thing that people can relate to instantly. A groove, a pocket, a chord change that hopefully won’t be boring after you listen to it a lot. At its own basic level, it works in the same way as a pop song, even though what I do might not hearken back to Top 40. But the idea of a pop song with beauty inside of simplicity, that’s its own challenge and doing projects like the STS and Icebird records gets that out of my system so I’m able to go off and try things that are a little more experimental in terms of tempo and texture and key and arrangement.
TK: Going way way back if I’m remembering correctly, wasn’t The Third Hand your first LP that was completely instrumental based? Were there specific projects or recordings that led into that change? Because for me that was a big turning point in your catalog.
RJ: Oh, yeah. I can definitely see how that record was a huge departure now, but at the time, from my perspective it didn’t seem that way. But as you said there were all these little pieces of things that I felt were being hinted at here and there. Going back to Deadringer, most of that record is a sample machine, beat oriented type of methodology. But there are a few passages on record that are live. Then if you go to my second record Since We Last Spoke, there’s a little bit more and there are two songs where I’m singing. So on Deadringer it’s like 5 or 10% organic live instrumentation, and then Since We Last Spoke is maybe 30%? So those live aspects were already on the records as of 2004. So by the time The Third Hand was coming out, I just thought these are things I’m already dabbling with, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. At the time I didn’t realize how big of a departure going to 100% live would be.
TK: In the sense of vibing out the project as you’re working, do you feel like you compose specifically for an artist? Like “I need a song for Aaron, I know this works for him” or do you start it and can hear Aaron singing it so you bring it to him? What direction does that take?
RJ: This is one of the most fascinating things about music. It’s what keeps me coming back to it. It’s so mercurial and elusive and your perspective can change so often because that’s not how I hear music. I know some producers that can hear music like that, but it’s much more common in my experience that the aesthetics of the thing are not in play. They aren’t the criteria. I have never had the experience of making a track and because of the way it sounds texturally or because of the mood, decide to send it to anybody. What I would listen to are the chord changes and what’s going on harmonically, and whether or not it would be easy to sing over. Like there are things on the Insane Warrior record that are so atonal that it would be really really hard to sing on. But on my previous solo record, More Is Than Isn’t, Aaron sang on a song called “Love and Go” which he wrote and the texture of it is super weird. If I were to use the way that track makes me feel as the criteria, I never would have sent it to Aaron. The mechanics of it translate into the aesthetics of it.
TK: It almost seems like its a matter of instinct. There’s no set rule. You might start composing a song and won’t know who the vocalist is going to be on it until the production is done, and then you look at it and see who is best suited for it based on what you came up with. Is that how you would describe the process?
RJ: To some degree, yeah. I hate using analogies, but when you’re making a song it’s kind of like you’re building a structure and you have to make sure the mortar doesn’t dry before the bricks are together. You’re kind of making up the shape as you go along, and sometimes you’re not working from a blueprint. You’re just putting bricks on mortar and just making cool detours at the time because they look cool and only when it’s said and done can you look at the whole picture and see what the aesthetics are of the thing that you made.
TK: Got it. I wanted to talk a little bit about the people you collaborated with on Dame Fortune, starting off with Jordan Brown. I remember reading, when “Peace of What” came out, that you had connected with him because of Slim, and I was wondering what that introduction was like and what had you heard that made you want to work with him?
RJ: All credit to Slim, to my knowledge, for discovering Jordan. When were demoing things [for STS xRJD2] I realized this dude Jordan can really sing [laughter]. He’s a killer singer and takes direction really well. He’s a first take dude. Once you lay out a melody, first time he sings it it’s like, boom, exactly what you want to hear. So I had that relationship from working on the Slim record, and [Jordan] has this huge range and can execute everything that I can’t as a singer. And I’ve got this self-imposed rule now that I don’t want to be singing on more than two songs per album. It’s not strategic and I’m not trying to please the crowd or anything, it’s just sometimes in life you gotta take your lumps, and this is one of those times where you realize there are people out there that are born with a voice you just want to hear. So I put “The Roaming Hoard” and “Peace of What” and one other song in front of him, and told him straight up, one of these I’m going to be singing, one you’ll be singing, and from noodling around a little bit, he would be more suited for “Peace of What” and I would be better suited for “The Roaming Hoard.”
TK: A little bit of a detour – how did you link up with Slim for that last record?
RJ: I met Slim through through Khari Mateen who was playing bass with me for a while and who is another Philly modern legend. He did a bunch of production on the Roots records and he’s out in LA, super talented scary virtuoso dude. Awesome at everything. So when we did More Is Than Isn’t, he was working with Slim at the time, and I wanted to get Khari on the record and it just kind of came to me. I like Khari’s singing voice so lets get Khari singing and this guy Slim he’s great, he can rap his ass off, so let’s make that happen. And once that happened, we just stayed in contact. The chemistry was there, the vibe was there. Right off the bat he was writing so much and was so prolific, that we knew that volume was not going to be an issue. And once we got enough songs under our belt that we were happy with, for me it became obvious that this isn’t something where we should just throw one song on your record and one song on my record and be done with it, why don’t we put some time on it and make this a thing. At first we said lets make this an EP, and then we blew through seven songs and thought why don’t we make a full length record?
TK: That’s awesome. So back to Dame Fortune, you’ve worked with Phonte Coleman a lot over the years, how did you first link up and what keeps you returning?
RJ: Let’s see. My relationship with Phonte is something I’m continuously surprised by. I remember the day I met Phonte was at this beat society thing in Philly. And I remember seeing him and kind of fanning out and he knew who I was so I was just surprised. That was around the time that I finished The Third Hand and that record was about to come out. So then we did “Fridays” together and kind of built this relationship, then I produced a thing on one of the Little Brother mixtapes called “Best Kept Secret” and just kept the ball rolling. I think the reason we’re still doing this is because we have a mutual respect for each other and what we do musically, and also we are professional dudes. I’m really proud of my relationship with Phonte in that it’s like we conduct ourselves in a very professional manner. If he says he’s gonna send something he sends something. If he says hes going to write you something he writes something.
TK: Moving on to Aaron, this is obviously not your first collaboration with him, but it is the first since the Son Little record came out and took off. Has that changed your dynamic at all?
RJ: You know, I don’t think it has changed the work dynamic, but [“We Come Alive”] was completed before his record came out. As you said, he’s had a very successful year and it’s super exciting to see. You look at his tour schedule now and it’s crazy [laughter]. He’s doing real heavy. I wouldn’t be surprised if his workload got really heavy after completing this record. So we’ll see. I mean I would love to do another Icebird record, but as you said his solo career is taking off.
TK: What is it about working with him that draws you?
RJ: The name is part of it. A lot of people know that he’s just an incredible singer. But hes also a triple or quadruple threat. The first time I heard him sing I thought that guy has an incredibly unique and distinctive voice and he’s an incredible singer. That’s when I heard “Guns Are Drawn” by the Roots, then I started digging into his old band and looking into his lyrics and thinking, this guy is also one hell of a writer. In terms of lyrics, the guy is totally amazing. And then you see him play guitar and you see he’s a badass guitar player. And you listen to his new record and see he produced most of it and you think, he’s a super super talented dude. So in terms of what keeps me coming back, it’s a combination of all of those things. And I just like him. He’s a good friend of mine, and a great dude. We really have a similar thirst for wanting to explore something new.
TK: That’s awesome. And you worked with Blueprint previously on the Soul Position project. Was his track on Dame Fortune the first time you’ve collabed since then, or has he appeared on other tracks?
RJ: He was on the last solo record. We have a great history so when it makes sense, he’s definitely someone I’m going to reach out to. And it helps that he’s gotten comfortable as a singer. For the tune that he’s on for this record, if he was approaching it from a “let me come in and rap my ass off” point of view I probably wouldn’t have made that call. It was one of those situations where it required a particular brand of finesse musically to fit in the context of the record.
TK: And finally, as far as featured folks go, Josh Krajcik is another Columbus guy. I’m not really familiar with him though. How did you link up with him?
RJ: No this is my first time working with him and this is kind of a funny story. So [“Band of Matron Saints”] was one that I had written, recorded, demoed, done and usually when I demo something and I sing it with the melody and the harmony parts as best I can. Only upon doing that do I realize what kind of sensibilities should come from the singer and who should be executing it. And when I finished that song, I thought oh man this really needs some kind of Joe Cocker sensibility to it, some guy that’s got some growl to them but still has a great kind of bluesy sensibility. Kind of like an Ozzy Osborne, but really polished. Like an Ozzy that’s got a killer vibrato that can run scales if he needs to. So I went on the hunt for that. I started asking friends, “where is Joe Cocker out there?” People were sending me videos of people, but I was coming up short and nothing was really nailing what I was looking for. And then I found this video of Josh sitting in with this other group and I thought, this is the guy! I call him up, talking to him as someone who was not familiar with his music, and he was really nice and I get off the phone and Google him and find out he came in 2nd on that show The X Factor? He has this huge following and I didn’t even realize in that world, this guy’s a big deal. But because I don’t pay attention to that world, I had my head in the sand.
TK: Same thing with me too. I looked him up and thought oh, singer songwriter, Columbus, and I didn’t go far down to see the X Factor stuff and if I had I would have completely not registered it or assumed that it was somebody else. That’s really funny. One last question, you moved to Columbus, which is where you are originally from, is that correct?
TK: First question, what brought you back? And two, I know just from writing about music there is a very fertile music community in Columbus and indie rock has become kind of a hub for that in recent years, is that something that you felt connected to growing up? Or something that you are rediscovering being out there?
RJ: The nature of the move was for the benefit of the family. We didn’t have any family in Philadelphia and it made a lot more sense because my dad is from here and my wife’s family is from around here. It was a hard thing to come to terms with. I miss the musical community that I was a part of in Philadelphia. Not that I was out every night going to clubs, schmoozing folks. But I probably never would have made the Icebird record or met Aaron if I didn’t live in Philly, and same with Slim. And the West Philly Orchestra guys who played a lot of horns on the last five records that I made. Or Khari. All these West Philly relationships that I made, it’s hard to be away from those. But I don’t lament or feel like that was a wrong choice to make.
But I’m rediscovering Columbus. To be honest part of that is kind of the challenge. Its a great hub for like, Americana, or modern country. or indie rock. Those are happening here. There’s a whole scene of people doing that. And the lineage of that is something that’s alive and well here. From Guided by Voices to Pavement to Neil Young etc, that’s a thing that goes into the music culture lexicon here. And that’s cool. In Philly, the music culture is soul music. If you go out to a barbecue in Ohio, my money is that you hear Neil Young before you hear Isley Brothers or Luther Vandross. I’m not making any judgement, but for what I do, it’s much more informed by Isley Brothers than the singer songwriter thing. There’s a thing that happens when all you have to say is “get on the good foot” or “aint no stoppin us now” for everyone around you to know what you are talking about. That thing facilitates making the kind of records that I do in a way that cant be replicated. So that is the hardest thing for me to be away from. But I’m getting re-acclimated and I’m optimistic about it. I’m meeting like minded people in the city, I know a couple of rappers, a couple producers, there’s people making those kind of records here. We’ll see. It’s rich and deep enough for me to find some people that I can make some records with [laughter].