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DJ Spooky Explains How Sound Shapes Our Understanding of Politics

The "illbient" forerunner muses on his recent work with the 'Intercepted' podcast, the March for Science, and how artists can uphold truth.

by Michael Lawrence
Mar 24 2017, 3:01pm

It's hard to classify DJ Spooky—born Paul Miller—but he's best known as a musician. Drawing on his roots in the hip-hop and electronic underground, he was at the forefront of a heady scene in the 90s that hybridized ambient music and breakbeats (he and his peers half-jokingly called it illbient). To this day, he's still constantly performing and writing music, but that's only ever been one aspect of his work. He favors interdisciplinary efforts, and alongside his studio discography, he's put together books, exhibits, apps, and turned strings of data into music. Lately, though, pretty much everything he sees is a matter of politics.

When I called him on the first day of March, he had just returned from a performance in Hong Kong to Washington, DC, where he was meeting with friends to plan an event tied into the March for Science, a rally intended to raise awareness of scientific research and repudiate President Trump's policies. When harsh, erratic winds and unseasonably warm disrupted our call, and when it's later dropped after he walks through a dead-zone in DC's U Street Corridor, Miller found political dimensions in these interruptions. No matter the train of thought, he often circled back to the world's most recent and troubling political headlines.

His new work reflects this headspace. Since January, Miller has composed the stealthy soundtrack for Intercepted with Jeremy Scahill, a new podcast combining interviews with spoken word and musical performances (with contributions so far from Immortal Technique, Kimya Dawson, Rick Kwan, and more) to cover Trump and the surveillance state. He's also appeared in Birth of a Movement, an Independent Lens documentary commemorating a century-old protest movement waged against Birth of a Nation, and is deep in the midst of theorizing and planning his contribution to the March for Science, where he hopes to perform his data-based music inspired by climate change.

In addition to discussing his recent work, we also ended up discussing the political realities that have made his efforts feel so urgent. The energizing results of our conversations are edited and condensed below.

THUMP: So you're in DC right now?
Paul Miller: Yeah, [planning] for the Science March. A whole bunch of scientists are protesting Trump and the way these guys are cutting all the data out of everything. As soon as they got into office, they started deleting climate data from NASA and the EPA, so scientists are organizing this protest.

They asked me to put together an event and that's why I was in DC. That was our first meeting. I'll be back [a few] times to set it up. I'm thinking of tentatively calling it the Sound of Science. The whole pun is based on [the fact that] the Trump administration's first act was to gut all science [funding]. We're trying to figure out what we're gonna do. For now, the idea is to put together a coalition of musicians, artists, [and] scientists in this huge space underneath DuPont Circle.

You've been contributing over the past several weeks to Intercepted. How did you get involved?
Well, I'm a huge fan of Jeremy Scahill. There's a scene of downtown art, literary, digital media, a lefty progressive crowd. People kind of know each other, and from that scene Jeremy reached out and was like, "Hey man, are you open to do music for this crazy podcast I'm starting up?" and I was like "Hell yeah!" I really have been a fan of Jeremy's work from Dirty Wars [Scahill's 2013 documentary] on over to his work on the drone war. I like supporting progressive shit. And it just moved from there.

We're going back and forth and kind of figuring out a fun sense of what works for each podcast. They come up with the themes and topics for each episode and then we'll go back and forth and figure what works. I did the original template, and then they're tweaking it for each episode.

It's got a sense of humor. I think sound for podcasts and sound for news and other stuff provides a subtle kind of environment around how people look at information overall. So, whereas FOX News has this kind of strident, irritating sound ... [imitates rapid trumpet blare]

It sounds like a red alert at all times, basically.
Yeah! But what [Intercepted] asked for was something that would give you a little bit more of an immersive vibe. And something that would kind of allow you to think of it as an audio commentary. Sound is one of the hidden dimensions of politics, so I'm definitely glad this all worked out.

[For Intercepted] you don't want the music to get in the way, and you also want the music to enhance the storytelling. I'm a big fan of what you would call early audio-theater. So, one of my favorite film directors, Alfred Hitchcock, did a series of these spoken word records where he's telling ghost-stories which is brilliant. I've always been inspired by stuff like that. Another big inspiration for sound is the imagery and sound of Werner Herzog.

Over the past ten years, you've had an ongoing relationship with DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation. You recently appeared in Birth of a Movement, which documents William Trotter's protests against [the screening of] that film. Are you still just constantly in conversation with that work?
I think the world is constantly in conversation with that work! Just from 1915 to 2017, we've had 102 years of twisted media, and of course racial politics have fueled the rise of Trump, for example, or the rise of fake media, fake news. Griffith was the first filmmaker to present fictional narrative as truth, and Birth of a Nation was viewed as a true story even though, of course we all know...It was also used as a recruiting tool for the KKK.

But I always feel that you shouldn't suppress things. It's more about collision and engagement. So, yeah, Birth of a Nation is something I feel, if you look at our current media landscape, is definitely relevant.... I'm sure Steve Bannon's watching it on loop in the White House.

I'm sure that is an inspiration for him, and Jeff Sessions...
Sure! And, you know, David Duke.

Trotter's movement, and the documentary, have such a striking relevance today, and so do the things you and another scholar say [in the film]. One scholar talks about the power of the image to actualize people's fantasies and turn them into spectacle, and you talk about Griffith's ability to elevate racism by using another racist, Wagner ...
There's a very famous scene in Birth of a Nation called "Ride of the Clansmen," and that's where they play Wagner. But they mix Wagner with like Southern Dixie music, so it's like this crazy mashup. But, this was in 1915. So you gotta remember, that's like one of the earliest sort-of mashups. So the eerie quality of the twisted American media landscape, plus the sort of relentless focus on Southern fictional landscapes, that's why Birth of a Nation still has a deep structural resonance with our time.

Birth of a Movement, on the other hand, was meant to be about how you can use media to catalyze a social movement and try to get people to join forces against media manipulation. It's about the fact that even at that time people realized the power of media to create ideological, mental lockdown. The thing with the Trump and Bannon demographic, is that there's no reasoning with them. You can't present science to them, or numbers, facts. Anything, because they're all watching FOX News on loop, and reading Breitbart. And that's a sealed media loop, a kind of vacuum. So how do we break those loops?

All of this sounds sort of bleak when we talk about it like this. So, what is the best method of making progress and sustaining some kind of movement?
Recently there was a scandal where they brought down ACORN, which was this homeless advocacy and housing group, with these really poorly edited videos, and they tried to do the same thing with a poorly edited video of Planned Parenthood people...These guys aren't even very talented, and they're twisted people. The problem with how the rightwing has appropriated those tools that the leftwing made is that people feel like there's an ethical, level playing field here, and it's not a level playing field. It's asymmetrical warfare.

One problem is normal white people. And I know what that sounds like... It's not meant to be racial, but race and ideology overlap. Average, normal white people who are watching right-wing media have no idea of what is going on and they're easily manipulated. I'm sorry to be that blunt, but we've seen the results of this last election. Trump is a sewer spilling over of lies and falsehoods, very easily what you might call unverifiable, and I'm just speaking politely there. But if some grandma in Alabama watches FOX News, she's gonna think that Trump is a breath of fresh air that we all need. I don't know. How do you counter that?

This is a march that, in theory, doesn't even sound that radical. A march that's all about protection of facts.
Of data. I mean, is that wildly controversial?

Somehow it is. I wanted to go all the way back to your book Rhythm Science , which, when I first read it, felt revolutionary, and really optimistic. Could some of the deconstruction and rethinking of things that is in that manifesto bring some kind of vitality back to facts?
Sure! I firmly believe that we should have all options on the table. It's a dialogue, [not] the suppression, or the repression, of right-wing narrative, or people being afraid of a narrative. I can sit across from a right-wing person if they can talk about numbers and reasonable facts grounded in realms of consensus. But with these guys, the problem is you can't find common ground.

My first impulse is that it's not just information that we need. There's gotta be an emotional component. It has to be something that'll really pull these people in. Steve Bannon, his motto for a while was "turn on the hate." That was one of his major phrases.

No one's gonna really agree at this point. The ideological divisions are really locked, unless someone figures out how to unlock us. So the next step is just going to be to get your people out for whatever that cause is, and that's why I'm really psyched for the Science March coming up in DC. I'm really hopeful about it. The problem with the Trump demographic is that they're "low-information" voters. And I'm happy to own that phrase. When you post this article I'll probably get haters and right-wing people messaging me. That demographic can be deeply, deeply venomous. What do you think?

I feel like the Right has been able to harness the power of the internet more effectively than the left has in some strange way...
By using left-wing tactics. That's what's so ironic. Can music be a key to transform society anymore? I don't really know. Where is the power of left culture? Because I kind of feel like the left won the culture war of the 90s and the early 2000s, so now the Right can feel like they're being rebellious. I mean again, this is appropriation and remix. That's what's mind-blowing. Milo Yiannapolous, running around saying that he's being persecuted? Wow.

People will accept so much bullshit. You just wonder when they'll wake up and say "I can't take it anymore." They probably won't do that until they start feeling intense pain, and start getting deported by gestapo and immigration offices. When they come for them, then we'll start hearing about it.

Have you thought about what you'll bring to the March for Science? What kind of music would you perform?
The idea is that music and the arts have a more important role than ever, precisely because there is a critical threshold that information can only take so far. As we've seen with this political process, people are very emotional, and they do not necessarily think about the impact of their thoughts, actions, or votes, for example. So to all of us, it was really important to try and get people to start thinking about the interdisciplinary approach to the arts overall.

I took a studio to Antarctica, and basically made music out of data. I'm gonna present an element of that, and we're gonna have a concert, we're gonna open the door to a whole bunch of other artists to participate as well.

What is the data that this music is built out of?
I worked with a group of climate scientists from Dartmouth's Cold Regions Research Labs and I got access to their records for the different data that they collected over a period of several decades, and then crunched that data into algorithmic patterns, and took that and mixed it with other kinds of contemporary classical music. So it was electronic music, and also about how data and sound intersect. I made it a free, open-source album, because Antarctica is the only place on Earth with no government.

You have to have a creative and innovative response. That's just really critical. [The March] is about science, it's about art, it's about music, and about getting rid of all the silos between those mediums and saying hey, people, look, this is all a creative response to a crisis. It's important to try different approaches, and that's what this is about.

That's interesting, because while we've seen a lot of creativity brought to these movements and demonstrations, they're also a place where we need some experimentation. Some activists think that protest is in a crisis—even though times have changed so drastically, we've been using the same tactics. Is that sort of the idea? That you're bringing this mode of expression to the arena of protest movements?
Yeah. The whole idea is to use hip-hop, techno, and dubstep, you know theater, science, anything to get people to think that this is not just a FOX News world.

I think that that's where some of the best advances in the 20th century in the arts, and culture, and the sciences were: when people got out of the silos and looked across the room and said, "Hey, that's a composer, that's a scientist, let's see what we can do."

It's really heartwarming to see people stand up and say "No." But the same thing happened with the Iraq War. I did a whole bunch of projects against that. We had a huge concert in Central Park and one of the largest protests ever in America. I produced this project called "Not In Our Name." It was the artist against the war, and they still did it anyway. The problem with writing or doing music or art is that you're sitting alone in a room and you're trying to build bridges between humanity.

How do you and I get out of our own bubbles? We all have our own bubble, you know? Anyone who's reasonably progressive can be out there saying, "Hey, let's take a good look at this and see what could have been done to not have this happen in the future."

DJ Spooky