DJ Panic: The Vaxzine Interview
conducted by Vanessa Kamp
August 15, 2002
|So, can you tell me, I saw [the Spaceships Panic Orbit] performance
[at Sonic Circuits, 9/2002], it seems like you guys are doing a lot of
Yeah, it's all improvised, you know, free improvised.
And so how do you describe or categorize yourself, do have a label, is it noise, is it part of some other sub genre of electronica?
I don't know. I mean what I've been writing on the cds is electro-acoustic free improvisation. Sometimes when we talk about the group after a practice we talk about how jazzy it seems. John, he sax player has talked about how much we seem like a jazz trio. He thinks of me as being the drums and then PJ, the guy playing the laptop, as the keyboardist or the pianist, and we have a sax guy and sometimes that seems really apt, after some of the things we do in practice anyway. Which is some of the stuff on that one cd that I gave you. And where things seem to function the same way a jazz trio would, especially if you're doing really out free improvisation
Yeah, it seems if you want to look at it that way it references free jazz stuff that I guess has been around for a while. But then how does that fit into the Sonic Circuits kind of theme?
Well Sonic Circuits seems to feature electronic music, and since PJ is definitely playing a laptop, and what I do I think of it as being electronics, so I think we fit in there. I feel like I'm basically triggering electronic sounds where other people might use a keyboard or the laptop. I happen to be using a saw and a vinyl LP and I've got that miked and running through effects pedals and things and I think of the sound as being very electronic. That was our entry into the Sonic Circuits, was our use of electronics. The fact that it functions sort of a jazz trio, I think that a jazz thing is only one of the things that's going on. At least for what I'm doing. I'm very influenced by a very early industrial musician from San Francisco called Z'ev. And he used to play things like chains or huge water bottles that he would slam around and different things like that, make his own instruments and make all this noise. I've known about him for a really long time and sometimes I think about what I'm doing in those terms.
Like in what terms?
In terms of creating noise or industrial music.
When I was talking to Sam Lohman  he said he makes
Right, I see Sam as coming from that, for lack of a better word, that kind of tradition because he lived in Japan and he knew a lot of those musicians in Japan who are creating that kind of music, Masonna, those people, and he has a pretty close association with a lot of them, a lot closer association than most people in the United States. I'm kind of influenced by that too and I think that's an element of what I'm doing when I think about it. But when I practice here I really think of myself as doing music. I'm following it as music. When I'm playing I'm trying to follow the sounds that are coming out, not just to make noise, or to defy music, but to create music. There's a manifesto that I wrote that I put on the website about how I felt I was erasing the corporate music on the LP and replacing it with a new music that was more or less anti-corporate. So, if I'm doing anti anything it's a kind of anti-corporate music and that brings us into the other thing. What I see that I'm doing is coming more out of punk rock because I feel like it's anti-commercial and it's influenced me to make my own music, making my own instrument and inventing it all for myself. Did you see what I was doing more as anti music or as music?
Looking at the group of you, I was like "This is free jazz improv." With what you were doing it was hard for me to really discern what was happening. So it seemed like noise. It was like your role in the group was noise.
That show was hard for me because PJ had his thing so loud I was picking up a lot of what he was doing and it was coming out of the amp so there was probably a lot more noise. That's one reason I gave you the cd because with that you can definitely hear more of what I'm doing. I'm not sure whether that sounded like noise to you but that was the difference between the two cds--my solo thing and then the stuff that I do there because there are really two different styles that I use. When I play with the trio I try to do shorter phrases that are more like an instrument, but when I play solo I tend to like fill the whole space with sound. So, it's kind of different approaches to different contexts.
Thinking about what you were talking about a minute ago with the punk rock, do it yourself, anti corporate thing. As an artist, as artists, we always have to be aware of our audience and when you bring your work out into the public it's pretty much usually to share. So, my question is, how do you enable the audience to enter your work, maybe if they're unfamiliar with it? And with the kind of sound you're making what kind of appetite do you expect an audience to have for that?
(Laughter) Yeah, I'm not sure of the answer to either one of those. I'm not sure that I've really thought about how people were going to perceive what I was doing.
Is this something that's important to you?
I guess it's not really as important. I'm curious as to what people think of it. I haven't heard that many responses. I'm not sure whether people perceive it more as noise or as jazz, whether it's unlistenable, or that there's something they can listen to. I've done solo shows and I've never really thought about whether people needed something extra to find an entry into it or whether they would just accept it as an extension of things that they might have seen before in terms of noise or jazz or electronics or something. I guess that a lot of the audiences that I've played for have been forums like Sonic Circuits where I would assume that someone who is attracted to Sonic Circuits would have heard either power electronics or different kinds of electronics or free jazz where they would already have some idea, they don't need an extra thing. If I was approaching a different audience who I didn't think would have an approach I might try to talk to them a little bit about what I was doing. Some people have come up and asked me about what I was doing. Like at that show some people asked me what I was playing, just in terms of the physical instrument. Other things I've played at Black Cat to audiences that were already going to see other unusual electronics or experimental things, so I sort of assume that people would see that as another experiment with sound.
You have mentioned some of your influences, and I think that influences or people that you respond to in your work and reflect some of those influences can become an entry point for the audience to move into the work. How clear are your influences in your work or do your influences not appear in your work?
I don't know. I'm not sure anybody would even remember Z'ev or even if they did remember who he was whether they would think, "oh yeah, that guy's doing something like Z'ev did." I would hope that they wouldn't think that and I don't think it's related in any way. Z'ev really was a percussionist and a lot of what he did was percussion music. To me I'm just sort of influenced by that idea of making your own instrument and then trying to make something fairly extreme out of it. One of my preoccupations has been particularly in approaching the trio has been to develop an actual vocabulary for the instrument that I've picked up. So I've had to try to create a palette of sounds, whereas people who pick up a saxophone or a guitar, there are the strings and there are the frets or the keys or whatever and if you just play a few little things you recognize right away what the palette is, where the notes are. But with a saw and a vinyl LP there are no notes. It's all pretty atonal but there are different sounds and then you can combine the different sounds into different phrases and that's one thing that I've really worked on, which I think of as more of a jazz approach. That's one thing I kind of like about the instrument because it forces me to think outside of what you would normally. When I play a guitar, I automatically go into a melodic thing, I just sort of follow the melody, but with this I have to follow the sound. And it's kind of neat to just do that.
So you have selected as your instrument something that uses very mundane materials and it's the kind of thing like, oh well you know, anyone could pick up materials that are attractive to them and they study those materials and those become their instrument. I can imagine people coming to or watching a performance and thinking, oh, anyone can do this.
That's kind of the punk element.
Is this an anti-elitist approach, yes, anyone can do this?
With what I'm doing, it's a question of whether anybody would want to when a keyboard is so much more accessible or laptops are so much trendier. It's more of a curiosity really. I'd like to think that what I've done with it is something that probably a lot of people wouldn't do. It's not meant to be an elitist thing because it is pretty simple materials, but I think I've tried to take it away from just picking something up and making noise, you know smash it or... I like the idea of destroying something that's commercial or a commercial product while I'm creating something new.
You mean the commercial part being the record?
Yeah all the records I've got come from thrift stores, so it's like Barbra Streisand.
Are you very selective about what record you're sawing through?
Oh no, it's anything that I get really cheap.
What if it was an old Fugazi record?
Well, I wouldn't saw an old Fugazi record because I'd probably sell it if I already had it.
But I thought you were being anti-capitalist?
Well, if I found it in a thrift store I'd probably just trade it in. I could recycle it that way. Usually I saw stuff that I couldn't sell or was already in bad shape.
What if you did saw apart a really rare vinyl?
Yeah, I've got so much vinyl around here I'm afraid that one day I'll
I mean as a concept, if as a performance you got on stage and you burned a thousand dollar bill?
Right, see I'm not into that, it's not something that I would do. I really see a difference between sawing a Barbara Streisand record and sawing Sonny Sharrock's Black Woman. There's a real big difference there. One's really an artistic statement, the other's maybe an artistic statement to Barbara Streisand but ultimately it's a commercial product. It's something that I just don't value. There's tons of them out there, it was produced to sell records. I guess I'm not that into just destroying it for the sake of, it's an object, but thinking about that kind of mainstream culture that in some ways needs to be erased or, I like to think of erasing it. I certainly wouldn't want to saw my copy of Sonny Sharrock's Black Woman or my Funkadelic records or anything.
But don't you think that we have to exist alongside the commercial
We always will!
What would happen with the erasure of that?
Well with me sawing one record isn't going to erase it, but the philosophybehind it is not even being the point to making the music but because then I think it would just be noise. That's how I started off, I was just sawing at the record and since then I've developed the idea that there's all these different sounds and the sounds have become a lot more important than the novelty of sawing at an old record.
Do you think that you'll reach a point where you'll feel too limited by your instrument?
Well that's a good question. Sometimes I think that might happen. It hasn't happened yet and so far I keep finding new ways to develop it. That's one nice thing about playing in a trio, it's not just the sound of my instrument, it's the sound of the whole group. That in itself, that collective improvisation never gets tired or old. Sometimes when I'm doing solo stuff, just practicing to keep up my chops, that does seems to be a little bit of a drudgery, but maybe that's the case with any instrument. Other instruments that I play I never really practice in that same way. Hopefully it won't get old but I wonder if it might. I don't know how long I'll be doing this.Whether I want to move on to something else or what.
It'll probably lead you into something new.
Right now I'm not looking for something else. I do have other instruments that I play and other musical ideas that would involve other instruments. One thing I've really been working on is my son has a drum kit and we've set it up with all these different drums and things, and I really like playing that. That might be something that I work into eventually. I find that playing the drums helps me understand sawing the records. Just following the flow of sound translates from instrument to instrument. That's one thing that I'm working on in general.
I have some questions that change direction a little bit. At Sonic Circuits I was questioning the importance of having to actually attend a live performance.
With the laptop music?
I can't answer that!
What do you think the differences are between performing live for your music and listening to your stuff as recorded, maybe with headphones? What's the difference and what's more important with either case?
For us we like to think that we put on a pretty good show and the music is played out there without a net, the big difference is that it's different every time. We've done a lot of recording now and the recordings are recorded live and they're played live we just have the option of oh, well we didn't like that piece, it wasn't as strong, we just won't burn it on a cd and hand it out to anybody. That's the thing about live, is there's that kind of excitement for us and hopefully for the audience too. Going to see any improvised music, you're just seeing what somebody can create right then and there. Without any previous ideas of what they're going to play. In a way there's a value to both because the recordings are going to give you what these guys think is the best they have to offer and then the live performance might be this is the excitement and energy of this music played live, just improvised live.
|It's starting to sound like maybe you guys should only be doing
stuff live. Do you think that your live performances translate to recorded
Oh I think so, I don't know what you thought from listening to the cds that I sent, I thought that the recordings that we've done sounded really really good, and in a lot of ways I thought a lot of the sounds came out better certainly than the live performance. When I was playing, I didn't think, with all the noise and the way it was set up, what I was able to do wasn't coming through as well. Whereas on the cd its right there. I think the dynamics of the group are represented really well. But I think that's the same question as for any improvised music, jazz or anything, and a lot of the stuff, even the real professional jazz musicians, William Parker and David S. Ware, after seeing these guys live you realize that the cd really pales in comparison, that the live show is really where it is, but there's a necessity to document what you've done. To document the kind of music that you're doing, otherwise it's just lost. It's not like Journey playing their song over and over again. That performance, if we didn't record it, it's gone.
Well how do you feel about, I don't know if risk is the right word, but taking that path that it only exists in the moment and it is not documented, I think there's a value to that. I mean there are lots of artists who have worked in that manner. Do you ever feel like you would do that?
No, no I would never want to just do that.
Well, I'm not sure why someone wouldn't want to document their work. Just because the energy is in that moment of the improvisation, that moment is still there on the recording. It's still the same moment, it's just preserved. Really you're getting into a Fluxus idea, like ok, it's impermanent and we're just going to let it go and we don't care. If the work decays, like Joseph Beuys' sculptures made of rotting fat..that's really cool, I love Beuys and I love the idea of making a sculpture out of a pile of rancid butter or something but at the same time I really like the idea of a permanent document, because I listen to a lot of recorded things and that's how I know a lot of music and that's how I know of a lot of different artists that otherwise, everybody who wants to hear your music cant get to a live show necessarily, so there's a real need for recordings to document your work. And I think that's a whole philosophy that you wouldn't just let it go and not document it and not care what happens. I mean, even with somebody like Beuys, he left a lot of documentation behind.
Well that's part of the irony is that the Fluxus artists or whoever,
Photographs, I mean they left sculptures and drawings. Like Herman Nitsch and the Vienna Aktionists, they leave a lot of documentation behind and I think it is important to leave some kind of documentation even for the artist himself, it's like a learning tool. Recording the music and then listening to it really has taught me something about how the group improvises how we work together, where the music is going. Because it is different to be in the music and playing it and it's different to be outside in the audience listening to that and it's different to be the artist listening to the recording of your own playing. You hear different things. Especially when you're doing improvised music, you're going to hear different things at different times.
Beuys is one of my all time art heroes; in terms of documentation I should also mention Throbbing Gristle; they were obsessive about documenting their work because they knew no one else would do it and there had to be some record of the effort they had made in their "information war" against the dominant capitalist culture. I also should mention the huge category of "post jazz" improvisation...Spanorb is much more related to that than to anything else: European improvisors like AMM, John Butcher, Derek Bailey, or American groups like All Time Present, Brendan Murray Quartet, Dave Gross's Fetish group...or the stuff at Baltimore's Red Room.
That's part of what I was asking about how you consider the audience because like you're saying, it's a completely different experience what the performer, what they have going on and what the audience sees and experiences.
Well people have criticized Cecil Taylor for saying that he's done all this preparation, the audience needs to prepare, too. And in a way I just assume if somebody's going to come to a show that not everybody's going to like it or going to have what you're calling an entry point or way to assimilate the music. But I think a lot of people who would come to a show advertised as an experimental music show, really should be prepared to hear experimental music. They should know something about it, they should be prepared for anything that's going to happen. And hopefully they're going to hear something that they're not prepared to hear, otherwise how experimental could it possibly be?
Then that's a good question, do you really feel like what you're doing is really pushing the envelope in terms of being experimental? Not necessarily you, maybe you, but also your group?
I'm really happy with the group actually, and probably in that exact way because I think with the instrumentation that we're using and our approach to it I think it really is different. I'm really excited about the group. I've been playing music and listening to music and writing about music for a long time, probably over ten years, and I'm really excited about it because I think that we're really doing something that is kind of new. Not just in instrumentation but the way the textures, I mean we've got the sax and the laptop and then this noise element, too, and the way the instruments function together and counterpoint and there's just so much going on in there, that's one reason I really like having the recording is that it really helps me to understand what all is going on in there. I don't really know of that many other groups that have so much electronics that really function so much like a jazz band and have so many other elements going on. Right now I'm really excited about some of the kind of music that was represented in Sonic Circuits and what I've seen lately this kind of experimental music, improvised music coming out of the punk underground and I think that what we're doing is pretty important. Part of that, coming out of that and bringing something to improvised music that maybe wasn't necessarily there before. Bringing the kind of punk philosophy to making music to that kind of improvised music and then going in there and using different instruments and things like that within that kind of approach. It seems like it is a new thing.
My wrap-up question, and you touched on it early on, is about beauty and how you approach beauty. What do you think is beautiful in what you're doing? It seems like you are actually pretty involved with that when you talk about the sound and being responsive to the sound that you're making. I'm imagining that there's some sense of beauty that helps guide you through that.
I don't know, I guess it depends on, I'm not sure I've thought of it being beautiful, on the other hand I have, in that manifesto I talked about, I talked about the DJ Panic music being the music of Eros in contrast to the death music of the corporate culture, which I feel like in some ways I'm erasing. That's the more philosophical background for what I'm doing. There is that kind of thing, when I start making, now I'm just thinking about the solo stuff, sometimes I'll use a lot of feedback and when it goes through the effects and everything I think it sounds really beautiful. I almost think of the sounds as being more exciting than, say, beautiful. I think of beautiful music might be more something like Bjork's Vespertine album.
I feel like in any kind of creative process we're constantly making
Sure, I understand that that's an aspect of the idea of art being beautiful, or coming out of aesthetic concerns, definitely there are a lot of aesthetic concerns that are a little hard to describe. That's one reason why improvised music is so right for me is that I really feel like I function really well in that setting, working in a very intuitive way. I'm not thinking at all about why one thing is going to work next to another but just getting into that process or into the flow of the music and working from in there. That's one reason that working with the trio is so exciting is because there's two other people that are throwing things in there that you have to listen to and you have to respond to and you can't think about them because if you think about them it'll take you a year before you figure out the right response. You just have to get in there and go with it.
Which I think is a great thing. That's a mode that artists like to be in, that intuitive mode, but being in the real world we're not allowed to go into that mode very often. And so that's a great thing to be able to do. It actually I think takes practice to be able to move into that space.
Yeah, I don't know whether it takes practice or not. I've done it so long. I've been in a rock band for over ten years that has only played improvised music and it's always seemed to come naturally. For me it's really the only way that I can think, particularly in terms of music because I find that if I play drums I'm almost incapable of keeping even a simple beat. But if I just go into it I can generate all this sound and something really special and intense there, a larger sense of rhythm. It's the same way with playing guitar, I don't even know how to play a guitar but if I improvise something always comes out. I've never been able to learn a song, say for that group. So many other people sometimes want us to learn a song and I've never been able to remember a part, but I always work a lot better improvising and something always happens.
Do you consider yourself to be tone deaf?
Oh, no. I just can't remember the parts, I can hear the melody and I can definitely hear the different tones. I don't think if I was tone deaf I would be able to improvise because I'm really listening to the sounds.
Because I've been in a couple of bands, and I have that same problem where I can't remember the songs if they're set up like traditional songs. But I still have this real musical impulse. I'm definitely relating to what you're talking about.
Yeah, I don't really know how people learn songs in that way. Like rock bands how they learn them, I guess it's just repetition. If you play it enough times then it�ll seem more natural. It's something that's really never worked for me. Like I say, I always find that whenever I just improvise and go into it something always happens that just seems right. That's really the way that I prefer to work. I mean when I do creative writing I prefer to work that way too. I find that if I try to think about where I want something to go the piece of writing that comes out is always terrible. But if I just start writing and go into it then I'm always amazed by what has come out. I can't really believe that I wrote it. And the music seems to function the same way.
So, you listened to those cd's?
Yeah, and you know, what's throwing me off is, like I said I listened to them several times, and I didn't quite, I wasn't able to match that up with who you are, the guy with the saw and the record. And that's thrown off my whole memory of the cds.
Yeah, well the solo, the DJ Panic thing, that's why I'm pretty happy with it. It doesn't sound like, I think when people think, "oh hes playing a record with a saw," they automatically think of DJ scratching or they think of just noise. They can't really conceptualize that there could be all these different sounds and that when you combine the sounds with a certain aesthetic there's going to be something there.
Your solo cd, is that, there's two tracks on it right?
Yeah, there's just the two.
Are those edited or manipulated in any way?
No, I just recorded them live. The saxophonist has one of those firewire MOTU things that record onto the computer. It was just all recorded live. He had put up three mikes. There was one on the amp, there was one right in front of the saw, and I think there was a room mike. I just played. That was the only stuff that I played. That's the thing with that MOTU, it's amazing. The sound, it's digital, the sound is just crystal clear. I'm just blown away by the quality of the recording itself. It just makes the process really simple. There's no overdubs or anything. There's no editing. I think the track that you have, the first track, the shorter one, cuts off. And that's because when John mixed it or something, he cut if off too soon, he didn't realize that it went on too long, so it cuts off. So that's an inadvertent editing of that. It goes on for another minute or two I think. When he burned me the cd, that's the way he burned it. So that one cuts off. So if you notice it, that's just inadvertent editing, nothing else was done to it.
That's the question I wanted to ask earlier is when you guys are improvising how do you know when to stop?
(Laughter) I don't know, sometimes we stop because PJ's computer
crashes, we think he's stopped so we stop. Sometimes it just happens. Sometimes
you stop on a dime, because you're just listening. You're in the music
and you're just listening to it. When the music stops, I find that particularly
playing in this group and I've listened to so much improvised music and
gone to see so many shows and I've kind of always understood it intuitively,
but playing with these guys I've really come to understand even more that
you're in the music. It's almost like you're separate from it and you're
watching it. And when it's ready to stop it stops. And you just know.
It's really strange. It just happens. It's really hard to describe because
different pieces are different, they end different ways. A lot of times
we'll just, there will just sort of be a stop and we'll just sort of wait
and look at each other. Like, are we going to start up again or just
what? Sometimes we just turn off the computer and go upstairs, well, we're
done. The piece that you saw, that was different because we wanted to play
with the film. So we knew the film was roughly a half an hour, so we were
going to do a single piece, just play until the film ended. That was the
concept behind that. For some reason I had the idea that we were
going to get a half hour to play. So that was approached a little different.
When we're just recording and jamming and fooling around we're not that
bent on, oh, it has to be a half hour or whatever or it has to be a certain
time, or there has
[This interview was taped for the forthcoming debut issue of Vaxzine]