It’s no secret that musical legends roam the streets of Mill Valley.
But while members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can be spotted or popping up as at , one much-acclaimed artist aptly remains out of the local spotlight.
Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, is well into his second decade of making the kind of innovative music that has both created new genres and propelled them to greater heights, and he’s spent most of that career living and working right here in Mill Valley. His music resides somewhere between hip-hop and electronic music, but both labels seem to do a disservice to his ability to brilliantly mine the depths of his massive record collection, sampling dozen of bits and pieces of songs and twisting them into riveting new sonic creations.
Shadow’s 1996 debut album, Entroducing…, is widely regarded as one of the top records of its era. Venerable online tastemaker Pitchfork Media ranked it 7th on the list of the top 100 albums of the 1990s.
With his latest album, The Less You Know, the Better, Shadow mixes in an array of styles and “upholds his debut’s pioneering spirit,” according to The Telegraph. DJ Shadow performs Friday night at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, his first Bay Area show in four years.
He sat down with Mill Valley Patch to talk about the new record, his love for his hometown and stocking up on vinyl to plan for its eventual disappearance.
Mill Valley Patch: You’ve called samples that you’ve gleaned from other records the “vitamins in the soil” of your own projects. How many of those vitamins on your new record, The Less You Know, The Better, came from [ former Village Music owner] John Goddard’s storage unit on Sunnyside? Do you still pay him regular visits?
DJ Shadow: Every once in a while. There are probably hundreds of records from when Village was open that I still haven’t gone through. For most of the last decade, I’ve been acutely aware of the fact that vinyl is drying up at alarming rate, so I was always buying vinyl at a clip that I knew I couldn’t possibly digest, with the thought that once everything is gone and there aren’t any more used records stores, I’ll still have a lot of to go through in my own storage. Whether or not that was smart or healthy, that’s the philosophy I’ve had for the past 10 or 15 years.
MVP: Preparing for Vinyl Armageddon.
DS: Pretty much, yeah.
MVP: You’ve said that you felt totally free after making your last album, 2006’s The Outsider, and that you felt that it wiped the slate clean for you. Was that the first time you’ve had that feeling in a while?
DS: I think so. There have been times where I wanted to feel that and convinced myself that I was feeling that but didn’t realize that I wasn’t feeling it as acutely as I should have. On some level, there was a build and destroy aesthetic to The Outsider and it was intended to clear a lot of dead wood. People take it the wrong way, but I wanted to make clear that for people waiting around for me to return to a sound that I made 15 years ago, it just wasn’t in the cards. I wanted to articulate that my fanbase quite strongly.
When I sat down to make this record, I literally felt as though I was starting over and I had no pressure to be or do anything other than just try and make music that seemed satisfying to me.
MVP: That has to be a nice feeling this far into your career.
DS: It has been.
MVP: What was the starting point of this project? When did you officially decide to dive into making this record?
DS: When I started getting serious at the end of 2009 and endeavoring to work full-time in isolation on the record, I was unsure for the first couple of months, but I started to feel as though I was onto something with the first few tracks that started to take shape – “I Gotta Rokk,” “Sad and Lonely” and “Redeemed.” But all of them were problematic. "Redeemed" was the most challenging song I’ve ever made in terms of getting the samples to fit harmoniously. When I hear the mix now, I’m amazed in terms of how far it came. I had to do surgery to the percussive elements of it. I liken the process to animation in that it takes an hour for every second.
MVP: You went on tour in 2010 in the midst of making this record. How did the tour change this record?
DS: “I Gotta Rokk” was the only song on the record that I had my live audience in mind for. I wanted the audience to react to it in a certain way and like it. When I saw that they did, I knew that part of the record was done for me. There’s a strange complication to my career in that most people, especially nowadays, think of DJs as people who make club music or electronic music, and I’ve never made music that I thought was clubby. Even with Entroducing…, I remember playing certain songs out from that record before it came out and they’re just not natural fits for the club. That doesn’t mean the music isn’t good, it’s just that I don’t make that kind of music.
But I do like to have one or two components of that on the records I make. Once I realized "I Gotta Rokk" worked on the tour, I could concentrate on other aesthetics for the record.
MVP: Let’s talk about living here in Mill Valley. Could you go through this intense, two-year process of making this record anywhere, or is there something endemic about where you live and work that makes that process different than if you were living in Brooklyn or LA or elsewhere?
DS: I wasn’t born into the music business. For the first 10 years in my life, I had no idea what I was going to end up being or doing. Growing up in the 70s, much like today, the economic climate was very uncertain and my family went through a lot of that. The lure of LA, where a lot of Bay Area musicians end up going, has never been that strong for me. I was born in San Jose, lived in Napa for a time and settled in Davis until I was 25. I moved to Mill Valley in 1997.
MVP: And what drew you here?
DS: Some of the same things I liked about Davis, which is that if you get on your bike or walked for five minutes, you could be on your own somewhere. I’ve always lived in a place that had a bit of space to it, and if you wanted to be out in the middle of an empty field or in the trees breathing fresh air, you could do that. I was quite content in Davis, and when I first came to Mill Valley in around 1991, it was to go to Village Music. I remember vividly the first time I came here, I thought, ‘Wow, if I was ever to leave Davis, this is where I would want to be.’
When my wife and I decided to leave Davis, I was on tour and I told my wife, ‘Look for houses in Mill Valley.’ We’ve been here almost 15 years now. I spent 20 years almost years in Davis and almost 15 here and it’s starting to feel like the permanent home. I like being close to the city and within the influence of a major metropolis and that was my main reason to move to the Bay Area from Davis is that I wanted to be close to a vibrant music and art scene. But Mill Valley also has a pace that I can relate to.
And judging by the number of musicians that live here, and have lived here since the mid-60s, I think I’m in good company in that respect.
MVP: What do you love most about Mill Valley?
DS: To be totally honest, one of the first things I miss about this place when I’m on tour is the quality of the food. Anywhere on the planet, I always come home and think, ‘We’ve got it good here.’ I grew up thinking and caring very little about food, but my wife is half Japanese and the artistry and quality of food is very important in Japanese culture. I really miss the options we have here when I’m away. If you ever feel down on the place, travel for six months and I guarantee you’ll have a fresh perspective on how lucky we are to live here.
MVP: Obviously those that have seen you perform live know you put on an incredibly compelling live performance, but give people a sense of what to expect at Friday night’s show at the Regency in San Francisco.
DS: People want to hear the old stuff and songs they’re not as familiar with, so a good mix of the two. Everything I play is my own stuff with a couple of very minor exceptions. The show is locally built and produced and created along with Ben Stokes, my main visual collaborator for the last 10 years. It’s a show we’ve taken around the world several times now, from Russian and Bulgaria to Indonesia – 130 times now so far. I haven’t done a show in the Bay Area in 4 years. It’s a world class show and extremely ambitious in terms of what we put into it visually.