Interview: DjRUM

We’ve been huge fans of DjRUM since he came into our world nearly two years ago. After several releases and remixes, he’s taken the leap to album territory with the release of “Seven Lies”, his first LP. A nine-track, 50-minute affair, it covers all the ground you’d expect from him after his stellar EPs and his wondrous “Imaginary Film” mixes for Resident Advisor and Clash Magazine. Opening with the Brandy-and-Ma$e-sampling “Obsession” – confounding expectations by pitching the pair against DjRUM’s characteristic orchestral flourishes – and moving towards the hip-hop-oriented “Como Los Cerdos” and “DAM”, as well as “Lies” and “Anchors”, two sultry collaborations with New York vocalist Shad[]wB[]x, it’s one of the most intriguing albums you’ll hear this year. We managed to speak to this dedicated musician while he took some time out in LA.

Stream: DjRUM – Seven Lies LP preview minimix

Could you tell me (as briefly as you’d like) about your musical background, how you ended up where you are now? “I started out playing jazz piano, then when i was 17 I got a set of turntables. I’d been pretty dedicated to the piano, I’d improvise for hours on end every day, but once i got turntables that just sort of took over. I started playing around with producing electronic music around the same time, but I didn’t give it a really serious go until about five years ago. That’s when I really put my head down and applied myself to understand the technology.”

And when you started experimenting with production, what sort of stuff were you making? “When I first stared playing around at the age of 18 or so, I was using a hardware sampler, two belt-drive turntables and a four-track tape recorder to make weird sample-based stuff. It all revolved around looping samples from jazz records. I made a fair few tracks that were just purely made from jazz samples, raw and untreated, but when I got into production properly I started using synths and effects, and really fucking with samples to create something fresh, and really working on balancing things sonically.” Quite the opposite of “raw and untreated” then. “Yeah totally, but I think there’s still an element of the rawness in my productions. I still use a LOT of samples, and a LOT of vinyl samples at that. You can hear a lot of the crackle and hiss, but it’s all very deliberately balanced. I’m still a fanatical cratedigger.”

On that note actually, I reviewed “Watermark/Darkest Hour…” last year, and I mentioned some of the more obvious samples in the piece. You shared the review on Facebook and said there were 37 in total in “Darkest Hour” alone. So I gather a lot of them must be embedded in the fabric of the tracks, is that something you strive for? “Haha yeah, I remember that. Thirty-seven does sound like a lot for one track, but yeah, a lot of that is what i call micro-sampling. Tiny tiny little snippets of a track, like a single hi hat, or a tone or something. I would much rather get a drum hit off a record than from a sample pack. But it can be a bit time consuming.”

When you’re listening to music do you find yourself listening out for elements like that? I was going to ask the same question about watching films, like when you’re watching something to you keep a conscious ear open for something that might work in a track or a mix? “Yeah I do try to. I try to make sure I listen out. I make notes on my phone when I spot something, like I write down the name of the film and the time of the sample. But so often I get really caught up in the film and forget.”

Going on the samples you’ve used, from let’s say “The Warriors” and “Jacob’s Ladder”, would I be right in thinking you’re into cult films? “Yeah. I mean I’m into all sorts really. I have a tendency to go for films that won’t be too instantly recognisable, but something like Warriors is pretty recognisable if you’ve seen the film. It’s distinctive.” Actually I only saw “Alien” for the first time last year, and when I heard the “what about gravity” line [sampled in “Mountains”] I jumped. “Hahaha.” But it’s such a tiny line you could easily forget it. “Yeah that’s such a random line to sample isn’t it. I was actually in there looking for computer and machinery type noises. I recorded a load and that line was just among some of them, then when i was putting the tune together that snippet just fell into place. So that one definitely wasn’t an example of me spotting a potential sample while watching a film. It can happen accidentally too.”

I see, that’s fascinating. Back to the music itself, I really feel like it’s all quite rich – especially the way you use orchestral instruments, how do you balance that with the electronic elements? I suppose from that I could ask how long do you spend on your tracks? “I spend a stupidly long time working on tunes. “Watermark” took around a year and a half. I made so many different versions of that track. I’m still not totally happy with it. There’s a lot I’d like to change on it. I may do a remix some time.” Do you reach a point where you just have to let it get out there? “I guess so. Actually I’m not really like that most of the time. I take a long time because i want it to be right. I want tunes to sound like they’ve been really worked on, rich and detailed. That’s important to me. I don’t want to make disposable music. I want it to stand up to many many listens. I certainly listen to the track[s] enough myself while making them.”

When I listened to the album I recognised tracks like “Honey” and “Arcana” from mixes you’ve put out over the last while – would you have tweaked them in the meantime? Or were they finished a while back? “Ah yeah. Some of the tracks on the album are quite old, and some are brand spanking new. I think “Como Los Cerdos” is the oldest, I played that on Mary Anne Hobbs show ages back. I think “Honey” might have been tweaked a little since the RA podcast, but generally I won’t include a track in a mix unless I’m totally happy with it.”

Stream/Download: DjRUM – Imaginary Movie Mix for Resident Advisor

How does it feel to have an album almost out? “Great. It was a lot of work. I’m really pleased people are finally hearing it. I can’t wait for it to hit the shops though, it’ll be a big relief.” Are you working on anything else right now, or are you taking a break? “[I’ve] got quite a few things in the works. Some collaborations. Hopefully there’ll be a couple more releases this year, but nothing is confirmed yet.”

Something for us to look forward to anyway. Speaking of collaborations, am I right in thinking that you worked with Shad[]wB[]x just online? Or did you ever share studio space? “Yeah I’ve never met her face to face. I think it worked out pretty well, we just shared files on Dropbox and chatted on Facebook. [It was] fine. It’s almost like remixing rather than collaborating. I’d love to get in the studio with her some day though, we’ll see if we can make it happen.” The forthcoming collaborations you mentioned, have they been in person? “Haha, no. I guess I can be quite shy in terms of my musical output.” I saw you say before that you don’t think you’re a good producer, is that still the case? “Hehe, I’m WAY better at DJing. I’m getting there. Really what I meant is that I’m not technically that good – the engineering side of it, mastering, programming etc. I’m way happier with the musical side of producing, but technically not so much. Although I am quite technical when it comes to DJing.”

Can you tell me about your relationship with 2nd Drop? You put out one or two records with other labels but you’ve stuck with them since “Mountains”. “Yeah, I really like the way they operate. I have a lot of respect for their tastes in music, and I think it’s a KILLER label. I’m not signed to them exclusively, but I will continue to work with them again and again I’m sure.” I’ve noticed a real balance between warm, soulful, almost ethereal music and then outright bangers on the label. They straddle that line very well. “Yeah I think so. I think it can be hard for some people to accept a small label with a varied/eclectic output, but it’s perfect for me. Maybe it’s easier to package and sell a label that perfectly fits a mould, but the easy option is not always the best way to go.”

Apart from 2nd Drop, who else is putting out music that’s inspiring you these days? “Label wise, Civil Music is really on point. Type Records has a really really inspiring output. Their output is quite wide ranging. Very inspiring stuff though. Grouper, Svarte Greiner, Richard Skelton. Grouper’s “Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill” album. Also this is one of my favourite albums of ALL TIME. Svatre Greiner’s “Knife” is such a big inspiration to me.”

When was the last time you danced? “I was at the Rhythm Factory just before I left, got down to Luke.Envoy playing a DnB set. Although I think I might have shaken a leg to some jazz while I was in New Orleans.”

DjRUM – Seven Lies is out now on 2nd Drop Records. Buy here.

Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ...