RJD2—Ramble John Krohn to his mom and dad—has had quite the curious career. The Eugene, Ore., native lives in West Philly, has transitioned from dirty, jazzy hip hop to wonky electropop, leapt from El-P’s Def Jux label in 2004 after several critically acclaimed albums to his own RJ’s Electrical Connections in 2010 (with his The Third Hand LP at the XL label in between). Though he doesn’t think of himself as a film composer, he has one of the most recognizable theme songs ever: AMC’s Mad Men. He doesn’t come across like a band dude, but Icebird, his indie-rock-hop duet with Aaron Livingston, is a sturdy collaboration. Now, he’s changed his sound around completely with one of the most compelling albums of 2013 in More Is Than Isn’t. With its frighteningly memorable chord changes repeated thematically throughout the album, More comes across like Philip Glass scoring one of Ice Cube’s Friday movies. That’s a compliment.
Before I start into your new album, what’s going on with Icebird at this point? Are you excited? It’s been a minute since Abandoned Lullaby. Is Aaron Livingston getting restless? Are you?
Oh, I am definitely getting restless. I periodically bug him about it, but it really hasn’t been that long, though. I was working on my solo album; he has been working on his solo debut for Anti-. We have plans to make that happen in the future, for sure.
Is there anything you haven’t said to El-P that you’d like to say to him? I’m not trying to cause drama. Really just asking, as he was such a large part of your professional and—I assume—personal life.
El and I have our own channels of communication open. We are both grown men who can talk if and when we need to. And yes, you are right about the latter.
How does your relationship with him change when you and Aaron do stuff on your albums—say, the new one, for example?
The protocol for cutting the actual music is almost identical, honestly. I’ll cut some instrumentals, send (them) to him; he picks (songs), demos vocals, and then we get together and cut final vocals at my studio. The decision-making dynamic is one in which we both have a good say in the direction of the song. The critical grease to those wheels is that we have found a way to do that without getting too “absolutist” about it. We both realize we are exploring a song as it is happening.
To me, More Is Than Isn’t sounds as if you’re fiddling with some new production stuff in the technique department. What am I hearing? I can’t put my finger on it. If I’m correct, does that come down to the shift in equipment since your last album?
Yes, you are right, but I’m going to tread delicately with this question, as I am attempting to do as little describing of the sounds on this album as possible before people have a chance to hear it—the experience of listening to an album unencumbered by expectations is a thing I hold in high regard, and work hard to bestow that on folks who listen to my music. I’ll describe what I consider one of the shifts you may be hearing like this: I basically spent a long time trying to create music on a machine that masked its inherent digital or machine-based nature. So, I developed a bunch of techniques on the MPC and in Pro Tools that were meant to sound like a band. I threw a lot of that out the window recently, so I have been exploring the making of music that revels in its machine-based—or digital—nature, rather than trying to hide it. It’s a change in approach and boundary, not a change in gear.
What is your take on the electro-dance scene? As a DJ, you can probably make a mint, but I don’t see of you doing many club gigs in Vegas. Nor do I consider that your bag.
I have found a big inspiration in one aspect of EDM’s popularity: It changed my viewpoint of how palatable instrumental, beat-oriented music is for a large number of people. This kind of interjected a “let my hair down” mentality into making music. I never felt that putting three to five instrumental songs in a row was risky, in terms of losing one’s attention, if you will. When I find myself in club/DJ land, I still don’t feel pressure to play what’s popular. I play music I like, period—so I’m probably not high on the priority list for Vegas residencies, and that’s OK with me. I’d be happy to do them on my own terms if I was offered them. I have no desire to wade through requests or get booted off the decks for not conforming.
Still, you embrace big beats and clubby stuff on the new album.
Dance music is just like every other music for me—you sift through the chaff to find the wheat.
Tell me the idea behind utilizing the same harmonic theme through several of the new album’s instrumental pieces. I know you have a cinematic-soundtrack head, and that theme sounds vaguely familiar, like a cross between Laura and Fire Walk With Me.
I’m glad you caught that. Again, I don’t want to give away too much for folks who haven’t heard it, but the thing you are referring to was the taking one harmonic idea and exploring it three different ways. Another way to put it is like this: The process of what happens between when a song starts and when it’s completed is infinitely fascinating to me. I’m completely enamored with that experience. So, I asked myself, “What would the outcome sound like if you picked the same starting point—a harmonic idea or chord change—and walked through that process three times, knowing that was the intent?” I also was very much trying to bring cohesion to the record.
Speaking of soundtrack stuff, is “Her Majesty’s Socialist Request” your bid to get the Broccoli family and Daniel Craig to pay attention to your services?
Full disclosure here: I’m Googling the Broccoli family right now—OK, done Googling. No, it actually was a Stones reference. When I finished the song, I realized that I had just made an attempt to make the most evil, satanic take on a 12-bar-blues structure. The name “Her Majesty’s Satanic 12 Bar Blues” came to mind, but it didn’t roll off the tongue or page right. Mentally, an association between satanism and socialism struck me, largely because many Americans treat the word “socialism” like the most sadistic, evil thing you could possibly bring up. So, that substitution happened, and in my head, it made sense—sometimes that’s all you need for a song title to work.
When you bring cats such as Livingston, Phonte Coleman, Blueprint and Khari Mateen into the picture, are you discussing the concept behind the track and letting them rip? But then, what if they come back with a set of lyrics not to your liking or your own needs or beliefs?
Good question! By and large, I do just let ’em do what they do—I don’t try to box them in, at least initially. There’s a point where scrubbing a song free of any possible objectionable lyric content kills off the creative process that can make the song work. My general ethos is to get it down on tape, and go back to edit if need be. It’s happened in the past. There’s a threshold beyond which I’m not willing to go, but maybe some language isn’t something I use daily, but is a reality in American culture, depending on context, and I can live with it. I look just as much as the intent as I do the choice of words. Jay-Z has had a field day of toying with the line between intent and “possible interpretation.” I believe that the intent behind any song on the record is good-natured, even if someone might have objections to the colorful language. If I felt that a song was communicating a message of true malice or degradation, I would have a problem with that.
What should we figure out about you—as a musician and as a person—during More Is Than Isn’t that we didn’t know before?
Nothing. I don’t make records as a vessel to pitch anything about myself. I use myself as a vessel to pitch you on a record.