Dan The Automator Talks Sh*t Music, Arcade Fire and Asian Parents

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Dan The Automator is a hip hop producer who has been making beats for over two decades. His long list of collaborations and projects reads like an underground hip hop head’s fantasy wishlist.

He first gained recognition for his production work on Kool Keith’s debut album, Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996), where the idiosyncratic rapper assumed the persona of an extraterrestrial gynecologist/surgeon. Dan also produced the Gorillaz’ debut album, with one of his most well-known tracks being “Clint Eastwood”. He’s also worked with DJ Shadow, Jamie Cullum, Head Automatica, and Mike Patton, among many others.

He’s currently on tour in support of the latest release from Deltron 3030, the super-group he formed with rapper Del The Funky Homosapien and DJ Kid Koala. The album, Event II [review], arrives thirteen years after their debut, and further expands on the futuristic universe they created on their first album.

Vancouver Weekly: Do you prefer Dan, Dan the Automator, or just Automator?

Dan The Automator: Dan is fine.

How did you pick your name?

It comes from another time in hip hop, around the early ‘90s. It just sort of came about, kind of bestowed on me, but it’s not really worth getting into because it’s not all that interesting.

So what have you been up to during the time between Deltron 3030’s first and second album?

I’ve been keeping busy, making lots of records. I worked with the Gorillaz, did Handsome Boy Modeling School with Prince Paul, and I also worked with Jamie Cullum, and Kasabian. I also took some time to travel.

The first Deltron album came out at the same time as Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP, and now, thirteen years later, Event II comes out within a month of the Marshall Mathers LP 2 [review]. Was this intentional or just an interesting coincidence?

Really? I actually had no idea about that. That’s really interesting.

The new video for “Melding of the Minds” [below] is reminiscent of those old school kaiju movies with a little girl being chased by a giant monster. Are you a fan of any of those classics, such as Ultraman, Voltron, Godzilla, etc.?

I’m a big fan of all of them. When it came to the video, Justin Lee came up with the concept and pitched the idea and we just let him do his own thing. My main contribution was that I wanted a female protagonist because that just made sense to me.

Speaking of monster movies, have you seen Pacific Rim?

No I haven’t.  I’ve had many of my friends tell me its good, but I just haven’t had a chance to see it yet. I kind of missed it while it was in theatres, and i don’t really want to see it at home because with a movie like that, you want that massive screen and booming sound. It was actually available as an inflight movie, but I didn’t watch it because seeing it on a plane wouldn’t be the the same. Maybe I’ll find a friend with a home theatre. [laughs]

What is your personal favourite song off of Event II?

Ahh that’s a hard question, you know? Because I don’t really have one, I find it really hard to pick favourites because I see the album as a cohesive whole. It’s not like a have one favourite, and dislike others, because I basically curated the album. That being said, some of the ones I might say I like a little bit more are “The Return”, “My Only Love”, and “What Is this Loneliness” with Damon Albarn.

The guest list of Event II is in itself a bit of a mindbender, with everyone from [Rage Against the Machine’s] Zack de la Rocha, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, [Arrested Development’s] David Cross, Lonely Island, Jamie Cullum, and Damon Albarn among many others. How do these wide-ranging and genre-defying collaborations come about?

It’s actually pretty easy, because at the end of the day, we’re all friends. We just hang out and chill and jam. I like working like that because we didn’t have to go through the record label or anything. I just called them up and asked if they were down to do it.

How do you feel about the current state of hip hop?

This is not just with hip hop, but in music in general. I feel like there’s a lot of shit out there now because there is less quality control these days, to the point where it’s easy to be inundated by crap. There are less good albums, too, and it just takes so much time to filter through all of it. Many of the albums these days are also very disjointed, because they are only focused on getting hit singles, and that often comes at the expense  of an overarching vision or concept.

Many of my albums are quite heavy on concepts because I find it helps take listeners on a musical journey. I still see music as being about the experience, and that’s still what I want to give to the fans.

All that being said, there is still lots of good stuff out there. You just have to sift through a lot of shit to find it. Anybody can make music now, and there’s a good and bad to that.

Who is your favourite artist at the moment?

Hmm… maybe the Arcade Fire. I really like their new album, I’ve been listening to that a lot lately.

Why?

I just like the musicality of it. I can’t really explain why… if I like it, I like it. Over-analyzing too much can take away from it.

Could you tell  me a little about your creative process and what inspires you?

I like to get a sense of the artist’s sound, and their style, and then try to come up with the best way to complement it. It is what it is, and I use what I’ve got.

How would you describe your production style?

Whatever it takes to make the record work, really. I’m known for having many different sounds and it becomes what it becomes. I have my abilities, and I know what I’m good at, and I use that the best I can. It’s more of an organic process.

What has [Handsome Boy Modeling School alter ego] Nathaniel Merriweather been up to lately?

Well, I’ve been working on this Got A Girl project with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and I’m pretty excited about it. The style is more along the lines of Handsome Boy Modeling School or Lovage, and I like it because it was an opportunity to work with different sounds than the Deltron project.

Out of all the people that you’ve worked with, who would you say is the strangest or most eccentric?

Everyone has their own eccentricities, but a few who come to mind off the top of my head are [Phantom Planet’s] Alex Greenwald, Del, Kool Keith… they’re all pretty interesting guys.

I would have thought that Kool Keith would be up there.

Oh yeah, he’s an interesting guy for sure. I enjoy working with those kinds of people, people who march to the beat of their own drum.

What is your opinion on the current fame culture where the art is practically inseparable from the artist’s celebrity persona?

It is what it is. Things are sold in different ways, you know what I mean? It depends on what you want to do as an artist, and how you want to make money. Sometimes you have to sell a personality to sell records.

Would you rather, as a musician, have the art speak for itself?

Personally, I prefer having a lower profile and would rather let the music speak for itself. I don’t really have the need to be famous amongst the public, I’d rather be famous with musicians. It’s just more of who I am, I’m more of a private person and don’t really need the fame. I would rather have people appreciate the music.

Could you tell me a little of your experience as a person of Japanese background working in hip hop?

To be honest, the race issue is more interesting to other people. You just got to do your own thing, and speaking on how I came up, I think it was because no one at the time was really working on the same scale that I was. You just have to do it regardless of race, because with musicians, there’s like a 99.9% fail rate, regardless of background.

Although, I think that Asian parents aren’t as supportive of music, unless it’s classical. Going into hip hop posed some challenges with them, but at the end of the day you can’t change race or your background. It is what it is. All I can really do is make music and let it speak for itself. If people feel it, they feel it. Sometimes I would meet people after working with them online and it’d be like, “Oh, you’re Asian”, but by then it’s more of an afterthought.

What is the word on the Sammy’s Romanians collaboration with El-P?

That was something we talked about doing a while ago. El’s my man, so who knows? Maybe someday we’ll get around to doing it.

Deltron 3030 and Kid Koala perform at The Commodore Ballroom this coming Monday, November 18, 2013. Buy tickets.