DAN THE AUTOMATOR
Interview by Wayne Chinsang
Photography by Justin Shady

Wayne Chinsang: I wanted to start by talking about what brings you to Milwaukee. I mean, obviously, the weather....

 

Both: (laugh)

 

Dan the Automator: The Brat Stop.

 

Both: (laugh)

 

WC: So, you're playing The Ladybug Club tonight.

 

DTA: Yeah. I've never actually been to Milwaukee before. I've been to Madison and Chicago a lot, but never Milwaukee before. Is it a nice place?

 

WC: Yeah. We like it. Are you still in San Francisco?

 

DTA: San Francisco and New York, back and forth.

 

WC: Cool. So, let's talk about this tour.

 

DTA: Okay.

 

WC: I know you released the album 2K7 last September.

 

DTA: Yeah.

 

WC: Is this tour for 2K7?

 

DTA: No. This is actually a tour for Bacardi.

 

WC: It's just strictly for Bacardi, just a one-night thing?

 

DTA: Yeah. It's kind of interesting because Bacardi-- obviously being a liquor company as opposed to being a record company, and even with 2K7 having been handled by a video game company [2K Sports] as opposed to a record label-- there just seems to be a lot more interesting opportunities coming from places that aren't directly associated with the music industry. Record business is bad right now, and they don't understand a lot of things. (laughs) So artists are finding a lot more opportunities and interesting ways to do things. Like with 2K Sports, going to a video game company and having the freedom to make the kind of record you want and with the artists you want. And like with working with Bacardi, I get to go to a lot of markets that I don't get to go to without being a road warrior.

 

WC: Right.

 

DTA: When I tour, I hit maybe fifteen or twenty major markets throughout America. I probably wouldn't hit Milwaukee. I'd probably just hit Chicago. But because of Bacardi, I was in Lawrence, Kansas a couple weeks ago. So with me not being that touring guy who hits a lot of venues, I don't get the chance to go to a lot of those places. But yet events like these are short enough that they don't interfere with my real job, you know?

 

Both: (laugh)

 

WC: Do you prefer touring that way, with one-night stops instead of a rigorous twenty-city schedule?

 

DTA: (pauses) It's a little bit of apples and oranges, in a sense. When you tour all at once, you cover twenty cities in twenty-three days. It's done and over with. But with this, it's drawn out over time. And you do lose a day every time you have to get to and from the city. So it's maybe a little less efficient in that way, but you're still just popping in and doing your thing as opposed to going from hotel to hotel to hotel. These short tours are maybe a little less efficient, but they're more refreshing in a personal way.

 

WC: Back to what you were saying about how artists are looking for different ways to get their music out there, the past few years has seen more and more of that. I know Crystal Method and LCD Soundsystem released albums through Nike last year, for example.

 

DTA: Right.

 

WC: Do you think artists will start to look at that avenue as more of a way to go in the future when it comes to releasing new work, as opposed to just doing it the standard way with labels?

 

DTA: If you stick with a label nowadays, you're crazy. Unless you're going for a number-one record, of course. If you're not going for a number-one record, it's pretty crazy. We put another Handsome Boy [Modeling School] album last year [White People] on Atlantic, and we were close to 100,000 records and yet they never kicked in a promotional program for it. Never. And, at the same time, Missy Elliott came out with a record, Fabolous came out with a record, and yet all three of us never got sent to Europe. I'm big in Europe. Missy's big in Europe. I don't know if Fab is big in Europe, but come on! Why would I be giving away eighty-seven percent of my money and the ownership of a record that you're not even going to bother to deal with? It was really irritating and caused a lot of tension because of that. All along I knew we should've gotten an indie company to make it, because I work on what I feel like working on. I'm not that guy who does one thing, and I'm not that guy who needs to be held to one label. So that's why when I find other avenues to make stuff-- like making some music for video games, doing movies, commercials, whatever-- I'm all for it. And I feel like, in a lot of respects, especially with the 2K people, I got better in-roads to other things than I ever got with labels. And I'm not just talking in video games, but with regular pop culture in general. But it's always a push-and-pull situation with me, because, like I said, I don't tour that much and I'm not really in the business of being famous. I'm in the business of making millions and millions of dollars.

 

Both: (laugh)

 

WC: You just don't want to be famous in the process.

 

DTA: Right. I want to be a land baron or something.

 

Both: (laugh)

 

WC: It's funny that you don't want to be famous, because article after article that I've read about you, there is always reference to you being an "underground" artist. But you've done a ton of shit.

 

DTA: Oh, yeah.

 

WC: And a ton of mainstream stuff.

 

DTA: Of course.

 

WC: So what do you have to do to not be underground? Do you have to do the Super Bowl Halftime Show or something?

 

DTA: Yeah, exactly. Me and Prince.

 

Both: (laugh)

 

DTA: That's my big plan.

 

Both: (laugh)

 

DTA: The reason I think I still get that underground thing is because I still do a lot of do-it-yourself type of work.

 

WC: Sure.

 

DTA: Because I'm not an underground artist. I mean, I usually get a plaque every year from somebody. But I mostly just work on projects because I like them. And that, in turn, means turning down a lot of projects that I don't like. So I don't necessarily get caught up in that group. And it's not that I don't like pop music because I'm actually a big fan of pop music. But... (pauses) I just like to work on stuff that I like to work on. And if it's a good pop record, I'll do it. If it's a good jazz record, I'll do it. If it's a good rap record, I'll do it. Alternative rock record... whatever. I don't care. But also, it's not like they're gonna be looking for me to do the next J-Lo record. I mean, I roll with those guys and they're all friends of mine. But, to be honest, I've just been lazy. Even on the indie level I haven't put out as many records as I probably should have. But I'm still doing records I wanna do. And don't get me wrong, it is a job and you do have to make a living, and I do want to make hit records at times. I'm not opposed to any of that. I'm not looking for something that's "cool" or whatever. I don't care. That has nothing to do with me. I feel like it's pretty arrogant to try and dictate your audience, like, "I'm too cool for you to listen to."

 

Both: (laugh)

 

DTA: That's just not what I'm about.

 

[CONTINUED AFTER IMAGES]

 

 

WC: But what's weird about you not wanting to be famous is that back when you first started working, the producer was just starting to become recognized as a rock star figure. And now, the producer is right up there with the artists, very much so a rock-star status.

 

DTA: Well, look at Interscope for example: you've got Dr. Dre and Timbaland. But if you took those guys out of the equation they'd pretty much be a money-losing label. So that's a big deal, because if you take people like that out of the equation a lot of people wouldn't have hits. So it is a big deal in that sense. But it's also not just about that. Let's say you have a band like U2. They have a producer [Flood] who isn't in the band, but he may as well be because he doesn't do a whole ton of other people's records. So you look at him as a member of the band because he does have a lot to do with their sound. Or like Brian Wilson with The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson is the rock star of that band even though he wasn't the front man at the time. But there always has been that element, like Prince producing his own records. So that task of being a producer becomes magnified when you're dealing with people who can't make their own music, or with bands who can make their own music, but need some sort of a direction to make it become a bigger thing.

 

WC: Does it make you feel secure in knowing that you control that aspect of your own work? Like, the 2K7 album was entirely you--

 

DTA: Right.

 

WC: --as opposed to having to work with other people. Do you like that level of control? Are you somewhat of a control freak?

 

DTA: I probably am in a certain realm, but I've always wanted to do whole albums because I think it gives a whole view of an idea. But with the way labels work now it's a lot more single oriented, so I ended up doing more singles in the past couple years. I can't say that I enjoy that as much, because you get a little bit less of a relationship with the artists, but I'm not mad at the other people's tracks either. I just like the synergy you can achieve with someone when you work together for awhile.

 

WC: For ten, twelve, fifteen songs.

 

DTA: Right. And, to be honest, if I can handle five or six, I'm pretty happy. Because at that point you're getting to a place where you know each other pretty well, and stuff is coming out the way you want it to come out. With just one to three tracks, maybe. But with four, five, six tracks, anything over, I'm happy with. But because we're in a singles-based market for the major labels, I end up doing singles now. But it wasn't what I ever set out to do. Because even if they're all great songs, albums just don't have any congruency or connection when you do that.

 

WC: And now we're in a time where each track on an album will be produced by someone different.

 

DTA: Right.

 

WC: And that consistency in sound does suffer because of it. Do you think there are a lot of albums made today that, if they had been made under one hand, they would be brilliant, but because they are done by so many different people that they just fall apart?

 

DTA: Yeah. Most of them, actually. I'd say ninety-nine percent of albums suffer from that. In fact, I think you can flip the question around the other way and ask, "How many great albums have you heard in the last couple years?" Because it's just all singles-based now. Take the hottest artist out there-- say, Beyonce-- I'll buy that record. I heard the single and saw the video and thought it was great, so I bought the album. But there is nothing else on there. One, maybe two songs, and that's it. And that's why things like iTunes have killed the music industry. Because we keep getting fed these albums with one or two good songs on it, and we're paying thirteen or fourteen bucks for two good songs. So instead you pay ninety-nine cents for the one good song you want, and that increases the lack of artist development. They've created an industry of consumers that is fed up of buying whole albums. So they hurt themselves. I mean, technology has a lot to do with it too, but that really affected the demise of the record industry as we know it.

 

WC: Even though you've handled many different projects, a large portion of what you've worked on is hip-hop based, and therefore you are labeled as a hip-hop producer. Have you ever felt pigeonholed as a hip-hop producer, and has that kept you from getting other non-hip-hop projects?

 

DTA: No. I mean, I am a hip-hop producer, but my first record that really got attention was [Dr. Octagon's] Dr. Octagonecologyst. But then my very second album went number one worldwide, and that was Cornershop's When I Was Born For The 7th Time, which has nothing to do with hip-hop at all. So the sun doesn't rise and set with hip-hop with me, and the sun doesn't rise and set with hip-hop when it comes to music. But a lot of these rap producers and artists don't know a lot about other music. Just recently I was hanging out at a party with some guys who were from a radio station that play all the hits or whatever, and they were asking me what I was working on, and I told them I was working on stuff with The Killers. And one of them asked, "Don't they use guitars?"

 

Both: (laugh)

 

DTA: I mean, it really does rise and set within that genre for some people. So for me, it's just really restrictive in that sense. I just really love music. I don't really love modern jazz. I don't really love modern R&B. I don't really love modern country. But if you go to the roots of all of those, I love all of those, too.

 

WC: I have just a few more questions and then I'll let you go.

 

DTA: Cool.

 

WC: So, music critics and journalists will have their opinion of what the evolution of your sound is, but where do you see the evolution of your music taking you? For example, as you get older do you see yourself mellowing out more?

 

DTA: No, it's not a matter of mellowing out or being more intense. For me, I get more comfortable. For example, five or six years ago I maybe wouldn't have been as comfortable with certain kinds of chord changes, and now I'm more comfortable with them. But I don't really even think about that. I mean, I'm thinking about it now because you're asking me about it. But I don't really think about it much other than that. Pretty much all of my records at this point have a live bass player, live guitar, live keyboards. So over the past seven or eight years I've become real comfortable with directing a band. And even six or seven years ago I was producing [Jon Spencer] Blues Explosion or whatever, but at this point it's more like second nature. I'm just more comfortable with it now.

 

WC: Of course.

 

DTA: I can read and write music because I have a classical music background, but I'm really not very good at it. But now I'm getting better at it. But it was always more intuitive, and I never really knew how to put that to paper as far as articulating it goes. But now I can do it a little bit more, and now I'm a little bit closer to understanding some of the things that I couldn't have articulated a few years earlier. I'm not a musical theory guy, but being able to pick a right note over a wrong note is helpful.

 

WC: Has hanging out with other musicians helped that along, like by hanging out with someone as all over the place musically as [Mike] Patton?

 

DTA: Yeah, me and Patton have a really good synergy with that. But we don't talk music-- we just make it. We do talk about the feel of something more than the actual noting of it. But he's just the best rock singer out there, so he can just sing over literally everything that I create without thinking about it. But he also has that classical sensibility, so that makes it a little bit easier. So for someone whose ears aren't ready for it you have to get them where you're trying to put them. But Patton and I never even have to talk about that. He just does his thing and before you know it, it's done.

 

WC: So what's next for you?

 

DTA: I just did some stuff for +44. I've also got a new Deltron record coming up, and then me and Patton have a whole new thing going. I also have a new album that I'm trying to figure out how to put out. I had the worst dealings with major labels-- with them folding and everything-- that I don't know if I want to give it to a major label or if I want to do it myself. So that will be a decision I'll have to make this year.

 

WC: Alright, so the last question I have for you is one we ask everyone, and it has nothing to do with anything we've just talked about.

 

DTA: Okay. Cheese curds?

 

Both: (laugh)

 

WC: No. The question is, do dogs have lips?

 

DTA: (pauses) Yes, they do. In fact, I've seen them. (laughs)

 

WC: You wanna go into it?

 

DTA: My manager has a dog, and her lip looks like a little flat tire. A flat bike tire. You can see it. Definitely.