Comment
Interview

The shapeshifting RJD2 on the strength of instrumentals: "I love vocal music, but it fixes things in both a language and a context"

By Brittany Gaston
rjd2

To take a lyric from his track “Work It Out,” perhaps the best advice we’ve been given to enjoy RJD2′s varied musical output is “Take it easy/Don’t worry ’bout it/I’ve got this/I’ve got this.” Yes, for the past 15 years, RJ Krohn has most certainly “got this” and the Philadelphia resident continues to “get this” as he evolves as a composer, producer, songwriter, singer, instrumentalist, and label boss. Seemingly well-versed in every type of musical genre (if you’re to take cues from the title of his latest long-player) it’d be harder to describe who RJD2 is than who he isn’t.

Fans of RJ’s early beat-driven and instrumental productions will find great pleasure in his latest offering, More Is Than Isn’t. In liner notes he states, “In ways, all of my previous albums were in some fashion striving to achieve something more than being ‘just instrumental music’; this is the first RJD2 album I’ve made that actually revels in a relative lack of vocals.” From the bright swing of “Temperamental” to the enticingly unforgiving momentum of “Winter Isn’t Coming,” there are many things to love about this record. Whereas previous LPs have often been a showcases of RJ’s latest experiments in sound and style, More Is Than Isn’t is an accumulation of ideas woven throughout his trademarks. Armed with a renewed love for the sounds of digital, RJD2 sat down with us to discuss his new production techniques, the beauty of instrumentals, and awesomely weird song titles.

Tell me more about More Is Than Isn’t. How long did it take you, for starters?

I think I started the record very shortly after finishing the Icebird record, so the winter of 2011, and then I was done probably by the beginning of 2013… I didn’t put myself on any kind of deadline or schedule or anything like that.

Let the organic juices flow?

Exactly. So there was probably about four months to a year and a half.

Did it turn out how you originally planned?

Well, I don’t really plan records. To answer that question honestly, my approach to music is more along the lines of getting in the studio and recording, and whatever happens, happens. If I use the paint-by-numbers analogy, it’s not like I have a template in mind where I’m filling in colors or anything. It’s more like, I don’t know where a song is headed, or an album is headed. I go into it without any preconceived notions. Just kinda let it happen.

So which was the first finished track?

The first thing I remember having was the instrumental of “Temperamental.” That was an instrumental that kinda sat and got pitched to a whole bunch of vocalists [laughs]. I’m happy with how the song came out—it’s just kinda funny how, for a long time there, that instrumental languished in obscurity on my laptop because nobody really wanted to tackle it. Like, I pitched it to a number of both singers and rappers and nobody really bit. And I kept coming back to it, you know, like, there was a mood to it that I liked and I thought it would fit into the context of the album. But as an instrumental, it just wasn’t hitting…

What do you think the artists were afraid of?

I don’t know, I mean, it’s kind of hard for me to…

…Speak analytically about your music?

Yeah, like it’d be conjecture for me to guess why vocalists and rappers or singers… I don’t know, to answer your question [laughs]. There’s instruments that might be overstating it, but there are a lot of times where a producer and a vocalist just don’t see eye to eye.

I love the names of the songs. Just as themselves, they kinda have this off-kilter vibe to them, like, “Behold, Numbers!” reminds me of Sufjan Stevens’ track titles. I especially love reading them all out loud. How did you come up with them?

Well, for example “Behold, Numbers!” was like [laughs], the way I do it is I’ll collect phrases and I have a notepad app on my phone and I’ll hear a phrase or a phrase will come to me and I’ll write it down. So I have a running tally of phrases that don’t have any meaning in them. Like, “Behold, Numbers.” [Laughs] I dunno, I think I was thinking about numbers one day. It’s amusing to me, anyway. All of the phrases, including the album titles… I don’t know if they have meaning to anybody else but me [laughs].

Well, I love them. It adds a personable aspect to it now that you’ve explained their background—I still just like reading them [laughs].

If it put a smile on your face, then my job is done.

In the description sent out with your album’s promo, it states you used new production techniques in creation process. What were they?

Yeah, well, in a general sense, I feel this is the first record that I’ve made that’s allowed me to go with the sampler and the inherent digital nature of the recording on the computer—let me go into that by saying, pretty much up until making this record, I prided myself on, if I was making a song out of samples, then I would try my hardest to mask that it was digital in nature. I spent years and year building technique, specifically on an MP3 sampler, where I could cover those things up. Like, for example, when you hear glitch-hop music, it’s wearing the fact that it came from a computer on its sleeve, like it’s not the same instrument that comes from an acoustic instrument. It’s very obviously processed and unabashedly. Honestly, something that I drew a big inspiration from was the explosion of really all things digital and instrumental. The thing that was reassuring for me was the popularity of that music and kids acceptance of that, and that was kind of the inspiration for me, like “Her Majesty’s Socialist Request”—it’s choppy, in my opinion. It sounds very much like something that came out of a sampler or a computer.

You brag about the lack of vocals on the album itself. Is there something about what an instrumental can do, or evoke, for the listener that you love versus what a track that has vocals can or can’t do?

Absolutely. I mean, one of the reasons why I feel instrumental music can be timeless is that instrumentals can evoke something that can’t be put into words. I love a lot of vocal music, but one of the inherent limitations of it is that it fixes things in both a language and a context, so one of the beautiful things about an instrumental record is that it allows [listeners] to build [their] own context and voice entirely free of the way the artist originally intended. It allows you to personalize the experience in a way that vocal music kind of can’t.

I’m happy you said that, “How a listener personalizes the experience,” because most of the time whenever I’m listening to a track, I’m just creating my own dreamscapes and back story with an instrumental and I don’t have words telling me what to think. What’s your favorite track on the album?

There’s a tune called “Winter Isn’t Coming” and there’s a section of it that I’m particularly proud of. Why? I don’t know if I can really put it into words.

Well, we’ve already established that words don’t matter here [laughs].

Yeah, the middle section of that, I’m particularly proud of.