Q&A: Dan the Automator, Dec. 12 at Smoke & Barrel

Dan “The Automator” Nakamura

Photo: Peter Allenby

Legendary San Francisco based producer Dan Nakamura, better known as Dan The Automator has been described as a musical merlin. He’s been the mastermind behind such revered collaboration projects as Dr. Octagon (with rapper Kool Keith), Deltron 3030 (Del tha Funky Homosapien and Kid Koala) and the Gorillaz (Damon Albarn) as well as lending a helping hand to DJ Shadow’s sonic collage masterpiece Endtroducing.

Dan’s soundscape has touched many genres and musical feels from hip hop and rock to bollywood funk, and trip hop. He has even dabbled in 60’s French pop, with his latest collaborative group Got a Girl with actress/singer Mary Elizabeth Winstead and their 2014 release, I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now.

You may have caught The Automator the last time he was in Fayetteville in 2010 for a hangout performance at Smoke & Barrel Tavern. If you weren’t lucky enough to see him then, he will be performing a DJ set at the same venue on Saturday, Dec. 12 along with local turntable assassin, m.bolez.

Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door, and reservations can be made by phone by calling 479-521-6880.

I spoke with Dan after he watched his beloved Golden State Warriors win their 22nd game in a row to continue their undefeated win streak about his thoughts on music and humor and what he thinks of the south and Arkansas.

I really appreciate you talking with me. Do you have any memories of the last time you came to Fayetteville?

Who: Dan the Automator / m.bolez
When: 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015
Where: Smoke & Barrel Tavern, 324 W Dickson St
Cost: $25 in advance, $30 day of show

Yes, definitely. It’s an interesting place. I had never been to Arkansas in my life before that trip. It’s got the college town vibe but it’s also got the small city vibe. It’s a mix of things, because you still have Walmart there pumping money in the area. So it’s kind of like when the ocean meets fresh water (laughs). It’s a different kind of ecosystem. It’s some kind of combination of like a rural outpost where all of a sudden there’s also a big business with money. It’s different from a lot of places. For me personally, I really like the South. I think it’s an interesting place because I think the nicest people are there but I don’t know much about the entire southern culture in Arkansas because college towns tend to be a little more modern. And then when you have places that have a little more money there’s usually a little more sophistication. So all that stuff works for me when I go to Arkansas. But in general I think people are nicer when I go to the South.

One of the things about that town was how interesting that main street is (Dickson Street) because they have those bars that are obviously for college kids and then they also have these little antique shops. So it’s kind of a fun combo in that respect. I think this time my friend Matt Wolfe will take me around to see some of the famous architecture around the area and the museum. But it’s funny when the downtown district is designed for college kids and rich ladies (laughs).

You’re on the road a lot, you have friends all over the place. What kind of traveler are you? What do you like to experience when you’re going to a new place or somewhere that’s not home?
First and foremost I’m all about food. But secondly, i’m all about wandering. I like to wander around to see what’s going on. I don’t necessarily need to be at the coolest thing. But I’m much more likely to want to be in an urban environment with stuff going on as opposed to the countryside.

You’re really into Chicago-style Italian beef right? You should definitely hit up Geraldi’s Italian eating place when you get here and try their Italian Sausage or Chicago Beef sandwich. And since you have your own olive oil collaboration coming out you should also check out Cask & Grove for premium Olive Oils and balsamic vinegars! Fayetteville also has a very underrated taco scene.
I’m into it, I’ll be there for a few days so I’ll definitely eat a few meals. That’s funny because one thing I have learned while travelling around the U.S. is that taco spots weren’t that good 10 years ago. Now all of a sudden lots of places are pretty good. The latin influence and population has spread out a lot throughout the U.S. in the last 10 years.

So aside from all of the music you’ve helped create, you’ve also had a hand in concocting olive oils, craft beers, fragrance oils and perfumes. You’ve also done movie and game scores and worked with countless artists and even got to perform on David Letterman’s Late Show. What’s it like having a hand in so many different pots and what projects or events stand out to you?
The craft beer thing was fun. I got to hang out and do a lot of tasting. And it’s funny because as drinks go, I’m not a huge beer drinker. I’m more of a fan of food and spirits than beer and wine. And I remember Smoke and Barrel having a great selection of spirits and beer. But Sam Calamine, the head of Dogfish Head, really showed me the relationship between certain types of flavors of beer and food. So we approached it from that angle; tasting various things that would work with me and my palette. That’s partially why when that beer was released it came with a bunch of recipes from different chefs that figured out what would pair well with the beer. It was a really fun experience. It was like alchemy ya know? And anything like that is fun and I didn’t know much about it so I had to read some books to figure out things like which fats and oils don’t really translate well in beer.

Event poster

And it all culminated with a few key ingredients. We were all up in Eataly (Batali’s place in New York), and Sam has a beer pub restaurant on the top floor. So we were mixing all these ingredients into various ales and trying them to see the flavors they combined to make. The ingredients I suggested all worked well but it needed base and he added farro, and that was something I never would’ve thought of. And we went back and forth tasting it. In the end I’m pretty excited at how well that beer has held up over the years. People still like it, and I’m proud of that. It was actually a beer I like.

As far as doing Letterman goes, it’s a life long accomplishment. Anybody who’s anybody has been through there and I’m a huge fan of Chris Elliott and he started out as a writer for Letterman and I loved all the skits he did when he was there. So I’ve been a fan since I was young. So to actually get to perform there was kind of like putting the post in the ground of a successful run at life. Like in my music career I get to say “I got to do Letterman”. Letterman’s show was an institution in my mind even if I didn’t watch it much anymore. So it’s still a big deal culturally and for me.

So was there anything in particular that you wanted to talk about?
I’m more interested in knowing what other people are thinking and where collective minds are going. Times are different right now in terms of records. So we’re not worried so much with putting out records as we are about doing things to go along with it. Like you wouldn’t know it but behind the scenes I’ve been in the middle of a lot of projects, making equipment, making apps outside of or with what I do musically. Because the creative side of just making records and putting out records just doesn’t work any more. So we have to tour more and we have to expand what it is that we do and function as. I’m kind of interested when people ask questions because in a way things are way different than they’ve ever been for pretty much everyone who’s spent most of their time in the studio as opposed to going down different creative avenues because the music thing is so different because people just don’t buy records now.

You’ve been releasing projects for a very long time. And you’ve seen a lot of trends and scenes come and go. So how do you look at your art in relation to time?
Well there’s a few answers to that. As time has gone on, I’ve become less influenced by other people’s work because I listen to less stuff, even though I’m still a really big fan of music. But when I was coming up I used to listen to everything new but now there’s so much garbage out there that I don’t listen to it all. I listen to a few things here and there. But back when I was making the first couple records I listened to everything coming out and was trying to do new things. Now I function more in not a complete bubble, because I still listen to music, but I’m a little more detached. But back then I was listening to everything, like what’s the newest thing that just came out! I was also DJing more so I had to buy records and figure out what’s the new thing to play. And now I look at it more like, I’m gonna make what I want to make. Like I have an idea in my head and I’m going to bring it to it’s conclusion. I want my records to last so I don’t want to copy trends just to release a record of the moment. I thought like that even back when I was listening to everything because I didn’t want the record to be ever sound like it came from an era.

Like my first big record was probably Dr. Octagon and if I listen to that today certain production techniques or ideas that I would’ve executed better do sound dated, but that’s also because I wasn’t as experienced. But if I listen to the record in terms of time period, it doesn’t sound like “oh that’s 1996 or 97”. It just doesn’t sound like that because it was just doing it’s own thing. And don’t get me wrong, there’s obviously nods to production styles that were going on at that time, but if I listen to the record, it doesn’t particularly sound dated to me as much as it sounds naive at certain points where I just didn’t have the chops that I have today. And you can say the same thing for the Handsome Boy records or Gorillaz or the Deltron records and the Got A Girl record, Lovage, Bombay, any of them it’s the same thing. There’s some nod to the time period because there always will be but at the same time you don’t listen to it and go “wow that’s really out of date” or “woah that sounds like 2001 Miami bass or Jay-Z rap with sped up soul samples.”

It doesn’t sound like that because it’s all over the place. You know, we could use some of the same techniques as other people did from the same time but the expression was different.

An example is the sped up soul sample. RZA was doing it with the Wu-Tang 10 years before the Jay-Z era. But when you listen to the Wu-Tang record it doesn’t sound so dated. It might sound naive because RZA’s production was really raw. But when you listen to some of the records of the era that kind of copied them, they sound dated. But records last because they’re taking it from a pure point of view instead of copying or following the leader, and I think those records have a better chance of standing up to time.

Going back and listening through your discography, the only record that I could say sounds of the time is Music To Be Murdered By
Yeah but I was in high school just learning how to make stuff (laughs). I was definitely copying the Bomb Squad and copying things I liked. Like I said, as the arch of my career has adjusted, probably everything post Gorillaz to the second Handsome Boy record is kind of where I came into my own in terms of not really caring about what anybody is doing for better and for worse. Because sometimes you’re not as in step with the times and people don’t understand what you’re doing. But once I reached the point where I got really comfortable producing rock bands, specifically recording drums, bass and guitars, I was comfortable doing anything. I’m not saying I was the best at it, but I got really comfortable at it so I was able to execute what I wanted to execute based on what was in my head, as opposed to something that had anything to do with anybody.

When I listen to music, new or old, instead of gravitating to genres I listen to music for the emotion it brings out of me. And I’m usually drawn to a handful of emotions like songs that make me feel sad or sexy or make me want to boogie or fire me up. If you relate to that, what emotions are you drawn to in music or art?
Actually I’m drawn to similar emotions except I’m not as into dance as much. But sleazy, sexy I love that. And yes I do love hearing some Ante Up by M.O.P. or something with a Shook Ones kind of vibe. That’s all really great. I’m not so much into the happy rap stuff except for De La Soul because they’re just great. But super conscious rap, meh, I’m ok with it. Like I love A Tribe Called Quest, but anything that was a copy of that, some was ok, but overall that wasn’t my thing. I’d rather hear some gutter rap. So much so that at this point in my life I’ve gone back and re-listened to the old NWA era L.A. rap stuff. It came out when I was growing up on rap, and compared to what I was listening to, I felt like their raps were a little bit more straight and simple and now I pick up on a lot of the context and nuances that maybe I didn’t understand back then.

I also like the quirkiness of Southern raps because it’s totally ill sometimes. Hearing stuff that Outkast or Lil’ Wayne were doing at their apex was incredible. They were freaking it like no one else. But it all had that feeling of people pushing the limits.

But in regards to songs and emotions that I’m drawn to, they really don’t make sense. For example Shook Ones by Mobb Deep and London Calling by The Clash both give me similar reactions. There’s a certain urgency to those songs. And the emotion that comes with it isn’t really genre specific, it’s that feeling of power.

Power is perfect word to describe that.
I like all kinds of music but I would say minor and dark work me personally when I make music. So when I listen to stuff, half the time I really want to hear that, the other half of the time I want to hear more major stuff. It might be because I make more minor stuff, but who knows.

The emotion is what gives songs their timeless staying power, so do you craft music with that thought in mind?
Well, good songs are timeless, so I want to make songs that don’t have weak points. And then the other side of it is I’m not really concerned with what’s going on at the moment musically speaking. So I don’t get caught up chasing trends. So between having a good song and having one that doesn’t sound like every other song that’s out there, I think that’s what gives you an opportunity to make it timeless. What makes it actually timeless is people’s charisma and energy shines through it and people are so happy or motivated or moved by it every time they hear it. That’s what makes it become timeless.

Who’s got the weirdest studio or work habits of everyone you’ve worked with?
Everyone has their quirks to be honest. It’s probably well known, but Keith needs to be around porn all the time. When he’s working he’s not watching it, but every other second he’s on it.

The inspiration for the Handsome Boy Modeling School record was Chris Elliot’s sitcom, Get a Life. Was that on in the background the whole time?
No, not the whole time, but it definitely got a lot of play. Visuals have always inspired me so it was definitely something that was in the mix. That record is fun because because the music is dead serious but the skits allow it to be framed differently and adds a certain kind of wacky nature to it. So it was kind of a combo pack because when Prince Paul and I work, we work really hard to make it the best it can be because we’re not going to waste our time making a throwaway album as a joke or something. But then on the other side of it there is the whole wacky element to it. So Get a Life was definitely in the mix, especially when would get ready to do shows. Just to figure out how to bring that feeling out in the performance.

So when doing a Handsome Boy show, how would you psyche yourself up to get into the Nathaniel Merriweather vibe?
It’s the banter. Paul and I would start talking shit to each other, not mean or anything but joking around. We just get a little more loose or wacky. Maybe have a drink and start talking about stuff to get that mood going. Creating the mood I would say. We just did a show this past New Year’s and we hadn’t seen each other in a little while but we just started getting that wackiness going again. It’s like an inside joke that you can pick up right where you left off.

So even when you’re not with Paul, will you still judge something by yourself and think “is that handsome?”
(laughs) Yes, I probably do. Everything I’ve ever done comes off as strange or serious or funny or whatever is probably some part of me. So yeah. Both Paul and I go around saying “yeah that’s pretty handsome” (a catchphrase from their collaborative album together). And it is a piece of our personalities, but there’s like an irony to it that we’re playing with. Even the Got a Girl record has some handsomeness to it as well.

Considering the album is called I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now I’d say it’s very handsome! The whole concept of that album is very tongue in cheek behind an amazing French pop musicscape. I love the record! So how do you blend humor into very acclaimed and serious music projects so seamlessly?
I think people don’t really embrace humor as much as they can. People think humor has to be Weird Al Yankovic or something, and I don’t think it has to be that way. So I don’t necessarily base a project around a joke, but I try to find something that I think sums it up. Handsome Boy was the kind of the other way around, because we just thought it was a funny group to make up. But with any of my other projects they just come to their logical conclusion.