Pulsating speaker booms gives way to applause as Dan the Automator leaves the stage. He has just finished a set as MC for the Free Press Summer Fest after-party. The room is heaving with people who have been dancing and sweating through Houston’s brutal summer heat, yet Dan is cool as a cucumber. He sits down to discuss his work and his vision for the future of music and humanity.
Dan the Automator is a renowned producer, having worked with among others: Gorillaz, Kasabian, Del the Funky Homosapien, Miles Kane, Emily Wells, and the cult classic Handsome Boy Modeling School. Despite the acclaim and his impressive resume, his modesty and unassuming manner belie his stature amongst musical greatness. Jack White, Lauryn Hill, and the Wu Tang Clan are getting all the attention of fans clamoring to touch fame. Dan sits outside the fray, and he is perfectly content. His position behind the scenes gives room for substantive conversations outside the glow of the spotlight.
His most recent album’s Event 2 with Deltron, and Plastic Beach with Gorillaz, represent the most profound commentary on the convergence of technology and how we live. In their own way, both albums present a view of our future world in which we have exhausted our resources. From Event 2, City Rising from the Ashes tells the story of life for those left to survive off the dregs of the earth. From Plastic Beach, Super Fast Jellyfish playfully merges declining fish population with fast food commercialization.
Being a visionary based at a hub for creativity and innovation, I wanted to get his thoughts on the convergence of technology, environment and his music.
Having worked with many talented artists, I wanted to know with which artist from FPSF 2014 he would most like to work?
To be honest, if I could sing, I wouldn’t mess with any of these guys [wink]. But seriously, working with other talented artists enhances my game. There are loads of great musicians here in Houston today, but if I could pick one, it would be Devin the Dude. It may surprise you, but Devin’s the man. I don’t know what it is about the guy, but you see him performing, you see the other guys around him, and you recognize, that he just has ‘it’. Perhaps it is Devin’s, unassuming nature, at the same time modest and confident, which draws others to him. Along with his talent for poetic word play of course. I would like to work with more female artists. I have done some work with Emily Wells, and Noodle of course, but I am looking for the right voice.
A huge theme of your music is addressing catastrophic climate change. This theme is especially evident from your work with Del the Funky Homospaien, as heard in the albums Deltron 3030 and Event 2. How do we make fixing climate change cool?
I use my music to encourage people to consider how their actions affect others and the world. We started out, just thinking, let’s make something cool. Some kind of sci-fi vision about our future. The more we worked on the idea, we came to realize that we were using the vision of our future as a commentary on our present and our history. I’d like to say it was our genius but it really came from doing something cool. We learned the significance of it, especially after Deltron 3030. We realized we were on to something and that we had more to say.
Prospect Magazine has a monthly column asking experts and luminaries like you a provocative prompt, ‘If I ruled the world…
I’d revert us back to the older ways of living. I think we have gone too far with technology, as if it was an end in itself. We don’t stop to think about why we do what we are doing, nor considering if we should. I think we would be happier if we reverted to simpler ways of living. Being more in touch with nature. This was a theme of Virus, imagining a world without computers. It would force us to focus on what is really essential, on what is really important.
What do you see as the future of music?
My future is more downloads, more putting stuff out there. I was originally against the whole ‘free this, free that’ and still am to a degree, but I realize it is all part of the bigger picture. Some good, some bad, it’s how it is today.
I think the real innovation in music will come from making it interactive. I don’t want to give too much away at this time, but I am working on a project to do just that. We saw what happened with Napster. First they were cool, then they were shut down, now they are cool again.
The record companies had a strangle hold on the music industry, now with everyone able to publish their stuff on the web it is the wild west.
The change won’t be on how music is delivered, but how it is used and consumed. Pop music is boring. We are recycling the same thing every few months, putting it in a different package, but it is the same stuff. I want to bring the audience into the music, to share in the experience.
What impediments are blocking the development of innovation in this area?
We as a society have devalued music, especially in terms of intellectual property. There is nothing the music industry can do about that. Nothing the artist can do about that. It’s the same thing happening to movies. At some point, there will be someone who is affected who will do something about it. My personal theory, which maybe crackpot or whatever, is that when the drug industry (legal) gets affected in the same way, then things will change. At the point you can download, say arthritis medicine, bootleg it, their lobbyist will put teeth in the copyright laws. We musicians can’t get it, we are too small. Movies are too small. It won’t happen during my career, so I won’t be able to benefit from it, but that’s what I see happening.