Don’t want to read the interview? Listen to it with the media file here: DJ Earworm Interview
Smoke Signal: What got you into the music industry and DJing? How long have you been DJing or remixing, and what separates you from other DJs?
DJ Earworm: I’ve been making music for a long time. I was doing original music, songwriting, and original production, and I kind of wandered into DJing, really. I was making mix tapes back in late ‘03 and I was making some tapes for like a road trip or something, and I started using [Sony] Acid, which is still a tool a lot of mashup artists use, and it had just acquired the ability to handle whole songs instead of just short loops. So I said, “Oh I’ll make a mix tape on Acid,” and I just started cutting up some songs and rearranging [them], just for the fun of it. I played it for my friends, and they said, “Hey, you just made a mashup!” I said, “Oh yeah!” because I had heard of mashups a few years before, so they said, “You should make some more of those,” and so I just started making more, and then I gave them to DJ Adrian over at Club 30, and this is back in Club 30’s first year, and he said, “You should put these mashups online and give yourself a name and an identity.” So I said “Okay well, it’s a good idea,” and I came up with the name DJ Earworm, even though I had never DJed. But I knew that DJs were the kind of people who manipulated other people’s music, and that’s what I was doing. So I’ll just call myself that, and if anyone asks me to spin, I’ll just figure it out, you know? So that’s what happened, I put myself online, and a few people noticed it, a few bloggers noticed it. Before long, I was getting invited to gigs, I got some software so I could learn how to spin, and then it kind of just grew from there. So it was sort of accidental that I ended up a DJ. It was because I started making music with other people’s music, and that’s what DJs do, so I guess I’m a DJ.
SS: What are your personal tastes in music? What are your favorite bands, songs, and genres?
DJE: I like a variety of music. What tickles me particularly is sort of underground, electro. I don’t know of any artists in particular, but sort of just the underground, dance vibe, although I can listen to pop and enjoy it too, so I like to spread it out among a lot of different genres. I’ll listen to old jazz from the 30’s sometimes. I have a big collection of music that I like to put it on shuffle. But I also love underground electronic dance music, I always have.
SS: Most people know you for your annual remixes. When and why did you decide to start putting together these remixes?
DJE: Well, I started in 2007. I was experimenting with multi-song mashups and seeing if I could do three songs, four songs, sevens songs, and get this twenty-two song mashup complex under my name, which kind of took different bits of random songs and old songs, and I thought that was kind of cool. So I thought, what if I did a mash-up of all current songs? And this was in December of ‘07, so I just started playing with a whole bunch of acapellas, and I found some hooks, which I thought were nice, and they turned out to be the main hooks of the first United States of Pop. And then I was working on it, and I saw the billboard charts come out. They had actually come out a couple of weeks ago, but I wasn’t paying attention. So I looked at them and I was like “Oh, you know, a lot of the songs on the year-end chart were in this mashup I’m working on.” So I wondered what would happen if I added a few and maybe I could cut out some of the lower-ranked ones, and maybe I could make this a solid block of the top of the charts, so yeah, that’s kind of what I did. My manager suggested that I do it with a nicer number, because I had the top twenty-two songs, and he said “That doesn’t make any sense, you’ve got to make it twenty or twenty-five.” Well, he said not to pick twenty-five, because I’ve got to put The Fray in there … Finally he convinced me and it ended up being twenty-five songs, and I called it the United State of Pop because I felt like it was all of pop united into one state, and so I put it out, got some radio play in Philadelphia and on Open House party, which is a syndicated show, so it definitely got a nice little bump. Next year, I said, “Well why not do it again, and now that I’d done it twice, I guess I’ve got to keep doing it.” People by that time were really expecting it. And then of course 2009 just flew up beyond what had happened before. You know, each year it has gotten bigger but 2009 just flew up, crazy.
SS: Yeah, I remember after you released 2010, I went ice-skating and I heard it on the radio like a day after you released it.
DJE: It was amazing, it grew so fast now, you know?
SS: Yeah. A lot of people nowadays have negative things to say about pop music, such as “Oh, it all sounds the same” or “It’s all about the same few topics.” How do you respond to this?
DJE: Well, I do think pop goes through stylistic bottlenecks, where everything kind of converses. And it happens repeatedly, though… [Radio] back in like 1978, [was] like “Oh my God, it all sounds exactly the same.” It’s exactly the same disco vibe, you know? Where if you go back to say, the early ‘60s when Motown was popular, there was like one sound – so dominating. So I don’t think it’s worse than it used to be, it’s just that pop changes and what happens is that people like the music that they were accustomed to, you know. They have this thought where music used to be better. If anyone is older than 20, they always think “Oh, the music from high school was the best, this music nowadays sucks!” And you know, when they’re 30 they say that, when they’re 40 they say that, when they’re 50 they say that. You ask, you know, a 50-year old, “What is your favorite music?” They’ll be like “Oh, this music sucks. The ‘70s, that’s where it’s at.” Whatever, you know, grew up with, is going to be the best. I guarantee you that people who grew up today in ten years are going to be like “Music today sucks! You go back to 2010, that’s music! Remember Ke$ha, remember Katy Perry?”
So yeah, I do think there’s a very dominating message right now though; we’re getting very escapist. This idea of partying and not even thinking about tomorrow, not dealing with any problems, and just going all out and partying hard is something that people are responding to in this economic pullback, where they just want to keep going, you know.
SS: Very insightful.
DJE: And another big thing [that] is happening is… [the] economic world space is kind of reaching out, and what’s happening is songs that have a more international audience are given more emphasis. I think that’s a big part of our swing toward European dance music, away from American hip-hop and towards European electronic sounds. People in Europe can digest it, people in Asia can digest it, people in South America can digest it. So if you have a purely American sound, it’s not as desirable as it was when our country was raging and everyone was buying music. Now the music industry is like “Ugh, let’s try to scrape together some money from everywhere and do our thing.”
SS: I see. Have the artists that you remixed or record labels approached you? If they have, can you tell us a bit about the exchange?
DJE: Well, basically I’ve done promotional stuff for labels. Up ‘till now, it hasn’t been released, so we haven’t got through the whole process of doing what it takes to sell it. But they give me materials and I can put it online on a promotional basis. This year I expect to be releasing some stuff pretty soon. I don’t want to talk about it, because I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s coming along.
SS: On that note, what future plans do you have for your musical career? Have you ever thought about getting more involved in blogging, video-blogging, or YouTube partnership?
DJE: I don’t know [if] video-blogging is exactly the way that I want to go. I wouldn’t mind having more videos, I wouldn’t mind having some instructional stuff that might help people learn music or learn mashups, or learn [to] DJ. But in terms of getting into the whole, who am I, what am I about as a celebrity [and] as a person, I prefer to have a little bit of mystery and let the music speak much louder than my persona, if that makes sense. It’s working so far at least. I’m open to opportunities as they come, but I think I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. Hopefully I can put out more tunes this year than last year.
SS: What are the technical and mental processes that you go through when you make one of your end-of-year remixes or video compilations?
DJE: Well, you could buy my book, if you want to. It kind of guides you through the whole process of using [Sony] Acid to make mashups. I would start off real simple, maybe start off with trying to finding a rap acapella. You don’t have to deal with the idea of key, you can start with just the timing. Get a nice rap acapella, get an instrumental you like, and try to fix them together and get the groove right. That’s a great way to start.
SS: You studied music theory and computer science at the University of Illinois. Anything to say, or any advice to high school students looking to pursue careers in music, music theory, or computer science?
DJE: Yeah, well the great thing about high school is that depending on how your parents raise you, hopefully you got free time. As you get older, your time gets more and more squeezed … if you want to get into computer programming, just try to spend a lot of time programming. And the time you spend before you’re done with high school, it’s huge because it gives you a big leg up. You think you’ll have time to learn it, but once all your responsibilities start, you’ll start to realize “Wait, I should have learned that when I had the time.” And the earlier you learn that, the better. And music, you cannot learn enough music theory, it’s not possible. There’s no job in music you can’t benefit in from knowing more music theory. And there aren’t enough DJs understand music. I mean, the beat, that’s kind of easy to understand, but when you get to the key and the harmony and the structure, the more you understand about songwriting and production and how music is made. It’ll help you.
SS: Words of wisdom. This is the last question, and I know that a lot of students will want me to ask this: are you willing to DJ at the MSJ junior or senior proms?
DJE: Oh, boy, haha! You know, all that stuff has to go through my booking, but you know, I would love to, but it’s not as simple as that. Talk to my manager though, and see what he has to say!
SS: I get you. Well thank you very, very much for talking to us, Mr. Earworm.
DJE: Okay, no problem.
SS: So, I’ll be sure to send you a transcript and the sound file for this interview, and I hope that we can keep in contact.
DJE: Alright, yeah, let me know if you’ve got any follow-ups too.
SS: Alright, bye for now.
DJE: Take care!
Andrew Han: Freaking epic!