On a boat sailing down the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland, media artist Paul Miller sits quietly, pressing down on the keys of his cell phone. He cannot be seen or heard, but instead his answers to the list of inquisitive questions before him can only be read.
And maybe, possibly, as he types words into the body of an email, he can be felt. Intuitively, of course.
Because, for Miller, life is all about the “vibe.”
“I like spots that have some kind of off-the-beaten-path flair…the basic vibe is that things should be fun,” he writes in his cross-continental response. “I really want to get to the point where music can mirror ideas like that.”
Miller extends this vibe to his own stage persona. Known best as DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, Miller takes reference from “The Subliminal Kid,” a mutinous character shaped by the late author William S. Burroughs. And like Burroughs’ creation, Miller, who prefers to perform without labeling his music, formulates allegorical retorts through media-intensive means, ultimately shaping the music and art his fans have come to expect.
“I’m a sponge, anything goes. I want to see and experience anything that keeps life interesting,” said the 36-year-old turntablist, who resides in Downtown Manhattan. “We’re in such standardized times these days, it’s all so boring. People should realize that it’s about living NOW, not the future, not the past. That’s what makes life worth living.”
But this Washington D.C. native is more than a physical manifestation of Burroughs’ imagination. A true “jack of all trades,” Miller is a seemingly eclectic sort. Among being a writer, musician, and conceptual artist, Miller is considered to be the most intellectual turntablist of DJ culture with a formative influence on illbient music. And on June 30, fans could hear him spin tracks at Southpaw, located in the affluent Park Slope section of Brooklyn, for the opening weekend night of the 2nd Annual Afro Punk festival, presented by BAMcinematek. An offshoot of James Spooner’s documentary “Afro-punk,” this five-day event, which ends on July 4, will feature countless hours of film and music that celebrates the African- American punk rocker.
As part of the opening night, Miller will battle legendary DJ Don Letts, who many believe single-handedly turned a generation of punks onto reggae. Set to follow the mêlée are live performances by the Eternals, Shawn Hewitt, and Nouvea Riche.
His performance at Southpaw will come three days after his new album “In Fine Style: 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records” has been released. Slated to drop Tuesday, June 27 on Trojan Records, “In Fine Style” is a two-disc complication of his favorite tracks from the record company archives. According to Miller’s website, Trojan Records had approached him and requested he handpick tracks from their collection and create a “selections” album. But for him, the trouble with such a feat hid itself in one simple question- how do you mix music that changed the world? His answer- represent the old and the new.
“The new album of ‘selections’ from Trojan is even more old school [then the last album ‘Drums of Death’],” said Miller. “So much electronic and pop music sucks these days and I think there’s so much undiscovered music from the past people should hear.”
In the midst of mixing old school and new school beats into one powerful vibe, Miller also produces work as a media artist, work that has appeared in the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennial for Architecture, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA, among other places. In 2004, Miller held a solo show at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, which echoed his live performance of “DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation,” Miller’s remix of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.”
Aside from his life as a turntablist and a media artist, Miller finds the time to work as a professor of music-mediated art at the European Graduate School, a privately funded graduate school founded by the non-profit European Foundation of Interdisciplinary Studies, located in Switzerland. According to Miller, he was approached by the administrators of the European Graduate School via a “strange email that was very cryptic.” “I wasn’t even sure if it was real,” he said.
But once he realized that the email was as real as their desire to have him on board, he took the gig and it’s been good times ever since. “I loooooove the EGS. It’s a great environment for progressives.”
On top of working as a professor, Miller has had a heavy hand working in the journalism field. He has written various pieces on music, art and technology for The Village Voice, The Source, Slate.com, Rap Pages, and Artforum, and has published a collection of his essays under the title “Rhythm Science,” out now on MIT Press. He was also the editor of ArtByte: the Magazine of Digital Arts and is co-publisher of A Gathering of the Tribes, a periodical dedicated to the works of writers from a multicultural standpoint.
It is, however, of no surprise that a multi-tasking, multi-talented artist such as Miller would find himself dabbling in the world of the written word. “Well, it’s all about the stories, and like music, you can only say that it plays with memory and how we forget things,” he said.
In other words, “journalists, like DJ’s, help us remember the way things happened.”
For more information on Paul Miller, check out his website www.djspooky.com. Catch DJ Spooky live on June 30 at Southpaw, 125 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, NY. For information on the 2nd Annual Afro Punk festival, check out www.afropunk.com.