Ahead of a new tour, the pioneer of modern dance music tells us why his latest release is so heavily influenced by the state of the world
'It's not humanity's finest hour,' Josh Davis says solemnly over the phone from California. 'There's a line I really like in the movie Ready Player One: "people stopped trying to fix problems and just tried to outlive them". I sort of feel like that's where we're at right now.'
As DJ Shadow, Davis has been at the forefront of innovation in hip hop and electronic music for over two decades, with his groundbreaking instrumentals and ambitious collaborations leading to some of the most pioneering works within the genre. Our Pathetic Age, the producer's sixth studio album and first full length since 2016's The Mountain Will Fall, is the latest in a long line of seminal projects; the difference here being the spark that ignited the fire. 'There have been several times in my years of putting out records that I've felt a need to address in some way what I'm perceiving is happening in the world. I don't think [Our Pathetic Age] is a political album; I think it's more of a humanistic album.'
With an hour and a half of fresh material, Our Pathetic Age is a mammoth record of two halves; the first is strictly instrumental, with beat-driven soundscapes leading beautifully into a second section of rap collaborations featuring the likes of Nas, De La Soul, Ghostface Killah and, perhaps unexpectedly, Sam Herring of Future Islands. 'I think the music always steers it,' Davis says of the selection process behind the varied list of collaborators. 'For "Drone Warfare", I wrote down Pharoahe Monch's name literally the day I came up with the title. With Sam [Herring] and the title track, I sort of warned him that I was going to be very hands on with what he wrote and how he sang it and I wanted to put that out there before we even started working on it. But I was glad that he was so giving; I wouldn't have been able to do the song if he wasn't fully onboard with how particular I was going to be.'
There are certainly lighter moments throughout the record, as on the aforementioned disco-influenced Herring track, but on the whole, Our Pathetic Age remains sombre thematically, with Davis soundtracking a time he considers simultaneously extraordinary and troubling. But as he asserts when asked about the requirement of artists to actively respond to the state of the world in their own works, 'I don't think it should ever be seen as a responsibility because I think that's limiting an artist. I think art should reflect life and I don't think we are, by and large, consumed with politics 24/7. I think on an average day, you experience a range of emotions and I think it's important, for me and my music, to do the same. ''Rocket Fuel" is unapologetically feelgood and I want to put that energy out into the world sometimes. And then there are darker songs that hopefully touch on a range of different textures and emotions. But I don't personally think that artists should be compelled to react.'
From his 1996 trailblazing debut Endtroducing (widely recognised as the first LP created entirely from samples) all the way up to Our Pathetic Age, Davis has never fully stuck to one formula or gameplan, instead choosing to redefine set ideas and methods for the purpose of continued renewal and divergence. So with this in mind, where does he stand on the current status of hip hop and its evolution over the years?
'I think that every genre has a golden age,' he explains methodically. 'Every human endeavour is going to have moments of supreme inspiration and I feel that people are sometimes hesitant to assign golden ages because it inherently signifies that something is longer at its peak. I think the same is true with hip hop. I think its golden age was its inception in the early 70s and then it peaked in the late 80s with records like 3 Feet High and Rising, Paul's Boutique and Straight Outta Compton. To me, the rap that you hear on the radio now doesn't really have a lot to do with hip hop culture in its original form, and I don't think there's anything controversial in saying that. I think that for the most part, it's had its day. That doesn't mean that it's not worthy of people's energy or anything like that. I very strongly believe that it's important not to live in the past exclusively and to continue to engage new music wherever the innovations are happening, whether it's Grime, footwork or whatever genre.'
In Davis' eyes, hip hop may have lived through its golden era, but he remains a key proponent of the genre, both via his own releases and his passion for the history of the culture. The tour for Our Pathetic Age will undoubtedly be a great chance to catch the master at work, a man who remains refreshingly humble after all these years despite still being a massive inspiration for new generations of DJs and crate diggers around the world.
'Honestly, I'm excited to come out as well and I do feel grateful,' he says. 'When I first started making music and going overseas, I felt very fortunate and somehow through all these years, I feel even more fortunate in the sense that I couldn't have drawn this up. I feel very lucky to be able to have an outlet to express myself and my ideas about music. So it's nothing but total gratitude from me.'
DJ Shadow, SWG3, Glasgow, Thu 27 Feb, and touring.