Dan The Automator: Music For Mixtapes

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Pillowfight, Dan The Automator, Emily Wells

I was 17 the first time I ever heard Handsome Boy Modeling School, sitting in my friend’s car thinking, “Wow. This is the future.” High school sounded like Outkast, Tupac, Wu Tang, which I loved as much as everyone else. But I had also recently discovered live jazz, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone. The vocals on “The Truth” and the smooth way the song descended gave my young ears a new life and combined flawlessly my two biggest loves: jazz and rap. From then on “The Truth” was a real star on my mixtapes and I had something to shoot for as writer, as a listener. Ten years later Kid Koala held up his phone at my performance for the Calgary Folk Festival leaving Dan a voicemail with the accompanying message, “You know that project you’re working on? I think you want to meet my new friend.” A couple weeks later I was on a plane to San Francisco for a rather surreal experience: Three days writing, recording, eating and drinking with Dan Nakamura and the first songs of Pillowfight were born, as well as a friendship with a producer I had admired since that friend’s car those years ago. Of course we didn’t know it was Pillowfight yet. Our working band name was “Trolling for Goth Girls” those following months when I would come up to San Francisco and sit in the studio writing lyrics and melodies to the beats and lush production Dan had created. I learned a lot in this time but the thing Dan taught me about the most was the power of the voice. He sat the single voice as queen above all else, like a soul song. As my own producer I had a tendency to hide my voice, to layer it, to treat it as an instrument, one of many violins in the orchestra. Despite the beauty and brilliance of the production, Dan gave me nothing to hide behind and asked me to speak clearly. For this, I am forever grateful, and forever changed.

Handsome Boy Modeling School, “The Truth (feat. Roisin Murphy and J-Live)”

To this day I can rap along with J-Live for his verse on the “The Truth”, and we all know, I’m no rapper. I love this song, which comes as a streak of seriousness and philosophy in the context of a rather humorous record. This taught me something about how important it is to have a sense of humor in your work, to not take yourself too seriously and that you can still have songs that knock you over like “The Truth” in the middle of so many jokes. The lyrics on this one really got me and were the perfect backdrop to teenage romance in both its glory and its shame.

Dr. Octagon, “Blue Flowers”

I had a friend obsessed with Kool Keith, always playing him for me. It wasn’t until I heard “Blue Flowers” that I understood. It was perfect. It was hypnotic. The violin line, the strangeness, Kool Keith’s delivery, the simplicity of the beat–all of it felt like holding currency. “Blue Flowers” found its way onto the tapes I made, and a few years later became a shared coin when meeting the person who would become my lifelong best friend. The record itself and the lyrics taught me something about using violence as an expression of anger, grief, pain. I hadn’t fully understood its power until going into the mind of Kool Keith. This lesson would come with me years later when working with Park Chan-Wook for his film Stoker and watching his film Oldboy. It gave me a greater understanding of the need for the extreme violence, or implication of violence, and the ability to empathize with the beauty and pain in his characters.

Handsome Boy Modeling School, “I’ve Been Thinking (feat. Cat Power)”

I love Chan Marshall’s vocals on this song. As a fan of Cat Power, and Handsome Boy, this was the song I gravitated towards most when White People came out. Hearing her voice in this context gave it a new power, and I thought of it later when recording with Dan and not hiding behind many layers of my own voice. On this song, her voice is utterly vulnerable and starkly confident, both asking and receiving. Again, perfect.

Gorillaz, “Clint Eastwood”

I would be remiss not to mention Del or Gorillaz when talking about Dan or certainly when thinking about the mixes I’ve made over the years. So I will pull them together in this final song choice. First of all, Del maintains his distinctive voice amid the catchiness of production and the chorus. Dan allows the vocalists he works with to “do you” as he would say. He never gets in the way of that; he never asks them to pretend to be someone else, unless of course they want to be someone else. This song took over as a hit all over the world, but didn’t once stop being itself. When Dan deejays, people want to hear his songs, so he’ll often do a short set of “greatest hits” moments. These reveal what an influence he has been in the world of popular music. I remember a summer of nothing but Gorillaz when this record came out, and hearing this song remade, remixed, and loved by all. This record, as we all know, changed the world of hip hop, rock ‘n roll and popular music in one fell swoop. It is truly addictive, creative, and brilliant, just like Automator himself.