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Catching Up With... Mad Men Theme Music Composer RJD2

July 23, 2010  |  6:00am
Catching Up With... <i>Mad Men</i> Theme Music Composer RJD2
This story is a part of our Mad Men Takeover. Season four of the series premieres on AMC this Sunday, July 25.

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About four minutes into an otherwise calm conversation with producer/musician RJD2 (née RJ Krohn), there's a brief pause before a loud "Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fuck!” blasts from his end of the phone.
He has locked his keys in the car. He apologizes, wonders aloud about how his dogs are going to get fed, half-scolds himself for having been on his cell phone and promises to call me back soon. This episode is a lot like the music of RJD2, actually: just when you get into the groove, it hits you with something unexpected, a right hook that amps up the excitement. But also like his songs, Krohn ends the conversation on an even keel. Not 30 minutes later, his keys had been retrieved, order had been restored and we had resumed chatting about hearing his music on Mad Men (a snip of his song “A Beautiful Mine” is the show's opening theme) running his own label and what (besides feeding his dogs) is on his immediate horizon.

Paste: I wanted to start by talking to you about how you’ve been involved with Mad Men. I’ve read that at first, you were pretty hesitant when Lionsgate first approached you about using your song?
RJ Krohn: Yeah. Well, I was into using it, but I wanted to license it. They were pretty insistent on purchasing the rights to the publishing. I was pretty insistent on licensing the rights to publishing. So it wasn’t that I didn’t necessarily want to be involved with it. I hadn’t seen the show. You know, they kept the whole thing under pretty tight wraps, so to speak, and it hadn’t aired or anything like that. However, I eventually relented, basically because the label was really gung-ho about it. And, you know, the other side of it was also that I try to do almost everything once. In general, in the music industry, if there’s something that I get offered, I don’t like to universally say no—or say yes—to it, but mostly not turn down things, even if they seem like a poor idea, just ‘cause you never really know. Sometimes the best way to figure out the benefits and detractions of something is to do it once. And then if it doesn’t work out so well, you don’t do it again. And if it does, you do. So with this kind of thing, I had the luxury of—it was just one song on one album. It wasn’t a massive deal for me to give up the publishing rights to one song. And even though I was pretty reticent to do that, I just took the plunge eventually and that was that. I’m glad that I did.

Paste: What reasons did they give about why they were so adamant about using that particular piece of music?
Krohn: Gosh, well, you know, they didn’t. It wasn’t so much of a reason. [laughs] In fact, I have no idea why. I mean, obviously, I’d have to assume they auditioned a number of pieces of music and that one, they kept coming back to that? ... At no point in time did they ever say why they wanted to use that particular track. However, a common thing that I’ve experienced in the ad agency world is that people, you know, they’ll demo music against a particular visual sequence or image. And once they find something they like, it’s very easy for them to get hung up on that particular option and not entertain other options. And I’m willing to bet you that’s probably what happened because I’ve seen that happen time and time again. I guess in this case, you could say it worked to my advantage. Again, I don’t want to say that I’ve verified that that’s what happened, but I would bet dollars to doughnuts that’s why. It was, I think if I remember correctly, it was three or four or five weeks of them asking and me saying, “I’ll license.” Them saying, “We want to use it, we want to buy the publishing,” and me saying, “I’m cool with it, I want to license it,” and them saying, “No, we want to buy the publishing.” Us basically saying the same thing to each other, at least three or four times.

Paste: But you said you’re glad you made the decision you did?
Krohn: Yeah. Yes, I am.

Paste: Do you watch Mad Men?
Krohn: I do. I love it. It’s possibly my favorite show on television.

Paste: I guess it’s the same kind of phenomenon of hearing your music on the radio, but is it strange, since you love that show, that you’ll be watching it and that’s your music on it.
Krohn: I don’t know why this is the case and I don’t think it makes sense, necessarily, but I don’t particularly care for hearing it during the opening credits. It’s now gotten to the point where it’s gotten a little—I don’t know—weird? Just in a way that I don’t really like listening to my own music. But I do get a kick out of it when the song gets used in kind of peripheral places here and there. Like if there’s a TV-show awards ceremony, then the house band that’s playing for the Emmys or something, they’ll learn that piece and play it. And those things, I really get a kick out of. I think they’re enormously entertaining. Like when The Simpsons used the song—they did a reference to Mad Men in one of the seasons and they had some ... guys play the song. And God, that was just an exciting and surreal moment in my life. One of the most, I would say.

Paste: Can you talk to me a little bit about what the experience of establishing your own record label, RJ's Electrical Connections, was like?
Krohn: Yeah. Getting it set up was nothing. That was just establishing a limited liability corporation. Running it—doing it on a day-to-day basis—has proven to be very, very hard. It’s a lot of work. I’m glad that I’ve done what I’ve done and I’m certainly confident that it was the right decision for where I was at in my career—and where I am at in my career. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of work.

Paste: Can you expand on that? What were you most surprised about in the day-to-day running that you weren’t necessarily anticipating?
Krohn: I guess the coordination. I have a distributor, a U.S. and digital distributor, and I also have a distributor for outside of the States. And coordinating those things, just getting everybody on the same page, that’s a lot more work than I had anticipated. I didn’t realize how difficult generating things like one-sheets—to a lesser extent, the meta-data for a release is not that hard, but doing a good one-sheet is a fair amount of work. There’s just always things popping up. I thought that having a distributor was gonna make it somewhat streamlined and easier—and it has—but it’s not quite as easy as I thought it was going to be. On the flip side of it, there were so many things that I’ve been really hands-on about in my career over the years, and I think that helped acclimate me to this process. So I think that there’s a lot of aspects of it that I was abnormally prepared for, more so than your average artist, I think.

Paste: What are the next plans for the label? Do you have things mapped out?
Krohn: Yeah, I do. There are two records that are done now that I’m looking forward to releasing. One of them is a side project record—an instrumental side project record that I did on my own. The other one is a collaborative thing I did with a singer. Kind of, sort of, I guess you would call it psychedelic soul music.

Paste: That sounds like an awesome combination.
Krohn: It’s kind of in the working format of a Gnarls Barkley type of record, but not quite as programmed and sequenced. A little more live-oriented, live-playing-oriented. But it’s cool—it incorporates a lot of different styles of music. It’s me producing and one singer. And that group is called Icebird.

Paste: I’m also really curious to talk to you about Inversions of the Colossus. It’s such a unique concept. It’s not something that I, at least, am familiar with anyone else having done. So if you could just briefly describe it for anyone that wouldn’t be familiar with it and talk about the creative process might have been a little different from other things you might have done.
Krohn: You’re right—it’s a format of an album that I’ve never done before, so it’s a little bit different. But at the same time, the logic behind it makes a lot of sense and once explained, it’s a pretty straightforward album, I would say. So I guess to start with: I put out a record in January called The Colossus. And that record, for all intents and purposes, half of it’s vocal and half of it [is] instrumental. So there were seven songs that had vocals on it and maybe a little less than that—I think five or six—that were instrumental. I could be fudging these numbers, but roughly speaking, half to two-thirds of it was vocal. Normally, when I put out a record that has vocals on it … any of these records that are all vocal in essence, I’ll always do instrumental versions of them. And I do this because it’s somewhat of a time-honored tradition in the world of record collectors and DJs and hip-hop musicians to have those instrumentals released and available. It’s a useful tool for DJs. However, with The Colossus, it was a weird thing because all the songs weren’t vocal. So you couldn’t technically do an instrumental version of that record and have it be a full album without the redundancy of the instrumental songs not changing, you know? So I wanted to find a way to release those instrumentals and still do it in a manner that made sense. So instead of basically shrinking it down to be an EP, I got the idea to replace the instrumental songs with new songs. So what, in essence, happened, is that half of the record—the instrumental songs on The Colossus—just get replaced with different songs and the vocal songs become instrumental.

Paste: So when you were thinking of the brand-new songs to put in, were they songs you had for a new album, were they songs you’d made before and not release?
Krohn: Some of them were songs that were finished and a few of them were songs that were kind of half there. I might not say completed, but there were sketches there, and once I realized I was going to do this thing, then I kind of cleaned them up and finished them.

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