This story is a part of our Mad Men Takeover. Season four of the series premieres on AMC this Sunday, July 25.
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.
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?
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?
Yes, I am.
Paste: Do you watch
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
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?
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
Paste: What are the
next plans for the label? Do you have things mapped out?
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.
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
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