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DJ Olive: The Audio Janitor Takes Live Dubwise

DJ Olive's layered, multicultural music comes across like a dub convention: throbbing sub-bass and crosscut rhythms mix with syncopated guitar hiccups and hypnotic melodies. While his 2004 release Bodega has become a nu-dub classic, the recently released Heaps As: Live in Tasmania showcases Olive's ever-changing stage creations. We talked to DJ Olive about the details of his Live setup, weaving melody and rhythm onstage, and the importance of shaking booty.

Download an mp3 of the interview.

You're using Live onstage and in the studio?

Yeah, and I use it in radically different ways.

Let's start with the studio.

Well in the studio, I use what I call the "back side."

The Arrangement View.

Yeah, and I try to turn the warping off as much as possible. It's fine for a live situation, but I think to actually publish material, I try to turn as much of the warping off as possible; that's 70 percent of the samples, especially the low-end ones. What I'll do is find something that works, and I'll bring it in, turn the warping off and try to get everything really tight, then cut and paste, paste and copy stuff over rather than just have things moving. To play live I have one track that I've loaded with tons of clips. I'm always finding little loops and shit, when I'm on a plane or in a cab, and I'll make clips out of them that can be dragged into a session later. I have this session of something like, I don't know, two hundred scenes. It's just filled with clips, and I color code them.

So, drums are different kinds of blue, hi-hats are light blue, breakbeats are slightly on the purple side, bass is green, red is guitary sounds and horns, sounds with a lot of melody. All the dancehall bits are that light green color, and so on and so forth. I'll make little arrangements, working the way I work in the studio in the arrangement window. I'll find a little chunk of something I think is working and use the Impulse drum machine. I bounce down little nuggets, like a thirty-two-bar phrase, a twelve-bar phrase or whatever, and drag that in so I have all these components that I can play live.

I don't necessarily have an arrangement in mind, I just look for it live. It's not like "this bass goes with that drum." I kind of get to know my loops, but this way I find it's a lot more fun for me, because I'm not just playing tracks and clicking on scenes — I'm actually trying to find something that works, and sometimes you hear it not working and it comes together, and I find the audience likes that. They get charged when they hear something sort of difficult. Like matching beats when you have it slightly in there but it's slightly out and the audience gets kind of hyped. Then when you get it locked up, the audience knows you're up there working, not just pressing play or checking your e-mail.

Do you have things labeled by keys?

No, because I don't tune to any kind of natural tuning. A lot of that is because I'm using a lot of samples from sub-Sahara, Indonesia, Tuvan singers, you know, wherever. I don't really stress myself about having everything in key, I'll just try to find something that I think is intuitively tuned in an interesting way. If I bring something up and it really doesn't sound tuned, I just take it out.

Do you have an instrumental background?

Well I always played music. I studied painting and photography, and I got disillusioned with the arts scene right away here in New York. I started out doing big warehouse parties and making installation environments. This was the early rave scene in Brooklyn, hitting big warehouses and using things like water and fire and smell, all this crazy stuff. That got me into DJing around '91, and it's just rolled from there. I never really tried to make this a career; I just kept getting phone calls and kept getting gear.


Are you pre-cuing with headphones when you DJ?

No. No, and a lot of my loops, I know what they are.

You've used them before?

Yeah. If there's something I'm not really sure about, I won't just punch it in, I'll mix it up slowly and see if that's working. If I really feel like it's not working or if the swing is fighting--that's probably as big a problem as tuning. So I'll bring something up, and if I feel like it's clashing, I'll just take it out. Again, if the audience is really paying attention they'll hear that, they'll know I'm working, they'll be like, "that's out of tune" right when I hear that it's out of tune, and then they'll hear it going away.

I try to constantly pay attention to the crowd, so if I see a bunch of girls just really shaking their ass, for me it's about getting girls dancing. A lot of scenes like the drum 'n' bass scene here in New York became harder, and all of a sudden there were no girls anymore, just guys and DJs. I have one DJ friend who, if there are no girls in the room, he just stops playing. For me it's a lot about making a kind of sound where the girls get moving, people are moving. When I see the groove is going, I try to stick with that.

Sometimes the crowd will be more into a breakbeat vibe, other times the dancehall just goes off, the crowd goes bonkers. I played New Year's in Tokyo, and they went crazy for the dancehall, so I just worked that side of it. Sometimes it's the dub samples and melody samples that really bring people onto the dance floor; other times it's the bass. Usually the beginning of the set is to try and see what the right combination is tonight for this crowd; if I feel like something is getting stale, I move on. Don't try to force something to work. One of the things that has screwed me up is trying to get intellectual, like "I know these samples worked before, I'm gonna try to do this," you know. It's like you're concentrating too hard, and you lose the audience. For me it's about having fun, about trying to keep the vibe alive and have things just move forward. If something doesn't work, don't get precious about it and be like, "Oh, that was my piece, man; I worked it out in the studio." Just let it go, figure it out next time.

Also, the sound systems are so radically different. A sample that works really well one night is just not going to work the next night. It's really bizarre, just the way the rooms are tuned and stuff. One night a combination of samples will work really great, just be so tight in that room, so you try to recreate that the next night and it will sound like crap.

You mentioned a lot of your sets stay around 97 beats per minute [BPM].

Yeah, but I'll push it up. If I play a couple of hours, I usually end up around 106 BPM. I go up and down. If I really got the crowd and they're all dancing, I find I can move the tempo around more and they'll stay with me. One of the things with Live, which is really nice, is you can bring the master tempo way down slowly, so you're going like 60 BPM, but you do it slowly so the whole crowd goes with you, and everyone starts slowing down but the pitch stays the same. It's different than when people slow down a turntable, which is what people used to do, but the pitch would go down too, so you would get this whoooooaaaaoooo vibe. In Live it sounds like a band slowing down, even though it gets a bit granular if you get really far away from the original tempo.

I find that can be really hype--you bring it down and the crowd goes with you, and you bring it back up and you end up maybe three BPM faster than when you brought it down. Let's say you're at 97 BPM, you got the crowd really with you, then you get to a breakdown, slow it down to like 60 and they're all like weeeeeuuuuuuu, everyone's dancing in slow motion and you slowly bring it back up with another melody sample, bring the beats back in at 100 BPM. You sort of raise the tempo by first bringing it down. Then it seems like you're going really a lot faster even though you only added three BPM.

What are you using for a controller?

I still haven't found a controller I really like; I'd really like to build one, actually.

What features are you looking for?

They're so many different ones I've thought about. I think I'd probably try to chain together maybe three. I'd like to have a foot controller, so that when I'm using turntables and I have stuff going on the laptop I can control it with my foot, even if it's just to bring the volume down. So when I control turning something off or triggering, I don't have to reach over and look at the computer.

The other controller I want is a bunch of faders. I want to control track volumes and I want to use knobs for sends. The basic controller I'm looking for has maybe twelve faders and three sets of knobs above each, and I haven't been able to find that yet, so I was thinking of trying to chain together a few.

At a lot of the gigs I play I'm not even using a controller. I've noticed it's a lot more dynamic and fun to use a controller, and Live is so made for that. I think it's an ideal application to build your own controller for, actually. I've seen a few drummers that are doing interesting things using Live to trigger stuff.

Thanks for your time, Olive.

Thank you.

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