DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ on Long Albums, Lo-Fi House, and Pursuing the Pop Dream

DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ on Long Albums, Lo-Fi House, and Pursuing the Pop Dream

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It's the most daunting record of the year, but I cannot get enough of DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ's four-hour odyssey Destiny. Exhaustive and exhilarating at the same time, the anonymous production outfit's latest record is such a fascinating object to me, studded with some of the year's chewiest dance-pop sounds while also providing a front-to-back euphoric rush that they'd only hinted at on previous records. I DM'd Sabrina a while back to see about an interview and sent some questions over via email, here's how that went down.

Tell me about what your main influences are at this point. I've seen the Avalanches mentioned a lot re: your production style, and I'm also wondering whether they play a role in your musical background and artistic inspiration.
They are such an enormous inspiration for me—not just the albums, but their mixes, and that sound of there being no person responsible for what you're hearing, but a collective of all the sounds that have been before, coming together as some whole that can't really be attributed to a single entity. They always have a really modest, deferential vibe, and I think it's that feeling that's more important a lot of the time than the actual sound.

As someone who recently listened to all of your records chronologically, I think I can identify one or two major shifts in your style and approach—but I'd like you to reflect on your discography thus far and how it reflects your artistic development. Where do you locate the points in which your style shifts or grows stronger?
Well, early on, there was the "lo-fi house" sound that was popular at the time. I remember hearing DJ Seinfeld and realizing he was doing what I'd attempted to do unsuccessfully around two or three years earlier, when Aphex Twin released the Caustic Window LP on Kickstarter and Bandcamp. I was inspired to pick up those tools I had left over and try again. I think my early attempts at trying to be like DJ Seinfeld, DJ Boring, Ross From Friends, etc. ended up going off on their own directions, which maybe was a good thing eventually—but at the time, no one really liked what I was doing compared to my "contemporaries.''

Some of the tracks like "It's Just A Natural Thing" kinda just came out of me experimenting, and I wanted to try and push further in that direction — but, again, I couldn't really get much traction (especially for anything that wasn't really close to generic lo-fi house). I got disappointed after Makin' Magick was released and almost gave up, but I had some ideas for the next album and I didn't really care about trying to appeal to the lo-fi house genre, so I just made songs I wanted to for Witchkraft. I predicted it would be my least popular album, which is why it's the shortest album and the cassette release was a single cheap O-card.

I anticipated Spellbound would be a little more popular, and then Enchanted would be a bit more after that. I just kept leaning more and more into the style I wanted to do, and by Enchanted I found that the less lo-fi-house tracks were actually the most popular, so Charmed was a definite attempt to lean as hard into that style as frequently as possible. I think someone called it Disneywave or something on Soundcloud...

I've seen "lo-fi house" mentioned quite a bit regarding your sound, especially your early work, which is a tag you've obviously transcended. Tell me about avoiding being pigeonholed and how you keep things adventurous.
Well, I never really care for any genres especially. I just like making songs that I like to listen to, and I haven't really tried to do anything in a particular style to appeal to a mass potential audience (unsuccessfully) since the first album. So it's very easy to just make music I like...I dread the day I get pigeonholed into the "Sabrina Sound", whatever that might be, haha....

Your albums are very long, to the point where consuming them in one sitting is difficult, especially Destiny. Tell me about why your music is presented this way, and what the risks and rewards are to releasing music in such a daunting and potentially overwhelming fashion.
With streaming being the dominant technology, there's no reason for the restraints of previously dominant physical media to dictate how creative anyone should be. Movies have never had a time limit on them because there's never been a dominant format that was restricted to a specific length. Even if home viewing (VHS, Laserdisc, DVD) ever played a part in deciding (which generally have much more length flexibility than compact discs or vinyl), movie makers would either add more tapes or discs to accommodate their films, not the other way around.

Makin' Magick was only long because a record label owner kept stringing me along. I said "Here's another track!" and he said, "Thanks!" and I said, "Here's ANOTHER track!" and he said, "Thanks!" and around June or July I said, "Okay, I've got the artwork for it and it's an hour long, I'm just going to put it out if you're not interested," and he said, "No, don't, I want to do something," so eventually I just had two hours of stuff that I'd put out on Soundcloud (inspired by Jai Paul's approach of just putting stuff up for listening there), and I just eventually decided to put it out myself.

It seemed to do better than any of the later, shorter albums (which generally weren't that much longer than Daft Punk's Homework) so I decided Charmed should be a long one, longer than Makin' Magick, and it was the most popular since MM! I did a few more shorter albums after Charmed, which...weren't as I tried an album even longer than Charmed to see if it would work a third time...

Who do you consider your peers at this point?
I don't think I have any? Most people don't really want anything to do with me, lol!

I want to talk about your writing credit on The 1975's "Happiness," as well as and veering more towards pop songwriting in general. "Figuring It Out" really stood out to me as particularly straightforward pop-wise, even as it definitely conjures a loose working in pure pop more of an overall aim, or something that is emerging naturally for you?
It's amazing how much love I've heard for "Figuring It Out," it was just rolling around for around a year and a half (maybe longer). I think almost all of it was written and recorded in a morning/afternoon (maybe a bit more the next day) and I liked it but I never expected anyone else to, it just didn't seem like it had enough of a gimmick? I also can't believe UK 2-step/Garage is popular again, it was one of those genres that I always ADORED, but I thought had been lost to time and everyone else just found it dated or couldn't quite quantify it compared to any contemporary sound.

This is why I put out 41 tracks, because I have absolutely no idea what anyone's going to like, I'm the world's worst A&R person, haha. But I think of my music being pop music, I don't really think of it being house or dance or electronic, it's all just pop music to me, so I don't really think of tracks being more or less pop I guess.

Let's talk about anonymity for a second, which has been employed a lot in dance music throughout the years for reasons of self-generated mystique and a desire to let the music do the talking. Which pole do you more gravitate towards regarding your own anonymity?
Well, I found that people preferred listening to new music when there's no person associated with it, so it was initially just a natural extension of that concept, but all the lo-fi house DJ's were so un-cool-cool with the sitcom pfps and names that only sound silly through association (even DJ Boring isn't that silly, it's just an unusual word to use in that context). But then they all started doing face reveals... they could just be called something generic and dance-musicy like AVAUAX or XAUAXAV or VAXAUX or whatever, and it would make more sense with all the black-and-white quarter-profile photography.

Tell me about working within the endless subculture of internet-native music. You've obviously developed a following and are capably online, what has that experience been like you and are there any drawbacks?There's a lot of artists that are even more "internety" than I am, and I try to kinda keep somewhere between the two lines. Soooo many artists are "Too good for the internet" and won't reply to supporters (I always loved that Phil Lynott refused to call them fans), they just use it as a huge, free megaphone to promote themselves or show off. I think if someone cares enough to spend even 30 seconds to type something nice about you, you should put that energy back in. Sometimes I have trouble thinking of something to say that's as kind, polite, funny or wonderful, but I always try my best or retweet, because I think of all the times I was doing stand-up comedy into a vacuum and how embarrassing and depressing it was.

I could also just not use social media if I wanted to "one-way street" it. I mean, plenty of actors don't use social media because they don't want to get into that back and forth, they don't want the responsibility to promote a movie or show, etc, I don't really get why musicians have this one-sided promotional thing. I was kinda inspired by Grimes chatting to her fans on Twitter (this is like 2010-2016 era, I have no idea what she does now), and I thought that was cool. But there's a lot of "internet personality" musicians that kinda use music as a promotion for their personalities, which is fine for them, but that's not what I'm doing. The music is the most important thing for me, I'm just trying to think of ways to keep people engaged each day.

I've seen you do several funny tweets about trying to get Anthony Fantano to review your music, and I've also seen you generally campaigning for coverage from publications. Tell me about this strategy, is it piss-taking or sincere?
Oh, it's just a joke, I have no serious investment in any of these things, it's purely for fun and content. I actually never expected Anthony Fantano to EVER review Charmed (I joked about this a lot at the time when everyone was pressuring him to review it) as I genuinely believed I was too small a fry for anyone of his popularity to even notice, so it was absolutely mind-blowing that he bought Makin' Magick and reviewed Charmed.

I was definitely disappointed that he wouldn't review Destiny because it was too long though, I think because it meant the length had impaired it. If he reviewed it and dozens or hundreds of people got to hear about an album that I believe 200% in, more and more people could hear it, because I believe in it so much. I can't get dozens, hundreds, thousands of new people to hear Destiny cause I'm too little and I really need big publications to help get the word out. Yeah, it definitely hurt, because it made me feel the length was at fault when that's actually a hugely important part of its construction; the feeling it has can't be edited down, it needs the length to be experienced in this way.

The "Abridged" version of the album is a gag (obviously it can't be edited) but record labels in the '90s used to do radio edits of everything and ruin them — which is kinda what I imagine a record label would do to Destiny if I gave it to them haha. I don't hold any ill will to anyone though, they don't have to listen to anything they don't want to, and I'd rather they didn't if they would go in with a negative impression, tbh.

One thing that really impresses me about your style is that you never lapse into pure kitsch, even while engaging with retro sensibilities. Tell me about striking that balance.
People say my sound is nostalgic, but it's just normal to me. I listen to music that sounds like this, and it's kinda just what I hear all the time! I think if something's kitschy, it might be more style than substance, and I use style to foster substance rather than relying on style to do all the hard work. A Fourplay album has a wonderful style, but they couldn't make beautiful music like that in the same way if it was hard-rock guitars and thrash drums—it wouldn't work the same way. So they use the textural palette of jazz, lounge, world, r&b, etc to best bring out the emotion in the songwriting. You have to have some emotion back there to bring the beauty out of, and it's usually important the type of palette you use to paint it with.

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Jamie Larson