DF Tram is a somewhat of a mysterious DJ and producer from San Francisco who is highly regarded in the North American underground electronic music scene. Known for his unique style of mixing and producing, his chilled DJ sets are second to none as far as innovation is concerned. When not behind the decks DF Tram is always busy creating beautiful and thought-provoking music through various projects, such as The Sound Capsule, Jump/Cut and also as a member of The Ambi-Sonic Collective .You can catch his weirdly wonderful sounds at one of his regular gigs in the Bay Area or at clubs and festivals around the world. DF Tram has played at some of the best electronic music venues in the world such as The Big Chill Festival (UK), Niceto in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Chillits in San Francisco and many, many more. DF Tram was also nominated for a prestigious DJ Award in the downtempo/eclectic category at the Ibiza DJ awards (2008). In the summer of 2015 he releases his debut solo artist album on Steve Miller’s Subatomic UK label. A&R man, Simon Huxtable caught up with him to chat about his new album, his influences and the time he slept in a tunnel on the Yorkshire Dales…
Hi Dylan, thanks for finding the time to chat with us at Decoded Magazine. So tell us about DF Tram. We understand you started out as a duo with your best pal Frank…
Thanks for having me! Yeah, DF Tram started out as a duo of music nerds who met in high school (Dylan and Frank AKA D.F.) We ended up making music together, as we found we had a lot in common. We liked a lot of the same music and films. At our first shows, Frank used to bring an Akai sampler on stage, I would have a couple turntables, mixer, and boss guitar pedals for dubbed-out fx. It was a fun setup and taught me a lot about improvising live with records – now all of that can be done in Ableton. It was fun though and that’s where I cut my teeth in the club scene. Frank left San Francisco to go back home to Los Angeles, but I kept the name.
You’re based in San Francisco, a town with a formidable musical reputation. Talk us through some of the milestone events that have shaped the city.
Ooh, the summer of love, and the great acid test parties with the merry pranksters, and, of course the beatnik scene. I think there was a lot of cross-pollination with all that in the 60’s, and it continues to this day. The city is small, so there is a lot of crossover and collaboration. The underground 90’s parties, the thriving local festivals, and the music campouts, that are still going. Parties like “Chillits” – a great little ambient campout that now takes place on Wavy Gravy’s farm. I’ve had the pleasure of performing there many times over the years (it has become sort of legendary in the local scene), Mixmaster Morris played there about 12 years ago, and I think it was eye opening, even for him – a bunch of hippies hot tubbing, and listening to ambient music for three days.
Where’s really happening in San Fran now?
If there is one constant in San Francisco, it’s that it is always changing. There are always new people coming here, looking for that “thing”. Many find it, many don’t. For me, that keeps the city fresh – always new ideas and new people to feed off of. Restaurants and bars… where to begin? I think we have some of the best food in the world – the variety is amazing. From Indian burritos, to Argentine empanadas, if you can’t find it here, you probably aren’t looking hard enough (that goes for most things here). The bad restaurants don’t last long. For great Chinese food, your best bet is outside of Chinatown. Places like “San Tung” in the Inner Sunset (great chicken wings!!). Seafood? Stay away from Fisherman’s Wharf. I like “Anchor” oyster bar in the Castro. There is a great cinema in the Castro district as well, “The Castro Theatre”. I’ve spent many a night there watching classic films, it’s my favourite theatre in the country – the film noir festival is amazing there. I have definitely been inspired musically by some of the films I have seen there, especially on tracks like “Nightcrawler”.
Bruce Haack played a very important part in your musical awakening didn’t he? What was it about his music in particular that so inspired you?
Yes! Bruce Haack was huge for me. I think he should have been a lot bigger than he was. I was fortunate to meet Bruce Haack’s friend, manager and collaborator, Chris Kachulis. He gave me access to some unfinished demos Haack made in the late 60’s (The Electric Lucifer III I.F.O.) and I decided to make a record based on these demos. I listened to so much Haack, that by the time I got to making the record, I felt like I was channeling him. It was a real labour of love. He was very big on experimentation, and using his voice as an instrument. You can hear a lot of those influences on my new album. He was also a pioneer of home recording – he did a lot of cool stuff from his apartment in New York. I have a similar way of working here in San Francisco. I’m glad that people like J-dilla have kept his name alive by sampling him, which no doubt, has led a lot of folks to Haack. My album is out there too, so hopefully I did him justice. Go look for it if you can, Sound Capsule/Bruce Haack “Electric Lucifer Book III”.
You also cite Jim Morrison, Joe Frank and others having ‘schooled you on the power of the spoken word and music’…
Yeah, in high school I discovered psychedelic and ambient music. My friend Frank (no relation to Joe Frank) and I were huge music nerds, and we spent a lot of time lending each other CD’s, then discussing the music. We also heard a lot of great stuff on local radio stations in Los Angeles, like KCRW. That is where I first heard Joe Frank, I loved his improvisational spoken word – it was often backed by really cool ambient, or jazz music. It was very influential for me and I think you can hear a bit of that influence on my new track “Grand Finale”. Joe Frank has a new show on KCRW, I highly recommend people checking it out. I was a huge Doors fan. I really connected with the poetry, and musicality of his lyrics. It really sunk into my teenage mind. I wrote a lot of poetry during that time, I still do.
Having been an important member of the Ambient community for many years, can you talk us through some of your best DJing experiences?
Some of my best experiences have been meeting and playing with my heroes. My friends and I have thrown some cool underground parties, and brought in guest artists like Mixmaster Morris and Thomas Fehlmann. The Thomas Fehlmann party was at a church in Oakland, with great visuals and people laying around chilling out. I also opened for The Orb at the Regency Theatre here in SF. That was such a memorable experience for me, The Orb was very important for me, as far as getting into DJing and electronic music. So when I was asked to open for them, I was over the moon. I think it can be very special to meet your heroes, it has been for me, they taught me a lot and just being around them and seeing how they work, is invaluable. I never would have imagined when listening to The Orb and The Irresistible Force (aka Mixmaster Morris) records when I was a teen, that I would one day share the stage with them. As clichéd as it sounds, hard work really does pay off!
Probably the best-known Chill DJ in the UK – Mixmaster Morris, has championed you from the start, and is now someone you call friend. Firstly, can you tell us about how you guys met, and secondly, about the time you both DJed in a tunnel in the Yorkshire Dales!
I love Morris. The term genius gets thrown out a lot, but I think Mixmaster Morris is up there. He can talk about anything – not just music – and it’s always interesting, he’s got a wicked sense of humour too. We first met when he came to DJ at a party I used to throw here in San Francisco, called Tranquility Base. I was so excited that he was coming to play, that I must have spent weeks practicing, and making sure I had the perfect set to play him. It worked. I think he was surprised at all the old ambient records I had – little did he know I had been trainspotting his sets for years. We have been friends ever since. Once we played a weird little festival in the Yorkshire Dales (Masterpeace Festival). Morris booked the ambient stage (in a small railway tunnel), so he had a lot of artists coming from all over. Since us chillout DJs are always ‘prepared’ we came to the festival sans tent, and acoutrements. When Morris was ready to sleep, he just crashed out right there on the ground in the tunnel. I was like WTF! Is this the glamorous DJ life!??!! If there is one thing I have found out about Morris, it’s that he can sleep anywhere – on a wooden box, crunched into a fetal position on a bale of hay, in the middle of a field playing death metal – I’ve seen it all. Anyway, when we were sleeping in the tunnel, we were abruptly awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of a big van backing up into the tunnel we were sleeping in. Two guys got out of the van and started pulling out all the DJ equipment – apparently some of their equipment was stolen on another stage, so they were coming to collect their stuff, and get out of town. Turned out to be a fun party though. That was also the first time I had one of the ice cream cones with the flake bar sticking out of it. Make mine a 99?! KLF! hahahaha… Now I make sure I get one whenever I’m in the UK.
Hehehe Okay, so lets talk about the new album – Illegal Lingo. Its your debut artist album (out now) and encompasses a number of emotions and life experiences. Particularly, one about your brothers suicide and the night you broke your neck in a car crash. Did writing these tracks have a cathartic reaction for you?
Wow, tough question! Yeah, the album is very personal. A lot of what I speak about on the album has happened to me, or people close to me. My brother’s suicide was like being swallowed by the Earth. You are in a deep hole, and you can’t see, then a small ray of sunlight creeps into the crevasse, and you slowly dig yourself out. Music brought me out. As much as I wanted to give up, I couldn’t. Music became my driving force. I think once you go through something like that, losing someone so close to you, not much can be worse. It’s a part of life though. Soul Exchange. One soul come, one soul leave. Me breaking my neck was another disaster – I had a terrible car accident when I was about 20 years old, fractured my neck, a similar injury to Superman (Christopher Reeve), the only difference is my spinal cord was spared. But, recovering from that injury, I told myself that I would not stop doing my thing, in fact , I would push even harder. I was given another chance, and I was determined to make the best of it.
Each track has some unique samples in them. How did you come by them, are you a crate digger in the mould of DJ Shadow?
Yes, Shadow is definitely an influence. “Entroducing” is a DJ’s wet dream. I do a lot of crate digging, but I also do a lot of field recording, and like taking things from films that have inspired me, or even conversations I have with friends. A lot of it gets recorded, unbeknownst to them hehehehe …. Collage and cut and paste, is also how I like to work – slowly building and finding things that work together. The greatest things though are the happy accidents, when the samples just somehow work together, and tell a new story.
The overall feel of the album is one of serenity and calm. Do you think living in sunny California has a part to play in that? Are you a believer in environment influencing artist output?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t think this album could come from anywhere else. There is a lot of beauty in California, but there is also a lot of darkness. I feel all of it can be used as inspiration, or at least a way to try to make sense of it all. I think I’m a storyteller, and audio is my platform. Also, we don’t get that much sun here in San Francisco, at least not compared to Los Angeles. The SF fog can be just as exciting though… I always find it funny when I see tourists wearing shorts in San Francisco, cause the average person here doesn’t wears shorts. The golden rule here is always bring a jacket. But yeah, environment definitely has an influence on me, but I’m like a sponge, always taking things in. On this album, I was also very lucky to have some great collaborators like Steve Miller, Coppe’, Jonah Sharp and Future BC amongst others. They really helped shape the album and give it depth, and richness.
Talk us through your typical workflow. How do you give life to the ideas in your head?
I constantly have ideas. I like to jot down ideas and notes on the fly – I listen to music constantly when walking around the city. This allows me to listen to and critique my own ideas. Then when I get home to my studio, I can look back at my ideas, and see if there are any good ones. Many times, I like to start out with a “theme”, and then go out, and look for samples and audio that might work with it.
Can you walk us through your studio? Any favourite pieces of equipment / software?
My record collection is always revealing new surprises. I listen to music a lot when I want to be creative. This helps plant new idea seeds in my mind. As for software, Ableton has been the most life-changing software for me – I love it! It has a great flow, and helps me get ideas down quickly. I also love hardware, and synths like my “moog little phatty” and my Alesis QS6 synth. Those are all over the new album. But I’m not really a gearhead, I use whatever is available to me to try and recreate the sounds I hear in my head. A lot of my gear is pretty old, but it’s solid. I think the mind is more important than the machine. Machines are just tools. That said, my turntables are probably the most important pieces in my studio.
Visuals play an important part of this album. We understand your brother Shawn helped you out…
My brother Shawn had a huge influence on me. He is a big collector of music and films and he turned me on to so many cool records and movies – he gave me access to his record collection, which was how I first started to mix music. I think that is why my DJ sets are so eclectic – I had so many genres to choose from. He now makes trailers for films in Hollywood. He also designed a lot of my album art, and fliers over the years. Always top quality, and always cutting edge – I don’t have to tell him what to do, he already knows. If you want to see how film and visuals have inspired me, I highly recommend checking out “the great movie remix” I did with Cal-TV, we did some screenings of this at festivals last year, to some great reviews.
Well, it’s been a real delight to meet you and chat Dylan. We wish you the best of luck with the album, its brilliant! Where can we catch you playing over the summer months?
Thanks so much! And thanks for the opportunity to share a little bit about me and what makes me tick. I really hope people will find things that they can connect with on the album? Yeah, I’m getting really excited about some gigs coming up – I have the album release party in San Francisco this month. And later, I will be headed to Europe to promote the album, will be in London in early October for some shows there – kicking off October 3rd at “Spiritland”. Then hitting other cities in Europe, like Barcelona, Malta and possibly Germany. Until then, I’ll be doing gigs here locally in California. For all you local heads, look for me to be performing a special “Illegal Lingo” set in Sacramento, at “Le Twist” in early September .
01// Gaussian Curve – Broken Clouds
02// Handsome Boy Modelling School – Sunshine (Groove Armada Sunset Dub)
03// Jefferson Airplane – Embryonic Journey
04// Kay Nakayama – Conscious Universe
05// Rhye – Open
06// John Abercrombie – Timeless
07// Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael Brooks – Longing
08// The Irresistible Force – Sunshine
09// Neon Heights – Listen to the Music
10// Max Sedgley – Slowly
11// Jose Feliciano – California Dreaming
12// Lydmor – Drugs in my Pocket (Afterlife Remix)
13// DF Tram – The Mystery