Peering through the veil of wizardry and mystery: A conversation with DJ Rozwell
West Virginia-based underground producer talks breakout project ‘None of This is Real’ and mysterious ARG ‘Erratas’
With muffled samples of paranormal television, lo-fi hip-hop beats and the occasional 16-bit synthesizer comprising his signature sound, no one sounds quite like DJ Rozwell.
The West Virginia hip-hop producer gained notoriety in 2014 with “None of This is Real,” a mix meant for playing on shuffle with a five-six second crossfade to replicate the randomized elements of old ‘80s text-based and rogue-like role-playing games.
Aside from “NOTIR,” Rozwell created two “expansion packs” for the album, several more albums, produced a side project called KFC Murder Chicks and masterminded an ‘alternate reality game’ (a work of fiction that involves a mystery that must be solved in the real world/on the internet) to promote the KFC Murder Chicks. The ARG (referred to online as Erratas) took the internet by storm and became one of the most popular internet mysteries of 2019 over 3 years after its inception.
We recently spoke with Rozwell about the ARG, “NOTIR,” as well as his fascination with mystery and the paranormal.
Our interview, lightly edited for style and length, follows below:
The Spectrum: You seem to be a bit of an elusive and shrouded figure when it comes to your music. Is this intentional? When you’re going out and making a new DJ Rozwell project, do you like that element of mysteriousness?
DJ Rozwell: I don’t really try to be “mysterious” per se, but I’m not a big fan of putting stuff about my personal life out there. I like a nice barrier between my music life and “real” life so that’s part of it.
Also lately people have felt a lot more free about hitting me up in an overly familiar way, which I don’t really love. If I connect the two worlds too much then I feel like there’s too much of an expectation that I act a certain way or do a certain thing.
TS: In disconnecting your personal life from your musical life, how does that help inform work like “None of this Is Real,” your work with KFC Murder Chicks and your other releases and projects? Is it easier to define a distinct musical persona?
DJR: Yeah. An album is kind of a fictional world like a novel. That makes doing something like “NOTIR,” “Murder Burger,” KFC Murder Chicks, etc. easier. It makes me more confident in the finished product. If I talk about the music I’m making while making it, it enters the real world and gets real world germs on it.
TS: There’s a unique and strange atmosphere that your work tends to have, especially on something like “NOTIR.” You mentioned on Twitter that the Nine Inch Nails “Ghosts I-IV” record inspired the album, but what else inspired you while creating it?
DJR: “NOTIR” was a combination of a lot of things that interested me at that point in time. I made those beats between 2009-12. I had discovered Black Moth Super Rainbow and Tobacco a while back and that was a huge part of it. DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing…..” was obviously a big influence because of the spoken word samples all over it. Something about the atmosphere you get by combining someone just saying words with sampled beats, your brain creates all these backstories like “what does this sample and this guy talking about playing drums mean?”
I have ADHD, so without realizing, it was kind of a way for me to meditate and center myself while also having interesting things to chew on at the same time.
Around the same time, I was really interested in old Microsoft DOS rogue-like and infocom interactive fiction games. They’re related to tabletop RPGs in the sense that the game was like the dungeon master and narrator all rolled into one. They inherently had this really hostile vibe to them because of that. And the ones from the ‘90s, the hobbyist scene, were full of weird in-jokes like, “Here’s a castle, a wolf and then a clown or alien just sitting there. I’m not gonna explain s--t.”
That was funny and weird to me and I like the idea of my music being funny and weird so I knew I wanted to recreate that feeling without just stealing the atmosphere and vibe. I wanted it to be a little more goofy and slightly gross.
[The shuffling concept] came together really late into the whole process when I read about Autechre doing this minidisc album in the ‘90s where it was 80 tracks or so, and you were supposed to listen to it on shuffle because the minidisc player could go between tracks instantly without that little pause to load.
TS: What has inspired you more recently?
DJR: Ever since I started making music heavily I stopped picking up new albums at the rate I did when I was younger. I started listening to rock music more each year and actually got into learning music theory.
But DJ Shadow and Boards of Canada pretty much always inform my aesthetic to some degree. Oneohtrix Point Never also definitely left a mark on my brain. Now I’m at the point where I like to kind of push the existing limits of weird or obnoxious noises and ideas in my songs a little bit past where people who like my music are used to.
TS: Regarding KFC Murder Chicks and Erratas, what inspired you to create an ARG and link it up with that project? And what did you think of the response it received?
DJR: The whole ARG thing was around 2015 or 2016. Long story short, I was depressed, didn’t have a job and I was in this weird place where I didn’t feel confident in the [KFC Murder Chicks] music itself. I also felt like it needed a gimmick to go along with it to make it more well-known and figured a spooky internet mystery or ARG would do the trick.
It honestly came from a very cynical and not very artistic place, looking back. It was exciting early on, and I would definitely check in once a day to see what people were saying and then deliberately pivot in a different direction from where they thought the clues would lead. But then I got a full-time job and that left me with way less time to do anything related to the ARG and I kind of lost interest in it.
When it really blew up later I was amused at first but then gradually grew more weirded out. The narrators of these videos did all this speculating about me but never actually just contacted me to say, “Hey you’re an actual person, is it cool if we mention you specifically?” It rubbed me the wrong way back then, but that’s karma I suppose.
I still get at least two or three DMs a week about Erratas and usually ignore them unless it’s a person who seems really freaked out or scared by it. I always make sure to tell them it’s not real at all and never was. I don’t want to freak people out like that.
TS: What fascinates you about the paranormal? It’s a pretty important theme in a lot of your work, whether that be the vocal snippets in “NOTIR,” or your Halloween mixes.
DJR: I was totally consciously aping Boards of Canada with the clips of Art Bell (Editor’s Note: Art Bell is a famous radio broadcaster for Coast to Coast, a paranormal-focused AM show that typically airs from 1-5 a.m.) on “NOTIR.” I’ve always been fascinated by ghosts and spooky stuff ever since I was a little kid, like cryptids and stuff.
It kind of comes back to the humor thing, in a way. Ghosts and cryptids are a mystery, we’ll never know the truth for sure. And if they’re all real in spite of us all having cameras and cutting down all the forests and invading every corner of the earth then the joke is on us. You can’t help but love that.
Alex Whetham is the Senior Arts Editor for the UB Spectrum and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @alexo774