Travel Lens: DJ Spooky’s World

DJ Spooky (aka Paul D. Miller) hears music in everything from nature to economic theory.

Genre-pushing work and surprising collaborations—with everyone from punk pioneer Patti Smith to eccentric rapper Kool Keith—have taken the multimedia artist, writer, and composer to all seven continents, sealed the deal to make him an artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and landed him on the 2014 list of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

Paul’s interest in the unconscious and the ways in which music can inspire contemplation and transformation also sets him apart. For instance, his ambitious “The Book of Ice” presents an experiential visual and acoustic portrait of Antarctica’s rapidly changing landscapes, prompting thoughtful rumination on Earth’s future.

Whether he’s teasing out the role of technology in society or challenging his audience to consider the implications of global culture, one thing’s for certain: we’re never going to find DJ Spooky standing still.

Here’s a look at the world through @djspooky‘s unique lens:

Megan Heltzel: Where do you call home?

DJ Spooky: I don’t really feel at home anywhere. I guess you could say I live in the 25th time zone. But I physically reside in Tribeca, New York. Why? Because it’s quiet and central.

When someone comes to visit you, where’s the first place you take them?

I hang out at a couple of cafés near my spot. Everyone in the neighborhood has spots. That’s what’s great about Tribeca—you actually bump into people you know. It’s that sense of being in a small and very specific place in the middle of a megalopolis. It works. Cafés are where anything really important happens.

Where did you grow up?

In the Washington, D.C. of the 1980s and ’90s. Ronald Reagan, the first George Bush, Marion Barry—that was the background. Heavy stuff was happening, but there was a little bit more incredulity, and less connectivity.

I grew up in a very cosmopolitan, relaxed, and, above all, deeply multicultural environment. My family was solidly middle class; my dad was dean of Howard University and my mom had a store on Connecticut Avenue (which is now a Teaism!).

So many of the things that plague the United States at every level—racial politics, class animus, total ignorance of international culture and politics—were remote to my life.

Is there a place that draws you back again and again? 

My favorite spot in the world is Vanuatu. I go there as much as possible because it has so many of the things I think artists need to rejuvenate.

I gravitate to remote, quiet places. [When I lived in D.C.] I used to take long walks in spots like Rock Creek Park or go for really long bike rides out to Harpers Ferry, alone. That kind of solitude stays with me to this day. One of my favorite travel writers, Pico Iyer, once wrote: “A person susceptible to ‘wanderlust’ is not so much addicted to movement as committed to transformation.” Cool stuff!

Why is travel important? How has it changed you?

Travel is so important for almost everything that informs what it means to be human. You have to go away sometimes to get perspective. When you have been to stunning places like the archipelago of Svalbard near the North Pole, or the Antarctic Peninsula, [you realize that] there are things you shouldn’t take for granted.

If you could only recommend one place in the world to visit, what would that be?

When Darwin set up the remote preserve of Ascension Island, he left seeds from his world travels there. The seeds grew into what is basically the world’s first totally artificial ecosystem. I recommend [going there].

Which city has it all, and why?

My favorite these days city is Seoul. Koreans have faced larger neighbors to the east and west and figured out how to extract the best from both. Seoul is a kind of microcosm of the best of East Asia.

What do you never leave home without when you’re on the road?

My Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (global unlocked), Apple iPhone 6 Plus (global unlocked), and 64-GB iPad Mini with retina display. These devices have been with me hiking, swimming, walking…pretty much everywhere.

What’s the best travel advice anyone’s ever given you? Do you have any tips of your own?

Best travel advice: Hydrate. That one was something I learned the hard way—forgetting to drink a cup of water an hour while in places like Sudan or on cross-continental flights.

What do you do to connect with locals and seek out authentic experiences when you’re traveling?

I listen to local DJs and check out record shops.

Me and some friends are setting up an artist retreat in Vanuatu. Vanuatu doesn’t have record stores, but I managed to meet many of the local DJs and that gave me a good sense of how the scene there [represents] a collision between indigenous traditions and the surreal range of electronic music that is going on globally. The two intersecting in one of the most remote parts of the South Pacific was wild.

Is there a festival that you think everyone should experience for themselves? 

For better or worse, Burning Man is the preeminent experimental festival in the world. Womad is also a favorite.

What’s the best museum you have visited, and why?

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My favorite museum in the United States is the National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic Museum [just outside of Washington, D.C.], which focuses on the history of encryption. Totally brilliant!

You were named one of the Society’s Emerging Explorers in 2014. What’s been your favorite “Nat Geo moment” so far?

Realizing that the National Geographic I read as a child reflects a different time, and that we have to redefine what it means to be a traveler, or an explorer. That was one of those “aha” moments.

Your work to raise awareness for environmental and social issues is very unique. Who inspired you to go down this path in life?

I’m inspired by people like Charlie Parker because, well… he’s Charlie Parker, but I’m also deeply interested in science. Brian Greene, who wrote the introduction to “The Book of Ice,” inspires me because he made quantum physics a new vernacular, a way to unravel the truly dizzying realms of abstraction that our species faces.

I also look to composers like Iannis Xenakis and hip-hop poets, artists, and producers like Saul Williams, Anti-Pop Consortium, El-P, DJ Krush, Wax Tailor, Apple Juice Kid, and [artists from] great old school record labels like Trojan Records and Savoy Jazz.

What are you working on right now?

I’m remixing the German composer Richard Wagner in 2015, and producing and directing my first film—on the philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Megan Heltzel is an associate producer on National Geographic Travel’s digital team. Follow her adventures in travel on Twitter @MeganHeltzel.

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