Turntablist extraordinaire and video artist Mike Relm has been spinning audiovisual landscapes for more than a decade, and he continues to push his creativity and the tools of his trade to newer heights. Though classically trained in piano and trumpet, he was immediately won over by turntablism in high school and has never looked back. Since winning the International Turntablist Federation competition in the US in 1999, Relm has been unstoppable as a one-man sonic experience. When he is not performing live shows on tour with the likes of Peeping Tom or the Blue Man Group -- or at music/arts festivals like Coachella and Audiotistic-Future Sound -- he releases mash-up records and directs and edits music videos and short films for his own work, as well as for other performers and artists.
In 2010, Relm unveiled "Relmvision," a YouTube channel that presents his music/video mash-ups and short films. But Relm was already engaging in such bricolage-like audiovisual works ever since the DVJ turntable (which mixes videos) was unleashed in 2004. Through this magical piece of equipment, Relm was able to bring together his love of music and film in an altogether distinct way, marked by a sharp sense of humor, musicality, and pacing.
With "Mike Relm vs. Zoetrope" (2009), Relm nods at the cinematic inspirations in his work and perhaps also alludes to his film student days at San Francisco State University. In this video, Relm performs inside a zoetrope, which is a contraption that consists of a cylinder with vertical slits on the side, the inside of which are individual, sequenced images or photographs; when you spin the cylinder, it gives the illusion of movement. Spinning images and spinning sounds, there is no better way to describe what Relm does.
It's precisely Relm's adventurous spirit -- which brings together different media and knows which buttons to push -- that makes him continuallly stand out as a music and video artist. One of Relm's more recent music videos is "Devastating Stereo" (2011), for the dance crew JabbaWockeeZ (America's Best Dance Crew's season 1 winners), with music by The Bangerz. With his music and film sensibilities, it was yet another logical step in Relm's development.
Before he performed a live DJ show at the 2011 San Diego Asian Film Festival in October, APA sat down with Relm to talk about his work, what inspires him, and what he hopes to continue to do.
Interview with Mike Relm
October 21, 2011
Interviewed by Rowena Aquino
Transcribed by Mai Nguyen
Camera and video edit by Henry Chen
Asia Pacific Arts: First, can you talk about how you got started in music and video?
Mike Relm: For me, the music came first. I was a DJ in high school, just messing around with the music. Surprisingly, I wasn't good at sports. so I didn't have much to do, other than that. So I went into DJ-ing, and that was a hobby for a little while. Then it got a little more serious as I explored the art and discovered that it's more than just playing music. That you can scratch, juggle, and mix stuff to create your own sound. I started producing mix tapes and stuff like that.
Then the video came in. I just love movies and TV shows. I grew up on that. That was like my second love, and luckily, technology is at a point right now that I can do both at the same time, in the way that I'm mixing and scratching and manipulating music. I'm doing the same thing with videos now.
APA: Do you think with social media tools, it was a logical step from DJ-ing to mash-up videos?
MR: To me, it feels natural, but when people ask me that, it doesn't really make sense, does it? Why would you give a DJ that power to manipulate video?
To me, it just kind of clicked. The tools make sense to me because the way I think makes sense for it. It wasn't something I had to think about too hard. Luckily, I got into it really early and embraced it. I think the same month that I got the DVD turntable, I was using it in my shows. I was so excited, like, "I know exactly what I'm going to do with this!" From there I'd say that's all I wanted to do. I haven't gotten bored with it yet, so we'll see.
It'll start with "Oh, I wanna remix Iron Man, so I'll take that." I love the movie, and I love everything going on with it, but I don't want to just re-edit something because they're doing that with [movie] trailers. I want to add something that kind of drives it in a different way. They use music for trailers too, but it's more of a sound bed that kind of swells. But for me it's very beat-driven, so doing that and make it go that way.
Photo by Hilary Charlotte.
APA: Do you have particular cinematic influences when thinking about music in a montage kind of way?
MR: I used to watch a lot of music videos, a lot of films. I paid attention a lot to the editing in films. I mean I've seen people re-edit The Shining [1980, Stanley Kubrick] to make it look like a family comedy. It's like, "What?"
It's all in the editing. So for me, I was a student of that. Again, it just made sense. The software I was using to produce music and to mix sounds works a lot like software to edit the videos. We're in a time where everything comes together in that way.
APA: People talk about transmedia storytelling, where people manipulate material, like what you're doing, and put a literal spin on it. Do you consider yourself a storyteller in some sense?
MR: When I first wrapped my head around incorporating [visuals] into my live shows, I was like, "Okay, I'm going to tell a story. It'll be like watching a movie with music!" And at first, it was, because I was playing at a lot of art houses where the audiences were ready for that. But then I started doing more concerts and stuff, and you don't want to have them sit there and go through that. It's a different audience. For me, the ultimate [is] that they come away feeling like they learned something and also feel like they've been exposed to something more than just seeing a DJ, which can get boring.
APA: Do you accept the term "YouTube DJ" for yourself?
MR: I've heard it a couple times. The funny is that most of my YouTube audience has no idea that I do live shows. They see the remixes I do, and they don't know that it comes from my experience with music and concerts and stuff. I think that's what helps me as an artist because I can draw from those experiences and that influence. Because if I was just sitting in my room putting videos together, it wouldn't have the same energy. I try to make it as big as possible because when you're watching it on YouTube, you might watch it on your phone. You have to really try to break out of that small frame, that small screen. I think my live experience really helps, because I'm trying to drive an arc. I think if I didn't have that, it would be pretty flat.
Photo by Hilary Charlotte.
APA: Sometimes you ask your fans what they'd like you to mix, right?
MR: Yeah, I'll ask. A lot of times they have good suggestions. Some of them are weird though. [laughs]
APA: What's been the weirdest hybrid request?
MR: There's some stuff where I'm like, "I don't even know what this is. I don't know what I would do with this." But most of it is stuff that I like. With music, you kind of have to follow the trends to a certain degree, but with videos, you kind of don't have to, if you do it the way I'm doing it, because it's based on my own taste. If my taste sucks, then I can only blame myself. [laughs]
APA: Are there any artists/musicians you would like to collaborate with, musically and/or visually?
MR: How much time have you got? Del [tha Funkee Homosapien] was a good collaborator. There are a lot. But I don't want to depend on collaborations. because what I'm doing is so off to some people. I mean it's like "Wait, you're taking this thing and making it into something else and then...?"
APA: Do some people not consider it a sense of authorship? You're proposing a different kind of authorship of material, but do people sometimes just say to you that it's not original material?
MR: Surprisingly, no. Otherwise I would have no YouTube channel. Most of the time when I do something, everyone's kind of all for it. In the beginning, I got a lot of attorneys asking, "Dude, how are you doing this, and no one is suing you?" The best answer to that is I'm just doing stuff that people seem to enjoy. You can't really hate on that defense.
Photo by Hilary Charlotte.
APA: You were recently on tour with Peeping Tom and Mike Patton. How was that experience?
MR: It was amazing. He's a big influence. The things I learned from him on tour, I still take that with me. He gets into a lot of different things. I was at a point in my career where I was like, "Can I do this?" It was a struggle just to do it live and to get people to understand [that] the stage needs to be set up a certain way for it to work. Then I see what he's doing and it's like, "Oh, yeah, you totally can." This was before I was on YouTube or anything like that, just on the touring side of things. That kind of guy, whatever he wants to do, he does. What's more inspiring than that, you know?
APA: What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
MR: Just more shows. Do some writing. I'm doing more original stuff, too, like shorts and music videos, so that's been pretty exciting. Again, I'm just kind of compounding all these thing that I'm learning along the way. First, it was DJ-ing in my room, then doing high school dances, then doing clubs, doing tours, then videos, videos online, commercials, and editing things and directing things.
Now it's like, "All right, let's keep that going," you know what I mean? I just want to see how far I can take it. That's the most exciting thing. I know for a lot of people, the struggle is that they're not really able to get into what they're doing and put everything that they've got into a project. And the best projects are the ones where you can say, "Alright, I do this, so this works and that works. I don't know how to do this, so let's learn it or find somebody else who does it really good and collaborate." I'm not a rapper, so I got Del to work. [laughs]
APA: At the end of your Old Spice Remix, you say that Isaiah Mustafa never answered your question: "Can guys with glasses be manly too?"
MR: No response. But he told me that he really liked the remix. And I was like, "Can I get a drop, dude?" "No." [laughs]
APA: In that remix, you also said that you have your own theory on whether guys with glasses can be manly. Can you share it?
MR: Absolutely manly! I'm probably the manliest man you can possibly imagine based on my glasses.
Watch Relmvision on YouTube here. For more, go to Mike Relm's official website.