Don't Fence in the DJ

Danny Sigelman craves more than playing other people's music

"I've been collecting sounds since I was born," Danny Sigelman explains. "My dad worked as general manager at U 100 [now 101.3 KDWB], a radio station in the '70s. He wasn't into music, but I learned in that environment."

Sigelman, with his long, dark dreadlocks, is a familiar face on the Twin Cities music scene; he's a DJ at Minnesota Public Radio's indie music station, the Current (89.3 FM), and a ubiquitous presence at clubs and DJ nights around town. But he has creative itches that can't be scratched by spinning other people's recordings.

Long before the mashup trend, Sigelman says, he would find himself growing bored at weddings and other standard DJ gigs, and so he'd experiment by "combining elements that weren't supposed to be together—I'd play Neil Young on top of P-Funk."

Sigelman demonstrates primitive  techniques from the early days of mashups
Sean Smuda
Sigelman demonstrates primitive techniques from the early days of mashups

A lifelong collector, Sigelman has plenty of source material for his tonal teardowns and rhythmic recombinations. "I have over 5,000 records," he admits. "I love jazz and traditional music, but I also love heavy metal, like Iron Maiden, and cinematic music. I love records with talking and sounds that become something else."

One of his new ventures is a collaboration with video director Phil Harder. As Harder screens film reels from his personal collection, Sigelman creates live soundtracks to them, layering percussion with found sounds such as the chatter of his neighbor's conversations or the sonic breeze of cars passing his house. As he explains from his home a few blocks from the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis, "I use sounds in my music as layers, like a painting—combining elements not intended or originally meant to be together."

Sigelman is inspired by "finding juxtapositions with things that happen to be around at the moment," he says. "I like to juxtapose genres and people that play together." Tellingly, he cites as an influence the documentary film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, whose climax features three dozen drummers and dancers performing on a rooftop.

He's not afraid to venture into live performance either. In the Jazz Cigarette, a rural-blues side project with Chooglin's Brian Vanderwerf, Sigelman plays drums and bass. "We'll play some songs as foundations to latch onto, with freakout sessions in between." Sound like Zappa? "I grew up with Zappa!" he exclaims. "I work that way a lot. [The Zappa film] 200 Motels was chaotic, but Zappa thought through these things. Lumpy Gravy is my favorite; Zappa tore sound apart and put it together different ways."

Though he performs with musicians, Sigelman admits, "I'm not a songwriter. I just know enough about music to know what sounds good together. You've got to play music that people know, music that moves them. Then slip in weird stuff, and people might get curious."

Sigelman's experimental paintings decorate the walls of downtown Minneapolis's Canela Café. Reminiscent of Basquiat in their boldness of expression, the playful works feature layers of clippings, graffiti-like sketches, and words on top of vibrant shapes. Soon he'll add a visual component to his performances with Harder as well, creating improvised paintings on a screen over the films as they play. Sigelman has found stability in his success as a DJ, but he can't deny his need to press on with more experimental projects. "Sometimes I get bored with just DJing," he laughs, "and things just happen, and then I get hooked."

 
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