Shooting the Breeze with Dirty Bird

By Will Mandel and Shelby Len

Check out Dirty Bird’s music video for his song Time Traveler!

Back in July, Production Director Will Mandel got a chance to sit down with Dirty Bird, electronic producer extraordinaire. However, Dirty Bird, also known as Gum, does more than just music: from sculptures to slipmats, he’s dabbled in all kinds of media, carving out his own niche & earning a loyal fanbase along the way. Dirty Bird explains what it’s like to be an artist in North Carolina, his creative processes, the significance Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 has had on his music taste, and more! Listen to or read through their conversation below.

Will Mandel: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us. Do you want to give a little intro real quick so that our potential viewers know who you are?

Dirty Bird: For sure. My stage name is Dirty Bird. I graduated from NYU with a degree in studio art. I do electronic music. I also do, well, since I’m a trained artist, I’ve done comics and stuff in the past. I’ve made sculptures, photo stuff, video stuff. Pretty much any realm of artwork I’m at least decently experienced in. Right now, my focus is music. I’m a DJ. I’ve been touring for the last two months or so. 

WM: Your show in Minneapolis was phenomenal. Unfortunately, Shelby couldn’t be with us today. But we loved it. We had a wonderful time. Thank you– it was a lot of fun.

DB: Minneapolis was tight! It was definitely one of my favorite crowds.

WM: That venue was so sick, and everyone was so into it. That was my first concert back in a full year and a half or whatever it had been. It was good stuff. I actually wanted to ask you about touring. You’ve made so much of your music and your art– not exactly all of it but certainly a lot– during COVID: albums, projects, merch drops, all that. What was it like to go from that straight into touring?

DB: It was scary. It’s been really scary. *laughs* Because, personally, I don’t really feel like I’m an entertainer per se, so being in front of a crowd actually gives me a lot of anxiety. It’s also my first time ever doing something like this; it’s like my first year as a “real” musician.  This year’s also been my first year actually doing a show in front of people. So it was like a whole bunch of first time occurrences all at once. I’m just like, “oh, man, I hope people actually come, I hope it goes well, I hope people like the music.” So it’s been really scary. But I don’t know, I just feel blessed that it’s been going so well and that it’s been so well received. I feel like I knew it was going to be well received, but you know how anxiety is. Sometimes it’s nonsense.

WM: Exactly. You can never feel 100%. And you’ve still got a few tour stops left to go right?

DB: Yeah, I got a couple left. We got to hit like four cities in Texas. And then I’m going to LA in September. And then Atlanta in October, actually. So yeah, we got it. I think we’re at the midpoint right now. So after Texas, I think I’ll be about 75% complete after Texas.

WM: Gotcha. And you still got it in you? Still got enough gas in the tank?

DB: Yeah, I’m good. I thought it’d be super tiring by now. But like, I might be super tired after we get back from Texas. I got two stops: Austin and Dallas, and then I’m coming back home in the first week of August. And the second week of August I’m moving to Virginia. And then the week after that we’re back on the road. So after all of that I might actually be super tired.

WM: Yeah, no, I get that. The whole city of Madison has to move between August 14 and 16th. So I feel you on the-

DB: Wait, what? 

WM: Yeah, that’s the way it works here. Oh my god, it’s ridiculous. Um, the like, every single apartment contract, especially for students ends on August 14. And then the new ones start on August 16. 

DB: What? For everybody? That’s crazy. 

WM: Like everybody, so for 48 hours… you’re fucked. 

DB: And the city’s just jumpin? 

WM: Yeah, it should be something. But um, best of luck with your move and all that. I’m sure you’ll kill it. Where exactly are you based out of right now?

DB: In North Carolina. Born and raised here my whole life, except for when I went to college.

WM: Gotcha. So what has it been like to be part of this artistic sphere that you seem to find yourself in, not being from somewhere like New York or LA where that underground arts scene is really prominent?

DB: Right? Honestly, it’s made me feel kind of internet dependent. Because without internet, I wouldn’t really have the livelihood I currently have. I won’t have the community either, right? You know, cuz like, I’m from the sticks, nobody makes electronic music here. Nobody even makes music here. My town is very post-industrial. In the 40s and 50s it was a textile mill and paper mill community. And so once those industries kind of faded out, now we kind of don’t have anything. So growing up here has been a really unique experience. I get all the positives of life growing up in the South. We got, you know, a lot of green spaces, a lot of open air. It’s really slow paced compared to like New York, but it also means that we are kind of cut off from the major cultural industrial cities like New York and LA. 

And of course, we don’t get any of the international influences here. So growing up all of my exposure to the rest of the world was pretty much on the internet. Going to school in New York was the hugest lifestyle change and I was like a deer in the headlights, like “Yo! The real world is crazy!” I didn’t know there was all this stuff, you know, I’m on the subway for the first time, stuff like that. And then I got to go out of the country for the first time as a part of my study abroad program. For the first 18 years of my life, I was in this bubble, and then all of a sudden it’s like “whoa!” I still feel like that even now, you know, getting on the internet and stuff. So, so much to learn. 

But it does feel weird when I’m also a first generation artist, so I have the pressure to make the artist thing work financially. And I don’t have any mentors, you know. So it’s that part of it definitely can feel isolating. And even when you have a decent amount of success online it feels kind of precarious, you know, because at a certain point you don’t really want to be that dependent on the internet, and you kind of want to build and do your own thing in real life. And I think that’s the hardest part: trying to establish something for myself that I can have control of in real life and not be so dependent on the internet, even though I appreciate it.

WM: Yeah, absolutely. Do you feel like you have certain responsibilities as an artist, especially coming from such a small community? Or just in general what do you feel an artist’s responsibility is to their community? How often is that something you think about?

DB: It’s definitely something that I think about all the time, because I haven’t really had a chance to engage with it as much as I want to. Even when I was teaching and I got a chance to do my little art elective, although it didn’t really go that well *laughs*, I still felt like I was doing something and that I was at least trying. Whereas now, I spend most of my time indoors. I’m not as well known in the community as my parents are because my mom works at one of the local schools and everybody knows her cuz she’s like an administrative level person or whatnot. She’s like a high point of contact. Everybody knows my dad, cuz he’s a barber you know, everybody needs a haircut. And then there’s me. You know, everybody only knows me [in my hometown] because of my parents.

I don’t necessarily stand on my own in the community as a figure. Even though I think I do have the experience and the skills and the resources to, I just haven’t figured out a way to do it yet. But I think it’s also because I’m 24, you know, I’m still really young. I don’t even have a career fully established for myself yet. So I don’t really want to give myself the responsibility of like, “Yo, you have to be a pillar of your community,” right? Even though I really would like to. I do think that’s something artists should look forward to doing. Once you get past the financial stability goal, I think giving back to the community and figuring out how to do that responsibly and effectively should come next.

WM: Absolutely, Yeah. I feel like that’s the kind of thing that comes with time for anyone, not just artists. If you want to be an upstanding member of your community, it doesn’t happen overnight. Also, in the age of the internet I think it’s really interesting to figure out exactly how you’re going to engage with both of those communities [on and offline] at the same time. Speaking of the internet, your following on Twitter has skyrocketed this year, right? How do you deal with not only the pressure of the platform, but where do you draw boundaries on a website where some people can assume that they’re closer to you than they really are?

DB: Parasocial relationships are the weirdest thing ever. I think everybody has their own experiences with it at least once. But, like, it’s particularly weird for me because I’ve had a lot of followers on Twitter for a long time, since I was 16. [My current Twitter account] is, like, my third account, but this is the first one where I’m thinking okay, maybe I should kind of cheat it to make it a little bit more professional, just a teeny bit. But it definitely feels weird, it’s kind of like someone having their eyes on you. It’s like “oh, man, I gotta be nice to everybody” because this is where all my money comes from. Not to water it down to something so base and simple but at the end of the day that’s kind of what it comes down to. You don’t want to get canceled! I don’t like to worry about that stuff though because I feel like I’m a decently good enough person. As someone who also suffers from extreme social anxiety it can get kind of intimidating sometimes because it feels like you can’t even enjoy your day to day shitposts without somebody commenting on it. Or it’s like can everybody just leave me alone? A little bit? 

WM: Yeah, you just want to put it out there and forget about it. 

DB: Exactly. It’s definitely difficult to establish hard boundaries, but I think I do actually have a good control of my boundaries online just because as a person, even in real life, I’m kind of serious about maintaining my personal space and my relationship boundaries. So that has translated online pretty well. I don’t really have any reply guys or people like that saying crazy weird stuff. It’s usually just people who like me, or are tryna start a conversation. So even when it does get annoying, I’m never like “oh man, being famous sucks”, you know? I don’t really feel like that on a day to day basis. And so that  allows me to kind of still be able to enjoy the things I like about Twitter but without the weird parts.

WM: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it absolutely is a super powerful platform, if you use it in the right way. How has that affected who you work with in your professional or artistic relationships?

DB: It has made me extremely selective. Because there’s nothing I hate more than when I think about working with somebody, and then literally three weeks later there’s some drama on the TL. Like, oh my God can we all just not? Can we not have some drama just the one time that I want to work with somebody? But, I’m not really a group project type of person anyways, so I never even really feel inclined to work with other people. But the fact that I don’t really know anybody kind of makes me weird. I don’t want everyone to put out a really successful song and have it be tarnished by something that’s outside of my control. I’m definitely paranoid about stuff like that, but it hasn’t really been a problem yet. Because like I said, I’m not really a super collaborative person. When I do collaborate with people, it’s come out of a friendship first. So I haven’t really had to worry about that too much. 

WM: Nice. Yeah, you did mention that you were working on an animation project, is that more on the collaborative side? 

DB: Yes, I’m working with one of my homies from college, my friend who did the Time Traveler music video, and then we’re going to expand our team, hopefully to about 20 people. I’m gonna take some applications online and do a Kickstarter, and hopefully we can get everybody paid and whatnot.

WM: Right, right. Yeah. So what roles are you doing within that? Script writing? Storyboarding? Where do you fit in?

DB: Mostly directing, and I’m writing the screenplay. We’re also going to be at my home, but I’m gonna let my homie who’s in the animation stuff kind of be more in control of the animation direction and the storyboarding process. And then I think once the story works good, then I’ll probably just add some director’s notes and checks and whatnot, and then send it off to him to take control. 

WM: What has it been like to switch forms of media that quickly? Because only a month or so ago you were dropping an album.

DB: It’s been really fun, because making music has suddenly gotten really hard. Every day I’m like “okay, today’s the day, I’m starting the album and making one good song, and I’m gonna get the ball rolling.” And I don’t know, it’s been super hard lately, so it feels really good to have a change of pace.

I think I operate really well when I have multiple things in the air. When I have multiple products to jump into, I can accomplish a lot at one time as long as I have my time organized. Like I might play Guilty Gear for a little bit, might play Tekken for a little bit, now I work on some music, now I work on the animation stuff. It feels good to have my hands on all these parts and still be able to be productive. I love it. 

WM: Yeah, absolutely, it’s hard to focus on one thing and have that be the only thing you’re doing. Are those creative processes significantly different? I guess that’s a bit of a vague question, but would you say you approach creating a script or a song in similar ways? 

DB: I think they’re similar in that when I do them both well they’re both story driven. Like Time Traveler and Malware I think turned out really good, because they both had a narrative that was driving the force for the music. Whereas the same is obviously true, you know, for writing a screenplay you gotta have a good story. I love being told a good story. And also I consume a lot of media. So, you know, I feel like I have a good grasp on how to write a good story, and that kind of translates into all of my artistic endeavors.

WM: Speaking of your other artistic endeavors, you put out a lot of really interesting physical media in a world that is super dominated by streaming. Do you feel like you’ve gotten good feedback from that?

DB: Yeah, for sure. I think people really liked my physicals, which makes me feel good inside because it’s also the only way that I can make money. I think physicals kind of came out of necessity: I was crunching the numbers and I was like, yo, like, I have got to make some money somehow. If I can get 100 people to buy some CDs for $5, that’s $500. When you put it like that, it’s like “Okay, I gotta make some shit.” But if I’m gonna do it, I at least want it to look cool. When I first started, I was handwriting the title on the CDs, or I was getting stick-on labels until I could afford a printer that would print off CDs and stuff. It feels good to have come from super bare bones, like selling CDs on the street type stuff up to now where I’m getting vinyls professionally made, my CDs look great. They look better than they ever looked before. And I still control the entire process pretty much other than the actual manufacturing for the vinyls. But CDs I still do literally in this room. So it feels good to have come so far doing stuff on my own.

WM: Yeah, absolutely. I do think we’ve seen a shift, not just with smaller underground artists but even artists like Saba have shifted to independent releases in an environment that seems so toxic to so many recording artists. It’s really good to see that sort of thing. It’s good to see it actually working, too. 

DB: It’s possible! Like, if you have the patience and if you’re willing to make the time commitment and to actually do the manual labor of packing, shipping it out, printing your CDs, if you’re willing to do it is definitely possible. But it’s a lifestyle change, and it’s definitely a huge time commitment.

WM: Yeah, and you’ve made some pretty interesting stuff too. From like the hazmat suits to the, I saw the password scraper CD. 

DB: Pretty sick, right? *laughs* I love doing stuff like that. anytime I can make something that I know that another musician hasn’t done before, I’m like, “Yes, I’m doing the thing.” Because I think it’s cool to have physical items that represent your creative ethos that aren’t really related to the music at all. Yeah, the Password Scraper CD and the hazmat suit were not really at all related to the music. But they’re cool. And they still have the same design ethos. So the people get bought into the world more so than just the music as its own standalone project.

WM: Yeah, absolutely. It definitely fits into that sort of y2k vaporwave aesthetic that you seem to lean into so often. Is that something you see yourself continuing with?

DB: Actually, I don’t know. Because recently I haven’t really been into it– not that I don’t like it anymore, but it just hasn’t been showing up in my work as much lately. I think that just happens, inspirations kind of come and go, even if it’s something that you really like. You know, I love early 2000s video games and I love y2k stuff. I love that whole subculture. But I think I’m just moving away from it and doing something else. Even though it’s still my favorite thing, I just feel like it’s time to do something else. These things have gotten kind of saturated recently. So I’m like, okay, it’s like, you know, you’re the first. If you’re the first group of people to do something cool and everybody else starts doing the cool thing it’s like, “okay, now that everybody’s doing it, I gotta do something else.”

WM: Right, on to the next and you know, a single aesthetic is only going to get you so far. You can keep pushing it for sure, but when there’s so many other options I can totally see why you might want to move on.

DB: Exactly. Why just push one field when I could just push multiple? I think I’m able to push different aesthetics and be good at all of them.

WM: Right? If you can do it, why the fuck not? 

Here’s a question a little bit unrelated to what we were just talking about, but who or what is an inspiration of yours, ranging from music to video games to visual stuff, that you don’t think most people would predict at first?

DB: Oh, hmm. It’s hard because I’m so predictable. Everything I like is just so obvious cuz I talk about it so much. Lemme think… The ones I’m thinking about are still kind of known because I talk about them so much. I will say I was obsessed with Ryuichi Sakamoto at one point in college. Like when Async first came out [in 2017], I was like, “Yo, this is the greatest album I ever heard.” I love experimental minimalist stuff. Oh, it was crazy, like it changed my life for a little bit. I bought the documentary on Blu-Ray, I cried watching it maybe three different times. I was obsessed with him. So he is definitely high on my list of people who inspire me. 

There was also this time when I was really into Chinese classical music, and I got really into traditional folk music from different cultures around the world. I was big into that for about a six month period. I mainly got into traditional music because I was using Logic for the first time and they had this section of their software instruments just called “world” and they have all these cool sounds underneath it. And I was like, “Man, you know, there’s some traditional handmade instruments that are really cool!” And I just went on a huge nerd binge on it for half a year, so that definitely inspired me for a while. I was trying to figure out how I could squeeze some aspects of that into my own music but it didn’t really work out how I wanted it to.

WM: I feel like that’s tricky, especially when that sort of thing is so different from what we’ve seen you put out over the past year. So have you ever heard Japanese Koto music? 

DB:Yes, I have. Yeah, it’s sick, right?

WM: Yeah, one of the first records I ever got was just an LP of a selection of Japanese Koto music, and I thought it was the coolest shit. 

I’m wondering, how much of your work would you say is pastiche of things that you feel have inspired you? Or rather how much do you feel your output is like, “Alright, I’m over here creating my own thing that no one’s done before.” Which one of those is more important to you overall?

DB: I think it’s more important to me that I get to a point where I can legitimately say I’m doing my own thing. But I think I’m already doing that most of the time,it’s really just a pastiche, which… I think everybody thinks that, everybody gets to a point where you’re like, “Yo, I am, I am a god amongst men, I’m doing my own thing. And this is my own lane. Nobody can ever do what I’m doing currently.” Like, everybody gets to a point where they feel like that, but it’s almost never true, unless you’re someone of, say, incredible historic stature. 

Musically speaking… I would say a good example of that in recent history would be DJ Screw. There was nobody doing what he did, you know, and only a very small number of people can say that. So the times where I think I’m making something that nobody’s ever done before I know in my heart that the thing I’m doing is still derivative or something else. But I always hope that I’m just somehow a modicum left of what derivative is. I’m always hoping to be just a little bit in my own lane. I think as artists, that’s pretty much all you can ever hope to be is just a little bit in your own way. 

Because you know, so much of what inspires us and motivates us to work comes from outside stimuli. So it’s super egotistical to say, “oh, this idea sprung forth from my mind with no outside influences and it is singular, and I’m the singular owner of it.” That’s kind of crazy to say. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say that. But if I do one day, then I will have achieved like, probably like the greatest… that’s like the highest, you know, goal. There’s also so many cultural elements that go into success like that. And socio political elements go into allowing the opportunity for artists to kind of rise out of a crop and have this one singular moment. It takes so much more than just working hard, being home all day doing your thing. You know, it’s almost a miracle to be able to write, it takes a lot of context. And you have to be somebody who’s sensitive to all that context. You have to do it.

WM: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like you can never truly escape the influences, what you’ve seen before, what you’ve consumed before. And even then, if you do have the perfect idea if you’re in the wrong place…

DB: It can always boil down to an accessibility problem.

WM: Do you have a specific point in your career, or even recently, where you just feel like things really did line up like that perfectly? Where you’re like, “this is the right place, this is the right time, I have the right thing?”

DB: That’s how I felt with Halcyon Palace. That’s how I felt specifically with Cartz. That’s how I felt on Malware. And that’s how I felt on Time Traveler. I was like, “Yo, I am a genius. I’m doing the thing. The capital T thing. Nobody else could do this.” I still feel that way about Cartz. I feel like that was the one where I was like, “Okay, I’m in my own lane with this one. Nobody could ever do that but me.” So I think if Cartz is my legacy, you know, 20 years from now, I will be perfectly okay with that.

WM: I’m pleased to hear that you have multiple of those moments because I know that it’s not gonna happen for everyone, right? Part of it is so much of that hard work, dedication, talent, whatever it is. But also you got to get lucky, right? 

DB: Yeah, so much luck involved. I think a big chunk of it is that you have to feel it on a personal level in order for other people to feel it. I think a big reason why I think my fans like my music so much is because I also like my music a lot. The community of people that are engaged with my stuff on Twitter, I think it has amassed itself because I spend so much time openly enjoying all the things I like. I think people will see that, “Oh, this guy is having fun and doing alright.” Yeah, it’s like, “I’m gonna enjoy these things. Also with this guy. Yeah, absolutely. I’m just so happy to make music cuz this guy’s really enjoying his music.”

WM: I do feel that, you know, if you admire what someone is doing, and they admire it, too, watching them be happy about it never comes off as arrogance. I saw this snippet of Tyler the Creator listening to one of the songs of his new album and he was just like, “I’m so fucking good.” And, you know, it’s hard to not watch that and feel enthusiastic about it. 

I don’t know how much experience you’ve had with just trying and failing, you know, I feel like nobody quite gets it on their first try. Is that something you experience? How long does it take for you to break through? 

DB: Okay, I feel like the length of time is different for everybody. But it’s subjective, you know, a year to me feels like forever. But for some people that might feel like a relatively short period of time. So when I started making music, I think it took me probably a year and a half to get to a point where I felt like, “Yeah, okay, I’m really good now.” But to some people that’s pretty fast. To me though, that felt like a century, it felt like it took forever. So I think it depends on everybody’s individual sense of time. I think my sense of time cycles more quickly than the average person, since I like to make things really quickly. I’m really fickle, too. I’ll get really into something and then get over it really quickly, but I still enjoy the process. It’s like having a high metabolism, but for content. You know, like Michael Phelps I kinda swim my way through a lot of stuff. And music was kind of the same way when I picked it up, and I was like, “Oh, man, I wonder how long it’s gonna take me to get good at this.” And then a year and a half later, I was so powerful, I felt like a genius. So yeah, to me that felt like it took forever. But I can for sure see how somebody might think it was a long time.

WM: Yeah. And I mean, I feel like it’s also about how much you put into it on a day to day basis. If you’re going full steam ahead every single day, then yeah that makes sense.

DB: Yeah, like I’m putting hours and hours into this. It’s the same with drawing too, I put hours into drawing– well, it’s same with anything, though. Like fighting games, I put hours into Tekken and Guilty Gear every day. So it’s whatever you’re willing to sacrifice the most time for. If you’re sacrificing eight hours a day to something for a year it adds up.

WM: Absolutely. In that year and a half or whatever it was where you weren’t at that point yet, what was your motivator to do it again, every single day?

DB: My motivation was to get to that point.

WM: I guess that’s a pretty easy question. 

DB: Because I have achieved that point before in so many other things, so I know what it feels like. So in a way I just have to get there with every skill that I pick up. You know, in school, I was valedictorian and when I was in college I had all these honor programs and awards from doing art stuff and galleries and exhibitions and whatnot. Although those achievements compared to, you know, your personal sense of fulfillment compared to that they seem so irrelevant. But the feeling you get from achieving such a like, from such a base, existentially meaningless achievement, oh, it’s incredible. So you know, I’m always chasing that feeling with every new skill that I pick up.

WM: Yeah, all those sudden those honor cords are way more than just like two pieces of rope or whatever. It’s about the meaning that you assign to it, not just its intrinsic value. 

Okay, something I’ve just been curious about is that you mentioned video games as a big influence for your work. What soundtracks in particular stuck out to you over the years?

DB: Tony Hawk Underground 2, that’s the one. That’s the one for me, above all other things. Ok, well, Tony Hawk Underground 2 is probably here and Need for Speed Underground 2 is probably way down here but it’s still number two. I can’t really explain cuz I just played the game so much. You know, when you play a game so much in your free time as a kid it kind of becomes the soundtrack to your youth. I didn’t grow up buying CDs or, you know, listening to music on MTV, like music videos and stuff. When I was growing up, I was playing games. And when I wasn’t playing games, I was outside. And when I wasn’t playing games or outside, I was at school. So the only time I would privately engage with music was while playing video games. And it just so happened that I spent a hell of a long time playing Underground 2. 

I think Tony Hawk Underground 2 opened my world to so many genres. It put me onto Iggy Pop, like, I would have never listened to any of the alternative rock stuff if it wasn’t for that game, or any of the punk stuff, even some of the reggae songs on there. I’ll still hear some of the songs on the soundtrack now and again and I’ll be like, you know, I really like this song. I’ll wonder how I picked it up and it always comes back to “Oh, was on Tony Hawk’s Underground.”

WM: Yeah, I totally get that association with those soundtracks, too. I remember back in high school, I would play a shit ton of Terraria. And I would sit there and play and I would eat these strawberry flavored tootsie rolls. Now, any one of those three things, I hear the Terraria soundtrack or I see like a strawberry Tootsie Roll, or I play the game, and I’m instantly right back there. 

DB: It’s like your psychosomatic memory, which feels stronger than nostalgia. That’s exactly what it is like, even if you don’t remember your body remembers, I think that kind of concept definitely pushes a lot of my music because a lot of people respond like, “Oh, this sounds kind of nostalgic, but I don’t really know what” and I’m like, “Exactly!” Yeah, you might not know, but something you experienced previously in your life felt kind of like this. For my songs to be able to elicit that kind of feeling, I think it’s pretty cool.

Thanks again to Dirty Bird for sitting down with us! Check out his latest album, Dirty Bird, linked below!