Monday, January 28, 2008
In the February issue of SPIN is a small feature I wrote about "The Return of Disco." Originally hoping to touch upon its tentacular hold on the culture. Not enough space to run every form its taken in the 21st century though, much less many of the ideas proffered by my interview subjects, so I'm posting transcripts here. This is with Italians Do It Better mainman Mike Simonetti.
Were you a Jersey hard rock kid?
Growing up, I was a hardcore kid. I used to go to shows at CBs in the late 80s.
What do you remember about disco?
In the last 80s, I didn't really think about it. I was into hardcore and rap like Public Enemy. When I got to college, I started getting into funk and stuff. I got a job working at a nightclub, which got me into the dance music scene.
What struck you about it?
I spent all my time in the city. I liked going out to nightclubs. It was fun. I was underage. I used to just go to clubs and work at this club called Mars. Disco wasn't really cool in the late 80s. there was one party that Michael Alig threw, Disco 2000. It was a novelty. Disco and funk records were rare. It was hard to find a James Brown record. I foyu had disco records, but I didn't have any.
What did you remember about disco as a kid?
I thought disco was cheesy when I was a hardcore kid. When I got older, I started to realize where all the samples for all the rap music I listened to and all the house music, I worked at mostly house clubs. All the samples came from disco.
What did you get into?
Who were you attracted to?
When you get into any kind of new music, pre-internet, it's kind of tough. Before the internet, you'd get information from people you knew. You couldn't read about things. There's no encyclopedia for disco. Disco was cheesy back then but in the nightclub scene it wasn't, it was the basis of everything. Paradise Garage closed in '85 maybe? Disco wasn't really on anyone's radar. No one cared about it. the people who would play it. I'd hear DJs playing classic disco, not cheesy shit, deep stuff.
Mainly at the gay clubs. I used to be a promoter, Gay Nights played the disco. I guess that's how it's always been: All the good disco is gay.
Which is why it's so maligned in the US.
A weird denial of sexuality.
That was the golden age of hip-hop, De La Soul, Black Sheep, that's what people wanted to hear that kind of stuff. No one cared about disco. I had a party in '89, early 90s, I just promoted it. it was a disco party, but no one really cared. People wanted to hear dancehall.
Did you go to the Loft?
Not back then. I had no idea it existed until much later.
You know about DJ Harvey?
No, not back then. At Mars we had in-house DJs, Bobby Converse, doing house music. Funkmaster Flex was a resident. Moby was another resident. He had long hair and played house. It was like that. Keoki became Dee-Lite’s DJ. This was way before any of it was popular. Club kids were big. I used to...a normal guy. It was crazy. No one played disco. If there were Loft parties. I was at the Loft a few months ago. Red Zone, The World, Palladium, that's where I was going. I had no idea they were legendary clubs.
Doing Troubleman, did you feel a split? Two separate worlds?
Yeah, there were a couple of dudes into hardcore and stuff. It wasn't really, I would wear Born Against tee shirts. I was into both. No one cared about anything like that. A lot of that crappy hardcore was very popular. The thing about New York, it's New York, you expect it to be into weird stuff if you go out and stuff.
Let's skip ahead. At what point are you becoming more a disco DJ? When does it start turning?
I started the label. I was putting out hardcore stuff. I was into rap and funk and stuff. As time grew on, I got into post-punk, Rough Trade stuff. I was into funk, I was into rap, I was into punk, when disco-punk came. Tons of groups like that. It was the perfect mixture of everything. Erase Errata, it was just sitting there. some weird all-girls band. As it was catching on, I was DJing more and more, rap, funk, but I didn't have many disco records. It wasn't the biggest thing in the world. No one wanted to hear them. They wanted to hear Donna Summer.
I started Contort Yourself, DJ post-punk till 2001. When 9/11 hit, Knitting Factory closed down, I stopped djing then. It happened really slow. I went from playing post-punk to…I got deeper into disco stuff and less into disco-punk and rap. Rap was getting shitty too at the time. by late 90s, I was just playing disco and house. I had a party at Nublu. It was fun.
At that point, Glass Candy, Chromatics, were more rock, glam.
Back then, I was putting out Glass Candy before Erase Errata. I put out a split seven inch. I called up Johnny and talked and talked and have been working together ever since. They were always a rock band. Glass Candy turned into a disco band because it was really hard for Johnny to find musicians to work with that could put up with his rigorous work ethic. He works really hard. He's always in the studio, he's always touring. That mixed with realizing how shitty disco-punk has become, Avril Lavigne doing shit. We both saw it coming. We got to get out of it.
He was always into, he's really into new rap stuff, synthy rap stuff. Some Glass Candy has similar synth lines to southern rap, the fucked-up shit. Chromatics was a straight rock band. I think Adam and the band moved up to Portland. Adam was one of the only dudes that oculd put up with the work. He's always down for being in the studio.
For Johnny, was it coming from Italo? Southern rap aspect?
I think it was both. You should ask Johnny. Knowing him for so long, he was into disco. Very glam, you know. Disco-glam more than anything. they're still glammy. Johnny won't consider it Italo, it's more Euro, spacy-disco thing.
Italo is kind of shitty. Most Italo sucks.
It's a mixture of both. Rap production sensibility, the minimal sounds, beat and one sample, very minimal, scrap and sparse. He's into the vocal aspect.
I'll ask him about the Italo aspects. What he vibes on.
A lot of people think we're an Italo label. Personally as a DJ, I'm into straight deep disco stuff, rocky disco, rock sounding. I've never really played Italo, I don't even like Italo. I like synthy disco especially, but not Italo. If you listen to Italo, it's like really shitty girl vocals, dude vocals. It's really cheesy, Italo is Italian pop music for the most part.
Why do you think it's returning?
I don’t know. It's weird because, I really don't know. I talked to Johnny about it, a lot of the people into disco and DJs these days are ex-punk rockers, ex-indie rockers. I think indie rock is kinda boring. It's not the same it used to be, where you can buy a seven inch. You can buy a 12" by some unknown guy. There's a lot of shitty dance music being made, but there always was, I guess. More and more 12"s are coming out. There is a revival. Disco-punk is mainstream, people are really into it. who knows? I don't know how I even feel about it.
I grew up going to nightclubs, so I've always been around dance music. I never danced at nightclubs. I used to hang out next to the DJ, I just did. I was a record collector and I wanted to see what he played. I didn't give a fuck about dancing. I liked hearing records. They didn't mind me hanging in the booth. Moby would play Liquid Liquid, cuz no one had that 12". That’s how I got into it. Johnny is a production guy, he’s into producing music. Italo, as much as the music sucks, some really good Italo has the best production. Claudio Simonetti has great production. Classic Italo. A bunch of other dudes, I don't know how they got into it. They don't know anything about hardcore! You talk to Todd Terje. They came up with dance music. If you go to Norway, you'll see it. it's a pretty weird place. It's so crazy what's coming out of there. It's its own world up there.
Posted by beta at 9:02 PM
In the February issue of SPIN is a small feature I wrote about "The Return of Disco." Originally hoping to touch upon its tentacular hold on the culture, from Oslo-humidified space disco to Italians Do It Better-brand icy disco, from Sally Shapiro to the thriving culture of disco-edits, touching upon such things as the secret history of disco and punk, as well as how edits have changed: from the epic narrative of the form in the golden age (see the Danny Krivit edit of Cymande's "Bra" for example) versus the internet-abetted present (see that Dirty edit of JJ Cale's "Ride Me High," which doesn't make it a disco track so much as squelch all the other rhythmic playfulness of the man's music down into one stolid (but still sleazy) beat).
Not enough inches at SPIN though, meaning the piece just focuses on Italo in the 21st century. I conducted heaps of interviews though, and will post them for most of this month. Here is one with Morgan Geist...
In your email you cautioned that your responses would be bitter.
This was a joke. Sort of. The bitterness extends far beyond disco and is a natural response to 13 years of owning a record label and being forced to deal with thieves, liars and egos to make ends meet.
Do you believe that there has been a "Return of Disco"?
Compared to when I started making records in 1994, disco has become acceptable as a reference point. You can admit you like disco now and people still think youre OK - maybe even cool or hip. But lets not forget that disco was about dancing, among other things. Try finding a disco night in NYC with lots of people dancing today. It doesnt really exist. Plus, the times have changed, for better or worse...the culture is totally different and the idea of a discotheque may not be viable any longer.
Do you feel left out of it in some way?
Well, I just dont think my feelings about disco music and various related music really align with any perceived“return. In other words, I dont think what I love about disco music and culture is compatible with what I imagine is the impetus for people talking about disco.
Speaking purely in terms of records, the underground dance music market today is fuelled almost exclusively by people doing disco bootlegs and disco edits (I'm speaking of disco in the broadest sense – from acoustic/organic disco all the way to electronic, Italo/Euro disco and danceable R&B and new wave). In my opinion, these re-edit and bootleg records are incredibly uncreative and lazy, not to mention arrogant – taking someone else's work to make 90%-100% of "your" new record. It's not even like hip-hop's early days, where you needed a skilled DJ or tape-editing skills. You can make these edits in seconds now on your laptop with little to no skill or ear. Some people think that's great, but I'm bored with the results. And I think if it were a true return, people would be able to accept the original disco records rather than people having to edit the original spirit out of the stuff. (Granted, sometimes a song does have a truly awful part or too-brief fantastic part, and an edit is necessary...this was indeed part of the original 12" culture way back when!)
It's ironic to me, since I began my own personal "return to disco" as a reaction to dance music's lazy abuse of the stuff in the '90s. Back then, people (including myself) were taking samples and loops of disco and putting huge kick drums underneath and filtering the loops and calling their own. I saw this as excruciatingly boring, uncreative and disrespectful to the incredible sources (to be sure, the first time I heard it I liked it...until I heard the original song where the loop came from). So I started Metro Area as a reaction to this stuff, to understand the energy and musicality and creative process behind those original, exciting disco records rather than just stealing chunks of them. Plus hell, I just couldn't get enough of the stuff...listening on the radio, dancing to it, buying records.
But now, almost 10 years after this reaction to filtered disco loops, I find it ironic that we're back to the same place that made me seek out real disco in the first place (minus the filters). A lot of these edits and re-works take out the "bad" parts of the originals, so there are no emotional dynamics left. People just loop the "best" part of the records...it's kind of whitewashing the whole thing, or making it safe for instant gratification culture. Head straight to the musical orgasm, and then repeat the orgasm over and over and over again until it is rendered meaningless and monotonous. I prefer to keep the foreplay in, the teasing in...even the awkwardness in! It's part of the whole experience. Otherwise the record or DJ set has no dynamics or contrast.
Why do you think the music was so maligned for so long yet is now experiencing a rennaissance of sorts?
Generation gaps. Fashion. Record dorks. Supply and demand. Sex.
Do you remember the disco craze when you were a kid?
I just remember the disco of the radio, and I remember disco clubs (speaking of whitewashed!) in my hometown of Wayne, NJ. The Strawberry Patch, Gasbar's...places that New Yorkers would have thrown up over.
What did you love about the music?
If the music appealed to me – regardless of the genre – there was something in it I loved. Simple as that. I could say the rhythms or melodies, but you could say that about Strauss or Public Enemy.
My first disco record was probably Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" or, if you're being liberal with the definition, Human League. Maybe Deep Purple, actually...I think that qualifies as disco now, somehow.
Presuming that you grew up around "rock" people, was there a pleasure to be had from liking something despised like disco?
Oh yes. There was great pleasure in being told I listened to "fag music." I loved every minute of it, especially in my teens, when one is so confident in oneself and one isn't afraid of kids in Black Sabbath shirts beating the shit out of one.
When did you feel the tide began to turn to where the music was being re-examined?
Again, it's generational. At least in New York, I felt like Daniel Wang and his friends, and to a slightly lesser extent Darshan Jesrani and myself, were early re-examiners of our generation. But if you speak to people like Bobby Viteritti or David Mancuso or Francois K, they'd say we were very late to the game. It depends on your perspective.
Are you surprised by the turn?
Or do you think it's mostly a crock of shit, said revival?
Yes and no, but mostly yes. Look at the stuff that's really popular: it's music that uses the idea of disco, the fashion or imagined nostalgia of disco, the WORD "disco," rather than disco itself. I could name 10 bands that have the word "disco" in their name and they all sound nothing like disco...the worst offenders are nearly rock, completely hyper-hetero, monotonous music, and the worst part is GIRLS seem to LOVE IT! I always thought women were smarter than men, but girls coming up to me requesting this stuff is making me second-guess that assessment.
I was talking with James Murphy of LCD Soundsytem about DJing. James and I are very different in terms of where we came from musically and what kind of music we make or like. But we have shared the same experience, over and over, of being booked to DJ by people who imagine they like what we'll play when in actuality they like the idea of what they think we would play. We get on and start to play disco records, and kids just stare at us like we we're fucking Martians and start requesting bands that have "disco" in the name (especially in France). Kids think they like or understand disco, or "electro" or whatever they are calling it, but it's actually their own perception of what disco is, not actually what disco is, or was. It's akin to me telling my 13-year-old sister that techno was created by black people in Detroit and her laughing, thinking I was making a joke. It wasn't a joke! But her perception of techno was formed by totally different cultural cues.
Every generation needs to make music their own, in their own way. I'm just as guilty, so I should shut the fuck up and enjoy life. I didn't go to any disco clubs, and I didn't really fully understand the music or cultural context until my mid-20s. So who am I to judge?
Posted by beta at 8:49 PM
There were married couples looking domestic and bored with each other in the midst of their travels; there were small parties and large parties, and lone individuals dining solemnly or feasting boisterously, but all thinking, conversing, joking, or scowling as was their wont at home; and just as intelligently receptive of new impressions as their trunks upstairs. Hence forth they would be labeled as having passed through this and that place, and so would be their luggage. They would cherish this distinction of their persons, and preserve the gummed tickets on their port manteaus as documentary evidence, as the only permanent trace of their improving enterprise.-Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
'Is it true,' she said, 'that England is like a dream?...She said this place London is like a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up.'-Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
'Well,' I answered annoyed, 'that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.'
'But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?'
'And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal?'
'More easily,' she said, 'much more easily. Yes a big city must be like a dream.'
'No, this is the unreal and like a dream,' I thought.
Sometimes I can't help the feeling that I'm
Living a life of illusion
And oh, why can't we let it be
And see thru the hole in this wall of confusion
I just can't help the feeling I'm
Living a life of illusion
Pow! Right between the eyes
Oh, how nature loves her little surprises
Wow! It all seems so logical now
It's just one of her better disguises
And it comes with no warning
Nature loves her little surprises
Hey, don't you know it's a waste of your day
Caught up in endless solutions
That have no meaning, just another hunch
Based upon jumping conclusions
Caught up in endless solutions
Backed up against a wall of confusion
Living a life of illusion.
-Joe Walsh, "Life of Illusion"
It was a strange and melancholy illusion, ordered half-consciously like all our illusions, which I suspect only to be visions of remote unattainable truth, seen dimly. This was, indeed, one of the lost, forgotten, unknown places of the earth; I had looked under its obscure surface; and I felt that when tomorrow I had left it forever, it would slip out of existence to live only in my memory till I myself passed into oblivion. I have that feeling about me now; perhaps it is that feeling which has incited me to tell you the story, to try and hand over to you, as it were, its very existence, its reality – the truth, disclosed in a moment of illusion.-Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
Posted by beta at 8:39 PM