Monday, January 28, 2008

Morgan Geist Interview

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'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?