Thursday, February 28, 2008

Johnny Jewel Interview

This is the final installment of a series of interviews conducted for a piece that ran in the February issue of SPIN about "The Return of Disco." Originally conceived to note the myriad forms that genre had taken, from Escort and Crue-L Orchestra's brand of big-band disco to the white label disco-edit scene, the piece settled on surveying instead the return of Italo-disco, with Glass Candy's Johnny Jewel being of particular interest.

(As Johnny Jewel talks about lugging fog machines up three flights of stairs, I begin our interview by detailing Antony Gromley’s brilliant Blind Light installation to him)

Oh woah. That’s great. Sight's a major defense system.

It’s so misty, it’s such a humidifier. You can hear people sniffling.

Was there any music playing?

No, just the hiss of the mist. All you can see is the interference of your eyes.

There was a study at NASA with a soundproof room, and this guy talked about this high-pitched frequency. It was the sound of your nervous system. He could hear his blood pumping. Soooo...are we done?

The end! (We both laugh) So is Glass Candy still touring with Architecture in Helsinki?

No. that’s done. We played really fun parties. All those shows were set up like rock shows and we played DJ show type parties on the way back. More underground and low-key. It was cool doing a support tour. We always headlined. We headlined to 3 people and slowly built up. We never warmed up a crowd before. Those guys are really cool and pretty deep taste in music. They’re music addicts.

Tell me about the DJ parties.

We don’t DJ. We’d be the only band, as opposed to 3-4 band bills. Where the sound guy is the DJ, you hear the Tool Peel Sessions. It was DJs before us and DJs after us. It was really informal.

Did Mike talk to you about the piece at all? About the “Return of Disco”? I’m talking to James Murphy, Rub’n’Tug, Lindstrom…

Definitely contemporaries. Everybody’s doing their own thing but we all fit into the same timetable in a way.

How old are you now?

I’m 33.

We’re about the same age. What were you first impressions of disco music?

I didn’t even know that disco was a thing until I was in high school. When I was a little kid, music was music. I grew up in Houston and I didn’t differentiate between Urban Cowboy and disco.

I grew up in San Antonio!

Shamu! Sea World!

Hahaha. Astro World! Water World!

You got the Alamo right next to McDondald’s. The Alamo smells like piss. I went there on a boy scout field trip.

You know they moved the Alamo to downtown, right?

No wonder it’s so weird.

I remember watching Love Boat and Fantasy Island and stuff like that. The TV shows that had disco music, when the adults would go into the nightclub and everybody would be wearing suits and drinking weird drinks. My family didn’t drink. Just the impressions of the strings sections, really ethereal vocals, especially the female vocals. I was really swept away. To me, the vocals in disco music sound like this surreal afterlife, a purgatory. It’s probably based on movies and TV that I saw that had disco music and subject matter about dreams.

Really angelic and very very smooth. And not about the individual, it seemed to be more about a bigger picture conceptually, a group feeling. Lots of handclaps and stuff. It didn’t give the impression of a rock band, where you identify with the singer or the guitar player. Disco was like wallpaper, in a good way, like Erik Satie or something.

Not fully in focus...

Yeah. It’s a different purpose. That’s my opinion. I was really taken by the mood of it. I could’ve told you who Rod Stewart was when I was a kid, but Tay Stephanie (sp?). I didn’t realize it was different from anything until high school during the grunge era, and then disco was really uncool. Even before that. It reached us being whitewashed.

Like Charlie Daniels “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” A disco song. with a fiddle in it. I just never really thought much about musical genres, you try to find certain things. To me it was just music and I loved it. I didn’t think anything about it. my parents didn’t listen to music, we didn’t have a stereo. They bought me a clock radio, they didn’t know it had a radio, as we weren’t allowed to listen to secular music.

Houston in the late 70s, the soul station would play a lot of disco and electro-boogie. I was super into that, that was the first thing I identified with and felt really really excited about. Stuff like “Electric Kingdom,” vocoder stuff. It’s not rap, not freestyle. It’s somewhere between. It’s the transition from rappers rapping over disco to making their own beats. Before it hit Run DMC. Really funky, lots of handclaps, lots of sci-fi sounding synths, and super-minimal.

Like “Jam On It”?

“Jam On It” was MASSIVE in Houston. It was on the radio all the time. Oh My God! This is sooooo great.

Your parents weren’t thrilled.

My older brother hated it. He didn’t consider rap music to be music. He was into Journey, Talking Heads. I love that stuff too. I thought it was awesome. The stuff I really liked was Fat Boys. In Houston they would cross-fade Kraftwerk and Gary Numan with Eric B. and Rakim and Schooly D, it was all the dance club scene. There wasn’t any disco by that point, in the traditional sense.

So when I saw you at PS1 this summer, you made a track out of the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.”

We did “Iko Iko.” When that song came out, I was still in Houston. That was bigger than “Jam On It” man!

Was it an homage to it? Why did you pick it?

Any song that I pick to do anything with is based on whether there is an idea and I cannot tell you where an idea comes from. I don’t do anything based on a concept. I was painting this wall listening to the 12” on repeat and it has an instrumental. And I started humming the Dixie Cups version of “Iko” and realized that the phrasing was perfect for the vocal phrasing of “Iko” and it was something I wanted to fuck with. The instrumental is obtuse and before the 16-bar formula kicked in with hip-hop so the verse just goes until they run out of words and then it goes back. “Iko” is a call-and-response, so you need even parts. It felt good to do something from Houston, but it wasn’t part of the concept. It just worked. Ida was open to trying it. it seemed appropriate. People loved that shit. We’re not trying to appropriate Geto Boys. It’s a sick song, a classic.

It’s Houston and New Orleans, geographically close. Sugar Boy Crawford was from New Orleans. All that was thought about afterwards. I just started humming it. There’s a lot of (Glass Candy) songs like that: “Rolling Down the Hill” beat goes perfectly with the acapella of Young Jeezy “Go Crazy.” “Computer Love” is in the exact key and tempo of Biggie’s “Going Back to Cali.” It’s things I noticed in weird ways, logged onto MySpace and listening to iTunes at the same time. that was the only one we did something with. I felt comfortable as they’re both covers, a conceptual marriage of regional classics that go together. Everybody knows “Iko” and everybody knows Geto Boys. But it was a one-time thing.

I remember Glass Candy as a more glam and rock and then moving more towards the studio. Was it less of a band?

I’m the only one that plays any of the music on the records. It’s always been a studio project. Our first two records have drum machine and synth. We were more synth, there was no guitar, I played bass live through a synthesizer. It sounded punk because we weren’t very good musicians. We were never setting out to sound a certain way. In ’99, we were into the Bee Gees and (the Stones) “Emotional Rescue,” “Miss You.” Just the disco coming from a rock perspective. We did our first tour, at the Knitting Factory, the bass fell apart and we finished the tour with a guitar. Ida liked the way it sounded, so we did that for awhile. Guitar is such a rock instrument. I’ve used electronic drums on every single record I made. Sometimes they’re dirtier. Keyboards and electronics have been with us the whole time. I’m a better beat-maker.

Personally, I don’t know anybody that does the shit. All my friends are rock people and I’ve had to teach myself from scratch, so the music is becoming tighter and more danceable. Our tastes are always changing. It’s in the mix together. It’s not a conscious effort. We’ve always viewed ourselves as a disco band in the conceptual sense. We were thought of no wave for awhile. Now people think of us as Italo, which is as accurate and inaccurate. Glass Candy is enigmatic, every song we do is different. When we write a song, all the ideas that we have goes into that song. we’re finishing a double LP in March. We want each song to be its own entity. Each song could be a record in and of itself. Stringing it together is a difficult thing. We’re feeling the dancehall drum tones, which are more overtly electronic. the electronic drums were more acoustic sounding, and lo-fi, people would just assume its live drums. Drum machines are on every single record. Now were pushing the tones forward.

Socially, it’s still a rock scene for you?

That’s changed a lot because of the age group. The cut-off is about 25. The people go to bars, not to shows. They don’t go to dance nights. The crop is different. The younger kids aren’t as prejudiced towards hip-hop as the people our age. They don’t have a problem embracing it. for the kids growing up and going to clubs now, they don’t have this idea…

With the internet, and MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, everyone’s a star and everyone’s life is celebrity. Even if it’s not super-famous, everyone thinks “this moment is being capture, this moment is being photographed, and people are going to see this.” And because of that, the shift has gone off of the artist performing and it’s more for the younger people, they don’t separate themselves from you that much, which is awesome in terms of breaking the ice and having a fun night. Mentally, we’re on the same level as the audience. We give them respect. We wouldn’t be there if they weren’t there. the whole night is a party, the kids aren’t thinking “I need to get their ass rocked off.” Or “There’s no drummer or no guitar.” It was more an obstacle when we first started putting on shows. People were more hung up on certain things. The more popular electronic music, they become more open-minded. A live rock band is cool. But there’s a million ways to exist and put on a show. Our shows are like DJ plus. I DJ the beats and play synth, she sings, and we interact. The younger audience is way open to it. it’s a different thing. It’s changing. In Europe, it’s not a rock scene at all for us. It’s different all over. City to city. LA is different from San Diego. Houston is different from Austin. Certain cities are more rock-oriented.

The younger audience and the computer age, people being exposed to shows on YouTube or a dancehall show. Fifty people on stage with mics, one DJ, no live musicians. They’re killing it. it’s fun, it feels live. It’s a moment. It’s not karaoke. When we first switched to beats, people were like “It’s like karaoke.” Okay, we like karaoke, too. Glass Candy has always been an outsider band. we never really make sense if you judge us on the status quo. We only make sense in the context of what we do. Some people like the records and the live show is more rock and they’re disappointed.

Do you vascillate between rock and dance yourself?

I don’t think of myself as either. I think of myself as a graphic designer that’s working with music. I’m not a musician, she’s not a singer, she cant sing melodies. She can only sing microtones, like a blues singer. We’re really weird, probably we shouldn’t be making music but we love it and we do it. it comes out sounding really unique. We do our thing, we don’t think about where we fit in. That’s for writers to think about.

Why separate Italians from Troubleman?

It came about naturally. We were on tour. We played with Farah for the first time and I decided I was going to produce her. I just did this Chromatics track, “Lady,” which was not really Chromatics, just me through a vocoder. We used it as a Chromatics track to expand the concept of the band. Mike like that song. I never play him stuff I'm working on, he hears the record after they’re in stores.

I record a ton of stuff not appropriate to Glass Candy. Mike said “I’m thinking about starting a joke label called Italians Do It Better. Would you want to do an anonymous project on it?” I told him about Farah. Originally IDIB wasn’t supposed to be Glass Candy or Chromatics, it was supposed to be instrumental dance music and then we toured and I thought about how in dance culture, hip-hop, dancehall, and disco, the crew, the studio, the family is a big thing for labels. Some people like Wolf Eyes, they hear Glass Candy and think it’s shitty. We love Wolf Eyes, they love Glass Candy. Fans are sometimes specific. We could use the momentum to turn them on to something else. I pulled everything I was working on over to Italians and just like that crew, family, cult vibe, there would be a unified aesthetic. All the records look so great. The Ed Banger shit, the drawings are so amazing. There’s a cohesive movement. The hip-hop families, Rocafella, Dipset, there’s a unified aesthetic. Color schema. It’s strong psychologically. People want to see unity.

They want to have something to identify with.

It’s a symbol representing a certain feel and a certain idea. We wanted to do that. When you’re buying records, especially vinyl, you might be shy about getting it. the idea here is to have an association. It’s exciting to have a family thing going on.

You have complete creative control.

That’s very nice. Being able to make sure that every record looks top-notch printing and pressing. Because Mike puts everything on the bands, some don’t care about packaging, it lowers the bar for the label. We care about the cohesiveness of everything. Especially in the digital age, why buy a record when you can download it? The complete package, we care about.

I noticed that the CDs have this mirror effect.

For me, I’m a Gemini, so yin-yang and two sides of the same coin. I’m the designer. For me, symmetry is very powerful for me. Also too, the twelve inch, if you flip it over, it’s like Black Sabbath Sabotage, one side is forward. For me it’s the duality of the label and my life and the way I think about things. There’s a plus and negative. An up and down. It’s a superstition of mine, acknowledging that balance. With anything you do to connect with people. It’s the way the whole universe is built, right? If you can build something that’s based on those same principles, it will connect with people abstractly and in a psychological way that people won’t think about. People just know they like the way it looks. It’s not a shtick. Sometimes it looks good.

It’s you and Ida, man and woman.

It’s duality. We’re both air signs. My moon is in her sign and her moon is in my sign. Everything that we do, the label does, it happens in twos. It just seems appropriate.

DJ Harvey talked about punk and disco as being closely related, in the idea of dressing up as a punk or dressing up for the disco.

I think that everything is the same. I think everyone dresses up, whether it’s jeans or some crazy outfit. It’s all expression. I think music is a symbol of expression. The closest tie between punk and disco would be small camps doing things their own way, putting out records in their own way. To me punk isn’t an aesthetic, it’s a state of mind. To me, Clint Eastwood (the character) is punk, making your own way. Individual vision is at the core of those things. That’s what strikes me. That’s why I like punk. To me it represents a freshness. The thing with disco, we’re definitely heavily influenced by the past. We let it come out in a natural way.

There’s no disco band or new wave band that sounds like Glass Candy. We’re not setting out to replicate this holy grail vintage disco sound cuz that’s not fresh. The only reason disco is making a resurgence is because younger people are discovering it for the first time and it sounds fresh to them. Therefore, it sounds fresh against what’s on MTV. It’s not because it was the only good music ever made its all relative. I think punk is the same as classic rock when it started. To me it’s all punk. Anything fresh and new is punk. I don’t think any music is unrelated to any other music. It’s all music. I understand it’s easier to file genres, I don’t see myself as any different from any other producer, from Air Supply to Dr. Dre. It’s all the same. Especially these days, everybody’s working on the same computer programs. The main difference is vocal and drum productions.

Everything else falls in-between.

The punk on MTV is no different from the country. it’s the same corporate versions, the style, the accent, and the singing, and the way the drums are produced. It’s all pop songs. Our songs are repetitious, it’s pop music.

I like how Chromatics Night Drive slowly fades away.

A lot of people listen to music really late at night. At that point you’ve passed out or you’re done making love or whatever. It opens the CD up for room ambience and conversation and we step into the background. We slip away. It’s the pulse of what’s going on. For me, that’s the sound of the road and the way it looks. I really like winding records down. I don’t like to go out with a bang. Most of the record happens early on.

It too has a duality to it.

The CD starts, peaks, then dissipates. That’s the idea. It’s intentionally minimal.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Thom Bullock (Rub'n'Tug) interview

“The Return of Disco” I’m wondering what you think of that.

I dunno. Should we start there? I think like, I have noticed you know, the hipster kids love to dance to disco. It’s great fun seeing all the wonky white kids show up and jump around and enjoy the disco music. It has to happen. For me, there’s no real…disco is not like, “good or bad” it’s just whether you disco. Do you or don’t you disco? It’s not good or bad or in or out, there’s only disco. Like, nothing can really replace disco. It’s something you do.

It’s an affirmation.

It can be. Some people choose it like church. It’s there. Do you go to the gym or don’t you go to the gym? Do you watch porn or don’t you watch porn? Do you disco or don’t you disco? There’s no alternative. It does this thing that nothing else does, which is you dance for a looong time same tempo, you get all these funny feelings. I think that’s like, every generation of wonky white folk, wonky white rockers have always shown up at the disco at one point. Johnny Lydon fucking loved the disco. There’s a disco scene in Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. Know what I mean?

Like all the Stones' songs that are disco.

Totally! Mick Jagger went disco mad once he got taken to the disco. You get taken to the disco. There’s no going back. So James Murphy got taken to the disco and now fucking all the kids in Idaho and Ohio are going to the disco. Heh heh.

Why do you think it was maligned for so long in the states?

The great like...death of disco, baseball field scene...

That for sure, but there's always this forbidden fruit thing, to be into it.

I don’t know why it would fade in and out. You can get too much of a good thing, knowwhaddamean? Heh heh. I’m just turning into too much of a well-rounded, groovy kind of person. I’m gonna get aggro for a bit. I stepped away form the damned disco for a minute. For awhile there, taken to the Loft. You know a long time ago.

David Mancuso’s Loft.

When it was on Ave B and 13th Street. And I… had to step away from the disco.

When did you go?

Aww shit, ’96. I stepped away from the disco. I was doing whatever. Like, punk rock here in downtown.

You were doing A.R.E. Weapons then?

Exactly. I stepped away from the disco and started doing that. I needed a bit of aggro. Get a bit of a balance. Disco is always there. And punk rock is always there! It’s like, new kids step into the shoes. The outfits are all the same. Pants are black and tight, shoes are pointy. After you’ve done that for a bit, you want your trousers loose and shoes all round. You step from one to another. That’s what’s so exciting when something else comes between. How much can you get in-between? You can’t step to the party in cellophane and tinfoil all the time.

Like a pendulum shifting?

Yeah, it is. Punk rock and discotheque they’ve always been there. For so long now, it’s as if they’ve been there forever.

Is it a little seedier than it used to be? More punk rock now?

I get what you’re saying.

Punk culture is the Vans tour, you go to the mall, that’s punk.

Totally totally. I feel like I had a hand in that with Rub n Tug. We totally brought some, how you put it…definitely brought some agro action to the dancefloor, put the two together with Rub n Tug, that’s what happened there.

When did you and Eric start doing it?

That was about 2000...1999! Say that.

What made you guys do that?

That’s the thing. Me and Eric were hanging downtown, part of whatever, the punky arty-farty scene and everyone needed to disco! That is literally what happened. We sorta remembered that we needed to disco. What’s missing? Both me and Eric knew how to do it. I’ve been doing it for years, really. It just caught on like wildfire. People weren’t doing proper disco. Me and Eric kinda did. We took it to the loft, it went all night, it was covert, and those kind of things. Disco has a very kind of schmaltzy appearance by that point. The house music phenomena just became so banal, everybody basically, it was like everyone’s parents were going to the fucking club, it was so drab. We used to call it “dinner house” at that point. Something you get a fish dinner and a glass of white wine with it. the music was sooo bad. So we would, me and Eric, we sorta…we needed to disco, our friends needed to disco, as we feel it should be done. It’s what everyone needed. That was a coup. That came together nicely. Mmmm-hmmm.

There’s the whole Norway and SF thing. What made it turn? Did the revelation you had here did you feel like people in other parts of the world felt the same way about it?

I think New York has its own way of dealing with it. you get like…you get regional variations and I think that’s very healthy. Depending on where you are in the world, you get your local version. Whatever, Vice Magazine Disco, which is what we’re talking about in a way, there is a regional variation. The New York variation is the one I like the most, which is things go slow, things go long, you play the whole tune, that kind of style.

Mancuso style?

Mancuso is the ultimate. He epitomizes the sort of the New York sound, the New York style, and everybody, it seems to fit it. if you live in Oslo, you got to try and create some excitement. In New York, if you’re playing for 12 hours, you need to go long, you need to go slow. Going out in Oslo, it’s only on for three hours, so it’s all frenetic. In Italy, I love the regional aspects of it, yeah.

Do you think it’s better connected now because of the internet, the easy way of making a connection?

So the internet thing. I dunno. I’m not sure how that affects like…the Vice magazine disco action. Disco on the internet is pretty trainspotter, it’s really anorak.

Disco edits in particular.

That’s interesting, it’s pretty anorak. It’s really fascinating. The story with the edits is that disco in a way, was created by edits. It goes back to the old theory of extending the break.

Like Tom Moulton.

Tom Moulton who was actually a big-shot engineer. Tom Moulton’s story is he did the very first disco mix, I interviewed him once.

How is he?

Ah, he’s great to talk to. I couldn’t get him off the phone, really. He was really bitchy, real queen. It was really fun. Walter Gibbons was an early edit master. Tape edits, it’s an interesting thing, the whole super re-emergence of disco edits, cuz you know, it’s a bit overkill but ultimately it’s a really important part of disco. And it suits the current moment of like, free-for-all with the computers and moving material around. It suits that. It suits the chop-it-up and regurgitate culture we have at the moment. But actually, the whole concept of extending the music and making things rare, making things unavailable, that was a big part of disco and the original re-edit. There was only one reel. You played it at the club, it was your cut. And if they wanted to hear your cut…you know. That’s beautiful and there is an element of that, the re-edits are limited edition, that kinda thing. That’s really exciting. It is a bit overkill, but it’s definitely part of the heritage and I think it’s cool that it still goes on. I do Ottoman Empire as my edits, and I do edits through Rub n Tug.

I totally see that Harvey and Jerry Rooney single-handedly brought back in the re-edit phenomena with the Black Cock edit series. That was about ’91, I think, maybe ’92 or something, but Black Cock Records, they single-handedly brought the concept back in. it’s had long legs since then.

Harvey used to be in a punk rock band?

When he was 12-years-old. Who knows when that was? Yeah, he’s a bit older than me. That was way back in the day. We have our band, Map of Africa.

Swinging back towards rock.

Yeah, heavy rock disco band.

Real boogie.

Yeah, real boogie. It’s heavy metal disco in real old, Grebo style.

Would you put disco down again?

I do. I get a bit over it. now it’s interesting. The Italo stuff, that was a breath of fresh air. I turned on to that quite a long time ago. Chris Brick and those Smile On Nylon tapes. He turned me onto Italo back then. It was refreshing. It had the white man angle on it. It was bearded and it was white. It drank martinis, it was sleazy, it was heavy, and it wore shades. That felt good. It was a change from rainbow knee-highs and platforms. That was why a lot of people had gone for it. They like the darker aesthetic, the sleazier aesthetic, the Italo-sound. Its all synthy so that appeals to the wonky white guys.

Especially to those coming in from the new wave side of it, all synthesizers and drum machines.

Yeah. Exactly. So like, um...nowadays, that’s been going a long time. I’m really feeling vocals again. It’s all there. you go through a phase. You need a bit of one, you go and get a bit of the other. You come up with something magical, that’s a rare combination that really hits the nail on the head. Like Rub n Tug is for me.

Who else do you like?

That’s a good question. I should email you that. I’m quite excited and that’s pretty rare for me. I do hear some nice pieces.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

James Murphy interview

Do you think disco is the new punk rock?

It depends on what strata or circle you travel in. For me, disco has been a big part of my musical landy-scapey for along enough time that, it’s not really the new anything to me. That make any sense? So it’s weird.

Talking to folks like Thom and Morgan, 13-14 years...

Rightrightright. You know, jerks like me ruining it for everybody. Nah um, I don’t know, it’s just a pretty weird definition. For most people, language is defined by usage. Most people use it to mean something I don’t like very much. Studio 54 which was the one disco that wasn’t music-driven, the only disco that wasn’t music-driven.

Yet it’s what everyone thinks of.

Hanging out with Liza Minelli, shit like that.


Right. That was not a music...that doesn’t seem like a very music-driven story. The disco that I think is germane and still pretty interesting is the idea that it really came from a gay, black and Latino scene, which is about as punk as it fucking gets. When punk means college kids…


Well, just like...privilege is a weird word. It still recalls preppy. It’s just like punk rock in the 90s got so straighted out.

It’s very mall culture now.

There’s always going to be punk rock that’s interesting. It’s a much easier thing to commodify and sell to kids. Warp tours and stuff. Extreme sports wear. Disco is very difficult to sell to a high school football player. It gives it some sort of distance.

Gay, black, and Latino is never going to become a selling point.

Also, disco now, they think of it as That 70’s Show, feathered hair. Disco was a weird time in history where if you DJ’d on Saturday night at a straight club, you had to play boring dumb shit. The only place you could music where people knew their fucking music was gay clubs. A very different conception now. Oh, gay clubs, you just play, they’re always there for the music. It’s such a weird misconception of that scene.

When I talk to the Europe guys about it…

Oh. Very different. Disco is very different over there.

What’s so weird is it became so maligned in the states.

Right. A racist and homophobic backlash to a certain degree. When they did the “Disco Sucks” record burning it was mostly just black music. None of those records had anything to do with disco.

When did the tide start shifting?

There’s two or get PBS about it. There's a handful of things that are important. One is that massive…overtaking of American musical culture by hip-hop. And hip-hop producers, most of them, certainly the good ones know their disco. Like it’s were you get a lot of your samples and that crossover culture of the nineties, A-1 records being partially hip-hop and a disco place. Vinylmania and A-1 being this weird crate-digging place. People making trip-hop wound up buying records with disco on them. That culture, a certain degree where Thomas comes from, or Tim. There’s the coming from techno side, Morgan and Danny stuff. For me, I’m a phase later than that. Morgan will say he’s old school, unless you compare him to David Mancuso. But compared to me and somebody else. There was that upswing in the re-examination of Larry Levan, specifically as a person.

Understanding that he wasn’t just a DJ but cutting.

It was a life. That book, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, was the culmination of some stuff that was happening. But also it was the start of some other stuff. That book wouldn’t have come out if there wasn’t stuff to talk about. For me though, reading that book was a big big big deal, because I at the same time, rather than being into disco, was into the stuff that would’ve been the LES, downtown, Liquid Liquid, ESG, A Certain Ratio, and starting to listen that being like, “Hey, This is sorta like disco, how is that possible?” I thought that punk and disco were bitter enemies. That was the story we were told.

Two separate sides.

And then you put on “Magnificient Seven” and that sorta just sounds like disco. I started investigating it from that side. Well, I like this kind of disco. I don’t like stuff with the big choruses and girls singing.

String sections.

Right. I just wasn’t sure how to react to that stuff. I had this vision of it being like bell-bottoms. The crossover to me seemed to be more about hip-hop than about disco anyways. Where LL and “White Lines” where those scenes intersected. The beginning of hip-hop, DJ culture, that getting involved in downtown New York. Fab 5 Freddy being the conduit. That world seemed to be the connection that was going on for me. In that book, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life came out and I started realizing that the way Bambaataa found records and the way that the disco guys found records, they were there trying to surprise each other all the time. they were trying to be the first guy to play something that you never think of as disco and get them to dance to it.

Those guys were going through every sort of record of any genre.

You couldn’t go to the disco store. It didn’t exist. Tribal house section…they also didn’t sleep. Francis Grasso would DJ 14 hours a day on meth. That’s pretty fucking punk, far as I was concerned. How much, how un-frivolous it was, making music that way. That seems really impossible to front on. So there must be a lot more music and a lot more to it. so I just started looking in the back and going to Vinylmania and trying to buy up things that sounded interesting that I read. Listened to them and see how I felt. I met Charlie, who ran Vinylmania. He was always weirded out by me. What’s with the 29-year-old, digging in the weird section that had gone to sleep. That’s where I found most of the music I had.

Who took you to your first disco?

The first time I went dancing, really --first time I went to a dance club-- the first time I went to a club not to see a band, but to dance. I moved to New York and went to the Roxy the week I moved here. A really weird experience where a lot about New York. Where I accidentally got VIPed. There was this huge line, no one would wait in this line, you know what I mean. And I went and walked up with my roommate and these two girls. I was looking at the door at the bottom of the stairs. Is this the fucking place? This guy lifted this rope up and we got to the front. It all happened in like two minutes. I walked up the staircase and there was a guy there. I drank free all night. It was a complete accident of saying the right thing to the right people, totally by fluke. Always meaning something else. A great night, but I didn’t do much after that. Once I had to payfor things, I couldn’t afford it. David Holmes, Tim, Marcus were playing. First time I went out to the club. I’d go out when Marcus DJed.

45’33” is it about a particular night?

What’s the song about?

It’s like the night a DJ saved your life?

I never think of the lyrics at all.

When I listen to it, it’s this loving tribute to all these facets of disco: house, acid, Hot Chocolate, Arthur Russell, Larry Levan...

Oh, I know what you mean. I thought, God, it’s just a bunch of nonsense. With albums I feel pressured to make songs, there’s a different structure to a song on an album. It was nice to just be free of it and just go more disco than I normally would with vocals. Be a little per track. I don’t think it winds up feeling like that. When I find records, there’s this one thing I love. I love this one thing. I tried to make songs built more like that. One thing I was really attached to. I wanted to make it a little like a DJ set. But, more just like...what a weird opportunity to make something like that. It made me really happy. You have to have a goal and deadline.

Masturbatory to be in the studio making a 45-minute track for yourself.

It’s just so much work and it’s so terrifying and really hurts that you need someone to tell you that it’s time to be done. You think of these great 12”s that came out, they didn’t come out for these. People like to make things easy for themselves by having altruistic motives and meaning and I don’t think it exists. I think people made some of the best songs because “My friend Dan works in a studio and nobody’s there Sunday so we can sneak in if we don’t tell anybody.” Make a track. There’s your Dinosaur L “Go Bang.” “We need to put something out, so let’s get in there.”

There weren’t these “I have a vision.” If they had something to say, it’d get said at home or working for this stupid thing. I like that about that. There’s too many 12”s. There isn’t that myth that punk rock has of “I’m pissed and I’m gonna do something for real.” It’s more like “I’m gonna make people dance.” The pressure’s off in some ways, the pressures is on to make something work. It frees you up to be more genuinely creative, I think. It does for me. As soon as I started thinking about making people dance, my life got a lot better. The music helped, but…you can just be genuine about wanting to do stuff for people without --say you’re in a punk band, “I just want to make people happy with the music” people are like sell-out, asshole, douche bag. It doesn’t really work. Truth is, what’s wrong with that? Wanting people to be happy. People have lost the ability to say they want to make people happy cuz they’re so afraid of people thinking they’re catering to the lowest common denominator to feed their own ego. There’s a very big difference. Trying to make people happy is not the same as trying to make a hit at all costs. It’s a lot more respectful, I think.

That Italo aspect...

Is hip with the kids. I have not found my way into most Italo, to be honest. Just in general. I haven’t picked up Italo…I’m a little fuzzy of the definition is other than it’s Italian. Most of the time things people get excited about, I’ll listen to it…a lot of it doesn’t do it for me, it doesn’t work for me on the dancefloor and that’s a big part of it. it’s really effective in the filesharing nerd festival but it’s (laughs) I just haven’t ofund that many tracks.

Is Black Devil considered Italo?

I love that stuff but don’t find it effective played out. it’s not as effective as Candi Staton or Liquid Liquid. I think it’s beautiful, but…I like to play for people who don’t know what the stuff is. Not just “Awww yeah,” (trainspotters). I’m not saying that’s what people do. I’m never into that. I hate that. I hate the too much pride in knowing something and fetishizing it. I find it’s a great way to squeeze and kill it. What you love is what other people don’t know about it. Are you going to be evangelical about it? Not being evangelical about something you love I find really questionable and dubious. I’m super-evangelical about the things I love. To be something else, what are you doing? Keeping it cool school? Not that interested.

To testify.

Right. There are moments --don’t get me wrong—- where I find a 12” and I hop no one else finds this, for at least a couple of months. Usually they find it, fuckers. You want to find something and get people psyched about it. I don’t have to ‘really know,’ I can make music. I can go make it. I don’t get that wrapped up in the pride of owning something rare. It’s very ugly, that mentality to me. It’s very un-giving, very selfish and arrogant.

It’s misconstrued.

It’s condescending: “You can’t handle this.” I think people can handle amazing things. The secret of the DJ set is to get people to feel you’re not making fun of them. You can get people to listen to crazy shit if they don’t think you’re trying to be an asshole.

And your Fabric mix with Pat?

It was a pretty simple idea. We’ve been DJing together on tour. Rather than over-think what we should put on the mix, what will make us look really cool? What will sell a bunch? Pile up all the records we play everytime that I haven’t put on mixes before. A few things we bought recently, see what they can license and then go mix them together. It’s pretty straight forward, but it made me really happy. I bought a Bozack for it. it sounds so fucking crazy good. I like that it’s not real perfect. Old DJ mixes are never perfect. New mixes done by computer are all so perfect, I just don’t give a shit. A perfectly recorded piano sounds like a sample. I don’t care. If you record it at Abbey Road, perfect, it sounds like a sample. There’s no…I don’t care. Just trying to do as good a ob as you can with two turntables seems like a fun solution.

It sounds celebratory.

We love those tracks, man. But the artwork they do for those things is so bad.

Why do you think people are getting back into disco?

Why do I think most people are? Because they are told that it’s cool. Its why most things happen. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Why do people get into Jesus? It’s attractive, it’s different, it’s fun, you can dance.

A forbidden thing?

There’s always that.
(tape cuts off)
I think it’s just, there’s good reasons. Most of the world operates on pretty dumb reasons. I don’t mean that negative, it just is. You have to recognize. I get more people come to see me DJ, it’s not because more people fell in love with disco independently. That’s how it always works. That’s how I found out about 90% of the bands I grew up on. Somebody at the record store. Listened to it and either liked it or didn’t. that’s the difference between people and bricks. Everyone listens because they’re told its cool. It’s what you do with what goes into your ears. You’re either going to listen, trust your tastes, or (pantomimes). I think disco is just having a moment. Hopefully it doesn’t have another moment. Well, who cares? Think of how it blew up after Studio 54 and the backlash people still kept making the exact same amount of records. It didn’t have any affect on actual disco. Big explosion happened, they ignored it. It just doesn’t make a difference. In its own culture. sorta like hardcore. Skinhead hardcore, Oi! bands, it’s totally irrelevant what’s on the radio, what’s happening. They’re just “Oi!”

It doesn’t matter if ska takes off...

Exactly. Oi! bands just keep going. There’s something good and horrible about that at the same time. I try to figure out the line without being a culture-crushing vampire dilettante like Madonna. (Laughs) Is that harsh?

Friday, February 01, 2008

DJ Harvey Interview

My interview with veteran DJ Harvey, who revitalized the art of the edit with his crucial Black Cock Edits in the early 90s, may've been the heaviest casualty of the SPIN space crunch. As the man is an original punk rocker, many cans of worms were opened about punk/ disco that simply could not be addressed in the piece.

So, is there a disco revival?

It never went away, mate. It never went away, it never stopped. People become a little more aware, but it never went anywhere. It’s much bigger and better than it ever was.

Is there a secret history, to where it surfaces slightly and then goes back underground?

Nah, disco’s just a big word for dance music. All-encompassing name for dance music. But carry on with your premise.

I'm just looking at disco-edits, Italo-disco, space-disco, Balearic stuff, a catch-all, really. Though you’re at the vantage point where you can see it come and go.

I dunno. It came and then it never went. Just after the so-called ‘death of disco,’ when they were blowing up records at baseball stadiums and shit, the Paradise Garage opened. Just when it was supposed to go back in the water, it ‘peaked.’

I was talking to someone about the differences in 1977 between punk and disco.

The same? (laughs). Coming from a hardcore perspective... In the UK, they were closer aligned, but US punk, it didn’t deal with disco. I love to give US punk a hard time. they love to hate British punk as well, especially in California. As punks, we would love disco, because you weren’t supposed to. As a real punk, you were always contrary. I don’t want to dump on (laughs) those cats, cuz they feel very passionate about their scene, but punk, you gotta be contrary. If you’ve fallen into a part-time punk, then that’s not punk.

It’s like being a weekend warrior.

Punk’s a state of mind, like disco. They’re actually very closely linked, just as an expression of freedom, through the dance and dressing up.

You were originally a drummer.

I made a record in ’78, with a punk band called Ersatz.

You came over and found hip-hop parties then?

In ’85, we went in search of hip-hop. We heard these imports coming in. The Clash were hanging with Futura. That was the sort of original connection. Me and my buddy walked up Manhattan to the Bronx to find hip-hop. You know? That was a fun afternoon, in the park in ’85 brudda, wooooh!

You came back to disco through the breaks?

Disco was sorta part of my formative years, if you like. It was all over the TV and radio, the whole Saturday Night Fever. It was around. It was the soundtrack of my formative years.

Sex Pistols the same year as SNF.

I just remember in SNF, the first thing John Travolta says is like “Fuck you, you cunt!” (he says, “Fuck the Future”), and it was like “WOOOOOOW!” He was a young punk in his own world. It’s hard to pin it down, they are together. If you watch The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, you got the Sex Pistols and Tavares jamming in the club together. It’s very close. It’s just the contrariness of punk and the joy of disco go hand-in-hand really. I think, especially with the new, electroclash and stuff like that, brought kids who never considered themselves or listened to house music, now digging the cosmic sound. It’s re-connected. Blondie with Grandmaster Flash. "Queen of the Rappin’ Scene" was an interesting moment.

Were you in NYC?

I hung out for a minute in ’85. I had a girlfriend on 5th Ave. I OD’ed on Ecstasy. We were still hip-hopping it, it was all E and that whole kind of thing. I’ve never lived in New York and don’t think I could. It takes its toll on my liver. I love to come and love the city. It’s obviously changed, it’s a quaint village these days (he he he). We used to bomb the trains, hit the trains and shit. That’s all calmed down a little. You’ve got this nexus of this world…taking it in an art school direction. It was stinky back then. You had to get real dirty and risk your life to be a graffiti artist.

At what point were you checking out the Loft?

Not in those days. We went to pretty much every decent club, except the Paradise Garage. We were looking for hip-hop, not disco. I didn’t get to the Loft until the early 90s. I’m drifting off here.

Do you see rock and disco as two separate ends of a spectrum?

Not at all. Every great rock band that existed made a disco record. Jerry Hall coming back from Studio 54, bugging Mick Jagger: “Make something we can dance to!” Rock’n’roll is a form of dance music. In the 50s: “It’s the beat daddy-o, it’s the jungle rhythm.” It’s very closely related. I find that genres tend to help journalists pin down a certain movement, whether it’s rock, punk, or disco. It taps into the same spirit.

I would like to cut across that. It’s a rhythmic flow, rather than a genre per se. Anyone that survived the sixties was making a disco record by the end of the seventies.

What about your series of Black Cock edits? Thom Bullock (of Rub'n'Tug) credited you with bringing that back. How did that come about?

Becoming friends with Larry Levan. We hung out, he had various edit tracks I couldn’t get my hands on. So we just decided to do our own. Danny Krivit was around, there was, I dunno, there were few other people doing that. The only way we could get our hands on that stuff was to do it ourselves. That’s how the whole Black Cock thing came about. We started off cutting tape, how Danny used to do it. I got my hands on a very early hard drive, like 4 MB, you could get 4-6 minutes of music, get the little soundwave and cut the stuff on the Atari computer.

The first things were done on tape, the later ones were done on the computer. In recent times, it’s something people forget. Editing is not an easy way to make a record. People have ruined a whole bunch of records by extending the breaks too long. What makes a break so great is the shit that comes just before it. if you don’t have that, then the break doesn’t have the impact it may have had.

The story of it.

Yeah. I’ve often considered taking a record with a fantastic break and actually editing that out of it, and just repeating the crappy part. Just so everyone is waiting for this thing to happen and that actually doesn’t and you hold people’s anxiety.

They never get to orgasm.

You drag them off before they cum. It’s become this easy way to make a record. I do it from time to time, but I haven’t put anything out. It’s a very very important thing. The editing of a movie or a soundtrack, can make or break the whole damned thing. It’s not an easy job, it’s not an easy way to make a record. It appears so, people do it, there’s mountains of that stuff these days. Oh, I can’t write a song, let’s dig out some…people edit tracks not realizing there’s a 12".

Is that edit scene overcrowded?

Everything becomes like that eventually. There’s the good and bad and you wade through and find what suits your needs. There’s almost a genre of disco-edits.

Who do you like that does it?

Um…nobody. (Laughs). Nobody springs to mind. Danny Krivit, Paul Simpson is really my main influence in editing. His stuff is absolutely phenomenal. Walter Gibbons and Tom Moulton are who I look to. People haven’t really captured it in modern times. An easy way to do something. Paul Simpson is a bit of a forgotten hero.

I haven’t heard his name mentioned.

His early stuff is phenomenal. I’m trying to think someone in modern times where I’ve gone “WOOOOOW!” it’s not that I don’t play them or that they don’t get you there.

It’s a lost art form?

A little bit. People don’t put quite enough effort into it.

The computer makes it too easy?

It’s easy to attempt, but it’s not easy to get right with computer technology. There’s less excuses now. tape editing is laborious, hard, it can take days and days to cut the tape. You can make a simple edit these days in a good evening. It’s not the end of the world there’s a bunch of pretty average edits out there. It’s not like I stay awake worrying about the sad state of disco.

What do you worry about then?

What do I stay awake about? Romance and stuff.

Tell me about it. That never gets easier.

That’s the key. A little love, a little romance, that’s what’s worth staying awake at night for.