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 three...to 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.
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 more...um...one-dimensional 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.
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 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?