In 2008, disco music experienced a renaissance thanks in part to the efforts of Brooklyn label DFA Records and its band Hercules & Love Affair, whose coming-of-age song “Blind” is easily the front-runner for gay club anthem of the year.
But not all is as fey as Hercules in disco land. Nerd club DJs are editing the strings and bongos out of disco classics, and many parties in New York seem segregated along lines of sexual orientation. It’s a trend DFA co-founder and LCD Soundsytem front man James Murphy finds distressing.
Being a “hipster DJ dude in a band”, he’s noticed the crowds his DJ gigs tend to attract are of the super nice indie kid variety. In other words: people who prefer to remain vertical rather than horizontal on the dance floor. He’s hoping that will change when he brings the DJs from Horse Meat Disco, London’s preeminent queer disco throw down, to parties in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles this week.
To better understand Murphy’s dedication to disco, we got in touch and conducted a highly-informative interview. Read it after the jump, and if you’re in Toronto on Thursday, Dec. 11, drop by Wrongbar (1279 Queen St. W.) and check him out with Horse Meat Disco’s Severino at Seventh Heaven.
James Murphy dancing at Horse Meat Disco’s 5th anniversary party in London.
What do you like about the Horse Meat Disco party?
We started hearing about it a while ago, it being a real disco party in London. It was an anomaly and was pretty separate from the hipster re-imaginations of disco, but not totally ignorant of that world. It’s a really, nice pleasant old-fashioned disco party for people to actually have fun at rather than scratch their beards and write things down at.
Hipster re-imaginations of disco?
There are tons of new disco parties, which are just to a certain degree, people who got tired of other types of dance music and began rediscovering disco. People like myself and other hipster DJ dudes. These guys have been inside and outside of that world. Disco was originally the soundtrack to gay, black and Latino New York. It wasn’t strictly the same people who’d go see Glass Candy. Now it’s a different thing and that part of disco barely exists in New York and it’s funny that it exists very strongly in London. Pat [Mahoney] and I played Horse Meat’s fifth birthday party with Tim Sweeney and it was incredible. You’re playing disco to people who are there having fun, having a genuinely good time and they’re singing along to not totally rare, but not run-of-the- mill disco stuff.
Is that the vibe you’re aiming for with the Special Disco Version parties in New York?
Yeah but it’s a little hard. We are what we are. Who you bring as a crowd is really important. There’s a pretty big benefit to being from a band that people know about, but there’s also a drawback to it. We’ll have parties where we’re DJing and people are like, “why aren’t you playing any LCD music?” Why am I also not also wearing a shirt with my face on it? That would be humiliating. We’ve had to get peoples’ heads around not making posters that say “LCD Soundsystem DJ set” because that’s totally misleading. We’ll get there and you’ll see the posters and it’s a bunch of totally sweet, totally nice happy indie kids who want to see your band play and know it’s a DJ set but are hoping you’ll just play the records that you play live.
Are you trying to appeal more to the older gay, black, Latino crowd through the disco music you’re playing lately?
Definitely because by the time I got into dance music, it was really mixed in New York. Parties were really mixed. There were gay parties and straight parties but the parties I went to were really mixed and that’s what was super fun – ’99 to 2003. It was this really interesting time: dot-com boom bust, pre-9/11, post-9/11 weird New York. Art parties, fashion parties, DJ parties were all mushed together. You could go to a gallery opening, a fashion week party or a shitty Brooklyn loft and see a lot of the same people in each place, which was pretty amazing. It wasn’t segregated. That dwindled since I’ve been gone on tour. Pat and I aren’t pretending we’re not who we are: dudes in a band. At the same time, New York is a good place because you can re-imagine it and it will surprise you pleasantly.
Larry Levan spins disco music at Paradise Garage’s last night.
How did you become interested in disco?
I got into DJing when I started working with Tim Goldsworthy. In 1998 and 1999 I started getting interested in the idea because I took ecstasy and I went out to dance and I thought it was fun. So I was like, ‘hey this is cool, I’ll do this.’ Simultaneously I read that book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. The title makes you think ‘I shouldn’t read this book’ ⎯ it’s clichéd, but it’s an astonishingly good book. The section on early hip-hop and early disco was super inspiring to me. Everything about it seemed super punk rock. What I had grown up with in punk rock was way stronger in disco. People were hyper-dedicated ⎯people like Francis Grasso and Larry Levan. All they did was DJ and they were more dedicated to it than any hyper-dedicated punk band. In the back of the book were all the playlists from disco DJs, so I started scooping up the playlists in used record stores for two dollars. I was lucky enough to get into it early enough so I was paying two dollars because now those records are all $100.
The music we made at DFA was a weird hybrid of the stuff we liked and I wound up DJing festivals ⎯ and it was very difficult to play straight disco. Plus I didn’t want to ⎯ I was also into new things like techno, I found that at the same time. I got more and more records and more and more over my disco phobia, my fear of strings.
But strings are a hallmark of a great, gay disco classic.
Totally, that’s absolutely right. I used to say that if people who don’t like bongos — that’s a subtle form of musical homophobia. Disco itself really became a dirty word because people [would] immediately see Afros and bell-bottoms; it became a cartoon. And that’s what happened to me. Originally, most of the disco I liked was the very weird stuff, the very left field stuff, like “Dancing In Outer Space” by Atomsfear and Eddy Grant “Walking on Sunshine”.
I had to listen to it for a while before I could hear through the sonic cartoons. Being able to play it out is a whole different matter. When we started doing the band tour for the last album Pat and I would DJ regularly after the gig. We played what we wanted to play and it was cool because these were no pressure gigs, we weren’t being flown some place to DJ ⎯ it was after a gig, it was free some places, we were paid in booze so it was super fun. When we were done at the end of the tour, I got offered this Fabriclive mix CD and was like “dude we’ll do it together and we’ll do a mix that documents this band tour in which we played all these songs.” We put in the ‘hits’ of the previous nine or 10 months of the DJing tour and that CD did way better than we expected.
James Murphy’s disco remix of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”.
Do you think the Fabriclive mix helped break down the sonic cartoon?
Things like that mix CD are one of the nails in that cartoon coffin. Oddly, I think DFA or LCD exists on two planes. On one hand we have a pretty good relationship directly to an audience because it’s a relatively successful band. But when it come to things like the Fabric mix, I’ve been around doing this for a pretty long time and I’m friends with a ton of a DJs, so in a weird way we get to be an underground thing. It’s something that DJs responded to more than the audience and it’s really the labour of tons of other DJs that did more for changing people’s ears than our mix. It’s a nice feedback loop. We’ve had a decent influence on other DJs and other DJs have had an influence on us. We’ve both had a little feedback loop that helps the audience a little differently. Though most new dudes who play disco tend to play it pretty straight and dub-y. They tend to do edits where they cut out all of the gay stuff, which is a bummer.
What do you think of the critical reception of Hercules And Love Affair?
The positive response is a testament to people opening up their minds. It’s a testament to [Andy Butler’s] talent. He writes songs that are transcendental ⎯ they just are good songs. I think people respond to that and it being gay dance music is just a bonus to a certain degree. I don’t think it’s about that. I think people’s response to it is about the songs being easy relate to.
Hercules And Love Affair perform “Blind” at Studio B in Brooklyn.
On one hand, critics say Hercules And Love Affair is all about nostalgia, while others call it good pop music.
Some Tipping Point douchebag is going to have to write about the meaning of nostalgia now. I think dealing with the past in music right now is very different than dealing with the past in music in the ’80s and the ’70s. This year there was probably more music released than there was from the beginning of rock n’ roll to 1985. There is always a certain amount of nostalgia in music, even music that is forward-thinking. Nostalgia is not a dirty word but it’s treated like a dirty word. You’re supposed to reinvent yourself like you’re sprung from Zeus’ head fully dressed.
People aren’t 19-years-old making music right now ⎯ it’s not The Who. It’s not a bunch of teenagers telling their 40-year-old parents to f*ck off. People develop later, become grown-ups later, mature as creative people much later than they did at the beginning of rock because of the weight of history. People thought independently at 17 years old in 1966. By the time we turn 17 we’re deeply in marketing world and you’re lucky if in your late 20s you start thinking for yourself. I find artists are a lot older. One thing that happens when you’re my age, or Andy’s age (we’re not 23), is you become a soldier for the things that you love, for the things that changed your life. It’s not like crass nostalgia like The Black Crowes pretending to be a classic rock band. If you’re true to your heart, you’re being true to the kind of music that you love. If you’re trying to make music that you love, it’s going to have an element of your past in it.“All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem (Note: The original video that was posted here, “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”, has been removed.)
Is your music nostalgic?
I feel nostalgia for sounds. I miss types of recording processes, the types of sounds that used to exist… There wasn’t this arms race for loudness ⎯ this bit crunched, digital shitty sound that people have gotten used to. I do remixes so people will send me their song and its elements and every element to me sounds atrocious. It’s glossed over with this weird digital mixing process and a weird digital mastering process… For me, the nostalgia comes in how things are recorded.
How will all your disco record buying and research inform how you record in the future?
I’m a sonic Zelig. Everything I listen to informs the recording process. If I hear sounds I can’t help but try and deconstruct them. I get very irritated if they’re sounds I can’t figure out so I spend a lot of time trying. The sounds of disco records changed the way I make things massively. There’s a few benchmarks of things I love: the recordings of the German band Can; the performances and recordings of Liquid Liquid and ESG, that particular New York school; early Eno soundscape-y stuff; John Cale’s production of The Stooges and Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers stuff. There’s this pile of stuff that perpetually makes me excited sonically. There’s an old Jimmy ‘Bo’ Horne 12-inch, “Is It In” that I found and the sound of the claps is so ridiculous that I’m now obsessed with trying to replicate the sound of the claps on that record.
“Is It In” by Jimmy ‘Bo’ Horne
You told New York magazine that you celebrated your 30th birthday by doing 30 lines of coke off a Roxy Music record. Now that you’re approaching 40, can you envision how you’ll spend your 40th?
Well, I’m not sure. My 32nd birthday is probably a good indicator of what’s to come. I didn’t have a 32nd birthday party because I had the chickenpox. So on my 32nd birthday two of my friends threw me a 12-year-old’s birthday party. I was 12 years old in 1982. So my 12-year-old birthday party was we had lots of nice boxes of pizza, make your own sundaes ⎯ lots of toppings ⎯ we had an Atari 2600, we had a round-robin tournament of Combat and we listened to Billy Squier. So that was my 32nd birthday, which had no booze involved.
It was all about nostalgia.
It was just me having the birthday party I never had. My parents never threw me birthday parties, I had family parties, we didn’t have people over. Everyone else had crazy parties where they played Pin the Tail on the Donkey and dumped grape juice on each other and I was at home with my parents eating chicken. But I could choose what we had for dinner so we had chicken Parmesan and pizza and spaghetti. So, for my 40th birthday? I don’t know. Probably not 40 lines of coke because I would have a heart attack.
But if you did, what record sleeve would you choose?
Well 30 was the cover of Roxy Music Stranded. Maybe… Todd Rudgren’s Runt?