The Joys of DIY Disco, Courtesy of Revenge of the Nerds
It's an early Tuesday morning at meatpacking district dance club Cielo, and Norwegian producer Todd Terje, a/k/a Tangoterje, a/k/a Wade Nichols (an homage to the alias of '70s porn star turned disco one-hit wonder Dennis Parker), has the well-gelled, shiny-shirt crowd at a full lather, hands up as his set reaches a palpable crescendo. And then that telltale house beat comes down. Only . . . wait a second . . . this sounds like the original version of America's FM radio staple "Horse With No Name," just with a kick-drum added to it. What the hell?
"We got so much shit for that edit," Matt Werth admits with a laugh, and not just from an influential U.K. dance-music website, but from the band itself. Terje's edit, released by Werth on the New York–based Revenge of the Nerds imprint he runs with former Making Time party DJ Dave Pianka and designer Kevin O'Neill, made its way to the ears of America founding member Gerry Beckley, who was similarly flummoxed, exclaiming, "Why would anyone make this edit?" Not that Werth himself has any answers: "The disco edit is either collapsing on itself or reinventing itself. But for me, personally, I'd rather see it collapse."
Seemingly with each release, Revenge of the Nerds (often constricted to just RVNG) and their output both collapse and reinvent dance and disco music, folding it in with a decidedly underground punk aesthetic. Looking more like a lost member of America than a club-crawling kid who obsesses over dance-punk, the 31-year-old Werth details his formative years releasing seven-inches from his bedroom as a teenager in Little Rock, his tenure playing bass in "Psychedelphia" band Aspera, and his aspirations for the label now. Originally, RVNG released mix CDs by New York's most renowned nightclub folk: promoter Justine D., Beats in Space/WNYU DJ Tim Sweeney, and the duo of Dan Selzer and Mike Simonetti (who would go on to start the Acute Records and Italians Do It Better imprints, respectively). Soon, Sweeney handed over two edits he'd played around the world, initiating a series of limited-edition vinyl 12-inches. In the course of a year, RVNG has taken in everything from Terje's cheeky America ode, to legendary Hacienda DJ Greg Wilson's work on a Santana percussion break, to NYC DJ duo In Flagranti's tweaking of cock-rock staples for the dance floor.
Furthermore, while most dance records get housed in anonymous white or black sleeves, RVNG's releases stand in eye-popping contrast: O'Neill, who designs all the artwork, states that the label's roots are "grounded in our earlier interests in punk/DIY. I never really got too excited about record packaging or the idea of design till maybe the early 1990s, when Gravity Records started releasing all of their records in very cool, very raw hand-made packaging." Hallucinatory might be a better descriptor, as each silk-screened RVNG sleeve gets filled to the edge with warped and melted patterns in pied colors. "All the artwork ends up being so insane and beyond the white sleeve," Werth says. "It's a piece of art as opposed to a piece of music." Sweeney agrees: "I like how much attention they put toward the artwork. With everything being MP3s now, it's nice having a beautiful record to touch and hold."
By far the craziest bit of packaging to accompany a RVNG release comes from JD Twitch (of famed Glaswegian DJ duo Optimo). Both a 10-inch record and hour-long mix CD entitled (what else?) 10 Inches of Fear/60 Minutes of Fear, the edits aren't of obscure disco singles, but instead tracks from anarchic Crass-inspired punk bands who cropped up in the squats of early-'80s England, the mix itself delving into the punk underground from U.K. to America and back. The project was hatched one drunken night when Twitch was in town, and he and the RVNG crew traipsed down to LES dive bar Motor City to see Bad Seeds' drummer Jim Sclavunos DJ a set of early rock 'n' roll and post-punk. Inspired, the two parties began to brainstorm a project that would bridge the perceived gap between punk and disco. Having previously released an edit single with the label, Twitch was excited: "The aesthetic/packaging (of RVNG) was definitely a huge part of the appeal for agreeing to work with them again. I knew they would do something fantastic, but what they came up with exceeded even my wildest expectations." Cloaked in a coarse, silk-screened canvas sleeve (complete with grainy foldout poster/manifesto), the 60 Minutes mix itself was zealously described by Pitchfork as "a gelatinous mass of warped tape and weird, glassy high end; a sound fetishist's treasure trove of the accidental glories of no-fi technology."
RVNG's next release will be a seven-inch/mix-CD package from Purple Brain, a collaboration between the Bumrocks website and Australian DJ duo Hey Convict. But most promising is an upcoming project dubbed "FRKWYS" (a play on the old Folkways record series that once filled every public library, the packaging even mimicking those thick, black leatherette covers), which will pair modern bands with their sonic forebearers—for instance, having Brooklyn's Psychic Ills reinterpreted by Krautrock legends Faust and Cluster. The merger of old and new has both parties thrilled. "It's great making a connection to the industrial culture—it's certainly the spirit under which we operate," gushes Excepter's Jeff Fell Ryan, whose noise-rock band will get the remix treatment from industrial pranksters Chris & Cosey and J.G. Thirlwell of Foetus. "I told Cosey it was like waking up from a dream and finding out it was real."
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