When was the last time we had a great New York indie record label? Think about it. Not just a company that happens to be based here, but one with a roster of local artists, one whose whole vibe ‘n’ vision is bound up with the mythos of New York City. You’d probably have to go back to the early ’80s, the era of punk-funk and mutant-disco imprints like ZE, 99, and Sleeping Bag. Today’s only real contender is DFA. For the last three years, DFA has been on a mission to make this city live up to its own legend—”to be what it should be,” as DFA co-founder James Murphy puts it. The DFA sound flashes back to places and times when NYC’s party-hard hedonism seemed to have both an edge and a point—Mudd Club, Paradise Garage—but never feels like an exercise in retro pastiche.
The label’s initial batch of vinyl-only singles in 2002—most famously “House of Jealous Lovers” by the Rapture—resurrected the idea of dance music spiked with punk attitude. Before long, everybody was clamoring for a dose of DFA cool. Murphy and his English-born partner, Tim Goldsworthy, were touted as superproducers, indieland’s equivalent to the Neptunes. Janet Jackson phoned them and suggested collaborating (amazingly, DFA kinda sorta forgot to follow up the call.) Most surreally, they spent an afternoon in the studio with Britney Spears. “That was weird,” says Goldsworthy. “Won’t do that again. No offense to her—she’s lovely. Got a foul mouth, though!” The brief session came to nothing, through lack of common musical ground. “When we work with people, we hang out, listen to records, share stuff,” says Murphy. “But with Britney we had absolutely no way of communicating. She didn’t know anything that we knew.”
After this lost encounter with “the big time,” DFA consciously backed away from the opportunities being thrust its way. “You stop returning phone calls, people get bored of you real quick!” laughs Murphy. Instead they concentrated on building up their own operation. The stance is bearing fruit in the last months of 2004, with a freshly inked global-minus-America distribution deal with EMI and an impressive three-CD collection of DFA works so far, Compilation #2, out this week. Early next year the second release under this new arrangement will be the debut album from Murphy’s own group LCD Soundsystem.
Murphy and Goldsworthy originally met in inauspicious circumstances, as hired help for DJ-producer David Holmes, who was making one of his “soundtrack for a nonexistent movie”-type albums in Manhattan. Murphy did the engineering, Goldsworthy did the programming. The location was Murphy’s West 13th Street recording studio (now DFA’s sound lab). It didn’t take long for the two technicians to suspect they were making most of the creative decisions. “Tim and I were forced to create a dialogue about how to make sounds, because there was just this vague cloud of ideas coming from Holmes,” says Murphy, gesturing to the back of the studio.
Taking breaks from the recording grind, the two sound boys bonded further during Saturday-night missions of full-on clubbing. Which is when Murphy, hitherto a typical indie-rock discophobe, had his dance music E-piphany. “Yeah, it’s an unheard of story, isn’t it?” he laughs. “A person who only listens to rock goes off, does a mountain of E, and gets converted to dance music.” Revealingly, though, it was hearing the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” at exactly the point “when the drug was peaking” that gave Murphy the idea of “throwing parties and playing better music—like ‘Loose’ by the Stooges—than what dance culture was offering at that time.”
At the close of the ’90s, technique-obsessed and genre-purist DJs were squeezing all the vibe out of club culture, in the process driving the next generation of hipster kids back to rock bands with stage moves and charismatic hair. Murphy and Goldsworthy decided to rescue dance music from “McDepth—that McDonald’s version of ‘deep,’ where there’s nothing there,” Murphy explains, citing everything from glitchy laptop musicians to Tortoise-style post-rock as culpable. Taking the name DFA—short for Death From Above, and originally the tag under which Murphy did infamously loud sound mixing for bands like Six Finger Satellite—they started throwing irregular parties based around the notion of bridging the considerable gap between Donna Summer and the Stooges. Soon, tired of endlessly playing their staple fare like Can and Liquid Liquid, the duo decided to make their own “dance-punk” tracks to spin.
“House of Jealous Lovers” was their first real stab. Dance distributors picked up the single purely for the house remix by Morgan Geist (from cognoscenti-approved outfit Metro Area). But it was DFA’s original disco-punk version that eventually took off, timed perfectly for the dancefloor taste shift toward edgy angularity (not just the rediscovery of ’80s groups like ESG and A Certain Ratio, but the emergence of neo-post-punk bands like !!! and Radio 4). But while the Rapture’s slashing guitar and slightly constipated, white-boys-getting-down funk bass flash you back to Gang of Four and Delta 5, Murphy and Goldsworthy’s production supplied a pumping, monolithic regularity that made the track fully contemporary. “There were indie bands already coming through doing that kind of rickety punk-funk, but we wanted to make records that house DJs would actually play,” says Murphy. “So we filtered the bass a lot, did a couple of layers of hi-hats and reversed them, took the drummer’s playing and chopped it up.”
DFA’s signature sound mixes Goldsworthy’s computer wizardry with Murphy’s background of engineering and playing in rock bands (DFA’s remixes typically feature his drumming, bass, and sometimes guitar). Two different kinds of knowledge mesh perfectly: Murphy’s expertise at getting great drum sounds and capturing live “feel,” Goldsworthy’s digital editing skills and vast sample-hound knowledge of recorded music (acquired during his trip-hop days as co-founder of Mo Wax and member of that label’s supergroup UNKLE). Both guys look their respective parts. Slender, soft-spoken, and diffidently English in a way that often, he says, gets him mistaken for gay, Goldsworthy seems like someone at home with delicate, intricate work—a century ago, you might have assumed from his intent, bespectacled gaze and fastidious manner that he was an engraver or watchmaker. Wearing a Taos ski resort T-shirt and brown cords, the slightly pudgy and much more boisterous Murphy looks like your archetypal Amerindie studio rat.
After a low-key spell—a steady flow of fine but not exactly throat-grabbing releases, from the Juan Maclean, Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom, and Black Dice—DFA has come back strong this fall with two of its most exciting singles yet. Pixeltan’s “Get Up/Say What” is classic DFA disco-punk, simultaneously raw and slick, while “Sunplus” by J.O.Y.—a Japanese outfit helmed by K.U.D.O, Goldsworthy’s former partner in UNKLE, and featuring guest vocals from Yoshimi P-We of the Boredoms—beautifully updates the thorny, fractured funk of LiLiPUT and the Slits. Like most DFA releases, these tracks came out as vinyl 12-inches. But don’t fret if you’ve got no turntable—you can also find them on Compilation #2. The box set pulls together everything that wasn’t on the first, not wholly satisfactory anthology, throws in a bonus mix CD, and altogether showcases a formidable body of work. One previously unavailable highlight is Liquid Liquid’s “Bellhead,” a brand-new recording of an old song by one of DFA’s ’80s post-punk heroes.
Many labels never survive the initial hype storm of being hip. Murphy recalls a peculiar, uncomfortable phase when “we kept seeing magazines with profiles of DFA, but we weren’t really releasing anything at the time.” Now, though, he’s thankful that “we’re not ascendant anymore. At this point we’re kind of cruising along. And it’s nice. It doesn’t feel like it’s out of our control anymore.”