In 2008, Justin Simon and Eric Tsai released their first 12-inch, “Cable Dazed”/”Weird Pains,” on Italians Do It Better, Mike Simonetti’s synth-driven club label. It’s one of the most bewitching releases of the last few years, particularly “Cable Dazed,” an endlessly rolling groove that recalls both stone-mumble drone and vintage cosmic disco. Along with the group’s name—is there a better moniker in New York than Invisible Conga People?—it portended more good things to come. And they have—three years later. After a prolonged absence, Simon and Tsai issued “In a Hole”/”Can’t Feel My Knees” on DFA at the beginning of May. We spoke to Simon over the phone about the duo’s history and its small but tantalizing discography.
Who came up with the name Invisible Conga People?
I did. I think it just came to me one day in the shower.
Were you already making music together at that point?
Yeah. We’d started—it might have been because we had to play a show. We needed a name.
Tell me a little about your background. Did you always intend to make this kind of music?
I met Eric through a mutual friend. We actually had a band with this other guy, just for a couple of months. Eric, at the time, was getting into building some effects units, and I thought that was pretty cool. I was writing songs on guitar and getting into setting them to different channels and having them go through different effects units, and then live-mixing, so different sounds would come in and out, all through the same guitar chord. We had a similar aesthetic, or musical interests. That band dissolved. I wanted to start something up and drafted Eric again, just the two of us.
That sounds a lot like Robert Fripp. Were you a fan?
Yes, I love those records, especially the ones with [Brian] Eno—and [Manuel] Gottsching, and all those late ’70s guitar-synth guys were big on my list back then. But I was also listening to a lot of dance music. At the time I wanted to make something that was rhythmic and had some of the sonics I was really interested [in], but also, make it really loud. So we were playing with lots of amplifiers. I guess we started around 2004-2005.
It took us a really long time to record anything. We sort of operated in this weird little bubble we’d created for ourselves. The gallery Exit Art is this place on 36th St. and 10th Ave. It’s an amazing, cavernous space—it used to be a car dealership. The other guy in the group worked, and still works, there. At the time, their basement was a completely raw space—humongous. We had this amazing deal where we could just set up all our equipment and have access to it 24 hours a day and practice as loud and as long as we wanted. So we went into this black hole of just endlessly playing. We recorded hundreds of hours of stuff, but we never thought about putting out a record for a couple years.
Did you approach Italians Do It Better, or did they approach you?
I’ve known Mike [Simonetti, IDIB head] since we were kids. I was in a punk band in Jersey in the early ’90s, and I knew Mike back then. Finally, we got around to recording something, and I wrote Mike and said, “We’re going to do a cassette. Will you distribute it?” He said, “No. You can do a 12-inch instead.” [laughs] So that was when I started thinking about making an actual record.
“Cable Dazed” and “Weird Pains” aren’t quite songs. They’re both pretty drony, though they have words.
They were based on much more drony things, and much longer things that we’d play live that had even more minimal vocals. But I just thought, “I don’t want to make a record like that. I want to make something a little bit more concise.” That’s what we came up with for the record.
It seemed like you were conscious of both tracks played off one another on the 12-inch.
Great. I’m glad to hear that. I think they work well together. The B-side was a harder sell. That one was really representative of what we were doing. The A-side—which everyone unanimously liked a lot better [laughs]—really came to life once we recorded it. That was much rawer when we’d play it live, and then I wrote vocals for it. I feel like it became more of a song.
I can’t be the only person to ask why it took three years from that single to the new one on DFA.
No, we’ve been asked that before. [laughs] I don’t know. Well, we didn’t have our own recording space.
What happened with Exit Art? Is that still a going concern for you?
No, we had to move out of there. They built a stage in the basement for performances. That was a big blow to the group, because we kept moving from practice space to practice space. The way we played, it took us 45 minutes to set up all our gear. Then we’d have to break down. It took a long time. It was a tremendous [stake]. For recording, the first record we did in my friend’s bedroom in Brooklyn. We were both living in Manhattan. Just practically speaking, it was a real pain in the butt to do it. And then on top of that, we kind of stopped playing live.
When did you start making “In a Hole”/”Can’t Feel My Knees”?
We started the recording a couple years ago. It just wasn’t working—I didn’t like the way it sounded. We took a long time off from it. Then at some point I decided I needed to finish the recording. I tried a gajillion different vocalists, and it didn’t sound right until I found the singers who are on the record. I think all told we had four or five people singing on the record. It was tricky, because there was this one specific quality I wanted in the vocals that I found was difficult to get. It was either too pretty or too energetic. They were all great singers, but none of them had this certain thing I wanted.
When you started making it, did you know it was for DFA, or did the label come after the song?
God, we started so long ago. I’m pretty sure I had already talked to Jonathan Galkin [from DFA] about, “Let’s do a record.” But it was just such a casual thing. Recording took so long that by the time we were done, I sent the [tracks] to Jonathan and he just sort of laughed: “I didn’t even know you guys still existed.” [laughs] But he loved it and wanted to put it out. It wasn’t like we had to get away from Mike [Simonetti]. It was just something different.
Do you plan to continue doing things with DFA?
I think so. That’s the plan. That’s what I’m kind of brainstorming right now. I want to pick up the pace a little bit on the music making, and I have a home-recording setup for the first time ever.
Are you picky about audio?
Yeah, I’m very picky. But I’m also very poor. [laughs] So it’s tricky to get all the right sounds. I’m a Japanese translator. The last year, I fell into this work at a law firm that’s totally consumed my life, which has also slowed down the music making. But when the fall comes, I’m going to get back into trying to do more music again.