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Both sides now
DFA balance the dance and the rock
Related Links

DFA Records' official Web site

Ever since James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy produced the Rapture’s "House of Jealous Lovers," the house/post-punk manifesto that launched a thousand indie-rock dance nights, the DFA have been known as a rare, bilingual breed: a rock guy who speaks dance music and a dance-music guy who speaks rock. Their remixes of N.E.R.D., Chromeo, Fischerspooner, and Metro Area are in demand from London to Tokyo; they helped Radio 4 make post-punk guitar licks dance, taught Le Tigre how to disco, and profiled so hard that even Britney Spears came calling. Their latest client is Trent Reznor, whose single the DFA are determined to make into what a source close to the duo calls "the gayest disco song of all time." By the end of last year, though, the Rapture’s major-label debut had been declared DOA at Universal, and the duo’s DFA Records imprint fell mysteriously silent. But before the world could write off the partnership, out came the vault-emptying three-disc DFA Compilation #2, a road map to recent developments in below-the-radar dance music, including tracks by Murphy’s solo vehicle LCD Soundsystem, Delia & Gavin, Liquid Liquid, and J.O.Y. and unearthed DFA-produced tracks by Pixeltan and Liquid Liquid. Everyone seems to agree that the DFA did the impossible: they got indie kids interested in dance music again and persuaded the often-fickle dance-music miniverse to take a chance on rock. But how? "It’s a strange thing," acknowledges Jonathan Galkin, who manages DFA Records. "This is the guy" — Murphy — "who learned how to produce from Steve Albini. And now he’s on the cover of the same magazines that three years ago had Sasha and Digweed on the cover."

It hasn’t been easy, and not everyone — even artists they’ve produced — always gets it. Not long ago, Jon Spencer commissioned the DFA to remix the Blues Explosion song "Mars Arizona." As they often do, the DFA overhauled the track, stripping it to a skeleton and building it back up piece by piece — not just re-editing but re-recording to add Murphy’s distinctive flat, dull-throb bass licks and the clipped, handclap-like beats that Goldsworthy excels at. The original was two and a half minutes long; the DFA remix clocks in at around 11, building in the final three minutes to a frenzied whirlpool of toxic synth zaps. Spencer wanted to cut the final three minutes — precisely the portion of the song guaranteed to freak the dance floor.

Although the DFA eventually prevailed — the song will be included on a DFA remix compilation coming out later this year — it’s an example of how difficult it can be for them to balance both sides of the dance-rock equation. Rapture frontman Luke Jenner is more blunt. As he told me last summer, "They’re incredibly controlling people. They were really hard to work with. . . . James is a super control freak."

One person who knows Murphy well is John Maclean, a/k/a the Juan Maclean, whose "By the Time I Get to Venus" was among the first singles released by DFA Records. The label, which recently inked an international distribution deal with EMI, will release the Juan Maclean’s debut album this summer. Now a father of two living in Dover, New Hampshire, Maclean grew up in Boston going to hardcore shows at the Rat during the heyday of the This Is Boston, Not LA scene. His band Six Finger Satellite, based out of Providence in the early ’90s, were in many ways a prototype for the DFA’s merger of clanging post-punk and classic dance music. When Murphy ranted about Can, Beefheart, vintage Detroit techno, Suicide, and Pere Ubu on LCD Soundsystem’s anthem "Losing My Edge," he evoked a kind of gonzo description of Six Finger Satellite’s śuvre. But 10 years ago, the world wasn’t ready for it.

Maclean and Murphy met while each were building his own recording studio around 1990. They bonded over a shared love of dance music at a time when techno carried no cachet in indie rock. "You might as well have said you listened to country music," Maclean says. When Murphy became 6FS’s soundman, he built a mammoth PA system that he dubbed Death from Above, a name he also scrawled on a military-style T-shirt that he wore almost every night. Murphy and Maclean liked to think of the PA as their version of a Jamaican dancehall sound system, but with a punk kick: Murphy "would make it so punishingly, deafeningly loud that you had no choice except to deal with it head-on," Maclean recalls. Like Martin Swope in Mission of Burma a decade earlier, Murphy became a de facto fifth member of 6FS: from the soundboard, he would rig a Roland 606 drum machine to a Roland 202 synthesizer and open their shows with an intensely loud barrage, "like this early Aphex Twin or Kraftwerk kind of thing," Maclean says. "People would literally start looking around, like, ‘What the hell?’ Because at that time, even in between sets, you’d never hear a drum machine."

Unwittingly, Six Finger Satellite were sketching a new canon that the DFA would codify a decade later. Although 6FS were often described as a cross between Big Black and Devo, Maclean’s biggest influences were Helios Creed’s late-’70s band Chrome and the gay, crypto-fascist German electronic duo DAF, whose music 6FS openly pillaged. 6FS were also known to drive around listening to homemade compilations of Lipps Inc. and Chaka Khan singles; ice-cold disco beats and bass lines crept into an assault based on mechanized, militaristic lurches and wiry, scissoring guitar licks. "We were wrapped up in bands like the Birthday Party," Maclean says, "and then we’d get together and take all these drugs and start playing music, and I guess that’s just naturally what’s going to come out."

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Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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