Life From Above: DFA at 12

When you turn twelve, that’s the last time you’ll be excused from something on the grounds of youth. Adolescence, moody and laden with growing pains, beckons. Having fun isn’t just an end within itself anymore. You at least think you have to stand for something more.

It’s startling how one record label has come to define and inform so much of my record collection. DFA. New Yorkers at the turn of the twenty-first century: whisper those three letters in hushed tones of awe. Teenagers across the Atlantic, breaking free of the moribund: if you can’t party like your idols, at least make your bedroom hi-fi sound like you can. For me, it wasn’t “House of Jealous Lovers”, the first time. It couldn’t have been—I would have been a couple of years too young. It was “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”, raucous and clattering and just startlingly good fun. From there on in, it was about every single and album the label released.

If there was a peak, it was 2007: the year Sound Of Silver broke a thousand people’s hearts and then reassembled them with the science of dance; the year those first house throwbacks from Still Going and Hercules And Love Affair made us take note of an alternate history that isn’t taught in school. That year, James Murphy and his label were prolific and untouchable. The Fabriclive.36 mix, jointly helmed by Murphy and LCD Soundsystem’s sweaty, machine-like drummer Pat Mahoney (who professed a love of “gay-ass disco”) was spun out through a vintage Bozak mixer.

If there was a peak, there was a trough. At LCD Soundsystem’s farewell concert in 2011, Murphy is said to have anointed Janine Rostron as the successor to the throne of DFA. Rostron, who performs under the nom de plume of Planningtorock, is an artist to admire more than one to truly love. Her music is androgynous, dark and scary, from the world of art where people still decamp to Berlin to experience isolation. In my books, that makes her the antithesis of what DFA is about. Artists on the label’s roster have challenged listeners in the past (the various outfits Gavin Russom performs in, for example), but at its heart, I’ve always thought Liv Spencer of Still Going summed up DFA’s idée fixe best: “It’s about people going to clubs, forgetting their shitty week—or their great week—and just kind of like, dancing until the sun comes up.”

Rewind to 2008 and there were two pretty apposite acts on the label poised to offer just such fun. That was the year Hercules And Love Affair released their eponymous debut: a giddy survey of forty-odd years of disco, tinged with regret and higher thoughts, but located firmly on the dancefloor. That was also the year Maurice Fulton hid behind a fictitious Finnish trio called Syclops to release a full-length called I’ve Got My Eye On You. Uninhibited by definitions of genre, the album pitted jazzy live drumming against obnoxious synths and fretless basses, managing to sound fairly timeless and geographically nonspecific, and also like a lot of fun. Reading reviews of the album from the time, you’d think DFA were serving up the hipster’s answer to Jamiroquai. For Brandon Bussolini of Prefix, “Syclops’ main points of reference center less on the dance floor than the heavier end of the jazz-fusion spectrum […] churning, cosmic disco-funk that make up this album—a high point for dance music in 2008 and yet another feather in DFA’s cap”.

Here were two exciting visions of the DFA code, backed by a label with seemingly limitless reserves of cool, and handily positioned in the penumbra of the band, LCD Soundsystem, that was helping everything make sense. (For one publication’s take on just what an important family the label had become, see this.) At one point, Murphy’s vision, to break down the barrier between dance and punk, looked poised to crossover into the mainstream: the label was courted by representatives of Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, and was invited to remix Justin Timberlake’s “My Love”. The first two avenues led nowhere; the third resulted in a subtle reinvention of a stone-cold modern classic that ought to now be seen as a pure statement of the DFA sound. Cowbells, handclaps, Simmons pads and acoustically-dead live drums (Murphy’s trick was to dampen the sound of the drums by affixing neoprene mouse pads to them) provide a thudding, dancefloor-ready rhythm. Filtered Rhodes and fluttering, pulsing synths are the vertebrae to which Timberlake’s vocal theatrics are pinned. The final few minutes ride a gloriously soulful, lightly-distorted bass guitar line. These were much the same components that made LCD Soundsystem songs snap, crackle and pop.

But then LCD Soundsystem closed shop. Suddenly, because DFA had been mes que una compañía discográfica, we had to start looking for a new totem. DFA couldn’t be just a label—it needed a new icon for other artists to rally around. The Rapture had been, gone, and come back in an altered form. Hot Chip had achieved universal acclaim for their universal pop music. Murphy’s heiress, Planningtorock, didn’t really cut the mustard.

DFA has lately been responsible for a splurge of releases. The quality is more variable than in those golden years, when a monthly trip to the label’s MySpace page seemed to yield some new, strange fruit. But there are nuggets of excitement. Factory Floor are a London trio on the label who make pretty industrial (look at their name—is it really a surprise?) long-format bangers. They don’t have an album out yet—though it’s in the works—but what they’ve released to date is brutal, exciting stuff.

Listening to something like “Fall Back” (see above), they’re not a million miles away from the frantic, relentlessly locked-in Nisennenmondai. Could this be where the DFA vision is headed—or is there no longer such a thing? In their 2008 feature on the label, The Fader interviewed Jonathan Galkin, the ‘ears’ and also the ‘Jewish mother’ of DFA. “At the same time, I feel like we’re at the top of our game. It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Galkin.

Watching Red Bull’s recent documentary about DFA, “Too Old To Be New, Too New To Be Classic” (one of several mantras the label has), my heart was pierced by the inescapable feeling that the trifecta at the core of the label has drifted apart. Murphy, having disbanded the outfit that accidentally took over his life for eight years, is busy doing the things he missed out on—marathon DJ sets; production-work for friends of his like Arcade Fire; considering branching out into coffee. Tim Goldsworthy, the Brit production whizz-kid who co-founded the label, disappeared in the middle of the night and wound up mixing albums for Archie Bronson Outfit, The Maccabees and Little Boots; the label is currently suing him for close to $100,000. Which leaves Galkin, stuck in that West Village office, choosing which 12” singles to put out, packing vinyl and merchandise for dispatching to the forever faithful (myself included), and generally handling the day-to-day commercial realities of a record label. In the film, at one point he turns to look at the neighbouring swivel-chair Murphy used to sit on, now vacant much of the time. It’s hard not to feel a little pang of remorse akin to Murphy’s, in “Shut Up And Play The Hits”, upon inspecting a room full of his band’s gear, waiting to be sold or boxed away.

While the mousepads are still firmly on the drums and the analogue synths are still being lovingly restored, I’ll continue to believe there can be life from above. But while there’s still a DFA family, it’s getting harder to see where it’s heading. And soon they won’t have pre-teen youthfulness on their side.

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