Interview: Jonathan Galkin on 10 years of DFA Records

Taking the torch from classic New York no-wave mutant disco labels like 99 Records, Celluloid, Infidelity, Ze and Sleeping Bag, the Manhattan-based DFA Records almost single-handedly brought back the cultural exchange between indie and dance music throughout the past decade. Below, label co-founder Jonathan Galkin (of the distinguished Galkin family) talks shop during an Academy workshop at the by:Larm Festival in Oslo.

Anna Bauer

RBMA: Could you describe DFA Records, what’s it all about?

JONATHAN GALKIN: We’re a record label, ten years old and we started in 2001, myself and James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem and Tim Goldsworthy, who was a member of UNKLE and Mo’ Wax co-founder as well. We started in New York City intending to merge two worlds that the three of us agreed had actively grown stale in New York, the world of indie rock and a lot of the world of dance music in the city. And out of that problem we created the label, based around one song, which was I think maybe indicative of what we were trying to do and I think succeeded, which was “House Of Jealous Lovers” by The Rapture.

I attended New York University, so I moved to Manhattan and lived there since 1990, and I went to NYU with what I later discovered was a mutual friend of myself and James, who about a decade later introduced us. So, James and I actually met in 2000. This mutual friend who I went to college with, and we stayed friends after college, he had started a recording studio in the late 90s at a time when building a recording studio seemed like a really good idea and James was hired to design this recording studio. This was far before LCD, James was in a couple of indie rock bands and recording a lot of indie rock bands and had started to work with The Rapture who had moved to New York, before I met him. So, it was really moving to New York, but a lot of it has to do with the experience of being in New York for that decade even before I met James. Both of us observing maybe the same things from very different angles, but with common complaints.

RBMA: How did it come together as a record label?

GALKIN: The label came out of James and Tim’s relationship first and foremost. David Holmes had come to New York to produce, to record his record at that time, I can’t remember what it was called but this was again in the late 90s and he had brought Tim Goldsworthy with him to the UK to be a sort of co-producer and drum programmer on his record. After the time was up, Tim decided to stay in New York, not go back to England. He had met an American girl, got married. They went to the studio that James had built to record and so him and James had met, got on really well, and that was about the time they met The Rapture. It took them a long time just to convince this sort of suspicious indie band, because they had to pitch The Rapture, who were [on] very small indie rock labels, to take a chance at trying to make a dance 12", which The Rapture were convinced would completely alienate and freak out their fan base, and James and Tim had to coax them into coming into the studio and working on it.

RBMA: So, I guess the result was eventually “House Of Jealous Lovers”.

GALKIN: Yeah, they had the song, and when I met James we met at a bar called Passer By – which is unfortunately a casualty of the cabaret laws, an amazing place, tiny, they had a lit up floor. You could literally fit 75 people at the most in this bar and there was an art gallery in the back and it’s unfortunately no longer there, but that’s where James and I first met. The night after that he was on his way to Plant Bar to go DJ and he said, “Come with me, come to my gig.” He stopped at the building to pick up his records and he said, “Let me play you what we’ve been working on.” It was actually in almost the exact same form as it’s in now, they were pretty much done. They had just freaked out the band so much with the final product, they thought it was just so foreign to them. He played it to me and I thought, this is a solution, and through hearing that – and actually the first Juan MacLean single was done at that time as well, who was also a very important figure in the beginning of DFA more so than almost anyone really – but it was that moment when I basically started the dialogue in my own head of how I can convince this person. He said, “We’d love to start a label, Tim and I, but we are definitely not the right people to run a record label,” and sort of left that with me. I took the music and basically pitched them on this idea of, if you let me quit my job now I’ll do it.

"I had quit a job and said a prayer that this was going to go, and it worked."

RBMA: That record, along with the first LCD Sounsystem 12", established a very distinctive DFA sound. So, I’m thinking what’s the pros and cons of establishing such a distinct identity so early on, because it became sort of big really early on. And everybody had a set idea about what DFA, the production team and the label, was about.

GALKIN: Correct. It was very exciting at first because you basically live with that track. We started the label officially in September 2001 and I’d probably myself been living with that track for six, eight months, something like that. It didn’t come out official until March 2002 so in that time it’s very easy to second-guess yourself, and you think, “We’ve made a terrible mistake, people are going to think we’re crazy.”

People who were DJs at that time, who were DJing just deep house and were very purist about what was right for a club and what was not ever going to work, would tell us that we were insane and this was a terrible idea. And then when it came out and the reaction, first you think you’re taking crazy pills because I had quit a job and said a prayer that this was going to go, and it worked. But it was also scary because we certainly didn’t plan for that kind of reception. We thought, we’ll quietly release something and get things going. Also, because people were so cynical, just getting dance shops at that time, which were like your techno dance shop and your disco dance shop and your deep house dance shop, to try to carry the 12" vinyl was very difficult. So, it was a strange process to try to convince the distributors and the dance shops to actually carry it. There was no precedent really for it, they just didn’t really understand how it might fit into the racks.

Ingrid Blazina

RBMA: So, was there like a tipping point for the acceptance of what you were trying to achieve? Like the moment when suddenly you didn’t have to fight to get the song into shops?

GALKIN: It actually happened pretty quickly. To put it into context I remind people that when we started the label there was no such thing as iTunes. It hadn’t even launched yet, I think it launched the following year, the first iPod had come out and there was no such thing as an MP3 blog, there was Napster. So, nothing leaked whereas now the digital might leak before the vinyl comes out and half the people who might have gone to buy the vinyl are just, “I already got it on my computer and I don’t really need to go get the physical copy.”

RBMA: So, you went from trying to figure out how to get acceptance for the sound, to sort of the opposite problem, how to follow up and which direction. It seems like being pigeonholed was an issue with DFA even early on.

GALKIN: Yeah, absolutely, and we’d never been a label which was established to chase new bands and get into bidding wars if that makes any sense. We had the studio and we were essentially creating most of what we were putting out.

RBMA: And Gavin Russom started out building the synthesizers.

GALKIN: Yeah, he worked in the studio and he was known as The Wizard. He had this closet essentially of broken analogue gear and wires everywhere, and he would just be back there. He had long hair and a beard and he would come out of the closet once in a while, not in a sexual way, in a technical way. [laughs] He was also a part of this very downtown art scene, as well. He was very into performance art, he was represented by this great gallery in New York, and at the time he was dating Delia Gonzales. So, he was repairing all the synths that James and Tim were acquiring for cheap and broken, eBay or from a shop in New York, and he could fix anything and he could also modify anything, so James or Tim would come up with this, “We bought this but can you make an input here and an output here and make this button trigger that thing,” and he could do it.

Then you get spoiled because suddenly anything’s possible with all this antiquated gear. Then eventually he got up the courage a couple of years later when he heard James and Tim working on something down the hallway, and poked his head in and showed off his chops and out of that he and Delia and Tim started working on what was the first Delia & Gavin 12", “El Monte”.

RBMA: There was also for a while maybe this weird expectation that DFA would produce a massive crossover success, which I guess didn’t ever fully materialise, even though LCD Soundsystem came pretty close. But when the production team was doing remixes for Justin Timberlake and New Order and stuff like that, and you also did the label deal with EMI. How did EMI approach you and did you feel they understood what DFA was trying to accomplish?

GALKIN: What happened was, we got a really quick crash course in that world where our innocence was lost very quickly as The Rapture took off so quickly and the so called vultures descended upon us and that world of bidding wars and major labels. There was a time when New York city, 2001 or 2002, where The Strokes and Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, everyone wanted a New York band in the same way that after Oasis everyone wanted a Britpop band on their label.

We were very skeptical of all that and eventually The Rapture wanted to do this deal with Universal, and off they went and we couldn’t really stop them. We finished recording Echoes, James and Tim finished producing the record and just did a licensing deal with Universal for that album. At that time we realised it was almost inevitable that this was going to happen, and we tried to just do a distribution deal with EMI and it didn’t work out at that time, but what happened was that The Rapture went to Universal for their record and we sort of kept to ourselves but kept in touch with these people from EMI from the UK. Then when James started to work on his solo stuff they came back round again and it felt right and it did work. It worked very well for LCD Soundsystem. The label deal I wouldn’t say was a total success. We did sign up with EMI because at that time they had a collective, a part of EMI UK called Labels, it was a collective of independent labels. You would have Heavenly Records and City Slang Records and we would be the dance element of that but within four or six months of doing our deal, suddenly Labels was dissolved and we were absorbed into EMI records proper.

That was hard work because at the same time they were convincing us we should stick around and it’s a good idea to put out Delia & Gavin or Black Dice or these very avant-garde records which we really should have just been selling on our own and probably would have been very successful doing. You suddenly have to go through the whole system to put out these very leftfield records and that might not have been the best choice.

"Remixing in general is always risky, it’s a touchy topic at DFA, getting remixes."

RBMA: Throughout the history of DFA you always connected with a lot of dance music legends. Maurice Fulton would be one of them, there was also like your Carl Craig remix really early on and the Kevin Saunderson remix for Hercules And Love Affair, the Frankie Knuckles remix for Hercules And Love Affair. Not to be rude, but it’s a way of seeking the approval of the dance music community or is it more like paying back to the dance music community?

GALKIN: It’s probably a mix of both, sometimes it’s really driven by the artist. Andy Butler from Hercules, I learned as much about dance music from him as I did from anyone else and Frankie Knuckles was someone he really wanted to approach. That’s something else we signed to EMI. Frankie Knuckles is obviously a legend and he has a history of being a major label remixer as well, he’s done Janet Jackson remixes, really big, high level stuff. It appealed to EMI to bring in a name like that. To be honest it’s very dangerous, I think, to be too fetishistic about seeking approval. Carl Craig was someone we actually connected with a lot on a lot of the music we were putting out because [of] his music obsessions – like when he heard the Delia and Gavin record he immediately related to it because he said, “This is my shit, I know. This is Chris and Cosey.” And all these post-punk, new wave references, it wasn’t lost on him, no explanation needed. I remember people saying it’s really risky to get these expensive remixes, don’t fetishise your idols, they can disappoint you, don’t do it, just do it yourself and I was like, let’s just do this one and he nailed it. It really worked and I think Frankie Knuckles and Kevin Saunderson, the same thing. Without naming names we have had other people do stuff where you get it and you’re like, “Oh no, we can’t release this,” and so you pay and then you just bury it. Remixing in general is always risky, it’s a touchy topic at DFA, getting remixes.

RBMA: So, where is DFA going these days? That’s a very open question, but I’m thinking, what is James’s involvement with DFA these days post-LCD Soundsystem?

GALKIN: Post-LCD, so here we are, James has now retired, we skipped all of LCD’s history. James starts a band, they release “Losing My Edge”, it takes off, he makes a record, we sign it to EMI. Then he makes Sound Of Silver. Everything grows exponentially, LCD fit into The Rapture slot where The Rapture were sort of our leading band and then everything has come full circle now that we’ve re-signed The Rapture and put out their new record, and celebrating our ten year anniversary. When I heard their new record I thought, this is just too perfect. “How Deep Is Your Love” is yet another example of disco, piano house but [an] immediately irresistible, iconic song. James after three albums and relentless touring and promotion, he just reached an age and a point in his career where he thought, “I want to do other things,” because being in a band like that can take up ten out of twelve months of the year easily. So, right now he’s producing a couple of different things, he was just working with Holy Ghost in the studio, they’re recording their new record right now. He’s travelling a lot, he’s DJing a lot and he has a new track coming out in a few weeks: it’s one of the Converse projects where he collaborated with Andre 3000 and Damon Albarn from the Gorillaz and that’s maybe indicative of the access he has.

"I think we should have a piano house compilation from DFA."

Someone like Andre 3000, I remember us sitting round and just watching Outkast videos and just freaking out, being like, these guys are heroes. He was at the studio, I would leave and he would just be sitting outside talking on his cellphone or something, I was like, it’s so fucking weird, he’s actually here now, it’s so strange. So, it’s all a bit scattered. Tim is no longer at the label, he left and I don’t even know where he is and that’s the truth. He kind of disappeared in the middle of the night. Him and James used to produce everything together and I think out of some frustration of James being away so much he decided to move back to England, and that was over two years ago and the last I ever heard from him. But James, he’s around. He has got some very strange obsessions with coffee and things like that so I think he’s using his new found fame and power to make espresso beans. I don’t know, he’s a strange dude. [laughs]

RBMA: So what’s on the release schedule for DFA this year?

GALKIN: In America we just put out this record by The 2 Bears, which is Joe Goddard from Hot Chip and his friend Raf, the two of them, and it’s this absolutely amazing dance-pop record. As I’m keeping with the piano house touchstone moments – I think we should have a piano house compilation from DFA – but the first single was a song called “Work” which is built around this amazing piano track. So, we just put that out, we just put out the new Prinzhorn Dance School album and we kind of go in cycles so everyone right now is recording, which is very exciting but also terrifying because I’m afraid they’re all going to finish at the same time and then I’m going have six records ready for September, which is just such a label nightmare. So, we have Juan MacLean and Holy Ghost and Shit Robot and Planningtorock and The Crystal Ark, which is Gavin Russom’s newest band, all recording their full length records right now and there’s this sort of finish line like who’s going to get there first and they’re all trying to push each other out of the studio, so we’re hiring other studios and we’re doing the sort of round robin thing where they come to DFA to mix but they’re doing live tracking at one studio in Brooklyn and someone’s in another studio in Brooklyn. I guess I could have worse problems.

By Martin Bjørnersen on October 22, 2012

On a different note