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Both sides now (continued)

Fueled by inter-band tensions and escalating drug use (bassist Kurt Niemand would die of an overdose in 1995), 1994’s vinyl-only Machine Cuisine found the group ditching guitars for synthesizers on what became their most abrasive album to date — one that became a major influence on the Providence avant-rock scene that emerged a couple of years later, including future DFA signees Black Dice, who formed at RISD in 1997. "It seems weird that the only entirely electronic record we made would be the angriest," Maclean says. "That was definitely the period of the most bitterness in the band." On the ensuing tour, the group piled every amp it could find into their backline. "It would be this punishing, minimal electronic stuff coming out of it," he adds, "and it just really freaked people out."

Even when the guitars returned on 1995’s Severe Exposure and 1996’s Paranormalized, the synths stayed, and the result was a feral amalgam of new wave and brutish punk rock underlaid by frigid, robotic rhythms. "If a band came out today that sounded like Paranormalized," Galkin says, "they’d be signed to a huge record deal, sight unseen."

By the time Murphy produced 6FS’s final album, Law of Ruins, his friendship with Maclean had become a sore point among the other members of the band: they resented Murphy’s outside influence on the group and even refused to pay him. (Maclean eventually paid Murphy off in vintage synthesizers.) "Making that album with James was pretty much the final nail in the coffin of Six Finger Satellite," Maclean says. "At the end of the day, they made me pick sides. I went with James, and that was basically the end of the band."

In New York at the turn of the century, Murphy resurrected "Death from Above" as the title of a recurring dance party he threw with his new production partner, Tim Goldsworthy, an Englishman he’d met working on a David Holmes album. Murphy and Goldsworthy are almost polar opposites: Murphy prefers to play every instrument in the studio whereas Goldsworthy can barely fake his way through keyboard parts. A superb drum programmer who cut his teeth in the group U.N.K.L.E., Goldsworthy is also described as a masterful arranger, editor, and songwriter whose skills shine brightest in collaboration. Maclean says that part of what makes Goldsworthy invaluable is his ability to say, especially to musicians brought up on the rock side of the tracks, "I know you think this beat sounds cool, but it’s been done before — it’s kind of a cliché — and you don’t really want to go there." Murphy is the higher-profile of the two thanks to LCD Soundsystem; Goldsworthy is more comfortable behind the scenes. The recent DFA single "Casual Friday" is credited to Black Leotard Front — itself the Italo-disco alter ego of DFA Records stars Delia & Gavin — but Goldsworthy was an uncredited co-writer and programmer on the track.

By 2000, Murphy’s "Death from Above" parties had migrated to the tiny East Village Plant Bar. Once again, Murphy built an enormous PA designed to punish; and in stark contrast to the prevailing DJ scene, which was centered on deep house and trance, his Friday-night sets spanned classic disco, Talking Heads, new wave, Chicago house, and krautrock. The bartender was a young Luke Jenner, and the room became a hangout for such future DFA collaborators as Metro Area’s Morgan Geist, Tim Sweeney, and Felix da Housecat. The club was eventually shuttered. But by then Murphy and Goldsworthy had their own studio and a record that no one seemed to know what to do with but that they were convinced would be a hit: "House of Jealous Lovers."

In September 2001, Galkin convinced the pair to form a record label, which set up shop upstairs from the studio, in a building on Seventh Avenue at 13th Street. That same week, they watched the World Trade Center fall, and they quickly decided that it was the wrong time for a label called Death from Above. They settled on DFA.

Maclean became an unlikely link between the old indie-rock model and what was emerging as its new, dancefloor-friendly face. Although he’d quit making music for several years and was living in New Hampshire, he’d stayed in touch with Murphy, who finally persuaded his old friend to buy a sampler and start building tracks. Maclean knew of the New York club scene only what he read in magazines, and when he noticed people talking about something called "electroclash," he initially thought they meant electro records made 20 years ago. His first DFA single, "By the Time I Get to Venus," was, he says, his attempt at ripping off Herbie Hancock’s "Rockit." "I was literally sitting and listening to that record trying to copy the drum beat and the bass line. And ‘Venus’ is what I ended up with, because I was too incompetent."

DFA Records’ most recent batch of singles includes the Juan Maclean’s "I Robot"/"Less Than Human," songs that actually predate "By the Time I Get to Venus." What some have taken as evidence of an icier, electro-ish regression is actually proof of how far he’s come. Although most of Maclean’s singles have been instrumentals, the album he’s releasing in June features vocals and forsakes eight-minute journeys for cohesive songcraft. Still, he says, "I think that my album is actually the most electronic and the most outright, flat-out dance music of anything on DFA Records. Which is funny, because I’m the one who came out of a flat-out rock band." More and more, that seems to be the kind of tables-turned transformation that’s par for the course in the DFA’s universe.

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Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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