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A Rational Conversation: How Deep Is The Disco Revival?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

Recently eurodisco legends Giorgio Moroder and Cerrone uncorked the champagne of their sound and re-emerged for some unexpected dance remixes of major rock acts. Moroder took on Coldplay's "Midnight" and Haim's "Forever," while Cerrone went at Haim's "If I Could Change Your Mind." All qualify as their highest profile releases in years, if not decades.

These remixes also seem like part of a larger re-embrace of sophisticated, immaculate disco sounds. This trend is probably best exemplified by Daft Punk's 2013 album Random Access Memories, which also featured producer and composer Moroder delivering the spoken introduction to the tribute track "Giorgio by Moroder." Still, disco is a groovier and subtler form of dance music than the currently raging sounds of trap and dubstep, so it's unclear how much young listeners will embrace it

To find out what these remixes may signal and how they fit into a broader story, Ducker instant messaged with James Friedman, owner of the disco and house-leaning label Throne of Blood Recordings, a DJ and a former journalist.

Take me back to your headspace before you heard any of these remixes. If someone told you in the beginning of this year that Moroder would remix Haim and Coldplay, and that Cerrone would remix Haim, how excited would you be? How skeptical would you be?

This probably says a lot more about me than about either Moroder or Cerrone, but that news elicits much more skepticism than excitement. I have great respect and admiration for both Moroder and Cerrone, but I'm pretty leery of the musical comeback as a whole, and particularly wary of my heroes cashing in on renewed notoriety. There's of course the other wrinkle, which is that I'm not especially excited by either Haim or Coldplay.

Do you think these remixes are byproducts of Moroder and Cerrone wanting to get back into making new music or are there a couple folks out there working at major labels who have a surprisingly large remix budget who compiled a dream list and got a few surprising "yes" answers to their inquiries?

If I were a betting man, I'd say its probably somewhere in between. The zeitgeist seems to be with Moroder and Cerrone lately, making it an opportune moment [for them] to reemerge from relative obscurity as the godfathers of the disco sound that birthed house, techno, EDM and, of course, Daft Punk. Those same trade winds are also pushing labels to follow suit, to say "what the hell?" and reach out to dudes like them. The fact that Moroder got involved with Red Bull Music Academy, DJed at WMC and started putting new tracks up on SoundCloud in the last year or so suggests that he's not been coerced into dusting off his synths. This is a rare second bite at the apple for two guys that look like they'd be more at home at an AARP convention than Electric Daisy Carnival.

Right, Moroder is obviously having (and enjoying) a moment. Cerrone's re-emergence was more surprising to me.

To me, too. Cerrone is no less legendary, but I don't think his celebrity ever reached the heights of Moroder's (at least here in the U.S.). That said, his discography is thicker with jams, to my ears. That makes it all the more disappointing that his Haim remix sounds like pretty by-the-numbers funky house that could be of today's moment or from the late 1990s. Without seeing the credits, it's kind of hard to tell. That said, disco fans rarely get going about Moroder without talking about Cerrone. "I Feel Love" was the synthesizer disco track, but "Supernature" is arguably a superior cut.

Let's talk about eurodisco re-creeping into mainstream culture. Though re-interpreting that eurodisco sound, its American counterpart and the subsequent house movement has been part of dance music for more than a decade now, some people were recently predicting that it would take over EDM or dubstep as the next huge thing (as best illustrated in one of those great Hitler in the bunker videos). That hasn't happened yet and I don't think that it will happen because it's not aggressive enough for young listeners in the US who just want to get turnt, but maybe these remixes are a different way disco will find its way back into the mainstream.

I tend to agree with you. Disco has indeed been creeping for well over a decade. First there was the disco punk stuff championed by the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem, which was followed pretty quickly by poppier acts with a disco beat, from success stories like The Killers to also-rans like Louis XIV. In parallel, there was Kylie and Madonna bringing disco into pop. All the while the more classically minded dance music enthusiasts — be it Metro Area in NYC or folks like Todd Terje and Prins Thomas in Europe — started championing the gayer, less-white flavors of disco. For a while in the mid-'00s you couldn't look at dance music press without hearing about nu-disco. As a trend, that ended up paving the way for a full-blown house music revival and for Daft Punk to make a pretty unabashed disco album. Now dance music is part of mainstream popular culture and there is enormous interest in the more disco and house end of the spectrum. As big as trap and dubstep are, they have not crossed over to the charts much (DJ Snake aside). Daft Punk, by contrast, won four Grammys.

As far as predicting how far the crossover can go, I think L.A. is a paradigmatic example of one way things could unfold. After Daft Punk's big Coachella show in 2006 — and the subsequent emergence of "blog house" and acts like Justice — L.A., long a backwater for dance music in America, found itself at the center of something new. There were hordes of kids interested in raving and things were going crazy. Seven or eight years later, those kids are in their mid-20s and have dug much deeper into the sound. Sure there are oodles of young people eager for EDC or HARD Fest, but there's also incredible club nights like [A Club Called] Rhonda happening monthly and tens of thousands of kids mobbing FYF to see really interesting and much less mainstream electronic music.

Disco may not be aggressive enough for kids, but adulthood creeps up before many of us lose the desire to get turnt. When it's less about raging and more about hanging out with friends and dancing with that cutie across the room, disco makes for a much better soundtrack. The bro-ification of EDM may also be hastening the adoption of a gentler disco-ier sound and scene.

Back to these specific remixes. They seem kind of boring to me. Is that just because the sounds Moroder and Cerrone are famous for have been incorporated and mined for a decades? Is it the source material (I like Haim by the way, but maybe they're just not great to remix)? Or are the remixes just not that good?

I'm throwing my vote in for "just not that good." The Coldplay track is pretty interesting for being without snares and highly electronic. Haim are tremendously talented, if not to my tastes. But the remixes just don't do it for me. Moroder's both feature pretty standard issue Moroder moves, plus heavy overuse of vocoders. It's like he took a bunch of notes from Random Access Memories and deployed them with next to no artistry. As I said before, Cerrone's track just feels generically pumping, though the vocals do sound great.

Are they getting any play with DJs?

That's a fair question that I'm going to have trouble answering. I don't frequent the sorts of clubs and parties where these remixes would ever make the playlist. There is a service called DMS [Direct Music Service] that most of the commercial club/EDM sorts of DJs use that seems like a probably good way these remixes could get picked up by pop-oriented DJs. But I'm not a user of DMS, so I don't know for sure. What I can say is that all three of these remixes have more plays on SoundCloud than anything that gets me excited musically — by a factor of 10 if not 100. Ultimately, these songs sound more like the kind I'd come across while sweating on a treadmill than shaking a tail feather at the clurrrb.

Yeah, I can't tell if they actually get play at mainstream clubs or if they're just for home computer listening and a way to keep Coldplay and Haim's names in the online music press.

Pitchfork wrote about all three, so its a safe bet that the labels knew that a certain degree of interest could be generated by linking big contemporary acts with legendary disco producers. This interest is from quarters that generally don't devote much attention to chart-toppers like Coldplay. But I'm sure everybody hoped that these remixes could do a "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" by Kylie Minogue and just take over the pop charts and dance clubs at the same time. That song, which is 12 years old, is a much more interesting articulation of modern electronic disco than any of Moroder and Cerrone's recent remixes. Same goes for "Hung Up" by Madonna. And both were the kinds of things that cool kids could unironically love

Sidenote about Coldplay: I also thought that the Moroder remix was part of a ploy to get them press in the indiesphere, but in researching this idea, I saw that every full-length of theirs has been reviewed by Pitchfork and that site's been covering all the news from this album's release cycle. I'm not sure if that says more about the changing state of their site or the state of online music press.

Fair enough. Somebody at their label has been commissioning remixes for them for years. There is a pretty good remix by DFA artists Still Going that never got released that I heard five or six years ago. As for Pitchfork's editorial policies, that's probably a subject for another column.

What do you think was the purpose of these remixes from the labels' perspective? I am sure they weren't cheap.

I think its a few things: testing the market to see whether a bigger investment in Moroder and Cerrone comeback projects is merited, pushing rock acts like Coldplay and Haim to pop/dance audiences, generating earned and owned media as well as social media action for Coldplay and Haim, and they probably also reflect the lingering influence and power of Moroder and Cerrone to pull some high-visibility favors in hopes of revitalizing their careers with a new generation who doesn't remember just how uncool disco was for most of the '80s and '90s. There is genuine interest in this music and these artists. The number of plays and followers on SoundCloud is impressive. Daft Punk are pop stars now, nearly 20 years after "Musique" came out.

Just how expensive do you think those remixes were?

It's really hard to say. The market for remixes has not kept pace with interest, from what I've observed. You hear these stories about guys like Marc Kinchen (MK) doing three or four pop and R&B remixes a week for $15,000 a pop in the mid-'90s. It was bananas back then. Nowadays, with sales as flat as they are and revenue from YouTube and streaming sites like Spotify and Beats being as modest as they are, I don't think there is a revenue stream robust enough to sustain even a fraction of that sort of fee. That said, I'm sure Cerrone and Moroder got much more than somebody newer to success, like DJ Snake, can get.

Underground remixes range from free to a couple thousand dollars at the upper reaches. The kinds of artists who are grinding to make a living are mostly doing so by performing a lot. DJ fees can be enormous, especially if you have lots of social media followers. Based on the numbers around his remixes, Moroder could rake in the cash if he felt up for a busy DJ schedule. That's a big reason why SFX bought Beatport alongside all the event production companies they control. Topping the charts on Beatport is directly correlated with the fees you can command. By owning the charts and the events paying those fees, SFX can influence and game that system to their advantage. By absorbing artist management companies, they can really leverage that kind of integration.

Sidenote #1: MK did a Haim remix, too.

He had a number one in the UK last year with his remix of Storm Queen's "Look Right Through." He's massive and massively talented. In the U.K., of course, dance music doesn't have to sneak onto the charts disguised as rap music. Folks like Disclosure, Jessie Ware, Hot Natured are pop stars.

We've been looking at this from a very calculated perspective, but we haven't talked about the artists' agency in these specific remixes. Maybe Haim and Coldplay are really into eurodisco.

That's totally true. Haim's story seems to focus on their producer, Ariel Reichshaid, whose management company is owned by SFX incidentally. But they also worked extensively with James Ford from Simian Mobile Disco on their album. He's very well known and respected in dance music, and perhaps he helped turn them on to some stuff. Haim are also very LA. Events like A Club Called Rhonda have embraced disco to the extreme and transformed it into one of that city's most exciting cultural phenomena. ACCR were involved with Moroder's set at WMC, too.

As for Coldplay, it's entirely possible they just love eurodisco. I don't hear much of that in their music, but it's possible. They also did a song called "A Sky Full of Stars" with Avicii, who Moroder has been championing. Perhaps the "Midnight" remix was the product of an ad hoc conversation between the dance music godfather and his protégé.

The eurodisco sound is not owned exclusively by Moroder, of course. Cool kids are shitting themselves over Todd Terje's It's Album Time, which is the culmination of many years spent by that Norwegian producer mining the cheesier corners of European disco music.

That Todd Terje album has the potential to win over and redirect a lot of converts. It's an album — like the xx's debut and Massive Attack's Mezzanine — where you can imagine it getting played in every cool hotel lobby, boutique and salon in the country. At least in the ones that just don't have someone's iPhone or iPod on shuffle

Personally I find It's Album Time to be a bit heavy handed. Todd Terje is a completely brilliant bricoleur and he has an uncanny knack for synthesizer grooves, but the record feels kitschy in a way that the xx or Mezzanine don't. I'm certain it will be heavily employed by audio stylists and their ilk, but I'm guessing it won't approach the ubiquity of Manu Chao's Clandestino or Amadou & Mariam's Dimanche A Bamako as background music for fashionable establishments. The fact that disco remains a relevant touchstone for cool kids fourteen years after its underground revival suggests that it still has legs. There's still more four-on-the-floor cool to be pumped out.

There's something interesting to take note of when acts "go back to the source" for remixes. I don't think the practice should be discouraged and can make for some cool stuff, but the fact is, you're never sure which stage in an artist's career you're getting. Cerrone and Moroder have deeeeeep catalogs, not all of which are awesome. There's also the chance that the heritage act might not want to do to your song what you love them for. They may think they've progressed on to something new.

That's totally true. One example of somebody going deep for a remix recently is Tame Impala, who got a remix of "Elephant" from Todd Rundgren. And it's pretty cool — totally fuzzed out electronic music with a glam rock stomp. But holy shit that could have gone way wrong. Rundgren is one of those dudes with a massive catalog punctuated by some amazing music. But as with Moroder and Cerrone, there is plenty of queso in there to avoid. What I like about that remix for Tame Impala is that Rundgren managed to do something that feels true to the songwriter, to himself and also feels like a step forward. Moroder and Cerrone managed to put their fingerprints all over Coldplay and Haim without saying anything new. If anything, they paraphrased their best bits poorly.

But then again, one of the things that made Moroder and Cerrone so badass was that they were using new tools and techniques to make new music that didn't have obvious antecedents within the pop canon. In contrast, everything dance-y since disco owes a massive debt to them. That they were dug out of obscurity at the height of disco's revenge to lend that golden touch — even though its hardly new, fresh, exciting, or without precedent — spells disaster to me.

None of this is to say they should just fade quietly into old age. If they are still excited by disco (and not just by a massive, young, scantily clad audience with their parents money to spend), then I'd like to see them push the form forward. By all means, they have chops as musicians. They know how to produce musicians. They know how to orchestrate, to make tape edits, to do things the old, labor-intensive ways. Those are skills are all but lost to new producers. I mean the EDM guys Moroder seems to love working with all crap out their tracks using a laptop and some plug ins they stole from the internet while jetting from festival to festival on charted jets. That doesn't impress me nearly as much as Cerrone's album Africanism (under the name Kongas).

When you go for the nostalgia remix, it's a roll of the dice. It's a roll of the dice with any remix commission, but with legends, its' a lot harder to ask for changes or reject it outright. Dance music is a pretty small world and it's not cool to shit all over the legends in the scene, even if they deserve to be shit on.

For my label, the only legendary character I've gotten a remix from is Andrew Weatherall, who is absolutely still mixing it up at the lunatic fringe of the underground. He's been weird for so long that his sensibility more or less defines an entire scene. It was a safe bet I'd love what he would do. Turns out he turned in a slow mo dub mix that's basically unplayable to a dancefloor and it's still one of the best things I've ever put out. Go figure.

It will be interesting to see the next stages to this. Are we going to see Disclosure produce the next Usher album? Will Moroder produce an entire Haim album?

I'm as curious as you are. Disclosure are graduating out of being a crossover dance act to legitimate pop/R&B producers. I hope they continue to play with house idioms, as I think they've done a tremendous job translating the sound of dance music as filtered through UK pirate radio into something thoroughly modern and exciting. But they've also shown a real ear for good hooks and work really well with vocalists. The fact that they are working with people like Mary J. Blige as well as folks from their world like Jessie Ware suggests that's the direction they are moving.

As for Moroder, I'd love to see him showcase his considerable skills and talents as a composer and producer rather than make obvious retreads of his most heavily-referenced dance hits. He's a legend for reasons that go well beyond "I Feel Love" and "Love to Love You Baby," and that seems to be getting lost in the frenzy around his return to the limelight. I'd rather him make film scores and produce bands like Haim than try and become a DJ.

We haven't talked about is James Murphy producing Arcade Fire's "disco album," which didn't go over as well as some might have hoped.

I'm going to preface this by saying that I really like James as a person and respect his gifts as a musician and producer. But I loathe Arcade Fire. I think the instrumental of "Reflektor" is the only tolerable thing about that entire album and it's not something I put on my stereo. Ever.

I'm hoping that the album fell flat because people realized just how irritating Win Butler and Régine Chassangne are. I find her to be an intolerably awful vocalist. And this is going to sound mean spirited, but I think Arcade Fire are super unattractive. Watching them perform is painful. The bad outfits and face paint aren't helping at all either. They are obviously talented, but Reflektor felt like a self-indulgent affectation. The band wasn't true to their own sound and identity, and I think audiences saw through that. James didn't do a bad job producing, his fingerprints are all over the record, but at the end of the day, it's the performances and the sheer awkwardness of the band that dooms them for me.

The whole billing themselves as "The Reflektors" seems to suggest they were uncomfortable with the whole undertaking as well. They should stick to making indie rock records. "Neighborhood #3" sounded really fresh and original when it came out. I mean, I hated it then and still hate it now, but at least it sounded like them.

Going back a bit. You mentioned Daft Punk and their Grammy wins, and I think Random Access Memories being a classy disco record probably has a great deal to do with why we're having this conversation in the first place, but a lot of people were let down by that album when it was first released. Daft Punk has a history of people increasing their appreciation for their records over time, but I'm curious what the music industry will remember more, the initial tepid response after millions of dollars in promotional lead-up or the eventual multi-Grammy wins. And how will their recollection affect their faith in disco as a sound worth investing in?

In the end people will remember Random Access Memories as a great pop disco record. Lots of people were a bit disappointed by the album (myself included), but they won a lot more fans than they've lost. And if I'm being honest, I didn't love Human After All either. That didn't stop me from loving Daft Punk with the same fervor that I've loved them with since high school. And it didn't stop me from seeing the Alive Tour five times. I've revisited RAM a couple times in the last year and I still don't love it, but there are moments on there for sure. "Doin' It Right" is really good. And as an exercise in studio virtuosity, it's pretty much unmatched in recent times. It just sounds incredible. And for the folks making investments in disco or any other cultural product, it put up big enough numbers to merit a bit of further investment. Tastes will inevitably shift and disco will go back to being beloved by its true devotees and regarded as irredeemably uncool by everybody else, even if we don't end up with a Disco Sucks bonfire this time around.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Source: NPR

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