LCD Soundsystem and DFA mastermind James Murphy teams up with 2ManyDJs to build a dream soundsystem for Manchester International Festival. Here’s the interview in full.
Eight speaker stacks each standing at 11 feet, 48 McIntosh amplifiers at £22,000 a piece, close to 50,000 watts averaging 100db on the dancefloor, and three nights to road test one of the most impressive and ambitious soundsystems in the world. The best thing about day one? “Nobody died”.
James Murphy might be joking, but developed together with DFA engineer John Klett and brothers David and Stephen Dewaele (2ManyDJs, Soulwax), there’s an air of fatal attraction about the towering Despacio rig. Glowing after the success of the first night, the three heavyweights speak of Despacio as men reborn. Built specifically to play vinyl, Despacio has been a labour of love and one which seems a welcome respite from the sometimes mercenary demands of the big-room DJ lifestyle.
Despite its stature on the bill at this year’s MIF, the big room designated for Despacio is more like an old-school disco ballroom than a super-club; in Murphy’s eyes a socialist space where the sound takes precedence over the spectacle. The seven stacks that encircle the dancefloor like a Neolithic henge can handle the weight of spectacle themselves.
In what developed into a sprawling interview-come-conversation, James, Stephen and David free-formed on the nature of modern club culture, spoke highly of the constraints of playing vinyl and ruminated honestly on the extent of their own relevance, often finishing each others sentences with the same ease that they would steer the dancefloor from downtempo sunset Balearic via Hall & Oates to a stonking Ibizan crescendo over four sweltering hours later that night.
With so much ground covered and Murphy quotable to the last, we’ve published the transcribed interview in full ahead of our forthcoming film from the event. Read it below.
It’s the afternoon after the first night of the Despacio soundsystem. Did yesterday live up to your expectations?
David Dewaele: I think I was secretly hoping that for people it would be such a different experience that it would be seminal and a big deal and luckily some people came up to me and said that. That was my secret wish and it happened.
Was it always your aim to create something out of the ordinary?
James Murphy: That was the idea, although I feel like we approach it to a certain degree like this is what we would like to be not that out of the ordinary. It would be great if whenever you went out you felt like it sounded really great, people played whatever music they liked and everyone was smiling. Unfortunately it just doesn’t normally feel like that, for me.
So the project initially was to create a party you wanted to go to?
JM: To me that’s the motive for almost everything. What do I want to do? Is it missing? And then, if it’s missing why don’t we just make one?
So what gap is it filling?
JM: A place where all different kind of records sound good and it’s a pretty open environment where the music is quite open and the people are quite open and it’s a nice big space – I don’t feel like it’s small and snobby and elitist, you know, it’s pretty inclusive.
Stephen Dewaele: And it wasn’t about us, you know there was no spotlight on us and there’s a big barrier behind, so it was about the people, the stacks, the music, and them having a good time and that was the coolest thing last night. People were dancing and nobody was looking at us – I mean there were some people looking at us but it was just…
JM: …three middle aged guys with records.
SD: It’s not really something to look at.
SD: Also I think it came because we did a couple of shows together where we played as 2ManyDJs and James was DJing as well and I think we felt there was a lot of music that we couldn’t play on these big stages and the equipment is always tuned for bands or minimal music so you there’s a lot of music that you couldn’t play.
JM: And you don’t want to tell the crowd like “fuck you, I’m going to play want I want to play”. You want to be respectful and this is just an easy environment for us to be like “we’re going to totally be respectful but we’re also going to play exactly what we want”. And it’s not like a take it or leave it scenario, it’s like having people over for food. It’s more of an invitation over, whereas when you play big stages sometimes you feel like you’re playing for somebody else’s wedding and you’ve got to make sure that the groom is happy.
Legendary clubs like Paradise Garage made a point of separating the DJ booth from the dancefloor…
JM: We’re the projectionists – that’s the screen. We’re at the back of the living room facing the listening experience.
SD: I think that wasn’t just the Paradise Garage, I think that was everywhere in the world.
JM: It’s only when it started merging and DJs were put on stages at festivals did it start becoming like “here’s the DJ” and the sound is coming from them at you with a bunch of lights.
DD: That’s a recent development and I think we’re partially to blame for this as well, but I still remember clubs being like this, where the DJ was still important but he wasn’t top of the pyramid. The DJ was important but so was everything else.
JM: It is a little more like being a chef. The chef is not in the front of the restaurant throwing food at you – the chefs are in the back making food. It’s not that exciting to watch all the time.
So it’s more about what you create rather than how you do it?
JM: It’s also an opportunity for people to be social with each other. It’s not a show, it’s not going and staring at something – it’s much more like people hanging out with each other and dancing.
DD: And the dancing part is really important because I think when we play big places now it tends to be a concert and you see people getting squashed. I mean people can stage dive as much as they want but everyone’s looking towards that stage and there are lights, confetti, lazers.
JM: And they’re waiting for the next thing, when’s the next breakdown, when’s the next thing I can get excited and jump up and down about, but you always see a little bit of a disengagement because it’s like watching TV, you’re only engaged to the extent that you’re a receiver. Whereas experiences I’ve had in really nice clubs that sound really nice and the vibe, for lack of a less annoying word, is good, you’re engaged the way you’re reading a book. You’re putting stuff in.
DD: I went into the crowd yesterday a little bit, and we DJ every weekend and one of things I enjoy the most is watching people dance and sometimes it’s really bad, but the dancing I saw last night was incredible. I think that was the biggest surprise for me. I saw people pull moves…
JM: Like, people were DANCING.
DD: And they had so much space to do it and they were showing off to each other, that was amazing.
JM: That’s what I mean, you’re engaged, you’re not passive. Also, [to Steph and Dave] when was the last time you went out into the audience in a place you DJed?
SD: It’s been a long time since that happened.
DD: Well usually I don’t have time – we play records for two of three minutes so I have to be back for the next one.
Does having the speakers in the round also mean the audience is more engaged because the sound changes as you walk around the room?
DD: I went into the crowd and it changes everywhere, but it’s good everywhere.
SD: It’s a very instructive experience because we were also playing records before the doors opened to just get into it and then we played Steve Miller Band “Macho City” and it was a repressing that we were playing and we were all freaking out, like, “something’s not right” and we were thinking it was the speakers and then we were like “no wait, whoever repressed this, it was bad”, there was a hiss on it.
It’s very unforgiving this thing so you have to go back to the source material and you have it make sure it’s the right pressing, and it sounds a bit snobby but it makes really a lot of difference in dynamics. And you could tell last night, when there was something coming in or a drum break, people would go “yeah!” and I didn’t have to do anything, it was just the fucking dynamics of the track.
JM: Also… an aside, do you know whether we’re getting disc-washing stuff today? Like vinyl cleaning material? We should get that.
SD: See? Very organized.
So the quality of vinyl is a crucial part?
JM: Well, good sounding stuff is the crucial part and that just still happens to be the best sounding workable medium. We can’t play reel-to-reels up here so…
SD: Oh stop… (he laughs) I can see another project coming.
Does playing only vinyl change the way you put the set together?
SD: Well we didn’t put the set together last night, because we all brought a lot of records – I think there are 800 records back there – so it’s just feeling it, and it was over so fast last night there were many things we weren’t able to play.
JM: It’s not so much the vinyl, that’s the big difference, it’s more being patient. Let the song play, let the song do its job.
SD: And this environment lends itself to it.
JM: But it does mean we leave and we’ve only played a tiny little pile of records. I mean I used to mix after one verse and one chorus and I remember standing there and was like “don’t mix yet! There are so many good things in this”.
You’re basically playing back-to-back?
DD: Pretty much.
JM: It was a little bit of a blend. Sometimes we’d just play one track, or sometimes somebody would have a couple that go together; it was unorganized. I think we’ll do ones where it’s like “Dave’s night” and we’ll do support.
DD: I think that makes total sense.
JM: And the next night will be Dave’s night again… We also noticed that our initials if I sit in the middle, are D J S – DJs. That’s pretty good.
What effect does the system itself have on the way you play?
SD: It’s a different way than DJing normally because there is a limiter here, we had to try and not go above 100db.
JM: There’s a legal audio limit.
SD: And so at some point last night we were over it and then James played a string track and then took up the microphone and went like “well, we have to wait for a little bit now…” and it was amazing because people we just like “yeah, cool” and they were hearing the strings and then after 5 minutes we put another track on.
JM: And we came back quieter than we were before, but because we were so quiet for so long it felt satisfying again.
Is that feeling of patience where “Despacio” as a name comes from?
DD: Well Initially we were going to do this in Ibiza – our plan was to have a night…
JM: …that we would want to go to…
DD: …where we would play what to us was true Balearic, which meant slowing down records and playing all kinds of stuff.
SD: Early afternoon all the way til the sun goes down.
DD: But that fell through so we came to do it in Manchester and we kept the name. But I think it’s quite apt because it means both ‘slow’ and ‘gradually’ and compared to many other nights it is quite slow, and a lot of the things I enjoyed last night were that you know the record but if you here it at minus 16 you’re like wow, it’s a whole different thing. There’s not a rule, but it’s an indication of a spirit.
You once described DFA as “a hipster party except it was about music”. Is Despacio a party that is explicitly about the music?
JM: I think we’re different people now. There’s a limit to how cool the three of us are at the moment. You know what I mean, we’re older, we’ve been around for a long time and I mean there’s younger people and more underground people and people that we admire or are bored by. We’re just a different thing and…
SD: Are you saying the kids are coming up from behind? (He chuckles)
JM: No, but you know what I mean, we can’t sit there and be like “we’re doing this really underground thing”. But we come from a place where we have a lot of admiration for music and sound – I mean that’s why we’re here, that’s why we did this – and we’re in a position to somehow get this to happen, which I feel like is taking responsibility for the opportunities that we have access to and doing the best we can rather than just complaining in a plane in business class to each other about where we’re going to get paid to play records. That’s seemed like a really empty gesture and this seems like a pretty satisfying one.
SD: But when we met, I think what DFA was doing and when we started with 2ManyDJs, or even with the band, with Soulwax, we’ve always had our own little worlds, and I don’t know about James but we’ve never been cool and maybe we never really wanted to be.
JM: Well, OK, as people we’ve never been cool people, but you gotta be kidding…
SD: …but it wasn’t the thing that you were looking for.
JM: No, of course not, but people perceive you in a certain way. We’re just less cool empirically in the outside world now, we’re just too big. You know what I mean, we’ve been around for a long time and we go and play festivals. The really cool people are like sweating in a basement somewhere. It doesn’t mean they’re actually cool, I just mean perception-wise.
SD: They’re sweatier.
JM: Yeah, they’re sweatier. We were pretty sweaty though last night.
SD: We were sweaty last night.
JM: And our beards are too short – and he doesn’t even have one (pointing at Dave).
DD: Maybe I should grow one.
JM: Yeah man, beard out. That’s what Pat [Mahoney, LCD Soundsystem] used to joke when we played a really rare record, your beard just grows and intertwines around the tone-arm.
(They all laugh)
JM: Ah, it’s so rare, mmmmm, this Polish psych band…
Do you compete with each other about who can play the rarest records?
JM: I mean I don’t, but these guys constantly do!
DD: No, it’s a strange thing; that competition doesn’t really gel with what we’re really trying to do which is to make us just be functional. Of course we want to do an incredible set but we want people to leave thinking that the experience was amazing and it wasn’t necessarily about who played the rarest track.
JM: Plus what is the point? When we started, having a rare track, you may have looked for two years or four years for a record and found it – maybe it was 100 bucks or maybe it was 50 cents – but now a rare track means you just have a lot of time on blogs. You’re either showing off that you have lots of time to spend on the internet or that you have a lot of money and it’s a meaningless thing to be proud of.
SD: And rare isn’t necessarily the point. There can be a bit of a surprise factor. Maybe it’s something you haven’t heard in ten years or haven’t played in a while.
How closely were you involved with John Klett in the designing of the soundsystem? – it must speak to the engineer in you:
JM: Pretty closely, like I’ve done speakerbox design in the past and I’ve done stuff with and without John [Klett], but I’ll say I did zero math on this, which is unusual for me and is possibly why it got so big. I normally do some of the math.
One of the beauties of this design is that the math is pretty simple on these boxes. You get a driver a speaker and the manufacturer says it needs 1.84 cubic feet and a port of X volume and then you just make a box. And that was the whole point. I make studio monitors for DFA and we made them super simple so that the artists on our label could have a beautiful pair of studio monitors for 700 bucks.
I think it should be more approachable. I get very bored when it has to be made in an anechoic chamber and it’s poly-molded out of a high-carbon bicycle material or boat material. Not that many people are going to be able to get this many McIntosh amps and have this many people working for them and helping build something like this writ large…
DD: That’s the proof that we did zero math on the budget as well.
JM: I do think it would be nice for me to have a kid – a young person who wants to throw parties and can’t afford the soundsystem – to be able to go online and do some speaker design research. It’s not that hard, you can make them out of MDF – one of the cheapest materials – and in fact it’s a good material to make speakers out of… I don’t know if you would have the same medium density…
JM: But you can make speakers that are better than what you can buy off the shelf on a very small budget – this was not on a small budget – but it can be done and I miss the time when things were homemade and people were experimenting and people were reinventing the way that things are. Now it’s just like everyone has the same mixer, everyone has the same computer with the same program on it, so it’s a little bit dull, whereas it can be exciting. Make a synth – it’s way less difficult than people think.
DD: Maybe it will come back.
JM: I mean people make their own butter now… or preserves. It’s like “I have an advanced degree and I make butter”.
Do these boxes sound warmer as a result of being more simply put together?
JM: They sound like they sound, I wouldn’t say they sound warmer. These ones are tuned a certain way as well to be what we wanted, which was like a hi-fi listening experience that is a stereo unit with a mono cluster. It’s designed to be like, if you were a big jazz fan you’d be able to come in put your jazz record on and stand in the sweet spot and be like “this is good Mingus”. It should be able to do that and then be able to have the weight to play heavy records.
DD: There’s another cool thing – the McIntosh amps; we’ve been to some listening parties and they would put on some Dire Straights or something really hi-fi and I would always go like “What would The Stooges sound like on this?”
JM: The Stooges sound fucking amazing on this.
DD: And I think the cool thing was to have these McIntosh amps and to go “you know what, we’re going to try and put Aphex Twin on this”. So that was also one of the challenges with using all this insanely hi-fi material and then try to play crappy stuff… not crappy stuff but…
JM: …a little more rough round the edges.
DD: Nothing against Dire Straights.
SD: No offence Mark Knopfler.
So, there are two nights left; what would be the best thing that could happen?
JM: The two things that would be amazing are if it was like last night and somebody came up with a briefcase with two million pounds in. With no strings attached.
DD: And if she were naked…. That person who came with the briefcase.
JM: Careful what you wish for.
Will you be taking Despacio on the road when all this is over?
JM: We’re flying with it, it’s carry-on. It’ll go some place hopefully. We have theoretical discussions, but we have no plans.
DD: The problem is that when we start talking about it we start coming up with other stuff.
JM: It would mean we’d need to build a lot of road cases, man.
SD: And we would need a 10 ton truck…
(Steph looks at the speaker stacks around him)
SD: They’re very phallic.
DD: They could be more phallic.
JM: I’ve always said that.
Despacio was premiered at the Manchester International Festival on 18th, 19th and 20th July at Manchester’s New Century Hall.