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A Quietus Interview

Despacio's The Place: James Murphy & Soulwax Discuss New Soundsystem
Ian Wade , December 17th, 2013 10:10

This week, James Murphy and the Dewale brothers bring their gigantic Despacio soundsystem to London for a three night residency. They tell Ian Wade all about their 50,000 watt disco Stonehenge

Looking not unlike some kind of disco Stonehenge, Despacio is a soundsystem of seven 3.5-metre-tall speaker stacks, with a 50,000 watt ear-bleeding capacity, designed by James Murphy, along with audio engineer John Klett and 2ManyDJs (David and his brother Stephen Dewaele). The whole thing weighs about ten tons and originally made its debut over three nights at Manchester International Festival in July 2013.

Despacio – it means slow in Spanish – was created as a night where the three DJs could play music that they really wanted to play. It was to be vinyl only, and they could muck about with the speeds, remix, re-cut and re-press tracks to work on the system and basically create new light through old windows.

Using McIntosh for the amps – they'd built the soundsystem at Woodstock, and used to be a mainstay of lots of US recording studios - and trialling a range of set-ups that referenced the likes of Paradise Garage, it's seen as perhaps a throwback to the glory days of when DJs played records and got paid less than the bouncers, and you just went to a club because of the music rather than the promise of a superstar DJ name.

Seeing as a lot of Despacio is related to the high quality of the equipment, it seems only right, then, that I interviewed James Murphy on Skype using a very elderly laptop, prehistoric iPod and a Dictaphone last seen as cutting edge around 20 years ago. Oh dear.

How did the original idea for Despacio come about?

James Murphy: I've always had trouble getting what I want out of sound systems. Getting them to be smooth and musical and not painful. So as the culture of DJing began to change into a spectacle, and I kept finding myself on festival stages that felt quite strange that all the sounds and lights were on me, and so I got to talking to David and Steph about it, and remembered what it was like before all that, and I said that I was going to build something, and they were quite excited to be involved. Then the opportunity started presenting itself – with the Manchester International Festival – and so it came about almost organically. We never expected McIntosh to step in and help out. That was a very farfetched part of the plan that made it all real.

David Dewaele: the idea of us DJing together isn't new, and in early LCD days, they used to be booked at the same places, so we eventually asked to be put on the same bills, and we'd tour with the LCD/ DFA family. When James stopped LCD – which at the time seemed a very idiotic move – we asked him “so what are you going to do?” and James said there were lots of things he wanted to do, and one of those things was that he wanted to work with Steph and me making music, which we've never got around to, but in the two years or so since the LCD split, James has become very productive. We invited him over to play with us in Ibiza. Steph and I were interested in what Ibiza used to be like pre-The British Invasion, and we discussed doing a night which was proper Balearic, and so were thinking about what was proper Balearic. It's a dirty word now, but we wanted to make an evening that was more eclectic. So the records we looked at where all very different but shared a similar feel – a lot of stuff away from what we usually play. Now we're going to play what we wanna play, but needed to build an environment where we could do it, so James says 'I can do it, I can build a soundsystem!' We had a budget, to which James said 'Cool, I can build TWO soundsystems for that', but then as time went on, and the costs went up and up and up, it became a whole different thing. Luckily we were snapped up by the Manchester International Festival, and they allowed us to do this over three nights, and McIntosh gave us some amps, which were a very high cost. In fact two thirds of the system is what McIntosh offered, and we've also invested quite heavily into this. So we got it set up in Manchester and thought 'we have to do something with this now', and here we are.

What were the main challenges? Obviously you visualise an idea of what you want, where do you go first when building this system?

JM: I guess we went to the theory first, you know 'what is it we want to accomplish?' which is not a line array and not a projecting system, instead we want a radiating wide system like a hi-fi system that can used for enjoying music – classical, jazz, any kind of music – because we've had systems where we've played CDs on where they've sounded a lot better than records. Which is a bit weird. And then I'd hear a new contemporary dance track and it would be all super compressed and sound better than a disco track, but I'd know for sure that it doesn't sound better to me, but these systems were set up for a certain type of music. They weren't really satisfying. I just wanted them to do that job I guess.

Do you think people have lost the ability to get really lost in music these days? For some it's more about the spectacle and the drops and the booms and the bangs.

JM: I think to a certain degree, yes. There's an audience that's been developed with a very short attention span, which is a little bit sad. That's great for, like, punk rock, but it's a very different experience having patience and allowing things to develop, other than 'here comes another big surprise' with the build up, the build up and then it goes boom. Is it going to go boom or is it going to drop, and it's as exciting as watching a game of paper, rock, scissors. And I don't like it, and when I watch the audiences I find that they're not that engaged. They're staring and they're waiting and they're doing this thing where it's like a video game, and then go “I'm getting a beer” and they're screaming and jumping, but not that engaged. I had great times dancing where I felt very lost and I felt very communicative, and I think that's a great thing, but it's like selling a subtle tasting soup, it's tough in that environment. When I started DJing, I always thought I'd be 'I'm going to bore the shit out of them for 20 minutes', because I just don't want to play that game. I don't want them to look at me, I want them to get listless and stop waiting for something big to happen. This is a way of not having to do that.

My favourite parties are where you DJ before the doors open, so that when people walk in, there's already an energy thing, something's already happening. Rather than walk in and think 'Oh shit we're too early'. And I hate when DJs 'appear'. I DJed in Dallas the other night, and the DJ before me started at 10, and I was like 'Well I like to hang out in the booth' otherwise it's just an appearance. I'd rather just hang out. This is just a system so that we can do what we want to do and no one can be puzzled because that's what it's designed for.

DD: I should say that we're not doing this as a reaction to what's going on, or dislike what's out there. I mean, truth is, I'm here in LA – we're doing this on a weekly basis. It's not torture to us, we enjoy turning up and playing records and seeing the crowd, but it has become a slightly different thing – there are certain aspects that get lost. The main impetus was instead of being those guys who moan in business class about the promoter, why don't we create this environment that makes us think where we'd like to go, and the reaction in Manchester suggested that a lot of other people wanted that too. We still want people to be aware it's us and but more about the music.

The whole night and approach sounds quite Balearic

JM: Yeah. That's a big part of it. Ibiza is a big part of their (Soulwax) cultural history, and in New York the Garage is where part of my cultural roots come from. It's a weird combination in a way. An idealised Ibiza terrace or idealised Paradise Garage or The Loft mushed together a little bit. It sounds like something that London should have as a regular thing

JM: I agree. This system - there's one – is going to travel around. It's better suited to be in a permanent space, but at the moment we're on like an evangelist's roadshow. We have to go and get the people – you can read as much as you like – but you've got to go and experience it. You can't capture what it is at all – you have to go. We live in a world where I can make a song and people hear and whatever, with this you have to go.

It makes it more of an event

James: It's different every time, when we get there we've probably got 1000 records in the back of the booth. It's not firing off from a laptop, we have three four boxes of records to choose from, which use to be the way you played. Having three nights in a row where we can do what we want to do, is the joy of it.

What I always liked about LCD was how you'd make the effort to make sure it sounded good live, and I can see that attention to detail with Despacio

JM: Well that's a huge part of it, and musicians don't understand that sort of stuff necessarily. I just happened to have been a front-of-house engineer – I designed soundsystems and I did the front of house for bands, so I obviously wanted it to do a certain thing. A little overwhelmingly powerful but not painful.

Are there any key records you tested on the soundsystem first?

JM: We listened to it so much, and had the best time setting it up in Manchester before the gig, and playing for a couple of hours a day to an empty room. The trick was to get everything we loved sounding so good. 'Computer Love' by Kraftwerk sounded insane. Can's 'I'm So Green' sounded ridiculously good. Pharaoh Sanders' 'Creator Has A Masterplan; sounded amazing… That was the trick, how do you get those records to stand up? Some of the modern stuff, how it's pressed, did not do so well, because you could hear the shitty compression, but Steve Miller's 'Fly Like An Eagle' – that was ridiculous. Played off the LP, and a friend of ours was there and his girlfriend asked if we had 'Fly Like An Eagle', and we were like 'shit yeah, totally' and it kind of brought the house down, and that's when you know the system is set up right.

If you played that in a modern dance scenario, it would sound thin and everything is on the edge of red, but this is 50,000 watts. It doesn't round anything off. The other is like a solid sound brick, but on here it can handle all the breathing and moving that happens within the song, where the last snare of a fill is significantly louder than the previous one.

It's all very well for clubs to claim they are 'state of the art', but what happens if that art is in a bit of state?

JM: Exactly. That's more about efficiency. It's more about maximum power and certain frequencies that some people have determined are the right ones. It's a self fulfilling prophecy. It's like when people made CDs and they took advantage of the digital reverb in the CD. It doesn't make anything better. People thought they had to fill it up, like Peter Gabriel, and fill up every little frequency and we have to use this intense lush, grainy high end digital reverbs. Because a plate doesn't have that, but a plate reverb makes things sound pretty nice, and it's based on tape and a different algorithm. A lot of the systems are great, but they're not what I want, they are not a hifi system.

Have there been any records that have surprised you in this set-up?

JM: Kinda everything. One revelation to me was 'Tell Me That I'm Dreaming' by Was (Not Was), because the monitors are so insane. Standing in that booth and mixing is one of the greatest experiences of my life. It's really beautiful. The thing that was a real shock was people taking pictures of themselves with the speakers, which Dave and Steph and I were so excited about. Instead of them taking pictures of you, they're taking pictures of the system, and that makes me very very happy.

DD: I know a lot of people will be thinking 'what am I getting myself into?' and when you read the word 'Balearic' it conjures up a certain type of thing. James, Steph and me – we're nerds. We'll play those really rare records that were a private press and there were only 200 made, and all that stuff's cool but that's not really why we do it. One record that surprised me, and its one I've never played before as a DJ, but Manchester really loved it, was 'Another One Bites The Dust' by Queen. Because that record was so well produced and sounded incredible, on that soundsystem it was insane. But if I say to people who ask me 'what sort of music are you playing?' and I say ''Another One Bites The Dust' and some Kraftwerk and maybe some Steve Miller Band' they've got a defined notion of what it's going to be, but that's just one per cent of what we play. I'm always wary of naming names, because wither you're trying to be too cool, or that's a school disco – it's nothing like that, it's a very particular thing.

A lot of the records we play, we've either re-edited or remixed them. James is working on some right now to send over to us as we've got a pressing machine. We were full on nerds working out all the BPMs and keys and put them in order and we have around 1000 fully prepared records to choose from on the night, so it's very hard to give you a quote because if you say one, it doesn't represent the other.

It must be very freeing for you as DJs – especially with the 2manydjs live set-up being very programmed

DD: Yes, but we enjoy what we do and what records we play, but it can still be a challenge. You want to play music that's visceral and works on large crowds, but it's very much like assessing the audience in advance. With Radio Soulwax, it was very freeing as we could create mixes of the music we really love that may not necessarily work when we DJ. Despacio is more a combination of that.

Has this opened your mind to any further ideas?

JM: I'd love to just have some places for people that would be really nice where people can go, and I like the idea that it's quite friendly. In London we're going to have nice food and wine and the people we're working with on that are really cool. I like the idea that you'd be at The Loft and then halfway through the evening, take a break from dancing and go and have dinner, and people would bring their kids along and it was a much more open and friendly place. The two extremes of clubs are hyper-commercial and underground, but none of it is particularly friendly. There's always so much more fun you can have when you feel like everyone is cool.

DD: From a financial point of view? Not so much. But these are the kind of things that we've been interested in doing in the last few years. Something slightly out of the ordinary but ultimately a big part of this is that we can do it. And in five years time no one may care about us, so we use what we've got and with the people around us. No promoter will take on a project like Despacio – it doesn't make financial sense. Nobody wants to take on a system that has the equivalent of power to Glastonbury main stage and weighs ten tons – that's just nuts. A promoter could easily hire us individually and fly us to wherever to play on their systems, or we could come with our soundsystem, records and play for up to eight hours for you. It's just the three of us. There's no acrobatics or lasers. It's just the sound and the guys. That's how it used to be. James has said that analogy of when you go to a restaurant and have amazing food – no one's watching the chef. It's a little bit like that joke where two DJs discuss about going to the cinema and one DJ asks the other 'who is the projectionist?'

What's up next for you?

JM: I'm going into the studio and going to press up some re-edits on vinyl to be played on the system. You have to think quite seriously about what you make. It was fine burning a load of CDs, but with vinyl you have to be sure you're making what you want to make, and if it's worth being done. I like that.

Despacio will be at London's Hammersmith Town Hall on Thursday 19, Friday 20 and Saturday 21 December, 2013, running from 9pm until late.