Morgan Geist needs little introduction, but we'll lay out an abridged “resume” to make sure we all fully understand the greatness of the electronic music innovator.
Starting in the mid-1990s, Geist, along with Darshan Jesrani, created Metro Area, an ever changing dance outfit that “pays tribute to the bygone glory days of 70s and 80s boogie, old-school R&B, disco, and house.” As part of Metro Area alone, Geist fostered a strong name for himself and quickly became one of N.Y.C.'s most notorious, genre-hopping, intelligent, and skillful DJ's (just look at his list of remixes for a quick taste of his renown and weidespread respect).
In the late-1990s, Geist form Environ Records, through which he has released all of Metro Area's work as well as his own stuff, starting with The Driving Memories, his 1997 debut.
Eleven years after that long-player, Geist is back with a new record, Double Night Time, that sees Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan contributing vocals. Stream the first single, “Detroit,” in the media player to the right as you go through our incredibly thorough, career-spanning Q&A with the man himself.
[After] Un Classics, you actually have a disco stigma attached to you a little—so I guess we would have been expecting a disco record from you in a sense. But [with Double Night Time], you went more into the pop area. How did you got into the whole area of working on pop tunes instead of making dance floor numbers? Do you want to elaborate on that a little?
Well, the disco thing, I don’t consider much of a stigma. There's whatever journalists of record stores will slot you as, but, I mean that fact is, I just like disco.
There’s always been somewhat of a disco bend to everything I've done. Like, on my first album ten years ago… I was sampling D. Train and Herby Hancock. There was a lot of the soul/funk/disco stuff along with really electronic—Kraftwerk and stuff. So, you know, I also don’t think pop and disco are mutually exclusive. I like disco because it was one of the last times dance music was incorporating all different genres and some musicality where it could be super low-brow, just one groove, just a functional track—sort of the equivalent of German techno records today.
With this new album, I was definitely consciously thinking I wanted it to be a very electronic pop album. And it references Y.M.O., and Logic System, and early electronic pop music stuff. By “early,” I mean like, late-70s and early-80s stuff. Not really early.
Right, there’s a limit on how early you can go with that stuff.
With that in mind, I moved forward on the album, and I know there’re people who probably like Metro Area or the more disco stuff I was doing that could be disappointed with this—but I don’t really care.
Yeah, it’s your record.
Yeah, it’s my record, and it’s not that far off base. It’s just what I feel like doing. And I feel like [disco and pop] overlap. Like, Y.M.O. was on Soul Train. And its funny because also when I started out I originally wanted to do this kind of classic rock, like prog rock thing. My early draw to synthesizers was often through whats called “classic rock” now… and the progressive rock stuff that my older brother was listening to—like Pink Floyd and even really horrible shit like fucking Emerson Lake and Palmer. That’s where I first got obsessed with the studio. Using sound effects and synthesizers and tape loops and things like that. So I wanted a bit of that as well.
Is there anything new that was influencing the new record?
You know, I don’t like a lot new music. And I'm not proud of that! It’s just that I don’t hear a ton that blows me away. Part of what I like in the sound of music is hearing stuff that I cant quite figure out. And… all sounds now are processed—that’s the basis, that’s the norm. Its almost like unprocessed sounds processed. I think like Steve Albini or someone has talked about this before. Obviously, as an electronic music person, I don’t want to do the Steve Albini thing, but I think there’s something really cool about the purity of just recording synths. I feel like people in new music a lot now will fuck shit up just to fuck it up.
Sometimes I feel like someone will have a good song, and then they’ll have to put some laptop-y sound like glitch or some hyper-edited thing in just to be like “look, were doing this,” and every era has that. There were tape edits that went backwards in old club music, [for example]. There're mistakes everywhere, and I guess part of [me] is trying to avoid some of those traps.
You avoid using technology to improve what you’re doing in order to not let it dictate what you can do.
Yeah, exactly. Or just using stuff just because its there—which is what I think a lot of people do. On the sonic end of things, I think that’s why I resist a lot of new music… and to say nothing of just the fact that all people try and do now is make loud music that sounds goods going off of iPod headphones. I think it's really fucked up that you could listen to a Celine Dion ballad as loud as some metal track or hip-hop track. Everything is just crushed. There's no such thing as dynamics anymore. [But] if you listen to my album on iTunes, it's softer that most of the other stuff that’s coming out.
Yeah, it's softer… you kind of have to turn it up a little bit.
Yeah, and my feeling on that is, if I'm shooting myself in the foot, that’ll suck, but I'm sort of thinking, “fuck you—turn it up if you want it a little louder!” I don’t want to destroy the dynamics to compete with Maroon 5 or whatever the fuck people are listening to.
Well hopefully that’s not a competition you have to worry about…
Or maybe I'm just opting out of it. If something got big and was playing on the radio, it’s going to go through like, twenty compressors, anyways. So I'm not going to ruin my album because of the standards people are employing today.
I'm not saying everything I love is this elevated art form, but I think [pop music is] in a dryer spot right now. I think R&B is in a really terrible spot right now. I can’t relate to a lot of it. I think R&B is like where hair metal was in the late-80s. Like, there's a ton of money, and its really not good music. And I think it's about to—
—plow itself down.
Yeah, and hip-hop is already doing that… compared to where it used to be.
So, to bring up… you were talking about the cleanness of using original sounds, and not modifying sounds. So we'll quickly dive into the other New York City—the disco superstar Jams Murphy, and his thing of having everything recorded live, not looped, not edited, not processed. Have you been paying attention to that? Has that been an influence, or are you not feeling what they're doing?
No, I wouldn’t say it was an influence at all. James is a friend of mine, but we come from different places in a lot of respects. I really admire him as an engineer and as a producer… but I think we like different stuff and I think we produce really different music.
How did you get involved working with [Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan] on the album?
Well, I'm a Junior Boys fan, and Domino, [who Junior Boys are signed to], asked me for a remix on their first album, and it didn’t work out. I ultimately did a remix for their second album. They wanted me to remix “Birthday,” which was kind of their big song off their debut. I used get asked to do a fair amount of remixes, and I still get asked a lot but mostly by dance labels where it's sort of like [they're] a dime a dozen and it's not that exciting. Even when [I was doing a lot of remixes]—like I remixed some stuff that obviously got some public approval, like Franz Ferdinand, and the Rapture—it would be fun remixing the stuff even though I wouldn’t necessarily love the music. That’s what part of made the remixing easy, because I'd be like, “I don’t give a fuck,” and just do my thing.
But with the Junior Boys, I didn’t have anything like that because the remix didn’t go through. And listening to the Junior Boys, especially before meeting them, I just pictured these Euro, super slick, tall, fashion models.
Yeah that’s what I imagine.
Exactly. Well, have you seen the Junior Boys? That’s not what the deal is. And I kind of tend to resent bands like that, because I'm kind of a dork, and I don’t have a public image, and I also like substance over style. But there was something… I just really liked the songs. So, I wrote [Greenspan] and told him I liked his stuff and he knew my stuff and he liked it and we started talking, and I was just looking for a vocalist. It was back before we were really friendly because we're pretty tight now, and it was more of a formal relationship. So I asked if he would ever sing on my album, and he graciously and respectfully accepted. Which is funny, knowing how he is now. I think he'd be like, “fuck off, man—I'm busy… I'm dating this new girl and I don’t feel like working on your shit this weekend.” Whereas back then he was like, “oh it would be an honor to lend my voice to this” or some bullshit like that. So that’s how we started, and we met and we have very similar outlooks on music, and similar sense of humor, and similar life experiences in some ways. We became good friends, and it was easy [and fun] to work with him. It was educational, too, because in many ways he has a very different approach. I'm kind of meticulous and do things over and over. He’d sing things a couple of times, and I would want fifty takes of something… and after five takes, he’d say, “eh, it's not going to get better than that.” Which was a great lesson for me, because who the fuck wants fifty takes of something? (And often the firstt take is the best take, that’s one of the pitfalls of making electronic music—you forget that there’s something amazing about a first live take coming from a human being.)
For the new album, was there an over all concept or point you were trying to get across? Like we talked about before, you were working on making a more pop record and exploring that new territory. But was there a story being told through it?
I don't know if there's a story being told through an album that's almost half instrumental, but the title of the album, Double Night Time… it was originally Nocebo, the opposite of placebo. Speaking from a pharmacological standpoint, [a placebo] makes people imagine they're feeling better, even though they're just taking something inert. [With a] nocebo, you'll imagine the negative side effects of a medication that doesn't actually exist because you’re expecting and anticipating something to go wrong. [The title] was a loose use of that for me because there was this was sort of a dark period I was working through with the album. Nocebo appealed to me because all these bad things—personal, creative, business, even health—were kind of cross-pollinating and making me pessimistic about everything, to the point where I started thinking there would be negative consequences as the result of anything I did. This spilled over into trying to complete the album—I didn’t want to complete it, because I thought it was doomed to fail. It was sort of a really bad intersection of perfectionism and pessimism and I just kept delaying finishing the thing or wanting to throw it away instead of releasing it. You get depressed and you start doubting your creative impulses, and that makes you not want to make stuff and not want to release it. I'm very self-critical and very self-conscious about my music… so the album almost didn’t happen. That’s why so much of the music on [it] is so old. I'd do two tracks and be like, “fuck this, I'm not going to release this.” When I got the all of Jeremy’s stuff in there, I'd listen to a Junior Boys record, and be like, “this is so much better—I'm not doing this,” and its hard. I think that's sort of the theme—being in a bad spot and struggling against that. It’s sort of a generic spot.
I can relate to that. Now the weight's lifted, and it’s going to come out. You can just forget about it essentially.
And there’s nothing I can do about it. So now I'm actually starting to think some of the tracks are okay, and the lyrics were reflecting that too.
Double Night Time is this really nerdy reference from this British sci-fi show called The Prisoner. There's this scene where the guy is being psychologically broken down and sort of forcefully regressing into his childhood. That’s sort of how I felt the whole time. Both the idea of double night time [as in it] was always dark and I never felt relief and [as in] double strength night time, like it would literally be at night when I had time to think.
Are you thinking of releasing a vinyl version of the album?
No, because it’s too expensive to do it right. I would need to do a double vinyl [release], and it’s more of a listening record. I'd love to, though. In fact, a friend was like, “you should do a double picture disc with a moon on each side, and just do like, one-hundred and sell them for $50 each.” But I don’t know if I could find one-hundred people that would want to spend that kind of money. Yeah, in terms of art it would be nice, but I have to be responsible. I mean, it's like the depression right now.
Lots of people do a 12” single and get a big name remix by an big remix artists. But on most of your 12”s, it’s like you have your single, an instrumental of the single, and then a b-side. It almost seems like a classic format of music, and I'm wondering if that’s intentional, avoiding getting the big-name remix, so [your listeners] are more focused on [your music] and not the remix.
Every record had to be good even the remixes, and like I said, there’s not a lot of stuff I like right now. Or, if there’s a big name remixer doing remixes for everyone else, I might not necessary want them on my album. Like, Carl [Craig's remix] is a great thing, because I've been a fan for a long time. I've always wanted him to do a remix, and I'm glad it came on my record, because I feel like I spend so much time working on everyone else’s shit.
But yeah, Carl I'm pretty happy with as a remixer. A lot of people I would have wanted to remix my stuff are dead. It would be cool to get a Ron Hardy or a Walter Gibbons mix, that would rock. But a lot of those people are long gone.
Okay, I have most of the Metro Area album downloaded as MPEGs, like through iTunes—is that something that you just sort of except as a business thing?
Ha ha, you don have to lie, dude. I know you just grab that shit up!
No, I have the Metro Area record on iTunes!
Oh, thanks for buying them. If I didn’t own a record label, I'd be downloading like crazy. It’s the fact that I'm a musician and have a record label. It’s the only thing that stops me. If I was a teenager growing up now, I wouldn’t pay for anything. I mean, why would you? I'm a thirty-five-year-old musician, though. If I just grew up thinking music was free like my 15 yr old little sister… you don’t know the difference.
People email me and say, “I love the new album,” and they don’t realize that’s something that could potentially hurt my feelings [because it's not released yet]. It's analogous to like, “your mothers a beautiful woman—I fucked her last night.” You know its like you’re getting this compliment, but the album isn’t out [until October 8]—you know you stole it from some journalist who got it for free and immediately put it online… and that’s something I worked on for years, and I'm not getting a cent for that!? And you think it's okay to write me? That’s where it’s fucked up. I should just be happy [for] the compliment. But the industry is become so… I feel so alienated from it.
You could try to get more licensing deals from it?
Right, so someone else gets fucked instead of [me]. Which is appealing. There’s lots of ways to make money, but they're not intentional. They're luck based. You can’t plan to have your song licensed to an Old Navy ad… as opposed to planning a release date, building it up, and kind of guiding your career. But music is everywhere—it's been marginalized.
Also, I think CD costs have been harmful. $18 for a CD when manufacturing costs are pretty cheap… there was some CD I bought the other day… I got it in the mail and the packaging was really shitty, and I was like, this kind of sucks. At my label, we try to make it about $10. But with MPEGs, is it worth it to try to get the physical sales?
No, it all sucks. I mean, I'd be in deep, deep shit if people weren’t doing iTunes or digital distribution. But I always say we're making way more dimes than we are dollars. There're tons of individual downloads, but the fact is that you’re making so much less. I don’t feel bad saying this because I’m not a major label that puts filler on my stuff. Where it used to be 1000 sales at $8 an album and you’re [grossing] $8000, on iTunes it's more like $1000. Making CDs is cheap as fuck, but mastering is expensive. And if you compare the cost of making a CD to the profit versus no cost to the profit on iTunes…
Obviously, if people were downloading albums on iTunes like they're buying CDs, I'd be sucking iTunes cock.
What do you think of the entire disco edits going on right now?
Really boring. Make original music or play original disco. Or make edits for personal use. I don’t agree with people profiting off of it. Mainly because they suck. They take out the bad parts of the record—which I think are essential to making the good parts sound great. What's happening with disco edits now is… [well,] it's what made me start metro area. Like, in the late-90s, people were looping up disco samples and putting filters on them and kick drums on them and calling it their own music.
I think it’s the barometer of how uncreative people are nowadays. Try to make your own music… or try understanding how an original disco record was made. But that takes too much time and equipment and learning and money.