The label also has deep links with DFA: Simonetti issued an early Speedking Trio 7-inch, featuring drummer James Murphy, as well as early work by future Murphy signees Pixeltan and Black Dice. Both of them appear as well on 2001's Troubleman Mix-Tape, a Simonetti-compiled, 52-track double CD that served as a kind of preview for the disco-punk surge to come, thanks as well to cuts from !!!, Glass Candy, Out Hud and Radio 4. (Troubleman also nearly signed the Rapture for an early 7-inch, but Simonetti made the mistake of talking to one of the band's revolving-door bassists, rather than the drummer or singer.)
But Simonetti had always been a wide-ranging music fan, DJing hip-hop and disco at several New York parties, and as the '00s progressed he became more interested in DJ culture—a fascination he shared with Johnny Jewel of Glass Candy. In 2007, Simonetti tried some 12-inches with Glass Candy and Chromatics, which didn't do much in DJ circles—the Troubleman name was too closely identified with punk. So Simonetti began a sub-label, Italians Do It Better, and released a compilation of Jewel-produced tracks called After Dark. This time, the dance world—and everyone else—caught on.
Italians Do It Better has expanded some, but it's still a tight-knit family: Justin Simon of Invisible Conga People, whose "Cable Dazed / Weird Pains," from 2008, is the label's peak to date, knew Simonetti from Jersey punk circles, for example. And Simonetti himself is now recording for the label, issuing his debut album, Capricorn Rising, in July. RA took the New Jersey Transit to Simonetti's house in Maplewood to get the lowdown on some of his favorite-ever tracks.
Kiss Me Again
When did you first hear this?
It was in the Knitting Factory days, when I was DJing there, probably 2001. I was really into [Loose Joints'] "Is It All Over My Face," the Arthur Russell song. It's such a crazy record. In my true record guy [way], I tracked down every Arthur Russell thing I could find. The Internet wasn't what it is now. No one really worshiped him the way they do now. He was just a guy who wrote a couple weird disco songs and played cello. I found a different pressing of this and didn't like it as much—the red vinyl version. The black vinyl version I loved. It was 13 minutes long; it's totally different from the other version.
I first heard it on Disco Not Disco, the red vinyl version—six minutes long, with very clippy guitar.
To be honest, I've never even heard that compilation. Is [Dinosaur L's] "Go Bang!" on it? [pulls up Discogs page] Oh, I know this. This is all Arthur Russell, huh? Weird. [Turns volume up after the vocals drop out.] This is the part that killed me when I heard it, this part right here—the piano. And then the bass comes in. It's so triumphant, you know? Then the chorus: it's like, throw your hands in the air. It just shows up about four minutes in.
It's a formative disco track. I liked it so much we put it on the Crazy Rhythms mix that me and Dan Selzer did. Back then it was easier to get disco records for cheap. Before everyone fetishized Arthur Russell, there it would be. I got this for, like, two bucks, just sittin' there. It was easy to find.
Were people looking at you sideways at that point for buying disco?
Oh no. It was getting there then, slightly, in New York.There were some underground parties going on where they played disco, like the Happy Birthday Hideout in the Hasidic section of Williamsburg, off the BQE. This guy Chris [Young], who now owns a restaurant called the Commodore, was a DJ. We used to play there. It'd be all-night warehouse—rap, funk and disco. That's how I got seriously into disco, from those parties.
Before that, I was in the basement of the Knitting Factory, just me alone. The party was called Contort Yourself, in late '99, early 2000. I sometimes DJed with Roc—he was in a couple bands, a local guy—but mainly me playing hip-hop, punk, post-punk—obviously—[and] disco. The whole vibe was early '80s New York shit. For hip-hop, I wasn't playing Jay-Z; I was playing old-school shit up to Doug E. Fresh, "La-Di Da-Di," and sometimes mid-'90s stuff like Brand Nubian.
Enjoy the Silence
You must have been in college when this came out.
Freshman year, at St. Peter's College in Jersey City; I was local. I never left. When I was in high school, I went to an all-boys Catholic school called St. Peter's Prep. I was into punk and metal and rap—whatever I could get my hands on. I became a skater, and that's where I met people who weren't just Bayonne, New Jersey, asshole types, you know what I'm saying?
I met this guy named George—we became friends. He's from Jersey City. He was a guy with weird hair who skated, and there weren't many of them from Jersey City. I was an Italian kid from Bayonne. George is Puerto Rican, he has black friends, and I'd never hung out with black people before. Bayonne can be pretty racist. I hung out with all these people who liked all this different music.
I realized also that, as a freshman in a new school with new people, you could learn a whole lot. If I'd stayed in Bayonne I'd have probably been a dirtbag metalhead kid who just grew out of it and just got a job doing something and never looked back. I have distinct memories of realizing there's a lot more to music than just the hard stuff. I got really into everything because of this school. I failed sophomore year anyway. I was too busy skating and racing bikes. [laughs]
That's how I got into Depeche Mode. Through George I met this other dude named Lance. My friend Lance is like, "Listen to this music, man. The shit they're doing is fucking insane. Do you hear that, really low, that tchki-tchki-tchki-tchki?" I said, "No." Then I listened to it again and was like, "Holy shit, I do. He's right." He was showing me all the different layering, instrumentation, melodies—and it's all done on an Emulator. Martin Gore was a gear nerd. It was my first foray into electronic music. Also, girls liked Depeche Mode, which really helped a lot. [laughs]
Give It Up or Turnit a Loose (In the Jungle Groove Remix)
When did you have your first heavy James Brown phase?
I was going to St. Peter's College, sophomore year. It was a Jesuit college. I grew out of touch with my friends from the late '80s, the ethnic friends that got me into everything. We went our separate ways—it happens. It was a good run, five years. I was into hardcore, doing a zine. I was always into funk. I got a radio show that only broadcast to the dorm rooms, but they had so many LPs there, rare shit.
I'd never heard [In the Jungle Groove]. All I'd heard was Hot Pants, one of his regular [albums]. I wasn't into 45s yet. I was like, "Holy shit, this is the best record ever made," though it's not really a "record by James Brown": it's a collection, not a studio album, but it's insane, every fucking song.
I got heavily into jazz from that radio show because I used to sit around pulling records all day. Then they threw a bunch of them in the trash and I got to take them home—they were [switching] to CDs at that point. Some of them still have St. Peter's College stickers on them. [Shows RA the haul.]
The radio station threw out Manu Dibango's original Soul Makossa?!
I have three copies of it. [laughs] This is the soundtrack section. Here's Young-Holt Unlimited covering Super Fly. I got the Cleopatra Jones soundtrack. Here's Cotton Comes to Harlem.
Is that the soundtrack to the porn movie The Devil & Miss Jones?
And here's the Emmanuelle soundtrack. I got everything I could rummage. And [In the Jungle Groove] was unplayed! It was brand new.
Nobody else was playing James Brown on your college radio station?
They were playing Paul Simon's Graceland. I switched colleges. St. Peter's College didn't have computers. [laughs] I moved to Jersey City State College, which is now New Jersey City University. It had Apples, with the floppy [drive] underneath. I was like, "This is awesome! I can print out shit."
[In clubs], I would always play this song. Everyone else would play "Funky Drummer" or maybe "It's a New Day." You don't hear DJs playing it out that much, this song, because it's hard to mix. I would just crowbar it in [during a set]. But it always kills.
What We Do
It's one of my top three rap songs ever. The lyrics are so good. These days, there's too much bragging, "swag" this and "swag" that. This record is about stealing to feed their kids. On this song, Jay-Z's the weakest. Freeway's so underrated—he just comes out swingin'.
This is from 2003, a transition year when indie kids started to not feel weird about listening to pop and hip-hop.
Is that when DFA hit?
DFA is part of that for sure.
I put out James Murphy's old band Speedking, a 7-inch in '95. I was supposed to do the LP, but they broke up. Speedking's 7-inches were all recorded with Bob Weston. James was a sick drummer, man. He's a monster. If you think about the drummers he chose, that's where his mind is—machines. He hit really hard. His biggest influence, from what I can tell, back then was definitely the [Steve] Albini, Shellac mode. Speedking sounded a little like Shellac to me. And he was deeply into Six Finger Satellite—he was their sound guy. They were so underrated, Six Finger Satellite. I remember putting it out, and did another 7-inch with Justin Simon from Invisible Conga People.
Troubleman started a couple years earlier, in '92. The first wave of Troubleman hardcore bands was [from] the Jersey scene, Montclair: Ted Leo, who was in Chisel, and Justin, who was the guitar player in Native Nod. I've known him since then, early '90s. We both kind of grew up, musically, kind of parallel but separate at the same time. I don't really see him that much anymore. He's very quiet, mellow. Not like me, I'm chatty. [laughs]
That's the one that got me into krautrock. Early '90s, Troubleman days, I was a roadie for bands on my label. Rye Coalition was one of the bands. I was at a record store, looking for beats, and saw [Ege Bamyasi]. It had a cool cover. It was, like, a dollar. I put it on and was like, wow, this is fucking awesome. I had to buy every Can record; every Can record was good. Even the later shit, I thought, was amazing. When I was in Amherst, at a show Rye was playing, one of the girls whose house I was staying at on the floor—you know, punk days—she had this record and put it on: "It's my brother's record." It was a first pressing, hard to get. But she gave it to me.
Were you looking for beats to DJ with?
I was being a nerdy collector. I'd always wanted to [DJ], though, [partly] from working at Mars, starting in '89. Mars was a nightclub where the Standard Hotel is now. Actually, the parking lot in front of the Standard was Mars. Back then, [NYC's Meatpacking District] was just Mars and the Hogs and Heifers [Saloon] and she-male prostitutes and meat markets. Mars was only open for four years, which was normal for New York clubs back then. I came after the first wave—right after it became a huge club where Madonna would go. The people who got me into Depeche Mode are the guys who got me the job at Mars.
What exactly did you do at Mars?
I went to other clubs and handed out flyers. I put my stamp on the back, and got a certain amount per flyer. I would bounce around from the Palladium to Mars to Nasa to Building to Save the Robots on weekends, trying to make $100 a night. I was also reception during the day; on Saturday I'd answer the phone and do guest lists.
How long did you work there?
A year-and-a-half: toward the end I started promoting. I threw a party, a couple of them, but by then, Mars got really violent. I threw Friday Night Fever, which was all disco, believe it or not—'90, '91. Duke of Denmark was the resident. He was a sick DJ and knew about all that shit. But at the time it was unheard of.
But 1990 is also when Deee-Lite came out. That was very disco, very kitschy, and it crossed over. Were you approaching it in a kitschy kind of way?
Yes and no. Keoki used to DJ at this club called the Building—Disco 2000, [the night] was called. It was disco and house. It was kitschy, but not really, though. Deee-Lite—I didn't see it as kitschy back then. I saw it as nostalgic.
But with a wink.
Yeah, tongue-in-cheek, yeah. That was a great record, though. You couldn't escape it in New York. That, and "The Power" by Snap! You couldn't take a shit without hearing it in the bathroom.
My favorite house track ever, easily, hands down.
Not just your favorite acid track?
Favorite house track. Ever. It's heavy—it's slow, it just chugs along. There's not many slow songs you can play and the crowd goes fucking nuts. This breakdown, where the snare comes in slowly—on a good sound system, it'll destroy a room. I've seen better reception to this part here [the winding 303 breakdown] than anything else. This came out in '90. Bobby Konders was a DJ at Mars, but he was doing dancehall—he still does dancehall. He doesn't do house anymore.
This was just a window in time for him? He only made acid for a while?
A very little while; a couple records.[ Bobby Konders' House Rhythms, the EP featuring "Nervous Acid"] the best house record ever made: "The Poem" is on it. "Let There Be House" is on it. "The Poem" is one of the earliest deep tracks—it's so deep.
Can you tell me what you mean by "deep"?
Um, dark. "The Poem" is dark, yet soulful, yet—has flutes . . . [laughs] Have you heard "The Poem"? [puts it on] This is one of the earliest songs that has talking over it.
Oh, I know this vocal: "Dis Poem" by Mutabaruka, from 1986. It's an a cappella recording, so perfect for DJs.
That's good to know. I thought he got a guy in to do it. [laughs] On the main floor at Mars, Clark Kent would be the main guy DJing—[he'd produced] Biggie Smalls and Nice & Smooth. He was doing house back then. He'd put on [3rd Bass's] "The Gas Face," fade it out, and start up "The Poem." The house dancers would come out toward the end of the night, and he'd just play house for the rest of the night. It was all the same back then. Back then, hip-hop acts used to have dancers. Brand Nubian had dancers.
I Just Love What You're Doing
This song is just beautiful. I just love how the Hot Chocolate vocals are always a little in the red, almost peaking a little. They're always up front and a little distorted. I guess that's the punk guy in me. Very loose track, and it's an anthem—kills every time. [It's] on the Albuterol for Sale comp Johnny Jewel and I did, a mix of all [our] edits. Albuterol is an asthma inhaler. Italians [Do It Better] have an offshoot called Perseo, started two years ago [by] me and Johnny: all edits and bootlegs.
Hence the locale on Perseo's SoundCloud page being "Roma, Italy"?
Everybody knows it's us anyway. It's all pitched-down, except Hot Chocolate, which is at normal speed. We did them on the fly with two CDJs looping. We didn't make them ahead of time, which is a pain in the ass. This is the only song we didn't make an edit of. I've only heard one other person play this track out, Thomas Bullock [from] Rub-N-Tug.
How did you and Johnny first meet?
I was at Brownie's at a show. This guy played the first Glass Candy 7-inch, "When the Glass Breaks"—this is [at] the peak of me being into post-punk. I was like "What the fuck is this? This is insane." It's a 7-inch they released themselves. I looked at the back: "Distributed by K Records." I called K, because I was distributed by K as well, and spoke to one of the reps: "Who the fuck is Glass Candy? They're the best thing I've ever heard." I was obsessed. "Oh, they're local, they're from Portland." He didn't seem to care that much.
I called Johnny—I'd never cold-called a band before. He said, "Oh, I've heard of your label." We ended up talking for hours. Johnny is a talker. So am I. They're from the same scene as me: he's a hardcore kid from Texas who moved up to Portland [in] '99. I put out a lot of Glass Candy records over the years, between Troubleman and Italians—15.
Troubleman put out a white-label 12-inch of Glass Candy, but no one cared, because it was on Troubleman. People didn't really get it. We were heading there: Erase Errata did a remix record. That was dance music. But it was very primitive for me, because I didn't know shit about modern DJ culture at all.
[Glass Candy] weren't electronic yet, but they were sort of getting there. It happened so slow: they sold demos at their shows, making CD-Rs showing their progression. There's millions of versions of everything. There would be a live drummer over a drum machine, and then [Jewel] started sampling live drums. Johnny wanted to be disco: he didn't want to be disco-punk. Johnny has an alter ego no one knows of in the '90s that released electronic stuff, ambient guitar stuff.
Glass Candy played a show at the Knitting Factory. At the after-party, Johnny saw me DJ for the first time—mostly disco and house. After the party, we came back to my house, had a couple glasses of wine, and I was like, "Why don't we just start a new label and put out dance music?" The name was a joke. They used to sell those [t-shirts] at the Jersey Shore. The first release was the comp, After Dark. The compilation is all Johnny, I think. I wasn't even doing edits then—I didn't even know how to use Ableton. That's how everything started. No one was really getting what we were trying to do with the [white labels]. The only way they're going to get it unless we start fresh. Troubleman was too established.
When you look at something like Not Not Fun starting 100% Silk, it seems to follow the Troubleman-into-Italians template.
Yeah, I think we were the first. I think people were afraid to do it. Just fucking do it, man! Don't be afraid to like other kinds of shit. There's all these labels lately, especially, and it's a ten year learning curve with this kind of shit. People are dropping terms that kind of annoy me, such as "acid" or "Italo." It might be the old-man-yells-at-cloud thing—that image from The Simpsons.
Well, if we're talking about music in 2011, we're talking about clouds.
Maybe I'm jealous of the younger kids, because everything is right here. [Taps on computer] I had to bust my fucking ass to find records. Even before me, dudes had to bust their asses, going back to Mancuso. He had to start a pool to have labels send him shit because they wouldn't take him seriously. I'm on my knees when I should be working, at a record store, digging under a table, looking for records. And now everything's on YouTube. I didn't wake up one day and go to a house music blog and listen to house music. There's nothing wrong with that [though]: I go to African music blogs all the time and get hipped to African shit.