Think of the coolest record labels in the world.
Is DFA Records on your list?
If not, you’re going to need a re-education.
If so, welcome to the party.
New York independent DFA was born 15 years ago, co-founded by two Americans – Jonathan Galkin and James Murphy – alongside a Brit, Tim Goldsworthy.
Soon after its arrival, the company released one of the most definitive floor-fillers of the 21st Century – the Rapture’s House Of Jealous Lovers.
Not a bad start.
The record established DFA as a key tastemaker within a burgeoning early noughties cultural scenes; a DJ-driven New York movement influenced by boundary-pushing punk / new wave ’70s acts like Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Television and Blondie.
Having licensed The Rapture to Universal, DFA’s next big smash came from within: the self-titled debut album from James Murphy’s alter-ego, LCD Soundsystem.
The LP, which contained breakthrough Losing My Edge, really put DFA on the map, becoming twice-Grammy nominated before its follow-ups – Sound Of Silver and This Is Happening – cemented the legacy of both act and label.
Outside of its best-known chart successes, DFA has consistently proven itself an eclectic and open-minded music house, signing and committing to artists such as The Juan Maclean, Black Dice, Shit Robot, J.O.Y and Hot Chip.
In recent years, we’ve seen the likes of Essaie Pas, Factory Floor, Holy Ghost and Guerilla Toss emerge from the DFA stable, while the label’s co-founders have continued their production work – creating official remixes for such superstars as David Bowie, M.I.A, Justin Timberlake and Nine Inch Nails.
[PIAS]’s Kenny Gates sat down with DFA’s Jonathan Galkin to ask all about where DFA came from, its best moments and biggest challenges – and how the label sees its identity 15 years after it was founded in Downtown New York…
Hello Jonathan and congratulations on your anniversary year. Is it true that you set up DFA in New York in the first week of September, 2001?
Yes. That was just bad luck. James, Tim and I had been brainstorming the idea of the starting a record label eight months before the launch. They’d just recorded the song House Of Jealous Lovers in the studio [with The Rapture] and wanted to start a label using that song to launch with.
I had quit my job, and we picked September 1 as [the start date] – obviously ten days before what we now know as September 11.
Our label DFA actually stands for Death From Above, the military slogan from the airforce. After 9/11, that was quickly abbreviated and remains DFA.
That’s unbelievable. It must have been spooky.
It was spooky. Maybe that was a sign: stop now!
I remember calling James, who was living in the office at the time, when I only lived a few blocks away in downtown New York. I watched the entire [9/11 attack] happen from my street corner. I remember saying to James: “I think the name is a bad idea right now.”
We had some posters made that actually said: “Death From Above.” We had the font [set], logo and everything. But never again.
How did House Of Jealous Lovers set the scene for DFA?
Well, it kind of created a scene – or at least fitted into a scene, and then took the lead. That scene was downtown New York City, Williamsburg and Brooklyn, where you had traditional nightclubs, strict door policies, bottle service and kind of generic deep house or trance going on. [We moved that scene on] to a DJ culture that was a bit more punk rock-driven.
The Rapture really fitted into that world of The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – these very exciting new bands happening downtown.
Sound-wise I like to believe [House Of Jealous Lovers] didn’t quite sound like anything else, but it was the perfect tool for punk rock DJs to play because it ticked all the boxes: it came from a band with punk/goth roots, but it was mixed and edited like a dance 12”. And it became a ubiquitous hit, first in New York and Brooklyn and then went around the world.
Remember, that time  was before the iTunes store even existed, and there was no [official] digital version of the song – so in order to hear it after it came out, you had to buy the vinyl. That sounds crazy now.
The rise of The Rapture and LCD in the beginning of the 21st century is kind of reminiscent of Talking Heads and The Ramones coming through in the late 1970s. Is there a parallel between those two moments in time for the New York scene?
I will say that the music and the label and the parties and the enthusiasm [for and from DFA] did come out of a frustration with a certain time and place not existing anymore.
Tim is from England – James and I both grew up on the East coast and I also lived in the Midwest. None of us lived through that [CBGB New York] era. We weren’t old school DJs who used to spin records at the Mud Club.
You weren’t nostalgic?
Well, we were nostalgic for something we didn’t actually remember, which is almost a line from [LCD’s] Losing My Edge, when he says, “Borrowed nostalgia from the unremembered ‘80s.”
He’s referring to the generation after us, who were bringing back all of this music that James and I lived through.
We were romanticizing something maybe ten years before that – the mid-to-late Seventies – which we read a lot about, and heard all the music. We wanted to recapture spirit that was gone from New York. I think there was a desire to see if we could bring that back in our own way.
All we could do is throw our own parties and make some music, then New York City clicked.
You can’t plan for that to happen. It definitely happened [for us] beyond what we ever dreamed of. And we were in a good position to be the ringleaders of that [scene] for a little while.
You shopped around The Rapture album, and you did a deal with Universal. And then you did a label deal for DFA with EMI too. What did those dealings with the majors teach you?
Well, they were all good lessons! The fact we escaped EMI with any enthusiasm left for making records is probably a miracle. We kind of got sucked into certain clichés of doing the major label deal as an [indie].
By the time we did the EMI in November 2004, the label was already three years old. The deal was essentially to sign LCD Soundsystem and hope that the team which built LCD Soundsystem would have lightning strike two or three times more.
Truth be told, we were never interested in repeating ourselves and signing more bands that sounded like The Rapture – even though there were plenty of them at that time. Like our heroes before us, we wanted to work with punk bands, new age bands, disco bands, pop bands. I feel like LCD really thrived in the EMI system and we did very well with certain titles; The Juan Maclean went through the EMI system.
The main lesson learned was that [EMI] said yes to letting us sign certain acts, and I realised they just weren’t really paying attention. They would let us sign bands that were very leftfield and had no business being on a major label.
They were willing to throw what, to us, seemed like a large amount of money [at these bands] but to them was a small marketing spend. If they tossed us $50,000 to put out a Black Dice record, we would record it, do the art and be really proud of it; they’d put the record out but didn’t really understand it. We probably could have sold two or three times as many records [of that type] doing it all ourselves as an independent label.
What else did you learn?
We learned that the major label system doesn’t work for one-size-fits all. If they’re passionate about a band – LCD Soundsystem or The Rapture or whatever – that’s what you should focus on. Allowing someone to absorb your entire label and all your artists into one fold is typically not right.
When we regained our freedom from EMI and were able to revisit the passion we had for all these different types of music, we were proven right – we had to create our own healthy environment for DFA to become an eclectic home.
Part of it was about escaping a certain sound that was very 2002. I hope we’ve done a good job of that, and people today think: ‘If it’s out on DFA, I should probably have a listen.’
It sounds like your identity was diluted a little by the EMI deal. But would you do the Universal deal again for House Of Jealous lovers?
Yes. We kind of had to do it. That track was so big, and this was before we released [LCD’s] Losing My Edge. We were essentially ‘Rapture Records’ – and we knew we wanted to be way more than that.
To be totally crass, Universal was offering us a lot of money and we knew we had a 50/50 [contract] with The Rapture – a very indie deal.
[DFA] spent our own money making the record, so as soon as we’d made our money back, we just split whatever advance Universal was going to pay. I can tell you it was seven figures. We just thought: this is going to keep us in business. Also the band was totally dysfunctional and grumpy at that point – a mess!
We decided to become DFA Records, not ‘Rapture Records’. That’s what we used the Universal money for, and it worked.
Would you say DFA is a niche label?
Yeah, I would. But I only say that because everything seems to have become niche right now.
Much to many people’s amusement or amazement, we still swing for the fences; we still put out records thinking they could be ‘the biggest record in the world’.
Whether it’s Holy Ghost or The Juan Maclean or Factory Floor; it’s stuff that is ambitious, sonically excellent – everything is very well nourished.
I feel like when we did our deal with EMI it was one of the last gasps of the major label system of really taking chances with indie labels and low-budget culture. Everything in major labels now is either designed to be gigantic or go away very quickly.
Do you feel part of an independent music scene?
I do. Sometimes I feel more like a senior member of the independent music scene! That experience a good thing and I see it when we sign new bands. They know we’re not going to let you put out a shit record – we’re going to kick the tyres.
There’s a new band we’ve just signed out of Boston called Guerilla Toss. They’re in their early 20s, and like a lot of these new bands, to them DFA is like a myth – they come to our office and they’re wide-eyed. And I’m like: “I’m sorry this place is a mess.”
And they’re like: “Is this spot really where James used to sleep?”
It’s like visiting Elvis Presley’s Graceland.
Yeah, right! Although I suppose James did almost die in the toilet a few times [laughs].
To [new bands], DFA almost seems like something untouchable, but the truth is we’re very approachable people.
The myth of us being guarded or inaccessible somehow got created but it really isn’t true at all. I think there’s still a stigma from that 2001 era: if we sign a new band that isn’t what people believe to be ‘typical’ of DFA.
A band with no cowbell?
Ha! Guerrilla Toss did actually use cowbell on their album, and rightly so. But if you look at the roster at DFA, it’s mainly bands that sound nothing like House Of Jealous Lovers.
However, I’m not embarrassed that’s the song most people might know us for – people still get very nostalgic for that song.
Do you feel a prisoner of its success?
A little bit. But I’m thankful it bought us a career, time, money and recognition. For us to be able to say: ‘The first thing we ever put out was House Of Jealous Lovers’ is no bad thing.
It meant we had to learn really, really quickly. We were a bit of a prisoner of Losing My Edge as well, because it [gave the image] of, y’know, record store clerks who ran a record label.
Tell me a bit about your background. Did you go to school – are you highly educated?
I was high while educated – does that count?
I moved to New York City in 1991. I went to film school and spent a lot of time during my college years interning at record labels. I interned at the A&R department at Polydor Records – when it existed in America – and in the video and radio promotions department at A&M Records… when it existed in America.
I also interned at Rolling Stone magazine. Those experiences helped me understand what I wanted to do as much as what I didn’t want to do. I knew when I left college, I wasn’t going to go and apply for a starting position at Atlantic Records. I would have been miserable.
How did you meet James?
I got a job after leaving NYU producing these very high-end corporate events. I did that for eight years. One of my best friends was a film student named Tyler, and when we graduated NYU, with money he had inherited, he bought a building in downtown New York – which is still where we run DFA out of today.
Tyler had met James through a mutual friend, and he wanted to build a recording studio in the building. James had a recording background, and got hired, essentially, to run and help design this recording studio.
One night out, I was introduced to James who had already built the recording studio and had been working with The Rapture there – who had just moved to New York.
He told me about this band, who I’d never heard of before. He had a DJ gig that night at Plant Bar in the East Village, run by [Irish DJ] Marcus Lambkin, also known as Shit Robot – and still signed to DFA.
Did you get drunk during your first meeting?
Probably. He played me House Of Jealous Lovers and some tracks he had been working on with The Juan Maclean. It was probably a year-and-a-half later that the label started.
What job did you quit to start the label?
I was at a company called Empire Entertainment, who produced really posh events for investment banks and pharmaceutical companies who would spent millions of dollars. I needed a change.
It was a great job and it was all music and comedy – they’d be bringing in Seinfeld or Robin Williams or Ray Charles or Aerosmith at private corporate events. My job was to [negotiate] with the talent agents.
Do you find it hard to be a record label in 2016?
It’s very hard – and getting harder by the month. Ironically, or maybe not, I think it’s easier to take risks today [than it used to be]. There’s almost no excuse not to take risks. I don’t know what’s a safe bet anymore, or a sure-fire hit – or even a sure-fire critical success.
We’ve always taken risks: the first full-length album we put out was by Black Dice [Beaches & Canyons], which is a record most often compared to the band The Boredoms and very psychedelic noise records. People forget that from the very beginning, we’ve always put out records that are very leftfield.
Do you feel lonely sometimes as an entrepreneur? Do you look in the mirror on an off day and think, ‘I’m shit!’
Yes. Is this going to be my Raging Bull moment? De Niro has a monologue at the end about this: “My kingdom for a horse.”
It can feel very lonely. There’s probably a few times a year, maybe a month, when you think: “Does everyone have these problems? Does everyone question whether their taste in music is actually garbage, even though other people are telling them their taste is spot on?”
More so than ever, a lot of labels who I won’t name – major independent labels – share information, which helps. Before, I think people might have kept way more secretive: “Everything’s fine. What’s your problem?” But now people are like: “Are you having a hard time with your digital sales? What do you do – here’s what we do. Who’s the best contact at Spotify?”
There’s a lot more reaching out, and a lot less secrets. I find myself rooting for other labels because of that.
So when you met James in that bar, did you have any idea he would become so big as an artist in his own right?
No, and neither did he. I mean LCD, in hindsight, was created to fill the void that The Rapture left.
James and Tim and myself had dedicated so much of our time to getting House Of Jealous Lovers into production as a 12”. We did a deal with Output Recordings, Trevor Jackson, who helped us distribute it overseas. Then we finished the album Echoes. And then the major labels came.
When they left, suddenly James and I both actually had a good cry. It was like having an empty nest – our child had left the house, gone to college. “Now what? We’re fucked!”
James had always been creating a couple of bits and bobs in the studio including the song Beat Connection, which he had been working on for a year-and-a-half – I think at the end he had 150 different versions saved on a computer.
Losing My Edge, I believe, came out of an absolute cathartic frustration. It was like a confession – someone saying, “Just tell me everything that’s wrong. Blurt it all out.”
James used to walk around the office with a little tape recorder, mumbling things into it. And I’d think: “He’s lost his mind. This process has driven him mental.”
What’s your proudest achievement at DFA?
Honestly, it’s just being alive as a label in 2016. This is our 15th year. That’s a long time for an indie label to survive. I’ve watched dozens of labels that were around when we started [go under].
I know this interview is for [PIAS], but it is genuinely thanks to Cooperative Music and [PIAS] – and other independent partners – that we’ve been lucky enough to keep gas in the tank and come this far .
We’ve been very lucky along the way; even to come out of EMI with our catalogue, our logo, our identity and still have our credibility. I remember thinking: ‘This is our second chance. We have to fight for it.’ And we have fought hard.
Who has inspired you to do what you do in the music business?
Historically in the record industry, I know you just interviewed him, but I look at Daniel Miller and pray I’m still doing what he does that far along in my career.
That’s so rare and he’s such an iconic figure who’s contributed so much to modern music – particularly to music that influenced DFA.
There’s other people in the world who influence me, just in the way they conduct themselves. There’s a guy who owns the FADER magazine and does other things in New York, Jon Cohen.
He’s a total music guy and is so smart and so personable. I wish I could spend more time with him absorbing his style and his business smarts. He’s made it acceptable and romantic and actually cool to bridge [music] into the world of Converse and Levis.
That’s not the first time you’ve mentioned romance. Would you say you are a hopeless romantic?
Yes. I mean you have to be if you run a fucking record label, right?