*Download the mix here
In just two years, L.I.E.S. (Long Island Electrical Systems) has become a household name in underground electronic music, highly respected by DJs, journalists and punters alike. With an attitude rooted firmly in the DIY philosophy, the label's releases ooze analogue rawness, primitive energy and the kind of vigour that makes some dance music timeless. Dark music, human, and sweaty, most of it built with live recordings and moulded with machines, averse to trends and generic tags, cheap tricks and frivolity.
The imprint's personality should be seen as an extension of Ron Morelli, its founder. Coming from a punk background, and heavily influenced by the ethics of Dutch label Bunker, Morelli started the platform simply because he felt there was a lot of music around him that needed to get out there. His own, for starters, and by friends like Jason Letkiewicz (Malvoeaux, Steve Summers), Willie Burns, Maxmilion Dunbar and Legowelt. Since then, he's brought us new talents like Terekke, XOSAR and Svengalisghost. All that, from an apartment in Brooklyn, steering clear of the standard PR rules, industry intrigues and tomfoolery in general. Morelli trusts his intuition - and the talented people around him - and so far it's working out rather well. With an increasingly prolific catalogue, the label is now a benchmark brand on the global underground, currently preparing for a year that promises to be quite busy, including a special night at the Polish Unsound festival, to be held between 14th and 21st October in Krakow (Morelli will be djing on the 19th at Hotel Forum at night). In the meantime, we had a word with him about his ways of running the label, his projects, the terrible situation dance music in New York is in and the decay of American culture. Furthermore, he's given us an extremely intense mix, recorded behind the counter at the mythical A1 Records store in New York, where he works.
L.I.E.S. is a pretty young platform but I understand you have been involved in music for quite a long time now. What was the path that brought you to establish the label?
Essentially, I was working on tracks and I knew some people around me also working on music. I had a bit of experience on putting out records before, so I decided to start a label just as a small thing to put out some tracks by my friends and myself. It was like “just get it out there and see what happens.”
Where you influenced by other labels or scenes? I understand Bunker was a kind of reference.
Yeah, it was more about their attitude, the way they presented their music. It was a really DIY-punk attitude, which I really like. They were also a bit influential because in the late 90s and beginnings of 00s there was a lot of Bunker tours in the United States, so we would see a lot of the guys DJing and playing live; Danny [Wolfers, aka Legowelt], Guy [Tavares, Bunker founder], Brian [Chinetti, aka Orgue Electronique], DJ Overdose, Pauli, Sendex. To see them live kind of solidified my views as far as thinking those guys were going on the right path.
So were you into the rave scene in the States?
I was never into the early 90s rave scene at all, I was more into the punk scene. I had heard some electronic music when I was a kid, Kraftwerk and breakbeat tapes, but I didn't thought about electronic music in that context. In the late 90s I got heavily into old-school electro and stuff like that. When I discovered the Bunker guys I became interested in other forms of dance music. And obviously I was into hip-hop, and through hip-hop I got into disco because you find the breaks and stuff like that, and then through disco everything kind of unravels.
Lately the label has gotten very prolific, especially compared with the beginning. What's the reason behind this change?
I have been just more focused and I've had a lot more music given to me. A lot of people came to me with tracks in New York, and when there's so much good music being made you just have to get it out. It was kind of a “right place at the right time thing” actually. I was sitting on a lot of really cool tracks by people from New York, so it was just like “get it out as quick as possible”. Also, in the beginning you're learning. Now I'm running it more as a real label than it was at the beginning. But basically, there's just a ton of music that needs to get out there.
That's the reason why you started the white-label series? To get music out as easily and as fast as possible?
It was a bit odd how that worked out. I had tracks by the artist Terekke, it was summer and I was like “we have to put this out right now man, this is perfect summertime music, it's this humid sounding music, let's get it out”. But overseas I was told that summertime is typically not a good period to put out records because everyone's on holiday and nobody buys records. I asked my distributor how many copies he wanted and they only wanted 200 hundred copies. So I thought, “Ok fine, I'm just going to make it as a white-label and put it out”. And after that I had some more music for the summertime so it ended up kind of taking off. But now, also, the white-labels serve as a way of fitting releases in the schedule, releases that are not really planned but that I want to get out immediately.
So it's just a matter of immediacy or do you feel there are some differences in terms of sound aesthetics between the regular releases and the white labels?
Looking at it I don't think there's a lot of difference. If anything, some of the white-labels have been more lo-fi, but that hasn't been intentional, it's just the way it worked out. There's not a real intention to put out more lo-fi experimental stuff with the white-labels.
Although you have released many different styles, the label has a very cohesive aesthetic. What kind of features do you look for in music? What do you search for in the music you want for the label?
It has to possess a certain amount of intensity to spark my interest. When I say intensity it doesn’t mean it has to be hard or aggressive music but it has to have a certain power. For instance, the Trackman Lafonte record that I just put out, the main track on the A side is kind of almost an upbeat happy funk song, it could be in a car commercial or something like that, but there's still this power in that song that really interested me when I heard it, the way the whole thing sounds and came about. Obviously I have to feel the music, like you said there’s no one style I'm looking for. I get a lot of demos of people sending me knockoff Chicago house tracks and I'm not really too interested in it. Sure I like all the classic Steve Pointdexter and Gene Hunt and all that stuff, but it's gotta be a bit more than that these days. Moving, intense music, that's what I want to hear. I know it's a broad thing to say, it's not very specific, but it just has to fit my taste which I guess is kind of weird.
This kind of connects with the idea of releasing the music fast, to keep this energy that new music has. It's not a tangible thing but you can feel it.
Yeah, also when you have a couple of things that come out all at once and somehow make a connection it feels like your moving forward, that the label is not stalling. You just move to the next thing, to the next project. It motivates me to just keep going and also motivates the artists around me to want to finish tracks and get them out quickly. Not to take forever with things.
It seems like you stick to a core of close people with similar ways of thinking and approaching music. Are all the artists on the label friends of yours?
Yeah, for the most part they are. The majority of people live here in Brooklyn, with some exceptions: Danny and Shyla, Steve Moore, who lives in upstate New York, Svengalighost and Mutant Beat Dance, who live in Chicago, but I know everyone on the label personally. If they need a place to stay, they stay at my house. Obviously I'm going to work with people I don't know sometimes, but I think it just works better when you have a closer relationship with people, it makes the creative process a bit more interesting, you can tell them they're music sucks and they're not going to be upset. It's easier.
You seem eager to motivate people around you to make music and put it out. Is this one of the goals of the label?
I don't want to say it's like the goal of the label. Right now I'm really lucky to just have a bunch of super creative people around me, who are really prolific and that when working on music they always experiment and try new things in the studio. All these people are pretty motivated by themselves so I don't think it's my job, but they just know that if they do something and I like it we can put it out. They know there's the outlet, and it's a good thing to know.
One the distinctive features of the L.I.E.S. sound is the preference of “real” equipment, analogue or not. Also this live, one-take vibe. Is it imperative to make music with gear to release music on L.I.E.S.?
I don't think it's imperative. If you know what you're doing you can do an amazing record with soft-synths and a computer. It's just coincidence that everyone works in that way. Hardware or software, it doesn't matter to me. But regarding what you were a saying about this one-take vibe, there's something to be said about the energy you get when you hook a bunch of machines together and you press record and you capture a moment that is pretty magical, there's a certain energy that you're not going to get when you sit in the computer for hours and slowly layer things. But again, if you know what you're doing, you can do a record with as much energy and power with a computer.
How is your own musical production going? You've just released a 12” with Lee Douglas, are you working on more stuff?
Me and Doug have been working a lot in the studio in the last 6-8 months, just doing a lot of jams. With Two Dogs In A House, my project with Jason, I have a 12” with stuff we recorded in Stockholm when we were on tour. It's coming out next month on L.I.E.S. And I have something that I did on my own coming out on a new L.I.E.S. sub-label. But I'm not really working as much as I want in the studio, cause the label takes a lot of time.
What about this new sub-label? Can you expand a bit more on it? What was the idea behind it?
I don't even know man [laughs]. I just had these really experimental tracks that I felt didn't really fit, so I thought I would just made it as a really limited release in a new sub-label. But as far as I know, it might be the only release on the sub-label.
Let's move on a bit and talk about your city. How is the state of underground dance music in New York nowadays?
I think there are a lot of creative and talented artists making music in the city and also pretty good DJs, but I don't think there's a proper platform or club setting to present the music, generally. There’s a lot of stuff happening but none is very interesting to me, it's all very watered down. Obviously you have all the major electronic acts coming and playing but, to me, the way everything is presented is not interesting. A lot has to do with the city having changed and the people that live in it having changed. People are interested in partying and not in music. I guess it's kind of like that everywhere, but overseas people know what the fuck is going on and there's more interest in electronic music. Here, underground electronic music is kind of third-party; someone is going to see something because they're friends are going but they don't have too much interest in it. It is what it is. People always flock to this city and as a result some interesting things happen musically in the realm of creativity. But you know, you can't show up to a club every Friday night and go to see a DJ that you know is going to be killing it all the time, no one holds a residency, there's not a place where you can always go and the vibe will be good and people will want to go. It doesn't work that way.
What do you think are the reasons behind this? Because when you read all that was going on in the 80s, with the Paradise Garage and Larry Levan… And not just in New York, also in Chicago with Ron Hardy and house music and even Detroit with techno. With such a history in dance music, why do you think underground dance music is so diluted in American culture nowadays?
It's just everything. It's a shift in society and the way the world is. Everything is more conservative, there are no significant cultural movements happening in the United States. When you think about the 80s there were so many different things happening in culture and in society. And there's been a de-evolution. A good example is the music on the radio, and how it has got significantly shittier and shittier. It's the same thing with the rest of society, things keep getting worse and worse in the mainstream. Underground is always going to be underground, but something like Paradise Garage, I don't think it was even underground. It was just what people did.
Yeah, actually the music they played in the Garage was the music you could listen to on the radio.
Exactly. It wasn't an underground thing. Your average secretary would go there. For instance, the other day some police officers came to the record shop where I work. Cops in their late forties. And they were looking at the records and talking about how they went to the Paradise Garage. And those were police officers; it doesn’t get more “normal” than that. That was the music of the time. And now there’s a de-evolution of society as a whole, in all aspects. You need a scholar to really analyse how everything has fallen apart culturally in the United States. There's all this oppression here right now. There's good music coming out but it stays underground, there will never be any music on a mainstream level that really pushes boundaries or is interesting to any of us ever again. Maybe the most interesting music on the radio will be mainstream rap music, and that's because it's taken a really nasty dark turn in production stuff. It's pretty apocalyptic music, it's kind of interesting, it's not very good music but it's weird, it's fucked up, psychedelic and shit.
So, with the label, would you say your target is more European than American?
I think people in the States are somehow into the label. I can't really tell because everything is so big and spread out. Obviously there's more interest in Europe, but it seems in the last years there's a bit more interest in underground electronic music in the States because it's crossing over a lot. It's always being underlying, with people into noise and dance music, but now it seems it's coming more to the forefront. But people in Europe get more excited for music, they have a way more open mind than here in the States.
But then on the other side, I think in the States you have a more open way to approach dance music. In Europe maybe there's more of a tendency to stick to normative rules, scenes or genres. I have the sense in the States people are very eager to experiment between things, maybe because nowadays there's a lot of people coming from bands making electronic music. Do you perceive that?
Yes and no. I was referring more to the crowds being more open, not the musicians. When you get people who don't really know about dance music or don't have a history of listening to dance music - someone with no preconceived notions that gets a drum machine and a synthesizer and maybe tries to emulate a couple of tracks they've heard - there's a certain amount of naiveté and sometimes it works in the favour of the music being made, because something really interesting can come out of it. But other times it ends being complete shit. So it's a double-edged sword. There’s always been this crossover between noise and hardcore and techno, it's just that now it gets more exposure in the media.
Do you think there's any kind of scene in New York or Brooklyn, or even in the rest of the States you can relate to? For instance, I can see a connection with Future Times, from Washington DC. Do you feel like you're building any kind of scene?
With them it's more a case of cross-pollination. Jason will do records for Future Times and do records for me; Terekke will do a remix for them and do a record for me. It's really positive to share artists. They're super good friends. Obviously we are connected but generally speaking I just try to do my own project. In New York I definitely don't feel there's a scene. There's so much going on you just want to be on your own doing you're thing. WT Records, Minimal Wave, Golf Channel, Deconstruct, all this guys are doing really positive things. Everyone has something, everyone runs a label, everyone's a DJ, everyone's a producer...There's a zillion things happening, but everyone does their own thing.
You also work in A1 Records, one of the hotspots for dance music in New York. How have you experienced the changes in dance music culture related to the evolution of technology? Have the type of people that come to the shop changed a lot?
Yes and no. There's always going to be hardcore diggers that want to be in a record shop digging. Record stores are more of a social thing; it's like a cultural centre for meeting people. With dance music you get a new crowd, you get new people coming, is not a huge amount of people, everything has scaled down. Back in the day, the bread and butter of the record shop was people coming for breaks, and that's over. The record shop was opened in 1996 so it was a pretty interesting era in hip-hop, with people still looking for interesting things to sample. And there's been a huge drop-off in hip-hop producers coming in. You still have P Rock, Large Professor, Young Guru coming in but it's not to the scale it used to be. You had tons of Japanese people coming looking for things to sample.
Nowadays producers just download it from the internet.
Yep. So I would say the bigger changes have come related to the hip-hop culture more than with dance music. It seems like there's more people coming in for house and techno than say three years ago.
The mix you made for us was recorded in the shop right? What can you tell us about the set?
Yeah I recorded it in the shop when we closed. I was just jamming, kind of on the fly, I just had some records, just stuff that's lying around, just throw a bunch of records in the bag and grab a couple of things that were in the shop and that was it.
Also you will be playing in this year's Unsound in Krakow. What can we expect from your set there?
Hopefully a lot of intense music, I don't really know what's going to happen. I'll have my stuff and see what's up. Hopefully, a lot of intense stuff.
Finally, what are your immediate future plans, for you and the label?
We'll have the last releases of the year, five more releases coming out this year, all ready to go. Then I will chill out from December to, hopefully, February. Just to re-group, no releases, just getting ready for the next year, because next year is going to be probably pretty crazy, with lots of releases. Hopefully finding time for working on my own music, which hasn't been happening a lot lately and hopefully coming to Europe to DJ. Basically keeping busy, full steam ahead, you know?
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