After-dark inquiry: Soul Clap
The duo chats about its debut album—and R. Kelly.
You played with Wolf + Lamb in front of a big crowd last week at Music Hall of Williamsburg. How did that go?
Charlie Levine: It was really cool and special. For one thing, they don’t really have that many DJ shows there, and not even very many bands from our genre get to play there. I know Nico [Nicolas Jaar] has performed there with his Darkside project, but that’s about it.
Eli Goldstein: That’s been the closest thing to us that they’ve had there, I think.
Levine: The night totally reminded me of a show we did at Paradiso in Amsterdam, with the club’s multiple levels and everything.
Goldstein: And coincidently, we actually went on after Nicolas Jaar at that show. So there was a similar energy, maybe. And that was a really successful night, which probably made this one feel very comfortable.
Levine: It’s also always really nice to come back to New York, no matter where we’re playing. It’s really the best fan base in the world here. I don’t want to dis any other cities, but musically, the people here are the most open, even in a big space. In other cities when you play a big space, it can be hard to experiment at all. Here, we can get away with it. Even though we’re originally from Boston, I think we understand the crowd here, and the crowd understands us.
I feel like the relative open-mindedness of New York crowds might be due to what you guys and the whole Wolf + Lamb family have been doing recently. Just a few years ago, a lot of techno people just wanted to hear straight-up techno, for instance. Now, it seems like they’re up for house, disco or whatever you want to throw at them.
Levine: I can remember playing at the Bunker around four years ago, and we were playing a little bit housier than they usually have there, which at the time actually felt a bit daring. Now I don’t think it would, and it’s possible the collective did have something to do with that. I think that Eli and I actually pulled the Wolf + Lamb guys closer to disco and Paradise Garage kind of stuff. I think that’s what we brought to the whole thing.
Goldstein: When Wolf + Lamb started playing the first edits that we had given them, the ones that became the Conscious/Love Light EP [essentially edits of Womack & Womack and Stevie Wonder, released in 2009], they were still getting a lot of die-hard techno people at their shows. And there was a huge backlash! People were going, “Why are you fucking playing this?” I think it divided the crowd. The people who really didn’t want to hear that music just stopped coming to Wolf + Lamb’s parties. The people who did…maybe that led them to open their listening repertoire up even more. And maybe a more open crowd started coming to the parties after that.
I loved that edit of R.Kelly’s “Sex in the Kitchen” that you released a bit later, by the way. That one seemed to stir up a bit of controversy.
Levine: That was actually a critical time for us. I was playing in Colombia, and at some point, people started saying, “The police are here!” Which basically means that you have to pay them off. But while they were actually there, I had to tone it down a bit, and this was when “Sex in the Kitchen” was this big joke, because the lyrics were so retarded. But I played it because it was slow, and it was like…wow. I knew it had to be an edit.
Goldstein: R. Kelly is such an underrated musician. There’s that whole thing about him peeing on the 14 year old, which obviously is inexcusable. However, if you can forget about that and just look at his music, he’s really the most inspirational R&B artist of the past 20 years. He produced all his own music, he writes all of those lyrics—he’s not like a lot of these other people who are creations of the music industry. I mean, Beyoncé has an amazing voice and Mary J. Blige has some amazing lyrics, but since the early ’90s, R. Kelly has been constantly evolving and innovating and making amazing music. He’s so underrated, and that’s sad.
Levine: Well, the urinating thing probably is the reason for that.
Goldstein: I don’t think white people will ever like him—especially white girls. Never, ever.
Levine: Yeah, Kels, come on. Pee on someone your own age. But at least he is the freak that he portrays, rather than being some sort of talk-about-it freak.
I’m here interviewing you in Williamsburg’s infamous Marcy Hotel, the site of many great parties and the headquarters for the whole Wolf + Lamb family. I’m guessing this place has played a fairly large role in Soul Clap’s development, as has the community that revolves around it.
Levine: Our connection to this place and the friendships that have come out of this place are instrumental in getting us to where we are today. Tapping into this network allowed us to blossom musically, in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened with as much force and as much creative license.
Do you think that being around a crew of like-minded people has helped give you the confidence to make and play the kind of music you want to?
Levine: Absolutely. I’ve felt myself grow up since I’ve been here. Part of being in this community is taking responsibility for yourself, in a lot of different ways. This community is like a negative space. If you come into it as a newcomer and you put an object in the center of that space, you’re responsible for that object. And if it’s getting in the way of everyone else, then they’ll feel frustrated. It’s as simple as stuff like doing the dishes. I think people would be surprised how functional we are, really! Not just us—No Regular Play, Slow Hands, Voices of Black…everybody.
Goldstein: It’s like at the Marcy parties. No Regular Play will be working the bar, someone will be making sure everything outside is taken care of and we’ll all be on cleanup duty. But you probably want to know about the music, right? Having the chance to write some of our music at this place, and also deejaying at parties here, has definitely pushed us in a certain direction.
Levine: Yes, deejaying in this particular room—the couch is here, the chair is over there, the skylight is up there. It’s hard to explain, but this room is magic, really. It’s yielded so many amazing musical moments.
Let’s talk about the album for a bit. I thought that EFUNK just referred to electronic funk. But according to the press release, it’s an acronym for “everybody’s freaky under nature’s kingdom.”
Goldstein: How did we even come up with that? I know we were thinking about P-Funk, because Parliament-Funkadelic was such a big part of Charlie’s development. And we both grew up listening to Dre and Snoop, so there’s G-funk. We were just kind of referring to those things. But then we started coming up with these ideas to take it to the next level: “ecstasy funk,” “electronic funk.” And then we turned it into this motto that describes not just the music, but also our whole ethos.
Levine: But it’s mainly paying tribute to Parliament-Funkadelic, which would come up with some whack acronym like that.
You guys should put comic strips on your album covers, like Parliament-Funkadelic used to.
Goldstein: We wanted to!
Levine: We were gonna put this comic-style likeness of us on the cover, but the illustrator went AWOL on us.
Goldstein: Huge disappointment.
Other than EFUNK and its various meanings, have you ever come up with a succinct way to describe your music?
Goldstein: There’s one, which I think actually describes our deejaying more than the music we’re currently making: “House wears many hats.” Everything comes from this house-music ideal, which is simply to have everybody come together and dance. Sometimes it can be a little bit psychedelic, sometimes it can be a little bit soulful, and the tempo can be whatever; but as long as it has the spirit of house, it’s good.
Levine: We also used to say, “Slow and sexy wins the race.” We liked the idea of this really pimpin’ turtle.
Goldstein: In the end, it’s about staying away from genre characterization as much as possible. It’s about a feeling—or creating a lot of feelings and telling a story—more than worrying about genres.
House is a feeling, as someone once said.
Levine: Exactly. The first track on the album has a poem that talks about that ethos: “When our forefathers and foremothers disappeared behind closed doors, love was made while getting down to the EFUNK. A circumcised man gains powers of our universe.” I mean, yeah, it’s kind of funny.…
Goldstein: There’s also this great part that goes “Give into your hips; they do more than simply move you. Stop dancing like a square; the android of robotic tendencies of your past dance-floor experience will shed like the skin of a boa constrictor.” It’s like, I can remember going to parties where they’d be playing minimal techno, and everyone would be doing that techno kind of side-step. Which is amazing—but we’d rather have people facing each other, dancing with a partner or really getting down and moving your hips.
One thing I’ve never liked about modern club culture is how people might dance, but they all dance while facing the DJ.
Goldstein: And that’s been taken to the next level with people like Skrillex. A lot of electronic-music nights are more like concerts than parties now. It’s really important for us to keep pushing against that.
Levine: A lot of it is because of the popularization of things like Jersey Shore, where they’re talking about fist pumps all the time. Like that’s an excusable form of dancing? It actually says a lot about the music and how it’s structured: buildup, buildup, buildup and the crowd goes, “Waaa”…and then they go back to tweeting on their cell phones. It’s like feeding the lab rats.
Like those experiments where the rats can press one button for food, and the other for cocaine. Once the rats figure out where the cocaine is, they forget about the food entirely.
Levine: And what happens when the rats figure out where Skrillex is playing?
Goldstein: That’s why we like the saying, “Slow and sexy wins the race.” It’s also why we like playing the whole night ourselves. Instead of coming on in the middle of this big mess, we can keep everything controlled. We like to create big swings in energy and emotion—but those big explosion moments aren’t for us.
Levine: When Eli and I were just getting started in Boston around 2005, we had this night, Reunion Thursdays, doing commercial pop at this little bar called Redline. We would get people in such a frenzy on the dance floor that the manager finally had to ask us, “Can you guys suck for a while? We need people to go to the bar and drink!” So we’d play slow stuff, and they’d make more money.
Goldstein: I was reading an interview with one of those really early British DJs, who was playing in dance halls with a band. At the top of every hour he would play a slow song, a ladies’ choice kind of thing where the girl gets to choose the guy. I’ve always wanted to try that.
You cover an Egyptian Lover track on EFUNK, “The Alezby Inn.” I’ve always loved that track.
Levine: It’s an awesome song, and we’ve included it in our DJ sets a lot. I think it’s only available on vinyl, which is kind of cool. And it’s one of his more creative and musical tracks.
Goldstein: And it’s also freaky.
Levine: Yes, and funky, too. Those are all important factors in what we do.
You have a number of vocalists on the album, including, on “Need Your Lovin,” Mel Blatt from one of my all-time favorite girl groups, All Saints. How the hell did that hookup come about?
Goldstein: Yeah, it’s kind of amazing that we have a real ’90s pop artist on the album! We met her in Ibiza, at the closing party at DC10. She’s close friends with our press agent, who introduced us to her. She came to the after-party we did, and she was in the DJ booth with me for like four hours, helping me choose records and talking shit. We just bonded.
Levine: Actually, before we really realized who she was, she came backstage and started telling us how she was our biggest fan and wanted to sing on our albums.
Goldstein: And produce her music!
Levine: We were, like, Sure, sure. People were going, “No, she can really sing!” We were, like, Whatever, cool, cool. Sure enough, she can really sing! And she has such a cool attitude. It seems like she did the pop-star thing, got a taste of the industry’s sleaziness, and then gave it the middle finger a little bit. Which I have a tremendous amount of respect for. She’s a genuine person.
Is “Let’s Groove On” based on some ’90s track? It sounds so familiar.
Levine: We were listening to Snap!’s “The Power” and C+C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now”over and over again, and we were trying to recreate the feeling of those songs. It’s completely original, though—the beats and everything else are all ours.
You recreated them very successfully. I spent quite a while trying to figure out who you were sampling from.
Goldstein: We did try to research what kinds of synthesizers they used to use on tracks like that.
Yes, the sounds are quite similar, but you’ve recorded them in a way that makes everything sound a little bit different—perhaps a little bit weirder.
Levine: That’s our top-secret recording technique! It’s very scientific.