Larry Tee has floated through contemporary club history like Forrest Gump on ecstasy, seemingly everywhere you'd want to be. Growing up in Atlanta, he hung out with R.E.M. and co-wrote fellow Atlantan Ru Paul's 1992 hit “Supermodel (You Better Work).” In 1990s New York he became a DJ on the club kid circuit, manning the decks at Roxy, Twilo and the Palladium and MCing festivities at the infamous Disco 2000 parties at the Limelight. He was a central figure in the club kid movement during much of the drama (murder, mayhem) depicted in the 2003 film Party Monster.
By the turn of the millennium, Tee had sobered up. In 2001 he organized New York's Electroclash Festival to showcase a refreshing movement he was sensing in clubland: The fusion of art, '80s influences and electronic dance music. The term electroclash stuck, particularly for acts such as Fischerspooner, Ladytron and Peaches. Some critics dismissed the movement as contrived, and by the mid-'00s the scene seemed to have died off. But a funny thing happened: The elements of electroclash came back with a vengeance. The nu electro movement – Justice, MSTRKRFT, Simian Mobile Disco – borrowed heavily from Tee's playbook and, today, there's nary a hotter sound.
Tee, of course, is back in the limelight, soaking up the new sounds and spitting them back out via his spring long-player, Club Badd, released on Ultra Records. He DJs Friday at King King. We recently caught up with him.
LA Weekly: Throughout club history, you've always been where the action is.
Larry Tee: I totally know where the bodies are buried.
What inspired you about electroclash?
Certainly the '80s influenced the sound. But what inspired me was not so much the '80s. I liked that it was so radically different. Fischerspooner took dance and performance art to another level. Nobody in the '80s spit out blood in head-to-toe couture. I don't remember anybody as crass as Peaces or as political as Chicks On Speed. I like that individual-ness and that rebellious spirit saying we're not all going to dress alike or have a similar sound. I really thought electroclash was distinctly modern. That's what appealed to me.
Some critics, me included, felt electroclash was contrived – that it wasn't coming from the ground up, but rather was conceived by folks like you to start a trend.
The name actually came from the Electroclash Festival run by me and my boyfriend at the time. What I felt was that there was no alternative in New York at the time. You could listen to oldies in the hipster clubs or tribal house in the dance clubs. Everything had stalled and there were no more options. People stopped gong out.
The whole hipster thing was already happening. We gave it an outlet at our club in Brooklyn called Luxx. They had to use some oldies, '80s and industrial to make it work. It was about not having enough options for the new generation that didn't relate to tribal and trance. It was about having an alternative to nameless, faceless, brand-less dance music.
I had to fluff it a little with some artists to make the scene seem bigger than it was at the time — to create attention for it. But that all sorted itself out with the talent: DJ Hell, Tiga, Peaches, Fischerspooner, Felix Da Housecat. Everybody thought it was a flash in the pan, whereas some of the indie bands of the time came and went. And these acts are still making a lot of noise.
Did you coach bands to adopt a certain look or sound?
Absolutely not. I get way too much credit for electroclash. I did a band of my own called The Whip. They were way too beautiful to be electroclash. They weren't Disney at all. I did image work with The Whip. But everybody else did their own thing. I was just the cheerleader. People who liked electroclash were tired of what the record companies were offering.
It also took a little of the piss out of the superstar DJ scene – British and European guys playing linear beats all night.
I'm not sure I'm totally anti that. In fact, all the DJs associated with electroclash are now festival DJs now. Tiga can sell out a 5,000-capacity room. I'm sure the trance guys still make their money. But after the economic meltdown I would definitely rather be a DJ associated with electroclash than trance. I would hate to have to apologize for trance. I like the fidget stuff, the blog-house stuff, Steve Aoki, Justice. I like baile funk. I lived above [New York club] Twilo during the superstar DJ heyday. I was the promoter they used to get the Friday night party started, the one where they broke Sasha and [John] Digweed and Carl Cox in this market. Happen it did.
But those guys were standing in the DJ booth playing very narrowly defined, four-on-the-floor genres.
Totally. Those guys were so anti-electroclash. They so totally didn't get it. It's odd when people like Deep Dish had a hit with a guitar riff [with 2005's “Flashdance”]. And then Basement Jaxx used Peaches. When electroclash started everyone came out and said this is really dumb, this is so '80s, why do we have to put up with Peaches? Now Peaches and I are doing Paul Oakenfold's party in Las Vegas at The Palms. What we don't always get right away can be blessed relief for a sagging career. Didn't MSTRKRFT open for Sasha?
Digweed … That nu electro movement – Justice, MSTRKRFT, Crookers et. al. — seems to take many of its cues from electroclash.
Crystal Castles and MGMT and a lot of these new groups, not to mention the Lady Gagas of the world, have definite inspiration from electroclash. Steve Aoki — people can bad mouth him, but he totally makes sense. All of them have been so good to me. MSTRKRFT used my song to open their tour. I have a song on Steve Aoki's new album. The nice thing is they are appreciative of me. It's cool that Steve moved from being a celebrity DJ to being a really credible electro, blog-house DJ. When I first heard him I wanted to hate, but I can't really hate.
I can't really hate Lady Gaga, either. I wanted to hate her. She's spitting out blood on the VMA Awards like Fischerspooner used to do. But I can't. I'm doing a gig with her in L.A. coming up. She's taking all the told tricks from the electroclash and using them nine years later. But I say, “Larry, lighten up bitch.” She did write her own songs, they're clever Europop nuggets, and nobody else is doing that. She borrowed from electroclash, sure. Who didn't? I can't wait to remix her. And Madonna, boy does she need me too.
Do you feel any affinity with DFA Records and LCD Soundsystem? Do you find their disco posturing a bit poseurly?
It seemed to be that was inevitably going to happen — that the hipster kids would learn to appreciate disco. Theirs is a kind of elitist disco, though. That wasn't the disco I danced to in the gay clubs in the disco era. It is kind of a new beast. I don't always like what they're playing. I like to bang heads and make people scream. Their stuff is a little intellectual. Even in the vein of Paradise Garage, it's so not what was going on at the time. I DJ'd with [Paradise Garage resident] Larry Levan once. He liked all kinds of stuff. He was famous for playing the B-52s and the Tom Tom Club and not just Chaka Khan and Ashford & Simpson. DFA not being from that era, there's no way they could really go back in time and feel what it was like back in the day. Things like Luther Vandros disco or Bionic Boogie may not translate today. I remember it being orgasmic when I was out there dancing. It meant so much more through the filter of another era. The DFA people dig up weird remixers that I could never play, but I'm glad they exist. They're all about disco you can listen to as opposed to dance to. It's good listening disco.
Do you get into the hip-hop side of nu electro, acts like Amanda Blank and Spank Rock?
They're great live. Hipsters also claiming their piece of the action in hip-hop makes total sense. I'm not the only one thinking its cool if Lil Jon is rapping over the same beats Ed Banger [label] guys are playing. Amanda Blank and Spank Rock and A-Trak and Diplo, Major Lazer, Sandogold and M.I.A. — there's nothing more exciting. Steve Aoki put Santo on top of my “Licky” track on his album and I nearly pooed. When indie stays in its corner, and rap and electro and Justice and all those guys stay in theirs, nothing happens. I actually like to hear that Christina Aguilera is collaborating with Likke Li and Santogold and M.I.A. I like it when pop goes experimental. It's more interesting. They all realize we need to absorb some new ideas. That's the essence of what I try to do, even on my album — taking something and putting a whole new spin on something. You might get something interesting and fresh out of a new collision. The Beatles were trying to be a soul group and they failed miserably. Thank God. To me that's where all the fun stuff happens — when white people try to get funky and black people try to go electronic. When every thing goes wrong, that's the best.
Did they model any characters after you in Party Monster?
I started Disco 2000 with Michael [Alig, who was played by Macaulay Culkin]. I was the host — I did the hot-body contest. The early part of the night you went and found your drugs and got high, maybe got a blowjob in the gay area, even if you weren't gay, then you headed out to the main floor to see six to 10 people get totally naked and be fondled by a fucked-up crowd. Then I had gotten clean in '97. When they came around with that movie they did license three of my songs. But they didn't have a Larry Tee character. I don't think I could bare being dragged back into that time when I was high all the time and not making music. It was a miserable time. I'm glad I didn't get dragged into that. I was an NA [Narcotics Anonymous] soldier. I didn't' want to romanticize that ridiculous drug environment. Now, if people think that was an interesting time, how could I blame them?
Did the club kids contribute anything to popular culture that's enduring?
You see it in fashion. They ruined our club scene. It was the beginning of the end. There were some great after-hours parties when [DJ] Junior Vasquez was on fire. But 12-minute songs don't sound the same when you're drinking [alcohol] and doing coke [as opposed to doing ecstasy]. People don't have that kind of attention span as you take your time with a long, seamless mix with no vocal and nothing to interrupt your thing.
When I DJ, I'm not reinventing the wheel. But I do have my tricks to make people scream. I'll drop some things they will talk about. People want a vocal. There will always be a market for instrumental trance and progressive and tribal stuff that feels old to my ears. But the stuff that the younger people want contains more information.
What are your impressions of the Los Angeles club scene lately?
I kind of like it, especially on the trashy side. L.A. kind of has that thing that is still un-pasteurized. Wild things can still happen in L.A. I recently played at a rave out in Pomona [he pronounces it “po-moma”]. It took forever to get this taxicab out there. I saw a taco stand. Well, we drive over to that taco stand. And a promoter was waving to me behind a doorway that was behind the taco stand. It was a hipster-chulo rave. The taco stand was great cover for a rave. The kids were in junk-store jackets, skinny pants and fedoras. I was like, wow this is exactly what I've been missing in New York — the ability to throw a party in the middle of nowhere. It was fantastic. It was so much fun. The next night I did Avalon. It was the same music with a slightly more Crookers crowd.
L.A. is up for new kinds of music. I hate to say this – I'm a New Yorker here – L.A. has a better club scene than New York right now. L.A. is more fun right now. We [New Yorkers] do have a glut of really intellectual people making a lot of music. It's hard to compare to the amount of good music coming out of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. But L.A. has definitely got more fun things going on. It seems like all the kids raised in that expanse of family homes in the suburbs are all listening to cool stuff. There is something to do every night. It's on a bigger scale.
Manhattan has become too gentrified for clubbing.
Certainly. I don't think the New York club scene is going to be good until they just give up on Manhattan and say we're going to do this in Brooklyn. We're just going to have to do it out in Williamsburg or Bushwick. It's going to have to get out of Manhattan to be good like the pre-disco days. Before Studio 54, it was unheard of to go to the disco in Manhattan.
I'm relocating to London and working out of London for the release of my next two singles. I'm going to stir up trouble there. I'll stay there as long as I'm enjoying it.
Larry Tee DJs Friday at Incognito at King King, 6555 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 21+. Doors at 9:30. $5 off cover with RSVP. Info: incognitola.com.
Check out a recent mix from Tee, here.