A good dance track is, to state the glaringly obvious, one that makes you dance.
But a great dance track, beyond its dance-floor efficiency, has an ineffable quality that hits somewhere deep in your psyche, resonating on some primal level and sticking with you long after the party’s over. It’s a hard vibe to describe; as a producer, it’s even harder to achieve. Since his first efforts in the late ’90s, James Duncan, both through his own output and his Innermoods label, has managed to pull the feat off more often than most.
Duncan, originally from Toronto and now calling Brooklyn home, makes music that’s both ethereal and forceful. His tracks can reference house’s roots — often with a notable nod to the vibey music of Detroit’s second wave, mingling with a hint of Chicago thwack and, on occasion, a bit of disco strut — while avoiding overt nostalgia. They’re generally simply produced, containing just a handful of perfection placed elements within economical arrangements, yet they’re richly elegant. His label casts a wider net, sonically speaking — but there’s a similar aura to its ten releases, which run the gamut from the bumping propulsion of DJ Romain through the subdued deep house of Abacus to the warm lo-fi ambiance of former Liquid Liquid marimba man Dennis Young. (An archival EP from Young and his Liquid Liquid bandmates Sal Principato and Scott Hartley is in the works, along with a release from Detroit house maven Scott Ferguson.)
But that’s only half of the Duncan story. He’s also an accomplished trumpet player, having jammed with such envelope-pushing jazz artists as drummer Mark Edwards, reeds player Sabir Mateen, and bassists Matt Heyner and Jiuni Booth, and even sax god Ornette Coleman. On the non-jazz front, Duncan’s played with array of icons who came up in the pioneering days of NYC’s downtown scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, including Arthur’s Landing (an ensemble of artists associated with the late Arthur Russell), Principato’s post-Liquid Liquid combo Fist of Facts, and composers Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. (His time with Branca and Chatham was as a guitarist — Duncan’s a man of many skills.) In the dance-music universe, Duncan and his trumpet have added pizazz to records from Morgan Geist and Metro Area, Mr. V, Siren (a.k.a. Metro Area’s Darshan Jesrani and LESDK’s Dennis Kane), Luke Solomon’s Powerdance collective and Horse Meat Disco, among others.
On top of all that, Duncan’s a great DJ, though that particular skill set is largely on hold as we sit through our months of coronavirus-dictated downtime. That lack of activity has its upside — it meant that Duncan had plenty of time for a relaxed phone conversation with 5 Mag.
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How are you keeping busy during our months of shutdown?
Today I’m filling my lockdown time by grabbing lots of tracks off of Bandcamp. For instance, Jay Simon put a bunch of edits on his Must Have Records, which is a label I love. I got a few things from Teflon Dons. And Henry Maldonado has a new Son of Sound EP, which is great. But then at night, I’ve been listening to a lot of these live Easy Mo Bee house sets on Instagram from his basement. He does them pretty much every night, and they’re really good!
Thanks for the tip! You’ve been putting a few of your own new tracks up on Bandcamp as well, right?
Yeah, I figured I would post some stuff I’ve been working on. The label is kind of on hold right now, at least until things start getting back to normal, so I figured this would be a good way to give myself a kick in the butt to get something done. It’s been a way to put some fire in my belly to get me to finish up some old stuff and work on some new stuff, and get me to think about releasing something of my own on Innermoods once everything gets going again.
There’s a Midwest connection between Toronto and New York. All the Detroit guys would bring their records up to Toronto’s shops, and all the shops would go down to Record Time in Detroit and buy everything they could from Mike Huckaby. so we would have all their records pretty early on.
You also have a record with Scott, Dennis and Sal from Liquid Liquid in the Innermoods pipeline, and you’ve worked in one degree or another with a lot of others who were part of the downtown New York scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. How did that come about?
It just kind of happened through connections I made. And there was some dumb luck involved as well. For instance, Glenn had an open call for crazy punk-rock guitarists who could also read music [for a series of performances of Branca’s “Symphony No 13”] and that’s not a very wide swathe of people.
But there must be more to it than just connections and luck. What is it about the music of that time and place that keeps you coming back?
All these things that I’m interested in — dance music, punk, jazz and free jazz — were mixing. For instance, Don Cherry was doing stuff with Arthur Russell — they were actually neighbors. I’ve always been interested in that kind of thing. I think I’ve actively sought out people who were part of that, and when they would find out who else I was working with, it would connect the dots and they would say, “Why don’t you come work with us?” It wasn’t just me walking down the street and bumping into people… though that is literally how I met Ornette Coleman. We got to talking, he knew a lot of the people who I was affiliated with, and that’s how I got to play with him at his loft.
When and where did you first get to experience dance music?
I was a DJ at my high school radio station. I would play at our school dances. And I went to [fabled Toronto nightclub] the Twilight Zone a few times, but I wasn’t really a devotee. I was far from a connoisseur of the music — I wouldn’t have even known who was playing there. But that was the first time I realized that there stuff outside of our high school dances, where you’d hear New Order and similar music, basically the dancier end of alternative.
When did you move to New York?
I had some friends living there in the ’90s, so I would come down, do a few sessions and then just hang out. Finally, in the late ’90s, I thought, why don’t I go down there for a summer and see what happens?
When did you first get the idea to start producing? Was that when you still living in Toronto?
Yes, and the moment is etched in my brain: A friend of mine played me “Excursions” from A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory, which sampled my favorite Art Blakey record. I was blown away that they had been able to turn that sample into something else. I was aware of sampling, but I never heard anyone sampling things that I could relate to. I was like, how did they even find out about this? And whoa, they made a whole song out of it! That got me to save up as quickly as I could to buy a sampler.
What kind of sampler did you get?
I bought a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet 3000 from a friend of mine. It was actually pretty limited in what it could do — you couldn’t update the memory or anything — but I was able to figure it out, and it was a great sampler. After that, I started gravitating towards disco records, and discovering how house music people were sampling from them. This would have been around ’95.
Your first few tracks were pretty much straight-up disco-loop tunes, right?
They were really basically edits, of people like D-Train and Vince Montana. That first record [S/T or Edits 1999] was originally going to come out on Terrence Parker’s label, Intangible — but he ended up shutting down the label for a while, so I pressed it at Acme Pressing in Toronto, which was a really good pressing plant that did a lot of definitive stuff for labels like Plus 8, and I released it on my own label, Le Systeme.
That disco-edit sound was pretty en vogue at the time, but you started moving away from it after just a few records. By the time of EPs like 2002’s Dub With Me and 2003’s Times Like These…, it seemed like you were already zeroing in on your current style.
I guess so, yeah. But that music feel really embryonic to me. Actually, everything does — I still don’t think of myself as a producer. I’m more like a musician trying to make productions. I was making a lot of tracks, and most of them sort of suck [laughs].
Still, you managed to keep Le System going for a while, didn’t you?
Like ten years, which isn’t bad. But after ten years, I thought it had run its course, and I started to slow down on everything.
But soon after that, you had music coming out on other labels, right?
What happened was that a lot of people for what are now fairly infamous labels — like Paul Hammond’s Real Soon, which was one of the first labels to put out Kai Alcé‘s music — were getting in touch with me through Myspace, trying to get tracks. So then I started getting back into making music. Eventually, I figured it would be great to start a label again, and that was Innermoods.
When did you start Innermoods?
That was pretty recently, in 2018. I wanted to have a proper label, not just an outlet for my own stuff, which is largely what Le Systeme was for. I wanted to be able to curate something, and put out music that I thought needed to be heard.
Did you learn anything from running Le Systeme that’s helped you with Innermoods? Did you learn what traps to avoid?
The traps that I learned then, the things to avoid, were things like “Don’t put out a whole lot of stuff,” “Don’t put out tracks that don’t match each other” … stuff like that. But nowadays, that’s how labels are run! I still follow the old model, so I’m kind of swimming upstream.
Among your old-model approaches is that Innermoods is a vinyl-only label. Do you ever plan to release the music digitally?
Well, I don’t really know digital mastering well enough to put out a product that doesn’t sound like crap. And I don’t want to throw people who have supported the vinyl releases under the bus. Maybe when I get to 20 releases or something, I’ll do a Best Of sort of thing, but that’s a long way off.
Your own music often has a sound that’s somewhat reminiscent of that of Detroit producers, at least from that city’s second and third waves. Why is that?
There’s a Midwest connection between Toronto and New York. All the Detroit guys would bring their records up to Toronto’s shops, and all the shops would go down to Record Time in Detroit and buy everything they could from Mike [Huckaby], so we would have all their records pretty early on. We all had Rick Wilhite records and Moodymann records and Theo Parrish records. Also, a lot of Toronto people like D’Pac and Abacus would go down to Detroit and hang out and make tracks.
At the same time, there was a whole Toronto crew that was really into the New York stuff and the whole lineage of the Paradise Garage. The Twilight Zone actually had a Richard Long sound system. That club was sort of mirrored on the Garage.
Innermoods kind of splits the differences between those two styles of house — Detroit and New York — but there are a few outliers as well, like that ambient Dennis Young EP and the upcoming one from the Liquid Liquid guys.
I want everything to relate to dance-music culture on some embryonic level. But that’s still a pretty wide swathe of music. I’ve actually talked to Tyler Mitchell from the Sun Ra Orchestra about trying to get some Sun Ra tracks — but then I thought something like that might be too much of a break from what Innermoods has been releasing.
When it comes to making your own material, you have a pretty stripped-down studio setup, right?
I just have a sampler, a mixing board and a few effects. That’s sort of been on purpose — like, let’s see what I can do with this. I’m beginning to outgrow that, but it won’t be like I’ll suddenly have tons of synths or anything.
Does that skeletal set-up dictate the kind of music you make, or is it more a case of that being all you need for what you want to do?
I guess it’s all I’ve needed for the music I make. I’ve actually always thought of my music as DJ tools. And that’s sort of on purpose. I just really want to make a really good dance-floor-oriented track. There’s a value and a craft in making something that works for a DJ, and helps a DJ get from Point A to Point B. If I can do that, my work here is done.
You’ve played trumpet for so many other producers — how come few if any of your own tracks feature the trumpet?
I think I’ve always avoided that because coming out of the late ’90s, it seemed like everything had solos on them. Like, great, another ten-minute flute solo! I didn’t really want to be another one of those guys who just would add a jazzy part for whatever reason.
You were trying to avoid that noodley-solo glut that was so big for a while?
Yeah, and that’s one of the things that made me gravitate towards doing the trumpet thing for Metro Area — they were almost using the instruments as MIDI instruments, and just dropping them in at the perfect time.
How long have you been playing trumpet?
Since grade four, when it was “Pick an instrument!” I was like, well, trombone looks cool — but somebody had already picked trombone, so I said, “Okay, I’ll take the trumpet.” But I also wanted to learn how to play guitar.
Didn’t you actually play guitar in a fairly active band for a while?
Yeah, Skewver, in the early ’90s, kind of a post-punk band. People actually liked us — we played tons of shows. But after a while, we started getting into free jazz and dropped the band. The drummer and I ended up playing with a ton of great free-jazz people. I eventually went to music school at University of Toronto, too — but that really wasn’t for me. That’s when I was getting into dance music and other stuff, so I left.
Was Metro Area the first dance-music project you were involved with as a trumpet player?
It was actually Morgan Geist’s solo stuff: “Lullaby” [from 2001’s Super EP] and then his remix of the Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers.”
How did the Geist hookup originally happen?
I had gone to see Brennan Green at his night at [defunct East Village club] Flamingo East when he was having Danny Wang guest, and I met Morgan there. This was before the Metro Area album had come out. I had been sending demos to Morgan, and he had gotten back to me, sending me really good feedback. And it just kind of went from there. Finally, he was like, “Hey, I have this track that could use some trumpet on it.” And that was “Lullaby.” And soon after that and “House of Jealous Lovers,” there was the DFA remix of “Orange Alert” and Metro Area 5 and a bunch of live PAs, which were amazing — strings and everything.
Did working with Morgan and Metro Area put you on the map, as far as being the guy to call if you wanted a trumpet on a dance track?
Yeah. After that, DJ Romain got in touch to get me on a few tracks. One of them was “Respect the Music,” a track with E-Man that came out six months after he was on [the massive 2001 club hit] “It’s Yours.” I was joking with people, like “Hey, this is gonna be big! We got it made!” We obviously didn’t. It’s a really good track, though.
More recently, you’ve been working within various projects through the auspices of Luke Solomon. How did that relationship begin?
It was through a mutual friend. Luke had put out an open call for a trumpet player and she recommended me, basically. Luke started sending me stuff, and gave me free rein to do whatever. I’d send it back—and that was pretty much all it was. This was when he was trying to get the Powerdance band going.
The Powerdance stuff, all the sessions and all the releases, lasted for about a year, and that morphed into working on the Horse Meat Disco stuff.
Powerdance’s The Lost Art of Getting Down and that album’s “Power Dance” single ended up on a few Best of 2017 charts. Were you surprised by the project’s success?
Well, we thought it was good and that it caught a certain sound, so everyone figured it might do pretty well. The reception was really gratifying. I really like the way that Luke originally put it out, with no names attached and kind of on the sly, just to see what would happen with it.
You said Luke would give you free rein to play what you wanted. Is that always the case? Like, would Morgan Geist be standing over you telling you exactly what to play?
On his own records, no. It would just be more like, “Here’s the part where I was thinking there should be a solo.” Then we’d work on it for a while, so it was pretty collaborative. But with the Metro Area stuff, it was a bit more focused. Morgan and Darshan [Jesrani] were arranging everything, and they would give out MIDI files with the arrangements. If there was a chance to embellish on that, we would, but it was pretty planned out.
The Horse Meat Disco album is coming out later this year. Are you an official member of the Horse Meat Disco family?
Well, I’m one of a wide swathe of Horse Meat Disco studio folks. Whenever they need something, they reach out. I’ve done so many tracks for them, but I have no idea what’s going to be on the album beyond the two singles I’ve already done with them.
You could probably spend a rarefied career in jazz, playing with some amazing artists. What is it about dance music that keeps you coming back?
I’ve always been intrigued by club music and club culture, and I don’t think I’d ever want to be a quote-unquote “professional jazz musician.” And I actually find dance music to be an extension of jazz. If you think about it, it’s quite abstract, even though there’s a four-four steady beat — within that beat, there’s a ton of experimentation that’s possible. But really, I just like dance music!