Poised Against Poseurs
'A Touch of Class Still Sucks!' is a timely reminder that substance trumps style
Dance music had its Spinal Tap moment some time around the year 2000. There was no mini-Stonehenge-on-stage epiphany, but the antics were just as farcical. Something about the prospect of fame, groupies, and easy money by playing other people's records on two turntables brought out the worst poseurs since hair metal ruled the Sunset Strip. Every dork with spiky locks and a mommy-bought record bag was a self-proclaimed turntable terror. Clubs became bloated with overpriced cover charges, table reservations, and $20,000-a-night superstar DJs, delivered by limo and spinning 12-minute trance songs. Dance floors were flooded with ecstasy-fueled, cosmetic-surgery-crazed women and sleeveless-shirt-sporting, BMW-driving men. It was ugly.
The irony is that contemporary e-music, like rock 'n' roll before it, was, in part, grown organically as a rebellion against middle-American values and overfed mainstream music. The club was once a respite from pricey, velvet-rope discos and homophobic, racially homogenous rock shows. So it was just a little bit ironic when e-music found itself behind a velvet rope, sipping champagne and grooving, yes, with Diddy and Paris. It was enough to drive two New Yorkers of Swiss origin up the wall. Zurich-born Oliver Stumm and Domie Clausen met in 1998, bonded over their super-club loathing, and formed a remixing, DJing, and producing duo called, sardonically, A Touch of Class (after an emblem they'd seen on the back of a trash truck). Their irreverent, glam-dance sensibilities, nurtured within the downtown New York scenery of "electroclash" and dance punk, helped usher in a new dance-music rebellion.
"I didn't like to go to those big clubs because they were expensive and boring," explains Stumm, who says he's in his late 30s. "You walked in and within two minutes you knew the formula - you knew what you were going to get for the next four hours. We would joke that you could go to Twilo, leave for a cup of coffee and a doughnut across the street, come back, and still hear the same song playing."
A Touch of Class's antidote involved throwing illicit one-off parties in New York's Chinatown, starting a label, and embarking on remix work that yielded results more like original productions than extended edits. The crown jewel of the ATOC ethic is the recent release A Touch of Class Still Sucks!, a compilation of remixes that blend dance-punk guitar stabs and crystal-clear, live-style production qualities. Waldorf's bittersweet "Get Ready for Your Last Dance" gets a joyously warm, Weekend Players-like re-rub. The pair isn't afraid of electronics, either, as The Ones' "Picture Perfect" gets a synths-in-space remaking. The Scissor Sisters' "Filthy/Gorgeous" inspires a telltale ATOC makeover complete with hi-hat-driven live drums and psychedelic, falsetto vocals. Erasure even makes an appearance with "Don't Say You Love Me," and, appropriately, the duo calls its take "ATOC's Ravin' & Rockin' mix."
Stumm says A Touch of Class was pioneering the anti-super-club movement even before similarly rebellious "electroclash" monkeys took over downtown New York, although he says his audience overlapped with Larry T's electroclash citizens and, later, LCD Soundsystem's dance-punk denizens, all together forming a reaction to velvet-rope excesses. In fact, ATOC began throwing its "Audio Jet-Set" events in the late '90s, about the same time the duo discovered the Scissor Sisters in a small bar in Brooklyn, later signing them to A Touch of Class Recordings and helping the band get a deal with Universal Music Group. The parties - one was at an abandoned massage parlor, another at a Chinese bakery - hosted acts like the Scissor Sisters, with ATOC and other DJs spinning eclectic dance-punk between sets.
"We would throw a party where we would just give the address to people," says Stumm. "No security, no list, no entrance fees, a cash bar, and everything illegal, of course."
Ironically, Stumm laments history repeating these days, as DIY dance-punk hipster kids with little talent beyond a funky taste in costumes and a laptop are reaching out prematurely for record deals and club gigs. It's almost as if the year 2000 is coming back to haunt dance music.
"Now everybody is just concentrating on how many friends they have on MySpace," he says. "That's not making the music any better. You've got to have a song before you have a publicist."