L.I.E.S.: Off Beat

A feature story on underground dance music label, Long Island Electrical Systems.

September 17, 2013

Ron Morelli’s L.I.E.S. takes dance music and runs it over with a truck

From the magazine: ISSUE 87, August/September 2013

For more on L.I.E.S., read an oral history of the label.

It’s a little past noon on a Thursday in June, and Ron Morelli needs to send a few emails before he can sit down for a talk. We’re in the sunny Greenpoint apartment that he shares with techno producer Marcos Cabral, and Morelli has a lot to get done before he moves out at the end of August. A handsome, 37-year-old South Shore, Long Island native with big, round brown eyes and a backwards baseball cap, Morelli has been living in the neighborhood for 14 years, and has spent the last four running the label Long Island Electrical Systems (or L.I.E.S.) out of the makeshift office space and recording studio off the kitchen. Lately, he’s been on the road DJing for so many months out of the year that he doesn’t see the point in keeping a place, and like many of the artists and musicians who took up residence in north Brooklyn long before clubs with bouncers and long lines started cropping up along the Williamsburg waterfront, he’s starting to feel like a stranger in his own city. “You know, growing up, if you saw some kid with a Thrasher shirt or a Misfits shirt, then you would go talk to them, because you’re like, Oh, this person’s probably into what I’m into,” says Morelli, his New York accent not far off from a character in a ’70s Scorsese movie. “That doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no counterculture here in New York. There’s nothing to go against—there’s just little pockets of people doing what they do.”

For his part, Morelli has spent most of his life listening to, making, collecting, spinning, researching and talking about records. His massive collection of vinyl, which he’s currently in the process of moving into storage, occupies pretty much every available resting spot in the apartment, including several ceiling-high shelves, half of the floor in the main room and the living room couch, which is pulled up next to a Juno-106 synthesizer on the coffee table. He acquired the bulk of it over four years working at the East Village mainstay A-1 Records, and like the tattoos that run up his arms, it’s the accumulation of a life spent mining the numerous musical fixations that have come and gone in and around the city over the past quarter century, from the skate and punk scenes of his suburban adolescence to the rave scene of the late ’90s, when he first got hooked on the mechanical pulses and synthetic textures that people think of when they think of L.I.E.S.

Several dozen releases in, most of the records in L.I.E.S.’ catalog look pretty much identical—colored labels and plain white sleeves, distinguished only by artist name, song title and the starkly iconic L.I.E.S. logo, its perspectival block letters inspired by a reggae cover. There’s a minor stylistic flourish in the form of a silhouetted map of Long Island, but for the most part, the records present themselves with the sort of functional simplicity that ensures that you might not notice them unless you’re directly seeking them out. These days, though, they sell out almost immediately via internet mail order, mostly to Europe, where Morelli says that people have a “different ear, maybe a little bit more of an interest in things that are slightly off the beaten path.”

Some of the artists on the label’s roster—like New York multi-instrumentalist and film composer Steve Moore, and Holland-based producer Legowelt—were already pretty big names in their respective worlds before they released records on L.I.E.S. But the label also has a sturdy stable of previously little-known beatsmiths whose tireless home recording has found a match with Morelli’s knack for rapidly cranking out releases. Most of them are Brooklyn-based, but a map of the L.I.E.S. community would extend as far west as Los Angeles (Delroy Edwards), as far south as Miami (Greg Beato), and as far east as Paris (Svengalisghost), The Hague (the couple Legowelt and Xosar) and Wiesbaden, Germany (Florian Kupfer). Many of the label’s artists, like Bushwick musician Matt Gardner, who produces scuffed-up, melodic house under the alias Terekke, had never found a home for their music before L.I.E.S. Almost all of them report being surprised by the particular material in their repertoire that Morelli seemed to be jazzed on. “A lot of the peo-ple on the label are doing live techno, live synthesizer music, and that feeling comes out on the records,” says Matt Morandi, aka Brooklyn-based L.I.E.S. artist Jahiliyya Fields. “It sounds less like a painting that someone would make at home, where they’re constructing a track over several months and tweaking all these little things, and it sounds more like something that happens in real time.”

Next to a commercial electronic music scene governed by the values of danceability and clarity of signal, L.I.E.S. releases stand out for their spontaneity and playfulness, their flippant disregard for club polish. Sounds clip, bass tones lean into the red, synth melodies dangle dangerously high in the mix. In the grand scheme of things, most L.I.E.S. records fall under the umbrellas of house and techno, but it’s the little idiosyncrasies and embraced blemishes that make each record unique from the next. “Call of the Wild,” Brooklyn producer Jason Letkiewicz’s latest L.I.E.S. single under the alias Steve Summers, disrupts a foundation of crunchy hi-hats and four-to-the-floor rhythmics with tentacles of outrageously burping synthesizer. It doesn’t sound like he’s having trouble keeping a reign on his own equipment—more like he’s having a really fun time trying to make each sound as distinctive as possible, challenging his listeners to get down to a rhythm to which they might not immediately know how to move. “African Rhythms,” a 2012 track from Bookworms, Letkiewicz’s roommate Nik Dawson, layers synths and pattering shaker sounds over a rhythmically uneven, mechanical bongo loop, creating the feeling that the entire track is slowly speeding up when it’s really just chugging along at 128 bpm (“the magic tempo of fast, but not too fast,” says Dawson).Florian Kupfer’s 2013 single “Feeling,” perhaps the closest thing L.I.E.S. has to a hit, gets most of its momentum from the repetition of a single, female vocal sample, endlessly restating the words, I can’t stop this feeling. It’s not beautiful because the singer’s performance is good—it’s beautiful because in Kupfer’s hands, it sounds distressed, pitch-shifted and pained. It’s difficult to enumerate the particular qualities that draw Morelli’s ear, but he tends to zero in on the sort of jams that are somehow infectious in their dissonance, rhythmic in their disjointedness, textural in their particular brand of low fidelity. They aren’t exactly instant bangers, but they offer a rarer and more counterintuitive kind of musical enjoyment, one that runs parallel to Morelli’s skill for finding talent in the places where nobody else is looking.

“The way this label came about is just through years of DJing and being friends with people in music,” says Morelli. “Twelve, 13 years of hanging out. And that’s how really interesting stuff happens—it’s not by like sending an email to some random guy in the middle of nowhere who already has records on a different label and you’re being like, Oh, his records are cool and they sell—I should do something.”

“There’s no counterculture in New York. There’s nothing to go against—there’s just little pockets of people doing what they do.”—Ron Morelli

Picture 10 slightly unwashed-looking artists sitting around in somebody’s loft apartment, shooting the shit over beers and some records, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what the L.I.E.S. community looks and feels like. Out of the 10, probably two are in the process of rolling a joint, two are just passing through town for the week, half of them have collaborated together and all of them are sitting on a stockpile of strangely recorded party tracks. Morelli has brought these gems to light at a steady pace; since starting with a filter house 12-inch from Jason Letkiewicz alias Malveoux in 2010, he’s released some 54 singles and albums. Financially and logistically, how he maintains this level of production is nothing short of a miracle, one compounded by the fact that Morelli seems to see nothing miraculous about it, short of having a very dependable distributor in Europe. “Get up, get a coffee, get at the emails—that’s it,” says Morelli, tossing a lighter in one hand as though he’s anxious to get back to work. “I push papers. If it wasn’t for [the artists], the label wouldn’t be what it is, and all these people wouldn’t care about it.”

Morelli doesn’t seem to like being put in the spotlight, which may be why he has suggested that we spend the day having a group chat at the home of video artist and L.I.E.S. musician Luke Wyatt. On our way out of the apartment, he receives a call from his friend Bill Kouligas, the founder of experimental music label PAN, which is hosting a festival at various venues and art spaces throughout the city this month. One of Kouligas’ artists is desperately in need of a Korg Electribe SX for a performance that evening, and Kouligas is wondering if Morelli knows someone in the L.I.E.S. network with one. Walking up Manhattan Avenue, the sun beating down on the concrete, Morelli calls down his list of contacts, trying to track down the synthesizer.

On the corner of Manhattan and Meserole, we meet up with William Burnett, a bespectacled fellow who runs another dance music label called WT Records and plays music under the name Willie Burns. Burnett has a digital camera bag slung around his arm and is planning on shooting some footage of our meeting for some “weird documentary” he is making. He and Morelli used to live together, too, and Burnett was actually the guy who first gave Morelli the idea of starting his own label, mostly to avoid the long lag-times that he and his musician friends were prone to endure between their finishing a record and its physical release. We jump into Burnett’s car and fly south down Wythe Avenue. Talk turns to the changing face of nightlife in this area of Wiliamsburg. Ron DJs regularly in north Brooklyn, but he’s quick to digress into a rant about how he doesn’t really like going out in the city anymore, the rationale being that you’ll either get a warehouse space with a good crowd and terrible sound, or an airconditioned club with great sound and terrible people. “To me, it’s just like all I see is stress, basically,” says Morelli. Like a caricature of the gruff but inwardly idealistic New Yorker, Morelli tells you what he believes in through the things he says he can’t stand.

It’s nearly 2:30PM when we arrive on the fourth floor of an industrial loft building in the Hasidic territory between East Williamsburg and Bushwick, and Luke Wyatt is sitting at the head of the dining room table, devouring a late breakfast of steak and eggs. There is a pair of metal barbells on the floor, and Wyatt, who has recorded as Torn Hawk and done numerous videos for L.I.E.S., has the kind of thrift store style sensibility, hyper-masculine musculature and sharp-jawed good looks that make comparisons to action heroes and adult movie stars somewhat inevitable. A born raconteur, he starts telling a story about how he recently got ditched by two attractive “Russian chicks” who invited him out to trendy Manhattan club Le Baron, but the story ends up being a complicated metaphor for how the underground music scene has become infiltrated by people who are just in it for the hip factor (“When these rich girls left me on the fucking curb it was another example of this—it’s another way of the cool kids in high school keeping you out of the fucking prom”). He’s also eager to refute the popular misconception that L.I.E.S. originated out of some lo-fi dance music trend. “The textures are organic and the footprint of the maker is present, but it doesn’t feel like it’s a pose or somebody’s trying to distress it after the fact,” he says. “The sounds are inseparable from the music and the sound qualities of a piece with the actual composition.” Morelli, sensing that this distressed quality can’t possibly ring true for all the releases he’s put out thus far, points out that the Jahiliyya Fields and Steve Moore records are “clean as fuck” (relatively speaking—both artists fit right in on a 2012 L.I.E.S. compilation titled American Noise).

There are dishes of potato chips and cheese puffs set out on the living room table, and everyone takes turns trying on a blue New York Mets cap that’s in the shape of a cowboy hat. Morelli keeps making phone calls, and for the most part, it’s hard keeping the conversation—loosely about the many half-remembered party nights that brought together the artists on the L.I.E.S. roster—on track. “It’s like people who know each other through natural circumstances, people that actually like each other and respect each other,” says Wyatt of the global community of bedroom recorders and mutant club music obsessives that Morelli has helped bring to people’s attention. “People that enjoy each other’s sensibility. It’s like complimentary world views.” I ask what sort of complimentary worldviews the three of them would say they share. “Feed the starving children,” says Morelli. “The fucking Mets,” says Wyatt. The afternoon dead-ends in a tumble of bathroom jokes and empty beer cans, and Morelli finally gets ahold of someone with an Electribe.

The club Output is almost empty when Morelli steps onto the stage, but the blinking red lights and industrial AC are in full effect, the bathroom assistants poised at the ready with their baskets of candy and dollar bills. It’s around 10:30PM, and despite the free-before-midnight entrance policy tonight, only Jason Letkiewicz, Terekke and a few other familiar faces have arrived early enough at the posh new Wythe Avenue venue to catch the beginning of Morelli’s set. Tuesdays are always a bit of a hard sell, but something about seeing one of electronic music’s most talked-about tastemakers open up the night makes you wonder whether headcounts are ever an accurate gauge of a person’s enduring impact on a place. With its $11 beers and state-of-the-art subwoofers, Output is just the latest manifestation of the wave of gentrification that’s reshaping the face of north Brooklyn; it’s a process that’s making it too expensive for creative people like Morelli to stick around, the irony being that it’s the musicians and DJs and DIY concert promoters who made it such an attractive cultural destination to begin with.

“I push papers. If it wasn’t for the artists, the label wouldn’t be what it is, and all these people wouldn’t care about it.”

The L.I.E.S. scene may be the punk antithesis to club music’s velvet rope culture, but Morelli is enough of a serious DJ to never turn down the opportunity to play records over an excellent soundsystem. Fading between a delicately pattering house track and some pounding, economical techno, he looks happy up there in the booth, bobbing his head like a behind-the-scenes guy who doesn’t have any reason to conceal his enjoyment. The room is finally starting to fill up, and Daniel, a DJ and party promoter acquaintance of mine, comes over to say hi. When I tell him I’m here for a story I’m writing on L.I.E.S., he points out a man by the foot of the stage. “That guy over there with the bald head is doing the next record they’re putting out. Marcos Cabral. He DJed my party the other night at Bossa Nova and it was so sick. I can introduce you if you want.”

Daniel floats away in the direction of Cabral, and returns a few minutes later, having forgotten about the introduction. “That guy is so amazing,” he says, referring to Cabral. I ask Daniel what he’s been up to since we last saw each other, and he says he’s mostly just been trying to get his ducks in a row before rolling out this new label he’s starting. He tells me the name of the artist whose record he is planning on releasing, and I ask him what the music sounds like. “Oh, you know, he’s just another one of those totally unknown but insanely prolific dance music dudes.” I glance up at Morelli, and think of the hundreds of amazing songs that the world would never hear if he hadn’t started L.I.E.S. Then I look down at the dance floor, and contrary to the club’s reputation for attracting a well-heeled Manhattan clientele, it’s pretty much all the usual faces that you’d expect to see at a L.I.E.S. show in Brooklyn. Morelli’s set has spiraled into contrapuntal insanity, and suddenly I notice that everyone is dancing.

1. Ron Morelli in Brooklyn, NY.
2. Legowelt (Danny Wolfers) and Xosar (Sheela Rahman) in The Hague, NL.
3. Xosar at home in The Hague, NL.
4. Legowelt in The Hague, NL.
5. Steve Summers and Bookworms (Nik Dawson) at home in Brooklyn, NY.

L.I.E.S.: Off Beat