The Rapture’s Second Coming
Three years after imploding amid personal and major-label melodrama, the NYC dance-rockers are back and ready, again, to start the party.
A decade after launching DFA’s debauched dance-punk hit factory — and three years after imploding in complete turmoil — postmillenial club icons the Rapture are back, thanks to a little divine intervention.
It’s a humdrum Monday, middle of the ?afternoon, and the wiry guys in the Rapture are moodily, measuredly, almost meekly attempting to come together to rock. They’re at home in New York City, in a basement on the Lower East Side, downtown in every sense of the word. The lot next door is vacant, a jumble of broken bricks and weeds, like the setting for a glitchy newsreel about graffiti in the ’70s. Upstairs from the basement they haunt is the disemboweled belly of what used to be backstage for an old theater, an empty expanse of vaulted space transformed from utilitarian showbiz domain to eerie urban ruin. Downstairs, at the bottom of a rickety climb, is a little practice studio with a homey rec-room air. The band members squeeze in between a tattered couch and a mess of discarded keyboards and amps. It smells like stale pizza and Formula 409.
The Rapture are running through new songs they haven’t yet worked out live. They dutifully but sort of glumly chug through “Children” and “Sail Away,” two would-be rousing anthems that won’t be without some further work. Then comes the title track from their new album, In the Grace of Your Love, and the room really starts to vibe. Frontman Luke Jenner, 36, thin and loose-limbed like a teenager, seems to rise up out of his white slip-on Vans as he leans into the mic, sending nervy vocal calls to prayer through the speakers while tapping out trebly staccato signals on his guitar. Gabriel Andruzzi, 36, administers the electronics, marshaling an old-school synth riff fit for a dance club with blacked-out windows, and patting down strange keyboard chords. Drummer Vito Roccoforte, 36, makes good on his foresight to have stripped down to a muscle shirt in advance, freeing his arms for a little extra bash and bask. One of his cymbals spins with every metered assault.
As the band lock into a groove, weird stuff on the walls comes alive. There’s a poster for a legendary run of mod-era concerts by the Who and a bunch of natty record sleeves pinned up on display: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, L.T.D.’s disco single “Love to the World,” something by the gospel group Pilgrim Jubilee Singers. The yellowed cover of an old issue of NME hangs by the door, anointing house-music legend Todd Terry the “Acid King” of 1988.
The guys in the Rapture claim it’s all just an arbitrary assemblage, but that is clearly not the case.
“The way James used to describe our band was that we were like a big maraca,” says Jenner, tucked away in a booth at a carefully distressed bistro nearby — one of many such places new to the neighborhood since the Rapture made their mark downtown nearly a decade ago. The topic of conversation is rhythm, and the Rapture are talking about James Murphy, mastermind of LCD Soundsystem and a cofounder of the label/production/party enterprise known as DFA, as well as “House of Jealous Lovers,” a certain Rapture single that might be — duck, dither, discuss — the most important rock song since “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” When it came out in 2002, part of its importance owed to the way it was not really a rock song. It was a dance track, with guitar and drums and yowling vocals but also a shaking, seizing rhythm that set off glitzy discos and grotty dive bars alike. As for its legacy: Consider the ways that dogmatic distinctions between rock songs and dance tracks now seem like matters from an almost archaeological past.
Those matters have come back around, though — if mostly as means for bemusement — as the Rapture have, in a sense, returned to where they started. They’re back in the good graces of DFA, the epochal dance-rock label they helped launch but fled at a fateful moment when their star started to shine. And they’re back to being a band, which has not always been the case over the past five fitful years.
“For me, it was like a long, slow mental breakdown from birth until that day,” Jenner says of quitting the Rapture, the band he started in San Diego in the late ’90s. He left three years ago when the group was locked in a kind of flatline spiral, with constant fighting and songwriting clashes between Jenner and bassist Mattie Safer, who had voiced a few of the band’s formative anthems — notably the strobe-lit “Sister Saviour” from 2003’s Echoes — and was crucial to their beguiling low-end potency. The story of the Rapture had not lacked for drama at any point before, with tales of stormy studio sessions and public squabbles over changes in style, but it got so bad that Jenner walked into a band meeting one day and said, “I’m gone,” before anyone knew why, including drummer Roccoforte, who had been friends with Jenner since he was nine.
Luke Jenner performs at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg on August 20, 2011 (Photo: Ryan Muir)
For the next three months, Jenner explored different pursuits. Living in Park Slope, an idyllic Brooklyn neighborhood, he played a lot of softball. (“I bought matching socks and baseball pants, a super-nice glove.”) He put in time at the local food co-op and started going to church. All of that, he says now, was grasping for a way to bear the weight of an incident he’d never dealt with directly: his mother’s suicide, two years before.
“We had a hard relationship from when I grew up,” Jenner says. “She was really mentally ill and could be abusive, but I also loved her — she was my mom.” He got the news when the Rapture were on tour for their last album, 2006’s Pieces of the People We Love. “I didn’t have time to have any feelings, or I wasn’t prepared to have any feelings,” he says. “I remember having to do soundcheck in Oregon and then just lying in the tour bus. That night I had a freak accident where my strap broke and my guitar fell and the neck snapped off. That had never happened before.”
The Catholic church near his apartment became a big part of his life after he wandered into it on a lark. “I had a lot of anger and sadness and nowhere to go with it,” Jenner says. “I thought learning how to pray or meditate could help me, but I had no idea how to do that. So I went to church every day for about a year to hang out with grandmas. It was really nice to have a bunch of old ladies ask me how I was doing every day.”
He joined the church choir and found his way back to the band, too. With some time away and perspective gained, he realized that what had drawn him to music to begin with was a sense of community that he’d never had at home. He found it while getting into hardcore punk and indie rock and, later, dance music — then ultimately a weird new fusion of all three. “When I DJ out, I basically play gospel-house, lots of stuff with vocals by screaming black chicks,” Jenner says. “I love that music and got into gospel proper through that. Dance music, even more than punk, is about community. House music has that built into it, and it’s very conscious, very much like church. It’s like: ‘Let’s elevate ourselves!’?”
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Let us first rewind back to a time around 2001, when the Rapture were cooped up in a studio with James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy — a production duo just then starting to be known as the DFA — to piece together “House of Jealous Lovers.” “Most people now have no memory of how absolutely sacrilegious it was at the time,” says Murphy. “We wanted to make a rock track that could compete with dance music. We obsessed over it. When we mastered it and cut the record, we brought in all this techno for comparison to make sure the low-end could compete and everything was slamming hard enough.”
All of it, from an instantly recognizable bass-line loop to the lengthy wordless stretches built into the track’s beginning and end, was made with DJs in mind who might want to mix a rock song of that sort into sets with other kinds of music. They cut it on 12-inch vinyl, the way a dance-music label would, and for the B-side, they commissioned a remix by Morgan Geist, of the impeccably credentialed New York disco-house duo Metro Area. “That was our trick to get it into dance-music shops,” says Jonathan Galkin, who helped start the DFA label with Murphy and Goldsworthy.
With a strong sense of strategy and purpose etched into its grooves, the single took off and sent a live-wire charge through New York, home at the same time to another wave of burgeoning acts — the Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeahs Yeahs. “We loved those bands,” says Galkin, “but we had a different agenda. We were doing some pretty unorthodox stuff. We threw a CMJ party with the Rapture where they only played one song, ‘Olio,’ but they played it for 20 minutes. It was all sequencers and drum machines onstage, no live drums. You could hear a pin drop after. Nobody was doing that.””We were always trying to get the audience to react,” says Roccoforte. “Even if they were seeing their favorite band in the world, people would just stand there. It was so boring. As a drummer, I fucking hated it. We wanted people to move.”
Jenner remembers their attitude at the time, amid the happenings around the Rapture and the fabled DFA parties — including one attended by fly girl Rosie Perez, on crutches: “One defining thing about DFA at the beginning was that we just thought we were better than everyone else.”
They were, and the fact of the matter was eventually recognized on both sides of the rock and dance-music divide. Rock fans got down with the Rapture’s maraca-like shake, and dance-music followers glommed on to their grainy intensity and fleshy sense of form. As the energy crested in New York and spread across the global dance-music network, DFA was able to sell 20,000 copies of the “House of Jealous Lovers” vinyl, a remarkable amount for an upstart release. But then came a bidding war — the Rapture went big and signed to Universal.
“They left and it didn’t end well,” says Galkin. “It was traumatic. There were temper tantrums. They made me cry, they made James cry, they all cried. It was so cliché and we couldn’t believe it was actually happening to us.”
Murphy was aggrieved, having shepherded the band in the studio with a mind toward fashioning a groundbreaking sound meant to stick. “It was a real heartbreak when they left,” says Murphy. “It took me about a year to get my head around it because they were so intertwined with everything we wanted to do.”
“The mission statement of the band when we started, above everything else, was that we’re not going to limit ourselves,” says Jenner, leaning back against the tiles of the bistro, not far from the site of several early DFA parties. “If we want to do a reggae song, we’ll do a reggae song. Or whatever else. It’s all going to sound like us.” The Rapture have never shied from thatpromiscuous sense of self. Points of reference for their 2003 breakout album, Echoes, were Big Star and the awesomely skeevy Chicago house-music label Trax. Three years later, with a budget ?behind them, Pieces of the People We Love churned through a richly appointed form of electronic rock, including a couple of songs produced by Danger Mouse. In 2008, they recorded a single, “No Sex for Ben,” for the video game Grand Theft Auto IV. It was produced by Timbaland.
“It was interesting because of how much we’d loved Timbaland before,” remembers Andruzzi, who handles electronics and keyboards when not otherwise busy with saxophone or cowbell. “But it didn’t play to the strengths of this band at all.” That sense of uncertainty intensified when Jenner left, and continued to linger when he came back, to the point where bassist Safer quit a few months later.
The Rapture performs at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg on August 20, 2011 (Photo: Ryan Muir)
“The things that inspired us and excited us most about the music we were making were different,” says Safer, who has since delved deeper into club music and sassy digital soul as a solo artist under his own name. That left Jenner, Roccoforte, and Andruzzi to figure out how the Rapture, a band with looming stature but a muddled legacy, should return. Out of their contract with Universal and free to recast the band however they wanted, they turned to the label that launched them. “Leaving DFA always felt unresolved,” says Jenner. “It was a shitty emotional situation on both sides, but they ?believed in us more than anyone ever had.”
To that end, after some patching up and apologizing for transgressions that time had made immaterial, a video for “How Deep Is Your Love?” the first single from In the Grace of Your Love, hit the web early this summer and got passed around like the digital equivalent of an old hand-copied party flyer. Part of the DFA’s online “White Out Sessions,” it was resolutely plain: just a cropped shot of the hands of a guy pulling a 12-inch out of a dust sleeve, stamping it with the iconic DFA lightning-bolt logo, and slapping it on a turntable to play. The setup nods to the Replacements’ classic video for “Bastards of Young,” but dance music enters in as the lights are turned off and a disco ball is held aloft and spins out points of light over roiling house piano. A cataclysmic beat clatters, and Jenner yelps, “All the love that you’ve given me, it helps me see what’s right,” before leaning into refrains of “Let me hear that song” and “Hallelujah.”
“I wanted to write some prayers, to explore that as a way of writing,” Jenner says. “I was always running away from my pain or trying to just barf it out, to get it as far away from me as I could. But it always catches up with you. For this album, I thought ‘I’m going to stop and stand still for long enough to try to transform pain into something else.’?”
With 11 songs meted out over a protracted, contemplative period, In the Grace of Your Love plays like a sort of introspective epic. It’s also a timely show of faith in DFA, which the Rapture have returned to just in time to help mark the label’s tenth anniversary.
“They were the coolest band on the planet and then the post-coolest,” says Murphy, whose subsequent success with LCD Soundsystem, building on the dance-punk blueprint, made DFA into a label that helped define the 2000s, incubating acts like Hot Chip, the Juan Maclean, Black Dice, Holy Ghost!, YACHT, and more. And now that his band is in mothballs, Murphy is excited for the Rapture to reclaim their birthright. “LCD was always sort of a half-thing,” he says. “All of that happened because I was at a loss not having the Rapture. I was never going to make an album or tour much — that came after they left.”
And the Rapture are equally excited to abide. “We’d always talked about trying to do a traveling party tour,” Jenner says, thinking back on the insurgent fetes that first defined DFA a decade ago. “The dream had already come true, but we didn’t know it at the time. Now it’s really about starting over.”