Dance music has rocketed to unprecedented levels of mainstream exposure and popularity, but the rapid rise has also led to dissatisfaction within the genre. “I feel like there’s a pressure to make everything very anthemic or fit this certain mold,” Fools Gold producer Madeaux told Billboard last year. “I’m getting alienated by the uniformity. Everything is getting kind of stagnant creatively.”
It’s precisely this void that the duo DJDS hopes to fill. “Our approach is wanting to make dance music that has the width of emotions that’s allowed to a conventional band,” Sam Griesemer tells us over Skype from his studio in Los Angeles.
Griesemer, who DJs and produces as Samo Sound Boy, is one-half of DJDS along with Jerome Potter (who performs as Jerome LOL). The duo’s sophomore album, Stand Up and Speak, arrives Friday, and the pair are looking to avoid what Griesemer refers to as the “one-noted, unrealistically positive” wing of dance music. “We love dance music,” he adds. “But we’re trying to write it in a way that’s reflecting our whole human experience and the ups and downs of that.”
DJDS released their full-length debut, Friend of Mine, in 2014 on their own label, Body High. (Back then, they went by DJ Dodger Stadium.) It contained 10 tracks, mostly vocal house driven by rubbery basslines and vocal samples. These snippets were frequently short and glum: “Lately, I’ve been singing love songs by myself,” “it looks like I’m the one who lost,” “never win, no no you’ll never win.”
“People think it’s really sad,” Griesemer says. “But it’s not all sad — that’s just one part of it.” And the tone of the songs is anything but defeated — listen to the jubilant brass in “Memory Lane,” the elated wails that slam through “Never Win” or the indefatigable kick drums everywhere.
The duo sat down to start work on the follow-up album on Jan. 1, 2015: new year, new project. Every DJDS song is created as a unit. “We always work together on the same things at the same time in the same room,” Griesemer explains. “It makes each decision more deliberate,” Potter suggests. “Production is so subjective. You can make a million choices on your own. When we’re together, it’s like, there’s a reason for this to be here.”
Stand Up and Speak was the result of a carefully considered course of action. “There wasn’t much thought before we made [Friend of Mine],” notes Griesemer. “It wrote itself. We knew exactly what to do. With this one, we were like, ‘How can we push ourselves?’”
Like many dance musicians who start out working heavily with samples, the logical next step was to create their own material to manipulate, rather than just relying on whatever vinyl they found for sale on Amoeba Records in L.A. (Daft Punk and Bonobo both underwent a similar transition over time.)
“We wrote more of the vocals ourselves,” Griesemer says. “We started sampling everything around us: our friends who play instruments, us singing, our friends singing, field recordings of the parking lot at Home Depot — anything.” And while the first album was put together entirely in one room, the process for the new record involved more locations. “We went around to different studios and recorded bits and pieces,” Potter continues. “We’ll take snares we recorded in this place, vocals we recorded in this studio.”
Once the duo completed whole tracks, there was often a second round of manipulation — or as Griesemer puts it, “Rip them up and f— them up until they felt like a DJDS song.”
“We would write a song and it had full lyrics and the bassline was very much in a pop realm,” Potter remembers. “We’re like, ‘This is really cool!’ But then we listen to it and we’re like, ‘We have to make this ours,’ so we sampled the full track and turn it into our own. The guy who played the bass on that track hears it and he’s like, ‘I didn’t play the notes like that.’”
The result of this process is a tidy, concise album that clocks in under 40 minutes. It tracks a neat arc, with an expectant opener — the main lyric is “waiting on one good thing” — and a confident closer in which a choir-like vocal repeats solemnly, “I am found.” In between, there’s piano house (“You Don’t Have to Be Alone”), Daft Punk-like vocoder disco (“In the Flames”), the thunderous rush of “Something to Believe In” and the foreboding title track.
If there’s a tune that represents a bridge between Friend of Mine and Stand Up and Speak, it is “I Don’t Love You,” the album’s penultimate song. “That was one of the only ones on the new album that was built from samples,” Griesemer notes. “It kind of has some of our old style but in a new form — we built it out [with] real organ, real snares.”
“I Don’t Love You” revolves around a call and response from two snippets of vocal: one repeats the title phrase in a sweet, breathy register, while the other responds, “I changed my mind,” in a voice that cracks from exertion. A military-sounding drum roll runs through the background; a horn injects cartoon cheer a little past the halfway mark; everything builds, but a massive detonation never comes. “The instrumental that we wrote and that had the sample took an afternoon,” Potter says. “Then we were like, ‘OK, let’s expand on this,’ and that took a few different studio sessions to find the right sounds. That was the fun part of this album — all these tracks have so many lives.”
This multiplicity makes it even more remarkable that Stand Up and Speak is such a focused statement. “We don’t really let each other get away with any bullshit,” Griesemer declares. “If we aren’t both really feeling it, it gets cut.” “We’ve always felt like we were doing something that’s really our own,” he adds. “We never felt like we fit into a certain genre, a wave that we could just ride.”
“We’ve seen a lot of trends come and go,” Potter continues. “We’re just insiders for ourselves: we have our own thing, and we keep it going.”