Shit Robot

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Next year, Marcus Lambkin, aka Shit Robot, will be 40 years-old. If (which it shouldn't) this fact bothers you, please stop reading now.

There is no denying the passage of time, and least of all here. Like good cognac, Lambkin's debut album, From the Cradle to the Rave, has taken decades to fully develop its flavours. It is the product of a life spent in nightclubs. The story of a life transformed by music. It is one man's singular definition of house music, one of 2010's best albums, and a record which, without its very specific and colourful history, would sound utterly different. So, let's rewind...

Marcus Lambkin grew up in Ballybrack, a "dodgy neighbourhood" on the outskirts of Dublin. A teenage skinhead, juiced-up on Killing Joke and the Dead Kennedys, he was constantly looking for adventure in a country that offered none: "Back then, pre-Celtic tiger, you've got to remember that Ireland was a virtual third-world fucking country: big heroin problem, lots of crime, no work."

In this grey, rain-lashed context, the arrival of acid house - imported into Dublin by two E-vangelist mates of Marcus's, who had first come across it, while at college, in London - felt like a genuine revolution. "We thought it that this was going to change the world," laughs Marcus. "Certainly, I've never been the same since."

Travel, adventure, freedom. For a generation of working class clubbers, acid house made all three seem, suddenly, possible. It placed a different mode of living tantalisingly within reach, if only you were brave enough to grab it. This was particularly potent in Ireland, where emigration and escape are ingrained in the national pysche. By 1992, with the Dublin scene in decline (and a couple of hippy uncles encouraging him to get out), Marcus was itching to leave. This budding DJ and trained cabinet maker - skills that, one day, would help build DFA's recording studio - left for New York.

There, through friends of friends, his first break came playing at legendary not-quite-CBGB's rock venue, Brownies. In an early example of playing Daft Punk to the rock kids, he would spin Euro rave anthems (bought, for cents, from the bargain bins at stores like Vinyl Mania and Sonic Groove) to a, generally, empty Sunday night dancefloor. "I'd play to, like, 15 people, but," stresses Marcus, "that's where I learned to mix and DJ properly."

By 1994, and now playing early trip-hop (Depth Charge, Massive Attack, Mo Wax etc.), Marcus was a firm fixture on the thriving, chaotic - this was before Rudy Guiliani choked much of the life from the city - East Village DJ-bar scene. A gig at Nation led to a Saturday night residency at the then iconic club night, Save The Robots, which, profile-wise, sealed Marcus's arrival on the scene.

At its mid-90s peak, that NY club scene was uniquely hedonistic; an amoral vortex of chemicals, bizarre spectacle and provocative behaviour, that was both terrible and compelling. "It was a big shock," says Marcus. "That whole Club Kids period - that ended up with that kid Angel being murdered by Michael Alig - was insane. You'd be out, in a club, and there'd be cages with people having sex in them and all these people dressed like complete freaks. For a kid from Dublin, it was constantly: what the fuck!? It's weird. The clubs were amazing and things like hearing Vasquez play the Sound Factory blew me away. But it wasn't the clubbing that I knew. It was all about posing and pulling flashy dance moves. It wasn't rave."

By 2000, Marcus was sick of the scene's glossy superficiality. His Saturday night party, Plant at Centro-Fly, was buzzing, but he hated it. "It was super-fucking MTV, New Jersey, vodka bottles at the table, high-end, chi-chi stuff, and it ate my soul. I was buying these awful commercial house records to play there and actually labelling them, 'shite'. One day, I was at home, doing just that, I suddenly thought, 'Fuck! I can't do this anymore'."

Marcus took himself off to a little pitch 'n' putt course near Shea Stadium ("The worst course ever, but there's a guy there who goes around with a golf cart selling beers."), and had a hard think about his life. But, even as he was there, making the seemingly momentous decision to stop DJing forever, his musical and spiritual rebirth had already begun. He just didn't know it yet.

The club night, Plant, had grown out of Plant Music, a label (best known for its Sound of New York compilations) that Marcus founded with a fellow Irish ex-pat, Dominique Keegan. Famously, Plant would go on to share a building with the fledging DFA Records, but, by that time, Marcus and James Murphy were already close sonic soulmates.

A mutual friend first introduced the Plant boys to the sound engineer, late 1998, thinking he could help them make music. Marcus: "First day, James just sat there, barely said a word. He's this cool rock guy, we're two dance dudes, and he must have thought we were idiots. He loved electronic music - he used to support Juan Maclean's old band, Six Finger Satellite, just using a console and two drum machines to make this wall of screaming noise - but he fucking hated 'dance music'. He thought it was all C&C Music Factory."

However, as Murphy began to piece a studio together beneath Plant's Lower East Side offices, they bonded. Marcus, the cabinet maker, offered to help build the studio, and Murphy would give him a lift home after work. Tentatively, they started playing each other their favourite music. Marcus would play Murphy "good dance music", from classic house to Mr Oizo's Flat Beat. In return, Murphy would play Marcus all the records, from Liquid Liquid to the Silver Apples, that those dance tracks sampled. "I was stunned," Marcus admits. "Over night, I realised my heroes had just pillaged these great records."

It was the start of a beautiful bromance which, in its early years, would profoundly influence how DFA evolved. Marcus didn't just turn James Murphy onto dance music, he also introduced him to his DFA production partner, Tim Goldsworthy (by persuading his old mate David Holmes to record his Bow Down to the Exit Sign album, with Goldsworthy, at Murphy's studio). At a tiny basement party, Marcus remembers Holmes playing the Stooges, PiL and weird dance stuff while Murphy - on his first E - underwent his own Damascene conversion.

Soon after, Marcus and Dominique Keegan opened Plant Bar (legal capacity: 74), which - with the Rapture's Luke Jenner manning the bar, and everyone from Felix Da Housecat to Beastie Boy Ad Rock in the crowd - became DFA's unofficial HQ. On Fridays, Murphy and Marcus would DJ all sorts of eclectic madness: Krautrock, early house and techno, electro and electroclash, punk rock, proto-electronics and vintage synth-pop, under the name, Shit Robot. "I'd always been a very serious DJ, mixing perfectly, very po-faced," says Marcus, as explains the genesis of the name, for which Murphy then provided the Bender-like, waving-robot logo. "James was always like, 'look, you retard, chill out, you're just playing other peoples' records'. He was always threatening to show up in a 'I'm With Marcus' t-shirt and white gloves, and do really shit robotics dancing in front of the DJ booth, to embarrass me. That's how the 'shit robot' tag came about."

The sound forged by DFA at Plant Bar between 2000-2002, that fusion of post-punk and dance music, reverberated globally. It made Murphy a reluctant star as LCD Soundsystem, and paved the way (whether anyone likes it or not) for new rave and much modern electro. Marcus, however, just couldn't get any music made. "I fannied around and smoked far too much pot," he explains, simply.

Indeed, it wasn't until 2004, when Marcus moved from New York to a schloss in the countryside outside Stuttgart (he'd met a German girl, Kimsy, now his wife, who turned out to be a countess - yes, a real-life countess) that he finally started applying himself. In a village of 900 people in Baden-Wrttemberg, what else was a club DJ to do?

The initial Shit Robot twelves, Wrong Galaxy/ Triumph, and the remarkable Simple Things - on which The Make-Up's righteous preacher, Ian Svenonious, has a psychic meltdown over a vibrant piano house tune - were idiosyncratic curveballs, and that unpredictability runs through From the Cradle to the Rave. However, they barely hinted at what a neat, complete, self-contained album Marcus would make.

From the Cradle... evolves with an irresistible, internal logic. The opener, Tuff Enuff, lays down a marker, literal and metaphorical. A crisp, knowing homage to Chicago house, Kraftwerk and gay electronic disco, it is almost Marcus saying: "Look, this is who I am." The lyrics, meanwhile - written by Murphy, and, like a coach's pre-game pep talk, intended to galvanise Marcus as he prepared for the birth of his daughter, while finishing this album - throw down a gauntlet, which Marcus picks up, defiantly. "I was freaking out," he recalls, "and that was James laughing at me, saying, 'are you ready for this?'." As the album moves from the deliciously oddball I Found Love (with Marcus on pitched-down, processed-Barry White vocals) through the hard, hypnotic Grim Receiver - part Hawkwind, part S'Express - and the distorted memories of distant warehouse raves explored on I Got A Feeling, Marcus doesn't waste a beat or put a blip wrong. You barely notice, moreover, that it is all building, imperceptibly but irrefutably, to Triumph. A soaring kosmiche finale, an Ibiza sunrise pressed on 180g heavyweight vinyl, it is the perfect way to top-out.

That From The Cradle... hangs together so well, is not just a matter of track programming. Crucially, it also sounds cohesive, too. Marcus worked closely on it with James Murphy, who co-wrote several tracks, and it is audibly a product of the DFA stable. It is fat and swollen, pregnant with analogue sounds: unique noises produced from real machines. Murphy's mix, meanwhile, has given it that trademark DFA toughness. It is very much a family affair. As well as Janine 'Planningtorock' Rostron and Saheer Umar from House of House, DFA clan members Juan Maclean, Nancy Wang and Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor, all contribute vocals. Yet, From the Cradle... never gets bogged down in 'the collective'. It is always identifiably Shit Robot.

The central thread, undoubtedly, is the Marcus's fascination with the warm, jacking, hustle-bustle bass-patterns of classic Chicago house and the squelchy energy of acid's Roland TB-303 loops. "To an extent, I'm always chasing that feeling from '89, of pills and sweat and how it all felt so new and fresh," says Marcus, 21 years on. "Now, of course, a lot of those records sound really bad, but, still, there's a certain feeling to them. It's about making that relevant today."

That those sounds are employed in nine, expertly-crafted songs (this is, purposefully, not an album of modulated club grooves) is a novel innovation in itself. Equally, while From the Cradle..., has its moments of euphoria, there is no harking back to acid house's naive optimism. Rather, lyrically, tracks like the perfectly-turned Losing My Patience and Simple Things, are suffused in profound sense of life - grown-up adult life - being a struggle. Of happiness being elusive.

"I like to make retarded dance music for people to get drunk and dance to," says Marcus, of the contradiction at the heart of Shit Robot. "But, at the same time, I'm a typical grumpy Irish fucker. I'm not going to have an album about skipping through the daisies."

This may be house music, but it is creased, careworn third generation house music. It is house music that is older, wiser, stronger and, arguably, better. The tracks that inspired it may now sound tacky and cheap, but Shit Robot's From the Cradle to the Rave will endure.

Tony Naylor.

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