Usually, when you're offered an insight into the working environment of a musician, you end up surveying some "cosy" Peckham loft space, or descending an icy stairwell into an unwelcoming Berlin basement. Visiting Marcus Lambkin––better known as producer, DJ and DFA staple Shit Robot––is rather different. Lambkin resides in Stuttgart, not known as a party capital, and a city where most electronic experimentation is focused on manufacturing kitchen appliances. More accurately, he lives around 45 minutes from the center, deep within the undulating greenery of the south German countryside. And notably, his home is a full-size medieval German castle.
Lambkin has lived the sort of life that you'd struggle to make up. Raised in a working-class family in Dublin, he entered a green card lottery for the USA in his early 20s. Already a skilled cabinet builder, he and a group of friends struck lucky, unexpectedly moving to New York in 1993 where they grafted, drank, and danced, shortly before then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani began his infamous crackdown on the city's nightlife scene.
A keen raver in Dublin, Lambkin slowly developed a reputation as a unique, knowledgeable DJ. With fellow Irishman Dominique Keegan, he founded a party, Plant, followed by Plant Records, then Plant Bar. Somewhere along the way, he met a fellow music obsessive, James Murphy, converting him to the beauty of disco and house. Murphy would go on to form LCD Soundsystem, as well as co-founding DFA Records. At "the coolest fucking party ever," Lambkin then met a former music TV presenter, who happened to be the daughter of German aristocrats. Soon, he and his new wife left New York and inherited their home, a 15th century castle. And while DFA, Murphy, and LCD assimilated into alternative culture with huge acclaim, Lambkin lost no edge, quietly and unexpectedly entering into the most creative period of his life.
The video for "Lose Control" featuring Nancy Whang, taken from the new Shit Robot album
I joined Lambkin on a beautiful spring day at his unusual residence, in order to discuss his third and finest full-length record, What Follows, out now on DFA. Although it contains vocal contributions from his usual crew of indie-dance collaborators––Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor and LCD's Nancy Whang both guide the singles––it's a more direct call to contemporary dance floors, inspired by gigs at Panorama Bar and other clued-up European clubs. On instrumental highlights "Phase Out" and the tellingly titled "Ten Miles High," sweaty euphoria practically seeps from the speakers.
"That early acid house scene was a huge influence on me, and I try to grab that atmosphere and capture that feeling," says Lambkin about his memories of his hometown. "Now I am trying to tap into something a bit more modern, but [the early experiences with acid house are] still the core. Going to see Andrew Weatherall, when he used to have his horns on... It went pretty hard and dark in Dublin."
Nonetheless, it was only with much cajoling that Lambkin ended up anywhere near the mindset to make music himself, predominantly due to the enthusiasm and guiding hand of the aforementioned James Murphy. To this day, he remains a vital and persistent presence to the man who would become Shit Robot, named after a terrible sketch of a bionic being by Murphy himself, spiraling into a joke out of control, an international DJing career and life-size robot headgear in both tin and neon variations.
"On the first record, James essentially did all the technical work," recalls Lambkin with refreshing candor. "I had a few rough beats and bass lines and melodies and a few really bad ideas. Sometimes they were totally transformed; he'd build songs almost from scratch. James was always encouraging me to make music. But it took a long time. And what you've got to remember about the DFA studio is that it's huge! It's all gears and knobs and fucking boards the size of the wall. I wasn't going to learn how to use all this shit! James gave me a 909 and a delay, and said, 'Work it out.' The [music production] software Reason came along, and I started playing about with that. And I was really bad at it. And also, it sucks when your mates are James Murphy and [DFA-signed electronic act] the Juan Maclean, playing fucking everything perfectly."
Now, years later, the loft of Lambkin's home is a monument to his own slow and steady progress, furnished with all manner of contemporary and classic synths and drum machines, as well as a fair amount of gear awaiting tweaks. Lambkin tends to undersell his musical talents, but his handiwork is undeniable. The monitor speakers through which he previews a collection of unfinished, uncompromising breakbeat and techno were built by himself. They look and sound phenomenal, as you might expect.
"I have more fun making stuff than producing," admits Lambkin. "I enjoy the hands on. I struggle with the, 'Is this track finished?' bullshit. It's like, How long is a piece of string? But those speakers? They're finished, they're done."
Having a sense for hardware as well as hard work comes in handy when you find yourself tending to your own castle. For the record, Lambkin occupies only a portion of his chateau, with the rest portioned off into separate apartments and studios. The dungeon now deals with the central heating requirements, and mercifully, the moat has been drained. Still, when's he not writing acid lines on his beloved replica 303, he's tending to the relatively vast lawn prior to the arrival of a new caretaker.
Lambkin has a history as a quick adapter. Moving to New York at 21 is an exciting but formidable task for a young man, especially when emerging from the four-hour, tub-thumping sessions of the Irish acid rave scene to encounter an altogether smoother atmosphere on dance floors across the Atlantic.
"The audience is very different in New York," Lambkin acknowledges. "They don't go crazy. It's very hard to get a response. It's a different thing, so you have to learn to play to a New York crowd. They're too cool! No tops off, or hands in the air, they just don't do that. I found it really weird at first that they just dance in circles, not even looking up, not even facing in one direction. Where I come from, you get your head down. I get it now, and I've been to things like the Loft that were mind blowing, but at first, it was like, What are you doing?"
Still, from a record collector's perspective, Lambkin's residual, UK-flavored taste allowed him to invest more heavily than ever in what are now the underground classics of their era.
"I'd go to the record shops, and all the stuff that I loved was in the shitty bin," Lambkin recalls fondly. "They didn't want any acid house or UK stuff. The import stuff, to them, that was garbage! So I got everything!"
Inevitably, given time and shifting musical tides, Lambkin soon found ears for his comparatively upfront style, playing records after bands on a Sunday night at the now legendary Brownies club. A single mixtape expressing his love of grittier rave, as well as the emerging wave of UK trip-hop on labels like Mo Wax, had suddenly secured him three different gigs, leading to two residencies, and ultimately Plant Records and Plant Bar, alongside his partner Domenique Keegan. The pair brought the likes of Basement Jaxx, the Chemical Brothers, and Scottish techno legends Slam to NYC. Unfortunately, at least to Lambkin, the success eventually gave way to creative monotony.
"We were doing Plant Saturdays every week," he recalls. "After two years, it's not cool, and it's just bridge and tunnel. I wasn't doing what I liked any more, I was just doing a job, but it was paying the rent, so at the end of the day, you've gotta do it. Then one night, I put this record on, and I'd written on it, 'Proggy Shite.' And I was like, What am I doing? I'd just sort of stopped playing the stuff that I loved. I was just playing this drivel."
And just as he eventually lured him to the production desk, it was Lambkin's pal Murphy, who, like Corleone with a cowbell, pulled him back into the game just when he thought he was out. Give or take "three or four" other minor retirements, a jubilant shift behind the decks at Murphy's birthday party rekindled Lambkin's passion for DJing. What is it that makes the LCD frontman such a consistently persuasive character?
"I think sometimes people would find it difficult to work with him in the studio," he replies. "He's very much hands on, attack and do. I love the stuff he does, so that's OK, but he won't wait around for you, you know? He's not going to hang around for you to make decisions. He has lots of ideas, and he will implement them immediately."
It's possible that Murphy's huge belief in Lambkin's talents is rooted in gentle reverence, as well as friendship. When the pair met, Murphy was a strict rock guy with an open distaste for dance music, while Lambkin maintained the polar opposite position. If you're simmering to revisit LCD's phenomenal live set at a festival this summer, it's worth acknowledging that the band might not have existed at all without Lambkin's priceless rave introduction.
"I was a punk kid at first, into Killing Joke and PIL," he stresses. "I wasn't into Bowie or anything like that. That wasn't cool. We were all skinheads, and we liked Dead Kennedys and the Clash. So when I started hanging round with James, yeah, he introduced me to stuff like ESG and Can, and Bowie and T-Rex. And I was playing him all my favorite records to get him into dance music, and he'd just point out the record's sample. It was like all my heroes were crumbling down!"
In that dust, the familial vibe of DFA flourished, an atmosphere that the label appears to retain, even as it continues to evolve from its "dance punk" heritage. It also explains why Lambkin tends to turn to his friends for vocals again and again, rather than "reaching out" to a hype vocalist demanding a credible hookup.
"I don't like that guest album thing, full of celebrities," admits Lambkin. "I mean, my albums are like that, because I can't sing. I have to get somebody to do it, and it just happens that my friends are celebrity guest stars at this point. I had a problem with someone else I did vocals with. I was moving them around in a way that they weren't happy about. As far as Alexis is concerned, I put his vocals in the wrong place on this record. I wondered if it was OK, but he said, 'If you like it like that, then you do it.'"
A recurring theme in interviews with Lambkin is a disdain for the culture of instant gratification. It's not a particularly surprising stance from a DJ in his early 40s, especially one who lives in a medieval castle and has a background in cabinet making. But, with only the dopamine hit of Facebook likes keeping him connected to the world at large through his working day, you can't help but admire the inadvertently radical disconnect that has arisen from his unique situation. Lambkin is a lucky man, but above all, he's still a grafter.
"I never finished a song before I got out here," reveals Lambkin. "I do get out a lot, or I would go a bit doolally. Luckily with the job, I get to travel and see my friends quite a bit. I'm in New York this week, and I'm gagging to get there, and talk the fucking ears off anyone. I've just been talking about unicorns and ponies for a fucking week."
With his wife away on business, Lambkin has been in charge of his two young daughters, barely finding the time to squeeze in listens to promos for his upcoming return to old radio stomping ground, Beats in Space. He confesses to occasionally entertaining them with his old android headgear under the charming alias of "Dada Robot." In all, it's difficult to imagine a more loving and fertile environment in which to raise a family while simultaneously writing transcendent club bangers. Occasionally, after a long day at school and an early start, his daughters complain of their tiring limbs on surprisingly epic trips up and down flights of stairs.
"I keep reminding them," jokes Lambkin, taking a moment as we ourselves descend, "you live in a fucking castle."
What Follows is out now on DFA Records.
Follow John Thorp on Twitter.