In May 2009, a 20-year-old named Jay Simon trekked to the 9:30 Club from a far corner of Loudoun County for a sparsely attended night of throwback funk and R&B. Early on the bill was DāM-FunK, a Los Angeles producer and DJ who was starting to earn attention as a curator of obscure and long-forgotten club jams. Part of his set was “Swimmers Groove,” a curiously sensuous track released a few months earlier by Beautiful Swimmers, the D.C. duo of Andrew Field-Pickering and Ari Goldman.
Simon, who had been diving deeply online for “soulful, funky electronic music” since middle school, had already heard the song, but he had no clue the Swimmers were local. “I had never seen Andrew and Ari or anything like that,” he says, “because on their MySpace page, they didn’t have any pictures of them up.” But there was a distinct vibe to two tall dudes standing nearby. “The way Andrew reacted to a certain part of the song—it was kind of like an interesting little part of the song, musically—I was like, ‘Is this your song?’” says Simon. “And he was like, ‘yeah man!’”
As with most situations in which somebody mimics Field-Pickering, Simon’s version of “yeah man!” is resonant with enthusiasm. The Swimmers look like high school teachers, not a couple of guys with dance-music cred on multiple continents. Field-Pickering is bearish and bearded, and he makes excited, conductor-like gestures when a song moves him. Goldman is lanky, bespectacled, and unassuming; when he’s dancing, it’s unexpectedly relaxed and confident. To Simon, “They just seemed like cool dudes. It was kind of like, an instant sort of thing.”
So it goes for many who enter the orbit of Future Times, the D.C. dance-music label that Field-Pickering launched in the mid-2000s with another local electronic musician, Mike Petillo, who creates synth-savvy instrumentals with Aaron Leitko in the group Protect-U. The label’s improbability, its quirky gravity, its natural celebration of sound, and its commitment to funkiness have helped Future Times attract a modest-sized but devoted network of fans and fellow music-makers over the past five years. In certain circles—particularly those where issuing a beat-heavy 12-inch slab of vinyl means joining an underground conversation that goes back decades—the crew is considered a treasure. For everybody else, Future Times is just now starting to disseminate wide-release albums, not just singles with pressings of fewer than 2,000 copies aimed solely at insiders. This week the Swimmers released the buoyant Son, the label’s first single-artist long-player, and Protect-U is prepping its own LP. After years of tucking its sounds here and there, the label is putting down a few landmarks.
For locals, the best place to hear the Future Times crew has been at DJ gigs and low-key performances, at dance nights like Reach Up at the Black Cat and The Whale at U Street Music Hall. That’s how the label has nurtured and maintained its vibe, even when there’s been no new music to drop. This spring, the locale was Tropicalia, an eclectic basement dancehall at 14th and U streets NW.
Almost exactly four years after meeting the Swimmers, Simon—now a fixture at Future Times parties—is playing records for an appreciative Friday night crowd at the club. Upstairs from Tropicalia is a neighborhood of construction cranes, too-clever restaurant concepts, street bustle, and disposable income. Down here there’s a good soundsystem, an unpretentious, come-as-you-are energy, and irresistible four-on-the-floor beats.
As Simon’s set picks up intensity, Field-Pickering turns from his spot near the door, intensely acknowledging the groove. Over the funkified bump bump bump bump, I shout something like, “Jay Simon is the shit!” Field-Pickering grins and responds with a look that’s a combination of “hell yeah” and “you’re just figuring that out now?” It’s a note of affirmation, but also a poke toward hearing more, listening more, tuning in more readily.
There’s an audience for this sort of thing—a beat not tied to a lifestyle, a party not predicated on the musically obvious—and at the Swimmers-headlined Tropicalia gigs, there was a healthy mix of knowledgeable dance-music heads, club regulars, and curious U Street strollers who heard the beat and decided to come down. But those crowds weren’t huge, and they’re only a fraction of the story.
Future Times is a D.C. label—by birth and by choice—but D.C. isn’t necessarily a Future Times town. And maybe that doesn’t matter at all.
When tastemakers write about Future Times—as have many in New York, Europe, Australia, and other points beyond D.C.—they tend to note the crew’s status as a collection of dance-music outsiders. Field-Pickering, Goldman, Petillo, and Leitko all pursued other avenues of noisemaking before their interests tilted toward the steady beats and pleasure-oriented objectives of disco’s ’80s and ’90s descendants. That they come to dance genres as non-natives, however, is far less salient than the fact they’re almost spiritually nerdy about music.
Sean McGuinness, the drummer for the Pennsylvania sludge-punk band Pissed Jeans, spent a lot of time around the crew during its formative years. He played drums in the D.C. post-hardcore band Navies with Petillo in the early 2000s. Back then, Field-Pickering was the lead MC for the experimental hip-hop group Food for Animals, and Goldman’s primary project was the cheeky, retro-electro Manhunter. When they gathered for parties—including legendary blowouts at Field-Pickering’s father’s isolated house in Gettysburg—there were always surprises on the turntable, McGuinness says. “Everything that Andrew’s ever been like, ‘Yo, check this out, check this out, isn’t this sick? Isn’t this sick?’ I’m like, ‘Yup. Yup. Yup,”’ McGuinness says. “It’s almost like you wanna disagree with them, because they’re right so many times, but you can’t.”
The decision to start Future Times wasn’t a deliberate culmination of those relationships, but the label’s early momentum wouldn’t have been possible without them. A lot can be traced back to Takoma Park, where Field-Pickering, Goldman, and his Manhunter partner Jason Letkiewicz lived in a vinyl-filled group house with other assorted characters. All three worked at the indie video store Video Americain, where they generally could play what they wanted on the stereo and TVs. Other employees included Chris “C-Rob” Robinson, who hosts the monthly Vitamin C party with Petillo at Dodge City, and John Davis, who was in the post-punk band Q And Not U. He says the store was a “really thriving little cauldron of artistic energy.”
It also taught them ins and outs of passing taste along to the public. “I hope we don’t feel like we’re cooler than other people, but to some extent we do have a breadth of knowledge. And we do want to share that, right?...And I guess that’s what was great about the video store, really,” Robinson says. “We knew all these titles that we wanted to share with you. Not everyone would take us up on it.”
The first Future Times release was strictly Field-Pickering’s vision—2008’s street beat-flavored “Outrageous Soulz”/”Dreamerzzz” 7-inch under the moniker Maxmillion Dunbar—but Petillo quickly joined him as co-owner. For the label’s second record, they turned to Letkiewicz, who delivered the rudimentarily funky “Boogie Vision”/”Snow Drift” under the name Rhythm Based Lovers. Beautiful Swimmers’ “Swimmers Groove” came soon afterward, as did Protect-U’s chiming, kinetic first release, “Double Rainbow.”
The music eventually caught the attention of the influential website Resident Advisor, which named Future Times its label of the month in February 2011, citing “the openness with which they consume, digest and retell the music of the last four decades.” It’s an approach that unifies robust styles of house, soulful strains of techno, classic synthesizer tones, regional U.S. funk (including whiffs of go-go), the lonesome echo of ’80s reggae and dub, hip-hop’s drum-machine innovations, the faded glitz and world-music tangents of Italo disco, New Age glint, and unorthodox grooves from post-punk, krautrock, psychedelia, avant-jazz, and experimental noise.
“If you just look at a list of it, or if somebody just describes it, it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t. Like, you’d say, ‘This is weird,’” says Will Eastman, DJ, producer and co-owner of U Street Music Hall, which books DJs from all corners of dance music. “And I think that’s a good thing...It’s a sign of something that’s unique, and it’s a sign of a special thing.”
It’s easy to see why Future Times has resonated with dance-music aficionados, but the D.C.-ness of what the label has done is harder to pin down. The District may have a history of famous parties (Buzz, Blowoff) and high-profile DJ-and-production teams (Thievery Corporation, Deep Dish, Nadastrom), but the Future Times guys don’t see themselves as directly part of that lineage. Washington’s punk scene nurtured most of them in the ’90s, but it’s hardly responsible for their sound; instead, Dischord Records and other labels instilled a value system that prizes ethics, individuality, and intellectual curiosity. (Dischord gave one of them a job, too: Leitko is a full-time employee of the label.) Petillo, Leitko, Goldman and Field-Pickering, now in their 30s, all live with their girlfriends in the general Mount Pleasant area but don’t ascribe much cosmic meaning to the fact that they settled in a neighborhood with a long history as a DIY-culture incubator.
What the Future Times crew does embrace straight up, however, is Chocolate City’s ocean of funky used vinyl.
Petillo played with Leitko in another post-hardcore band, A Day in Black and White, as late as 2006, but he eventually submitted to the allure of the dollar bin. “There was just a whole world, going digging with Andrew and Ari, going to stores and pulling out these like classic ’80s and ’90s dance records. And I really just, like, fell in love with all that stuff. It was just a completely new world,” Petillo says. “It just didn’t seem to be ever ending—all these little projects and 12-inches—and I just thought all the sounds were great. ... Even though I was into punk, I was never like, ‘disco sucks, dance-music sucks’ or whatever.”
That openness affects everything Future Times touches. Protect-U’s electronic excursions can be spacey or studious, but they’re still coolly optimistic. Beautiful Swimmers’ DJ sets and original songs are adventurous, but the emphasis is on shared joy; when they spin records, it’s like watching two schoolkids cooperate with a favorite toy. (Field-Pickering, incidentally, used to work in school aftercare programs; Goldman is a seriously experienced dog-walker.) Son, which is out digitally this week with a vinyl release due later in the summer, has moments that seem to emanate from a cannabis-heavy digital/analog twilight—but all the tracks reach out to the listener.
“There was a certain point in my musical evolution where things didn’t have to be so weird to be enjoyable, or be so experimental to be enjoyable,” Goldman says as we watch a Nationals game and listen to records one weeknight. “Like, things can be mind-blowing without being crazy or really extreme.”
Thoughts like that are probably why “vibe” is the word that comes up most in conversations about Future Times. Some writers have described it in terms of the post-disco aesthetic or the inclination toward psychedelia, but to Chris Richards, the Washington Post’s pop-music critic and a longtime friend of the DJs, the vibe equates to a “real, instinctual, genuine outpouring of music.” Field-Pickering, in particular, cares about music “almost more than anyone else I know,” Richards says. “I know he thinks about it constantly, and it’s so deeply a part of him and his sense of humor, and how he has human friendships. I mean, the dude, it just resonates with him, and he hears things in the music that I don’t hear sometimes, you know what I mean? And my job is to try to hear those things.”
That care also tends to insulate Future Times from accusations of peddling hipsterish irony or hard-winking nostalgia. Drawing proudly from the sweep of electronic- and dance-music history isn’t the same as jacking from it. It’s a tradition that traces from music-first New York clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Loft, through Daniele Baldelli’s anything-goes sets in Italy, Ron Hardy’s virtuosic and varied mixes in Chicago, and the iconoclasm of Britain’s DJ Harvey. When the Swimmers brought famed DJ and groove omnivore Theo Parrish to U Street Music Hall in 2011, for example, “it wasn’t weird for him,” says Field-Pickering, whose speech retains a decidedly hip-hop flow even though he says he doesn’t think with a rap brain anymore. “The dudes don’t think that you’re crazy. They don’t think that you’re like off the mark and shit. ... It comes from a respect place with us, too...I think a lot of people would ignore my emails if Future Times was less respectful.”
That respect drew in one of their strongest allies, Andrew Morgan, the proprietor of the D.C. record label People’s Potential Unlimited, who is renowned for reissuing lost danceable tracks on vinyl. Around the time Morgan’s enterprise got rolling in the mid-2000s, a mutual friend put him in touch with Goldman, based on their shared taste in records, particularly boogie—the term now applied to the synth-heavy, funk-accented club music that arose in the interregnum between disco and the rise of city-specific genres like Chicago house and Detroit techno.
Morgan proved to be influential in the startup of Future Times, providing advice on pressing and selling records; he also commissioned Beautiful Swimmers to do a B-side remix of PPU No. 5, a 2008 reissue of “Message in the Music,” a 1983 soul-funk single by the South Carolina band Initials. Field-Pickering, as Maxmillion Dunbar, has provided remixes for several other PPU releases.
In an email, Morgan boiled down his appreciation for Future Times this way: “I’m just happy to have some CLUB titles that are produced locally and sell like MAD worldwide.”
Vintage synths are the bedrock of Protect-U, the bump of house music is often the lodestar, and the complexity of math rock sometimes tweaks the point of view. When a kick drum sound enters during 2012’s “Motorbike,” it feels like the song has been turned 45 degrees until your sense of rhythm rights itself. “They find this beautiful way to stay out of the pocket. Which proves they know what the pocket is, but they stay out,” Richards says. “And it’s just like a basketball that’s ringing around the rim and just never drops into the hoop ... and you’re just transfixed by it. And I love that about their shows. I find that my body is moving in different ways—literally, weird muscles will be sore the morning after a Protect-U show because I shook it in a sideways beat. I swear, it’s strange shit, for real.”
When Petillo talks about music, he gets a no-nonsense look in his eye; he works as a production manager for the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and he brings that professionalism to Future Times’ dealings. Leitko, likewise, has lots of practice chewing on music for a living; besides working for Dischord, he writes for Pitchfork and has been on staff at the Washington Post and Washington City Paper. But the thoughtfulness and intensity keep them from fetishizing any particular piece of hardware. It might take a few listens to get past Protect-U’s vintage tint, but after awhile the music makes the argument that no synth sound is outdated.
“The machines are all old and the sounds are all established, but the methods through which you record and write and sequence and organize things are all new,” Leitko says while the three of us are tucked into the duo’s low-ceilinged practice-and-production space in Mount Pleasant. He points at some electronics. “This is an old drum machine, but it’s not like we’re programming it using the interface that’s built into the drum machine. We’re programming it mostly on a computer. ... It’s modern. It’s not like we’re sitting here trying to specifically use the strict resources of 1986.”
The gear requires some commitment, and it leaves Protect-U vulnerable. On Oct. 31, 2012, the duo performed at a club called Le Pompon in Paris. Afterward they stowed their machines and laptops in a supposedly secure room and decided to hang out. A thief made off with all of it. A European tour they had booked themselves was essentially crushed. They canceled shows and improvised a set in Cologne using a promoter’s computer and some cobbled-together files. “After that, I just wasn’t in a really great place. It was tough. It took a real big toll on both of us...We’re still in Europe, and I’m just like—I just couldn’t rise above,” Leitko says.
They regrouped in Amsterdam at the home of Jordan Czamanski, half of the group Juju & Jordash. Leitko went home from there. Petillo played a DJ set in Switzerland, and came home about a week later. But back in the U.S., friends had launched a funding drive on Indiegogo, which quickly raised more than $5,000—more than enough to assemble a viable setup by the time December rolled around. But the thought of leaving the gear behind during the holidays was tough for Leitko. He was leaving town, and there recently had been a break-in nearby.
“I was just like, ‘Oh God, I can’t go through this again,’” Leitko says. He thought about shoving the gear in a crawlspace, but that seemed excessive. “Eventually I was just like, ‘All right, maybe I can put some things in the stairway to make this look like there’s not any shit goin’ on up here.’” Mattresses, suitcases, boxes full of shoes—they all went into the doorway. “I kind of went overboard,” he says. Then he left to visit relatives.
Petillo returned from his own holiday trip and wanted to work on music. On the phone, Leitko tried to persuade him not to disassemble the blockade until they could do it together. “And then I was like, ‘No, this is ridiculous, if you wanna take it down, take it down,’” Leitko says.
Petillo opened the door to the space. “I was just like, ‘fuck that, I’m not movin’ it,’” he says.
Protect-U eventually rallied, and the duo started recording an album that could see the light of day this year. While playing a show in May in Pittsburgh, Protect-U made a side trip to Portersville, Pa., to buy yet another synthesizer. The owner had advertised it on Craigslist as something that could help a Rush tribute band.
“We immediately plugged it in for the set that night,” Leitko says.
Other than the theft of Protect-U’s gear, Europe has been kind to Future Times. After the 2011 Resident Advisor piece, more coverage and other opportunities followed, including a biweekly show on London’s forward-thinking NTS Radio. Field-Pickering’s profile is as high as it’s ever been, following the release earlier this year of the album House of Woo, his latest and greatest as Maxmillion Dunbar, on the New York label RVNG Intl. Protect-U issued The Protect-U EP and the “Motorbike” 12-inch on the London labels Vibrations and Planet Mu, respectively, in 2012.
“The vibe being out there like that, people really latched onto it,” Field-Pickering says. “It’s never been hard for Beautiful Swimmers to go play in Europe. It’s never been hard for us to go sell records there. People think of us in the same breath as like, other U.S. dance shit. It’s not like, ‘the punks trying their hand at it.’...it’s just like, ‘dance music guys.’”
Tim Sweeney—a well-traveled DJ who has hosted the Swimmers on his “Beats In Space” program on WNYU-FM in New York and spun with them in D.C. and Berlin—says the typical European gig is packed with “people who get it, and are into it, and are paying to be there, to see them.” At parties in Europe, “you’ll have a larger group of people totally losing their shit,” Goldman says.
Another boost came from the rise of Long Island Electrical Systems, a New York label launched in 2010 by Ron Morelli, an old friend of the crew. Field-Pickering “pushed me to start L.I.E.S. even when I was apprehensive about taking on the responsibility of doing so,” says Morelli, who quickly turned the label into a prolific documenter of darker and stranger flavors of house music. (The L.I.E.S. crew has one prominent D.C. ex-pat: Letkiewicz, who now lives in New York and works primarily under the name Steve Summers.)
Rather than deploying traditional music-business PR, Future Times and L.I.E.S. rely on the modern version of word of mouth: Soundcloud posts, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and not much else. Philip Sherburne, a Barcelona-based writer who interviewed Field-Pickering for Spin.com earlier this year, says he’d been vaguely aware of the crews for some time, but last year “it seemed like there was this fully formed scene out there that had suddenly snapped into focus. That was exciting for me. As someone who likes to feel like I know what’s going on, I wanted to know how they had snuck up on me like that.”
In D.C., that underground-by-design approach might have echoes of past scenes—Sherburne says the Future Times/L.I.E.S. axis reminds him of the way ’90s indie rock had various nodes on both coasts—but sometimes mystique, not purity, is the goal. When Field-Pickering released a sparse, jostling EP in May on L.I.E.S. under a new alias, Dolo Percussion, nearly all of the prerelease information came from offhand comments in podcasts and interviews.
That was on purpose. In an age when the Internet makes some things too easy, the Future Times crew wants to nudge people to dig for themselves.
In addition to tunes from D.C. and New York artists, Future Times has released music from Berlin (Hunee), Amsterdam (Juju & Jordash), Chicago (Slava), and Kansas City (Huerco S.). The model is simple: Petillo and Field-Pickering say they only issue vinyl they can stand behind. If you listen to one of their many podcasts or mixes online, the playlists reflect that.
The sound continues to evolve as the circle gets wider. Simon, who also runs his own small imprint, Must Have Records, has noticed changes over the last four years. “Definitely when they first started DJing, they were kind of averse to smoother, deep-house, straightforward kind of stuff—stuff with vocals, more overtly soulful music that didn’t necessarily have any like, weird element to it,” he says. “I think that the deeper you get into dance music, the more you’re going to gravitate toward that.”
Other barriers have come down, too. Petillo, Leitko, and Field-Pickering did a special show on May 30 for New York’s Red Bull Music Academy series, combining sounds from Maxmillion Dunbar grooves, Protect-U songs, and other instrumentation for the first time in a live setting. The big names on the sold-out bill were reggae legends Lee Perry and The Congos; in keeping with the general theme, Aaron Coyes of the L.A. duo Peaking Lights did an on-the-spot dub mix of the Future Times set.
It was “really emblematic of how we’ve progressed as musicians,” Field-Pickering says. “We were able to very quickly make, like, really crazy music by just combining our stuff. I saw a lot places of where our melodies and senses of percussion and stuff interact, and I’d never even realized it before. I consider my music pretty different from Protect-U, but now I don’t know why I do.”
The following night, the Swimmers played a L.I.E.S. party at another New York venue as part of the closing night of the Red Bull series. Field Pickering says it was packed, and it had an elevated energy that so far he’s seen mostly in Europe. And it was all because of his friends.
“And that sort of just blew my mind,” Field-Pickering says. “It’s like the crew has come up, in a way.”