Jay Simon on Must Have Records, Songcraft in Dance Music, and His Next Release
Fans of D.C.'s Future Times crew know Jay Simon as a DJ who operates with an instantly gratifying combination of smoothness and verve; his sets never veer from the idea that house music—whether it's a cut from 25 years ago or from last week—is dance music. Simon also has started a label, Must Have Records, which just issued its second release, the One EP by the heretofore unheralded singer/producer Seven Davis Jr. It's a tad gritty and undeniably uptempo; the two bonus remixes available with the digital version of the record push the tunes even farther. (Davis himself did both.) I talked to Simon, who turns 25 next month, about what the EP represents, about where Must Have is headed, and about when he might be dropping some of his own original tunes. (So far, he's only got one official release under his own name.)
This interview has been condensed.
Washington City Paper: So you're shipping the vinyl of your second release by Seven Davis Jr. He's from L.A. by way of Houston; explain how you got connected with him.
Jay Simon: It was basically through Soundcloud—he released one song on this compilation that was compiled by this other DJ named Kutmah and that was on Gilles Peterson's record label [Brownswood Recordings]. I'd heard the one song, "Thanks," and it was just really interesting—it was kind of like this, low-fi, soulful house sort of thing, but at the same time it was kind of weird—it was kind of an anomaly track. It was the first thing I had ever heard from this guy, and apparently it was the first thing he had ever released, so I did some Internet research or whatever, and found some self-released stuff on his Bandcamp, and that was pretty interesting, too. So I basically hit him up via Soundcloud, and I showed him some of the music I was working on, and some of the stuff that had already come out on Must Have, and some of the stuff that's going to come out, and it kind of just got rolling from there.
WCP: It's definitely house music, but it's got strong undercurrents of funk and hip-hop, a little bit of electro, etc. How does it fit with what you envisioned for Must Have when you decided to launch the label?
JS: It really worked out well, because in the future I kind of had more plans to do more like, direct song-based stuff—not just have it strictly for DJ music and just be instrumental. Because for me, personally—and for a lot of people, obviously—you can really connect to a song better when there's vocals or something like that, if it has a sort of humanizing element to it. I feel like that in the overall success of what I'm trying to do musically, it's going to eventually go beyond just instrumental or dance music. So I thought it was a really nice way to introduce that sort of thing.
WCP: I know that you have some strong opinions about whatever the flavor of the moment is for dance music. Where does this EP fit in, relative to your viewpoint on things—what's the context for this record?
JS: I feel like it's sort of taking back like, making actual songs, but still have it be contemporary dance music and still kind of extend to this low-fi sort of house thing that's become really popular as of late. Because in my opinion, a lot of the newer stuff, it lacks songcraft, you could say. There's not so really so much of an emphasis on melody—whether that's because of people's musical ability or training or whatever, I'm not totally sure—but there's not a lot of stuff coming out now that has an instantly-grab-you sort of factor and has more of a "song" element to it. I feel that it's important to realize that part of dance music and house music, and not necessarily in sort of a pop way, but in a way that's just as relevant or just as underground or whatever as the kind of things that appeal to the traditional techno crowd, I guess. It's still very much in line with what I feel is the true lineage of dance music or house.
WCP: Where do you see things in D.C. right now? Is there anything about putting this record out that maybe puts some things into perspective about what's happening here?
JS: I feel like it's more appealing to the kind of like, more soulful house crowd here, which is a bigger, more ingrained scene here in the D.C. dance community. The first record, which was by a Finnish producer named Saine—that was a little bit more abstract, a little more instrumental; not many people in this area maybe are as into that style of music, so [the Seven Davis EP] is sort of a crossover into other scenes that perhaps have more local relevance.
WCP: That word "soulful" seems to come up a lot ...
JS: It's a dangerous word in a lot of ways. The way I ideally try to use it isn't necessarily as a qualifier of the music's quality, but moreso as a sonic quality, of the sound of the music, as opposed to the emotional content of it ... it's a really slippery slope in trying to use that word, but when I personally am attempting to use it, it's more in a sonic context as opposed to any sort of qualifier for emotional content.
WCP: What's next for Must Have? Do you have somebody else lined up?
JS: Kyle Hall is another artist who's going to do something on Must Have ... Todd Osborn ... Julien Love, who's a super-talented producer out of Melbourne, Australia, is doing an EP for me, so there's definitely some interesting things coming up. I'm going to try to have the release schedule more compressed than it has been in the past; it's taken more than a year between the first record and the second record. ... One thing that has contributed to the slowness of the release schedule is that I'm really picky, ultimately, and it takes time to get together an entire project where I feel the whole thing is strong, which is really important for me.
WCP: And the EP format, it's easier to say, let's just take five great ones, instead of five great ones and five other tracks and make it an album.
JS: Some of the things that are released could potentially see the light of day in an album format down the road; I haven't really made plans for that, but it's very common in dance music to maybe have one great song that really sells the record, and then the other two or three just won't be as great. And it's important to me to have at least two really good ones on the record [laughs].
WCP: What about yourself? There was some talk when I was working on the Future Times piece [Washington City Paper, July 5] that you might put out something on that label. Is that still in the works?
JS: Yeah! There is something coming on Future Times for sure. I still have to finish up a couple more songs. Obviously I've been pretty busy with doing this record, and also I'm a full-time student [at George Mason University] and I work a part-time job, so it's just kind of getting the time to be able to do that. There's one song that's definitely finished and definitely coming out on Future Times, and it's very likely that it's going to become an EP. But yeah, it's still in the works, and yes, something is definitely coming on Future Times.
Photo courtesy Jay Simon