In Depth: Claude VonStroke talks Freaks & Beaks

It’s hard to think of anyone who’s shaped the house music landscape more than Barclay Crenshaw, AKA titan DJ, producer and label founder Claude VonStroke, over the last 15 years. As the chief of the leading Dirtybird imprint, he’s been one of the key spearheads for a bouncing, bass-loaded style of club music we now call “tech house” – a sound that’s at once playful and geared to moving bodies on the floor. Though he first rose to prominence in San Francisco, Crenshaw cultivated his musical tastes growing up in Detroit, which explains how he ended up adding his own gritty edge to the lighter house style often favoured in the West Coast through the early 2000s (as he told us, his formative interest in drum & bass also helped). This affection for his Motor City roots spawned the Dirtybird sound, and soon became one of dance music’s household names. In his interview with us ahead of his return to Farringdon, Crenshaw reflected on the full length of his career, retracing Dirtybird’s early years through to the drop of his latest full-length LP, Freaks & Beaks. Speaking from his home and label HQ in Los Angeles, here he tells us about the key inspiration behind his music in 2020, and why he’s perfectly happy staying as weird as possible. It seems like you’ve been busier than lately. I’ve seen about the new docuseries and the forthcoming book on Dirtybird. How do you juggle all these projects alongside touring and producing? To say that I do it by myself would be untrue. My wife Aundy runs a large portion of the company, and we’ve worked together for about six years now, as well as [with] a whole other team of people. I tend to think of the ideas and then we all do it. I’m hands-on but I can’t do everything! Even something like the book took a year. I wanted to go way back to one of Dirtybird’s earlier releases, your debut Beware of the Bird LP. You also put out a number of singles around the same time. What have you found are the challenges in putting together an album in such a singles-orientated industry? Well, my first album was in fact just me putting all of my singles together. It was still a time before digital sales were huge. I thought, “why not put all of these singles together into a CD?”, particularly because I had some really successful singles like Deep Throat. That record sold over 14,000 vinyl copies, right? Yeah, and that was when vinyl was apparently over. But now, I have no idea why anyone would do an album. I’ve done Freaks & Beaks because I wanted to mark our 15th birthday, and I also wanted to sort of lead by example, because the kind of demos that we have been receiving recently are all starting to sound the same. I wanted to go back to the original ethos of being weird, underground and creative, and to reiterate that you don’t have to make a track that sounds like a booty-bass track! In fact, I think we’ve turned back to before Dirtybird, when I was shopping for a lot of the records that influenced the label itself – things like Playhouse, Roman Flügel and all these weird German records. The release date for Freaks & Beaks falls around your appearance in Farringdon on 22nd February. How has your relationship with fabric grown in parallel with the development of your career and label? This is on purpose. My very first trip to Europe I had almost no gigs. When I went there, I tried to get a booking agent, and I went and met with everyone. One of the places I went to was fabric. For some reason I hadn’t slept, and they let me sleep on the couch in the office! Judy [fabric promotions manager], Matt and Minds On Fire’s Simon Harris were all there, and they took me under their wing. I didn’t even have a booking at the club – they were just super nice to me and showed me the offices. After that, I got booked and started playing fabric all the time. What do you value most about returning to fabric? I think it’s really cool because I can do what I want during my sets. I can break up the genres, do a couple of surprise moves, go all over the place, experiment and generally just have fun. Are there any particularly memorable moments you have from playing there? You know how sometimes you only remember the bad things? For my very first mix I was playing with Matthew Dear and some other person that I worshipped in Room Twi, and I plugged my headphones in wrong and could barely hear the cue. I started train wrecking my first mix in fabric – ever! I remember thinking, my life is over! The sound guy ran over, thank God, and I told him that I couldn’t hear the cue and he just jams in the headphones and the full volume came on and I was fine. But I was just absolutely mortified. That was amazing. What about the highs? So many! I remember playing with Justin Martin several times, and also when Eats Everything first came through Dirtybird. I would bring people into fabric that they didn’t know yet. I’ve met all these crazy people that I would probably have never met – Ricardo Villalobos, for example. One of things that I also really like about fabric is that they value the jungle and D&B scene, and there’s not a lot of major clubs that put a serious emphasis on that, and I am all about that scene as well. You started off in the drum & bass scene didn’t you. Yes, very unsuccessfully! How did you move from 170BPM into your current sound? In San Francisco, drum & bass was huge from around 2003 to 2006. But during that time, it was also getting really heavy. I liked it, but there was a point when I was DJing this room and I was looking around thinking, who’s in this room? It was all guys with their hoods on. And then either the same night or the night before, Christian and Justin Martin were telling me that I needed to come to this house party, and I thought that it would be terrible. But there were about 500 girls there, and everyone was happy! That was cool because everything in San Francisco is way too light and happy, so we took this West Coast sound and put dirt on it. We put this jungle and Detroit techno grit on top of that sound – and that was pretty much Dirtybird.
“I wanted to go back to the original ethos of being weird, underground and creative”
Let’s go back to Freaks & Beaks. How does it differ from your previous solo LPs? It’s different in that it’s got a bit more of a raw feeling because this is the first time that I’ve used modular synthesis and more raw sound sources. But other than that, it’s much of what I always do, but I do think that I wanted to remind people – when we had a big moment like this birthday – about what we as a label should sound like. How did your creative process work for this record? Creating Freaks & Beaks was totally different, actually. In the past I’ve worked on a track and thought, “OK, I need to make this track work no matter what” and ended up beating this small collection into submission, but with these I approached it with a completely different style where I made around 150 loops to start off with over two months. With those, I moved to 25, worked on those, and repeated the process down to the final 11. I got this album done in four months instead of the usual one year, directly because of this way of working. What was your day-to-day studio routine? Every day I would try to create one loop, and it didn’t matter if it was good – it just had to be made. But by making that many loops, you just forget them all, and when you go back to listen to them all, you realise there are so many cool ideas that you’d totally forgotten about. I learned it from a guy who’s played fabric before: Mike Monday. He’s moved into this sort of production guru work – it’s fascinating. You recently explained how your two-track EP releases champion both a “crazy A-side” and “much deeper, weirder B-side”. I don’t know why I’m the only person that does this! I feel like everyone comes out with two bangers, so make one crazy club track, and make one something else. That always works for me. It’s also more fun because you address different types of listeners, like maybe one for the hardcore dance fans and one for the heads. Everyone should release an experimental track with a club track. I’m surprised it’s not done more often. I think it encourages the fans of one type of music to then listen to the other side of the release. Yeah, it also does this thing which has happened a lot, where the B-side always takes about six months to slowly creep up and then it ends up outshining the A-side much later on down the line, because of exactly what you’re saying. What’s the best example of this happening for you? Definitely The Whistler. It was massive in the UK when it came out, but the B-side Who’s Afraid Of Detroit? ended up being way bigger. The Dirtybird sound is undeniably recognisable, yet there is no concrete formula with any individual track or album. What do you keep in mind when creating or signing a song? That’s a good question. Unless it’s the best track I’ve ever heard, it has to have originality. I really want there to be some kind of idea in there or something that nobody’s tried, or some kind of theme. It has to have some kind of personality, or just grab me in a way that nothing else does. I still go through all the demos myself. And you receive hundreds a week. Yeah, it’s insane. But it's still very easy to do it. I’ll know instantly if it’s good. I don’t know why – I just know. My biggest nightmare is if someone says “I made this for Dirtybird”, because it never fits. It’s like they listened to Dirtybird and then made it directly for us – it’s never original. Were there any artists who nobody had ever heard of that came through your demo submissions? The best example of that in particular scenario is Shiba San’s track Okay. It came out of the bottom of the demo pile.
“I really want there to be some kind of idea in there or something that nobody’s tried, or some kind of theme. It has to have some kind of personality”
Your tracks are so eclectic. I remember when I first heard Make A Cake and I’d never heard anything like it. With that track I was just sitting in the studio and my son came in and asked me if we could make a cake in the kitchen – and I just decided to make fun of it on the mic, and that was the track. It’s so strange how these things happen. You’ve had help from your children for the latest album, haven’t you? Yeah, they’re on the album a lot. For All My People In The House, it’s my 11-year-old daughter who I pitched down to sound like she smokes 80 packs a day. I do tricks with the vocals. My son is a really excellent soul singer; he’s 13 and he did the Freaks Don’t Fail Me Now vocal, which I then chopped up. Ella was also on Youngblood in little snippets. What’s your wife’s key role within the label? Aundy is a really high-level marketing executive for some big corporations, and as it became super obvious as Dirtybird grew that it was going to get bigger, she had been there since the beginning, so it worked perfectly that she became fully involved. She understood what was needed, and so now, even though theoretically she’s the marketing expert, she definitely has a hand in everything. She’s the voice of reason. I’ll say, “let’s do this!” and she’ll say “no”! It’s in a good way. You’ve had a lengthy relationship with Justin Martin and his brother Christian since you all met in the early 2000s. How have the days of playing Sunday afternoons at Golden Gate Park alongside them both changed in comparison with the club sets you now frequent across the world? Justin was the main artist that I was putting on the label at the beginning. Nobody liked Dirtybird except for San Francisco for several years, so it took us a few years to even get people to go to that party. But that meant that you could hear anything in those sets. It was definitely house, but the park was where all the ideas for things like dropping in a jungle track or playing your favourite hip-hop track in the middle of a house set started. Since we had to fight for everything at the beginning, I still have this feeling where I constantly think that we have to try harder. Back in 2003, you directed Intellect, a documentary about many of the artists aiding the rise of electronic dance music. If you were to remake that film today, what other artists would you include who have, since then, become important figures of the scene, and why? I don’t think that it would be as easy to make that film today, because back then there really were only 20 people to talk to, but now there are 200 top DJs. There are definitely people that I would still want to talk to from that era - for instance, I never got Carl Cox, Green Velvet or Sven Vath. They’re all still relevant today.
“We’re dipping back under the radar”
What do you think is the key to generating longevity with a career? It’s really difficult these days. You have to have some really big records, and you have to keep doing the work to keep it going after that. There’s no concrete answer. There was a point when Cocoon in Ibiza’s party line-up was Richie Hawtin, Ricardo Villalobos, Marco Corola, Sven Vath, Luciano... Every single one of those then became its own party. That’s never going to happen again. That said, it seems that there’s more opportunity for previously unheard voices nowadays. How do you think the scene has evolved in promoting equality in recent years? It still has a long way to go. Women have made a lot of strides in recent years. It’s a delicate topic. But what I’ve done personally is I try and book the most diverse line-up possible, whilst making sure that everyone I book is still great. That’s what I’m able to do about it. What would you recommend to people who are wanting to contribute to and get involved in music, and what would you like the industry to do to give unheard voices a platform? My demo submission policy is on the front page of the Dirtybird website, and that’s that anyone on Earth can submit a demo and I will listen to it. I don’t actually know what anyone looks like when I listen to their music, which is good. But I do still feel like 95% of the demos are coming in from white men. I don’t know why, but it still feels like that because whenever I call them up it’s always a guy from somewhere around the world. So, I think maybe the answer is that the process is not necessarily the problem. It goes all the way down to inspiration-level and getting people to believe that they can do it. This could be up to role models. I have this theory that if a city doesn’t have a DJ who’s made it out of the city, then the city will probably not have any other famous DJs because nobody from that place can see that it’s a viable job. That’s why places like Detroit and Chicago have so many famous DJs, because people who live there see that they’ve made money doing their job. I think that, no matter what, everyone needs a role model. My process of receiving music is already fair; it’s more about believing that you can do this. What do you anticipate for Dirtybird in the coming years? Are there any other outlets that you’d like to explore further on down the line? The Dirtybird Campout is my favourite event in the world – it takes so much work, but it’s so fun and ridiculous. This year we’re trying Dirtybird CampINN, which is in a hotel in Orlando, Florida. Basically, it’s the Campout but in a completely new place. It’s going to be weird, but it’s going to be really fun. I’m really into these curated events where unexpected things happen and weird stuff is always going on that’s not just 60 house sets, and people can get crazy and lose themselves in the vibe of the weekend. It’s more boutique, fun ideas that really inspire me. I can see Dirtybird getting more into that. Musically, I think we’re definitely on a more underground trend right now – we’re dipping back under the radar.
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