San Francisco’s techno overlord Claude VonStroke is incubating a nest full of underground club killers in 2012, set to hatch and dive-bomb clubs Angry Birds-style. With his label Dirtybird the hottest imprint out there and his brand of bass-heavy beats very much in vogue, and a host of new productions destined to dominate clubs and headphones worldwide, we caught up with the DJ/producer ahead of his set at the DJ Mag At The Shelborne Miami pool party on March 21, the Dirtybird Miami BBQ at Villa 221 on March 22 and a Point Blank sponsored Dirtybird tour across the US later in May, more info here.
If there’s been one trend that’s wheedled its way into all corners of electronic music in the last two years, it’s bass. Indecent ladles full of the stuff, speaker stacks positively groaning with the strain of lowdown, filling-rattling subs. DJs and producers are quick to proclaim a love for bass culture today it seems. But San Francisco’s Claude VonStroke — boss of the highly influential Dirtybird label, airmile-clocking DJ and creator of some of the biggest underground classics of the last 10 years — can afford himself a wry grin of satisfaction. He doesn’t have to. He’s been doing that for years.
The sub-low, chest-plate shaking sounds of drum & bass, dubstep and hip-hop that so many are now claiming to be influenced by have been a trademark of the Dirtybird beat syndicate from the beginning, and nowhere more so than in the beats and low-end theories of its head honcho. Having the perspicacity to stick to his principles and follow his own singular route, not be drawn into trendy cul-de-sacs or next-big-thing bullshit, Claude VonStroke (aka Grosse Pointe, Michigan-born-and-raised Barclay Crenshaw) has gone from strength-to-strength since he first emerged in 2006, as his own productions, played by everyone from old skool house heads to dubstep deviants, even the chin-stroking minimal techno intelligentsia, have flowered into some of the most unique club killers (not to mention headphone slayers) ever to grace electronic music.
From 2006’s sleeper hits ‘Deep Throat’ and the evergreen 313 re-imagining ‘Who’s Afraid Of Detroit?’ to the epic melancholia of 2008’s ‘Groundhog Day’, to the cybernetic android funk of Bootsy Collins collaboration ‘Greasy Beat’, to LTJ Bukem-referencing, subtle 808 bass booming ‘Aundy’, not to mention his two albums ‘Beware Of The Bird’ and Birdbrain’, Claude VonStroke’s music intersects techno, booty bass, hip-hop, house and funk but manages to be unmistakably his.
Barclay’s been out on his own, fearlessly hacking new paths into the bedrock of dance, carving his own niche. It’s meant that he’s never exactly fit in, something that’s no doubt contributed to, rather than adversely effected, his global popularity.
But how the tide has turned. Finally, the rest of the industry is playing catch up and his bass-blasted beats are more in vogue than ever with Dirtybird plagiarists as far as the eye can see.
Owing to the current climate, the label’s never been more popular, and it’s in a position to capitalize on the wildfire bass conflagration setting the world alight. Especially now, since the sub-low frequency artillery it’s about to unleash is bound to skyrocket Dirtybird to a new echelon of infamy. ‘Hatched Vol.1’, the new compilation, is an incendiary statement of intent, featuring an expanded hit squad of bass assassins, with deadly beats from Catz ‘N Dogz, Worthy, Soul Clap, Kingdom, Breach (Ben Westbeech), A1 Bassline and Christian Martin that are designed to detonate floors from here to Timbuktu. Featuring a badass hook-up between Claude VonStroke & Eats Everything, ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’, it’s just the start of an avalanche of new activity from the Dirtybird boss himself, with a string of spring BBQ parties worldwide, a new single featuring DOP’s eccentric soulman JAW, a dubstep side project set to drop and an album slated for November. Add to that the long-awaited, forthcoming Justin Martin album for Dirtybird in May, and it’s safe to say ClaudeVonStroke has a busy 2012 ahead.
Your productions, DJ sets and label Dirtybird have always been positioned within house and techno while embracing bass culture. Does it feel like the industry has finally caught up with your way of thinking, now that house music is full of bass and dubstep influences?
“It makes me happy, it’s good. It’s definitely crossing over, I really like where it is right now. You used to have to really be niche, and now I feel like you can do more and people aren’t as critical as they used to be, except on certain websites. You can do a commercial remix and then a super-underground track and it’s not nearly as hated as it used to be.”
The new Dirtybird compilation ‘Hatched Vol.1’ is sounding wicked. It’s got some of the biggest and best players in bass-influenced house music on it, like Breach, Eats Everything and A1 Bassline and newer names like Kill Frenzy and Nick Monaco. How did you choose the producers on the comp?
“It was a mass email that I sent out a while ago, four months ago, that said we were doing a seven-year comp. But I decided, ‘Who cares about a seven-year birthday? we’ll wait till 10’, and I sent it to all the producers I liked; either I liked their demos or the tracks they’d already done with us. I didn’t take everything, there were a couple of things that I got randomly, like the Kingdom track, that came in through the [UK bass label] Night Slugs connection. Breach, we’d just signed that record, he said, ‘I’ve just done this thing and I think you’re gonna like it’. Nick Monaco had been sending me demos for a year-and-a-half. I kept telling him to branch out and get weird, and it came in and I was like, ‘That’s weird enough!’ The Worthy track, he was working with Dan [Eats Everything] a lot, and you can hear that he got a bit of a different vibe to that. It kills the club too.
“I tried to stage it so that the first part was deeper and more refined, the second part was more bass, and the third part was a little more oddball. They really gave me good stuff.”
How did ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’, your collaboration with feted producer Eats Everything, come about?
“That was a totally different track, that I told him I was just going to fix the breakdown on. I got into the file and I just started moving everything around. We just made it together and I sent it back to him. At first he was like, ‘What the? What happened to the track?!’ I purposely didn’t make it a smash over your head track, it’s kind of creepy, it creeps on you and drops at the end. People said I should drop the bass on the second drop, but I was like, no! That’s a perfect example, where you listen to something and think, ‘I wish there was more of that part’. In the club, that’s exactly the way it should go. A funky creeper. It’s really about hearing it out. To start with, I thought, ‘This is kinda nice’, and then I tried it out and was like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna work!’”
How about your own solo productions?
“I have this track I did with JAW from DOP, the first I ever did that has a full vocal. It’s a kind of Curtis Mayfield-sounding thing. There’s also this Beyonce remix. We don’t know if it’s been accepted or not, but it’s already leaked a little bit, A-Trak and all these people are playing it. I’m hoping that comes out, if it doesn’t, you’ll hear it on your local free download! It’s up in the air.
“I’m trying to do an album for November. I might drop this quasi dubstep thing I did with this kid from Brighton in the middle there somewhere. It’s already done, I just don’t know what to do with it! It’s with a guy named Six Stroke. I’m also doing a track with Guy Gerber, I met him in Australia. It’s a little more DC10-ish, so I think that will end up on his side.”
Justin Martin’s long-awaited album is finally scheduled for release on Dirtybird in May. What can you tell us about that?
“It’s so fuckin’ good! [laughs]. It was originally supposed to be on Buzzin’ Fly but he never did it. This is five years in the making and it’s totally worth it, totally amazing. It’s really bass crossover, you’re gonna be super-surprised. It’s like the best thing ever! I’m super-psyched. Finally. An amazing project.
“ The track ‘Kemistry’ [based on the Goldie tune, with his blessing] is like trying to put drum & bass into a house track, but the other ones are integrated so well, it sounds like something else. The title is ‘Ghettos & Gardens’, and all the tracks start out like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so melodic, emo’, and then drop in.
”I have a feeling that ‘Ghettos & Gardens’ itself is gonna be the bomb track. There are two vocal tracks with [heavily hyped act] Pillow Talk. The background of Pillow Talk is that one of them, Sammy D, is on Dirtybird 001 and 002, ‘The Southern Draw’ and ‘Swamp Thing’. It’s come full circle.”
What else have you got coming up on Dirtybird?
“French Fries, ‘Yo Vogue’, it’s a super ghetto, amazing track, very much in line with that track ‘Hugs’. I did a remix on that, and Leroy Peppers did the other remix.
”That takes us all the way to June and then there’ll be an Eats Everything follow-up.”
How do you maintain the distinctive sound of the label?
“There’s been stuff that I wanted to sign that I was too late on, that’s so clearly our stuff. I used to be super uptight, saying, ‘Ok, if you’re going to be on our label don’t go put out a bunch of tracks on other labels’. But I’ve really loosened up on that. Like Eats Everything, for example, does records for Voytek [Catz ‘N Dogz’s label Pets Recordings], for us, a bunch of people. That’s gonna be way more beneficial to him than us saying, ‘Dude, you’re signed to Dirtybird’ when we don’t even have space on our release schedule. Besides 2006 I’ve not released a record on another label, and maybe I wouldn’t be so against it now.
“The funniest thing about it is people send me tracks that they think are perfect for Dirtybird and they’re always wrong. It’s always the guy that doesn’t think that it’s right, they say, ‘This is that other thing I was working on’. That’s always the one!”
You did a show on [London dubstep/garage radio station] Rinse FM recently. What was the reaction like?
“I haven’t even heard it yet. It feels cool. That’s my first love, that sound. That remix of [Night Slugs underground anthem] Girl Unit’s ‘Wut’ I did, I said I’d do it for free, just give me a shot or whatever, cos I think that track’s totally insane. I did that on purpose, it’s a cool crossover, and also I really like that track. I’m definitely aware, definitely into the bass movement, and all that stuff. Sometimes when it gets really hard, it’s hard for me to play, but I’ll still listen to it.”
The US is currently gripped by a frenzy of dance music and it feels like it’s really overground there for the first time since the early ’90s. What are thoughts on the brostep phenomenon kicking off, people like Skrillex and 12th Planet and then on the poppier house side, people like Kaskade? Is it a positive development? Will the success trickle down to the underground?
“Yes. I think it’s very positive. Maybe three or four years ago I would have said, ‘Oh, fucking Skrillex’, but it’s all jealousy. The guy’s killing it. He’s definitely good at what he’s doing. I’m not a hater. He’s doing so well so fast. I’m happy about it, because there’s this stuff for 16-year-olds, and then they’re going to be 21 pretty soon, and we’re right in line to get this crowd, and we’re positioned to take advantage of that. I actually have weekends [playing out] that are better now in the US than even over in the UK, which never happened in the beginning.”
You recently completed several production courses with online studio college Point Blank. What were you studying and how do you think it has added to or improved your production?
“This was an interesting evolution. I signed up for the classes, anonymously. I took the hip-hop class, the dubstep class and the Ableton mixing class.
“I was moving out of using [production program] Reason to Ableton a little more, and I wasn’t getting the sound that I used to get, and I was feeling that everyone was going fucking crazy, sounding so much better than they ever used to. You listen to my stuff from 2006 and you listen to a master that comes out now, and you’re like, ‘wow’. There’s a huge difference, people are getting amazing sound, the way the bass is integrated. It’s very nice. People are really going big and they’re getting crazy sounds. I was like, you know what, I need to step up my game and learn some more stuff. I still use Reason but in the end I’ll put it back into Ableton. I use Reason as the sketchpad. I started using this thing called Geist a lot. It’s a plug-in, it’s like Maschine, if it was easy. I love Maschine, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
“By the end of the third Point Blank class, I was talking to the owner, making videos, and now they’re like our main sponsor on our upcoming tour. This is the first time we’re actually branding our events."
What do you think makes a good DJ? Are there different kinds?
“Absolutely. I totally think that this is a big deal. There are DJs who are trying to make a wave that builds up slowly, so they won’t actually be picking their favourite tracks, they’ll just be picking tracks that build it up, and break it down, and take it on that journey. I wish I could DJ like that, but I’m just not that kind. I appreciate it though. I like it when I hear it. And then there’re DJs who play tracks. I’m more of a track-featuring DJ. I try to keep it in genres, but I say, ‘I’m going to play all my favourite music tonight and try to fit it in, make it work’. And then there are guys that are chopping like, bananas, they’re just like dropping, dropping, dropping. I don’t see a lot of those shows but I know about them.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot by being on the road. I’m definitely better than I was, and I’ll take more risks than I used to. In the beginning, I was like, ‘I hope these fucking tracks go together!’ Now I’m a lot more confident. I’ve been on the road for seven years, and I know how to do it, I know how to DJ now! I know what I’m doing. It’s amazing how your mind works when you hear the track that’s on, it goes through this catalogue, and goes, ‘Oh that’s the next track’. It’s crazy. It doesn’t seem like you have to do it a long time to get better but you actually do. It seems like you could just learn to beat-match and be good, but it’s just not the case, it’s all about the selection of the songs I think.”
How do you stay one step ahead?
“I’m always looking for new material. I’m at a slight advantage in that I get 100s and hundreds of demos and I play them all the time. Sometimes we don’t even sign it. I do like to make a lot of edits, that could sometimes be a super-old song that no-one remembers mixed with something new, bits of drum & bass, here there and whatever. I also mix tracks, I don’t use effects. If you have to add to the track, then the track’s not good enough.”
How do you intend to grow the label?
“I wanted to mention this thing we’re doing that’s really cool, Sam Valenti IV from the label Ghostly International came to me a few months ago, and he’d thought of this new technology. The technology is called Drip FM, they wrote it from scratch. They programmed it and ran it for a few months and we were the beta [test] label. We started running this subscription service, so basically we charge $10 a month and then you get everything two weeks before it comes out, and unreleased special versions. There are going to be more labels down the pipeline. We started it at Christmas and it’s going really well. I think it’s a really interesting idea, because it’s direct to super-fans. We can post anything like discount tickets and it’s unlimited, the possibilities, unreleased versions; things you can only get on there. Ours is called the Bird House.”
Has it been part of your strategy to avoid being categorised?
“That’s always been my main focus, to ride this imaginary line, between whatever is the hottest shit of the haterville crowd, and [mentions big US electro label] or something. I don’t want to be corny and I don’t want to be too cool for school. Not that many people do that. It’s really, really tough. You’re gonna get shit from both sides all the time. Less from this side, they don’t care! [laughs] This other side will give you a bunch of shit. It matters a little, I’m aware of it. I’m conscious I make decisions that are non-commercial on purpose. If we wanted to sell out the label and me, we could have done it five years ago. But I don’t want to do that.”
What are your favourite birds, dirty or otherwise?
“I have to say my wife Aundy otherwise I’m going to be murdered! I like wild chickens, like the wild chickens in Hawaii. Chickens have real crazy feathers, if you go deep into chickens! Not just like, white chickens, bantam chickens… really feathery, they look like they have slippers almost. I like those. I don’t know, a cardinal? If I saw a cardinal, I’d be like, oh wow!”
Are you looking forward to playing our DJ Mag At The Shelborne party on 21st March in Miami?
”I’m super-psyched to play at this event! We’re having our own party as well that I’m also psyched about, so I think it’s gonna be a good year. A lot of Dirtybird people will be down there this year, Justin, J Phlip, Worthy, Leroy Peppers, French Fries, Eats Everything.
I always go to Miami cos it’s always really fun and the weather is beautiful, and you can always see some really cool stuff that you never would have expected.”
Words: Ben Murphy