For the last few years the buzzword on everyone’s lips has been nothing but Dirtybird – the parties, the DJs, the music. San Francisco’s Claude Von Stroke and Justin Martin were the nucleus of this crew and label known for its quirky, glitchy, contagious sound that has kids scrambling to their parties.
I was lucky to be able to catch Justin in the midst of his insane touring schedule. His energy is infectious, his demeanor gracious and this is one dude who truly loves his music…
So you just got back from a busy weekend in Brazil! How was that?
Oh my God it was incredible! I played 4 shows in basically 2 days so I was just go go go. It was my second time going and this time definitely took the cake. I played at this amazing beautiful beach club, a 3 hour set until pretty much the cops were there. I just kept playing.
I saw that you recently played Electric Daisy Carnival in Chicago along with a whole bunch of other festivals. Have you noticed that the focus seems to be moving away from the mixing aspect of DJing to more of putting on this big show in front of thousands and thousands of people?
The Ego Projector!
I was just recently playing in the UK and the guy who was performing after us had this crazy weird contraption behind the stage. The stage manager asked us if we minded ending our set 5 minutes earlier because they have to set up this monstrosity for the next act. I asked him what it was and he said “Can’t you see? It’s an Ego Projector!” (laughs)
That being said, I’m not against it, I’ve seen some really really cool acts. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with jumping around and being excited by what you’re playing… But! There is something to be said when what you’re doing with the actual music is being compensated for and you’re not actually performing. Ever since Daft Punk brought out the pyramid, everyone’s trying to find a new creative thing to do that makes their act the headlining act. Me personally, I don’t need that headlining act. I’ll play that side stage. As long as it’s got a good sound system and some die hard Dirtybird fans rocking out, then I’m happy!
So I was reading a bunch of interviews about you and how the whole Dirtybird enterprise started, more specifically the stories of how you and Claude Von Stroke met.
Basically Claude’s mom met my brother’s business partner’s mom in a grocery store! (laughs) At the time Barclay (aka Claude) was doing a movie called Intellect which is basically a “how to be a DJ” movie. He interviewed like 30 of the world’s biggest DJs from Paul Van Dyk to Derrick Carter to Miguel Migs and got all of their success stories. My brother Christian was helping him and said I needed to meet him. In exchange for some original music for him to put into his documentary, he took me on and became sort of my mentor/manager.
And once things started to kick off for me, Barclay saw that, “Wow some of these things that they’re teaching in the documentary actually work, let me see if I can do it for myself.” And that’s kind of when Claude Von Stroke was invented and he started to get back into production.
He was a Drum and Bass producer for a long time, a lot earlier. When he was in college he had a total computer meltdown, I think he lost stuff he had been working on for months and he just gave up completely. So he always had the love and compassion for it, but it had just come to the point where he was over it. Then the flame was sparked when he started to see that all of the stuff he had learned from these successful DJs could actually be put to use in being successful.
That’s great that he liked your music so much that he wanted to use it, he probably saw your talent right away.
Yeah I mean back then I was just learning how to produce. For me, if there’s something I’m passionate about I just dive head first and go all in. I don’t think any of my music back then was very good but I was working non-stop and getting better and better and better. So maybe saw something in me and that’s why he took me under his wing.
Was there any singular moment where you may have had your initial lucky break?
Mine was when I sent a bunch of CDs with my brother to WMC that had “Sad Piano” on it, which was my first major release coming out on Ben Watt’s label Buzzin Fly in 2003. The funny thing about it was that I completely ripped off of Ben’s track which was the first Buzzin Fly release and I just stole the intro beat loop, and used the exact same beat loop for ‘Sad Piano.’ I think that’s what actually caught his ear to begin with, he was probably like, “Who has the balls to sample my record and then send it to me?” (laughs)
You know when I used to think about San Francisco, I would always associate it with Salted and Miguel Migs and that kind of smooth soulful sound.
Yeah well here’s the thing. When I first moved to San Francisco from New York in 1999 I was a Drum and Bass dude. But then around the 2000s, all the cool 1990s Jungle started turning really really hard and agro and I just couldn’t find records that I liked anymore. So it wasn’t the same Drum and Bass scene that it was when I was living in New York City. I was craving good music and started going out and hearing Mark Farina and Miguel Migs. Naked Music and Om Records were huge here at the time. I started buying a lot of that kind of music, and I still have all my old Naked Music and Om records, a lot of them were soulful stuff.
So for me I still had Drum and Bass in my blood but I loved playing House Music. I wanted to make some kind of music that didn’t really fit in. It’s got the nice elements of the more soulful stuff, the 4/4 of House, but the grittiness of Drum and Bass. And this was right around the same time I met Claude, who had the same kind of background, except he was more on the Detroit Techno side of things. We both recognized that there was this giant gap in the music that was being made. We wanted to do something that blurred the lines that was just fun and didn’t fit into any genre at all.
It’s really kind of weird because people always say to us that Dirtybird has a very distinct sound but for us, our sound has tried not to be distinct! We’ve always tried to make something that didn’t sound like anything else and then it turned into what Dirtybird is. There was just a big hole in music at that time that had to be filled.
And then the actual Dirtybird label started in 2005 via Claude, yes? Was that hard to get the attention of the world or were you guys at that point pretty much in?
Yeah the first release was with me and Sammy D (he’s the lead singer for Pillow Talk) called “The Southern Draw.” At that point I had already had a few records come out that were a little bit more soulful, easy-to-swallow House Music. Me and Sammy would just laugh our asses off making these songs that were so weird and out there, and then play them in the middle of our sets. And it would work because it was so different! But when we would send it out to record labels no one would take it seriously. So Claude loved the stuff we were making and said we’ve got to put it out ourselves. That’s kind of how Dirtybird started. The music that really didn’t fit in anywhere – it was time to give it a home.
So would most people say that you and Claude are kind of the main men in the crew?
Well we have such a diverse group of artists, people that have come and gone, and then some really awesome people that have helped form the overall sound. Like Catz and Dogs are super big in Europe, Eats Everything is the latest guy to jump on board with us and he’s absolutely killing it in the UK now. He’s definitely the hometown hero over there. So there’s no one person that’s bigger than the other. I would say Claude is definitely the boss man, he’s the brains behind most of the label and the marketing. And I’m kinda the guy with all of the horrible ideas.
How do you find your members for your family? Like J Phlip, who is originally from Illinois?
J Phlip was just a super super talented DJ first of all. She came to a show that I played at SmartBar in Chicago and she drove an hour and half from Champaign. She just came up to me and introduced herself and we became friends, like she’s just cool as fuck! And wow, she can actually make dope music as well. See for us it’s not just about making amazing music or being an amazing DJ. If you have a nice, humble personality and can hang with the crew and have fun, then you’d have a lot more chances of fitting in than someone who’s just all about themselves. I think that’s one of the things that’s helped us survive this long is just having that family vibe and looking out for each other.
At this point in the evolution of Dirtybird, I can only imagine there must be tons of people just sweating you! Who’s the poor guy who has to sift through the hundreds of demos?
That’s Barclay! Claude listens to everything. And you know what? Sometimes I get a lot of people sending me music as well. I don’t actually listen to all the Dirtybird demos but if there’s a track that I like, instead of me sending it to Barclay, I’ll just wait until we play together, and if it’s something that I really believe in I’ll just let him see the dancefloor really go off. Usually he’ll peek over my shoulder and go, “What is this?” And that’s the true test, once you see the track in action and you don’t recognize it and you’re dying to know what it is, that’s something that should be on the label.
So what do you use for your studio?
For my studio I use Ableton mostly. I used to use Reason, then Reason with Ableton, now it’s just Ableton. It’s a lot simpler especially when I’m traveling on the road – you don’t want to be bringing a bunch of programs. I use lots and lots of samples! I’ve tried to get into the whole VST thing, but the endless possibilities aspect of it frightens me. The way I work best is I have an idea, then I go and collect all the samples, like just crazy weird sounds that I think will help make the song. I see what I can make of this folder of interesting sounds, and I start my creative process from there.
Now I know you’re a trained musician, you play both piano and the saxophone.
Yes, from the age of 4 and I hated it! Well I didn’t hate the saxophone, I hated the piano. I stopped playing piano at 13 and focused on the saxophone. That I really loved. I was really into jazz growing up and played in jazz band and had a funk band in high school.
Those were the two instruments I grew up playing too, and my God aren’t you glad your parents made you do that?
Oh my God, it’s the best thing ever! I’m forcing my children to take lessons, I’m locking them in a room with a bunch of instruments. Honestly I thank my parents all the time now. “Thank you for making me practice relentlessly for my recitals!” It created who I am today.
Justin Martin and Eats Everything have their new single “The Gettup” available on Dirtybird, and are holed up in the studio for the rest of the year working on a collaborative artist album for 2014. For all things Dirtybird go to dirtybirdrecords.com & soundcloud.com/dirtybirdrecords.