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  • Interview: Claude VonStroke

    Tue, 28 Apr 2009 13:42:28

    Interview: Claude VonStroke - The Dirtybird chief spreads his wings

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    For those who haven't been following dance music for the past several years, or for anyone who just happens to be afraid of Detroit, you might not know that American electronic music has a new international shepherd. In the late 90's and early 2000's, it was Mark Farina, Doc Martin and Derrick Carter taking the purely house-driven sounds of San Fran, Los Angeles, and Chicago to the global masses, prompting many a savvy Brit to exclaim in with pre-Hoffian exuberance: "America's Got Talent."

    Now house music has evolved. At the forefront of the deeper, dankier rhythms permeating from this side of the Atlantic is Barclay Crenshaw, aka Claude VonStroke. He would call it "caveman tech," but to slap even a wonderfully descriptive label such as that on his trademark production and DJing sound belies the complexity of what he has accomplished in a few short years. He blew onto the scene instantly with 2005's "Deep Throat" and never looked back. "Who's Afraid of Detroit?" cemented his status as a new force in dance music, with Ritchie Hawtin calling it his favorite track of the year in 2006. Fusing house and musical sensibilities of old with a a darker, bass- driven tech-house, Detroit-techno, booty-bumping fusion, VonStroke's name became synonymous with the West Coast's new sound.

    Mr. Crenshaw now operates the labels Dirtybird and Mothership out of San Francisco and is about to release the latest installment in Fabric's legendary mix series. We caught up with him a short while ago and picked his brain.

    I know that you grew up in Detroit, and I’m curious, outside the basic bio talking points, what are some of the things that happened while you were growing up that looking back now, you wouldn’t have realized it then, but have led you to the career you have now?

    I was in the suburbs right on the border of Detroit, and I would ride my bike to go get hip-hop tapes at the gas stations. I think maybe the radio, while I was living there, was really influential, because I didn’t have any kind of mentoring or anything. I played the cello. I was in the suburbs. There was no cool factor going on for me, except for the radio was really, really good, especially this guy, Electrifying Mojo. His radio show was so amazing.

    What type of stuff were they playing?

    They played everything, all the way from Run-DMC to Prince to anything that was funk or hip-hop or interesting, or techno. Anything. It was a great, great show.

    So that kind of set your palette?

    It set my palette, and I got really into making music even though I had no idea what I was doing. I saved up and bought a sampler, a sequencer, and no one else around me was doing anything like this, so I was out on a limb in my little room, just doing whatever I thought was interesting. I made a bunch of rap tapes and hip-hop beats. I made stuff back then that sounded like sped-up voices, like Prodigy’s first album, but I didn’t know what was going on anywhere.

    Sort of the “Wind It Up” feel?

    I didn’t know about that stuff or anything. Detroit is like a bubble, almost. It’s not like growing up in New York City; I’ll put it that way.

    When you were in the suburbs, did you even have exposure to the techno scene as it was coming together there?

    No, I only listened to techno on the radio; I didn’t go to any parties when I was first there. I did when I went back later. I moved downtown. That’s when I started discovering that whole thing. I’m not that young, so I’m actually kind of in the age range of some of these guys that are classic techno producers. Me and my friends rode our bikes down to try to get jobs at a recording studio. It happened to be Juan Atkins’ place, but we didn’t know who he was. We played him a whole bunch of tapes, and we were 15 or 16, and he was maybe in his twenties. We didn’t get jobs there. Later, I met him again, and it was really…we didn’t know who he was the first time, but I knew who he was the second time. He actually did one of the songs they played on the Electronic Mojo radio show that they played all the time.

    He was pretty far from godfather of techno at that point?

    Yeah, he was probably on his way, but not all the way there.

    You mentioned that you played the cello. Do you think a classical music training background helps you in that respect with electronic music?

    Somewhat. I played the cello for a long time, but also, my cello teacher was so amazing—my first cello teacher when we were in Cleveland before we moved to Detroit. I wrote original cello pieces when I was eight and stuff like that. She really inspired me to be as creative as possible, and that sparked the whole thing, really. Once somebody told me that I could just write songs and I didn’t have to play things that were already written, doing that, and not just on cello…I didn’t even really like the cello. So I would take what I liked on the radio and try to do something else, and make music. But I never stopped from then on. It took me another 15 years to release a record, but I started making music right around then.

    Speaking of the first record, talk to me a little bit about what was life before “Deep Throat” and “Who’s Afraid of Detroit?” and then after, once those two tracks were out and blew up.

    Before, I was a guy with a job like everyone else. I was editing Men’s Warehouse commercials for TV. I worked at a post-production house and worked on a bunch of movies in L.A. I did a whole bunch of different jobs on those. That is a real grind. I had to get out of that. I built this guy’s DVD duplication company for him after that, and I started my own DVD duplication company. I had all kinds of jobs. Then I made that track as a hobby, and the label went…it went bonkers from there on.

    How did it get picked up? What was the first moment where you were like, “Uh oh, something’s happening here that I maybe didn’t expect”?

    It took almost a year and a half for it to even go. We were so tiny and we were through, which is a German distributor. It was right when people were starting to get on the Internet and look up stuff all the time, right at the beginning of that. Justin Martin and Sammy G were obsessed with looking up and seeing where the Dirtybird stuff was. They would come and say, “We saw this guy played it in his set here, and this guy played it over here.” I’d be like, “Really? That’s crazy.” A report like that would come in every week or so, and then we just kept…and the licensing started to come in, and it’s all grown.

    What was it like hearing Richie Hawtin call it the best track of 2006?

    That wasn’t “Deep Throat,” that was “Who’s Afraid of Detroit?” That was awesome. He picked up “Deep Throat,” as well. A lot of people picked up on it, people I thought I would never meet or know or anything. It was great, it was amazing.

    Fast-forward, and you’re touring the world with this name that I read that you made up thinking of fake European DJ names or porn names.

    It’s a fake minimal DJ/techno/porno name.

    If someone’s meeting you at the airport, do they call you “Mr. VonStroke”?

    They do. A lot of times, people call me Claude for the whole weekend, and I say, “Cool, I’m not going to correct you.” It’s easier than saying Barclay.

    Now that you’ve been out there and traveled and seen the music scenes in Europe and all over the world, what do you think it is about the U.S. that people here are sort of unable to take dance music seriously as an art form?

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