Q&A: Claude VonStroke
The arch avian of the Dirtybird label, Claude VonStroke, drops some savage beats on his new LP.
Tue Oct 1 2013
Photograph: Tim Jones
One of house music’s most beloved figures, Claude VonStroke (real name: Barclay Crenshaw), has just released a new LP, Urban Animal, on his venerable Dirtybird label. While the album still contains plenty of his trademark jacking, fun-time sound, it stretches his template via an array of disparate rhythms, textures and moods. It’s a great collection of tunes, but here’s the best part: The veteran spinner is coming to NYC to celebrate Urban Animal’s release by rocking the Verboten bash on Friday, October 11.
Time Out New York: The last time I heard you play was at Electric Zoo, on the day that ended with the death of two festivalgoers. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Claude VonStroke: Well, I don’t really know exactly what happened, of course. But you’re not going to be able to stop people from doing drugs, so you should at least tell them what it means to do drugs. And you should do things like make water available. But like I said, I don’t have any of the facts.
Time Out New York: Speaking of festivals, what do you think of the whole EDM explosion—good, bad or indifferent?
Claude VonStroke: Good. And here’s why: If you can get real money into a genre, then it becomes a real genre. In 1983, everybody was laughing at me for listening to hip-hop. But eventually, hip-hop got on MTV; then it got on the Grammys; then it got on the televised part of the Grammys. And then it was a genre—it’s like country music or something. Dance music is going through something similar to what hip-hop did: It’s always been the redheaded stepchild of genres, and now that there’s money behind it, it’s becoming a genre that’s accepted by American society. Of course, it’s always been an accepted genre in Europe, but I think something had to happen over here in the pop end of dance music in order for it to become an accepted form of music.
Time Out New York: I suppose the hope is that a certain percentage of people who get into dance music via, say, Steve Aoki will eventually discover the more creative segment of the genre.
Claude VonStroke: Maybe. Some people will grow into it, for sure. But some people will never learn. It’ll be the same as any other kind of music.
Time Out New York: On a somewhat related note, congratulations on coming in 12th place in DJ Times’ recent America’s Best DJ poll!
Claude VonStroke: Thanks! [Laughs] I find that really funny. I was certainly shocked to see that.
Time Out New York: I think you might be the highest-ranked spinner whose music I actually enjoy.
Claude VonStroke: I never show up on those lists. When I saw my name there, I was like, Really? That’s very cool, but I was not expecting it at all. Maybe it says something positive about American dance music.
Time Out New York: Perhaps it’s the result of all your hard work. You played quite a bit this past summer, right?
Claude VonStroke: I did—not so much in America, but I did work my ass off. I was in Ibiza a lot. Dirtybird had its own night there, and it was the only American night on the island. It was awesome; the closing party was absolutely insane.
Time Out New York: And now you are celebrating the release of your new album, Urban Animal.
Claude VonStroke: I know, the third one—I can’t believe it!
Time Out New York: That’s actually a lot, by dance-music standards.
Claude VonStroke: Albums aren’t something that all dance-music artists aspire to do. It’s such a singles-oriented market. Yeah, you have albums from people like Aphex Twin or Four Tet or Flying Lotus, but those guys are more conceptual artists. But for a house artist to have three albums? It’s interesting. Not a lot of people do that.
Time Out New York: So why do you feel the need to release albums?
Claude VonStroke: The first album [2006’s Beware of the Bird] just happened because I had a lot of tracks, and there was no place to get them all. I was just starting to bubble over into people’s consciousness, so I thought it would be a good idea to take all the tracks that were doing well. And I called that an album. For the second one [2009’s Bird Brain], I did it all at one time because I thought it would be good to have a legitimate artist album.
Time Out New York: And Urban Animal?
Claude VonStroke: This one was for a different reason: I wanted to make other kinds of music. I’m trying to get into some other stuff. But if I tried to put out a single that was drum ’n’ bass, for instance, it wouldn’t really work. But on an album, I can get away with it.
Time Out New York: But you weren’t always a straight-up house DJ, were you? Didn’t you come up through hip-hop and spend some time as a drum ’n’ bass jock?
Claude VonStroke: I don’t even know how I became a house DJ, really. [Laughs] But with all the other genres, it’s harder to have a long career, I think. You have to keep reinventing constantly and so drastically. House music is different; you can throw a house party anywhere, and people will just dance. It’s a really unique genre.
Time Out New York: It’s one that’s been going strong for at least two-and-a-half decades. Who would have predicted that?
Claude VonStroke: I know! And it’s extremely fun to be a house DJ, I have to say. Even people coming from other genres, like bass DJs—they all end up wanting to play house. They can all see that house music is an unstoppable force.
Time Out New York: So I guess it’s safe to say you’re not abandoning house anytime soon.
Claude VonStroke: Oh, no. You can’t stop from moving around to that beat. I mean, a lot of the other stuff is so awesome—but your body has to adjust to it a bit. House is the easiest genre to party to.
Time Out New York: Having said that, you and some of your fellow Dirtybird artists never really worked within a rigid house template.
Claude VonStroke: Well, we get bored with that. We’re not the kind of people who like to listen to sets where the kick drum drops out, and then they bring it back in, and that’s the big moment of the night. Or a ten-minute song where the big moment is when the hi-hat comes in. That’s like the European equivalent of the Skrillex drop. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: Well, they have that minimalist aesthetic over there.
Claude VonStroke: We actually were in [Ibiza superclub] Amnesia and saw 8,000 people freaking out over a hi-hat.
Time Out New York: This is your first artist album that doesn’t have the word bird in the title.
Claude VonStroke: The name Urban Animal came about because of this Jekyll and Hyde kind of lifestyle that I have. I’m a family man, and then I’m put into these urban nightclubs until seven in the morning, and people are going absolutely insane to really underground music. And then I’m back home making breakfast for two kids and sending them to kindergarten. On the other hand, there are other people who have hard jobs that they don’t necessarily like, and they work all week long, and then the weekend comes and they go to the nightclub and completely freak out. That’s kind of the concept.
Time Out New York: I think I get it.
Claude VonStroke: And the other concept is that everything is pieces of other things. If you look at the album’s artwork, it’s pieces of buildings, but those pieces make other things.
Time Out New York: They make animals.
Claude VonStroke: Right. It’s like the way you use samples and sounds that you pull from everywhere.
Time Out New York: The buildings in the art are from various Midwestern cities, right?
Claude VonStroke: I was born in Cleveland and then moved to Detroit, so it’s Cleveland and Detroit stuff. I had the idea but I didn’t do it myself. The artist took the photographs of the buildings and made them into the shapes of animals. And that’s pretty much the same way you make music.
Time Out New York: So what’s up next?
Claude VonStroke: I’m coming to New York as part of a tour, which is going to be a lot of work; it’s, like, 25 dates in two months. It’s going to be heavy, but I’m going to be home during the week as much as possible. Then we’re going to Stereosonic in Australia. And then I’m going to take the Christmas period off, and use that time to try and make some new tunes. And then I go to Europe for that leg of the tour.
Time Out New York: You are busy!
Claude VonStroke: Yeah—that’s what happens when you make an album.
Urban Animal (Dirtybird) is out now; Claude VonStroke plays the Verboten party Oct 11.
Follow Bruce Tantum on Twitter: @BruceTantum