For: The Warehouse Project

Set up in 2004, San Francisco’s Dirtybird has released the likes of Julio Bashmore, Style of Eye, Eats Everything and Cajmere, yet its core of Claude Vonstroke, Justin and Christian Martin and Worthy has remained constant since day one. The label is now one of dance music’s most unique forces, with a signature sound combining hip-hop and house and a refreshingly fun attitude.

Will Orchard caught up with label founder Claude VonStroke to talk about his unique route from Detroit to San Francisco, from drum ‘n’ bass to smooth west coast house and underground warehouse parties to open-air park events.

You’re from Detroit originally, right? What age did you move to San Francisco?

Claude Vonstroke: I actually went to college, and then moved to LA, and then went back to Detroit, so I probably moved [to San Francisco] 14 years ago.

What were you into, growing up in Detroit?

CV: I didn’t listen to any techno or house. The only stuff I heard was on the radio. Sometimes the DJ there, The Electrifying Mojo, would play Juan Atkins and stuff like that, but I didn’t listen to any of it. I only listened to hip-hop… like, 99%.

So hip-hop was always a constant? Because the sort of house music Dirtybird produces definitely feels influenced by hip-hop.

CV: It has to be influenced by it, because it was almost the only kind of music I listened to from age 12 to 22. But everything is an influence. Other house music is an influence, hip-hop is an influence, drum ‘n’ bass is a big influence. Everything I hear is an influence, it’s hard to pinpoint it. But I agree, we are more… I think we actually sound a bit more American, which just tends to be more hip-hop.

How important was the Detroit sound?

CV: The answer is, I didn’t really care. When I was in Detroit, I was making drum ‘n’ bass and all the people that were doing that… I was friends with some of them, but I didn’t really care. I totally ignored it, didn’t even know it was around really, and then a guy gave me a mixtape way after it had already been going. And I just like… freaked out. I couldn’t believe there were people making that kind of stuff. I’d been into hip-hop for a long time and I just got stuck in a certain style of music. And while I went to school, I didn’t really pay attention, I had other things going on and I got a hip-hop radio show. And then somebody gave me this tape and I was like “What is going on?!”

So getting into that type of music opened your eyes to the possibility of producing music?

CV: I actually produced it right away. I had a live rig and I took it to raves a couple of times with a light on my head, the whole deal. The first stuff I made sounded a bit like The Chemical Brothers. Big breakbeat. Because I didn’t know anything else. The only kind of electronic music I knew was if I went into Virgin and looked at the electronic music shelf, it was The Chemical Brothers, Morcheeba, Portishead. I liked a lot of stuff but it was stuff that had broken through into American shops, in the CD rack, not the vinyl. I just made whatever I heard. I was always making stuff. I was working on movies in LA actually at that point, when I was making that sound. I went there right after college and started as a PA, then ended up being the director’s personal assistant and getting yelled at all day every day, then got into locations. I got a song into a movie and then it got pulled out. Then I got into editing and moved back to Detroit. I’ve moved like, a million times.

So while you’ve been going through that journey, do you think your musical interests were becoming more refined?

CV: Yeah. I was working for an English director called Michael Caton Jones (Memphis Belle, Rob Roy) on a movie, remaking The Jackal with Bruce Willis. It was a big flop. The first time I heard drum ‘n’ bass was not the time I freaked out; the first time, he was putting LTJ Bukem and stuff like that in the movie and I actually had to pick up everyone and drive them around. I picked up Roni Size’s manager and played him my stuff. I heard what they were putting in and my stuff sounded like it was from ten years ago. I heard the sort of stuff they were submitting to the movie and I just thought, “This is way beyond what I’m doing.” But the sound that I freaked out to was like Ed Rush & Optical, Dillinja, Panacea… the earlier stuff was hard but really good at setting a mood, not just all about the massive drop. Like if you listen to the early Ed Rush & Optical ‘Wormhole’ album, it’s not like ‘Let’s bam you over the head’. And Photek… setting up an atmosphere and taking you into that universe. That’s what really got me going.

So where do you go from that point? You’re in LA and then move back to Detroit.

CV: I just got fed up because I wasn’t going anywhere. I’ve learned some lessons in life and one of the lessons is, if you want to be in a creative industry, in anything, you need to just do the creative thing and take it to people, because working your way up through an office or a movie set is not the way you make it. The highest you can get up is Assistant Director. But if you stay in Omaha or wherever you’re from and you make a movie, you’re ten times better off than if you’re just working as a PA for five years, because you’re not doing anything creative. Better twenty tracks or trying to make your own album, even if it sucks, than to go and be an intern in the Dirtybird office and work ten hours a day. I started figuring it out when I was in LA.

I was like “You know what, I’m sitting here busting my ass on these movies and it’s not going to actually amount to anything because I’m not writing screenplays and doing the stuff that I said I was going to do, because I’m here fourteen hours a day and I should be doing something creative.” So I went back to Detroit. I actually got a job working on a movie in Detroit and that’s what got me back there. And then this guy that I became friends with on the movie started taking me to raves and abandoned warehouses in car plants. And that’s actually how I got into dance music. Stuff that was popular was like, the local guys. I don’t mean the big local guys, I mean Mike Servito, Mike Huckaby, the guys that actually work a lot and play. People who do their own raves and one of my friends did his own rave that was really popular called Poorboy. He would stick me in the third room with twenty people, to do my experimental drum ‘n’ bass. I was super excited about it.
As an experience, it sounds far more like a community, scene event. Grassroots rather than simply booking someone massive from elsewhere to come and play.

CV: When I think about it now, it was amazing. People would do a party where 1,000 people would come out to an abandoned building that should have been knocked down fifteen years ago. Totally unsafe. People are just peeing in the corners, there’s nitrous tanks. The guy that makes the most money at the party is the guy selling water. I haven’t been to anything like that in ages.

So where does the move to San Francisco come in?

CV: I’d just started dating this Canadian girl. She was really wanting to move to San Francisco. Detroit can get you down after a while. Just working and living in a harder town can get on you. I don’t know how to explain it. I wasn’t really doing anything to progress. I was working on car commercials, like three days a week. The money was good but I wasn’t doing anything. I wanted to go back to California but I was sick of LA. This girl wanted to move to San Fran and I said “Ok, I’m going with you” and then she didn’t get a visa and I just followed through and went. She didn’t even go!

Did you even know anyone there? Or were you just thrown in at the deep end?

CV: I knew some of my brother’s friends but not really, no. I just drove straight to California by myself, rented an apartment on Venice Beach and started looking for a job. But knowing no-one. This is where it’s funny. My mum came to San Francisco and went up to Napa and this woman was working in a shop and my Mum is a real talker, real chatty. The woman in the shop was like “My son does video” and my mum was like “My son does video, our sons should meet!”. So my mum hooked me up with the very first person, named Seth, who was friends with the whole original Dirtybird crew. So that’s how I met that crew and eventually started partying with them. They were real music heads. Christian Martin was the key one, so he and I became really good buddies and we started going to the bar where his brother was the bartender (the Lion Pub, in Pacific Heights) and then we would go out and it would be all [San Francisco deep house label] Naked Music – vocals… and I’m coming from dirty rave culture to girls in sun dresses and guys in tanktops. I can remember when I moved here, it was dominated by this sound. Really vocal, smooth house. West coast house. Miguel Migs and stuff. It totally dominated everything.

Chris was like “Oh, I like it because the girls are there” but nobody loved that kind of music. So then I decided to make a documentary (2003’s ‘Intellect: Techno House Progressive’) because I had all the equipment at the post-production house and I wanted to make it about drum ‘n’ bass but someone had just come out with one called ‘Circles’, which was kind of what I wanted to do. So I said I’d just do it about house DJs, where I would interview 50 DJs, everybody… It took two years to make. The point is, I got Justin – who had just started making house – to start making some of the beats for it, then I made some of the beats for it. Then we ran out of money and had to make songs that sounded like other people.
At the same time, Christian bought a huge soundsystem because he was obsessed with Moon Tribe and Sunset, which were the two outdoor parties that everyone used to go to in the park. He wanted to do that but with our sound that we were starting to develop. Justin had started coming out with some bootlegs on this tiny underground label called Deep House Project. It all started brewing. The other thing that’s running in parallel to this is that I met my wife, who had a really good job. She got me a filmmaking job where I would end up making $10,000 a time, which is crazy. So I did a couple of those jobs and saved up about $25,000, just because I’d just done this video (‘Intellect’) and I’d skipped over all those hard parts of having to run a label. The biggest thing I learned was that you’ve got to have enough money to make it through four or five records because your distributor won’t pay you, or they’ll pay you but you’ve got to be able to withstand. If you can make it to record 5, you’re probably going to make it, was the advice that I kept getting. So I saved up enough so that we could do those first releases without getting paid any money and that’s how we got the label off the ground. And my wife did this incredible thing where she said if I wanted to take a year and not pay any bills and concentrate 100%, she’d give me a year. And then if I didn’t make a certain amount of money, I had to go and get a job for the rest of my life. So I’m in the park and I’m meeting guys from the other underground things and all this is happening all at the same time.

I was feeling like I don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t know if anyone’s going to care about it. But I was really kind of psychotic about it. We would do things like… we were friends with everybody in the scene, so we would send interns into other labels and get them to photocopy promo lists and sneak them out to me. Then we would hand-mail everyone on those lists – everyone on the lists, even in Europe – the vinyl of the first three records. We would spend more than the record would make, but everyone would get it with a hand-written note, hand-stamped with a wood-cut Dirtybird logo stamp.
Do you think you’d have started a project of this nature and magnitude if you’d stayed in Detroit?

CV: I can’t say it would have. There are so many weird things that came together all at the same time. It was also all about having the support system of people that I agreed with. If it’s just you, you start to wonder if you’re just totally crazy, but if you have a few people… even if they’re not doing the work, they’re playing it out and supporting it and becoming a unit. The whole family of Dirtybird has been very important to its success since the first day. The same people are in it that were in it since the first day.

Has the plan changed since then or become more refined or open?

CV: I think it’s a little more open now but at the same time it’s still kind of the same as before, where we’re not going to break or make a million dollars or start getting on a trend. It’s a fine line for us, because we’ve always been riding a fine line between the really cool, super on-trend people and the really over-the-top commercial sound. We’re more towards the underground side of it, but we’re not all the way… we’re not playing locked grooves for 17 hours in Ibiza.

What are some of the highlights of the label to date?

CV: They’re in the beginning. There were little things that got me excited in the beginning that would make you laugh now. Like Luke Solomon was playing the first record we put out. Then someone told me Richie Hawtin played [2005 single] ‘Deep Throat’ and I was like ‘Oh my god!’. And then when I got John Tejada to remix ‘Deep Throat’. These are things that you wouldn’t think are big deals but when you have nothing they are the hugest deal.

One of the first things that was cool was we signed the first two records to some distributors but the only one that would take us was Neuton. It was Ziggy and Edgar, who was our project manager and is now at Cocoon. They just happened to be a super-cool German distributor and that was one of my main points in the beginning, where I was saying ‘Don’t spend any energy trying to become popular in America, it’s just going to fail.’ My main goal was to become popular in Europe and then trickle back and that’s basically what has happened. When we got a German distributor, I was freaking out. But they’re all in the beginning. Every time I get an amazing Martin Brothers record it’s super exciting, or Justin by himself. Just seeing Justin play and seeing people reacting the way they’re reacting to a totally new sound just gets me super excited.
With the Hatched compilations, that’s an interesting new chapter

CV: The reason they’re happening is because I’m quite a tough A&R and even, just for example, the new Eats Everything record, the A-side was amazing and I made him do five b-sides. But now, it’s going to be massive. The thing is that I get a lot of A-sides that don’t get B-sides because I’m a little bit tough, so these compilations are happening because I’m getting one amazing track and you just put them all together. To do an EP, I think both sides have to be awesome.

How did Eats Everything react to that approach?

CV: Eats Everything is incredible. He’s got the best attitude. He knows that I’m just pushing him and he’s really fast, that’s another good quality. I work with people the way they work; Eats Everything is a really fast and amazing producer, so I can say ‘Can you work on this?’ and there’ll be a rework the next day. If I were dealing with someone who was incredibly slow, I might not take that approach. He’s going to be huge. He’s got an amazing attitude, he’s an incredible producer, he doesn’t care… I can tell him the truth. It’s like Catz ‘n’ Dogz – I can tell them the truth. I like people that I can just say exactly how I feel about the record and they’ll either work on it or tell me I’m wrong.

Sometimes I like people to say I’m wrong and stick up for their record and then I go and listen to it again and see what they’re trying to say. I’ve learned this a few times. I did find myself, at times in the middle years, putting out records where I just didn’t have the stomach to tell them that I didn’t like it. But what I’ve found is that my stomach hurt even more putting the record out! I’d rather have the agony of telling them up front than the agony of putting the record out and not thinking it’s amazing.