Claude VonStroke: "If you just try to do what everyone else is doing, that never works out"
Experimental house-music label Dirtybird has become a force to be reckoned with over the past couple of years, taking over entire stages at festivals and consistently showcasing what's coming up next in the realm of house -- even, some might argue, setting those trends before they become trendy. And that's all due to the vision and hard work of label founder Claude VonStroke.
VonStroke has a saucy take on house music; he flirts with genres from all over the spectrum, nodding to hip-hop, garage and soul while infecting the dance floor with his playful, upbeat style. Although he's long been a presence on the festival circuit, this year was the first that Dirtybird as a label hosted stages at festivals across the country, including HARD, Electric Zoo and TomorrowWorld.
Unlike many festival staples, though, VonStroke and his protégés don't play the latest tunes. They're too busy scoping out the sound of the future and sculpting it into their own creations, envisioning and defining the cutting edge of what's hot in the house world. We recently caught up with VonStroke, who just came out with a new album last month, Urban Animal, for a chat about the album, the fallout from Electric Zoo and the evolution of taste.
Westword: Dirtybird has been able to play some big festivals while not catering to what most people would consider the mainstream electronic-music sound these days. How do you walk that line as an artist and as a label founder?
Claude VonStroke: We just play where we get booked. I think that maybe as a group we are able to bring something to a festival that's different than the usual lineup, so sometimes people will take a risk and book us. I've been playing festivals for a long time, but this last year was the first time that a lot of us were going to the festivals, so it was a little different.
We tend to do our own thing, so it doesn't matter what they want us to do. It's a hard question, because I know what you're saying -- "Do we have to tailor what we're playing" and all that stuff -- and maybe we play a little bit bigger. But in general, we kind of stick to it, because I have this feeling that if you play what you play, then it's going to be better in the long term, and people will be better fans. If you just try to do what everyone else is doing, that never works out, even in making music. It works out for some people, but it's not what I'm interested in doing.
It's been a few years since you've put a full album together. What was the inspiration to make Urban Animal?
It was probably just that I hadn't done one in a while. I started sitting down to make tracks, and I had a little window of time when I wasn't going on some crazy tour, so I started cobbling together some music, and it turned from an EP to a bigger EP, and I thought, "Let's just go for the whole enchilada."
How did you select the name?
For a long time -- many many many years before I did this -- I just had jobs just like everybody, and I hated most of them. And I noticed that people who live in the city, they don't tend to go camping on the weekend or fishing or on some nature hike; they tend to go to the clubs and go bananas. And the release of going out at night, it's just a little bit animalistic, and the title just fit with what I was thinking.
San Francisco has always had such a dedicated house scene. What's it like to see that sound gearing up in the U.S., in particular after the shift to a more commercial electronica sound?
I hope that you're right. We've been thinking that maybe you're right for a little while, but you never really know. I'm seeing a little bit, playing in bigger clubs for wider varieties of people, so I hope that you're right -- and it's kind of been the goal that we've been just sitting here waiting for that to happen.
So when everybody was listening to that stuff that you were referring to -- I'm not going to name any names -- we were always happy about that because it seemed like it would work out for us. We're not so underground that we're inaccessible, I don't think, so I think we're kind of the gateway in between the really deep and dark stuff and the really wild, bro-step stuff.
I read an interview with you from about a year ago where you said that whether commercial electronic music will help or hurt the genre as a whole remains to be seen. Any updates on those thoughts?
I think it's helpful. You know what it is? It's like, okay, so maybe I started with Beastie Boys and then I ended up with Digable Planets and Eric B. and Rakim or whatever, and there's just a natural progression of listening to music. So you're sixteen, and you want something crazy, and you want to go against your parents, and then you kind of start to really listen to what you're listening to, and it changes a little bit. It's not for everyone; some people become music connoisseurs and they change their taste. So I think it's helping.
I feel like anyone who's been into electronic music for a while has these dirty little secrets, these albums and songs and parties that they loved until they developed more of a selective taste for it.
When I first moved to San Francisco, we went to these raves with Mars & Mystre and Tom Slick, and they were like cybertrance raves, and they were awesome, and we went crazy! And they were really fun. I know we're not supposed to talk about that. They were really candy, like super candy, little robotic bubbles and bright colors and stuff. The guy that was my roommate at that time -- I think he's still into it.
So as someone who's been in the scene for a while, what are your thoughts on the media attention that was focused on electronic music after the deaths at Electric Zoo?
I think that was natural. There has to be a story. I actually feel it wasn't nearly as bad as the first wave of that, which happened in, if anybody can remember, like the Sasha and Digweed era and the crackhouse laws, and all that stuff was way worse for way less whatever level of disaster. Everybody was so paranoid. It wasn't, like, "Oh, my God, the federal government is coming, dance music is over, and we should all just go home and cry." There's way too much money in it now, and that helps.
You've been expanding Dirtybird to accommodate some other genres, like drum-and-bass and hip-hop. How has that been going for you so far?
It fits basically just on the albums. We haven't really done a hip-hop release on Dirtybird, but we have always had these influences, for sure, and I think the remixes of this album would be even more out there. I think everybody's into more than one kind of music, and I know everybody just wants me to be a specialist, but I don't know if that's going to happen.
What are your plans for the future? Where else would you like to see the label go?
We kind of naturally change. It's so subtle that it would be hard to pinpoint, but if you really listen to the compilation at the start of every year and the releases every year, it really does change. The music -- two years ago, we had that whole U.K. garage-house hybrid stuff going on, and now we're completely out of that and on to more analogue-y. It just seems to shift because I get bored.
We're always signing stuff that sounds different, but it's all in the same genre, so if my mom came and listened to it, she'd be like, this is all the same, but for a person who's actually following it, it's very different. We're not like Nickelback.
Signing a lot of music over the years, I've noticed that there's a couple different kinds of producers, and the first kind of producer will have a hit and then they'll make like a hundred of that song, and the second kind of producer will have a hit and then they'll never make that song again. There's nobody really in the middle. I try never to make the same song twice, but I could've definitely capitalized a couple of times, but whatever. It's okay.
What's coming up next for you, specifically?
Just the tour right now is what we're focusing on. We're going to have a big compilation in January to kick off next year's tour, and next year we're going to go back to the original barbecue party. We started out in Golden Gate Park, before we did Dirtybird, where we did a free barbecue for everybody, and we're going to do some of those next year. I don't know if they're going to be free, but we're going to try!