Dance Music Makeovers with Claude VonStroke

Words by: Zoe Smith
Posted: 27/6/11 12:59

VonStrokeJust like the porn star Seymore Butts, Claude VonStroke is in possession of a name that is just too good to be true. Yet the moniker, which started out as a joke name among friends, has come to be identified with a unique brand of dirty house music. VonStroke (real name Barclay Crenshaw) is a busy man indeed. Aside from being a producer and internation DJ, he's the owner of Dirtybird- a record label which has carved out a niche as a premiere American dance imprint. He's also the man behind the eponymous parties at San Francisco's scenic Golden Gate Park that have become a summer destination point for both locals and international travelers.

While you'll know him for his own tracks like the infectious "Who's afraid of Detroit" and the inspired "Vocal Chords", he's also a prolific remixer, having reworked tracks for the likes of The Rapture to Detroit legend Kevin Saunderson.

With a title like "Makeover" VonStroke's new mix CD certainly isn't messing about. Featuring some of the his best remixes, the collection offers a masterclass in how to create a mind-bendingly original re-working of a tune. "They are the best examples of what is possible with a remix," he tells I Voice. "I'm trying to show that you can go off the radar with a remix and make a cool track from scratch."

VonStroke's approach to remixing is perhaps indicative of his overall approach to his work. He isn't afraid to work hard. It's perhaps no surprise that he says he believes that in this game, "nobody is going to give you anything." Instead he has got where he is in the game through sheer hard work, talent and a little bit of being in the right place at the right time. But don't think that he's bitter about it. The Motor City native takes time to give back by donating a large percentage of the proceeds from his sub-label "mothership" to a music school for children in Detroit, Michigan.

Over the course of the interview VonStroke takes time out to share his thoughts on everything from the current boom for dance music in America, how bad sound systems can be good and why collaborating with megastars should be handled with care. We start off though by discussing the film he made while working in Hollywood that interviewed the scene's most legendary DJs and producers including Derrick May, Paul Van Dyk and Theo Parrish. When I do a remix I tend to start completely fresh. It's a little bit mean in a way because a lot of times I just completely ignore the original track and don't even listen to it... 

I read that the motive behind your documentary Intellect was to sit with every famous DJ in the world and figure out how to do music and start a record label. Now that you've been doing just that for a number of years, what's the most important thing you've learned that nobody told you back then?
Well actually when I started that project I didn't even know that was the motive but by the time I was done with it became pretty clear to me that was what I wanted to do. The most important thing is to work five times harder than the next guy/girl. Don't expect anyone else to help you do anything.  Your booking agent, your manager, all these people have their own lives. You are the only one who really cares about your career so make it happen for yourself. Never lose sight of your goals. Spend your own money on promoting yourself, think up your own cool ideas, write your own emails to people. At some point it becomes necessary to use a buffer but its ridiculous to have a two-person buffer between you and the world when you have three records released. Interact with the world. Get your hands dirty. No one is going to give you anything.

A few years ago you said that the US was a following market for dance music, not a leading market. What, and how much, has changed since then?
Sound wise it may still be perceived as a following market or simply a more commercial market but everything has flipped now.  This year I will make more fees in America than in Europe. That is a totally insane thing that I never thought I would ever be able to say.

It will never ever be the same as Europe because of clubs closing at 2 and 4am and 21+ drinking ages and lots of those kind of rules but in general it is going big. This is the first time in my career where I said to myself, "OK lets concentrate on America right now. Let's pay less attention to the Europe tour and make a crazy North America tour".  It makes me happy although I will never abandon my Europe gigs they are too special and I love all the people I meet out there.

I noticed you having a little giggle on Twitter recently after the Swedish House Mafia's accused other producers of "raping house music". How do you feel about Axwell's claim that the Swedish House Mafia are the ones to "keep house music real"?
The truth is that those guys maybe do not make the sound l listen to but they do provide a good service by making dance music more mainstream which means in three or four years all the little kids who listen to their stuff will grow up and come to see us play.  We all know what's up with that without saying anything more about it, right? I think everyone's on the same page with me here. 

Back in 2008 you performed with P.Diddy at WMC but you seem to haven't continued down the mega-star collaboration route. What is the reason behind that?
Yeah the infamous P Diddy show. Well at that point I was still ultra-underground and not really ready for that connection.  I was like "Hey P Diddy just called me and asked me to play his party. Ok I'll go check it out." I guess some people would see that as a missed opportunity but I see it as that I was still developing as a producer.  Now, I'm more ready to co-write and produce music for people although you would never see my name on it.  Strictly behind the scenes for me. 

You will never see VonStroke ft. P. Diddy but maybe on the liner notes you will see.  P. Diddy's latest track - written and produced by Barclay Crenshaw.  That's more of how it's going to develop.  I have no desire to make Claude VonStroke some super-commercial act. It's not going to happen. 

Who would you like to produce in the future.
Odd future, Q-tip, The Rapture, Jessie J, Sharon Jones - anyone really. I'm done being a music snob.  I'm ready to explore but like I said, I just want to write the songs I don't want to be famous like that.  Just in the liner notes for me thanks.

Claude VonStrokeYou've talked about the difficulty in trying to balance playing quality music vs the "hands in the air" tracks that go down well at festivals. If you didn't have to worry about entertaining a paying audience what your ideal set be like?
Yeah this is like the biggest thing for a club DJ who gets a certain level of popularity.  How do you go on right before 2manyDjs or Calvin Harris and still get the crowd involved? It's very difficult!  But to answer your question I play the same tunes everywhere, just more bangers in a row at a festival.

In a club I can play 3-4 hours but a festival is 90min maximum so it's just super condensed.  If I can play whatever I want for like 7 hours I open it up a lot, like really go deep down into several areas that I like -some funk, some drum n bass, some techno, some house. I'll play a lot of good music without so much genre restriction in a more free-form set.

Skream is loving your Katy B remix, I imagine you like to think beyond genres but what are your thoughts on how the dubstep scene is going down in the States?
For me to do a dubstep remix is opening a can of worms at least in my own head.  The haters are ready to pounce!! hehe,  At some point though you have to say fuck it and do it.  Just make the tunes you like.  I was talking to Ramadanman in Detroit last week about this and he said something that stuck with me... He said just casually, "yeah its best not to think too much about these things..." That's the best attitude you can have as a musician. Just make cool music.  As far as dubstep in America, the kids are still cycling through the chainsaw bro-step stuff right now so they should be good to go on some much cooler sounds by next year.

For me to do a dubstep remix is opening a can of worms at least in my own head.  The haters are ready to pounce!! hehe,  At some point though you have to say fuck it and do it...Given the title of your new remix compilation, what's the difference between a remix and a makeover?
This is the whole point of this compilation.  A lot of people remix a track by just taking the original and doing a new set of drums and some effects on the melody or main hook.  When I do a remix I tend to start completely fresh. It's a little bit mean in a way because a lot of times I just completely ignore the original track and don't even listen to it.  I just go into the parts folders and use the materials.  So a "Makeover" is when I remix a track from the bottom up, total remake.  There are some cases like Percolator and Wut remixes where the original is too iconic to ignore it completely but in general I really try to make an original piece of music as a "remix."  The CD is the best example of that from me.

Which musical genres have most influenced your approach to remixing?
I don't know. I usually just play around until something happens.  It's very rare that I say OK time to do a housey remix or a dark techno remix.  Every once in a while, like my Planet E remix for Kenny Larkin, I know exactly what I want to do from the start. But like I said that is very rare.

MakeoverWhat is it that stands out about the songs that are featured on the album? Why did you choose them?
As I said above they are the best examples of what is possible with a remix.  I'm trying to show that you can go off the radar with a remix and make a cool track from scratch.  All part of what I said in the beginning, you can work harder and try to be better all the time, not just in your originals. You can be really creative even in a remix scenario.

The label may not love you for it but I find that a lot of times it ends up being a happy surprise for them if you really put some effort into it.  Every once it a while this theory backfires and your remix is rejected but then guess what?? You already made something very different from the original so just take out the original parts and finish your new original song. Nice.

I can't actually think of any other club scenario outside of Ibiza that really reaches a full audience all at once like that.  There are even people from New York and LA in the crowd.For all the aspiring producers who are reading this piece, how would you describe your technical approach to remixing.
1. Throw out the original track. listen to it as little as possible.
2. Go into the parts and chop them up
3. Start up some drums and get a solid groove made 
4.Throw everything back into your sampler or Dr Rex or whatever you are using and make something cool. 
5. Don't be limited to using bass sounds for bass. See what that bass sound sounds like two octaves up with a tape delay on it? Repeat this process forever until you are done. 

Where is your favorite place to "road-test" your tunes?
This will sound crazy but the more terrible the sound system the better. Then you really see what your track is made of. If it stays solid on bad sound you are golden.

How many years have you had a residency at  We Love... at Space? What is it that keeps you coming back?
Hmm I believe this is my fourth season. If I'm wrong then it's my fifth but somewhere in there is the right answer. I like We Love in particular because it's run by people who like good music who book hugely diverse line-ups.

               We Love... Space, Sunday August 8th 2010 from We Love on Vimeo.
The success of your Dirtybird festival obviously shows that you're keen to champion the San Francisco sound and you also remain loyal to your home town of Detroit so what attracts you to playing to an Ibiza crowd?
I keep coming back because Space is the one place you can play and all year round people will come up to you and say "hey i saw you at Space, nice set".  There are not that many places on Earth that you can reach such a wide audience from so many different countries all in one night.  I can't actually think of any other club scenario outside of Ibiza that really reaches a full audience all at once like that.  There are even people from New York and LA in the crowd.

What's your stand-out memory from all of your trips to Ibiza?
This is so nerdy because I met so many cool people and had so much fun but I really remember that I had this one track by Voodeux on Mothership called "The Curse" that is so haunting and weird but the main sound in the track is made just for this giant kind of giant room with huge sound.  The track has to be played at the right time in the right room. I was waiting all year to play "The Curse" in the Discoteca [room].  It sounded so amazing and this huge creepy synth totally washed over the crowd and sent their eyeballs back into their heads. I was so happy at that exact moment I still remember it.

Makeover Tour Dates
July 08 - dirtybird - San Francisco
July 14 - Dubai
July 15 - Dour festival - Belgium
July 16 - Gurten Festival, Switzerland
July 17 - We Love Space, Ibiz
July 29 - Spy Bar, Chicago
July 30 - New York, Good Units
July 31 - Montreal, Piknik Electronic
August 02 - Washington DC - Uhaul
August 03 - Boston - Midweek Techno
August 04 - Cleveland
August 05 - Miami - Electric Pickle
August 06 - Toronto - Footwork
August 13 - Detroit
September 10 - Bestival, UK
September 11 - We Love Space, ibiza

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