Although this is coming a month or so late due to issues with the recording, I'm still really excited to have been able to interview San Francisco label Dirtybird Records's Justin Martin in Detroit when I was in town for MovementFestival. Although the Dirtybird crew didn't play the festival, they did organize a killer afterparty at the Fillmore, with a headlining back-to-back set from Justin Martin and label head Claude VonStroke and supporting back-to-back sets from Worthy vs. Leroy Peppers, J.Phlip vs. Kill Frenzy, and Ardalan vs. Justin Jay.
Justin Martin is known for his laid-back attitude and for not taking things too seriously despite his rampant success as a DJ/producer in the last six years, quoting Oscar Wilde in his profile on the Dirtybird website: "life is too important to be taken seriously." In spite of, or perhaps in part because of, his easygoing demeanor, Martin has earned accolades in the form of an appearance on BBC Radio 1's Essential Mix, a cover feature in DJ Magazine, and plenty of positive feedback on his productions and his energetic DJ performances.
Read on to learn more about what Justin Martin is working on now (including a forthcoming album alongside Eats Everything), his creative process and perfectionism, how he became interested in electronic music, and his need for physical studio time to get things done.
EARMILK: You were saying Movement is one of your favorite festivals, so you've attended before? What have been some highlights?
Justin Martin: This is probably my fifth year, and the first year I'm probably not actually going to be making it to the festival. Highlights? The highlight for me was playing two years ago, definitely. On a really, really, really hot day. Aside from that, I've seen Claude VonStroke play it three times now and he always kills it. I mean, he's like a hometown hero here, so the energy is amazing and it's just cool. Every year I've gotten to see him play he's dropped one of my new tracks I've been working on, so just getting to see the crowd reaction is always a highlight.
EM: And are you excited for the Dirtybird afterparty tonight at The Fillmore?
JM: I'm very excited for tonight, yeah. Every year we try and do a Dirtybird party here, and this is the first time we're doing tag team sets, which is cool. I think it's going to add a different element to it and it's always fun, but it's going to make it a different kind of fun. We didn't plan anything out, we're just going into it as an actual song-for-song battle. Just trying to make it as special for everyone else that attends as possible. I'm really excited.
EM: Have you and Claude VonStroke done a lot of back-to-back sets before?
JM: I've done a few this year, actually. I played in Miami at our Dirtybird barbecue, we had some sound issues in the beginning of the day so everyone had to push their sets together because we didn't get the music started until later. That was the first time that we played back-to-back kind of officially, other than afterparties and stuff like that. And then we ended up doing another tag team set later that night at a HARD Miami party and we just had a blast. So when we thought up the concept for this Dirtybird party, it came off of that. Plus we wanted to get everybody jammed into the lineup, and the only way we could fit everyone in the time that we had was to do tag team sets. I think it's going to be cool, I'm really interested to hear what everyone else does with it as well.
EM: Did you have a part in organizing the party, too?
JM: That's all Claude. Whenever it's a label party, which is pretty much any Dirtybird party with the exception of our quarterly party that we do in San Francisco and our outdoor barbecues that we do in San Francisco, he has a team that puts everything together and organizes it.
EM: And from playing all of these different parties in different places, do you have a sense of certain places where things are really blowing up right now?
JM: Yeah, the overall response to whenever we've done a Dirtybird party, like actually branded it as that, not where we're just playing some club, it always brings out a whole different dynamic, and it's really awesome. We have a really amazing fanbase all over the world. And it's cool, it's a really underground vibe and no matter where I am, I feel like I'm at home when it's a Dirtybird party. It's always really, really special.
But you know, there's definitely hot spots. San Francisco, our hometown, of course. London, and there's lots of places in the UK. The UK seems to be very Dirtybird-friendly. I don't know, I'm always surprised when we go play somewhere new, I'm always pleasantly surprised with the overall enthusiasm from fans. It's really cool.
EM: Some labels will focus on releases and that's it, but it sounds like Dirtybird has more of a community thing going on.
JM: Yeah, we're just really lucky. Lucky in the sense that we don't really sign anybody, but we've kind of got a little bit of a family. Not only are the people who are making the most interesting music to us talented, but they also happen to be really cool, fun people to hang out with, so it's really awesome to have this little creative collective of unique, fun people that are humble and down-to-earth. It makes every time that we get to do a Dirtybird party together special. I love all of the producers that I work with, and I feel lucky to be a part of that, you know?
EM: And do you end up collaborating a lot on music internally? Does that influence the productions that come out?
JM: There's a little bit of collaboration going on within the whole collective. For the most part, there's a few people that I'm more likely to collaborate with, for example, my brother (Christian Martin), because he's my brother. And then Ardalan is my roommate so I'm always kind of peeking into his room and checking out what he's working on, and thinking of stupid ideas late at night. And Eats Everything is another guy that we really just think on the same weird wavelength, so we work really well in the studio together. Neither of us are very serious people, so it's always really fun to work with him. We just goof off and get creative.
I'm inspired by pretty much everybody that's putting stuff out on the label right now, so I'm down to work with anybody. I like working with other people, because I work a lot faster. Otherwise I'm kind of sitting in my room tweaking for hours and hours, just tweaking knobs like "aah, does it sound better on 11 or 9, what should I turn it up to?" but when I'm working with someone else, it's just kind of like, everything just rolls out. I have the voice of reason sitting on my shoulder.
EM: What does the process for producing your songs look like?
JM: It usually comes from an idea. I don't know, it's really hard to pinpoint how it all unfolds. I work a lot with samples, so I'll usually compile a bunch of sounds and stuff that I really like and just kind of see if I can make it all fit together, and just start jamming with different sounds. I always have my ears tuned to listening for samples everywhere, constantly. Whenever I hear a song, if there's a nice kick drum, I'll be like, "is that by itself somewhere in the song?" or if I hear a bass note that's by itself, or a nice chord, or something like that.
I just try to make every song different from the last. I try to get as creative as I can. It's weird, it kind of just unfolds. You start messing around and something clicks, but yeah, I definitely have ideas of songs that I want to do. I'll be like, all right, I want to do this type of track. It's usually inspired from other music that I hear.
EM: It seems like you have a pretty diverse set of influences given some of the mixes you've put out, like that jungle/drum and bass one.
JM: Yeah, that's what got me into it at the very beginning. From the age of fifteen, I was a huge drum and bass fan. I started collecting and DJing drum and bass records when I was in high school, so for me, I didn't switch over to house music until I moved to San Francisco in 1999. There wasn't really a good drum and bass scene in San Francisco and it was really hard to find the records I was looking for, so I just kind of started collecting house music and slowly got into it.
When we first started producing the Dirtybird stuff, we wanted to make something that had influences from everything. And there was luckily a giant hole that was just waiting to be filled by our ideas. We wanted to make music that kind of crossed genres, with a little bit of a drum and bass influence, techno, house, everything kind of combined into one, where you can't really pinpoint what the genre is.
EM: Yeah, I feel like you guys were kind of ahead of the curve with that sort of thing. A lot of people seem to be trying for that now.
JM: Everything just kind of fell into place really nicely for us. We lucked out. We happened to all meet each other around the same time and all had a common goal, and it's been an awesome ride.
EM: What's coming up for Dirtybird now?
JM: Claude has an album he's working on. I haven't talked to him in a little bit, we actually probably haven't even spoken in like two weeks because he's been locked away working on it. I'm working on an album with Eats Everything that's hopefully going to come out in the spring. It's really hard with our schedules to get in the studio together but we're taking all of November off just to work and see what we come up with. Hopefully it flows. We're going to call the project something — it's not just going to be "Justin Martin and Eats Everything," we haven't come up with a name yet but we'd like to put together a live show for next year.
EM: I know a lot of people right now have moved their collaborations to the Internet. Is that physical studio time still important to you?
JM: Yeah, I kind of need to be there. I'm really, really, really kind of anal. I'm a perfectionist when it comes down to it. And I hate the thought of something getting changed without me knowing it. It's almost OCD, or something like that. To a fault. So I like to be there, and I like to be the one that's putting the final tweaks and touches on the track.
As far as working over the Internet, I think if it's the barebones and it's an idea of the track, something I can embellish on, but I have to be there in the studio. It's not something I can just pass back and forth. For example, when me and Dan (Eats Everything) did our EP on Hypercolour, we started it over a year ago, and we kind of finished it, but it wasn't ready to go, but he was like, "All right, we've really got to finish this. We've been sitting on these tracks, they sound great out, they sound great in the club," and I'm just like, "No, it's not quite right."
He'd be like, "let me fix whatever it is," he'd fix it and send it to me, "no, still not right," fix it, send it to me, so it got kind of pointless. He was just like, "all right, dude, when you come to Bristol next, we'll get in the studio and then we can finish it." I'm a little crazy when it comes to that.
EM: You said you've been into drum and bass music since you were 15, how did you get started with DJing?
JM: I actually got my first record when I turned 16 but I started kind of listening to electronic music when I was 15, when I was listening to Bjork and Dee-lite and Goldie and LTJ Bukem. I was on a jazz band tour in Europe during my sixteenth birthday, and I was just listening to this LTJ Bukem Mixmag CD nonstop the whole time on my CD Walkman.
So for my sixteenth birthday my friend bought me the Logical Progression vinyl, it was a three-record compilation, and as soon as I got home I found whatever turntables I could and started learning how to DJ and started collecting records from there and fell in love with it instantly. So yeah, I've been doing it for over half my life now, since I was 16, that's crazy.
EM: When did you start seeing electronic music shows?
JM: Really early on. I was going to my first raves when I was 16 in Connecticut. I'd go and visit my brother, who was going to college in Southern California, so whenever I'd go out and visit him, he'd take me out to these desert raves or whatever thing was going on at his college, and I instantly fell in love with it.
During the summers, he was living in New York City, so I'd go out with him there using his ID. I kind of instantly found my calling in life, as a young little raver, and just enjoying going out and not even partying. Just going out and dancing and hearing DJs play.
EM: Do you still manage to make it to a lot of stuff outside your own touring?
JM: Now, not really. My schedule is insane, this next month I have 17 gigs, so there's not much room for going out. But this last month, I was in San Francisco for almost the whole month, and if I have a friend that comes into town or something like that then I'll definitely go out. But yeah, I'm really starting to enjoy my downtime a little bit more now. Sitting on the couch, watching a baseball game, and ordering takeout is my ideal night off.
EM: How you stay sane when you're touring?
JM: I don't really stay sane, I think I lost it a long time ago. When I'm touring, there's never any downtime it feels like. I just don't sleep very much. But it's fun, I can't complain, the only part of the job that's really like a job is the traveling and the lack of sleep. But then you've got to pinch yourself and be like, I'm living my dream and doing what I love to do. So I can't really complain. Sleep when you're dead.
EM: Do you work on production while you're touring, or do you keep the two separate?
JM: I try. I've been trying to train myself to do that, because now I'm on the road so much that if I don't, months and months go by and I won't have any music come out. For me personally, to keep myself inspired when I'm DJing I need to always have new music that I'm working on that I can test out.
I'm getting better at it, but it's hard for me. I'm not good at mixing things down in headphones and I really am particular about how my songs get mixed down. To finish something, I definitely need to be in my studio. The worst is working on something on the road and getting back and being like, "all right, cool, this is almost done," and then plugging it in and being like, "oh my god, it sounds like shit." [laughs] So then I'm just pulling my hair out trying to fix it in the most backwards way ever, you know.
But I think I'm getting better. There's some people that just blow my mind, they're constantly producing on the plane and stuff like that, I don't understand how people do that. It's crazy. I wish I could, but I can't.
EM: How do DJing and production play off each other for you?
JM: They definitely do. The main goal is to make music that people are going to react to positively on the dance floor, so for me it's like the ultimate testing ground. And it's the most exciting thing ever, playing a song that I'm excited about that I just finished and seeing the reaction. It doesn't always work out, and you're like, all right, I have to go back to the drawing board, but you know, it's nice having that luxury of being able to see and work on it until it's right. To see if the vision you have when you're sitting there in the studio actually moves other people as well.
EM: So when you're producing music would you say the dance floor is your main goal?
JM: Definitely, definitely. But you know, headphones as well. I've always tried to make music that has a little bit of depth to it, I'm not just thinking, what's the biggest bass sound that I can find? I want to make something that people can also listen to in their headphones.
EM: Do you think you'd ever produce something that wasn't dance-floor-oriented at all?
JM: Yeah, totally, definitely. For me right now, because I have limited time that I can actually be in the studio, I'm thinking like, all right, dance music. But I would like to, down the road, experiment with making all kinds of different music, when I'm too old to be doing like 150 gigs a year, and I just want to make music.
But right now, I'm enjoying everything, I'm enjoying life on the road and just making dance music for people, it's really fun. But yeah, I would like to conduct an orchestra if I could, at some point. That's something that's on my bucket list.
EM: What else is coming up for you this year, aside from the album with Eats Everything?
JM: So that's a ways off, considering we don't even have a name for us yet. Other than that, I'm working on finishing up a remix for Dave Pezzner for his album that's coming out on Systematic and a remix for these guys Rudimental that are blowing up in Europe right now. I'm producing a track for this girl Lena Cullen, she's an amazing vocalist so I'm doing a track for her album as well.
It's all really fun stuff, I'm looking at each project in a different way and I've got like four days left to finish all this stuff, and then I hit the road for the whole summer, so yeah, that's what I've got coming up. I'm trying to think, other than that, I've got a track coming out with Eats Everything in like two weeks, called "The Get Up", and then another single called "Buggin'". I made it over a year ago for our Miami barbecue, we always try to have some kind of old school hip-hop act, two years ago we had Phife from A Tribe Called Quest, so I made this track and got the sample licensed after like, a year of trying to work it out. So that should be coming out soon.