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Claude VonStroke on Branding, Beards & Bloggers (interview) :: Skrufff

Reported by Charlie G [Trackitdown.net] on October 21, 2009

“I just wanted to say ‘you can’t have everything, you motherfuckers.’ You might get it in three weeks time but you will not get it today on promo, bitches.”

The ‘it’ US tech-house hero and Dirty Bird/ Mothership label chief Claude Vonstroke is referring to is ’Big n Round’, the vinyl only B-side he’s added to hotly tipped new single Vocal Chords.

 “I did that just as a little tiny ‘fuck you’ to the bloggers,” he chuckles, “Go buy a vinyl record for once in your life.”

Teasing bloggers aside (he admit he expects few, if any of them to buy the record), the man who could have been called ‘Pedro de la Fedro’ (his real name’s Barclay Crenshaw) is surprisingly serious about his business strategy, certainly when it relates to issues concerning his image- and beard.

“This is something I wish more people would pay attention to,” he complains, “not my beard, but branding.”

“Unfortunately part of the industry and part of life is marketing yourself. You don’t only have to be the best; you have to also be the best at getting your message across to people. There are sick, sick (fantastic) producers who don’t understand this and they end up just floating around in the middle of the pack because they don’t understand this aspect of it,” he sighs.

“Branding yourself, whether it is with a beard or your weird tracks or your DJ name or your logo; all of it matters,” he stresses, “And being cool to all the fans matters. Basically, EVERYTHING matters, not just your 3 minute blend or your insane remix of Carl Craig.”

Despite sounding somewhat critical of his less focused peers, he’s also extremely popular with all sorts of DJs, as evidenced by the long list of ecstastic supporters on the Dirty Bird site (http://www.dirtybirdrecords.com) for new album Bird Brain. He’s also considerably more humble than his outspokenness might suggest, reflecting the long hard slog that saw him flirting with bankruptcy before exploding onto the global dance stage in 2006.

Growing up in Detroit, the teenage Barclay occupied himself learning to play cello, before picking on an obsession for hip hop at boarding school in Connecticut. Returning to Detroit briefly, he next discovered drum & bass before moving back east to Rochester New York where several years later he graduated from film school.

Leaving the very next day for sunny California, he soon found himself near the bottom of LA’s status heap, working as a tour guide at Paramount Pictures, a job he admits he enjoyed.

“Being a tour guide is actually one of the best jobs at that place. Everyone on the tour thinks you are some kind of film guru even though you have no memory of the training after two weeks,” he recalls, “All the other jobs are a serious grind unless you are in charge and even those people are so stressed out it is incredible. The best jobs at a movie studio are at the very bottom (no pressure but fun being there) and the very top (tons of pressure but TONS of perks). All the middle jobs will make you want to kill yourself,” he laughs.

Happy at the bottom, he refrained from telling coworkers he’d one day be a superstar DJ, he insists.

“Ha!!! No. I never even knew I would be doing this when I lived in LA. I wasn’t even really into house music yet,” he laughs.

“Also, I’m just not that kind of person. I would never brag about anything that I hadn’t done yet. And even then I tend to keep my mouth shut. When I hear other DJs and producers bragging to their friends about all their awesome remix work and how many copies their records sell I just think they are insecure losers.”

In the meantime, he conceived and starting working on his own documentary Intellect, a how-to guide to becoming a star DJ. Involving interviewing the likes of Derrick Carter and Carl Craig, the documentary allowed him to both learn the ropes of the music business while making the industry wide connections that helped him eventually experience ‘overnight’ success with his first ever house tune Deep Throat.

Released in 2006, the track went on to sell over 11,000 vinyl copies, paving the way for his debut album Beware Of the Bird and even bigger breakthrough hit Who's Afraid of Detroit? Talking to Skrufff today though, his chief focus is on promoting new album Bird Brain, a ‘a little less goofy’ record, he asserts, that’s been  ‘slightly easier’ to make.


Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): How much do you find creative inspiration easy? How much is your music about finding ‘happy accidents?’ Do you ever suffer from creative blocks?

Claude Von Stroke: “The old three questions inside one question trick! I usually start with a clear idea of what will happen when I start a track and then that never happens. In that way you could say there are a lot of happy accidents. I do have creative blocks sure, but not in my head, they’re more about getting what is inside my head to sound right on the dang (dammed) machines.  Why can’t the machines do exactly what I want them to do?”

Skrufff: How much has the collapse of the music business and rise of free downloading changed your approach to this album?

Claude Von Stroke: “I released almost every big track as a single digitally before the album came out. The CD is more for people who want to have it all in one place but you can already find most of the music out and about already. Unfortunately you cannot just ‘drop’ your album anymore and expect it to go through the roof. It has about a 6 week shelf life online so if you drop 12 tracks – all 12 are done in 6 weeks. This is why I released so many singles beforehand and will have so many remixes afterwards. The dripping faucet theory.”

Skrufff: Going into your early days of moving to LA and working for Paramount Studios: sounds quite romantic, how hard in reality were those times and how long did they last for?

Claude Von Stroke: “I lived in LA for about 4 years. I worked my ass off like you wouldn’t believe only to leave that city with a huge amount of debt and a suntan. Times were hard but not to the extent that I was homeless. I always had a job there because I’m a really hard worker. I think my work ethic is the reason I made the labels pan out (succeed). Some of these DJs and producers today . . . I can’t believe how little they actually do to maintain their careers; and now I sound like the old man from Scooby Doo.”

Skrufff: Presumably you were in mega debt after college: how much pressure were you under to get a ‘straight’ college graduate job?

Claude Von Stroke: “Well I went to school in upstate New York so priority number one was to get to some sunshine as soon as possible. After that I felt the pressure, for sure, but I was always a scrapper. I found jobs doing everything you can image. I never starved. Also, I never ever even thought of the safe route as an option.”

Skrufff: Did you ever have any major crisis of confidence?

Claude Von Stroke: “Good question; the answer is no. I think it is because my parents made me feel loved and special when I was a kid. I always thought I would do something interesting and fun with my life. I never doubted it. I think it really matters a lot if you love and support your kids. It’s a really big deal down the road. As a side note I would say during the making of my documentary there was a moment when I thought I would go completely bankrupt but I didn’t care by that point. I would have sold my furniture and the clothes off my back to finish it. I was truly obsessed and that it was it takes to break through. Obsession with your goal.”

Skrufff: You also talked in an earlier interview about personally mailing vinyl records one by one to every famous DJ’s home address you could find, did that work?

Claude Von Stroke: “That was one of the best things I ever did and it would still work today I think. Yes, people contacted me and I would hear of other people playing the records, especially Deep Throat. You just have to open a package addressed to you, right? It is impossible not to. And a piece of vinyl, these days? You have to put it on and listen just out of respect.  It’s still a great strategy for starting your label.”

Skrufff: One of your best known songs is ‘Who's Afraid of Detroit?’, the city has a fearsome reputation for crime and gangs: have you ever been robbed or threatened there?

Claude Von Stroke: “I have been robbed in LA but Detroit, no . . . and this is actually the real meaning of “Who’s Afraid of Detroit?” Yes it is bleak and scary looking but I have never had any problems there even walking down alleys in the darkest of night. The reputation is not the reality. “Who’s Afraid?” is asking you (originally directed at all the people in the suburbs of Detroit) if you are going to be a pussy and believe the hype or are you going to face the city and enjoy it.”

Skrufff: Kenny Larkin was shot and wounded at his front door in the suburbs (and shot back, saving himself): do you own a gun?  Ever considered getting one?

Claude Von Stroke: “See, if he lived downtown there would not be any problem. No . . . just kidding. I never actually heard that. Man, that is crazy!! No, I would never own a gun. If I get shot I guess that’ll be it.”

Skrufff: How are you perceived in San Francisco these days there? Local hero made good? Celebrity?

Claude Von Stroke: “It’s hard for me to gauge but one of the reasons San Francisco is so cool is that it isn’t a town where people get all wet over a person. The haters are always out there to keep you in check. If I play a bad set here trust me I’ll know it in about five minutes. San Francisco is awesome as well in the way that guys like Solar and Galen can draw five times bigger crowds than Richie Hawtin and Sven Vath. San Francisco supports its local crews. It’s a very tight social community. Trends are not as relevant here.”

Skrufff: How hard is it to juggle family life with DJing: do you turn down many gigs/ opportunities for family?

Claude Von Stroke: “Yes, I turn down more gigs than I accept. I wish I could explain it to promoters sometimes. They just don’t understand why I’m not free every single Friday Saturday and Sunday of the entire year. My kids actually need a father is why. My wife wants to see me sometimes as well. The flight from San Francisco to Europe is insanely long and even if I didn’t have a family I think I could only manage the flight twice a month anyway.  When we lived in Berlin last summer it was much easier but then I ended up playing too may gigs and by the end of the summer I was simply burnt to a crisp. I think I’m playing the right amount now.”

Claude VonStroke’s new album Bird Brain is out on Monday October 19.

Claude VonStroke at Trackitdown: http://www.trackitdown.net/artist/131830/claude-vonstroke.html

Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)