Claude Von Stroke’s Dirty American Dream (interview)
“The American Dream is a tricky, tricky thing. In my heart I believe that you can do anything but I also believe that people have been sold a lot of bullshit.”
Five years after his debut Dirtybird release Deep Throat became a worldwide club hit and four years after ‘Who’s Afraid Of Detroit?’ did exactly same, Claude VonStroke is one of America’s and the world’s most credible- and popular DJs. Specialising in producing, playing and releasing the minimal (and nowadays post minimal) deep digital house that’s dominated much of club-land in the intervening period, he’s also succeeded in establishing his label Dirtybird, whose five year birthday he marks this month with a triple CD compilation (5 Years of Dirtybird: click here for sounds)
“Anyone can do what I've done but not if they just see the surface,” Claude (real name Barclay Crenshaw) clarifies.
“They must understand the 20 years of buying samplers and working with sequencers and having radio shows and playing the cello and putting all my money into gear that’s involved. The American Dream is not possible if you just decide to be something and want to be successful in one year. But it is possible for anyone who dedicates their entire life and all of their resources to something,” he suggests.
Self-made and self-taught, he began his obsession with electronic music whilst a teenager studying at one of America’s elite boarding schools in the late 80s, though rather than attend an Ivy League college, ended up working as a tour guide at California’s Universal Studios for four years. Returning to Detroit in the late 90s he rediscovered his passion for electronic music and after moving to San Francisco (his current base) came up with the concept of making a ‘how to become a successful DJ’ DVD. Interviewing the likes of Derrick May, Theo Parrish and Derrick Carter for the 6 hour DVD (called Intellect) he gained first hand advice- and contacts, that inspired him to launch Dirty Bird in 2005 (some 15 years after he first dreamed of making a living through music).
“Going on American Idol because you practice singing one hour a day and then being devastated because you didn't get through; that is not the American Dream,” Claude continues.
“For example, if you write a screenplay and you try to sell it and you fail - you cannot say the American dream has failed you. BUT,” he stresses, his voice booming, “if you get a degree in English, go to screenwriting workshops, write 50 screenplays over 15 years, teach writing to kids, study the structure of films, network with other screenwriters, bust your ass to get an agent, etc etc etc.. I feel like even if you don't write the next great movie that something good will come from all this dedication. Maybe it's not what you originally wanted but it will be something good. Dedication always pays off even if it is through some other avenue. Right now we live in a culture where people value quick fame over quality. This is not teaching people the right lessons to achieve the real American Dream.”
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): You’re celebrating five years of your label with this new triple CD ‘5 Years of Dirtybird’ how much did you have a 5 year plan when you started?
Claude VonStroke: “My initial plan was actually to make it past 5 records when I started since a few people told me that was the test to see if a label can survive; five records. Five years is amazing to me but then I see a label like Ovum or Spektral or even Planet E. These guys really have longevity. Hopefully someday we will be in that class of classic American labels.”
Skrufff: Releasing a triple CD seems rather extreme (and counter-intuitive given the state of the market); why do it? How much of a gamble financially is it: are you expecting/ NEEDING to make profit from the comp?
Claude VonStroke: “The question ‘why do it?’ is kind of similar to ‘Why get up in the morning?’ You do what you love. We don't need to make anything. I don't do the label to make money. Labels aren't that profitable as an entity. It is more about the total package. I think in a market where everyone is cutting back, the only way to stand out is to deliver the best possible product and give the consumer the most for their money. This Five year triple CD is basically Dirtybird defined. If you like the label you can get the feeling of the whole label in one shot - one purchase. Right about now I would normally make some joke about being able to get it illegally on the Internet but since we made all the versions of this totally different you actually cant get it illegally (yet).”
Skrufff: Resident advisor said in an earlier interview ‘VonStroke has led a charmed life since the success of 'Deep Throat’: how much easier has life got since then?
Claude Von Stroke: “Yes, I have a charmed life if you think relentless work is charming. What happened to me is that I took the opportunity given to me by having a couple of hit records and made it into something more with hard, hard work. I am a workaholic. There is no free time. I run two labels, do remixes, new productions, A&R, promotions, travel, whatever it takes. I have two kids as well. Life was way easier when no one knew me and i didn't have a family and I could walk down Haight St with a hangover on Sunday morning with no particular plans. That was charming.”
Skrufff: How much has success made you happier? (What’s been the happiest period of your career so far?)
Claude Von Stroke: “There are moments on the road when I am just getting on the decks in a packed room where everyone is going wild and I step back from the mixer and just take it all in- ‘this is my job- this is the best job I could have ever dreamed of having’. The happiest time of my career was the start when everything was fresh, like my first signing, my first remix, the first time I heard someone huge was playing one of my tracks. I still get super amped (excited) about all that stuff but you can never duplicate the first time, especially when you are starting from zero.”
Skrufff: How much of your success do you attribute to luck?
Claude Von Stroke: “I make my own luck. People can think ‘oh it was lucky that this or that happened’ but it is not lucky that it happens over and over again and it is not lucky if you are prepared for good things to happen. I prepare for success only. I fail all the time but I only prepare for success.”
Skrufff: You went to boarding school in Connecticut: my boarding school was a fairly violent place (in Manchester, UK) with a fair bit of bullying/ fighting etc: did you ever get bullied? Or bully anyone yourself?
Claude VonStroke: “No, I have stayed away from violence for the most part. I may have been bullied a little but mostly because I wouldn't ever retaliate. I've always been kinda’ Zen-like, that way. Honestly, my boarding school was like an Ivy League primer school. You had to have straight A's just to be accepted. Most kids there were brilliant and that environment really helped me. I struggled in a lot of subjects and wasn't the best student there but I was the most ambitious electronic music person that school ever saw. I failed German and Algebra but I was an excellent creative writing and music student.
That is where I figured out for real what I was good at and I got a lot of positive reinforcement (even though I also got a lot of negative reinforcement) to join up with all the blue bloods and follow the straight and narrow. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I had such a privileged experience to be able to go there. I mean, the education opportunities I was given by my parents were amazing and some times I still feel guilty because I see the real world much better now. I didn't get into Harvard or anything but when i did get to college I got straight A's almost as a "thank you" to my parents, but it also helped me understand I could be successful in life.”
Skrufff: How ambitious/ driven are you today compared to say 5 years ago when you started Dirtybird?
Claude VonStroke: “In the beginning I didn't have children so it is more of a sleep quotient than an ambition thing. I still am just as ambitious but my free time has dwindled down to about half the amount I used to have. So I am trying to squeeze all my ambitions into half the time, which can be extremely frustrating. Even so I love what I do and I am more than happy to be doing it.”
5 Years of Dirtybird- is out on April 26. Click here to listen to clips:
Jonty Skrufff (http://skrufff.com): Follow Jonty on Twitter