The Forum: Justin Strauss

style="text-align: center;"> The Forum: Justin Strauss

When Justin Strauss had his first band, Milk 'n' Cookies, signed by Island Records at just seventeen-years old in 1975, the glam-kids, the punks and the disco freaks in his native Long Island surely began to wonder, “Who is this kid?” Nearly five decades, several hundred remixes and dozens of musical projects later, dancers on club floors worldwide continue to ask the same.

Strauss was perhaps one of the first notable ‘resident’ DJs in the contemporary sense when he scored a gig furtively mixing all types of records at the legendary Mudd Club in TriBeCa, spinning to a very hip, very mixed crowd of creatives and club kids, many of whom were about to make crashing cultural waves; Strauss’ sprawling friendship circle (and doubtlessly chunky phonebook) included Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. These days, he’s a resident at one of the city’s more discerning clubs, Good Room, alongside the likes of JDH, Octo Octa, Martyn and Willie Burns. As devout about music now as ever before, a typical Strauss set, as potentially best experienced in the throes of a peak-time Panorama Bar session, hits the perfect club sweet-spot. That being, a journey through one DJ’s pristine charter of dance music’s history, rubbed seamlessly against whatever they found in the racks just last week.

Strauss maintains a remix partnership with Bryan Mette, Whatever/Whatever, notably engineering failsafe yet creative edits of William Onyeabor, Blood Orange and Wolfgang Tillmans. As a journalist, Justin’s extensive interviews with art-school and nightlife luminaries for The Ace Hotel - recent, refreshingly game candidates include James Murphy, Roisin Murphy, Bicep and Honey Dijon - have played a small part in inspiring this ongoing series for Phantasy.

As such, John Thorp was delighted to meet with Strauss in Berlin in order to discuss his own unique trajectory in nightlife and alternative culture.

You've been witness to and present at many exciting cultural moments, often in parallel. Having been present at those, and now witnessing the yearning borrowed nostalgia for them, did you get the sense that you were experiencing something special?

Sort of. To the extent that we were having a really good time. It was cool to go to see The New York Dolls and then a few years later experience the Paradise Garage. They were both life-changing.

And a lot of it was literally new, sound wise.

Yes, everything was new. I mean it's only years and years later you realise. I was in a band called Milk n’ Cookies, and with advent of the New York Dolls, they made it seem possible that something could really happen. Most of the bands and artists I was into at the time were from England, and it seemed so far away. And then here was this band you could go and see in the city, and they got  a record deal. We were very inspired and ended up with a record deal, funny enough with Island Records in London.

Walking into the Paradise Garage for the first time was another life-changing experience. I'd never experienced that kind of sound, and the way the people who went there responded to the DJ. Just the way Larry Levan was playing records... I mean, I'd already started DJing at the Mudd Club, but it really opened my mind to what a DJ could or should be.

Did you begin to adapt your own style as a result of what you saw and heard Larry doing there?

It was just a kind of natural thing, the way you connect to a crowd and, and without sounding corny, 'telling a story', in a night of playing records. In my head I always put records together that made sense to me, and hopefully made sense to others as well. Larry was definitely a big influence on me in the way he was fearless and believed in the music he played. He trusted his taste and had the confidence to constantly break new music.

I know that the Mudd Club was intended as an underground response to the high-status of disco clubs such as Studio 54, or at least in part. Did you visit that club yourself?

I did go, a bunch of times. My girlfriend and I would go, we were sixteen, but the doorman would let us in. We would go everywhere. There, and Max’s Kansas City and other spots like the 82 Club down in the East Village. Studio 54 was really fun, and we felt special getting in there, but I would say the music was more on the commercial side disco at that time. And as it got more commercial, then came the backlash. Not that there weren't some good records out of that. Everyone and their mother was making a disco record, and some of them are great and well some of them were awful. Like with any genre of music really.

After awhile I had moved out to Los Angeles with my band, and after about a year and a half we'd split up and I was really missing New York, and my ex-girlfriend told me this club had opened up, The Mudd Club, and that I should play records there. And I told her that I didn't DJ, but she told me it didn't matter, that I had all these records and I could do it.

How many DJs did you know back then?

None! Nobody wanted to be a DJ. It wasn't like there were millions of people wanting to be DJs. For me, it was a natural thing, because I had tons of records, and would play them for my friends in my room. And I'd buy loads of import records from England. But doing that in your bedroom and then doing it in the club is a bit of a step. They gave me a shot, and it worked. They offered me a Thursday night spot. There was this whole downtown scene emerging, and all these artists, musicians, and performers were coming together in this one place.

How long was it before you were learning to DJ in the style that you do now, mixing records, cutting and so on?

Techniques 1200’s weren't even a thing at the time. The Mudd Club had two turntables that weren’t even the same. The DJ booth , if you can call it that, was just at the end of the bar. So it was still like DJing at my house. When I went to Studio 54 I didn’t really hear long complex mixes, just quick mixes in and out of records.  When I started at Mudd Club, I was just playing records, not beat matching, but making them make sense. Not long after I had met Francois K, who was working for Prelude Records, doing fantastic remixes for them. Although Francois would play at the more established discos, he also had an ear for what was going on in this new downtown scene. I went to hear him play  one night at a after hours club called AM/PM and my mind was blown. The way he was mixing records was something I had never heard before. We became friends and I was like, “How do you do that?!” And he basically gave me a little lesson - “You listen to this, then you do this...” - and I began to experiment. I had a residency at The Ritz, which later went on to become Webster Hall, where lots of bands played. From The Human League, to Kraftwerk to Prince, to Depeche Mode, every night was some insane show. I would DJ before, in between and after the bands. They had three decks, and I started to develop my style by learning on the job. I didn't have two turntables at home, and still don’t honestly, but I was fortunate enough to be working three or four nights a week, so got lots of on the job experience.

I don't tend to share this with people, although it's probably obvious, but the noise in my head is kind of an endless DJ set...

Yeah, absolutely. It's awful, really. I'll hear something and think, “Oh, that's from this...” or think about what would mix with it. Music has been my life, it's just running through my veins. So there's always something that clicks in my head, connecting what some people might think should not normally go together.  And DJs like Optimo, or Erol Alkan, Soulwax, Maurice Fulton people like that inspire me. I don't want to go out and hear the same music all night long. I don't want to hear the same kick drum for six hours. It can be great as well but it's nice when there's different things happening, but still connecting. To me that’s exciting.

What I appreciate about you, is that you seem to have shifted with the times, to stay enthusiastic about music, without ever reinventing yourself. And that's in the face of huge changes in sound, not to mention having remixed 250 different artists. The amount of jerks you must have come up against, and yet you still seem as enthusiastic as ever. Have you had periods in which you've felt disillusioned?

Of course. I mean the music business and music are two separate things. The music part has always been my way of connecting. Making friends, girlfriends, you know, wives! It's the way I connect to the world. It would be hard for me to think of someone I know and have met who isn't connected to music in some way. And for someone who's been in this business for as long as I have, then yeah, you're going to go through ups and downs. It's really hard. But I think that's important. Because it makes you appreciate it. I don’t ever take it for granted that I  get to do something that i love to do every single day, that's a dream. I feel really lucky. When my kids were young, I had a publishing deal, and working with artists, and I was able to spend a lot of time with them growing up. I was able to stay at home and work, it was the coming of age of home studios.

I am inspired by what I do now as much as I did when I started. Because it's always changing, it's never the same. I'm not one of these “it was better back then...” guys. I'm playing at some of the best clubs in the world, I'm working with amazing people and I'm busier than ever. There’s loads of great music out there, and that’s always my inspiration. If I can quote myself, “you stay true to who you are and every couple of years, the world catches up to you.” And I think that's worked for me. There’s lots of great new music out there that I hear and want to play, and that in turn will inspire my productions and remixes. And really that’s how it’s been since I started this. DJ’ing has been the biggest inspiration for my studio work. Technology changes, sounds change , working with different people changes things, but I am excited about incorporating those things into what I do, and always have been. But I think the fundamentals of what I do, who I am, what I like to hear and how I like to play records and make records, is basically the same as the day I started.

How old are your kids now? Have they presumably inherited your creativity

They're in their twenties, and they're super cool. They're very creative. My older daughter Imogene is in music. She was managing Blood Orange and Solange at twenty-two. She’s now doing creative direction. And my younger daughter Ella is in the art world, she works at DIA Foundation, which is a really great art foundation and museum in New York. They are both creative, amazing young women who I am so proud of.

You don't drink or take drugs, which I imagine has been at least some assistance in staying as prolific as you have been?

Sure, maybe, but that was just something I wasn’t interested in to be honest. It’s just not for me personally. I had some drinks as a teenager and I didn’t like the way it made me feel, so I just didn’t continue. Every now and then  I'll have a glass of wine a couple of times a year. But I've never done drugs, at all. And I've been around it my whole life. Maybe I've absorbed it by osmosis? Just playing in Panorama Bar is a high. It can take weeks to come down from it and I don’t have anything but a cappuccino and water.

I never tire of going up the back stairs to Panorama Bar, hearing it get louder, turning the corner into the room...

Yes, it's like going to the Paradise Garage. Arriving, hearing the kick drum and then walking up the ramp was so exciting. And then stepping into that room and hearing that sound. It was the greatest place on earth for awhile. It was other-worldy. But yeah, I've been really lucky to have been around some amazing cultural explosions. To be there at the birth of hip-hop, punk, new-wave...

You're interviewed in Tim Lawrence's book, 'Life and Death on the New York Dancefloor'. He uses the Mudd Club as an example of his term 'scenius', which is the idea of clubers and artists from different scenes and disciplines meeting together in one place and everything coming together to create something unexpected and new. I initially wondered if that even happens any longer, then I realised that of course it does, it probably just largely happens online. Regardless, and considering your daughters, for example, do you think it's still important for physical spaces to exist for those conversations to take place?

Totally. There's nothing like it. There are some new clubs in New York that are even banning cellphones on the dancefloor, like Panorama Bar does. And I think it's a really good thing. People interacting with each other. You know, when I started DJ'ing, nobody stood to look at the DJ. Your looked at each other, and danced and listened to the music. It’s the way it should be, I feel. DJs don’t belong on stages.

Did you feel more comfortable when you transitioned from being in a band, on stage, to being a DJ in the booth?

No. For some reason the band thing was very natural. The DJ thing, I'm still kind of shy and nervous about people staring at me while I DJ. I think it's weird. I like it when I look up and nobody’s looking back at me. I rather them just be dancing. You're supposed to be listening, dancing and absorbing the music. That thing of people standing at the front, staring at the DJ., when it first started happening, it was very alien, very weird. I like when the DJ was either up in the sky, like Larry was at The Paradise Garage, or hid in a dark corner.

When the whole EDM boom happened in America, I remember the optimistic perspective that a lot of young American teenagers would stick with electronic music and dig a bit deeper. And now, especially when I look at the young, underground scene that's emerged out of New York, Chicago and LA, I think it's probably true that there are a few Deadmau5 or Bloody Beetroots shirts lingering in the back of closets. There's no shame in that, either, I might add.

Yeah, I mean there's always a new faction or a new thing happening. And the cool kids will always evolve and want to expand their horizons and learn, and I’ve met lots of them, and others will just go on the next thing take and take whatever's showed down their throat, basically. There will always be leaders, people who want to forge a path and find their own way. For me, when I first started getting into music at a very young age, when I’m heard  a record I loved I want to know everything about it. Who produced it? Who engineered it? What influenced these people?

And now it’s much easier to find all that out and more.

Music is obviously still your primary passion, but what are your other pursuits? Art? Fashion? Literature? Film?

All of it. I grew up in New York, so fashion, art and photography, movies, are all a part of what inspires me. Whenever I go anywhere, I visit the museums. As we discussed before the downtown scene where I first started DJing, it was a great mix of people. I got to know and be friends with Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and so many others, who all had this amazing connection to art and music . It went hand in hand. They were all hanging out at the clubs, it where everyone ended up night. Keith's boyfriend was a a DJ, Andy Warhol was... well, everywhere! At every club. And everyone was doing something. There were a couple of hundred people in New York who  really changed the world. I don’t know if we'll ever see something like that again or if it could possibly have the same impact. It's just a different world.

I feel like culture is broader now, but possibly more fragmented than it once was?

I think the smart phone has made people more isolated and insular. You don't need anything else. You don’t need to leave your house. You can just sit for hours on your phone and scroll through Instagram, play games, shop, watch movies, listen to music, read a book, the news or a magazines. And of course I use it a lot too.  But it can also be very isolating in a way. You don't have to go out to a club to hear new music, which was the case when I was growing up . But I still like to go out to clubs and I do it a lot. That's where I still get turned on to music. Because there's so much of it, there's no filter. But I'll go out to a club, and I'll hear a record and it will suddenly make sense. And I might have heard  the same record listening through my headphones, getting a promo or checking out things on line and it doesn't make any sense, and then I’ll hear it out and be totally turned on to it .

I think you're a generous remixer. You bring out the best in bands and artists, as if you're working with them from a distance.

Well, I’ve been lucky enough to work on some amazing records for many great artists .I don't even know exactly how many,  but I think I'm close to three-hundred. I started doing them in 1983 with Murray Elias as Popstand Productions, then did many on my own, my Just Right remixes. After a break I formed Whatever/Whatever with Bryan Mette, and then A/Jus/Ted with Teddy Stuart. Been doing some of my own again, along with some exciting new production projects and collaborations coming in the new year that I’m really excited about. Been making good use of my time between my DJ gigs in Europe and have been in the studio with Joe Goddard, Marcus Marr, Lauer, Moscoman, Max Pask and Soulwax. Needless to say, I’m super excited about all of these projects.

Which has produced some amazing remixes so far. Your William Onyeabor edit is the sort of thing that can save an ailing dance floor in less than a minute.

Thanks! And that was an interesting one to do for sure. I did it with Bryan Mette, and the label didn't have any of the original parts,  so we to work with the mixed down tracks, doing a a lot filtering and EQ to make it work with the new elements we wanted to add. And then of course dealing with keeping everything in time . It was an incredible record to be involved with, and I’m super proud of how that turned out. But as far making the artist shine I think that’s still important, even if you don’t end up using a lot of the original elements. I always used to do dub versions of remixes, that were much less to do with the original. I like to do both. When you can find something to bring out the dance floor potential in a record without annihilating it, it’s a good thing. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s nice when it does. And if there’s something good in a song, why get rid of it? There are people who don’t want to play vocals, there’s people who want acid mixes, everything under the sun. But when you can do all of it and make it work, which is the the hardest part, but also the most rewarding part. That being said I’ve also done remixes using very little of the original and the artist has loved it.

I tend to also think of you as someone who understands the fundamentals of alternative culture, the ripples happening outside of the DJ booth. You’ve been conducting long interviews with DJs, artists and writers for The Ace Hotel, in a style that I’ve least slightly ripped off for this series.

Thanks, I’ll take it as a compliment. It’s just something that the Ace asked me if I was interested in doing, and I was. I have total say and pick who I’d like to interview. It’s  worked out nicely and it’s been a really great experience, something I hadn’t done before. I’ve been addicted to magazines since I was a kid. I have an insane magazine collection, music, fashion and culture. Rolling Stone Magazine interviews in the seventies, and especially Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine was a huge influence on me, the conversational, long form interview was really something I gravitated to, and what I do with my series. Warhol was very important to me. The way he looked at things and his taste in music, magazines, interviews, art, was incredibly revolutionary. His influence was felt everywhere. And still is to this day. He wasn’t afraid of doing work in different genres from his art, his movies, producing the Velvet Underground, Interview Magazine and on and on.  

The thing I miss that can never happen again is, it seems, is the way things happened organically. Things weren’t curated, or branded. At least not in the way it is now .Hanging at The Mudd Club on any given night , amazing things would just happen. It was spontaneous. On the other hand , I am seeing some great things happening though. One shining example has been The Lot Radio in Brooklyn, which has really forged this community of DJs and musicians and artists doing some fantastic things in a way I haven’t seen in years. It’s been really inspiring being involved with them.

I often have trouble with the notion that more and more we’re being served up artists by brands and the media tied up with those brands, as if to say, “Here you go, enjoy your new underground hero.” This isn’t new, of course, but artists and ideas don’t develop as naturally as they should, or instead, they’re just immediately co-opted.

They can’t. The whole nature of the music business and finding and discovering and developing talent is totally different.  It’s about signing artists that for the most part already have their own following on line and not taking any chances . It’s still possible for an artist to break out from the underground dance scene and along with it keep their integrity and that’s a good thing.

John Thorp, January 2019.

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