A Conversation with Claude VonStroke (Barclay Crenshaw) at North Coast

Today I am providing you with the first interview from the series of conversations I had with artists at North Coast Music Festival last week. This was a special interview for me since I had the privilege of talking to a guy I have admired as both a producer/DJ and a tastemaker for quite sometime. The artist’s name: Barclay Crenshaw.

It’s hard to know where to begin when introducing Barclay Crenshaw. The producer and DJ who often performs under the alias Claude VonStroke has created his own brand of funk-infused techno and house records and toured the international circuit playing many of the hottest venues and festivals on the planet: from headlining Movement Festival in Detroit this year to appearances at Coachella, Creamfields, and Tomorrowland (among many others over the years). Crenshaw is prolific and seemingly tireless. In 2016 DJ Times named him the Best DJ in America. And beyond his own productions and DJ sets, he has also established one of the most respected labels in the dance music industry, Dirtybird Records, which was named label of the decade by Mixmag just last year.
From the get-go, Barclay Crenshaw has done things differently: Although he had been making his own music for years, Crenshaw launched his music career out of a film project. In the early 2000s he worked on the documentary Intellect: Techno House Progressive with the intention of getting into the minds of successful DJs and producers and figuring out how they operate. After finishing the film, he subsequently began to produce and release his own records and DJ across the U.S. He established Dirtybird Records in 2005, released his debut album Beware of the Bird in 2006, and created a Fabric mix for the illustrious Fabric club in London in 2009, all the while quietly building a steady and loyal following in the American underground techno and house scene. Now, Crenshaw’s meticulous productions and distinctive style have made him an internationally recognized name in dance music and a respected tastemaker both at home and abroad. Moreover, he’s brought his own events to cities and towns across the country: his Dirtybird barbecues-which often feature street food, outdoor games, and of course, music-have helped solidify his brand and his label’s prowess-from LA to Brooklyn. Yet in spite of his many achievements, Barclay’s ethos has remained down-to-earth and unpretentious: based on the performances I have seen and the time I spent talking with him, it appeared clear to me that he focuses on presenting his listeners with danceable music that does not take itself too seriously or masquerade as something it’s not. It’s about having a good time and truly enjoying the atmosphere and mood music can create for the audience or even the casual listener. So without further ado, here is my conversation with Barclay following his evening set at North Coast Music Festival:

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Brennan White: Alright this is Brennan White with the Sonic sanctuary show for WNUR 89.3fm Chicago, Northwestern’s radio station. I’m here with Barclay Crenshaw, also known as Claude VonStroke, the Dirtybird label owner, the man behind it all! Barclay, how are you doing?
Barclay Crenshaw: I’m doing great, thanks for having me on the show!
Brennan White: Of course, we’re happy to have you! So, you grew up in the Midwest, right?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yes, I did.
Brennan White: So you’re originally from Cleveland and you had some of your roots in Detroit. What’s it like being back in Chicago and being in the birthplace of house? How does that feel?
Barclay Crenshaw: Chicago’s always been a really fun city to come and play. It’s always been a little more wild than other cities. I don’t know why, I can’t really explain it. It gets a little crazy here, so I enjoy it.
Brennan White: Ah, Yeah, for sure! So, I read that you had a radio show in high school. Is that correct?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yes that is correct.
Brennan White: I’m wondering how that show influenced your perspective on music from an early age, and how did it affect how you think about music and presenting it to an audience, or a crowd, or anyone else on the other end?
Barclay Crenshaw: I haven’t thought about that show in a really long time, and when I think about it I did the show with this kid Derek Ordway who is now deceased. Rest in Peace Derek. He was into punk rock and new wave and all that kind of stuff, and I was only into rap. So the radio show would be like I play Eric B. and Rakim and he plays Nitzer Ebb, and I play a Salt-N-Pepa track and he plays Depeche Mode.
Brennan White: Was that back to back?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah! the show was very eclectic.
Brennan White: So it was jumping around a bit?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah, but we both talked, and the way we would get people to listen to it is we would order a pizza every night and we would give the pizza away outside the station to the winning caller. So if you listened to our show you could always get a free pizza.
Brennan White: [laughs] Did you find that helped your show out a little bit?
Barclay Crenshaw: No, it helped the calling in but it didn’t help the show [laughs].
Brennan White: Because I was gonna say, in the 21st century sometimes it feels like radio is a bit of a dying art form.
Barclay Crenshaw: If it’s live then you should just give away some pizza!
Brennan White: That’s a tactic I’ll have to adopt because I certainly need some more people calling in on my show!
Barclay Crenshaw: People love pizza… But not only do they love pizza but they love hanging out with the host of the radio show while they eat their pizza.
Brennan White: You brought them into the studio sometimes? Or…
Barclay Crenshaw: No we would hang out outside.
Brennan White: It was a nightly show? once every week?
Barclay Crenshaw: Weekly, weekly.

Brennan White: Gotcha. Cool! So I know you have a background in film. You worked on the film Intellect: Techno House Progressive. So you learned a tremendous amount from the dance music scene from that film, right?

Barclay Crenshaw: Yes I did.
Brennan White: So you learned some of the benefits and glories as well as the downsides. Can you talk about how working on that project impacted the beginning of your career and what [ideas, concepts, information] you took into account when you were launching your career as a DJ and as a producer?
Barclay Crenshaw: I did that film basically to launch my career. I interviewed all of the most famous techno and house DJs to kind of find out how they got famous because I had been making music since I was 11 but I couldn’t figure out how to get past the stage of just making music. And I couldn’t get to the getting it out there and getting gigs stage. So, I basically just asked everyone how they did it and made a movie about it.
Brennan White: Are there any key elements of advice that stuck with you? Some of our listeners are aspiring producers and DJs.
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah, I mean one of the best interviews on that whole thing is a guy from Chicago named Derrick Carter who really told me how when the outside public looks in at djing they’re like “oh it’s so easy you don’t really have to do anything,” but Derrick Carter told me “it’s really hard, it’s only gonna get harder, and even when you make it, it’s only gonna get five times harder.” So you have to work your ass off.. Like every second.
Brennan White: And would you say some of those difficulties come from, I mean, obviously increased pressure, but also just larger crowds, you have more scrutiny from people in the audience or if you have a radio show, or if you’re releasing records with Dirtybird you’ve got a large audience?
Barclay Crenshaw: It’s like time management, doing everything, and being able to be on when you’re supposed to be on. Like playing six gigs a week and every single person that books you, pays you money, wants it to be the best set that you’ve ever played…
Brennan White: Absolutely. So there’s that constant pressure. So another question I’ve got for you is with the Dirtybird barbecues. With Birdhouse Festival next week in Chicago, you’re taking your brand to all these different cities, and I’m wondering how you decided to focus on cultivating this grassroots house movement within America, and it seems also that you’re not preoccupied with Europe: labels like Defected, Diynamic. You’re doing your own thing!
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah, I really feel like the opportunity is in America. And we’re one of the only people actually taking advantage of it and really building the community properly and getting the data and making events for people to go to outside the massive corporate rave system.
Brennan White: Definitely.
Barclay Crenshaw: We’re doing our own thing. If you look at the market, it’s so obvious that we should be doing what we’re doing. Like no one else is doing it. It’s crazy. I don’t understand it. Like why isn’t anyone else doing it? It’s so weird!
Brennan White: Yeah, for sure. So I want to ask you about one of your recent remixes. You were tapped by Mark Ronson and Diplo for the remix on Silk City’s “Only Can Get better.” Can you talk a little bit about how that remix came together?
Barclay Crenshaw: I originally went in the studio with Mark Ronson to be a writer on that track, and then I kind of just hung out there for a little bit, and I’ve been friends with Diplo. He remixed “the Whistler” before he was Diplo. He was Diplo, but he wasn’t “Diplo.”
Brennan White: [laughs] Was his name Wesley or something?
Barclay Crenshaw: No, his name was Diplo but you know what I mean! He wasn’t like Megatron Diplo.
Brennan White: Yeah.
Barclay Crenshaw: So [Mark Ronson and Diplo] were like we didn’t really use your bits on the track but we want you to do the remix. It was kind of a weird flip flop, but whatever. I did the remix and because of it Mark Ronson’s playing at Dirtybird Campout, so it was cool!
Brennan White: really! I didn’t even know that he was playing there. That’s amazing.
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah. It’s like a good thing. You know who always says yes to everything? You will never believe it.
Brennan White: Who’s that?
Barclay Crenshaw: William Shatner!
Brennan White: No way, seriously?
Barclay Crenshaw: [laughs] Shatner’s like, “that’s the secret to my life. I always said yes to every request.”
Brennan White: He’s a yes man, I guess!
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah. Don’t say yes to every request…Unless you want to be William Shatner.
Brennan White: It would make you insane. I don’t know how he lives his life [laughs]… So another question I have for you: we see pop music is now embracing a little bit of the house music style: if you look at Calvin Harris’s recent records and Diplo and Mark Ronson linking up with the Silk City project, what do you make of that and how do you think, especially in America, house is moving?
Barclay Crenshaw: I still wouldn’t call that like house house. But…
Brennan White: Yeah, I agree with you. But you can see the house influences at least?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah.
Brennan White: And What do you make of that?
Barclay Crenshaw: Really smart highly successful producers just get on whatever’s going. Like Whatever’s the hot shit. And I feel like this is starting to be the hot shit like for five minutes and that’s what’s gonna happen.
Brennan White: Yeah.
Barclay Crenshaw: Who knows if it’s going to be a long-term thing? It’s something rappers have been good at for ages. They find out what’s good-or not what’s good-what’s smoking hot, and then they just sample it or get that producer in to make something for them. It’s just an intelligent way to work.
Brennan White: yeah, I mean we saw that with the most recent Cardi B record, right?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah.
Brennan White: And I even saw Don Diablo had a recent record that sampled am old house song from the late 90s, or not that old, but… [this was a reference to Don Diablo’s record “Momentum” which samples Fatboy Slim’s 1999 dance hit “Right Here, Right Now“]
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah, that’s old. That’s pretty old!

Brennan White: yeah. So I guess my last question for you is: with Dirtybird, you’ve managed to curate a specific sound, but it seems like there’s not really any compromise on the parts of the artists that contribute to your label.
Barclay Crenshaw: No there isn’t!
Brennan White: So how do you go about being so specific and scrupulous with picking tracks but still allowing people to have that energy, you know?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah I don’t actually sign anyone, sign as in contractually-
Brennan White: So you sign tracks?
Barclay Crenshaw: I just sign individual pieces of music. And that gives me so much freedom. Because when you sign an artist you’re committed to everything they make and sometimes I don’t wanna go that direction.
Brennan White: Yeah.
Barclay Crenshaw: So I’m like a purist in that sense.
Brennan White: that makes sense.
Barclay Crenshaw: So we’re only signing tracks. But there are people who have made a lot of tracks that come out on Dirtybird, like Justin Martin…People I think that are amazing that I sign a lot of records from. But I never actually sign them. And the other thing I notice is, this is a big life lesson that I learned, the more you try to clamp down and tell people what they have to do for you the less they want to be involved. And the more you just let them do whatever they want and tell them that they can be involved just if they feel like it, the more they want to do with you.
Brennan White: Uh huh.
Barclay Crenshaw: Which is like counter intuitive; You think you have to control everyone but really you just have to be like “I’m just having a fun party do you want to come?”
Brennan White: Yeah, and I think it was Richard Branson, who had some part in that thinking. With his work with Janet Jackson, I know it he didn’t sign her to a [long] contractual agreement, it was like we’re gonna release this song and these couple records but I’m not gonna own everything that you do next and you’re not obligated. It’s kind of an interesting way to free up the artist but also allow yourself to continue to produce what you want.
Barclay Crenshaw: Everything is based on relationships anyway so if the artist feels good about working with you, then they’ll work with you. If they don’t feel good about working with you then it doesn’t even matter if they have a contract. They’re just going to tank it or figure a way out of it or just fuck it up.
Brennan White: Absolutely.
Barclay Crenshaw: It doesn’t do you any good to have bad vibes going down.
Brennan White: For sure! Alright so I think that brings us to the close of this interview. Barclay I appreciate you spending time with us!
Barclay Crenshaw: Thank you. Come to the Birdhouse Festival next week in Chicago!
Brennan White: Birdhouse fest!
Barclay Crenshaw: It’s at the plumber’s industrial toiletries Union! [sarcastically]
Brennan White: [laughs] You’re kidding me!
Barclay Crenshaw: I don’t know where it is!
Brennan White: Everybody should be there regardless of where it is.
Barclay Crenshaw: It’s in a great spot. It’s where the Dirtybird festival was three years ago.
Brennan White: Okay, we’ll post that on the website [CLICK HERE FOR TIX!] . This has been Barclay Crenshaw, AKA Claude VonStroke. Thanks again Barclay, this was the Sonic Sanctuary show with Brennan White!
Barclay Crenshaw: Cool!

A complete version of the audio interview will feature on Sonic Sanctuary on the website on Sunday September 9th and on air from 12:00am to 1:00am on September 14th. Thanks for reading!
And grab your tickets for Birdhouse Festival right here! I will be there so you know it’s gonna be a fun time 🙂

Brennan White (Landon Sea)