Claude VonStroke: Bird is the Word
- Words: Anna Balkrishna
It was May in San Francisco, and another dirtybird party was underway in the misty sunshine of Golden Gate Park. Then, amidst the hoodies and barbeque grills, the Bird emerged: a dancing, six-foot tall cross between a beer-soaked chicken hawk and a malevolent blue jay. “Oh my gawd, that’s totally Claude VonStroke!” squealed a girl as she raced towards the blue-costumed interloper.
Nearby the real dirtybird, Barclay Crenshaw, went unnoticed as he dropped his new edit of “Who’s Afraid of Detroit?,” the record that made him an international (if unrecognizable) house superstar, in the mix.
When you operate with a name like a transcontinental porn star’s, cases of mistaken identity are bound to happen, and Crenshaw’s Claude VonStroke moniker has lent an air of subterfuge to his productions from the start. Conceived as a goof amongst friends trying to come up with the biggest, fakest-sounding DJ name humanly possible–runners up included Pedro de la Fedro and Burnto Bertalucci–the Claude VonStroke alias stuck, and has since tripped up even Pete Tong, who stuck his foot in the guano when he breezily greeted Crenshaw as “Claude” during an interview on BBC Radio One last year. “Nobody in America thinks it’s my real name,” laughs Crenshaw. “But in Europe, some people think it’s totally feasible. I guess they assume I might be Dutch or something.”
Like any good story about self-invention and mistaken identity, the birth of Claude VonStroke is a Cinderella tale at heart. Four years ago, Claude VonStroke didn’t exist–in his place was simply Barclay Crenshaw, a film major who’d done time at Paramount Pictures in L.A. before burning out and heading up to the Bay Area. In San Francisco, Crenshaw edited corporate videos by day, and by night made drum & bass mixes that failed to get him DJ gigs. The glass slipper came in the form of a pet project called Intellect. For reasons inexplicable even to him, Crenshaw began filming a massive compendium of interviews with big-name artists–Derrick May, Derrick Carter, Orbital, Swayzak–in 2002, creating a step-by-step career playbook for aspiring DJs: how did they get famous, get their first gigs, release records? When the documentary finally wrapped years later, he had quit his day job and run through most of his money–he’d also gleaned every backdoor trick he needed to run his own label.
Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board
Dirtybird Records started out, as most new labels do, with modest pressings of friends’ stuff; in this case, a couple singles by Justin Martin and Sammy D, featuring the farty synth stabs and ridiculous samples (barnyard noises, fake Southern rapping) that the guys loved from old Green Velvet and ghetto-tech records. Then came the ingeniously simple “Deep Throat,” dirtybird’s third release and Claude VonStroke’s debut. Before then, Crenshaw had fooled around with hip-hop productions and “crazy Chemical Brothers-type stuff” (plus an embarrassing trance loop for a Sony commercial), but “Deep Throat,” underpinned with a creepy recording of his raspy voice, was the first time he had ever sat down to write a house track. Astonishingly, the record ended up selling 11,000 copies–almost unheard of for a debut release on a fledging label, never mind a first studio attempt. Nobody was more shocked than Crenshaw.
“That was my first track, so I don’t know why it took off like it did!” he says with a bemused shrug. “Everything was coming together then: the label’s funny name, our sound. The big thing was that DJs from different genres were picking it up; Richie Hawtin would play it out for the minimal techno crowd, but then Jesse Rose would also play it at house nights. It appealed to everyone, kind of the way everybody loves a classic song like ‘Percolator.’”
Not So Funny
As a preteen coming of age in suburban Detroit, Crenshaw was obsessed with Cajmere’s iconic 1992 rave-up, and its blueprint can certainly be felt on Claude VonStroke’s 2006 full-length, Beware of the Bird, which melds zig-zagging funky house with the staccato tension of techno and the digitized raunch of booty bass. The album also takes cues from “Percolator”’s prankster attitude, laced with funny sound bites–from monkey shrieks in “Chimps” to his own cartoonish warble and now-famous “Ung!” in “The Whistler.” All of this–along with a cover shot of dirtybird’s maniacal mascot holding a cop at gunpoint–added up to the label’s profile as house music’s equivalent of a bachelor-pad foosball table.
Crenshaw seems a little perplexed by the goofball tag. “I just want my music to create a certain energy,” he muses. “But that doesn’t always mean a jokey energy–it’s just that those are the records that become popular!” Actually, Beware of the Bird’s biggest blow-up, “Who’s Afraid of Detroit?,” is one of Crenshaw’s darkest efforts. With its shuffling percussion and hypnotic, undulating melody line, the moody paean to Crenshaw’s youth became clubland’s most ubiquitous track last year, finding its way onto high-profile mixes by Tiefschwarz and M.A.N.D.Y., and getting reworked by everyone from Kevin Saunderson to Stanton Warriors.
The widespread attention even brought a few unlikely suitors; namely, The Rapture, who came calling for a remix of their discofied hit “Whoo! Alright. Yeah…Uh Huh!”–on MySpace, no less. “Matt from the band messaged me, but I just thought it was another random MySpace thing, so I ignored it,” recalls Crenshaw. “Then I mentioned it to somebody and they said, ‘The Rapture? They’re famous!’ I don’t really listen to dance rock, so I had no idea who they were. Oops.”
Everybody Wang Chug Tonight
This month, Claude VonStroke releases “Groundhog Day” with labelmate Christian Martin; he’s been so busy doing remixes, that this is his first original track to hit shelves in a year. Crenshaw vows to free up time for his own full-length project in 2008. “The way I do a remix, it’s like making a whole new track, so there’s really no point,” he says.
Until his sophomore album drops, fans can occupy themselves with his September installment of Resist’s At the Controls mix series, as well as a re-released special edition of Beware of the Bird on London’s Fabric label. The latter–a double CD that pairs the original album with a collection of re-rubs from Audion, DJ Assault, and others–is one of the rare instances in which Fabric has ever embarked on a joint release with another label.
But the project that most excites Crenshaw may be his riskiest: a new label that will take him far beyond freaky house. Mothership retains a deep techno focus that’ll be less intense than dirtybird’s “blow up everything like The A-Team” sound. The label released its first record in July, a spooky, spacey slab by London-based minimalists Italoboyz. And Crenshaw, in a nod to his old hometown, has decided to donate a portion of Mothership’s profits to the Detroit Youth Foundation, which teaches underprivileged kids how to make electronic music.
For Crenshaw, it’s just the next phase in the maturation of that Falstaffian character, Claude VonStroke. “I like to make the silly, funky stuff, but I like to go dark, too. We have a phrase around here: ‘Are you Wang Chung or are you John Wayne?’ No, I’m not going to explain what it means! But I will say that both labels can be both characters at different times.”
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