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Dirtybird’s Justin Martin Gives Bass-Heavy House a Tropical Twist and Sly Wit

Justin Martin

Opposites attract, and they particularly attract Justin Martin. Consider his debut album, Ghettos & Gardens (Dirtybird), a collection of feel-good party tracks with a deceptive emotional depth. Maybe it’s a San Francisco thing, something picked up at the city’s Sunday afternoon outdoor parties, where generator-driven PA systems pump out bass beneath towering redwoods for a mixed crowd of house heads, B-boys, hippies, and hipsters. Martin has been playing with those kinds of incongruities since his first record, released on Ben Watt’s Buzzin’ Fly label in 2003. On the A side, “The Sad Piano” offered the dreamiest sort of deep house; the B side’s “Thug Love” was a heavy-breathing jack track. Classic Jeckyll and Hyde: sensitive guy versus leering Lothario.

In recent years, Martin has become best known for tracks like “Mr. Spock” and the Ardalan collaboration “Lezgo”: bumping, bass-heavy party starters in keeping with the irreverent vibe of Claude VonStroke’s Dirtybird label, which Martin calls home. There’s plenty of that on his album — the “Ghettos” part of the title, presumably — represented in swaggering 808 rhythms and O.G. exhortations like, “This is that rough shit.” But he spends just as much time tending the flowers as he does cracking pavement, getting lost in daydreamy melodies and even actual birdcalls.

Unlike a lot of producers these days, Martin treats house music as a means rather than an end. There’s something unmistakably modern about his sound, which incorporates elements of old-school drum and bass and new-school dubstep alongside more classic house tropes. The album is bookended by what sound like tributes to Metro Area and DJ Shadow, respectively, and between those two points, it’s an anything-goes proposition: harps, breakbeats, wobble bass, deep house pads, stuttering footwork, 8-bit G-funk — sometimes all in the same track. And yet it all unfolds as easily as a Sunday afternoon in the park.

One more contradiction you’ll find with Martin: He’s as laid-back as they come, but it turns out that he’s also a man with a 10-point plan, which is precisely what’s gotten him where he is today. We talked about his music, his methods and his studio on Maui; read on for the interview.

I wanted to start with your history. You’re not a San Francisco native, right?
I’m originally from West Hartford, Connecticut, born and raised. I lived there for 16 years, then I moved to New York City for a few years, and then I moved to San Francisco In 1999.

What took you west?
I was going to a school in New York, and I didn’t feel like I was getting my money’s worth. I wanted to see what else was out there, so I did an exchange program with the University of San Francisco. I was only supposed to be out there for a semester, but I’ve been here ever since. I fell in love with the city from the moment I got here.

Had you already been doing music in West Hartford?
Growing up, I played piano from a really young age. My parents had me and my brother start music lessons when we were, like, four years old. As a kid, I hated it. I was basically forced to memorize songs. I had to practice an hour a day, and I look back now, and I’m so glad my parents made me do that. But as a kid, it was torture. I think I totally fell in love with music when I started playing the saxophone. That was around the third grade. I started playing a year early, because in my grade school, they would basically choose your instrument for you. My brother got stuck with the clarinet, which was kind of considered a dorky instrument —

Watch it, I played clarinet.
No, I mean a really cool instrument! I just really wanted to play the saxophone. So my parents got me a saxophone for Christmas in third grade — if you were already playing an instrument, they couldn’t tell you to play another instrument. So I started playing from a really young age, and I’d say the majority of my childhood was me involved in music and jazz, a lot of my musical background comes from me playing the saxophone.

How did you turn on to dance music, then?
I was 14 or 15 years old. My dad had this insane record collection with every classic rock album from Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and I was always a little more drawn to the weirder stuff, like Pink Floyd and the more experimental Beatles stuff, which gradually led to me listening to stuff like the Art of Noise. Eventually, when my brother went off to college, he started sending me music. One of the first full albums I had ever heard that really got me into dance music was Goldie’s Timeless. Before that, I was listening to Everything But the Girl and Björk, and a lot of electronic-inspired pop music. So it was just just me gradually getting sucked in. Then, once I discovered drum and bass, that’s when my full-on love affair began. I became hooked, I started buying vinyl — I actually couldn’t afford real turntables, so I just got two shitty belt-drive turntables hooked up to a stereo mixer, just to try to learn to match beats. Once I went away to college, that’s when I was full-on, taking my monthly food allowance that my parents would send and spending it all on one trip to the record store. It just grew and grew. To this day, I live and breathe dance music.

What was it about drum and bass that captured your imagination?
Originally, I was really into the early Metalheadz stuff, LTJ Bukem, Good Looking Records stuff. There was so much emotion behind that drum and bass. I liked the stuff that was really beautiful, absolutely beautiful, then it would drop into the most devastating bass sounds, like stuff I had never heard in any other genre of music. I don’t know, it was just next-worldly for me. I’d never heard anything like it. You’d have that beautiful emotion and these beautiful, melodic soundscapes that reminded me of the classical music I listened to growing up, and then dropping into, like, total sonic warfare. I instantly fell in love with it.

Your music strikes a similar kind of balance between bumping groove and a more sensitive, melodic sensibility.
Definitely. A lot of that is inspired by early drum and bass. I look at my record collection, my vinyl that I still hold on to — I got rid of a lot of it, but I will never get rid of my drum and bass collection. Ever. No matter where I go, that’s going with me. All these records, it’s the same theme running through all of them — really beautiful melodies and heavy bass. I think that definitely had a heavy influence on the music I aspire to create.

You got to San Francisco in 1999; what was the scene like at the time?
When I first moved to San Francisco, I was still completely infatuated with drum and bass, but unfortunately the drum and bass scene in San Francisco was a very small pocket within the dance-music community. I didn’t really have that fixation fulfilled. I had to go out and find other forms of music. And the stuff that was really inspiring at that time was San Francisco deep house — Mark Farina, Miguel Migs, which was a lot more soulful, and also crews like Grayhound, Stompy, and especially Sunset. The Sunset crew were one of the most influential for me falling in love with house music. Sunset crew are these three guys — Solar, Galen, and J-Bird — and they’ve been throwing parties for, I think, almost 20 years now. They would do these outdoor events, called Sunset parties, obviously, and they were free day parties that would happen throughout the summer on a Sunday afternoon. That was actually our main inspiration to start doing our own renegade barbecues with Dirtybird. The music they were playing was a little bit different from the normal, soulful, vocal house that was going on at the time. They were a little bit grittier, a lot more acid-house style, and tribally stuff, than what was going on with the more popular Mark Farina, Miguel Migs kind of sound that was coming out of San Francisco. That’s what I was drawn to.

There was a place called the Top on Lower Haight street. I was probably there every single Wednesday and Sunday, from the time that I had a fake I.D. till the time that it closed. It was just a little DJ bar that held maybe, like, 100, 150 people would be way too packed. Every single local legend would play there, either on Wednesday or Sunday night, and I was there religiously. I was there so much I ended up becoming resident DJ on Wednesday nights. That was probably my first real regular gig that I had as a house-music DJ. Unfortunately, the Top closed down in 2003 or 2004. That place was historic for me.

I used to go to Monty Luke’s parties at the Top. I think I got roofied there once, actually.
That place was a total dirty dive bar, but it had some of the best music. Going to hear Solar and Joshua play on Sunday nights, they were always one step ahead of the game with the music they were playing. Going there solidified my love for house music.

Those crews had a sort of tweaky, trippy element that was distinct from more mainstream house, and I can hear how that informed Dirtybird’s sonics.
I guess that’s the best way to describe it: It was a little bit more tweaky. It was pre-fidget, really cool sound design; the music they were playing was very quirky, but not annoying. [Laughs.] Just really funky, but pushing the limits of what was being produced at the time.

You made a pretty big splash with your very first record, “The Sad Piano,” back in 2003. Were you surprised?
Oh my God, definitely. That was probably the luckiest break that anyone could dream of. I was already a huge Ben Watt and Everything But the Girl fan, and a Lazy Dog fan as well. This was 2002, and I was really gung-ho about trying to get my music out there. I had just started really producing, and I really wanted to give it a shot and try and make it as a DJ. I was using the advice from Barclay, Claude VonStroke — trying to get my tracks out there, putting everything on demo CDs and trying to get it into the hands of people. The dream was, back then, I remember, you go to [Miami for] WMC [Winter Music Conference] with your music and you find all the biggest DJs and you get them their music, and hopefully someone will sign it. It was kind of like, this is how you do it: step A, step B, step C. I never really thought it would actually work, but that was my goal: Go to WMC, hand out my CD. I remember I was completely broke in 2002, when I was supposed to go. My brother and Barclay were working on this movie Intellect, and I was supposed to go along with them, but the day before I was supposed to fly out there, I realized that there was no way. I would have been sleeping on the beach. I didn’t have enough money to make it out there. So I canceled the trip and I FedExed them 10 demo CDs, and my brother went to see Ben Watt DJ and actually handed him one of my demos. Six months later, I got an email from Ben saying he was starting this label, Buzzin’ Fly, and he wanted to sign my track. I thought for sure that it was just one of my friends fucking with me. There’s no way that Ben Watt is actually emailing me! I was so star-struck — I was like, are you kidding me? Is this really happening?

The rest of it was just a really lucky break. I just set out to prove myself, every opportunity I had. He flew me out to play one of his Buzzin’ Fly parties in London, and I just made sure I played the best possible set I could. He kind of took me under his wing after that, and really helped me with my career, early on.

With Dirtybird, at what point did you guys realize that the label was really taking on its own identity?
I actually feel like it’s still coming together. Our whole idea behind it, from the very beginning, has always been to put out music that is fun and blurs the line between genres. And is bass-heavy, obviously. But I remember when we hit the five-year mark [in 2010], I was like, “All right, now we really have our sound.” But I feel like it’s just constantly been evolving, which is a good thing. We’ve never really settled into being — excuse the pun — pigeonholed. As long as it’s a good track and it works on the dance floor, then it could be a Dirtybird track.

There are definitely hallmarks, certain sounds you all refer to again and again, like those booming 808s. Like you say, it’s super bassy.
Totally. Bass has always been one of the centers of focus for us as producers. That’s what moves the dance floor. Simply put, bass is the moving force. Besides the rhythm, it’s something that you can actually, physically feel when you’re on the dance floor in front of a speaker. It’s got to be the focus. We always just wanted to do it a little bit bigger and a little bit badder than everyone else. Why settle for a simple little bass line when you can really push your sound and make something that no one has ever heard before?

I also detect a strong sense of humor, even though it’s never too over-the-top. “Hood Rich,” from your album, has this sound that’s somewhere between a gobbling turkey and an opera singer. To me, that signals, “Okay, we’re not going to take ourselves too seriously here.”
From the very beginning, it’s always been just about having fun. That’s why people go out and hear music: They want to have a good time. If I can make music that puts a smile on people’s faces, then I feel like I’ve accomplished my job. When I hear a DJ that’s really super-serious — I don’t even know anything about him as a person, but the music being played, if there’s not that element of fun to it, I begin to lose interest. When I go out, I go out to have a good time, and I want to create music that’s a soundtrack to that.

The whole Dirtybird fam is pretty low-key. We have a really laid-back approach when it comes to music. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a really cool dynamic that I have with my peers. For me, it keeps me in a relaxed place where I have the confidence to explore new ideas and new sounds without worrying if it’s going to be the next hit record or anything. Being able to have that confidence to make fun music and have friends around me that are supporting that, it allows me to have a lot more of a relaxed approach. And not be fighting to get to the top of the pile.

Tell me more about making the new album. How long did it take you?
I’d say, from the moment I realized I wanted to finally sit down and do the album, it took me about a year. But this is something that’s been weighing on me for probably 10 years. When I first signed with Buzzin’ Fly, immediately Ben Watt gave me the option to do an album for him. Back then, I just did not have the discipline. I was still trying to get my foot in the door and I hadn’t really found my sound yet; I had just started producing. But it was always this thing hanging over my head that I hadn’t accomplished: I had this opportunity to do an album for a great label, and I just couldn’t’ achieve it because I wasn’t quite ready.

A lot of it has to do with inspiration I got from Barclay — seeing him do two albums and seeing the success that he’s achieved, success I never thought was even possible doing what we do. But seeing the hard work that he put into it, and seeing the payoff for the hard work, and the fact that the harder he was working, the more experiences and opportunities he was able to have. All of that was really appealing to me. In 2000, I had a whole list of goals, things I wanted to accomplish. And the album was not on that list. But I accomplished pretty much all of it. It was like, this is the year I’m going to work my ass off. I did an Essential Mix, I got on the cover of DJ magazine, “Mr. Spock” came out and all these really great things happened. I made a track almost every single month, and it was just like, all right, now I’m really rolling, and I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked and I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had. What’s left to do next? And of course, the album was still this unaccomplished goal. So I was like, you know what? 2011, I’m going to make this shit happen. I’m determined, this time around. And I felt like I was in the right place creatively, I was in the right place with my work ethic. Musically, I was the most inspired I had ever been, and it all just kind of clicked.

Was it the kind of thing where you were gigging on the weekends, then working on the album during the week?
I had to actually take some time off from gigging. It’s really hard for me to come home from playing two or three gig weekends and want to sit down on Monday and sit in front of speakers for another 12 hours. I took about two months off, throughout the year, and I built a little studio at my parents’ house in Maui, which was like — not only was it my retreat, but it was also my place to detox. It was also the place of ultimate inspiration for the majority of the album. The studio that I built is right in front of this window that looks out on my dad’s garden. Every day the sun is shining; I’m waking up at 7 a.m. to the sounds of birds chirping, and I’m in the most inspiring place, the house that my parents built, working on music that’s basically completely inspired by my surroundings. So it was really cool to be able to get away and take time off to get deep within my soul and make some tunes.

That sounds idyllic.
I’m definitely extremely blessed to have an opportunity to do something like that. But I don’t want you to think that I’m from some wealthy family. The coolest thing about it all is that my parents instilled in my brother and I these values: If you work hard, you can achieve your goal. Their goal, throughout their lifetime, was to retire in Maui eventually. They worked their entire life, and we basically had to make a lot of sacrifices as kids so that they could save money for two things: To build a house on Maui someday, and for me and my brother’s college education. Being at this place that’s basically my parents’ dream come true, and the payoff for their hard work, and being able to write my album at this place, it’s the most inspiring place you could be. It doesn’t hurt that it’s in Hawaii, either. It’s really cool being here. I just look around me, and it’s like, this is what my parents taught me. If you work hard in life, you can achieve your goals.

Is there much of a dance-music scene in Hawaii? I know that DJ Harvey spends a lot of time there.
I’ve actually never had a gig on Maui, but I’ve played Oahu and Kauai. It’s a small scene, but this party on Kauai went off. The coolest thing about it is that it was really diverse — a very local scene, not touristy at all. So you had these Hawaiian locals ranging in age from 19 to, like, older than my parents, all just out rocking out on the dance floor. A very hippie vibe to it, as well, which is always fun. On Oahu, there’s this place called Asylum, in Honolulu. It’s an after-hours club, kind of inspired by the End-Up, in San Francisco, that my friend Willis owns. I play there probably two or three times a year. It’s crazy. That place is so much fun. One of my favorite places to play in the world. These guys in Oahu, every time that I play for them, we will end up going to the next day — we’ll play ’til the sun rises, then we’ll close down the club and go set up on the beach, or set up on someone’s boat. It’s got that vibe where we get to appreciate the outdoors as well as good music and friends.

Suddenly the great techno capital of Berlin doesn’t sound so idyllic, after all.
No, Berlin’s still cool, especially in summertime. You’ll stumble upon some crazy party in the park with 2,000 people rocking out. It’s different. I always call San Francisco, like, the Berlin of the U.S., in a way. It’s got that same kind of crazy nightlife that Berlin has.

How has the San Francisco scene changed in the time that you’ve been there?
A lot of small changes. I remember when I first moved to San Francisco, it was during the whole dotcom boom, and that’s when all the Naked Music stuff was really popular, and Om Lounge and Mark Farina’s Mushroom Jazz, and there was a big club culture. It was kind of shiny shirts and chi-chi martini glasses and expensive door covers. Then around 2002, 2003, I feel like everything started to change. The economy crashed a little bit, and people didn’t really want to go to the pool parties any more, and the pool-party crowd was looked at as cheesy. It kind of split, and I feel like a lot of things went underground. There were a lot of warehouse parties that happened between 2003 and 2007 or 2008. There’s still a considerable amount of underground parties in San Francisco, but not as much. It used to be every single weekend, Friday and Saturday, we would be at some new loft space where they had a bar; they could serve alcohol — not legally, of course — until the bar ran out, and people would just be in this grimy warehouse dancing. And then in the last few years it tapered off a little bit. I don’t know if the city has cracked down or if it’s a lack of new spaces. The vibe now is a lot more back to the smaller, more intimate clubs. There’s a new club called Monarch; it’s not pretentious, and it’s got this incredible sound system. It probably has a 300-person capacity, which is perfect. Then this place 222 — it kind of reminds me of the Top. It’s got a tiny little dance floor, but with a killer sound system. We do our party at this club called Mezzanine, which is a little bit bigger, but we try to keep it as far from being pretentious as possible. We make sure our door prices are really low, that all of our friends get in for free, and that we keep that — I don’t know, that spirit alive. We don’t want people to feel like they’re in some nightclub. We want them to feel like they’re rocking out at an underground event.

What do you have on this summer?
A lot of touring. Right now I’m pretty much booked almost through October, every single weekend. Which is amazing — this is by far the most exciting year of my life. I’ve never had a gig schedule this crazy. And I’m just going to try my hardest to do as much music in between as I can. After the album comes out, Dirtybird is going to have just a few weeks to focus on that, and then we’re going to get back to the regular release schedule before we do a remix project for the fall, which is going to have a bunch of the Dirtybird family doing remixes of the album. We’ve got Eats Everything, Danny Daze, Claude VonStroke, Catz n’ Dogz — all people whose music I absolutely love and play are doing remixes, which is really exciting.