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Insider Interviews #002: Claude VonStroke & Photek

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When Claude VonStroke commissioned the remix opus of his latest album Urban Animal he was as personal and thoughtful as he was during the entire album creation process.

Avoiding the tired and tested approach of recruiting white hot hype names; Eschewing the idea of calling up a series of  producers who he knew would turn in outrageous club bangers; Instead he looked towards his own inspirations and influences.

The result is a collection of dear friends, favourite new artists and two producers who are responsible for getting him into music production in the first place: Photek and Krust. Two of drum & bass’s most foundational fathers, their dedication to the dark arts of drum dynamics and samplecraft remain some of the most inspiring motivations for the dirtybird founder.

When we heard Photek and Claude were going to be in the same LA studio at the same time, we had to get them to interview each other. First, a reminder of Photek’s powerful reversion of VonStroke’s Oakland Rope.

“I’m psyched this has happened,” grins VonStroke. “I’ve always been a fan and I feel our label wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the music that Photek and some other D&B producers were making.”

It turns out Photek knew about the dirtybird San Fran rumbles right at inception…

“I came across Dirtybird in about 2005,” Photek recalls. “A friend of mine hooked me up with the music. It blew my mind… I was like ‘wait! He’s doing the whole 808 thing but it’s techno and it’s rugged and I’ve never heard anything like it.’

“If I’d have known you knew about me at that stage I’d have been like ‘what?!?’ laughs VonStroke. And so the interview commences…

Photek: So what exactly is Oakland Rope?

Claude VonStroke: I can explain this completely. When I first moved to San Francisco I lived in Oakland. I hadn’t met Justin Martin or any of those guys and I was sitting my apartment just making weird techno and electronica. There was a DJ in Detroit called the Electrifying Mojo. He played everything from Prince to Beastie Boys to Juan Atkins. He was the greatest DJ ever in my opinion and he would open his show every time with a saying… ‘Whenever you’re feeling like you’re nearing the end of your rope, tie a knot, keeping hanging, keep remembering that there ain’t anybody bad as you.’ That inspired me when I’d moved to Oakland and I made a track. Which is the very first version of the track you remixed. The original wasn’t very good! But it’s the basis of this track. I played it to people like Justin and they were like ‘you are DARK!’

Photek: You still are…

Claude VonStoke: Thanks. So how did you make the bridge from music to film scoring? I find that jump really fascinating…

Photek: I had my first scoring experience in 2001. I was touring in LA at the time. Paramount were looking for a group of artists to work on a pilot. I ended up scoring that and it was the first time I’d made music for pictures. That’s what bought me to LA, really. I thought I’d be here for six months but I ended up living half my life in London and half my life in LA, which isn’t good for your health. So I moved over here permanently. I’ve worked on lots of scoring projects now, but last year I wanted to pursue it even further. I’d come off the back of a long tour and wanted something that would keep me at home and work on a show that kept me in LA and linked me with a great director I’d have a working relationship for years to come. The next day I was called by Allen Hughes who directed Book Of Eli and Menace II Society. He’d heard some of my music on the radio and wanted me to score a pilot of Gang Related. That was a year ago. We’ve just finished the first season of the show and it’s about to premier next month on Fox. It’s got a great director, a great cast, a great storyline, it’s everything I wanted.

Claude VonStroke: I love that, it’s not something everyone in our music can achieve…

Photek: So who motivated you when you were establishing the roots of your achievements?

Claude VonStroke:  It was pretty much completely down to Justin Martin. I’d been doing things forever but I didn’t see anyone just learn the program, make 12s and start getting booked like Justin did. It made me realise I was going about it the wrong way. I knew how to do it but I wasn’t doing it in the right direction. Seeing Justin do it in the way he did gave me total inspiration.

Photek: I find that all the time… I spout pearls of wisdom to people but find I don’t listen to them myself! You know that’s what you need to do. You tell people what to do. But you don’t do it.

Claude VonStroke: Yeah, I’ve had that many, many times. So now you’ve recently had children… How are you finding life in music and being a new dad?

Photek: It’s life changing in the best possible way. I never thought I’d be a dad! It changes everything. The stakes change. You analyse how you spend your time a lot more. You don’t fool yourself in some track idea for weeks on end. If it’s not happening, put it aside. You’ve got dependents and they change your priorities massively.

Claude VonStroke: My kids arrived while I was still figuring it all out. They gave me real fire. I HAD to make this happen.

Photek: So where do you see yourself in 20 years time? How far do you think ahead? I used to think a year ahead but now I’ve got a much bigger plan that I know I need to achieve to satisfy myself, take care of my family and provide me with the right challenges. How about you?

I’ll probably keep making music in shape or form until I can’t hear any more…

Claude VonStroke:  Good question. I’m going to do one last big project in the mode I’m in now… but yeah, I want to move away from things that make me popular so I have go on the road. I want to find positions that make me popular so I don’t have to go on the road! That’s why I asked you about your film scores… You’re still doing music. You’ve figured out how you can do what you love to do, but do it in a way that suits your lifestyle. I’ve had these crazy ideas that I’d be some type of businessman, heading up a streetwear or fashion brand. But I know, deep down, that I’ll always do music. I do have another plan for another kind of music I want to do…

Photek: The music of you becoming an old man…

Claude VonStroke:  Ha! Maybe. I don’t want to be a warrior. People like Sven Vath, they’re born to be on the road and they do it just as well now as they always have. They’ll do it forever. I don’t want to be like that. I just need to figure it out. You’ve figured it out a lot more than me.

Photek: I knew I’d eventually move into something more serene than constant parties. I always thought it would be a label… A&Ring and directing creatively. I wanted to set that up but always ended up retreating to the studio and making music…

Claude VonStroke:  You can’t get away from it can you? My kids want me to come into their rooms and make songs with them and I love that! I love making music full stop. I’ll probably keep making music in shape or form until I can’t hear any more…

Photek: You and me both.

I used to be obsessed with the Lyn Collins Think break. I’d listen over and over trying to figure out what the swing was.

Claude VonStroke:  So this is more of a philosophical sampling question… I know you used to put in a sample of another song when you’re making a track, and pull it out once you’ve matched that. Do you still do that now? Or have you moved on from that? And is it still valuable to listen to a lot of music before you make a new tune?

Photek: It’s always valuable to listen to a lot of music. But I don’t get anywhere near enough time to do that. There are only so many hours of the day you can listen to music. And I’m making music for most of those hours. But yeah I don’t feel like I need a template any more. I used to be obsessed with the Lyn Collins Think break. I’d listen over and over trying to figure out what the swing was.

Claude VonStroke:  It’s almost like a math equation isn’t it?

Photek: Yeah totally. I’d listen and think ‘is that bass on the kick drum or is it reverb on the kick drum that’s giving it a note?’ Then the tambourine shakes… I’d be obsessed with the noises on the upswing and how it affects the rhythm. There I am trying to analyse it all when what I probably should’ve done was record someone playing the tambourine!

Claude VonStroke: But because you didn’t record someone you got something else out of it. It sounds different and more original than just a recording.

Photek: And that’s how drum & bass became a genre of people being obsessed with trying to sound as good as the drummer! Do you use a template or anything like that?

Claude VonStroke: All the time. I’ll put up a piece of music and figure out how it’s put together. I’ll be listening to it but I won’t be getting it. Is it bass or reverb? Where is that note starting?

Photek: You could get lost in it all forever…

Claude VonStroke: I still do.

Claude VonStroke is playing at SW4 on Sunday August 24. Full details.