Joe Claussell: A spiritual thing
The Body and Soul man talks ego, art and collaboration.
There was a brief moment—blink and you might have missed it—when Joe Claussell and his Spiritual Life Music was the flavor of the month in the UK. Slam, Terry Farley and DJ Food all repped for the man in a 1999 Jockey Slut. Orde Meikle’s quote, though, is almost all you need to know about the man who goes by the name Joaquin in his daily life: “A man who ploughs his own furrow.”
Men who do so rarely get caught up in the hype game. That goes doubly for Claussell, who never fails to remind interviewers that he never even wanted to be a DJ or producer. Encouraged by Francois K to do the former and Jerome Sydenham the latter, Claussell has excelled at both through the years, offering an idiosyncratic brand of electronic music that focuses on both body and soul.
Most recently, he’s remixed back catalogue classics from the esteemed Fania imprint, which served up some of the most indelible salsa albums of the ’60s and ’70s. RA’s Todd L. Burns caught up with the Body and Soul member in advance of his appearance at this year’s Stop Making Sense festival to chat about the literal and metaphorical costs involved with remaining true to a vision.
I’m fascinated by your recent project with Fania, because it seems like for you that it might be coming around full circle. Obviously your family was hugely into Fania when you were growing up.
Fania. Salsa. African music. They were all a huge part of my upbringing, amongst other things.
You’ve said, though, that rock music might be the biggest.
Yes. My one of my elder brothers Larry was a Latin rock drummer. He got me into the likes of Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix. You name it. There was also folk music and pop music that I liked. I have to say, though, that Larry was the biggest influence. His band used to rehears in the basement of our home, and because he had a full Ludwig drum set at home, 24/7, it was very exciting to be around that. He also had the loudest stereo.
Tell me about growing up Puerto Rican at that time in New York City.
The interesting thing is that I didn’t grow up Puerto Rican in that sense. I grew up as an individual part of a whole in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which was a very mixed neighborhood. We had all ethnicities there. I always credit growing up there as being the best thing that ever happened to me. It helped me to see and understand at a very early age different cultures, as well as taught me to appreciate everyone for who they are. So I was in that more as a person, and not as someone with a certain ethnic background. I was just me amongst other cultures, you know? I knew who I was, where I came from, but it wasn’t the mindset that I was brought up with. I was one with everybody. We were all the same.
I guess that also extended to when you first started going to electronic music or dance parties, right? You’ve talk about David Mancuso and Larry Levan being influences. I imagine the crowds were really mixed as well.
They were, but I want to set the record straight. I like a lot of DJs, but they were not my huge influences. My influences, my DJs that introduced me to music were my older brothers at home. Larry Levan was an influence in the DJ sense, but I wasn’t a regular at the Paradise Garage. Then and to this day, I need an influx of all different kind of music. I never gravitated to one genre of music or to one club. For example, one Saturday I would go to the Paradise Garage, and maybe the next I would go to The Mudd Club. I just need to feed my palette of music. I was not a devotee of anything really, except for the music.
I do think, though, that one of the things that you share in common with Larry is that you both bring in a lot of things that people might not expect. You both have open ears.
That was the case for Larry, for sure. And I have never heard anything like that before or after. For me Larry was unique because he was truly expressing himself, and playing what he wanted to play. He was obviously a well-rounded individual when it came to music. I think the difference between Larry playing all kinds of music at that time and what we have today is that DJs today inject a certain song or genre of music as more as shock factor as opposed to just playing it because they really feel it. Or they want to be credited for it in some way for taking the chance. In my opinion, these sorts of things are not to be talked about in the way of patting oneself on the back. You just express yourself because you’re in the moment. I think that Larry Levan did it more honestly than we tend to do today.
Do you think that it is harder to do these sorts of things honestly these days?
I really don’t think so. I put music in the category of being an artform. Unfortunately, even when it comes to the art world—in terms of visual artists or whatever—when we look for acceptance, we lose that sense of being a true artist. We create to please. It is difficult to maintain honesty if you feel like you have to perform. If you are performing because you want to be celebrated or complimented, then I think you’re more of an entertainer. When you’re a crowd pleaser, you tend to stick to a format made to please. When you are an artist expressing from within then you’re just being honest with yourself. That said, at the same time you do have to be mindful of the dance floor and those who come to release regardless. However whenever I can get away with it, I try to do what I want to do.
It’s an interesting concept. You talk about being as ego-less as possible. Yet you have to strike this careful balance, because there is this ego up there that thinks—on some level—that it knows better. That they have the experience to do this, and also to please the audience as well. In a lot of cases, it seems to me like you’ve stepped back from things when you thought that your ego was starting to get involved.
I’m glad you picked up on that. But it wasn’t really about my ego. I stepped back because the whole purpose of what I do is not to being in the limelight. I never compared myself to anyone, and I don’t think of myself as being great. I just want the space to create when and how I want. When some tried to prop me up on pedestal I resisted. I was seeing what happened to others, especially when it comes to the press. One day you are in, and the next day you’re out. Fortunately I am mostly aware of who I am and why I’m here. I don’t consider myself to be someone’s flavor of the moment, I am just too hardcore like that. I’m not trying to be in, and I always want to have this space—the canvas—to do what I want to do. Stepping back to me was the best way of obtaining that.
When I was talking to Jerome Sydenham last year he said that you would always play at Dance Tracks after work on Friday, DJing at your store for all the DJs who knew you. Just for fun. It took Francois K to convince you to play at this Larry Levan tribute for you to finally play in public, right?
That’s exactly right. As far as remixers, Francois Kervorkian was definitely one of my favorites. I loved his work of the ’70s and ’80s and so I was honored that he became a regular customer at my store. About a year or so after he asked me to be a part of a party that he was planning on being a part of, however it was still only in its conceptual stages. (It was later called Body and Soul.)
Because of his earlier influence on me, one would have thought that I would immediately accept, but I turned down his invitation. Having a record store afforded me the opportunity to see the DJ world for what it really was. You’d see some DJs coming in with their egos, bragging and—most disturbing—dissing one another. I had a front row seat for all this, and I always thought to myself, “Do I really want to be a part of that?” I was incredibly content with just playing music in the store and serving my customers. I refused for at least three months, but Francois was very persistent.
I saw that one of the first projects you were involved in, Instant House, was just reissued. Why was the timing right for that do you think?
A lot of that sound is making its way. A lot of producers today are doing minimal stuff derived from house music, using just the drum machines, the keyboard, some samples—as opposed to the full production that until this day I am wired to perform. However, Instant House is more computer-based production. Nowadays, house music is going back to rawness, and that’s where Instant House comes from, but I think that by default it has to do with the tools such as computers and plug-ins that are more easily accessible.
With the Fania release you spent a lot of time with live musicians. Can you tell me a little bit about that process?
The Africa Caribe project was two years in making. We were incredibly lucky to find that some multi-tracks still existed of these songs. However, back in the day, things weren’t computerized or properly documented, so a lot of the work I initially did was simply with researching and cataloguing. As you can imagine there were a lot of mislabeled multi-track tapes, as well as parts missing from the compositions.
Were there any happy accidents?
Absolutely. The great thing about the recording process as well as the musicianship back in those days was that there were usually three individual songs on one reel of tape So, for example, if I received the multi-track to something I wanted, there were two other songs that I probably didn’t know about or—at the very least—alternate takes of what I originally requested. This presented a gift of another opportunity to work with those songs if I chose to. That became the case in many instances. I remember receiving something that was mislabeled on a few occasions, but being blown away by what I heard anyway.
How did you go about constructing the mix?
My approach to this project was first and foremost to respect the masters who produced them, and to keep the original soul of the music intact while enhancing them with some of now. My approach to remixing has mostly been about keeping the message that the artist/producer intended to communicate. Because I believe that’s the whole point.
So instead of getting all self-masturbative about it, and just completely restructure—which by the way turns it into a production—I want to stay true to the original concept. Otherwise it doesn’t serve any real purpose. I must communicate, though, that there are a lot of my ideas implemented into the project, but again all for—and in—respect to the original. My whole thing is to just enhance what’s needed. That is what I did pretty much with this project. I created a more dynamic mix of the past that was not present in the original master. A lot of time was put into the mix, then I added music where I thought was necessary.
You mentioned to me that you were releasing a book in the fall.
Yes. It’s a project I did with Lidy Six, a theater director, where we went into a huge tunnel under Amsterdam central train station that isn’t open yet. It’s called TREMBLING: Sensing Space. I do other things than DJing. I’m very into the art world. I love the creative process. I can put everything that I do under the banner of creativity. I love art, I love visuals, I love music. Fortunately, the music that I’ve done over the years has afforded me the opportunity to meet these people. I’m very grateful for that.
You’re very interested in collaboration.
Of course. Bringing together different ideas and energies is very important. Especially if you completely respect one another’s vision, and are willing to be open enough to understand and implement things equally. Well, not even equally. I’m a firm believer that the best idea should be the one that moves forward. If I’m collaborating with someone and they have a better idea, I’m all for it. At the end of the day, the outcome is the most important thing.
That seems to go back to the idea of being ego-less that we talked about earlier.
Let’s be real. We all have egos. But, at the end of the day, I want to learn. How do we learn if we don’t open up to other people’s ideas and try to hear what they’re saying? This is how I learn. If one claims they have created entirely what they have produced, I think that comes from ignorance. I can completely and honestly say that—subconsciously—what I do comes from a huge well of people and ideas. It’s the way the world works. We absorb information, and then we translate that information using our personalities and then bring it back out to the world.
What’s particularly exciting you in dance music these days?
That’s a tough question. I can’t answer that question without bringing forth the problems that I see. If you want my honest opinion, a lot of what is happening now is re-generated music that doesn’t come with individual personality. A lot of people are doing the same old thing or copying someone else’s work. A lot of that has to do with the fact that producers—and this not just in dance music, it’s anything in the world—are taking and not giving. Maybe they’re just not artists. Maybe there is something much more important to them than searching within, coming up with something creative and bringing it forth to the world. Maybe it’s easier to copy something and get written about than it is to create something original—whether it’s bad or good.
Did it take you a while as an artist to not copy others, though? I’m thinking of artists that are just beginning, trying things out. Perhaps it takes a while to find your own voice.
Well, I didn’t get into the music scene because it fascinated me. I just naturally got involved. I didn’t want to be a DJ or a producer. It was my friends that came to me and said, “hey, you should do this.” I think that’s the reason I never wanted to copy anything. To me, it had to come as natural as possible. Having said that, one of the first productions—again, one I was invited to be on as part of Instant House—was all about sampling records. I did that out of fun with my friends, Stan and Tony. It was all about sampling. I don’t know if I would consider that to be copying…but the first production I ever did had a lot to do with taking directly from someone else’s music. You have to understand, though, that that was all about fun. We weren’t thinking about being famous or whatever.
Do you sample much these days?
I do a lot of sampling…but I sample my own stuff. I don’t really take other people’s music.
Is that a conscious decision?
It’s not a conscious decision. It’s a natural one. If I can do it myself, why take someone else’s music? Part of the attraction for this for me is the challenge to come up with something. Fortunately I come from a home where live musicianship was important. Yes, it’s a lot of money to do this stuff. But that’s what drives me. I’m not a computer-based producer. I can do that. But I’m more drawn to working with people, no matter what it costs. That’s probably why I’m not a millionaire today.
You mention cost. It seems to me that with the rise of software that this type of live recording is more expensive than ever. Studio time was more of a given back then. Or am I off in that assessment?
No, I think you’re right in many aspects. There are two different ways of going about making music these days. A lot of it is computer-based. I think that’s why a lot of music is sounding stale. There are a lot of producers that I admire, but there are a lot more producers out there in general now. You can also go the route that I stick with, which is going into the studio. And, yes, it’s crazy expensive. No one can afford to pay you to do that these days. But I would say that if you want timeless art, I think you should invest in it. I know I have the choice. I prefer to spend most of the money, if not all, to go into production. That’s why I’m in it. It’s a drug. It’s the same as going and buying a bunch of drugs. Getting in the studio and paying for the time, the musicians, for the process and the outcome. I get high from that. Is it smart economically? No. But I’m addicted.
Published / Friday, 29 July 2011