LWE Interviews Dave Aju

Photo by de’fchild productions (defchild.com)

Marc Barrite, better known as the producer/DJ Dave Aju, once quoted George Clinton when describing his musical mission, aspiring to “rescue dance music from the blahs.” But a more popular Clinton quote tidily sums up the San Franciscan’s approach to making music: “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” While many producers focus on making simple DJ tools, Baritte traffics in concepts which inspire both introspective chin-scratching and extroverted booty-shaking, sometimes all at once. His debut album for Circus Company, Open Wide, takes this approach to the extreme, unifying disparate styles of dance music with a single sample source — his mouth. Barrite was kind enough to trot that tool out for a lengthy interview conducted before a warehouse party on the South Side of Chicago. In part one, we discuss the emergence of Dave Aju as an artistic personality, the free jazz that inspired him, and the genesis of Baritte’s partnership with Circus Company. (interview by Steve Mizek)

You have roots in jazz and hip-hop. How did you get into dance music?

Dave Aju: One of my older brothers — I’m the youngest of five kids — was a DJ. My dad was a jazz musician, my mom was into pop,  whatever was going on at the time; my sister was into whatever disco and funk stuff was happening in the late 70’s; another brother was into metal and hard rock; and my other brother was a DJ. He was the closest one in age to me, and once the family split up and moved around I lived with him for seven or eight years. I’d see him go to his gigs. They would be in halls so there wasn’t age restrictions. It was like Beatstreet style where I was the young kid that worked at his DJ gigs, I was in the breaking crew. They’d play everything. That was where I first heard… I didn’t even know it was called house at the time. They would call everything electro, High NRG, and hip-hop. They would mix stuff like Dougie Fresh with what was I guess was Chicago house, Trax Records, early Detroit stuff like 69, those Carl Craig, breakbeat-y, early…. And the fusion of it all was always cool. I’d always take his tapes to school and my friends would say, ‘What the fuck is that?’ That was definitely where it came from.

You’ve been DJing since ’94 and you’ve been producing since ’97, is that correct?

Yeah, that’s about right. I started out in ’94-95 playing a wide variety of stuff and went to a community college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school, I was just wandering aimlessly, and I saw they were offering an electronic music course. I thought, ‘Oh, that’d be kind of cool,’ and casually took the course and I just fell in love with it. My brother had samplers and drum machines every now and then, and they’d play with them but they never really wanted to make music artist-wise, it was always just for the party. They’d show up, play a drum pattern, scratch a record over it. When I took this course I noticed how people actually get into it, people would be in front of the computer for several hours the way I’d seen people do graphic design — my dad was a graphic designer. I was like, ‘Shit, you can basically design it the way people design visually, aurally, kind of solo artist style.’ That really did it for me.

What was the first record you put out?

The first one that was released on vinyl was a compilation on a San Jose label called Resource Records which was started by a guy named Chris Jackson who was a really cool techno crusader at the time when not a lot of people were. He was really hip to promoting local artists, and I had met him, gave him a few tracks I’d made with a buddy I’d took the electronic music course with. We were like, ‘You like techno? No one else likes this shit! Let’s work on something together.’ Except at the time I was moving back to hip-hop and he was moving back towards rock and drum n’ bass.

Is this Shawn [Hatfield, aka Twerk]?

No, this would be this kid named Mickey who I still play records with in town. Shawn was also on Resource, that’s where we first met. Some of his first material was released on the same label. It was pretty exciting times.

I tried to track to track down your music outside of Dave Aju and couldn’t find much.

That was actually produced under the moniker of Vehicle. I did that and then a couple different things that only came out on CD comps, that was the only thing that was pressed on vinyl, Vehicle. The first Dave Aju stuff was out on Circus Company.

When you were making stuff as Vehicle, did you have the same sort of mindset where you were trying to make stranger sounding stuff or was it more… mainstream?

I think I’ve always been attracted to doing something a little bit different, a little bit weirder. I grew up with my dad playing these crazy fusion records and late spiritual jazz stuff that even other jazz people wouldn’t– his friends would be like, ‘Dude, what the fuck is this? This isn’t jazz. These aren’t standards.’ I would hear stuff on the radio and I’d think, ‘That’s cool, I can sing along to that,’ but when I heard that stuff I was like, this is alien shit, this is coming from a totally different planet.

Stuff like Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, free jazz stuff?

Yeah, even stuff that was commercially successful stuff like Miles Davis’ later records like In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, which actually sold units but is still weird as hell. I always thought it was awesome; it totally takes you to a different place, as cliche as that is, it’s true. When I was doing the Vehicle stuff, my buddy, he had grown up more punk, he was a punk drummer, I grew up more hip-hop, so it was always sample based. So when we came together and did techno it was weird, off-beat and totally sample-based and we would just twist them into… it was really bizarre shit and it was really fast and hard because it was all velocity-based. Which is one of the things with Dave Aju, I wanted to take it back to my pace, where I’m coming from.

Some of your tracks, especially on the “Love Always EP,” have a sort of free jazz sensibility about them. How did you sculpt that so you figured it would work in a dance music context? Because free jazz, by its definition, is very free; dance music, but definition is very structured. What made you bring those two sounds together?

That’s a great question. Like I was saying before, I got into doing this music philosophically from the same things I absorbed from free jazz, in that it’s very deep and it’s very personal, and it’s spiritual. That gives [free jazz artists] the confidence to go out — by being so real, by being so deep and down to earth and honest with themselves. This is the kind of music that makes me want to be this real pure person, but not in the sense of being quiet and hiding in the corner, pure in the sense that I’ll give it my all — I will work on that track for as long as it takes. So in that sense it’s– it kind of gives off a religious tone — the idea of being that deep into what you’re doing where you’re not afraid of how people are going to respond to it and react to it. I think that’s it. ‘You’re going to have a trumpet blast right there?’ Yeah, man. I think people will respond to it. And again, maybe subconsciously, but sometimes that’s the best response.

I was listening to your track “Rubber Oatmeal” before I came over here and I was just like, ‘This is a weird song!’


It is, it just has a sort of free jazz mindset to it. There’s only a couple other people who have merged those two sounds and I think you’ve done a pretty good job of it.

That track, too, is a funny one; it’s called that because I was listening to some Art Ensemble of Chicago stuff, and I was eating a bowl of oatmeal that had been sitting for a while and there was a rubber band sitting next to it. So all the sounds outside of the horn are the oatmeal I was eating that morning and the rubber band sitting next to it.

That’s very interesting. I wouldn’t have gathered that just from listening to it or the title. I guess I should pay a bit more attention to your titles.

The titles are usually pretty charged, they have a little something to them.

So who is Dave Aju?

[laughs] Yeah, sometimes I wonder that myself, who is that guy? I think Dave Aju is kind of fictional character in a Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens sense… Marc Barrite/Dave Aju, deja vu…

There you go!

It’s from an old Arson song, this Brooklyn hip-hop crew. One of the raps they do, he repeats a line twice and this guy goes, “That’s dave aju!” And another corrects him and says, “Nah, it’s deja vu.” And I thought, that would be a dude’s name, I just loved it. Vehicle had kinda split and stopped working together, so I just replaced it and became that guy. Started small and started DJing as that, started from scratch, started all over again. New tools, new approach.

Do you have a day job in addition to being Dave Aju?

Not any more. Dave Aju has become a full time thing. I play gigs around town to help make rent. I’d say 75 to 80 percent of them are not electronic gigs at all. I play a lot of soul gigs, some hip-hop stuff, more listening gigs, some sushi bar-style gigs. I’ll do some odd jobs, some graphic design, some fliers.

I’ve been discussing with friends and some readers on LWE that in America, making records and DJing for a living doesn’t really work, which is quite different from how it is in Europe.

Yeah, I’ve noticed it there too. You can get by doing it there because… and this was my first revelation when I went over there the first time: The DJ, the producer, is just like the dentist, the lawyer, the mechanic. In society it’s not seen as… here in the States it’s like, ‘This dude’s so lazy, he’s mad at his parents, he doesn’t want to work.’ The artist is the slacker. Whereas over there the artist is just as valuable. I think that helps a lot. I’m not going to say I’m living flush — it’s bare minimum. And to be honest with you, they say behind every man is a good woman, and I have a girl that believes in me and supports me and we’ve made it work out, living together while I do the music in the corner of the bedroom.

I was curious how you got hooked up with Circus Company.

It’s actually a really cool story. At the time I was doing a really small and poorly attended night with a friend, DJ Ron in San Francisco; and this was at a time when the whole minimal thing was non-existent — nobody knew what it was. We got really into this slower, drier sound: early Perlon releases, some of Herbert’s stuff, and some stuff Ark was doing — he was a big influence at that point. We were doing this style and Circus Company was coming up and we saw that Ark was on the first two, three releases or compilations — we just loved the label. There was a period where they didn’t put anything out for a year and a half. So I was just like, ‘Huh, I hope they didn’t….’ So I sent them an email and said, ‘Dude, I love your label. Where’s the next release? We’re starving out here.’ And at the bottom I wrote, ‘Respect from San Francisco, Marc.’ And the guy goes, ‘Hey, thanks for the love. Actually, one of our guys is in San Francisco right now, here’s his email.’

So I sent him an email and it turns out it’s Mathias [Duchemin] Sety, who’s pretty much the sole runner of the label. He said, ‘I’m going to this show tonight,’ and a friend of mine was playing, so I went and we met and it was fast friendship. We hit it off that night, hung out, bought each other drinks; and the next day he came over to my flat and had his record bag with him. He went through his bag and started pulling out all these releases that I had, too. We were like, ‘Dude, this is kind of weird.’ And I didn’t have any international connections at this point, my family rarely traveled, I grew up very blue collar. He said, ‘Do you make tracks?’ And I said ‘Yeah, I do,’ and I showed him the Vehicle stuff and thought it was crazy shit. So I said I was doing this new thing, this is my new name and here are my tracks. It was like the choppier, more abstract shit, and he heard it and said, ‘We’re putting it out, that’s it.” At the time I’d always given music to Seth, Sutekh from Context, and he’d been pretty keen on putting some stuff out so it was in that vein. That’s actually why Mathias was in San Francisco, he loved that stuff too. It was a meeting of minds, destiny kind of thing.

I read a quote from you where you said you were going to “rescue dance music from the blahs.” I’m interested to know some of your main gripes with the way thing are.

It’s like anything else — stagnation, people getting too conservative. I think for me, I moved into doing this particular strain of music because I thought it had a lot of opportunities to be more creative, to go off-beat and still be celebrated, more so than other forms. I used to produce hip-hop for years, and there was a point when there was some underground, backpacker stuff where you could get a little weird and people were supportive. And that kind of died out and it got very conservative again. I think that’s my biggest gripe. And it happens in every type of music; you could probably talk to an indie rock kid and he’d say the same thing. The whole individuality of it is key. Sometimes people get more cautious and fearful, scared to do their own thing. ‘Oh, the snare should sound like this.’ Whereas I’m like, ‘Dude, roll the fucking hi-hats off that snare and see what happens. Pitch that down. Try it.’ Subconsciously when people hear these things that they wouldn’t quite identify with, even on the dance floor and they’re just out to party, it’s going to affect them, even on a subconscious level. My biggest gripe would be that I don’t see people taking those risks as much.

Gigging as much as you do I imagine you go clubbing somewhat regularly. Do you keep up with the new records as they’re coming out?

I’d say I listen to about… 80 percent of what’s coming out at any time. I think making sure you know what’s coming out and research is kind of key, at least for me the way I approach dance music. And people say to me, ‘No way, you’ve only bought one record in the last whatever.’ I’m just a real picky guy about it. It’s not that I think stuff is bad, because a lot of great records have come out; but I could name a lot of good DJs that I personally know that are going to play those, probably in a better context than I would even. I usually just buy the stuff that really reaches out to me, but I listen to everything pretty much. I spend hours making sure I know what’s going on and I can see the trends happening. Actually it’s a big inspiration for me, it’s like negative reinforcement. Listen to 20 or 30 clips of records that just came out and they all sound like they could be off one album by one artist, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, they’re all doing that? I’ll make sure not to do that.’

Who are some of your contemporaries who you don’t think are blah?

People like Pepe Bradock, absolutely, the Noze guys, the dOP guys. DJ Koze I think is amazing. Some of the guys in London, obviously Matthew Herbert. The Hand On the Plow guys I think are really cool.

I’ve not heard of them.

Beckett & Taylor, they’ve done an EP for Herbert and they’ve also got the Hand On the Plow label. Really fun, inventive stuff, but you can also tell they’ve done their homework as well, which I think is key. There’s also the Firecracker guys who I think are from Manchester or Scotland [Edinburgh -nb], some of their stuff is real fun, like these little ten inches they put out. It’s rootsy, it’s technically kind of deep-house of the Detroit school, but it’s also very creative. Also guys like Omar-S, I like how strict and focused he is; he’s not afraid to be like, ‘Watch how loud this snare is going to be’ or ‘Watch how quiet this kick drum is going to be.’ [Marc would later add the Krause Duo to the list while we were driving around Chicago.]

Check out part two of LWE’s Dave Aju interview here.

Karl  on November 13, 2008 at 3:10 AM

Good interview, like how his being “different” feels so real and effortless, am feeling the lp!

hutlock  on November 13, 2008 at 8:11 AM

Man, and a Part 2 to come! This is awesome. One of the most in-depth interviews I’ve read in a long time. Nice job, Steve.

harpomarx42  on November 13, 2008 at 10:58 AM

This was totally worth the wait, very very well done. Can’t wait for part 2!

Isn’t that an Fairlight electric piano on ‘Bump’?

?K!  on November 14, 2008 at 5:53 AM


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