Joe Claussell Talks Gospel, DJ Technique, and the State of House Music
He's one-third of influential New York DJ trio Body & SOUL, he used to own New York's Dancetracks record store, he's one of the most intense DJs to ever stand behind the turntables, and he's a nice guy to boot -- these are just a few of the things you can say about Joaquin "Joe" Claussell. For the past 20 years he's been a constant fixture in the New York underground, working as a kind of mutli-faceted steward for this niche music. And today he does much the same, with a prolific and wide-ranging production output released mostly via his own Sacred Rhythm imprint. We recently caught up with him in anticipation of last week's headlining appearance at Mighty on Friday.
What have you been up to lately?
My routine is basically wake up, appreciate the day, and get re-involved with the music. I'm currently working on a few projects that I'm really excited about. I don't know if you know but I'm in a band that Bugge Wesseltoft put together -- Bugge 'n' Friends. Bugge's a Norwegian pianist, he put out a lot of records in the '90s, and has a label called Jazzland. We've played in a few places throughout Europe and we recorded this stuff, and right now I'm currently producing an album of these recordings. The vinyl will be released on Sacred Rhythm, but the CD will be released on Jazzland Recordings.
You just released a new gospel mix called Praise - Gospel Music According to Joe Claussell. How did that come about?
I was called upon to do a tour in Japan, and when I'm called to do tours I like to have a concept attached to it. I thought what could I do to be really different, and it just made sense for me to go into my gospel collection and do this gospel thing. We pressed a 1,000 copies of it and they sold out in a matter of days. Musically we're talking raw gospel -- I did include some dance that has been influenced by gospel, but not much. Everything else is artists like Mahalia Jackson, the Five Steppers, Shirley Caesar. All these raw, authentic gospel artists. It turned out well and I think it's been received well.
It seems spirituality plays a large role in what you do. I was wondering if you could explain its role in your music?
My music involves a lot of spirituality, but it has nothing to do with religion itself. I'm not a particularly religious person. I don't gravitate towards religion because I see a lot of negatives in that. But opposite to that is music. What I've seen is that as the music becomes more prevalent in one's life, whatever genre it is, we tend to become very involved and interested in the culture of where that music comes from. That in itself brings people together, and to me that's spiritual. Besides that, it brings about a very powerful sensation, you know? And when people talk about their connection to God or Jesus or whatever, I can relate, but more so through the feeling I get in relation to music. It's very unexplainable. It's very powerful. But it's something. It's spirit, and that's where I believe people may get the feeling that I'm a spiritual person, but not in the way that they perceive.
Do you still collect vinyl?
Wherever I go in the world, I make it a point to seek out and go to the local record stores to buy music. Not just because I'm a vinyl lover, but because I'm a music lover.
What have you picked up that you've liked lately?
Gimme a second to look through my record bag, cause I do have a few. Fred P. "Be and Not Know," Donnie "Olmec Save Us," Pépé Bradock "Operation Veaux," Delano Smith "Celebration" is pretty cool. Yeah, and Vtothed "Space Sessions." Those are some of the few jams on vinyl.
What do you think of the state of house music at the moment?
There are times when it gets interesting, but then there are more times where it's just the same thing. One of the main things is we have less musician visionaries. What I mean by visionaries is those that can imagine their own rhythm, their own concept. For the most people -- it's been like this forever -- it's not about creating something. It's about, "How can I get this record reviewed?" and "Who's going to like my record?" And when you have that mentality you tend to look to someone else's music, that's been getting a lot of attention, and making something similar. You know?
But now you have newcomers doing their own thing--people like Fred P. and DJ Qu. They make it interesting for me again. They're hardcore about the music, they're hardcore about the messages they want to relate to the world with their music. These guys are creating art, where you go from within, and you do your own thing, and you bring it out into the world again with a "Nah, I don't give a fuck" attitude. Because that's what art is, it's personal. It doesn't give a shit about what you think about it. And I think that's what gets the attention more than anything, because you can tell right away that it's coming from somewhere else. And unfortunately a lot of the house music doesn't have that.
How did you develop your DJ style?
It's not a development. That DJ style is my emotions and what music does to me. The energy of music, I'm flying to some place else. I'm connecting to some channel. But this is something I also do when I'm in my bedroom alone. This is not some show thing. I'm just excited with music, and my style reflects that. It's a very strange thing, but one thing to point out for sure is that these things aren't shows because I can't stand looking at myself doing it. Someone sends me a Youtube, and I'm like, "Don't show me that. No seriously, don't show me that." You know what I mean? This isn't some show thing, you know? If I had the power to not do it, I probably wouldn't, but [the music] is more powerful than me.
You're known for being a prolific DJ isolator user. Can you shed some light on that?
Isolating for me is something I need that releases energy to express. I've played many times without it, but if it's not the isolator it's the mixer. It's the faders or the knobs or whatever it is. Look, whatever a DJ wants to use to express themselves I think is wonderful. I just hope that when you do, that it's something that really comes from you and not something that comes from watching someone else and saying, "Wow that guy's is doing that's really cool, let me do it, too." Whatever it is -- whether it's isolating, producing music, or whatever: let it come from you. That's all.