It’s taken Justin Martin quite some time to release his debut album, but now Ghettos & Gardens is just around the corner. Here, Defected’s Ben Lovett caught up with the smiley producer to find out why it took him so long to get round to it…
How ironic it is that Justin Martin’s breakthrough track should have been The Sad Piano. Released on cult London house label Buzzin’ Fly back in 2003, The Sad Piano ebbed and flowed on a tide of mournful, highly affecting piano riffs – deep, pensive dance at total odds with its author’s beamingly sunny disposition, then and now.
Martin has grown much more serious about his life and craft in recent years but the sunshine smile is still there. It’s actually quite hard to avoid, emblazoned across publicity shots and referenced regularly in interviews. He’s smiling down the phone line as we begin our conversation.
“Life is wonderful right now, I haven’t a complaint in the world” he opens. “These are exciting times for me; I have a new album due and lots of touring and other releases. There’s a lot to keep me engaged and happy. In the early days of my career I was probably too focussed on having a good time; I lacked the discipline to move myself on. I’ve definitely got that focus and appetite for hard work now but I’m not an artist with some heavy agenda wanting to preach to others. I want to enjoy my music and have others enjoying it. I have a lighter outlook.”
But not that’s not to say his head is in the clouds. “I’ve been thinking about how others view me quite a lot recently. I think people do see me as a lighter than the usual artist” he confides. “That’s fine as long as people understand that I’m serious about making my music… serious about creating a good time. I definitely don’t want to be seen as some joker or sloppy, careless artist. I have learnt so much over the past few years; I am a serious artist but one trying to put what he does in the right kind of perspective.”
One could argue that the dance music scene is a very serious place right now. Its focus on economic survival by adopting keener business sense, and rabid obsession with achieving creative (and financial) standout amidst the blitzkrieg of download releases bombarding 21st century listeners, has certainly altered the mood. Artists, labels, clubs and promoters are all, more or less, kicking hard to stay afloat; clubland is fraught with more concerns than it once was. Martin’s standpoint, then, is a welcome one.
“They’re critical eyes on most electronic music today; be they the eyes of the media, industry people or the artists themselves” Martin expresses. “Ultimately, though, I’m concentrating on my own music. And besides, there are always exceptions to the trends. Each artist still has a personal way of expressing themselves; we’re all different, some more than others. Some lighter, some darker, whatever….”
Martin’s own latest expression is debut album Ghettos & Gardens, a fun but driven juxtaposition of hard and soul inspired, interestingly, by the earliest moments of his career. Pre-Buzzin’ Fly Martin was immersed in drum & bass rather than house; in particular, Goldie’s Metalheadz crew and their intelligent switching of tone and tempo.
“That whole Metalheadz thing was what I listened to when I was younger. It was such unexpected music” he recalls. “I loved the fact that you had these beautiful, serene, melodic passages of sound and then a sudden drop into those heavy rhythms and devastating bass lines…. it was pretty awesome. Later on, when I was embracing other influences, I started thinking that the house scene didn’t have anything comparable to Metalheadz. I felt like that was a niche at 125bpm, I really saw something there.”
The realisation of Martin’s vision for Ghettos & Gardens has taken a considerable amount of time. The album is in fact Martin’s first, arriving on Claude Vonstroke’s highly significant Dirtybird imprint some seven years after his pivotal debut there with 2005’ Cicada. Slick house rhythms snake around dirty hip-hop licks, gruff funk grinds and everything from Bristol-style bass to Goldie reworks (Kemistry) to footwork-fed, ghetto-techin’ jack….
“I’m really pleased with the end vibe. It’s tender and tough, with enough to work a floor and, at the same time, people’s minds” he summarises. “I’m happy with the way everything has come together, the interesting melodies and harder, speaker rattling elements. Pete Tong has just made the first single Hood Rich an Essential New Tune, so I’m stoked.”
But why the lengthy time in the studio? “I first thought about making an album when Ben Watt signed me to Buzzin’ Fly. He really wanted me to do one but I was in a totally different head space” he offers. “I’d sent a demo to him during the Miami Conference, which he loved, and then things were suddenly happening very, very quickly. I couldn’t believe I was working with Ben – I mean, his group Everything But The Girl were huge. It was overawing, to be honest. At the same time, I was still all about the partying and not disciplined enough to work on a long player. I knew it. I didn’t feel like I had a sound, so the idea of an album went to the back of my mind and then my profile got bigger and I was struggling to find time to sit down and write one.”
The longer the pause, the harder it became for Martin to even contemplate sitting down. “There was a little stigma” he confesses. “When I started Ghettos I was ready for it and totally motivated but that didn’t stop those niggling little doubts about having left my debut album for so long, and just being able to get it right. In the end I just buckled down and focussed.”
Martin was born and raised in San Francisco; a city he still resides in now. He played jazz saxophone in high school before progressing to Goldie and LTJ Bukem and, eventually, local house heroes Miguel Migs and Mark Farina: “I loved those guys, they converted me to house. But their sound was very smooth and I had all these crazy ideas.”
San Fran would prove a perfect environment for crazy. Martin’s older brother Christian first introduced him to club music in his mid-teens and, in turn, to local filmmaker friend Barclay Crenshaw – eventually to become Dirtybird icon VonStroke – who was making a DJ documentary, Intellect. The early Noughties project, involving Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Timo Maas, offered valuable insight into what made those stars and their burgeoning scene tick. Christian thought that a connection to Crenshaw must just spark his sibling’s career.
Sure enough, Crenshaw became Justin Martin’s manager: “He wanted me, in the nicest possible way, to be his guinea pig; he wanted to test out what he’d learnt with Intellect and see if that knowledge would make me the next big thing. I built up from DJing local college shows to bigger gigs and the whole Buzzin’ Fly thing. He helped me focus and explore different ideas; but as I started to do well, he also then realised that he wanted more and so the whole VonStroke legend began.”
VonStroke’s rise was to prove even more impressive. Did that ever bother Martin? “Not at all” he replies. “Claude has remained a major inspiration to me. He gave me my earliest break and even now is there to help motivate and guide me. His success rubbed off on me; it gave me even more confidence to pursue my ideas. As a result, I pushed myself even harder. Claude is a great friend and mentor.”
VonStroke’s Dirtybird label, too, presented Martin with the next crucial stages of his career – Martin’s Dirtybird debut Cicada would precede a string of cult, profile-building EPs for Utensil and Buzzin’ Fly; and, in 2010, huge new Dirtybird cuts Mr Spock and Robot Romance. All the while, the remix commissions were flooding in and even bigger DJ bookings; not to mention appearances at Dirtybird’s infamous Golden Gate parties (for which his parents would provide the tacos…).
“My success is bound up in Dirtybird. And I don’t feel that Dirtybird would have had anywhere near the same success without being based in San Francisco” Martin reflects. “It’s such a creative, open-minded, goofy city and, really, that environment has allowed all of us to thrive. It’s given Claude and I plenty of opportunity to pursue our own freaky, different ideas. Everything that has happened has been amazing.”
Martin is on a rockin’ roll. Buoyed by early ‘test’ reactions to Ghettos & Gardens, he is already rough sketching follow-ups and, beyond that, imagining side projects in hip-hop and mainstream pop. More immediately – but still after Ghettos is released – he has remix projects lined up for Soul Clap and Eats Everything and further underground EPs.
“I’m at the stage now where I feel like I have a proper handle on my career – broadly speaking, I can do the things I want when I want. Not all of the remixes that are coming will be big names, for example, some will be for smaller artists that I love. I wanted to do them and I could afford to do them. I know what I want to do with my music now. I’m relaxed and feeling really upbeat. I like having that control and purpose.”
Cues more smiles… Justin Martin’s debut album Ghettos & Gardens is released by Dirtybird Records (US) on May 22 2012.
Words: Ben Lovett