Interview / Justin Strauss

I first met legendary NYC-based DJ / producer / remixer extraordinaire, Justin Strauss, back in 2016. Phil Mison introduced us one night at Brilliant Corners. This subsequently led to a series of interviews – where I bombarded poor Justin with questions about his long career – from singing with “power pop” band Milk N Cookies to DJing at hallowed New York haunts such as The Mudd Club, The Ritz, AREA, and Limelight. Recently, after a good few years, I had reason to contact Justin again. I was working on something that I needed him to fact check – to which – straight away – he kindly agreed. I`d forgotten how super nice he is. I was going over all of those old interviews and I realized that my probing had stopped at around 1990. We hadn’t really touched on any of Justin’s classic remix work or his more current production partnerships with Bryan Mette – as Whatever / Whatever – or with Max Pask, so I said “Hey, Justin, how about it?” and it turned out that he has a new record ready for release. Now teamed up with DFA alumini, Marcus Marr, and Hot Chip`s Joe Goddard – as Extra Credit – there`s a fresh 12 due on the Dewaele brothers, Deewee imprint. The A-side, It`s Over, being a quality piece of ticking and tock-ing drum-machined synth pop. Its heartbroken lyric accompanied by body-shaking bass, and arcs of metal axe feedback and grind. The AA, Drive Me, is kinda “New Order do trance”. Packing a motorik skip, a big, pumping kick, and prettily picked guitar detail. The vocal, wasted – its protagonist prowling a neon cityscape, way past midnight. 

1984, Greg Kihn`s Reunited – was that the first remix you did?

I`d done a few things before that one, in 1983. Ironically two of the first were both remixes for former Milk n’ Cookies bandmates. Sal Maida our bass player had a new project, with his girlfriend Lisa Burns, signed to Atlantic Records in 1983 called Velveteen. I co-produced a song of theirs with my friend Ivan Ivan, and we remixed another one. I also did a remix for Ian North from Milk n Cookies for a solo 12” called Look Into My Eyes, which was released on his own independent label. Murray Elias and I worked on another record for Ian called Pretty Pretty, in late ‘83. It was set to come out on the LA label Posh Boy in 1984. Copies were pressed, and then a disagreement between Ian and the label caused the release to be scrapped and the records destroyed. A few surfaced over the years, but I just recently got a copy after all this time. 

How did the Greg Kihn remix come about?

After I met Murray Elias and we decided to form a production partnership, we were looking to start by doing remixes. As DJs we knew a few A&R people at major labels, and also dance promotion people, who were bringing their records to us to get play at the clubs. Getting that first major label to take a chance on an unknown production team was the first hurdle. We had a meeting with a woman named Robin Kravitz, who was the A&R person for Greg Kihn at Elektra Records. Kihn had just scored a big hit in the clubs with Jeopardy – which was remixed by John Luongo. They were looking to have the next single Reunited remixed and she decided to give us a shot at it. We used the engineer Jay Mark who worked on Jeopardy at the famous Sigma Sound Studios in Philly. Sigma also had a studio in New York so we did the mix there. I had just gotten my first drum machine which was an SP-12, so I took that along. 

You’d been in studios before – as part of Milk N Cookies – but is this when you got the studio bug? 

My dad was an audiophile, so we had a lot of audio equipment in our house – reel to reel tape machines, etc. So from an early age I was learning about them and using them. We`d recorded the Milk n’ Cookies album at Island Studios in London – where we`d spent a month or more, everyday, in the studio. So I felt pretty comfortable in the studio anyway. 

When did you met Murray Elias? 

I met Murray while I was DJing at the Mudd Club. He`d worked at Island Records in New York, and at the Joe Gibbs label – Murray opened their New York office. Murray was a big reggae head and I remember him bringing me the Derrick Laro 12, the reggae cover version of Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, which was released on the Joe Gibbs label and was very hard to find at the time. It became a huge hit at the Mudd and Danceteria. So we became and remain great friends. 

You worked with Murray a lot between `84 and `88 – Wax` Ball & Chain, Swing Out Sister`s Surrender, Tina Turner’s Afterglow, The Nails, Bill Nelson, Flesh For Lulu, Skinny Puppy Debbie Harry, Belouis Some, Duran Duran Sinead O`Connor….How did the partnership work?

Not long after the Greg Kihn mix, and maybe a couple more, we were taken on by Shep Pettibone’s managers – to represent us as remixers. Between them helping us out and our own connections in the business we started getting a lot of work. I was more hands on when it came to the productions and overdubs. I did all the drum programming on our mixes and played some keyboards. Then, if Murray liked something or didn’t he would offer his suggestions. Murray got more involved with the arrangements and mix. It was a good back and forth. And coming from a reggae background he loved to work on the dub versions, as did I. 

Did you have a preferred studio to work in? If so why?

We worked in a few. As we got more and more into “additional production” we would spend a day in a smaller studio that had lots of gear – synths, drum machines… to work on the overdubs. Two studios we used a lot for that part of the process were I.N.S., which was started by my former Milk n Cookies bandmate, Ian North, and the other was called Prime Cuts, which was opened by Tuta Aquino and Mark Kamins. We would then go to a bigger studio to do the mix. We worked at all the best studios in the city – from Right Track, Soundworks, to Electric Lady – but the one we used most was called Soundtrack Studio. I think it was important to have a studio that we worked out of consistently, as every room is different, and you wanted to be sure that you had good idea what the end mix would sound like. So the more you worked in one place then the better feel you had for the sound of the room. 

I know Arthur Baker would bring in new musicians to play new parts on his remixes – did you do ever so this?

Well yes. After the first few remixes we decided we wanted to find our own keyboard person. I didn’t want to use anyone that was already working with Shep or Arthur, but wanted someone fresh that could help us create our own sound. My girlfriend at the time said she had a friend in a band and maybe we could give him a try. That person turned out to be Eric Kupper. He`d never played on a record before, nor was he particularly familiar with dance music. But I had a good feeling about him. He was a quick learner and very talented. I played him lots of records – and knew what I wanted our records to sound like – so it worked out. He played on pretty much all our remixes, and all my solo remixes for a long time. After sometime he started working with Frankie Knuckles and David Morales, and others, but he was our discovery, and I’m very proud of that. Very occasionally we used someone else but not often. We had a team of Eric, the two engineers we mostly worked with, Hugo Dwyer and Daniel Abraham, and two editors we worked with, Tuta Aquino and Chep Nunez. 

Why did you name your production partnership “Popstand”?

One of Murray’s favorite expressions was “Let’s blow this popstand”, so when we were thinking of names we went with that. 

All of these remixes are great – a lot of them went on to help define the “balearic beat”. Were any of them particularly successful, big hits, at the time?

Yes they were, and we kept getting hired to do them. The first big one was Debbie Harry’s In Love With Love, which was our first number one on the Billboard chart dance chart. The song originally had a rock-ish production. I was playing around with new drum patterns for it and programmed a latin freestyle beat which was becoming a new underground sound in New York at the time. It really worked with Debbie’s vocals, and then we added the bass and other parts. Little Louie Vega started playing the record at the Heartthrob club in New York, where he was spinning at the time, and it became a massive record. He invited us down to the club to see the reaction and we were blown away. Records like the Tina Turner, Swing Out Sister, and others seemed to be getting a lot of play in Europe. But it was a different world then, before the internet, so it wasn’t always easy to know exactly the impact that they were having. I am super proud that they – and some of my solo remixes like Sergio Medes` Mas Que Nada – were part of the balearic sound. I think because we did, and I continued to, work on records by artists in different genres, it helped to define that sound. 

Was remixing well-paid, lucrative work?

Yes, it was at that time – because there were real budgets for remixes. Labels could justify spending thousands of dollars on a remix because people would actually buy the records. So it was an additional resource for them as well as promotion. Remixes could sell thousands of copies at that time. Also this was before home studios became a thing, so we were working in expensive, top-of-the-line studios, with first class engineers. So a typical budget for a remix for us would be around twenty-five thousand dollars. Some more, some less. But out of that came all the expenses of the studios, the engineers, additional musicians, editor, and our fee. We were still able to come away with a nice cheque after the expenses. 

Why did the Popstand Partnership end?

Murray and I were, and are, great friends. But since I was doing most of the actual production work – with the programming – and Eric was doing additional keyboards, Murray`s role became a little blurry. At least to me at the time. Plus we would have some differences of opinions on things. Basically I just felt that I knew what I wanted and it was time for me to do it on my own. Murray went on to do great things and was the driving force and A&R on Sean Paul’s massive Dutty Rock album.

Was Just Right Productions just you on your own?

Yes. I still worked with Eric, and the engineers Daniel and Hugo, plus now, Frank Heller, and Chep, who was a genius editor. Tuta Aquino, an editor who worked with Murray and I on quite a few of our records got more into his own production work and opened up Prime Cuts Studios with Mark Kamins. I met a young kid named Todd Culver who Chep mentored, and after Chep sadly passed away in a tragic accident, Todd did the edits on my records. 

How did you go about tackling a classic like Jungle Wonz` Time Marches On? Or Luther Vandross` Never Too Much? 808 State`s Pacific? 

All these records were hard to do, because obviously they are all great in their original versions. But my feeling is to try to be respectful of the original, but not too precious about it either. The original is still there for anyone who prefers that and these were different interpretations. I did a few mixes on all that varied the formula. Some had more of the original feel and some less. I am very proud of all of them and they did very well. My remix of Luther’s Never Too Much became a hit on the UK pop charts and he even came in and sang some extra vocals on the remix which was amazing needless to say. 

Did you get to meet Malcolm McLaren when you worked on The House Of Blue Danube? 

Yes. Actually, I met him years before when he was managing the New York Dolls for a minute. Then Murray and I actually went in to the studio with him and worked on a version of a song called Bird In A Gilded Cage – which was an amazing experience. So we got to produce a track with him. He had endless ideas and it was such an incredible experience. 

How did you approach Gwen Guthrie`s Padlock – which had already been touched by Larry Levan`s genius hand? 

Again that was a tough one as I loved Larry’s mixes so much. So I did something different. More of a house feel to it, but again trying to retain the integrity of this fantastic song. 

In around 1992 you seemed to stop remixing. What were doing at this time instead? Were you still DJing?

I had two daughters, so really wanted to be around for them as much as possible. I didn’t stop – but did less for sure. I put together a home studio and was working on tracks. I did a publishing deal which gave me some income, and was working with and developing artists. I think my last DJ residence was at a club called LIFE. 

In 2011 you formed Whatever / Whatever with Bryan Mette? How did you meet Bryan and what prompted you to remix and make music together?

I met Bryan at a record store. He`d recently moved to New York from Arizona. We got to talking about music and he told me he was taking courses at an engineering school and making music as well. We became friends and bonded over music and decided to try working on some stuff together. That led to us forming Whatever/Whatever. We worked on some original productions, and did a lot of remix work over the years – of which I am really very proud. We stopped working together a little over two years ago. Bryan is doing some great work on his own, and I’ve gone on to be involved with a few different projects as well.

Who approached you about remixing The Woodentops` Why Why Why? Did you know the tune and its history?

Though a “New York coincidence” I would call it, I met Rolo from the band quite a few years ago. We became friends and kept in touch. When they were putting together a remix package of the song he asked if Whatever/Whatever would like to remix it and we jumped at the chance. I did know of its legacy – as a balearic classic – and we tried to keep that vibe but in a new way. I’m really happy with how it turned out. 

It was Cantoma`s Phil Mison who introduced us – how did you meet Phil?

I met Phil in New York when he was over to play some DJ gigs in town. I knew of his reputation as a legendary DJ and he did not disappoint. We became great friends pretty quickly and he invited me to DJ with him at Brilliant Corners on one of my trips to London. We`ve since played together a few more times through the years and Whatever/Whatever did a remix for Cantoma. He is one of my most favorite people and a talented and dear friend.

In 2013 you released a few records with Teddy Stuart aka Eddie Mars as A / Jus / Ted. How did you meet Teddy and is this collaboration still active?

I met Teddy through a mutual friend Charles Damga who started Uno Records – which had released Teddy’s first record under the name Eddie Mars. I really connected to what he was doing and the sound of his records. Charles introduced us and not long after I went to Teddy’s home studio. During the first session together we came up for the track which became Stay Up Here – with Miss Bee on vocals, which was released on Southern Fried Records. The second session produced the track A Brighter Light, featuring vocals by Jeremy Glenn, and which came out on Under The Shade Records. We started doing remixes, and we did some great ones for Hot Chip, Blood Orange, Kasper Bjørke, Joakim, Kim Ann Foxman, Holy Ghost!, and a band called Stone Float. Teddy decided to put all his energy into his Samples From Mars sound libraries and sample packs, and has been very successful at it. He’s a total perfectionist and his samples of drums machines and synths are in a class of their own. We have talked about the possibilities of doing something together again but it hasn’t happened yet. 

Recently you’ve been working with Max Pask. How did you meet Max and how does that collaboration work – do you have a studio together?

I`d known Max casually for years from the scene here in New York. At one point he was collaborating with different people in his studio and asked me if I’d like to come to the studio and make some music with him. The track we did at that time eventually surfaced on an E.P. we did with Moscoman called Trading Places. One of the tracks, Submission, features vocals from The Golden Filter. I really liked working with Max, he’s super talented, and we became really good friends. Around the same time we had both separately been talking with Dave and Steph Dewaele about doing something for their Deewee label and so Max suggested that we do something together. After the somewhat complicated process of organizing everyone’s schedules we went to Ghent and recorded the Each Other E.P. It was a fantastic experience spending a week at the Deewee studio and having Dave and Steph involved with the project. They mixed it – as they do everything on the label – and I’m so proud of it. We’ve just finished working on demos for the next record – so more on that soon. Max has a studio that he shares with Juan Maclean and I now share that too. 

Is that how you hooked up with DFA, through Juan Maclean? 

I first connected with DFA through Jason Drummond a/k/a DJ Spun – who at the time had a distribution deal with them for his label, Rong Music. He asked Whatever/Whatever to do a remix of Woolfy’s Oh Missy. That lead to a friendship with Justin Miller who was working at DFA and with Jonathan Galkin who was running it. We did more remixes for Yacht, Holy Ghost!, Crooked Man, and one for LCD Soundsystem. When I heard the Amy Douglas song Never Saw It Coming, I let Jon know that I loved it and Amy as well. When it came time for a remix he asked me if I would do it. I asked Max Pask to work on it with me, and after that we decided to do more together under our Each Other moniker. In 2020 we had remixes released by Holy Ghost!, Sean Johnston’s project A.M.O.R., Reznik & Goodguy Mikesh on 2MR, Kasper Bjørke, a remix for Dean Merrideth’s Rogue Cat label, and Moscoman. We’ve already completed some more – which will be coming out this year:  Midnight Magic, Phenomenal Handclap Band, Peter Invasion/Gregor Habicht on Correspondant, and one for a project on Roe Deers label – as well as working on our own next E.P. So we’ve been very busy. I really love working with Max. 

Can you tell me more about Extra Credit? 

Extra Credit is me, with Joe Goddard and Marcus Marr. The songs were recorded in London, on one of my frequent DJ trips over there. I`d become friends with Joe through the A/Jus/Ted remix we did for Hot Chip – which resulted in some DJ gigs together. I became good friends with Marcus during his trips to New York. I was talking with Joe about a collaboration and I suggested that Marcus join us as well – something Joe was totally on board with as he was already a fan of Marcus’ work. The first track we worked on together was It’s Over. It was Joe and Marcus who suggested that I sing on it. It had been a while since I`d sung on record, but was really excited, and then did same for the other side, Drive Me. This led me to do the vocals on the Each Other E.P. as well. Dave and Steph heard the Extra Credit songs and wanted to release them on Deewee – which was great news. They did an incredible job of mixing and adding their special magic to them. I couldn’t be happier with the results. 

Prior to the pandemic did you have any regular DJ gigs – either locally or globally?

I’ve been touring Europe, Brazil, and Mexico quite a lot over the past 8 years or so. I’ve had the honor of playing fairly regularly at Panorama Bar in Berlin, Zukunft in Zürich, Horse Meat Disco in London, and all over really. Plus playing in New York quite regularly. I have a residency at Good Room, with my mate Billy Caldwell, as Love Tempo – as well as playing many other gigs in town, which is something I cherish. I still love DJing as much as the first time I stepped in to the booth at the Mudd Club. 

If the current crisis begins to abate, all being well, what do you have planned for 2021?

To continue to do what I love  – and have been privileged to do for most of my life – to make music and DJ. 

Extra Credit`s It`s Over / Drive me is released by Deewee on March 12th. 

For a lot more from Justin, and all things NYC, be sure to check the forthcoming Spring issue of Faith Fanzine. 

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