ART:CAST SPECIAL & INTERVIEW Dave Aju

Dave Aju is an electronic music virtuoso, an ace on deck master-selector who has appeared in dance hotspots across the globe and a wizard inside the studio, with vocal aptitude to boot. But more than that, the native Californian is just a fascinating human overall, we could talk to him all day long. And, we did. As things started to look up on the West Coast, we caught up with Marc Barrite in sunny Los Angeles to talk about music, California, the pandemic, and a little bit of tech geek speak. Find out about his journey from a jazzy upbringing through the HipHop scene and into the global house music arena as well as the real scoop behind some of his work, the all-too-clever meaning of TXLAX and some exciting new projects on the horizon. Additionally the Circus Company and Mule Musiq-mainstay mixed and compiled the latest art:cast, an hour full of deep and experimental (electronic music) just like Mr. Dave Aju is known for.

Torture the Artist: Hi Marc. How’s it going over there in LA?

Dave Aju: Hey guys. It’s going… we’re slow-rolling along like most of the planet, but things are starting to look up in places so we’re trying to stay optimistic.

There is this strange sense of struggle and marginalization as an artist and outsider here that creates bonds and thirsts that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere.

Torture the Artist: Unlike most of the artists we feature, you’re based in the US. Do you ever feel geographically challenged? While that’s been relieved by our abilities to travel, it’s not the case now. How did you manage to remain interconnected with the rest of the electronic music community during the pandemic?

Dave Aju: The pandemic took its toll on the music community in so many ways, it’s wild. Luckily I have managed to shift some of my involvement away from my own individual pursuits and more into teaching and helping others get to where they are going creatively, even before the pandemic struck. This not only keeps a roof over my head financially, but is an infinitely rewarding way to stay connected with others, particularly the younger, more enthusiastic types – which, just like their jaded opposites, can be pretty contagious to be around. After so many years in the game, chasing my own ego demons, it’s been a blessing to give back and contribute to future generations like this. I do miss traveling a lot this past year, but connecting deeper with those at home has been a fair trade in a way for now I’d say.

Beyond that, I don’t really feel that geographically challenged by being in the US, perhaps because music is one of the very few if not only areas I’m somewhat patriotic about. Sure, during previous circumstances, when international flights were happening, we’re a much longer distance from the EU, but then again most folks who know the roots of basically every music style we all pursue, started in the States, and for a reason. So from a gigging standpoint it can be more challenging for sure, but from the deeper creative side, there is this strange sense of struggle and marginalization as an artist and outsider here that creates bonds and thirsts that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere. And taco trucks.

Torture the Artist: We’re really intrigued by your background. You were born into Jazz and Soul, how much did your dad’s passion for music influence you? Did you feel that you were destined for this or did it actually spur a certain type of rebellion growing up?

Dave Aju: Yeah, my dad was a pretty hardcore Jazzcat. As a kid growing up I definitely had my rebellion phases, as did all my older brothers and sister, who were into everything from punk and metal to whatever the hottest pop act was at the moment. But in my later years, especially as creating music myself became a serious passion, I’ve become far more grateful and consider myself one of the luckiest dudes I know in this regard. My dad and his crew used to run an underground jazz speakeasy in North Oakland, and it was the first place heads like Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, and Billy Higgins got to jam in the area together, way past crowds and curtains at money shows, strictly for the lovers into the late night (sound familiar? <laughs>)

Torture the Artist: What did you grow up listening to? As a native Californian, who were among your musical inspirations?

Dave Aju: Most of the music my dad and his bands played at family gatherings when I was a kid is forever ingrained in me. Classic Cali stuff like WAR, Headhunters, Tower Of Power and El Chicano, latin-tinged jazz like Dizzy, Horace Silver, Ray Barretto, along with the sunnier soul vibes of Roy Ayers, Sly, and Stevie, and a lot of the more spiritual and trippier jazz fusion stuff. Later on, a grip of West Coast hip-hop like Freestyle Fellowship, The Pharcyde, Solesides, and Hiero of course, and also synth-heavy boogie and steppers jams, and SF Bay rave classics. It always comes back to those early core roots though, there are three photos on my home studio wall, which are snippets of the inside/back sleeve artwork from Stevie’s Innervisions and Miles’ Bitches Brew, with a black and white print of my pops on his horn. Real as f*ck, weird and wonderful. Whenever I feel somewhat lost, I just look up.

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Torture the Artist: Tell us about your heydays MC’ing in the HipHop underworld . How did it ultimately segue into an off track but by all means, well-earned niche in the global house scene?

Dave Aju: I actually started out as a b-boy, dancing was my first true creative passion. I played a few instruments as a kid for a little while but they never really stuck. At one point, making our own tapes to battle and perform to, was a thing, and I got really into the construction of mixes and blends this way. Fast forward some time and a pretty bad surfing accident, and my competitive dancing days were done, so making mixes became the main thing. Soon enough I discovered samplers, because up til then we were just making tape loops and edits, or mixing a few records as overdubs on 4-track recorders, and it was all over. I fell for this full manipulation of sound the sampler offered big time, and never looked back really. I started out making beats for freestyle sessions and hip-hop shows, and soon enough realized I had a penchant for rhyming and wordplay too, so would be on the mic and beats in equal measure. Right around the heyday of underground HipHop in the early to mid 90s, the Rave scene in the Bay was jumping off too, and after a few years of intense ego trips in the MC world and a couple tragic losses, I steered toward the more open positivity of the House music scene – and a reclaimed focus on the dance floor.

Torture the Artist: San Francisco, better, or best, known for Silicon Valley is not your typical underground scene. How is the electronic music community like over there ?

Dave Aju: The San Francisco Bay Area scene is pretty amazing. I’ve seen it multiply, divide, and morph a lot over the last 25+ years, but it has always been a hotbed for new ideas and expression. It’s also been nice and low key, never blown up or out so it never really dies either, just keeps on keeping on. And again I feel blessed in a way to come from an area not stricken to its fixed roots in the past, we’re all experimenters and bastards in a way, which allows for a bit more freedom, diversity, and perversity.

Torture the Artist: How much has it changed compared when you first stepped into it?

Dave Aju: San Francisco in the mid-90s was indescribable. The most creative utopia, that just so happened to be laid out in one of the most topographically amazing cities on earth, you could imagine. But as is the case with many metro areas, the money came in and many of the artists and the culture they created went out. There will always be a pulse and heartbeat of the underground though, even if just a tight-knit family circle, I firmly believe that.

Torture the Artist: San Francisco is also known for high standard living costs. Not to say that it’s impossible to be an artist living in San Francisco but how did you make it work? Did you have a day or side job besides music?

Dave Aju: After going to school at San Francisco State, I took a few jobs as a content creator on both the visual and writing sides. Eventually, I got tired of splitting my time and decided to jump into doing music full-time, with the support of my family and very generous partner at the time, which basically led to my first LP Open Wide. Even after that, it was never an easy roll financially, but we always ate and made it work for sure.

I’ve never been surrounded by so many like-minded people that are just doing their thing like here.

Torture the Artist: And now the City of Angels. When did you decide to move down South of the coast and why?

Dave Aju: My mom and her whole side of the family are from down here, so I grew up visiting often and staying for long summers growing up. To me, it’s all one Cali love. But having said that, there is definitely a schism, and for a period while I was entrenched in San Francisco I could never imagine living in LA. But I was in my 20s then, and in my 40s now, and really wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve never been surrounded by so many like-minded people that are just doing their thing like here, it’s beautiful. When I made the jump back home from Berlin, I knew it had to be down here, for the forward-ever change of pace and scenery if nothing else. And the sun. And the food. And the truth.

Torture the Artist: Oh we didn’t forget, you did live in Berlin for a while. How was that like? Did you feel it was a necessary experience for your artistic direction?

Dave Aju: Berlin was an amazing time. I had been coming there as an EU tour hub for many years, and eventually decided to give it a go full-time. So many great friendships and memories from there, I still hope to go back and visit semi-regularly when we’re able to again. The way I frame my time living there now in my mind is more like a university stint: I had a blast, learned a few things, and once I graduated felt it was time to move on. It’s an incredible city with a heart of its own for sure, and I have chosen family for life there, but it didn’t quite serve me artistically the way one may hope. I suppose for some being overtly surrounded by the work you do is helpful, in our case electronic music, but for some of the rest of us, some distance from it suits our creative spirits better.

Torture the Artist: You’ve DJ’ed and performed live all over the globe, and had multiple appearances in electronic hotspots and techno bucket list toppers, Fabric, Watergate, Panorama and Rex. Do you have a favorite spot?

Dave Aju: Oh man, I’d give up just about anything to be at any of those you named at this stage haha! Feels like true lifetimes ago, but so many great nights playing at all of the above it would be too hard to pick a favorite. I’ve been getting nostalgic for a few lesser-known events like Mad Racket in Sydney, Mutek Fest, and The Sunset Campout, since they tended to be more family bond-focused and less industry I suppose, a sign of current times and values.

Torture the Artist: Now that clubbing, well legal clubbing, is in a bit of a pause, is there a dancefloor memory you keep returning back to?

Dave Aju: That first time at Panorama Bar the year they opened up was one for the personal books, I will say that, just wow.

Torture the Artist: Any place you’d like to hit or gig you’d sign up for as soon as the situation allows?

Dave Aju: Gilles Peterson and I have been trying to lock in a set at his Worldwide fest for a couple years now, would have been the debut in 2020, so that would be great to see finally happen.

This past year was quite frankly a motherf*cker of the highest order – between covid, corporate dominance, and political nightmares filling the media, music felt at many times like the only true healing source that it is.

Torture the Artist: Your Rest In Peace Memoriam mix had us, speaking for myself, in sad/happy/nostalgic/optimistic tears. How did the idea come about and what pushed you to release such a bittersweet celebration?

Dave Aju: Ah that’s lovely to hear. and exactly the way I feel about it as well. When my father passed away, the Heirlooms record I dedicated to him (and made with recordings from him posthumously) felt like it needed to be as real as possible, and that meant equal parts tears of joy not just pain. This past year was quite frankly a motherf*cker of the highest order – between covid, corporate dominance, and political nightmares filling the media, music felt at many times like the only true healing source that it is. The list of names of legendary musicians and artists that have created immortal works in the pantheon of music and died in 2020 is exhaustive – I only picked 20 of at least twice that number. In the past years I’ve done year-end mixes that wrapped up favorites of newer productions, but in this case felt strongly there was only one way to do it: take the tragic deaths and collective pain that came with 2020, and wrap it all up in the timeless beauty and joy some of these legends created to help us get through it.

Torture the Artist: We’re fans of your music and of course, can’t go without talking production with you. You’ve released on some of our favorite labels and received especially high acclaims for your not one but three concept albums. Firstly, where do you get your inspiration?

Dave Aju: Cheers, I appreciate that. Each album tends to work its way into my mind as a concept and then just slowly unravels and I basically lose my shit for a given period of time diving into it, come to and it’s eventually wrapped. Open Wide was something I’d wanted to do since I was a kid first hearing Doug E Fresh and Biz Markie, and to be honest, part of me wonders what it may have been like to wait until later, with more production knowledge (maybe a part 2? Ha). Heirlooms, as mentioned, was a deep dedication to my father, and was extreme in its trials to complete because of it. Black Frames was essentially inspired by my move from San Francisco to Berlin, and TXLAX as the name’s airport letters implies, was a personal documentation of sorts of my move from Berlin back home to LA. I often feel and have been told that I produce music more like the way an author writes a novel or screenplay. Lots of sketches and notes and ideas and mental storyboards, then when I sit down in the studio it just flows. I love a good story with meaning and personalization. Never really been a let’s-just-jam-and-see-what-happens type on my own, though that can be great in collaboration with others.

Torture the Artist: Did you spend a lot of time in the studio during quarantine? Was it more difficult to create music without much partying/dancing going on?

Dave Aju: I did, in fact up until we lost the lease on our glorious G-son studio in Atwater in the fall, I was in there almost daily because nobody else was. Since then I split my time between my home setup and Studio B at Musician’s Institute, the school where I teach. In my bizarro world, I actually find myself making more dance floor-friendly material during quarantine, guess somewhere between yearnings and the great balancing act.

As I get older, I try to maintain a healthier routine of mental/physical/spiritual balance.

Torture the Artist: Are you the type of studio nerd who locks himself in days at a time? Do you have a particular regimen that exercises your creative mojo?

Dave Aju: When I’m in album mode, as mentioned, I can literally go for days on end, just barely eating and sleeping to survive – at the horror of those closest to me, sorry loves! <laughs> But generally speaking, especially as I get older, I try to maintain a healthier routine of mental/physical/spiritual balance, taking breaks and connecting with nature more often. Being sure to get out with friends and make no sense laughing at shit as a welcome contrast to the intensity of work.

I collect handmade percussion instruments from all over the world and love using them in different ways.

Torture the Artist: Can you give us a brief tour of your studio? What are your favorite instruments and gadgets?

Dave Aju: I collect handmade percussion instruments from all over the world and love using them in different ways, and a small selection of mics for different recording purposes as well. In the traditional hardware sense, the only three machines that have survived my last two moves, and 20+ years of sorting and selling stuff are the TR-909, the SH-101, and the Sequential TOM. Being that I am primarily a sampler-focused artist, my greatest epiphany was when I turned off all my other gear way back in SF, and used only my ASR-10. This resulted in the first three finished EPs I ever did, we had loads of gear but never really dialed it all in – though I did extensively sample it all before parting ways. <laughs> The 909 and 101 are my babies because their tones can slide in and under to reinforce just about anything, and have in one way or another, just like my voice, been involved in most tracks I’ve ever done. The TOM is the wonkiest little drum machine that has sound chips you can swap out and extreme pitching functions a la the Linn Drum. All three were purchased for around $500 total years ago. Otherwise, it’s all about the room you’re in, the head, the heart, and the balls/guts.

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Torture the Artist: You’ve been creating music for going on two decades now. Wow it doesn’t even seem that long but it also feels like you’ve been around forever. Is there a particular release that is especially significant to you on a personal or artistic level?

Dave Aju: Yeah, my sense of time is notoriously elastic and sporadic as well – feels like ages but also still somehow fresh and new and just getting going. One of my favorite things about the path I’ve chosen in this game – staying in my own lane and cautious of rises and falls, are the individual messages I receive from people regarding certain tracks – for example this week someone just told me that Strolling On Sunday, the B-side track off my first EP for Matthew Herbert’s label has been their wake-up alarm sound for the past year, or another just wrote regarding Inmahed and how every time they throw it in a mix the next track never makes it on because they lose themselves in it. So I then immediately fall in love with works like these two all over again, what a treat. No chart or award or industry kudos could ever touch that.

Torture the Artist: Which release feels the most daring? Where did you take the most risks as an artist and do you think it was crucial to your artistic growth?

Dave Aju: Hmm tough one, but I guess at two poles: Heirlooms was certainly the most challenging for personal reasons and sharing so much of myself with the world, and tracks like Orbrun off my Musik Krause EP for being essentially one-shot single take transmissions, that I let live as-is. May not sound that daring to the jamming types, but for me it’s huge. <smiles> It’s great to try different approaches and take chances in anything of course.

Typical artist disgust with older work, then in some cases turns around and becomes charming or cool again, with time.

Torture the Artist: Is there a piece of music you made that feels distant to you at the moment? Or do you still feel connected to all your work now?

Dave Aju: Oh there are loads, always. <laughs> Some, for technical reasons but some for lack of connection to what the intention was then, at the point where I’m at now. Typical artist disgust with older work, then in some cases turns around and becomes charming or cool again, with time.

Torture the Artist: Your vocals are a unique feature, a personal touch to your live sets and production and clearly you have the talent and creative channel for it. You’ve also lended vocals to many prominent producers out there – Tiefschwarz, Fred Everything to drop a few names. How far do you intend to extend your singing capabilities – do you ever plan to release a full EP or album primarily as a singer, maybe even in a completely different genre?

Dave Aju: I was just saying the other day that I wouldn’t mind doing a more vocal forward project again soon. The new album has vocals on each track but they are done up in a way that fits the concept and well, is more than a bit unusual. <smiles> Lately I’ve had much less to say lyrically, but hopefully that will turn around soon. The KAMM band project was great for this, where I got to take on lead vocal duty along with co-producing. That level of focus on Cookie Policies produced some nice lyrical moments for sure.

Torture the Artist: Can you spill some details on music you’ve been working on? Can we anticipate a release in the horizon?

Dave Aju: We’ve got a remix package of the KAMM Cookie Policies album coming soon on Circus Company, with remixes from myself, I:Cube, and fellow band members Alland Byallo, Kenneth Scott, and Marc Smith aka Indoor Man. I’ve also got remixes coming soon for Indy Niles on San Francisco’s Sirena Negra label, the 25-year anniversary release of Shaboom’s Mecca Funk, one for Warehouse Preservation Society’s debut EP on Future Boogie, and one in the pipeline for STR4TA. Aside from those, just waiting for the ink to dry on the new album mentioned, it’s called Glossolalia. And this year will finally see the launch of my label Elbow Grease which will start with a single called X17 which is a cool lil chunk of timeless and edgy yet melodic electro of the Detroit school, with some big West Coast twists.

Torture the Artist: Besides music-making, you’re no stranger to radio shows and just launched your mix series. Can you share with us your vision for Greasy Listening. What can we expect from this project?

Dave Aju: Greasy Listening is the mix series and radio show branch of the parent label Elbow Grease. The mix series has been somewhat irregular in timing up to now but aims to promote fellow producers that keep one eye on the floor and one in the deeper left pocket. More focus on that cool, vibed-out b-side shit we all love that doesn’t always rock the party at first glance but always delivers solid trips, warmth, and good feels in the long-run.. better soul mileage. More to come very soon!

Words by Marie J Floro