Justin Strauss was in the Area

interviewed by Bill in London, 17.5.18

Mudd Club, Danceteria, Ritz, Area… Despite having spun at many of the greatest spots in New York clubland through its transformative ’80s, Justin Strauss is not one to dwell on his past. He’s more interested in his next remix than the nearly 300 he’s clocked up; thinking forward to playing Panorama Bar rather than looking back to those dancefloors of downtown legend. Nevertheless, ask him about those sparkling years, when rents were cheap and Manhattan was a crucible of creativity, and the stories start rolling. And it all begins with an amazing tale of little Justin signed to Island as a teenage glam sensation. His recent production projects include Extra Credit with Marcus Marr and Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard; and Each Other, which is Justin and Max Pask. For the perfect reading soundtrack, scroll down for his great 1987 mix live from the last night of Area.

What’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to you in music?
Wow. You’re starting with the tough questions. When I was 17 years old, my band Milk ’n’ Cookies got signed to Island Records in the UK, which was unheard of back in 1974. We were a New York band, just making demo tapes in the basement. We loved Sparks, and we sent our tape to their manager, and they got back to us saying, ‘We’ve played your tape for Island Records, and they love you, [songwriter and A&R legend] Muff Winwood’s coming to see you play in your basement’. That changed my life. I’ve been doing music ever since,

What was it like performing for Muff Winwood in your basement?
It was quite fun, actually. We had all our friends down there and Muff was a fun guy, and he just signed us on the spot. He told my parents, ‘Well, we’re taking your son to England and he’s going to record an album with his band for Island Records.’

It was an incredible experience because England was always my musical inspiration, and it was my first trip to Europe. They put us up in a townhouse in South Kensington and we recorded our album in Basing Street Studios with Muff and Rhett Davis, who went on to produce B-52’s and all the Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry stuff. It was magic – just being here at that time, and with the people at Island at that time, like Sparks, Roxy Music, Eno. The Wailers were in there recording one of their early albums before anyone knew who they were. Someone took me into the studio where they were recording and I couldn’t see a thing. There was so much smoke.

It was just like a dream come true, but then everything went sour and the dream became sort of a semi-nightmare. The first single came out and it didn’t do what was expected. Then they got cold feet. We were this glam, pre-punk kind of thing. We recorded pre-punk and it was supposed to come out in ’75. Then the punk thing exploded in 1976 and they were like, ‘Wait, we have this Milk ‘n’ Cookies album, let’s put it out’. We imploded so I moved to LA with one of the other band members and re-formed the band out there.

Milk ‘n’ Cookies. Justin Strauss, Ian North, Sal Maida and Mike Ruiz 

How did the band start in the first place?
I went to high school in Long Island, which is like the suburbs. This is mid-’70s. My classmates were into the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead if they were into music at all. And sports. And I wasn’t that guy. I was into music 24/7. Every week I’d run and get Melody Maker, NME, every magazine I could … Cream, Rolling Stone, whatever it was. I was obsessed.

I saw this girl one day in the hall and she looked amazing, and different than anyone else. I had to meet this girl. I was kind of shy, but a friend of mine was in a class with her. She introduced me. We started going out and she somehow knew the other guys. So, we just got together. They said, ‘We want to get a singer. You look like a singer.’ I wasn’t a singer, but I gave it a try. My dad had a TEAC four-track tape machine, so I started recording them in my basement. I joined the band, and then we just started making demos and rehearsing. That’s how that happened. I mean, music has been my whole life, and basically still is.

When you were a kid, who was the first artist or band that really captured your imagination?
The Beatles. I was seven years old, and the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan. And that was the moment, this blew my mind. My dad was into music and I remember going with my dad to the record store. I bought my first Beatles single, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. to sing the beat. And from that moment on, all I cared about was music.

And every Beatles album was an event when you were a kid. You didn’t know what it was going to be… From Rubber Soul to Revolver, to obviously Sgt. Pepper. I mean, it was just insane how they developed. But I was also into James Brown and funk and Motown and soul records as well.

You said you were really into British bands.
Yeah. Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who. Then all that followed. I super got into David Bowie. He was a major, major influence for me. Into glam, into Sweet, into T. Rex, David Bowie, Sparks. Then the New York Dolls happened, and I started going to all these New York Dolls shows, and that’s what kind of made it seem that something we could do.

They were pretty crap as well, weren’t they?
No, they were amazing. They were amongst the best things I’ve ever seen in my life.

In terms of the show, or…?
The Beatles and all that stuff seemed far away and didn’t seem like we could ever do that. But here’s this New York band who… They were what they were, but it was exciting. And they got a record deal. We started this little band and I was like, ‘Maybe we can do that.’ It made it seem possible for a New York band like ours to happen.

So how did you start DJing?
I was in LA after the band broke up and when I got a call from an ex-girlfriend. I said, ‘I want to come home.’ She said, ‘Yeah, come home. There’s this club that just opened, the Mudd Club. You should DJ there.’ I said, ‘I don’t DJ. I’ve never DJed.’ I didn’t even really understand. And she said, ’It doesn’t matter. You have tons of records and I’m friends with the DJ, so I’m sure you can try it out.’ Lo and behold, I came back and the DJ said, ‘Why don’t you come one night and bring some records?’ I played, and the owner of the Mudd Club said, ‘Hey, I like what you’re doing. Do you want to work here on Thursday nights?’ That’s how I started DJing.

What kind of music were you playing at the Mudd Club?
It was really just stuff from my record collection, which was a lot of soul, funk, early punk, all the new wave stuff, to the leftfield disco stuff and reggae. It was a real mix, and I was just playing new and old records together. I didn’t really know the concept of mixing records. The Mudd Club didn’t have 1200s or a real mixer. [The booth] was literally perched at the end of the bar, but it was an amazing scene. Studio 54 had been the focus up to then. Then that scene became very commercialised and people were bored. Mudd Club was the first place where a lot of the artists gathered, a lot of the cool people who didn’t want to go to Studio 54, because they thought it was too chi-chi and the music was boring.

What did the club actually look like? Whereabouts was it?
77 White Street in Tribeca, a few blocks below Canal Street, right by Chinatown, in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing happening back there. The guy who started it, Steve Mass, just got this building. The first floor was a long bar and at the end of it was the DJ ‘booth’. There was a small dancefloor, and then the bathrooms in the back, which were semi-notorious for tomfoolery. And upstairs was a space where they had some gallery shows, performance art. You had a lot of amazing people in New York at that time: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf would all do things there. And there was also Club 57 going on in New York. So there’s this real new thing happening. Nothing planned, nothing organised, but it just felt right.

I mean, you could afford to move to New York back then in 1980. You could get a place for $200 a month, because no one wanted to live there because it was ‘dangerous’. The city was in shambles at that point. Real estate was more affordable. So, you had people who could come and do their art and go out at night, and it was a really special time.

What was the Mudd Club crowd like?
It was just a lot of kids dressed up. A lot of downtown artists and people. It was kind of your friends. It felt like walking into your living room or something, because you knew everyone. Everyone knew each other. It was a small scene. The New York scene back then was maybe a couple of hundred people.. It was like, on any given night, anything can happen.

And then the uptown crowd. Andy Warhol was kind of a connection between the uptown and downtown, because he could mingle with both. And so he became friends with Keith [Haring]. He became friends with Jean-Michel [Basquiat], and then people like Mick Jagger, David Bowie would come and hang out at the Mudd Club. And so you had a really great mix of people, which always makes the best club.

The doorman from the Mudd Club just put out a book, detailing his experiences. It’s pretty interesting; he had a little chain and he would let downtown people in before he would let the cool or uptown socialites. They’d be made to wait outside while some kid would just get in. It was well-curated, so to speak. It was a really fun experience.

When did you start to realise the possibilities for DJing?
I’d always been interested in dance music. I always collected a lot of records from funk to soul, I bought the first 12-inches that came out. Me and my girlfriend, we were 16. We would get let into Studio 54, and we went to 12 West. We went to Infinity, but it didn’t really hit me till I went to see François K. I had met him at the Mudd Club and he invited me down to see him play at this after hours club called AM/PM in New York. And he was the first one that I really saw mixing records together, and it just blew my mind. He showed me the basics. I didn’t have two turntables in my house, and I still don’t. I’ve never practiced DJing.

How long did you play at Mudd Club?
Maybe a year or a little less. And then I got the job at The Ritz, which was a much bigger club. It’s where Webster Hall ended up. It was massive. Mudd Club was maybe 100, 200 people in there tops. And The Ritz was like maybe a thousand. And they had three turntables there. By that point they had the early Technics. I forget what model it is before the 1200. And they had a Bozak mixer, so I started just doing it, trying to mix all these records together from different genres. The Ritz was primarily a new wave rock club, as they were called back then. But I was really influenced by what François was doing.

Then he took me to The Garage one night. And that of course just opened my mind to what a DJ meant, by listening to Larry Levan. What a DJ could do and what it meant to be a DJ and play that music for people, and connect with them. Emotionally and physically. And I tried to bring that to what I was doing, because it really had a powerful effect on me. And I developed my own style of all these genres and making it work together. You know, Arthur Russell records mixed in with Yazoo, or whatever was going on at the time. That was exciting.

Everyone played at the Ritz. Band-wise it was the dream. Everyone from Kraftwerk to Prince to Kid Creole and the Coconuts to Tina Turner, Depeche Mode, Human League, Gang of Four. Anyone you’d ever want to see, and I’d play before, in between, and after the bands.

Justin in the booth at the Ritz

Did it end at midnight?
No I’d stay till four. And they were also the first club to have videos, before MTV. They had a huge screen that came down, one of the first massive video projectors. It was huge and cost like $250,000. An amazing experience to be part of that and be part of something new.

You also played at Danceteria. Tell me about that.
Danceteria was an amazing place. It moved a few times, but it was multilevel, so you had different DJs on different floors. My friend Mark Kamins was playing there. He would also go to the Garage so he was doing some amazing stuff. But he brought his own thing to it where he’d take these acapellas, these Arabic things, Israeli records, play them over crazy stuff, mixing a lot of Euro disco with new wave and creating his own sound.

There was so much going on creatively in New York at that time, like it was just an explosion. It was a time where we had hip hop coming. It was a new art form. You had disco and left-field disco. You had punk and new wave, all new records, all new music just kind of happening at once. What was so special about that time and those clubs was that everyone was playing everything, because it was all new music and it didn’t matter. No one cared, and people just danced. It was a very free and open vibe.

There was this thing in New York called Rockpool, which was a record pool for more left-field DJs.Bambaataa was in it, which was crazy. You got some disco records, but you also got all the new wave stuff, you got early industrial records, you got… They somehow hooked up deals with labels from England, so we were getting all kinds of imports. Like I remember getting a white label of Bostich from Rockpool and I still have it.

Was Mark Kamins an important inspiration for you?
Danceteria was a legendary club in New York. Madonna would go there. She met Mark and he produced her first record. Mark was fearless. He reminded me a lot of Larry. He had a whistle around his neck. Mark was a party in motion, you know? He was quite an amazing force in the New York scene, and everyone looked up to him. He had this connection with Manchester, and became good friends with Mike Pickering and Graeme Park. So he was doing mixes for Quando Quango, and there was this great cross-pollination between Manchester and New York where New Order would come and play. I remember I was DJing at The Ritz when Section 25 and Quando Quango played their first gigs And Mark had done remixes for ‘Love Tempo’, which is an anthem, and a few others: ‘Atom Rock’. Groups like New Order were being totally influenced by the New York sound. You had 99 Records. You had Liquid Liquid. You had ESG, Konk, Bush Tetras. It was an amazing time musically.

How did your remixing career start?
Being a DJ, I started hearing all these records, and obviously I knew François and Larry, so remixing was something I was always interested in. And one day someone brought me a record from RCA. It was this group called Wax. I said, ‘Hey, well, I hear something in this song, but I don’t think it’s really right for the clubs yet. I’d love a shot at remixing it.’ And it just takes that one person that’s going to give you that shot, and hopefully you don’t mess it up too bad. Because you don’t know what you’re doing.

But at that time, you know, you worked with engineers, you worked in real studios. And so it came out pretty good. I formed a partnership, Pop Stand Productions, with another DJ I knew called Murray Elias. And I just learned how to do it. I bought an SP-12 drum machine and I found a keyboard player that nobody else was using. My girlfriend said, ‘Oh, I know this kid. His name’s Eric Kupper.’ And so she introduced me to him and he’d never played on a record before, so I sat him down and I played him a bunch of stuff, and he became my keyboard player and played on all my remixes.

How old was he then? Must have been pretty young.
Yeah, he was… We were all young, you know. This was all in the early ’80s. I worked with amazing engineers, amazing producers and editors, which is a lost art. I worked with Chep Nuñez, he edited most of my records, Tuta Aquino, a couple of the Latin Rascals. So it was really a team effort.

Who were the engineers?
I worked with Hugo Dwyer, who had done a lot of dance records. I worked with Jay Mark, who had come from Sigma Sound. I worked with a French guy who I’d met on a Duran Duran remix we did. His name was Daniel Abraham, we worked together on a lot of records. Frank Heller, who worked on 808 State with me.

Frank worked with Bruce Forest a lot, didn’t he?
Yeah. He also worked with Marley Marl. He did a lot of hip hop, worked with Def Jam. He was just an amazing engineer. I feel really lucky to have come of age when that was still happening, to work with engineers and editors and musicians who really knew what they were doing and knew their way around the studio. I learned so much from just being around them.

Which studios did you work in?
Right Track, Soundworks, Soundtrack. Those were the main ones. Soundworks was in the basement of the building where Studio 54 was. Teddy Riley worked there. Shep Pettibone did most of his stuff down there at that point. François bought a studio called Axis and put it up on the penthouse of the same building.

Working on a track with Eric Kupper

And back then record companies budgeted serious money for remixes
Yeah, it was crazy… I mean, you had budgets for remixes because they could actually sell them and make money, unlike today.

What would a typical major label remix budget have been?
Twenty to 25,000 dollars, which when you think about today, it’s insane.

I know!
People don’t get album budgets for that much. But again, like I said, you were paying for studios. You were paying for engineers, paying for keyboard players, paying for editors, paying for your tape. I mean, you’re paying for a lot of things. You’re paying your manager’s fee. I mean, you could still obviously make money at the end of the day. It was an industry, really. The studios were making money. Engineers were making money.

I worked at Electric Ladyland too a lot, which was an exciting thing because obviously it was Jimi Hendrix’s studio and they still had the murals on the wall, the psychedelic stuff. It was quite something.

Didn’t you come to the UK to remix some stuff?
I did a lot of records for the UK, but always did them in New York because my team was there. And a lot of my remixes did really well here in the UK. The UK dance culture embraced a lot of what I was doing, It was very exciting. I came over when Ministry Of Sound opened, and played there. I spent a lot of time in the UK. I became good friends with CJ Mackintosh. There’s this thing at that time: DJs didn’t travel. But Ministry brought Larry, Tony. And Mark came and actually was again probably one of the first people. He travelled to Manchester early on. He went to Japan before anybody did.

If you had to name one, which is your favourite remix and why?
I’ve done a lot of remixes. I’m super fortunate because I wasn’t pigeonholed, like, ‘Oh, he does disco,’ or, ‘He does alternative.’ I’ve been lucky enough to do everything from Luther Vandross to Skinny Puppy to Depeche Mode to Tina Turner. I mean, I’ve done probably close to 300 records. I really don’t have a favourite. They all have something special to me at a time and place. And one thing I’m really grateful about is a lot of people still play them. And I still play them, and they still sound okay. A lot of that sound is still referenced today, and it’s kind of in vogue, so to speak, or timeless maybe.

Who did you admire most as a remixer?
Shep Pettibone was my number one influence as a remixer. When I started hearing his records, and then when he started working with New Order and Depeche Mode… and Pet Shop Boys especially. When I heard his remix of ‘West End Girls’, I fell in love. His manager Jane Brinton approached us and said, ‘We want to manage you.’ Shep was super supportive, and that time, he was getting offered every record under the sun because he’d had so much success. And if he didn’t have time or want to do it, he would recommend me for mixes, which was really great and very nice.

What was he like as a person? Because he’s become very reclusive
He has, and really. I guess after the Madonna thing… [their professional partnership ended abruptly]

Yeah, I heard through the grapevine it really hurt him the way it ended.
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know the dirt. He was great though. At that time, he couldn’t have been nicer to me. He had this boyish charm about him, you know? He was a very handsome, very out, very friendly to me anyway, and super cool. And still an inspiration to so many people. He never was really a club DJ. He was this kind of radio DJ, and then became a producer. I would see him in studios or see him at a party. He had parties, his birthday party. He was very friendly, very warm, and then he just kind of disappeared. It was this kind of enigma, like…

He moved to Jersey.
Yeah, he opened this resort and this club, and he actually still spins there. I know people have approached him. Even New Order approached him again to remix a record or get in the studio, but he just doesn’t want to. And it’s pretty amazing because he is the top of everyone’s list. And I guess he wants to keep it that way.

The legend.
For me, Shep and Larry and François, who’s still going strong, they were my heroes for remixing and DJing. Larry’s life ended on a very sad note, and he was a god to me. And Shep’s still there, he’s preserved in this special place. And it’s okay. He doesn’t have anything to prove.

What do you think made Larry so special from your point of view?
There was a fearlessness and a confidence in himself as a DJ to do anything. If he wanted to play five minutes of silence, he could just have minutes of silence, or play the same record 10 times in a row. When he was working on Gwen Guthrie, The Peech Boys, he’d bring those tapes in. And those things really didn’t sound like any other records at the time. Like, you didn’t know what… ‘Heartbeat’ even, which was a slow 98 bpm … Who knows? He would just throw that on in the middle of the night and people didn’t know what to make of it at first. They would just stand there with their arms crossed. That’s the only time anyone ever looked at the DJ booth, when they were kind of upset with Larry or just didn’t get what he was doing, and they would stand there and look at him, and he didn’t care. He would just shut the lights, put it on again until it became the biggest record at the club.

He knew what a great record was, and he knew that you would fall in love with it too, and he knew how to make that happen. And that takes some kind of guts and some sort of confidence in yourself. This is not a jukebox! This is my creative output, and I’m going to share that with you. And obviously he turned me on to so much music I didn’t even know. Walking into The Garage for the first time, I walked up that ramp and I heard Martin Circus, which I’d never heard before in my life. And I said, ‘What is this?’ To François. And of course François mixed it.

He took me up to the booth and I met Larry and we became fast friends. I would hang out in the booth and learn records I didn’t know. And he would come hang out at Area. He would come to a lot of shows at The Ritz. So it was, yeah, a really great cross-pollination. But it was his fearlessness and his taste really that made him so special to me. And people say, ‘Oh, he wasn’t such a great mixer, and I don’t agree with that. I heard him mix his ass off if he wanted to. Or not. It didn’t really matter.

But he controlled that whole environment. I mean, even though they had an amazing light guy, he had his own light thing above the DJ booth where he could override. And he would just make the club pitch black. I mean, even turn off the exit signs, which is unimaginable today. It was beautiful. He just knew how to make that environment so special. I would go in there with him some days during the week, and he would just tweak the sound, getting it right for the weekend. He was obsessed, and I think that’s a very special thing.

Yeah, definitely.
So yeah, he was my number one. Saturday nights after Area, I would go four or five in the morning to The Garage and hang out till the wee hours. You would go check out François, what he was doing, check out Larry. People would go to New Jersey to check out Tony Humphries. Bruce Forest was an amazing DJ. But for me, Larry was the one.

So, tell me about Area. When did Area open?
1983. There were four guys. Eric Goode, Chris Goode, Darius, and Shawn Hausman. They had done some projects at the Mudd Club. They were doing these parties and then they found this space on Hudson Street. They showed me the space, and I was like, ‘Wow!’ And they told me their idea: that they were going to change the theme of the club every six weeks. It was incredible, really, what they did. They’d transform this club every six weeks into something totally different. It was an art project with a Richard Long sound system. It was only up three years. It wasn’t even supposed to be open that long. Other than the Paradise Garage, where I never DJed, it was the most amazing club experience in New York.

And the opening of a new theme every six weeks was a major event.  The whole street was clogged with people trying to get into this party. I mean, you could walk into that space and not recognize things. Jean-Michel Basquiat would DJ in the smaller room at the bar. I was DJing in the main room.

Johnny played as well.
Johnny Dynell, who is amazing. He’s still going strong too, ruling on the dancefloor. And it was still a great dance club. Despite all the crazy art stuff… I mean, Andy Warhol could be in a display case, just standing there for six hours. It was unheard of. They did a book recently about the club, and looking at that book, it seems unimaginable. Even having even been there, I was like, ‘How did this even happen?’

I mean, just the expense of it, the space they had to do that with, the team they had. They literally had a workshop upstairs where it was like Geppetto’s. The invites, everything about it, the graphics, it was quite something. I would recommend anyone who’s interested in New York club life to pick up the Area book. The first invite was a pill: a little capsule that you dissolved in a cup of water, and the paper came up rising to the top with the details.

There was something going on in New York every night of the week. Area, Tunnel, Limelight, Palladium, which was a massive club, packed. There was an insane scene going on in New York.

You’d go out to the Mudd Club, you’d see everyone you knew, because this is where everyone went. It was just kind of the destination, or Area or Danceteria. Those were all clubs that people focused on. And we’d move around from club to club. You’d say, ‘Okay, where are we going first? We’ll end up at Area, and then we’ll start at Danceteria.’

Area was 10 or 11 till four, I don’t really remember, but normal clubbing hours. And then you had the New York after hours scene, places like The Continental, The Jefferson, Arthur Weinstein and The World. And you have The Pyramid, which is still going somehow. I mean, it’s very different, but there was a whole scene born out of that club.

You also played at Limelight. In the ’90s it was notorious for the Club Kids and techno; what was it like to play at in the early ’80s?
Limelight really was a weird place. I was there before the Club Kids took it over. It was opened by this guy, Peter Gatien and although I worked for the guy for years, I never really met him. It’s in a church. I never loved it. The DJ booth was really high up, so far from the dancefloor. There was an underground New York filmmaker who I was working with there who did the lights and videos, Beth B, so there was kind of an arty thing going on. But musically, it never really had an identity. It was never my favourite club. There were some fun nights. It later became this thing when the Club Kid thing happened and it got very ravey and candy coloured and very exciting at that point.

Yeah, yeah, with Keoki.
Keoki and Michael Alig, for better or worse. And I guess it was around when ecstasy was really taking hold in the clubs in New York. It was that place at that moment in time, for those kids of that age. When the Club Kids started happening, it was a major force in New York, but I wasn’t spinning there any more.

What advice would you give to someone who’s starting out in music?
God. Don’t do it. No. You know, it’s a different world. I meet kids, and I just say, ‘You really have to find your way to do something that stands out.‘ It’s hard. It’s finding a way to put your own spin on whatever’s going on. And be adventurous!

When I started this job, nobody wanted to be a DJ. I didn’t even want to be one. I just fell into it. I loved music, and I was able to find avenues to express it, whether it was being in a band, being a DJ, or being a producer. It’s harder now because everyone wants to do that,

I’m totally still excited by new music. As much history as I have, it’s the new music that’s exciting. I go out all the time, and I think that’s the best place for me to get turned on still to new music. It’s just keeping your ears open and keeping your eyes open too. I don’t feel any different than I did when I first walked into a DJ booth. You know, I never did any drugs and I don’t drink. It’s only music for me that’s still exciting.

Were you never tempted?
To me, it was like, I was at the Paradise Garage on a Saturday night. It isn’t getting any better than this, really. For me, that was enough. That’s probably why I am still here doing this today and still excited about what I do. I’m not burnt out. I’m not jaded. I’m still excited by music and it’s still my number one thing – from that time I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan to DJing at Panorama Bar.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton