Interview: Joe Claussell
Born in Brooklyn, New York to a Puerto Rican family holding deep musical roots, Joaquin “Joe” Claussell’s life has always revolved around the connective power of music.
His earliest forays into DJing came by way of classic New York nightlife institutions like Discotheques the Infernos, CBGBs, the alternative Mud Club, the more mainstream Underground, and the legendary Paradise Garage, while also acting as DJ, music selector, and event organizer for legendary East Village record shop, Dance Tracks. By the mid-90’s Claussell had launched his seminal imprint Spiritual Life Music, as well as joining Francois K and Danny Krivit as part of the Sunday afternoon soiree, Body & Soul.
Personally striving for spiritual and creative freedom, encouraging all to tap into their own unique resources to build a society where art and individuality is both nourished and celebrated, Claussell’s musical CV reads as a blueprint for an industry figure who does things the right way, and for the right reasons. Whether through productions, remixes, events, sets, or external activities, his ability to connect with people who share his passion for the rhythms of life through a higher universal language is evident throughout his work.
On Sunday 6 May, Joe Claussell will join Secretsundaze for an all day/night opening party at London’s Oval Space, where he will join the likes of Bradley Zero, Carista, Charlie Bones & Lorenzo, as well as Special Guests and, of course, Giles & James. With tons going on, including a newly launched Brooklyn-based art and creative social space, Cosmic Arts Center, Joe Claussell granted us a rare interview ahead of Sunday’s gig.
“I don’t judge the success of an event based on how many hands are in the air…”
I wanted to start by discussing your upcoming set in London with Secretsundaze. On 6 May the event will go for 16 hours, day into night. What has been your relationship with Secretsundaze over the years?
I knew about them for a while. They are very successful and throw great events. They invited me to play at Sonar last summer, which is where I met Giles & James. We hadn’t had much contact since then but I knew they had inquired for me to join this upcoming event.
In meeting them I got the sense they are very genuine. They are music lovers like myself. From the research I’ve been doing, as well as word of mouth, I know they throw one hell of a party so I’m really, really looking forward to coming to London and doing more with these guys.
How do you see the parallels in ethos between Secretsundaze and yourself? Musically, Secretsundaze is very much about the diversity of music, which seems to align with your own approach?
I became more interested in what they were doing after I played with them and realized how similar their ethos actually is to mine. The whole thing about music, to me, is about connecting with people; connecting diversity within people and genre. I am in this scene because of the power of music and how it brings all of us on this planet together. Playing for Secretsundaze, I feel like I fit right in with them since they also hold this philosophy.
Secretsundaze is prominently known as a daytime event and so is your involvement with Body & Soul. In your experience, how does the atmosphere and/or your approach shift between day time and night time events?
I have to be honest with you, I approach every event with the same mindset. It’s about connecting with people and doesn’t matter if its day or night. It’s also about being as diverse as possible. I have no pre-conceived plans about what I am going to do. I approach each gig with the same philosophy. I never know what to expect as each time it is about the atmosphere and connection with the audience. I look forward to what unfolds at the moment of us coming together and where it goes from there.
When your are in that moment, and the synergy has presented itself between audience and artist, what is the spark that brings this to realization? Is it something you can even identify?
It’s hard to put into words. I know it comes from a synergy of what is being created inside a space at that moment. I don’t judge the success/failure of an event based on how many hands are in the air or fanatic reactions. It’s a vibration and energy that can’t be explained where, at the end of it all, tells me how the party went.
I would add that as a DJ I have an immense responsibility to make people happy. For however long we are together, it’s in large part my job to take away their sorrows. They come to the venue expected to be lifted. That is what I am most conscious of and I hope at the end of it all I am able to do this as often as I can.
I did want to ask a somewhat dry, behind the scenes question, but it is related to something practical when discussing far reaching sets. How do you categorize and transport your music these days? I’m guessing the days of multiple record crates is largely over but you also don’t strike me as one to put everything on the USBs and call it a day.
Those days aren’t over for me! [laughs] I am still, and always have been, heavily into the vinyl scene.
I always come as I am. That encompasses all kinds of music, whether it’s deep house, deep techno, disco classics, African music, electronic music. I believe I am more of a true artist, in the sense that I don’t waver for anything. If you hire me then you must know what I do and what I play. I don’t accept more than half the gigs I am offered because most of them are not where I am at musically. It doesn’t matter how much money is offered. If someone really wants me to play an EDM gig, I just can’t do it. It’s such a simple music but doesn’t speak to me at all.
How I prepare is, I do a little research as I did with Secretsundaze but, for the most part, I just go out there and present who I am to the audience and how I play music. I improvise a lot.
A lot of us don’t take into account how important the audience is. It’s always a collaboration between the audience and DJ, so they bring a tremendous amount to the table. Whatever happens at a given event has a lot to do with them. I look to create this connection. I am also aware we are doing this together so in order for any of us to have a good time, we need to collaborate.
In our musical space, this definitely extends far beyond a more traditional musician to musician definition of collaboration, in my opinion.
It does require a certain amount of openness from the audience. Even if they are used to, or enjoy, a particular genre, just try and open up and enjoy your time being there even if it’s not 100% what you expect.
This idea of openness to genre, especially within the escapist space, can really open up the wider, necessary social dialogue around understanding of culture and diversity as a whole….not to mention the diverse origins of electronic music.
I did want to ask you a bit about your home city of New York. As a born and bred New Yorker, as well as someone who has existed within the city’s creative scene for some time, how do you see its atmosphere as conducive to art and creativity these days? In particular, I’m curious to hear your impressions in relation to up-and-coming artists. Do you feel like New York is a place where an aspiring creative can still find opportunity? Or, as I see in markets like New York (and London too), creativity is more about following an already established template.
It’s a bit of both but currently more the latter, in my opinion. I find New York to be less diverse than how it was. There are a lot more white hipsters who have taken over the artistic space. There are a lot of art galleries, especially around my area of Bushwick but the soul is missing. We Black and Latinos are being pushed out of our neighborhoods.
On one hand, the scene is thriving with new clubs, events and galleries opening but, on the other hand, it’s mostly attended by a certain demographic. I am a believer in change so these are just the times for New York but, sadly, what I can both see and feel is the lack of soul…even from 4 years ago when you were here…certainly from the era I was growing up in the 80s and 90s.
That was a generation before me, but my formative New York nightlife years involved places like Twilo, Tunnel, Sound Factory, Limelight and the likes. I was always drawn to them as places those who didn’t necessarily fit into society would go for escape. As the city changed, it seemed to become the opposite, in the sense that the nightlife and creative space strived to emulate the exact apparatus that more “traditional” walks of life would. Once gentrification hit New York the way it did, and profit margins soared irregardless of industry, it was just a matter of time before character and atmosphere was sacrificed in the name of marketable definitions of “cool”….
You hit it. Those were some great times. We had so much going on here from Paradise Garage days all the way to Sound Factory and Save the Robots. The most important part of all these places was the diversity. It is “happening” here but in a much more rigid way.
Where does the Cosmic Arts Center fall within this conversation? In reading the center’s missions statement, it’s first line is, “we aim to fill a void in the world dominated by cyber communication and digital music”. Can you expand on this point in relation to your longterm vision is with the Cosmic Arts Center?
To me, Cosmic Arts is an important institution and a vehicle in bridging the gap within a world that is growing farther apart. What we do is bring people together through music and art. As a child, and to this very moment, I realized the power of music and its connective power. It was like no other vibration, or even religion. Again, because of what’s happening to diversity in the arts here in New York, I decided to create the center as a hub so people could come together and be guided by the power of music.
We do things like weekly events dealing with this topic, and we focus on the importance of it, as well as what actually makes connectivity happen. For us, this is music. This place [pauses], I get choked up when I think of what we are doing here, is truly needed in New York and around the world. We need institutions that are primarily focused on bringing people together. There’s nothing more powerful in doing this than music and art.
Most aspects of Cosmic Arts Center are open to absolutely everyone and mostly for free. It’s a place people can come to meet other folks who are looking for a way out of the chaos going on in the world. The feedback I get is, as soon as people enter, they feel at home. They feel a sense of belonging and being healed.
I think of these issues a lot. I feel like a new work social space is more necessary than ever. With communication only happening with the digital space, the days of actually meeting and discussing topics (aka having a dialogue) are falling farther and farther behind us. This results in detrimental societal aspects like a lack of empathy, the justification of Nationalism, and the non acceptance of diversity across the board. People don’t just sit together anymore. I see a lot of these creative spaces or communal work spaces opening up, but almost all are driven by a template ideology and are meant more as a connection hub for brands rather than an actual free flow of ideas that stimulate interpersonal dialogue. Cosmic Arts Center seems to be a place that manages to combine the two effectively.
Right. It is what we aim to provide. We want to allow people to just sit together again.
I wanted to bring the topic of mindfulness into this conversation. I ask many artists, as well as people who tend to make travel a big part of their life, how they maintain mindfulness during the rigours of their responsibilities. What is your technique?
Wherever I am in the world, I have this thing I do in the hotel. After I’m all dressed, records are sorted, and everything packed, I sit down in a chair. I shut off all the noise in the room and I give thanks to the Universe. I do this out loud. I give thanks for the opportunities I am afforded. I give thanks to being able to travel and do another gig, and to all the benefits I get from this blessing bestowed upon me. I did this every single time before a gig. I find it keeps me very grounded and calm.
I’m also aware of the great task at hand in making people happy. I consider myself a conduit to the Universe where the vibration of its message comes to me during these events where I am presenting its word to the audience. I give thanks to this creator, whoever it may be, in choosing me as one of these conduits tasked with spreading this message. I find this all very relaxing and gets me ready, not just for the gig, but for the next journey in my life.
Finally, looking forward through the coming months. What are you personally excited about?
I live within the belief that not even a second is guaranteed to us. I am excited and grateful to get to the next day. There are a lot of exciting things coming up like projects and, of course, the Cosmic Arts Center is very dear to me so, if I can get passed the next hour of my life to see these things unfold, then I am eternally grateful, happy and excited.