Claude VonStroke knows the value of branding. It's not that the San Francisco–based house and techno DJ and producer is a commercial automaton. After all, the man has been known to rock a bird costume. But don't let his fowl fixation fool you. VonStroke is skilled at moving product. "I'm a strong believer in marketing your message," he explains in his laidback drawl from the office of his two labels, Dirtybird and Mothership. "[It] is, unfortunately, just as important as the music."
Indeed, there's a savvy businessman underneath all those feathers. VonStroke (whose real name, Barclay Crenshaw, is almost as ridiculous as his DJ alias) has remained proudly independent throughout his career. His labels provide homes for deep, warm dance music with funky, gritty edges. This is not headphone techno; you shake your ass to these beats. Each imprint serves a different musical purpose. Dirtybird is the party-boy older brother to Mothership's more genteel sound. For VonStroke, the difference boils down to gut instinct. "People who grew up on Depeche Mode will never understand how to make a record for Dirtybird, but they can make a record for Mothership, no problem," he says. "It's like whether you were imprinted with the James Brown loop or the New Order loop."
VonStroke's new album, Bird Brain, has both loops running simultaneously on repeat. The record takes in deep, throbbing, ominous house; Miami bass; hip-hop; and drum 'n' bass–influenced techno. Most notably, it's infused with a welcome sense of humor. VonStroke is aware of how self-serious and grim dance music can be, especially when it edges into the darker corners of the genre. A sense of humor is "always something that I'm conscious of, because the whole point of the industry is to create fun parties," he says.
Bird Brain is definitely a party record. It's also a collaborative effort, to some degree. P-Funk legend Bootsy Collins appears on "The Greasy Beat," offering up such nuggets of wisdom as "Booty report for duty!" (The two traded ideas via e-mail.) Dirtybird crewmember Justin Martin came up with the idea for "Beat That Bird," a song VonStroke reworked and "made funnier," including chicken noises and a distorted vocal refrain repeating the anti-avian title over a sprightly, bubbling beat.
VonStroke is reluctant to relinquish ownership of his songs, and at this point in his career, there's really no need to. "I prefer making my own stuff because I can actually control it," he says. He claims to have outsourced his tracks for release by other labels only twice. Once, he asked for the song back, and the other time made him cringe badly enough to never repeat the experiment. "I just couldn't handle it, watching other people fuck up my records," he laughs. "I'd rather fuck them up myself."
Production is clearly VonStroke's first love, though he compiled an installment of the esteemed Fabric mix series this past spring. Even so, he prefers playing other people's music to performing his own. His upcoming tour, including his S.F. record release party, will be a DJ set that includes some of Bird Brain's tracks instead of laptop re-creations of the record. "I don't think I could handle playing a live set of my own music for 23 weekends," he admits. "I don't want to end up like Journey or something."
VonStroke may have a clear vision for his brand, but the music never feels calculated or contrived for it. Chalk it up to his main drive: to make good-time dance music. And he's happy to dish out tips for those trying to follow that lead. "There's gotta be something about your story that is interesting," he says, once again revealing his marketing acumen. "And if there isn't ... you have to make it interesting." VonStroke pauses, a smile creeping into his voice. "Go buy a bird costume."