Dirtybird’s Justin Jay Is Back, This Time With a Band

The house DJ has gotten really into choir and opera, too.

Dirtybird’s Justin Jay has predominantly been a solo DJ. From what started around as a group of friends jamming out, his band has morphed into a full-time musical endeavor. He spoke to SF Weekly about his newfound love of choir and opera, the Tame Impala reference on the cover art for his new album, Home, and the differences between touring as a DJ and as a member of a band.

Jay comes to S.F.’s Great American Music Hall this Friday, Nov. 24. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Are you finding it less stressful on tour with your friends than DJing solo?
If anything, it’s a tad more stressful — ‘cause you’ve got to do sound checks, more logistics, equipment. DJs, we’re so spoiled. All we have to do is show up right before and plug in a USB stick, but the thing with the band, when it all comes together, it’s so much fun. It’s so new for me.

Is it better having the five of you guys?
The big part of why I was so stressed out back then is a couple things. One, I was feeling all of this pressure to take things to the next level, from managers and agents, and I just put out that album with Josh Taylor [Fantastic Voyage], our collaborative songs, and it was so fun making all that music and playing all these shows. But I hadn’t had the chance to get my hands dirty and write my own songs. I’d never even played with a band, so that was part of why it was so stressful and I felt like I was skipping steps.

I’m under this pressure to do a crazy tour with Goldenvoice, and I wanted to play cover songs of the Beatles in my friends’ backyards with a band, because I hadn’t done any of that before. I wanted to try singing and writing songs, and it just felt like things are happening a little fast and there was a little too much pressure. The bigger shows and stuff, I wanted to allow my skills and the journey to be a little more organic and. Part of it was just where I’ve been at as a DJ was out of proportion with my experiences with a person who plays in bands. When you’re dealing with live music, it takes so much time to figure out and refine and get good, rehearsing — as a DJ, you don’t need to. I’m so glad I took some time off, ‘cause I didn’t know this would happen, but I ended up finishing this whole other album and tried singing and writing songs and on top of that, finally put together my first real band and these shows are among our first that we’ve been doing.

Justin Jay in Denver (Joel Cruz)

You’ve gotten in songwriting. Any big prep for that?
I’ve been taking singing lessons for a bit, but one of the things that’s changed it is I’ve been singing in a choir. USC has a bunch of choirs — and alums are allowed to join, and between shows I go to USC and sing in the choir. The choir directors are unreal. I’s like the best singing lessons I’ve ever had and it’s all free.

What kind of music?
It’s very eclectic, from religious music to folk music to world music, from African tribal songs to songs about Jesus to Motown to musical theater. It’s like “Oh, I gotta work on this! Keep at it and not give up, not be too critical.” Because if I were too critical of myself, I’d probably quit. Putting in the time to develop the skills to get better, I feel like I’m surrounded by so many people who are such good musicians. I think it would be easy to get psyched out, but what has helped me is that I enjoy doing this stuff. All the fear — it’s scary sometimes, but I just like doing it so much that it doesn’t matter. The belief is that the hard work and over time the skills will develop, and I think that’s true.

For the East Coast Campout, you guys planning anything special?
I think I’m just going to be DJing actually. I’m so grateful, ’cause I love DJing. It’s something that I don’t want to discontinue doing. It fuels the same fire as the band.

Wasn’t sure if you were getting your whole band together for that. Also, your collaboration with Hila Plitmann? How did that happen?
My sister is super into classical music and her friend Hila is an opera singer. I wrote to her that I was not super hyped on it, but in the past year or two, I’ve gotten fascinated by classical music, taking music theory lessons, learning about counterpoint. I’ve been going to operas and the symphony in L.A. for a while and I think what inspired me was try to making a song with Hila was the fact that I’d started doing choir. In music theory, I’ve spent a bunch of time learning about how you do four-part voice lead-in stuff where there’s multiple voices and it makes chords. Very simple stuff, but when I started choir, I really felt the application of all those ideas and wanted to see what I could do. Hila, she’s a crazy vocalist, the amount of power in her voice — she’s someone who could literally shatter glass if she wanted to. Hila’s a legend.

On Home, what’s your favorite track to play live?
They’re all so different. I think the intro stuff is super fun to play live ‘cause it sounds very different. We do a lot of drums, guitar parts, it’s this cool jam. “Can’t Hang” is pretty fun, everyone’s been singing along — that’s something I did not expect. Songs like “Time” are really fun cause it’s high-energy, I’ve snuck in some old Dirtybird songs, I’m playing Static right now, we also have a rendition of “You Give Me Butterflies,” that came out on Dirtybird. Playing house music with a band is really fun.

Who did the album art?
My friend Ben took a picture of me on my iPhone and I really like the picture. It kind of captured — not that spot, it’s by my parents’ house, it’s where I collect my thoughts a lot. That little iPhone picture captured the spirit of where I was coming from with the album, which was where I was both literally and mentally. Then my homey Trevor went crazy with the psychedelic glitchy effects on it. The picture without the effects was unassuming, and I felt so strongly about and it confused all my friends. I just knew with all this conviction that’s what it was going to be: the Tame Impala Innerspeaker reference

Dirtybird keeps getting bigger. What stood out the to most on the Dirtybird label this year?
Walker & Royce, they’re so talented. The things they do — the production levels are so impressive. I’d definitely say what they’re doing is really inspiring.

What are three Dirtybird songs of 2017 that stick out?
“Best Track Ever” by Walker & Royce. Their song “Why Tho,” and also Fisher’s new “Stop It.” I think Fisher is the man and his music is great. It’s big, but it doesn’t have a crazy over-the-top buildup. There’s something held-back about it that I think is really cool. I wish I could look at the discography, I’ve been playing out a lot of old Dirtybird stuff. It’s been around for a minute now, and it’s crazy cause I’ve been part of it for like six years now? Almost seven, which is trippy. Dirtybird’s still going strong and evolving.

Justin Jay, Friday, Nov. 24, 9 p.m., at Great American Music Hall, $25; tickets.

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