Photo: Brittney Christie
Justin Jay On The Joy Of DJing, Expanding His Horizons, And How Fans Think He's Still A College Freshman
Los Angeles native DJ/producer/singer Justin Jay is all about expanding dancefloor horizons. Specializing in joyful, melodic house music, often with live instruments, he first appeared on Claude VonStroke's hugely popular Dirtybird label in 2011, when he was just a freshman at USC, and has since started his own label, Fantastic Voyage.
Nowadays he's been busy touring across the U.S. since January and will drop his latest album, Everything Will Come Together Pt. 1, on May 17. With his most recent show at Coachella's Do LaB stage during Weekend 2, we caught up with the West Coast DJ on the ground in Indio to talk about what the fest means to him as a Californian and an artist, coming of age in the L.A. dance scene and more.
You'll be playing the Do LaB stage here [on April 20]. What are you most looking forward to about playing at Coachella, at Do LaB?
Being from L.A., Coachella is something that you grow up with. I also went to college in L.A., at USC so, independent of playing, Coachella is a festival that I love attending.
I've been for my fair share of years, and the curation of the lineup is just always amazing. You can see so many amazing acts that you would never see in one place, and that's the best part. That in combination with all the homies, because I still have a lot of friends who live in L.A. and a lot of friends who come back for Coachella. Friends and music, that's all you need, right?
What has been your favorite part of this weekend so far? Anyone you're super excited to scope out?
My two must-see acts are actually both playing right now, Mac DeMarco and DJ Seinfeld. I really love both of them. I got to see Mac on Wednesday at the Echo [in L.A.], it was one of the best shows I've ever seen. It sold out immediately. I set an alarm when the tickets went on sale, sniped 'em.
DJ Seinfeld is also awesome. He did a show a couple weeks ago that I was at, and we got late night dinner afterwards and became friends, I really like him and I like his music. Those two are up there for sure.
But a lot of my favorite moments are just…[the discovery]. A lot of my friends have very strong music tastes and a lot of conviction behind the artists they want to see. I'm kind of an easygoing homie who gets dragged along to stuff I've never heard of and am just, "Oh, my god! This is amazing."
Can you speak to what Do LaB means to you as an artist and how it plays into Coachella as a larger curated event?
I haven't been to the Do LaB yet this year, but throughout my times here at Coachella, even as the stage has evolved, the Do LaB has always been one of my favorite parts of Coachella. And my senior year of college, I played the Do LaB and, dude, I had friends on stage with water guns and, a chunk of high school friends here and chunk of college friends here, and it just felt like I was surrounded by homies. I'm just excited to be back in that environment, and the artists they curate; it's just a great experience.
It's just a great, great time, you know? Water guns, bubbles…
It's like you're playing a party for your best friends, but also a ton of other people are there and vibing out with you.
Yeah. And you're like, "Ah, we can be friends too." That's cool. [Laughs.]
Are all your friends going to come out for your show next weekend?
You know, we're a little bit older, so it's probably not going be as filled with friends. [Pauses.] It's funny. I have a lot more appreciation for the friends who still come out to festivals and stuff. Not even if it's for my music, just in general. I'm like, "Dude, you still can put up with the heat and the schlepping and all that stuff for the music?" And that makes me really happy.
What's also cool is, I feel like having been touring and putting out music for a while, I feel like I've become friends with a lot of people who I met through the music itself, you know? As opposed to school, or whatever. So I really love that too. In that way, maybe I'll have more friends because of all the people that I've met who, you know, say, "Dude, I saw you in this place and we're coming to Coachella."
Speaking of friends, what does being a part of the Dirtybird label mean to you? What was the shift like for you, going from college-dorm producing to being part of that family?
So, it was crazy. Eight years ago, my first week of college, I'd just moved into my dorm—we're talking like day three—I got an email back from Claude VonStroke on a demo I'd sent over on SoundCloud. It was the most surreal moment of my life, I did a lap around my dorm.
How fast did he respond after you sent it?
Maybe a couple months? I had sent demos and demos and demos, it just takes time. He's touring, you know, but he does listen to everything. I never imagined that I'd hear back on anything and he hit me up. I ended up putting that song out maybe a month or two later, and slowly but surely began doing shows with the Dirtybird guys.
So it was released on Dirtybird?
Yeah, back in 2011. Good year. So that was my freshman year and no one liked house music around me. Everyone was just getting into EDM, which was awesome, because honestly, it was a pivotal year. I grew up DJing high school parties before then, and I would have to trick people to dance to anything that didn't have rapping or singing.
People want vocals, or they think they want vocals, right?
That's what was significant about EDM is that, when it got into the college culture, it felt like there was this new openness to stuff that wasn't pop or wasn't rap. A lot of EDM songs that people liked didn't have any singing, you know? Like [Avicii's 2011 hit] "Levels." You know, it has, [singing] "ohh, sometimes," but the part that everyone dances to doesn't have singing, doesn't have lyrics.
That was a defining shift, at least being in L.A., because prior to that, people we're like, "This is boring." Like, "This doesn't have words," you know? That was a big thing, at least for me, when I was in high school and I had to trick people into dancing to dance music. But regardless, by the time I was in college, I was really into house music and techno and Dirtybird, stuff that was emblematic of underground dance music at the time.
Were you tapped into those communities in L.A. then?
I was starting to go to warehouse parties. I was seeing Ian Pooley and Jimpster, and guys from Europe who are into deep house and techno guys, too. I saw Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock when I was underage, and it was super fun. But what was so dope and what's so interesting is between then and now, even by the time I was a senior in college, people were starting to get into house music.
Are you close with Claude [VonStroke] now? What's your relationship like with Dirtybird?
You know, I was so awkward for so many years being like, "I am such a huge fan." I could not even say a word. I feel like he's been really supportive, especially of the stuff I've been doing that's not Dirtybird. For instance, I started a label a couple years ago called Fantastic Voyage. The main concept with it was I had a bunch of friends that we were making music together, and I wanted a sort of Dirtybird community, where it was a bunch of DJ artist guys, except for us, we could all play as a band together.
Last year at the Dirtybird Campout, Claude let me have about four hours for a takeover where I got to curate the lineup. And I began with my DJ set, and then other people's live shows, and then it all culminated with a big band show at the end. And I really appreciate that because dude, there's guitars, there's live drums, there's lots of singing. And that's not indicative of a lot of the music people expect when they come to the Dirtybird Campout. The crowd was super receptive, with people singing along and stuff. I'm just so grateful that I could take those kind of risks and do that with the support of someone like Claude, you know?
There was a very deep moment of affirmation where, at the Campout last year, there was a press Q&A thing and Claude was introducing a bunch of artists who are on the label. And he was giving out, off the cuff, these superlatives. He was like, "Ah, this is Justin Martin; he's the happiest dude. And these are Walker & Royce; they're making the craziest music." He was just saying nice things and then, when he got to me, he was like, "This is Justin; he's the most creative." I was like, "What?!" [Laughs.] I was like, "Dude, get out of here, man!"
Are you still the youngest on the label?
People always think that, but nope. Dude, people are still like, "Oh, are you still 18?" No, I'm definitely not the youngest, but yeah, I feel like there's this ongoing thing with musicians where it's like, I don't know. For me, when I was in college, I actually took a lot of my career stuff very seriously because being into house music 10 years ago, everyone in L.A. who liked house music was late 20s, early 30s, and I was 19.
I'm 26 now, and it's weird because I'd be on YouTube hearing interviews with my favorite DJs, and they would say, "You gotta pay your dues, you gotta know your records." All of my favorite DJs were late 30s, early 40s, double my age. And so, I was very uptight, no drinking, just very professional. And then ironically, after I graduated, I started loosening up a bit more, just feeling like, "Oh, I guess I don't have to be so serious."
I still don't really party, but I don't think that's what's important. I think it's just being able to have fun with it. The reason why I brought all of this up is because I feel like this is kind of a "Benjamin Button" situation, where it's like, the older you get, the more in touch you get with [your inner] little kid. I see that in Claude sometimes where I'm like, "That dude's like an eight-year-old in a dad bod," but in a great way. I mean that as a compliment.
What do you think makes a good DJ set?
You know, it's funny. I think, in terms of a set, [pauses] the real magic is kind of this elusive lightning in a bottle sort of thing. Pun, because of Do LaB. But for real, I think DJing is beautiful because you can just wing it and be in the moment; be present, go with the vibe.
"I feel like that's one of my favorite principles of DJing, that sort of tricking people to like stuff."
It's like no one's expecting that you have to play that one thing, right?
Yeah, not for me, thankfully. Other people, I don't know. That doesn't sound too fun. You just get to be present and hopefully trick people to like some stuff they haven't heard before, whether it's old music or new music that hasn't been released, or stuff that's outside of people's tastes. I feel like that's one of my favorite principles of DJing, that sort of tricking people to like stuff. And I feel like that's kind of me with the band, right? It's people thinking, "Oh, house music," and then there's drums and guitars and singer-songwriter moments and stuff.
Kind of surprising people, right?
But not just surprising people. You know when you're having a good time on the dance floor and you stop thinking, you're just having fun? That's the moment where the DJ might put on some song that you, if you heard the same exact song eight hours earlier as you were waking up, you would be like, "This is weird; I don't like this." But when you get caught up in the fun of the party and you're with your friends, it's just a good time. Those are the moments where you can get tricked into being exposed to something new that you end up falling in love with.
So, for you as an artist, it's important to you open people's minds a little bit each time?
It's like pushing people a little outside of their comfort zones but still having a great time. That's the balance, right?