This is turning out to be a charmed week for Justin Martin. After almost 20 years hustling as a house-music underdog, the distinctly creative producer and DJ is currently between two Saturday night performances at Coachella’s Yuma Tent, the iconic festival’s cavern of underground dance music.
Martin’s sophomore album, Hello Clouds, comes out today on Dirtybird Records, the iconoclastic imprint Martin co-founded 15 years ago in San Francisco. The label has almost singlehandedly forged the “West Coast house” sound, a boisterous, playful, bass-heavy clangor that has spawned international dance-floor smashes such as Breach’s “Jack” and Shiba San’s “Okay,” while adding homegrown flavor to California’s often-borrowed underground dance aesthetic.
Today, which just happens to be 4/20, is also Justin’s 37th birthday. When we met up to talk a few hours before his set last Saturday, Martin appeared to be enjoying every single second of it as, in search of some quiet, we blagged our way through a fence to the production ring-road that cores out the center of Coachella’s hidden logistics operation.
“This is probably one of the biggest weeks of my life,” Martin said, beaming with the excitement of a child as we commandeered a seat in the back of a golf cart. Blue-shirted security hustled in every direction and the rumble of buggies and golf carts melted into fading beats from stages around the Polo Fields. “I feel like we’re just sitting on the front porch, watching traffic go by,” he said, laughing.
Then something caught his eye and he began shouting, “Hey asshole, over there! You! Keep it down!” It turned out this uncharacteristic bout of bad vibery was directed at a certain Guy Lawrence of Disclosure, who greeted Martin’s feigned ire with genuine warmth.
“I’m coming to see you tonight,” Lawrence said. “I love you. I’m gonna bring you pizza after your set!”
Justin Martin’s DJ sets turn dance floors into raucous bacchanals of animalistic joy. He’s often either the weirdest act at the EDM show or the rowdiest act at the house show, but his production work is an entirely more subtle and sensitive affair. Tracks like his breakout “The Sad Piano,” the feels-dance classic “Don’t Go” and his remix of Henry Krinkle’s “Stay” are more likely to soundtrack a tender deflowering than a booty-bass blowout.
This delicate dichotomy is proving to be a hallmark of Justin Martin’s career. Ghettos and Gardens, released in 2012, startled the dance community with its depth and moments of quietude amidst the squelchy basses, roaring low end and wonky glitches. Hello Clouds continues in this vein as a narrative built through songwriting, rather than a collection of dance-floor tunes rammed together. You know, like an actual album — something even the most renowned dance-music producers are often incapable of crafting.
That Martin would be so adroit as an album auteur was a surprise even to him. “Making Ghettos and Gardens, I was so used to making Dirtybird bangers that I wasn’t expecting that some of the deeper tracks like 'Don’t Go' would be the hits. The last album gave me the confidence to realize that I don’t need to just make bangers.
"I wanted the body of work of Hello Clouds to be a pleasant listening experience, a well-rounded journey with a bit of everything that I’m into in there,” he continued. “I want people to listen to it at afterparties or on their headphones when they’re snuggled up next to their loved ones at night. The album is about freedom. It’s about dreaming. The concept first came to me when I was riding the success of Ghettos and Gardens, and sitting in planes, looking out the window, like ‘Hello, clouds.’ It was the next step. Clouds in general are like inkblot tests. It can be whatever the fuck you want it to be. That’s what clouds represent to me, looking up to the sky and dreaming and using your imagination.”
The highlights on Hello Clouds span Martin’s palette. The title tune, featuring Femme, is a pretty little fuzzball of a pop ditty. “Back to the Jungle” is a straight-up acid freakout with bearded Dirtybird newcomer Will Clarke, and “Midnight,” a collaboration with older brother Christian Martin, bursts from loungy piano electronica into what sounds like The Crystal Method on Ativan.
“A lot of these songs don’t really fit in a set that I typically play,” Martin said. “But even if the original version of a tune doesn’t bang on the dance floor, we can do a remix or a VIP that does bang. I’m so ambitious with these things. I really wanted to do the entire remix album myself. Everyone told me I was crazy to have worked on an album for three years and then wanting to remix the whole thing. But I still wanna do it!"
Martin has been working on the album since 2013 but explained, "Three years, for me, is not that long of a time. My touring schedule is pretty nuts. I did over 150 shows in the past year, and I don’t write well when I’m on the road.”
Even after grinding so hard for so long, I can confirm that, yes, Justin Martin is having as much fun as it looks like he’s having. “I know that some people get tired, get sick of it, but I’m a music fanatic,” he said. “I work with awesome people who inspire me. I did much of the touring with my roommate Ardalan. Fun is just kind of my normal state of mind, I think. I’m doing what I absolutely love to do. I don’t get jaded. Every single day, I get to go into the studio and make music or perform for people and make people happy and dance.
"And yeah, there are downsides," he admitted. "I’m on the road alone, hungover by myself for half of the year, but even during the most bottom-of-the-barrel moments, I am so fucking stoked.”
Stoked is an apt phrase to describe the crowd at Martin’s set at Coachella. The Yuma Tent was only erected at the Empire Polo Fields for the first time three years ago, and since then, it has tripled in size and serves as the festival’s anchor point for less mainstream dance music. It was more packed than it had ever been on Saturday night, as Martin’s set called in Sahara Tent ravers and Do Lab hippies alike to party with the club kids. Subs were rattled, panties were dropped, feels and bass stankface were expressed in equal amounts.
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It was a reminder that, sometimes, good guys can finish first. Sometimes it just takes almost 20 years to happen.
Justin Martin's Hello Clouds is available now via iTunes and Spotify. He plays the Yuma Tent at Coachella again this Saturday, April 23, from 9:30-11:30 p.m. Get there early; last week, even up against Guns N' Roses, Martin drew a capacity crowd.