What comes to your mind when you think techno? Detroit. And why is that? Because Detroit is where the roots of techno lie. Now, even though Justin James isn’t “Straight Outta Detroit”, he is from Windsor, Ontario! Windsor is literally a foot away from Detroit, and his good friend and the person who took Justin under his wing, the iconic Richie Hawtin, happens to also be from Windsor. Justin’s proximity to Detroit all his life left him exposed firsthand to that raw techno sound.
Justin’s influences, background and network of friends, not to mention his admirable passion and love for the organic sounds of techno, has greatly shaped him as an artist. He’s the head-honcho of his own label refused., off of which he released his ‘Space Sleaze’ EP just a few days ago, has played Tomorrowland 2015 and played Richie’s ENTER. stage at this year’s Insomniac’s Escape: Psycho Circus; and that’s just him getting started! This year has been a phenomenal year for the extremely humble, funny, friendly and down-to-earth Justin, who it was an absolute pleasure to chat with for an exclusive interview, so we can only wait in anticipation for what amazing things 2016 will bring for Justin and refused.:
TFM: First and foremost, congrats on the release of your Space Sleaze EP! It’s been a huge year for you. Tell me a little bit about the EP and the tracks on it-
Justin: Thank you! It’s just a single, so it’s only the original track AND the acapella. So it’s something a little bit different and we haven’t done anything like that before, but it’s important to me. The vocalist is a friend of mine named Dan Diamond and years ago, before he was my friend and before we knew each other, he had a record out with one of my favorite producers that don’t do anything anymore called Peace Division and I believe they’re out of the UK. He didn’t end up getting credited for it at first, but they actually found an acapella for a track of his called Club Therapy. I came across this Peace Division Club Therapy track and it blew me away, the vocals are what made it and the production was dope too. I happened to befriend Dan through a mutual friend, John Acquaviva, and then we talked about doing a record together and Space Sleaze was the outcome. We have plans to do more in the future!
TFM: What inspired you to start refused.? Owning your own label is a big deal!
Justin: Yeah! It was one of those things that I felt kind of just had to happen. I wanted to kind of contribute to this culture that I love so much and I figured owning a record label is a good way to do that and releasing records from my friends and of my own this is only the second release I’ve done on it actually. But you know, to find some young talent and to have friends give them a place to be heard as well, created sort of a family atmosphere to it as well. Where I’m from in Windsor, Windsor is right across from Detroit and I can actually see Detroit from my house right now, that’s how close we are.
TFM: That’s so crazy! Since Detroit is like a beacon for techno!
Justin: [laughs] Exactly!
TFM: I’m a fan of the big man himself, Richie, and you guys are both from Ontario. So what’s that been like ever since Rich kind of took you under his wing?
Justin: Yeah it’s kind of cool actually, because Ontario is a province, comparable to New York, but I think Ontario is actually bigger. Me and Richie actually happen to be from the same city in Ontario called Windsor, and as I said before, it kind of borders Detroit. So yeah, when I was growing up, we started going to raves when we were younger, and in fact, I was just talking to Rich this weekend about the fact that one of the first ones we went to before I even knew who he was, was a rave in Windsor called Jack-O-Lantern. My friend Jeff and I went, because we were in University and we were young, and at that time I didn’t know anything about the history of Detroit techno or the history of where Richie and John Acquaviva fell into, kind of that second-generation Detroit techno thing. Yeah so it started like that, and when I was in school, in university, I had the opportunity to do kind of spearhead a documentary on Detroit techno on a University project level. I learned about the history a little bit and then I got to shoot a video at one of Rich’s parties, a party called Consumed. Then, I got to know him a little bit through that but still not too well. Then yeah, so a few years later, I started making my own music and DJing, and I played with him in Windsor and my friend Matt and I opened for him, actually- we opened for Geyser, who opened for Rich. Rich asked us for some music, and that’s how it began. He’s always been a huge influence for me, whether he knows it or not, and I think that’s why I also thought it would’ve been a good idea to start my own record label, after being influenced by all the amazing things his label Plus8 has done, and what MINUS does now.
TFM: Awesome story! So, upcoming shows- I see you’re playing BPM in January and honestly, I want to go to that SO badly but I have no funding! So on that note, are there any shows you’re looking forward to playing or what was your most favorite show you’ve ever played?
Justin: Each one is kind of special in their own way, and a big thing for me is just getting out and loving the fact that people love this music that we all love. Beyond that, it’s people who appreciate my music, as well as my colleagues music. I got to play Tomorrowland this past summer on the MINUS stage, and I did Tomorrowworld the year before that, which was cool. I played ENTER. showcases the last two Halloween’s at Escape in San Bernardino. Those gigs were amazing and being part of anything Richie puts together is next-level stuff, but I’ve also had the opportunity to play this past summer in Barcelona, which happened to be one of my favorites. I played Paco Osuna‘s club night called Club Four and it was so cool because I was headlining. People came there for me, where as opposed to other events. The club was packed until 5 AM, which was when I got off, and that was very special.
TFM: What’s the next step for not just you, but the label as well?
Justin: There’s always steps, you know? I’m not sure on the next step, but we do have a couple of releases coming out, with Space Sleaze coming out next week and in the New Year, I have an EP with Sian’s Octopus Recordings, which I’m pretty excited about, as well as a few other projects and some cool remixes. I’ve had the opportunity to link up with two strong agencies in North America and South America, working with an agency called Liaison, and in Europe, I’m working with B4 bookings, which happens to be Paco’s agency as well. My job is just to hopefully write some cool music, and from there, it will give those agencies some ammunition to start booking me more and playing out more.
TFM: How would you say that you try to separate your sound from everyone else’s, I’m sure being close to Detroit had some influence on that?
Justin: A big thing for me is that I don’t necessarily try to separate or do anything. I just sit down and see what I can get out of me and these machines in front of me, you know? Detroit techno is not as Detroit techno as people think it is, if that makes sense! Detroit techno isn’t just this raw, industrial Juan Atkins style of techno, if we look at the 3 godfathers of techno. 1 being Atkins, being more industrial and robotic sounding, and then Kevin Saunderson, more house oriented, and Derrick May is kind of in between that, having more organic elements. I just try to find my space in between that organic and industrial sounds, but the big thing is my relationship with these machines around me, whether they’re analog or synthesizers. Just trying to see what these machines can do and what I’m inspired by, and trying to find some happy medium between that. I guess that’s what my sound is, you know? But I’ve been pleased with the fact that people have heard Dubfire or Rich play one of my tracks, and they shoot a video of it and without even knowing it’s me, they can tell it’s me. My friend Troy once was watching a livestream of Dubfire playing ENTER. and he messaged me and he was like, “I think Dubfire is playing one of your tracks right now!” and I said, “well, how do you know?” and he said, “it sounds like you”. I don’t know it that’s me necessarily being lazy or if it’s a compliment! Being a musician is about finding your sound which is great, but I don’t see anything wrong with being unpredictable as well!
TFM: If you could pick one person to work with and get ideas from or collab with, who would it be and why?
Justin: There’s so many! One that I would love to work with or be a fly on the wall with in their studio sessions, or more so just their life sessions, would be someone that when I was grounded when I was 8 years old, I was pretending to make music videos in my bedroom to his songs, and that would be Prince! I’m a huge Prince fan and I’ve loved him for however long. What’s amazing about him is that he is such a well-rounded artist. To see his inspiration and motivation to write music is unbelievable, and one of the coolest things about him is that the majority of the music he has produced and released has been completely orchestrated by him, and then he just kind of gets a band to play it live eventually, which is pretty amazing to me. He was a Rock n Roll guy, but he also had a lot of hip-hop influences as well as electronic influences, and he definitely went through a house-y phase. Prince would be high up there for me for sure!
TFM: Let’s say you had the best of both worlds and could pick a second person to collab with, who would you pick?
Justin: I’ve actually never had a studio session with Rich, and I think to spend a week in a studio with him and just see his approach. I’ve been highly inspired even just by the discussions we’ve had about approaches to production, without ever actually sitting in a studio with him. Rich would certainly be high up there for me as well, and he’s definitely a purist, so to be able to understand his approach as well would be amazing!
TFM: Awesome! Thanks for chatting with us, Justin!