“One year ago, I was freaking the fuck out,” says Marc Barrite, speaking by phone from Berlin. He’s a fairly recent resident of the city, and the transition was not an easy one. “Uprooting was huge, dude. It was a huge thing for me.”
That’s understandable: Barrite, better known as electronic-music producer Dave Aju, had spent his whole life in the Bay Area — born and raised in San Jose, then 16 years in San Francisco — until last year, when both a breakup and the city’s ever-rising rents sent him packing for Berlin. Now, with a new album, Black Frames, he takes stock of what he left behind — and what he’s gained in the process.
Among the spoils of the move is a new pad — “a nice little one-man Cave Aju,” he jokes — in Kreuzberg, right across the street from Farbfernseher, a popular, if miniscule, dance club housed in a former appliance store. (Its name, meaning “color television,” comes from a piece of signage left over by the previous tenant.) “It’s dope,” he continues. “It’s everything I’ve ever wanted. I mean, coming from a guy who was in a live-in relationship for 12 years, it’s genius. And dude, it’s 390 euros a month!”
That sum (roughly $530 at current exchange rates) is insanely cheap, even for Berlin, where a mixture of forces — free-market attacks on rent stabilization; the conversion of residential apartments to short-term tourist rentals; a steady influx of DJs, musicians, artists, “creatives” and layabouts; and, yes, even tech workers drawn by the city’s burgeoning startup culture — is pushing up rents and reshaping the social fabric of the city’s neighborhoods. Everyone in Berlin has a friend (or a friend of a friend) with an enviably, perhaps apocryphally, cheap apartment, but usually those people have been there for ages. “That’s the thing,” Barrite marvels. “Everyone’s like, ‘You got five-years-ago prices!’ I got pretty lucky, man.”
It’s a far cry from the Bay Area, where rising rents — driven inexorably upwards by the seemingly endless rise of tech wealth — have been making news for years now. “It’s somber shit,” says Barrite, who supplemented his income from gigging and touring with a job at Hyde Street Studios, a facility in the Tenderloin where artists from Herbie Hancock to Hieroglyphics have cut records over the years. “You know, I’m not working for Google, I’m not working for Facebook. I just got priced out of the city.” He laughs ruefully. “My studio rent went up twice, my flat rent went up, like, times three. And when [my girlfriend] and I split, I was like, it’s a good time to go out and do music.”
Barrite is well versed in using endings as creative beginnings. His 2012 album Heirlooms was intended as a tribute to his late father, a jazz musician. And since Barrite is a sneaky sort of formalist — his debut album, 2008′s Open Wide, was recorded almost entirely using samples of his own voice (and smacking lips, and chattering teeth, and ploinked cheeks) — he incorporated his homage into the fabric of the album by sampling recordings, instruments and objects that his father had left behind.
The resulting record, with its richly nuanced sense of texture and groove, was a testament to the emotive potential of house and techno; it was also a testament to dance music’s creative potential, especially where process is concerned. Black Frames is no different. Once again, Barrite has folded his autobiography directly into an album.
“Technically, the album started the day Romanthony died,” says Barrite, recalling the day, a little over a year ago, when he arrived at the studio and a coworker broke the news that the New Jersey house-music icon (and, most famously, Daft Punk’s “One More Time” singer) had been reported dead. “I’m like, ‘No fucking way,’” he recalls. “And then we started working on a track that sort of embodied a little bit of his spirit. On the album, that’s ‘Nobody Knows.’”
Dave Aju’s music is pretty much unthinkable without the model that Romanthony set — both his moody, murky approach to beatmaking and his passionate, almost carnal approach to vocals. “Nobody Knows” makes for a fitting tribute, even if its filtered spoken-word phrasing leans more towards Daft Punk’s school of funk than it does Romanthony’s Prince-influenced, gospel-oriented declamations.
“The album kind of took off from there. The opening track, ‘Race on Haight,’ is a lament for the city,” Barrite says. “As I was packing to leave, basically — because I really wanted to do a new album — I’m like, this is what I’m going through now.” As he was packing up his studio, it came time to take down the LP covers that he had framed and hung on the wall — a pop-art gallery of classic sleeves from Herbie Hancock, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and other icons. As he popped the sleeves out of their black aluminum frames, he was struck by the clattering sound the metal made; it was the sound of finality. Taking a page from Matthew Herbert, a pioneering repurposer of everyday sounds, he reached for his sampler. “All the drum sounds you hear are literally the black frames, those metal black frames,” he says.
Anyone who has packed up after a breakup can relate to the gravity of the situation; anyone who has ever moved overseas can relate to the enormity of the task. That’s particularly true if, like Barrite, you happen to be a DJ whose record collection numbers into the thousands. “I had to go through my record collection and pick the ones I absolutely needed to bring with me,” he recalls. “It’s out of control. I remember going through all these records and deciding what to bring. I shipped six boxes of records out of what would have been, I don’t know, 26 or 27 boxes, and I put the rest in storage. I think the album kind of reflects those choices as well. I was basically going through this point in my life where I had to identify what things mean to me, and it was harder than ever. You know? International expat stuff, personal stuff, musical stuff — I had to find my footing and stick to it.”
And so a large part of the composition of the album came together from sampling the records he was putting into boxes, both to ship and to store, with each song made out of samples from only one album. “It’s kind of Paul’s Boutique meets Danger Mouse’s Grey Album,” he says, although for “legality reasons,” he’d rather not spell out which albums he pulled from. “We knew we couldn’t broadcast the exact concept, because, frankly, it’s illegal,” he laughs. “I’m obviously not Puff Daddy; I’m not doing Vanilla Ice’s Queen-and-David Bowie kind of thing. At the same time, there’s still that copyright shit. So we had to cloak it a bit. Which in its own way fits the narrative — it’s a little bit hazy.”
“When people are like, ‘Well, Berlin obviously influenced this album’s sound,’” he says, “it’s like, yes, but literally, my move influenced it. Because the stuff I was buying, the stuff I was playing, I kind of homed in on something a little bit. Like, here’s this focused area where there’s still some lyrics, but it’s still kind of dark, and it’s clubby enough that heads are going to be like, ‘This is the real shit,’ but it’s weird enough I could play it at a Polish open-air festival.”
While he brought mainly tried-and-tested club music to Berlin (“I played it kind of safe on some level,” he says; “I brought the stuff I knew I would need here, like classic house”), the stuff that went into storage represented a far wider range — jazz, soul, funk, rock, you name it. When you’re moving, you really take inventory on what really counts. By necessity, you strip down to the very essentials.”
The same could be said for the album. For anyone familiar with Open Wide and Heirlooms, Black Frames is immediately recognizable as a Dave Aju record, in part because his gravely voice is so distinctive. He’s not necessarily a singer-singer, but he’s great at the gruff, sing-speaking style of the classic funk instigator, and he knows how to layer his voice so that it suggests buzzing crowds and darkening clouds — expectant, electric, sensual and ominous all at once.
But Black Frames also sounds far more focused than either of his previous albums — even if, sonically speaking, it’s the fullest. He digs into his vocals like a dog gnaws at a bone, and the album’s strongest stretch — “Clean St.,” “Nobody Knows,” “Vins Noirs,” — is a masterful, sweat-soaked suite of slow-burning, deep-house throb. Without sounding like he’s consciously aping Moodymann, he evokes the linear motion and libidinal energies of that Detroit house legend; the laid-back “Nu Threads,” meanwhile, taps into the loose-limbed funk of Recloose and Theo Parrish — just blown out and fogged up.
At the same time, Barrite is willing to test his limits: “Psylica,” a duet with fellow former Bay Area resident in Berlin Qzen (Susan Langan), is a purple-hued breakup anthem that tosses and turns over a near-dubstep bass line — “It’s sort of a pseudo-xx track,” he says — while on the closing “When We Drift” he slinks back to his hip-hop roots, polishing a jewel-toned boom-bap groove out of Rhodes chords and lumpy percussion.
“I read a review recently that kind of hit it on the head — it said [the album] was more blues than jazz this time, and more techno than house. I like the idea of that,” he says. “Heirlooms was a beautiful thing; I made it for my father, you know, his recordings [he left after] his passing, so that was kind of a really beautiful tribute situation. This time around, it’s definitely all mine. So it’s a little nastier, it’s a little darker.”
At the same time, it reflects the sense of community he has found in his new hometown, where he shares a studio with a group of musician friends. “My favorite thing about Berlin is not the club thing,” he says. “What I love is I can literally call somebody and be like, ‘I’m coming over, you gotta check this out. Let me get your opinion.’ There’s a nice little network of people involved in production, and you can just be like, ‘Come over here.’”
Ironically, it’s not that different from the situation he had back home. Throughout our call, he frequently brings up the names of Bay Area musicians and DJs that taught him the ropes. “I came up to the city, actually, through gigs, through music,” he says. “The Solid Groove guys in San Jose kind of taught me, and then I met Seth [Horowitz, aka Sutekh] and Josh ["Kit" Clayton] and Shawn [Hatfield, aka Twerk] and Solar and all these guys from SF, and they kind of brought me up. John John [from the Open Mind record store] and Jonah [Sharp, aka Space Time Continuum], of course. So eventually I just moved up there. My cousin pointed out to me, ‘You left San Jose for the city, and then you left the city for a bigger city’ — which should have been New York, but I just kind of bypassed that and went straight for Europe.”
“I do miss it, man,” he says, after a pause. “I miss the avocados, I miss the burritos, I miss the December barbecues. You give up a few things, but you get a few things. When a girl spills on her bike here, the community kinda comes and helps her up and buys her coffee. Small things like that make a difference.”