Crate Expectations: Ahead of the release of his debut solo album 'The Leaves Fall,' we take a trip through the famed DJ's record collection to learn about an unexpected side of his musical history.
All photos by Sara Wass.
If you live in New York City, London, or any of the other places that have been graced by their inimitable record bag, you've probably spent a memorable afternoon or evening locked in an ear-to-ear grin dancing to the music of Mister Saturday Night. As a duo—and occasionally as solo DJs—the pair of Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin have won the hearts of many a dancefloor with their adventurous record label, and flagship Saturday night party for which they cheekily take their name. There's also their much-loved Mister Sunday series that currently takes place at Nowadays—the outdoor venue and bar they own in Queens—and runs every weekend from late spring to early fall. Filled to the brim with a cheery, diverse crowd of old heads and glitter-toting toddlers alike, it's probably one of the best places to soak their marathon sets, which span from wonky jazz records to no-bullshit classic house.
Harkin, a native of Northern Ireland, has experimented with producing edits, remixes, and original tracks in the dance music lane, but his counterpart has stuck mainly to DJing—at least publicly. On his own, Carter has long toyed with a style miles away from Mister Saturday Night's sets, playing the acoustic guitar, writing songs, and developing an avant-garde, confessional style of singing, something like the yearning croons of Arthur Russell's more serene moments. Sitting in his Fort Greene studio, Carter says he owes much of this to his father, who's been a musician for most of his life, and would fill a young Carter's young brain with albums ranging from Yes to the late Al Jarreau, on long childhood car rides.
On February 24, Carter will release The Leaves Fall on Mister Saturday Night's label, an album of eight songs that've been five years in the—very quiet—making. It's a collection of music you'd probably never hear on a dancefloor—though if you did, it probably would be in the gentle opening hours of a Mister Sunday party where open-format albums are often played in their entirety while dancers file in.
As a DJ, Justin Carter is revered for captaining parties into ecstatic abandon with his adventurous, genre-agnostic sets. This year, he and Harkin took their eclecticism a step further with the inception of the Planetarium series, a new audiophile-focused listening event where non-club focused music is played on a hi-fi system while attendees lounge on pillows or snuggle up inside sleeping bags. Still, many of us were rightfully taken aback when news broke that he'd momentarily ditched dance music to drop an acoustic album.
"In my mind the bigger question is 'How did I ever start to DJ?" says Carter sitting on a couch in that basement studio in a Fort Greene apartment building. Littered around him are his record collection, a pair of turntables connected to a dazzling tube amplifier and E&S rotary mixer (complete with the label's iconic smiling sun sticker on its wooden side), and new hi-fi speaker system he recently drove to Upstate, NY to buy. The room's also filled with a variety of keepsakes from the near decade of throwing Mister Saturday Night parties. One thing I quickly recognized was one of the placards they hang around their parties that display their rules: don't smoke, text, or take photos on the dancefloor. "I grew up in a house where my dad was playing guitar all the time," he continues. "That was the first way I expressed myself and shared music with people. I've always considered writing and singing my primary musical voice."
To hear some songs that reflect his musical path outside the dancefloor, we spent some time in Carter's studio for an extra special installment of Crate Expectations. Along the way he opens up about his relationship with Christianity (which first developed after spending the first two years of his life on a commune in North Carolina), the album's important pivotal collaborators like L.I.E.S' Marcos Cabral, who helped with the nuts and bolts of the album's productions, and Jason Lindner—the pianist from David Bowie's Blackstar.
THUMP: I read that you were introduced to a lot of music while on long car drives with your dad growing up. Can you pull something representative of those experiences, and your dad's career in music?
Justin Carter: My dad's on [Sonshine - Maker of the Morning]; I think he was 22 when he made the record. There's something really telling about this song as far as who my dad is. In New York where I think a lot of people are skeptical of religion, it's often thought that fundamentalist Christians are out of touch and closed-minded and that they lack a general goodness
But one of the things that is important to note about many of these communities, including the one that I grew up in, is the ethos of serving others, regardless of who they are and whether or not they're religious. My dad wrote this lyric on the song that's playing now that I think is so lovely: "and now we come and humbly bow down before you so that we by love might adore you and serve each other."
My dad is truly a servant to others. It's something that he believes in super deeply. There are plenty of people that say they're Christians and aren't practicing that in their lives. But my dad does. He very quietly goes out and helps people and doesn't tell anybody about it. But I know, because I'm his son.
This is "10K High," which is from Hearts Horizon, a cassette my dad got in the mail from one of his high school friends when I was really young. My dad really loved Al Jarreau. I remember him taking it out of the mailbox, getting into the car, putting it into the tape deck, hitting play, and then when this song came on. I think this was the first time I'd ever heard a drum machine, or sampling. I made him rewind it over and over so we could listen to it again and again.
Can I play a CD? I used to work at a Blockbuster Music in the North Hills Mall in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was great. This is when I was in high school and moved from Danville, where I'd lived with my dad, to Raleigh where my mom lives. That was the beginning of my liberal corruption! We'd often get sent promo CDs, and I would constantly go through them. That's how I found out about this singer/songwriter named Martin Sexton. I was listening to a lot of music in those days and playing my guitar quite a bit. I was the musician guy in high school—voted most likely to be a rock star in the yearbook or whatever. At any rate, this song, a live version of "Glory Bound" is from a CD recorded at Central Park Summerstage. I remember getting together with friends, turning all the lights out, and just lying on the floor and listening to this album, feeling emotional at the age of 17. I wanted to be Martin Sexton for like three years. That's the kind of music I was writing and performing back then.
Gillian Welch is another guitar player and singer who was super, super inspirational for me. She was one of the sirens in O Brother, Where Art Thou? She's tremendous, and like the opposite of Martin Sexton, who really disappointed me when I saw him live a couple times by playing these songs that I knew as these delicate, emotional mood pieces, but accompanied by a drummer. I went and saw her and was even more amazed by her live than I was on record. I became obsessed. One of the of the things she does that definitely informs my album is how she carries on this long tradition of roots music singers, telling a narrative story. This particular song, "Morphine," is all about this man who went and fought in the war (just "the war," you don't know which war it is) and he got addicted to morphine. The song is a sad love note to his vice.
When I got to New York, I interned at Astralwerks and !K7 Records (in addition to Matador). It's funny, I wasn't really into dance music at the time, but I was just working at labels where I could. At !K7 I got introduced to Herbert's music. "The Audience" is a song that led me towards the path of dance music, drawing me in because it's super lyrical and a perfectly listenable song without having to think about it as a dance record. It's one of the most beautiful songs that I know, that I could just listen to at home on repeat, but it's also a pretty transcendent song on the dancefloor. I mean, I aspire to make music like this, but I don't think any of the songs on my album make any sense on the dance floor at all. Ugh god, it's so good. I've shed tears while DJing this song.
I guess before I heard [Herbert] I was going to Body & Soul. [Justin pulls out Kenny Bobien's "I Shall Not Be Moved"]. It was kind of a random thing for me at the time, not something I sought out. A guy that lived on my hall [at NYU] had an older boyfriend who told us "you guys have gotta come to this party." I said, "ok, cool," and I ended up loving it. But while I loved it I didn't really understand it as a DJ thing. Songs like ["I Shall Not Be Moved"] were like the early seeds that planted in my mind and made me love dance music. I still play this song.
Can you play something that reflects some of the collaborators from the album?
Carter: Here's one of Jason Lindner's Big Band songs. Getting Jason to come record was a dream come true – it was having one of my musical heroes on my record. This song is "Hexophony". It was recorded live at Small's. That whole scene was so cool to me. You name a jazz legend from the past 20 years, and the guys in this band either are those jazz legends or they accompanied them. And they'd just show up every Monday to play in Jason's band for $10 in the basement of Smalls.
[Justin pulls out 1991's 'High-Tech High-Life'] Do you know 1991? He records stuff to tape and then physically manipulates the sounds as he plays them back. Texturally I was interested in this when thinking about the sounds of the record. You can hear him literally putting an eraser on the tape, and then letting it go. If you listen to the last song of my album you'll hear me messing with the tape. We took all the recordings and bounced it to half-inch tape before we cut them to vinyl.
Between my junior and senior years of high school, I was in a chorus. They do this thing in North Carolina called the Governor's School, where they invite a group of students who are interested in different subjects like choral arts, drama, dance and such, and they put them on a college campus for six weeks. My designated focus was chorus, where we only performed songs from the 20th century, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. Back at my high school we were only singing show tunes, and other youth choruses I know of, if they sing something different, it's typically madrigals.
It was really really cool to be 17, on your own, surrounded by a bunch of other kids who were creative and passionate, and having teachers who were really interested in teaching you contemporary ideas – super inspiring. So this song, "Funeral Ikos," was one of the songs that the chorus sang. There was a moment [during the program] where I think a friend of somebody in the chorus had died, and we sang this for them. When we sang it, tears were running down everybody's faces. It's a really special, beautiful song. You can definitely hear echoes of this in my album. I'm always thinking of harmonies and I think one of the reasons why was because of all this time I spent singing in choruses.