Here at NEST HQ, we feel a connection between the foods we eat and our life experiences: the foods we enjoy reflect our past, and the foods we choose reflect who we are. As an act of expression, food touches many of the same cultural cornerstones as other lifestyle expressions such as art and music. With projects like the NEST Eats Cookbook, we try to explore the connections between different planes of artistry. For the latest in the NEST Eats series, we’re inviting artists to join us at restaurants that honor their heritage, where we share mealtime conversations with them.
For our third installment of the Eats Out series, we met up with recent USC graduate and musician extraordinaire, Justin Jay, to discuss his recent album, his plans for the future, how he got started, and his recent obsession with the DIY music scene. We talked for about two hours—Neal, Dani, Justin, and I—over some food at his favorite cafe near USC, Nature’s Brew Cafe. The staff seemed to know him like they were best friends. I came to find out that this restaurant was his go-to meeting place for his bandmates throughout his life in college.
The conversation quickly traveled down the path of Justin reflecting on his writing and creating his most recent album, Home. We discussed what it’s been like for him to transition from life as a DJ to life as the lead figure in a band, playing one instrument alongside a few others all working to craft music as honest performance rather than rehashing the same tunes in a set every night. I could tell that Justin was ready to move past his origins as an established house producer and DJ. He had a gleam in his eye, a sense of earnest determination in his voice that speaks to what he’s working to become. There is some amazing advice in his words, and we all walked away with a better understanding of what life can look like after being a touring DJ.
Dani: It’s really cool the music community you have here at USC.
Justin Jay: At USC when I was a freshman, Avicii’s “Levels” had just come out. People were just getting into dance music, which, honestly reflecting back, was such a positive thing because, before that, people were only down for rap and pop. The fact that there could be songs without vocals the whole time was a revelation.
At that point, I was already super into house and techno music and I had just signed my first song to Dirtybird during the first week of school. It wasn’t like I felt embraced by the new EDM culture at the time because people were like, “Dude, where are the drops?” It wasn’t the time yet. But by my senior year Disclosure had happened and you started to hear a little Dirtybird at frat parties. Then after I graduated, it just exploded.
Back in May, I got asked to DJ a University of Arizona frat party. I DJ’ed some frat parties in my day and expectations are, “girls want drinks and bangers.” I started getting DMs from bikini-clad UOA sorority girls saying, “Hey, I love this song of yours, I hope you play it, I also hope you play some Green Velvet, I love this Green Velvet song.” I get there and I’m like this is a joke. I played an uncompromising set of music I only wanted to play and didn’t get one request for anything and it was amazing. It was the most college-y party I’d been to but it was insane.
Nathan: I’d actually want to hear the music that artists are making when seeing them perform live.
JJ: I think part of it is that college kids now were in middle school when EDM came out seven years ago. When we think back to our middle school shit, I think about the 50 Cent shit and the bar mitzvah music that’s banging. It’s funny, and it holds a sentimental value. I can’t imagine kids think about EDM like that, but now that they’re in college, they think, “Oh, we’re mature now, we’re into this new shit.”
Dani: But also, I saw this video on Facebook that someone shared, it was like, “What song made you love EDM?” and it was all like “DOTA” by Basshunter and it had the same feeling where it felt like a middle school party.
JJ: Yeah, 100 percent.
Nathan: I feel like EDM was this adolescent kid who was down to make the craziest shit but now it’s matured into professional live instrumentation and songwriting and lyricism and all this stuff we couldn’t have with “DOTA.” It lives in its own right but now we have stuff that is evolved and that pays homage to where it came from as well as the things before that.
JJ: I wrote a paper on this in college because if you think about dance music, it’s popped up and it’s seeped into popular American culture a couple times and then faded away, like in the 70s with disco. But then there was all this backlash. In 1979, there was a huge riot in Chicago in the middle of a baseball game where they burned all these disco records. Leading up to that, disco was the sound, there were Walt Disney disco versions of things, it was in the popular culture. Once this riot happened, so many of the major labels closed their dance department because of disco’s association with being gay and race, so I think part of it was homophobia and racial tension undertones.
Neal: If you look at the video of the burning you can definitely see in that anger is the same kind of fervor you can see in the Charlottesville stuff today.
JJ: Yeah, and I think 15-20 years later, rave music came back and started making a big presence but its affiliation with drugs kept it from [becoming mainstream]. It seeped into the popular culture but then got repressed once again, because of all the big rave crackdowns in the late ’90s and the association to that. I think 2011-era EDM was finally able to break back through without being repressed because I think our culture has become more progressive. Obviously there’s a long way to go, and we can make the argument how we’re not that far along in our journey but I think compared to where we were in the late ’90s and where we were in the late ’70s, that trend of being more progressive is why dance music has been allowed to thrive more than it ever has.
Nathan: It’s the community. As much of a joke as PLUR has become it really is about just being together as a loving community. It kind of took all the reasons why people were afraid of it like race and homosexuality and it just came back even bigger and better than it was initially. It was clandestine and under the radar before but now it’s a statement like, this is literally what we are about.
Dani: I think as fucked up as this sounds, though, I think there was an opportunity for massive monetary capitalization finally. Part of it is progression, part of it I think they realized the investment potential.
JJ: I think now that we are moving to this post-EDM time, all of the very vain superficial appeals of EDM – “raging with your bros and seeing hot girls” – is fading away.
JJ: Yeah, it’s like the girls go to Output in Brooklyn and wear all black and long sleeve turtleneck shirts and that’s chill. And yet you can go to Output and find finance bros who were fist bumping to EDM five years prior and it’s a positive thing that people are interested in seeing Seth Troxler B2B Ben UFO when they would have been seeing Avicii five years ago.
Neal: The commercialization was good and bad. The commercialization allowed it to become so endemically part of pop culture that people would get sick of the tropes and sick of the misrepresentation that leads them to want something deeper and it’s waiting for them in places like Rhonda.
Dani: An interesting physical and tangible example of that is CRSSD. I’ve been around CRSSD since it started because I was going to school in San Diego. The progression of its lineup, San Diego being an all-around bro city, and being a beach town bro scene, and this year’s lineup is almost exclusively techno and underground people. All their headliners and openers were pretty much people that you would have to have a serious understanding of the dance culture to even want to go see, and that’s in San Diego.
JJ: We’re seeing a huge culture that’s been taking place in Southern California and I think a lot of it has been shaped by the Do LaB of Coachella. Here’s an anecdotal example: I did a show at Bang Bang [in San Diego] back in May and after the show, this group of girls wanted to hang out and we want to this afterparty. We were talking and one of them was telling me how she had been a huge fan of country music and never listened to EDM. She’d never been interested in it, but ended up at the Do LaB and saw Shiba San, and now “Give It To Me” is her favorite song, she loves Dirtybird and all this stuff. This is super questionable, luckily none of the homies wanted to make out with these girls, because they told us they were juniors in college and then like a month after the show one of them posted on Instagram, “Just graduated from High School.” That shit was terrifying; thankfully it was a very wholesome night. More interesting is what’s happening with kids that are just going to college now. There are Orange County bros that are surfer/skater bros you probably would have been in Sigma Chi at USC and dudes will be like, “I just love Lobster Theremin, they’re just the dopest label.” Me and my homies we just wanna see Mall Grab deejay. Not like the alternative skater kids but like the bro-y surfer dudes fuck with that lo-fi shit. It’s all pretty interesting.
I still love house and techno but I’ve been having these experiences, going to see cool underground DIY punk rock psychedelic shows that reminded me how I felt about going to house and techno parties when I was a freshman in college. I’d go to a house and techno party and everyone was probably 10 years older than me, late 20s early 30s. I just felt out of place and it just felt really not cool; it wasn’t hip, it was just kinda weird. That’s how I feel about some of the super dope DIY punk and rock shows. Some of these shows are really not hip, they’re not cool. In LA, there’s just all this really dope live music that’s obviously been here for awhile but it just feels like a really exciting time for it. With house and techno it wasn’t as much of a local scene, it was like a cool international DJ would come and play for 100 people here in LA, you can see a band that has no fans anywhere but they can play a 100 person party because their friends live here. They are trying, they are grinding, they are pushing themselves to do cool music. I feel there’s more infrastructure if you’re an up and coming house DJ. You can probably play the opening set at Sound or play the side room at Exchange, but if you’re a DIY rock band who’s just starting, all you can do is throw a little show and have 50 people there. These bands that might not have a very big following but they’re about the music. When you see a good band like that, it’s really pure and hugely inspiring.
Dani: That’s been a big thing for me, too, lately. I’ve been going to a lot of shows like that. I was just at show for a band called Current Joys—it’s that same vibe. They played at a snack store, a new place called Zero’s Unusual Treats and it’s all European and Asian snacks. It’s a 15-by-20 room capped at 50 people and there were like 100 people there. It’s the same vibe where you’re looking at this kid play with a mic plugged into a guitar amp and then a guitar plugged into 10 pedals into an amp singing his heart out. You’re right, that’s the infrastructure. You can’t just play a school night at Avalon and use that to build. They’re just building themselves, it’s really cool.
Neal: What bands have you seen that you’re like, “Shit, I remember that”? How has that changed the way you approach your own music and making it?
JJ: I am a newcomer to the scene. I am not super knowledgeable about it. My perspective is that of an outsider who’s just barely scraping the surface. A lot of my perspective comes from homies that are really dialed in. The two bands that mean the most to me are Thumpasaurus (I’m biased because these are friends who I’ve met through school) and Ferbus. Same thing, USC group of guys who are doing it. One of the guys in Ferbus, he plays in my band as well, his name is Danny. He’s the man. He just left to do a DIY tour, it just looks so different from being a young DJ going on a tour. It’s like the classic trying to find fans where they can crash at people’s houses, sleeping on the floor, driving from city to city. By doing a DIY tour and having a homie in OKC and Denver and the drive along, they end up building a little scene. It’s so organic and hands-on, it’s crazy.
The last time I saw Ferbus play (three of the guys are from OKC), they had two OKC bands play with them in LA so you see the local bands help the touring DIY bands so there’s reciprocal benefit. I don’t really understand it super tangibly because I haven’t done it like that but on my own tour, there’s a couple runs where I’ve wanted to try my very best to do something similar. For instance, right now I’m doing a couple of shows where I’m flying the whole band to Denver and then we’re doing a small pickup show at a dive bar in some smaller town in Colorado. Throwing in a dive bar show to get that experience, then driving to Salt Lake City and bussing down to Vegas. I’m really excited to experience that and try it, because I feel like I, as a performer, and my group as a band we have a lot to learn in terms of playing together and the only way you get that is by doing as many shows as you can even when it’s a really small, tough room with a horrible sound system and there are 10 people and it’s super awkward. Those are the shows where if you can get comfortable there, you can do anything. So I’m excited to draw influence from the way these DIY bands tour.
Dani: That also adds to your story when you’re pulling inspiration to write from. When things get too easy for a lot of electronic musicians or even big bands, they fall victim to losing sight of the experiential side of it and run out of things to write about. You talk about a reunion album from a megaband and they have no more things to write about. Half of those experiences are you on a bus with your homies meeting people at a dive bar or meeting a girl at a dive bar. Meeting people, having your shit break down.
Nathan: It’s gotten so easy.
Dani: Exactly, it’s gonna help so much for the inspiration.
JJ: As a DJ, I often feel very inclined to want to hang out with people after I perform, in part because DJ’ing can be so impersonal at times. You’re in a closed off booth, flashing lights, people are isolated from you. You get to see them dancing and hear them cheering but it lacks that sense of connection that you can have with a band when there is little to no separation between stage and crowd and you can meet the people after the show.
Nathan: That’s one of those things I got when I went to go see Vulfpeck for the first time three years ago at the Bootleg. I didn’t even make it inside because the line was so long. They weren’t even that big at that point but the people who knew got there. They stuck around after the show and everyone left and I got to talk to them one-on-one over a beer.
JJ: So dope. My ideal situation, if I could tour how I wanted, would be one weekend at a time. Instead of doing a big venue, do a venue a third of the size but do three shows over three nights. This might be very idealistic but I think when you’re DJ touring, it’s kind of intense going from Seattle, Atlanta, San Diego, then DC. How much can you cram in there? When you’re traveling that much it’s hard to hang after the show, you don’t see the cities, you’re just trying to just sleep as much as you can.
Neal: I don’t know if it’s idealistic.
JJ: At the very least, I’m so grateful to live in LA because when I do a show here, I feel very capable of hanging out for a bit afterward and connecting with the homies who came to the show…although sometimes, you literally have to be responsible and go to bed.
Dani: This album, Home, is very much about that right? That transition?
JJ: Mhm, I think the bigger focuses was I wanted to try singing and writing songs. That was the main thing. A lot of these songs came from a vulnerable personal genuine place when it came to recording, it’s funny how I’d record something on my iPhone voice memo. I’d be at my parents’ house on the floor of my bedroom without my speakers or my microphone. I’d put it in the track and show my homies and they’d be like dude ya this works.
Being at the piano and writing a song, being with my homie Ben playing acoustic guitar and the song is just happening. I think that’s really where a lot of these songs came from. Later on in the process when I was building back steam and momentum, bringing on my homie Henry from Thumpasaurus to record some drums and stuff. A lot of the album came from taking a step away from all the touring and career stuff and getting kinda owned from all the craziness of it all and hiding at my parents house and being a hermit.
My desire is drawing from all the DIY stuff and focusing on what’s possible with the band and all these new instruments I’m not familiar with. It’s funny, of the guys I collaborate with, with one exception, no one was into dance music before we started kicking it: mostly live stuff. But music is just about exploring and trying new things and I feel like this album is just me scraping the surface of what I’m curious about.
Nathan: What was the biggest takeaway from this album once you were done with it?
JJ: It’s interesting because it came together really organically. I didn’t know it was gonna be an album, I was just writing one song and then another song. But we hit the homestretch when we had a deadline imposed upon us, to get it done on time was grind mode. It was like three weeks of me staying up till 5:00 in the morning. Fighting through it, it was so intense. I ended up missing the deadline.
Neal: Did you set the deadline?
JJ: It was my old management team. I was so bummed that I missed it but then really happy because I made a couple extra changes. So my feeling when I finished it was just numb, I wasn’t sleeping or showering. The process of finishing music, the last 10% can be really meticulous. It’s hard because when you’re dealing with how something feels, sometimes the answer is yes, and then sometimes the answer is like chill out, it’s 5 AM, go to bed. It’s really hard to tell but I was really lucky to have so many homies there to bounce my work off of, like Benny Bridges the guitar player. He was there like every hour of that homestretch and being able to have that was so important.
Nathan: Does it feel any different when you’re now playing those songs that have all that sentimentality to it?
JJ: “Ease Up” for instance, that song is the best song to play to start a set with because you’re nervous and then you’re like, “ease up, ease up, chill out.” I think there are some songs that are kind of weird to do, in theory. Like “Apologies”; it’s weird to be in club where everyone is trying to party and the lyrics are, “What can I do to prove to you that I meant no harm even when I did you wrong.” That by itself wouldn’t make me want to get up and dance but fuck it.
One of my favorite things about DJ’ing is tricking people to enjoy something they might not necessarily enjoy. Our taste are so malleable based on context. If you’re having a good time and partying with your friends you could hear some song you thought you hated and then love it. Whether that’s some cheesy pop song or some weird ambient techno thing, the same is true.
Nathan: You don’t expect to hear Smash Mouth in the middle of a trap set but when it comes in the middle your like, “Oh shit…”
JJ: Hahaha yeah, exactly. I definitely still hold DJ, house, and techno worlds very close to my heart and they do connect in really interesting ways. You can play a somber ballad in the middle of a house set if you’re DJing right.
Nathan: So you’re really into the DIY psych punk stuff, but besides that, what other musicians/bands/styles have you found in the process of writing this album that you’ve now fallen in love with it?
JJ: Right now, I’m still barely scraping the surface of this DIY punk psychedelic scene. There is so much out there to explore and I feel like I’m a n00b but I’m diving and digging. Through the course of writing this album a year ago early on, one of the biggest inspirations was Bon Iver. Because once again a lot of this album came from more of the singer/songwriter perspective. Some of his old songs but also his most recent album were hugely inspiring because he did so much cool shit with interesting production and sound design but it was still coming from this singer/songwriter place. I just thought it was so crazy inspiring. So that was huge upfront. I’m not an experienced vocalist, so. early on, it was a lot of what can I do to make my voice work. I’d never really given My Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West a chance but that was pretty inspiring hearing all the auto tune stuff. On tracks like “Runaway,” he’s doing all this riffing at the end that’s just improvised and put all this distortion on the vocal and it’s auto tuned so it sounds like a guitar. Damn, that’s so sick.
I’ve been obsessed with Daft Punk since I was a kid. They got me into dance music when I was like 8 years old. I don’t know this for sure, but I’d like to think “Something About Us” on Discovery has Thomas Bangalter singing because I’ve read that he’s into the songwriting aspect.
Neal: I think he is singing it. I’ve tried listening to them so many times that eventually you can sort of tell the voices. Guy-Manuel has more of a guttural deeper and more of a French thing going on, you can use that to try to decipher which is which.
JJ: The first Daft Punk song I’d ever heard was “Digital Love” and that blew me away. It’s still one of the best house songs ever.
When I was in 7th or 8th grade, a lot of my homies were in bands but I had grown up playing classical piano so I didn’t know if I could fit a Mozart sonata into this Chili Peppers cover. Not too long after that I ended up finding out about making music on the computer and I could turn a MIDI keyboard into any sound. I feel like what I’ve been exploring over the past couple years through the Fantastic Voyage album but then also on this album on some of the songs I made later in the journey like “Time” is the epitomal example. It’s really kind of seizing those childhood ambitions of just wanting to be loud and making loud rock and roll music with my homies.
The DIY stuff is cool and there is so much inspiration to draw in a more tasteful way but a lot of this album came before that. The drop on “Time” is not very cool, it’s just like power chords and crash cymbals but channeling that sort of inner 8th grade desire to be loud. One of the most recent songs I finished for the album was “Cool” and I think that song was where I started falling in love with the first Tame Impala album. I was just blown away by the sound design of the guitars in that album; I thought it was the craziest shit ever. All the choruses, the fuzz being done in really interesting ways. My taste towards the end of the album I was listening to a lot of Tame Impala and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and I feel like those are my very basic level, scraping the surface introduction to a more kind of interesting sound for rock and roll.
Nathan: I know you said you do still have a love for the DJ and the house and techno world. Do you feel yourself distancing from that and really going to the singer/songwriter stuff?
JJ: I think they don’t have to be as different as they might seem. The format of my band right now is drummer, guitar, keys/bass, me doing vocals and some stuff on keys. We have an acoustic kit with some MIDI triggers, so my drummer hits the bass drum and it triggers Ableton to play a big fat electronic kick drum.
I’m really excited to surprise people with this. They see a band and probably expect me to just sing all the songs but I play some of my old house songs with the band doing renditions of them. My favorite DJ sets are ones where I can play a lot of different kinds of music in a way where it doesn’t feel flip-floppy. It’s eclectic but still smooth. I want my band to draw inspiration from that. We can go from house to techno to rock to folk music.
In between writing songs for the album, there were times where I had nothing to say and I made a house track and it was fun. I have a new EP lined up on PETS Recordings with my homie Ulf Bonde.
As an artist, you can do whatever you want but when you try something new you have to be prepared to not be very good at it, especially at first. It’s hard to do something different but if you keep at it you can get better and then execute. It’s about the journey.
After graduating I started on the craziest DJ tour that I’ve ever had and it was shows Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I realized that left Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday open so I ended up signing up for two classes at USC. One was a songwriting class where we had to write a song every week and play it in front of our classmates. I wrote so many bad songs, I kinda got a lot of my early songs out of the way to get a little more comfortable with it. I really wanted to avoid just hitting the crash cymbal thing. I’ve never played in a band before, I thought I should probably give that a shot. Maybe then I’ll figure out how to not do something cheesy.
The other class I was really hyped on was this School of Rock, Jack Black kind of class for beginners. So, at 22 I played in my first rock n roll band doing only covers of Beatles and Rolling Stones songs in a classroom. It was so fun, I was playing keys and singing horribly, but it was great. I was intimidated do to that with my homies because they were really good and I just wanted to be around beginners. I didn’t know anyone who was trying to start a beginner cover band, so this class was really dope for that. When the class ended, I had another huge DJ tour lined up, and all the while I was finishing up the Fantastic Voyage album. In the springtime with the second tour, I was ready to kick it up a notch with the band. We started putting together some really ridiculous covers like Outkast, Snoop Dogg, Chili Peppers to some classic Rolling Stones, songs we just wanted to play at a janky USC house party.
Right when the tour ended, we finally got a chance to do that house party, playing the cover songs we’d been working on. It was the most unreal musical experience I’ve ever had. In a living room, kids hanging from the chandeliers, sweaty, I’m screaming, I got a glimpse of what it’s like to play in a band just for fun without worrying if the fans like it or if the venue is selling enough tickets. I didn’t bring Ableton, or a crazy production setup. We had to play our instruments, and that was all we had, and we had to make it work somehow. That mindset proved to be very beautiful.