THE BIRDHOUSE 164: Lee Curtiss Interview

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This week on THE BIRDHOUSE I am happy to welcome one of my good friends, Lee Curtiss, to the show. Lee and I have been friends for a long time now, he is a fellow Detroit local, bad ass producer and a good friend. He has had a releases across the spectrum, on prominent labels such as Get Physical, Visionquest, Snatch! Lee’s Dj and production skills speak for themselves so without further ado, check out his guest mix and birdhouse questionnaire below.

THE REAL

How did your music career get started in earnest?

I played guitar in a couple bands when I was young. It was kind of hilarious. We broke up over ‘artistic and personal differences’ several times before we’d ever recorded a song or had a gig. I was ‘invited out’ of the band for buying a synthesizer and demanding we use it in our songs. I also had no idea how to play it, so in the end, maybe my friends were smart to kick me out. After I became disillusioned with being in a band, I bought a sampler to go along with the keyboard, and years later, a computer to record with. I learned that it only takes one person to make music when using technology, and quickly went deep into electronic music, particularly house and techno. I bought a lot of vinyl, a mixer and loudspeakers and started DJing and playing live. I moved to Detroit in my early 20s and everything took off from there. People took notice of what I was producing and my live sets, and I started signing records.

Where are you from and does it have an influence on your music?

I grew up in West Michigan but as I said, moved to Detroit in my early 20s. Detroit made a humongous impact on my life and music. I met a lot of the people that inspired me In Detroit and most of the people I hang out with on a regular basis, as well as several people I currently work with professionally. People often fantasize about Detroit’s music history and it’s mystique, but it was a tough place to get time behind the decks or for people to appreciate your productions. There were a lot of cats making great techno and house back then, and Detroit remains at the forefront of electronic music. Detroit has high standards in music, it’s not a place where you can just play mediocre sets. People there listen and take notice, and you won’t be asked to play again if you don’t play well and from the heart. In other words, it forced my friends and I to up our game and I consider one of the most creative environments I have ever lived and worked in.

How many times did you want to quit trying to make this your career?

Zero. I was on the other end of the spectrum. I did carpentry, sold cars, served tables, you name it. I bounced from job to job, slowly amassing enough gear to try to make the music I wanted. I worked normal jobs to support my ‘techno habit’, spending most of my money on new equipment, records or…. well, rent. I finally snapped and quit my day job at 28. I’ve never wanted to quit making music my career since. At times being a traveling DJ while simultaneously trying to produce as much music as you can gets tough. The travel can beat you down, cost you relationships or your health and test your patience, but it’s still a far better job than any of those I listed earlier in my answer.

What was one piece of equipment that helped define your sound early on?

Aside from getting a computer, and being able to work in a DAW instead of a cheap sampler with very little memory, I would say it would be the 1983 Roland Jupiter 6 I bought 10 years ago. I still have her. Her name is Lola and she sleeps under a blanket on a solid cherry rack designed and built specifically for her dimensions. I’m probably giving away how much of a gear nerd I am here.

When you were getting started, which artists did you try to emulate (both musically and careerwise)?

I've always wished my music could sound more like Prince, but knew that was a long shot. Hahaha. As far as electronic music is concerned, I always liked old school house and weird techno. I would listen to Zip, Thomas Melchoir, Carl Craig, Roy Davis Jr., The Freaks, Metro Area or Moodyman records and think, Damn! where did they get that synth sound?’ or ‘What the hell did they get those drums?’, but I’ve never purposely tried to emulate another producer in my field. Maybe emulated artists in other genres like Prince, Quincy, Rick James, Phil Collins, P-Funk, Fleetwood Mac, and in failing to reach the incredible standard of music they made, still learned everything that and enabled me to make music I loved.

When you have a tough week or a rough tour, how do you get yourself back on track?

Two days at home with the phone off. Hang out with my wife, my dog, go for a hike, eat home cooked food for the 1st time in weeks. Meditate… just simply take a few days off of music. Then drink wine, leave friends weird voicemails, watch TV, repeat. Few people understand the pure rapture of using your own shower with your own towels and sleeping in your own bed after an extended period on the road.  

Where and when are you at your most content/happiest?

At home in my studio or visiting my family back in Michigan.

Do you have any secret hobbies or hidden talents?

I don’t think it’s a secret that I’m a BBQ enthusiast and can hold my own in a kitchen, especially behind the grill. I’ve been tinkering with recipes for over 5 years and am working toward opening a BBQ joint. As for a hidden talent, I almost made it to the junior olympics for freestyle skiing in the Midwest division and moved out west when I was 20 to pursue a career as a skier, but the music and the rave already had their hooks in me and cut that career short. I haven’t looked back since.

THE REST

Favorite and least favorite colors?

If you look at a sunset behind a rainbow, over the ocean, from a mountaintop while atop a unicorn, you will see the entire spectrum of color. I guess I kinda like them all, and don’t dislike any of them, aside from maybe having a brown car.

Favorite and least favorite words?

I’ve nearly quit playing card games due to the word ‘Trump’.

Favorite animal?

Dogs. Hands down.

Favorite board game?

Nude Twister Victoria’s Secret Edition would be my favorite, but maybe that only exists in a dream I had and is not real. I'll choose Scrabble. Or maybe nude Scrabble?

Favorite guilty pleasure food?

The damn chocolate chip cookies won’t leave me alone, they’ve been following me since I was a child.

Favorite guilty pleasure song?

Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz “Deja Vu”

German or Detroit techno?

Psshhhhhhhit. Next question.

Festival, club or illegal warehouse?

I simply love to play records outdoors these days. Something about it seems to make myself and the crowd happy. So, outdoor festival or club.

Biggie or Tupac?

This is a tough one. Biggie.

Star Wars or Star Trek?

Oooh, people don’t won't like this answer. Neither. Spaceballs.

Exercise or Netflix?

Both. I can’t enjoy too much of either of them without the a bit of the other.