Justin Miller is about as New York as it gets (despite hailing from California).
He booked his first DJ gigs spinning punk rock records at an LA dive bar, and in 2004 left his record store job to move to New York, landing himself an internship with DFA Records. Soon enough he was working as a full time assistant at the iconic record label, which in the mid-2000s was giving voice to a burgeoning dance-punk movement anchored by acts like The Juan Maclean and LCD Soundsystem.
These days Miller is is own boss. From running his own label, Have A Killer Time, to taking on spontaneous side projects like managing Nicolas Jaar's label, Miller has set a high standard for himself.
Have A Killer Time just turned a year old after a handful of fun, artistically-inclined releases. And fun is the priority here—I mean, after talking to the guy for an hour I came to the conclusion that he never gets bummed about anything. Miller's beach town roots shine through in his refreshing optimism about the state of the record biz today, waving goodbye to tradition and welcoming innovation. This is the HAKT state of mind.
From the leftfield electronics of Cale Parks to the deep house club tracks of No Regular Play, Miller's ear picks up a wide array of sounds and puts them all together in the most cohesive manner. Much like how DFA was a gateway for him and literally thousands of other kids, Miller's label maintains a crucial level of accessibility for all dance music fans and soon-to-be fans alike. This is his job, and while it may sound like fun and games, it didn't come easy.
THUMP: First off, you're actually from California aren't you?
Yeah, I grew up in the OC and moved to LA right out of high school. I spent some time in LA and Long Beach and then moved to New York a little over 9 years ago.
And when you were in California did you have any interest in dance music or DJing?
I kind of came at it the same way a lot of kids came at it around that time, and a lot of that had to do with DFA Records and its associated genres meeting. You know, like The Rapture and the production of Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy. I was working at a record store around that time and I had also been collecting vinyl since I was 15, but it was mostly punk and indie rock kind of stuff. And the whole DFA thing shared the same roots as what I was listening to at the time; it's all the same juice. So being at the record store and just getting into DJing got me more into electronic music and dance music in general.
Would you say that there was much of a scene in California at that point in time for what you liked listening to?
Yes and no. I had a basic bar DJ gig that ended up getting pretty slammed with a line out the door… and this was right when the whole electroclash thing happened and there were tons of indie kids, such as myself, hopping on the electronic bandwagon. So with that being said there was definitely something going on. I'm not sure about New York though; I can't say I was very in tune with what was big in dance music at the time. It wasn't really until I got to New York in 2004 that I became more educated and felt like there was an actual scene happening.
But before you moved, you were pretty much just set on keeping your record store job, right?
That's tough man, especially since the record store job was the one job I had where I didn't hate waking up and going to work. It didn't bother me to go to work there. But it was basically like minimum wage, so it wasn't really feasible. I didn't know what I wanted to do except for the fact that I wanted to be involved in music, and for the first time in my life I had to make a serious commitment—even if that meant moving to New York and working at a record store again, which was the original plan but I knew I wanted to work within the industry for a label. DFA was just a pipe dream at the time though.
So you just got up and left for New York by yourself and just went for it.
Yeah, I didn't really know anyone. I had one friend and a girlfriend and slowly made some connections. The last thing NY needed was another DJ [laughs].
Haha, but it's a small world, you surely made some friends quickly through music.
I guess Jacques Renault is a big one on that note. He used to have a Thursday night party at Tribeca Grand Hotel with some friends, and I was like, Why are these awkward dudes doing this party here?
Aren't all DJs socially awkward?
] No not all! Jacques and I are fun good time guys. Anyway, I asked Jacques where would be another good place to do a party and he named a few places and one of them was 205, which was a spot in the Lower East Side. I told him I'd make it happen and got us a Tuesday night residency. Those parties were where I got to cut my teeth DJing and really learn by doing. I couldn't really DJ at home—I had the basics down but working the crowd is something completely different. Jacques and I did a lot of gigs together and we helped each other along the way and continue to support each other.
How did the DFA job come together?
Well I was working at a restaurant here in New York and my boss was really into music and was always busting my balls. He would bug me about it all the time so I gave in and emailed this very direct message to DFA: "I'll order you guys Chinese food, scrub the toilets, whatever it takes just to show you I can do this job."
I remember my good friend David was applying for grad school at the time and I showed him the email before I sent it. He was like, "I don't know man, maybe you should be a little more professional," and I was like, "Nah I'm gonna send it like this." Two weeks later, DFA wrote back and I was there running errands. Over the six months I was there interning we had built a relationship that made sense and they hired me.
And after dreaming about that job back in California, it actually happened.
It was surreal. I was interning at DFA a couple days per week while working two jobs. I was working at this bar in the Lower East Side called the Dark Room, which was considered pretty hip at the time and I wasn't viewed very hip because I was the square one who just worked all the time. I was also waiting tables for a while but I always put DFA first.
Did you ever feel burnt out or sick of everything early on?
Oh yeah, I even went back to LA for a like a week to take a break. And I thought, "Well man, I could move back home and shit would be so easy. I could have my old job and this and that." But then I actually got back to LA and I was like, no way, no thank you.
Basically it was more like a blessing that you left for a minute and realized what you were working for in NY.
Exactly! I kept interning and was so happy to be in New York. As soon as I got back to my place from LA, I had a voicemail from Jonathan Galkin at DFA and he mentioned that he wanted to sit down and discuss my future with the label. I think it was the first time I ever worked hard for something and achieved it. So to me that's part of why New York is so special. For me, dreams can come true here and if you put your mind to something you can have it and do it. That can be said for anywhere I guess, but it didn't come easy here. I came here with Vans slip-ons and was shoveling snow, not even knowing where to buy boots… serving drinks at some bar to some shitty DJs [laughs]. You just gotta suck it up and do it.
Since you started out working at a record store prior to being a part of DFA, did you have a basic understanding of what you'd be getting involved in? Did you have any assumptions about the record industry that turned out to be false?
Oh yeah—I'm sure I had tons of misconceptions. Working at a record store and a label are two totally different things. There would be label reps that would come into the shop, from labels like Universal, just to push products and make a direct relationship. And that's a smart thing you know, since stores are basically the front line for music discovery, or were back then. When I started working for a label I had no clue what to do and figured it out as I went along. But shop experience did make me aware of certain things that I would need to do once I started my own label.
Times have definitely changed since your DFA days, and you kind of have to adapt to a more futuristic way of doing things with HAKT.
I basically go about it in a non-traditional way with various projects. My label is something that I consider by the people for the people. It's a pretty commercial project in my mind, something very accessible. I'm always looking for ways to fine tune HAKT and since I have a background in this business working for somebody else's label, I know how to fix any problem that comes up, whether it be distribution or whatever. Right now I'm really into this model of doing a digital subscription service where the music is provided to the fans directly from the label on a weekly or monthly basis for a small fee, and that's something that you couldn't do until the last couple of years. Taking advantage of new possibilities is interesting to me and is key to keeping a label alive in 2013.
It's an exciting time. You can play the game by your own rules now.
You have to. It's not really the best time to start a record label, but sometimes the worst times are the best times because anything goes. And to be honest it's all I know and it's what I do. So as long as I still have that fire in me I'm going to keep doing it. Another thing that I'm trying to do now is make the HAKT brand more than just records. I'm making high quality t-shirts and was present throughout the entire process of getting them made—it was very educational and a lot more was put into it than calling up a company and emailing them a graphic. The shirts are going to be based on album art at first, but one day it would be cool to see people who know nothing about the label wearing shirts that say they want to have a killer time [
Just trying to promote the killer time message!
[Laughs] I want to take it as far as it can go as long as it stays true. The name speaks for itself, and that's kind of corny. Like, "Woah, I'm going to name my record label Have A Killer Time?" That's a bold move! I grew up in the OC and that's how I talk. It's like something I would say to people.
Haha, somebody shows up to your party and it's the first thing you say to them.
Yeah, "Go have a killer time," you know [laughs]. I was saying that shit and I got cornered into coming up with a name for a weekly party that I did for a few months and people kind of liked it and it grew into something. It's surprising but that's how the name came up.
But when you left DFA did you know right off the bat that you wanted to start HAKT?
I guess so—I knew starting my own label was something that I always wanted and the time was right. DJing is my passion and I've been learning some music production too, but without DFA I needed to be affiliated with something in order to keep myself afloat, even with all the contacts I had made it was a hard transition. Starting a label was sort of a no-brainer. And you know what, it's fuckin' awesome. When you're doing stuff that's entirely for you, it's so different. Every little thing is more important and very personal. Everything is a little more intense though; the lows are lower but the highs are higher than anything. Now to have something of my own, and put it out into the world and see people receive it positively is an amazing thing.
And clearly your friends were very supportive of you starting a label all by yourself.
Totally, I would say the most support I got was from Jacques Renault and Nik Mercer [of Let's Play House]. That really meant a lot to me, I'll always support those dudes. We did a lot of parties together at first, which really helped. I needed the support at the time and a lot of my friends were getting a lot of recognition and it was my turn to be the new guy. It takes time, and it's still building.
A lot of the older record label folks have nothing but discouraging or negative things to say about people starting labels today. I'm sure things have changed dramatically even within the time since you were at DFA. How do you view this situation?
There's been a huge shift. I could see older record heads saying those things simply because it's a business and if you're not making money then maybe it's not working anymore. My approach is a little different than what label heads of the past did. I looked to other labels that were run by people who were a part of their label, you know, out on the road all year. My DJ gigs support my label and I'm able to afford to do this by DJing. A lot of other artists I know do it the same way; they support their labels through their art by performing or making music. From a business standpoint it's tough, but if you have a sense of both it makes it doable and fun—it's exciting. I would say to anybody if you're passionate about music and want to start a record label, then here's how you do it. But it's a commitment.
It can't be an overnight decision—you're in this if you do it.
I mean you can make an overnight decision, but it might cost you the next 10 years of your life [laughs]. If you're not willing to do that, then maybe it's not for you. For me this makes sense and I get approached to get involved with more projects and other things because of it, and if I'm feeling it I'll do it—it's all part of the big picture.
Did you have a specific vibe or sound in mind when you first started HAKT? Did you know what you wanted it to sound and feel like?
Yes I did. Like I said, HAKT is more like an accessible thing. When I DJ I tend to play more house and techno and harder music—I don't really DJ a lot of my releases. But the accessibility of HAKT is important to me. I put out a lot of EPs, I want to build a catalog of music that I could do something with later down the line like compilations or licensing for TV or anything.
Sounds like you wanted something tastefully versatile and not strictly for the heads.
Yeah! You can listen to it in your car and also in the club. It would be cool if people who might not already liked electronic music found this stuff enjoyable. If I was putting out some of the records that I play in my DJ sets, it might scare people away, but then again I might have more street cred [laughs]. So yeah, something everybody can listen to yet still remain credible.
But at the end of the day, how important is street cred?
Hmm, at the end of the day I don't really think it matters that much. But I do take this very seriously and HAKT has kind of changed the way I view my duty as a DJ. I look at it more like an art-form and I really want to contribute to this DJ community. I want to help elevate it and maintain the artistic form that I think it is. I won't play any gig, this is something that's special to me. It's not a bad job!
The first HAKT release was the Walter Jones 12'', how did that come about?
That happened just because Walter's record on DFA was the first thing I ever A&R'd on my own. He was living in Boston at the time and I was there for a few gigs, so we just talked about it. It's hard to be the first person on a new label, but he was willing to do it and the story just made sense to me. It was just a natural thing. And then the rest just fell into place. Sometimes you gotta start things unprepared so that time doesn't slip away from you.
Yeah and it kind of leaves room for unplanned last minute releases…
Totally, I've had some surprises. I've had some weird releases like John Camp, and that was well received and that was only the second record. If I like the person and I like the record, I'm going to put it out.
While all of the releases are unique, what would you say is the main element that threads them all together?
Melody. There's definitely real melody. A lot of these tracks are made my real musicians who have an understanding of that. And this is an element that again makes the music more accessible.
What's up next for the releases?
I have an EP coming up from Culture Fires and a release from Anthony Collins who just moved to New York from France. There will be a follow up for Abstraxion as well; probably a single with some remixes early next year.
Will you be on remix duties for that one?
Not yet! I do have my release coming up soon though. It's all very new for me and I wasn't going to do it until it felt right, but it feels great. There are so many talented kids out there making music and I'm coming at it from a different angle. I've been lucky enough to tour the world as a DJ but I haven't put out a record yet.
Do you have much of a musical background or are you just going for it? Luckily you have some friends that can give you a hand whenever you need it.
I played guitar for a few years but yeah just going for it. My friends have been really helpful so this release will be out with a little help from my friends [laughs]. It's a team effort and I'm not ashamed of that. It's a learning experience. I'm going to keep exploring all these options with music and within the industry.
I mean, that's what this whole thing is - a team effort. And fortunately you're still excited about it after all these years.
I am man, and it's awesome. I see people like you, enthusiastic and throwing parties and I wouldn't get to go to half the places I go to if it weren't for that. I support that and I see the outcome and it's positive. People are happy and listening to great music. We're all doing something that's against the grain and not about the money. I guess that's the key to everything.
Agreed! Well, before we wrap this up what's next for you?
Upcoming releases, projects, release parties. Things are about to get busier and more intense, and also more fun. I'm excited, man.