Alden Wicker is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. She covers sustainable fashion and living, personal finance, and other curiosities.

FROM UNKNOWN TO PLAYING CITYFOX IN SIX MONTHS: JUSTIN MARCHACOS' STORY

FROM UNKNOWN TO PLAYING CITYFOX IN SIX MONTHS: JUSTIN MARCHACOS' STORY

Justin Marchacos came out of nowhere to play an acclaimed live set at the Cityfox New Year's Eve party. We thought maybe we just hadn't been paying attention, but when he told us that was his first set ever, we were floored. Ahead of his second ever live performance at ebb + flow this Saturday at Goodroom, we visited him in his studio in Queens on Superbowl Sunday, getting a private live performance and hanging out talking for hours. Turns out, Marchacos loves telling stories. So we'll let him explain in his own words his biggest inspiration, how he landed on the Cityfox label, and how he came this close to messing up his very first performance in front of 1,500 people. 

Back in 2000 in Denver,  I started messing around with hip-hop production. I got a program called Fruity Loops. (Now it’s called FL Studio.) And I was making really, really shitty hip-hop beats that sounded like Casio-toned garbage.

I went to go see DJ Premier live. He’s super sick, ultimate producer of all time. And at the end of the thing–it’s a small spot, crowd is clearing out—I finally get the balls to go up and talk to DJ Premier.

He’s up there winding cables, and he looks up at me and I was like, “Hey man can I ask you a question? I’m about to move to Brooklyn and start making hip-hop music. If you had one piece of advice to give me, what would it be?” And the dude next to him laughs and walks away.

But DJ Premier doesn’t even flinch, he just looks me right in the face, he goes, “My advice would be you make music you think I would like. You make music you think I would listen to, don’t settle for anything less than that.”

From that time, every time I’m in a studio I would think that exact thing. Who’s my favorite artist? Would Calibre play this? Would Sub Focus play this? And then I would be really critical with myself. I would keep working on it. 

“My computer I had found in the street, and I had a mini keyboard with a broken key and no air conditioning. I was basically in my boxer shorts, dusty, sweating, scoring this film.”

I started getting into a lot of drum and bass. I actually made some pretty good tracks. They were never released or anything, but I have a whole bunch. In 2005, my buddy Ryan was editing a film about this photographer called Tierney Gearon. The directors had a couple of composers that they were working with and they weren’t really happy. 

Ryan was like, “Dude, you’ve been doing a lot of stuff with this, would you want to take a stab?”  He gave me a bunch of adjectives, and said, “Follow these descriptive words and see what comes up.” They loved all of it, ended up using a couple of those original tracks that I made in the film and then I started scoring the film. At the time I was in a really shitty apartment under the Williamsburg Bridge. It was all made of drywall, and I had a plywood bunk bed, and my computer I had found in the street, and I had a mini keyboard with a broken key and no air conditioning. I was basically in my boxer shorts, dusty, sweating, scoring this film. 

It went on to being nominated for best documentary at San Francisco International Film Festival. It was in tons of film festivals around the world. It still plays on the Sundance Channel, every Mother’s Day, it’s on Netflix. It’s called Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project.

It seemed kind of easy. I was making more film stuff and advertising things for Ebay and Banana Republic. I did a fashion show. I’ve got two movies that are on Sundance Channel that still play regularly, another one about a fashion designer.

It was probably four years ago I would say that my buddy Nick from Colorado, he’s a DJ, brought me to an All Day I Dream rooftop party in the summer. Once I heard that Lee Burridge stuff, I started trying to make that. I wanted to be at All Day I Dream and hear my song. I don’t care if I had a record label or what, that’s my goal, that’s the only thing I really cared about.  I was working all the time and trying to do music at the same time at night and on the weekends and stuff. You’re never going to get good when you do that. If you just try to sit down once a week and make a song, you’re never going to get good, guarantee it. Around that time I was able to start my personal training business. I do that on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, doing music on the other days. I actually released a Dubstep track on NOSI Music, too, under a different name. It was the one and only NOSI Music Dubstep track. I sold some copies, but I didn't make any money.

I started putting in a lot of time last fall and made the track with Julia Govor. Because she kind of had a big following and Michael Christopher from MC&Hammer agreed to do a remix. I felt like I needed to do something to follow that up. I started working really, really hard, and that’s when my music started to get much, much better. I tell everybody that’s trying to get into it, you got to just work a lot every day. Wake up early, spend the whole day working on stuff for many days and ultimately you’re going to have a winner.

This last winter Nick showed me a video that Cityfox had, like, “You got to go to these parties.” My first one was 4th of July, I went to the nighttime party. Just walking into that night party was sick. The way they had these tunnel of lights, I was like, these guys are doing something very interesting.

Marchacos using his live set equipment in his studio. 

There’s this restaurant in Astoria a couple blocks away, a Mediterranean tapas joint. We love this place, and became really close with the owners. He kept talking about this guy who comes in all the time with his girlfriend who’s this house music party promoter guy from Queens. And I’m thinking like, oh yeah I’m sure he’s really awesome. I’m imagining the flyers you get on your windshield. 

He’s saying the same thing to Gavin, who runs theebb + flow parties with Iman. He’s like, “You got to meet this house music producer from Queens.” And Gavin’s like, oh yeah, I’m sure he’s really sick.

It was right before the restaurant closed, in June. We’d been there for a while, and all of the sudden, the guy that owns the place realizes that we’re both there in the restaurant and we’re right next to each other at our tables. He said, “Wait, you are the guys are the ones that are supposed to meet!”

And we were like, oh hey what’s going on man? Are you into house music blah, blah, blah. Where do you go to? We’re going to All Day I Dream this weekend. Really, you like Lee Burridge? Yeah, he’s my favorite DJ, blah, blah, blah. Okay, all right, sounds pretty real.

I sent him some tracks, and a lot of my stuff around that time was even more cinematic and blared with instrumentation and too fat. Gavin recognized that there was a lot of potential there. Gavin and Iman have been DJing for like 20, 25 years or something each. They have a really good knowledge of song structure, arrangement for how it works for DJs. The first time we sat down in a studio, we worked on "Splintered Sun" four two hours, and it was like holy shit, this is really sick. So we did it again. "Dictator," that was the second track we made.  And then I started learning about this structure and how it should go. I made "Giants Cast Shadows" very soon after that. 

At Cityfox they have this ridiculous sound system, as you know.  KV2, they have like 25 surround sounds, but they also have a 4-point system that they rent out for small parties–Zero gets it. Gavin was considering using it for ebb + flow. They invited him to come to the space on a Thursday before the Maceo Plex party, and Gavin was like, “Dude why don’t you come with me and just check it out?  Throw some of the stuff we’ve been working on a pen drive, maybe we’ll get the opportunity to see how it sounds on the big system, if we’re lucky.”

I master my stuff by myself. I use T-RackS. You put your track in here and there’s some pretty sick presets. I use this one called Loud and Clear. It’s got an EQ, a couple of compressors, a limiter and then I always tweak it. And it gets it fat, gets it loud. It doesn’t have the clarity that a professional mastering house would do, though.

Usually we take all of our tracks and I’ll give them to Iman. They’ll test it out at an ebb + flow party just to see how it sounds. Often I have to make some changes, the low end will be muddy or whatever. 

“I’m Billy, I run the label, I run Cityfox. Do you have anymore?”

I finished Giants Cast Shadows that day, and I just had a feeling that it was going to be a good track, and I did one thing different when I mastered it. I used this visual frequency analyzer and I put it up against Rodriguez Jr.’s track "Persistence of Vision," making the kicks hit in the same place and the basses. And I pumped it out and I put it on the pen drive.

We go to the space and walk in and it’s a circus. People all over the place, climbing on the walls, running everywhere, and there’s the cranes going up and down. They pop in Ten Walls "Walking with Elephants" on the whole system. I literally was stepping backwards like, holy shit. It brought tears to my eyes. That track is over and Gavin’s like, “Why don’t we pop in some of your stuff?”

I want to put the new one in I just finished. I didn’t have the chance to test it, but I think it’s going to work. We plug it in and he turns the shit on and it is fucking cracking in there. It just sounds so good. It is echoing all over the place. I never heard my music sound like this. It’s meant for that shit.

And this guy comes running from the corner of the place. He was like, “What is this? Who’s is this? Is it signed? I’m Billy, I run the label, I run Cityfox. Do you have anymore?” I was like, “I got seven more right here.” We started listening to all my tracks on the system. There’s people dancing around in there and everything. He was like, “I want "Dictator", "Splintered Sun," and "Giants Cast Shadows." We shook hands on it.

That’s when it started to get weird. I get a text message from him like two months before the New Year. “what about you preparing a live set for NYE?”

You can’t say no, because that might be your only opportunity you get to do something like that. And I’ve always been the kind of person who works best under pressure. When I get offered a gig that I feel is way above my ability level, I always say yes. That first movie, I was scared shitless but I was like, yes, because I know that I’m going to learn a lot in the process.

I text him back, I’m like, "okay." And that’s when we went into panic mode. I don’t even know what software I’m going to use. It’s like learning a whole new language, but I didn’t even know what language I was going to be using.

We started looking at Traktor first, and they have remix decks, and I’m like, okay, I’ll just make all these remix deck parts, load them up and then trigger them. It was getting to the point where I have to buy a lot of different little pieces of hardware. I realized you can’t really stack too many of these remix decks, and that’s what the whole Ableton thing was about. The whole thing is remix decks basically, your own clips that you put in.

I called up Dubspot, and I was like, “I’m about to play a huge New Year’s Eve party. I’ve never played live before. I need someone who understands kind of deep house, tech house.” They said, “I’ve got the perfect person for you.” This dude called Abe Duque. I hadn’t heard of him.

I went in there and I’m like, “Here’s my music, this is what we got to do, blah, blah, blah.” He was making me uncomfortable, like, “Do you think you’re going to go up and play like in a month and a half?” And I was like, “Yeah. I’m going to do it.” And he was like, “Well, you don’t look like you’re going to be dissuaded … You have a lot of work ahead of you.” We did a two-hour session, and at the end of the first two-hour session, he was like, ”Okay, why don’t you take this last ten minutes and you just start messing around.”

I start playing with the thing, and he was like, “Dude you’re playing live. Yeah, you’re going to do this man.”

But stress. I was so fucked up. My foot was going numb. I had headaches. My skin was flaking on my eyelids. I’m going to sleep at night and all I’m thinking about is what do I have to do tomorrow to get this thing going. I wake up at 3 in the morning and boom, I’m right back in that mode.  I wake up at 5, before I’m supposed to wake up, I can’t fall back to sleep.

I only have so many tracks, 12 tracks or something, and I had to figure out a way to make it interesting too. The majority of them it’s the full track, but I took a couple of parts out of the track, and I would put them over here so I can bring them in and out independently. Then I created all these, what I call extras. I started creating all these sounds as if I was doing it to get a remix of "Dictator," and I lay all those out, so as I’m playing "Dictator," I can bring in these new sounds.

I had to go back to Abe because I was using the older version of [the Akai APC] and I bought the new one and all the MIDI mapping that we did didn’t work. I went back and we remapped everything, and I was like, “I have a few more ideas, maybe you can help me. I want to put big crushers and a flange and all this shit." It started to sound good, like I can, at least, you know, play.

I have always in my career been making shit for film and advertising, creating music for a particular space whether it’s head space, character, film or a time period. I can make music for a moment. And once I knew that place, I started making music in that space in mind; the lights, the projection, that sound system and the size of the room, and those plinkly things are bouncing around and I was like, this is going to sound awesome. 

This is the craziest shit. For some psychopathic reason, sadist reason, they wanted Cityfox to be my first gig. I’ve never played even in front of a living room full of people, but they wanted me to play in front of 1,500 people. They were laughing about it, Matt and Billy. Billy is a visionary. He does not spoon feed you, and he does not like to hold hands with you. I can’t understand it, the amount of money … I mean I really could have fucked up. If I watch TV, or I just wake up two hours later than normal, I wouldn’t have been able to pull this shit off. I have crazy work ethic, but they don’t know that.

Marchacos performing his first DJ gig ever in New York City at the Cityfox Experience Studio AV 2015 NYE party, in front of 1,500 people. Photo credit: Cityfox / Simar Singh / Oliver Correa

“All the mapping that had done with him those two sessions was gone. And I got Cityfox in a week and two days. I get home and I was almost crying. But the thing is I just felt too empty to cry. I didn’t even … I had no idea how I was going to do this. ”

So we set me up to play the monthly ebb + flow party on a Sunday. Even though it was a week and a half away, I still had a lot more to do. Everybody liked the music, so I feel like it’s not that part that is going to tank. But what are my hands going to do? Are they going to be shaking when I’m in front of people, and I’m going to be nervous to push the buttons?  Am I going to hit it at the wrong time?

This is where the story gets crazy again.  I go there to the open house. Pony was playing before me and I set everything up, and I look over the little DJ booth, and some guy’s looking over at the equipment and he was just like, “Ooh yeah, nice.” And I was like, you don’t even know what’s about to happen. And I turned my computer and I go to open my file.

And it’s gone. Everything, it’s all gone.

I do the search thing on my Mac. It’s not showing up. Okay, let’s just look for any Ableton. Ableton is there, but I have absolutely no files. I’m shaking. I can feel darkness coming around, and I feel like I’m all of a sudden in a hole. And Gavin comes over. He’s dancing, like, “Yeah man you ready?” And I was like, “Dude, we’ve got big problems.” He was like, “What do you mean?” And I was like, “It’s gone.  It’s… I can’t…It’s fucking gone. I can’t find it.”

We were just like, “Let’s just get Pony to play a little bit longer.” I take the laptop, and I run up to the bar in the front and I’m searching more. I open up the trash bin and then I remember, oh shit.

Before I left the house, I saw the little icon of the trash has paper in the top of it over there. And I go okay, empty trash. And I closed my laptop, pack it up and off to the gig. 

What happened was, the second time I went to see Abe Duque, the file that I had been working on that I tried to set up but I didn’t have the right set up— I took that old file and dragged it to the trash, and as we started working I would hit save. When you delete songs out of iTunes, you can still play them if they’re still in the trash. Once you empty the trash they’re gone. That’s what had been happening. It was saving it to the trash somehow, which should be illegal.

All the mapping that had done with him those two sessions was gone. And I got Cityfox in a week and two days. I tried for an hour at the bar to do some sort of data recover software that cost me $100 right then and there, nothing was working. I’m freaking out. 

I get home and I was almost crying. But the thing is I just felt too empty to cry. I didn’t even … I had no idea how I was going to do this. I immediately hit up Abe, like, “Abe listen, we need to meet man. We got to remap my stuff. I lost everything, catastrophic data failure.” He was like, “Hey man, I wish I could but it’s almost Christmas. I’m flying to Russia to play, I can’t do it.” And I was like, “Oh my God, dude this is really serious." He was like, “Good luck. It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s that I can’t.” I was like, “Do you know anybody else that can do this?” He said, “I don’t know anybody else in New York. One guy, but he’s out of town.”

There’s no way I can do all this mapping. It is so detailed and so complicated. I may have to try to set it up a different way with somebody else, but like, the shit I’ve been practicing for the last two months, there’s no way I can do it all again in a different way. It’s like a video game controller with four buttons except there’s a lot more buttons. I couldn’t tell the Cityfox dudes. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

As soon as I wake up, I call a bunch of data recovery services and these guys are like, “Yeah man, no problem. I give it a 100 percent chance we’ll be able to find this. But it’s about 5 to 7 business days turnaround.” And I was like, "No, no dude, I got to play this huge show in a week. I need this shit, like, today." He was was like, “Alright, the rush estimate is $300, that’s nonrefundable, and then we’ll tell you what it’s going to cost.” 

I go into the city and drop it off. You’re supposed to get the estimate in 3 to 6 hours. Six hours and five minutes goes by, I’m sweating, and I get back this email, says, “You have a low to moderate chance of recovery.” Because I have this brand new Mac. It’s a solid state, so it actually has something called trim, it actually does delete the shit. And he says, “You want it back in 5 to 7 business days it’s $550. You want it back in 3 to 6 or something $895. If you want it back in the next two days it’s $1,550.”

Now if they don’t get the data, you don’t get charged. I can afford it, but the question is … it’s going to take them three days anyway, and those three days I could be just practicing, figuring something out, and there’s not even a guaranteed chance.

I go, “Fuck you preying on my desperation with these insane prices.  Give me my computer back.” And I made a last ditch attempt to Abe. He was like, “I finish at Dubspot at 7, I’ll be there by 7:30 but I got to be out by 9.” 

He came right to my studio and we busted ass and we remapped everything. I had to put in all my tracks, all those snippets. Luckily, I had it all in folders. But every time you put one in, you have to warp it and then everything has to be mixed. I had to find just the perfect volume for everything. It took me a month little by little doing it. Now I had to just cram it into a couple of days. I think I worked nine straight hours the next day after Abe came over and rebuilt the whole thing. And I was actually able to put in some new stuff and I made it better, and when he was here I had him do a couple other extra things that I didn’t have before, just little snippets. It was two days after the gig and I had everything back, but it was better.

Now I have five or six more days to practice. I’m nervous as hell because I didn’t get the chance to get the feeling of what it’s going to be like in front of people. I’ve been an athlete, I was a champion bike racer and all this shit. I’ve done a lot of visualization techniques before big events. That’s what I would do, in the middle of night, I just visualized the moment.

My buddies Nick and Natalie flew in from Colorado the day before to surprise me. Anytime I write a track, Nick is the first person I send a track to just to see what he thinks.  He’s very honest, he’s been a DJ for a long time, he always has things to change. I was showing Nick some of my stuff, and this is the guy who was always really critical of my stuff, and he was like, “Holy shit dude you’ve come a long way.” So I’m feeling confident.

OK, this is where it gets really good. We went on to Café Bar, this place is like three blocks away. We’re eating, I look up at the next table and it’s DJ Premier, sitting there, eating his lunch. I get up and walk over to the table and I was like, “What’s up guys? Can I tell you a story? I met you 12 years ago in Denver. You tell me if you remember this. I came up to you after one of your gigs, probably a ridiculous looking white boy, saying I’m moving to Brooklyn and start writing hip hop. And I asked you if you had one piece of advice to give me what would it be.”

He was like, “I remember that.” I was like, “You told me that you should make music you think I would like.  You make music that you think I would listen to and don’t settle for anything less.” He was like, “Yep.” 

I was like, “Let me tell you another story. I just got signed by one of the most amazing House Music record labels on the planet, and not only that, they’ve asked me to play live at their New Year’s Eve party tomorrow night which has just ranked, like, the number one party in the United States, like 5,000 people. Those words of advice that you gave I think about every single time that I’m sitting in the studio, and I do not think that I would be there if it wasn’t for what you told me on that day.”

He was like, “I’m so glad you came over here to tell me that. That wasn’t my friend by the way that laughed, because none of my friends would have done that kind of thing.”

We ended up talking and exchanged numbers, and now we’re texting each other all the time.

All of a sudden, all the nerves that I had, they were gone. It comes the day of the gig, and we’re there behind the DJ booth. There’s thousands of people, I can’t fucking wait. Totally relaxed, wasn’t nervous at all.

Then there was that one little glitch.

I had never even used the mixers, I’m not a DJ dude. It was a Xone 92, all I need is one channel. I insisted with Billy from Cityfox that they give me a mixer for my studio just so I can practice with it. I had it here for a week or so, and I got to learn how the filter works and all that shit. When I went in and plugged in and started my shit … What the fuck is going on?

I looked over at Billy’s partner Phillip, I’m like, “Dude, I got a sound problem. He grabs another sound guy, and I’m scanning. I’m like okay, stay cool, there’s going to be problems. No matter what it is you can figure it out.

And all of a sudden I see the little blue light on. I would have never known what that blue light meant had I not insisted Cityfox lend me the mixer. I turn off the filter and it was fucking booming and I was like, (sighs) yes this is going to work

And from that point on it was the most fun night that I ever had. 

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