In Central Illinois, Justin Cudmore was raised with Midwest sensibilities. His environment, he says, was simple but there were structural bounds that kept him from feeling truly free. When he was in his youth and started to feel he didn’t fit in with the the people around him, he found sanctuary just next door.
“There are straightforward expectations about what you’re supposed to do when you grow up, how you’re supposed to act, what you’re supposed to look like,” he says about his hometown of Springfield. “My family and my surroundings taught me to be genuine, polite, helpful…but anything different or out of character was pushed away. My family was not religious but still clung to conservative ideals on family and politics.”
Around middle school Cudmore started feeling estranged from his youthful peers. “I never opened up to my parents about these feelings, instead kept them inside. My neighbor growing up next door was an old hippie and I think she could tell I was different. She would invite me over for tea and we’d listen to The Beatles, go rummage through junk, make sculptures. That was an outlet for me I didn’t have in other places. She really opened up the world and my mind to let me think maybe it’s OK to be different; maybe there is more out there.”
Her name is Janis and one specific memory he has of her was when he was around 13 years old. “She invited me over and we were going through all the ‘junk’ she collected in her garage. She loved garage sales. We’d go out hunting for items on the weekend. On that day she showed me this collection of all blue glass bottles she had been keeping. Anytime she went to a rummage sale or antique mall there were certain items she looked for and loved to collect. These blue bottles were one of them,” he says. “She brought them out and we used metal pipes stuck into the ground to display them, almost as a bouquet. I vividly remember creating this decoration from nothing with her. It’s still there in her yard as you drive in. I loved these moments of creativity. I don’t think I realized at the time how comfortable I felt around her or how much I could be myself but looking back it was really special. Having that time helped me find myself at crucial points in my teen years. Janis really shaped me. She always encouraged travel, the arts, exploration, fun. Major contrast to my more conservative parents. I don’t think I’d be where I am without her guidance and love.”
Music eventually became a grounding creative expressive outlet as he processed these feelings. He found his rhythm playing drums in grade school and continued until the end of college. “Percussion is something that always came easy to me. Jazz, concert, marching – I did all of it. Band was a place for weird kids to feel at home and have something to concentrate on,” he says. While attending the University of Illinois he played in some jam bands. Inspired heavily by dance-driven beats he would incorporate post-punk sounds when they played. “New wave groups really captured my ear,” he says. “The melodies were uplifting and the bass/drums driving still. That combination stuck with me.”
Cudmore started DJing in college and went on to host a club night called Physical Challenge. “I played a house party sophomore year for Halloween that was a big success. It was probably a mixture of blog remixes, ‘90s house classics, some of my own music, Girl Talk edits. Anyway, it went really well. The owner of the local club hit me up and asked if I’d like to help run this weekly night at The Canopy Club – one of the oldest spots for live music in Champaign-Urbana.” He agreed but only after returning from a six-month study abroad stint in Norway’s capital, Oslo. This trip became pivotal in expanding and fine-tuning Cudmore’s music taste.
“Living in Oslo those six months was a big shift for me. Dance music was just getting cemented as something I really cared for, I was started to dig, buy records – then I left to go live in a place where I could club at 19. I would go almost every weekend to different parties. Blå was my favorite. Locals like Todd Terje, Prins Tohams, G-Ha, this party called Sunkissed – really left an imprint on me,” he says. “Cosmic house but with a groove and a bassline. I returned from Oslo that summer with a whole new perception of dance music. It became clear to me just how little I knew and how much there is to know. It humbled me. I tried to bring that attitude to the club in Champaign every Wednesday, trying different combinations of things – disco, house, techno. I learned you didn’t have to stick to one sound.”
After college he moved to Chicago where he immediately delved into the scene, frequenting spaces like Smartbar, Danny’s, Berlin Nightclub, and warehouse parties such as No Affiliation. Somewhere in the mix he met Steve Mizek, founder and A&R head of Chicago labels Argot and Tasteful Nudes, as well as founder of now defunct website Little White Earbuds. The two started talking and Cudmore started working with Mizek on the website. He says, “I would assist with site architecture, coding, ads – we were trying to make some money off LWE. This is actually when I started first meeting a lot of New Yorkers over email like Bryan Kasenic. He would purchase ads for The Bunker in NYC. My big contributions were two Curator’s Cuts mixes, along with some end of year lists. LWE opened up a whole new world of underground music for me. It was kind of like going to Oslo all over again but even bigger and I felt more connected this time. My record collection at home was starting to grow and I felt confident to contribute a mix that I’d be proud of and one that would suit the style of LWE. To this day that final mix remains one of my favorites.”
At 21 years old and new to the clubbing, Chicago’s Smartbar became influential as he explored his sexual freedom. “Smartbar is dark, it’s seductive, no one seems to care what you do. It’s how clubs should be. That was the first basement club I went to. And really I did all my formative clubbing there. Nothing in Oslo really matched that layout,” he says. “At that time in Chicago, Queen hadn’t started yet. Sunday’s there was this party called Dollar Disco. But Boystown was close and sometimes gays would wander over. It was the first place I felt comfortable dancing with a boy all night to house music. It is a special place. Nowhere else could I have done that. That’s why places like this are so important. They allow us to be ourselves in the dark, in the fog. We can act on our curiosities and let the music take us over.”
From a childhood feeling different and out of place, he felt comfortable enough with himself around 22 years old to come out to his parents, “And it didn’t go well,” he says.
“That started a slow descent in my relationship with my family which wasn’t always the best to begin with. And so when Jordan, this boy I loved and cared for, said he got a job in New York and was moving – I didn’t know what to do but follow him. Also after two years of Chicago I felt like I was ready for more. As eye-opening as Chicago was for me, it does have a level of stagnation that I felt. I could have stayed in Chicago and really buried into my music production. I could have seen myself become a sort of Smartbar hermit – run with the same circles and be a bit of a techno recluse.”
He continues, “I moved to New York only for Jordan, my boyfriend; I didn’t want to lose him. Work/music was an added benefit of moving here. I really had no intentions of a music career coming here. I got a job at a startup, Jordan started his job, and we continued our lives pretty much as is in Brooklyn. I would come home from work every night, get stoned, work on music, dig for music. But not to play – not to release things – music at that point was always a side hobby. Sometimes I think I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing now without all those years of simply going out, hibernating on music, learning things. Too many people jump right to the DJ thing. That was never a motivation of mine. I was curious, just like way back when I was young, hanging with my neighbor learning new things. It was always like peeling back a page on something new – new sounds, new labels. There was always something more to know. In my eyes, it was not my time to be playing in New York. There are plenty of people who have put in their time and know loads more – they should be playing.”
He began networking and connecting to people in the New York City realm, including folks at The Bunker like Bryan Kasenic and Mike Servito. Cudmore met Servito after making a comment on his Boiler Room set. A conversation started and a friendship blossomed.
“I went to see him play at TBA Brooklyn. That’s where I met him for the first time. There was some natural friendship chemistry between us and we stayed in touch. I went to see him play at the Bunker and Out Hotel. And soon hanging every few weeks turned to texting, meeting up after work for a margarita, getting dinner. Our relationship started and remains to be just because we get each other,” he says.
“We had similar problems with our family growing up about being gay. We were both searching for this kind of escape. Our friendship grew stronger because we could talk/share music but Mike was more like an older brother to me. He has shown me a lot, and how to be an adult.” With similar taste in music they would have lengthy email chains of tracks sent back and forth. Cudmore eventually introduced Servito to his boyfriend Jordan and Chris Miller (aka Gunnar Haslam). Miller, Servito and Cudmore eventually went on to start performing together as Hot Mix. He says, “Just three boys sharing stories, laughing about music – we had each other’s backs. I started regularly attending The Bunker probably six months into my friendship with Mike. I eventually met Bryan and the extended Bunker family. He probably wondered who was this kid Mike kept putting on the list.” Cudmore’s introduction to the Bunker were post-Public Assembly days, when parties were being held at Output.
“The Bunker family is made up almost entirely of Midwest expats with a love for Detroit techno. They all sort of welcomed me in. Just as I have seen a handful of new faces welcomed in after me. Having never had a family that supported me for me growing up, here in NYC I had that for the first time, and I could be myself. Everyone had my back and I could be myself. I partied and met people and learned about more and more music along the way.” – JUSTIN CUDMORE
While living in New York City he continues to work on music, perform and push forward with the “Bushwick hustle” by picking up any occasional part-time job to make money on the side. New York, he says, “is an expensive city for an artist. But also all these friendships and opportunities would not have happened if I wasn’t here. I also wasn’t searching them out. I was just following my interests.”
Cudmore was fiddling around with production, sending little demos to Servito for constructive criticism with no real guided intention toward a certain label. “Sometimes he’d give some feedback, other times he’d say what he liked. But I wasn’t trying to make things for him or any label in particular so I just followed my own ear. One time I was playing with this acid line and sample and jammed this track together.” He sent the demo over to Servito. “Unlike other times, he reacted immediately and freaked out. He insisted to have the WAV so he could play it that weekend at Bunker. That was actually the first time Mike used a CDJ – before that he was always vinyl only. The track went over well.”
A huge opportunity came to fruition for Cudmore after Servito dropped that track during a Honey Soundsystem party in Folsom, Calif. Soon thereafter the label members made their way to NYC to chat with him about “Crystal”. A completely inspired Servito and Cudmore started working on a remix together. “We had never thought about working on music together before but it seemed natural – so we sat down and me as his engineer sort of built what he had in mind. The inclusion of Chris was a no brainer,” Cudmore says. “He was our boy and our DJ partner. He was of course extremely happy to contribute a remix. The whole package came together really naturally and nothing about it was forced. I think that’s why it was the success it was. It made sense on that label and came out right before the summer. Timing was on our side.”
Since the track’s official release on HNYTRX in 2016, he has had subsequent releases on The Bunker as well as Interdimensional Transmissions for the Acid Series project. Performing throughout numerous venues in New York City, he has also been booked at TV Lounge and Tangent Gallery in Detroit, Hot Mass in Pittsburgh, and Spybar in Chicago. Abroad he has played at Berlin’s ://about blank, as well as in Barcelona and Ireland. He says he can feel that he’s on the scene’s radar, but at heart he will always cherish being an anonymous rave soul among a crowd of so many others still seeking the comfort he has always been on a mission to find.
“It’s cool but I feel this constant need to prove myself over and over every weekend. Mike says this won’t stop and he still does it to this day. But there is something about just being that kid in the background of the party dancing in the fog that I miss,” he says. “Now I’d be crazy to sit here and say I wish I still had a full time job and didn’t get to do music full time. I feel very fortunate to be where I am and not have to get another job after I was let go last fall. In a way I guess this was my dream and I didn’t know it yet. I feel like life kind of unfolded this path for me and all I was doing was following my interests and staying close to my friends.
“Every weekend I play I learn some things and also realize how much more there is to learn. It can be intimidating to be affiliated with such giants like Mike, The Bunker, Derek [Plaslaiko], IT Detroit. I always think that if I was some kid on the outside I’d be like, ‘Who is this kid anyway?’ I’ve always had some confidence issues and it’s taken people like my neighbor or people like Mike to pull me out of my shell. Mike is truly my mentor and best friend. He shaped me into who I am today. Maybe he saw something in me way back when we first met and groomed me for this. I just hope that everything continues to be fun and I can still have those moments lost on the dancefloor.”
Attendees of Sustain – Release will be able to catch Cudmore play a sunny poolside setting next weekend. His fourth record is currently in the works and has had two mixes recently released from TRUANTS and also through Is Burning with Servito.
“The list of things ahead of me seems daunting. Every weekend is like a new challenge. But would I rather be sitting in my office working on something I don’t believe in? No way.”