By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Subtle as a sharp blow to the groin. That's how Phonosynthesis--the latest mix opus by L.A.'s spirited decks-mistress DJ Irene--begins. Starting out at an alarming 140 beats per minute with her own co-production "Acid Eaterz" and then launching into a one-woman display of some of the hardest progressive house, breakbeat and drum 'n' bass you'll hear this side of the Atlantic, the album shows her in peak form, with a sound that transforms and evolves throughout the effusive 70-minute set. Irene's selections are not exactly what you'd call delicate (the first words on the album: "You fucking asshole/You wanna suck my pussy?"), but what the excitable bleached blonde lacks in finesse she makes up for in pure balls.
"If people don't like it, they can suck my rubber dick!" cracks the openly lesbian Irene, emitting a high-pitched laugh that ricochets off the bare walls of her newly acquired Hollywood Hills home.
Irene Gutierrez has every reason to be this self-assured and happy. The last year has seen her finally reap the rewards of 10 years' hard grind on the DJ circuit, with star performances at Ibiza's famous Pacha (captured on disc as Global House Diva 2: Live in Ibiza) and at Spundae's Hollywood Boulevard New Year's Eve party; a No. 1 on the Billboard Dance/Club Play chart with "You're the Worst Thing for Me" (a collaboration with Thunderpuss' Chris Cox and vocalist Thea Austin); a career-affirming International Dance Music Award at Miami's important Winter Music Conference; as well as racking up total sales of some 300,000 mix CDs. Now with her 10th mix album, she hopes to finally make her mark as a force to be reckoned with.
"There aren't that many top-selling DJ compilations," she reflects as she settles into a sumptuous velour chair that's big enough for three. "This time around I listened to the successful ones and did some research to find out why, for example, Paul Oakenfold CDs were selling so well, how BT and Sasha and Digweed were making successful records, and I found that the answer with all of them was they were different. They were using music that really wasn't available."
In aiming to emulate the success of these top-selling DJs, she set out to make her new record similarly individual. Where lesser DJs/producers throw together 10 or 15 progressive trance tracks, bring it up to a peak with the latest formulaic club anthem and then wind down to a predictable close, on Phonosynthesis Gutierrez routinely drops harder and more obscure material, flipping records twice as fast (the single CD packs in a staggering 29 tracks) and tossing oddball samples into the choppy mix. If she couldn't find a particular track that fit, she went into the studio with her production partner, George Centeno, and created it from scratch--as was the case with the racy album opener.
Characteristically fast and loud, the compilation reaches fever pitch relatively early in the proceedings--a bold maneuver but one that she pulls off with consummate ease, then continues on a hair-raising bolt through choice snippets of her latest 12-inch acquisitions.
"I wanted to keep it hard, but a different hard," she says of her approach to the new mix. "I made a transition and worked on the flow, but kept the energy of my live performance in there. My aim was to make hard acceptable across all genres and, above all, make it fun."
In contrast to her high-energy demeanor, DJ Irene takes an evidently more cerebral approach than most of her contemporaries, certainly in crafting her mix compilations. Healthy album sales affirm her superior DJ and selector skills, yet in the melting pot of popular music, she's working within a format that many consider low on the ladder of artistic worth. She herself sees DJing and compiling mix CDs as a stepping stone to making it as a producer/composer and has recently returned to school to study sound engineering and music.
"There's a great deal of skill involved in mixing the records to get it to sound right," insists Gutierrez, sticking firm to her DJ roots. "You can't mix a vocal on top of another vocal, for example, because it'll sound like mush. It takes artistic ability to manipulate the music and the sounds and to go in the studio and create a well-rounded album."
The studio, in essence, is the new instrument, Gutierrez asserts. And as in any creative outlet, it's the skill and vision of the individual artist rather than the medium per se that determine its artistic merit. She cites Madonna as the shining example of an artist who had the vision and talent to rise to the top. "When she first started they all said, 'She can't sing,' and no one took any notice. Well, look at her now," Gutierrez says. "I look up to her a lot because she knew she had talent, and she worked really hard. That's how I approach it, but I'm still working at it."
One thing that can be said for Gutierrez is that she's worked damn hard at getting where she is today. As is often the case with struggling artists, it hasn't entirely been a bed of roses. Back in the early '90s, not long after giving up her UPS job to concentrate on DJing full time, she lived rough for two years, sleeping in her car in the hills behind the Hollywood Bowl. "I was able to take a shower," she remembers. "You don't want to turn up to a club and look like you're homeless." Later as she started to get back on her feet and began making a name for herself on the local scene, most notably with a long-standing residency at Hollywood club Arena, an addiction to cocaine put her almost right back where she started. Almost.
"I had already been in rehab once, then I fell back off the wagon. One day I was sitting down in one of those getting-high moments, and I was like, 'What am I doing? I'm stupid.' I realized that I only have one plane and it's the only plane I can catch, and if I don't catch it, I'll never get anywhere. It was a lot of faith in God, that's how I did it. When I was high I would tweak on the Bible, read it and say, 'Please help me, I can't do this by myself.' Then one morning I woke up and I had this glow in my face. Something just happened, it was weird, and I stopped doing drugs."
Six months later she gave up drinking, and for seven years she's lived an entirely drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle. "It has to be that way. I just got tired of trying to be a victim," Gutierrez says, attributing her recent bout of success to sheer force of determination. "When you go through what I went through you become fearless. You have to learn to be strong even though you're not. I've been through a lot in life, which brought me where I am today. I feel strong and confident now, and I'm happy."
She's also passionate. It's there in her music, and it's rarely far from her conversation. Is she a passionate person in private? "I am a passionate person. I'm a passionate lover," she says shyly, almost whispering. In public, however, like her in-yer-face DJing style, she favors far more blatant expression. "Sex sells!" she says, giggling, when asked about the cover art and advertising posters for her last album, Global House Diva 2: Live in Ibiza. It features her lounging amid a scantily clad group of revelers, one silicone-enhanced dancer peering lustfully into her open satin shirt. "It's all fun, because that's what I am, a bunch of fun," she says, still laughing.
On the subject of exploiting sex for commercial gain, 39-year-old Gutierrez is decidedly level-headed. "I try to keep it clean, where it's not too much and not too little," she says, the jarring intro to "Acid Eaterz" notwithstanding. "What other people do is up to them. If that's their thing, then I don't disagree and I don't agree. I think what really makes the artist is their talent. You can be the hottest thing around and you can't play for shit. Look at DJ Rap. She's awesome. She's a great drum 'n' bass DJ. I have respect for her because she has talent. Sandra Collins, she looks really good, and she's a great DJ. As long as you have the talent to back up your shit, that's what matters."
Looking to the future, Gutierrez is committed to developing her musical skills so that she, too, can write, play and produce as expertly as her heroine Madonna, whose cowgirl image fills the wall space above the mixing board in her home studio. Although her current DJing schedule involves an exhausting amount of travel, she hopes to eventually settle into more of a studio role, and her goal is, of course, to work with Madonna.
"I tell everybody that, so that someday she will hear it. I figure by the time she gets to her next album I'll be ready, and she'll be ready. Bitch vs. Bitch, that would be the best sort of album." She's clearly given it some thought.