By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
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The cowboy hat may be D:Fuse's trademark, but his music hardly makes you think of Texas. Instead, his creations evoke such locales as New York, San Francisco, London and Ibiza, and visions of ecstatic throngs dancing in thrall to a seamless mix of energetic beats per minute.
In one of the many ironies found in the crumbling foundation beneath roots-rocking Austin's dubious claim of being "The Live Music Capital of the World," one of the city's hottest musical commodities is a dance DJ, producer and mixer as well as an artist. And what got him there was his frustration with the realities of Austin's vaunted live music scene.
Rewind to the early 1980s. D:Fuse is in Baytown, just east of Houston, poring over his father's records. "Music was one of those things that was always there for me when I was a kid," he recalls. "My father had a huge collection of 45s and oldies my brother and I would always tear through and listen to."
He was also soaking up the sounds of 97 Rock and KLOL. The seminal album experience of his youth was Paradise Theater by Styx, and at 13 he got a drum kit. A year later he and his family moved to Austin, where he "played drums every day all the time in high school." During college at Southwest Texas State he beat out time to covers of the Cure and the Cult and other signature acts of 1980s modern rock.
"I still think that was the most innovative decade of music," he says. "The way they incorporated keyboards and lots of different percussion and different ideas. Everything seemed to be moving forward light-years from what it was."
The early 1990s found him playing drums in Culture Industry, an industrial rock band and one of the thousands of groups in Austin vying for some smidgen of attention. Soon enough, though, D:Fuse started to wonder about the progress of his career, if not the career choice. Industrial was already in steep decline, and few people came to their gigs.
But instead of the usual Austin response--roll up a fatty and settle into the "velvet rut"--he became terrified. "I was just totally scared I was not going to make it in music," he says. "And if music wasn't the answer, what was? That was it, really. I've worked part-time and had jobs since I was 13 years old sacking groceries. But it was really just that fire: I didn't want to wake up and be 40 years old and still be a little local musician doing gigs on a Monday night for 30 bucks or something."
Meanwhile, D:Fuse lucked into a life-changing night on the town. "I went to a club and had that quintessential club experience one night at Proteus here in Austin," explains D:Fuse. "I picked up a pair of decks and it was all over after that. I was just checking it out, but the whole scene was so intriguing."
Culture Industry soon broke up, and D:Fuse emerged from the ashes alone. D:Fuse loved flying solo. "I could just do it all myself. It's a one-man show. That was always a problem in live music: finding other people you can count on. You can find a lot of musicians who are good, but not a lot of them that have the work ethic," says the 33-year-old DJ.
D:Fuse admits he knew next to nothing about dance music when he got those decks, but that old fear of aging gracelessly made him a fast learner. "I figured the only way to do it was just to work my ass off and work every spare minute of time I had."
It was not a good time to be launching a DJ career in Austin's then-waning dance scene. While techno and trip-hop were thriving and trance was starting to rise elsewhere, clubs were closing all over the capital. Since D:Fuse couldn't get any gigs elsewhere, he began promoting his own night, "Sunday Massive," at a small Sixth Street club.
Unlike his band shows, which were "pretty much a flop every time we played," "Sunday Massive" took off. It grew from a venue where "20 or 30 people pretty much looked like a crowd" to the point where it attracted hundreds every night.
And now D:Fuse has a regular spinning gig in San Francisco and guest shots across the nation, and he does two shows on XM Satellite Radio and a weekly mix on Chicago's Q101 radio station. He's toured three times as an opener for Paul Oakenfold.
The tall, handsome 33-year-old spinner attributes a good part of his success to learning the ropes of marketing and promotion. "Right now, to become successful in music, you have to fight the battle on a number of different levels," he states. "You can't just be great and talented at what you do. I don't believe you can anymore. You have to be a businessman. That's hard to do when you're all artsy and creative. It's very hard to use that other side of your brain."
His moniker is a part of his branding. Though reluctant to share his given first name, D:Fuse does admit that he was born D. Fuselier. While he was working as a waiter in college, his customer checks came out of the computerized system as "D. Fuse." And now D:Fuse is what he likes to be called. "It's what all my friends call me."
Since 1998, D:Fuse has released five CDs of his mixes and sets. His latest, People_2: Both Sides of the Picture, is a two-disc package that pairs a down-tempo mix ("People Chilling") on one CD with a high-energy mix ("People Clubbing") on the other. "I really love chill music and I really love dance music. I thought it'd be a cool idea that you could go to a record store and buy something and get the best of both worlds. And there was a lot of chill music that wasn't getting signed," he explains.
"That was the idea: Give people this variety of CD. When they're cooking dinner or if they're watching a sunset or whatever, put the chill CD on. If they're heading to the club that night, throw on the peak-hours CD and jam out."
The album sets up his sixth release, slated for next year, by featuring his own mixes, compositions and productions for a good half of the album. D:Fuse also relies on his band background in the studio, using live piano, bass, drums, saxophones and even cello--"whatever comes to mind."
When spinning, he also uses a Roland HPD 15 Handsonic drum machine to play percussion as part of his mixes. "It brings it back to that live show I used to do and interacting with audiences," he says, disputing the notion that the electronic element in today's dance music makes it sterile and cold.
"DJing is all about sharing music," he insists. And what turns him on about the dance scene is "that unified vibe of people where everyone is on the same wavelength." He also wants to see the dance crowd coalesce around two causes that he is passionate about: how he feels that downloading and file-sharing are killing music and the way the "rave law" impinges on freedom and civil liberties.
And the cowboy hat? Normally associated with twangers and shit-kickers, it's "always" atop D:Fuse's head when he spins. "It's like my trademark. I was from Texas and I was traveling outside the state, so I figured, why not?" he explains. "It was kind of like a branding thing. As a DJ, people very rarely get on the mike and say, 'Hey, please welcome D:Fuse.' There's rarely a sign or anything. But if I put on a cowboy hat, everybody's gonna know who's on the decks. Who would wear a cowboy hat while they're spinning?"
Only a Texan...