Two turntables and a vision
Underground house music finds the Durango mainstream

A computer-generated “movie” produced by digital/video artist Stacey Sotosky flashes on the big screen at the Abbey Theater. The patterns pulse and change in time with the music being spun by the DJs. Sotosky, who chooses from dozens of video clips, says no two shows are alike./Photo by Todd Thompson

When Brian Ess was exposed to Denver's rave culture in 1997, he was more interested in why the DJs did what they did than in their technique or choice of music.

“I entered into it philosophically, and for me, it's still mostly about the ideals and ideas of progressive house music,” he said. “I grew up in punk rock culture, and I got tired of listening to music that fostered negative feelings and bitterness. Progressive house is forward thinking from all angles. It's a way of bringing people together and creating a unity.”

Talking to Ess about house music may be like listening to a preacher preach, but he does practice what he believes. When I met Ess at the Abbey Theatre last month, he was putting together the final touches for his monthly Down show. His staff had already rearranged the tables to make room for dancing and decorated the theater with calla lilies and candles. The turntables and mixing board were set up on the balcony, and an engineer was jacking into the sound system. The lighting system was coming online and the digital projectionist was starting to mix her footage into the uplink. It had the feeling of a stage production on opening night.

DJ Brian Ess mixes it up recently in the Abbey sound booth./Photo by Todd Thomspon

At 10:30 p.m. the doors opened. DJ A-Bell was on the perch spinning the first “song” while DJ Brian Ess was welcoming the crowd members, as if they were entering his living room. It didn't feel like the “show” had started, but it had. People came and went, upstairs, downstairs, inside, outside, mingling, meeting, sitting, dancing. Then, more people came, kind of like a party where everyone knows each other and if they don't, they're glad to meet you.

At first, the music served as a backdrop, until the dance floor started to fill up. Then, a lyric entered the mix: “Forget the world. Forget the day. Forget the people. Just close your eyes.” The music pulsed gently in melodic filigrees above rotational bass surges. Gradually, the partygoers, too, forgot the world and got up to dance. It sort of just happened.

The repetitive short loops in the music morphed against a series of themes in the long loops. The variations were random yet inevitable. It had a sort of mathematical fugue sound to it, with drums and bass firmly keeping the relentless beat. The place was soon packed.

“I want to create an environment where people can come in and feel like they're anywhere in the world doing anything,” says Ess. “You're in the most plush setting with the most intense ambience. There are no windows. You come in here, and you're not in Durango anymore. Also, the Abbey has the dopest sound system in Colorado.”

The project expands

The August event was the seventh monthly Down that Ess has produced. Ess, who is also a body piercer at Your Flesh Tattoo, does the graphic design, pays for the printing, rents the hall, hauls the gear in and out, and arranges the ambience, a different flower every month. And of course, he spins his music. “I play progressive house music the way I think it should be played,” he says. “There are a lot of different styles I respect. But there is also an organic connection besides the music. If you study the philosophy of house music you'll find terms like ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone.' I want to show the people of Durango some real fun.”

Chris Stanton, one of the partners of Abbey Music Productions and the Abbey's bar manager, has nothing but praise for Ess' show. “It's a great event that a lot of people really enjoy,” he said. “We have about 195 people here tonight. We've asked Brian to move to Friday nights and do Down twice a month. We're also thinking about adding a hip hop DJ night and bringing back a real disco night.”

DJ Jeremy Moody cues up his next
mix at Steamworks./Photo by
Todd Thomspon

For Anne Rinehart, a Durango insurance agent, Down is a night like no other, worth coming out for.

“One night a month they create a real big-city ambience and I'd come out more often for that,” she says. “It takes me back to my youth in the city and makes me feel young again.”

Kelly Rogers, a technology specialist and sound engineer who helped re-design the sound and lights during the Abbey's remodel, said Down turned the corner in July.

“It was the convergence of everyone who wants this scene being ready together: the system, the decorations, and adding digital video,” he says. “Plus Brian busted out the best show that anyone's ever heard. All the artists are escalating this into a real creation that you can melt into. It's not a spectator sport.”

Carol Clark, of the San Juan Citizens' Alliance, is here for the first time. “I love house music,” she said. “I like to dance to it. When I was in Europe, it's all they played.”

And while the show attracts fans of house music, it also attracts those who show up just to bask in the scene of it all.

“The music isn't me,” says Jake Hunter, the assistant manager of Purgy's, “but the scene is awesome. It's real quality. Besides all my friends are here.”

Brian Lynagh has come from work at Randy's around the corner. “Normally this kind of music doesn't impress me,” he says, “but the setting is fascinating. Brian Ess is an amazing professional, but it's not just him spinning records. It's an event.”

The scene also appeals to Richard Houston, of Albuquerque, who is in Durango on business and glad to have found “live” music. “It's a great workout for good health,” he said. “It's a place to dance the toxins out of your body and relieve the stress with sweat. You can tap into your inner being and get in touch with the higher power.”

Beth Miller, the assistant manager of Zumiez and long-time KDUR DJ, added, “It's freedom of the dance and freedom of the mind. It's all about release.”

The art of the mix

Stacey Sotosky collaborates with Ess to create Down. She has two computers on the balcony 4 feeding the digital video projector. The letters on her keyboard have been linked to video clips, and background patterns and effects. She plays the keyboard like a piano in time with the music, cutting in different video moods as the mood of the music changes. As she works, the big screen explodes in hypnotically changing patterns, digital effects and a series of expressive shadow-dancing pantomimes.

The interactive “movie” is an amazing creation. But it is just as fascinating to watch Sotosky produce the spectacle.

Sotosky is also a documentary filmmaker and the force behind Cascade Canyon Productions, a digital video studio. “I am a video performance artist,” she said. “As in art in a gallery space, the club scene is a rare opportunity to perform. Ninety percent of my footage is original, not stock, and we don't just reuse it. Every show is unique.”

Dancers pack the floor at the Abbey during DJ Brian Ess’ Thursday night Down show./Photo by Angela Natzke

Brian Ess has told me that a DJ is boring to watch no matter what they do, but as I watch him synch his beats and mix his fills I start to see that mixing is an art in its own right. By synchronizing two records at the same tempo, the DJ can cross-fade between the two or hard cut back and forth, in effect sampling and mixing to form an entirely new creation. The audience cannot readily discern the separate parts, and that's the point. It's a seamless blending of pieces that progresses for hours into an enormous unique whole. The song never ends.

Of course, progressive house is just one outpost in the DJ universe. It is not techno, nor is it drum and bass, jungle, or trance. “It's not that boom-clap-soulful-funky-diva stuff,” Ess said.

Ess is not the only DJ spinning for a big house music scene in Durango. At Steamworks, DJ Essence and DJ Rem-E put on the longstanding Saturday Ladies Night. During a recent show, the two take turns at the turntables, as the show starts with an interesting and progressive house mix.

The bar fills slowly but the dance floor is always active. When he's not playing music, DJ Essence is professional mountain bike racer Nick Gould. I ask him why he's a DJ. “I'm really into the high energy of the music,” he says. “The uplifting sounds are motivating. The music I play doesn't have any words, just feelings. Everyone makes their own interpretation but they also relate on the same level.”

DJ Rem-E, a.k.a. Jeremy Swain, has been running the Saturday show for Steamworks since May. “I mostly play Chicago house music,” he says. “I go for what gets the crowd up and jumping.” And the crowd loves it. Rem-E starts dropping in house-flavored disco remixes and real songs with words. The dance floor is packed until closing time.

And while his show may be different from what Ess offers at Down, Swain says he has nothing but respect for his peer, adding that the variety only helps with his own work.

“Down is the most quality production ever done in Durango,” says Swain. “After going to Brian's show, I really try to pay attention to detail and set more of an ambience. The DJs in this town are almost a collective, and we all support what Brian Ess is doing.”







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