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About two years ago Jason Tyler lost everything in a Chicago house fire, which was accidentally started by a superstar DJ and good friend. Then he spent a couple of semihomeless weeks in New York writing and recording an entire album with nothing more than a laptop he carried in a backpack. Finally he landed in a swanky South Beach pad, where he has written yet another album's worth of material.
But sitting in a swivel chair next to the home studio he keeps in his immaculate, spartan bedroom on a recent sunny afternoon, the DJ/producer seems pretty chilled out while contemplating it all. In fact Tyler's affable, low-key vibe seems to rub off — hanging with him is a little like being in the presence of some electro Buddha. Well, a Buddha that's actually trim and a snappy dresser, rocking a fierce pair of thick-framed white D&G glasses.
"Man, when you have a house fire, you see what's important and who's really down for you," he says after a sip of canned Heineken. "Like now, I don't try to fill my life with a lot of clutter. I think a lot better when things are more minimal."
Besides "simplify," Tyler's other main mantra has been: "Follow your dreams, no matter what." It's the theme of his debut studio CD, Model Tested, Rockstar Approved, a 14-track loose concept album of scorching, bugged-out electro-house bangers with nary a sample among them. It has informed his steady work ethic, carrying him since the fateful day he returned to his Chicago apartment from a weekend of gigging in Detroit to find it, and all of his possessions, pretty much nonexistent.
"[DJ] Keoki was leaving New York and wanted to stay with me. So I let him ... for three or four months," Tyler recalls. "We were doing a 10- or 15-city tour, and we went to Detroit for the weekend. And when we came back, the house was being boarded up and there were firemen everywhere.... You know how we have these cinder blocks here?" He motions to a stack of them neatly propping up his computer desk. "Well, he had even higher ones for turntables. And you know how Mac laptops have those little tiny thin cords? He accidentally had one under one of the cinderblocks, and that actually sparked the fire."
Keoki burned my house down? Tyler laughs good-naturedly. "It sounds like LCD Soundsystem's 'Daft Punk Is Playing at My House'! But it's nothing I want to make a song about. He's actually one of my best friends."
Tyler had no renter's insurance, so he took it as an opportunity for a tabula rasa. "So I was like, 'Skip it. I'll just move to New York.'"
It would be a major move, for Tyler had been born outside Fort Wayne, Indiana, to an American mother and a Honduran father. (Tyler is his middle name; Torres is actually his last). The triangle of Fort Wayne, Detroit, and Chicago, and the rural raves around them in the Nineties, had sucked him into the search for the perfect beat.
A melody aficionado from early on, Tyler had fixated around age 10 on the Louis Armstrong records his father played around the house. From there it was on to Miles Davis, bebop, and finally trumpet lessons. Playing in high school ensembles, he was good enough to be scouted for a full ride to study music at Roosevelt University in Chicago. But it was really the siren song of house that led him there.
"The first time I ever heard it, I loved it. It was just so opposite from, like, the classical or jazz worlds I was studying, 100 percent," Tyler says. "And I actually met [Chicago house legend] Paul Johnson at a party in Ohio, maybe Cleveland, and he was like, 'Oh, you play trumpet! You should come to Chicago and work on some music.' At the time I was trying to do some little parties in Indiana. So if I was going to Chicago, I thought, well, I could throw parties there too.'"
He soon left college. His first warehouse party was attended by more than 3000, and his other musical career was snowballing. "Everything kind of happened simultaneously," he says. "I did the parties and then I'd also play; I'd close all my own events." He began teaching himself production on drum machines, an MPC-2000 sampler, and keyboards. He released singles on France's G-Swing Records and domestically on Dust Tracks, the onetime home of electro-rock pioneer Tommie Sunshine.
And always there was the trumpet. Tyler played it live over his sets, improvising as the mood struck him. Soon other DJs — Mark Farina, Timo Maas, Cajmere/Green Velvet, Fast Eddie, Miguel Migs — were asking him to do the same at their gigs. He recorded for not only Paul Johnson, but also Derrick Carter, Gene Farris, and Glenn Underground, among others.
Chicago house, Chicago house, Chicago house. By the time of the fire, Tyler was an established artist on the scene. But he was never totally down with its insularity — the way it is fiercely protective of its storied traditions and averse to deviations.
"Even when I was making house, it was unconventional house back then," he explains. "I think it didn't really fit into the deep house category, and it didn't really fit into the disco house.... You know, when I'm working on stuff, I don't like to label it."
So with the escape to New York came an opportunity for something of a musical 180. But a planned sublet fell through and Tyler began couch-surfing at friends' places. This is when he decided to begin definitively working on what would become Model Tested, Rockstar Approved.
"It was definitely not easy when I was making that album. But it put things in perspective for me," he says. "I wanted to reach my dreams and goals and just do it, no matter what." No matter if he had to record each track, with minimal portable equipment, directly onto a Mac laptop and then carry the laptop with him.
For such a forced minimalist method of music-making, the final product is highly textured, exploding with drilling bass lines and the kind of aggressive enthusiasm of someone pushing for a change. Tracks like "Moviestar" and "Jack the Rocker" are swirling, distorted dance-floor skull-crushers. Others, like "Cause and Effect" and "I'm in Love," almost reach dance-rock, driven by funky licks and New Wavey vocals. A cinematic feel pervades it, as if the whole thing were the soundtrack to some narrative.
And that's how it's intended. "I wanted to make the album about making it ... whatever you want to be, go for it, no matter how hard it is," Tyler reiterates.
It was also in New York where he met DJ Patrick Kelly. Together they started Snapshot Recordings, scoring a major distribution deal and putting out Model Tested as the label's first release. Kelly also wanted to invest in Miami Beach real estate. So this past March they came down for Winter Music Conference and never went back north.
"I love Miami. I love the beach; I love the people," Tyler says emphatically. "Once you get to the real scene, the real people who are here are very warm, friendly, and real tight people." He also views it as a sort of spiritual homecoming, a chance to connect with some of his inherited Latin American culture, which was scarce in Indiana. "I just feel really, really at home here."
Forever open and outgoing, Tyler made quick work of meeting like-minded locals. "There's enough stuff going on in the underground here that's really cool and really stamps Miami," he says. "It seems really close-knit to me. And every day I run into someone involved with something, even more so than when I was in New York." He has graced the decks of Spiderpussy, Revolver, and other area clubs where an indie ethos fuels a mixed-genre, electro-doused soundtrack.
The official Miami album-release party for MTRA takes place next Wednesday at the N3ON Pony party at the Boom Boom Room in South Beach. It marks the beginning of a serious five-month touring schedule that will take Tyler and Kelly out to L.A., up the East Coast, to the Midwest, and finally overseas. They'll land back just before next year's Winter Music Conference, for which Tyler, of course, already has plans: He hopes to unveil another official album, comprising material he wrote at home over the long, hot summer.
"After the whole not-having-a-home thing, and the house fire," Tyler says, "it's really all come together."