Michael Burtt comes alive on nights like this. It's late on a Friday in January and the line outside On Broadway is nearly wrapping around the corner but Burtt confidently strides right on by. He's no longer the 29-year-old salesman sharing an apartment in Pacific Beach. Tonight, he's a DJ, a title that's close to godliness when it comes to the downtown club scene.
As soon as Burtt crosses the velvet rope, the 6-foot-4-inch Detroit native transforms into Cowboy Mike, the DJ who'll drop obscure trance and progressive tracks while mixing in a little Depeche Mode or The Cure for good measure.
The crowd loves it.
They love it when Cowboy Mike lets long trance tracks weave in and out of mind-altering oblivion. They love it when he leans over the mixer like he's leaning over the hood of a car—distressed Peter Grimm cowboy hat on head, left earphone smashed between ear and shoulder, face contorted with purpose and taut muscles flexing as he stretches his long arms between the mixer and CD decks.
They especially love it when he notices their dancing. He periodically looks up and pumps his fist to encourage their quivering little bodies. Tonight, two girls shake their surgically enhanced bouncy things directly below the DJ booth, staring doe-eyed at Cowboy Mike in a hey-look-at-me-just-once way that's usually reserved for only the biggest of leather-pants-wearing rock stars.
Guys, too, can't seem to stay away from Cowboy Mike. While strolling through On Broadway during the opening set—performed by Mike's 23-year-old protégé, Chase Costello—a string of middle-aged guys in striped, button-up shirts bombard him with the old handshake-to-hug bit. A few demand that he pose for pictures.
“This guy's great,” they gush to CityBeat. “Seriously, he's a great guy.”
Maybe it's Cowboy Mike's perfectly white smile or the cool scar over his left eye that charms the masses. Maybe it's his nice jeans or fashionable wrist cuff. Maybe it's the hat. Or maybe, just maybe, it's his music.
A short, round guy—donning a cowboy hat of his own—approaches Cowboy Mike just as he prepares to take the stage.
“He's my favorite local DJ,” the clubber says. “There was this one time, when he played a remix of U2, I knew we'd get along. He's more melodic than other guys.”
Cowboy Mike loves U2. He's got a framed picture of the band hanging in his living room near a signed photo of B.T., a Los Angeles DJ who Mike cites as a major influence.
His apartment, like the DJ set he spins at On Broadway, is immaculate. Everything falls into place with a nice black-and-white color scheme. Cowboy Mike is a detail-oriented perfectionist—which is evident when he refers to a list he's made specifically for an interview with CityBeat.
“I just wanted to be sure I mentioned everyone who's helped me,” he says.
The list includes people like Tim Ortiz, the founder and president of Eventvibe.com. Ortiz, Mike explains, is the guy who sets him up with most of his shows, including a Feb. 7 slot opening for electronic titan Paul van Dyk at Belo. Victor Dinaire will also be on the bill. Dinaire earned himself a spot on Mike's list by showing him the ropes of the industry and helping him score some of his very first gigs.
Those first gigs weren't that long ago, either. Cowboy Mike has only been practicing the DJ craft diligently for little more than three years. He had little interest in the house beats that dominated the Detroit techno he grew up around. It wasn't until he heard trance from the likes of van Dyk and Paul Oakenfold that he developed a dedicated interest in electronic music.
The Detroit rave scene sealed the deal. He loved the energy and the vibe induced by repeating buildups and breakdowns of melodic beats. After he moved to San Diego in 2003, Mike began to buy his own equipment, buckle down and perfect his sets.
He has since become a go-to opener, warming up crowds for the likes of B.T., Christopher Lawrence, Ferry Corsten and Donald Glaude, to namedrop just a few. He plays the role well, consciously deferring to headlining acts by keeping his beats per minute under 130 because, as he explains, “it's the respectful thing to do.”
That's not to say Cowboy Mike is quite where he wants to be just yet. He plans to start producing his own tracks soon in order to take his music to the next level.
Give him a few more years, he says. Then he'll be the headliner. Cowboy Mike performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, with Paul van Dyk, Victor Dinaire and Scott Roberts at Belo, 919 Fourth Ave., Downtown. 619-231-9200. www.myspace.com/djcowboymike.