Contributed by Breonie Baylov, Editorial Photography by Thor Radford, additional photos by Sarah T. Skinner
It is the dawn of an 18-hour day for Miguel Alvarado, who awoke this morning to his i-phone exploding with urgent emails. He needs coffee.
At Uptown Espresso, a barista talks to herself while sketching carbon and hydrogen molecules for her chemistry class. She's doesn't notice Miguel is waiting to order. But Miguel isn't annoyed; in fact, he asks the barista about her project when she finally makes his double tall Americano-no sugar. Somehow, Miguel is easy-going despite a schedule that would stress a yoga acharya.
By 10:30 a.m. he is sitting in a large conference room having his daily Skype meeting with West Coast coworkers. Miguel is Director of Technology Publishing Products, which means he is a software engineer and manager for Brightcove, a video publishing service that works with music labels, broadcast industries and even magazines. Think glitch-free, sophisticated YouTube for businesses embedding advertizing into their video feed. Brightcove is based in Boston, but has offices in London, China and where Miguel is in charge, Seattle. He answers to the Vice President of Engineering and works with the management team to help set the tech mission of the company. It's obvious Miguel loves his work, even when he has to spend hours fixing a glitch.
"What the hell," Miguel whispers at the computer screen. A coworker has pointed out a web video to a coworker; it's playing so fast it's making a science experiment look like vaudeville fare. Chuckles can be heard from the speaker. Miguel confers with a colleague on some different matters while someone is put on the speeding video task. Once the problem-solving intensive meeting is over, it's back to his office.
"After that [meeting], it's just me in front of the computer, reading emails, coding, solving problems," Miguel says with a laugh. He makes it sound simple, but hearing him talk with coworkers in tech language that sounds like modern Star Trek dialogue, there is little doubt as to the complexity of his work.
In an office so clean and bare-walled it is almost sterile, Miguel sits in front of two monitors and a laptop, typing, clicking and scanning the screens with such intensity, one would think he was typing code for the Department of Defense. Actually, he's making it possible for you and millions around the world to watch quality video on websites owned by companies such as Sony, Warner Brothers, Ticketmaster, Fox Entertainment, Ministry of Sound- the list goes on.
"I get pissed off at technology," he interjects in the middle of explaining his work; it's comical, really, watching a computer mastermind get annoyed with the machine I curse when I can't figure out how to load pictures. But this is the last bit of annoyance Miguel expresses for the day. He shoots into Facebook to check on his second life and make arrangements for the evening.
See Sound, a sexy, low-lit lounge modeled in true, New York ambience is bursting at its seams. This particular Saturday night the club-goers are especially energized. Resident DJ Miguel Alvarado is fueling the dance crowd with his rockin' rhythms, and if you want to travel from one side of SSL to the other, you'll have to dance your way. Alvarado may not know every individual on the dance floor, but they know him.
"He's fantastic," said James Oliver, a Detroit native visiting Seattle. "One of the reasons we came here tonight was to hear this guy." Following Miguel from clubs to events, it is startling how often he is stopped by fans. At a USC event at WAMU theater, someone in the crowd calls out to Miguel. He chats with the man and then rejoins his party, admitting he doesn't know who he was just talking with. He is unruffled- this happens frequently.
When Bryn Waibel heard he would have a job interview with a guy named Miguel Alvarado, he was sure he'd heard of him before. He googled his potential employer and did some MySpace investigating. Then he remembered: the year before, a Microsoft coworker handed him a flyer advertising a See Sound party- Miguel's name was on it. Bryn has now been working with Miguel over two and a half years, and seen a couple of his shows- but he doesn't see a change in Miguel from day to night.
"It's just Miguel," says Bryn, of watching him DJ. No one could accuse Miguel of being buttoned up, but he is uniquely reserved in an industry that oft produces flamboyant narcissists. Perhaps this is what makes Miguel a somewhat mysterious figure; he has no clever DJ moniker, nor does he put any effort into being the image of "cool". He already is. When partiers watch Miguel create irresistible dance music, they are watching the real Miguel Alvarado, not a parody.
"For some people, becoming someone else is part of their thing," says Miguel without judgment. "It just kind of happened that it felt more comfortable to get up there and be myself." However, Miguel says," I do try to be more outgoing than I would typically be." And outgoing he is. As he walks with his friend Julian Florescu towards the USC event, he mentions an after-party and wanting to get home early, since he does, in fact, eventually need sleep. Julian laughs.
"I know you Miguel," he says. "If there's something going on you'll be there till 6 a.m.!" Miguel admits it's true. But Miguel doesn't realize he is "the something going on" in Seattle.
Five o'clock rolls around and Miguel is still typing, clicking and scanning computer screens. A mid-day coffee run and international electronic music radio stations have kept him focused. Nary a sigh nor curse has escaped his mouth- if he's tired, he doesn't show it.
"The day went by so freakin' fast," he says as he wildly types, finishing his project for the day. Later, while waiting for the elevator, he finally lets out a yawn and a sigh. He's been in a race against time today. He starts to say, "Sometimes I'm worried…" I assume he's going to say he's worried he'll be late to a gig or miss a party, but I am wrong. He finishes his thought; "Sometimes I'm worried that I won't be able to fix a problem." Miguel is not stressed over merely maintaining two lifestyles in one life- but rather, accomplishing them.
When Miguel is madly tapping away at the keyboard solving some complex programming issue, he's not just passing time till he can live his dream DJing at fabulous, sexy clubs. He is doing what he loves when he's sitting in front of the computer, and he will be doing what he loves tonight when he DJs.
It is possible to have two different passions in life; it is unusual to be wholly dedicated to both, intertwining them so that one cannot happily exist without the other. Miguel has managed to merge technology and music in such a way, he must be involved with both to be happy. He figured this out pretty early in life.
Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world. It is the economic and cultural epicenter of Mexico, boasting a population well over 8.5 million. There is no other city in the world with as many museums and theaters; the nightlife is rich and exotic; it is a world stage for cutting-edge musicians from across the globe and home to a plethora of classical orchestras. In this creative and dangerous metropolis, Miguel grew to crave working with technology and music. His dad played guitar, "So I have early memories of growing up hearing him play," says Miguel. His mom also loved music- some of her favorite artists were Rod Stewart and the Beatles.
Miguel Alvarado, last row, fourth from the right.
"My mom would play music videos and have me dance with her in the living room," he says, recalling his life as a six-year-old. But he remembers how things really got started- he was twelve, and got his first computer.
"I started programming, playing games [….] at some point I realized you could use programs to make music," he says. "I wasn't so much into melody as much as rhythm." And this is where Miguel, unaware, started his future career. Friends started swapping computer programs and music like most boys swap baseball cards.
"There was a radio show I listened to broadcast from New York; they would have a different DJ each week playing New York-style house," says Miguel. But it wasn't enough to listen to the radio and buy Shep Pettibone remixes.
"I was hearing these mixes from New York on the radio- I thought, 'Whoa, I wanna mix, '" says Miguel. He couldn't afford turn-tables, so he bought a mixer, took his mom's record player and his grandmother's, hooked them to the mixer and went for it. He also started playing the drums. At 16, Miguel wanted to join a band with a friend.
"There was clearly no room for two drummers," he says laughing, "so I took Latin percussion- I figured it would compliment the drum set." He learned hand percussion taking lessons with Mexican rock band La Lupita. Soon, his band was playing in Mexico City nightclubs.
"We felt really cool- we were underage and could be there," he says with a smile. Miguel went to a private school, but hung with a different crowd. "All my friends outside of school were skaters, punk-rockers- what people would call rebellious kids. They didn't conform to the norm- which I honestly like more."
Two more bands later, high school was coming to a close, and 17-year-old Miguel decided it was time to decide on a real career.
"I knew I wasn't going to be a full-time, professional musician," he says. He decided on Computer Science instead. His aunt living in Seattle sent him information on the University of Washington.
"I wanted to get out of Mexico City," says Miguel of his choice to move to Seattle- away from severe pollution, traffic, crime and a bad economy. The 19-year-old settled in Seattle as a Computer Science major at UW.
By his junior year, Miguel was working at Microsoft. Since he already had the job he was in school for, he decided to go full-time in the workforce and leave school. While working at Microsoft, he felt the urge to get back into music.
"Me and my friends went to Spain- Ibiza, which is the club capital of the world," says Miguel. At a 3,000 capacity club, packed every night of the week, Miguel remembers thinking, "I want to play in a place like this!"
Back in Seattle, reality set in. "I thought, 'Bullshit, I'm going to have to start at the very bottom'," Miguel says. As luck would have it, while living in the U District, he had DJs for neighbors. Miguel had started playing with them for fun, but then he and five friends, all from countries around the world, came up with the idea for Mix Nights.
"We wanted to have these parties that combined electronic music with world music," says Miguel, "with some other art form. One night we had body painters, belly dancing, arial performers…" Miguel got gigs playing Tuesday nights at the now closed Mirabu Room and Wednesdays at Club Element, where he met most of the local Djs by booking them. But he wasn't satisfied.
"I thought, 'I'm in, now I have to work harder'," says Miguel. He started making mixed cds and handing them out. When See Sound Lounge opened, Miguel was excited- it was exactly where he wanted to play. Miguel is pretty sure his cd never hit the ears of SSL's owner, but a Mix Night comrade playing on Thursday nights pulled him in. "It was an elaborate process," says Miguel.
In a trendy sushi restaurant, Miguel and fellow DJ Mitch Bate go over their plans for an upcoming event. They met a couple years ago when they unexpectedly played together at SSL. "It worked," Mitch says. Both DJs were surprised. "You have to be on the same page musically," Miguel says, when working with another DJ. "He'll buy his own music separately, I'll buy my own separately, but we know that when we play together, it'll work." Like the leading heroes in a film, DJs have to have chemistry; otherwise, you get a lame show or unenthused crowd- a DJ's worst nightmare. The goal is to produce beats that are new and exciting- no pressure, guys.
Enter an inconspicuous door off Western St., climb two flights of steep, wooden stairs covered with carpet so worn it is almost indistinguishable underneath the duct-tape holding it together…down a maze of a hallway or two, and you will find yourself in the middle of the refuge for bands and musicians that have been banned, evicted or scolded out of their practicing space. It is the gritty, street side of Miguel's life as a resident DJ for chic, trendy clubs. In a small, dimly lit room decorated with Pacha posters- Miguel's "favorite club in the world"- and some furniture, Miguel and Mitch test tracks for gigs and work on their sound. This room has hosted after-parties of 60-plus people, and while many spilled into the hallway, it is hard to imagine more than 10 fitting comfortably. But listening in on their practice session, one can see why partiers would want to squeeze into the space.
The friends work together to create new music, marrying two personal styles to form a distinct sound. They cue each other in; their transitions to different tracks are seamless, almost imperceptible movements. Miguel's intense focus is mirrored in Mitch's face; after 45 minutes of non-stop playing, they speak over the music only for a minute.
"That's what I love about the dynamic between him and I- we have a friendship separate from music, and then musically we have similar attitudes but different way to approach them, so it's kind of a pushing each other thing," Mitch says. "If he's been in the studio three days and I haven't been, I feel it, vice-versa. And then we get in there together and we show each other what we're doing. We'll see that he's come up with some things that are different from what I would."
After a couple hours of practice, the guys are finally ready to hit See Sound- there are some guesting DJs they want to see. Mitch is telling me about their work together, when Miguel suddenly has what Mitch laughingly calls, "A Miguel Moment." He is missing his phone, but "A Miguel Moment," Mitch says, "is losing one of three things, wallet, keys or phone, one minute after he had it." Apparently, Miguel has managed to lose his phone between parking lot and apartment door. Usually, he finds the missing item.
Watching the guest DJs at See Sound, Miguel observes with the air of a student-albeit a very cool, very experienced student, but a student nonetheless. One can almost see him writing mental notes. He socializes with partiers, but even in conversations he seems to be aware of the beat, of the transformation occurring track to track. As successful as he has been, Miguel is still evolving.
"The way he does it is evolving- that's to his credit- that's one of the reasons why I work with him," said Mitch.
In a modern, edgy apartment building, the Space Needle on one side and a breathtaking view of the Sound on the other, Miguel the techie and Miguel the DJ live concurrently. His apartment is exactly what you'd expect the dwelling of Miguel Alvarado to be- cool. It is minimally decorated, clean, simple and hardly revealing, just like Miguel. At his home studio, Miguel prepares for events, mixing tracks as well as creating his own music.
"When I'm preparing for a DJ set, I typically spend a little bit of time before the evening just looking at my track library and getting an idea, more or less of the tracks that I'll be wanting to play," says Miguel. He often has a couple new tracks he can't wait for people to hear. "But it's just like a rough plan," he continues. "You can't plan a DJ set 100 percent. It has to be improvised."
Some DJ's do pre-plan their sets, says Miguel, but it's not a good idea. "It get's boring," he says. "They create a like playlist, and then they show up and they play their playlist, but then that's like- not very exciting. It's like bringing i-tunes."
There are no playlists pulsing through the speakers when Miguel is working the DJ's pulpit. Not only does he search for fresh tracks, he also creates them- a process to which he is dedicated.
"Sometimes you think, 'I'm going to make a track that is really high-energy', right? So you may sit down at your computer and you may feel like what's coming out is something completely different, maybe something mellow. You shouldn't fight that… You can't push yourself in any one direction, because, I think, you'll do a poor job of whatever it is you're trying to do. You have to let things flow naturally." All this happens in Miguel's home office- but his studio monitors do a pretty good job of simulating the club beat. What do his neighbors think?
"The neighbors don't complain," Miguel says. "Well, there are no neighbors on this side because there's the stairs," he says, waving his arm to the right. It may help that he is strategically located on the top floor, the side of his apartment next to a balcony staircase. He rethinks his answer. "The neighbors below- they've just complained a couple times when it's been really late, me playing loud music at 3 a.m.- and that's very, very understandable," he says good-naturedly.
Making the music is only part of the talent Miguel possesses- he's also very conscious of the party-goers when he DJs.
"When you're a DJ, I think that's one of the biggest talents that you should have- to be able to read people.
"You show up at a club, you read the vibe, and then you get a feeling of what the people need tonight- what they are looking for. Sometimes you try a bunch of different things and you can't get it right the first time […] the key is to be able to just take turns- I'm like, 'OK, it's not working, so I need to take a different turn'," says Miguel.
"It's weird, because sometimes you can play the same track twice, and you may not get the same reaction. I could play some track this upcoming Friday and people just love it, they go off. And maybe I play it again on Saturday- and it does not get the same reaction. It's because of the context, the difference things that are around people. Alcohol level is also a factor for sure," he says with a smile.
Tonight See Sound is at capacity. Miguel and Mitch are letting their beats loose, and the dance floor has expanded to the entire lounge floor. The crowd is ecstatic.
"As a Dj, the best moments are when you play a track you love, a track that you think is awesome, people think it's awesome and then you have a breakdown- you have people raise their hands- and they do it! They're cheering, they're like loving the track- that's the greatest thing to watch," says Miguel.
After the conference calls, computer glitches, music making, track testing and DJing, there is only one thing that means Miguel will end the day satisfied. "If people are dancing their asses off, and they're looking at the DJ booth and they're cheering-you know, just, 'WHOOO' – that's when you know you've had a good night," he says with a smile.
AHANAOA A. C.
Lic. Nut. Miguel Leopoldo Alvarado