For the local house and techno DJ who plays today at Buku, being prepared is crucial.

tristan dufrene photo
Tristan Dufrene

Tristan Dufrene is careful to point out that she’s not producing yet. In the electronic music world, “DJ” and “producer” seem to be used almost interchangeably, but she’s the former and not the latter. She mixes songs, but she doesn’t make her own yet. 

“I’m working through all the knowledge about being a DJ before I move on to start producing my own material,” she says.

Dufrene will perform Friday at 3:45 p.m. on the Back Alley Stage at Buku, and that clarity is consistent in her approach to music. She liked growing up in Cut Off, Louisiana, but she didn’t find a lot of creativity there, so she moved to New Orleans five years ago. Her primary connection to electronic dance music was her brother, who was also a DJ. She helped him by acquiring and cataloguing his music for him—“that was in Napster days”—and when he got out of the game, Dufrene picked it up, playing parties and weddings. “That was before I knew how to beat match,” she says.

Deep house and techno are her sweet spots—“sometimes a little tech house,” she adds—and hearing techno made her decide to be a DJ. 

“A little over a year ago, I went to New York and decided I wanted to be a DJ,” Dufrene says. “I was pretty inspired. I went to a party on an island and it was pouring down rain, and there was a certain sound there that doesn’t happen in New Orleans and needs to because it’s not being exposed. The party was mostly European and European-influenced techno which was pretty obscure here in New Orleans.” 

The song that made a particular impression was “Rave” by the Italian DJ Sam Paganini. “It’s a really great track,” she says. “And he closed with a Led Zeppelin song remixed. I was like, This is what I need to do.” 

She thinks techno hasn’t caught on here like it has elsewhere because it’s harder, heavier, and “from the outside looking in, if you’re unfamiliar, it could be repetitious. I tell them it’s not repetitious; you’re not listening.”

Dufrene plays parties at least two to three times a month but doesn’t have a steady night or venue. She’s become connected to the Nola Burners—a New Orleans Burning Man community—and plays at some of their events, and often performs at the Dragon’s Den. Her most regular gig is the weekly time she spends spinning with roommate and DJ Javier Drada at TechnoClubNola.com. It has helped her find her audience while developing her skills for building a set that goes somewhere. “I want to take listeners on a journey,” she says.

She doesn’t go into any set knowing what she wants to play, not even the first song, though she likes to start in a similar place.

“I’m very adamant about being prepared,” Dufrene says. “When I get to a gig, I have a collection sorted out and I go from there. I like to start with something very melodic like an intro to build it up.”

Keeping track of electronic dance music’s near-constant development of new subgenera can be dizzying, but Dufrene thinks it’s crucial as a DJ that she stay on top of new movements and know what she’s playing. There are diehard fans for almost any sound in the audience, but nobody’s diehard for everything. Keeping track is also simply practical. “I’m pretty meticulous about categorizing my catalogue into certain fields because I have a pretty big catalogue,” she says. 

When spinning at TechnoClubNola, she has a vague idea what the audience responds to because the site’s name is a clue to all listeners as to what they can expect. The platform tells her how many people are listening and where they are—Dufrene has followers in Russia and Romania—and she gets some feedback through its chat function. Still, for the most part she’s in her own world when mixing, trusting her instincts and interests because she can’t see her audience. When Dufrene plays live, her ideas about when it’s appropriate to play something remain personal and intuitive. “To be honest, it’s very rare that I’ll look up,” she says. “I’m very deep into what I’m doing. I’ll glance up every now and then to see if they’re receptive, but when I play, I’m playing how I feel.”

Dufrene believes working techno into her set means picking the appropriate moment, and that people get it when it’s put in the right context. “I’m playing early in the day at Buku, so I won’t be throwing out this heavy techno set,” she says. There are unspoken protocols among DJs, and much the same way that an opening act at a concert isn’t supposed to blow away the headliner, it’s poor form for the DJs earlier in the day to raise the energy on a stage until there’s nowhere for the headliners to take it. That doesn’t necessarily mean earlier DJs limit themselves or compromise. For Dufrene, it simply means going another direction. “I’ll go for more of a feel-good, atmospheric sound,” she says. “There is some atmospheric techno that I’ve been playing out recently, and some atmospheric deep house.”

A mix Dufrene put up on Soundcloud in January starts in an atmospheric place, but when I wonder if it was more for listening than moving a crowd, she explains why the music really ought to be heard on quality speakers or at a venue. “Hearing it on a proper sound system makes all the difference,” she says. “I can listen to anyone’s mix in the office [at work] and it’s good. Hear it live and it’s totally different. You can hear every specific sound,” and with so much electronic dance music, those sonic textural differences are crucial. “There are so many layers behind all the music that I play.”

For more on Dufrene and Buku, visit Nola.com.