Lee Foss is sitting near a lap pool and water fountain, sun beating down on the serene backyard of his Hollywood Hills home. He's been here for a couple years now, having made the move from downtown Los Angeles to a place where he can chill and make music in semi-seclusion in between the estimated 130 to 140 DJ gigs he takes on per year.
Since moving to Los Angeles from Chicago eight years ago, Foss has emerged as one of the city's major players on the global underground dance music circuit. His projects are varied, from solo releases and DJ gigs to his bands Hot Natured and Pleasure State. He and Hot Natured collaborator Jamie Jones co-own the labels Hot Creations and Emerald City. Foss is also about to launch a new label, Repopulate Mars — he already hosts events under that name — in late March. He's part of the festival season that never seems to end, having recently turned up at BPM in Mexico and on Hard's Holy Ship! excursion and with a gig at San Diego CRSSD Festival coming up this weekend.
At the time of this interview, though, Foss was looking forward to the rare weekend with no set gigs. “I used to not take weekends off,” he says, but lately he's been saying no. He thinks about how major-label artists will go on extended tours and then retreat to the studio. It's different in the world of DJs, who are often expected to be the life of the party all year long.
“DJs, they're like rats on a wheel,” he says. They jet across the globe, hitting up party after party, sneaking off into a studio to work on a new track when the rare break comes, or cracking open a laptop while awaiting another flight.
“It takes a lot of time to be a good DJ and not be lazy about it.”
Foss had been living in that running wheel, too. He says it's still sometimes unavoidable — flights get delayed, gigs sometimes last until shortly before he has to check out of the hotel — but he's been trying to change that. “You have to take responsibility for yourself,” he says. “You have all these people around you — management, agents, stuff like that — but it's your decision.”
In Chicago, he had success on a local level but didn't feel like he was gelling with what was going on there at the time. When he moved to Los Angeles in 2008, it wasn't the dance capital that it is now, but there was a scene brewing after-hours and at venues like the Standard Hotel. Foss dug the city's vibe and thought it might be a cool place to build his career. Plus, he had connected with L.A. DJ trio Droog, and the like-minded artists forged a mutually beneficial relationship.
Droog's first release on their Culprit label was by Hot Natured; Foss was in their studio finishing up the track when L.A. Weekly profiled Droog in 2009. “I think we helped them step up and have a successful label,” Foss says, “and I appreciate them helping me [get] in gear and have a place and friends to start my own career.”
But as Foss' profile rose, the stress of the touring circuit took its toll. “I probably did resent my work for a while,” he says. “I was exhausted and I just viewed it as getting through the work. I was just at the hotels and the events in a lot of places. I wasn't really experiencing them.”
Finally, Foss made an effort to change his approach to the work. He says that it's only been in the past year that he's become better at time management. “I was a big avoider,” he says. “It takes a lot of time to be a good DJ and not be lazy about it. It takes a lot of time to be a good producer and remixer.”
He has taken on gigs in up-and-coming dance music destinations, essentially as an ambassador for his labels and party brands. “If you go and you understand that they're emerging markets and you don't expect the fee levels to be the same, you can build audiences and help them build something, too,” he explains.
Last year, he went to Kenya to give a talk to a group of 60 people, primarily young people with an interest in music. He's also taking the time to explore the countries where he plays. Recently, he went to India and traveled five hours out of the way of his itinerary to see the Taj Mahal. “I probably wouldn't have done that a year or two ago.” If you have the opportunity to travel abroad, he insists, you have to make the most of it. “People save their whole lives to go to Brazil or Australia or Kenya or India,” he says. “If you can do it for work, it's amazing.”
Foss' reinvigorated attitude shows in his work. You can hear it in the recording of his “Galaxy Disco” set at Holy Ship!, available via SoundCloud. It's eclectic and passionate, filled with big dance beats and disco grooves.
He's been working on solo material, as well. The producer is in the process of finishing an album and plans to release an EP on Emerald City in either late spring or early summer.
“I'm learning to give everything in my career and business life its full potential,” says Foss. “The more active you are in music and the more you give to it, the more it gives to you. You have to contribute to it for it to contribute to your life.”
Lee Foss will do a DJ set at day one of the two-day CRSSD Festival at San Diego's Waterfront Park, Saturday, March 5. For more info and tickets, visit crssdfest.com.