Thurston -- better known in Denver as DJ Sara T -- still has no shortage of associates, acquaintances and admirers. Besides co-owning Chielle, a quirky new boutique at 26 Broadway, she drums in two buzz-generating bands, Hot House and Clotheshorse (formerly called the Little Heads). But the energetic, shyly amiable overachiever is most famous for her hip-rocking residency, Danceotron. Billed as "Denver's No Bullshit Dance Party," the popular event snared Thurston a pair of major awards last year: the Denver Post's Best Underground DJ and Westword's own Best Dance/Electronic DJ. But despite all the love, Danceotron's history has been as tumultuous as Thurston's own.
"I lived in eight different states before settling down in New Jersey for high school," she explains. "I realized early on that I wasn't like everybody else. I have really thick emotional associations with music. I remember sitting down with my friends when I was seven and talking about Madonna. I would say, 'You won't believe it -- my mom makes me listen to Willie Nelson. I'm so deprived.' They were like, 'What are you talking about?'"
But while most kids start cultivating angst like acne once they hit puberty, it was in high school that Thurston started shedding hers. "My high school was actually a pretty good environment," she admits. "There was a lot of diversity. The class vice president was a girl with a Mohawk. So I didn't feel oppressed there or anything. But as soon as I started growing up and going out and trying to be friendly, I always encountered people who really wanted me to be unhappy. It wasn't personal; they did it inadvertently. Everyone knows what I'm talking about: You walk into a room, and right away, although no words are said to you, you feel like you don't belong. But I just pushed through that. Ultimately, it's just insecurity about yourself, but I thought maybe that somebody else might feel the same way I do."
Thurston began to find those kindred spirits after graduating from high school and moving to Boulder in 1996. After dabbling in child care and video production, she got two on-air DJ gigs simultaneously: at an Internet radio station and at the fledgling Radio 1190. In addition to having unlimited access to vast libraries of music, she became acquainted with Boulder's rave scene and started going to underground dance parties. But as much as she admired the sense of unity at those events, it was always from a distance.
"Josh Ivy would deejay," she recalls, "and Psychonaut, who's now known as Widowmaker. It was community and family. I sort of fit in, but not really. But I love those guys, and I felt safe there. I was really inspired by that. But I wasn't entirely accepted, and I really wanted to create my own space."
Thurston began voraciously collecting records as soon as she got to Boulder. At first enamored of drum-and-bass, she couldn't find enough of the genre that struck a chord, so she started branching out, raiding Wax Trax and Bart's CD Cellar for all manner of vinyl. In addition to electronic music, she submerged herself in soundtracks, vintage exotica, old-school rap and post-rock, an all-consuming appetite that mirrored the aesthetic of her radio sets.
"The Internet station was called the Eclectic Radio Company," she says. "The DJ was the format. I'd go from Ali Farka Toure to Negativland to, like, Low, and have to figure out how to make it work."
After moving to Denver in 2000, Thurston got her first live DJ residency, a Wednesday-afternoon happy hour at the Snake Pit. It didn't exactly set Denver's dancing shoes on fire. "I was pretty nervous," she confesses, "even though everyone was in the other room at the bar. That was just a period of getting to know the equipment. You know, getting my chops."
Six months later, the happy hour tanked. In the meantime, though, Thurston had started exploring another musical avenue -- the rock-and-roll band. "For me, making music was always something someone else did. I always stuck in the background," she says. "My friends were always the ones with big ideas, who did big things. I had always put all my energy into other people's projects. Then I thought, 'Maybe I should just do this for myself.'"
Picking up the drums and forming an indie-rock outfit called the Little Heads, Thurston remained creatively occupied. But the wheels of steel still spun in the back of her mind, and soon a friend, Moses Montalvo, asked her to be his partner at the Skylark for a weekly shindig called Hip Fidelity. Now known as Sara T, she unleashed the sassier side of her record collection, whipping up a kaleidoscope of lounge and '60s pop tunes. And as trippy and innocent as her sets were, she once found herself serving up the sonic side dish for a round of knuckle sandwiches.