The radio show marks the start of a weekly cycle that includes shifts at The Thing, the Greenpoint thrift shop that's home to one of the world's biggest (and most unruly) collections of second-hand vinyl. He also works weekends as a swimming instructor at the NYU pool in Manhattan. Most evenings are spent in his studio, a small space he rents near the Pulaski Bridge, also in Greenpoint.
As far as routines go it's pretty low-key, which seems to suit Burnett's personality. He's not the kind of guy who has ambitions to join the globetrotting DJ circuit. But after putting out a string of killer records for tastemaking labels like The Trilogy Tapes, Rush Hour, L.I.E.S. and Crème Organization, Burnett, 36, finds himself at a career crossroads: go full-time as an artist or stick with his cozy routine? One option is risky but potentially game changing; the other is safer but brings with it the threat of inertia.
This hot streak began sometime in 2011, when he made his debut as Willie Burns with 12-inches for L.I.E.S. and Crème. With some artists it's hard to say what makes their music special, but with Burnett it's easy: he has a knack for turning ostensibly goofy melodies into excellent club cuts. His music is often deceptively simple, homing in on a couple of key ideas and riding them. Sometimes his tracks are plain bonkers, sometimes they're restrained and beautiful, and sometimes they feel ritualistic. His music also comes laced with a refreshing dose of humour: he names his tracks things like "Pong In A Tracksuit" and "Dr. Monkey," and his melodies are often inspired by hardcore and acid.
"It's something I think about every day," he says on his current predicament. "I really want to quit the swimming job. Like really bad. I hate it. But I'm scared to make that jump, because when I jump there's no going back to a regular job. I feel like once you're an artist you can only work at a record store, at a club or some weird off-the-grid job. Once you start, I don't know what the exit strategy is. How am I gonna retire? How will I stop? I think that's the real reason why I'm scared to start."
Having met the career goals he set himself a few years back, Burns is unsure what to aim for next. "I said to myself, 'I want to put out music, I want to travel, I want to have a record label, I want to have a studio,' and I accomplished all of that. So now I don't know what my next goal is. I've been trying to figure that out, and that's why I've just been staying home, staying in the studio, no travelling, no tours, just doing little one-off gigs."
Though he's clearly troubled by this uncertainty, Burnett's stay-home policy has allowed him to focus on his productions. He's released 12 solo and collaborative EPs and mini-albums since 2011. But as is often the case with such matters, the number is misleading. "Some of the stuff has been floating around for a few years," he says. "I mean, I was going to release a full CDR on [Legowelt's label] Strange Life in 2006, like a full 16-track album, but I missed the cut-off before he closed the label. Most of those tracks have come out recently under the name Black Deer."
The Black Deer records have been some of Burnett's best material to date. It's a name that began as a collaborative project with Jorge Velez, but Burnett took it for himself this year. In 2013 Black Deer has appeared on two singles—a split release with Torn Hawk for L.I.E.S. and a solo EP for Rush Hour's No label series—as well as mini-albums for Peak Oil and Emotional Response. The Rush Hour EP was particularly impressive, and has been picked up by everyone from Marcel Dettmann to Mister Saturday Night.
Though Willie Burns and Black Deer are his most common aliases now, Burnett has been DJing as Speculator for much longer (the name refers to his natural scepticism and tendency to talk in conspiratorial tones). He produced disco-leaning material as Grackle, though that name has fallen by the wayside.
He also writes music with Torn Hawk, Suzanne Kraft, Entro Senestre and Secret Circuit, but his most curious collaborator is Krysten Ritter, who plays Jane Margolis (Jesse Pinkman's love interest) in Breaking Bad. The two put out an unlikely album of bedroom folk on Burnett's W.T. Records in 2012. "She's an old friend," he says. "Krysten came to New York years ago—she was a model at the agency my old roommate worked at. We were young and we all hung out together and went out to parties. You know, Jay-Z, red velvet ropes and champagne." These days Ritter lives in LA and has a busy schedule—"we talk sometimes, she keeps me up to date with her boyfriends"—but he doesn't rule out future collaborations.
Burnett arrived in New York in the late '90s. He grew up in San Antonio, Texas, before dropping out of school and moving to San Francisco. "I would just hang out, skateboard, play guitar and buy records," he says of his time on the West Coast. "I got bored because it was too easy, so I moved to New York in 1999. I had never been here before, I just showed up. I found a place and got a job the next day." In New York he hooked up with a friend from Texas, Josh Houtkin, who now runs the Fixed parties. The two began putting on Thursday nights at the BQE Lounge along with Throne Of Blood's James Friedman and Andrew Potter of Populette. They also DJ'd at the Plant Bar in East Village, where Marcus Lambkin, AKA Shit Robot, was a regular selector.
Around this time Burnett began working at The Thing. If anything defines him, it's this shop. He calls it his biggest influence. Before he worked there, he would spend entire days searching through endless crates of unwanted records. "I get to listen to anything I don't know that looks remotely interesting. I don't care what it is. As far as I'm concerned it's the best record store in the world, simply because of the sheer amount of vinyl we get. It's ridiculous. It's stupid. I have fights with my boss about it—we actually need to start throwing records away because there's so many."
Burns officially started working at the shop around 2003, though, as he puts it, "I was part of the place as soon as I first set foot in there. I never really left." The shelves in the basement are full so new arrivals are stacked in the isles, making it hard to move around. "Just last week my boss got 300 more crates," he says. "It doesn't stop. It's just crazy. I could throw away dumpsters full of records every day and you still wouldn't be able to open the aisles."
Burnett seems equally intrigued by The Thing's clientele, which ranges from celebrated crate diggers to people from the nearby halfway house, as he is by its never-ending stock. "There's a guy that comes in and he tries to look like he's not living on the street, but he is. He comes in and he drinks—some days it's 40s and some days it's rum and soda—and he sits back and blasts the listening station and gets wasted. We have to kick him out at 7:30 PM, and you know he's going back out on the street. The past couple of times his backpack has been full of records and you can see it, but it's hard when someone is that down and out… You know, what are you going to do? Call the cops? Are you gonna fight him? You've just got to let him go."
The knowledge Burnett picks up at The Thing feeds into W.T. Records. He launched the label in 2009 without much of a plan. "I knew all the distributors and people at record stores and how to get it pressed, so I figured why not? It was mostly that $tinkworx (AKA JT Stewart) had one track that I thought should be released, so I figured out how to start a label. From then it's just been something to pass the time, fight the boredom. It's nice to be able to make a record that I feel like I would want to buy in the store. That's kind of the idea of it."
Following early deep house releases from the likes of Hunee and Alex Israel, in 2012 the label put out Paul Woznicki's experimental synth work, Nao Katafuchi's Japanese pop and Shawn O'Sullivan's late-night house. In 2013 W.T. released six 12-inches, making it the label's most productive year to date.
Asked about his plans for the label, Burns says he won't be using this year's momentum as a springboard. "I'm kind of stepping back from it a little because there is so much stuff coming out right now. I don't want to get caught up and just release stuff because everybody else is."
It's clear that Burnett will continue to take things at his own pace—be it as a label boss, DJ, radio host or producer. And besides, he tells me, he's recently discovered something that makes the whole music-as-a-career lark much more tolerable. "The music industry is very complicated but if you treat it like a game, like chess, it makes it more interesting. You're playing a game so you don't take things so personally. It helps a lot. You get to enjoy music and then play the game."