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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 6.0° F  Fair
The Paper
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DJ Mike Carlson reflects and rebuilds after losing house
The unforgettable fire
Carlson: Thanks for the help.
Carlson: Thanks for the help.
Credit:Phil Ejercito

Like many good DJs, Mike Carlson is an expert at tapping into audiences' musical memories and helping them create new ones.

This skill is useful for building a large and enthusiastic fan base, which Carlson's been doing since he started playing college parties in the early 1980s. These days, he has regular gigs at the Inferno, the Majestic Theatre and the Great Dane, where he gets the party started quickly with charisma and killer records.

The atmosphere's so festive that you'd never guess he lost his home two months ago. How does he do it? He honors his own past, and it helps that he knows how to let go of it.

He also has a lot of energy. "I'm fine; I got shorts yesterday. See, look!" he says, jumping into the air and doing a scissor kick to show them off. The site of this fashion statement, his University Avenue DJ-equipment shop MC Audio, seems as busy as ever.

It's a pretty amazing sight to behold, given the situation.

On Jan. 26, a fire ravaged the house Carlson shared with his wife, Jen, and their two kids, leading to $250,000 of damage, including the loss of 10,000 records, some of which he'd owned for more than 30 years.

Though most of his collection had been digitized prior to the fire, certain songs, like the Dip's "The Rude Awakening" and the Pal Joey remix of Sade's "Cherish the Day," aren't quite the same without the vinyl they once lived in, he says.

"Both of those songs I played the day my son and daughter were born, and I probably played Sade the day [Jen and I] got married," he explains as he examines a scorched, smoky-smelling turntable, removing bits of charcoal with the precision of a surgeon.

There are lots of things the family still needs, though the list has changed since the slew of benefit concerts that occurred immediately after the tragedy. It seemed that wherever you looked the week after the blaze - the High Noon, Natt Spil, the Cardinal Bar, Jolly Bob's - someone was raising both money and spirits for the family.

The Carlsons now have a place to crash, plenty of food and clothes, and even some cool new toys.

"I don't need much, and most of my clothes probably look like they've been through a couple of fires anyway," Carlson jokes. "But my daughter, someone gave her a sweet guitar. Both kids got given better stuff than me."

The sweet guitar, a Fender Strat, also has some company: four other guitars generous friends and acquaintances donated, knowing how much she loves to play.

Meanwhile, fellow DJ Amos Lee, who's seen how much Carlson likes to do video projects, gave the family a projector.

"For such a downer situation, it has been very uplifting to see all these people putting so much effort and money and time into supporting us. We sure do appreciate it," Carlson says. "It's the kind of thing that makes you say, 'Hey, this isn't so bad. We can deal with this.'"

Nevertheless, all the generosity in the world can't replace some of the items the fire claimed.

While instruments and other kinds of music gear have poured in, photos and other mementoes have been harder to recover. Some, such as the kids' art projects, are gone for good, and family members are scouring their photo albums for pictures of birthdays and holidays.

Seeing the fire not as a tragedy but an opportunity has been the key to coping with the losses.

For instance, Carlson suspects his mountain of mangled, melted records could be a goldmine for a local artist.

"I want someone to take all of my old vinyl and do an artsy installation with it, or something like that, so if anybody's got a good idea for what to do with it, they should call or come down [to MC Audio]," he says.

Meanwhile, he and Jen have started planning an installation of their own: a new house on the lot where the destroyed one sits. As they build a place to make new memories, they're sure to need plenty of good ideas, accoutrements and, of course, music.

Donations to the Carlson family are being accepted via PayPal, addressed to

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