While the L.A.-based Collins certainly has benefited from trance's popularity (her 2000 mix disc, titled Tranceport 3, came with an attached sticker reading "AMERICA'S TOP TRANCE DJ"), she avoids most of the pitfalls associated with the genre. Spend some quality time with her albums -- including 2000's Cream or the recent Perfecto Presents . . . -- and you'll notice fewer ululating divas and Velveeta-synth arpeggios, as well as a darker undertow in her selections than you hear on hundreds of other such comps. Overall, a more thoughtful aura and more sophisticated melodies animate Collins's tracks.
"I was drawn into the more melodic sound through movie soundtracks when I was a kid, " Collins says from Calgary during a phone interview. "Pete's Dragon and stuff like that made me feel different than normal music. I'd play them over and over, and I'd feel really emotional. This was when I was eight, nine years old. Muppet movies, 'The Rainbow Connection' -- silly songs for kids. Then I'd go to all-night skating rinks. I was fascinated by the DJ. I'd bring him records. I guess it was more on the alternative side. I was always different. I never listened to radio, unless it was KROQ. I liked New Order, those kinds of bands."
Collins began DJing in her bedroom in 1987, but didn't play out till 1989 in Phoenix. Infatuations with industrial-tinged techno outfits such as Meat Beat Manifesto and Front 242 morphed into a fling with Euro-trashy new beat groups like Lords of Acid ("It was a rebellious phase in my life," Collins admits), before she veered into the burgeoning acid-house and techno scenes. She ventured to New York, where she played Frankie Bones's huge Storm parties, but eventually returned to the West Coast to hit the desert-rave circuit, reveling in the spiritual, tuneful style prevalent there. She honed her skills at L.A. spots King and Sketchpad, finding a kindred spirit in Taylor, who became her boyfriend (they've since split) and a star jock in his own right.
Throughout the mid- to late '90s, Collins helped establish the first American office for the old-school German trance label Eye Q/Harthouse. From 1995 to '98, Collins also held a three-year residency at "Metropolis," L.A.'s most popular weekly event, alongside Doc Martin and Taylor. There, she befriended trance-superstar Sasha, and her career soon skyrocketed: playing overseas gigs, gracing magazine covers, acting in Coca-Cola commercials, headlining the U.S. Electric Highway Tour with the Crystal Method in '97, and spinning and winning over 80,000 rockers at Woodstock '99.
Along the way, Collins developed a reputation for wild partying. But her ability to tap into the mindset of clubbers seeking ecstasy (as well as Ecstasy) is integral to her success as a DJ. "What sets Sandra apart from other DJs is her outstanding choice in records, her relationship with the crowd, and her unique personal style and attitude," says Paul Oakenfold, the world's most popular disc jockey and owner of the label (Perfecto) that issued Collins's latest mix album. "She's one of those rare people who have that star appeal, yet are extremely approachable at the same time. I think the fact that so many people in this scene feel that they can relate to her is one of her main sources of attraction." Collins is the first woman -- and the only American -- to win Oakie's Perfecto stamp of approval.
Collins offers the simplest of theories as to how she rose up the DJ food chain. "Working my ass off. Being on a plane five days a week. Sticking to it. Doing it because I love to do it. Not getting involved with the politics. I'm doing what I've done since the start; it's everyone else who's put me here, so maybe you should interview them. You can ask everyone else why they want me to play their clubs."
Her testiness seeps through the defiant words. Some have whispered that Collins wouldn't have ascended to such heights if she hadn't been a beautiful woman. But would high rollers such as Oakenfold and megaclubs such as Cream and Turnmills put their reps on the line, if she didn't cut it on the decks? Not likely.
"In my time touring with her, I've found her to be not only professional, but also warm, giving, and extremely down to earth," says Oakenfold. "She truly loves music and playing out with a passion, and that's where it all starts with her. I think Sandra would be DJing regardless, if it was a career for her or not."
Collins admits that having such a flamboyant reputation puts pressure on her. "They think that the bigger you get, the easier it should be and the less stress you should have, but it's not true at all.
"When people gave me [the "Trance Goddess" tag], it wasn't what you know as trance today," she adds. "It was different then. If you know me well, you'll always hear me in my sets. It changes. I've been playing a lot of bootleg rock remixes; I've been playing a lot of breaks lately. I'm definitely not one-dimensional. I try not to have a name that defines me; it's me who defines the music. But it's always got some kind of melodic aspect to it or a big groove to it."
Collins thrives on six-hour sets; she claims that she doesn't even hit her stride until about 90 minutes into a gig. "From then on, it takes off. But the first couple of hours, I can't think straight. I actually gave some money back to a club in San Diego, so they could pay their employees to stick around and keep the night going. I went from like 1 to 8 a.m. As long as I walk away from a club feeling good about [my performance], the money doesn't matter."