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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Mother, musician Debra Fetzer continues to create in a changing Gainesville

Fetzer has fronted 8-10 bands in nearly 40 years as active musician

Debra Fetzer’s typical uniform for her performances is purple lipstick — to match her purple hair — frilly tops and bottoms, and old cowboy boots. Watching her perform, you can expect a high kick — or two. 

Fetzer, 60, has been an active musician in Gainesville for about 40 years and currently fronts Piss Test, a local punk band. While the music scene and the people in it have changed, she has continued to create and perform her music. 

The first time Fetzer realized she could become a performer was in 1982 while watching a performance from Gainesville punk-rock band Roach Motel at the Olde College Inn, a popular hangout for students at the time. She had moved to Gainesville just a year prior to study anthropology at UF. 

Fetzer, then-19 years old, was among the crowd, watching the band have the time of their lives while performing. 

“The bell goes off in your head, and you're like, ‘’Sure, if they can do it, I can,’” Fetzer said.  “[I] started figuring out how to do it — and haven't looked back.”

Over a year later in 1983, Fetzer and her friends took that thought and brought it to life in her first band, Mutley Chix. Active for almost seven years, the all-female group would put on shows wherever they could set up its equipment. 

Gainesville’s music scene wasn’t as developed in the 1980s; there weren’t as many venues, and out-of-state acts weren’t coming to Gainesville to perform as often as they are now. 

To Fetzer, this created a charm to the music they were creating, she said.

“They have venues where they have public announcement systems and equipment, and you don't have to worry about providing that,” she said. “It makes it somewhat easier, but it also somehow takes away the beauty of playing and doing it all yourself from the ground up.”

Fetzer graduated from UF in 1984 and started working at the school as a librarian and at the UF registrar. 

After members of Mutley Chix went their separate ways in early 1990, Fetzer continued to front different bands and make music. Eventually, she also began to work alongside Alan Bushnell, 63, at the original Hardback Café in bringing more out-of-state acts to Gainesville. 

Fetzer was important to the Hardback’s ability to book touring bands at the time, Bushnell said. This helped local bands, too, who would get booked to open for touring acts. 

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While the original Hardback Café closed in 1999, the venue came back for a few years in 2015 under the same name but a new location. 

The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a trying time for the venue, as they didn’t have anyone performing. Fetzer asked Bushnell if her current band, Piss Test, could rehearse there on Friday nights. 

“People would hang out on the patio while they rehearsed inside and helped the Hardback stay open during the lockdown times and help the band out,” Bushnell said. 

Bushnell’s relationship with Fetzer was mostly professional, but her heart and love for performing stood out to him. 

“Deb's a great music lover and a die hard here,” Bushnell said. “There's only a few of us like that.”

Growing up with a military father, Fetzer never stayed in one place very long. She was born in England and lived in Italy throughout most of her childhood before moving to South Carolina, where she attended high school for a year in the mid-’70s. 

Fetzer never felt like she had roots until she moved to Gainesville, she said. It was the first place she was able to really create connections and share her interests with others. 

“I never really came from anywhere,” Fetzer said. “That's why I've stayed here for so long [and] why I love Gainesville so much, despite all the change. It was finally a place of my own.” 

While managing her music and educational career, Fetzer was also raising a daughter — now 34-year-old Angelina Drake. 

It wasn’t always easy for Fetzer or for Drake, but her daughter was always her priority. During her early childhood, most of Drake’s friends were the daughters and sons of other local musicians. She didn’t realize it was uncommon for her parents to be involved in a band until she started public school, she said. 

Like most kids, Drake wanted to be different from her mom and said she sought her rebellion from her mother by being incredibly studious and nerdy. 

Now that she has grown up and had time to reflect on her childhood more, she said, she’s come to respect and love her mom’s fearlessness and moxie. 

“That she continues to do that now as a grandmother to my son, I think is a really exceptional thing,” Drake said. “I'm proud of it.”

Now that Fetzer is retired, she continues to play in her band Piss Test and has been able to spend more time with her daughter and 9-month old grandson, Wilder.

Recently, she’s also been advocating for more city supported rehearsal and creative spaces. 

Fetzer, and a number of other artists, have been renting space in Waldo’s MiniMaxi Warehouse for over 30 years. 

There was a lack of practice and performance venues in Gainesville, and the warehouse offered a unique opportunity for musicians to practice alongside one another in the different sections, called bays. 

The space has created a culture of musicians who support one another, and while bands come and go, the MiniMaxi warehouse has provided a safe haven for local groups to truly come together to work on their craft. 

“Everybody's out there, [and] everybody's practicing,” Fetzer said. “If you broke a string or you needed a drumstick, you could go over to someone else's bay when people are out there and borrow it.” 

Recently, the warehouse announced that they would be evicting all bands within the space they were renting. While this is a loss for the community that formed in the space, Fetzer and others started working with the city to cultivate a new, city-supported rehearsal space. 

To Fetzer, music is about more than fame. She believes you truly can have a career, have a family and continue to do what you are passionate about.

“I believe in the cause the same way I did when I was starting out,” Fetzer said. “The belief in the cause of playing music together with people and getting to know people in that artistic way is incredibly motivating.”

Contact Gracey at Follow her on Twitter @graceydavis_.

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Gracey Davis

Gracey Davis is a UF journalism junior and Avenue staff writer. Gracey is a self-described girl boss, secretary for FMSA and a passionate Philly sports fan. If you're looking for her, try the Marston basement, where she often pretends she's a STEM major. 

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