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Morning Becomes Eclectic 30th Anniversary Interviews: Jason Bentley

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Jason Bentley spends four nights a week in the basement studios of KCRW at Santa Monica College. 20 years ago that was virtually the job description of a DJ, but Jason's one of those DJ that didn't exist 20 years ago. He's as likely to be found talking music on the radio as he is to be spinning to four city block's worth of dancing revelers in downtown Los Angeles.

If you've enjoyed "Metropolis" on KCRW or his Friday midnight show "Afterhours" on KROQ, you know that what he plays is more than just a mindless string of club tracks at 150 BPM. At lot of DJs working in the same genre play sets that are the musical equivalent of a snake eating itself by the tail. You can't tell where it begins and where it ends. You're actually interested when Jason back announces a set.

To hear what Jason plays, tune in to KCRW Monday and Wednesday through Friday, KROQ on Friday midnight or check him out a cool sounding free event at the Music Center called Uptown Underground on September 22 (more details below). To hear what Jason says when he's not playing records, please keep reading.

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LAist: How does producing a radio show with a small handful of people and no one watching compare to spinning at something like a live Giant Village event with a large crew and the potential of thousands of eyeballs (and ears) on you?

Bentley: I do feed off of the crowd at a live gig. It's a powerful thing, being in the DJ booth at a club. I love it. Playing in the studio is much different, and hard to compare. I love that too, but it's much more of a controlled environment. In the studio you can explore different moods, while in clubs the DJ is pressed to move the crowd and keep the energy up so there's less of an overall range possible.

LAist: Apart from your skills as a DJ, picking and playing records, you have a tremendous leg up as a radio DJ because of that voice. All else being equal, do you think you could've made it on-air if you sounded more like Pee Wee Herman and less like Jason Bentley?

Bentley: I think I would listen to a Pee Wee Herman radio show for the laughs and quick wit. It's all about the context really. For Metropolis, I've always wanted the personality to be in the music first, and the voice to come in an important second. There's probably a balance somewhere that I'm still striving for, but I really have tried to put the music first.

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LAist: The New York Times referred to KCRW as a "purveyor of semipopular music." How do you (or Metropolis) fit (or not fit) this description?

Bentley: I'm not sure what to make of this statement. I think KCRW overall is for a discriminating audience. We've never tried to cater to the lowest common denominator, and the same is true of Metropolis.

LAist: KCRW is well known for giving new and unsigned artists their first airplay. Of those who you've debuted, which was your favorite (whether or not they were everyone else's fave)?

Bentley: I usually like the folks that seem to genuinely appreciate the support. Artists like Groove Armada, The Chemical Brothers, and Mark Ronson recently have all been very thoughtful and appreciative, while others have been far less gracious.

LAist: How has the change from being a local radio show to being an international broadcast changed you and/or your show?

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Bentley: I'm locally minded. It's all about LA for me. I realize that the internet has allowed for an international audience, and we see the growth in listenership worldwide, but I feel like part of the allure is tuning in to the Los Angeles sound.

LAist: You're a radio DJ, a live/club DJ, founder of a record label, on the NARAS Board of Governors and a music supervisor for films, commercials and video games among other things. Where does your passion lie? Which job would you keep if you had to give up all the others?

Bentley: My passion lies in sharing music with the world. Whether that happens as a DJ, music supervisor, club promoter, music exec, or artist that is still ultimately the goal.

LAist: You're generally known for playing music that's on the cutting edge of the electronic and dance music scene; the most modern of modern music, but in a 2005 interview with City Beat you profess your love for the feel and smell of vinyl. Can you tell us something about the intersection of modern musical tastes with analog hardware?

Bentley: I don't love the feel and smell of vinyl anymore. As a collector there will always be a special place for vinyl (in the garage!), but I've gone digital now. Besides the practical aspects of carrying a laptop versus a couple of back-breaking record boxes, having a digital music library has unlocked so much more potential of the library, and the software allows me better organization and access to a functioning music library as a result.

LAist: By definition, MBE gives a DJ wide latitude as to what they can play. Metropolis has a tighter focus, but you've been playing more rock/indie sounds of late. Is the "eclectic" format spilling over into your show or are new sounds a reflection of other things going on in music today?

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Bentley: Metropolis has always been a reflection of the most interesting currents in clubland, and the recent collision of electronic and rock has set the stage for some exciting new artists to emerge - Digitalism, New Young Pony Club, Ulrich Schnauss - as well as heralded the return of veterans like The Chemical Brothers, Underworld, and UNKLE. I think the club scene is always going to be the most fertile ground for new music and ideas, and electronic music has always given me the best perspective on what's happening.

LAist: Talk a little about that thing you guys do where you're playing song, you pot it down for a few seconds and talk over the track, you bring it back up and then back down and talk over it a bit more. I think Chris Douridas is the first guy I heard do that, but I know that you do it a bit too. I don't know that I've heard that on any other station, but I've heard it a lot on KCRW. It simultaneously bugs and delights me. Is that a public radio thing? A Chris Douridas thing?

Bentley: It's a bad habit. The idea is to manually "gate" the music underneath our voices, so that certain things we're saying are cutting through, but it usually ends up sounding bad. I'm always a bit embarrassed when someone mentions it, and I try more often to do my breaks dry without music so to avoid these twitchy fader antics.

LAist: There's been a lot of talk about the upgrades to the KCRW music library. What effect, if any, will the digitization of the music library change your show? Will the change of work flow change a show's content?

Bentley: As I mentioned earlier, I'm already a digital audio convert, so I'm excited to explore the potential the modernization will bring. Having access to all of the live performances, vinyl that was perhaps just too difficult to reach, or an easy way to audition new artists that I may not have taken the time to review are all great reasons to welcome the change.

LAist: Speaking of new technology, how has the internet changed the way you source new music? Do you use sites like MySpace, iTunes or PodShow's music network to find new music and/or do bands find you via those same sites?

Bentley: I get a lot of things sent to me as a downloadable zip file, or instant messenger transfer. I don't really use MySpace. I know Chris Douridas swears by it, but I never got into MySpace for some reason. iTunes isn't useful because their protected AAC file format doesn't read in my DJ software program (M-Audio Torq) so that's pointless. The thing that amazes me is how I'm able to centralize the communication, distribution, and broadcast of my music programming from the laptop that I'm writing to you now on. This is the same computer I jack into the KCRW board every night to broadcast "Metropolis."

Photos via KCRW

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To catch a free live set by Jason Bentley in a cool setting, check out Uptown Underground.

Uptown Underground
Saturday
September 22, 2007
10pm-Midnight
Music Center Plaza on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles
Video installation by David Michalek
DJ set by Jason Bentley

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Earlier interviews in this series:

Monday, September 3, 2007 - Nic Harcourt
Tuesday, September 4, 2007 - Chris Douridas
Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - Liza Richardson
Thursday, September 6, 2007 - Anne Litt