June 9, 2015
As MD of L.A.'s influential National Public Radio station KCRW and host of its lynchpin Morning Becomes Eclectic, Jason Bentley has proven both an accomplished curator and a celebrated tastemaker. The Boston native, who moved to Santa Monica as 13-year-old within blocks of where he works today, originally joined the station for its groundbreaking EDM show Metropolis in 1992, taking the reins of MD and MBE in 2008 from Nic Harcourt. After discovering electronic dance music while back-packing in Europe on a post-high school graduation trip, Bentley's eclectic background includes a stint at KROQ as well as music supervising several films, including The Matrix and Tron Legacy, recruiting Daft Punk for the soundtrack of the latter. He's equally at home entertaining tastemakers at an upscale industry event or the throngs who come to Coachella, spinning tracks at the Yuma Tent in between interviewing artists for the live streams on YouTube and AXS TV. Bentley's encyclopedic musical knowledge makes him, in the words of L.A. Weekly, the city's MD, "your morning commute companion, the hand pushing the button that plays the perfect song, the mastermind behind many music-related events and the shepherd directing the station's sonic focus."
You have become the leading musical ambassador for Los Angeles.
I feel that responsibility. That's my role, my calling. The challenge is how do you forge a career based on good taste? It's through a consistency, a dedication, and being part of some fantastic success stories over the years, as well as the growth of this city's music, art and fashion scenes over the past two decades. There's also a great sense of community here in Los Angeles, as a city of international credibility in arts and music, especially the role KCRW and I have played in that process. It's just been great to have been a part of the trajectory of this city, which has become such an unbelievable melting pot, with dozens of different neighborhoods making up the metropolitan area.
KCRW's online streaming has made you not just a national, but a global presence.
Radio is very much a local phenomenon for me. You need to have that sense of place. But Los Angeles culture travels really well around the world. We have certainly benefited from that. You have to consider the unique set of circumstances that has made KCRW even possible. There isn't a media consultant out there who would tell you our listener-supported formula would be a good idea, but we have made it work.
What originally attracted you to the nascent EDM scene? Did you foresee it becoming such a huge cultural movement?
The thing I sensed from the outset its ability to bring different people together. Just the power of unity is ultimately what we're all looking for ... to identify with a greater community and not feel isolated. And we've seen that in the rise of festival culture over all, which continues to grow beyond underground music roots to include art, food, fashion and social consciousness. All those things are colliding in very interesting ways. Festivals are the best expression of that aesthetic, running parallel to the social networking revolution, allowing people to experience that sense of connectivity. These shows sell out before the lineups are even announced. KCRW celebrates just that kind of open-mindedness in catering to our audience's diversity of interests and we've experienced success doing so.
EDM represents today's active youth culture, the music of the moment. One of my criticisms of the scene is it lacks a sense of its own history and identity, which is needed in order for it to grow and thrive. That's something we're going to have to work on. I can understand young people wanting ownership - both relevance and a sense of magic -- but this music and culture didn't just appear out of nowhere.
Surely, its roots in Chicago house music and Detroit techno indicate it didn't just spring full-blown after Daft Punk played Coachella in 2006.
My responsibility is to keep that in check a little bit, and help guide the process so that it doesn't exist in a vacuum, and can have a little more substance moving forward.
What do you like best about hosting Morning Becomes Eclectic?
I consider being a DJ an expression of my knowledge and appreciation of music up to that moment. I try to create patterns and awareness for new music, balanced with a creative spontaneity to achieve a KCRW aesthetic... the sweet spot for the station's audience. It transcends simply playing one track after another, taking people on this journey like a wizard of sound, the shaman, a guide on this transformative journey through music.
What is your philosophy in terms of programming/curating the show?
It's a balance between programming and DJ'ing, which I consider a spontaneous expression, based on one's knowledge and appreciation of music up to that moment. I just connect to all these feelings and expressions. On the programming side, it's more of creating patterns, repetition, based on priorities, new releases, and the KCRW aesthetic, the balance. What's the station's sweet spot? I'm always having to assess whether something fits that or doesn't quite work quite right. Every day, I have to make those calls over and over again. It's a sensibility, also a respect for where the show has been and, especially, the audience's ownership. I feel like a custodian of this institution, as the show's fourth MD and host. Those who've come before me have all shaped it and have their fingerprints on it, so there are certain things I need to respect. That's something I try to impress upon the other DJs, too. When you're on the air, it's not your greatest mix tape to your girlfriend. In order to make that connection to the audience, you need to transcend and go beyond just playing one track after another, to a higher level. It's the combined effect. That's what makes a great DJ, a wizard of sound ... taking people on that journey is magic.
Several years ago, you revived the EDM-leaning Metropolis.
It's a labor of love for me. I just feel real proud of my work there, the pacing and music I'm able to support ... It's good stuff.
You have really embraced the live experience as well, as a DJ who also programs in a festival setting.
When you're playing music in front of a thousands of people at Coachella or CRSSD, it's a real rush spinning records on one of those massive festival rigs. There's nothing like that immediate, instant feedback from a crowd, but I don't see myself a great showman like Skrillex or Deadmau5. Performers like that have become almost like circus ringleaders, where it's more about the personality than the music. That just doesn't interest me. We have to come up with a new name for them because that's not really being a DJ anymore. What we do has become kind of a lost art, given the technology these days. When I DJ live, I try to facilitate an energy, a space and atmosphere where people can connect and socialize. EMD shows have become almost like rock concerts these days, where people simply stare at the video walls. It's a very passive experience. I strive to be less of a rock star DJ and more of the shaman, the guide on a transformative voyage through the night.
You've become practically a name brand yourself. Are you interested in using that taste-making reputation to endorse products?
If the product is credible. I do some work with Sonos high-end audio equipment. It's a really interesting time when you see these currents of aesthetics colliding in various ways. I love fashion and good food. I would also love to do my own festival at some point. I think that would be exciting. In many ways, I do that at KCRW, with our Halloween Masquerade, and our series at the Annenberg and the Hammer Museum every summer.
What's in the future for you?
I suppose, like many others, I'm just trying to lead an original life of service to a greater good, and to that end my determination is to continue to evolve as one of the great curators of music and culture that this city has ever known. At the end of the day, being a part of a greater L.A. story. I continue to be interested in exploring all those possibilities and opportunities while challenging myself in all these different areas. I'm very excited about KCRW moving into a new building and out of the Santa Monica Civic College basement we've been in. That will be a major turning point for the station.