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KCRW's Jason Bentley Talks Music, Radio and TRON

By Mark Fisher
Published: Thursday, October 14, 2010, at 09:22AM
Jason Bentley Michael Tullberg

Jason Bentley

Jason Bentley would make a great wingman or guest at any social gathering. The down-to-earth Westsider holds many titles and experiences, some of which include A&R rep, magazine co-founder, music supervisor, mixmaster, label owner, promoter, tastemaker and crusader for the world of electronic and dance music. He also happens to be KCRW’s Music Director and host of the addictive and world-renowned “Morning Becomes Eclectic” morning show that airs on the station every Monday through Friday from 9:00am to noon.

Whether you’re a denim designer in the Fashion District, aspiring actor in Hollywood or business professional in Irvine, “Morning Becomes Eclectic” has been an uplifting morning staple since Isabel Holt created the show in 1977. Many Southern Californians rely on the show to heal from their morning commute or to drown out the chatty co-worker two cubicles down, while others use it as background music for those mid-morning visits to blogdowntown, Facebook and FAIL Blog. For long-time subscribers and listeners, life without the morning show is equivalent to starting a busy day with a cold cup of Sanka.

Bentley grew up listening to KCRW and started as a phone volunteer at the station after graduating from high school in 1988. His radio career began during college while attending the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for his first two years. He spent the remaining two years as a DJ at Loyola Marymount’s KXLU before meeting Chris Douridas and joining KCRW in 1992. Since then, Bentley has been a torchbearer for electronic and dance music that would otherwise not be heard or discovered. He hosted “Metropolis” every weeknight on KCRW for 16 years as well as a midnight time slot on KROQ every Saturday where he introduced the masses to Massive Attack, Portishead, Chemical Brothers and many other electronic artists that are still thriving today.

Since taking over for Nic Harcourt on “Morning Becomes Eclectic” in December 2008, Bentley has rejuvenated the show's past offerings with more upbeat and chill electronic music, while still offering doses of indie rock, pop, world beat and folk music. Some of Bentley’s guests have included Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, Scarlet Johansson, Tim Robbins, Trent Reznor, Hans Zimmer, Roseanne Cash, and Gorillaz. A typical playlist can range from Radiohead and Frou Frou to Black Keys and Groove Armada, with an in-studio performance at the 11 o’clock hour from the likes of Chromeo or Los Lobos.

Despite the evolution of music over the past two decades, Bentley has refused to sell out to the music and culture he's loved for quite some time. Not many DJs can claim this type of loyalty, especially those that move from one corporate-owned radio station to another, changing music formats along the way.

When Bentley isn’t compiling playlists or DJing major events like Coachella or the Academy Awards' Governors Ball, he’s supervising music for a number of projects that include film, music, video games and advertising. The self-proclaimed science fiction fan was responsible for overseeing the music for The Matrix franchise, along with several other major films and video games. His latest project is Disney’s highly-anticipated TRON: Legacy sequel, which has been in the works for three years now, including more than 18 months of post-production.

The very approachable Bentley took a timeout from his busy workload to discuss some of his favorite DTLA spots and his upcoming gig at Club Nokia with Kruder & Dorfmeister.

MARK FISHER: How did you develop your radio voice? Was it something you practiced in the shower?

JASON BENTLEY: I think it had to do with coming into public radio. The public radio environment for music is more often jazz and classical. It’s more of a patient delivery. It’s not like the “morning zoo” or exasperated with crazy voices. It’s more of a serious approach as a music fan that’s also passionate about they do.

I think from an early age, I really had a fascination with the power of the voice. I remember reading the science fiction novel Dune. There were these characters known as the Bene Gesserit that could command people to do their bidding based on a particular inflection of their voice. I was also fascinated with the power of music. It was something that could bring people together and motivate them. For me, it was one of the deepest feelings of connection.

I guess if you factor all that in, radio is the perfect medium for me [laughs].

MF: What were some of your influences growing up?

JB: As a high school kid, I fancied myself a Mod. I liked Brit-Pop and bands like The Who and The Jam. There was this rude boy two-tone offshoot of being a Mod which included The Specials, English Beat, The Selecter and other cool bands. I was really drawn to the subculture coming out of Britain at that time, so I would dress the part and be somewhat of a music outcast at school. I wore blue creepers and pegged pants. I had my own style and didn’t look like the jock crowd. I looked more like a punk or what I thought was a Mod.

Mod culture runs pretty deep overseas and I got hooked into it through The Who and their film Quadrophenia. My interest in dance music and the club culture movement was something I really rode in the 90s. A lot of the aspects of mod and the two-tone movement were rhythm-based. It was “urban Britain-meets-Jamaica.” The British colonies had imported rhythm and soul into their working class British punk aesthetic. I was really drawn to dance music with attitude. When the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy and Underworld hit in the early 90s, it was something that resonated with me. I got it right away and it fit within that model of “punk-meets-dance.”

MF: So was this when you first started getting into electronic music and spinning yourself?

JB: I started getting into it during college. I toured Europe as a backpacker after high school in 1988. That was the “summer of love” for acid house and new beat. That was basically when contemporary dance music as we know it hit Europe in its earliest form. Ecstasy became popularized that summer too. Drugs always play a role in youth culture whatever it may be. The ecstasy and house music coming out of America hit Europe hard and it became very popular at that time.

I didn’t really get into a position to get into the club scene until a few years later when I turned 21. I could now go out and DJ. Fast forward to the early 90s and that is when I first really started getting out there and really committing myself. I didn’t have an indication that there was a career there, but I knew that I had discovered something incredibly important to me.

MF: How did you build up your DJ equipment and experience at that time?

JB: Thankfully, my mom actually gave me my first turntables and mixer. Also, when you’re at college, you can join the radio station just like you can join any club. I found like-minded music freaks and misfits there. Going to the radio station was pivotal for me and that is where I started mixing.

I couldn’t really just walk into clubs since I was obviously underage. I also couldn’t mix very well and didn’t have a great record collection, but certainly had love for it. Radio became my outlet for how I would start to play those records.

My earliest radio shows were late night dance music mixes. I was on the air at KXLU at Loyola with a dance music show. My first slot was midnight on Sunday night which is the worst time slot that you could possibly have. I worked my way up, became the station’s GM and gave myself the best time slot which was Friday evening.

MF: Having been a night owl for so long, do you miss spinning at night?

JB: Sometimes, but the invitation to be Music Director and do “Morning Becomes Eclectic” was certainly welcome and I couldn’t turn it down. It was also an opportunity for me to grow. I had been a champion of dance and electronic music for many years. I really had been there, done that. I needed to challenge myself, so it was a welcome change.

There will always be people that miss the old show and the music mix, which I do get a lot. People miss the electronic stuff but I had to move on. I was really a tireless supporter of this music. I was killing myself so there’s a certain point where you hope someone else will pick up the baton.

I have to play a balanced mix in the morning. It’s just a different format. I still stir in that whole influence with the morning, but it has to be gradual and carefully done. You don’t want to alienate listeners.

MF: One of my favorite shows is when you opened up for Zero 7 at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in 2004. Are there any events or gigs that stand out for you?

JB: My sets at Coachella are fond memories and playing before Groove Armada has always been fun. There are a lot of really positive relationships that have come out of the music scene. It makes a big difference when the people are cool. You really admire them musically, but then personally, they’re just great people.

I’ve played so many gigs, it’s almost absurd. I’ve thought about putting a map up of Southern California and dropping a flag on everywhere I’ve played. It’d be such a dense collection. I’ve played at the highest points and the lowest points from the Governors Ball after the Oscars to underground drug bins in buildings of Hollywood that aren’t even there anymore. I’m thankful and very grateful I’ve had music to take me around the world. It’s been my life.

MF: You are coming up on the two-year anniversary of hosting “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” Who are some your favorite guests so far?

JB: That’s a tough question because there are so many. I really enjoyed our session with José James. Band of Horses was also a lot of fun. I interviewed a composer named Tyler Bates who did the score for 300 among others. He had me come into the performance studio with him. He wanted me to randomly pick a story from the L.A. Times and read him the headline. He would then score the idea. It was this funny exercise, but also an example of how a composer works and generates ideas. I tried to pick outrageous stories. That day there was a story about a pack of wild dogs that were running through a trailer park and terrorizing people [laughs]. I read him that one and he played it. I guess the things that stay with me are when we do it differently.

I love the sessions we’ve done from South by Southwest (SXSW). I adore going to SXSW every year now. We’ve had PJ Harvey, the xx and Peter Bjorn and John. Just being in a different element and broadcasting from Austin is great.

MF: Speaking of composers, do you have a lot of influence with bringing in guests like Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman?

JB: I approve or decline every application for a guest. I base it on my sense of what they’ve produced and how interesting it is. I like the idea of KCRW being a stopover for Oscar campaigns. It reinforces KCRW’s clout when these type of people come through.

MF: Let’s keep on the topic of scoring. How did TRON: Legacy come about?

JB: The director’s name is Joseph Kosinski. We’ve been friends for awhile. We started working together when he was exclusively in advertising. He reached out to me and we became friends. I became his music guy and would feed him new music. We stayed in touch and I worked on the commercials he was doing. One day he contacted me and told me he got the job directing the TRON sequel for Disney. I almost fell out of my chair. It was awesome so we continued to work together.

I’ll be working on his next film post-TRON. We’ll get started on pre-production in the New Year. I just spent this past weekend at Skywalker Ranch with Joseph and some of the production crew. They’re in the midst of final mixing which includes dialogue, music, and effects. I had never been to Skywalker so I was blown away.

MF: Have you seen the movie in 3D?

JB: I’ve seen different parts in 3D. I haven’t seen the entire film in 3D yet, mostly because of the practicalities of it. Effect shots are still being flown in. It’s pretty amazing how tight they run the schedule. The effort and cost involved in the visual effects are so huge that there’s a constant process of delivery. They’re plowing through and it’s great. I’ve seen the film about 20 times now.

MF: So you're telling us that the movie is good, right?

JB: It’s awesome. It’s going to be a huge pop culture hit. Disney has a strong hand in marketing so you know they’re going to go ballistic. They already have TRON-themed events going on at Disneyland.

MF: You’re actually not new to 3D. I have 3D at home and saw you hosting the "Guitar Center Sessions" with Peter Gabriel and Jane’s Addiction in 3D on DirecTV. Can you talk about this?

JB: It was good, but we’re not going to continue with it because of scheduling. It was also going in a different direction with the performers. More power to them. Either way, it was a good experiment for me. I had never done anything on-camera before. It was entirely new and I wanted to challenge myself to just try it. It was fun and I’m glad they’re out there. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it in 3D yet. I was puzzled to why they were doing it in 3D, but evidently there's so much demand for this format right now.

MF: Do you have any favorite spots in Downtown L.A.?

JB: There are some great bars down there for sure. I like The Varnish, Association, and La Cita. I like Ciudad but just heard they are changing their menu. I can also get into Wurstküche and R23. I like downtown a lot.

MF: For those that do not know, what is the reference to (bossa:nova) when you play live?

JB: The Bossa Nova reference is a reference to a nightclub rather than the genre. For over a decade, I did a weekly club night on the Westside called "Bossa Nova." This was also part of my involvement with the Quango record label. We actually put out Kruder & Dorfmeister's very first EP. My relationship with them goes back that far. I wanted to signal to everyone who is in the know that I am going to be wearing my bossa nova "hat" for the Club Nokia date. Basically, it's a nod to the old school "heads." Kruder & Dorfmeister are my guys. I've been to Vienna and they looked after me. We just have a longstanding relationship. They're acknowledging their history with their latest record, so I thought it would be smart to tip my hat to that period of time in our lives. Bossa Nova was a community thing. We had real regulars, friends and people that were really into it.

MF: What can we expect from KCRW's Halloween Masquerade Ball?

JB: We just announced talent and have The Duke Spirit, Cut Chemist, and Gram Rabbit. Henry Rollins is going to play in a special room. We also have Lucent Dossier which is like a trippy Cirque du Soleil / Vaudeville circus troupe. Everyone really participates and comes out for the party. As far as my set, I'm just going to rock it and get people to dance. We have three separate music themes. One is straight-up rock which includes The Duke Spirit and Gram Rabbit. There's also uptempo house music. We have Cut Chemist and supporting KCRW characters like Garth Trinidad and Jeremy Sole doing more downtempo latin/afrobeat. There's something for everyone. It's just a damn good party which we started last year. It's a benefit and public radio relies on listener support and these types of events to generate revenue for the station. It's for a good cause and undeniably a great party. Halloween is a festive part of the year and we have a great audience that comes correct.

Jason Bentley will be opening for Kruder & Dorfmeister on Friday, October 15th, 2010 at Club Nokia L.A. Live. This is one of only two West Coast dates for the acclaimed Viennese DJ duo. The 2nd Annual KCRW Masquerade Costume and Dance Party takes place Saturday, October 30th, 2010 at the Park Plaza. TRON: Legacy will hit 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D theaters in the U.S. on December 17th, 2010.

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