The Gaslamp Killer Confronts Tragedy and Finds His Way Forward
The Gaslamp Killer
PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON
The Gaslamp Killer can't stop moving. Watch him DJ. Bass spasms and eerie synthesizers electrify his limbs. Heavy drums offer hang time. When the beat drops, he's a B-boy whirling dervish. His head bangs like a lead guitarist; his brown, fusilli-curled mane whiplashes; his shoulders convulse; his arms jut out like a zombie. He smacks his iPad like a funky drummer. His glasses forever verge on flying off and injuring an audience member. Depending on time and mood, he can resemble Frank Zappa, Groucho Marx or Rasputin. He is the fork in the socket, the tribal drum leader disguised as the DJ, the John Belushi of dance music.
For the last six years, San Diego–bred William Bensussen has detonated every Wednesday at the Low End Theory in Lincoln Heights — the city's preeminent dance club for people who hate dance clubs.
At 29, Gaslamp Killer, or GLK, is the youngest of the four resident DJs and the breakout star. When he's booked at European festivals that pay a monthly salary for one hour's work, there's an energy vacuum among the teen and 20-something mixed-race clientele at LET — most of whom arrive hours early for a crack at entrance.
If not the most popular DJ in L.A., GLK is the most popular great one, the rare exception wowing both bro-step hordes at HARD Festival and avant-garde diggers at Dublab. From Hendrix and The Beatles, to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, to the latest trap banger, any song he spins feels remixed to Richter-popping intensity.
"He hurls his mind, body and soul at the audience. Any song takes on different meanings because of how he emotes with it," says Daddy Kev, a co-founder and resident DJ at Low End Theory. "He guides you through the madman subconscious, taking you from light to dark to light — it's a roller-coaster ride. Few are skilled enough to do it from a programming perspective and fewer with his beat matching and scratching skill."
The DJ has dethroned the rock-star archetype in the popular imagination, but most stars are poseurs pressing play on their own corny songs. They fist-pump and rely on pyrotechnic explosions and LED displays. This isn't communion. This is carnival.
The Gaslamp Killer offers something more sinister and threatening. He is why the Puritans banned dancing. The crowds are not merely paying for the GLK show. They aspire to join the trance, the psychedelic thwack of pure chaos triggered by berserk showmanship, underground sound and disemboweling bass. It's the chance to get wired and weird — an opportunity to turn off your fucking phone and siphon the voltage, to feel the drums bayoneting you in your gut.
Even his first music experiences were addled and adrenal. His first concert was a rave, age 12, when he and a friend took the last bus of the night to an industrial district in San Diego. When the party didn't materialize, they fell asleep on a storage container's roof, too broke for cab fare home. They were awakened at 2:30 a.m. when the bass started thudding underneath.
"A girl at the door was reading a book. We asked, 'Is this where the party is?' She said, 'I don't think you guys want to go in,' " GLK remembers. " 'No, you don't understand,' I told her. 'We took the last bus and have $5 between us and have heard about this forever. Please let us in.' She did and we immediately asked her to get us drugs."
She refused to procure them acid but helped GLK get drunk from her Mad Dog 20/20. He soon drifted to the nitrous tank. After inhaling a balloon, he fainted, nearly cracking his skull on the concrete. A nearby dancer caught him right before he hit the ground. Then the cops arrived.
"The [organizers] said, 'We can get away with this, but we can't have drugs or little kids.' So they stashed me and the nitrous tank in the storage attic," GLK says. "I was so small, the cops didn't see me when they shined their flashlights. When they left, they grabbed me out by my heels and we partied until 6:30 a.m."
Until 16, this was the routine. GLK raved every weekend and returned home at 7 a.m. to increasingly irate parents unaware of his true whereabouts.
The shit hit the fan his junior year of high school. He was caught on camera at the rave Narnia 98, flipping off a TV news team and hollering, "Fuck the media."
Shortly after, he was tossed from his performing arts high school for miscellaneous transgressions, including a 1.0 GPA. His parents threatened to ship him off to a kibbutz in Israel, but he successfully begged for one last chance. For his last three semesters of high school, he was sober and got straight A's.
By night, GLK paid his dues, earning his alias as a teenager mixing vinyl in San Diego's Gaslamp District, alienating crowds who hurled drinks and booed when he refused to play "Top 40 bullshit." He worked at record stores and on street teams, threw shows, danced, spray-painted and amassed more than 10,000 records.
After graduation, he moved to San Francisco and soon L.A., earning a reputation as a fearless performer and master technician with deep crates.
Low End Theory served as the launching pad for his star, but success hasn't been conducive to tranquility.
You immediately note the juxtaposition upon admiring the view outside the Mount Washington house that GLK shares with roommates. Atop a labyrinth of winding roads, it offers stunning panoramas of the entire city. But inside the two-story aerie, things are stressful.
On this broiling mid-August afternoon, GLK deliberates the set placement of a song from Daedelus, the bespoke electronic producer. He leaves tomorrow for dates in Germany, Poland, Amsterdam and Switzerland. In one hour, there's a scheduled walk-through of the Mayan Theater for his Sept. 18 album-release show. Between now and then, he's heading to Burning Man, where he may ignite an impromptu desert rave.
By most standards, this is living the dream. Everyone is a DJ, but few get paid vast sums to spin whatever they want in exotic locales.
Yet with reputation comes expectation. Parties don't start themselves when people pay to be there. They want entertainment; they want to see the wolf. And with the collective pulse needing defibrillation, the easy option is to pop a pill, snort a line or take a shot. After all, even the shaman needs ayahuasca. The question is: What happens when you want the trip to stop?
The tailspin started when GLK's 43-year-old brother, an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, died in March 2010. Touring in Australia, GLK was unable to attend the funeral, which occurred within 24 hours of death, according to religious burial rites.
"One day, my brother had massive chest cramps. The doctor said nothing was wrong, so Mother told him to see a cardiologist. He didn't make an appointment in time," GLK says "Two days later, he took his kids out dressed in costume for Purim. When he went to sleep that night, he never woke up."
The stress of his brother's death and a redoubled dedication to his career caused GLK to distance himself from his girlfriend, ultimately contributing to their breakup several months later.
Burying himself in his work and masking the pain through drugs and drinking, the true impact didn't really strike until late last fall. Beset by a toxic cocktail of health issues and spiritual emptiness, GLK opted for complete sobriety.
"I realized that I wasn't happy. My career was going to plan, but I felt like killing myself," GLK says. "I wasn't finding happiness in my performances, music, friends, lovers and drugs. I needed a way out."
When speaking with GLK, you understand why "out" is a gauntlet. He radiates the kind of intensity found in mob bosses and mad monks. He's hot-blooded, of Levantine Jewish stock, and there's no dimmer. You're family or he'll tear your fucking face off. That's actually what it reads on his Twitter bio. He's small but wiry. If provoked, you can imagine him clawing someone's eyes out.
His eyes are the exception to the darkness. They are pale blue and honest; the nomadic eyes of someone for whom a put-on is impossible.
"I went through three months in hell. I was the most bored and unenthusiastic that I'd ever been," GLK admits. "So I said, 'Am I going to be a waste or push myself to the opposite end? Can I sharpen my blade so that anybody who steps to me gets chopped the fuck down?' And I felt physically stronger and spiritually more awake and fulfilled. I'd been finding these alternative sources of energy, happiness, pleasure, everything. And I'm still reaching for those things. But I got this tiny little, fucking pinprick of clarity."
After abstaining for six months, GLK has adopted a more moderate approach toward drugs and alcohol. He remains wild but in control.
The existential crisis also yielded the excellent Brainfeeder release Breakthrough, out Sept. 18. Recruiting gifted figures from the L.A. underground (Daedelus, Adrian Younge, Samiyam) and his frequent collaborator, the Orphic banshee Gonjasufi, the record cackles with a deranged psychedelia — shifting from ethereal Turkish rock to intestine-shredding beats. It's like Black Sabbath if Ozzy wanted bass, not bats. And it gets deeply personal on "Nissim," the track named after GLK's late brother (Jacob Nissim Bensussen) and his grandfather (Nissim Bensussen), both of whom died unexpectedly, at 43.
"Gaslamp incorporated the tricks, turns and spirit of his scene, and made it special through his unique soul and grit," says seminal New York rapper-producer El-P. "Every song idea comes from places most producers ignore or are ignorant of. They could only come from a DJ who specialized in psychedelia for years. It's one of the first completely contemporary electronic records that doesn't sound like an electronic record."
The new GLK isn't vastly different from the old GLK, but he knows he doesn't want to end up like the actual John Belushi. He wants to wobble down the path to help point it out to the kids who send daily messages about how his music changed their lives. Last month, he performed sober at HARD and shouted an old John Waters maxim to the crowd: "If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them."
"I'm not new-age. I'm as big of an idiot as anyone else, but I'm getting messages from my inner voice that I couldn't hear before. They're not in my brain, they're in my fucking soul or heart or whatever. I just know that they're really fucking real," GLK says. "I'm not afraid or embarrassed, but I'm in a vulnerable place. Even saying that I maybe have a responsibility to the kids — that can bite me in the ass if I decide to become a raging, drug addict, rock & roll mess."
We're a nation of junkies, whether to the Internet, Instagram, drink, drugs, work or religion. GLK knows that he's no different, except that he's acquired a cult enthralled by the immolating bass drum. These are weekly patients radiated by quaking frequencies, which they want to dissolve the tension and stress lying under their ligaments. It's dance music as chemotherapy, purification through the poison, a potential cure for the ergonomic ennui of post-industrial existence. But what do you do with all this displaced energy?
"I want people to know that you can act crazy and be yourself and let loose. Live. But what if you strengthen your body, mind and spirit and connected with the information trying to get to you?" GLK says, fidgeting with an unlit stick of Nag Champa on a Cheech and Chong incense burner. "We're all conduits, even though our inner voice is muted by the stresses of life. But what if you can find your third eye and really release your mind? What if you gave yourself a break?"
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