“When you're music director at KCRW,” Jason Bentley says, “you're kind of music director of Los Angeles.”
This may sound a bit presumptuous on its face, but it's basically correct. For many listeners, KCRW is a community as real as any actual physical location in the city, its personalities the first friends of many transplants. Bentley's is its most famous voice, and thus most everyone here has a relationship with him. He's 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.
“Part of me or my identity belongs to a large group of people,” he says. “People feel a sense of ownership.”
See also: Our extended Jason Bentley interview
KCRW's flagship music program, Morning Becomes Eclectic, is a long-standing indie-rock incubator, having helped break hundreds of acts since its 1977 debut. A station DJ since 1992, Bentley took over as director and MBE host five years ago, and since then the show has experienced steady growth and an expanded digital presence.
On this Thursday morning at the station, located in a somewhat cluttered basement at Santa Monica College, Bentley, who is 42, rolls his chair back and forth across four feet of floor, making tracks as he oscillates between a trio of computer screens. He guides the vessel that is MBE with Jedi focus, playing music, giving away concert tickets and dropping in service announcements with military precision. (He doesn't do dead air, he'll have you know.) When the show wraps each weekday at noon, he's tired and famished.
A handsome man with a tidy appearance and close-cropped hair, this morning Bentley wears a black polo shirt, black pants, aviators and dress shoes. On his right upper-arm, a cluster of tattoos peeks out from under his shirt. At the station's Masquerade Ball last October, Bentley's Roman guard costume consisted of little more than a helmet, a cape and some underwear, effectively displaying the fit physique he diligently maintains. Crushed on by legions of Los Angelenos, Bentley is single, having been married for six years and now divorced for three.
Through his 20-plus years on the air in L.A., he has developed an impeccable ear for what's good, what's better and what's likely to trend in the indie-rock world.
But if curating playlists for the public radio-listening, upper-middle class is his day job, it is the nighttime world of electronic music that holds his fascination. Launched in 1992, Bentley's first show on KCRW, Metropolis, helped popularize underground dance music in L.A. and beyond. He retired it when he took over as music director in 2008 but recently decided to bring it back, much to the delight of his global EDM fans. His upcoming sets at Coachella are the latest in a long line of festival-circuit DJ gigs.
Bentley admits he is a control freak. Friends and colleagues call him precise, detail-oriented, meticulous and unflappable. But if being music director is about the strategy of programming, Metropolis and electronic music are what make his heart beat faster.
Most days, Bentley is up at 7 a.m., at the station by 8:30 and on the air from 9 until noon. Then he eats, goes to meetings, answers calls and emails from his house in Venice and is at the gym by 6. He doesn't miss a workout. He says he doesn't go out as much as one might think, preferring to stay home and watch the Clippers. At his house there is a room containing 20,000 pieces of vinyl and 10,000 CDs. Sometimes Bentley goes there and loses himself in listening and mixing. Most nights he's in bed by 11.
A self-described outcast as a kid, Bentley spent the first part of his childhood in Boston. His family relocated to Santa Monica when he was a tween, and his mod fashion sense was largely influenced by The Who. His musical tastes lingered in the rock realm until a post-high school backpacking trip through Europe, where he discovered house music and the freedoms of the clubland temples it existed in. It was an ecstasy- and acid house-fueled scene wholly different from anything he had experienced in homogeneous Santa Monica, and he was hooked. “Ever since then and to this day, [house music] is the closest sound to me spiritually, in terms of my person,” he says.
The clear and immediate goal was to become the person controlling everything — the music, atmosphere, people and energy — from the DJ booth.
Upon his return to L.A., Bentley began DJing at his college station, KXLU at Loyola Marymount, where he majored in communications. During his middle-of-the-night Sunday slot, he played the house and techno music then quickly gaining favor in town.
Among the late-night listeners was Gary Richards, the founder of HARD events. At the time, he was a pizza delivery guy also making waves with his downtown warehouse raves.
“Jason was the only person in L.A. playing electronic music,” Richards says. “His show would start out kind of house-y and build, and for the last 15 minutes go full-on mental into techno. That's what I always waited for.”
Richards called Bentley and asked if he could mention his parties on the air; the two became fast friends. During this time Bentley also aligned with URB magazine founder and current Goldenvoice strategist Raymond Roker after picking up the premiere issue of URB on Melrose. By issue two, Bentley was managing editor.
In 1992, Bentley graduated college and made the jump to KCRW on the invitation of then-music director Chris Douridas, upping the airwave BPM with Metropolis, which aired from 10 to midnight on Saturdays. A simultaneous gig at KROQ gave him room to play Prodigy, Moby, Chemical Brothers and other rock-flavored electronic artists.
During his off time, Bentley crisscrossed SoCal, attending renegade parties both legal and less so at bull fighting rings in the Inland Empire, at desert ranches and, once, at a deserted casino on Catalina. He brought the music he found in these places and shared it with whoever was listening.
Metropolis was on the air for 16 years, during which time Bentley had other gigs, notably serving as music supervisor for Tron: Legacy (he got Daft Punk to do the score) and The Matrix trilogy. He remembers handing a 12-inch single of Rob D's “Clubbed to Death” to The Matrix directors the Wachowskis, who then used it in a key scene.
“When I realized I could take the knowledge and power of this world of dance music and the underground and actually do something hugely influential,” he says, “that was a big deal.”
A longtime Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences member, Bentley was instrumental in getting the organization to incorporate electronic performances into the televised portion of its Grammy Awards.
Morning Becomes Eclectic, meanwhile, had been humming along as a preeminent indie-rock tastemaker under the supervision of music director Nic Harcourt, who had taken over for Douridas, who had taken over for Tom Schnabel, who created the show. In 2008, Bentley stepped into the music director role, succeeding Harcourt, whose influences were more rock and indie singer-songwriters.
“When he took the reins of MBE,” KCRW DJ Anne Litt says, “he really injected a lot of energy and creative life into the types of things we were doing. He came in with a whole slew of new ideas.”
The beginning of the Bentley era was serendipitously timed, as electronic music soon would experience a surge in mainstream popularity in the United States. Bentley played to this trend by stirring his genre of choice into the morning mix, although he still mostly tailors his tastes to serve MBE's indie slant.
“With the morning, you're more mindful of programming,” he says, “connecting industry dots, driving awareness of artists and helping develop careers. It's an equation, it's literally a program.” He says hatching such plans is a dream job and is genuinely enthusiastic about much of the music he plays in that slot, although mixing electronic music for him remains “a format to be completely free to be creative.”
In February, he resurrected Metropolis after a five-year dormancy, telling the Weekly that the move would provide him the “opportunity to play a lot of music that I just can't find appropriate for MBE.”
His Saturday-evening Coachella sets will find him DJing in the festival's Yuma Tent, a new discotheque space (with hardwood floors and air conditioning!) that's designed to serve as an adult alternative to the fist-pump bombast of the Sahara Tent's EDM youth-brigade quake. Inside Yuma, DJs will mix vinyl and digital recordings in the old-school DJ spirit.
With the rise of EDM, Bentley recognizes that dance music is at a crossroads. “It became a rock show,” he says, “and it became very concerning to me and a lot of people in the scene, because all of the promise of people coming together, and the unifying force of the music and the social dynamic of the scene and community, was all of a sudden amended.”
With the new Coachella setup, Bentley sees the possibility of influencing festivals nationwide and, as such, exposing mass audiences to deeper forms of EDM. “I get it — when you're 22 and all you care about is the next rush. Believe me, I was there, but I feel that dance music deserves to be respected and considered in a better light.”
It's a big task, but like many people whose hobbies have become their jobs, Bentley says he never really stops working. Single by choice, he says he's not immune to loneliness but is currently content to work on himself. “I'm sort of creeping in that direction of, 'Where can I go next in terms of exploring the greater significance of what I do?' Like, OK, you're a tastemaker, OK, you're in the industry, you're making a difference for artists, but what's the real purpose, after all of this?”
Perhaps if he could surrender control, that answer might more readily reveal itself. In the meantime, the airwaves and world beyond are his to design.
See also: Our extended Jason Bentley interview