In the Studio with Jason Bentley, Newly Christened Host of KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic
Jason Bentley during Morning Become's Eclectic (and producer Ariana Morgenstern in the background)
In the beginning, there was grumbling. With such a momentous decision at its fingertips - replacing longtime Morning Becomes Eclectic host Nic Harcourt after he announced his retirement from the long-running slow - KCRW opted to stick with the safe choice, Jason Bentley, who'd been working at the station since he was eighteen (he's now 38). Doubters figured they knew what kind of show he'd deliver: lots of creamy beats with a little edge, music sprung from the tastes of the co-founder of trip hop label Quango Records in the 1990s, longtime house/breakbeat DJ, and music supervisor for all three Matrix films. In essence, we'd hear beatz, with a little bit of rock tossed in for variety. As some commenter somewhere said of the decision, "Q-Burn's Abstract Message is the real winner here."
Mercury Rev's keyboardist/percussionist Jeff Mercel on MBE
But if you've been paying attention during Bentley's inaugural month, the DJ's playlists have blown apart many of the prognosticators' predictions. Day in and day out, the DJ with the deep, serious voice and dry sense of humor has expanded his musical universe. He's done sets that move from Andrew Bird to Matt & Kim to El Guincho to Panda Bear; has segued from the Walkmen to Ulrich Schnauss -- and pulled it off; one morning on my way home from the dentist he played Fordlandia, a glorious long-form orchestral piece by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, in all its 14-minute glory -- a brave move in a medium that prefers to stick to 4-minute pop structures. In fact, one winner with the MBE shift is the lowly soundtrack composer, whose work seldom gets heard on the radio; a host of new sounds has been getting much more airtime on Bentley's show.
Over lunch a few weeks back, in fact, we both agreed that Alexandre Desplat's soundtrack to Birth is a great under-appreciated classic, one of many tidbits of aesthetic appreciation that Bentley will convey over the course of the meal. Bentley's soft-spoken at first, but warms quickly. He says that the biggest adjustment he's had to make is a physical one: long a night owl whose DJ gigs have carried him all over the world, he now wakes up way before dawn to exercise and get his brain active before hosting what is arguably one of the most influential music radio shows in the country. That power springs, at least in part, from the simple fact that the entertainment biz, perpetually starving for music tips to inject into their many films, TV shows, video games and killer apps, has to drive to morning meetings on Los Angeles roads in Los Angeles traffic, and when it does, a lot of them listen to KCRW.
Mercury Rev's set up prior to their Morning Becomes Eclectic performance
"It's been very surreal, for sure," he says of the step into the spotlight. "It hasn't really sunk in yet." He's still adapting to the change in focus and attention, but doesn't really think much about that aspect of it. Mostly, he's concentrating of delivering diverse, magnetic sets.
You could hear it down in KCRW's studios last Tuesday when I sat in on the show during Mercury Rev's performance. Bentley's set that morning featured, among others, Buddy Holly, Little Joy, Grace Jones and Lily Allen, and as he swiveled from microphone to board to CD player to computer, across the desk longtime Eclectic producer Ariana Morgenstern kept him company and offered the occasional bits of advice. She also plays traffic cop during the live performances, and as the Mercury Rev set approached, Morgenstern organized the switchover and prepared Bentley.
In an adjoining studio on the other side of a big window, Mercury Rev lead singer Jonathan Donahue, wearing cool chrome (indoor) sunglasses, held his head and headphones with his hands and sang into the microphone while the other five members played extended art rock passages. The sound poured into Bentley's studio, and the DJ wondered aloud at his good fortune. In essence, he says, all these bands (so far including Murs, Keane, Little Joy and Charlie Haden ) load up their equipment so they can come to his work and perform: "I still can't get over that," he says, Mercury Rev playing on the other side of the glass.