When it comes to LA radio and especially LA electronic music radio, there are few people with the pedigree of Jason Bentley. Former longtime KCRW host for Morning Becomes Eclectic and current host of weekly Saturday night KCRW show Metropolis. He is a off the radio as well, playing events like Coachella and Governors Ball, while anchoring the coverage for Coachella online (before everything got cancelled). He has been involved as a music supervisor and consultant for ad campaigns and films such as The Matrix trilogy and TRON: Legacy, helping to get Daft Punk involved with scoring the film. He helped create the soundtrack for the upcoming Top Gun film, Top Gun: Maverick, which was set for release in 2020, but has been delayed because of COVID.
He has a new project, The Backstory, a podcast / vodcast where he interviews two people across various parts of creative industries to provide unique and candid conversations about their careers and lives. He has interviewed Margaret Cho with Paul Feig, Rosalind Chao and Justin H Min, Kristin Bell and Adam Grant and most recently playwright Kemp Powers and composer Terence Blanchard.
We decided to have a chat with Bentley about this new venture, which you can catch the latest episode of here and see a few clips of in this piece. We also chat about wrangling the French robots for TRON: Legacy, his long path in the business, how he chooses to interview people, Top Gun, the music business in COVID and more.
How did you get into the music business?
My first paid gig in the record business was working as an A&R scout for London/FFRR in 1992. I was doing an electronic dance radio show on my college station in Los Angeles, and London/FFRR paid me $200 a month to send in cassette tapes of my favorite new records. Of course, that money went right back to buying more records, but the job also led to producing the first compilation of West Coast electronic music - California Dreaming - which featured the Hardkiss Brothers, Tranquility Bass, and Young American Primitive. Even the cover art was by the LA based Rave streetwear designer Clobber. This was certainly one of the first homegrown electronic compilations to represent the flourishing West Coast underground.
How do you choose who to interview?
It’s tricky because part of the concept for The Backstory is unexpected guest pairings in conversation, so it’s not people from the same field or discipline. This definitely adds a layer of difficulty both in conducting the interview and also the booking since the guests have to be comfortable with the pairing ahead of time. It’s proven worth the effort though, because it really distinguishes the podcast from the pack and also I’ve found that finding the common ground between the guests in conversation is where things really get interesting.
How do you approach politics when interviewing people, especially when things are this polarized? [This was asked before the attack on the Capitol]
It’s important for people’s views to be heard, but politics isn’t always part of the conversation. I think we’re looking for more timeless insights, so whatever the political hot button of the week falls flat when we’re taking a broader view of someone’s life experiences and career.
Righting the ship for an interview is important for people being interviewed and for those doing it. How do you steer an interview on track when you feel it maybe slipping from you, even as one of the best?
I’m an intuitive person, which helps in these situations. It’s important to have a gracious demeanor, so guests aren’t going to feel defensive. As an interviewer, you always have some “crutches” that help to pivot a conversation. It’s ok to reset the line of questioning if things somehow go off the rails, but it’s also important to press an issue that needs to be reconciled. It’s also important to keep listening as an interviewer. Sometimes you can get so caught up in thinking about the next question, and you’ve stopped listening.
How will the upcoming Top Gun soundtrack reflect the current era versus the original film’s legacy?
I worked on Top Gun: Maverick for over a year, but I’m done now. Like a lot of movies, the film’s premiere has been rescheduled to 2021 due to the pandemic, and to be honest I’m not convinced any of my work will make it through to release. The thing about music is that it’s one of the things in a movie that can change late in the process. It’s not unusual for complete film scores to be replaced after an audience test screening gets a tepid response. As I finished up work on the film earlier in 2020, the prevailing idea was to have music help cast Maverick as a timeless classic, and the music supporting that idea was cut from that cloth - old fashioned rock n roll. No doubt things could change a hundred more times, since the original soundtrack set the bar so high in terms of commercial success, and there are a lot of chefs in that kitchen.
What was the hardest part about convincing Daft Punk to do the TRON: LEGACY Soundtrack?
Those guys are extremely particular about their artistic decisions, so you can imagine they considered the opportunity very carefully. They’re huge fans of pop culture, it’s sacred ground to them, so while they had a keen interest in working on a Disney film of this scale, it still needed to be the right situation. To that end, we visited several top Hollywood composers to see if there was a collaborative solution to help them realize their first major Hollywood score, but in the end they wanted to build their own studio team and fully dedicate themselves to the process. I admire them for embracing the challenge, and it required more than a year of their time and focus. To answer your question, I think the hardest part was setting up an LA based studio and work-flow that met their expectations to perform at a high level.
What needs to be done to help save independent music venues in the US through this winter?
The distribution of a COVID vaccine.
Djing on the radio could kind of be seen as a cousin to the current live streaming setup. How did DJing on radio prepare you for live streaming in a pandemic? Do you plan on continuing to live stream, even whenever we get back to “normal?”
When I learned that the KCRW studios were being closed due to COVID and the station was switching to an automated music stream, I immediately pivoted to Instagram Live for my weekly dance mix show Metropolis. I didn’t really know what to expect, and with only a few days to work it out I was blown away by the audience response.
Over the ensuing seven months, this experiment in live-streaming a radio show unexpectedly opened up a whole new dimension of audience engagement. First of all, broadcasting from my home studio allowed fans a unique glimpse into my personal space, and I had a lot of fun with creative “set design” and lighting - not to mention our cat Bacchus became a fan favorite. Also, seeing the community form in real time during the show via the comments feed, a global digital audience was a really interesting phenomenon. I was able to have a more direct conversation with the audience that’s not possible on traditional radio, and it was great to have instant feedback on records, and just knowing that people were really there for the music.
Ultimately, there are still a lot of challenges playing music freely on a social platform, so that was an ongoing frustration. Now that Metropolis is back on broadcast radio weekly, I’m definitely considering ways to retain the benefits of live streaming, but my sense is that it has to be done right and with renewed purpose. I’m not convinced Instagram is the best platform; maybe it’s Twitch? I just need time to develop a digital strategy that can complement the real-time radio show.