Jason Bentley Talks Writing Music, Starting a Record Label and Launching a Podcast

Jason Bentley
Mark Leibowitz/Courtesy of Newhouse

Jason Bentley

Jason Bentley is at home, like pretty much everybody else these days amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But his backdrop on view in this virtual interview is very much not the norm. "It's about 20,000 pieces of vinyl and about eight or 9,000 CDs," he explains of the impressive stacks that completely cover the wall behind him, accentuated by pieces of art including a fleamarket Banksy. "To be honest, it's mostly a trophy room but it's also who I am and it's where I'm coming from."

That last part is why he's logged onto this late morning Zoom interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Bentley exited his longtime post as KCRW music director and host of the popular Morning Becomes Eclectic show in August 2019. Around that time, he did a lot of talking about who he was and what he wanted to make of his next act as one of Los Angeles' most well-known radio personalities.

Bentley was newly married at the time and hinted that starting a family was in his future. He also was keen to move from public media into the private sector and expand his career in ways the daily grind at KCRW didn't allow for. While some of those plans — like launching a live concert series — were put on hold due to the pandemic, other projects have emerged.

Bentley, who just turned 50 years old and welcomed a pair of twin boys, Kaz and Ren, with wife Venus, is still knee-deep in the music business, having launched his own label in addition to becoming an artist himself.

Meanwhile, he's about to hit the airwaves again by teaming with Soho House and 101 Studios to launch The Backstory, a new podcast series premiering this week, designed to bring together two guests each episode for candid conversations about what drives and inspires them as well as the backstory to their career and/or project that brought them professional acclaim. The series will feature such guests as Kristen Bell paired with author Adam Grant, actors Rosalind Chao with Justin Min, Margaret Cho with Paul Feig, and others.

Bentley talked about why he jumped into the crowded podcast landscape, his newly launched record label and what he's learned about himself during this uniquely challenging year.

There are many options for how to start this interview, but as a twin myself, I have to ask: How is dad life?

It’s very rewarding. It's also exhausting and a grind at times, but they're beautiful and we're so happy. It’s great when you look in their faces, all of the frustration and the difficulty just fades away. We’re recruiting family and friends to help out as well, but it's a little tricky in the pandemic.

How are you handling that?

Actually, it's kind of been the silver lining of this whole year. Even before their birth, which was about two months ago now, the lead-up to it being in quarantine, all of that was, in a strange way, a preparation of sorts to lead us to what was required once they arrived. Ironically, this whole year of the pandemic has been a time of growth, expression and creativity. Not to discount the hardships that so many of us have felt during this time, but I think my response to it has been to keep pushing and keep growing.

Walk me back to your final day at KCRW as you set off on this new chapter of your life. What was day one like when you didn’t have the day job any longer?

Well, first of all, I feel like I enjoyed a rare opportunity in the media world to have time to take a bow in a dignified way by finishing up a terrific decade and a long tenure as music director. I really appreciated that opportunity. It doesn't always happen in radio and in media — more often people just kind of vanish. So, that was a nice cherry on top of a huge commitment as key architect of the sound of KCRW for so long. Then to wake up the next day and you're like, OK, now what?

The intention was always to move out of public media, public service, and into more of the private sector while also being able to focus on having kids and building a family. The onset of the pandemic reinforced the process for me of having to dig deeper and really think about what I wanted to be doing with my time. One of the major lessons of this year has been the value of ideas, the value of creativity, the ownership of intellectual property and prioritizing what I wanted to accomplish. I started a record label, so there was a whole learning curve there. I mean, the last time I was working in the record business — for Madonna’s Maverick, and Island Records prior to that — we were selling CDs. It’s a very different system now with digital distribution. I’ve been learning best practices around that. I’ve also started writing music, which I had always wanted to do.

There is an artistry to deejaying, but it's not the same thing as composing. I taught myself a program called Ableton Live, which is a digital audio workstation. I spent some time on remixes because you kind of have a leg up as the artists have written the hard part and you’re using a DJ sensibility to arrange and remix. I did a remix of the band Phantom Planet and one for The Midnight. Those were opportunities to roll up my sleeves and get into it. At the same time, I started composing little pieces, and, in fact, all of the music for The Backstory is my own original stuff. We needed music so I volunteered. I've just been ticking these boxes and doing things that have been about building avenues and platforms for expression.

What is the label called?

It's called Secret Technology, which is actually a term that goes way back to a conversation I had in the mid-'90s with Bono. I used that phrase and I held onto it as my kind of personal corporation for music consulting. So, the term has been around for a while and I made it more real by using it as the label’s name. I signed a record from a friend, something I was able to A&R with him. He sent me a demo three years ago that was a cover of the Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush song, “Don’t Give Up,” of the album So. We did a modern electronic take on it which is also a message that’s as important today as ever. When he sent me the demo years ago, I played it right away on KCRW and it got a great reaction. Fast forward three years when I was thinking of starting the label, I called him to ask about it. He said, “I still have it on the shelf.”

I said, “We’ve got to finish this — now's the time people need to hear it.” We finished it up, put it out and it's been great. It’s been played around the world, supported by Apple Music and Spotify. It’s paid for itself in terms of investments in that process. I initially thought of it as a way to curate music or as an investment in art and I didn’t have any expectation of making money. I never really allowed myself to think that I would make money. I thought, well, I probably spend about this much money, whether it's $10,000 or what have you, on a great work of art similar to what I would want in my home. But then I actually started making money back. It took a few months, but then I got a check from my distributor and I was like, “Wow, I actually made a couple thousand dollars.”

Let’s talk about the podcast. I will do the annoying thing journalists do by reminding you of what you said last year of how the podcast market was over-hyped and a bit flooded. What changed for you and why did you want to launch a podcast now?

It was a unique opportunity to work with Soho House in 101 Studios. That made a huge difference, from say, doing it completely on my own. It helps to have the resources and coordination, and also the foundation of the Soho House as a brand, as an experience and as a membership base. I’ve been involved in Soho House for over 10 years now. I was part of the early founding membership group for West Hollywood. There’s a history there with them and this conversation around hosting a podcast started over a year ago. The process was furthered earlier this year during the pandemic when they reached out to do some Zoom content for the online editorial.

For people who aren’t familiar, The Backstory brings people together across disciplines for a conversation. As somebody who has curated many things in your life, how was it to curate these conversations?

Curation is really the word here. It’s about presenting ideas to people in a unique way. It’s a big challenge for sure, but I think it's also something that distinguishes us from the crowd. My background included a lot of interviews, mostly with musicians, but always in the traditional one-on-one radio format. It would be live and linear and typically attached to a live performance. So those interviews would be under certain parameters. That went out the window with The Backstory. It’s long-form.

Initially, pre-pandemic, we had envisioned this as a way to experience real-life at a Soho House venue to really represent those layers of the experience in the audio. My vision early on was very much an immersive sound design experience where the audience could feel like they were right there at the table hearing activity in the background like the buzz in the room, the clinking of silverware and glasses, any unexpected or spontaneous event that might happen, like somebody stopping by the table. That was upended by the coronavirus, so we’re just forging ahead as we need to.

Is there a highlight for you in the conversations you’ve already recorded?

I really enjoyed our last episode with Paul Feig and Margaret Cho. That was terrific. Adam Grant and Kristen Bell were also terrific. In preparation for that, I dove into Adam’s book Originals about how non-conformists move the world. Some of the homework that I get to do in preparation for talking to people are great for me. I'm trying to embrace this opportunity fully to become a better person along the way. That’s sort of the dream, right? That any work is an opportunity to gain experience and insight. I'm certainly feeling that.

Tell me about that. Your life has been full. You got married, left a job after 10 years, turned 50, became a father for the first time while navigating a pandemic. What have you learned about yourself this year?

I've come to be impressed with the depth of strength that one has. I mean, it's not unique to me, but like anything, to exercise the body and the mind, you've got to test these muscles and test them in different ways to keep growing as a person. You can do that at any age. I'm enjoying that process. Sometimes taking care of newborns in the middle of the night, you’re bottle feeding and thinking, how am I even doing this? This is insanity. But then to think of how to help make them better people moving forward, there’s a responsibility there and it’s been a good challenge. Adam Grant told me in our conversation about a term in psychology of post-traumatic growth and the individual's ability to respond to these kinds of shocks of the system. It’s a healthy process, and it's a growing process. I really have.

What podcasts do you listen to and how do you feel about the competition?

Honestly, I'm still a radio guy and a full-time KCRW listener. It's how I've grown up and still my comfort food. So, I'm not a big podcast listener. I really like the tune in aspect of radio. I know that we live in an age where everything is available all the time, and I get that, but I really love, and in some ways prefer, the sense that you had to be there, and if you missed it, it's gone. It's done. Whether that's the perfect song at the right moment that really hits you, or what we used to call at KCRW, the driveway moments when you've reached a destination but you can't leave the car because of the NPR story or narrative you can’t miss.

I do love the promise of the podcast format because like what I mentioned earlier, you're liberated from the linear and live, and the limitations of time. We can do long-form deep dives with our guests that is incredibly liberating, whereas in radio we'd need to be moving it along within five minutes, seven minutes, or 10 minutes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devasting for almost every industry and it’s been devastating for KCRW with consolidations and cutbacks. How are your friends over there?

I'm not a full-time employee, so I'm not involved. I've seen the layoffs and people have reached out to tell me what they're up to. It’s a very different organization. When they moved studios, that was when the winds of change were really undeniable. That’s when the writing was really on the wall for me to embrace that. It was certainly part of my decision in moving on from there, but, you know, I feel like they're in a restructuring stage like a great sports franchise. It’s like the Lakers between the Kobe and LeBron era. There’s some downtime on some level as they find a new identity.

You also had previously mentioned that you might pursue a "Jason Bentley Presents"-type concert series. The entire live event space went away, but I’m curious is that something you are still interested in?

I am. It’s so core to my being. I love to see community in action and I get that buzz from people, whether it's deejaying at a festival or a club. During the pandemic when KCRW studios were shuttered, I pivoted to an Instagram live version of my radio show. I would still deliver the audio, but the actual recording was a performance in front of an audience online. That was a really cool experience. I didn't know what to expect, but to see the real-time community, um, connecting on the, on the chat room, you know, as part of the, the Instagram live feed, it was so cool because it was just sustaining, it was rewarding.

You’re known for an encyclopedic knowledge of music, something you had on display hosting “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” I always wondered how much time you spent listening to music. What’s your schedule now, how do you make time for music with everything else?

At KCRW as a music director, I really needed to be much more in tune. I would always listen to new music submissions between like 3-5 p.m. every day. I'd just be listening to tons of music. I really had sharpened my ear and instinct for new sounds, new ideas and things that I could fit into programming. I took that responsibility seriously. I would always joke with people that I listened to bad music, so you don't have to. Now, I’m more casual about it. I've turned a little more inward in terms of asking myself what is the music that I want to create? So, to a certain extent, I’ve swapped out listening to other people’s music or promoting other people’s music with writing original compositions and remixes, teaching myself music production and thinking about things that I want to express.