June 12th, 2008 | by NILINA MASON-CAMPBELL Music | Posted In: Columns, Columns, Columns, Columns

Hang the DJ: DJ Catalyst

     
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catalystWith DJ Catalyst, we're not just getting quick one-liners. We're getting in depth info regarding his many venue moves within Portland. We now know why CDs are his weapon of choice when it comes to dancefloor missions. And his eclectic tastes dictated what is by far the most in-depth playlist yet.

Joining the Portland scene by way of booking other DJs for nights he was putting on, Catalyst soon became a DJ himself and hasn't stepped back since. Anyone who drops the band Robots in Disguise gets an automatic high-five in my book:

How did you decide on your DJ name? What's your real name?
A catalyst is something that initiates and accelerates a process or reaction. People love to come up with ideas, but once they figure out there's effort involved you stop hearing about the idea. I become obsessed. Someone once referred to me as a catalyst and I thought it fit, so I adopted it as an online handle even before I was DJing outside of my house. In fact, I was DJing for years before I accepted that I needed to put DJ in front of my name on fliers so people knew I wasn't a band. The letters "DJ" have become cheap and almost meaningless in the modern era. But there they are. My real name is Jason. Howdy.

As the Rapture say, "People don't dance no more, they just stand there like this" - how often do you encounter this?
I encounter that on nights when a large portion of the crowd is non-regulars and they keep coming up and asking me for hip hop or house. I actually have played that song on a night like that... I mixed it with "DJ's Got a Gun" by Robots in Disguise. Look up the lyrics to that one! But really, for the most part, I've learned when is the right time to be a total sellout and get everyone back on the dance floor with something no one can resist. I have secret weapons.

Ideal crowd?
Big ones that come to dance! Is that a trick question? Okay, I like my crowds mixed in age, but wide ranging in tastes. I like them to not be so uptight that they can't dance to the fun stuff and not so narrow that they can't close their eyes and dance to the deeper stuff. If you can't stand anything that made it to the radio or if you can't stand anything that didn't, well, you're probably not a part of my ideal crowd. Loser.

How do you feel about requests?
The most important thing I consider with a request is whether or not the rest of the people on the dance floor are going to want to dance to it. I simply can't clear the dancefloor for one person who might decide they don't want to dance to their request either if they're the only person out there. I take requests very seriously, though, and even if I have to plan out two or three songs to get to the request in a way that makes sense, I will. I put a lot of emphasis on mood, energy, flow, transition, and mixing, so a single request can have a serious effect on the whole set and where it goes. Most people aren't paying enough attention to notice how much effort I put into extremely important things like EQing and volume consistency, but they feel it. They don't know why they felt so good this time when they heard a song even though they felt apathetic last time they heard it, but they feel it. They also may not understand that playing their Madonna request after Joy Division is usually a bad idea and will completely decimate the flow of energy in the club, but they won't be happy when they feel it happen. It's my sworn duty and responsibility to everyone who's come out to ensure they have a good time, and now and then that means not playing an individual's request. It's also important to note that there are two types of requesters... those who are already having fun and just want a specific song, and those who hate the music and want something they "can dance to". The former will be just fine if I can't play that particular song, but most likely they've made a request I'm happy to play. The latter probably isn't there for what I play and won't be back anyway, so I'm not about to endanger the happiness of the regulars to play "Sexyback" -- unless they give me 20 bucks! That actually happened and it taught me a lesson... Everyone loves "Sexyback."

Do you have a story about a particular request or requester?
What I find amazing is how incredibly often someone comes up and requests the very song I'm cuing up. Seriously... all the time. I get a kick out of putting the headphones by their ear to let them hear the song they just asked for all beatmatched up and playing along with the song coming from the loudspeakers. I think it's simply because something in the current song gave them the same idea it gave me. Something in a tone or, more often, in the rhythm and tempo.

Do you DJ full time? / What do you do outside of DJing?
DJing is all I do for moolah, but right now I'm not exactly doing it full time. I spend my copious amounts of free time being a complete nerd creating a Japanese wargame, including the code, sound and artwork. I also have a music project called Soviet Radio. It's kind of darker electro-synthpop. You can look up Soviet Radio on MySpace.

Where can we find you?

Invasion (britpop/indie/80s) moved from Thursdays to Saturdays just before the place it moved to closed. Awesome, huh? It may or may not come back. Thursdays at Red Cap Garage are now a mostly 80s night called Propoganda which features a pretty even mix of radio hit 80s and alternative 80s, plus a smattering of current stuff for flava. You'll hear everything from Wham to Berlin to Bauhaus to The Sounds... it's very eclectic. Every Third Saturday at Mt Tabor I do the second installment of a twice monthly 80s night called Decadent 80s. I tend to play a slightly more alternative set at that night and stick strictly to 80s.

How'd you get your current main gig?
Long ago I spun at Panorama, an enormous club which was within the commonly owned complex that is now Aura, The Fez, Boxxes, and Red Cap Garage (formerly The Brig). After Pano closed, I started Invasion at Red Cap Garage in 2004 when there was a lot of good indie to mix with the britpop and electroclash I'd been pushing on people for years with limited success. After a decent start I moved it to Bossanova where it picked up more steam. When that place closed I moved back to The Fez Lounge where the manager was the same as at Panorama. The Fez Lounge wasn't big enough, though, and the upstairs was being used for concerts on Thursdays, so I eventually moved it back down to Red Cap where the lights and sound are more up to par with the old school clubs I grew up in. The new manager there often had me down as a guest playing electro and 80s, so he was just as excited to get the night back down there as I was. However, the crowd there preferred the 80s to anything else, so in an attempt to preserve its musical identity I moved Invasion to Saturdays and Thursdays morphed into Propoganda.

How long have you been spinning?
I suppose if you just count the time I've actually spun in clubs then nine years. I spun records as a hobby before that, but I didn't take it too seriously.

What drew you to DJing originally?
I started clubbing in 1988 (Manhatten, Confetti's, The City), but didn't try to start up a night of my own until the very end of the 90s when the clubs didn't seem to be playing anything I liked and the rave scene was turning into a parody of itself. At first I booked DJs for my nights, but it wasn't long before I started doing the DJing myself. I love to dance and I really wanted someone else to play the things I wanted to dance to, but it wasn't happening. Once I realized I was decent at it, that people wanted what I was uniquely providing, and that it was a satisfying creative and technical outlet, it became a passion in its own right.

What are your thoughts on vinyl vs CDs vs laptops?
I resisted the idea of CDs at first, but when I became familiar with the CD players that feature little spinning discs on top like records, well... I was hooked. I can simply do more with CDs than records and still use all of the same skills I spent so many years learning. Laptops do too much of my job for me, as far as I can tell, and I think it wouldn't be fun anymore. I am jealous of a laptop DJ's ability to have a whole hard drive of music with him to choose from. I don't have anything against laptop DJs and I often have one as a guest, but I doubt I'll ever make that switch. In any case, what matters most is what comes out of the speakers. It's amazing how many people have DJ in front of their name, but they can't even ensure the volume of one song is in the ballpark of the last one. Show me a laptop DJ that understands EQing and the many other aspects of mixing besides beatmatching and you're not going to hear me complain.

What songs will we find ourselves dancing to with you?
If you had asked me this in 2004 or 2006 I would have had a hard time making my list short enough. In 2004 we had Franz Ferdinand, Killers, Le Tigre, White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, The Faint, Postal Service, and so much other good indie that I could just play it all night with a little 80s for flavor. In 2006 we had Gorilaz, Kasabian, She Wants Revenge, Shiny Toy Guns, Fischerspooner, New Young Pony Club, The Bravery, The Knife, and so on. Not exact years, but around those times. Right now things have flipped to playing mostly 80s with a little modern stuff for flavor. I'll still play Goldfrapp, Metric, Soho Dolls, The Cribs, CSS, The Sounds, IAMX, etc, but most of that is a bit played out now and I'm not finding enough good new stuff to take its place. This question is really only suited to new music, but for the record "The Metro" by Berlin is probably my most overplayed song of all time. What songs I play depend almost entirely on what I sense from the crowd, and of course the theme of the night I'm playing at. I'm not a one trick pony and I have a massive range of tastes from Iron Maiden to the Scissor Sisters. I could be playing Dead Can Dance and The Cure one hour, but Journey and The Cars the next. Who knows? Not me.

How would you describe yourself in five words or less - complete sentence or not:
Not happy until it's perfect.

How do you describe the genre you play?
Eclectic. I've created or guested at nights focused on goth, industrial, britpop, new wave, synthpop, electro(clash), indie, classic metal, and beyond. At different points in my career I've been pigeon-holed as a goth-industrial DJ, a britpop-indie DJ, and lately an 80s DJ. It just depends on what I'm into that moment and what I'm bored of. It also depends on where my tastes cross paths with those of the club going populace at any particular time. For instance, I want to do a 70s classic rock and metal night next, but who knows if anyone else will play along.

Who are your other favorite Portland DJs?
Having grown up in a time when DJs had to be professionally capable to spin in public my standards might be a little unrealistic for this question. Some have good taste in music while others have good technical skills. I kind of expect the whole package. Clubs are smaller, more specialized, and more numerous these days, so it takes more luck and schmoozing skills to grow a night than it does talent behind the decks. Some of the most popular DJs are also some of the worst. The best DJs in Portland have mostly retired or are making pathetic wages playing music in clubs where they don't have much creative freedom. Kaos and Addiction had both skills and taste, but they're gone now. I wouldn't have survived the 90s without them. Jason Wann is pretty skilled with a laptop and has pretty good taste in music. DJ Kenny's taste is good enough to overcome his mediocre technical skills, but he was a radio DJ before and he'll get better. I haven't seen Maxamillion much, but he's blown me away when I have... purely based on taste and his ability to go from genre to genre without you noticing the switch. I don't expect him to mix much considering that he plays mostly rock and soul, but the man's got flow! I'm sure I'll feel stupid later for not mentioning others.

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DJ Catalyst

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