Brian Mertz (aka DJ Mertz) has been a fixture in the Champaign-Urbana DJ community since he arrived for law school in 2001. Now a semi-permanent resident, Mertz can be found spinning in several venues around town. Tonight at 10 p.m., he'll be on WEFT Sessions, and you can hear him on 90.1 FM or online at weft.org.
I sat down with Mertz at Cafe Kopi on Saturday afternoon to discuss several topics. After the jump, Mertz shares some of his personal DJ history, as well as some of his thoughts on the past, present and future of the local scene.
Smile Politely: Did you grow up in Champaign-Urbana?
DJ Mertz: I came here for law school in 2001, been here pretty much ever since. I work for the University now, after graduating. I do a little bit of legal work for them, but not anything official, more communications work, a little bit of policy advising, things like that.
SP: Do you do a lot of out-of-town gigs?
DJM: I used to a lot more, when gas prices were a little more reasonable. I used to play pretty frequently in Milwaukee and Indianapolis, Columbia (Missouri). Places you could road-trip to and still at least break even in terms of gas and food costs, things like that. When gas prices started to spike up to about four dollars, it didn't become feasible. If it stays this low, things might start up again. Economics always play such a factor in any kind of music.
SP: How did you get started as a DJ?
DJM: I actually had a radio show in Bloomington, a normal show, just playing songs, and I got really into electronic music when I went to London for just a quick vacation; but I got to experience it, live and in person. When I came back, I started doing a radio show specifically for electronic music. Still wasn't spinning or mixing, just playing songs. And some local DJs in the area wanted to do a show and we started a Friday night show where they would bring turntables and mix live on-air, and I would host the show and interview them, and that sort of thing. Being that up-close, I sort of caught the bug, and they taught me some basics.
My first year of law school was so stressful, to put it extremely mildly, that I felt like I needed some sort of creative outlet, other than just go to class, do your homework, get some sleep, go back to class. So I saved up over a winter break, every penny I had, worked six days a week, and bought two turntables and I had some crates of vinyl from my undergrad, the radio station there, and I just started from there. I was kind of lucky at the time; Champaign's DJ'ing scene was really strong at the time. I would say, at the time, there were 30 to 40 DJs that could play house parties, bars, and that kind of thing. So there were a lot of people to learn from, lot of competition too. So you couldn't just sort of show up and half-ass it, even if you're at a house party at 5 a.m. Because if you didn't do a good job, someone was going to want that spot, and that's one of your few chances to play. Being in Champaign was really fortunate.
SP: So spinning for a radio show won't be much of a change for you.
DJM: I used to do some stuff with WRFU for a while, and I hosted Radioactivity on PGU for a while, so spinning on-air is not anything to make me nervous, but WEFT Sessions is something. When I was in law school here, I was actually music editor for the buzz for a while too, right when they shifted to trying to actually care about what was going on outside of campus. So, I got really engaged in the music scene, probably more broadly than I am right now, including the indie rock scene, the hip-hop scene, which I occasionally get to go out and experience. I remember even then being on WEFT Sessions being a big deal. Being on that show, meaning that you had done more than playing a couple of gigs or being on an open mike or something like that. I am a little nervous about that.
SP: How is playing for a radio audience different than playing for a live audience?
DJM: In some ways I like it a lot more, because you lack the instant feedback you get from playing in a club. If it flops (in a club), you see it flop, because everyone either clears off the dance floor or walks away. So (on the radio) you have a lot more chance to experiment or go in a lot more different direcitons, to try things that might scare people in public, actually can sound really cool on the radio.
SP: What's an example of something like that?
DJM: I remember one time I was spinning on Radioactivity, and I had a record of Louis Farrakhan presenting at a conference for black radio broadcasters, and there's a lot of really cool spoken parts that go along with it. I had brought in an extra turntable and just let it play, the whole side of the record, like 15 or 20 minutes, over the top of whatever I was mixing in instrumentally. That sort of droning voice would start to get a little weird, at least in places around here.
DJing out, at least in places around here, is more about creating a club environment, and less about creative expression. But if you go see a DJ at like the Metro in Chicago, when they have someone from Ninjatune, or one of those more experimental labels, there will be parts where there's no beat for four or five minutes, and there's all these cool, glitchy sounds and you can really get into that; that doesn't work around here. People are there to get their drinks and hear stuff that they can either dance to or at least bob their head, or it doesn't frighten them or that sort of thing. And I say that as someone who's fortunate to be a DJ at Boltini as opposed to ... I DJ'ed at Joe's for a while, and the spectrum between those two, in itself, is pretty broad. I have a lot more freedom at Boltini than I had at Joe's; but on the radio, even farther stuff. I'm probably going to be playing some even weirder stuff, near the end of it.
The local DJ scene is embracing this sound called dub-step, and I kind of wanted to play a little of that to showcase what everyone else is doing. I'd say the last three or four years I've been down here, I've been more concerned with trying to push what other DJs are doing, rather than being concerned with, "Well, am I playing at every single club, every single night of the week?" That kind of lost interest to me. So, the second half of my set, I'm just going to showcase what other people are doing and how I'm interacting with them as well.
SP: So, is there something of a DJ community in C-U?
DJM: Yeah, there is. It depends on which scene you're in. The salsa scene has a couple of DJs that are in it and their crowds. I come from a background of spinning house, when I started out spinning house here, the electronic scene was tightly woven in with the rave scene, like the farming raves to the Chicago club scene that had a strong influence here. So there's a lot of support within that, but it's still pretty underground, because the sounds and songs that those DJs enjoy aren't going to be on the radio, and it can sound a little frightening to people at times. But if you're in the right place, they can really be supportive of each other.
SP: That's good that the scene is small enough that people sort of have to get along with each other.
DJM: What I was talking about earlier, the golden era when I started out playing, it was really exciting because U-C Hip Hop was really starting to emerge as a really organized force. They were putting on a lot of big shows, having a presence on campus, recruiting new people. I can remember Urbana house parties where you'd have two or three hip-hop DJs, two house DJs, and a drum-and-bass DJ. Everyone got along, the same way in that Barfly used to be a great DJ'ing venue, a lot of variety, a lot of freedom with the sounds. I remember Seth (Fein) spinning indie rock on a Monday night, you might have a couple house kids coming through and some hip-hop people, and Larry Gates, whatever Lorenzo Goetz was classified back then. All of them sort of under the same roof. I see that coming back now with some DJs, like DJ Belly, locally does a really good job weaving between different genres. Soundwise, it's a lot of fun, because the hip-hop scene's totally into it, the electronic scene's into it. And I think if we see more of that, the DJ scene might expand more than what we've seen.
SP: Backing up a little bit, what kind of music did you grow up listening to?
DJM: The funny thing is that my family never listened to music in the house. We either had the TV news on or bad sitcoms. I can't say that anything before I went off to college was a huge influence. The radio stations around Chicago started playing a little bit of electronic music while I was in high school, and there was a pretty healthy ska scene while I was in high school, which I was also into. When I went to college at Illinois Wesleyan, it was my first exposure to a college radio station and I'm just bombarded with this unsigned, indie stuff, some of it just terrible, and some of it just amazing. And when I came here, the house scene was just so strong because of Chicago's influence. There was Orchid and then Tonic, and now it's just office space. There was a lot of house and a lot of disco that got played. DJ Impact, who passed away last year, was a huge impact on me in terms of sound. Going from British-style, which is like a 4,000-person rave, to a sound that's more personal that I could play in a place like Barfly and people could still get down. So that was huge.
For this last year, I've just been sort of isolated, in a way, because a lot of the creative people sort of pushed me: DJ Bozak, who recently moved out of town; my old DJ'ing partner, J-Phlip, who moved to Chicago and then San Francisco; she's been gone for three years.
SP: She's coming back this week, right?
DJM: Yeah, she's coming back Thursday to play. And then there's another DJ, Chris O, who I bounced a lot of house ideas off of. I was sort of left to my own devices for a while, and I re-discovered disco, like the new stuff that's on DFA, like LCD Soundsystem, the stuff they're doing. Last night, somebody was asking me about what I choose to pick and that switch to disco, where it's not just 125 beats per minute all night, has really enabled me to pick what sounds good, and if I can make it fit into a set then I get to play it, it's really liberating.
SP: When you play a gig, how many records do you bring?
DJM: It used to be for a four-hour gig, I would bring three crates of vinyl, it'd be 150, 200 records. But I recently got Serato Scratch Live, which is a digital DJ'ing software, so now I'm down to about 100, 150 records, because there's so much good stuff that only comes out on vinyl. I just enjoy playing vinyl more, and I'll never abandon that, but having that laptop there really helps.
SP: So where do you get vinyl around here?
DJM: In town, Exile's really the only place to get anything new. I do special orders through them, which is great, because anything that I can find through certain distributors they can get really fast. For used stuff, I occasionally go to Record Swap, but the rest of it is online.
SP: What are one or two of your desert-island records that you're always using when you DJ?
DJM: For me right now, in Champaign at least, to keep it simple, "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder is a fail-safe, because not only is the worst crowd in the world going to appreciate that song — and there are a lot of worst crowds in the world in Champaign — but people that know good music, that's an indispensable song. That's probably it, as far as a record that's always in my crate.
SP: When you're playing for a cool crowd, what's something that you reach for?
DJM: When everything's going well, I guess, there's a Justin Martin track called "The Fugitive." He's this guy out of San Francisco that makes this crazy, really funky, tech-house. But it's still got a lot of grime and dirt to it. So, if things are going well, that'll really fill a room.
SP: Anything that we didn't discuss that you would like to talk about?
DJM: I'm still amazed by Champaign, what it does in terms of the DJ scene here. A lot of the DJ's that I grew up with have gone on to DJ in New York and are doing big things there. There's a whole chapter of Champaign DJ's on the West Coast, doing great things there. Spinner D Spinnerty, J-Phlip, Bozak's got a lot of good things going for him. Just the talent level in this town, and I think a lot of people miss that. I think the DJ scene, the people that live it and breathe it, the talent level is so high. That's why I love being a DJ in this town. There are a lot of people doing a lot more than playing whatever club hits are on the radio, so I think there will be a lot more of that.