When one considers the benefits of military service, perks such as learning job skills, seeing the world, and saving money for college might come to mind. Becoming a better DJ, however, is not typically part of the recruiter’s sales pitch. But according to Bay Area native Christopher Conley, aka DJ Method, it was down-time while stationed in a tiny town in New Mexico that inspired him to turn a hobby into a successful career.
Today, he has more than 12 years of DJ experience, and he’s known for his open-format style. We caught up with DJ Method about what open-format means, the weirdest DJ faux pas he’s seen, and his advocacy for backing up hard drives.
We heard you learned to DJ in the military. What was that experience like?
Actually, it was pretty much the same as learning anywhere else. I was a city kid through and through so being stationed in a tiny town in New Mexico was a pretty big culture shock. Also, if you’re not deployed and not studying for promotion, there’s a lot of free time when you’re not working. Being a late teen with not much to do in a small town is a dangerous proposition, so I had a friend of mine send me his old pair of beginner turntables. I hooked them up in my dorm room on base and started searching for record shops online. (There were none.) Then it was just teaching myself how to beat-match and mix singles together. After a while, I was allowed to move off-base, and I kind of became known as the DJ guy, so we started having parties at friends houses. It was crazy to see the local people stare at me — a lot of them had never actually seen someone DJ before and didn’t know records were still a thing.
Are there any parallels between the two professions/lifestyles?
Honestly, those two professions could not be further apart. The Air Force is about structure, doing what you’re told. If you screw up at your job, lives are on the line. DJing is slightly different.
For those of us that don’t know, what does being an open-format DJ mean?
Open-format means it is at the DJ’s discretion of what to play. That’s not quite how it works in reality, though. Most venues lean towards one style of music or another, so the DJ needs to keep that in mind. Not all crowds are as open-minded as others, either.
Have you seen that term change through the years?
Absolutely. Being an open-format DJ means being able to play a lot of different formats (hip-hop, ’80s, dance, rock, Top 40, Motown, ’90s, and more). A lot of DJ’s pretty much stop at hip-hop and Top 40 in the Bay Area because those are really popular here. I really try to color outside the lines a bit in my sets, not only because that’s what we should do, but there are great songs that bar and club crowds don’t know about. It’s the DJ’s job to not just play safe songs. That’s when everyone starts to sound the same. Provided, there are some venues that are really strict about it, and that’s one thing. But if they aren’t playing new or different stuff because they might challenge the crowd a bit, it gets boring.
Where do you fall on the spectrum of people who argue about “real DJing” being alive or dead?
Honestly, I don’t really care what people use to rock a party. I have friends that use controllers and are great on them. I’m a turntable guy, because I learned on them, but can use CDJs and controllers as well. The only time I sort of give someone the side-eye is for using sync (the software beat matches for you) when they don’t need to. If they’re using sync because they’ve added some other controller and are doing live remixing or something unique, great. If they’re using sync because they don’t want to actually mix one track into the other … that’s just being lazy. As for the people that say even using a digital library with turntables isn’t “real DJing,” well, then I guess they just don’t want anything to move forward.
With many DJ’s livelihoods depending on their laptops and hard drives, how important is it to have all your shit backed up?
Oh boy, can I rant about this — so I’ll try to keep it short. It absolutely blows my mind that some of these DJs that make their livelihood from it do not have a single backup of their laptop. I’ve been a computer person my whole life and I understand not everyone is — but literally a sub-$150 hard drive could save them losing hundreds of hours of work and thousands of dollars of music. Especially if they are on a Mac; Time Machine is one of the easiest and cost effective backup tools available. Even the backup tool in Windows is super straight forward. Also, don’t keep the backup with the computer! About three times a year I see a social media post about, “Holy shit someone broke into my car and stole my laptop, backup, and gear!”
To that I say: One, welcome to the jungle. Two, why are you leaving thousands of dollars worth of gear in a literal getaway vehicle? And three, what use is the backup now? Keep it somewhere else for exactly this reason. Thieves suck, but don’t make it easy for them.
Besides those critical mistakes listed above, what’s the worst faux pas you’ve seen a DJ commit?
Several years back, I had a Saturday night off and was at home organizing some music. I get a text from one of my friends that worked bottles over at Vessel (now Love + Propaganda). She asked me if I wanted to spin there. I said, “Sure what date are they looking for?” and she said, “RIGHT NOW.” Apparently, a local promoter booked this DJ that was so bad they were kicking him off the decks right then and there. I packed my gear and was there in 15 minutes.
I walked in and this guy was playing the theme from Cops, and people were looking at him sideways. He was wearing an all-leather jumpsuit zipped down to his belly button, no shirt. The GM was trying to tell me to ask him to wrap up his gear and let me get on. DJ was not happy. Neither was his entourage. They were led out by security. Then about 30 minutes later, I got a good crowd going and all of a sudden the dance floor clears and I’m thinking, “WTF? I’m not playing anything crazy.” Then it hits. Something like pepper spray was pumping out the vents. I can’t confirm him or one of his crew sprayed the ventilation system on the way out, but let’s be real here. Everyone out. Lame.
From the Marina to the Mission, you’ve played quite the variety of venues. However, if you were to put together your absolute dream gig, crowd included, what would it look like?
I’ve received a variant of this question before. It’s usually geared toward “What’s your favorite place to play?” And yours is more accurate; it’s not really the venue, it’s the crowd. I’ve played at some really nice venues where the people were really boring. Then I’ve played at some grimy dive bars where the crowd was down for anything and those were some of the best sets of my life. Dream crowd is as A.D.D. about genres as I am, really going through it. If they can hang with me going from Armand Van Helden to The Smiths to Schoolboy Q to The Supremes to The Killers to Run the Jewels, I’m lovin’ it. Favorite place I actually got to do that was Ruby Skye, for a buyout. It was absolutely bonkers. So much fun. I also DJ’d a friends wedding in Antigua, Guatemala last year for two days. Getting flown to another country to spin that incredible wedding definitely falls into dream gig territory. They went all out. I slept about five of 48 hours.
What resources do you look to the most to find new music?
Digging for music has completely changed. I used to spend all day at Amoeba on Haight sitting on the floor looking for singles that were tough to find — that was a while ago now. I still do that for albums or singles I want to collect, but not for DJing. Now it’s pretty much all online. Record pools provide the popular stuff that is necessary, scouring blogs provide some lesser known artists and remixes. Internet radio helps keep me listening to new stuff too.
And a question you often ask yourself about Bay Area nightlife is…?
Where’s the industry night that is actually for the industry folks?