Ben Cantil is obsessed with sound.
Growing up in Kenai he idolized music producers, played instruments, joined his high school’s jazz band and couldn’t make it through a conversation with anyone, even his own mother, without mentioning his passion.
Rock, jazz, electronic — anything was food for his hungry musical mind.
Needless to say it was an easy decision to major in music at college, he said. But an open ear for new textures lead him down the path he now walks as a prominent DJ in the thriving music scene known as dubstep.
“I realized that production was all about taking a sound and perfectly preserving it and that is what they train you to do in the production department,” he said. “I realized that is not quite what I wanted to do.
“I really wanted to take a sound and get creative with it. I wanted to take sounds and destroy them, not preserve them. Turn them into something completely different.”
Much like he diverted away from production and into sound engineering, the musical world he now embodies has diverged away from those that came before it. Dubstep might be unlike anything you’ve ever heard — mostly it is the inevitable convergence of several electronic music movements into one distinct sound, Cantil said.
Despite playing to packed danced floors around the nation as Encanti, his DJ name, pursuing the music he loves and making hundreds move and dance as one, Cantil isn’t convincing himself that he’s reached any level of success, he said.
“To me success comes in quick moments,” said the Alaska Native of Tsimshian heritage who now lives in Boston. “There is a moment when something goes right — you’re either in front of 20 people or 20,000 people and you are exactly where you want to be.”
The now 26-year-old Cantil grew up in Kenai and graduated from Kenai Central High School in 2003.
He started playing music in middle school, first on the guitar, and it quickly became a passion.
“The thing was that there was never a lot of other musicians to play with,” he said. “Especially because I wanted to write songs and experiment.”
He found KCHS’ jazz program and fell into the hands of the school’s band director Deborah Sounart, who he said had a great impact on his musical journey.
“She let me be weird and into all the weird music I liked and she really encouraged me to be an artist even though it’s something that might bring you more hardship than it brings you reward,” he said.
Sounart said she isn’t surprised that Cantil has become the musician he is today and said the two communicate often.
“Ben has always had potential ... even when he walked through my door as a freshman” she said. “... I’m really glad he had the initiative to take that potential and turn it into something really cool and be productive.”
It was during Cantil’s formative high school years that he laid the roots for his later musical career.
His work ethic — waking up early to go to jazz band.
His showmanship — playing open mic nights at Busters Coffee House.
His ability to move a crowd — working as the DJ for several high school dances.
“Not only with guitar or electronic music, but it is also with performance and DJing and visuals and now that is just the world that I am completely immersed in,” he said.
He also was encouraged by his mother Patricia Schaeffer-Patterson who pushed her son to take risks and make an adventure of life, he said.
“I really attribute feeling like it is OK to do something that people don’t normally do, something that might not be safe (to her),” he said. “Toward the last years in high school that’s all I did was live and breathe music.”
That musical tenacity carried over into Berklee College of Music where he eventually graduated in 2007 with a degree in music synthesis and fell into a community of musicians he could collaborate with.
He found electronic music and dubstep fresh and full of life, he said.
“You’re interests come from what you’re influenced by and I think I was more and more influenced by electronic music,” he said.
‘Chasing that feeling’
Cantil said dubstep is a “trick genre” of music.
In his analogy, it is to electronic music as skateboarding is to sports — simple ingredients with endless combinations of elements unique to each DJ, he said. The DJ pulls the audience in slowly and then surprises them with the trick.
“In the course of a dubstep song you kind of build this tension and then there is a moment called ‘the drop’ and that is when the bass suddenly comes on,” he said.
Where as heavy metal and rock are concerned with fast drumming and distorted guitar, dubstep is “all about the bass,” he said.
The genre has really evolved since Cantil first discovered it. At that time it wasn’t popular and there were only a handful of DJs dialed into the sound.
“The feeling of having a whole crowd really follow you through that journey of tension and everyone just jumps on the drop is just so, so amazing,” he said. “I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since I first experienced.”
Now dubstep has entered into the mainstream music scene, claiming more famous DJs like Skrillex, who recently won three Grammys for his work.
“To me, I’m just happy there is more dubstep in the world,” Cantil said with a laugh.
How Encanti is different from other acts comes from Cantil’s influences — Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and a wide range of electronic and psychedelic music, he said. He doesn’t like to follow the traditional form and structure of the genre, he said.
“My songs go left, right and all different directions,” he said.
His main project is the Zebbler Encanti Experience, which, along with visual artist Peter Berdovsky, known as Zebbler, seeks to create a sensory representation of the dubstep sound.
“We are one of the first acts as far as I know where visuals are an inherent part of our performance and our show,” Cantil said.
The group recently toured the nation with fellow dubsteppers EOTO throughout 2011 and recently co-headlined a sold out New Years concert in Minneapolis with Downlink, a fellow dubstep producer.
One of the biggest pinnacles, however, was playing in front of a crowd of about 20,000 at Camp Bisco X with Shpongle Live, a live version of a popular studio project from Europe. Cantil was one of 11 musicians that played Shpongle’s music as the headlining act.
“I’m the guy that is playing the laptop,” he said jokingly.
In all seriousness, his role was critical — any of the song’s sounds that couldn’t be replicated by the other instrumentalists were left to him to que up. It’s a huge production with performers and dancers, not to mention a giant crowd, he said.
“I’m also the metronome for the band, so whenever I hit go on the computer everyone is wearing these headsets and hears a click and if I hit stop at the wrong time, the whole show crumbles,” he said.
Cantil also played with Shpongle during two sold out shows around Halloween — the first at the Hammerstein Ball Room in New York and the second at the Fox Theater in San Francisco the next night.
No plan B
Eventually Cantil wants to bring his music back home, but he’s not sure about what reception it might have. Friends and family are still not quite sure what to make of it, same as they were four years ago, he said.
“I’ve been waiting for there to be a market for dubstep and electronic music up there,” he said. “I know that it is developing but I know that one day there will maybe be a place for me up there again whether it be on the Peninsula or in Anchorage.”
Music has been Cantil’s full time job for the last two years — through richer and poorer.
“There has definitely been times where I have been really, really broke and other times when there is so much work that I can’t even stop to think about anything else,” he said. “It is a real up and down business. It is a lot of hustling and being in the right place at the right time and stuff like that.”
He knows not to make plans too far out and he rarely likes to have a plan B.
“I’ve failed a lot along the way ... but you’ve got to keep going forward,” he said. “Sometimes you are going to be really hungry like I have been in the last couple years. And other times you are going to be on stage in front of 20,000 people and those are the moments — the quick moments when all that defiance to defeat is really worth it.”
Over the years, he said he’s learned to recognize and internalize the things he’s good at — lead with one’s strengths, as they say.
“On the flip side you have to know what you’re bad at, too,” he said. “You have to be ready to take risks ... and the secret with a lot of the people that are doing what they wanted to do was that they took the right risks.”
For more on Cantil and his music, visit www.encanti.com
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.