DJ collective The Crunchy Bunch performs with confidence
Al LeBlanc stopped to do a cha-cha with a member of the crowd before making his way back to the turntable. He and his brother Chris LeBlanc, members of DJ collective The Crunchy Bunch, performed in front of a healthy audience on a recent Wednesday night.
Lights flashed in front of Blacklist Artisan Ales' large glass garage door. Through it, you could see a man smoking and pumping to the music.
Inside, Jacqui Cooley followed the rhythm. "I've seen them multiple times; I try not to miss them," she said after a break. "They have an energy that puts you in the mood."
At the back of the bar, Kala Shepersky sat in front of a laptop. She's known the group for years, and even though she had assignments due, she didn't want to miss the show. "It's fun and dance-y, it's still very laid-back," she said.
"It comes down to crafting an atmosphere for that night, for that event ... Or whatever we might be feeling," Al said.
The collective has been at it since 2009, when Chris started playing around on DJ equipment. Soon, Al and Dan Branovan jumped in. From there, they formed the collective. They studied YouTube tutorials, built their music libraries and organized their tracks by speed.
They performed at parties, bars, a burger joint. Nowadays, it's a monthly performance at Blacklist, and they show up regularly at Blush, Vikre Distillery, The Red Herring.
"From the basements to the corporate gigs, they know what they're doing," said Walt "Dizzo" Raschick.
The DJ and music director for Wisconsin Public Radio has worked closely with the group since "way back." They've co-hosted events, shared the stage at dance clubs, and the collective has performed a live mix on Walt's radio show on KUWS.
"The Crunchy Bunch actually named one of their mixtapes after a game they invented based on tagging me in photos," he said by email. "It's called #wheresdizzo, and it's pretty ridiculous."
"Al and Chris LeBlanc have been some of the most kind folks I've ever worked with," he continued. Not only are the performance and technical skills there, they've established themselves as professionals.
They've also enlivened the dance scene in Duluth, said Laura Sellner of Superior Siren.
She has known the LeBlancs since they were all in grade school. "Chris and Al introduced me to a lot of music growing up. They would burn me mixed CDs, and that really developed my love of different genres and inspired me."
Each DJ has his own style, which is easy to spot because they experiment in different ways with different sounds, she said.
Dan is into old school; Al is into heavy-hitting house music; Chris is all over the map with disco and grungier music. But they don't dip too far into digital effects.
"It becomes this cacophony of sound, if you don't use it correctly," added Al.
There's an art to DJing. It's seamlessly manipulating sounds, adding filters, joining and arranging songs to create a mood with equipment that's often changing.
"Just because it's not made of wood and strings doesn't mean it's not an instrument," Laura said. "It's being one step ahead, thinking about how to flow a song into the next one, how to keep the crowd alive."
"A lot of it has to do with how much fun we look like we're having, which is completely true," said Dan. He moved to the Cities three years ago, where he still DJs. He returned to Duluth to perform with his "best friends" during Homegrown Music Festival.
We get along and we have so much history together, he said. Being the center of attention can be intimidating. At a high school dance, you don't see people facing the DJ. "Once you get in the groove, you learn how to exist on stage and how to have hundreds of people staring at you," Dan said.
There have been tough crowds — people unplugging equipment, a story about beer on their turntables, even bribery.
"I got paid 20 bucks to play a dude's song; I don't even know if I played it," Al said.
Generally, they're not that type of DJ, and they let you know. They made stickers that say "No requests. Shut up and dance."
"It's taken a while to gain real confidence in that: 'No, we know what we're doing is good. We know what we like,'" Chris said. Staying firm in their musical tastes and in what they're worth has been a learning experience, and it all comes back to the craft.
"I'm not doing this for money," said Al. "We started doing it because we like dancing, we like DJ culture, most of it, but we just like playing music."
Chris and Al grew up in a family, where they were told early on to pick an instrument. There's been the cello, drums, guitar, advanced choir at Duluth East and multiple bands. While the collective is almost 10 years old, they weren't the first to do this in the Twin Ports. They owe a lot of credit to DJs Kevin Kraig and Path Annu, who have been active in Duluth for 20-25 years, Chris said.
About a year ago, the LeBlancs created the Crunchy Bunch podcast. They get to craft longer sets and spotlight local talent like Laura Sellner, Emma Rustan from Ingeborg von Agassiz, Ned Netzel of seym0ur.
Sitting in their home studio on Central Hillside, Chris and Al are just as animated off stage.
Both lift their arms and strum to describe a song with flamenco guitar. Al beats his chair and sings to explain polyrhythms. Scanning through their favorite songs on the computer, the brothers freely move their shoulders to the beat.
"It speaks to me," Chris said of music. "I always have a feeling like I'm behind, no matter how much I'm studying, it's a constant pushing motivation."
"It's a means of expressing what I really don't know how to express because it is so, so versatile for me," Al said. He recently moved to Chicago, but it's by no means the end of the collective.
They'll come together for Homegrown, maybe a 10-year anniversary show. They'll continue to collaborate and perform; Chris will likely keep up with the podcast.
"There doesn't need to be an end," Dan said. Bands break up because they're not making music regularly together. "The Crunchy Bunch will always be the Crunchy Bunch."
• More info: www.facebook.com/TheCrunchyBunch/
• Podcast, mixes: https://soundcloud.com/thecrunchybunch
• Mixtapes: thecrunchybunch.info
= = =
Members of Duluth DJ collective The Crunchy Bunch (and DJ Walt Dizzo) shared what they’re into.Dan Branovan