The latchkey kid from West Columbia continues to mash up his sonic world
Everything was going fine at The Davenport on January 7 until Mike Pendon decided to play a song from Fraggle Rock.
Pendon, aka DJ Jester the Filipino Fist, is a pop-culture provocateur who loves to confound expectations, so none of his friends would find it unusual for him to spin music from a long-forgotten Jim Henson Muppet show in front of a Saturday night crowd wanting to hear the latest dance tracks in rotation on 98.5 FM. But at least one female patron wasn’t amused. She approached Pendon and “started getting real belligerent with him” about the song selection, according to Ernest Gonzales, Pendon’s friend and fellow DJ, who shares Thursday and Saturday night gigs with him at The Davenport.
|Mike Pendon, aka DJ Jester: a hopeless romantic with a wicked sense of irony. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)|
“Later on, he played ‘Forever And Ever Amen’ by Randy Travis and I started getting mean looks because they thought it was me playing it,” Gonzales says. “But then he threw a hip-hop track on top of it and that’s when everybody said, ‘Oh, OK. I can dance to country music.’”
That’s the essence of Pendon’s appeal: A willingness to find the humor and the catharsis in pop’s most absurd moments, and an ability to repackage those moments in a form that makes people dance, sometimes against their own better judgment.
San Antonio’s favorite musical son only recently returned to the Alamo City after short stints in Austin and San Francisco, and the last three years have been pretty dizzying: He toured the world with one of his greatest inspirations, Montreal turntablist Kid Koala; he drove an Edy’s ice-cream truck up the East Coast, while stopping in various cities to play gigs and promote his music; he taught a class at the Berklee College of Music; he demonstrated video iPods at various major-league baseball stadiums; and he hyped Lufthansa Airlines’ wireless internet access to San Francisco bar patrons.
Pendon, 29, always expected to be a journalist (he served as arts editor for UTSA’s student newspaper The Paesano) and his latent emergence as a salesman continues to surprise him. But whether he’s pitching one of his mix CDs or fat-free ice cream, he manages to close the deal because he’s self-deprecating, clever, and genuinely likable. In a way, he might be the first emo turntablist, a boundless romantic whose beat-matching musical constructions often serve as veiled love letters to ex-girlfriends.
“My wife and I always describe him as our pet,” says Gonzales, who released Pendon’s Heavily Booted CD and will release his forthcoming Secret Love on the Exponential record label. It’s almost like we’re parents. For a while he stayed with us and asked us for advice. He struggles with the girl issue. It’s a theme in his life, trying to find that special person.”
The liner notes to Pendon’s Secret Love, written by his friend Jacquie Moody-Fuller, tell the tale: “I count the time I’ve known Mikey not in years, but in the number of heartbreaks I’ve seen him endure.”
Fuller’s liner notes also make the case that Pendon, in his commanding but clownish Jester persona, has elements of a comic-book superhero. Gonzales has made the same argument for years.
“We’ve said he’s like Spiderman, because Peter Parker’s kind of dorky and he’s always chasing one girl,” Gonzales says. “But in a way I see the Hulk thing too. I don’t see the rage in Mikey at all, but you know how the Hulk is always going to the next town and leaving the girl behind? That’s Mikey.”
Pendon, grew up less than an hour from Houston, in the tiny suburban town of West Columbia. The youngest of four children born to Filipino immigrants Greg and Lucy Pendon, he experienced the solitude characteristic of an only child while also benefiting from the knowledge (and record collections) of his much older siblings.
“I was a hand-me-down kid,” he recalls. “There was a lot of alone time, whether it was skateboarding, playing video games, or watching TV. I see Claire `Fisher` on Six Feet Under and I say, ‘That’s me. Rolling her eyes and all, that’s so me.’”
His parents wouldn’t allow their kids to drive to concerts in Houston unsupervised, so the entire family — including a pre-adolescent Mikey — attended shows by the likes of Missing Persons and Sting. Pendon absorbed all the influences around him, from his siblings’ Thompson Twins albums to the novelty hits of Weird Al Yankovic, from the tongue-in-cheek punk of the Dead Milkmen (whose guitarist Joe Genaro became Pendon’s pen pal for seven years) to the outlaw country of Willie Nelson.
Even with his considerable success as a DJ, Pendon views himself as the black sheep of his family, somewhat understandable considering the brainy achievers he had to follow: a doctor, a graduate of Brown University, and a leading light in the Austin theater community.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled at UTSA, at least partly because he couldn’t think of anything better to do. Demonstrating more interest in his jobs at Blockbuster Music and Hogwild Records than in his classes, he took six-and-a-half years to graduate with a degree in American Studies.
“I’d take like three classes a year and when school was over I was like, ‘What do I do now?,’” he says with a laugh.
By this point, Pendon had established a (pseudonymous) name for himself on the local club scene as a DJ, often working in tandem with a scratch DJ crew called the Underdog Turntablists. Some of his earliest recorded scratches came with Leopold Green, an underground pop group that included Rod Castro, aka Quad Rod. “We created tracks to show him off,” Castro says. “Even then, we kind of knew he’d be the little star that he is now.
“He was always really quirky. A lot of the DJs at the time were so serious. Everybody was doing these battles and showing off and Mikey wasn’t like that. I always think of him as like the little party DJ.”
The “little party DJ” also possessed the rare ability to promote himself without coming off obnoxious or ego-centric. In one instance, while interviewing Ice-T for UTSA’s Paesano, he even popped a tape on the legendary rapper and got him to deliver a testimonial that appeared on Jester’s 2000 debut CD, River Walk Riots.
The album represented a breakthrough for Pendon because it was the first time he cut loose with the wild mash-ups of incongruous elements — such as “In a Gadda Da Vida” or the “Yellow Rose of Texas” with a hip-hop track — that he’d previously played for friends but only sporadically included in his club gigs.
“He’s a stand-up comedian,” Gonzales says. “He just happens to use turntables to tell his jokes. He plays songs that nobody in their right mind would want to play, but he pulls it off.”
With notable exceptions such as Phoenix’s Z-Trip and Montreal’s Kid Koala, few ‘90s turntablists had the imagination or daring to attempt such mash-ups, and after Pendon released River Walk Riots, he concluded that his DJ career had gone as far as it could go, and that he needed to find a direction for his life.
In early 2001, with his college studies completed and with no clue about his future, he applied for a job driving the Oscar Mayer Wiener mobile around the country. That didn’t pan out, but he did land a similar gig for Boca Foods, driving their promotional vehicle for six months and demonstrating the culinary wonders of soy patties to the uninitiated.
“When I was on the road, my mom was complaining that I had too much stuff in storage in her garage,” he recalls. “So I told her to send me some of it, and part of what she sent me were copies of my CD. So I decided to go to every independent record store or radio station along the way. So I went to Other Music in New York and brought them a bunch of Boca Burgers and the CD.”
Pendon’s promotional stops on that trip essentially created a career for him, with his CD being passed from the Village Voice to Spin, and with independent record stores and underground radio suddenly perceiving him as the next Kid Koala.
He even met Koala during his Boca Burger odyssey, which led to an invitation from Koala to join him on the breakneck 2003 Short Attention Span Theatre tour, which also included P-Love and Lederhosen Lucil, and hit 65 cities in two months.
“At that time, I was so nervous to play outside of San Antonio,” he says. “It was like 8 Mile, I was puking before the shows. Now, it’s insane because I feel like I’m more comfortable playing outside San Antonio. It’s easier to be a DJ on tour than it is to be a DJ who has a weekly gig, because you have to keep coming up with new stuff. On tour you’re in different cities so you can do your same routines.”
For the first time, Pendon had to confront the fact that some of his cultural references didn’t always translate to non-Texan audiences. “Sometimes it’s hard to play in places like Des Moines, Iowa,” he says. “You can’t play George Strait sometimes. I never, never knew how much people hated Texas until I left. Then I came back and never realized how much I loved it.”
In France, he drew hecklers over his use of Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes.” As the song played, he took the mic and shouted: “This is a classic song!” He says the experience only thickened his skin: “I feel like I can do anything now.”
When Pendon came home from the Short Attention Span Theatre Tour, the letdown of coming off that whirlwind left him depressed. It didn’t help matters that he’d spent all his money on the road.
Needing a change, he moved to Austin and worked for a spell at Tower Records. Feeling lonely and out of his usual comfort zone, he collaborated with Quad Rod on Table For One, a melancholy ode to lost love.
In May 2004, he got a job driving an Edy’s ice-cream truck along the east coast for two-and-a-half months, pitching the mantra: “Half the fat, all the flavor.” He played several shows along the way and taught a class at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The students watched as Pendon demonstrated his turntable techniques and they asked him how he came up with his offbeat mixes. He offered the example of listening to an old Chet Atkins record and suddenly realizing that it lent itself to a hip-hop beat, “so I mashed it together with a 50 Cent track.”
He briefly returned to San Antonio, sleeping on Ernest Gonzales’ couch for a month, before hitting the road to demonstrate video iPods at major-league baseball parks. After that, he moved to San Francisco, where he demonstrated personal computers at a shopping mall.
After spending a month hawking Lufthansa Airlines’ wireless internet access, he moved back to San Antonio. “I came here for a girl and it kind of didn’t work out,” he shrugs.
Armed with skills sharpened on the road with Kid Koala, Pendon has put together his strongest collection of mixes with Secret Love, a CD that he’ll sell this winter on tour with Grand Buffet and Of Montreal (it hits stores in May). The comedic recontextualizations are still there, with Hall & Oates, Boz Scaggs, Prince, and Run-D.M.C. bumping up against soundbites from The Nutty Professor, Five Easy Pieces, and Reality Bites, not to mention the instrumental theme from St. Elmo’s Fire.
But the mixes are not merely funny, they’re more sonically artful than ever before. When he melds Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” with The Cure or puts a thumping hip-hop beat underneath “Forever And Ever Amen,” he’s creating new entities that are richer than the source materials.
Pendon ends the collection with Foreigner’s sentimental ballad “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” a track that listeners might assume is there for its kitsch value. Pendon will have none of it. “I really love that song,” he says, singing a snippet of the chorus. “I mean, that’s a great song.”
Of course, as he makes this argument, Pendon is laughing. •