Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Stepping Up.”
It’s 2:48 on a Monday afternoon and Trent Von is just getting his day started.
“That’s the life of a DJ,” he said laughing. “Thankfully, I’m still at it.”
The coronavirus pandemic that’s put a pause on almost everything hasn’t stopped the music — his music — that made him a staple in Seattle’s nightclubs since the early ’90s.
Before COVID-19, the 52-year-old Von made a living spinning vinyl records and supplying the soundtrack for dance parties at Tulalip Resort Casino, Emerald Downs and local nightclubs.
But things haven’t been normal since Washington state’s stay-home order closed many businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19.
These days, Von continues to broadcast a radio show three times a week at C89.5 FM, the longest-running dance station in the nation, run by students and volunteers at Nathan Hale High and celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
But rather than spend his nights in clubs, Von works from his Everett home, where he set up a studio in the basement complete with turntables, mixers, volumes of vinyl records, speakers, strobe lights and webcams.
Three days a week, Von live streams a 3-hour set for virtual partygoers — and he’s loving it.
If people can’t party at the clubs like they used to, then he’ll take the party to them in their homes or wherever they can access his online performances.
“I was sitting at home, and I had time to myself like a lot of people and just started thinking I can still play music for people,” said Von, a freelance sound technician. “I had all this gear in the basement and I thought, ‘I bet I could do one of those stream things that a lot of DJs are doing.’
“The very first night, I was really surprised. When you do something that you’ve never done before, you really don’t have a clue whether it’s going to take or what people’s reaction is going to be. But people have been having fun with it.”
Von, a Bay Area native who moved to Seattle in January 1992, rose to prominence as a resident DJ at popular nightspots Fenix Underground, Neighbors and Weathered Wall.
“The problem with the Bay Area, it wasn’t fertile ground,” said Von, who bought his first turntable as a 7-year-old and got his start DJing parties in high school. “They had a vibrant club scene in Seattle, but a lot of things I’d done in the Bay Area hadn’t really been done yet. I wanted to get up here and mix shows on the radio. There were maybe 1-2 DJs that were doing it, but I really wanted to blow up.
“I was became a fan of the places I liked. I got to know people in management and let them know what I did. I gave them a few mixed tapes. Back then they were on cassette. A night would open up and made myself really available just to prove myself, and before you knew it, the reputation started to grow and things began to snowball.”
Admittedly, there are several challenges to DJing for a remote audience. Von said he misses the interaction with clubbers and partygoers, but he jokes that the lines to the bathroom are shorter.
“One of the biggest things I struggled with was I couldn’t decide what type of music to play,” Von said. “I had so many well-known residencies in the past, so I just decided to pick a club from the ’90s or early 2000s and we’ll theme the heck out of that club that night.”
Last week, under the heading “Quarantine Edition,” Von spun classic ’90s dance tunes that made Tropix Beach Club, across from the Space Needle, a hot spot before it changed ownership.
The next night, he fueled a performance with post-punk and industrial tracks that were popular at Rock Lobster, a once beloved dance night at Neighbors nightclub in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
And recently, Von paid homage to Casa-U-Betcha, a Belltown nightclub closed years ago, that featured a mix of disco and funk music.
“We were talking about it in the chat room one night that without know what we were doing, we were serving up a big batch of comfort food for everybody,” said Brenna Larson, Von’s wife, who monitors the chat rooms during his performances. “It’s musical comfort food. It’s familiar and reminds you of a time when you were young and carefree.”
Von’s first performance on April 2, which paid tribute to Fenix Underground, garnered 639 views in total. For context, capacity at the old Pioneer Square nightclub that closed in 2007 was 1,700.
“In the ’90s, we had a really good time, then life goes on and we can’t be in that environment,” said Steve Tracey, the former general manager at Neighbors nightclub who operates a handful of restaurants, including Creekside Alehouse & Grill in Lake Stevens. “So many people can’t be going out and stop going out night after night. And they want to relive those feelings, and that’s what he’s targeting.
“We still all need that feeling. Trying to feel younger and remembering those good times in life. He’s just giving that back to the people. And it makes him feel good doing what he does very best.”
Von isn’t the only DJ whose been forced to adapt and embrace social-distance parties.
Chop Suey, Mercury @ Machinewerks and Monkey Loft are among Seattle nightclubs hosting live stream DJ parties. Flammable, a staple at Re-bar on Sundays that claims to be the longest-running house music night on the West Coast, has also moved its weekly show to Twitch.
Von believes he’ll continue his online performances even if the state’s stay-home order expires May 4.
“I haven’t set an end date on when I’ll stop or if I’ll stop,” he said. “Especially during this time when we’re all stuck at home, there are a lot of people looking forward to these events.
“And it’s a great way for me to stay in contact with people. And right now, it just seems like the right thing to do.”