Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
From impersonating Aphex Twin to applying video-game strategy to the
music business, no self-promoting scheme is too harebrained for electronica artist Justin Katz.
It’s 7 p.m. on a Tuesday in December, and Justin Katz, part-time composer of electronic music, full-time law student, and round-the-clock self-promoter, stands in his kitchen and pours himself a Coke. It’s his 10th can of the day. Or maybe his 11th. He’s not really counting.
Even though he’s on vacation, Katz seems restless. His mop of black hair is a mess, as if he’s been running his hands through it compulsively. And his speech is fidgety, as if he’s still caught up in the frenzy of law-school finals.
Katz walks into his living room, which also serves as his studio, and flops his lanky frame down into his swiveling black-leather “Captain’s chair,” where he’s been producing music all day.
In front of his favorite seat, a computer, a drum machine, a sequencer, and several synthesizers occupy an L-shaped desk. His breakfast—a bag of cookies—sits nearby alongside his dinner, an unfinished box of french fries.
“I’m kind of a hyper person,” says Katz. “I get bored really quickly, so I have to keep changing activities, keep doing something new.”
These days, though, Katz doesn’t seem in any danger of getting bored. He’s just finished his third semester of law school at the Catholic University of America, and his music career is steadily picking up steam. Katz now releases his music under his own name—or at least under his own alias: Hook the Captain, or just Hook for short. But during his senior year of college, when he first introduced his music to the world, Katz pretended his songs were someone else’s.
In the spring of 2000, Katz posted a series of his songs on a Web site created for the occasion, claiming them to be a pirated version of Drukqs, the upcoming album by ambient-electronica icon Aphex Twin. By the time the two-disc set was released, nearly a year and a half later, Katz estimates nearly 150,000 people had downloaded his bogus version.
“I’ve always wanted the music to represent itself,” Katz says. “But that’s impossible in this world. You need to have a product with a hook. I like to do absurd things when promoting my songs. But the songs themselves are serious.”
Even though he no longer borrows band names from his bigger brothers in the music business, a touch of absurdity remains in every facet of Katz’s stylized persona. From his Web site to his business cards, one recurring slogan says it all: “Justin Katz. He’s the Pants.”
Katz, 23, was born in Baltimore, grew up in Potomac, Md., and now lives in D.C. on Connecticut Avenue NW. While other kids were still playing kickball and hopscotch, Katz was already scheming to begin a music career.
“When I was 8 years old, for at least an hour every day for about a month, I begged my mom for a keyboard,” he recalls. “‘Mom, you have to buy me this. Mom, please. Mom, come on!’ I was very spoiled and demanding. She eventually bought it for me, and I obtained, like, six more keyboards in the next seven years.” At age 13, Katz blew his entire bar mitzvah savings on his first Korg keyboard.
Katz’s musical tastes were as precocious as his ambitions. “I got into electronica in about the third grade,” he says. “I was listening to Def Leppard and all that stuff with the other kids. But in the ’80s, there was a lot of electronic New Wave music: Information Society, Depeche Mode, A-ha. Ever since then, I’ve had a weird fascination with that music.”
Early performances at such venues as a junior-high-school talent show gave Katz his first taste of artistic adversity. “We played a song on stage, which was just me hitting the Start button for some sequence on an old-school Yamaha keyboard and my friend drumming to it,” Katz says. “He had just started drumming and was really bad. Everyone in school made fun of us for, like, three weeks.”
At Thomas S. Wootton High School in Maryland, Katz played in a thrash band called Mishmosh and produced his own music under the name Heresy. “I made recordings of my Heresy stuff,” says Katz. “Everyone in high school probably remembers me as that guy selling his own tapes.”
As an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, Katz majored in psychology while minoring in philosophy and creative writing. He continued to play music on the side, performing only occasionally. “I had a band called the Grandmas,” says Katz. “It was me and two other guys. We used to do concerts in thrift stores, using just the materials we found there. But it didn’t last too long. You can’t live like that forever.”
In 1999, the summer before his senior year of college, Katz, a longtime video-game fan, discovered something that entranced him even more than electronica: EverQuest, an online, multiplayer role-playing game. “EverQuest sucked my existence away,” says Katz. “I was totally addicted for about nine months.”
During that span, Katz spent approximately 2,300 hours actively engaged in the fantasy world of EverQuest. He stopped investing in his own life, he says, choosing above all else to boost the well-being of his EverQuest character, Thorballz Frijoles. “I built him up from scratch to be a Level 60 warrior,” says Katz in a solemn tone, awe-struck by the memory. “I had all these techniques in the game for advancing my character, trading stuff, making money. I was really good at it.”
But by the end of his senior year, Katz was forced to retire from the game. He had lost two girlfriends to EverQuest. And as a result of skipping school to play the game, he had failed two classes. He was in jeopardy of not graduating. Reluctantly, he gave control of Thorballz to a trusted friend.
In the aftermath, Katz had an epiphany of sorts: “I realized that if I could apply a 10th of that energy to my real life,” he says, “I could probably do something good, something big.”
After getting his school credits in order, Katz refocused on his keyboards and began crafting a new alter ego, Hook the Captain, for a new quest: making it big in the music industry. “The idea is to apply the same techniques from EverQuest to the real world,” he says. “I try to move myself from level to level. Some of it’s bullshit. You kind of act like you know what you’re doing, and people listen to you. Other times, you have to be pretty adept. I feel like the music industry and the fantasy world are very similar in that respect.”
Several months after exiting EverQuest for good, Katz pulled off the Aphex Twin stunt with the hope of pushing his music into the limelight. He attributes the idea to a high school friend, Michael Williams. “I thought it was a good idea,” says Katz. “I knew it would get a lot of attention.”
Sure enough, people started downloading the tracks almost as soon as they were online. Some fans were apparently fooled, though others immediately recognized the hoax. “I received a lot of negative feedback, resentment, and angry e-mails,” says Katz, who included his e-mail address on the Web site. “People told me, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this. It’s wrong. It’s unethical. It’s fraud.’”
Other people were surprised by the seemingly substandard work. “A lot of people didn’t like the music,” says Katz. “They were like, ‘This sucks. What happened to Aphex Twin?’”
But not all of the responses were negative. “I got a lot of praise from people, too,” Katz remembers. “It was really flattering. And the crazy thing is that the whole episode spawned an urban legend. I still get calls from people in places like California who want to know the real story behind the guy masquerading as Aphex Twin.”
Katz says that throughout the put-on, he repeatedly tried to contact Richard D. James, the 30-year-old Briton behind Aphex Twin. “I kept sending him e-mail and leaving him messages being like, ‘Dude, I’m defrauding your shit,’” says Katz. But he never got James to respond. (The Washington City Paper was similarly unable to attain James’ reaction to Katz’s fabrication.)
At the end of the summer of 2000, Katz removed the phony album from the Internet, packed up his bags, and moved back to the D.C. area. “I tried to retain as many of the initial fans as I could,” says Katz. “I started a mailing list and pretty much took over from there in a traditional sense, sending CDs out and soliciting music labels.”
But Katz, inevitably, maintains a certain fictional flair when it comes to promoting his music. On his Web site, www.hookthecaptain.com, which he launched last year, there are links to several fake Hook the Captain fan sites, including Lookus Hookus, Hook Gave Me VD, and Hook Is Paul. The last features side-by-side photographs of an adult Katz and a youthful Josh Saviano, the actor who played the character Paul Pfeiffer on the sitcom The Wonder Years. The accompanying text posits that they are one and the same person (“the pictures truly speak for themselves”), citing numerous coincidences in support of the bogus theory. Both Saviano and Katz, according to the site, were born in 1978 and attend law schools on the East Coast. And both display a musical talent: “Furthermore, according to an interview with actor Fred Savage (who played Kevin Arnold), ‘[Saviano] wasn’t the nerd that everyone thought him to be. He was really creative. He always had a small keyboard on the set and would entertain us on breaks by coming up with really funny songs.’”
But despite all the energy he devotes to marketing Hook the Captain, Katz says he remains most excited and devoted to the music. “I write a lot of songs, and each one is almost like a little better than the last one,” he says. “I’m very careful, meticulous, and obsessive when it comes to my music. I have to be completely satisfied with a song or I won’t release it.”
Having already passed Katz’s own exacting inspections, one of his songs, “Take Me Away,” is now being welcomed by the gatekeepers of the music biz. Stephen Lawson, a deputy editor with London-based Future Publishing, recently chose the song to be included in a CD compilation that will accompany an upcoming issue of Future Music magazine. “I liked the way [‘Take Me Away”s] lo-fi beats worked with the hi-tech music,” writes Lawson by e-mail. “The song has a really original sound, which I think is important….It’s also quite an ambient number, nice and atmospheric.”
Katz is also looking forward to his first live show as Hook the Captain. He says that his newly acquired agent, BPM Culture magazine Assistant Editor Mark von Pfeiffer, is lining up a concert for Katz to be held someplace in L.A. “It’s almost like I’m still playing the video game,” says Katz. “I’m on Level 52. I’m trying to get to Level 53. I have to keep going. One day I would like to have my own record label. I want a production company. And I’d like to start my own corporation.”
In the meantime, Katz will be heading back to law school. Though his future plans in the legal profession remain uncertain, Katz might end up in court any day now: He’s currently facing a possible lawsuit from EMI Records over a sample that he included in one of his songs.
“They probably won’t sue,” says Katz. “My agent is trying to clear the sample as we speak. But, in a way, I kind of hope that they do sue. It would be great for promotional purposes.” CP