It’s all nostalgia, right? References to mixtapes, endearing line drawings of cassettes, socks and t-shirts with cassette tapes on them, Walkman fanaticism, fondness for J-cards and the words “Maxell,” “TDK,” and “Memorex.” It reminds us of songs and people without clear distinction between them. Memories of the memories we were having that the songs evoked. It reminds us of special presents from special someones. The past.
No. Mixtape-making is alive and well! At least for Erin it is. I learned about Erin Margaret Day through social media and was anxious to find out more about her and her project.
Erin invested in a proper cassette deck a few years ago so that she could listen to a release by the DC-based bass and drum duo Blacks Myths. Soon after, she embarked on a mixtape making project. Part memoir, part music-sharing, part season worship. She makes mixtapes for friends with a stereo cassette player, then shares the result on her blog ComeAwayWithEMD.com. An analog process with both an analog and digital product. Why?
Erin: I had been making these seasonal playlists on Spotify and would share them with a friend or two or post them on my blog, but there was also a lot of pressure mounting to stop giving money to Spotify around the same time. My first mixtape was a double cassette set, each tape 120 mins, so four hours long total, and I made it the Pandemic Summer. It was kind of a tribute to protest music and a bit of an essay about how Black the vast majority of that music has been in America…I made a bunch of mixtapes for my friend’s kid in the fall and then started the seasonal mixtape series winter 2021.
Something about mixtapes has always felt very magical to me–capturing time and space and a person’s emotional state, train of thought, etc. Since I began this series, the tapes have very much felt like they are a way I not only process my life but manifest my future. So, I guess I chose them because I love them and I think they are magical, but I have continued making them because the process has proven itself to be magical and because it functions as a great way to process my life, share it with other people, and practice this talent I have for weaving sonic tapestries that communicate stories, truths, and connections.
A process that is just as important as its recipient. Erin has created a ritual. Maybe making mixtapes, even one-off tributes to burgeoning crushes, were always rituals.
Sarah: How do you select the theme for each tape?
Erin: Each tape is sort of different. When tapes are for people I am very close to or have known a long time, they involve a lot more themes that connect with who I know that person to be or aspects of our relationship, things I know they would like, things that remind me of them. When
I know people less, or I make a tape before figuring out who I will give it to, my own headspace factors more in what I create, I think…but the tapes are always kind of intended to document that season of my life, so there are often many meanings happening at a time. For example, my fall mixtape was for an old friend I have known for like half of my life who had just gotten married and released one of the best albums of last year and is really coming into their power as an adult, but I had also just started dating someone I had very serious feelings about who also has a long history in the DIY music scene, so it’s a narrative that captures that period in both their life and mine well, with a lot of songs that evoke moving from youth to adulthood, looking back while moving forward, and coming into power and wisdom, learning how to love in healthy ways. That friend is like a genius of crafting meaning and telling stories, so I also set out to prove to them in my track selections and mixtape craft that I am the greatest student of their own poetic philosophy, through the themes I chose and connected them into a wildly complex themescape!
Said mixtape is one for which Erin is most proud. She made it for someone who is very close, an old friend with whom she had not been in communication for a long time. She wrote:
I think that made the messaging really powerful…I wrote a long post explaining the story and trajectory of the fall mixtape here: basically the tracks and themes are so interwoven that it feels kind of impossible to isolate ones that do it very well, which to me is why the tape is so remarkable and powerful. It’s constantly unfolding and revealing new connections and recurring themes.
Every piece of art is a message given and received. I doubt it ever gets caught exactly as the throw was intended. All the artist’s meaning comes from places deep within. The artist probably doesn’t even know which tunnels to dig to find the real source of inspiration. Events and people and seasons are the tips of icebergs of the psyche, and all that meaning- that messy humanity- is interpreted by a recipient with their own multiverse of perspectives.
Sevan: We met sooooo long ago! I don’t even remember exactly… Maybe 2007? I was about 16/17. I played a show in a punk house attic that Erin had put together. They loved my version of Britney Spears’ Toxic and I loved their deeply soulful, acoustic, acapella songs that encouraged the audience to participate with stomps and claps. I’m so grateful that we’ve maintained a friendship for so long. We haven’t done a lot of physical hanging out, but always have had a really close connection. It’s like from the moment we met there was some deep resonance in both of us, some buzzing and melodious harmonies, chords that struck and sang in tune together and we’ve been riding out those songs ever since.
Sevan circa 2007
Enter Sevan. Sevan received Erin’s fall 2021 mixtape.
Sevan: So to be honest it took me 2 weeks to listen to it all. I wanted to be able to sit down and listen the whole way through, and being a Mama to a very willful 2 year old doesn’t afford me much time for things like that these days. But, I found the time. And I’ve gotta say, I LOVE that it opened with a song that I wrote (one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, even). It opened me up to it in a familiar way, but in a way where I could sit back and appreciate it as an outsider. Because Erin made it for me, I can’t help but connect it to her and our friendship and the music and scenes we’ve shared and woven in and out of. In ways I maybe can’t articulate or explain specifically, it feels like an homage to the last decade and a half of my life. An intuitive honoring of the changes I’ve gone through, the ways I’ve grown, the past I’ve grown from, the spiritual qualities of my being and the devotional, mystical aspects that my life is grounded in.
…it feels like a mixtape carefully curated to express aspects of who I am, which is profound and totally amazing that Erin was able to do so with such attention and tenderness. Cos it feels accurate! So much happened for me during the Fall, and this mix encapsulates that while also inviting a reflection on the past 15 years. It’s love, it’s change, it’s death, it’s cycles and seasons, it’s mystery, it’s the stars, it’s the dirt and earth, it’s conflict and resolution, it’s the separation before union.
Important mixtape question. Which songs do you love?
Sevan: Well for one, I can’t believe I’d never listened to Th’ Faith Healers before!!! Wow, what was I missing? “Everything, All At Once, Forever” just as a title is like a deep, existential quality I often feel overwhelmed by.
I had never heard Devin Shaffer’s “Drive Into Wood” and that’s become a song I listen to on repeat now. Oh, and Nyagweno by Dr. Pete Larson and his Cytotoxic Nyatiti Band, sooooooooo effin’ good. And the Kings of Harmony Quartette’s “Fountain of Blood” has been a fave of mine since I was 7 years old and obsessed with blues, gospel, and religious hymns. Lots of good songs, but I mostly adore that she included Eartha Kitt speaking about Compromise. Because she’s asked if she’s willing to compromise in a relationship, and she’s like (mostly paraphrasing here), “What? What is that? Why? For what? What is compromise?” The interviewer asks, “well if a man comes into your life you wouldn’t want to compromise?” And she LAUGHS SO LOUD and says, “Stupid. For what?!? For what!? A relationship has to be earned, not to compromise for. Nothing in the world is more beautiful than falling in love. But falling in love for the right reasons. When you fall in love, what is there to compromise?” And the reporter asks if she just falls in love with herself. And she says “Yes. I fall in love with myself, and I want someone to share me with me” And I just love that.
What Erin couldn’t have foreseen, is that three months after getting married, my partner and I decided to live separately. So as of the first of January I moved out. We decided we both needed space to process the extremely fast pace of our relationship (I moved in at 2 weeks, got pregnant at 3 months, then the pandemic hit with no support from family, dealing with poverty, etc. it was tough). We also needed space to heal, to get back in touch with ourselves, and to create room so we could start to ground ourselves in ourselves, and then from there reach out to explore the other with love, kindness, acceptance. It feels very, very relevant to Eartha’s words. That love shouldn’t be about compromise, but about loving ourselves and inviting the other into this love that then expands and becomes even bigger than it was before.
Our lives and music entwine. Thank goodness. So do we. Thank goodness.
Sevan: I think a lot of what Erin intended really resonates with my experience of the tape. But also, in ways I can’t imagine how she would know, the songs act as sort of oracles for either things that have happened to me, or things that were to happen that only now I can reflect on (meaning things that happened between now and when she gave me the tape). It feels like a most exquisite portrait of me, and I feel totally valued and seen by it. I know it’s also meant to be for everyone else, but because I was an inspiration I can’t help but feel that way about it.
Erin Margaret Day is a music journalist in Chicago who is maybe a little too obsessed with creating sonic narratives with her stereo and becoming increasingly convinced that they both direct the weather and manifest the future. She is a single mother of two mostly well-behaved cats and one very anxious rescued German Shepherd mix, all of whom wear bandanas and have extremely nerdy (and full) names. Since men are both incredibly and endlessly disappointing, she is getting married to a book she’s planning to write and to love very much on the historical development of punk and art rock in her hometown of enormous sonic and spiritual majesty: Cleveland, Ohio.
Erin Margaret Day
Sevan Mercy Arabajian is a mixed, queer Mama in Milwaukee who works as a Threshold Doula, supporting people through the full-spectrum of experiences, from birth and death, and every transition and transformation in between. They also offer spiritual services, sound baths, and energywork. They’re mama to a sassy, hilarious, willfull 2 year old, a creative, contemplative 12 year old, and a 7 year old ball python named Priestess.
If ever this website was about seeking out people you like with whom you would like to be friends and from whom you would like to learn about music, this is it. If we were in high school, I would sheepishly ask this man for a mixtape. Since I’m an adult now, I asked for an interview. We can speculate on the merits of this pretense all we want. At the end of the day, I have come to believe that those of us who are deeply in love with music are wired similarly. And we should connect because of all the beautiful alchemy that may await. In the interview below I found that for music archivist, writer, and radio deejay Reuben Jackson, being wired to deeply love music has led to feelings of imposter syndrome, but also a triumphant embrace of the fact that “once something is in you, it is.” He embodies the mixtape concept, cross-pollinating music communities and influences, and eager to share.
Sarah: You were the kid who was playing music for all your friends. And you were saying that your parents played all kinds of music in your house. Could you say more about what it was like growing up in your house and how you developed this encyclopedic interest or knowledge of music?
Reuben: My parents belonged to—some people will get this, I guess—those record clubs they had back in the day. Like Columbia Records. You could get six albums for a dollar and with the fine print in the ad, you probably ended up hocking your house to pay for all these records. But this box would come every month, and I knew what that box was. I could read that it said Columbia Records. It might be Ray Charles, Beethoven, South Pacific. My father loved country music—Roy Acuff or something like that. Chubby Checker. It was this wonderful array of big band stuff that my father loved. I thought everybody was like this! And of course, my parents would play these records. We listened to this stuff as a family. In the basement, sometimes.
Also, I would spend time with them and see what this was. I mean, I knew who a lot of these people were. But, what’s this new album like? I just dug in. And then you start reading whatever constituted liner notes then. Who’s on bass? Who’s the banjo player on this record? “Recorded in Nashville, August 22nd, 1959.” So it all kind of started to sink in. A lot of that curiosity and desire for detail comes out of love. You love this thing. And you want to know more about it. And then the sound of it- like that line in Ray when Jamie Fox says, “We gonna make it do what it do.” And then you’re trying to figure out how it does what it does.
And because my mom played classical piano, I could ask her things about music. I could play her something and ask her, “What is this in the third measure?” And she was self-effacing about her playing. We had this little piano in the basement. She’d say, “Well, this is like a ninth chord.” Just to have your first fox hole. And someone who didn’t laugh at you for asking questions about music. As opposed to just sitting there bobbing your head—which is cool, too! But it was very nurturing where that’s concerned.
My brother had a little transistor radio, which I would sometimes borrow off his dresser, put the little earbuds in, and listen late at night and cover the light with the pillow. So I was always listening, certainly. That could have been mostly top 40 because of AM radio.
But it was like a house of music. It was safe. And I was naïve. I thought everyone liked music, period. We’d have show-and-tell in grade school. One day I brought Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra’s Greatest Hits. And I’m thinking, “Everybody knows who Tommy Dorsey is.” He hadn’t been dead that long. It was sort of like one of these memorial albums. Here I am playing Sunny Side of the Street. The kids are looking at me like, “huuuuuuhhhh , this is not Motown.” And I was crestfallen. And it was my enthusiasm overriding any potential self-consciousness. Self-consciousness came when I discovered that people would laugh at you and say, “There he goes again.”
I think my work on radio and me working here [at the University of the District of Columbia] as a music archivist is kind of like revenge of the nerds, because as much as it would hurt to be labeled as odd or ostracized, I knew I wasn’t killing people. Once something is in you, it is.
Sarah: We had talked previously about how growing up you didn’t really think about genre-ization- you really didn’t know what that was. I was wondering if that may be a generational difference between the two of us. But your story leads me to believe that that’s not the case at all—that the kids you grew up with were interested in a few genres and were not like you at all.
Reuben: Yeah. Boy. About four years ago when I was still at Vermont Public Radio, I told my boss who was also at that time a programmer on VPR’s classical channel—I did a show once a month that looked at film composers from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and stuff. And I said to her, “I don’t like what is so-called classical music because it’s classical music. I just love – you hear something and it might be Schumann or it might be Debussy, but it had nothing to do with some hard and fast allegiance to a tradition.”
Click above for an archived collection of Reuben’s Vermont Public Radio shows
It’s the same with jazz. A lot of people say, “Well, he’s the jazz guy.” But those labels are funny because a lot of musicians who are considered this or this or this have interests far beyond what people might expect. Jimi Hendrix loved Schoenberg. He loved Andy Williams. He’d say this and the interviewer would be waiting for the punch line. And he’d go, “No. No. I’m serious.”
And I think for my friends. I love them. But if it wasn’t on the radio, It didn’t exist, basically. So that meant adherence, consciously or not, to a certain style of music. A certain sound. Whether they call it urban radio or whatever. R&B, I don’t know if that’s a style, like baroque music, or if that’s a cultural categorization.
The other thing growing up, too, is that after like ’67, ’68, and things were starting to explode in this country, there were- we called them checklists- how if you’re Black and you want things to get better, you have to do this, this, this, and this.
I once told a student that I was in the basement one day and my father came downstairs, and he took out a Count Basie record. Then he took out the Supremes and put the album on that side. And he took out a gun and pointed it to me- I’m joking!- and he said, “Pick one.” And then I said, ‘Well what if you love both?” And that’s the thing with me. You can love both. To love the Supremes doesn’t refute your love for Count Basie. Especially jazz people can be so, “How can you sell us down the river?” It doesn’t mean you love it less.
I think that also ties into what we were saying earlier about becoming yourself. If I had not been that way, beyond music, it would have taken me a lot longer to get here in general. And it has to do with music and life. So you meet somebody [now] and you can talk about all kinds of things. Like Russian Romantic poetry. It was in there [before] but it’s not the same.
Like being a musician and you play the same instrument. You’ll never know everything but you keep developing. And curiosity ties into it.
But I made fun of it. Like the comedian Bernie Mack said, “Humor comes from pain.” And I’ll hear silly stories about turning over the B side of some hit, and saying, “Listen to this countermelody. The French horn does this.” And my friends just start slapping their foreheads like “Damn, we were having such a good time. And there he goes!”
So it took me a long time to venture, not internally, but socially, in that direction, because I just thought, “Yeah, a lot of people just aren’t like this.” It can do a number on you. If something is such a big part of who you are or who you’re becoming. And you’re looking for people who are similar.
I saw one of these Quincy Jones documentaries and he said that he would cut school and go to the movie theatres. He was born in Chicago. His father moved the family to Bremerton, in Washington, just outside of Seattle, because his father was a carpenter and he worked in the navy shipyards. And he said, “I would cut school and just sit there. And the movies were okay. But it was the film music.” It was like Dmitri Tiomkin and all these people. And he said, “I just had to bathe in that music.” And I’m in the movie theatre. I’ve got a box of Kleenex on this side. I’ve got a box of Kleenex on this other side. And I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s it. When it’s in you.” And how his father would surreptitiously slip him money for a composition notebook, because he knew it was in him. I thought they were going to carry me out of the theatre. “There’s some guy in here who won’t stop weeping.” The story itself is moving. For me, connecting with this thing that means so much.
Sarah: And so you feel you can do that now. And growing up, that might have been more challenging?
Reuben: It was! Growing up, you had to be a lot of things. I don’t want to overstate this, because I don’t want people to think I am trying to make it sound like I was in some Jay-Z video years ago. But what people call bullying now, I think that’s too nice a word.
I knew about three different ways to get home from the movie theatre because I knew who was on this corner waiting to take what was left of your money. Gangs then were like fistfight gangs. They weren’t like TEC-9s and Uzis. But that was a reality. So you’re negotiating a lot of things at once.
I think even now, though, for men to be received as soft can be a challenge. I can’t say this was a cover because I was good at sports. I was a little more respected. I could play ball. Football, baseball, and all that. But I think it is a lot to handle at one time.
There were also guys in my neighborhood- by today’s standards, they would be considered quaint. Some of them dropped out of school. You’d see them. They knew when the report cards came out like they were school administrators or something. They would see me walking home from school. They called me “Bookworm” because I was always with books. “Bookworm, let me see your report card.” They’re saying this before my parents. This one guy, Clarence, would say, “Yeah, you gotta tighten up this math grade.” And I’m thinking, “They’re looking out for you.” So you have people looking out for you. And then people who can’t stand you because maybe your teacher is going on about some essay you wrote. And they want to beat your ass at 3:00. That’s too many jobs for a kid. Being a kid is hard enough.
I taught high school English for two years. I thought it made me a better teacher—not that you want to go through all that to become one. But It’s an understanding that at best the subject matter is secondary, maybe tertiary. It’s part of your development. I remember the kids would bring things into the classroom, whether it’s discussed or not. Because I did.
Brightwood Heritage Trail marker, photo by Devry Becker Jones
I loved my father. My father was also a functioning alcoholic. I grew up in Brightwood [in Washington D.C.]. The house was small. I would try to hide his bottles before he got home. Well, in a small house, you don’t have that many places to hide. But I knew he couldn’t bring it up at the dinner table to my mom. He was supportive, and he had a problem. I think ultimately what happens is—and this is true of both myself and my brother—in a parent you hope for “better” for your children. What if “better” is different- like so different that you don’t quite get it?
So in my case, the geeky music loving kid – [as an adult, working] at the Smithsonian, and I get to go to conferences all around the world and all this stuff. I have this indelible image of him: One of my first books of poetry won the Columbia Book Award, and they had a ceremony at the Folger Theatre. And Joseph Brodsky chose the book. And I’m sitting on the stage, and they’re reading comments from Joseph Brodsky. My mom was a Language Arts teacher for DC Public [Schools]. She was the extrovert of the two. She’s beaming like those lights on the top of the Empire State Building. And my father, dressed to the 99s, he’s proud, but he’s a little like, “Who the hell is this dude?” Even though we had a common love for music—like, I love ballet and opera—he’d say really nasty things about that. It’s like the combo platter.
Sarah: Man! Okay. I went with you on that journey and I’m not thinking about music any more. I think when we first started talking, you were talking about getting your friends to listen to some particular technical aspect of some song you were playing, and to me that was kind of a corollary to the mixtape idea, where you’re sharing music with people. So I’m a little thrown that we are actually talking about how hard it was for you to do that! But, that must have changed as your life progressed.
Reuben: Well, you find vineyards. I started doing radio when I was 18 at Goddard College in Vermont. And that was an outlet for both the continuation of sharing music and in a personal matter, it’s a way of dealing with all your feelings. Programming is like baking the cookies, but you’re baking them for other people. They really aren’t for you. And I think learning that is important.
But I always felt different. My first year of college, my show was Tuesday night, 9 until midnight. I’d go to bed early Monday night. I’d eat dinner, go back to the room, I had this whole ritual before I’d go to the station. And it was kind of funny but it was serious because it was this thing you love and you don’t want to mess it up.
You know- college radio, a lot of our friends had shows. And their friends would come to the station during the show to hang out and talk. And people would say, “Hey, can I come by the station?“ I would say, “No. ‘Fraid not.” Because it’s my time. I cut out the lights above the board. I got the playlist. Any notes I needed. That was me. So, that helped a heck of a lot. And like with poetry, I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with it to the extent I did.
And then the other surprise was that fall 1975, someone calls the dorm, the dorm phone in the lobby. Someone said, “There’s some guy on the phone for you!” So I come downstairs. And it’s the program manager for WSKI. It’s a country and western station in Barre, Vermont, which is the granite capital of the world. So this guy said, “I heard your show when I was driving.” At this time, the station was 10 watts. So he must have stopped and hung out by the gas pumps at the general store. Anyway, he said, “I think you’re like the best announcer in the state. Would you like a part-time job?” When you’re an undergrad, you don’t have that much money. And I said, “Okay.” He said, “Well come by the station Friday, and we’ll talk about it.” So I get this program. It’s 12 to 3 on Saturday. Country and western. Merle Haggard, people like that. A proscribed playlist. The station is about the size of this table. At the top of the hour, I read the mutual teletype. Rip and return. “Today, President Nixon…”
There are more people of color in Vermont now, but it’s the second whitest state in the country. But at that time, If I saw someone Black I’d call all my relatives, “I saw somebody Black!” So imagine you’re 18, you’ve got this job. This station. It’s a small place. They know your voice.
Image of Barre, VT from Royalbroil on Wikipedia
So you’re at the grocery store, at the deli counter, and you’re getting an egg salad. People start turning around like this. “You’re that guy!” And they don’t mean anything by it. One day I was there, and this woman was with her husband. And this woman turns to her husband and says, “It’s that colored guy on the radio!” That’s what they know. It’s so isolated. I said, “Yes ma’am.” And she said, “You’ve made Saturday afternoons. We just love your voice, and of course the music you’re playing.”
Well, I’m from here [in Washington, DC]! And I grew up ducking gang fights and stuff, daydreaming. And it’s not like “Look at me!” But here you are, in this place where people just stare at you sometimes. And suddenly, by way of music, you’re part of a community in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily be as “merely” a college student.
And of course, the difference between these two things is, even though I had a certain format I did with the college stuff, this was all you-play-the-hits. Part of you is like, “Am I selling out to the man?” And the other part- the ham part- is, “This is fun.” It can be fun to walk down the street and the pick-up truck goes by and people wave, and I’m thinking, “My friends would not believe this.” I think it comes from opportunity and people thinking to give you a shot. And it’s an extension of having heard so much stuff—getting back to my parents’ house and all- and never surrendering my love for music.
Sarah: So, let me ask you: as you got to know who your audience was—who you were baking the cookies for—did that change what you were baking?
Reuben: I don’t think so. I would call myself, and I have been called, a cross-pollinator, One of the nicest, most moving, and perceptive things anyone ever said about my radio show for Vermont Public Radio was, this woman said, “My family and I really appreciate what you do. No matter what the piece happens to be, you’re trying to point out where the jazz is.” And I started to cry in this grocery store. Because that’s really it. But first and foremost, it has always been: Isn’t it wonderful that this exists? It’s a little quixotic. But I feel that way. And I still marvel at the wonder of creation. And I think that’s never changed.
On Sundays, I do this show with Larry Applebaum on WPFW called The Sound of Surprise. It’s 4-6. You get phone calls from people who are appreciative because they’ll hear things that’s maybe a little different from typical jazz radio. I think jazz radio and classical radio can be similar—and I understand that there’s revenue involved- but, the strict adherence to the canon.
For me, like the joke about Count Basie and the Supremes, the continuum doesn’t mean that the other stuff is not of value. It’s like, isn’t it great that these elements are found in some seemingly disconnected source?
I’ll play Lester Young. For me, he’s one of the most original people, no matter what. And I think, “Boy! It’s like Ezra Pound, the poet. Make it new!” It’s fresh. To go from that to a new recording. This kind of bothers jazz people.
There’s some new version of a tune from the late ‘60s- which was a while ago now- but that adherence to stick to the standards, the 32-bar songs, the Gershwins and what-have-you. You can love that, too. I try to give as much of a sample-of a smorgasbord- as possible. And you do it the best you can in terms of coherence. But it’s for them. Maybe the audience are like the kids in the basement I don’t see. (Except they will call.) But I’m convinced it’s an extension of that: Isn’t this great?
This guy, Ben Williams, is a bassist from DC. He did an album. He had a subtle bass rendition of that song Nirvana did- Smells Like Teen Spirit. That’s a standard. This guy’s studying with Christian McBride. And he can talk about Mingus and all these people that are sanctioned. And you hear from people that are saying, “I never knew jazz people COULD do that.” Like maybe they broke out of jail. [laughter] It’s interesting to work within those rules and unwritten rules about this.
My bosses were kind of ambivalent about jazz to begin with. And maybe I used that to my advantage. I think of that character the Hulk, David Banner, and then the big green bicep starts to pop out. But it’s still all done for the listener. And it all comes from love. It’s not like thumbing your nose at people. It’s fun, but when the woman said that about pointing out where the jazz is, I thought, “Okay. She got it.”
Sarah: She got it. I would like to ask you what you are trying to showcase and why. In all the venues that you’re sharing music, like radio programs or what-have-you, what are you trying to showcase?
Reuben: I’m thinking of an interview that Charlie Parker did in the early ‘50s, when he said that there was no boundary line to art. And the thing about music- it’s so vast. I think of the vastness of music. If you just say “music,” you could be talking about Buddy Holly, you could be talking about Fugazi, you could be talking about the Spinners, or Mendelson. It’s like- freshwater, salt water. And so I think the immensity of it.
I think one of the good problems to have is that most people will never hear even a smidgeon of it- even, we were just talking about what is called jazz. You’ll never hear all the stuff. And to try to share some of it- it can be overwhelming. It’s a good problem to have, the overwhelming variety and beauty in spite of societal conditions which in many ways, especially with Black musicians, made their lives hell. People can- you could blow up buildings. You could knock somebody on the head on the street. Or you could do this. AND you could do this. So, if you think about what humanity is capable of, there is that, too.
I’ve been preparing a talk about the lesser known works of Quincy Jones for the last couple of weeks. So there’s like film score stuff. Some big band charts he did for people like Lionel Hampton and people like that when he was like 19 years old. TV stuff. People may remember it or not. It’s like that kid in the basement saying, “Yeah, but there’s also this!” There’s the score from the movie In Cold Blood. So it’s variety, immensity, possibility. What’s that thing Patti Smith said? The sea of possibilities. That’s really it, it’s the sea of possibilities.
Sarah: That is beautiful. So, we also talked about how you and musicians you admire are always looking for something different. So, how was that done in an era before the Internet (where it is so easy to find new and different things)?
Reuben: How was it done?
Sarah: How do you find out about something that you don’t know about?
Reuben: I see. Yeah. Every now and then I hear myself saying to students, “Well, you know, there was no internet back then!” And I feel like Samuel Morse’s homeboy or something. It took a lot of digging and curiosity. Because even then, even with radio and artists, like you could live here and hear about some great jazz station in New Orleans, but you couldn’t necessarily get it. You could read Downbeat magazine or something like that. And there were record stores. But I’d say even up until relatively recent times, the record stores here weren’t always that great.
My restlessness and curiosity—if I’d hear about some book somebody’s written about ‘50s jazz in Sweden, I would go to the Library of Congress and just stay all day and read stuff and take notes. When it was cheap—and this was even in the 90s—when it was cheap to take the train to New York, I’d go to New York and hit these jazz record stores that someone referred me to.
So- word of mouth, the few periodicals which existed at the time. Downbeat. There’s one called the Record Changer. But, it was hard!
Or maybe your hip neighbor who might know something. The cool outcast. I used to always say, “You have to dig. You have to dig for it.” And it’s kind of lonely. But I was on the road. I couldn’t stop. While these weren’t always things outside the “mainstream,” my parents’ tastes helped. Because if you’d hear some drummer on a record, I’d want to know more about them. It’s funny in thinking about this, see I’m saying this to you now, but partially when 2021 hit, I’m thinking, “I’m going to take out my phone and type it in Notes.” But see, you weren’t doing that in 1969. Or much longer than that. But that’s where it helps for me.
Again, like in New York, some store, a guy says, “Yeah, I have this record” and pulls it off the shelf. You might pay goodness-knows-what. It was a more circuitous path. I’ll put it like that.
Sarah: So it sounds like you may have had an outsider neighbor here and there but it was really your parents more than anyone, when you think of the key figures.
Reuben: Yeah. Some of the stuff left them scratching their heads. Things that they just didn’t get. That’s okay. That happens with everybody.
In 2009, I gave a talk at the Museum of Bethel Woods. Bethel Woods is where Woodstock took place. The emphasis was on the last year of Jimi Hendrix- ’69-70- what changed compositionally. So you’re in this auditorium in the museum. First thing, walking around the grounds, I was like, “Damn, this is like my Gettysburg.” Not a war. But stuff that’s really in your head and heart. So I got up there after being introduced and I asked everybody in the crowd, “With left or right foot, [give me] four quarter notes.” [stomp stomp stomp stomp.] And people are thinking “What the hell is this?” Anytime I played Hendrix in the basement, my mother would say, “It’s too loud!” And she’d go [stomp stomp] three four shut up.” I said, “So we just brought my mom back.” That’s an example of, “We don’t get this.” That talk [at Bethel Woods]- it’s that nerd stuff. And isn’t it great?
I once caused some stuff at a class at Goddard. It was called the History of Western Music, and we were talking about compositional devices. And there’s this concept called contrary motion. And the teacher played a piece from Stravinsky. And I went, “There’s a record by Kool and the Gang with the same thing! Can I bring it in next week?” What’s the name of that song? Who’s Gonna Take the Weight. I offended some people. “You aren’t possibly comparing Kool and the Gang to Igor Stravinsky?” I said, “We’re talking about the use of this technique. Boom. Kool and the Gang, Jersey City, NJ. Stravinsky, Russia. Boom. That’s what it is. And if you like it or don’t like it, there’s nothing I can say about that. But I think it worked.
I love Stravinsky and Kool and the Gang. And for what it’s worth, someone asked Stravinsky, after he moved to America, “Who do you like? Who are your favorite composers?” And he said, “I like the three B’s.” The interviewer said, “The three B’s?” “Yes, Beethoven, Bach, and Brown. James Brown. It’s the American sensibility, and he’s a great composer.” This still baffles people. Stravinsky- you talk about “mad skills” as the kids used to say. I always said he had the funk in him. That rhythmic stuff if you think about the Rite of Spring. And then you put on James Brown’s Funky Stuff and you think, “Yeah of course! They’re coming from the power of rhythm.”
Fortunately, there are some people out there, like airwaves, that think this way. It does knock down a lot of things in people’s heads, understanding that it’s not a crime to love all of this. Again, it’s that immensity.
Do you know who Michael Tilson Thomas is? He’s a conductor. He’s been with many orchestras. There was an American Masters last year addressing his life. He was talking about James Brown. I met Michael Tilson Thomas in 1971. James Brown was here. He played the Howard Theatre for a week. There had just been an article in the Rolling Stone magazine about Michael Tilson Thomas. He was the young person shaking up the classical music repertoire. He was with the Buffalo Symphony at that time. So intermission. You’re in the john. There’s like one white dude in there. And I knew that’s who it was because I had just read the article. So I waited. I said, ‘Aren’t you Michael Tilson Thomas?” He said “Yeah.” I said, “I read that article about you in Rolling Stone.”
So he’s talking about this in American Masters, and he says, “Well, when I conduct Stravinsky, I try to get that same kind of precision that James Brown had.” James Brown referred to it as the Situation of Music. I don’t care if it’s Emmylou Harris or Chuck Berry. It’s the situation of music. If we’re rehearsing and someone says, “What do you want from us in this measure?” He says, “I want you to break out in a cold sweat.” So he’s doing James Brown. And that’s somebody who’s not saying, “Well I can’t say this because it’s not classical.” And he wasn’t trying to be cool. I think for him, too, it’s like, “Isn’t it wonderful that this music exists?” “While I was in conservatory, we were all studying Stravinsky, but we were listening to James Brown.” It’s generational perhaps. But still, what’s being done within someone else’s work and how does it work? That’s no different than Jo Stafford or anybody else—what happening with the orchestration? Like anything, what is it communicating? Is it communicating something?
To me, the Jo Stafford thing. She’s like [swooning sound.] She’s like up there with the ability. You can play soul and science. She’s got perfect pitch. And a very sagacious vocalist. You believe her. My mother used to play this recording of Some Enchanted Evening. And I’m thinking, it’s like she’s my sister and she’s telling me. And I’m thinking “What is going on with life?” and she’s telling me “Some enchanted evening you may meet a stranger.” And I’m hanging on the words and the beauty of it and the sincerity. And the sincerity in music, if it’s not there, it’s just technique. It’s got to have that feeling.
Right before I took early retirement from the Smithsonian, December 2009, one of the things I was hell-bent on doing was to get her to donate some materials to the Museum of American History. Right after the World War II memorial was dedicated, American History had this weekend of all kinds of programming connected with that. I gave a talk about her. A lot of times they would play her music in barracks before G.I.s went to sleep. They called her G.I. Jo. There’s this beautiful essay by a guy names Gene Leeds called The Voice of Home. She was called the Voice of Home. So you’re looking out in the auditorium and it’s like all these WWII guys and families. I mean this lovingly—old dudes. And they’re crying. And I’m thinking, “I knew. But I didn’t know.”
I reached out to her. I wrote her a letter. One of my former colleagues had her address. And I get this letter back. It’s that old cursive writing you don’t see anymore. Jo Stafford. And her husband had just died. I wrote to her, “I’m approaching you…your story is an important part of the American story blah blah blah” I said “I’m going to be in California in the L.A. area in the next three weeks. Is it possible to talk with you more about this?” And I’m thinking, be ready for the big “no.” She wrote, “That would be wonderful. Let’s get in contact right before you leave and we can have lunch.” Okay. My heart is Jo Stafford. This is my job. And it’s like my parent’s basement. So I go. She had a condo in Century City. We spent a couple hours talking and carrying on. She made lunch. She’s so unpretentious and funny. And I told her about my parents.
She is someone who quit the business at the height of her popularity because of her kids. She said if both parents are working, this is not good. This was late ‘50s. At that time, she was making big money. So I’m leaving her condo and I’m on cloud 99.
Then two weeks later I get a letter. She said “I hate the telephone,” which made me adore her even more. She said, “I was talking to my son about it, and I don’t think I’ve really done anything to merit this. But I really appreciate your request.” The irony to me was at this point those big congressional allocations we would get for years were starting to dry up. And I think a lot of yahoos with some half- interesting stuff and a lot of money to pay for cataloging and processing were suddenly more attractive to the museum because Smithsonian needed the money. And I’m thinking, “Here’s somebody who sustained people during a time of great tragedy, sacrifice, and she’s too modest to do it.” But I still have those letters.
She has a version of the folk song Shenandoah. Now with COVID and thinking of travel and loss and not seeing something or someone, it always has this added resonance for me. But it’s always been there.
Anyway, same for Karen Carpenter. Oh my god. You talk about somebody that’s believable. Plus she was a great drummer and didn’t get props for her musicality. “It’s going to take some time this time.” And you hear it and you think, “Yeah, this happened” And it doesn’t matter if it did or not. You believe it. This vocal is so fresh and sincere. And those kinda gooey suburban white picket fence harmonies underneath it. And then this guy Hal Blaine, a great session musician, he’s playing these beautiful things with cymbals. See, this is what my friends put up with. It’s all going on concurrently. And you think it’s like you got Newt Gingrich and Bernie Sanders together in the same room. But it’s all part of this thing. And it all goes back to isn’t this wonderful? It can be the entire piece. It can be like 4-5 measures.
I used to sit on the stoop of my parents’ house just kind of hanging out. And I think about my mom, who would embarrass me [about my career and travel] if she were alive: “My baby’s at a repository in Germany.” And I get kind of weepy about it. But I’m thinking, “Well the stubbornness kind of paid off.” Not that my aim was to be documented somewhere. But I’m thankful that that’s the case.
And I talk a little bit more now about stuff that I’ve done that I didn’t do before. I was a voting member for the Grammys. It’s been a wild ride. You find yourself in these ballrooms with all these people and you kind of act like, “O yeah, I do this every day.” And there’s Dionne Warwick and Ringo Starr or whomever. But when people see who you are, name tag and all, you can’t act like you don’t belong. I have to kill the second grader being worried about getting beaten up for being a nebbish.
My mother used to call DC a big, small southern town. Which I think it still is, even with these incredible changes which have occurred. Like a lot of small towns, there are people who look askance at people who– “You got this job. You do all this travelling. Don’t think you’re better than we are.” I don’t.
I would go to Sweden or somewhere for a conference. I’d come back. I’d go to the barber shop. People would say, “Where you been?” I would never say anything specific. This is my problem. But I didn’t want to risk having to deal with people who are like, “Who do you think you are?” So I stuffed a lot of stuff in the closet.
The Smithsonian had this big gala on the Queen Mary to get moneyed people to donate money. I’m staying at this hotel. It was black tie, which is funny enough just to see me dressed up. They had all these limousines leaving the hotel and heading to the ship. I missed my limo. And someone: “There’s one down at the end there. You can get into that one.” So I get in. You should live as long as this limousine! I get in the back and see this woman to my immediate left and I say, “Good evening.” Sitting across from me is Elizabeth Taylor.
You’re from 5th St NW, and you’re looking across at Elizabeth Taylor. So we’re chatting on the way to the Queen Mary. And it’s that, “Okay be yourself.” But the other side of your brain is going, “It’s Elizabeth Taylor!!!” I still don‘t believe some of it. I don’t know about “job of a lifetime,” but 20 years is a long time in the course of one human’s existence. I’m still unpacking a lot of this stuff. My mother would say if she were alive, “My god, you were even dressed up!”
I think I’ve succeeded despite myself. “Is it okay to do this? Is it okay to be this person?” I did dream about some things. I’d read liner notes and wonder how do you do this? How do you get to do this? When I was a kid, you didn’t really see many Black writers. I saw that Langston Hughes had done some. I thought “Maybe. Maybe.” But I kept it filed away. And when I had the opportunity to do it, to be considered for a membership in NARAS, you have to have a minimum of 12 liner notes credits. I had 15. They were looking to broaden their color spectrum with voting members. I said to my mother, “I have 15.” She said, “Just stop right there. Even if you don’t get in, just look at what you’ve done.”
Reuben Jackson is a Washington D.C. poet, jazz archivist, radio deejay, music lecturer and writer, and writing mentor, but in what order I cannot say. He currently works as an archivist with the University of the District of Columbia’s Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives. His two poetry collections are called fingering the keys and Scattered Clouds, respectively. One of the first things he told me is that he doesn’t know bupkus about mixtapes.
Before I had the self-awareness to even know that I was doing it, I was using music to connect with people in absence of understanding how to do so otherwise. One such glaring example has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s because the U.S. political landscape has made it difficult for me to set aside my differences with Republicans, even those I love. And there is a mixtape that I prepared and gave to someone many moons ago, when like now, I was afraid that any real engagement would set back our relationship.
In the seventh grade, I gravitated to the girl in my class whose hair was the highest and make-up the brightest. She knew who The Cure was because of her older sister. I soon learned that her older siblings were all in their twenties. She was a surprise to parents who were pretty much done with being parents. My parents, on the other hand, were still deeply engaged in the work of keeping me safe. For example, they had a rule that I must dismount from my bicycle whenever a car passed me on the 15 mile-per-hour road on which we lived. Unlike at my house, at Liz’s house, we smoked in her bedroom and experimented with alcohol and boys when her parents were away. She and I were perfect foils. Quiet and loud. Cautious and bold. I brought her security; she brought me spontaneity.
Throughout middle school, we enjoyed new wave, collecting band t-shirts, and playing with black eyeliner and hairspray. We listened to The Cure’s Disintegration in her bedroom while painting our nails black and plotting our next excursion, usually cutting through the neighbors’ yards in her parents’ development to get to the local bar where the cigarette machine was unmonitored by the door. We would be friends forever. I was sure of it.
But something happened. I can’t exactly remember what. Maybe I repressed it. We had traded boyfriends—that may have been the death knell. What I do remember is that as I became more enamored in high school with the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and The Misfits, Liz began wearing tie-dye shirts and moccasins. She had defected to the school’s hippie contingent. Her identity changed. Her friends changed. Our spheres diverged, and our close friendship collapsed.
Meanwhile, throughout high school, I was trading mixtapes with pen pals from across the country. They opened my mind. One pen pal made me a tape that bridged Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop with Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane. My little high school cultural walls began crumbling.
track list for Pop Goes the Warhol pen pal mixtape
After a year or so apart, Liz and I began exchanging friendly hellos in high school hallways. She told me about her long-term boyfriend. We were becoming reacquainted. One day, Liz and the boyfriend picked me up so we could spend some time together. Would we rekindle our friendship? We went to the boyfriend’s house. I watched in bewilderment while they took bong hit after bong hit. I sat awkwardly smiling, unaccustomed to drug use. I waited for conversation to commence between lighter flicks and the gurgling of bong water. It was a cordial visit, but one that was never repeated.
That year for her birthday, I did a strange thing. I wanted to tell her that I loved her and that I appreciated her for who she was and what she liked—that I didn’t expect her to always like what I liked. I wanted her to know that she would always be special to me, even after we grew apart. And I did not know how. I took that tape that my pen pal had sent me—the one with Pink Floyd—I dubbed a copy of it and gave it to her. The beautiful artwork on the tape given to me by the pen pal was replaced with a boring TDK insert for the copy for Liz. I wrote “Happy Birthday” on it. I explained to her that it was a copy of a mixtape that I had been enjoying. Any pride I may have normally had about selecting songs and assembling a mixtape experience for someone was eclipsed by this need to share, to try to connect, and to not think too hard about it–to try something imperfect.
pen pal mixtape artwork
Liz told me that her boyfriend and she listened to the tape in his car before school and liked it. I was thrilled.
We never spent much time together again. As adults, though, we did reconnect. Now we get in touch on each other’s birthdays, on Mother’s Day, and at Christmastime. She moved with husband and children to a farm in the South-Central U.S. while I moved outside of the nation’s capital. Our conversations sometimes remind me of the city mouse/country mouse fable. I suspect we may have divergent politics to match. Last year, I delicately dropped a conversation about wearing masks during the pandemic when it seemed we were sailing into threatening waters.
One summer, my tiny backyard garden produced a freakishly gigantic zucchini. Liz sent me lots of suggestions for using it, including some zucchini bread recipes. She often jokes about how I should come visit the farm and how she will put me to work there. Recipes are our mixtapes now.
The gulf between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. feels insurmountable sometimes. Something like the same raw anger of adolescence possesses me when I hear people echo talking points from Fox News. It shuts me down. It feels incomprehensible. I don’t even want to understand. I rationalize that not talking or engaging with the loved ones with whom I disagree is best. But I know it’s rash, and it’s unfair. It’s unfair to them and to me.
Somewhere, deep down, I need to find the resolve to just connect, somehow, imperfectly.
Sarah runs this website for fun. She loves music and literature. She works statistics for a living. She saved all her mixtapes. She snapped the photo below upon completion of this blog post for posterity. And she changed the name of her 7th grade best friend.
Remember that one mixtape you received that changed everything for you? The one that introduced you to the record labels, bands, scenes, and songs that would expand your influences further than you could have dreamed? Okay, now imagine that mixtape coming to you in video form. And you receive a new one every Saturday night at midnight. A charismatic funny-man called “Host” tells you about the videos. You go to the mall to buy tapes of the music you love from the videos, and sometimes they are available, but usually not. This is before the Internet, so you think you are at a loss. Then “Host” extends another hand: now you can buy the music you loved directly from him. You’re set.
Jeff Moody, “Host,” feels like an old friend of the family, though I only met him last year. Every Saturday night of my high school tenure, my sister Alison and I would eagerly prepare a VHS tape in the VCR in the living room of our home and tape Noise Network, a music video show out of Kenosha, WI. “Host,” as he was identified, would introduce the songs with gregarious humor. He talked to us like we were already in on what was cool. He was like having a fun, unpretentious, well-read older brother who didn’t mind telling the kids about what they yearned to understand and didn’t know how to ask about.
My sister Alison and I taped every episode. We painstakingly created indexes with VHS tracking times noted for each video. We rewatched our favorites. When Alison moved away after high school, I made a vhs mix for her with her favorite Noise Network videos to remind her of home.
stack of Noise Network/ Noise Bazaar VHS tapes
We had been jealous of our friends who had cable and let us watch their vhs tapes of 120 Minutes. But here I was, braces just off, contact lenses finally replacing the glasses I never wore, home from one of my first fumbling, exciting teenage romantic nights out, unwittingly stumbling upon the best underground music education I could ever hope for. Alison and I thought our prayers had been answered. They had.
When I met Jeff Moody for this interview, at PRF Thundersnow in Escanaba MI in 2019 https://www.prfbbq.com/category/event/prf-thundersnow-2019, he spent a large part of the time before, during, and after the event talking excitedly about other people’s bands, podcasts, and projects. He is an inveterate champion of others. Ironically, most of the people at PRF Thundersnow did not know that Jeff spent 7 years hosting an underground music video program and music home shopping program long before the Internet, a program that also produced a zine called NoisePaper that was shipped to viewers’ doors— a project that influenced scores of people in towns and cities dotting the U.S. and even sparked a local music scene in Trinidad.
Here is the story of Noise Network and Noise Bazaar. Take it away, Jeff!…
Sarah: What were you doing when the Noise idea came about? Where were you in life?
Jeff: We were in college. And Noise Bazaar actually came out of a thing called Video Whiplash. Video Whiplash went to community colleges. I was taking classes in a radio broadcast communications program. I was programming the student radio station there. Frank Booth was the Instructional Media Coordinator there at the community college. He was hearing what I was doing with the radio station. I had changed everything that was going on with the radio station. And he got excited about it. Part of his thing with being Instructional Media Coordinator was to prepare educational programming for people over cable television. It was like Internet courses, but before the Internet. It was on direct cable television. People subscribed to a class, and they’d take their class at home over television.
Sarah: For college credit? Really?
Jeff: Yeah, that was his thing. So he was like, “You guys are doing really cool things with the radio station. How would you like to do a video show, too? Could you do it? I’d be interested in helping to put that together.”
He had all the technical skill. I’m all about aesthetics and nonsense, and he can actually pull things together. So we’re a pretty good team.
So we were doing Video Whiplash with some of the other students who were friends. And then after doing Video Whiplash for a while, it was pretty popular in town, and we were pretty focused on, “Why don’t we try to do one outside of town? And one that’s not tied to the school so we can do what we want.” Some of the videos that we were showing on Video Whiplash– because we always liked to push the envelope in terms of content–they were kind of like, “We got some calls about this. We got some calls about that.” So we were like, “Let’s try to do something on our own outside of the school.” And that’s where the idea came from.
Sarah: Okay. What school was this?
Jeff: Gateway Technical College in Kenosha.
Sarah: You were a student at that school?
Jeff: I was a student there, yeah. Not a very good student. Not very far through. See, here’s how the college radio station there used to work. They didn’t really broadcast. They had a cable channel that the school had for their educational programming. When the educational programming wasn’t running, they would run audio from the student radio station. The student radio station would have a bake sale or a book sale twice a year to raise money. And then they would send the Program Director to the local record store, and they would buy like the top 40 45s, and then that’s what they would play for the next six months.
And my idea was, “There’s College Music Journal out there. And I think I can get a free subscription to College Music Journal if I report back to them what I was playing on the station. And if I can do that, then I can get record companies to just send us records. And the money that you are using to buy records through your bake sales or book sales or whatever—we can use that to buy new equipment.” That was my idea, to be Program Director for the station.
So everybody was kind of like, “Okay that sounds like a good idea.”
So I got a hold of CMJ. CMJ was like, “Yeah sure. Send us a playlist.” I started calling up record companies. Said, “We’re in CMJ.” I started with the big labels because they obviously have the most discretionary money. They’ll just throw you any records. It was the smaller labels that were tough to get. A really good example of that is Gerard Cosloy. Does that name ring a bell?
Sarah: Yes, Matador?
Jeff: Yeah. So before he was with Matador, Cosloy was with Homestead Records. And he was basically doing everything there. And one of the greatest features of College Music Journal was the letters section. Cosloy ruled the letters section. Somebody should take all of his CMJ letters and put them in a compendium book because his writing was brilliant. He was super funny. Super dead on. Ferocious about independent music and keeping the corporate labels out of it. He was one of the first guys I had an eye on, because I really liked him. I really wanted to get Homestead Records because I wanted to work with him. And his first response was, “Well, you’re playing the Screaming Blue Messiahs and you’re playing all this crap from Elektra and WEA and all the majors. Why am I going to send you my records?”
“I can’t play them if I don’t have them. I’m playing what I have right now. I’m just starting this thing out. So I know how it looks to you probably. But the goal is to get you and every other indie label in here, too, so we can really start working that. But right now I’ve got the majors sending me stuff because they can.”
He was kind of like, “Whatever…” And I kept at him and I kept at him. After about four or five months, he started seeing the playlists from CMJ and then he called me up one time. He said, “I’m glad you stayed on me because it looks like you’ve got a pretty cool thing going there.” He also saw that we were doing Video Whiplash, which is an extra thing that most college stations don’t do. We were one of the few college radio stations that actually had a video show too that was doing well. So he ended up sending me videos, too. And it was cool.
And I ended up booking shows in our town. One of our classmates who’s still one of my best friends, he was renovating a theatre in Kenosha, The Orpheum Theatre, and he wanted to have live music there.
built in 1922, the kenosha orpheum. photo from kenoshaorpheum.com
We had an early version of Smashing Pumpkins. We had Royal Crescent Mob from Ohio. My Dad Is Dead, who were on Homestead.
flyer for a die kreuzen show at the orpheum that jeff organized. he found this image online a while back and said, “that looks familiar!”
So the whole thing with Cosloy and a lot of other people, too. It sort of just developed into doing other things, too, like actually bringing bands in town.
And we started doing Noise Network. At first, we were just a straight up music video show. And we knew we couldn’t get advertising in the traditional sense. So that’s when we started talking about how maybe we could supplement our advertising with selling records, because that seemed to be what people needed. That was the response we were getting from kids. The low power television network that we were talking about earlier, they were in towns like this! Escanaba would be a place for an LPTV station. Where are you going to go to the mall to a record shop to buy records up here—even back when there were record stores?! You’d have to go to Marquette, probably. That was the predicament a lot of kids were in. We filled that niche for selling records. But anyway, that’s how it started.
noise bazaar coupon – 75¢ off!
Sarah: So you had Video Whiplash. How did it progress from there to Noise?
Jeff: Video Whiplash was a college, noncommercial, nonprofit thing. We were trying to position Noise Bazaar as something that was going to make enough money to continue to fund itself instead of using school funds. Plus, we would have total creative control, too.
I think Revolting Cocks gave us problems just because of the name. We wanted to play Revolting Cocks all the time, everything that they had. Even if the song was clean and the video was clean, people would see the name and they’d call the school, “Hey! What’s this?” The school being a school, they were very smaller town, very reactionary. “Hey, you guys, what are you doing?” And they’d put some pressure on Frank, put some pressure on us. And that was when we started talking about, “Let’s try to do something on our own, just to see if we can do it!” And we ended up doing that for seven years.
Sarah: When you started it, did you have a sense of how long—did you have a vision of, “O gosh maybe this could expand outside of a certain area,” or?
Jeff: Of course, there was always the joke about how we’d eventually be able to just program shows from the beach. Just imagining. This was way before the Internet, way before wireless.
At the time, we had no idea what it was going to do, if anything. But the plan was to beat MTV. Or just be something cooler than MTV because you look at MTV now, over time, and it’s, “Yeah it was a cool thing that they were doing.” But the music programming that they were doing was pretty unadventurous. Even 120 Minutes, it was a lot of the stuff Cosloy was critical of, it was a lot of major label stuff. Homestead would never have anything on 120 Minutes. And Matt Pinfield might have been super stoked about something like Phantom Tollbooth that he might have seen on a small, small label, but for whatever reason, he was never able to get that stuff on. So that was our thing, to be something cooler than they were, just by virtue of playing stuff that no one would ever have a chance to hear.
We even took videos from bands that didn’t even have a record deal, but made a video themselves- or tried to. As long as it was weird and different, we would play it if we could. As long as it wasn’t nudity or violence that the FCC wouldn’t let us broadcast.
i loved this humidifier video. shot on super 8 = homemade necessarily?
Sarah: So, you had Video Whiplash. It turned into Noise. Video Whiplash had this college support, and then when you segued it to Noise, how were you accessing distribution?
Jeff: Even before that, when we did Video Whiplash, we were able to use the school’s equipment, so production-wise, everything was done at the school. Once we were done with that, and we were doing Noise, we worked out of this place called Jones Intercable in Kenosha.
Sarah: O! Yeah! I remember that in the credits!
Jeff: Yeah, it was Jones Intercable. They were the local cable company. And they access television equipment. But we weren’t part of the whole access thing because we wanted to be a noncommercial thing. So they worked it out with us where – I don’t think they even charged us anything- maybe it was like 5 bucks a week- because the guy who was the station manager or the operations manager there, he liked us a lot. He wanted to see it happen. So he gave us kind of a sweet deal. At the time, it was me and Frank, and it was two other people, too, that were students. And then after [the first year] it was just Frank and me. Frank and I were pretty strident about what we wanted to do and the music that we wanted to play. At first, we were on a local cable channel in Kenosha, we had one in Racine, and we were on a local broadcast cable channel in Milwaukee. It was TV49 or something like that. They were like a weird UHF channel, and they picked up the show. I think that’s all we had until Channel America came along. And Channel America came along almost instantly, right at the right time.
Sarah: So what was Channel America?
Jeff: They were a television network that catered to low power television stations. Low power television stations were government-owned broadcast stations that were set up for the Emergency Broadcast system. This is all before the Internet. It really was broadcast, right? So whenever there would be a tornado warning or something like that, these tv stations would put out a warning and hope that people would be watching that tv channel at the time so they’d be warned. [laughter] Weird, I guess. When you think about technology NOW and how you get these alerts on your phone, it’s so much more efficient than what they were trying to do back then. But they were trying to do it with the technology that they had.
People that owned these low powered tv stations were typically like, dentists or whatever. That was always the joke. It was someone who did good on their tax return and wanted to do a little something with their money, put it in something, so they’d buy a tv station. What are you going to put on your tv station? That’s where they came up with the idea of Channel America. You can provide really rock bottom, cheap programming. That was us!
It was funny because we would watch the satellite feed sometimes. So we would see what was on before us. And there was a tv show called “Only the Rich Cry” and it was one of those telenova things. It was hilarious! It was so terrible! It was like the worst soap opera! It was so bad it was hilarious. So we would try to tune into that before our show. We came on right after that.
That’s what Channel America was. The guy who was their program director was a guy who was a promotion person, a rep at a label. And he left that job to become program director. He called us up and said, “Your show’s perfect for this weird new network that I’m going to be working on. Do you want in?” And we were like, “Yeah definitely! We’ve got nothing else.” It was really good timing. And that got us on about 150 stations around the U.S. and Canada and then Trinidad, too.
Trinidad turned out to be a really huge thing for us because nobody in Trinidad had heard this music before. They had never heard the Cows or any of the Am Rep stuff. By all accounts, from all the mail we got from them- and years later I heard from a bunch of the people down there, too- I’m still in touch with some of them over social media—we really changed a lot of people’s lives down there. They heard this stuff and went nuts and started bands and started new music nights at clubs. They started a record store in Port-Au-Prince that catered to “alternative” music.
That’s how Channel America got going and pulled us in.
Sarah: Was that a business deal where you had a contract with Channel America?
Jeff: I don’t even think we signed anything. This guy loved the show. He must have been with a label that we liked a lot, a smaller label, an indie label. We must have liked him a lot because we did play a bunch of his stuff, and that’s how that relationship kind of went. He dug what we were doing, and they were our vehicle for a long time.
They even ran re-runs for a few years. I think they just went back to the first season and kept running it. I kept hearing from people- why are there re-runs? Well, because we quit. We’re not doing it anymore. “O that sucks.” Yep.
Sarah: So were you getting a lot of mail from the beginning?
Jeff: Ummmm, no. It just sort of progressed. In the beginning, we weren’t on too many stations. But once we got on Channel America, we started getting letters from all over the place. It was weird how many prisoners we got mail from. [laughter] Like in California, I remember specifically, there were a lot of guys who would write us, like “Yeah, I’m in for this amount of time. I always liked punk rock. You guys are cool. Thank god, it’s something weird and different in my life. I really look forward to your show every Saturday.” Yeah, a lot of prisoners in California for some reason. There must have been a couple of different prisons that let the guys watch the show. [laughter]
And then I remember the big places were Havasu City in Arizona. A weird little town. Got a lot of mail from Pittsburgh on a regular basis for a long time. Different cities in Ohio, Georgia, Texas—Plano, Texas, we had a station down there. When Trinidad hit, that’s when the letters doubled. For quite a while, half the mail was from everywhere else and then half the mail was coming from people in Trinidad who were like, “What is this?!”
Sarah: Would you answer the mail, at the time?
Jeff: We would pick a letter every week: “And now a letter from a viewer!”
There was this mystery for a while. Somebody was watching us on satellite. And they’d send us a postcard every month or so. And it would be from a different place. And it was always some kind of weird cryptic—Easter Island, or – it was all these really weird places. And they’d send a postcard that just had a pagan thing on it or something. And we were like, “Who’s this mystery person? This is so weird.” And we were never able to figure out who it was or where they actually lived or anything. But we always knew it was the same person because it had the same handwriting and it would always come from some strange place like the North Pole or somewhere way up in Canada that barely has a postal code. Very strange.
Yeah, the mail was really weird. And again, it was all before the Internet, so it was all snail mail. The Internet started coming around with email in like ‘94 or ‘95, so Frank had compuserv. So we had an email address but nobody knew how to use email at the time so we didn’t really get any email. We tried to set up an ordering service for records on the email. But again it was just too early for people to think about. It’s funny now! Everything’s done on the Internet. At the time, you couldn’t even get people to use fucking email. [laughter] It’s just weird.
Sarah: Tell me about getting content for the show.
noise bazaar is what made it possible for a 15-year old in a small town to wear a pylon t-shirt to school. and perpetuate this ‘tude.
Jeff: It’s kind of like when I was telling you about Cosloy. He was an early guy. A lot of what we were getting for Noise just was a natural progression from what I was doing at the college station. People knew me by then and so it was just really easy—and the more we worked at it, the easier it became. People started just sending us stuff. We didn’t even have to call and people were sending us stuff we didn’t even want. And it was all FedEx and UPS. Now everything is EPK [Electronic Press Kit] and you can send it electronically. But at the time, the amount of money that they were spending on overnighting videos! I would get 40-50 FedExes a week. My basement was just full of content. And they were sending them on ¾ inch tapes. So that’s huge. The difference now between all the physical stuff we had. You could fill a landfill with it. Versus EPKs, and just sending everything electronically. It’s totally different.
3/4″ tape. photo from currentpixel.com
But we just had such a reputation from the school days that it all carried over into Noise that it just got bigger and pretty soon everyone was sending us stuff.
One of the funniest stories—you know the song that’s on every football game- “Whoomp there it is! Whoomp there it is!” I can’t remember what the name of the group was but they were one of these Miami outfits. Luther Campbell was sending us stuff for a while. We got that video, and we were like, “This is the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” You know? “We’re not going to play this.” I think we did play it once at the end of a show with the end credits, because it was kind of fun but we were like, “This is so dumb.” Six months later, every football stadium, every place in the country is: “Whoomp there it is!” And we were like, “Yeah, we’re really good at picking what people want to hear, right? What are we doing, even?”
Sarah: What was that curation process like? You’re getting all this stuff.
Jeff: Every week, we would sit—when we first started, like I said, there were four of us, and I guess Frank and I got real nazi about things because there was stuff we definitely did want to play and there was stuff we definitely weren’t going to play. The other people involved- I think eventually we just wore them down. Then it just became him and me. Our vision- the two of us- was completely congruent. We both liked the same stuff, so it was really easy. A little different. I would turn Frank on to things, and he would open my mind to things: “Give it another try and think about this.” We both did that for years with each other.
Sarah: What was his aesthetic versus your aesthetic do you think?
Jeff: He got me into Nick Cave. He got me into Birthday Party. I think I got him into stuff he never really thought about like things that were newer coming up that he didn’t really hear.
I was always looking for – who haven’t I heard of yet that’s going to be great? Who’s going to be new? Guided By Voices was one that I hooked onto first and was like “How can you not love these guys?” I would slide him something. ‘Yeah! It’s great!”
We’re both Public Enemy fans from the beginning. We were insane about Public Enemy. That period of time between ’88 and ’92, rap music was the only important music being made. De La Soul. Public Enemy. There was so much good stuff coming out through that time period. We were both congruent on that.
I think he’s always definitely been into the darker stuff. I like it, But I think I’m a bigger fan of pop music than he is. So that would kind of lighten him up a little bit. It worked. We were a really good partnership, just in every way. We both really liked each other a lot and we were influenced by some of the same things.
Sarah: And you knew each other before college?
Jeff: No, I didn’t even – I was like the last person in the program to meet him. He kind of came to me last because I was never around. I was always doing stuff. But he was hearing all the results because he was listening to the station. I remember meeting him for the first time and he was like, ‘How did you think of all this? To go at CMJ and all that?” “I just talked to people. I just researched it and started calling people.” Back then, before cell phones, I racked up some pretty big phone bills at the school and they were a little alarmed by that. But I got a pass on it because of the results. All these records that were coming in that we were getting. And press that we were getting that drew some attention to the school. It’s funny how – well, it makes sense–there’s some attention that they liked and some attention that they didn’t like. They really liked the positive chatter that they would get in the newspaper because of what we were doing with the show and the things that people would say. But, play the ‘Thrill Kill Kult and Kooler than Jesus and there are all of a sudden one or two people that can throw the whole train off. “That’s blasphemy!” people would freak out.
Sarah: What happened with the Kooler Than Jesus video?
Jeff: I’ll tell you about that. We got kicked off of several stations in Georgia when we played Kooler Than Jesus. All it took was one time. They contacted Channel America and said “We want to get off of that show.” And luckily, like I said, we were friends with the program director. He was just like, “They really don’t like Kooler Than Jesus. This is down in the bible belt, so they’re really kind of freaking out about it. And they don’t want to run the show anymore.” “O that’s too bad. But whatever Because we’re going to do more of it.” We joked about it: “Hey, if you’re in Dublin, Georgia, see if you can pick up a signal in Athens.” We were still trying to communicate to them. It was a drag, too, because the stations that we lost in Georgia—we got mail from those places. The kids really dug it. But that was just a video too far for a lot of people. They complained. I’d think those folks would be in bed getting ready for church instead of being up so late on a Saturday night.
Sarah: They were busy getting offended.
Jeff: Yeah, that was funny. I interviewed Groovy Man a year after that or something and I don’t know if I told him about that or not. I’m pretty sure I did and I’m pretty sure he found it hilarious. He was a cool guy. One of the more interesting interviews to do. But that’s how that went. We were just on the air one week [snap] and off the next. All because of the Thrill Kill Kult.
Sarah: So when you were going through the videos, did you watch everything that you received?
Jeff: Yeah, we would. All that stuff came to my house.
Sarah: It was your personal residence?
Jeff: Yeah, and my basement would fill up. And I’d take all of the videos to Frank. They were usually on ¾”s. I think he had a ¾” machine at his place. And he would edit it all down to one VHS so that we could just run and watch the whole VHS tape and watch them all in succession. So, maybe 30-40 clips a week. And then we would take what we liked out of the new stuff, figure out how much time it would take. Can we fit it in? Do we play it now or push it off to next week? Is there something that we want to bring back from a couple weeks ago because we really like that track? We could shoot a clip out there, just play it one time, but you really gotta get it out there a few times if you really want it to sink in. There were some clips that were that good or that we liked that much. We would play a couple times. So it was kind of a mix of what’s new, and what do we want to really drill into people’s heads. Kind of make it work that way so that it’s fresh and strong. A fresh, strong playlist each week.
Your peak seasons are- I think releases probably still work the same- where, in the spring, you have a big flood of records come out. Toward the end of summer, when kids go back to school, there’s a big flood of records. And then around Christmastime, there’s usually a big last push of either new music or compilations coming out. So when it was a slower time of year, we would try to rework older things in, or go back to an artist that we really liked, something old, and try to pad the list out. Because we didn’t have new things. Depending upon what time of the year, we always tried to make it as new as possible, as fresh as possible. And then through repetition, work the things that we thought deserved to be pushed a little bit harder.
There was also, and this is one of the things that contributed to us not being interested in doing it after years and years of doing it was- labels were spending more and more money with us, and then, in turn you’d play the clips once or twice.
Sarah: What does spending more and more money with you mean?
Jeff: They would either buy straight-up a spot, or-
Sarah: O, you were playing for pay?
Jeff: We didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. Basically. And we were increasingly uncomfortable as we did more and more of it.
Sarah: When did that start?
Jeff: It kind of always sort of went on but it became more and more blatant as time went on, I think. And that’s when we got less and less interested in it. The last straw for me was when No Doubt’s first record came out, the Tragic Kingdom. They bought the back page of the NoisePaper. I think they dropped like a grand. Which is ridiculous because we would print, maybe, 1,000 of those things, you know? It’s crazy. And then we would play the video. We didn’t push it that hard. One of the things was, we knew what they were doing. But what we would do is, we would stick Tragic Kingdom between Cows and Alien Sex Fiend or whatever. [laughter] And we wouldn’t even back-sell it. I think we back-sold No Doubt once.
In retrospect, it’s stupid because I actually like that band a lot now. At the time, it was kind of like, “What’s this ska/pop goofy music?” Not really recognizing that they were really a great pop band. I have a greater appreciation now for pop music than I did. I guess I did back then but I was fighting with myself all the time about it. But now I don’t care. If I like a song I don’t say, “It’s not punk enough” or whatever.
We were faced with that increasingly. Some labels were cool about it, too. Warner Brothers were very soft sell with, “We just want to but some advertising. Columbia, on the other hand, had a guy who was just a sledgehammer all the time: “Okay, so if I do this, what am I gonna get?” I used to hate that guy! I hated talking to him! I can’t remember his name. He ended up being like a VP somewhere, of course, because he was good! He was just a dick. He would never stop, you know? He was rewarded for all that. We just got increasingly uncomfortable with it. Yeah, it kinda was pay for play in a lot of cases.
Or they would spend some money on advertising in conjunction with a special promotion. We did a sausage party before there was such a thing as sausage party. That was Les Claypool’s side band, [Sausage]. We just picked a bar in town. I think their promotion person at Interscope got a hold of Johnsonville Brats. Johnsonville Brats put up like 10 lbs of bratwurst or something like that for the party. And then someone could win a case of bratwurst. And then this cool Johnsonville/Weber grill cooler combination thing–we had some kind of crazy thing that we were able to give away for this party. They would put all these things together, and they would throw us some money for it. Consequently, some advertising would come out of that, too. There were a million different ways you could work that. Sometimes it translated into straight pay-for-play basically. We tried to avoid that.
“the wurst party of the summer”
Another one would be the Ministry Drive-By Vacation
Sarah: Yeah, tell me about that!
Jeff: I have a hard time remembering. I forgot a lot of that. I remember the sausage party one because it was a big all-day thing. But the Drive-By Vacation one was one that we did strictly on the show. We didn’t do anything off-site, and not a special show or anything. I just remember that one came through for the Jesus Built My Hotrod- it was kind of built around that.
Sarah: Who made those t-shirts?
Jeff: Uh, the label did. Warner Brothers.
Sarah: Really? It definitely looks like someone’s bedroom silkscreen project.
Jeff: I’m pretty sure that the label did that, and they paid for everything. As I remember they did a really good job of making it really—
Sarah: D.I.Y-looking. Yeah.
Jeff: Which was pretty cool.
Sarah: Do you think the label was like, “O we should make this a writing contest?”
Jeff: No, that was our idea. Yeah. We had a really good relationship with Warner Brothers. Wendy Griffiths, she was the person that we dealt with almost exclusively with video. And she was awesome. Always encouraging. Loved the show. Big fan of it. Most of the time they would just ask us. You want to do a contest? What do you want to do? Think about it and call me back. So we’d think about it.
The guy at Columbia always had a very definite idea: “Here’s what I want you to do.” But most people were different. They just let us come up with something. Or we would just collaborate together on something. I think Frank came up with that idea. Let’s do a drive-by vacation story. That was a good one. When you did a promotion, you either really wanted to do it. Or it was like, “O god, it’s No Doubt again. Okay.” But Ministry. Spend your money with us on that. That’s perfect.
proud second-place winner, about 30 years later and still beaming. photo by val moody
Sarah: There was Noise Network. Deciding to sell the music seems like a big step.
Sarah: So what was that about?
Jeff: The Noise Network, the original idea was to be like an MTV if we could eventually grow it into a 24/7 channel. And I guess it was kind of the idea with Noise Bazaar, too. We’ll be on just an hour a week and do this whole constant thing where people want to buy records from us. They’ll get exposed to stuff and want to buy it from us and then buy it. So it was Noise Network before we came up with the idea of actually selling the records. And then we were like- what are we going to call it now? If we’re going to sell records, then what are we going to call it? And somehow we agreed on Bazaar. We liked the way it sounded. Is it bizarre? Of course it’s bizarre! No, it’s bazaar, like an outdoor bazaar. But that’s how that happened.
Sarah: How many years in was that?
Jeff: I want to say that it was within a year or two. I believe. The way I could really check it is to look at the old NoisePapers because really all the information from the show—I haven’t even watched an episode in, 20 years maybe. It’s been that long. At my birthday party, there was a clip from one of the shows. But that was the last time I’ve seen ANYTHING related to the show at all. That was six years ago. Before that, I hadn’t watched an episode in ages.
Sarah: One thing about the Noise Bazaar business model that I’m curious about is that when I looked back at the catalog that was in the Noise Paper, it seemed like you had just a handful of titles from a lot of different labels. So how did that work? Wouldn’t it have been more beneficial for the labels if you were like, “I’ll take fifteen of your titles or I’ll take all of your titles” or whatever. I mean, were they still happy to be selling you several copies of one title sometimes?
some cassette tapes purchased specifically because of a video on noise. notably missing here is galaxie 500, mazzy star, and snakefinger, among others
Jeff: Yeah. They knew that what we were doing was highly experimental. No one else was doing it. So, that got us a lot of—not clout—that’s the wrong word to use. But it’s the only one I can think of in this case. But it gave them a reason to say, “Let’s cooperate with this because if it takes off, there may be real potential here.” So everybody was really happy to accommodate us. What we tried to do is we tried to focus the catalog on the stuff that we were playing. Keeping it there. On most rosters, that was a small percentage of what they actually offered. Just to ballpark a number, 25 percent would actually get the budget to also make a music video. Because the label believes in them that much. And the rest, just put out a record and that’s it. We would focus our effort on whomever had the video we were playing.
If I remember correctly, maybe every biannually, we would put out a supplemental catalog that was more open to—it wasn’t on the show necessarily. But in the Noise Paper, we would offer more titles. More titles than we actually stocked but we knew we’d be able to turn around within a reasonable amount of time. 4-6 weeks, we’d try to turn these things around. We’d get an order from the person. Then we’d have to order from the label. And everything was done by pony express.
Sarah: Mm-hm. Who was doing that?
Jeff: Frank. Frank did the mail order.
Sarah: So you didn’t have extra help when you decided to become an entire retail operation?
Jeff: No, that was pretty much Frank. I’d get the orders. I’d give them to him. I did have some records stocked at my house, too, so I could fill some of them. But I mostly handled the videos coming in and dealing with the labels. And Frank pretty much handled the retail. I would handle the label promotion stuff and advertising. He would handle a lot of that, too. And organizing the interviews. I hated the interviews. I didn’t like to interview bands. I just didn’t enjoy it. There were very few that I enjoyed. But he liked doing it. And Frank was a really good interviewer. One of the best I’ve seen. You met J.J. last night, too. J.J. was a really good interviewer. Me, I’m too self-interested. I don’t care what these people think. [laughter] I just don’t. With the exception of David Yow. David Yow was the greatest interview ever. He’s the greatest guy.
Sarah: Did the Noise Paper come right when Noise Bazaar happened?
Jeff: It did coincide with Noise Bazaar because we had this idea that it could be a fanzine and a catalog. Besides what people see on the television, we could bolster that with the purchase codes and stuff inside a magazine. Make a catalog. So yeah they did kind of coincide with each other. It was also nice, too, because we were kind of like, “Well, we’re going to sell records. Let’s write reviews. Let’s do interviews with the artists.” The interviews that we do on the show, a lot of times we could only show 5 percent of what we actually talked about. But when you write it all down, you can expand that format. You can’t put a 30 minute conversation on a video show because you’re not going to have enough time to show the videos. But you can put it all in writing, and people can go back and read it over and over. The two would work together in that way. That was the idea.
We wanted to write, too. I liked writing record reviews. It was just another exercise that was kind of fun. Frank was a really good writer. He was interested in doing that, too. We had friends that were like, “I’ll write a review! I’ll write a review!” J.J. wrote reviews for us. He did a great job. We had some writers who were good friends. I wrote under eight different aliases. Frank did, too. It was fun to make up names for all of that. It was definitely an offshoot of Noise Bazaar.
Noisepaper writer J.J., also at Thundersnow 2019!
Sarah: How successful was the mail order aspect of what you were doing?
Jeff: In terms of being a money-making venture, not successful at all. In terms of getting records to select kids who followed through and would order, and probably would have never gotten that record if they hadn’t gotten it from us- very successful. There were very happy people. So yeah.
Financially, no. But in terms of turning kids on to stuff and getting it into their hands, it worked for some people.
We made enough money to plough it back into the thing and keep making the show, keep making the fanzine. The show didn’t cost us that much to do because we had that relationship with Jones where they just kind of let us come in and do stuff. We used their studio for a few years and then we stopped using their studio, but we used to do it out of Frank’s apartment.
I don’t know if you remember, but we used to give things away every week, and we had the ghostly margarine prize bucket. Were you still watching during those days? We had the ghostly margarine prize bucket? I think it was later. The story behind that was that when they were in Frank’s apartment, Frank’s son was maybe seven or eight at the time, and there used to be around Halloween-time at McDonald’s this white pumpkin bucket that they would put a happy meal in. It was stuffed under the couch when Frank’s son was done playing with it. And one day, I was like, “We need to have something to put all the names in so I can draw a name.” So I reached under the couch and pulled out the thing. And we just called it the ghostly margarine prize bucket. It stuck and got really popular. We wanted to give it its own theme song.
There were a lot of things we did on that show. Do you remember Woody? The famous international playboy? It was just a mannequin head. And we did, like, clutch cargo lifts on him.
We started getting really fancy with cgi effects and clutch cargo lifts. 1960s technology in a 1990s video. Thirty years late.
Woody would read letters from viewers sometimes. Or he would give something away.
Sarah: Were you writing all the segues yourself and then reading them off cue cards?
Jeff: When we first started, I had this idea that it was going to really regimented and really scripted. But I wanted to write my own stuff. But after a while, it just got so easy and conversational that I would just ad lib everything. It was probably after like two years that I was like, “Ah, forget the cue cards, man.” Unless it was something really specific, like rules to a contest or something like that, then I would script it out. But it was much easier and much more fun to just ad lib it. So yeah, I would do it that way. It was fun.
That part was really fun. I was never uncomfortable for a minute.
Sarah: That’s a real skill.
Jeff: It’s not really a skill for me. It’s just like walking. I don’t know why, but I get on camera, and I don’t care. It’s just fine. It’s kind of turned out that way with bands, too. My stage banter is A plus. I can wing it with anyone, and I’ll be fine. It’s lucky that way. I get lucky.
Sarah: Tell me about when you felt it winding down. What were some of the early warning signs that this thing was gonna wind down?
Jeff: I had to work my regular job. I was taking on more and more responsibilities there. Same thing with Frank. And honestly he was doing way more work than I was. I was already overwhelmed by ’97. That was part of it. We were just burned out and tired.
A big part of it was that music was changing, too. When we started it, the whole alternative phenomenon happened. At the start of that, what the radio was calling alternative had a different meaning than college alternative, college rock, that was our thing. College rock was all-encompassing, everything from reggae to punk rock to black metal, whatever. The industry took that term and turned it into any band that sounds like Nirvana. Grunge. That’s alternative radio. Then, after ’97 or so, alternative started to mean Limp Bizkit, too. It started getting really kind of aggro. And I hate that stuff. I hated that stuff. And so did Frank. We saw that that’s where the money was being spent. Linkin Park. A lot of people liked Linkin Park, but it was passed me. I didn’t care for it. So, music was changing.
One thing we didn’t like as the whole thing was going on was that music labels were swallowing up the smaller bands from the indie labels; they were draining the indie rosters. When Capitol signed the Jesus Lizard, it was like, ‘What’s going to happen there?” At first, it was like, “Oh that’s cool, they’re going to make some money.” But you never make money with the labels because all they’re doing is they’re making an upfront investment, and then they’re going to expect a return on that investment. And maybe you’ll get your house paid for, if you’re lucky. But they’re going to own your songs. They’re going to own you.
What I didn’t understand about Capitol was, they grabbed the Jesus Lizard, recorded two or three albums, but never promoted them. They didn’t drop a penny on promotion. Touch and Go spent more money promoting them than Capitol did. Capitol has 80,000 times the resources. So, we didn’t like any of that stuff. My joke early on was, “I’ll believe this alternacrap thing is real when the Cows get signed to Columbia or something.”
We were tired. Things were changing. And we were getting increasingly uncomfortable with the pay per play situation, too, because it was getting more and more blatant. “We’re going to spend this much money. How many times are you going to play the video?” And it wasn’t just Columbia anymore asking the question. More and more people changed at different labels. That whole combination of things. We were just like, “That’s enough. Let’s stop. Let’s stop and take a break.” I was burned out.
But that was pretty much it. That was the end. I think it was pretty unceremonious, too. I think it was the end of 1997. We didn’t even do a “last show” thing. We just stopped. That was it. We gave Channel America a heads up so that they would know. The same guy was programming, and I think he told us, “We’ll just run reruns for a while, and if you guys change your mind, let me know.” But we were pretty solid on that. We were really done.
Sarah: And you both came to that at about the same time, you and Frank?
Jeff: Yeah! Into ’97, the beginning of the new year, we had said, “So, how much longer are we going to do this, really? How much longer can we go at this pace?” Because we were doing the show every week. We were doing the Noisepaper every quarter. For a while, we were doing a radio show, too. We were nuts. That lasted about two years. I think that was ’95, ’96.
Sarah: What was it called?
Jeff: Noise Bazaar Radio. That gave us a chance to [play music with] no video attached. Or, here’s an album and the cuts on the album. So it gave us a chance to do a little more. Or a band that we liked that didn’t have a video.
There was some guy with a satellite radio network thing that we found. Or he found us.
Yeah, after all that, by ’97, we were asking each other, “How long can we really keep doing this?” I knew Frank was really burning out. He was doing a lot. I was taking on more responsibilities at my real job. I became the trainer where I was at. Pharmaceutical industry training is nuts. It’s all paperwork-intensive. It was before all the electronic cataloging that you do now. Back then, it all had to be done by hand. It was a lot. It was super labor intensive. And I had more kids coming, too. I felt like I didn’t have enough time with the kids. A lot of different reasons. Frank’s son was getting into middle school/high school age, so requiring more attention. There was a lot. It was the right time. Seven years is enough, I think. That was the end.
Sarah: Do you have anything that you think about sometimes about Noise?
Jeff: Yeah, I often wonder. We were just ahead of the technology. I used to wonder, man, if the Internet would have come along just a little earlier, or if we would have been just a little bit later.
But it doesn’t really matter because Shawn Fanning in ‘99 did Napster. And that was the beginning of the end of physical product.
I used to wonder, “Should I have worked in the music industry instead of just working the regular jobs that I worked?” But I’m glad I didn’t because it would have been actual work, and I always wanted this to be fun. And not work. And now there’s no physical—there’s no record industry anyway. So who cares? And I never really cared much about that part of it anyway outside of- yes- getting this record into the hands of this kid in Kansas or someplace. That part was cool. But I never really thought of it as a real career option. But sometimes I do wonder.
I had a buddy. This was in ’99 I think. After we were done with Noise. He was a year ahead of me in high school. Or two years. He was an engineer. He was a brilliant guy, and he took a job at Bell Labs while he was going to college. And he’s still with Lucent Technologies. I saw him in ’99 on the 4th of July, and we were walking around. We were in this big field where there were going to be fireworks pretty soon. “Think about what you want to do with music in terms of delivering it to people,” he said. “because, I’m going to tell you, pretty soon everyone’s going to be able to walk around and access the Internet right where we are now.”
“What are you talking about?”
He said, “There’s no name for it yet. But it’s wireless technology, so you’re not going to have to be hooked up to anything to access the Internet like you do now.” Because it was dial-up at the time. He said, “you’ll just be able to walk around anywhere with it.” And there really wasn’t the smart phones that we have now.
I thought, “We’re not doing the show anymore. I don’t even know how I would do anything.” Spotify wasn’t even an idea.
That’s why I like Spotify so much, because if you had told me that I could carry the entire history of music in my pocket and access it, if you had told me that 25 years ago, I would have laughed at you. But you can actually do that now. I think it’s a miracle. I love my Spotify. Like last night- who’s this band? ESG! Boom, I’ve got it, and all night I’m going to be listening to that song cause it’s awesome. I love that kind of thing.
We had visions. All these things in order for something to be successful. All these things have to line up just right in order for it to work on any level at all. And it’s a miracle when it all does.
Jeff Moody was a co-producer and the host (known as HOST) of the nationally televised music video show and TV record shop Noise Bazaar from 1990 to 1997. In 2000, he began publishing Stripwax, the world’s only comic strip record review, which was published in dozens of alt-weekly newspapers around the US and Canada until 2013. Moody is the father of six children, works as a microbial environmental control specialist, sings in the rock band Fowlmouth, and occasionally hosts The PRF Radio Hour at www.radionope.com. He lives with his wife Valerie and their four dogs in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Thirty years ago this fall, I started high school. Around midnight on a Saturday night, my sister and I cycled through the 6 television stations received at our parents’ house. We landed on channel 40. “Hey! This is not Pat Robertson! This is not the 700 Club! What in the world is channel 40 playing right now?” And then Nick Cave came on the screen. “Quick! Grab a VHS tape! WHAT IS GOING ON?!”
Thus started the best high school education for which I could have hoped, every Saturday night at midnight.
Below is a clip from the VHS tape that we used to tape our first night of Noise Network. The show included mind-blowers like The Residents, PiL, Siglo XX, and Trotsky Icepick!
And coming soon, my interview with Jeff Moody, host of Noise, who tells me the story of this long lost jewel of a music video show made with passion in Kenosha, WI in the 1990s.