INTERVIEW: WFMU DJ Bob Brainen
Bob Brainen's Taste Is Right (WFMU Radio)
By: Jonathan Donaldson
A friend once told me, much to my surprise and anticipation, that there was a DJ named Bob Brainen on www.wfmu.org that was playing stuff like the Free Design, the Left Banke, Fairport Convention, and NRBQ on his Saturday night radio program, and not just as a periphery, but as the main ingredients! I soon found out that not only could you listen to his show 'live' with nothing more than a free downloadable RealPlayer, but also that all of his previous shows and play-lists were archived...ready to be listened to at any time. As an instant listener, and an avid one at that, It was really odd for me to think that there was somebody else on the exact same wavelength as me with regards to the rock family. I had always felt like it was only my unique road that had led me to the conclusions of my record collection. To discover that there was a DJ that had the same taste in rock as me was an affirmation that helped me to discover that my taste was not only good...it was RIGHT!
The Bob Brainen show is a weekly delight. I am always interested to see what he is playing and I only wish I could have all of the shows on CD! Rock & roll and so, so much more, Saturday nights at 7 PM, or anytime!
I finally got a chance to talk to Bob over the course of last winter. Check out the musings of this amazingly knowledgeable and insightful grade school music teacher, DJ, and rock & roller in his own right--
JD: What is the origin of your existence at WFMU? how long have you been there?
BB: Since 1976, when I did two guest spots on a friend's show. Two special shows: one on Fairport Convention, and one on the Byrds. Twenty-six years later, they remain my two favorite bands of all time. I did my own first show on Sept. 8, 1977, so I recently hit twenty-five years.
JD: When you started at WFMU, what kind of environment were you in? Was your taste, if not your play-list, as eclectic as it is now?
BB: Yeah, always eclectic, but perhaps more focused, if that's not an oxymoron. When I started at FMU it coincided with my studying radical classical music in school and I made the jump from that to avant garde jazz, which seemed like a logical leap to me. Usually people build up to that. I played Ornette (Coleman), (Albert) Ayler, (Eric) Dolphy, (Archie) Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Pharoah (Sanders), et. al. All the ESP discs, and the various other labels big and small. I've always treated music as history and from there I worked my way back to Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and the rest. I studied everyone and everything in between.
JD: No offence Bob, but you don't exactly have a radio voice. I was surprised when I first heard you speak on the air.
BB: How so, or how not? I'm not chirpy? I'm not a 'character?' Yeah, it used to really bother me that I don't sound more excited, but I learned to accept it for what it is. I'm a low key guy, this is how I sound, and this is what I do.
JD: I wouldn't think that commercial radio would work for you. Listening to your program is much like gaining intrigue into the hallowed din and secret meetings of some clandestine order where those on the outside are kept unawares and those below must remember to tread lightly!
BB: That sounds like a great compliment, for which I thank you, but I try not to be exclusionary. I'd like as many people as possible to enjoy the stuff that I play. I think most people here at FMU feel that way. We're not a commercial station; we're a not-for-profit station and have a wonderfully loyal audience who support us year in and year out. We are completely listener supported.
JD: Can I ask you for an exact inventory of your likes? That is, can you trace for me a little bit what you have been most into over the past years?
BB: Sure. Here's a recap of obsessions, it's hard to put them in order, and again, much of these overlap: 60's pop, rock, soul, r'n'b, folk, etc. Jazz: avant garde jazz, bebop, Monk (a tangent to Bebop), cool jazz, swing big bands and smaller combos, etc. Some dixieland, jazz singers: Lady Day, Ella, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, etc. Jive and singular characters: Leo Watson, Babs Gonzales, Eddie Jefferson, etc. Girl groups, r'n'b from the post war era ('40s and '50s mostly), New Orleans music (sub-genre), blues, (but almost exclusively the upbeat stuff), doo wop, rockabilly -- the original rock & rollers- easy listening pop, world music, opera (recently, I've been playing an aria here and there), Klezmer, different Jewish musics, (So called) Alternative Pop--.
JD: Alternative! Now that's where I came into the scene.
BB: I thought the early '80s and early '90s were really exciting eras for pop, no? Esp. when there was "The Cutting Edge" and "120 Minutes" on MTV. Amazing stuff was played that would NEVER get played any other way. I saw the dBs and Athens' bands on there - stuff like that. Mindblowing!
JD: I agree. Tell me a little bit about your own personal musical journey prior to dedicating your life to radio? How did you get turned on to such cool stuff? Radio? Friends? A musical family?
BB: My dad was an amateur folk dancer and teacher, a really graceful dancer, and I loved watching him wear different costumes and dance at different events. I loved his collection of Russian, Hebraic and different world folk dance records. They were so exciting, so bitter-sweet, and all so vivid. He was also a great whistler, and had a beautiful voice. He sang at our temple on the high holy days. My mom had, and has, a great love of classical music and especially opera. I used to listen to her 78's. My older sister had a great 45' collection and a batch of LPs that went from the teen idol years to the folk years. I still have all these records and play them, to this day, on my show from time to time. I was entranced by those 45's with the different colored labels and different logos. I'd read all the info on them - front and back - artist, song, composer, producer, timing, etc. I still have, and play, all of these things on my show from time to time.
JD: I am interested to know what were some of the most significant or memorable experiences that you had with music? For instance, a special record that took you to a certain place?
BB: An involved Q&A! My mom used to sing "I'm The Japanese Sandman" to me when I couldn't sleep. That's a tender memory. I loved Patti Page's "How Much Is That Doggy In The Window." Years later I found out that it was a waltz, and waltzes make you move and react differently. Ya know, that song is so lovely and unfairly maligned, as is much of the pre-rock & roll stuff. To me, it all has its place! I loved Perry Como's "Catch A Falling Star" with its light latin beat, and I used to play that 45' while I kind of drummed along...man, I would play it over and over and over and just drum along, that beat hypnotized me! There was "The Purple People Eater," by Sheb Wooley, who was also an actor on the western show "Rawhide." That song used pitch shifting, so there were high and low voices beyond the normal human vocal range, and, of course David Seville started that whole craze with the Chipmunks. We loved those records. And I loved a Ricky Nelson b-side called "Everlovin' There were always amazing songs that seemed to coat the air.
JD: What solidified it? Can you go on?
BB: So much. West Side Story was made into a movie and it came out in 1961. Man, it was absolutely galvanizing. We saw the film and wore out the soundtrack. The cover of the album was bright red, the same shade, it seems, as another movie and soundtrack that took us all by storm a few years later: A Hard Day's Night. The Feb. '64 Beatles appearances on the Ed Sullivan show hit me as hard as everyone else, but I hope people realize that the late '50s and early '60s was a great, great period of music, loaded with great songs of all stripes. The popular thinking is that the Beatles were like saviors, saving us from a sterile musical climate, but that's a myth. Their impact can not be over-estimated; it just needs to be put in perspective. The 'record that changed my life' was the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man." Spring '65. I remember the very first time I heard it, the circumstances, who I was with, the time of day, it's all so vivid. I had never heard a sound like that before. I date that as the start of me knowing that music wasn't just something that I liked, even loved, but that I lived and breathed it and it would always be the center of my life. It still is. The Yardbirds' "For you Love" was another mindblower, and there were just too many astounding records to mention. (at this point, Bob goes on at length about the importance of TV and Movies in heralding the Rock-Age--)
JD: I know you love the Byrds. You are always playing stuff by them and all of their little off-shoots, like Gene Clarke, who you turned me onto via your show. You must love the rock family-tree--
BB: Oh, family trees are my thing. I even organize my albums that way (hence only I can find certain things and I have trouble sometimes!) Yeah, I couldn't see not having my Byrds albums being followed by all the spin-offs...that whole family, LPs by Clark, and all the other ex-Byrds, etc. As for Gene, well, the Byrds are my favorite band of all time and Gene was always my favorite Byrd. He was the most prolific songwriter among them and the first to mature, and while McGuinn and Crosby wrote outstanding songs, Clark is the one whose songs hit me the most. He could express the haunted side of love and loss so magically, and those songs are eternal. I wish he and Dilliard would get the credit they deserve for being country rock pioneers. Hats off to Gram Parsons, but Dilliard and Clark were every bit as important and put out great, great music.
JD: It says on the WFMU website that you have never been able to classify the music that you play on the show. I imagine that this is because the range is so huge! How about 'good music?' I happen to think that your taste is right.
BB: Well, most of us here have a wide range. I've just never been a good self-salesman, and if it was up to me, I'd have no show description, as self-defeating as that may be. I used to use "'60s Pop Mostly " which seemed to fit, meaning that I played mostly that, and connoting that I played other stuff too. But some shows, I'd barely play any '60s Pop, the ratio changes so drastically from show to show, so that just didn't fit. So I went to change the blurb, and I started listing every genre that I drew from and the list got so unwieldy that it seemed absurd.
JD: But seriously, we can say that you play a lot of low anxiety music. Is that a common theme-nothing too aggressive?
BB: Interesting, I never thought of it that way. I'd agree to a certain extent, but I also love and play stuff like Captain Beefheart, Dolphy, Ornette, Pere Ubu, Rahsaan (Roland Kirk), Howlin' Wolf, Ayler, raw r'n'b, etc. Is that 'low anxiety?' But as far as pop, the thing that is key to much of this is 'melody.' I have always been in love with melody and music that doesn't have that as a crucial element (60's garage, punk, surf instros, for instance) just loses me after a short spell. But, of course, the savagery of Howlin' Wolf, and Ayler, and the fascination of Beefheart gets to me too. The sheer forcefulness of personality comes right through.
JD: How do you reconcile this love of melody with all of the out-jazz that you play?
BB: Even with some of the freer Jazz, where you might not think of melody, the artists who had a love of melody were usually more interesting to me than the so-called 'Free Blowers.' Miles 2nd Quintet, Dolphy, Rahsaan, their solutions seem so much more ground-breaking than the guys who just screeched for a _ hour and only stopped due to the artifical restriction of the side of the LP ending. All life is tension and release, our breathing, sex, conversation, drama, and most music.
JD: I don't really know much about those guys, can you say a little more?
BB: Dolphy is my favorite improvising musician. He excelled on any instrument that he played, but he concentrated on three: alto sax, flute, and bass clarinet. The latter was a monster, technically, almost impossible to do a lot with, and he tamed that thing and also made savage sounds on it. He had a very advanced sense of improvisation. He was always dancing atop extended chords, and I think people who still have trouble with his sound need to listen some more. The joys are great. He could have the purest of tones, and the most human, the laugh, the cry, and everything in between. JD: What about Rashaan Roland Kirk?
BB: Rahsaan was a visionary, a sightless visionary. He looked back over the entire tradition of Jazz and Blues and Gospel, etc. and at the same time he looked forward. He was fearless, as a friend said. He took all those traditions and extended them. His sense of freedom was second to none. I love his sound, I'm not crazy about some of his raps, and I've been taken to task about that, but I love his sounds-many sounds, also a fine writer. And he just expressed joy and sorrow, and what it was to be alive as well as any artist ever did.
JD: Would you say that the groups and artists you have represented more frequently on your show are your favorites? For instance, are the Byrds, NRBQ, and the Beach Boys in the top tier?
BB: Definitely. And Moby Grape, Left Banke, Eric Dolphy, etc. all high on my list. I wouldn't play 'em if I didn't love 'em and I didn't feel that they should be played more. And most of these bands have such a rich catalogue of rarities to draw from too. But I wouldn't shy away from a hit if I felt like hearing/sharing it or just because it is a hit. But hey, everyone loves the 'non-LP b-side' phenomenon.
JD: I like the Grape and all, but I'm surprised to see you give it up to them so much--
BB: My pick for the greatest debut LP of all time. An astounding band. Five great players. Five great writers. Five great singers.
JD: It seems that you like to give a lot to the little guy. This seems to me to be no coincidence. I have heard you say on the air with maybe half your tongue in your cheek that you work for WFMU for free--why is that? Do you love what you do and love the people?
BB: Not tongue in cheek at all. We were part of a small Essex County College called Upsala 'til its untimely demise in the mid '90s. We bought the license from them a few years before they went under and became a not-for-profit station. The only folks paid here are a very tiny and dedicated staff. No one doing a show gets paid except for someone who does a special early morning show. The rest of us do it for the love of it.
JD: This is really the frontier of free-form radio, isn't it?
BB: Some folks talk about AM radio being "freeform" with it's diversity of sources, and that's an interesting point, but looking back, two songs were rarely, if ever, played back to back, it was song, ad, song, ad, etc. a choppy flow, at best. You were played something, and then you were sold something! No, you were sold a few things! I recently pulled out a WABC/Cousin Brucie air-check that I had, to see if my recollections were true, that in fact no two songs were played back to back, and boy was it the case. In spades! Commericals not only for all sorts of products, but commercials by the artists themselves, and a blizzard of station IDs.
JD: So how does one of your shows get put together?
BB: The process is quite organic. I am an obsessive note-taker and anytime I think of something to investigate or play, I write it down. Two great secrets to life that I have learned: write everything down, and remember where you put the paper. Anyway, I keep an ongoing list, and I bring to the station each week, maybe 30 albums and 50-60 CDs and CDRs and some cassettes, etc. Then I check out the new bin and pull stuff from the Library wall. I have 100s of hours of music at my disposal each show, most of us do. So I have all the ingredients, but have no idea which I'm actually gonna use. I have a rough idea of what I want to get to, but a lot of times I just don't or can't get to it, can't fit it in. Besides my theme song, I often have no idea what I am going to actually play, often 'til a few minutes before showtime. No one manner of doing a show is right or wrong.
JD: I'm thinking about all the overlap that you and I have in our tastes in pop-NRBQ, the Beach Boys, Fairport Convention, the Byrds, the Free Design, the Left Banke, the Strawbs, etc. What do these folk groups, vocal groups, and rock groups all have in common-is it depth that we are both interested in? Why are we not wooed by the big solo?
BB: Oh, I went though a Guitar God phase when I was like 17, 18 and I was wooed by guys like Alvin Lee, and such, but it passed. I eventually learned that speed was kind of mind-numbing and to play a slow solo was much, much harder. You don't have the sheer energy and ability to cram lots of notes in, and you are essentially naked and must depend on taste! That eliminates a lot of multi-note wankers. But we haven't even touched on Jazz Improvisation.
JD: How So?
BB: Listening to 'Trane play a half-hour solo is a great joy-to this day. The sheer power and multiplicity of ideas. But if you're looking for a succint self-editor, Trane's not your man. But in pop, for me, the solo has to be at the service of the song, and probably most songs where the solo is the be-all-and-end-all is just not gonna hold my attention. Why bother with a song at all if it's just an excuse for a solo? I love solos that add to a record. Guys like Jeff Beck, Brian Jones, George Harrison, Hendrix (when he's playing 3 minute songs!) Peter Green, Peter Frampton, Syd Barrett, Richard Thompson, Roger McGuinn, Young and Stills, Mike Bloomfield, Zal Yanovsky, Jerry Miller of Moby Grape all slay me. Some later ones: Stamey and Holsapple, Chilton, Mitch Easter, Marshall Crenshaw. I'm forgetting tons of them, I know. But, HEY, you're right, the big solo isn't that important to me!
JD: Are there groups that you under represent due to there ubiquity, i.e. the Beatles, despite your love for their music?
BB: Interesting question. "not intentionally" is my immediate answer. I opt for the more obscure, less played bands and pieces of music, but it's probably done subconsciously. One of WFMU's unwritten laws is to try to play artists who don't get played enough in other places. But we try to pick stuff based on merit, first and foremost. And we've all heard some extremely rare stuff that is NOT good.
JD: Do you think that it is your good service as a DJ to avoid playing stuff that everybody has heard a zillion times, like "Ticket to Ride?"
BB: Not really. Someone once said that even if a particular piece of music has been heard by millions of people many times, there very well may be someone who could be hearing it for the very first time. That's an intriguing notion. Especially with young listeners. For some people, anything can be brand new. But I base things on what I love, and the 'hit factor' doesn't play much of a part.
JD: Likewise, do you see it as good service as a DJ to play things that people think of as 'uncool' to try to show them in a different light, perhaps a light that you are able to see them in? For instance, dropping Seals and Crofts at a party wouldn't win you as much cultural cache these days. I would never in a million years think there was anything beyond "Summer Dream," but being such a big Brainen fan, I would have to reconsider now.
BB: Well thanks, for the re-evaluation! That's a real compliment. Funny, I knew Seals and Crofts would come up! I just knew it. ;) I really love those first two LPs which is the only stuff I think I've ever played by them, oh yeah, and one song from the 3rd LP. Those early LPs remain un-issued on CD, as far as I know. I can tell you that I really don't think I ever play anything for its ironic value, I either genuinely love the stuff I play, or it's stuff that I've stumbled onto and often may be hearing for the very first time along with the listeners.
JD: I copied the names of the artists on the play-list and alphabetized them. It makes for an interesting read. It's really fascinating.
BB: Thanks! For years, most of the DJs here just scribbled their play-lists in notebooks. That's what I did for the first twenty years. Not that that isn't a cool thing, in and of itself, but it's way different when the play-lists are typed out, legible, in various colors, and available for all to see (and hear!) It's also somehow more 'official.' If you looked at a spreadsheet from any DJ at WFMU it would blow your mind. Play-lists from any station where the DJs are allowed to program their own music, follow their own paths and self-indulgences, would all be amazing.
JD: I have had a fantastic time looking at your spreadsheet and have made some interesting observations, for instance, more Montage than Left Banke. How do you reckon that?
BB: Unfortunately, I don't have a 2002 spreadsheet which may show a different slant. Also you're looking at '98-'01. In the first twenty years I played tons of the Left Banke. And some Montage from a reissue LP from the mid 80's. The Montage CD, which I did some work on, by the way, has been a long time coming. It's a blessing to have it, after at least three aborted attempts to issue it on CD!
JD: Preference, or are you trying to teach your audience about something they may not know about?
BB: No, I'm not that didactic...I hope. I love both the Left Banke and Montage, but the Left Banke are in a class by themselves. For me, a top-ten band of all time. The magic was Michael Brown's profound melodic gift and Steve Martin's ability to translate those melodies and words into something so special. Like Gene Clark, Brown could capture angst and being haunted by love so well and so touchingly, and Martin could express it. But there were also wonderful and inventive harmony and back up singing in Tom Finn and George Cameron. All the goods.
JD: Likewise, more Chris Bell than Big Star. I meet a lot of people that prefer Bell to Chilton. I do at times. I find these details interesting.
BB: Me too. I'm a huge Bell fan, have been for over two decades, and I tend to overstate the case of the underdog, so I play lots of Bell. I've played infinite amounts of Big Star since '82, when I first heard of the band and actually heard the music. Whenever someone gets all the attention, like Chilton did, and the band is relegated to second tier status, it's good to try to redress the imbalance. Big Star was a great band, period. In actual fact, Chilton joined a trio (Bell, Hummell, Stephens) that already existed! There are SO many bands where one guy gets latched onto, but often the bands are 'great bands' as a whole. Chilton was playing Memphis blues. Bell, who was born in the U.K, I believe, had a huge effect on Chilton, as did the other guys. Bell was an anglophile, and Chilton has said that without the other guys, he would never have gotten so deeply into pop. He's a Memphis blues guy. Look at his solo work!
What kind of reaction is your program met with by-and-large today?
BB: Very positive. Since we are a broadcast station in the NYC area, and also have a repeater station in lower N.Y. state, and we are on the 'net (and have several audio streams) we literally cover the world. The 'net has changed everything and it's so energizing. We get cool mail from all over the globe and I've have made radio-pals from all over. We play so much obscure stuff that when people do searches for obscure artists/bands, FMU often pops up, and a lot of the time we are the ONLY entries! There's been some amazing mail from people who we helped reunite due to the music we play, or someone who thought that they'd never get to hear a song from their youth again, or even find out what the title was or who did it! And also we've gotten amazing stories from artists who assumed that their music had been long forgotten, and they find us, and are overjoyed that someone is still playing the music. It's great. And that's one of the reasons that we're here.
JD: Just for fun, lets talk about things that we don't like. A lot of 'classic rock,' I'd say? Hard to get into a lot of Doors, Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, or Van Halen and U2 for that matter when you realize you have these other choices.
BB: From the bottom up. Literally. Van Halen. Tasteless. I don't get it, end of sentence. U2, I appreciate the social activism more than the music, although I think The Edge has a cool sound. Led Zep...during my guitar hero phase, I loved Page, followed him from the Yardbirds into Zep, and I saw Zep when II came out. I don't know, maybe if they had taken the time to actually NAME their LPs! (Kidding!) The Doors, I love 'em! I just don't play them that much. I've heard the songs SO many times. Fave Doors' song: Wishful Sinful. Fave Doors' LP: Strange Days.
I love the early Dead stuff...the debut LP is my favorite, but I love the pre-history Mother McCree's, the Warlocks, and also some stuff into the early 70's. The were a fascinating band and melting pot of Americana. Why I don't play them more, I really can't say. Luckily other people do play them. One thing to keep in mind: A Radio Show often represents a part of what someone is into. Case in point: Recently I was having a discussion with another DJ who plays rare Rockabilly and r'n'b 45's, STOP. That's it. So you'd assume that that was all he was into, and I did just that. And yet we're talkin' about Jazz and he's telling me about the latest version of 'Trane's A Love Supreme-an LP/CD that I not only didn't know that he even knew of, but didn't know that he liked.
JD: I guess it would be crime if I walked away without asking this question: what is your favorite song today?
BB: If you mean a favorite current song, I can't say that I have one. I can't remember the last time when I did have one. But my favorite song of all time is The Byrds' "She Don't Care About Time," written by Gene Clark. It was the b-side to the "Turn! Turn! Turn!" single and was, inexcusably, left off of the LP of the same name. Luckily it's on the CD reissue...two versions, in fact. I will never get tired of that one-it feels magical each time I hear it.
JD: One last question, especially for me! What are some of the criminally marvelous albums in the rock/folk-rock/vocal-pop/folk/psych, etc. tradition that you might know but that people who don't have the time or access with music that you do might not. Please share!
BB: Where to start? Easy out: look at my playlists! But let's see, some of my faves that have not been reissued on CD: Free Spirits, Mortimer, Thorinshield, Hardwater, Smokey and his Sister, Steve Noonan. The very earliest Strawbs stuff did come out on CD in Korea (!) and is wonderful. There's so much, I don't know where to start--
[Bob Brainen wants you to know that anyone anywhere in the world can listen to FMU by going to www.wfmu.org. Also, almost all of the djs post their playlists and we all have archives of the last few years worth of shows, so listeners can isten to any show whenever they please. Anyone can tune in!]