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This is a lengthy history of my interests in music. You may also be interested in:
I first became seriously interested
in music in the fall of 1988, when I was in ninth grade. I moved from
a fanatical devotion to R.E.M. (which lasted until I saw R.E.M. in concert
in April 1989 and was put off by singer Michael Stipe's attitude) to a
fanatical devotion to the Cure (which lasted until the release of their
atrocious remix album Mixed Up, unfortunately the only Cure album
I ever bought on CD rather than cassette).
At right: Lookin' sullen, 10th grade. Note the New Order T-shirt.
COLLEGE RADIO AND BLUE SUNSHINE
| I grew
up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and went to high school first at Chapel
Hill High School and then at the North
Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in nearby Durham. I was fortunate
that both at home and while living at school I was within range of two stellar
college radio stations, the University of North Carolina's WXYC
and Duke University's WXDU.
In the midst of my Cure fanaticism, I was listening late one night to WXYC when I heard the unmistakable voice of Robert Smith singing a song I'd never heard. As I owned the Cure's entire discography plus a couple of bootlegs by that point, I was puzzled. I waited with bated breath to hear the DJ identify the song (in those days I was less apt to pick up the phone and call, as I do now), and found that it was "Perfect Murder" by the Glove, a 1982 collaboration between Robert Smith and Steve Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees.
I bought the Glove's record Blue Sunshine as an import LP at Schoolkids Records in Chapel Hill, and was much chagrined when it was released domestically about six months later, on CD, cassette, and snazzy clear blue vinyl. Blue Sunshine was heavily Beatles-influenced (the Glove had named themselves after a character from Yellow Submarine) and bore traces of late-'60s/early-'70s psychedelia. It was an extremely trippy record that enveloped the listener in its dreamy, distorted soundscape. When I listen to it now, it seems to prefigure the hypnotic sound of Tricky and Massive Attack.
I don't think I've ever played the Cure on my radio show. However, Blue Sunshine seems more relevant to me today than anything by the Cure, and it's one of the few older items that I can play on my show in a set of newer music, not just in a nostalgic one.
My bedroom, circa 10th grade.
THE MANCHESTER SOUND
|I think it was in the fall of 1989 or the spring of 1990 that I first heard the Stone Roses' haunting, dreamy "I Wanna Be Adored." While I wasn't as keen at the time on some other Manchester bands in whom I've since become interested, such as the Happy Mondays and Primal Scream, I developed a liking for the catchy beats I was hearing in a lot of British music, such as the Farm's eminently danceable "Groovy Train" and Blur's "There's No Other Way." Some of what I liked in 1990 is less compelling now then it was then, but for me the appeal of the Manchester sound is enduring.|
STRAIGHTFORWARD DANCE MUSIC
| "Alternative" credibility
was awfully important in those days--I was in high school--but I remember
thinking the first time I heard Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart" (and
had no context in which to place it) that I didn't care about its pedigree.
It was simply an infectious song and that was good enough for me. When I
copied Deee-Lite's album World Clique from a friend, I put the album
itself on one side of the tape, and "Groove Is in the Heart" three times
in a row on the other.
At the time I didn't realize to what extent Deee-Lite was using samples in their music. I knew about the legal controversy over De La Soul's sampling but didn't know how common the practice was outside of hip-hop. I must admit I was a little disappointed when I discovered in the summer of 1999 that the very catchy riff which opens "Groove Is in the Heart" and propels it, and with which I'd always credited Deee-Lite, actually came from Herbie Hancock's 1969 "Bring Down the Birds." (Similarly, I'd thought the British breakbeat duo Bentley Rhythm Ace was responsible for the guitar sound in their song "This Is Carbootechnodiscotechnobooto" until I heard the source, the 4 Instants' surf-rock song "Bogatini," on WMUC.) But I suppose part of the genius of well-done sampling is choosing something where even substantial borrowing won't be obvious to everyone, and thus the song will still sound fresh.
|In my last two years
of high school, more and more often I'd listen to college radio, hear a
song that really struck me, and wait intently to find out what it was. This
was the case when I first heard My Bloody Valentine's "Only Shallow" my
senior year in high school (1991-92). I'd never heard anything quite like
it. Though it had a rough-edged guitar sound, it was melodic and somehow
gentle. The vocals were dreamy, and only occasionally was it possible to
make out the lyrics. The sound was deliberately distorted; I remember thinking
at the time that it in places it sounded like someone had rolled it out
with a rolling pin.
At left: My NCSSM dorm room, fall 1990.
Because the members of My Bloody Valentine and similar bands tended to look down at the floor when they performed, "shoegazer" was one name proposed to describe this kind of music. I never liked the term, since it in no way described the music itself, but it seemed to catch on more than the alternatives (such as "wombadelia").
Catherine Wheel was another band I discovered through WXYC. I was taken with their soaring, dreamy guitar sound and gentle vocals, and with the way they combined these features with a rock sensibility. Around the same time I also became interested in Lush and Curve, both of which had female singers. Lush's sound was characterized by somewhat dreamy, effects-laden guitars, but was on the whole much crisper and more delicate than that of My Bloody Valentine. Lush also used traditional song structure and clear vocals. Curve, fronted by Toni Halliday, was much harder-edged, with a very driven guitar sound. Halliday's delivery and lyrics suggested the femme fatale, as in "Fait Accompli": "I've come to crush your bones / I've come to mess with your head." While Curve's album Doppelganger impresses me less now than it did at the time of its release, they went on to do some interesting work in a trip-hop vein.
THE BEASTIE BOYS
|In 1992 a friend of mine urged me to check out the new album by the Beastie Boys. I scoffed, remembering "Fight for Your Right to Party" and how little I'd been impressed by what I'd seen of the Beastie Boys on MTV. Some time later I heard on WXYC a song with a deep, compelling keyboard-bass sound and shouted-out vocals apparently filtered through a loudspeaker. The simple, repeated bass transfixed me, and I waited beside my radio to find out what I'd just heard. When the DJ said, "That was the Beastie Boys, with 'So What'Cha Want?'," I decided it was time for me to eat my words.|
BECOMING A DJ
|In the fall of 1992 I entered Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Its radio station, WMRE, was decidedly less high-profile than those of UNC and Duke. It broadcast using a carrier-current system, which meant that there were transmitters in the dorms and various other buildings on campus, but that it was impossible to hear the station off campus (and sometimes even in particular buildings on campus, depending on whether the individual transmitters were working). I was disappointed that WMRE fell so far short of the standard to which I'd become accustomed, but I made the best of the station's collection and had a good time DJing. I started with a show on Friday afternoons from 2 to 4. Unlike at WXYC and WXDU, at WMRE the practice was for each show to have a name; I decided to call mine "Variety Is the Spice of Life."|
DJING AT DUKE
|I've often thought that I learned more about DJing in the single summer I DJed at Duke University's WXDU (in 1993) than in the year and a half I DJ'd at Emory. The training was more comprehensive than any I'd had before or since. The music collection was substantial, and though DJs were required to play a certain number of songs per hour from a pool of albums selected by the music director, the range of those albums was considerable and I never felt constrained by the requirement. WXYC and WXDU both encouraged eclecticism. Though sometimes they seemed to take this to an extreme (e.g., playing Public Enemy back-to-back with the Cocteau Twins, including in the playlist pool releases like Arhoolie Records' Pawlo Humeniuk, King of the Ukrainian Fiddlers: The Golden Years, 1926-1931), their formats allowed me to create a diverse mix.|
|In the fall of 1993,
I began to move away from indie rock and college radio. The band in which
I'd played bass (in the spring of 1993) dissolved. It seemed that the groups
in which I'd been interested were no longer making the kind of music I liked.
(My Bloody Valentine has yet to release a follow-up to 1991's Loveless.)
I was disappointed with the sophomore efforts from Catherine Wheel and Curve.
I hadn't found any new bands in WMRE's meager collection to fill the gap.
Frustrated with playing from a sparse selection to an almost nonexistent
audience, I quit DJing.
While I continued to see Chapel Hill bands like Polvo and Archers of Loaf when they played in Atlanta, during the remainder of the time I was in college I moved toward classical music and opera. This was part of my motivation to take a classical music survey course, an opera course, and a jazz course in my last two years at Emory, and of course those classes strengthened my existing interests. I became particularly interested in Mozart and Haydn, as well as composers from the baroque and romantic periods and composers of lyric opera like Puccini and Richard Strauss.
Above: At band practice, winter 1992-93.
|I graduated from
Emory in 1996, worked in Atlanta for a year, and then went to Kyoto, Japan
to teach English. (You can read more about my Japan experience in the online
collection Stepping Stone: True Tales of English Teachers in Japan.)
It wasn't until the fall of 1997, about halfway through my year in Japan,
that I became interested in current music again. A Canadian acquaintance
in Kyoto, where I lived, played a few DJ Shadow, Tricky, and Portishead
songs for me. Trip-hop seemed to me to be the logical successor of the "shoegazer"
music of which I'd been so fond, and it combined that dreamy sensibility
with an attention to the beat.
At right: In Jet Set Records, Kyoto, June 1998.
|Not being able to afford full-length albums, which run around $25-$30 in Japan, I sated my hunger for music by going to the Virgin Megastore Kyoto and spending hours at the listening stations. I listened to the Trainspotting #2 soundtrack, Pulp's This Is Hardcore, the Verve's Urban Hymns, the Mopeds' The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Mopeds, and numerous other featured selections. A few months later I discovered that the Tsutaya video-rental place in my neighborhood had a music section with a surprisingly good listening station selection. (I say "surprisingly" because Tsutaya was a chain with a very mainstream feeling, down to the yellow-and-blue color scheme that I found suspiciously reminiscent of Blockbuster.) At Tsutaya, I listened to Solex, Pizzicato Five, Superchunk, the Propellerheads, and others.|
|I liked getting to know the music in an almost exclusively aural, music-focused context. It was somewhat jarring when I first saw the video for Pulp's "This Is Hardcore"; though it was a well-done video, I found it strange to be faced with a visual complement that didn't completely mesh with my conception of the song. I had never been keen on biographically-oriented literary criticism when I was an English major as an undergraduate at Emory, and I feel similarly about music. I'm interested in reading about artists discussing the techniques they use to create music, but I'm less interested in their personal histories, what they look like, and so on. When I read an article about the Verve that detailed their sordid personal struggles, I felt that I had learned information that I would rather not have known.|
|Though I've been
less keen on Fatboy Slim's
more recent work, his music played a significant role in getting me into
funky breaks in the late 1990s.
I knew absolutely nothing about Fatboy Slim when I first heard "Going Out of My Head." It was on the soundtrack to The Jackal, which I bought in February 1998 when I went to visit my father in Bangkok. CDs there were about $9, and cassettes were about $2; I returned to Japan with about eleven of the former and five of the latter. I bought The Jackal primarily because I liked the Black Grape song "Get Higher," which sampled anti-drug soundbites by Ronald and Nancy Reagan and wove them together into a hilarious paean to drugs.
I wasn't actually all that taken with "Going Out of My Head," although I did notice when I played it by mistake at a sort of informal, do-it-yourself dance event (I'd meant to play "Get Higher," but had the tape cued on the wrong side) that it got a very positive reception.
My interest in Fatboy Slim developed by way of Cornershop, whose album When I Was Born for the 7th Time was one of the CDs I bought in Bangkok. I was somewhat disappointed with the album, about which I'd heard rave reviews. However, in June 1998, when I heard the Norman Cook remix of Cornershop's "Brimful of Asha" at Club Metro in Kyoto, I saw the song in a whole new light. I became curious about Fatboy Slim, and Better Living Through Chemistry was one of the first albums I bought after returning to the United States in early July. That summer on WXYC I heard the Fatboy Slim Old Skool Mix of Wildchild's "Renegade Master" and recognized Cook's distinctive style.
Late in the fall of 1998, I went to Olsson's Books in Bethesda to buy Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur for a class in medieval literature. Walking through the music section, I noticed on display a new album by coloratura soprano Ruth Ann Swenson. I picked it up and looked at it briefly. Though three years beforehand it might have held my interest, that day I walked on to the rock section. There I found that Fatboy Slim's newly released album You've Come a Long Way, Baby was on sale and bought it. I remember thinking of that moment as symbolic; I had come full circle, returning from classical music to college radio.
THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND
I entered the M.A./Ph.D. graduate program in English at the University of Maryland in August 1998. I'd decided in the spring of 1998 that I wanted to return to DJing while in graduate school, and in September 1998 I landed a show on WMUC, from 6 to 9 a.m. on Friday mornings.
That fall I rarely brought anything from my own collection to the studio. (I found it enough of an effort to get up and get to the station, particularly considering that I was in class until 9 pm on Thursday nights.) In relying completely on the station's collection, I discovered a lot of interesting music, particularly in the various-artists section.
|In the spring of
1999, I did a show on Thursday mornings from 9 am to noon. I started bringing
in items from my own collection--first a 12-CD wallet, then a 48-CD case,
and eventually two 48-CD cases. I also started buying music at a much faster
pace. In particular, I became increasingly interested in remixes and began
buying more of them in order to explore them on my show. In April 1999 I
did a 3-hour remix special entitled "Re/Sources." I spent the first two
hours pairing originals with remixes--for example, following the album version
of the Sneaker Pimps' "6 Underground" with the Nellee Hooper edit, the Perfecto
mix, and the Fila Brazillia mix. The last hour was devoted to Fatboy
Slim's remixes. In addition to being impressed that in some cases he'd
made a good remix out of a not-particularly-good song, I was intrigued by
the way he had taken other artists' songs and essentially turned them into
I had been interested in issues of textual studies and authorship ever since taking classes on Shakespeare and on Renaissance drama that addressed issues of collaborative authorship and textual variance. It seemed to me that remixes raised many of the same interesting questions.
BREAKBEAT AND HCFDM
Influenced by my musical contacts from Japan, I became steadily more interested in British funky breakbeat and in the genre known in Japan as "happy charm fool dance music." (The term struck me as laughable when I first saw displays featuring it in the Virgin Megastore and in my local Tsutaya, but the longer I was in Japan, the more natural it sounded and I began to wonder if I had been mistaken in my conviction that it was just a Japanese English term.)
In the spring of 1999 I began looking more seriously toward club DJing and, accordingly, began to accumulate a collection of vinyl. Around that time I started bringing vinyl records with me to the WMUC studio in addition to my CDs.
|When I first began
work on this website in October 1999, I saw no reason for biographical information
of any sort; I intended to let the music speak for itself. Gradually, I
realized that an explanation of how I came to be interested in the music
I play would provide context for my radio show, and would make clearer some
of the common threads between genres.
Creating a website for "Variety Is the Spice of Life" prompted me to think (even at the most basic level, in deciding what should link to what) about how the different artists and genres that I played related to one another. As a result, I came to think more consciously about contextualizing what I was doing with music, both on the air and on my website.
UPDATE / CLUB DJ CAREER
I finished my master's degree in English in 2001. I decided to quit while I was ahead and not pursue the Ph.D.; instead, I began working full-time as a writer-editor. I continued to do my weekly show at the University of Maryland's radio station while doing an increasing number of DJ gigs in Washington, D.C. and beyond. (For more on my club DJ career, see my DJ bio.)
In January 2006, the "Variety Is the Spice of Life" radio show moved from WMUC to this website and the noted downtempo site Properly Chilled, later airing on the UK-based Purple Radio online station. In January 2008, I returned to WMUC. Selected radio shows of mine are permanently archived here.
At right: DJing at Eighteenth Street Lounge, New Year's Eve 2003.
This page created December 1999 - Last modified August 11, 2011
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