Episode 109: Mark Stewart (The Pop Group)

26May

Mark Stewart doesn’t want to talk about music. Least of all his own. A few hours ahead of The Pop Group’s appearance at The Bowery Ballroom in support of their first record in 35 years, he makes that much clear. He’s been talking about for decades. He’s bored. It’s not so much that the musician is a difficult interview as others have suggested, it’s more a matter of figuring out precisely what he wants to discuss. Sometimes finding that out is a simple matter of stopping the interview and asking outright. Tonight it’s politics. “Post-punk secret agents,” as he lovingly puts it. Contemporaries who have managed to find their ways into positions of power to help spread the word of progressive politics. For Stewart, spreading the word of political disarray means harnessing the power of pop culture press. It’s a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation that touches on aspects of global politics, cryptocurrency, popular music and creative inspiration.

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Episode 108: Shannon Wheeler (Again)

19May

The Too Much Coffee Man creator became a member of the extremely rare two-timers club, with a second RiYL appearance. Shannon Wheeler was among the show’s original guests early on when the interviews were primarily recorded remotely. When he mentioned that he’d be in New York for work for a few days, it seemed as good a time as any to give the interview thing another shot, this time face to face. In a lot of ways, the interview is the platonic ideal of an RiYL episode, a casual cafe (or, in this case, tea house) conversation that likely would have gone the same way whether or not I’d decided to bring my microphone setup along with me.  Though, for the record, most of my conversations these days don’t begin with a discussion of Ayn Rand — but when Wheeler confided in me that he was attempting to watch the Atlas Shrugged film series, I couldn’t help myself. Also, I’m not sure I’ve talked that much about God in a single sitting in college, but when you put out an abridged adaptation of the bible like God is Disappointed in You, it gets to be a fairly regular topic of conversation. But don’t worry, much like the book itself, there’s plenty of laughter to be found throughout.

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Episode 107: Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal)

13May

Kevin Barnes has a cold. He looks tired, taking swigs of coconut milk from one of those oddly-shaped cartons, but his face is sparkling in the mid-day sun. It’s the first truly nice day in New York City in several months, and we’re jammed into a corner on the southside of a packed Union Square Park. Barnes asked if we could find a sunny spot to speak, so we walked the five blocks up from Webster Hall and now he’s sparkling in the sunlight with the residual glittering of last night’s show, like those teenage vampires of lore. It’s bright and it’s crowd and noisy as the city takes momentary respite from the longest, coldest winter any of us can remember. It’s hardly the ideal spot for frank and intimate conversation about the creation of art in the wake of lost love, but it somehow works, as Barnes and I discuss the Elephant 6 alum’s 13th record, Aureate Gloom and the painful separation from his wife that followed shortly after the release of his last album. It’s an honest and fascinating conversation with an artist’s whose musical themes are sometimes seemingly impossible to penetrate.

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Episode 106: Joe Biel (Microcosm Publishing)

6May

Several years ago, I began to notice a pattern emerging. Practically every book of interest Id pick up at independent bookstores and zine fest had the same logo on the back: a small bicycle gear with a heart at the center. Microcosm had seemingly come out of nowhere to corner the market on things that fascinate me. Joe Biel formed the indie publishing empire out of his Cleveland bedroom in the mid-90s, moving Microcosm to greener Pacific Northwestern pastures of Portland, Oregon in 1999, where the company still remains, along with with a retail storefront baring the same name. After a year and a half of attempting to coordinate an interview, Biel and I finally found ourselves in the same place. He was kindly enough to make a detour to my Queens apartment during a brief stopover in New York following an appearance at bicycle policy convention in Colombia. Its a subject matter than has long been near and dear to the publisher, recently manifesting itself in the form of Aftermass, a documentary exploring Portlands cycling community. Biel and I sat down over a couple of cups of tea to discuss cycling, his filmmaking and the strange and fascinating world of independent publishing.

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Episode 105: Jean Grae

29Apr

The last time I saw Jean Grae in person, she was giving out free hugs in Union Square. The event was a unique attempting to cope with and have a discussion around the events unfolding in Ferguson. Grae and a group of fellow #TheHugStation attendants were offering a slew of hug varieties off of a lengthy Hug Menu. For the life of me, I can’t remember which variety I settled on, but I’m happy to report that hugging is, in fact, yet another one of her seemingly endless list of talents. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Grae was solely an emcee. She has, after all, issued dozens of records since she began rapping in the mid-90s (included several EPs in 2014 alone). But her ever-increasing portfolio also includes producing, writing, directing and starring in her an online sitcom (Life With Jeanie), writing and recording the audiobook The State of Eh and several live comedy shows like January’s Ghostbusters II ½: The Rise of Winston. And that’s all with the last year.Since 2008, Grae’s mission statement has more or less been stop talking, start creating. That year she opted to true embrace digital distribution as a means by which to eliminate the endless string of middlemen and the roadblocks and excuses they bring, telling her fans, "I don’t wanna complain anymore, I just wanna change some things about the way artists are treated and the way you guys are allowed to be involved, since it IS the digital age." Grae began releasing her work through Bandcamp, embracing the new found freedom of self-distribution to deliver a diverse array of work unfiltered to her fanbase. Her steady output means, among other things, that Grae is a tough person to pin down for an hour-long interview, but after a year of trying, we finally managed to sit down over a couple of drinks at a Williamsburg bar to discuss creativity, mentorship and moving to Los Angeles.


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Episode 104: Brooks Wheelan

22Apr

I knew Brooks Wheelan was moving. His PR reps had already alerted me to the fact that the comedian only had a few days remaining before moving on to greener entertainment pastures. And, of course, he hadn’t exactly been quiet regarding his intentions to leave the city after his unceremonious departure from Saturday Night Live (nor anything regarding those unfortunate circumstances).Even still, I wasn’t fully prepared to find his entire life in boxes when I arrived at his soon-to-be vacant Lower East Side apartment. He had one final standup set directly following out conversation, and that was pretty much it for Brooks Wheelman and New York City. All of his worldly belongs were now stashed away in U-Haul boxes, but there were, thankfully, a few beers left in the fridge. We grabbed a couple of beers and sat cross-legged on the floor. In what many might have reflected upon as a moment for regret or solemn reflection the comedian expressed only excited at a new life on a new coast full of unlimited possibilities.

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Episode 103: Vivek Tiwary

16Apr

I shouldn’t have been surprised when, in the email lead up to our interview, Vivek Tiwary told me he was pals with former RiYL guest, Mike Watt. When, after the interview concluded, he asked me who I was speaking to next, it also shouldn’t have caught me off-guard that he friends with Alex Winter, as well (who subsequently referred to Tiwary as, “a ray of sunshine” when I name-dropped him during the subsequent conversation). Tiwary has seemingly lived a million lives in the entertainment industry, rising through the ranks of the major label record companies, running a entertainment financing company, producing musicals like American Idiot at the forefront of a new wave of Broadway shows and, most recently, penning the Eisner award winning graphic novel, The Fifth Beatle. Perhaps more so than any other projects, that book was a real labor of love for Tiwary, the culmination of multiple decades of research about legendary Beatles manager Brian Epstein, a figure who perfectly embodied the writers dual fascinations with music and business. When we finally sat down to speak at Tiwary’s Manhattan office, the conversation was, fittingly, equally wide ranging, discussing Broadway production, film making, and Eddie Vedder’s basketball prowess.

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Episode 102: Guy Branum

14Apr

While the old adage about truth making for great art certainly applies to standup, the equation can be something of a mixed bag. After all, comedy is often as much about deflection as it honesty, a slight of hand designed to distract from larger, painful and more personal truths. But honesty, it seems, isn’t really an issue for Guy Branum. The comedian, writer, podcaster and  former Chelsea Lately guest deals in truths — largely about himself. As Branum put it in a recent comment about the Trevor Noah Twitter dustup, "Good stand-up comedy cannot be safe; it must shock or surprise an audience. Some comics can do it magnificently with insights about socks, but the best do it with bracing commentary about the stuff that really matters to us." For Branum, such truths are largely internal, tackling obsessions, body issues and coming to grips with his own sexuality, in spite of a less than supportive environment. This quote from his new standup album, Effable, sums the whole thing up pretty nicely. "When my parents realized I was going to be gay, they figured they might as well raise the largest in the county. If there not getting grandchildren out of the deal, at least they could get a blue ribbon." And thankfully, for interviewers such as myself, such honesty isn’t designated for the stage alone. Freshly arrived in New York, Branum made the trip to my apartment for a wide-ranging and deep digging conversation about comedy and life.

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Episode 101: Jesse Malin

8Apr

I never knew New York before the war. The towers were gone by the first time set foot in the city. But nearly a dozen years after making the place my home, I have a fundamental distrust for anyone resident who claims not to have a conflicted relationship with the city. Even in my relatively short while here, I feel as though I’ve watched the city undergo constant transformation. It’s to be expected to some degree in a city famous for never stopping, and life certainly can’t exist in a vacuum of nostalgia. But there’s forever a sense that something fundamental about the city is quickly eroding. Jesse Malin is an expert on the matter. The Queens native spent his whole life in the city, and his love of its native sounds is precisely what led him to plumb its depths, diving headfirst into the world of New York City hardcore at age 12, fronting the legendary band heart attack before officially entering his teens. Malin’s musical leanings have mellowed out considerably since Heart Attack’s Hilter Demo, but City has continued to play a key role in his songwriting, taking center stage for this year’s New York Before the War. We met up in the East Village ahead of the record’s release, grabbing a table at the back of Odessa’s, a rare reminder of old New York remaining in amongst the long ago gentrified East Village, directly across the street from Niagra, a bar co-owned by Malin that proudly boasts a rainbow colored Joe Strummer mural on the side that faces Tompkins Square Park. Malin and I ordered a couple of teas in the happily familiar location and talked collaboration, commitment, the Big Apple and The Boss.

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Episode 100: They Might Be Giants

28Mar

Flood is my Beatles on Sullivan, my self-titled Velvet Underground record and Run-DMC on MTV. It was the first time I remember being keenly aware that an ever-expanding musical universe existed beyond the confines of the rock and Motown the radio played on the way to and from soccer practice.  It was a strange and idiosyncratic world of misplaced accordions, horn-rimmed glasses and lyrics that only began to take on some semblance of meaning after repeat listens. So I listened, over and over again on the cassette tape a friend had record on, the mystery only deepened by the lack of official art work.  I was in college by the time I realized I’d been getting key lyric to “Particle Man” wrong all these years—singing it at full volume in a car full of people who knew better. The sense of discovery is inextricably linked to the They Might Be Giants experience. It’s a tie that bonds so many of my generation, discovering in those days just before the mainstream adoption of the internet that maybe we weren’t so weird after all — or, perhaps more appropriately, that there were other weirdos out there just like us. Dial-A-Song is the most literal manifestation of the phenomenon, an old answering machine purchase by the band to get its music out into the world as John Linnell healed from a broken wrist and Flansburgh recovered from an apartment robbery. The duo advertised a phone number in the back of the Village Voice readers could call to hear the band’s songs. The band resurrected the project this year, through the decidedly less intimate medium of YouTube, with the ambitious goal of releasing a new song each week for the full calendar year. In this 100th episode, we discuss Dial-A-Song, the importance of partnerships and the role of discovery in art.

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