Episode 098: Sara Benincasa

23Mar

One of the real dangers of recording interviews is that plenty can change over the course of a few weeks. One interviewee lost her job of 17 years the week before that conversation was posted. Another didn’t get their show renewed. The news isn’t always bad, however. And in the case of artists like Sara Benincasa there’s a sort of unspoken understanding that five or 10 new project will be unveiled in the interim. The bulk of our hour-long conversation was dominated by Benincasa’s 2012 memoir Agorafabulous (now a newly-released audiobook), which tackles her struggles with agoraphobia, anxiety and chronicles her somewhat accidental early comedy career. Fittingly, we also discussed the ways in which the internet has affective creativity, leading so many to build a career from bits and pieces, rather than plugging away as some singular goal. Benincasa’s Twitter account is a testament to a writer who seemingly never slows down, and as I was readying this interview for a few weeks back, it occurred to me that we really ought to find a way to shoehorn fascinating new Kickstarter project into the mix. The comedian agreed to sit down for a rare Skype followup, setting aside 10 minutes during a teaching trip to Chicago. So there you have it, two interviews — or maybe one and a half — for the price of one. Which, incidentally, was free in the first place. What’s not to love?

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Episode 097: Alex Winter

17Mar

If I’m being totally honest, it takes me a few minutes to shake the fact that I’m sitting across the table from Bill S. Preston as I unspool mic wires in the kitchen of some stranger’s Tribeca apartment. But if there’s stigma attached to having starred in a number of iconic films at a young age, Alex Winter shed it years ago. The career of the self-proclaimed “showbiz lifer” has been a fascinating one to watch over the years, as he transitioned from child/teen star to respected filmmaker, first through the uniquely absurdist comedic visions of his MTV sketch series Idiotbox and the Troma-esque feature Freaked to award-winning features like 2012’s Downloaded, a documentary detailing the rise and fall of Napster soundtracked by former RiYL guest, DJ Spooky. I caught up with Winter as he was in town filming the culmination of the followup, Deep Web, capturing the trial of Silk Road founder Ross William Ulbricht, which concluded three days before our conversation. Though the director was shockingly at ease despite having a number of interviews to conduct just over a month before the film’s premier. That film, which premiered this week at SXSW in Austin, complete with narration by once and future fellow Wyld Stallyn, Keanu Reaves, was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the focus of our conversation, from its birth as a Kickstarter campaign to the relationships he formed with Ulbricht’s family during shooting. Even still, it’s a wide ranging conversation from an accomplished director with no concerns about rehashing old gigs. And hell, when the conversation turns to a third Bill and Ted film, I’m not going to be the one to change the subject.

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Episode 096: Guster

10Mar

“All the bull**** of the music industry dying,” Brian Rosenworcel explains, his passion drowning out the din of the packed Manhattan bar, “all the babies, all the egos, nothing really matters except the fact that we’re honing in on a classic pop album.” The babies, incidentally are his own, the drummer’s primary focus in the half-decade since the last Guster record. Maybe it’s the beer speaking, but Rosenworcel sounds damn excited about about Evermotion, convinced that the band’s seventh record just might be its best. It’s the sort of excitement you don’t find in a group approaching its 25th birthday. Perhaps there’s something to be said for taking a good five years between records. Around halfway through, multi-instrumentalist Luke Reynolds takes a seat at our table — a somewhat fitting later arrival for the band’s most recent addition, having joined Guster in 2010, after the release of their last record, Easy Wonderful. It all adds up to a fascinating peek into the of day to life of band that’s been doing its thing longer than many of its fans have been on this planet.

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Episode 095: Jeffrey Cranor (of Welcome to Night Vale)

4Mar

Art Bell will forever hold a special place in my heart. Coast to Coast was a mainstay as I drove late at night to fill in 3AM slots at my college radio station. The show opened up the true potential of late night radio for my sleep addled brain, strange night dwellers relaying stories of encounters with werewolf spirits and unidentified flying objects.In its own way, Welcome to Night Vale captures that mystery of the Land of Nye, through bi-weekly stories from a fictional town in the Southwestern desert, where paranormal is the status quo. The series, co-created in Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, clearly struck a nerve with the podcast listening public, quickly skyrocketing to a number one position atop the iTunes charts, beating out mainstays like This American Life and Radiolab with its scripted idiosyncratic tales of a small desert community, exploring the possibilities of of a longform episodic podcast well before Serial took the nation by storm. Cranor and I sat down at a teahouse in Manhattan to discuss the roots of the show, the seemingly endless dark mysteries of the Nevada desert and how we’re only beginning to explore the breadth of possibilities the podcasting medium has to offer.

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Episode 094: Vijay Iyer

25Feb

I’d have been content to spend the whole time talking about Thelonious Monk. There’s a picture of the composer wedged in one corner of the home office located in the lower of Vijay Iyer’s Harlem brownstone. But while he invariably comes up over the course of the conversation, there’s far too much ground to cover to spend too much audio card space dwelling on the matter. And you get the feeling, sitting with Iyer for longer than a few minutes, that’s he’s never been one to stay in the same place too long. His creative impatience has paid off, winning the pianist a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2013 and a professorship at Harvard last year. And on a more selfish note, he’s got me thinking a lot more about contemporary jazz, a genre I’d—perhaps foolishly—written off in some stubborn decision somewhere along the line to not listen to anything recorded after 1975. But Iyer’s thoughts and records like this year’s intricately-woven Break Stuff form an extremely compelling argument that there’s still plenty of ground to be tilled in both that genre and the more ancient realm of classical — though Iyer, unsurprisingly, is not hung up with those sorts of tags. In this wide ranging conversation, we discuss Iyer’s creative growth, from learning to play violin at age three to his rise as one of the most celebrated jazz musicians of the modern era — including an ever so brief detour that landed him degrees in math and physics at Yale and UC Berkeley.

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Episode 093: Roz Chast

18Feb

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant isn’t as easy book. As the title implies, in deals in topics few are equipped to candidly discuss: family, aging, mortality. But long time New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast valiantly marches headfirst into a memoir of her parents’ decline armed with humor, insight and desk full of watercolors. The result is one of the best comics of 2014. I met Chast in a strange cavernous room below a luxury hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, following a talk and signing. We sat on a bench, discussing her work as a fascinating collection of fellow comics luminaries like Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns milled about between appearances. Given the subject matter of her most recent book, I wasn’t entirely sure what tone the conversation would take, but quickly realized that as with her work, Chast has a knack for making even the heaviest of conversational topics immensely entertaining. During our 40 minute interview, we spanned the cartoonist’s entire career, beginning with an envelope dropped off at the New Yorker in 1978, stuffed with 60-odd submissions. All of these years later, the artist The Comics Journal called, “the first truly subversive New Yorker cartoonist” has had well over 1,000 cartoons run in that most prestigious of periodic institutions and one of the most touching graphic memoirs in recent memory.

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Episode 092: Scott McCloud

11Feb

The phrase “those who can’t, teach” runs through my head pretty consistently when I sit down in front of a blank page in an attempt to flex some creative muscles. It’s the curse of the critic, the curator, the teacher — anyone on the outside looking in who assumes their work, perhaps rightfully, will be subject to that added level of critique when they finally unleash it on the world. That, no doubt, is a large part of why it took Scott McCloud so damned long to bare himself in such a way. The artist has, quite literally, written the book on making comics — three of them, in fact. For decades, his work has been largely regarded as the gold standard for making and interpreting sequential art, a watershed moment in the academic approach to the form. Like so many on that side of the creative process, however, McCloud’s bibliography has long lacked a major, self-contained narrative work. In the 80s, the artist produced Zot, a manga-influenced light-hearted take on superhero books, but until The Sculptor, McCloud has never given himself a long-form opportunity to put into practice the rules he’d first committed to paper in the early 90s. A half-decade in the making, the new book shockingly lives up to the hype. It’s a masterfully constructed and pitch-perfectly paced take on the Faustian archetype with creative roots that reach back well beyond the publication of McCloud’s earliest work. I sat down with McCloud in a colorful room at First Second’s Flat Iron Building offices ahead of his speaking engagement at the 92nd st. Y to discuss The Sculptor, thinking critically about comics and the frustrating notion of the effortless artist.

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Episode: 091: Legs McNeil

4Feb

I feel a bit bad entering the hotel room. There was a bit of a miscommunication on timing, and Legs McNeil is clearly quite comfortable lying in bed watching Law and Order. It’s an episode he’s already seen multiple times, a fact he lets be known by rattling off the entire plot in a couple of quick sentences, so he’ll be able to give me his undivided attention as Detective Briscoe successfully apprehends some pure. McNeil and frequent collaborator Gillian McCain finished up an talk at the Rough Trade record store earlier in the evening, discussing their latest, Dear Nobody, a posthumously published diary of troubled young teenager, Mary Rose, though the pair had devoted most of the New York City trip to a forthcoming book focused on Charles Manson, which McNeil promises will shed new light on the well trod story — even if he’s admittedly a bit cagey on the specifics. McNeil and McCain’s first — and best-known — collaboration was 1996’s Please Kill Me, an oral history of punk rock’s early years that is widely regarded as the definitive document of the movement’s New York City roots. It’s a story McNeil knows as well as anyone, as the co-founder of Punk Magazine, the iconic fanzine that give the CBGBs movement a name. These days the author no longer calls New York his home, having traded in the skyrocketing rents and disappearing culture for a far more bucolic life in a small Pennsylvanian town, where he lives, writes and catches the occasional rerun of Law and Order.

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Episode 090: Jordan Morris

26Jan

The list of people I’ve cohosted ska shows with is a short one indeed. It’s like going into battle with someone, really — a battle that trades the gunfire and mortar of trench warfare for song request from teenage Reel Big Fish fans, but a battle nonetheless. It’s the sort of experience that forms life-long bonds. Our careers have taken divergent paths since then — both of us eventually coming to the realization that ska radio DJ just isn’t the lucrative career path it once was. Jordan has made a name for himself in the Los Angeles comedy scene, thanks in no small part to his role in podcasts like The Sound of Young America and a titular co-hosting gig on the long-running comedy program, Jordan, Jesse Go. After a hilarious stint cohosting red carpet and movie junket interviews for extreme sport cable channel Fuel TV, Morris landed himself a position as a writer on the popular Comedy Central series, @Midnight, a gig that recently brought him out to New York City for a week. We caught up over some whiskey and a couple of microphones in between whirlwind schedule of podcast appearances at a bar in Astoria, Queens to talk success, superheroesvmovies and, naturally, ska.

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Episode 089: The Birthday Boys

22Jan

Practically every episode of RiYL has had the same format — two people having a long form discussion into two microphones. Given my portable setup, things get a bit more complicated when a third is added in, as is sometimes the case when interviewing band members. It’s not that I don’t welcome more voices, of course, it’s just that I don’t really have the setup to accommodate such things.  And then there’s the Birthday Boys. When I walked into the conference room at IFC, I was greeted by the entire sketch troupe — all seven of them. And as such, the first ten or so minutes of the conversation revolved around where we should position the chairs in order to get the maximum effective of seven different people sharing the same microphone. The good news is that thing pick up considerably from there, as the Odenkirk acolytes shed some light on their origin story and their seemingly overnight rise to fame in one of the funniest episodes we’ve ever recorded as the Los Angeles troupe discusses some of the bluer stories from the time they spent sharing the same house, Monkees-style. So sit back, relax and enjoy — but maybe put the headphones on if you’re planning on listening to this one at work.


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