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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Episode 099: Dick Gregory, The Black Lips, Annie Koyama and Farel Dalrymple (Bonus)

28Mar

This one’s going to be a bit different, as you’ve no doubt gathered from the title. It’s a bit of an, as the Who so eloquently put it, odds and sods — interviews that never got their own standalone episodes for a number of reasons, which will be detailed below. Those of you out there who are looking for a place to start in amongst our nearly 100 episodes, I strongly suggest you turn back now. That said, I think there’s something in each of these worth posting. I’m a big fan of everyone featured here, and am happy that these are finally seeing the light of day, in some cases several months after first being recorded.

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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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