Episode 106: Joe Biel (Microcosm Publishing)


Several years ago, I began to notice a pattern emerging. Practically every book of interest I'd 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. It's a subject matter than has long been near and dear to the publisher, recently manifesting itself in the form of Aftermass, a documentary exploring Portland's 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.


Episode 105: Jean Grae


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.


Episode 104: Brooks Wheelan


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.


Episode 103: Vivek Tiwary


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.


Episode 102: Guy Branum


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.


Episode 101: Jesse Malin


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.


Episode 100: They Might Be Giants


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.


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


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.


Episode 098: Sara Benincasa


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?


Episode 097: Alex Winter


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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