This might be a well timed interview then, as it finds you starting a new slot on FM radio, WFMU's 'Blurred and Obscured' and winding up the 'Unknown Tongue' on Radio 23, do you intend keeping the 'Unknown Tongue' on the back burner, whist you concentrate on your extended 3-hour, FM show and then maybe reviving it again sometime in the future?
Well I haven't exactly decided what to with The Unknown Tongue, for the immediate future I am going to try and keep it going, but most likely with less frequency. The thing I love about having Internet show is that I have absolute freedom to say and play whatever I want. Obviously my priority is to make the WFMU shows as good as they can be, and I worry about overlapping or playing the same tracks on both shows. Doing two different versions of the same radio show every week doesn't appeal to me, so for now I am proceeding with caution......
So the career trajectory then? We know there was a DJ'Uncle Pete' in the early 90's who you got inspired by at the age of 12, you got to hear a lot of punk (anyone in particular?), and Sun Ra at that tender age must have been something! I can hear those strands still in your Unknown Tongue/Blurred and Obscured shows, at least in the uncompromising attitudes that those artists displayed. You're a real fan of the mavericks and outsiders, Ayler, Fahey and more recently Lonnie Holley are you kind of identifying with these guys?
Hmmmmm well I wouldn't consider any of the radio stuff I do a career, I mean I don't get paid for any of it. In fact I've only gotten paid to play music for an audience three or four times in my life. College radio in my home town of Binghamton NY was a huge influence on me as a kid. My Mom and I lived close enough to Binghamton University that I could tune in to it on the boom box I had. I would stay up late and listen to the "Uncle Pete and Dr. Bartlemania shows on WHRW and record the shows on to cassettes as they broadcast. Thats where I first heard Sun Ra and The Butthole Surfers, King Missile, the UK Subs, The Stooges, The Ramones and Crass, all that music gave me hope, it was telling me that it was ok to be different. that I had a right to be angry, that the system sucks,that the education system was designed to breed mediocrity that religion was about control and not about enlightenment. It was also telling me that all the music that everyone else was listening to was being spoon fed to them. Those were all heavy realizations for an adolescent trapped in a small town Catholic school. WHRW's weak FM signal didn't even make it much past the campus, so If i had lived in a different part of town or even a different house things could have been totally different. My mom is a painter and so I already had an appreciation of the visual arts. Finding punk rock and free jazz made me search for outsider artists in general, I think...
Yeah, well I think 'career' was a bad choice of word. I prefer 'careering' as in 'out of control'. I'm someone who can honestly say has never had a career in the conventional sense and it's a bit late to start now. But I would consider my art practise as a kinda shadow career. It's definately the thing I give the most importance to, consider my main work and something which I seek to find a meaningful relationship with the world through. I'm thinking you might feel similarly regarding your DJ work?
Well without sounding too self important, I think of it as a body of work, something like an extended mix tape that says " I was here, this is what I thought was beautiful, or funny, or important." so if I leave any legacy at all it will be the Unknown Tongue" I have spent my life avoiding work I didn't want to do, or being trapped in job or even in one place. My taste in music is the same way I live my life it's this nebulous thing that is constantly changing.
Here's a list of tracks (below) that have made a big impression on me from this year's Unknown
Tongue, do you want to talk about any of them or the artists involved?
A lot of the songs you picked are some of my favorites too. That Don Cherry Terry Riley collaboration was something that I didn't really think existed until a friend of mine played me the bootleg. It was never an official release and when someone (who shall remain nameless) released it on vinyl it was something that I had to have...I love it, no label, no info, shipped in a plain paper sleeve. Tim Coster I love, I found out about him through my friend Sharryn in Melbourne totally cool modular synth... The Pharoah Sanders record "Pharoah" is one of his best and hardest to find... Sewer Zombies I heard on the Uncle Pete show... I just like the time line of where i found all these songs. Some I discovered when i was twelve,,,,,some I just found out about yesterday....
Albert Ayler, a titan of the jazz world who died in mysterious circumstances means a lot to you as a musician and a person, do you want to talk about him and his music and any others who maybe drive you to make your show and help you make it through the night?
Albert Ayler , oh man where do I start on Ayler.... to me the way he plays is so all encompassing, You hear such ecstatic joy and sadness in his playing as well as the search for Identity, every song is a struggle but a beautiful struggle..I don't read or write music or know anything about musical theory so I can only talk about him and his music in an ethereal and emotional sense... Those opening notes in "Ghosts" that he seems to ruminate on in a lot of his playing, to me,sort of sum up the struggle of humanity... his improvisations to me are the pinnacle of pure spontaneous genius....an artist first instincts that transcend thought or feeling....it's this driving force where you are literally lifted to another place.... it's out of body.... he is describing feelings I don't have names for.....and playing in colors that are off the spectrum. To be so far ahead of your time....to be able to speak in this beautiful language that very few people can understand or even think is valuable must have been a tremendous burden.... He was also one of those artists who could have unlocked so much more of the human spirit in his playing had he lived , ... I could go on and on....
Ayler. I think you should go on and on!! I love this guy too. And although I make music, I don't read it. When I got to recording on my own equipment back in 2010 one of the first pieces I made was 'AA the Black Angel' a bit of a ham- fisted tribute to the man.
You recently sold a lot of your hardcore punk/hip-hop vinyl at the WMFU record sale is that the end of an era ?
Well yeah , I don't think I am going to miss a lot of the records I sold. I am trying not to be so attached to my records lately. Trying to store 5000 records and 3000 cd's in a tiny NYC apartment is a burden.....the guys I sold those records too were extremely happy to have them at the prices i sold them at...so hopefully they will be listened to and dispersed to kids that can have the same sort of revelatory and cathartic experience I had with them..
Could you countenance doing a show where you had to play stuff you really didn't like, like maybe Coldplay or U2 in order to attain a more influential position but in so doing risk losing your audience? In fact what would be your ideal audience, do you have a perception of that audience?
No I would rather be unemployed and homeless than be some bullshit corporate radio show that was awful.. thats why radio23 and WFMU are such great venues for me...Me and my affinity for music are not for sale, In fact I won't take a dj job for money if I have to take requests from the listeners... I don't risk losing much of an audience because the audience is limited. I Understand the limitations of what I'm doing.. my expectations are pretty low.... If people like what I do thats great....if they want to listen to Coldplay or U2 then we don't have much to talk about. I still have a punk ethos behind what I do. I do it myself.....it is not for sale. Clear Channel and the other corporate radio robot stations can go fuck them selves, I would want to be part of something that is fighting against all that stuff.....it's a losing battle.... My ideal audience would be of like minded people, who are supportive of the arts.... and are wiling to seek out what they think is beautiful rather than be spoon fed something prefabricated.
I thought as much. It's like trying to make a painting to fit in with some idea of decor, some furnishing piece that ideally fits in with the color scheme-there's some really vacuous corporate-aspiring art out there. That's the visual equivalent, I think. It's hard to make a living as an artist if you really wanna stick to what you believe in. You have to be prepared to live in the margins.
Some artists you've mentioned - Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline- Abstract Expressionism represented a striking period for the visual arts and it's impact may have been responsible for the birth of what we would call free jazz from whence appeared the likes of Ayler. That was a fantastically creative period out of which came post-modernism and the radical counter-culture of the late 60's and which appears to be a major reference point for your shows?
To me free jazz and Abstract Impressionism are the same thing... I love the explosive quality both the music and the art of that period have. I imagine someone with a bunch of sheets of music or drawings on a desk, staring at them frustrated or perplexed, and then suddenly and violently, taking their forearm and just swiping it all on the floor, and saying "fuck all this,, fuck structure , fuck making art for other people, and fuck thinking about what I'm doing too much......let's just do what feels good". I was at the Metropolitan Museum once and a midwestern couple were standing behind me looking at one of the big Jackson Pollock paintings they have there and the man says (the most cliche thing ever) " Anyone could have done that". And I thought to myself at the moment nothing could be further from the truth. This painting that we were looking at was the product of years of trial and error, years of slowly deconstructing very honed skills, until the damn broke.... and those paintings were the result. I like that moment.....and I understand that a lot of people don't get it.. it's one of the most violent realizations or awakenings people can have to do what Pollock did.... and not anyone could have done it and more importantly they didn't do it, despite the chaos his style comes through...the same with Clyfford Still Or Motherwell, their styles are instantly recognizable to me.... they were all clearing the desk as it were,,,it was about entropy, it became about the composition of decomposition, and it had it's own form and structure despite looking chaotic. I am not a fan of representational art in general....because it forces you to think about specific things. Abstraction to me means freedom.....and I think there are a lot of humans who's outlooks and spirits need to be freed.
You'd be prepared to go anywhere to further your DJ ambitions?
Yeah I would go anywhere that would let me keep doing my show the way I wanted to do it, Especially if i could get even the most minimal funding for it. I mean If Triple R in Melbourne wanted to hire me for a year or some avant garde radio station in Belgium or the UK or something wanted me to do my show there I would drop everything and go.
You played some Piotr Kurek on your recent WMFU show which was my pick of the show ( it had a contempory feel but also could have been made in the late 60's early 70's), how did you come across this guy? Maybe you could talk about your research into the deep stratas of music which you mine for your shows. And shed some light on a typical day at the office perhaps.
Piotr Kurek I discovered via the Mutant Soundz facebook fan page, I used to love that blog, and now I find myself stealing a lot of music from the youtube videos they post.... those guys should have their own WFMU show.....I pull music from all over the place,,,,,friends face book posts, Wire magazine reviews, records I find or are given to me...old mix tapes friends made for me. Old Option magazines, new releases, other music in NYC, Printed Matter, Forced Exposure, obviously the WFMU library, I pull a lot of the soundbites from movies that I am watching that I record directly onto tape and then digitize. there used to be a public access show called concrete television which I steal from a lot....uhhhggg I'm giving a way all my secrets.
Yeah, don't give away your secrets ! But how you make your show is pretty unique so even if someone had the same sources they wouldn't be able to make the Unknown Tongue.
I was going to comment 'this isn't a radio show it's a Declaration of War!' during your first permanent slot on WMFU. It was certainly a no- punches- pulled opening. It's pretty clear which side of the barricades you're going to be on. How much do you think music and the arts in general is going to contribute to the tipping point which will foment the massive change that we need to a system that has so patently failed the majority of it's people? The system that includes the music industry has become very adept at sucking out the energy of it's rebels and dissenters and re-presenting it as sanitised product.
Well as much as I want there to be some mass cultural awakening , i have very little hope that is going to happen. I am very grateful for the chance to be able to broadcast music and ideas that I think are important to an anyone who's willing to listen, especially in light of the fact that there are people with a way greater knowledge and deeper understanding of music than me. Not to mention people who are way more articulate and talented. So I guess my declaration of war was sort of tongue and cheek....I don't really take myself that seriously. I know what I like. I steal from good sources (like all artists) and my show is a protest in the sense that the things that I really detest music wise aren't included, and you can sort of figure out what the show is all about if you listen to it over a period of time... I consider WFMU , a sort of radio free America. It's one of the only places in the world where I would be allowed to do a show like Blurred and Obscured. So I feel a little bit of pressure to make the shows really good and thought provoking. I am the most nervous and hap hazzard Dj, for all my planning and obsessing over playlists , when I get in the studio to broadcast lots of times it's "clear the desk" and I wing it.. I am not the instrument of revolution. I am not going to change the music industry or the country. I would like to be able to expose people to new music that might make them question what they consider to be good or bad. So all I can do is present something that is real and not prefabricated and hope that it makes people think or want to explore other options.
You include a lot of movie and narrative soundbites in your show they're an important part of how the whole show hangs together?
Movies are a big part of my life so they end up being a big part of my radio show. There are pieces of music in different movies that don't get included on whatever official soundtrack gets released often times.. so I think it's fun to try to extract that stuff digitally or record them on to cassettes in order to include it in the show. The Meridian Folk West song I played on a recent show is from a scene in the movie "Bullit" and was not included on the Lalo Schfrin score released for the soundtrack. I love to find cool movie dialogue too....things get weird when they get taken out of context so I like that.
Yeah, I've worked a lot with collage/cut-up. Take something out of it's contextual comfort zone and a whole load of new possibilities open up.
After hearing a couple of your shows 'geological' popped up as a kind of loose description of the selection of music. You seemed to be digging deep through layers of music/art culture laid down over at least the last four decades. It's almost like the core of your shows is located somewhere in the mid to late 60's and then ripples out seismically to the present day. For me a lot of what you play is informed by the shockwave of that era?
Not sure how you would describe my show....I mean a lot of the music I love comes from the post- war period of America, but there are always exceptions to that, I will occasionally play a pre- war 78 or something. The show is like one sad mans search for beauty or something.... I mean the funny part is that.....I mean the whole thing with the fifties and sixties , is that I hate a lot of the self righteousness of liberal baby boomers, they failed us, their revolution failed because they all gave up or sold out or got co opted or whatever. I used to work at this famous vegetarian restaurant in upstate NY, and I would have to listen to all these old hippies say shit like " You don't understand man you weren't there!"....and I would always think......yeah I do understand......you went to woodstock, you tipped your balls off, you fucked your brains out, and in the midst of all that you lost sight of whatever political agenda your so called "Movement" had. so fuck you. ....my generation is left with the most horrendous debt, political apathy and corporatism the likes the world has ever scene..... This generation has been burnt beyond recognition... all i can do is sift through the train wreck of culture and present whats left of whats good..
Jonathan Herweg's new show 'Blurred and Obscured' on WMFU 5-8 am (East Coast time) 8-11am (GMT) every Sunday.