Joshua Fried begins each of his RADIO WONDERLAND shows with a spin of a boombox radio dial, snippets of caught commercials and DJ chatter popping out of the static and drawing his audience’s ears in on a raft of mainstream culture before he starts cutting it apart.
There is also a boombox in nearly every room of Fried’s apartment, which after a few hours in his company chatting about processing sound, seems to be not just a fun decorating choice but also an illustration of how connected he is to his music-making tools.
More than sharing space, however, it’s time that Fried has invested deeply in his music, labor-intensive processes becoming something of a hallmark. As a result, his projects have a tendency to spiral out across years of his professional life. Splicing elaborate tape loops and coding his own software have been just par for this artistic course—intimacy with the tools and materials an essential part of the work.
Yet whether in a dive for self-preservation or simply a yin-yang bit of balance, Fried sets up his musical game boards with elaborate care, but then prefers to play out the final aspects of his creative process live in front of an audience. In the ’90s that meant feeding his performers their material in real time over headphones. Since 2007, it most often finds him alone on stage, a couple pairs of men’s dress shoes concealing gate-triggering microphones and a Buick steering wheel drawing the audience’s eyes as he grabs bits of radio chatter from which he builds each RADIO WONDERLAND concert.
His creative path has led him from The Pyramid Club to more esoteric new music circles, but he hasn’t abandoned his pursuit of great grooves, and it’s a prime driver of RADIO WONDERLAND. “I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable,” he explains. “As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on.” In live performance and in track after track on his just-released album SEiZE THE MEANS, the drive of the pulse, the transparency of the process, and common commercial radio core prove to amplify rather than dilute the music’s broader unique aspects.
Fried anticipated that his lack of interest in “high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about” might result in his work being dismissed in certain circles, but while that has happened, he has actually felt accepted and free to pursue the work he wants even if it comes attached to a beat that encourages serious toe tapping. It’s not something he’s looking to transcend. “I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.”
Joshua Fried: I think I have long had this idea that I’m going to be the thorn in the side of some establishment that isn’t going to like me, and it turns out they do.
Molly Sheridan: But you don’t trust that?
JF: I have a little bit of imposter’s syndrome, but I’m on much more solid ground than I was when I started. It’s funny because “new music” is awash in people doing sophisticated things in funny meters and odd things with tonality and pitch, and whether I do or don’t, I tend to be accepted and no one has a problem with 4/4. It’s kind of amazing to me. I’m sort of waiting to be dismissed—and that’s happened to me—but I feel very accepted and able to pursue what I want. It just so happens that what I want is rather clubby, especially with RADIO WONDERLAND.
MS: I actually wanted to start by just talking about the evolution of RADIO WONDERLAND, especially for readers who may not be familiar with this project. It seems to me there’s a sort of ritual to these performances and to the pieces you create, including the equipment that you use and have used for a number of years now.
JF: Oh, yeah.
MS: So I want to trace the evolution of that visually and sonically, whether you have to go back to 1987 to do that, or just 2007.
JF: I have been cutting up sound and processing sound since I first started composing, and I started using radio really early on. I did one piece where I would start with FM radio playing the easy listening station—cascading strings and completely mellow “beautiful music”—and then cut to this underlying tape loop that was cut up very precisely. I would do it several times and it was random what I got from the cascading strings station. Then I was performing in clubs in New York with multi-channel tape-loop processing. Basically I was taking the technical structure of dub reggae, only instead of remixing an existing reggae song, I would remix a multi-channel tape loop that I had constructed laboriously and do that live.
I also had a thing where I would use something to trigger a gate. Like I would speak into the microphone, but it would be opening up a gate on a tape loop. It was theatrical. As a performative schtick, I started hiding the mic inside various objects. I put the mic inside a shoe and took it to the Pyramid Club where I was performing live, and I was whacking the shoe with a drumstick so the tape loop could be in time with my underlying groove. Then as I evolved as a composer, I wanted to do more with gates, so I said, let’s have four shoes. And this is 1988 at the La MaMa New Music Festival. I had the shoes and a radio—two channels of shoe-controlled gates from radio and two pre-recorded ongoing sounds.
Then a few years later, I realized I could do something that’s all radio. What I had to do next was the club-oriented funky tape loops that I had done in the ‘80s, only make those collages in real time in front of an audience and all out of commercial radio. I could do that with technology. I didn’t know what technology, but I knew I could do it with technology. I could trigger the radio with the shoes, but I wanted to do more. What I was doing in the ‘80s in clubs, these tape loops that I mentioned where I did things based on dub reggae, got increasingly intricate and I would do very high-precision tape splicing. As digital sampling was taking off, I would kind of say to myself, oh, I can do that with splicing and I would end up with something that was like those samplers, only more hi-fi because I had a quarter-inch tape deck, which was giving me better quality than the 8-bit or 12-bit samplers at the time. So there was this kind of odd period where, because I felt that I would live forever and it didn’t matter how long a project took, I would just do even more labor intensive, high-precision tape splicing.
But I slowly transitioned to MIDI and sampling, and so getting back to the beginnings of RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized that I could use technology to precisely cut up the found sound that I got off the radio and turn that into a groove. I have notebooks full of notes about what I could do and the more I thought about it, the more I got serious about it. I went through a period where I thought: how far am I willing to really elaborately process? Because what I love most in processing is the cutting up, running backwards, playing at different speeds, collaging as opposed to the high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about. The simple processing that has a big musical payoff is more fascinating to me. What’s the least I can do, the most transparent processing I can do, and have it give me my musical result?
And I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable. As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on. And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter so much what that framework is. You need it. Especially when it comes to structuring things over time.
I was doing the tape loop stuff in clubs, and that was more or the less the ‘80s, and in the ‘90s it was the headphone-driven performance, [concert work that requires performers to try and imitate vocal sounds that are played over headphones]. Then halfway through that, I realized the next thing I wanted to do was club-oriented again, but by that time, I was so steeped in sort of the new music scene, it was no longer the Pyramid Club, it was the Bang on a Can Festival. And so when I first started doing RADIO WONDERLAND, it was music festivals and electronic nights, the Juilliard Electronic Music Festival and Boston Cyberarts. It didn’t really steer back to the clubs until I went through this long, long period of software development and then started channeling it to the clubs, and that’s a transition I’m sort of still making because I had so many years with the—if you want to call it—new music audience. The NewMusicBox audience! I still sort of feel like I’m steering back. In the late’80s, I was known if you read Billboard and not if you read the American Composers Forum newsletter. And then that switched. I still sort of feel I’m switching back.
MS: Was that all self-selected or did you feel pushed?
JF: It’s funny because I’ve sort of been following my nose the whole time as far as what I do. I was so involved with the clubs in the ‘80s, and to me it was equivalent with innovation. No, that’s not right. It’s not that simple. I was doing experimental stuff, and I was working a lot with Linda Fisher who’s a composer who worked with Cunningham and David Tudor and Douglas Dunn, who was a Cunningham dancer. But I was focused on the clubs; I was working in clubs. I could go on stage in any open-minded nightclub if I had my tape-loop act—I say open-minded, because at the time there was a certain population of people who enjoyed popular music but had to see a drum kit and/or a guitar on stage. There was one guy who said to me at the end of a gig, “If you had just had someone with a guitar on stage, even if they were just standing there, it would have made me feel more comfortable with what you did.” I was amazed at that. And I also really appreciated his honesty. He knew how absurd it was, and he was being completely real about it.
And then I got a record deal with a big record label. It went nowhere and it’s a long story, but it was a great thing that happened to me. I think I was kind of blown away emotionally, because I had this major label deal and I sort of didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have the skill to adapt. I tried to write some conventional pop songs for the occasion, but I didn’t do very many. They didn’t really fit. I needed to be like Howard Jones or M, the guy who did the song “Pop Muzik,” but I wasn’t versatile enough to do that. So I was just the tape loop guy doing my innovative stuff—which certain people really loved—marketed the wrong way.
It took me a long time to sort of get over it and decide what to do next. I didn’t have a next step for the record label, or I guess for the clubs. And then the headphone-driven stuff kind of took off, although it’s a slow motion take off. Over a few years, I did a lot of that stuff, and then the Bang on a Can All-Stars said, “Well, can we perform it?” And I said okay and I worked with them. I basically won’t let people perform this work unless I feel that they can do it—because it’s so awful if people don’t have the proper training. It’s hideously boring and uncomfortable, and it gives me and it gives the music a bad name. But if performers can handle it and they have worked with me or someone that I’ve worked with to know what I want from it, it can be this compelling, rigorous, worthy stuff. So anyway yes. The Bang on a Can All-Stars did it and then other people said they wanted to do it, and it had this life, including a 16-week series at HERE Arts Center in 2001.
It was so enormously labor intensive. It was amazing to be able to do it, but each performer can do each headphone role only once, so I rotate through performers. We had a total of 64 people over the course of this run. I would have to get more and more performers. How could I tour with this? I decided that this piece, if it can’t walk on its own, is going to have to be set by the side of road where if it wants to walk, it can walk, but I can no longer be pushing it along. I need something more practical, and that was going to be this radio, found sound, groove-based thing.
That’s also solo, so it makes so much more sense. Then all that was left was the years of doing the software programming. I did it myself in Max/MSP and it was a wonderful adventure, but it took years. It was absurd. By fall of 2007 I realized I have not utterly, thoroughly 100% debugged my own code. However, the state of performing this is hampered more by my lack of knowing how to do it and lack of rehearsal than by the bugs. I could put this on stage, work around the bugs, and six months of being on stage is going to put this out in the world. And it’s going to get that much better. Better than six more months of programming to iron out the last few bugs or add the last few features that I want. So all of sudden, I realized, oh, it’s not a matter of being done and then going on stage. I’m going on stage now. Let’s start gigging!
I decided that for a year I would just perform any and all performances—paid, unpaid, bring my own PA, what have you. This adventure started and I was going to do this for a year and then record. So that was fall of 2007. And then 2011—that’s a year after, right?—I realized I was doing more and more gigs. I started going out of town. I performed at this big sort of techno/rave-y complex in Venice, Italy. It was so great, but it was also crazy. I didn’t have a record to sell at the gigs. It seemed almost counterproductive. And also I didn’t mention, I made a deal with myself: not only was I going to stop coding—only since it’s Max/MSP, it’s drag another line with the mouse—but I was declaring a technology freeze. I wasn’t going to upgrade any piece of hardware or software until I had that record out. So I figured I’d gig for a year, do the record, upgrade the software. Instead it was a few years of gigging. Now, it’s antique software and a G3 Powerbook. It’s the same thing with my tape-loop stuff. When I started doing tape loops, it was high tech, but then I did it for so many years. Same thing kind of happened with RADIO WONDERLAND where I had a Powerbook that was state of the art and I just kept it. And I was so glad that I did.
Now my case might be extreme, but there are musicians and composers who are upgrading so fast, I feel like they’re not going into depth. On the other hand, they don’t need to go into depth the way I do. I get really involved with materials, the tools, and that is a big part of what I’m doing. Other composers are different. They’re pursuing other things, and they can have a—not a derogatory use of the term—more shallow connection with the nuts and bolts of their technology and it’s not such a wrenching big deal to upgrade. If they throw out their old software and have new software, great. They take advantage of that.
For me, it just couldn’t be that way. I wrote this software myself. I’m very intimate with it. It’s just not the same deal. I love that kind of intimacy with tools and materials. I guess for some composers, the intimacy is on the level of the score, or the concept, and the technology is secondary.
MS: Okay, that was a lot of answers to a lot of questions.
JF: Whew. So we’re done?
MS: We’re done! No, we’re not done. You were talking about intimacy, which makes me think about your use of commercial radio as your raw material. I’m curious, of all the things you could pick, what is your attraction to that specifically as your primary source?
JF: Well, there are a couple things that really dovetail nicely. Since I was kid, I’ve had this attraction to the commercial stuff and just reframing it as something that’s funny. When I was in fourth grade, we had a field trip to the L.A. airport and we got to walk inside an airplane. Then the next day, or maybe that afternoon, we were back in our homeroom in my elementary school, and we were asked to write about it. I wrote some spiel and at the end of it I wrote, “Welcome to the friendly skies of United.” It was a laugh line that has a certain needling twist to it.
Maybe that’s the whole sort of appropriative, ironic shtick that we’re all so tired of now, but I think I am of a generation where that is compelling to me. It’s a way of talking and of negotiating the world by quoting the mainstream stuff in this kind of snarky way. I feel in many ways, culturally we’re past that, but that kind of appropriation is like a language. And maybe this is a loaded word, but it is subversive. It is knocking, needling, and when I am cutting it up, it is cutting up the mainstream culture. It may be very basic, but great—be basic. Also, it’s ubiquitous, so it’s something that’s familiar and when I process the familiar, the process is that much more transparent. Just like when you do a cover tune, if you have an odd musical bent, your odd musical bent can be revealed by performing someone else’s work.
That’s why Devo’s version of “Satisfaction” is so satisfying, because we know this song and you get what Devo is. FM radio is dynamically compressed and has a decent frequency range. It is made to be grabbed and sampled. It’s so technically easy to grab the pre-compressed feed from FM radio. I know exactly where I have to put the volume control on my boombox. I don’t change the input level on my rig. I haven’t had to. And that’s great. It is perfectly pre-processed for the stuff that I’m doing.
MS: Is your choice of controllers born out of that same instinct—the steering wheel, the shoes? I mean, is that a joke? Is that a commentary? Is that playing off familiarity?
JF: It’s not the subversive appropriation kind of thing. I’m not knocking the industrial age because the steering wheel is a symbol of something evil. Arguably, it is. But I am doing it because of the transparency of the process when the controller is so large. I don’t want a tiny little knob that no one can see, so I want this object that’s the wheel.
Instead of the shoes, I could use electronic drum pads, but they have this sort of added message to me that you have to have something that looks like fancy high tech music hardware in order to whack something. But this is a completely un-acoustic instrument. The sound that you’re triggering has nothing to do with the physical makeup of the thing that you’re hitting. There’s this disconnect between the controller and the sound that results, and I want to underscore that disconnect. It’s a funny thing, and I’d rather have it be that funny thing than have it be like the cool drum pad. If you had the money to buy this in the music store, you could have this cool drum pad. I don’t like that.
Once I had the shoes, I knew that I wanted to have not just a large knob, but an ordinary object taken from life and give it that surreal feeling. I was really taken by surrealism when I was kid. It’s that kind of twist I was talking about before with appropriation. There’s a different, maybe related sort of twist when there’s something absurd. I just love it so much.
Another thing about the wheel is that, technically, it’s no different from the little knob you can get in the portable controller, which is a lot easier to pack on an airplane than a steering wheel, but you would never play a melody on that little knob. With the steering wheel, I can, and so now I practice the wheel, and it’s become this whole other level of instrument that I didn’t even realize. The quantitative difference of size is a real qualitative difference, and it’s so much fun.
MS: You’ve been working with commercial radio for a long time now. I’m curious if you’ve noted any changes to that particular stream of media and how that’s impacted your work.
JF: Well, part of it’s a little sad because when I started doing this, radio was more monolithic. Everybody knew half the songs on any of the pop stations. I don’t feel that’s the same thing now. Radio, even mainstream commercial radio, is in its niches. There was a sort of lingua franca of pop in the heyday of Michael Jackson and Madonna and Culture Club. They were so ubiquitous and corporate and massively popular. I was dismantling this common mainstream.
I have developed my aesthetic, but I haven’t really adapted. That’s just the way it goes. My projects take absurd numbers of years to fully play out, and that’s more acceptable in the movie business than it is in the music business. But I’m here, and so part of what RADIO WONDERLAND signifies has evolved out from under me. I’m using vintage technology now in a way that I wasn’t back then by virtue of not changing the technology. Very recently, I decided to use AM radio because I need more topical stuff because of what’s happening in the world. That’s one thing that I decided only in the last few months. It’s not enough for me to know that crazy stuff is happening in the world. They’re kind of talking about it on NPR, but I want to be dealing with more commercial culture and they’re not talking about global warming on the rock station.
MS: Not just RADIO WONDERLAND but also your work with headphone-driven performance leads me to thoughts of how it pushes and pulls on the ideas of Cage, which is something you address specifically on your website:
It celebrates randomness in a way that’s utterly different from Cage. Chance choices can be simply better—in the right context.
What are the elements of that “right context”?
JF: Well, there’s no one right context. But if you can create a context in which the best choice is going to be by the roll of the dice, you’ve created a beautiful situation.
I guess what I’m talking about is hey, we’re stochastic instead of completely random. I like the negotiation of what’s chance and what’s not chance, and also the extremes of how much I prepare, how much I work on my algorithms, and then how much I’m dependent on what happens to be on the radio or, with headphone-driven performance, how rigorous my input is and how it interacts with the complete lack of control of the performers. The chance choice can be the right choice, if in the right context. Building the kind of context that can do that gives me something that to my ears is just better than any other way. And it’s such a beautiful thing. You feel like you’re tapping into something, instead of sort of cheating it. Well, there’s my chord progression and if I avoid all the leading tones in the first half of the phrase, and then I hit octaves in the second half, then it will kind of cover up the fact that this is a lame chord progression. No, no, no! I want this. I want the dappled sunlight to fall on my fabric and it just has to be good enough fabric so that it looks good, however the sunlight falls on it. Something like that.
MS: I want to dig further into the process of the headphone-driven performance and learn more about what is really happening in those headphones—the audio score, if you will—that is generating the performance you want. Can you pull the curtain back? I’m sure that there’s a lot of thinking that went on with why you’re even doing that in the first place.
JF: You want to understand the mechanics.
MS: Yes, but you can be philosophical too.
JF: What the performers are hearing is mostly spoken word and some singing, and a lot of the spoken word is taken from very expressive, emotional parts of old movies. Like Richard Burton bellowing.
Just to be clear, I have six different channels of headphone material, all independent. So they can be unison or not, and they can have conversations and such. But it’s completely, rigorously timed because they’re not separate tape decks that are running out of synch; they’re all coming from the same multi-track sound source. The synch is maintained, and the accompanying music is on two additional tracks for left and right playback over a PA system. So the musical accompaniment and all six headphone tracks are audio scores—or audio parts, you could say—sent out via a headphone feed to the performers.
My instruction to them is not to repeat immediately after the input, which would be a sensible thing to do, but my instruction is to talk along with the input, which is not sensible. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. I’m asking them to be listening and talking at the same time, which kind of ruins their chances of hearing most of it, because they’re talking over it. But the headphones are fairly loud. They’re listening, they’re picking up stuff, and they’re vocalizing and catching stuff as they can, and as the headphone material repeats—and it repeats a lot—they get more of it and their proportion of gibberish to regular language gets more towards the regular language. I work with performers, one-on-one or in a group of two or three people, I demonstrate, I have them try this. It takes some understanding and most people don’t really believe until they try it that this really means doing this ridiculous thing of talking over. Now, sometimes your cue to start talking is the input itself. So obviously at that moment, the performer will enter late. I know that. That’s just the laws of physics. But I tell them, don’t think about that. You are there the whole time; just imagine that and keep on jumping ahead to the present moment. Try this for about a minute, and then you’ll kind of find a place where you can just go.
Headphone Driven Performance (demo)
Practice track for two performers (stereo)
One thing I say to them is you are doing this with utter confidence, believing that you’re absolutely getting it. That input, as you are saying it to yourself, is you. You are that accurate and you have that much confidence. At the same time, I’m not saying just pretend everything’s perfect because I told you to. I want the performers to really be trying. It takes effort. It takes a lot of concentration. You’re tuned into what’s happening. You’re picking up stuff, so you’re keeping these two things going. You’re working, but you also are constantly outputting with complete gusto. This kind of conversation over a couple of hours of demonstrating gets good performers in a place where I need them to be to do this, and so it comes out this sort of proto-language—half gibberish, half non-gibberish.
This evolved from a party game with these performance artists that I was collaborating with, and they called this party game the Nancy Sinatra game, because they were using a cassette tape of Nancy Sinatra’s greatest hits. I kind of took the idea for my own compositions and started making my own source tapes with the musical accompaniment. That covers a lot of it, doesn’t it?
MS: That does cover a lot of it, and it leads me very neatly to my next question, because even before knowing that bit of backstory, I was already struck by how big a role the aspect of game play or a puzzle to solve in the moment figures into both in the headphone-driven performance and RADIO WONDERLAND. Because you have a structure and there are rules, but then you’re getting things that are chance-y that are being thrown into the mix, and then you’re having to do something with that for an audience.
JF: The game is how I handle the input. That makes it exciting for me. One thing I sometimes say is that I feel like I come from a planet where it’s not live music unless it’s completely unexpected. If it comes from a score and you’ve rehearsed it, what’s that? You can’t do that. That’s just cheating. That’s not anything. Where we come from, live is where you deal with life as it comes, or something like that.
I don’t actually come from that planet, but this sort of thing is compelling to me. It is such a great discipline, and it also puts the emphasis on things that I think should be emphasized. In this case, when it comes to RADIO WONDERLAND, it’s the process. It’s the juxtaposition. It’s what I do with it, as opposed to choosing the perfect sample—which would be, I think, just an awful way for me to compose. I’m kind of a perfectionist. So, given that, what would I do? I’d go over what’s in the commercial media and decide what’s best to dismantle because it’s sonically good, but more importantly, the content is what I think is just the thing that needs to be interrogated and subverted. I’m exhausted just thinking about that. I don’t want that. It’s not a good compositional challenge for me. It might be sort of a moneymaker, if I can grab something that’s so telling and it’s so hysterically funny. Then maybe I have to bargain to get the rights to it. Then I cut it up, and I make it into a dance track that could be fun and maybe get a lot of attention, but that’s so not the discipline that I want. To me, if I can develop the algorithms and train myself as a performer to deal with it as it comes in, those are good musical processes. That’s good performance training. It’s going to be a good performance.
It’s amazing how well things fit together, how the synchronicity seems to come up again and again. I remember one time when Will Smith, the movie star, was in the headlines a lot. I got the name Will Smith off the radio, and someone said to me, “Unbelievable! How did you get that? It’s so amazing that you got that because he’s iconic, and it’s such a coup.” Well, but that’s how this thing works because the stuff that’s the most popular comes up the most. And I love that. I find I’ve really learned a lesson that you can take two different pop songs from two different times—let’s say a commercial or a station ID and a pop song—cut them up, try to juxtapose them tonally, and your odds are better than even that they will somehow work.
Now maybe I’ve had this sort of brilliance at improvising and choosing things that I don’t give myself credit for, but I think a big part of it is that there’s more sense in the stuff that we would grab by chance than we ever imagined. When I first made RADIO WONDERLAND, I made sure that there would be a means to take any of the individual bits and suck away the pitch—the De-Pitcher, I called it. Turns out what I used was ring modulation. Boom! Computationally, it’s incredibly cheap and easy, but I found after a while—it took me a long time to even believe it—I almost never have to use it! The pop song that I get 15 minutes after I grab the other pop song is gonna work. Or I can transpose with the wheel, so I have these five different bits from a pop song or a commercial from 15 minutes ago. Here’s a new slab of audio. I take a couple of different bits, juxtapose them, they’re in rhythm and maybe two thirds of the time I need to transpose with the wheel. And that’s it. I never suspected it would be that easy. I was kind of terrified. I figured you take two random songs, even if they’re both based on A-440, then we have like 24 different choices of different modes and stuff, different keys. They’re not going to match. They’re going to be badly dissonant in that way that’s just not fun musically, especially when I’m trying to be funky and groovy and melodic in a more-or-less conventional sense. It’s just not going to work out, and I’m going to need the De-Pitcher. I’m going to have to transpose like mad, that’s just how it is. That’s going to be part of the game of RADIO WONDERLAND. And it turns out that it wasn’t. It just tends to work.
MS: Does this process ever feel like it “fails”? Or maybe just that you couldn’t easily see how you were going to make it work in a way that was going to satisfy you and you had to sweat through that on stage? It sounds like that hasn’t happened.
JF: Oh, it happens and of course I blame myself. To the extent that I take credit when it works well, I also blame myself when I think it isn’t funky. I’m highly self-critical and I also have this absurd metric where I want it to be as danceable as my favorite dance track, even though that was worked over in a studio for three weeks and I have five minutes in front of people. I do have to scramble, and a lot of it has to do with timing. It’s also a question of how well I can hear, because it’s a most unforgiving set up in terms of monitoring.
If you’re in a rock band, or even if you’re playing from a score in a formal concert setting, you know your instrument is tuned. You know where the underlying beat is. You know what the conductor’s doing. You know where your hands are. You’re okay, even if you can’t hear that great. In a rock band, things are loud and chaotic, but your guitar has frets and you have your tuner. You feel the kick drum. You’re good to go. But with me, I don’t know what my instrument is until I’m on stage with it. I’m taking a piece of radio, usually around one second, and I cut it into eight bits and deploy them. I need to get a sense of how they differ from each other and what they sound like, and then decide how I want to further deploy them and transpose them. I have to hear them really well. I can’t decide that since my finger’s on the right fret and I know my telecaster and it’s in tune, that I’m okay. I’m kind of sunk. So it really depends on them.
MS: Why is the dancing so core to you?
JF: It’s a metric that I can believe in, and it’s so great to have that metric as a composer. I almost feel a little embarrassed because it’s so basic. A lot of my favorite music has never been assessed on the basis of whether or not people dance, and it’s successful on the basis of much more subtle things, but I’m in this situation.
But in addition to that metric, I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.
And when the emotion isn’t completely positive, when it’s not just catharsis or love, when it’s sad, angry, difficult, and it’s danceable, oh that’s so powerful. It’s dark, but there’s this cathartic dancing. It can work so, so well. And I go out dancing; I’m still going to clubs. I feel a connection to that culture or cultures. I am also looking forward to going back to other stuff. There are areas I want to go with it that aren’t quite so dance-y, but the initial concept is so focused on that, mostly because of this idea of a metric.
And what a great guide it is. Because otherwise, if I was going to do a sound collage with radio and sophisticated algorithms, it doesn’t matter where you go with it. To put RADIO WONDERLAND through this almost absurd metric of having to be done in real time, without choice of material, and have it be danceable, to sort of make it through to the other side gives me these incredibly powerful tools, software which I intend to finally further develop now that I have the album out. I think I’ll be able to do longer-scale things and different time scales. It won’t be as much about dancing, which is a little bit like the dance music artists that branch out.
I kind of imagine that trajectory. This first album is basically a bunch of dance tracks with kind of a slower one at the end, but even the slower one at the end has this boom-boom bass drum. I like that trajectory, not because it matches to some sort of commercial flight pattern, but artistically, that discipline and those rules are putting me in a great position for the next step.
It’s a little bit like my performance technology which, believe it or not, does not allow me to loop anything that I have just played. It allows me to loop what was just on the radio, but when I process the radio with the shoe or the wheel, that doesn’t loop. It’s crazy if you think of the current state of Ableton Live and live processing technology, which is all about the live looping. You’re a soloist with your instrument and a bunch of pedals and software. You play your thing, you loop your thing, you play over the thing you looped. I don’t do that with RADIO WONDERLAND. If I’m not hitting the shoe, that sound doesn’t come out, and it has been such a discipline over the past few years to perform that way.
Now I’m ready to revise my software and say okay I’m going to include the ability to retain that pattern. When I transpose on the wheel, I’ll make a riff, and here’s this piece of radio, it’s deployed over one bar. It’s got some nice syncopation, but it’s all taken from one second of radio. Then I transpose it with the wheel, so all of sudden we have a four-bar phrase, and it’s fun, it’s tonal, and there’s something cool about the transition because it’s transposing a whole chord, which is a little bit like classic house music where there’s a sample and the musician just has one finger on the keyboard and they’re transposing the sample of that. That’s part of the house music sound that I really like. I do that with the wheel, right now, but if I have that four-bar pattern, it stops being a four-bar pattern when I turn away from the wheel and go back to the shoes, or what have you. But it’s been I think a more interesting, at least for now, that I got to this point without these various crutches or enhancements.
MS: So you’ve mentioned a few times since we’ve started the milestone position this record has in your mind. Let’s talk about the fact you have a new record out.
JF: That’s right.
JF: Thank you very much.
MS: Why did this record become so important for you? Every bit of the philosophy you’re underlining here is how exciting it is that it’s live. It’s live radio. You’re doing all the processing live. Why the hell did you want to make a record?
JF: You know, it’s funny, the turntablist Maria Chavez has talked about how she does not release recordings. And boy, I respect that. I’m a good candidate for not releasing recordings, but I wanted to. For one thing, and I’m glad you reminded me of this, one of the motivations of RADIO WONDERLAND was to become prolific because my process became slower and slower. I had this thing that became Headset Sextet. I finished it—or so I thought—in ’94, and then about three days before the opening night at La MaMa, I realized no, this is too good not to make it right. So I renamed it Work In Progress, and then I spent about another five years revising it, but the time scale is indefensible. It’s just absurd, but I’m proud I finally finished it.
But with RADIO WONDERLAND, I thought okay, let this be a ticket to being prolific. The album is part of that process. Can I be prolific in that I generate this new material and can have it out on recordings, which do this great job of representing you when you’re not there playing it? I never had a full album out, which seems crazy because in the ‘80s I had a record deal on a major label. I worked on remixes for famous recording artists. I work with recording technology, and yet I didn’t have my own album.
So the emotional stakes became kind of high, and it’s too bad because I’m older now, and maybe I’m less resilient as far as the sheer emotional strain of getting it all done. Part of the test of RADIO WONDERLAND is: Are these algorithms, or the algorithms plus me manipulating them, are they so robust that this can be a dance groove even without the loud PA and me up there in the excitement and electricity of live radio? I love that electricity. I live for it, and it is still fundamentally a live show. But I wanted to put it to that test.
Given that I wanted this album to sound good to my ears, I knew there was going to be some post-production. Well, how much? That is something I had to answer by doing it. One thing I’m happy about—and this had a lot to do with my co-producer Marcelo Anez—is that each track really is taken from a single concert without any non-radio overdubs. Some of it is highly processed—more processed by a long shot than anything I was able to do on stage. But a lot of this extra processing I can do on stage in the future. So it’s somewhat of a prospectus for new projects.
MS: What about that fact that you’re going back and revisiting the work for this, because you’ve avoided that in the live version quite explicitly. It was all about the new, the first brush, and now you’re going back and not just looking at them once, but looking at them many times as you crafted them into an album.
JF: Well, I did resist that. I did a sort of test album—it was just three songs—a few years ago, where I chose three different concerts that I edited, not very carefully. I have hundreds of concert recordings, so isn’t it the perfect test of RADIO WONDERLAND to pick concerts at random and see how well they work as recordings? That was really dumb. What I want to do is choose the best concerts, and for me, a lot of that was the best grooves. It makes it a heck of a lot easier to go through hundreds of hours of concerts when you’re looking for good grooves, as opposed to simply looking for the best music. In order to favorably represent RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized what I had to do was listen more and edit less. So I went through and listened and listened and listened, and chose the best shows, the ones which needed the least amount of editing. And that felt fine. I’m very focused on live and real time and all the ephemeral stuff that we talked about, but I also like to geek out in a studio. I’ve long used recording technology and I love making records. This was a good reason to go and get into that headspace.
Some of the issues that I had to address on the album were almost purely technical having to do with the low end, and I can address that with the next iteration of the software, and that’s a really exciting prospect. So maybe instead of working on a track for three weeks before it’s really ready for a final mix, I can work on a track for a day before it’s ready for a final mix. My fantasy is that I will be able to put out as a live recording whatever I did that night without any post-production.
MS: But weren’t you distilling to a larger degree, because these tracks are like seven minutes, and it does seem like there’s a ritual to RADIO WONDERLAND performance. I don’t know if they’re always 30 minutes, but it has that kind of scope. And then you’re condensing it in some way.
JF: Oh, absolutely. Part of the process is to distill a 30-minute concert into a four- to eight-minute album track and not to pretend that they’re mini RADIO WONDERLAND concerts. The idea is to take a half hour to create a great groove, and that’s going to create a monster five-minute radio mix and twelve-minute remix of a dance track. It is perhaps an easy adjunct to the RADIO WONDERLAND concert format, but that is the needle I seem to be trying to thread. And it’s worked out okay. But you’re absolutely right. That’s a crucial part of it. Yes, I’m condensing them.
Oh, you brought that up because I was talking about releasing a live concert as is. Yeah, that would have to be a different thing. But that’s not what the album was. The album was to see, if I throw you right into the middle of the groove, is this going to make sense without the construction of the groove and without me jumping around and spinning wheels and stuff?