Interview: WFMU Music Director Brian Turner on Programming the First Ever WFMU Fest
poster design by Henry Owings
With shows ranging from "Give The Drummer Some" (featuring "the finest in Micronesian doo-wop"), Do or DIY With People Like Us ("Home of all things avant-retard") to The Frow Show ("Grand pianos in the surf, singing frogs, hyphenated psych, outtakes, live collaging... and the Grateful goddamn Dead"), it must be an arduous task to compile three days of music that accurately represents the heterogeneity of sound that is the free-form non-commercial station WFMU/91.1. But Brian Turner gave it a shot anyway. The station's music director took the lead on organizing the bill for the first ever WFMU Fest, which continues this weekend after last night's performance from krautrock uberlords Faust. No-wave progenitors Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and scuzz-punks Pissed Jeans will headline the next two nights of the festival, which takes place at the at the Williamsburg Hall of Music. The station has recently partnered with South By Southwest and All Tomorrow's Parties, but this is the first time they've hosted their own live showcase. (Should the show do well, they hope to do it again.)
Turner, who was once named the "Music Director Most Likely To Never Sell Out" at the CMJ College Radio Awards, recently talked to the Voice about turning down promotion offers, scheduling the Fest, Faust, and sheep.
So how did the WFMU Fest come about?
There're kind of two reasons behind it. One is, last year WFMU was able to put on a lot of free concerts in the city due to a grant from the The Rockefeller Foundation and Eliot Spitzer. After labels got caught doing payola, he sued the labels and made them payout to small arts organizations, and FMU got some money to build its Free Music Archives. And then we had two years to put on free concerts in the city. So, we were involved in a bunch of shows for our 50th anniversary last year, and we did Wire at Irving Plaza and we were involved in the River To River Sonic Youth/Feelies show at Battery Park, and then we did the the Ex with Ethiopian stars at the Lincoln Center, outdoors last summer. So we kind of wanted to keep the ball rolling. The grant was expired, but we wanted to keep some sort of visibility in the New York live music thing.
The second part of this is that, there's a lot of radio stations now that seem to be presenting shows, putting their names on shows, and we've always been approached to do that. But we've always sort of hesitated doing it, because we wanted to have a bill that was FMU-related rather than us doing promo or advertising for some kind of other bill that we may not have had any input to or control over. So nobody's really asked us to curate shows except Issue Project Room last year. But I thought this year, maybe we'd give it a go and I'd try to book bands that definitely were in FMU's playlist and try to get as many of them together in one time and place, so this kind of fell together like that. And I had also been approached by Chantelle Hylton who worked for the Knitting Factory and does her own booking nowadays, and she wanted FMU involved with the idea of doing its own festival. We thought being such sound curators in the radio realm, it might be a good idea to try to put together a three-day thing on our own.
So who is this band Faust? I don't think I've ever read about them on Stereogum.
I'm just kidding.
Oh (Laughs.) I'm sorry...
But how did you get them? They don't really tour the States that often.
I think they had been wanting to come over for years, but it's fairly involved with them doing a big tour, they drag a lot of stuff around with them, apparently. I think on their last tour they had a sheep as well as tons of heavy industrial stuff.
Yeah, I think they had a sheep on their last tour that they'd bring out as this symbolic thing of peace.
Oh. What did they do with the sheep?
I didn't see those shows, I'm not quite sure. I think it just wandered around or something. I know they had a sheep every night. But they would also go down to railroad tracks and get a lot of broken glass and debris and industrial stuff and bring it in.
So you also have Teenage Jesus and The Jerks. I remember reading that they briefly reunited last year, but that still seems like a pretty big "get" for you guys.
Yeah, I mean they did two shows last year and I think Chantelle might have booked those at the Knitting Factory, so she was kind of the liaison for that band too. I think [frontwoman Lydia Lunch] lives in Barcelona now, so they don't get to come over and do too much either. But I saw those shows last year. They were phenomenal, they were really, really great. And I think it's going to be an awesome show, too, this Saturday.
So, the term "eclectic taste" doesn't even do the station justice. You guys have so many people with great knowledge of all these different genres. How difficult is it to come up with a bill that everyone agrees represents the station?
I have to admit, it's a pretty noisy leaning series of shows. There's not going to be too much meditative stuff going on, it's going to be more blazing, noisy sounds happening. But WFMU has been pretty much involved with the kinds of shows where we want a mixture of things to represent the freeform aspect of the station. We did two South By Southwest shows so far that were like 14 bands per showcase, and those were just completely across the map. And plus, the show we did at Lincoln Center with Ethiopians backing a Dutch punk band. We've been involved with [Primavera Sound Festival] and [All Tomorrow's Parties] where we've done broadcasts from there, and those are fairly kind of visionary festivals that really try to draw in things from across the map.
A lot of festivals want to lock into one kind of groove for their bills, and it's justified too, but I love the days of reading the New York Rocker Magazine in the '80s, and you would kind of see the interactive elements of everything going on in New York, where early hip-hop was on the bill with punk bands and Sun-Ra would be playing with DNA and The Feelies. And I think to an extent that really helped the community self-inform itself about all kinds of influences and all kinds of types of music that were all these marginal pockets around town. And with the internet now, and everything is so much more graspable in terms of being able to absorb so many influences, and there's so many bands now that sound like 10 different things, which I think is awesome. But in a live music setting I think it's good to have bands mix it up within the course of a bill.
I'm sure you won't play favorites, but are there any smaller, opening acts you would encourage people to check out?
I think all of these bands are awesome, and a few of them are rarely playing in New York. Like Aluk Todolo, who are this amazing French doom-slash-kraut post-rock band--they're pretty excellent. And TV Ghost, who I haven't seen yet, are supposedly one of the best live bands that people have been talking about in the last couple of years. I'm a big fan of Sightings. Sightings are a New York band that every time I see them, they've moved forward into some new, weird realm. They definitely are a rock band, but possibly the most outer-limit existing rock band out there. And the fact that they are just a guitar-bass-drums trio but are so inventive and just evolving makes me always want to see them. Teenage Jesus actually asked for them on the bill, which was awesome for us too.
WFMU can be found on 91.1 FM or listened to here. The Free Music Archive, featuring tons of free songs, can be found at www.freemusicarchive.org. The WFMU Fest will run through Saturday, Oct 3 at the Williamsburg Hall Of Music. Pissed Jeans, TV Ghost, Vee Dee, and Guinea Worms are playing on the 2nd. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Sightings, Drunkdriver, and Talk Normal finish things off on the 3rd.