Wednesday, January 05, 2011

INTERVIEW: Antique Phonograph Music on WFMU

This week I interviewed Michael Cumella, ak.a. MAC the host of the Antique Phonograph Music  Program at 91.1WFMU.  It runs Tuesdays at 8:00 PM. His show is one of a handful of radio shows in America that still plays music from before 1930.  Not only does he embrace the music, he plays it from the original shellac pressings, both 78 rpm platters and cylinders. His program is conducted hand-crank phonographs with mikes in the horns —and it's live. There is nothing more authentic in all of radioland. More here.

His focus on early 1920s music makes his program an anthropological statement on a lost era of music. But his commentary is so light, that he keeps the program accessible to laypeople. At the same time, his analog playback makes his program eerily similar to the programming of early experimental radio stations. The earliest broadcasts by DeForest and even Fessenden were comprised not of only of live music but of 78s played on acoustic phonographs. More here. For those of us born after 1910, this is as close as we'll ever get to the real thing.

JF: Could you describe the Antique Phonograph Music Program for a new listener.

MAC:  I play must from the acoustic era, which is roughly pre-1925, when music was recorded and played back without electricity. The recordings were played back on what you might think of as the quintessential antique: the horned phonograph or a Victrola. These were crank-up machines with a big steel needle, spring-driven motors and a very distinct sound. There’s no nostalgia for it, because anyone who listened to it in that period is dead. But, there were huge stars of that period, and also interesting kinds of music most of which are also dead. But many styles survive like blues, jazz and country. Many kinds of music debuted in that period. So it’s an interesting time in American recorded history that really doesn’t get much play anywhere. So I enjoy collecting the records and sharing this period of music with people.
JF: Care to tell me about your playback devices?

MAC: I use three machines, two disc and one cylinder phonograpg in the studio. I use a Victrola XIV, that's one of those upright machines, which you might think of with the tall cabinet with a lid and the little doors that act as volume controls. It has an internal horn. Then I use a Victor II which is an external horn machine from about 1905. Then also I use an Edison Standard that plays 2 and 4 minute cylinders.

JF: When did the program Antique Phonograph Music Program debut?

MAC: I started around 1995.

JF: Did you do any radio before WFMU?

MAC: I did one other thing on this cable channel radio thing, but that was playing rock music and other things. It was in Jersey, this guy had an audio feed going to a Public Service Announcement video channel on the local cable network. He had a feed from his basement going to the channel that went to everyone in that cable system. It was free-form. That’s fun.

JF: Did you have any connection to The Thomas Edison's Attic Program?

MAC: I knew Jerry [Fabris]. We had shows alternating weeks. He was playing super rare stuff from the Edison Archives. He had access to incredible material. He had access to sound tests, unreleased recordings, diamond disc cylinders, rare live radio recordings, and live broadcast recordings... an incredible amount of material. I play more common stuff that anyone might have gone into a record store in 1910 and bought and played on their home phonograph. My show is about playing what people might have been listening to in 1905 or 1920.

JF: You ever have technical difficulties with that antique hardware?

MAC: That’s part of the show. Sometimes I’ll be playing a record and it starts to slow down. I was having a problem with the brake last week on my show; it was kind of messing up and stopping the record in the middle. Parts break. When that happens I try to fix it and I talk it through.

JF: What gets a piece of shellac spun on your program?

MAC: I’m not really playing stuff I like all the time. Partly it’s a historical show. I’m playing music from the period. Stuff people might have bought during that period. If I’m playing say a string quartet, it’s not anything I’m really into but it’s period music. I’ve come to love zither records and there were quite a few zither records. I play ethnic music. There were a lot of ethnic groups of course immigrating to the United States at that time. I do some early electrics sometimes, but I don’t get to 1930. I get to the late 1920s. There were some cheap labels that were making acoustics in the late 20s. I’ll do some Victors from the late 20s that were electric. I definitely don’t get to the 30s. I rarely get to 1928. I want people to hear what was out there then. Some ballads are the same crappy ballads you’d hear on the radio today. The same format existed in 1905.

JF: Most of what you play is in the Public Domain then.

MAC: Mostly it is. That only goes back 75 years.

JF: what’s the oldest thing you’ve played?

MAC: An 1896 cylinder. But it wasn’t mine. It might have been a Columbia recording.

JF: Is there anything you won't play?

MAC: I used to think that about the coon songs and the nigger songs: Stuff like "If the Man in the Moon were a Coon," "Nigger Loves his Possum." People who listen to the show understand I’m playing music from the period. Here are some more records from the period that people could go into a store and buy. I don’t try to give it a big disclaimer or explain it way or talk about the historical significance of it. That’s what they were and it’s what people listened to. Actually I find the context is not negative. They’re happy. But it’s a caricature we don’t like to see, it’s a terrible stereotype but there’s no hate in it. There are Irish, German rube, and Southern [stereotype recordings] too.

JF: Is there anything you won’t play for fidelity reasons?

What I do with those is I save them. Every 2 or 3 years I’ll do a fake show as a collector who has come on and someone else will host it. I’ll be the embodiment of every cranky, odd, eccentric collector I’ve ever met or heard of. I’ll save the noisiest and most annoying records and come on and be very serious about it. I play with that whole idea. One of the last ones I did I got in a fight and broke the records and stormed out. If I find something that’s really torn up it goes in that pile.

JF: have you heard things from that era that really blew your mind?

MAC: Sure, There’s some early country music that’s been great. There is some pre-Jazz orchestra and band records that you can hear the steps between Ragtime and Jazz. I love early blues lady singers, Bessie Smith is of the period. There are some other early Blues women who are really fantastic. Eubie Blake had a fantastic Band.  W.C. Handy was also fantastic. I also personally like early yodeling records. I have some German acoustic yodeling records. It’s not like what you think of yodeling. This is coming out of Austria in 1915.

JF: How do you put together a show playlist then?

MAC: I don’t put a tremendous amount of thought into it. Sometimes I’ll put things aside, or if I bough some new records I’ll play that. I usually do it in sets: some blues, some country, some instrumentals…I’ll do 3 or four of each. It’s only an hour show so that’s about 15 or 16 records. What’s happened in the last few years is that I’ve been asked to do appearances so I’ll go out and DJ with two horned phonographs. I enjoy doing it. I like getting people’s feedback.