Monday, September 21, 2020

Dig Up The Roots

It was a decade ago when I first encountered Dig Up The Roots. It was a radio show on 90.3 KFAI which ran from 2004 to 2011. The name or the program was very memorable, and I wrote it in a magazine article comparing a few Triple A discovery programs of that era. (At the moment I can't remember who I wrote that for.) As the tin says "The name references research and discovery. Finding the roots of roots music and the process that leads to something unexpected and wonderful. The show jumped around in the nether regions of recorded audio history – roots music."  

My mind wandered back to the program recently. I was very pleased to find both playlists and audio online, so could experience it the same way I had over a decade ago. I reached out to Greg Carr, it's host and he was not just open to an interview but wrote thought out responses to my questions complete with source material and links. For that reason I've opted to post it unedited, with only slight reformatting. I have done a lot of interviews over the years but Greg quite literally wrote this one for me!

1. Can you tell me how you got your show Dig Up The Roots on KFAI?

Programs on KFAI are selected by a programming committee who listen to the programs submitted, and then choose which one they feel fits the available time slot best. I had developed the proposal for this program years before while working at a LITE-Country radio station, hoping to be able to get away from the awful music we had to play. Years later I reworked the idea and presented it to KFAI. They liked it and put it on the air in 2004. An overall theme of the show was to dig up the roots of the music and performers featured, in order to try and give the music played more of a context: historically, chronologically, artistically. My Dig Up the Roots blog has a small portion, 26, of these shows posted online. I have the majority of these shows recorded but not available online yet.

2.  You have posted playlists all the way back to 2004. How do you feel the program changed over it's full run from 2004 – 201? 

I’d like to think it became more focused and tighter in the production, and better informed in presenting the subject matter. Sadly, I never got any better at pronouncing names. Playing music for people is fun, at least it should be. The priority was always to create something that would be enjoyable and informative to listen to. Something that people would look forward to hearing every week, and that I looked forward to doing.

3. I get the impression from recordings of Dig Up The Roots, that this was not your first show. Can you tell me when and where your first radio show was?

 My first radio show was in college on KGLT, at Montana State U in Bozeman. I began volunteering there in 1982 and had an overnight show from 1983 through 1984 called Part of the New America.
I began volunteering at KFAI in Minneapolis in the spring of 1985 and am still somewhat involved, although I have no interest in doing a weekly show at this time. I have DJ’d and hosted three shows; served several terms on the Board of Directors; and have been involved with training, programming and digital editing / production. The three shows I had were:

  • Technological Retreat was an overnight experimental show from 1985 – 1989
  • Musica Mundana was an International music show that I co-hosted from 1990 – 1994
  • Dig Up the Roots was on from 2004 – 2011

 4. The playlists of Dig Up The Roots ranges from experimental jazz to to Brazilian roots music to archival folk music recordings. How much of this is your personal taste, and how much is the educational thematics of the program?

100% of both. At KFAI, both then and now, the volunteer programmers have complete control over the content of their programs. KFAI also has a phenomenally diverse music library and schedule; never being type-casted into any particular format, style or language. This gave me continual exposure to many styles of music I never would have heard. I enjoy music. I like listening to it. Finding out the where’s and the why’s and how’s and the who’s of music. I enjoyed talking about and sharing trivia regarding the music playing. “Useless facts from the world of wax.”. Something brief and entertaining that helps to place it into a larger context and can enhance the experience of discovery. It was also an enjoyable way of indulging my inner archivist.

5.Were there artists you encountered through the program that have still stuck with you?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t even know where or how to begin making a list. Music is experiential and only works when you listen to it, and the more you listen, the more rabbit holes you find that lead you elsewhere. For example:

  • Following the name of a session musician into unknown territory
  • Discovering the significance of a record label or recording studio
  • Focusing on one calendar year around the world
  • An unknown warm-up band or concert that leaves one sonically cleansed

This question fits well with your second question regarding the changes in the program over its tenure. While researching and putting together individual programs, I was able to hear and see a lot of music I had never heard before. On occasion I would discover a performer or a style that would just stop me in my tracks. TARRAB music from Zanzibar and the East African diaspora, for example. A style of music, a place, and lifestyles I have absolutely no connection with, yet this music makes my soul sing and feel deeply fulfilled. Go figure.

6. Do you feel you program was at all influenced by other contemporary AAA exploratory radio programs like American Routes on NPR, or Radio Heartland on 91.1 KNOW?

No, not really. I became aware of American Routes after I had begun Dig Up the Roots, and Radio Heartland didn’t exist then. American Routes has all those amazing interviews and live performances available to them through NPRs resources, which is not something I had, or could do really. I also wanted to play music from all over the world

7. I know you had another program Technological Retreat. It's tenure overlapped with Dig Up The Roots. What can you tell me about that unusual archival project?

 Actually, Technological Retreat and Dig Up the Roots were done in different centuries! Technological Retreat aired between 1985 – 1989, was a five-hour, over-night program that was on Sunday night – Monday morning from 1am – 6am.  This archival project is focusing on the sound collage portions of the show. For a much more detailed description of these, go to question 11. I have 100+ cassette tape recordings from this show, and recently spent a winter digitizing them all. As of this writing, I have posted 15, one-hour podcasts that highlight, in chronological order, these mixes. The following quote is from the online, one-sheet page for my CD that INNOVA Records (the recording label for The American Composers Forum) released in 2005. 

“Long before mash-up, Carr worked multiple turntables, tape loops, field recordings, and sundry effects into “surreal radio minced with audio minglings and mutant responses…” mixed live into free-form sound collage”
8. How did you get written up in The Mississippi Rag?

Will Shapiro wrote a column called Jazz in the Heartland, for The Mississippi Rag, a regularly published paper / magazine about jazz. He was a listener to the show, and he, like you, sent me an email asking for an interview. The show he profiled was an audio trip exploring the Mississippi River that coincided with a number of large functioning river boats stopping in St Paul during late June of 2004.

9. What can you tell me about your Frames and Grooves project? It seems to take your audio work to event spaces.

This is a collaborative project I do with my wife, who is the Frames part, where I am the Grooves part. “Thematic Video and Sound presentations – Wallpaper of the Digital Age”. A good example of this was a corporate party we did with a “Vintage Hawaiian” theme. She performs a changing live-mix video background, assembled from a large amount of public domain footage as well as still images to create what she refers to as digital wallpaper. Nice to look at but not what you put all of your attention into. While she does this, I play music. For a several year period we did this monthly for a reoccurring, live puppet, kid’s show called “Ukulele Alley” where the star of the show was a Ukulele puppet named Luke. There would be live musical guests, audience sing-alongs, bad jokes, funny dialog, old cartoons and records. I described it as a cross between Hee-Haw and Sesame Street. My wife described it as more of a cross between Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Prairie Home Companion.

10. I also see that you digitize archival audio formats as Audio Archeology. Tell me about how you got into "dead media".

I’ve always been a collector / archivist, and have a wide range of interests. Growing up, I listened to my parent’s records and watched old black & white movies on TV. We had a car with an 8-track player, and I once got a Sear’s cassette recorder for Christmas in grade school. During Jr High, I proudly pushed the AV cart around from room-to-room, and then what was even more fun, operated the equipment! This included a film strip projector and a record player-- the mid-20th century multi-media system. I got to play the record and advance the film strip when the record went BOOOP. I had been trained to edit and use Reel to Reel tape at KGLT and KFAI and always found them very fun to experiment with, and still have mountains of cassette tapes. I began collecting 78 RPM records in the early 1990s when I bought an old turntable with the motivation of making a Dreamachine. If you don’t know about Brion Gysin and The Dreamachine, well… you should look them up! Anyway, dead media. When home computers with digital media capabilities came out in the mid to late 1990’s, I realized, with the help of a good friend, that I wanted to learn how to do this and got a degree in Multi Media and Web Design. I’ve been working with digital media ever since. Audio restoration and remastering are what I enjoy doing the most.

I have always been interested in the more unique, weird things that our culture produces and by-passes. I have many recordings of music and that I know are not commercially viable and would have no chance of being remastered and bought in a store. So, I wanted to be able to do that myself. Being able to do this and have a radio show allowed me to share a lot of material with the listeners, material that most people will never have personnel access to. 

Audio Archeology is the name of the business / service I do transferring and restoring other people’s recordings. Many of the projects were recordings of family members. Did you know there were phono – recording booths, just like photo booths, in many bus stations, department stores and vacation destinations? You would sing a song, or say hello or goodbye, and then get a bad sounding waxy cardboard record. Now, these sit around with the lost sounds of dead relatives visiting the New York World’s Fair, or in a bus station in Chicago on the way to being deployed in Korea, or singing Happy Birthday to someone far away. Like old photo albums gathering dust in a forgotten drawer, these recordings sit silently until they are heard again. There is so much old, strange and wondrous material trapped in old formats.

11. What can you tell me about your sound collages and involvement with the Musical Transportation Spree cassettes. [LINK]

I know that I didn’t invent the concept of sound collage, playing more than one thing at a time, creating a layered sound, but I certainly went to town with it. I now believe that I developed my ideas through the radio DJ practice of cueing up the next record. This process involves cueing up the next record while playing a track and hearing the brief overlap of the two tracks. An essential skill for a DJ. Sometimes this overlap would sound great or be so weird that it would catch my attention. The other influence was the world itself. The following is from the liner notes of the CD that INNOVA Records released in 2005:

“That one sound. All the sounds. All those sounds at once coming and going and coming back in different ways than they came in. Or something like that. Walk down the street talking to someone and a plane goes overhead as traffic goes by and there’s different music and talking coming out of different places all at the same moment as a dog barks and a plane goes overhead. This is what the world sounded like to me, that’s what I was trying to recreate with the radio studio every week, my response to the continual mix of sounds that was the world in the mid 1980’s. One sound wasn’t enough because there was always more going on. I called them sound collage. Material taken from record and tape collections, field and bridge and building and original recordings. Like any collage, the pieces are the medium for creating a new work. I used preexisting recordings as the raw material for creating my own sound collages.

I had a Tascam Porta 1 which was a 4 Track, DBX quality, 10 – C battery powered portable tape recorder. I would take this everywhere and record as many of the sounds of the city as I could. Fill up one track, flip the tape and fill that. Do that twice more or variations. Bring these tapes into the radio station every week and play them as sound beds. So many times, the random combination of sounds would be incredible. 4 Track and a few small audio effect boxes and some cables. I’d plug my stuff into the studio patch bay and rewire the studio for a few hours every week. There is part of a magazine article about the sculptor Giacometti still pasted on my digital delay: “His best work he believes, is done after hours and hours of work, when he is so tired that his intelligence has lost control.” Who was up and listening to the radio at 2:30 in the freaking morning on a Sunday night? Normal people were sleeping because they had to go to work in the morning. Who was up? People getting out of bars, artists working in unheated studios, freaks, third-shifters, cab drivers, students, addicts and alcoholics; hospital, prison and warehouse workers among others. A perfect audience for presenting something out of the ordinary to.

It was fun. It was the most consistent and sustained fun I’ve ever had. I would mix until I was too tired to concentrate, then just play one piece of music at a time, like a regular radio show. It would also take some time to unplug and rewire the station back to its normal state. Besides, who wants to wake up to the sounds of my brain spilling out? Not the people who were waking up between 5:00AM & 6:00 AM on Monday. There were two very distinct audiences for the show, and I tried to cater to and respect both. Radio used to be a time specific medium.They could be moments or last for an hour or more. The mixes were not dance or sample-based mixes, more like soundtracks or Mood Music on the edge.”

The Musical Transportation Spree was a radio show my friend Jerry Modjeski produced. He was also a charter member of the group of late-night weird DJ’s at KFAI and collaborated with the Little City in Space series. My involvement with Jerry’s projects were nearly always to work the mixing board – the controls of the radio station. He would have very elaborately scripted shows with guests, multiple sketches, interviews, musical segments, sound effects etc. He operates very differently than I do and we always have gotten along. I will occasionally digitize and post media files for him.

12. Any future radio plans you want to tell me about?

No new radio ideas now. I would like to finish going through my old ideas first. There is still enough material left from the Technological Retreat tapes for at least ten more, one-hour podcasts, and I would like to get that project completed. I’m biased, but even after thirty plus years and critically listening and editing these recordings, I still think they sound good and surprisingly contemporary.

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