Every big market radio station touts its DJs as “the best in America” whether directly or by inference. This, of course, is impossible. The best radio DJ happens to be at a small, not-for-profit run outfit in Seattle called KEXP. I first started listening to John Richards (a.k.a. “John in the Morning”) when Bob sent me an e-mail. We’d had our own radio show in college, and couldn’t figure out why, in all of New York City, some 7 million people couldn’t get together and have at least one, ONE, great, eclectic radio station. He said, “Click on the link to kexp.org and load up the morning show. Reminds me of the stuff we used to play together in college.” [Ed note: It should come as no surprise to those who’ve read my blog that Bob and I would consider our show one of the best ever. Did you expect anything less?] I tuned in. This was 2 years ago now. On the first anniversary of Sept. 11 John picked up his mic around 9AM New York time. “The first plane just hit the World Trade Center.” He then gave a minute of silence before playing Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” At that moment I thought, this guy doesn’t just play brilliant music, he gets it. I was hooked, and forever a fan.
John is not just the best DJ in the States, he’s what a radio DJ should be: funny, astute, and plays a wicked mix of brilliant music; the stuff you never hear on commercial radio. His Morning Show runs from 6AM Seattle to 11AM, meaning when I get into work in NYC at a little before 9, John is right there. Since this blog is something I can indulge myself with [Ed note: Like writing about myself in an intro], I figured what better way than to introduce my readers to the best place to find great music. Although he was just in NYC for a week broadcasting from this great city, we weren’t able to hook up schedules. So John was gracious enough to agree to do this over e-mail. I hope you enjoy it.
JARRET MCNEILL: What is KEXP and how did you get involved with it?
JOHN RICHARDS: KEXP is a nonprofit, noncommercial, public radio station that broadcasts in the great Northwest on 90.3 and 91.7FM and to more people then any other regular radio station at www.KEXP.org. We are licensed to and work with the University of Washington and also work in cooperation with the Experience Music Project to bring music to the world that has to be heard.
JM: What role do you think it plays in todays music world?
JR: We play a big role in todays music world. We give artists a voice in a world where they may not be heard. We also play music both new and old from rock to hip-hop to electronica to beyond 24 hours a day. Its one of the few stations that plays music that it loves and allows DJ's to program their show.
JM: This is something I’m a member of, but what is the “Morning Faithful?”
JR: The people who listen to the Morning Show (regardless if its morning when they're listening be it live in another part of the world or checking the show out on the archive with the "on demand" programming we offer), the people who support the show and station by being members (contributing to the station) and are signed up and get the Morning Show Playlist every day—nearly 9,000 subscribers.
JM: Explain Loveless Records. [Ed note: Loveless is a record label that John co-founded. They unfurled Vendetta Red on the world.] Are you able to commit the kind of time you want to it, or has it been something you've had to sacrifice a bit for?
JR: I do wish I had more time with it. My partners RULE and carry me big time. We all love it but they put in more time then I can. Although they seem to be just as busy so maybe I need a better excuse.
JM: When you and Cheryl Waters are lighting up the mornings during one of your annual fund raising drives you often sound like a man possessed. It almost sounds like your religion. Can you explain it?
JR: It’s just passion. It really is. I have so much love and passion for radio that when I'm given a chance to talk about the state of radio and how sweet KEXP is I freak out. Imagine being able to get on the air and talk (or scream and yell) about why radio and music are some of the best things in the world to cherish and love...and at the same time rip commercial radio to shreds.
JM: And who is the lovely Cheryl Waters?
JR: She is one of my favorite people for many reasons. She's a wonderful DJ, she's funny and the best thing is she puts up with me. [Ed: She’s blushing. She’s really blushing.] She can take anything I dish out and keep going. If we're not careful we're going to end up on talk radio with a show together.
JM: So you see this as something of a calling for you?
JR: Yes, it must be. I look back at the steps and decisions and things I did to get here and NONE of it makes sense unless you know the outcome. Its very strange to me. I guess its a lesson in following your gut and your heart and never asking questions along the way like "how am I going to pay rent?"
JM: Give me a quick "Day in the Life of John in the Morning."
JR: 4:30AM - Wake up to one of three alarm clocks that are set.
5:00AM - Show up to the KEXP studios.
5:01AM - Make coffee.
5 to 6AM - Get the show together. Pick out music, get all the reads together, do research, see what the morning show has planned, get requests from emails sent overnight.
6 to 10AM - The most glorious 4 hours of the day. Do the show, love life.
10AM to Noon - KEXP meetings of different sorts—music meetings, planning pledge drives, planning events, sitting around talking shop.
Noon to 6PM - Work on and send Morning Show Playlist, review music, answer hundreds of emails, work on KEXP projects etc.
6PM - Go home...hopefully by 6pm.
6 to 8PM - Listen to more music at home, work on my record label Loveless Records and my A&R gig at Strummer Recordings.
8 to 9PM – Chill.
9PM – Bedtime. [Ed note: My grandmother wakes up at 5 and goes to bed at 9, too.]
JM: Obviously the internet has changed the reality of your show quite a bit. Listeners like me would never, ever, be Morning Faithful converts without it. How did the live stream at KEXP.org change things?
JR: It changed things 100%! Like you said, you and others never would have known about the show. Its amazing to do a show for people all over the world. People in London, Paris, NYC, Austin, Atlanta, L.A—a million other places—its incredible. We love that people are so excited to find a station like ours. If I were outside of Seattle I know I would have freaked out to discover KEXP!
JM: Is part of KEXP's success its location in Seattle?
JR: I think part of it can be attributed to Seattle. The city has such a great reputation for listeners. Plus there are organizations like EMP and the UW here that champion a station like ours.
JM: Can you see this type of station spreading, or are you guys the last dinosaur?
JR: Right now there are just a few of us left but its like we're getting right to the last dinosaur but that dinosaur is so kick ass that it fights of extinction and creates more and more dinosaurs that live on... and kill any chance for humans to get a foothold... stupid humans.
JM: I'm going to give you the opportunity every music fan dreams of. Give it to me, the Lists. Top 10 songs, bands, or albums of the moment, AND, your Top 10 of all time.
JR: It changes ALL the time but right now...
JOHN'S TOP 10 ALBUMS:
1. The Veils - The Runaway Found (Rough Trade)
2. Keane - Hopes and Dreams (Interscope)
3. Delays - Faded Seaside Glamour (Rough Trade)
4. The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic)
5. The Beta Band - Heroes to Zeros (Astralwerks)
6. French Kicks - The Trial of the Century (Startime)
7. Morrissey - You Are the Quarry (Attack/Sanctuary)
8. The Magnetic Fields - i (Nonesuch)
The Helio Sequence - Love and Distance (Sub Pop)
9. Hayden - Elk-Lake Serenade (Badman)
10. Gomez - Split the Difference (Hut/Virgin)
JOHN'S TOP 10 OF 2004:
1. Snow Patrol - Final Straw (Interscope)
2. Elbow - Cast of Thousands (V2)
3. Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand (Domino)
4. Aqualung - Still Life (B-Unique)
5. Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose (Interscope)
6. Sufjan Stevens - Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre)
7. Highspire - Your Everything (Clairecords)
8. The Veils - The Runaway Found (Rough Trade)
9. Unkle - Never, Never Land (Mowax/Island)
10. Skywave - Synthstatic (Blisscent/Alison)
I can't do a top ten of all time because I could never say what #1 would be. I can say it would have a lot Radiohead and Pixies in it though.
JM: Who are the Top 5 musical acts who should be banned from ever releasing a single note ever again?
JR: Its hard to judge music in that way as music is subjective and you can't get down on people for their tastes. Now that I got that PC bullshit out of the way:
1 P Diddy
2. John Mayer
3. Limp Bisquick
5. Don Henley
JM: Way to pussyfoot around that question. I agree with you, music is incredibly subjective and very personal; you’re more opinionated than that. What’s one more?
JR: I can't remember, did I say Hoobastank in my last response? Nothing called "Hoobastank" should be played. Ever.
JM: Who would you would give almost anything to see live.
JR: Afghan Whigs, Joy Division, Beatles, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra. Okay most of those bands are dead. The Whigs I've seen about a dozen times but man, Greg Dulli is pretty sweet and probably should be dead by now.
JM: Music has probably been for you what it has been for me, one of the key presences and influences in your life. Can you remember where the attachment was formed? Parents, friends, out of the ether?
JR: I hear you. It is literally the soundtrack to my life. I think it started as a private thing, the love of it. But it was formed with others who were living it like my big brother. He would send me mixed tapes with the Pixies, Pop Will Eat Itself and Bauhaus on there. Then he moved to Seattle first and sent me Mudhoney and Nirvana. He was the leader and me and my buddies were the followers. It kept us alive in a city like Spokane in East Washington.
JM: Although I adore "Wave of Mutilation," I've always been partial to "Where Is My Mind?" You?
JR: I am as well but nothing beats "Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf)" in my mind.
JM: Over the past 5 years or so you've probably listened to as much music as any possibly can. So who are some bands and albums that you think, because of the way the music business is structured, you think the public has really missed out on. For me, I'd say bands like Aqualung, Blonde Redhead, Just Jack, Aerogramme, etc., but who are yours.
JR: With the life of releases going for so long sometimes, I can say in 2003 what the public might have missed out on:
Ted Leo And The Pharmacists (Hearts Of Oak), Sun Kil Moon (Ghosts Of the Great Highway), Longwave (The Strangest Things), The Notwist (Neon Golden), Broken Social Scene (You Forgot It In People), Nada Surf (Let Go), The New Pornographers (Electric Version), The Wrens (The Meadowlands).
[Ed note: Enough of the music crap. Let’s hear about John!]
JM: Since you've established yourself as a small, yet vital, voice on the radio in todays market, where the FCC and Big Bad Corporate Radio seem to proliferate these days, how much of what you do is political as well as personal? If it is political, what's the cause?
JR: Our mission is to bring people the music and give something to the people that these organizations seem to not want to bring to them. We don't see ourselves taking a personal or political stance really; it just sort of comes naturally with what we do.
JM: Objectively, is anything good for you about a Big Business mentality becoming involved in an artistic pursuit like music?
JR: It's bound to happen, there are a ton of sayings about commercialism and creativity, of course I can't think of any of them at the moment and my coffee is wearing off, but you can't help but try to make money from the creative nature of yourself or others. In a way its good, you can make a living doing what you love and in many ways its bad for obvious reasons. I feel bad for those that didn't make a living off of it and then their music or art took off once they were dead. A lot of good that did em!
[Ed note: You’re killing me. Ask a personal question, already.]
JM: My friends call me the Music Nazi. If we are road tripping somewhere, I always have a mix on hand, or my iPod ready. The moment someone pops something into the stereo I sit there fidgeting thinking, How long before I can turn this crap off and get the car back to some good music. How are you on a road trip?
JR: I review music on road trips. I pile all the demos and things I have to review and hit the road. Its great and I've discovered some wonderful things listening to the unknown on the road.
[Ed note: Still about music.]
JM: What were you like in high school and college?
JR: I was a mess in High School the first few years. I dropped out my Freshman year for no other reason then I just stopped wanting to go there. That was pretty stupid so I went back and caught up and graduated on time and made a lot of friends along the way. I was one of those guys that all different groups could get along with and that always had the "cool music" on him. I was the guy who told everyone about Janes [Addiction] and Love and Lockets before "Been Caught Stealin" and "So Alive" came out. Always good to know someone like that! College was 2 years in Eastern Washington then getting the hell out of there and to Seattle where college became this radio station.
JM: What are some of your favorite movies?
JR: Lost is Translation, American Splendor, and Fahrenheit 9/11 (I haven't seen it yet but I'm guessing it will be). [Ed note: Damn skippy.]
JM: Are you voting in the next election? Any preferences? (That question does not denote any formal KEXP opinion.)
JR: As a DJ at a non profit public station I can't say. As a guy being asked by another guy I would say having Bush in office 4 more years could be the worst thing to happen to this country in maybe its entire history.
JM: When you got married, if it was indeed a formal wedding, what was "the dance" to? How did the song become so important to you and your wife?
JR: I think a lot of people have that "if we got married this would be our song..." kind of conversation and she had a song from years ago. I think men don't really have songs and if they do, most likely they wouldn't work at a wedding... anyway, so we're in Vegas and I happen to have the ring on me when the song she mentioned, Etta James' "At Last" comes on the little clock radio. It was 1:10 in the morning and I was half drunk but it was a sign. I asked her on the spot. At our wedding, it was so perfect and ¾ through the song her Dad broke into the dance and they finished. It was perfect. He passed away a few years later so that song has even more meaning to us now.
[Ed note: It’s getting kind of dusty in here. There’s water, or something, in my eye. That was really beautiful.]
JM: Interviewing someone over the internet is a bit awkward for me, though its fitting considering I was introduced to you over it. Since we can't get a true back-and-forth going, ask yourself a question that you think I've dropped the ball on.
JR: Okay. JM: John, I'm starting to think you don't really exist because no one sees you in person? Are you an evil robot?
Yes, yes I am an evil robot.
JM: If you are an evil robot, then why are you not more powerful? Are you made of steel and not titanium? What gives?
JR: I'm one of those early models that sticks up for humans and ends up being crushed by the titanium robots for sticking up for what they refer to as "stupid humans". I think I'm made of paper and held together with tape.
[Ed note: What are you waiting for? Head over to KEXP for some bitchin' music. Now, fools! P.S. I hope you guys liked this little feature on the blog. Stay tuned for another one with someone else a bit below the radar in the next 6 weeks or so. Peace.]