I’m sometimes more impressed with music curators than I am with music-makers themselves. I’m referring to those semi-selfless, only partially ego-driven individuals who make it their life’s work to bring the best in neglected sounds and buried musical gems to the people. Having spent a good portion of my own life trying to be one of those curators, of course I’d say that. I have my own curators as well that I rely on to stay with-it in the NOW scene – and the most impressive one this past year by a mile has been ERIKA ELIZABETH, a college radio DJ on Amherst, MA’s WMUA. She hosts a weekly Tuesday night show called “EXPRESSWAY TO YR SKULL”, and I won’t miss a week of it lest I also miss several important new musical discoveries.
Erika, whom I discovered via a variety of chance links on the internet, is one of those people who just flat-out knows more than you and I do. My kind of person. Her record collection, and her ability to wield it like a weapon of knowledge and truth on-air, is phenomenal – and it’s all employed at a perfect intersection of deep-underground pop; 70s-80s British DIY and postpunk; 90s shoegaze and twee (stuff from lost 45s and cassettes that no one’s heard for two decades, I’m serious); garage punk; and a lot of noisy girl-helmed bands that had been lost in a patriarchal fog of several decades of disregard.
I had this notion for a few weeks of starting a print fanzine called The Hedonist Jive, and I asked Erika if she’d wanna do an email interview for it, as a means of getting a pulse on what it’s like in 2012 to do a traditional, button-pushing two-hour college radio program in an age of Internet insta-mixes, Spotify and the like. When my own sanity prevailed and I decided to stay digital, Erika was still kind enough to agree to the interview. We talked via type about her “journey”, her past, her present, her records and her fantastic radio show – among other things. Take a gander here, and definitely head over to her web site and start downloading a few of those shows. I assure you, you’ll find 3 or 4 things every week that’ll knock your shoes off your ass.
Hedonist Jive: Let's start with some basics about the show you're doing on WMUA. How long have you been doing it; is it your first stint in college radio or have you done more; and how has the show changed or morphed in the years since you started it?
Erika Elizabeth: WMUA has been my first/only stint in college radio. I started doing a show there in the winter of 2005 & it's definitely morphed quite a few times since then. Initially, I did a show all by myself, but a few semesters later, I met a new DJ-in-training named Sam (he was wearing a Black Flag shirt) & we hit it off right away, so I asked him to co-DJ a show with me. That incarnation was called Awkward Noise - it was an interesting balance between my love for lo-fi indie pop/fuzzy garage rock & Sam's love of the Melvins/the '80s SST Records catalog. We did that for around a year, but then Sam left to study abroad in Argentina (and never came back to Western Mass, which was a little heartbreaking), so I went back to doing the show solo for a few months before teaming up with my friend Eric, who had been doing his own show at the station. That's when the show became Expressway To Yr Skull & we kept that up for another year, until Eric moved to Providence, Rhode Island. I decided to keep the name after he left & the show has been in its current form (back to me doing it solo, minus the occasional guest) since 2008 or so.
Hedonist Jive: Where do your musical interests start and end; in other words, I've heard you play a bunch of 70s UK DIY of the "Messthetics" ilk; 60s girl group garage and stretched-out noisy pop from all eras. Do you have a set of "anchor" bands that would help us understand where your tastes lie & what your show seeks to expose?
Erika Elizabeth: Those are definitely three genres that I lean on fairly heavily, in addition to the minimal/angular '70s post-punk, Nuggets-style garage rock, C86/C86-worshipping bands, jangle pop in the Flying Nun Records school, French ye-ye, fuzzed-out shoegaze, scrappy power-pop & lo-fi indie rock that I love. In terms of "anchor" bands, it gets a little more complicated. I try not to play the same bands too often on the show (to the point where if I noticed that I played a certain band a few months back, I'll probably hold off on playing them again for at least another couple of months), but if you look through my playlists, there's definitely some staples that I like to revisit - The Fall, The Wipers, Yo La Tengo, The Clean, Husker Du, Beat Happening, The Monks, My Bloody Valentine, to name just a few.
Hedonist Jive: You've obviously got a pretty deep affection for lost and/or unheralded pop and noise from the 1990s, with a perceived (mine) emphasis on shoegaze, C-86 freaks and general independent 45s that most folks have never heard. Is this when you "came of age" musically, and how did your journey into these sounds start?
Erika Elizabeth: I'm definitely a child of the '90s. When I first started listening to music with any sort of seriousness, I was probably around ten or eleven, which would have been in 1995 or so. I was listening to the generic "alternative rock" radio station in Houston a lot, but the bands that I ultimately gravitated toward tended to be on the weirder end of the spectrum & luckily, the mid-'90s were a pretty amazing time when it came to being able to hear challenging, interesting music on mainstream alternative rock radio - I remember talking to my friend my friend Charlie, who is the same age as me, about our shared musical upbringing & the point we both used to illustrate how weird & wonderful the '90s were for budding music geeks like us was that Shudder To Think had a hit single a year before either of us were in junior high. In particular, there was a show that would air really late on Sunday nights called Lunar Rotations & it was basically devoted to playing things that you would rarely, if ever, hear in regular rotation at the station - that's how I was introduced to things like Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Sebadoh, Helium, etc. So you could say that was my gateway drug. Pretty soon, I stumbled on the local college radio station (all love in the world to KTRU at Rice University) while twisting the dial at random & you could say that it was all over after that. I would stay up until 4am with a stack of blank cassettes, taping as many shows as I could & transcribing the set lists into a series of notebooks. Pretty much every spare waking hour I had was spent listening to KTRU - on my Walkman, on the junky little stereo in my bedroom, in my car once I got my driver's license... my life's goal for years was basically to be a KTRU DJ. My current tastes have definitely been influenced in a major way by what was in heavy rotation on KTRU in the mid-to-late '90s - obscure pop, shoegaze, post-punk.
Hedonist Jive: When did you leave Houston for Amherst, and why?
Erika Elizabeth: I moved to Northampton, MA in the summer of 2005. I had lived in Houston for my whole life at that point (twenty years) & was feeling really unhappy with the city, feeling like I had accomplished as much as I was ever going to there. Houston has a lot of great things going for it, but it's also a huge, sprawling mess of a city, which has a way of making you feel very isolated from other people, even when you're a part of a relatively small underground/DIY community like I had been. Someone put out a compilation of Houston bands not long before I left called I Hate It Here, I Never Want To Leave, which as a phrase is really a perfect encapsulation of life in Houston. You operate for a while under the mentality that the best thing you can do is stick around in this weird, fucked up city & try to do things to make it more tolerable - in my case, I booked shows for touring bands who might not have ever wanted to step foot in Houston & put out records for my friends in local bands who were kind of shut out by the Austin-centric view of the Texas music community - instead of bailing out for someplace more "established". But eventually, it got to the point where I was really depressed & I knew I needed to uproot myself to make a change, but I really had no idea where I wanted to go, so deciding on Western Mass after some encouragement from a few friends I knew there was pretty spontaneous. Despite being a relatively small town, Northampton had the benefits of living in a city (independent record stores, a strong DIY community, good vegan restaurants) without the things I had grown to hate about living in Houston. It also felt like less of a cop-out to me than just moving to Austin or Brooklyn or something, because I definitely wanted to be someplace where I could still feel like I was making a needed contribution to the local scene. I figured if I was still miserable after being there for a few years, I could always move someplace else, but I've been here for seven years now & it seems to be working out.
Hedonist Jive: Besides your Tuesday night radio programme, what else defines Erika Elizabeth's life? Work, school, other music-related activities?
Erika Elizabeth: In terms of defining my life, my other music-related activities are definitely the most important to me. I work at an incredible record store in Amherst (shout out to Mystery Train Records), I book shows & serve on the board at a local non-profit DIY space (shout out to Flywheel Arts Collective) & I play bass in a couple of bands. In terms of what seems to take up most of my non-radio time, I have two other part-time jobs (at a vintage clothing store & a library) & I'm a few months shy of finishing grad school for my masters degree in library science. Also, sometimes I sleep.
Hedonist Jive: How do you gather material to play on your show, given how deep and obscure most of what you play is? Are you a fanatical music accumulator, and are you partial to vinyl or digital at this point?
Erika Elizabeth: Vinyl all the way - working at a record store helps in that department. My record collection is very close to taking over my bedroom & no matter how many times I try to thin it out, it just keeps regenerating. I've gotten more comfortable with tracking things down digitally, though - there's a handful of blogs that I follow that post lots of great rare singles or tracks from new bands, so I make a point of keeping tabs on that stuff & if it's something that turns out to be up my alley, I try to get my hands on it in a physical format (money permitting). When I'm trying to pull together material for a show, my methods can be pretty diverse. I'll flip through my records, obviously, but I'll also comb through things I've downloaded from blogs recently, I'll dig out some of my old music zines & get ideas from the review sections (the copies of the Big Takeover that I bought in high school have been particularly good for this), I'll remember something that someone put on a mixtape for me a few years ago & I actually still have notebooks of handwritten playlists that I copied down while listening to KTRU as a teenager, which I reference sometimes for ideas for my show now... basically, yeah, I'm totally a fanatical music accumulator (and retainer of arcane music knowledge).
Hedonist Jive: Is most of what you play from your collection or the station's?
Erika Elizabeth: I'd say that 95% of it is mine, but the station's collection has been really important, too. When I first got involved at WMUA, I spent hours digging through the stacks, pulling out copies of albums I had tried to track down for years or things that I was curious about & I've gotten ahold of a lot of those albums for my own collection now. I was also music director at the station for a year, so I got to know the library well (probably too well) as a result of that. The station's collection does have two major drawbacks, though - it's limited to what labels send us as promos (which excludes a lot of smaller/more obscure labels) & it's taken a few hits over the years by less than insightful weeding decisions (sometimes I don't want to even think about all of the great discarded records with WMUA scrawled on the cover that turn up at the record store). But really, doing a radio show helps me rationalize buying so many records, which may or may not be a good thing.
Hedonist Jive: WMUA for years has been known as one of the US's best stations for uprooting weird and new music. I've never been to Western Mass but even I'd heard of its greatness back in the 1980s. How did the station earn this reputation and how does your show fit into its lineage?
Erika Elizabeth: I wish I knew more about WMUA's history & its role in the American underground music community throughout the years. Honestly, when I moved to Western Mass, I knew nothing about WMUA, but sought it out specifically because I had wanted to be involved in college radio so badly, but didn't stick around in Houston long enough to do it at KTRU. Actually, the reason I wound up going to UMass had less to do with academics & more to do with the fact that they had the most prominent college radio station in the area. I think in general, Western Mass has always been a fertile ground for people doing creative things in the DIY scene - Dinosaur Jr. & Sebadoh started out here, Byron Coley & Thurston Moore run Ecstatic Yod/Ecstatic Peace here, etc. - so I think WMUA has been able to attract some really amazing DJs who have been a part of that scene. When I first started doing a show there, things had definitely become less focused on "underground rock" (broadly speaking) & a lot of student DJs were coming in looking to play fairly mainstream music (most of them were communications majors who you could tell just wanted to get their feet in the doors at commercial radio stations), so I felt a little out of place doing a show that was so unapologetically clinging to college radio from the Bill Clinton era. But the longer I did the show, I was able to meet some former WMUA DJs still in the area who did shows in the late '80s/early '90s who have told me how much my show reminds them of WMUA "back in the day", which was a really high compliment & made me feel a lot better about my show's place in the greater WMUA lineage.
Hedonist Jive: OK, so I haven't done a college radio show myself since 1991, when CDs were not even part of my repertoire yet. Please walk those of us who don't understand how it works these days how your college radio set-up works. Are you running turntables, CD player, cassette player and a laptop? Does a "cart machine" exist anymore for playing station promos? How do you transition, say, from playing a vinyl 45 to playing an mp3 from Bandcamp?
Erika Elizabeth: Honestly, I'm a fairly recent convert to using computer-based resources during my show. I used to rely strictly on LPs, CDs & the occasional cassette, but it got to the point where I was coming across a lot of material in a digital format that I wanted to play on the show - bands sending me mp3 files, stumbling across demos on Bandcamp pages, finding digital conversions of super-out-of-print records, etc. So I had to stop being such a Luddite. I do a lot of transitioning between all of those formats in any given show - I'll be playing a 7" on one of the station's turntables, then cue up something in a CD player, then maybe play an mp3 from my laptop. Luckily, we have enough channels on our sound board that it's relatively easy to do that. We don't have the fabled "cart machine" at the station anymore; it's all digital now. All of the PSAs & station IDs are stored in mp3 format on the computer in the studio, so all I have to do is click a few buttons to cue something up.
Hedonist Jive: What do you say to folks who see traditional linear radio as anachronistic, in an age of programmed playlists (a la 8Tracks), podcasts and 1-click downloadable mixes?
Erika Elizabeth: I think linear radio can exist side-by-side with podcasts & digital playlists - I definitely find out about a lot of music through those formats, even though I'm a hardcore college/non-commercial radio supporter. Personally, I think that radio has a human element that just can't be replicated in a downloadable mix hosted on someone's blog. When I started getting really deeply into college radio, there were certain DJs who I would go out of my way to catch on the air because I felt a connection to them based on their shows & part of that was the feeling of spontaneity you get from a really good radio show. Online playlists are so rigid & you're not going to have a DJ blow your mind when they decide at the last-minute to throw on some single that you become obsessed with. The pressure of being in a tiny basement studio surrounded by stacks of records, trying to decide what to play next based on what record you have playing on the turntable at the moment - you just can't replicate that when you're dragging mp3 files into a digital mix.
Hedonist Jive: With the guarantee that this number will easily quintuple after publication of this interview, do you know how many people download the show every week? How does this compare to your number of real-time listeners? And would you still be doing the show if it couldn't be heard by people outside of Amherst?
Erika Elizabeth: I wish I knew! The way I have the show sound files embedded in my blog, I think they get "downloaded" any time someone opens the webpage, so it's hard to tell how many people have actually downloaded or streamed the shows for the purposes of listening to them. Based on feedback I've gotten from people via email, the number of people following the blog & my own completely unscientific guesses, I'd say there's maybe fifteen or twenty people who regularly download the shows every week. Real-time listener counts are sort of unpredictable, too - I have the ability to see how many people are listening to WMUA online while I'm actually doing the show & that number usually hovers somewhere between two to eight people. I'd like to believe that there's more people than that who are listening in their cars or on actual radios in their homes - I know one of the local liquor stores in Amherst tunes in every week & plays the show in the store! They're single-handedly responsible for all of those requests for the Kinks & Devo that show up on my playlists. I really enjoy getting to share the shows with people outside of Western Mass, though & it definitely motivates me to keep doing the show, even if it doesn't seem like anyone is tuned in when the show is live on the air.
Hedonist Jive: You're always asking for requests on your show, but how do you deal with "bad" requests? I was college DJ-ing in an era when speed metal was ascendant, and got more requests for Anthrax and Megadeth than anything else. It was usually, "Yep, I'll see what I can do", and then of course never play it.
Erika Elizabeth: I get plenty of "bad requests" & I'm a little embarrassed to say that I resort to the same response you just mentioned. I do end up playing certain things that people request that I'm not super into, but that I can at least tolerate - the Dead Kennedys don't really fit into what I usually play on the show, but I appreciated that someone was both 1) listening & 2) cared enough to call me to request them, so I threw them on a few weeks ago for a regular listener. If it's something really unsuitable (like the call I got for My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult - really?), I'm just going to "forget" to play it.
Hedonist Jive: Finally, please provide a snapshot of what you're listening to now, particularly new bands/artists and or things you've recently discovered, as a means of illustrating what all your soon-to-be-new listeners can expect each week.
Erika Elizabeth: Yikes, let's see. Lots of recent '80s post-punk reissues at the moment, actually - the reissue of Tronics' Love Backed By Force LP on What's Your Rupture?, the Oh-OK anthology that Happy Happy Birthday to Me just put out on vinyl & the Trypes collection that Acute Records just released, for starters. As far as things that are actually new go, there's this band called the Maxines who are from Olympia & put out a really great single on K Records not too long ago - their guitarist was in some of my absolute favorite Houston bands back in the storied '90s/early '00s (Junior Varsity & the Ka-Nives) & it totally picks up from that lineage of wild, fun-as-hell girl group-influenced garage rock. Other newer things getting love from my turntable lately - Sourpatch's Stagger & Fade LP, the Grass Widow/Nature split 7" & Brute Heart 7" that M'Lady's Records recently put out, the new LP (All Day, Alright) that my local friends Bunny's A Swine released not too long ago & this new album by an Italian shoegaze band called Sea Dweller.