Saturday, January 02, 2010

Q & A with Ben Mueller-Heaslip of W.A.T.T?!

Toronto's a great town for music, and because so much of it is awesome, inexpensive, and accessible by public transit, there's little reason why one can't get out and experience some of it if s/he wanted to. What might stand in the way of someone doing this, though, is that knowing about what's out there in any detail requires knowledge of the scene. Few people would be up for just walking into an unknown-to-them live music bar at 10pm and seeing what's what. I might have some inkling about where to see about good folk-pop act that I will enjoy, but that's because I've spent---and continue to spend---a rather lot of time keeping on top of such things. Most people can't and don't want to do that, and that's where the weeklies, blogs, and word-of-mouth comes in. Another, perhaps more appropriate source of information and discussion, is podcasts. These allow you to actually hear some of the music as it's being discussed. With that in mind, here's an introduction to one local podcast that you may not yet know about.

Ben Mueller-Heaslip is a chronicler of the city's more out-there musical adventurers. He puts together a smart, informative, entertaining, and well-produced podcast called What’s All This Then?! It's a must-listen to anyone keen on the goings-on in the local other-than-pop-rock music scene, and those interested in broadening their artistic horizons. Ben was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

Jen: You put together a podcast called What’s All This Then?! about the more innovative and eccentric---to use your words---music scene in Toronto. What's the show's raison d'être?

Ben: I believe that encouraging the idea of actively exploring culture - rather than passively consuming it - is incredibly important, and in the past few years the papers and radio have totally dropped their role as intelligent guides to what's happening artistically in Toronto. So we live in a city teeming with fantastic artists who have very little opportunity to express the ideas behind their music. The show is a really accessible way to get those ideas out, to invite people to become engaged with what's going on beneath the surface layer of bullshit nostalgia and anti-intellectualism expressed by the conventional media.

It's definitely as much about cultural and personal eccentricity as it is about musical innovation. I've always been an avid reader of anthropology and two of my all-time favourite books are Napoleon Chagnon's The Yanomamö, a study of the fierce Amazonian Yanomamö people, amongst whom the leading cause of death is "axe"; and Edith Sitwell's The English Eccentrics, which describes the impact of extreme isolation and peculiar genius on the development of personality. Those two books are my aesthetic inspiration in exploring Toronto's art scene, and it's hard to imagine anything more appropriate. Together they a embody a respect for the courage and integrity to exist in an environment that's crippling in both its open hostility and its imaginative dullness - and every artist I've interviewed for the program has had that quality.

So the program is about how extremely creative individuals find ways to exist in and interact with their cultural environment, and how those interactions form communities of ideas that push and shape our culture. Also I have a robot co-host for comic relief.

Jen: How did you come up with the name of the podcast series?

Ben: I'm a huge fan of P. G. Wodehouse, and "What's All This Then?!" is the call of the dull-minded English Bobby when Wooster is caught red-handed committing an absurd and incomprehensible crime. It's a call of moral and societal outrage, but also of resentment against the sort of awkwardly convoluted imaginations that lead people to do strange things. Because the show deals exclusively with awkwardly convoluted imaginations, it seemed appropriate.

Jen: How do you decide what/who to feature on each episode?

Ben: I started the show off by a series of interviews with people involved in the darker corners of improv, jazz, classical, and pop. And the show's just spiraled out from there. During the interviews we always end up talking about other people who'd be interesting guests. But to avoid becoming a feedback loop for a certain community within Toronto's music scene, I keep my eyes open for things I've never heard of before and make a point of checking them out. One of the things I'm working against is the tendency for music in Toronto to organize itself into insular little pockets. So I'm constantly exploring music I'm not familiar with, and I make a point of interviewing people I've never met before but seem to be doing interesting work.

Jen: Do you have favourite episodes or guests?

Ben: Some shows stand out for different reasons: my favourite guest so far has been Wavelength co-founder Duncan MacDonell (Doc Pickles) because he was just so engaging and expressed a lot of love for the smallest and most fragile things that go into making music. I didn't know him at the time and didn't expect him to be who he was, and I think that was a really beautiful interview. The interview with Friendly Rich was a stepping-stone for me because it's the one where I finally got the technical production of the show right. But my favourite episode is the epic space opera (no.10).

Jen: I did a podcast with Doc Pickles too! I remember him telling Tyler and I that he really enjoyed doing yours, and I'm pretty sure that's why he agreed to do ours.

You took some time off producing the show earlier this year. Why the break, and how come you decided to come back to it?

Ben: If you listen to podcasts you'll notice that they're split between shows that are live-recorded with little editing and shows that are really crafted by editing. Both ways of doing things can work, but because I'm dealing with a subject that's so misunderstood and potentially intimidating to a lot of people, I realized that it was really important that I craft each show to make the narrative and ideas clear - so that people hearing the music for the first time can relate to the artist what we're talking about.

But that meant producing a show with a LOT of editing! Because if you ask a musician about the technical and cultural nature of their work you tend to get a long and complex answer, and at the end of an interview I'd have to shape all those ideas into a thread that someone unfamiliar with the artist could follow. That was a lot of work and because I was learning the basics of production at the time I got overwhelmed with it. But I missed doing it, both because it's fun and because it's important. When I was interviewing Steve Ward for a recent show he asked me the same question and I answered "well, I stopped doing the show because I'm lazy and selfish, and I started again when I realized that I was being lazy and selfish."

Jen: Is there a relationship between the podcast and your other musical endeavours? Does one feed the other in any way?

Ben: In the long-term I think they do feed each other, but very indirectly. One of my other "jobs" is being the composer and bassist for the Parkdale Revolutionary Orchestra, which is the sort of cutting-edge band that I'd be covering on the show, were I not in it. And a lot of the problems that I've encountered with the band - for example the difficulty of playing genre-specific festivals; or finding complementary bands to collaborate with; or trying to widen the range of clubs we're playing in - those are problems that artists need to be talking about. But there's no forum for it if you're outside of the norms. And from the feedback I receive, I know that other artists agree that the potential of their work is dependent promoting the exchange of ideas.

Jen: Your podcasts are a great way for people unfamiliar with some of the more out there musical stuff on offer in this city to become acquainted with it. Are there other resources available to people interested in learning more?

Ben: I'm really not sure there's an answer to this one. There's not a lot of journalism about unconventional music, and what there is is so inconsistent. Carl Wilson's Zoilus is smart, thoughtful, and interested, but he only writes about unconventional music occasionally. The problem is that because the artists I'm covering on the show are unique in what they do, and so they're also a bit isolated by not having the critical mass of similar performers to work collaboratively with. And without that exchange of ideas and criticism the pressure doesn't build up to project what's going on to the public. I'm hoping that more people will recognize how important communication is, and how it leads to awareness. By being omnivorous in the types of music featured on the program I'm trying to encourage that interaction. But I'm not aware of everything going on and I'm looking for other people who are doing their own thing to get interesting music out there. Let's work together on it.

Jen: What's to come in 2010 for W.A.T.T?!

Ben: I want to make it more interactive: everyone's got an mp3 recorder or a digital video camera now, and I want people to start contributing their own material to the show. So in addition to doing the regular weekly interview or concert listing show I want people to send me audio and video of shows and I'll send it out over the feed. I can see sending out little audio and video clips of strange and beautiful music out to the world every day, and I think that'd be wonderful. The show has listeners in a lot of countries now and I love the idea of it becoming a vehicle for beaming the personality of Toronto to the world, and the more people who contribute to it the bigger that personality will be.

Jen: Thanks Ben! Good luck with everything, and happy new year. I'm excited to hear what comes next.

Ben's W.A.T.T?! podcast is available for free on the web. You can download it there, or subscribe to it through iTunes or another service using rss. Happy listening.

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