Sunday, August 20, 2006

Interview: Bill Childs (Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child)

One of my main purposes in applying for the show was to have it be an adventure with Ella... It's nice that it's taken off as it seems to have, but my goal was, and remains, to have fun with Ella.

Bill Childs' first words to me (electronically speaking) were, "I think you may be me." That comment was based on our similar musical tastes (across all ranges of music), but we soon found out that our paths, while never actually crossing, did have some eerie echoes (time spent in Minnesota and Texas... playing the violin). It should be noted that Bill and I have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

Bill's radio show/podcast Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child is a great way to hear songs from the artists we talk about here. (And then some -- if the number of artists referred to the other person could be viewed like the trade deficit, Bill is definitely the United States and I'm the rest of the world.) So I thought he'd make a great subject for our first non-musician interview here. Thanks to Bill for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.

When exactly is your anniversary?
8/13. The station went on the air on 8/7. Incidentally, the very first thing we did on the very first show was a mistake; I hit play on the wrong CD player and played a Laurie Berkner song instead of TMBG's "Dr. Worm."

How long have you been interested in kids and family music?
Ella's birth in 1999 was certainly the main thing that prodded us to find good kids' music. I remember reading some reviews of Dan Zanes's first album and buying it from Amazon. In the "other CDs you might like" category, Amazon pointed us to Justin Roberts, so we bought his first album too. (It helped that I saw and liked Justin's prior band, Pimentos for Gus, a bunch at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis.)

Over the next few years, we eventually got a bunch of other stuff (Schoolhouse Rock, Joe McDermott, Lucas Miller, various compilations, Laurie Berkner, etc.), and started seeing some of the artists play at Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington, Virginia (where we lived at the time). And we've been They Might Be Giants fans since pretty near their start in the '80s, but I don't really think of them as "kids and family music," even today.

There was little "kids' music" in my house growing up. We listened to the Tulsa, Oklahoma NPR station a lot, so I heard mostly classical music (plus Prairie Home Companion starting sometime in the late '70s, perhaps making the move to Minnesota in the '80s somewhat easier). We had a great Time-Life jazz series. And of course there was Sesame Street and Electric Company and such on the TV. But mostly it was classical, both listening to and playing (I play violin).

In around 1985, my brother sent me a tape of the Violent Femmes and Icicle Works from college, and a friend gave me a tape with the Replacements' Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. Both were eye-opening (well, not so much Icicle Works).

How did you get your own radio show? (Did you have any prior radio experience?)
Not long after we moved here in 2004, I saw a flyer for a community radio station, Valley Free Radio that was aiming to launch in 2005. It looked like a fun way to meet some people in the community, do something very different from my day job (law professor), and do something special with Ella. So I filled out a show application, pitching both the kids' music show and a more general indie rock show.

When the station launched (a year ago now), there were more slots than there were active applications, so it wasn't through any magic that we got a slot for the kids' show. We did, however, start out with the rather brutal timeslot of 6 to 8 on Saturday mornings. Happily, the 8 to 10 slot opened up and we moved there, hopefully to stay.

I had a show for several years while in college at Macalester in St. Paul -- WMCN, 91.7 FM, 10 Blazing Watts of Power! -- playing local and indie stuff. I've been really interested in decent radio for a long time too, starting with KJJO, one of the first commercial "modern rock" stations (in Minneapolis). That interest grew a lot more with Rev-105, an astonishingly good commercial station (also in Minneapolis), that was bought out by Disney and changed to a metal station in the late '90s. (Thanks, Disney! Hugs!) [Rev-105 is the single best radio station I've ever known. I can't describe how great it was to listen to in its heyday. It was a college radio station with commercial radio station discipline and college radio ad sales, which is to say, very little. Which probably explains why it got bought out. But I was long gone by then. -- Ed.]

Some of the folks involved with Rev-105, after bopping around Twin Cities radio for several years, then helped found the amazing public radio station The Current. I also enjoy, a formerly-terrestrial station that is now internet-only and listener-supported; KEXP out of Seattle; and Radio K, the University of Minnesota's radio station. Our local AAA station is substantially better than average.

And while not radio, a friend and I owned a record store, Tremendous Imposition Records, in Minneapolis back in the early '90s. That made me realize how fun it can be to introduce people to new music. For instance, we bought direct from Mordam Records, which distributed a lot of west-coast punk labels. That meant we could sell Lookout! Records CDs for $10, less than most anyone in the Cities -- and Lookout! at the time had Green Day. We actually had Green Day in-store for what they claimed was the first time they'd ever played acoustically in front of people. They were good, even with the drumming being the wastebasket turned upside-down, and we sold a lot of their CDs. And we sponsored local shows on both KJJO and the University of Minnesota's station.

Did you plan Ella's appearances from the beginning?
Oh, yes, certainly. One of my main purposes in applying for the show was to have it be an adventure with Ella (and, if he wishes as he gets older, with Liam). And it was important to me to have a kid involved in listening, choosing, and talking about the music. It's nice that it's taken off as it seems to have, but my goal was, and remains, to have fun with Ella.

What's the most enjoyable part of doing the show?
Most of the time, it's spending time with Ella. I also love having artists on the show -- the guest DJ sets are a lot of fun for me in particular, and the in-studio performances are great too. And there is certainly something to be said for getting to hear a ton of great new music. I've been surprised (nicely) at getting to know some of the artists well too, both via e-mail and by talking in-person.

What's the least?
Some Saturdays I don't want to wake up.
Some CDs I don't want to listen to.
Sometimes Ella's in a mood. Sometimes I'm in a mood.

The station has its own challenges, as most progressive community groups do. I wholeheartedly support the goals of the station, but it has gone through substantial growing pains and some infighting and power grabs. Things seem to be settling down reasonably well in that regard, and most people seem to be focusing on the task of actually running a radio station.

What's Ella's favorite (and least favorite) part of the show?
Favorite: "That you get to rock out... you don't have to be doing much with the radio stuff [equipment]."
Least favorite: "That I have to get up early sometimes when I don't want to."

When do you plan what's going to be on the air?
About a minute before it's on the air.

Well, not exactly, but that's pretty close. The night before or the morning of the show, I pull a handful of non-kids' CDs from our home CD collection. When we get to the station, with Ella's input, I make a stack of new music I want to get to and then pull more non-new CDs than we'll need for the show, just grabbing whatever hits me, trying to mix some relatively recent music with older stuff, and trying to have a good mix of styles as well. If something has happened in the week that suggests a theme, or if the weather fits in a theme, or if it's someone's birthday, or someone's sick, or whatever, I'll try to get some of that together too. I also have a separate stack of "Are you prepared to rock?" material.

Then it's pretty much on-the-fly. Ella picks the TMBG songs for the start and end unless I have a strong desire for a particular song. Beyond that, I do a rough order of CDs, so we have something lined up a half-dozen songs in advance, but we change it around as we go -- if I think of a pair or group of songs that should go together, for instance, or if we get a request. And we often don't choose a particular song until it's going into the CD player. Since Ella does most of the cueing of CDs (and most of the engineering more generally), she often goes with a different song than I had in mind.

How do you think the show has changed over the past year?
I think we're both much more comfortable on the air and with the equipment. We have a much larger library now, which is fun but also frustrating, as it's harder to play all the great music we have. Ella is getting more discerning about music she likes and doesn't like and why. And of course we have more listeners now, which brings with it great suggestions for new artists.

There was a flurry of interest in kids' music nationally in February, March, and April. How did that affect the show?
I don't remember it having any impact. I imagine our listenership increased some, but I don't remember a big bump (though I don't have great metrics on that). The pace of CD submissions has stayed relatively stable. Our local paper is doing a kids' music feature story soon and we'll be in that, so I suppose that's probably to some extent related to the interest.

Aside from the e-mail from Flansy, what's been the coolest (or three) thing that's happened with the show?
1. We've had a great time with all the musicians who have come through the area. It was especially neat to have The Deedle Deedle Dees play an incredible show at a very cool DIY local venue (Flywheel), and we're putting together some more shows there this fall and next spring featuring some of our absolute favorite artists, including a November 18 show with Lunch Money and Uncle Rock. And the guests -- SteveSongs, Ben Rudnick, Danny Adlerman, Keith Munslow, Milkshake, and local singer Dennis Caraher -- have been revelatory at times. There's something special about an artist performing with just guitar or keyboard and vocals, with no production. Last weekend we had Asheba, ScribbleJim, and Justin Roberts call in live from Chicago during Kidzapalooza, and Asheba sang a lovely little version of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." I like moments like that.

2. I love that we were even a small part of getting attention for artists like (but not limited to) Frances England -- new artists who deserve attention but who don't have the distribution network of some.

3. Did I mention the e-mail from John Flansburgh? It's pretty cool. Since TMBG is Ella's favorite band, that's been a huge thing for her too.

I'm swamped with CDs, and I don't think I get all that you do. How do you listen to all of them?
I don't, at least not as promptly as I'd like. I have a backlog of probably at least 50 CDs, and maybe closer to 100. I do some triage, trying to listen to stuff with more intriguing descriptions before some others, and I often listen to the most recent CD of an artist before getting around to older music. I go in waves, where if I'm working on the house or doing dishes or writing, I'll go through a dozen CDs in a day, choosing tracks for airplay. And a fair number of CDs I can make decisions about without listening to all of every song. But other days I just don't feel like listening to any kids' music and so I don't. I'd love to get the stack down to just a couple of dozen.

How often do you listen to "old favorites" (kids' division)?
We have a handful of kids' CDs burned and in our minivan that are on fairly regular rotation. Milkshake, Lunch Money, ScribbleMonster, Ben Rudnick, and some other ones. At home, it's not terribly common to have on older kids' music, except that I have burned a couple of playlists for the kids to listen to in their room -- one rocking CD, some Danny Adlerman, some lullabies, and a couple of other mixed CDs, I think.

What do you listen to when you don't listen to kids' music? Is it the "non-kids'" stuff you play on the air, or something else?
We have a pretty varied CD collection; most of the non-kids' stuff is from it, but it's not necessarily representative of what I listen to other times. I probably listen to more than any other single music source. (And, incidentally, their morning show (The Morning Show, natch), which came over from the classical station, is a great source for non-kids' kid-friendly music.) [I again concur -- it's quite good. - Ed.]

To give a decent sampling of the newer stuff we listen to, here's the track list from our 2005 end-of-year best-of compilation CD we give to friends and family:

Mates Of State - Goods (All in Your Head)
New Pornographers - Sing Me Spanish Techno
Of Montreal - Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games
Fatboy Slim - Wonderful Night
BC Camplight - Blood and Peanut Butter
Brian Wilson - Vega-Tables
Ben Folds - Jesusland
Elvis Costello (with Lucinda Williams) - There’s a Story in Your Voice
William Shatner - Common People (featuring Joe Jackson)
Polyphonic Spree - Section 12: Hold Me Now
Ditty Bops - Ohh La La
Lunch Money - Tricycle
Dressy Bessy - Side 2
The Thermals - How We Know
Los Abandoned - Van Nuys (es Very Nice)
The Salteens - Kelly Nicoll
The Latebirds - Got A Message
Ben Kweller & Ben Folds & Ben Lee - Just Pretend
The Be Good Tanyas - The Littlest Birds
Ben Rudnick and Friends - Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World (live for VFR)
Ella Childs - The Magic Stone (Ella's poem from her first grade class)

(Past years' playlists are here.)

I listen to a lot of Minneapolis music (Replacements, Walt Mink, Suburbs, Arcwelder, etc.) and a fair amount of alt-country or whatever you want to call it (Gourds, Uncle Tupelo, Old 97's, etc.). Other representative groups: Soul Coughing, fIREHOSE, NoMeansNo, Pixies, Babe the Blue Ox, Michael Franti, Fountains of Wayne, Beastie Boys, Billy Bragg, Papas Fritas, Throwing Muses, and so on.

What plans do you have for the show in the upcoming year?
Gosh, I don't know. Most of the time I'm just happy if we get our act together in time to start at 8:00 and if we avoid any major technical problems. But let's see:

I'd love to get more family artists performing up here; the Eric Carle Museum (which does one big show a year with the likes of Dan Zanes and Milkshake) seems like an ideal venue for bigger names, while Flywheel has been great as well. I wish the people who book the main venues in town would try kids' stuff, but so far I haven't had any luck.

I hope that the people interested in good kids' music (like you and other bloggers) keep it up and continue to support lesser-known artists as well as the big names. Along those lines, though it's not strictly part of the show, I'm going to be the music columnist for Minnesota Parent magazine starting in September, and hope to roll the column out to some other outlets as well. I plan to feature less-prominent artists a good amount in the column.

I'd like to do a better job of finding more non-kids' music to play on the show, especially from more diverse genres.

I'm very excited to hear more guest DJ sets and fill-in shows. At the end of this month, we'll have Monty Harper filling in for a whole show, and I think Frances England's guest spot is on its way here now. By the time this goes on your site, we will have already played Amy Davis's, and hopefully you'll get one together soon too. I find various folks' picks to be fascinating, and often to introduce me to new artists or ideas. I really enjoyed the ScribbleMonster show and The Quiet Ones' Andy was just amazing (plus, that's how Flansburgh found us).


Thanks again to Bill for taking the time to answer my questions. (And to you, the reader, for making it all this way!)


Holly in Arkansas said...

I listen to the podcast of Bill & Ella's show, & it is great. (Of course, you could look at my surname & guess one reason why I think so !) I don't have any actual children in the house, but I like the music myself. And the conversation between Bill and Ella is amazing.

Holly Childs
(AKA GrandHolly)

deb in sf said...

What a cool, fun interview. Thanks, you guys.

Bill and Ella were the second wave of really changing our "family musical lives", this year. It's been so eye opening to listen to their show and hear so many wonderful new (to us) artists, hear songs from folks that we read about here, hear some of the artists live in the studio. We feel really lucky that we get to hear the show all the way from MA. Max kind of feels like Ella's a buddy. We've learned a ton.

They bring a smile to our faces and inspire us every week. We appreciate it! Thanks for getting up on Saturdays, Bill and Ella. And thanks for writing all about it, Stefan.

deb in sf