People have strong opinions about things they love, and college radio DJs are no exception. Just ask KEXP blogger Levi Fuller. For the last ten years, Fuller has transcribed comments and conversations hashed out by DJs at KCMU -- KEXP's old call letters -- on the covers of LPs from the station's vinyl vaults. He publishes these insightful reviews and hilarious debates, written on white labels stuck on the LP's covers when the albums originally came out, in Review Revue, a series on the KEXP blog which celebrates its tenth anniversary this month. To commemorate the occasion, we asked Fuller ten questions about what he's learned in ten years transcribing some of the station's hottest takes. Read on as Fuller talks about Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman trolling on the cover of Velvet Underground's VU, choice music reviewing catchphrases (one involves chicken), and the great physical-digital music listening divide.
How did you get involved with KEXP?
Apart from being a listener, my first involvement was becoming an intern, working as a DJ assistant one day a week under the mighty Kevin Cole. This was around 2006, so my music knowledge base will forever be weirdly skewed toward mid-'00s indie rock. [Before that,] I grew up listening to college radio in Boston: WHRB, WMBR, WMFO, and WZBC were my first introduction to the wide world of "college music," as we called it at the time. I can't begin to describe how much of my musical taste I owe to those stations and the weirdos who worked at them.
When did you strike upon the idea for this column?
Just working as a DJ assistant, pulling out records and CDs for Kevin, and marveling at the in-depth discussions that went on, pre-internet-discussion-forum but very much reminiscent to me of that. (It probably didn't hurt that I was a regular on such a forum so instantly made that connection.) It was just a great mix of people sharing real knowledge and insight (in a time when you couldn't find out everything you wanted to know by typing a few words into a computer) -- as well as half-baked opinions and ludicrous in-jokes. It's a window into this very specific time and place and culture that you couldn't really get any other way.
What have been some of your favorite comments that you’ve transcribed?
There have been so many! Ten years is a long time. A few come to mind. A recent favorite is Jonathan Poneman's trolling on the Velvet Underground's VU: “Who are these guys? Is Maureen Tucker a dude? No synth! Sounds like early Dream Syndicate. (I couldn’t resist!)” Then there's the time Ian MacKaye popped up on the cover of Fugazi's self-titled EP, with: “Hmmm . . . I’m not too sure about this one.” (I swear there was one where Billy Bragg did the same thing but I'm not finding it.) And another recent exchange I enjoyed was whoever shot back at the DJ who referred to Sylvia Juncosa as "good chick guitar rock" with “Does the sex of a guitarist ever have anything to do with the skill and quality of the guitarist?" There are definitely a handful of times when I read comments that remind me the '80s were a different time, and there was usually someone there at the time to call it out, which is always nice to see.
Were there any albums that you feel KEXP DJs got completely wrong? Any albums that KEXP DJs were completely ahead of the curve about?
I can't think of any albums where the majority got it "wrong." Even if there was a bunch of hate for something there were always defenders. This ABC album that Jim Beckmann wrote up (and which I have no opinion on) is a perfect example. I feel like the KCMU crowd were ahead of pretty much everyone, as were most college DJs. They have thoughtful comments on 11 different Jandek albums released over the course of 8 years, for crying out loud. They were ahead of everyone outside of Seattle in their more or less universal adulation of Soundgarden -- and other grunge pioneers -- but of course geography had something to do with that. (There's also this on Nirvana's Nevermind:“Hey! Can we be really cutting edge and be the first to stop overplaying this?”) But there was certainly no geographic advantage in their relatively early championing of Simple Minds' New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84).
Which album’s comments surprised you the most?
I don't know about surprise, but the sheer level of energy and vitriol poured into the debate on the cover of the local compilation Deep Six is pretty jaw-dropping. It definitely says something about how passionate people get about local music scenes.
People write some pretty pithy things on these albums. Any good catch phrases I should start working into my lexicon?
Here are a few that come to mind:
The way stations store music is changing. Many stations -- KEXP, to some extent included -- are transitioning from vinyl or CDs to digital databases. Many stations -- and their entire community of DJs -- have to make a judgment call about the value of the historical value of their collections versus the functionality of going digital. Having spent plenty of time preserving the thoughts of DJs on old records, do you have any thoughts on this physical-versus-digital debate?
As you've probably figured out by now, I'm a proponent of physical, object-based media - and the digital backup/augmentation thereof. It's a huge debate, and a lot of people with a lot of degrees have said much more of significance than I could add to the conversation. I do think it's important and valuable to have cultural materials available in high-quality digital format, but I also think the physical objects themselves are -- or can be -- important. But I've seen the oceans of CDs that come into KEXP every week, and by no means would I suggest that they are responsible for holding onto every single thing forever -- not that they could if they want to. I will say the reviewing process on CDs has gotten pretty staid over the past decade or two. Usually, one person writes something brief and succinct (I was one such person a decade or so ago), the label is applied to the disc, and that's that. If there were an electronic way to add this kind of vibrant, energetic discussion to the metadata of a digital album, I would be for that 1000%. Any MLIS students out there want to figure that one out?
What value do these comments add to the records?
Beyond just adding another hilarious, informative element to the album, art, and liner notes -- which was honestly what first attracted me to them -- I think they help place them in history and help us future-dwellers understand not just what's on the record itself, but how this small, passionate, nerdy slice of the population reacted to it.
What has been your favorite part of working on this project?
Whenever there's some kind of real connection made with people because of one of these posts, it makes me happy. Every once in a while the artist in question will reply in the comments section, which is always a bit of a thrill. Lida Husik and R. Stevie Moore come to mind. Garland Jeffreys found me on Twitter after I posted one of his albums, and we've corresponded a bit since then. I also love it when DJs who were there comment with their perspective. I think the post that takes the cake as far as artist/community interaction is this look back at Zoogz Rift. The day I posted it, someone wrote to let us know Zoogz was in a critical care facility. People who knew him, and some former DJs, chimed in with their memories and appreciation. Several months later, a friend of his commented to let us know that he had passed away. It really means a lot to know that people directly involved with the projects are finding these posts and receiving them in the spirit in which they're intended.
What have you learned about the KEXP community from this series?
I guess I've probably learned more about the KEXP (KCMU) community of yore rather than today's KEXP community, but it's about as you'd expect: The station's early years/decades were made possible by a group of people who listened to and talked about music obsessively and were unafraid to share their opinions, challenge their own and their colleagues' tastes, and even admit they were wrong every once in a while. No matter how much they disagreed, they generally respected each other (despite the transitory nature of little white adhesive labels, I've seen very few over the years that were ripped off or scribbled over in anger). It's not a bad way to build a community if you can keep it up.
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