Eric J. Lawrence Interview: Director’s Cut

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The Fall: Lawrence's—and John Peel's—favorite band.

In this week’s Sprawl of Sound, I feature KCRW DJ/librarian Eric J. Lawrence. As is often the case, there was not enough space in the print version of the paper to run the entire interview. However, I think that this one is interesting enough to publish in full on the generous expanses of the intraweb. So here it is, Q&A-style.

What are your criteria for determining what you play on any given show? Do you strive for a balance of old and new songs, a fair representation of many genres? Are the shows dictated purely by your whims or are they meticulously planned?

I'm particular about incorporating a high percentage of older songs into my show. Too often, I feel the music industry is hyper-focused on promoting only the newest of the new. But I like to organize my show in the same way my own musical discoveries develop: by hearing something new (or new to me) that I like and working both vertically, with finding similar-sounding artists, and horizontally, by tracking down older artists who might have influenced this new thing. The word 'eclectic' is an important touchstone for us here at KCRW, and I like to make sure that I keep as chronologically eclectic as I do with genre. Frankly, more so.

My shows are hardly meticulously planned—if they were, I'd be happy not to slog the couple hundred CDs I bring with me every week, just in case I might need something obscure on a whim. But I usually go in knowing a lot of what I'm going to play that night, whether they are from newly acquired items or songs related to a theme I'm going to play with on that show.

Do you view your show mainly as an outlet to expose music that doesn't receive attention by other KCRW programs?

My show is not meant to be a venue for exclusively unheard music. I'm perfectly happy to 'play the hits,' if they strike me as good songs. I do like to champion unfamiliar music, but that can simply mean something that hasn't been heard on the radio in a while—something 'off the radar,' as it were. [I]t's all about context. Hearing the latest single from Gnarls Barkley next to a game-show theme from the '70s allows you to hear both songs in a different light.

But I admit I started dabbling in radio during my college days at UCLA, when the so-called genre of 'alternative music' had just broken out. For us at KLA, the UCLA student-run radio station where I worked as DJ, music director for two years, and General Manager my final year, that meant playing things that were true alternatives to what you were going to hear on commercial radio. I continue to be motivated by this 'alternative' spirit, and however alternative KCRW is to other stations (and it truly is), I aim for my show to be somewhat of an 'alternative' even within KCRW's own diverse programming.

Do you have total freedom to play what you want, as long as it abides by FCC rules? If not, to which strictures do you have to adhere or which obligations do you have to fulfill?

All KCRW DJs have absolute freedom to play whatever they want on their shows – no playlist to follow or quotas to match.

When did you start DJing for KCRW? What changes have you seen, if any, from that time till now?

I started on-air in 1996 as a fill-in host, then graduated to my own weekly show Monday nights, midnight to 3am, beginning in December 1997. We've had a number of personnel changes since then (in fact, I believe I have something of a longevity record, as the host with the longest streak of being at the exact same time slot, second only to Bo Liebowitz with "Strictly Jazz"), but the general aesthetic of the station's music programming has remained the same: to offer an eclectic mix of cutting-edge tunes. I'm proud to have played a part in that tradition over the past decade.

What are your favorite musical genres and why?

I'm a fan of rock music, in all of its various shadings. The limits of the four-piece band, two guitars, bass and drums configuration has yet to be reached, as far as I'm concerned. As its best, the electric guitar can convey a sort of passion and energy that few other instruments can match, and the types of songs performed on such instruments are inevitably more dynamic than anything a synthesizer can create. That said, I find much to appreciate in virtually any genre you can think of, from jazz and hip-hop to fado and Chinese opera (well...). And some of the most memorable music of all time comes from a subtle blending of multiple styles. But I'm a rocker at heart.

Does nostalgia influence what you spin?

Nostalgia certainly plays into my reactions to songs. I came of music-appreciating age at a time when there was so much going on in pop music. I'm even working on a book defending 1977 as the best year for music, from the frenzy of the punk and disco scenes, to the last, still-melodic gasps of AM-pop and dinosaur rock, to the first serious injections of international sounds into the global music market. Things like Gerry Rafferty and the Moody Blues particularly resonate with me, in great part, because they were the sounds coming out of the radio when I was first giving critical thought to what I liked about music. You can argue their merits as paragons of songcraft, but I honestly believe that even the hit singles of the '70s and mid-'80s were still solid, dynamic songs, qualities that were slowly being leached out of commercial music by the mid-'90s. But in no way is rock, or any other form of music, dead. There are still dozens and dozens of great records being produced each year, in all sorts of genres.

Are you happy with your time slot or would you prefer something closer to prime time? I for one wish you were on the air more often and at a different time.

It'd be great to not have to stay up until 3am every Monday night. I would not turn down the opportunity to DJ in an earlier time slot. But I'm not unhappy about being on outside of 'prime time.' There's less pressure to tailor my show to a particular audience that may be listening at those times. People who are keen on taking the kind of musical hike I play the role of scout-leader for are usually willing to forgo a little sleep for the sake of interesting music. And hopefully newcomers who happen upon the show won't be too unsettled or weirded out to not give it a chance. And besides, all of KCRW's music shows are archived on our website, so anyone with a computer can listen back to my most recent show anytime they choose, which I'm very thankful for.

What does a typical day as KCRW's librarian entail?

My librarian duties involve helping acquire, organize and assess the 200-300 CDs that are sent to the station every week. I'll hit up the record labels for things we don't have, purchase imports of releases not available domestically, even troll MySpace for new artists. Inevitably, part of my day will be to help other DJs or producers here at the station find a particular piece of music for their shows. I also serve as a liaison for the folks who send their music to the station to check and see if we have played their submission. These things represent about half of my day, with the other half taken up with assorted special projects, like wrapping up our recent digitization of the music library's collection.

What's the best thing about your job?

Best thing about my job is being surrounded by so much music, both brand-new and older titles. There's always something new to discover. I feel privileged to be able to make a living doing something I'd be doing as a hobby anyway.

What's the worst thing about your job?

Worst thing about my job is having to tell people that we've passed on including their music in our library. As I mentioned, we get a couple hundred submissions per week, and obviously we can only add a small portion of that to our collection, both because of a lack of space and the fact that much of it just isn't interesting enough to get played here. Nonetheless, it's a bit soul-sucking to have to tell so many artists, week in and week out, that their music isn't up to par for us. I give myself the nickname of 'Dream Crusher.'

Discuss the strangest phone call or weirdest request you've received while doing your program. It seems like your time slot would be more likely to draw a higher percentage of oddball listeners. (Or does someone answer phones for you?)

Honestly, I don't get that many calls, weird or otherwise. I'd like to think that my listeners are just as happy being surprised by what I'll play than needing to hear a specific request. The most common kind of call I get is from people having heard some archival thing that I played that they hadn't heard in years (or even decades) and wanting to know where I got it from, which is cool. My favorite call I've ever received was a number of years ago, when some guy called to complain about a Doobie Brothers song I was playing, saying that if he wanted to listen to classic rock he could turn to some other station. Fair enough, but he called back later in the show to say that that night's show got better. What pleased me was the fact that he stuck with me, despite hearing something that initially bugged him. I don't expect everyone to like every song I play. What I really like is to get a reaction one way or the other. I don't just want to supply a background soundtrack for people as they are going to bed. I much prefer active listeners who have an opinion about the things they are hearing.

Do you have any general statements about the state of music you'd like to make? Feeling especially optimistic or pessimistic about things, locally, nationally or internationally? Any new, underexposed artists you want to champion? The pulpit is yours...

I believe I've blathered long enough. I will only say that, like the late, legendary British DJ John Peel, who is one of my idols, one of my purposes as a radio DJ is to prove, without a doubt, that the Fall are among the greatest bands of all time. I've made a concerted effort to play a track from them every show I do, which, despite over 10 years of shows (my original name for my show is "Dragnet," named after an early album of theirs), is thankfully easy to do without appearing repetitive when they have over two dozen studio albums. To me they represent what pop music is all about: challenging, mysterious, insistent, not always pretty, but witty, energetic, idiosyncratic, often catchy, and always individualistic. And that's what I try to offer on my show.

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