How do you end up writing all things music for Pitchfork, curating the same for MoMA PS1, launching a music fest like Basilica Soundscape in Hudson, AND collaborating with artists like Matthew Barney? Start making zines when you’re young and then write tirelessly about music. In sum, work hard and never forget where you came from. METAL.
When did you first begin to curate shows and what drew you to working with live music?
I started booking shows when I was 13, or so. These were pretty basic hardcore shows I put on in my dad’s backyard in Vincentown, a small farming town in Southern NJ. He had space and was supportive. Eventually, on my 18th birthday, I did a two-day festival. This was during my first year of college, I think. I called it the Indie 500, and it featured noise-pop bands like Lilys and Versus and Swirlies along with more jangly pop acts like Small Factory and some weirdo metal bands I’d met in New Brunswick, NJ, at Rutgers. I did shows on campus and in my basement during that time, too, but booking that show at my dad’s place was the most memorable— 1,000 or so people showed up and he almost passed out. Which now, as an adult, I get.
I was initially drawn to putting on shows out of necessity. Where I grew up there wasn’t anything going on like that. I’d travel to Philadelphia with my friend Moss to buy cassettes and records and to New York to see my grandparents, and so I knew other places did have these things going on. I decided to do it myself and bring bands I liked to where I was living.
Zines were a part of your early life in music, can you talk about how that world impacted you?
Because I grew up in such a small place, where there was literally nobody else I knew into what I was into, zines connected me to a network of likeminded people. It was cool to suddenly be a part of a scene. I went to a high school about 45 minutes from my house, and I had a handful of friends there who were also into punk, but once I’d go home, I was isolated. I couldn’t drive yet. There was no internet at that point. So zines, along with college radio (which I could pick up by putting tinfoil on the edge of my radio antenna), became my lifeline.
I did a zine in high school called Nasal Spray. That was with my friend Josh. Then I went solo and kept changing the zine’s name, issue to issue, until I settled on White Bread. It was basically a title that referenced growing up white trash. I did that zine all the way through college; it started as a basic zine about music and eventually became a fairly intense journal about my life and the people around me. I tried not to edit it to much. I wanted the writing to be honest and basic.
I made some lifelong friends through zines. There are people I’ll still see today that I met when I was a teenager because we read each other’s writing. My friend Yoonie came out from Minnesota to Basilica Soundscape last year. I visited with my friend Bill the last time I was in L.A. Again, because it was pre-internet, I met these folks by trading zines, and then writing letters back and forth with them. It was a way to find a community. It also continued the idea of doing things on your own— I met this woman who worked at a local college who’d print the zines for really cheap, and I’d trek to the post office to mail them out. I remember when Tower Records started distributing them, I felt like I’d really made it.
Your background in metal and heavier/more obscure types of music is something that makes your lineups particularly unique. Can you speak to those genres, and how they translate to the live space?
I like a lot of different kinds of music, but I definitely spent a large part of my childhood deeply into hardcore and metal, and then noise. In a live setting, there’s a certain energy that comes with heavier, more extreme music. I have a friend who’s a folk musician; she came to a metal show I put on and was surprised at how free and self-possessed the audience was— people went for it, and didn’t seem self-conscious about going for it, and she loved that.
I like the energy and catharsis of bands like that, and I like working them into shows where they wouldn’t usually be expected to play. Like, at last year’s Basilica Soundscape, I had the post-metal trio Sannhet play the same night as Haxan Cloak, Perfume Genius, Wolf Eyes, Jenny Hval, and others. It all made sense to me in my head, and it was really satisfying to see Bobby, aka the Haxan Cloak, losing his mind over Sannhet. Same went for Robin Carolan, who runs Tri Angle. They’d never heard of the band before and they were floored. Robin bought a Sannhet shirt and was wearing it around all weekend.
My friend Adam Shore (who does Blackened Music and the Red Bull Music Academy festival in NYC) and I do an ongoing series called Tinnitus that focuses on composers of extreme music, usually of the electronic sort. Adam and I used to do metal shows together; I like that we’re now transitioning that love of aggressive, or at least loud, music into the electronic realm. Last year we did a show with the UK producer, Vessel. He set up on the floor, tore his shirt off, and just went for it. It was like a Lightning Bolt show. The crowd was pressed up against the table he was working on, and they were losing their minds. It ended up being listed in the The New York Times as one of the best shows of the year, which is great for such an outsider kind of producer. It had the energy of the shows I loved as a kid, but also felt very new.
I like having shows that introduce people to new things, and don’t just present what’s expected. I book Pitchfork’s SXSW shows in the same way— I’d rather folks learn about something, or look back a year later and remember seeing a group that’s become much bigger in interim. I find that more interesting than a Kanye secret set.
A lot of people are into heavier and weirder music, and I think it’s worth presenting it in unlikely and unexpected places. The artist Matthew Barney and I have done a bunch of shows with metal bands overlapping with visual art and dance and academic theory, and the like. One time we had the band WOLD, a Saskatchewan black metal noise band that took three years to convince to play, do their first-ever set after an amateur wrestling match choreographed by the visual artist Collier Schorr. It was one of the most intense things I’ve ever seen, largely because it was the band’s first show, and you could feel a real tension in the air. The wrestling match helped build up to it. As did a 20-minute reading of academic theory by Molly Nesbitt. We asked her to read a section of the Ph.D. dissertation written by the main guy in WOLD. It’s fun to do events that overlap in unexpected but very specific and intentional ways. After WOLD played, we had two noise DJ sets— just white noise blasting for hours.
Your work with Basilica Soundscape has been an inspiration to many. Talking specifically about that festival, what are some of the key elements that go into that planning process? How did you get connected with them and what makes that festival stand out to you?
For my part, the idea came from those shows I do with Matthew [Barney]—we put them on in his studio in Long Island City, and they’re largely private. I mean, we spread the word, but they’re free, and we don’t really promote them heavily. We did two this past November, and we kept them pretty hushed. So, with Basilica, it was kind of like that sort of multimedia event in a more public space.
I got connected to Melissa and Tony, who own the Basilica, a 19th century converted factory, by Brian DeRan, who I met via Matthew, actually. Brian had been talking to Melissa and Tony about doing some kind of upstate festival. Tony’s a metal fan and suggested they collaborate with someone who knew metal, but not exclusively metal. Brian suggested me. He and I met and talked about it, and I really liked the sound of it, so I signed on.
The planning is fairly chaotic each year, and then somehow we manage to pull it together. We all brainstorm a bunch of bands and artists and writers and then start seeing how things link up. When we first started doing it, we broke it down into specific days: One day was Brian, one day was me. At this point, the entire weekend’s a collaboration. It flows better this way. But, yeah, we’ll think of groups and writers and such that make sense together. Like, years ago, I had Richard Hell read. When I’d interviewed Pharmakon earlier that year, she’d talked about growing up in NYC and the importance of downtown NY to work her (as well as her interest in Richard Hell). She played after his reading. I also had this writer Peter Sotos read. He’s an old friend, and has influenced bands like Pig Destroyer, who talk a lot about his words and philosophies. So I had Pig Destroyer play, too. Pig Destroyer have talked a bunch about the importance of Matthew Barney on their work. So, for that night, I asked him to participate, too. Matthew and I had this longtime idea of asking a few bands to play at once. In the original conception, it was a bunch of grindcore singers. For that night, I sat down and tried to figure out how to construct one band out of four entities. So I asked Julianna Barwick (voice), Pharmakaon (nosier voice), Evian Christ (bass music, so bass) and Pig Destroyer (who at the time didn’t have a bassist). Matthew’s musical collaborator Jonathan Bepler made a score based on numbers and cues and conducted them.
That’s one example of the programming.
With Basilica we try to do one-of-a-kind collaborations and performances. We try to mix writing, art, and music. Two years ago Meredith Graves read her piece about Andrew W.K., which led immediately into a White Lung set. And we had Tim Hecker collaborate with a Gamelan band.
Basically, instead of just asking a ton of “it” bands to play, or chasing groups currently in the midst of their album cycle, we try to create something more complex. I feel like the audiences respond to this sort of thing. The shows are smaller (we only sell 1300 tickets each night). You feel like you’re part of it. You’re not standing in the middle of field with 40,000 people. You’re in a beautiful warehouse next to a river and mountains in upstate New York, and it feels like a little family.
We also do it without sponsors, which is pretty unheard of as far as festivals go at this point. It’s not a huge money maker, but it feels necessary.
And we actually just started booking 2016 a couple weeks ago.
Also, you have been working with MoMA PS1 to curate shows for a while now. How did that come about and what is your favorite part about working with that space?
A few years ago, Klaus Biesenbach, the Director of MoMA PS1, wanted to change the Warm Up program a bit, so he asked music-world friends of his for recommendations of potential curators. I think for a time they had one curator working on it— someone from inside the museum— and I think he wanted to bring on people from the music world. One of the folks he asked for suggestions was Björk, and she recommended me. I’d done some pretty unique events with her— a collaboration with Dirty Projectors, a DJ set in a bookstore that included live cello and live guitar shredding, a night of DJ sets in a parking garage. She was familiar with what I was up to, and she suggested me to Klaus.
My favorite part of it, really, is collaborating with the other curators. Nobody has an ego. Everyone is very chill. And because we’ve done it so long at this point, we all know each other well, and it’s just really comfortable. Again, it feels like family.
As far as the events themselves, I’ve learned so much about electronic and dance music through this. It’s also just really satisfying to see 5,000 people dancing to something you helped put together. I like that the shows are done on the earlier side, too. I have two kids, so the early nights are appreciated.
Live music is such an integral part of Brooklyn’s culture, and the infrastructure here is really strong. What advice do you have for aspiring curators/people throwing shows who don’t necessarily have the resources that are available here?
I think you can try to make things happen wherever you are. Like, when I was doing those shows in NJ as a kid, I used a hay truck as the stage and borrowed the PA system from a friend who owned a very shitty PA system. I didn’t grow up with much money, but we made use of what we had, and those shows really were enjoyable, and meant something to people. I think you start where you can, and go from there. It’s important to have faith in yourself, and to try to make things come together.
What makes a venue great in your opinion?
I tend to like venues that feel personal in some way. I’m not into huge, faceless spots. In New York, I really love Saint Vitus. I like that people there are friendly, and that there’s a real scene happening there. It feels honest. Of course, it helps that they have a great sound system, and people to work that system. They’ve paid attention to all the details— it’s comfortable, there’s more than one bathroom, they have a good drink selection and some food. It’s a great small venue. I like venues that feel carefully thought-out and specific.
What is the single most important element to make a live show great?
Bands and artists who’re excited to be there, I think. You can sort of overlook bad sound or a broken air-conditioner, but if the band is bored or just there for a paycheck, it’s pretty difficult to have a good time. My friend David and Jenn and I came up with this idea of FTK, which means “for the kids.” It’s like— being into music and art and the rest for the right reasons, for the reasons you got into the stuff as a kid when you never thought you’d make a dime off it. (Editor’s note: An IRL extension of this idea is Stosuy’s upcoming children’s book, Music Is. Pre-order it now or look for it, out next fall) I try to organize shows that live up to that spirit….while selling out all the tickets so I can pay the bands well. That’s actually an important thing to now: you should always pay the bands before you pay yourself. I’d lose money before I let a band go home with nothing.
When you are booking a lineup, what are some steps you take to make sure it is balanced and enjoyable for the audience? Are there elements you bring into every single event, or does it change with each show?
It changes for each show, but there are definitely some core principles. Unless it’s a festival, I try to keep it to no more than three bands. Less can be more in these situations, especially if the bands/artists work well together. When there are like six or seven bands, and it’s a weeknight, I want to suggest the venue hire an editor. I also try to avoid obvious lineups. I’m not interested in doing pre-packaged shows, shows that someone else came up with… I’d like for each event to be completely unique. I think balance is important, as well as variation. Three bands who’re exactly alike would be boring; finding a way to connect three groups who don’t seem at all alike at first look, but who have some aesthetic or sonic or whatever connections, is more of the goal. I think it’s ok to challenge an audience. Also, sometimes things just happen on their own– a few years ago I was booking a CMJ show for Pitchfork when I suddenly realized I’d book all female or female-fronted bands. It was like Speedy Ortiz, Courtney Barnett, Eleanor Friedberger, Perfect Pussy, Joanna Gruesome, etc. That hadn’t been the plan, but there it was.
Is there one act you would love to work with/book that you still haven’t had the chance to?
You know, not really. I feel like so far the things I’ve wanted to do have happened, one way or another. Like, at each Basilica, there’s been one band I want, that doesn’t happen, but a year later we get them. Each event is so specific that I don’t really have some outstanding “want.” I’ve tried to book Robyn at Warm Up a couple times and it hasn’t happened, even though she’s been into it— scheduling conflicts. So maybe her? You know, I did an Arca show a few years ago. I’d like to work with him again.
Conversely, who is one of the acts that it has been the most meaningful for you to work with thus far?
It’s been meaningful to work with Björk. She’s a close friend, someone who’s also friends with my wife and kids. I consider her family, really. And so working with an artist of her caliber, who I feel so close to, is special. We’ve done a bunch of shows in weird places. It feels like an ongoing dialogue and collaboration, and that’s rewarding. Just today I wrote to see if she could think of a good act to pair with these two electronic musicians I have coming in June. It’s endless.
As far as meaning… I mentioned her collaboration with Dirty Projectors before. We did that at Housing Works, where I’m on the board of directors. It’s a charity for homeless people living with HIV and AIDS. We ended up raising a lot of money that night, which felt great. Benefits always have meaning. That ties into your questions, too: shows, themselves, that feel meaningful.
I actually just this week booked a benefit show for my son Henry’s school, P.S. 34., a public school in Greenpoint, where we live. He goes to kindergarten there. The idea is to raise money for the PTA and to help with their music and enrichment programs. That was really satisfying (and fun!). It has folks like the Range, Sannhet, Greg Fox, Meredith Graves, Noveller, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Olga Bell, Dominick Fernow, and Caleb from Sacred Bones. They’re all doing it for free. And Union Pool hooked us up with a good deal for the space. The kids will also perform a play. That kind of thing is really important to me. It really does all come back to community.
Last question: How do you stay so metal?
Haha. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the beard! You know, I think it’s, in part, because I feel so lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I remember all the shitty jobs I worked, and I’m just happy to be where I am.
One thing I like about metal shows, is the bands are usually very easy to deal with. They don’t ask for a lot of ridiculous rider shit, and they really go for it on stage. When you’re in an extreme metal band, you have a different set of expectations than a band who’s hoping to get on Late Night TV. There’s a kind of humbleness built into that sort of music… because you sort of know you’re not going to be huge. I mean, metal bands get huge, of course, but there’s just a kind of calmness about metal groups. They feel less thirsty. Not always— there’s always an asshole exception to the rule! But I think maybe I stay metal because I’m just happy to be doing what I’ve always loved doing. And I still do it for the same reasons. It’s all I know, really.
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