Interview: Dave Hughes, Creator of “Off The Air”

Off The AirDave Hughes has been an editor on a lot of your favorite shows — he’s worked on Beavis & Butthead, Squidbillies, Space Ghost: Coast 2 Coast – but his new show, Off The Air is absolutely amazing. I don’t even remember how I found out about it — I think I was poking around the [Adult Swim] website and disappeared in a rabbit hole and came out jabbering to all my friends about this amazing thing they’ve absolutely gotta see.  Dave created the show and curates every episode of the anthology-series-that’s-way-way-more-than-an-anthology-series, which airs on [Adult Swim] and full episodes are available on the [Adult Swim] website.

Part the First

KS: At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?

Dave Hughes: This could be a different answer almost every day.  And you may have caught me on a strange day, because right now I’m really digging a song called “Baby” by a group called DakhaBrakha.  Not even quite sure how I got it, and his voice is very off-putting at first, but if you just go with it, it takes you in some unexpected directions, and I’ve been craving that lately. Last year, the song “Andrew” by Jonwayne had the same effect on me.

KS: What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?

Dave Hughes: Locally, here in Atlanta, I really like The Back Pockets.  They’re sort of a train wreck of a band, sometimes there are 15 people in the band and they seem like they couldn’t be more in love, and then sometimes they’re broken up completely, but I think they put out some fun and interesting hippie stuff.  Very fun live.  Also locally, a small electronic outfit called heRobust.  Strangely, I found him through this amazing video promoting a night club in Barcelona.  Gotta love that internet.

KS: What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?

Dave Hughes: My 4 year old daughter seems to think that taping tissue paper all around the house is “decorating”, so there’s a lot of that. Other than that, our largest, and maybe my favorite thing on the walls is a large photograph by Jody Fausett of an upside-down recliner in what looks like an old mobile home.  It reeks of back story.

KS: What’s the strangest thing you own?

Dave Hughes: I had a little eBay addiction a few years back, so I have a bunch of old tin toys and sci-fi magazines, but probably the strangest thing to come out of that time is my braille edition of Playboy.

KS: Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)?

Dave Hughes: Having a kid is hands down the best and hardest and most fun and most serious and most elusive thing I have ever done. Also, I like to read books while floating in wooden canoes.

KS: Who’s your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)?

Dave Hughes: I don’t really consider myself a visual artist.  And I could not possibly answer the other part of this question. Far too vast a terrain, and I see new stuff every day that impacts me.  I do like that Banksy fella quite a bit though.

KS: What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?

Dave Hughes: I can’t even remember the last movie I saw in a theater.  Sad to say.  So these are all Netflix or On Demand. Wanderlust, The Cruise,  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Oddsac, Star Wars Episode IV. I was showing Star Wars to my daughter for the first time, and I hadn’t seen it since Lucas digitally messed with it, and I COULD NOT BELIEVE how pointless and horrible his changes were.

KS: What’re your top three movies?

Dave Hughes: How about movies that I will watch in their entirety if I stumble across them on cable? Breaking Away, Office Space, Die Hard, Fight Club, and The Right Stuff.

KS: Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?

Dave Hughes: My wife and I both work in animation, so we have lots of artwork around the house.  But we picked up this little drawing of 3 sneakers at Comic-Con one year that I just love for some reason.  And the artist didn’t sign it, so I have no idea who it’s from.

KS: What is your favorite game?

Dave Hughes: Video – Tetris.  Board – Scrabble.  Card – Texas Hold ‘Em.  Real World – Capture the flag.

KS: If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?

Dave Hughes: Thanks.

KS: What are your five most favorite books in the world?

Dave Hughes: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Hobbit, The Road, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  Probably.

KS: What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?

Dave Hughes: This is also the one of the saddest.  I used to temp on the Oil Futures trading floor at Citibank in New York.  At quarter to five every day, people would pack up their bags and briefcases, and go and stand by the door until exactly 5pm.  So pathetic.

Also, corporate “town hall” meetings.

KS: If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?

Dave Hughes: Spooky.

KS: What is your favorite meal?

Dave Hughes: It’s hard to get around a good egg sandwich.

KS: What is reality?

Dave Hughes: Yours or mine?

 

Part the Second

KS: How did Off the Air come about?

Dave Hughes: It’s not the normal route for a show to take.  But in late 2009 I was asked to put together some video that could be played behind bands at the Adult Swim Carnival. So I just started pulling footage from The Prelinger Archives, and other web sources, and then kind of visually enhancing them until you didn’t quite know what you were looking at. I put some good music underneath to give me something to edit to, and basically ended up with a video mixtape that you would project at a party or something.  It was so fun to put together, and I found the end result really re-watchable, and just basically wanted to keep doing it.

At the same time, I sort of felt like the network was slipping away from its more experimental roots.  I had started working for them on Space Ghost, and was so psyched to find a place that wanted to make that kind of programming.  Then there was Aqua Teen, Perfect Hair Forever, 12 Ounce Mouse, Squidbillies, Tom Goes to the Mayor, etc. and it just felt like a really amazing and experimental place to be.  And then of course, the network became popular, and ratings started to drive it a little bit more.  But  everyone working there still loves the strange stuff, and it just seemed to me that we could still do that kind of programming, but just in an after hours or online block.

So I kind of sat with that feeling for a while, and then one day, for whatever reason, I just walked into Mike Lazzo’s office and pitched it to him.  And when I say “pitch”, I mean fumbled around pointlessly saying insulting things like “remember when we were cool” until he just wanted me out of his office, and the best way to achieve that was to say ok, here’s ten bucks, go make it.

KS: What did [Adult Swim] think about it at first?

Dave Hughes: I don’t think they thought much of the idea, and I don’t blame them.  It’s not something I could explain very well, and in fact didn’t really know what it would be until I made it. Still don’t totally know what it is.  But after putting the pilot together, it started to make sense (in a completely nonsensical way), and since it wasn’t really meant for primetime, and cost very little to make, they let me make another, and then another, and it went like that for the first year, basically green-lighting each episode as we went along. It’s still kind of that way, but I think they are starting to like it more, or at least get used to it.  I hope.

KS: How do you choose the clips?

Dave Hughes: It’s probably mostly a gut thing, but I really look for clips that have something new to offer, and that seem like they will be re-watchable, and that speak to the theme of the episode, at least in some small way.  I would say that the eagle pulling the goat off the cliff in “ANIMALS” is probably a perfect clip.  It’s got a beautiful vintage patina almost, you don’t quite know where it’s going when it starts, it’s slightly shocking when you realize what’s happening, the music is astounding, and it makes you feel something by the end of it.  Then again, I also love Stinks from the “BODY” episode, and it has none of those qualities.  So let’s just say instinct, and a small group of trusted people to bounce it off of.

KS: What editors and directors have influenced you?

Dave Hughes: I’m a little bit clueless about that actually.  I read books without ever looking at the authors name, and I’m much the same way with movies and television.  Also, I think liking someone’s work and being influenced by it are two very different things.  I will say that Adam Bernstein, who directed a bunch of They Might Be Giants’ videos in the 90s, definitely had some impact. I also think working briefly for Mike Judge (Beavis was my first real gig) had some influence because he was able to stay so true to himself in the middle of completely insane popularity, and that made the show what it was.  The weirdest thing is that my first real editing gig was the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Love Rollercoaster” video that they made for the Beavis movie. And they hired Adam Bernstein to come in to direct it.  So I worked with him for a week or two on it, and didn’t even realize who he was.  I’m still a little bummed about that.

KS: How would you define your visual style?

Dave Hughes: I wouldn’t know really.  Sometimes it feels closest to collage.

KS: Why do you think that [Adult Swim] has become a home for experimental TV programming?

Dave Hughes: I think it has its roots in extremely experimental programming, and most of the people who were there in the beginning are still there today in some capacity.  It started with some really funny and creative folks repurposing old Hanna-Barbera footage in a closet, and that is still its beating heart.  Plus, since it has been successful, it gets pretty much left alone by the corporate douchebags, which is an extremely rare and precious thing.

KS: With the bumps you’ve made and Off The Air, does [Adult Swim]/Williams Street tell you what they’d like, or do they let you do your thing?

Dave Hughes: They mostly let me do whatever.  Sometimes, they will give me footage to use, like all the cats and dogs in outfits, but mostly I just make whatever comes to mind. But I want to be clear that the bumps I do are a very small part of what’s on air, and are mostly relegated to late night.  There’s a whole team of people making the black and white cards, and the show promos, and I don’t want to take credit for any of their excellent work.  Actually Michael Cahill and Pete Smith are largely responsible for those, and they are both examples of people who were part of [Adult Swim] in the beginning and who have continued to be experimental and innovative on air.

KS: What earlier programs have influenced the style of Off The Air

Dave Hughes: This will answer your next question as well, but of course Liquid Television has influenced the style of Off The Air.  Early MTV in general, with the animated IDs, and the less slick music videos, and the dorky VJs felt really pure to me.  I would also say that Night Flight is right in there as well.  And then when I lived in NYC, Concrete TV kind of blew my mind.

KS: Were you a fan of Liquid Television?

Dave Hughes: Yes, absolutely.  BUT, I did always have a problem sitting through longer segments that I didn’t like as much, so I think that influenced Off The Air as well.  Trying to keep the show flowing along so much that it becomes one larger event rather than a series of smaller events is a big part of what we try to do.

KS: What’s your favorite part about putting a piece or a full episode together?

Dave Hughes: I love finding new talent, or strange talent, and giving them a tiny place on television, because even though it is a dying medium, television still has some extra weight to it. But I probably most love pairing music to the visuals.  It’s like making a mini music video every episode.

KS: What’s your favorite thing about media right now?

Dave Hughes: Access to all things from all times.

KS: What’s your theory on how and when to use different effects?

Dave Hughes: Theory is a strong word, but I do whatever I can to keep the show flowing, and the effects and transitions are a huge part of that.  I believe strongly that this show is different from most previous anthology shows in that it becomes a larger standalone piece, instead of just a collection of smaller pieces.  That’s the goal, anyway.  Sometimes I feel guilty because it’s rare that we sit on a clip for its entire duration, and I know how much hard work goes into making this stuff.  But I really feel that the show becomes much more watchable when we keep it moving.  Plus, we can then squeeze more pieces into a single episode, and people will go look up the clips they really love anyway.

KS: On your Vimeo, you have a lot of [Adult Swim] bumps and some music videos — do you have any of your personal work online?

Dave Hughes: I’ve been lucky enough to be steadily employed doing things that I love and believe in, so I kind of consider my professional work personal also. I do have a lot of experiments that didn’t really fully form or make it into anything else, so I might put them up on the Vimeo.  I think everything up there was put up when I first signed up. I’m very lazy that way.

KS: What software do you use?

Dave Hughes: I use Final Cut to edit, and After Effects and Photoshop to manipulate.  A couple compression softwares to do the data-moshing thing, but not much more than that.

KS: The cliche about the [Adult Swim] audience in general is that they’re stoners — what do you think of this association?

Dave Hughes: I think it’s probably partially true, but also kind of a bummer.  Like if they weren’t stoned, they would have the sense to change the channel or something.  It implies a laziness or passivity in our viewers that I don’t see at all.  People who watch [Adult Swim] seem very engaged to me.  And very passionate.  Often, they feel offended when we air something that they don’t think is up to snuff.  Where else do you see that kind of passion for a network as a whole?  HBO used to have it a bit, but not as much now.  I think [Adult Swim] has done an incredible job of talking to its viewers, and also listening, and the viewers become invested in the network itself.  But back to the pot thing, it just makes me sad that an appreciation for anything absurd or out of the norm can’t be taken at face value.  Like you must be on drugs to either make this stuff, or to enjoy watching it.  How fucking lame and narrow-minded is that?

Can I change my answer to the most boring thing I’ve ever experienced?

KS: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Dave Hughes: Nope, gotta go snort bath salts now.


Jeremiah Aulwurm contributed to this interview.  Thanks!

Enhanced by Zemanta
  • Chris Egan

    This show is the only real shit on tv right now, point blank! damn it if I could like give anyone a slow-mo freeze frame high five Mr. Hughes would get that honor for just being as strange and off the wall as he is and managing to use it to leverage money from people (if only I could do that)!