Interview: Joshua Fried/RADIO WONDERLAND

Photo of Joshua Fried by Stafford Smith
Photo of Joshua Fried by Stafford Smith

Joshua Fried is a composer known for doing innovative work that’s still very danceable.  He’s also done remixes including songs by They Might Be Giants and Chaka Khan.  In the 1980s, he was signed to Atlantic, which resulted in the 12” single “Jimmy Because (My Name Is)”.  Fried often has a technical element to his work too, including tape machines and headphones.  His current project is RADIO WONDERLAND, where Fried remixes live radio coming off a boombox using software he’s written plus the steering wheel of a Buick and drum pads made from shoes to control the samples.  If you’d like to see him explain his setup and the RADIO WONDERLAND process, this is a fascinating 10 minute video.  Joshua Fried is currently crowdfunding the debut RADIO WONDERLAND album — you can donate via his USA Projects page, and not only support a great artist, but get some cool stuff out of the deal yourself!  Likewise, you can hear many examples of Fried’s work, RADIO WONDERLAND and not, via his Soundcloud.

Part the First

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

JF: Wikipedia:  “Água de Beber” (“Water to Drink”) is a bossa nova jazz standard composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim, with lyrics written by Vinicius de Moraes. The English lyrics were written by Norman Gimbel.

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

JF: Wikipedia: Change was an Italian-American post-disco group formed in Bologna, Italy in 1979 by businessman and executive producer Jacques Fred Petrus (1949–1986) and Mauro Malavasi (1957).

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

JF: Paneling.

KS: What’s the strangest thing you own?

JF: My pet Higgs Boson.

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)?

JF: Dancing on a rooftop.

KS: Who’s your favorite visual artist?

JF: Franz Kline.

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

JF: Melancholia, The Killing, Amour, The Flicker (Tony Conrad), The Apartment.

KS: What’re your top three movies?

JF: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Earrings of Madame de…, The Apartment.

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

JF: Rudy Rubio – cuban, Vũ Dân Tân – vietnamese

KS: What is your favorite game?

JF: We’re playing it now.

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

JF: Thanks for the check.

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

JF: Dubliners – James Joyce, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism – Chogyam Trungpa, Wholeness and the Implicate Order – David Bohm, The Beatles Recording Sessions – Mark Lewisohn, Experimental Music – Michael Nyman.

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

JF: “Anything In The World”  or “Foxmantha”.

KS: What is your favorite meal?

JF: Supper.

KS: What is reality?

JF: Samsara is Nirvana.

Part the Second

KS: How did you come up with the idea for RADIO WONDERLAND and how did you

figure out HOW to do it?

JF: I just sat down one day to figure out what was next and it came to me just about instantly. But RADIO WONDERLAND builds off of what I had been working on for years:  found sound, in particular FM radio, improv, minimalism, dance groove, studio technology, iron, niacin, riboflavin, and nickel.  It was a natural outgrowth of what I had been doing. The shoes were around long before I thought of RADIO WONDERLAND, for example.

KS: What kind of technical background do you have? 

JF: I’m a composer, audio engineer, computer programmer, and grammar bitch, mostly self-taught.

KS: Are you still working with Headphone-Driven Performance?

JF: After the 16 weeks of Saturday night shows in NYC in 2001, I decided the pieces had to walk on their own; I could no longer prop them up with my time and energy. It’s such marvellously, absurdly impractical stuff, having to continually put performers out to pasture.  The only way to tour the repertoire would be to recruit and train new ensembles in each city.   So one day I sat down to figure out what was next for me, as I said before, knowing it had to be solo, and poof!  RADIO WONDERLAND was born. The Bang On A Can All-Stars kept headphone-driven performance material alive for a time and inspired ETHEL and other groups to take it up.  Now and then soloists or groups ask to do it, but it’s still the same set of pieces from the ’90s.  There might be a performance of “Travelogue” at Resonant Bodies, a festival coming September 5th, 6th, and 7th, 2013 at ShapeShifter Lab, Brooklyn, NY.

KS: Both RADIO WONDERLAND and the Headphone-Driven Performances seem to be somewhat live-based in nature; do you think the Headphone-Driven Performances would translate into recorded media the way RADIO WONDERLAND is?

JF: Yes, I nearly always have a live, unrepeatable, theatrical component. But both sets of work lend themselves surprisingly well to audio-only. The headphone-driven stuff is disruptive playing over a stereo and tends to make terrible background music.  Sitting in the theatre, of course, it doesn’t matter if the music is too weird to do your homework by.  But hey, listen for yourself (unless you’re gunning to perform it).

KS: Though your work is quite experimental, it seems that the groove or danceability is important to you too – how important is the groove element to you and why?

JF: Most music relates to pulse in one way or another. The orchestral symphony actually evolved out of suites of dance pieces. Dancing to music is part of the more significant rituals in most cultures, isn’t it?  So I’m pretty normal. Except maybe I like to dance more than the average musician.  I see no contradiction in listening whilst dancing simultaneously. In my formative years just about the most ecstatic thing I could think of was dancing to music.  I guess I’m still forming.

KS:  Why do you think a lot of contemporary experimental or “serious” music seems to eschew danceability?

JF: Yes, it does.   But it does make sense if you think about it. So-called “contemporary”, “experimental”,”concert”, “new”, “classical”, etc. music can draw on any number of styles and intentions.  Danceability isn’t required. But it is required for most popular music.  Dance grooves aren’t included in most conservatory training, and while more and more contemporary composers refer to various popular styles, and certainly electronic dance music, they refer to them, they absorb them, but they don’t really groove.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing.  There is a lot of great dance-based music that isn’t really danceable and yet still awesomely fine.

KS: What kind of sounds do you tend to find interesting?

JF: I think sounds have to work in context.  But if you ask me to imagine just “any old sound” in “any old context” I guess I have to say sounds with rich timbres and multiple formants.

I also have a pet interest in sounds which you think are one thing in the thick of background noise but turn out to be another sound entirely.

KS: When Atlantic Records put out “Jimmy Because“, was there an album intended to go with it, or did you consider it a one-off single?

JF: Oh, they had me sign away my creative life for about six albums’ worth. But the single didn’t sell enough by Atlantic’s standards to warrant even the first LP. Which is pretty funny, because, having sold 3000 copies, had I been on an indie label, that label would have done the album as a matter of course.  But to Atlantic at that time 3000 copies sold was no different from zero.

KS: Do you enjoy doing more traditional remixes?

JF: Sure why not? I also like sunsets.

KS: How did you get the idea of making your own samples (or vocal bits that just sound like they’re sampled from somewhere) for the remix of “The World’s Address”?

JF: Ha ha, good spot. Or is it common knowledge that  “The World’s Address” remix is full of homemade samples like that? At the time I was making lots of vocal collages, and it seemed natural. And this was before sampling had quite taken over in the way it did.

KS: “Larger Than Life” sounds so much different in style than the “World’s Address” remix — was that an intentional decision you’d made, or more of just an example of where you were at at that time?

JF: Actually both remixes started from the idea of the tempo and what sort of twisted spin I could make on a given BPM.  “Larger Than Life” was a continuation of my pots-and-pans percussion on electro-roots reggae that started with “Jimmy Because.”  The production values were much higher on  “Larger Than Life” , although in retrospect and judging from the response of fans it seems like “The World’s Address” was somehow more engaging. Or maybe it’s that “The World’s Address, being on Bar None/Restless/whatever got more traction than just another single on Elektra.

KS: Do you normally start with the tempo like with the They Might Be Giants remixes, and build from there?  

JF: Not necessarily. But if I want that trademark conceptual twist, then yes.  Where tempo meets concept, that’s where you’ll find me….

KS: Aside from being given a set of tracks that you have to use, do you approach remix work differently from your own work?

JF: Sure, any piece develops a set of constraints or issues to which a responsible artist must respond.  That’s true with my own stuff—after a certain point I have to follow the lead that has been established by the composition in question, even if it’s not what I think I want.  In the case of remix work, it’s established before I start work on it.  But there’s probably a bit of smoke and mirrors right here: I tell myself to find the constraints, the issues, and to follow the lead. And so, consciously, I’m not being terribly creative; therefore the creativity comes from the unconscious, whence it best derives indeed.

KS: What was “Camden: An American Musical Tragedy”, the source of the “Cherry Hill Mall” Aria?

JF: This was a performance piece, although it is just as accurate to call it an electronic folk opera, which we did.  It was created in 1985 in collaboration with the great performance artist and theater-maker Iris Rose. She more or less founded the collective known as Watchface.  They are working on an online archive to share what they did in the 80s with posterity. When that comes to life I hope you can somehow attach that information to this document.

KS: Do you listen to much sample-based music?

JF: Sure, why not?  I also like sunsets.

KS: Where do you stand on copyright issues?  Do you agree with the ideas of the Creative Commons?  

JF: Well, I detest what I call “artificial scarcity.” So I am very leery of DRM, that is, the copy protection which cripples the utility of media files. Supposing the history of media technology had turned out differently and vinyl records cost almost nothing to manufacture and distribute, or music was easily transmitted over telegraph lines?  It’s a thought experiment, no more, but I think it shows that the RIAA is clinging to an old model and on old circumstances which created an industry.  No doubt the digital revolution is disruptive.  Life isn’t fair.  But change happens. I’ll be releasing my material under Creative Commons licensing, although I’ve been a bit sloppy about checking the right boxes on Soundcloud.

KS: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

JF: Yes, but not here.  Can’t we go somewhere and be alone? Oh yeah, I do have an album project I’m kickstarting with the help of–everybody, I hope.

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