all photos: Jeff Martin
This month, All Songs Considered, NPR’s beloved program dedicated to “music you’ll fall in love with” celebrates its 16th anniversary (there is a special anniversary episode, a VERY special anniversary live show and more) which makes it a show firmly planted in the 2000s. But, its origin story, which like most (truly) D.C. based stories features a finely weaved, interlocking web of humans, projects, and chances, can be traced back to the end of 1970s.
“I got my first synthesizer in 1979,” Bob Boilen who, it should be noted, is hatless on this occasion, begins.
“I had worked in record stores most of my adult life, all the while studying business and psychology in college, which I couldn’t stand any of it,” he continues. “And then, dropped out of college, took a job managing a store and bought a synthesizer, with what was essentially my pension plan money, at the age of 26.”
Wait, what? A record store with a pension plan?
Bob laughs “I mean, they gave me some two thousand odd dollars for “a pension”. It should be noted that I was making $1.75 per hour at the time, and so I used my “pension” and bought a synthesizer”.
He had never played a day before in his life.
So, why a synthesizer?
“Well, at the time, there was a D.C. band called the Urban Verbs, and Urban Verbs were the MOST IMPORTANT thing in my life. They really changed my path, inspired me to want to make music.”
In those days… “I’d go to Atlantis Club, which was the 9:30 Club space before 9:30 Club happened. Same space, but different owners. Awful owners. They knew nothing about shows, didn’t care about artists.”
Robert Goldstein, who now works at NPR as well, was in that band, and Bob was “kind of buddies” with him and the Urban Verbs synth player Robin Rose. “I mean, of course they knew me, I came to EVERY show. And one day, Robin asked me if I wanted to borrow his synthesizer. And I did.” Bob had tried guitar and it wasn’t to be. But with a synthesizer, especially then, you could “imagine doing something that no one had done before. It was possible to make sounds people had never heard.”
And so, after this borrowed synthesizer flirtation, in early 1979 Bob bought a Arp Oddyssey for “two thousand or so dollars.” At the time he was hanging out in the art scene, Urban Verbs played Washington Project For The Arts and similar spaces all the time. “There were NO clubs in D.C. at the time, and art parties were the places to see original music.” One of the places everyone went to was DC Space on E street, and that’s where Bob met Carol Blizzard (who at the time was dating Urban Verbs’ singer Roddy Frantz -ed) who in turn mentioned to another friend, Michael Barron, that she knew a guy who just got an Arp synthesizer. Michael was in the process of starting a band, with Susan Mumford as the singer, and a name culled from a jazz project at the time and “this wooden desk-drawer organizer that held paper clips, rubber bands, pencils and glue-sticks” which Bill Warrell, owner of DC Space at the time, called Tiny Desk Unit.
A few months of “learning to play the synthesizer” and practice later, Bob was on stage. Tiny Desk Unit was a psychedelic art rock dance band, and they played a lot. “In existing venues, and made up venues.” The whole world revolved around a few blocks, their rehearsal space was in the basement of what would become (the original) 9:30 Club (9th and F), Bob lived on 11th and E, Michael and Susan lived on 7th and F. And because they all lived in the neighborhood, they all knew Dody DiSanto, and they knew that she was opening a club. A club that would care about artists. That club was 9:30 Club (which, this year, celebrates their 35 year anniversary and we highly recommend you read this story on that occasion -ed)
Tiny Desk Unit was the first band to ever play the stage of the original club in May of 1980 (and were joined on stage by some of their favorite people, including Julius Hemphill of World Saxophone Quartet fame, and Laurie Anderson of Laurie Anderson fame -ed) and remain intrinsically connected to the club. The band stopped officially performing together in 1981 (“For all the reasons why bands stop performing together, people, drugs, alcohol…we self-destructed”), but their first record was Live at 9:30 Club, they were also THE LAST band to play the old location on New Year’s Eve 1995/96. They played the Club in 2007, for DC Space’s 30th anniversary, and this is also where All Songs Considered kicked off their live show series, and is now celebrating its 16th anniversary this week.
“And now, as an NPR employee, I am there at least once a week,” laughs Bob. “It is almost impossible to… untwine the history of the two. In terms of a place to have an anniversary party, I can’t think of another place to do it.”
Which brings us to the question: with D.C. being such a crucial part of shaping you musically, how different would everything have been if it had happened somewhere else?
“I grew up in New York, in Brooklyn and Queens, and moved to D.C. as a teenager. And when I think about starting to play music, I don’t think it could have happened anywhere else. People in the D.C. music scene, club owners that cared about the artists…down to the friend level.”
So, how does the transition happen from being a person on stage to being a person in a studio talking about people on stage?
After Tiny Desk Unit was no more, Bob was asked by another friend, Kirby Malone, to join a theater company he was starting, Impossible Theater and compose music for it. Their first project was called “City of Strangers” and in just a few months Bob created and recorded music for over 30 scenes, which he still considers, “one of the most incredible things I ever did.”
Bob and Impossible Theater continued working on pieces together and put together a proposal for a sound installation at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, called “A Brief History of Sound”, as part of New Music America Festival, a roving event that was arriving to D.C. in 1983. Bob would write the music and through slides and sound they would do just that. At the time, Bob had heard “about this thing, called a sampler” and desperately wanted one. At the time, these machines cost upward of $100,000 and when Impossible Theater got their “History of Sound” proposal approved, Bob wrote to New England Digital and they, against all odds, sent him one.
And it is this project that caught the attention of All Things Considered and they asked for an interview. Bob said: “I’d love to, but…I can’t”. He had been sitting with the sampler on his lap, his hands hands under his jaw, up to 18-19 hours a day, and, “I just couldn’t talk.” Of course, they ended up persuading him otherwise and he did the interview with Susan Stanford, and met the show’s producer at the time, who he would run into on the streets of D.C. here and there, as one does, over the next few years.
By 1988, Bob was managing a small local TV station, had just gotten married, and was living with his then wife in Adams Morgan in a $500 apartment, with two incomes and two cats. One day he (simply?) turned to her and said: “This is my chance. I am going to quit my job and go to NPR and ask the man who produced my All Things Considered interview for a job.” That man was Ira Glass.
Bob showed up, asked for a job, and as it often happens in stories of this kind that take place in not-2016, found Ira and was given an interview to edit and cut down to a workable four minute clip. He did it, and got a job. “I basically just showed up there every day asking what they needed help with,” he laughs. A year later he was directing All Things Considered, a job he likens to being “an orchestra conductor.” Which he proceeded to do for 17 years, from 1989 to 2007. In fact, one of Bob’s prized desk possessions is a plaque commemorating that very occasion with his lucky pencil attached to it. “I always said, as long as I have “this” pencil, things will be okay,” he explains, “And so when I left they immortalized the pencil for me.”
In 1999, Bob submitted a proposal for a music program, mainly focusing on songs they used as transitions on All Things Considered. “That was one thing we do at NPR that most other people didn’t do,” he says, “Really use music in the stories. Use it to make sure things fit to the second. And one part of the job you really can’t teach anyone is how to pick the music. And that is something I could do, and did for 18 years. And we would get all these questions about what the music was… At the time, great music radio was dying, the Internet still wasn’t what we know today, there were really no ways to discover new music.”
So, NPR gave him a couple hundred dollars and he did a pilot for the Internet. It was an hour long, multi-media, slide and sound show using only the music used on All Things Considered. And that WAS the show for a few years. Which, as we know, then expanded to a show about music of all sorts.
For 10 years, Bob did the show by himself, but he always loved shows that were “less scripted, more of a conversation,” and then Robin Hilton, who at the time did all the web production for it, joined him on air. “It just makes it easier to SAY things to your friend about music, than to read a script. And we had sat across from each other for so long already, it felt very natural.”
Lets talk a little about the process of what the show has become in those 16 years?
In terms of discovery… you have said in the past that you don’t read much music journalism, and that you “like to come to things on your own terms”. We can’t even imagine how many songs Bob Boilen hears in an average day. So… What are the things that you viscerally react to, what normally strike you first when listening to new music?
“It is still always about surprise. Something happens in a song that I didn’t expect for it to happen. Musically, something I haven’t heard before or lyrically. I go to shows more nights than not, and I go to them with that hope, to be surprised.”
And for you, personally, is it more about music or lyrics or a combination of both?
“If the words suck, I’m done. I can ALMOST deal with really, really good lyrics over mediocre music, but I just can’t deal with mediocre lyrics, even if they are over good music. That is as steady of a rule as I have. And I am not that attracted to beats, more to melody, and that is why hip-hop is not a strength of mine. Although, lyrically strong, it doesn’t speak speak to me.”
“I think we all respond well to the music we grew up with, we love the music that formed us. I just finished a book this year, Your Song Changed My Life (out in April, and available for pre-order now-ed) which is just that, me talking to different artists about the song that changed their life and invariably you find out that those songs came to them early in life, and that music stayed with them. You can’t shake that.”
Speaking of things you can’t shake… you got to A LOT OF SHOWS (506 in the last year-ed) and one of the things we kept coming back to is what keeps you motivated to go? Which, leads to the second part of the questions, which is: what is your favorite way of experiencing music?
“Live, my favorite way to listen to music is live. I wouldn’t have necessarily said that as a teen, because a lot of the music I enjoyed at the time you couldn’t experience live. On the record, they sounded so magical. Now, in a live setting, you can make pretty much any sound possible, and the sound systems are pretty damn good. And I just love looking at the eyeballs of a performer. I love seeing how they express themselves.
Are there any types of shows you prefer to others?
“I mainly go to two different types of shows. One, where I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. Maybe I’ve heard a song or two or they are associated with a label I like or a friend recommended them. And I go hoping to be surprised. Usually, this happens at festivals, like SXSW or globalFest or Winter JazzFest (three of Bob’s self proclaimed favorites -ed), where I will run and try to see as many acts as possible, or making a point to see opening acts. And two, going to see a band I really, really like and seeing how they do it live. And never giving up on the possibility of a surprise”
As part of that experience, Tiny Desk concert series happened as the latest addition to the All Songs Considered output. The intimate live segments started, as music lore has it, at SXSW in 2008, when NPR Music’s Stephen Thompson jokingly invited musician Laura Gibson to perform at Bob’s desk, because the loudness of the crowd at the venue they saw her at made it impossible to hear her. Laura Gibson played the first Tiny Desk show, and also its 200th alongside hundreds of others.
What is the process of getting invited to do a concert? You’ve brought in some seemingly left-field choices for these stripped down sessions. What are the main criteria in a live performance to extending an invitation to come into NPR studios?
The key is that someone on the team is very excited about it. It is not just about me, we all respect each other’s tastes. (They’re currently hosting a Tiny Desk Contest meaning that you or your band could perform there next. -ed)
Are there certain interviews or Tiny Desk concerts that stick out more than others?
“In the past few years… lets see, I am just going to start talking about bands people don’t necessarily know, there was a band called Moon Hooch. An incredible drummer and two saxophone players. They make music that feels like electronica but is done entirely on organic instruments. And it was an otherworldly experience. DakhaBrakha from Ukraine too. Their voices, to me, sound like synthesizers.”
Any Tiny Desk shows that you had your heart set on, that just didn’t happen? Any shows that, so to speak, got away?
“Foxygen,” Bob says, visibly crestfallen “They were here, and we had them all set up, and they just fell apart before our very eyes.”
But for that one loss, there are so many other glittering memories.
“And now, now we’re 16-years-old,” he laughs.
Is this a time of reflection, a time to think about how long you will keep All Songs Considered going?
“Ha, we actually JUST talked about this. This week we recorded our 16 songs of the last 16 years show, and we discussed where we would be 16 years from now. And we decided we’d still be here. I’d be in a wheelchair, and Robin would be in a wheelchair too, even though he is much younger than me, and we’d still do the show.”
Oh, and one last question – why a 16th anniversary party?
“Because…,” Bob laughs, “We couldn’t get our act together in time for the 15th.” It will be all the sweeter this way.
Happy (Super) Sweet Sixteenth birthday All Songs Considered. Celebrate with them this Wednesday at 9:30 Club with Sharon Van Etten, Dan Deacon, and some (very) surprise guests (“I haven’t even told my best friend who they are,” Bob when asked to tease out who it may be).
and for those into nosying about desks, tiny and otherwise, we leave you with these shots of All Songs Considered work space. (Jeff) Tweedy coolers and all: