Friday, January 26, 2007

Brent Bambury, 1995

Following up on the death of Brave New Waves (an update and link to a recent Patti Schmidt interview can be found here), here is a transcript from a 1995 interview I conducted with Brent Bambury for Id Magazine, a southwestern Ontario alt-weekly (bi-weekly, actually) where I was an editor (and more) for six years. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the program, an event I don't recall being celebrated anywhere else. The show itself looked back by replaying the passing-of-the-torch episode where founding host Augusta LaPaix ceded control to Bambury.

Bambury would leave BNW within months of this interview. Patti Schmidt became the new host, and a few years after that she became its executive producer as well. Bambury moved to television to co-host Midday, a show that was cancelled in 2000--ironic, considering how BNW has flirted with death from the beginnning, and yet it outlasted the big gig that Bambury made the leap for. He spent a couple of years in the wilderness; I once saw him co-hosting a featherweight film review program on Rogers Cable. But he bounced back on CBC Radio, at one point hosting three radio programs, including the Ottawa drive show and a Saturday morning variety show called Go. The latter is now his main concern, and he's once again one of the most beloved radio hosts in the country with an entirely different demographic than the one he cultivated with BNW--though no doubt there are plenty of that show's old fans who are more in tune with Saturday mornings these days than they are the dead of weeknights.

After all these years, I still have never met Bambury, other than a fleeting, unidentified nod in the green room when my vinyl geek girlfriend was a guest on Go.

Much of this interview was later quoted in the 2001 book I co-authored, Have Not Been the Same, in the chapter detailing the importance of BNW, its weekend sister show Night Lines, campus radio and MuchMusic, and how they all facilitated a new climate for independent and creative Canadian music.

Brent Bambury

March 1995, Brave New Waves 10th anniversary

Locale: phoner from the BNW office in Montreal

What what is like hearing the passing of the torch between you and Augusta LaPaix?

I remember that evening clearly. I felt awkward being here anyways, because that was really Augusta’s night and I knew that people adored Augusta. People don’t like change, and for a lot of people, I wasn’t Augusta and I don’t deny that. And of course I was a big fan too, and to pretend that I was going to take over her throne was a strange thing. The show was a lot goofier then. Remember, when we were live then, there was a sense not of structure, but of play. We were live for six hours a night, and it had a different feeling to it. The show has evolved, and so have I.

Did you really step up from the mail room?

I came in here with radio experience. My first job was at CBC in 1979, five years before this show went on the air. I was a sportscaster at a regional station. I knew how to cut tape, how to do field pieces, research and current affairs stuff. When this show was created, I happened to be working with one of the original producers before she moved on to this show; I heard about it and thought, o my god, that’s exactly what I want to do. At the time I was a university student, 23 years old. I didn’t know anyone at the network; I knew a lot of regional people. When the show was created, they brought me in a few months later to work part-time doing odd jobs, basically things like answering mail and setting up contest prizes. Eventually, on the first anniversary of the show, it was my job to put together clips from the first year. Shortly after that, they brought me in to guest host when Augusta was ill. That was the first time I was on the air in a host capacity. So in some ways, it was a bit of a cliché, but I did graduate from the mail room and I did have an ambitious streak in me when I showed up here. Because they knew that I loved the show and I loved the format, I liked the material a lot, it was my culture.

Is that why you’ve stayed for eight of the ten years?

I’ve been here for eight and a half years now, but it’s a difficult thing. There have been other opportunities presented to me that I’ve turned down to me on the CBC.

Variety shows on Friday night by any chance? [ex-Night Lines host Ralph Benmergui had recently flamed out with a much-maligned late night TV talk show on the CBC]

He-he, uh ,no. I think I know when my reach exceeds my grasp. Mostly radio opportunities, which I turned down. Partly because one of them involved moving to Vancouver, which is not so bad for some people, but if you live in Montreal it’s a difficult thing to do. If I lived in Toronto I might be more serious about it in a way. But I like living here and there’s not many jobs like this one. There isn’t another job that gives me this much freedom and that dovetails with the other interests in my life like this one does. I love radio, and I’ve done other radio programs, like I did Cross Country Checkup last month. I like doing research outside of my fields of interest, and I like being able to facilitate and allow the engagement that happens in radio with material that’s not necessarily the stuff that’s most interesting to me. In some ways it’s really easy for me to come in here and talk to comic book artists, novelists and filmmakers – because it’s stuff that I would talk about anyway. This isn’t far away from stuff I’d be interested in discussing with you or with someone I pick up in a bar or whatever. These are things that interest me and that go on in my life.

Are you surprised at the longevity of the program in the face of cutbacks?

I really am. It’s been a battle, too, it’s not been easy. Over the years we’ve had enemies – we continue to have enemies in high places. It’s not like the show is everybody’s cup of tea, especially at the managerial level. A lot of people just don’t understand what we’re doing. A lot of people have no idea that it’s not just a punk rock show. That’s fine. We still like to come on like a punk rock show in the first 40 minutes of the show. And by punk, I don’t mean strict, 1977 school, but music that sits outside the accepted commercial standards of even alternative music. Something that’s outside of whatever might be the mainstream. People think that we’re so defiantly in-your-face that there’s just no way they can connect with us, and in some ways that’s the image we like to keep in the first part of the program because I think it works and we don’t want to mess with it. But on the other hand, it makes us enemies. If people could get past that and listen to the whole show, they’d see the context. People have come to us from management and said, ‘Why don’t you just soften the first part?’ We go, ‘Yeah, well, we could, but why would we? It works!’ We don’t want to program for management. There have been a few times when the show could really have disappeared quite easily. There have been times when we’ve had fewer friends in high places than now.

What do you consider the mandate of the show? You mentioned on the anniversary special “explaining fringe culture to a comfortable mainstream audience.”

Yeah, but I don’t think our audience is mainstream. I think it’s out there, or at least adventurous. I think it’s more about making fringe culture more available, rather than explaining it. And what is fringe-y to people in a small town might be more familiar to those who live in urban areas. But for a lot of people who listen to us, we’re the only contact with things that go beyond whatever’s on the alternative hour on MuchMusic. A lot of places don’t have campus stations; a lot of places have bad campus stations. A lot of places have really good campus stations, though, and they give us a run for our money, and that’s fine. I learn a lot from listening to the local one here, CKUT.

Have you met campus radio folk who consider you competition?

Oh yeah. A lot of campus radio folk hate our guts, and I don’t blame them. I would if I was in their place, because we get paid to do what we do. We’re professionals and a lot of them are volunteers who work really hard at being volunteers. Sometimes they do shows that are better than ours. But I think we represent a standard for campus radio, and the best campus programs can exceed that standard, and other ones can reach for it. Basically, we’re paid to know what we know, and we had better be good at it. I think we are. I certainly don’t feel guilty when I take my cheque home!

How big is your research department?

There are two people who do music research for the show full-time. Every night they program four hours of music, and they program it, put it together, make sure it fits together with what we’re talking about, and they research it. All the information comes from them. I carry around some aspect of the information we talk about, because I have to put it into context and make it flow from night to night. And a lot of it is music that I listen to, but I’m not a statistician. I’m not the kind of person who can tell you how many albums Seam have. I try to make the information relevant.

How do you stay on your toes interviewing a diverse range of guests?
That I find easy. I love talking to people. For me it’s a real pleasure to read a book or see a movie and think, wow, that was great, let’s get the person on the show. Usually it’s not a problem. But one of the problems is talking about music, because music is difficult to talk about. A lot of kids, especially in young bands, don’t understand what an interview is for. They’re faced with me, I’m faced with them, and we kind of look at each other. A lot of time I want to take them aside and say, ‘Look, now this is not about you being really bright or anything, this is about getting people to remember your name and buy your record, so be as outrageous and funny as possible! But if you give us attitude, no one is going to notice.’ It’s part of our mandate to expose new music and Canadian music, and we’re somewhat stuck with that. It’s my least favourite thing to do if people don’t want to talk. But on the other hand, when they’re engaging and fun, it’s great to see these kids having a great time with their life and doing what they most want to do.

Do you often find yourself faced with someone who has nothing to say?

You want to know who was a classic bad interview?

Andrew Eldridge? [of the Sisters of Mercy, a legendary grump and one of my favourite awkward BNW moments from high school]
I liked Andrew, actually! I had a good time with him. He was surly as hell, but I could see that for him it was some kind of intellectual game, so I just gave it back to him. No, for me it was Yo La Tengo. I think they don’t want to give up anything about what they’re doing, like it will all unravel if they talk about it too much. If you get Thurston Moore, who’s also a really bad and jerky interview, if you know real technical stuff about music, then you can engage him on that level, but it’s so boring to listen to! It’s like a Guitar magazine interview: what kind of strings do you use, what were you tuned to. It’s like talking to a mechanic about how they souped up their Camaro, I mean, who gives a shit?

Has the mandate of the show changed with alternative culture’s assimilation into the mainstream? Has it become tougher to program the show?

No, because what happened with the assimilation of alternative culture, I find, is two things. One thing is that the compact disc created a mini-rebellion. It didn’t kill vinyl, it brought it back. Small independent units started producing their own vinyl 7” singles and making them available and putting stuff on them that’s just so outrageous that there’s just no way it could be assimilated into corporate alternative culture. The second thing is that it encouraged people to do things themselves. Nirvana is a punk band, basically, and what they did is make people believe that they could do it themselves. There’s a do-it-yourself ethic in music making, not just in music merchandising, but in music making. People are making things that are far more in-your-face and do-it-yourself now than it was five or six years ago, when I think music was a lot less interesting. That’s another thing about being here for eight and a half years, is that there are definitely good periods and bad periods for music. I think we’re in a really good time right now and there’s a lot of great indie stuff happening, stuff that’s really out there and challenging.

How do react to the loyalty of a lot of BNW listeners? Is it a bit unnerving at times?

It’s really flattering. Radio is a great medium for fans. They don’t know what you look like.

What do people tell you after they see you on Midday?

Oh, I know. They say, ‘I can’t believe you look so NORMAL!’ But I’ve been recognized by my voice, which is strange, people say, ‘Oh my god, are you Brent Bambury?’ That happened to me in New York of all places. But the fact that people like the show, because it’s on at such an odd hour, we strive to be eclectic to the point of being absurd. It does mean that the people who listen to it are a really special breed. When people tell me that they’re a really big fan and I find out they’re talking about radio and not television, I always feel so much kinder towards them, so much better about it.

What about the effect of people’s subconscious as they fall asleep to the radio?

Ohhhh, no, not really. It’s not something I think about. People say, ‘Oh man, my dreams are really strange coz I fell asleep with the headphones on.’

What kind of negative lettters do you get?

I think the CBC mandate requires that you respond to these letters. We got into hot water a lot and we’re still in hot water, over a couple of things that we broadcast recently. In some ways I think we’re not doing our job if we don’t do that. We have to put things out there and then we have to be prepared to defend them. I think if we’re not defining the extremes, then we’d be getting no letters, but the fact that we are means that we get them all the time. Right now we’re doing an interview with Todd Phillips, who made a documentary about the life of G.G. Allin. We’re not on safe ground right now, and I don’t know what the consequences will be.

Why couldn’t this program happen in America and why didn’t it?

It did for a bit. We were on National Public Radio in Philadelphia, on WXPN. It was delayed in starting there, because they needed some insurance attached to the agreement. They needed to spend money to buy insurance in the event that they might be sued, because the FCC guidelines in the U.S. are much stricter than the CRTC guidelines. It’s a very litigious society, and people have been successfully sued over odd things that have been broadcast. And WXPN, being a public station, needed to work out some kind of insurance deal with the lawyers here. We had a very complicated legal agreement that they put into place before they could take us. They took us for a year and a half, and then the station opted out of National Public Radio, who supplied the lawyers for the legal agreement in the first place, and they became an independent public station, like a college station, and they could no longer afford the legal advice. That’s why we were dropped. We got a lot of letters from Philadelphia listeners who were really disappointed.

Did you find the whole episode strange, or is it easy to be smug?
We got a lot of publicity about it. It was great having that audience in Philly. We got a lot of black fans out of it too, which was interesting, because at that time there was a lot of great hip-hop happening; this was ‘89-’90, which was the peak of a lot of great hip-hop, and we were playing it. It was a good experiment for us. Somebody told me that the NPR station in Washington was playing excerpts from our program. So it’s still out there and and still having an effect in the U.S. and I’m sure they think it’s a very strange show.

What have been some of the better or worse moments in the last ten years?

That’s a tough one. (polls the office). I did an interview with Arto Lindsay which has to be one of the worst ones we ever did. He was not forthcoming and it was awkward. We did a panel at McGill on the theme of diaries. People brought in their diaries, and talked about why they keep them and they read from them. It was electrifying, actually, that was interesting. It was nice because we went out into the public, and people really wanted to see us. The same was true in Winnipeg, where we did a panel on cyberspace. Those were both this past fall. There was a really positive reaction to it. It validates what we do, it makes me think that people want to hear this because they’ll come and see it live. David Wisdom was talking about a show he did out of Windsor one weekend, from a bar, and he said, ‘People came to see me! It must have been the embarrassingly boring thing in the world to see live!’ And in many ways it is, but people just wanted to see Dave. I have to imagine our audience every night. Some nights it’s easy, and sometimes it’s not.

Who have you always wanted to interview?
Elvis Costello, because I think he’d be difficult. I think he’s a brilliant guy and would be a wonderful interview. For years I wanted to interview David Byrne, but then I lost interest in him.

Who was your first big one that you had trouble drooling through?
I don’t know. Maybe Laurie Anderson. I’ve done Sonic Youth twice, and neither of them was a picnic. I don’t tend to think about people as, ‘O my god, this person is a huge star.’ One of my fill-in hosts talked to Anthony Hopkins right after Silence of the Lambs; that would have been fun.

Do you feel the audience has grown over the years?
I have no idea. I’m still amazed that we’ve been on the air for ten years and so many people have never heard of us. We’re still pretty obscure. We’re still a best-kept secret. And that’s okay, I’m not in this for glory.


No comments: