College radio is often characterized by its eclectic broadcasting. It’s not uncommon to hear one 15-minute noise rock song after another. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Andrew Bottomley, current host of “The Way Out” on WSUM, aspires to a certain amount of “listenability” with each show. The music featured varies from week to week but carries a similar DIY ethos with each new installment. The show is a goldmine for anyone interested in punk, no wave and underground music. I talked to Andrew about Madison’s music scene, what classifies as “punk” and college radio’s obligation to be a source of independent music.
What are the characteristics of a good punk song, and how has punk music changed since it first emerged?
I’m personally of the mind that punk isn’t a genre or style of music, rather it’s a mindset or approach to music, art and life. Certainly we can all hear things like The Ramones or Germs and identify a punk rock “sound.” But even back in the late ’70s when it was first starting out, punk was way more diverse than just that fast, hard, three-chord style.
For instance, Devo and Wire were just as (or more) punk than, say, The Clash, but they sounded nothing like what most people stereotypically think of as punk.
Anything that’s challenging and adventurous, musically or politically, and that’s pushing against the boundaries of what’s accepted as pop/rock music, that’s punk, especially anything that’s anti-establishment and embraces a DIY ethic.
Today, Calvin Johnson’s acoustic, avant-folk pop is more punk than some Rancid sound-alikes who have the mohawks and studded belts and loud but completely predictable songs about fighting against “the man.” I mean, that guy’s in his 50s, making whatever music he feels like, and he still tours around the country, often completely by himself, playing $5 shows in off-the-beaten-track places. Last year, he played here in Madison in a hair salon to maybe 20 people and sang a cappella! That’s pretty punk.
What keeps the kind of music you play relevant?
That’s a tricky question. As both a trained cultural historian and a fan of all kinds of music, who can find something to like in just about every genre, style or period of music, I’m not sure I’d be willing to say that any kind of music is ever “irrelevant.”
The popularity of any given artist or musical style might fade, but that doesn’t mean it stops being valuable or good. And maybe that’s part of what “The Way Out” is about. We mostly play older music from the 1960s through the 1990s. I’d say the punk/post-punk music of the late ’70s through the mid-’90s is our real sweet spot, though we venture off on weird tangents here and there, and we also play newer music fairly regularly.
“The Way Out” follows a “no hits, all the time” philosophy. Where do you find your music? Any labels or music blogs you’d like to suggest?
Since most of what we play is slightly older, “classic” material, finding music for “The Way Out” is usually just a matter of exploring my record collection. My wife Diana and I are both big record collectors; we’re in our 30s now and we’ve each been collecting for more than 20 years.
We also both worked in the music industry for years, and I published an independent/underground music magazine called Skyscraper for more than a decade. So we’ve had lots of access to records over the years, and we’ve had the good fortune to accumulate a collection that numbers in the multiple tens of thousands. We of course still buy new music regularly, too. But mostly, planning “Way Out” playlists is just a matter of digging through our collection. It’s actually one of the things I most enjoy about doing “The Way Out” – it gives me an excuse to listen to all this music we’ve spent years acquiring. I’m always discovering things I haven’t listened to in ages, or even forgot I had. And then I get to share those “new” discoveries with our listeners, which is always fun.
What kind of community surrounds punk/no wave music in Madison?
Cities like Madison are odd places because they’re big college towns, which means there are always lots of young people around who are interested in music, the arts and outsider culture. But it’s also a highly transient population, and those people come and go every few years.
As a result, it can be difficult for underground music scenes to develop and stay strong, especially since it requires more than just fans for a scene to thrive: You need people to create and run show spaces, book touring bands and promote shows, play in bands, etc. And those really outgoing, creative people seem to be the first to jump ship every few years for cooler places like L.A., New York, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago.
For instance, probably the two biggest Madison-based names in indie/experimental music of the past few years were Peaking Lights and Zola Jesus, and they both left town soon after finding a little fame.
Nevertheless, there’s still a decent contingent of people who have stuck around Madison and who support independent music, and we’ve got some great rock clubs (High Noon, Majestic, The Frequency) and record stores (Strictly Discs, Mad City).
What do you do outside of the station?
I’m a graduate student here at the UW in the Communication Arts department.
I’m actually currently writing my dissertation on Internet radio and the history of radio’s convergence with the Internet in the 1990s and early 2000s. So that and teaching keep me pretty busy.
It’s fun anytime I can put all that stored-up pop culture knowledge to use. Some friends and I have lately enjoyed Strictly Discs’ monthly music trivia at the High Noon Saloon. We’ve won it three out of the four times so far.
Who are your favorite artists, both dead and alive?
I’m just going to throw out a few names off the top of my head because if I think about this question seriously it’ll take me a month of deliberation and I’ll come out of it with an ulcer: The Velvet Underground, Serge Gainsbourg, Nick Cave/Birthday Party, Joy Division, Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers, Television, James Chance & The Contortions, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Minor Threat, Drive Like Jehu, Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Sonic Youth, Unwound, Television Personalities, The Fall, The Cure, Wire, Wipers and Slint.
Can you tell us about the best show you’ve ever done?
Selfishly, I always enjoy the single artist tribute shows because it gives me an excuse to sit down and really extensively explore a musician and band’s catalog and history in a way that I just don’t do very often anymore. For instance, we just recently did tributes to Lou Reed and Devo after their unfortunate deaths. [Bob Casale of Devo died last week.]
I have all the Velvet Underground/Lou Reed and Devo records, but it’s rare these days that I’m just going to sit down and binge on them all at once. And those shows tend to get lots of positive listener feedback. A few weeks ago I did one on the shoegaze band Slowdive (who just reunited) and it attracted lots of attention on social media and our blog, including Slowdive themselves re-tweeting us.
But I’d have to say that the best show I ever did was actually a series of shows. In the Fall 2012 semester, I did about 10 shows on the theme of “rock lit,” where I took prominent rock/punk history books and soundtracked them. I did books like Clinton Heylin’s “From the Velvets to the Voidoids,” Jon Savage’s “England’s Dreaming,” Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life” and Greil Marcus’ “Mystery Train.”
What do you keep in mind while building a playlist?
That’s a great question. I typically do themed shows that offer up at least a little bit of historical context and analysis.
I really belabor the playlists; for every hour of music you hear on the radio, I probably pulled at least another hour’s worth of music that had to get cut. I always aim for a mix of the familiar and the unknown. Even if I’m doing a theme like “first wave punk” where a lot of the artists are household names, I want to throw in at least a few unconventional choices just to remind people that there was lots of other music out there that mostly gets left out of the history books today. But I still want to give listeners a dose of what they’d expect to hear: The Ramones, The Clash, The Damned and so on. At the same time, I’ll usually try to throw at you a lesser-known track by those more popular artists; I’m not going to play “London Calling” for the zillionth time.
Flow is also really important, as is listenability. I give a good bit of thought to how songs pair together. In any given show, there are usually a few small groups, or mini-sets, of four or five songs that I think fit well together sonically and thematically.
How long have you been hosting “The Way Out?” How has the show changed since you began?
I’ve been hosting the show for a couple years now. However, the show’s actually been on the air on WSUM since 2006. It was started by my good friend Josh Shepperd, who was a graduate student here at the UW who has since moved on to Catholic University, where he’s now a professor of media studies.
I really have to credit Josh for introducing me to the station and handing me his show. The show has definitely changed over the years, but I think we’ve stayed pretty consistent in our desire to cover challenging, obscure, or otherwise “way out there” music.
Why should people listen to your show?
Probably for the same reasons they listen to WSUM: They want to hear music that’s original, different and not likely to be heard anywhere else on the Madison airwaves.
“The Way Out” is going to give you a healthy dose of good, weird indie/punk music, particularly older stuff, and probably at least a couple things you’ve never heard before.