Every program on WFMU is a unique mixture of loam and silt, manure and peat, each lovingly tended to to bring the finest harvest of ephemera, flotsam and mixed metaphor that can be guaranteed. In this installment, Dave Mandl explains what makes his garden grow.
Some WFMU DJs spend days preparing a show. They think about it all week, make notes, put select records from their collection aside in advance, plan exact sets, or even work out precise segues well ahead of time. Some DJs come down to the station with long, painstakingly assembled lists, so virtually all they need to do when they arrive here is mechanically pull each of those CDs or LPs from the wall and they’re all set. Some do their entire show from their personal collection, so they can step out of the elevator two minutes before airtime and stroll into the studio with three full crates of records, confident and ready to go. These DJs produce some of the best radio in the world.
I do things a little differently. I don’t prepare days in advance. I never make lists. I grab maybe a dozen of my own records and CDs (often fewer) just before I leave the house. To be honest, I haven’t got the faintest idea what my show’s going to sound like at that point, and five minutes before showtime I’ve still got almost no idea.
What I do do is pull almost my entire show, on the fly, from the walls of WFMU’s main library and New Bin in the few hours before I go on the air. The way I do this is the same every week. I pick a section of the library (say, the P section of CDs) and flip, flip, flip through each individual disc till I find a couple of things that (a) I’ve never heard before but look interesting or (b) I do know, and strike me as something I happen to feel like playing that day. Then I go to another section of the library (say, the Ws, or the film soundtracks) and do it again, then again. Occasionally I’ll think, “Hmmm, I haven’t played Care of the Cow in a while,” in which case I’ll go over to the C section, grab I Still Don’t Know Your Style, and toss it on the pile. But that’s the exception. For the most part I just go through the library as if I’ve never seen it before, flip through individual discs, and pull things one by one with absolutely no plan. For the discs in the resulting stack that I’m not at all familiar with (and there are always a few of those), I’ll then give them a quick listen to see whether they’re any good, and a lot of those will go right back in the wall. Then I flip through some more sections. I’m finished when it’s time to go on the air, and lo and behold, I’ve got a pool of maybe 75 records and CDs broadly representing how I happen to be feeling that evening. This is a s-l-o-w and tortuous process, and it’s why I prefer to arrive at the station a good four hours before airtime.
I’ve gone through this painful procedure week after week, year after year, for one reason: I hate preparing shows. Not because I have ADD (though as a matter of fact I do), but because improvising is what, um, gets me off. I’m a writer and a musician, and yes, I have spent time getting articles just right or perfecting bass parts, but not much time. In the unlikely event that I were to spend more than a couple of days working on a piece of writing, I’d probably hate the result. As for playing bass, one of the reasons (among others) that I could never play in a traditional pop or country band is that I’m constitutionally unable to play the same thing every day. The world needs those reliable soldiers who can provide predictable, rock-solid bass parts to the same songs night after night, but I’m not one of them. Over time in my musical career I naturally drifted toward the free-improvisation world, but long before then I was screwing with pop songs by improvising over boring chord changes on the spot wherever and whenever I could get away with it. What I need to do is come up with a brilliant riff or rhythm for this section of this song in this set RIGHT NOW.
But back to radio: The same way it would be torture going on stage knowing exactly what notes I was going to play for the next forty minutes, it would be utterly joyless for me to go into the studio and roll out three hours of music according to a pre-planned script. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, mind you; a great set is a great set, and there’s usually no way anyone listening can tell whether it took a DJ two hours or two months to put together a particular show: In other words, it’s not you, it’s me. But as far as I’m concerned, the fun of doing a show is seeing the CD counter tick down (00:17, 00:16, 00:15…) and having to come up with something now that is going to work absolutely perfectly when this current track ends. At any point in my show I can pretty much guarantee that I have no idea what the next song is going to be. As for the next set: forget it.
At the risk of veering into New Age territory (and there’s no one less New Age than I am), I tend to be in an almost trance-like state while I build my sets. It’s all done so quickly and under so much pressure that there’s almost no “thought” put into it—or, to be more accurate, there’s a lot of thought, but it usually has to happen in the space of 20 seconds to a minute. Doing a set that I’m truly proud of under those conditions is my reward, and I have to say, it borders on magic. Still, my mental state on the air is such that if I weren’t typing everything I was playing into a web page as the show progressed, I probably wouldn’t remember much of it an hour later. As a matter of fact, people often ask me the day after a show, “Hey, what did you play last night?” and it’s rare that I can name more than four tracks or so. I’ll usually have to go to the online playlist to see the set lists. This is not an exaggeration.
It’s not lost on me how similar this is to what I did when I was actively playing live gigs as a bassist. Of course I always had a sense of whether a show had been basically good or bad, as all musicians do, but after every one of them I’d have to go home and listen to the recording to find out what I’d played that night—and, mind you, these are gigs where I was playing songs, not doing free improvisation. It was usually only then that, if I were lucky, I’d become aware of some clever fill I’d pulled out of thin air during the set, and think, “Heh, that was pretty cool.”
(Photo: David Weinberg)