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Barrelhousing with John Richards, the Man Who Will Save Rock and Roll

John Richards wakes up really, really early. While the rest of the world is hitting the snooze button and wiping sleep from their eyes, John is hard at work saving rock and roll from the clutches of corporate radio.

John works for a little operation out of Seattle, Washington, called KEXP. Actually it's not so little anymore. It used to be, back when it was a low-wattage college station called KCMU. But an infusion of cash from Microsoft founder Paul Allen and his Experience Music Project in 2001, new digs in downtown Seattle, a cutting-edge website with streaming audio, and in-studio performances from the likes of Sonic Youth, Evan Dando and the Old 97's have put it on the map in a big way.

K-E-X-P. Dot org. Remember those call letters. Type them into your browser. Do it now. Because there's no reason for you to continue listening to whatever Clear Channel incarnation you’ve got playing in the background while you read this interview. What is that, Creed? Seriously. Turn. It. Off. We'll make it easy for you -- just click right here and let the world of commercial-free indie rock take you into its warm embrace.

So who is this John Richards character? Let us tell you who he’s not. You know that DJ you just switched off? How he talks in that annoying, put-on voice, like a used-car salesman? How he spews terms like “rock block” and “gettin’ the Led out,” then hits an effects button so it sounds like his voice is echoing from deep within a cave? John Richards is not that guy.

John Richards is that kid in your tenth-grade study hall who was carving names like The Pixies and Bad Brains onto the cover of his spiral notebook while you were busy learning the chord progression for “Stairway to Heaven.” He’s the guy whose college dorm room was littered with mix tapes and foreign EP’s and concert handbills. He’s the guy who didn’t turn into a corporate sellout, who marched into the KEXP studios in 1995 as a volunteer and proceeded to become indie rock’s go-to guy, the DJ who can give a band airplay and suddenly they start filling up clubs and their records are moving off the shelves in towns they’ve never even heard of.

John Richards is going to save rock and roll. Believe it. In the meantime, he took a few minutes out of his busy day to barrelhouse around the old barrelhouse:

Barrelhouse: The DJ used to have a unique spot in radio as a tastemaker, someone people relied on to introduce them to good music. These days there seem to be only a few DJs who occupy that kind of position: you, the other KEXP folks and maybe that guy who does the morning program at KCRW in L.A. Do you think there's any hope of returning radio to what it once was? What would have to change?

JR: I think a lot of people think that’s still the way it is. So the first part is education. 99% OF DJS DO NOT PROGRAM MUSIC. It’s become commonplace in the corporate radio world to have a few people deciding what gets airplay, based on sales and focus groups, not on quality or the art of playing music. While commercial radio is getting better with some of the bands they are playing, those bands are played only because that’s what’s selling now and that’s what the focus groups are telling them to play. There is hope but the change will not come from within, it will come from the pressure from the outside world. Satellite radio, internet streaming, ipods, and stations like KEXP will hopefully draw people away from the terrible programming that goes on in the radio world and that's the only way they'll change: when the numbers go down, i.e. when the money goes down.

Barrelhouse: I understand you got your first job at KEXP by just showing up one day and saying "What can I do?" How has the station changed since then, and how has your job evolved?

JR: It has changed and evolved quite a bit since then. However, if you’re willing to come in and volunteer at KEXP and you’re persistent and excited about KEXP, then chances are we'll have something for you to do. Back then and even now, people show up and say "I want to be on the air" or "give me a show" instead of working their way up at the station or paying their dues like everyone else has had to do. I have a lot of people who say they want in but once they hear I need them to get up at 4:30am and be at the station by 5:00am, you don't hear much from them after that. If you're not willing to miss a little sleep, then you must not be very passionate about what it is we do here. My job has gone from volunteer to having the premier show on KEXP that I created and continue to evolve every day. I also have a ton of stuff to do off-air, but that's not the exciting part that people want to read about. I put in about 60 to 70 hours a week at KEXP. How's that for evolution?! [Ed. Note: In addition to filling out the morning slot at KEXP, John hosts a Saturday evening show called Audioasis that features local bands from the Pacific Northwest. He’s also associate program director for the station, and runs his own record label, Loveless Records.]

Barrelhouse: You've grown into something of a cult figure and your show attracts listeners from all over the world. At last count, you had 8,680 people signed up for your daily email playlist, and that number's growing all the time. You can level with us: how long before all of us Morning Faithful are standing in a field somewhere in Nevada wearing the Polyphonic Spree robes and nodding along to your orders for world domination?

JR: Hopefully soon. I have some land in Idaho and as soon as the list hits 10,000 people, it’s party time. It’s pretty amazing. I have the best listeners on earth. They love music and they love discovering it each and every morning. They give me the license to create a soundtrack each day for them — which sounds like hippie cult bullshit, but it’s true. I shake my head every day in amazement at KEXP listeners. Cult or no cult, we will rule the world! Now send me money!!

Barrelhouse: As someone who works in the music business, maybe you can explain this to us: How does a band like Train get signed to a huge record deal and play to sold-out amphitheaters, while a band like The Long Winters is still playing the club circuit? I mean, seriously, what gives?

JR: I blame George Bush. That and an industry that will only truly get behind what they think they know will sell. And they're right, popular culture loves shitty music. The top 40 has hardly ever been that great overall. Its better to live in a world where you don't have to go to amphitheaters anyway.

Barrelhouse: We know music geeks love lists, and we at Barrelhouse want to provide at least some service to our readers. We like to assume the best about people, so we imagine your average person would turn off the commercial radio and put down the Puddle of Mudd CD if someone just steered them in the right direction. With that in mind, how about five albums people should be listening to right now but probably aren't?

  1. Citizen Cope - The Clarence Greenwood Recordings (Arista)
  2. M83 - Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts (Mute)
  3. The Concretes - The Concretes (Astralwerks)
  4. Delays - Faded Seaside Glamour (Rough Trade)
  5. Bobby Bare Jr.'s Young Criminals' Starvation League - From the End of Your Leash (Bloodshot)
Barrelhouse: And now the Barrelhouse standard: Bearing in mind that we may use your answer to psychoanalyze you, what's your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?

JR: Red Dawn. Why the Russians AND Cubans were attacking Kansas is beyond me.

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