all songs considered: bob boilen
Bob Boilen: The Creative Composer
By Robin Rose
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Bob Boilen is a celebrated personality in the field of music. He is a prolific musician and composer best known for the creation and production of the NPR series, All Songs Considered and Tiny Desk Concerts. Boilen also composed the original theme music for Talk of the Nation and voiced himself in Gal of Constant Sorrow, a season 27 episode of the animated television series.
I recently had a conversation with multi-talented Bob Boilen.
Thank you for joining me, Bob. I have known you for a long time, dating back to the late 70s. I often think about how Washington was an incubator for creativity and talent in those years.
Bob: I feel really fortunate to have been there at that time. I would come and see your band, the Urban Verbs, regularly. I loved the texture between you on the synthesizer and Robert Goldstein on the guitar. I could not figure how it worked between you two, but the sounds blended so well, and the wash of sound just thrilled me.
I remember one weekend you let me borrow your synthesizer. It was a mind-blowing experience to know that I could put on a record, hear an instrument and find places where the sound of the synthesizer could fill and expand, complement or contrast what was going on with the music. I thought, wow, imagine if I had a synthesizer! I did not have anybody to play with at the time, but I bought a synthesizer. It was just weeks later that a friend introduced me to Michael Barron. And that was the beginning of, Tiny Desk Unit.
Robin: “The Urban Verbs” and “Tiny Desk Unit” were totally unique. Our music was not based around blues or pop music. The synthesizer is a conceptual instrument, a mutable instrument. The sound is not fixed like a guitar or piano or drum. You can imagine any sound and then evoke it using filters and effects.
Bob: And also because of the nature of the beast, it’s not always easy to replicate what you did before. In performance, it might sound like an accordion on Friday night, but on Saturday night it might sound like a chord on a harp. There are so many variables in how far up or down the slider is or which switch you may or may not have remembered to turn on, or the shape of the envelope that encompasses the sound. It is inspiring to me to be surprised as I am playing and then accentuate or tweak. I really love the malleability of the instrument.
Robin: I remember a significant concert at the Hall of Nations at Georgetown University. You were one of the key players in the event. Tell us about that.
Bob: In about 1979 there was a radio station, WGTB that was sort of the guiding light for many of us. It was one of those college radio stations, where DJs let people walk in with the vinyl of the music they loved. The DJs would play the music, whether it was space electronica or folk roots music. It was an inspiration to many of us. There was no other radio station in Washington, DC to listen to with this range of music. In fact, around the country, college stations were often the only places where you could actually hear music without commercial.
My roommate, David Howcroft, was a DJ at WGTB. He and I decided to do a benefit concert for the radio station so that it could continue if the University defunded the program. We got the Cramps, the Urban Verbs and The Chumps to agree to play. Well, shortly before the concert was supposed to happen, the station was shut down. That amplified the interest of the people who were to come to the concert. So, we put it on anyway at the Hall of Nations at Georgetown University.
People were really fired up because their favorite radio station had just been torn away. The energy that your band and the Cramps generated was intense. People were up on chairs and tables dancing and, well, pretty soon tables and chairs were collapsing and windows were broken to the entrance doors. It was an insane, exciting concert.
I learned later when I wrote my book, “Your Song Changed My Life,” that happened to be the first concert for Ian MacKaye (Fugazi ) and Henry Rollins
(Black Flag ) because they were under 18 at the time and The Hall of Nations concert was open to everyone. So, these kids had the opportunity to be at a real concert experiencing this crazy energy of the Verbs and Cramps. It was an inspiration for others bands to be born. It was a pivotal moment.
Robin: Following that concert, there were lots of conversations about making new music without being an incredibly trained musician. The music was purely by intention and attitude. What inspired you to create that kind of music, such as the, Tiny Desk Unit ?
Bob: Yes, two things inspired me. One was some of the stuff that came along in ’76-’77 like punk music. A lot of the punk music has an aesthetic of action. Just do it, find your voice and do it. You don’t have to be Eric Clapton, or some fabulous singer to have a voice.
My second inspiration was your band, the Urban Verbs. The music was very visceral. I saw pretty much every show you ever played in DC. There was a spirit that said, ‘we can invent something’ it inspired me to invent, too.
Robin:Tiny Desk Unit was an amazing series, tell us about your new band, Danger Painters.
Bob: We formed Tiny Desk Unit in 1979. We did several other albums by 2007, TDU had never made a full studio album. In 2007, Susan Mumford, the singer, was living in DC, but Michael Barron, the guitar player lived in California. A small newspaper in New Hampshire put out a Challenge to musicians. The idea was that from February 1 to February 28 you would make an entire album.
There was no winner or loser. It also had online stream capability. We loved it. Susan recorded songs and Michael Barron played guitar. We exchanged sound files and I would put rhythm to Michael’s guitar and send it back to him. So, Tiny Desk Unit made an album. In 2007, we made a full Tiny Desk Unit album called, “Sputnik Fell on My Birthday.”
Later, Michael and I started a new project. He came up with the name, Danger Painters, and we made an album. Since 2008, we made an album pretty much every year. Sometimes, as in this year of COVID, we made three albums. For me, it is a brilliant way to work because I can take what Michael sends me and play with it just in my own space and send it back to him and inspire him to do more. We now have Bill Harvey who plays bass with us. Kevin Lay is our singer and lyricist these days. We have 17 albums.
Robin: You mentioned, No Evil Studios and Nick Koumoutseas. I recall that you began learning about recording and studio work at No Evil?
Bob: Nick Koumoustseas was the owner of No Evil Studios. After Tiny Desk Unit broke up in 1981, I was in touch with Nick. One day he said, if I ever wanted to learn about recording I could come in at night and use the equipment. Nick had a synthesizer called the Synclavier II. So, I began to learn how to use a mixing board. I was part of a theater collective group in Baltimore called, Impossible Theater. We would write our own multimedia pieces that would use 15 to 18 slide projectors and multilayered screens. Kirby Malone said to me, we are putting on a theater piece, would you like to write the music?” I had never written a piece of music on my own in my life. But, I said yes and within two months I had written the soundtrack for twenty-three scenes and recorded all the voices of the actors. The soundtrack synced to thousands of slides and the 18 projectors. All work was done in two or three months and still remains some of my favorite music I have ever written. We worked together for many years writing theater pieces. We got grants from NEA and all that.
Robin: Any other creative work that stands out for your career?
Bob: Yes, learning about New England Digital, the company that made the synthesizer. They had just built and designed a sampling version of the synthesizer. I flew up to Vermont to propose the idea that I would write a piece of music that would be part of a sound and visual installation for the Smithsonian. They shipped me a digital sampling synthesizer. I went to National Geographic and got samples of underwater volcanoes and nature sound and wrote this new music for the Impossible Theater installation at the Smithsonian. NPR heard this piece of music and did a story on my music in 1983. That was how I became connected with NPR. Five years later I got a job there, but that was my initial entry. Many roads pointed me in that direction.
Robin: So, you created a format for musicians from all over the globe and NPR allowed you to be creative and authentic to do what needed to be done with your aesthetic vision?
Bob: Yeah, that is part of the blessing of being at NPR in the 80s, 90s, and the early 2000s. It was a very welcoming, open-hearted bunch of people those days. If I wanted to start a podcast at NPR these days, it would take many layers of many people. Back when I was starting in 1999, when I said that I wanted to start an online music show, everyone kind of rolled their eyes and said, whatever, if you want. Here’s couple of hundred dollars. You make a pilot and we will see. And I just started doing it.
The same thing happened with the Tiny Desk Concert series. In 2007, I stopped directing All Things Considered to focus strictly on All Songs Considered. And though I had been doing All Songs Considered from 2000 to 2007, there was no NPR music. The company decided to start this thing called NPR Music. So, I left All Things Considered and worked with NPR Music full time. About six months into it I remember telling my boss that I wanted to actually have bands come play at my desk. And he said, why would you do that? We have these beautiful studios downstairs. They are just gorgeous. And I said, if you are restricted and can only do certain things, if you narrow the parameters, the artist will create and the artist will create something they have never created before. The work will be more memorable to them and to the audience who knows this artist instead of hearing their record replayed in front of a camera. They are going to hear something that even artist did not know he/ she had. And that is the beauty of it.
Robin: So, you are literally in an office?
Bob: It is literally my desk. It is my working desk. I pick my computer up and move when the time comes for the band to come in. We certainly mic the singer but we do not amplify that voice. That means every musician in the band has to play quieter than the singer. That means they are now self-mixing, playing in a way that they never would play because when they are in a club, they have got their in-ear monitors in or the monitors on the floor, which are projecting all the other band member’s sound. They play as loud as they want and somebody is behind the mixing board just mixing the volume. Well, here, as artists, they have to reconstruct their song to fit an office space in the daytime with no lights, none of the show things bands are used to. What you get is something genuine, something unique and memorable. That’s what I learned from being a musician. Restrict me and I will find a way as a creator to create something new and different. And that, to me, is the reason the series is successful.
Robin: Tiny Desk Concert series is a prototype. Now, there are numerous examples of what you can do that never existed before. I think you have taken the college radio format and dug deep.
Bob: You know, whenever Tiny Desk Concerts are written up, they always talk about the well-known artists who have done what they do. It’s good to see artists, like Taylor Swift, come in and just pick up her guitar and play without any production behind her.
But, I love to present the sounds and voices of the unknowns because that is where my heart is. There are so many talents in this world.
Unfortunately, most magazines and online sites ask the same questions over and over which I do not like. We have an initiative called, Tiny Desk Contest when we ask to send us a one song video. We go through the four to six thousand videos, indicating that the number of talents in this country is phenomenal. Those artists, just like the Verbs and Tiny Desk Unit, might be known in their home towns by a hundred people. We provide them a chance to be heard by many more. I think part of my empathy is having been with bands who bring happiness to a small audience when more people would love to hear this music, but never will. And I think it’s all coming from the roots of the Atlantis Club, the 9:30 Club and the other clubs around DC, like d.c. space.
Robin: What effect has COVID had on musicians’ creativity and performance?
Bob: I talked to lots of musicians during the COVID pandemic. Many of them have welcomed the fact that they had to stop, take a deep breath, and have time to think about what they do and what they write. It is such a vicious cycle, as a touring musician. You have got to make that next record within a week and then go on the next tour. COVID has stopped that cycle. For creators, again, restrict them and they will create. So, what we are hearing is a lot of new musicians. It has certainly been a terrible time monetarily for musicians, but I am not sure in the creative sense that it has been that devastating.
Robin: I look forward to an amazing renaissance of music coming out in the near future. Speaking of new music, I listened to your newest album, Hidden Smiles.
Bob: I am an untrained musician. My hands and brain do not work well together to play, say the piano or guitar. I feel completely fortunate that I have grown up in a world of technology where I can use the brilliance of engineers to help me realize my music. In the case of Hidden Smiles, a lot of that music is done using software built by Ólafur Arnalds. He is an Icelandic composer and an AI software engineer. When Arnalds came to play a Tiny Desk Concert, he had a keyboard. Behind him he had two upright pianos that were reacting in real time to his playing on the keyboard. You would see the keys and the hammers moving with nobody sitting at those two other pianos. He was playing simple things on his keyboard but the two pianos were elaborating on his playing. It was really exciting to see and hear. I used his software called Stratus, to make Hidden Smiles.
Robin: As a visual artist myself, I was impressed by the album cover of Hidden Smiles, too. Can you tell me about that?
Bob: It is a very close up picture of a frog sticking its head out of algae laden water. One of the things I started doing about 5 or 6 years ago is concert photography. I go to 400 to 600 concerts a year. My partner, Jessica Mowery inspired me to start taking pictures. When COVID hit, I could not go to see bands and I started getting interested in this technique called macro-photography.
Brookside Gardens in Maryland is one of my favorite places to take pictures. I take very close up pictures, often of flowers or insects that I am very passionate about, in that case, a frog. Although I do not consider myself a visual artist, yet I have fallen in love with this type of photography because, again, it marries technology and my aesthetic.
Thirty years ago, there was no Lightroom or Photoshop. You worked in a darkroom. Now, taking imagery and playing with it digitally is similar to taking sound and playing with it by going through filters and effects, it is totally the same in my brain.
Robin: It is clear that you have passion to create, does that help you in the selection of artists to present in the Tiny Desk Concert series?
Bob: I love my job. I am very fortunate. We have done over a thousand concerts at my desk in the Tiny Desk Concert series. Since COVID we have done about 150 home concerts. There is a staff at NPR who research music coverage all the time. You can pitch me any artist you want, but you must be passionate about that artist. If you are not passionate about that artist, they are not coming.
I don’t ever want to let go of my original intent for this series, to see and to hear creative authenticity. Going back to the days when there were concerts, I would go and see four or five hundred bands. I’d always make sure to see the opening band. Although, you come to see the well-known artist but maybe their label or their tour managers think that this opening artist has something to offer to the audience too. I want to hear them and bring them to the table. There are many artists who are now very well known that I saw as an opening act and brought to the Desk. I feel really proud about that.
Robin: How do you keep up with the volume? Seeing five or six hundred bands here and there?
Bob: That is part of my job. It actually facilitates my decision makings. For example, in preparation for going to the “South by Southwest” (SXSW) event where 13 bands are going to play, I have workmates. My workmates, particularly Stephen Thompson, downloaded thirteen hundred songs of which I listened to, or at least parts of all of them. I rated the songs by stars and again I reviewed the four and five star songs. It was a grueling process but it was an amazing experience and a sense of responsibility. People fly to Austin often for the first time, or they fly in from South Korea, China or Australia dying to be heard. And I am dying to find those people who have a vision and need an outlet. NPR has been an outlet for so many great unknowns.
Robin: You have interviewed many artists. What do you like to hear from them that is not cliche or boring?
Bob: Often musicians get asked the same questions, when they really like to talk about other artists and their music. I think if you give musicians the opportunity to talk about what they are passionate about, you learn much more about them. You find what’s deep inside them that inspires them to create. So, in my book interviews with Jimmy Page and Smokey Robinson, and Asaf Avidan from Israel, I asked them to talk about their inspirations and it was great.
Robin: Your book, “Your Song Changed My Life” is informational and inspiring for those who are not even familiar with music. It is fascinating to find out what motivates people to devote their life to making music that is so unique. I think you are driven by this passionate instinct for creativity and it is evident in all the things you do.
Bob: Thank you. It is hard for me to see myself the way others see me. I really do care a great deal about what I do. I want to represent the artist as honestly as possible. There are all these people who have visions, who have ideas and want to express those ideas. Our culture seems to have a very narrow path as to what the gatekeepers in the world think. What popularity is and what the culture wants which is often violent and mean spirited. That is not for me. I want to represent passionate people and have their voices heard.
Maybe in my lifetime a different path could have been my voice. Perhaps, I would have been heard as a musician. I am fine with that. I wound up as director of All Things Considered in 1989 and it gave me the ability to get music on the radio to millions of people and change their lives and the lives of those who could hear them. What a fortunate place to be. And that has carried through All Songs Considered and the Tiny Desk concerts. I don’t ever take that for granted and I don’t ever want to let go of that passion.