Interview: KEXP & American Standard Time’s Greg Vandy

By: Lauren Jahoda

I was fortunate enough to visit the KEXP studios and meet with most of the wonderful staff there, while in Seattle earlier this month. Greg Vandy, host of American Blues & Roots show ‘The Roadhouse’ (Weds. 6-9 PM), was not at the studio at the time, and so I did not get a chance to meet and speak with him face to face. He was however gracious enough to correspond with me for an interview shortly after my visit. My pre-interview research led me to various sources including several YouTube videos, interviews with musicians, KEXP’s website and his pride and joy, American Standard Time (AST), which you will come to know as you read on. Below is an excerpt from AST, discussing Greg’s background, long time involvement with KEXP and ultimately, how he has become the powerful voice in the American Roots exchange he is today. Following his notable introduction, is my interview with Greg, filled with experience, anecdotes, and his passionate insights on a wide range of topics of interest.

Greg Vandy has been host of The Roadhouse on KEXP in Seattle since 2000, just prior to the station’s transition from KCMU. He is an avid supporter of community radio and has been involved with many aspects of radio programming and music production over the years.

Greg is currently devoting full-time to this venture [American Standard Time], his radio show, DJing, and writing a book called 26 Songs In 30 Days: Woody Guthrie & The Columbia River Project to be published in 2016 by Sasquatch Books.

Greg credits his first year in college as a turning-point in discovering the world of alternative music. It was the non-commercial, campus-based radio station KUGS in Bellingham, Washington which opened the doors to a whole new world of punk-rock, reggae, Afro-Caribbean, and roots music. Greg soon became involved with KUGS in 1985 and began hosting a variety of shows, including a Friday afternoon Jamaican show, Now Hear This until 1991.

Since then there’s been WWOZ in New Orleans, Sound Of Brazil in NYC, and Hattie’s Hat on old Ballard Ave. Greg tended bar and spun the hits (actually cassette tapes!) in the Seattle hot spot which spawned a healthy roots scene next to the Tractor Tavern in the late 90′s.

Sometime in 1999 KCMU program director (and margarita drinker, no salt!) Don Yates recruited Greg (after Greg’s shameless self-promotion) to host The Roadhouse radio show. KCMU became KEXP, Greg retired from bartending (the back!), and the indie-roots, new American scene has exploded.

American Standard Time is Greg’s latest platform, and like The Roadhouse, it’s all based on tradition. Greg will continue to introduce you to the best music and all the related stuff that makes us uniquely American- by mixing the old with the new, originals next to the revivals, and the well-known next to the un-known, just on a bigger and more dynamic platform – it’s American Standard Time! (www.americanstandardtime.com/about/greg-vandy/)


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2014 08 KEXPGregVandy at Pickathon

Greg Vandy (and Sherry Pendarvis’ horse) at Pickathon Music Festival 2014
(Photo Credit: Kurt B. Reighley)

Lauren Jahoda: Your page on the KEXP site explains that in 1996, while living in New York, you fell into the Americana Roots scene. I’ve found that today although the presence of Americana artists is very frequent in the NY area, the cultural backdrop tied to the genre is more prominent elsewhere. What was it about the scene in New York at the time that drew you in?

Greg Vandy: I knew very little about traditional roots music, especially country and bluegrass in 1996. I had just moved to NYC from New Orleans and I was into all the other styles of American music. I had a friend there that turned me on to some things, and took me to a house party at Jeremy Tepper’s place in Williamsburg (or somewhere). I didn’t know anybody, but I noticed a copy of No Depression magazine on the coffee table, which ironically was published out OF Seattle, which was where I was from. Then I was taken to the “Alphabet City Opry,” Greg Garing’s weekly night at 9C in the East Village, which just blew my mind. There was one particular older man who sang in this very authentic High-Lonesome style and I never heard that before. I realized how this music is really best live, particularly bluegrass. And the fact that I was in NYC discovering this with all these cool folks who weren’t country stereo-types but who had a deep appreciation for traditional music. It really made an impact. The juxtaposition was almost helpful for me. To this day the correct “cultural backdrops,” boots and hats, and other such definers of roots music are usually distracting. It’s ultimately about the music and whether it’s good or not. In NYC there’s just naturally a ton of very talented people playing all genres of music. So it’s about being exposed to the good stuff no matter where you are. Of course, there are some cultural backdrops that are critical to understanding a specific kind of music, like a brass band in a New Orleans bar. There’s nothing else like that!

LJ: Did you feel you had to return to the Seattle area in order to develop a professional lifestyle surrounding this kind of music?

GV: No. I came back here because I needed a job. I worked for the State Of WA and drove all over the Evergreen State looking for invasion insects. On the side, I started bartending at Hattie’s Hat in Ballard which was next to the The Tractor, which booked roots music. Ironically, Kyla Fairchild was a part owner of Hattie’s and she was involved with No Depression, which was super ironic. Then the whole alt-country thing exploded. I started doing my show soon thereafter with a much broader emphasis that included blues, soul, gospel, and new bands which have become known as “indie-roots.” Those were the good old days. It just fell into place and there was/is no lifestyle other than a stubby and a shot.

LJ: This question will certainly sound nebulous, but how does Americana make you feel? For me, the answer to this questions lies in the name of my magazine – Heartstrings – never have I listened to something that pulls on me as powerfully as Americana music. There are a lot corny analogies I have described to my non-Americana listening friends to express my connection to the genre that often simply result in odd looks. I’m going to let you in on one—I’m a big fan of honey (as many are). I sample a lot of the locally-grown honey for taste but also because of the medicinal allergy purposes, etc. What I love about the taste of honey is obviously the sweetness of it but particularly how behind that traditional honey flavor you can taste the earth, dirt and flower from which it derives. I relate this to the common Americana conversation of its representation of both the traditional and the new. With a mere taste of honey, you can trace where it’s been. This is a HUGE digression but one I hope brings you some entertainment (and some help with answering such a bold question).

GV: I don’t use the term “Americana” much as it’s a loaded term (like most genre labels) that sounds very white bread. I like blues and soul equally, and you don’t often here anybody referring to Muddy Waters as “that’s some fine Americana music!” But I get what it means and how people use the term. What i like about it is that it’s an honest music. It’s like a nutritious food. It feels good as opposed to cheap, processed junk food. But don’t get me wrong, I can get down and get low with the best of them, but roots music goes deep. And it never ends.

LJ: Americana’s popularity certainly is especially high at the moment, do you think this popularity is ever-growing or temporary?

GV: People will move on eventually if they’re just passing through. But traditionally based music has been, and always will be here. It’s not going anywhere. So the posers will come, play some bad, soft, marketable music, then move on to the next thing. We will still be here, when they and their publicist leave. That’s what happens to most “scenes.” But it’s been growing for about 20 years now, and I credit shows like mine and Don Slack’s Swingin’ Doors (KEXP), No Depression, and Pickathon for developing the scene out here to what it is today. Which is very healthy.

LJ: Have you noticed any particular trends or new sub-genres emerging within Americana? For example, I’ve noticed the strong presence of male/female duos, i.e. brother/sister, husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc., on the scene right now, such as Shovels & Rope, Johnnyswim, Mandolin Orange…

GV: Beards, mostly.

LJ: What’s the story behind the name “The Roadhouse”?

GV: I adopted an existing program. It was called the Roadhouse. I’m just continuing that show on Weds 6-9pm PST.

I’ve tried to create my own sound tho, where old music can work next to the new artists who are drawing from the old artists – like it’s always been, I guess. I love to play artists who are not normally associated with “roots music” by finding a common element in their music, like slide guitar, or harmonica, or an old hammond. It seems to work!

LJ: I’m sure it is difficult to choose, but to date, who is your favorite performance at KEXP?

GV: In terms of in-studios that I’ve hosted? I would say Valerie June last October. She is just such a unique character. Glamorously beautiful with crazy long dreads, yet Tennessee country to the bone. She’s very well-versed on traditional music and has singular sound, particularly her vocals. We taped the session at 8 in the morning as she was catching a plane to do the Tonight Show, so we are both a little rough. But she really wanted to do it and was excited about it. I think it’s great. She got stories!

I also love the Hurray For the Riff Raff sessions. I’ve had them on twice now. Alynda Lee Segarra is a real star in the making. She’s very bright. And Kacy & Clayton, the Canadian teenagers who were just on my show Aug 13th. They are very precious and play a perfect 60’s styled folk-revival sound. I think it was their first-ever radio appearance.

LJ: Can you tell me about any memorable moments during interviews?

GV: One time Dr John stopped by to chat in the on-air studio. It was right after Katrina, and he was furious and outraged, like we all were. But I got him to tell stories of the old days, including how in the early 60’s at a nightly New Orleans gig that started after 2am, his drummer had a trained pet monkey (those really small ones) on a chain who would pick-pocket drunks who had passed out in the front row! As they played! I asked about his auto-biography and he said “I didn’t write that!”

Also T-Bone Burnett played in-studio after releasing a solo record in 2008 (?) or so and said he really wanted to play the show- which is kinda hard to believe. He’s a very nice guy.

On the flip-side, Taj Mahal was super grumpy and before we started taping, his guitar strap broke and his guitar fell to the ground! Dead silence for about 5 minutes. I think I said, ”oops” which didn’t help.

LJ: If you had to choose, who was your favorite performance at Pickathon this year?

GV: Well, I love The Sadies. They are my favorite live band, and friends. Courtney Barnett was great and she called it their best live show to date. There’s something magic about that Galaxy Barn. A lot of bands say that. Last year The Relatives melted my face in there, with their hard gospel funk. It was unbelievable. Bobby Patterson was in there this year backed by the same band, led by Zach Ernst, who people might know from Black Joe Lewis’ old band.

Steve Gunn was great (I recommend his new album in Oct!) and I loved The Donkeys. Of course it was good to see Valerie June there. I insisted she play Pickathon back in October. And it worked out! I wish I had seen more music as I was always having to be somewhere. I organized the Lucky Barn interviews (Kurt B Reighley is the best interviewer!) and the DJs in the newly modified beer garden, below the Galaxy Barn. Oh! Son Little in the Lucky Barn was really great.

LJ: I was present as you hosted Willie Watson’s performance at Pickathon. As host at the Lucky Barn, how did you prepare for the questions you asked the artist?

GV: The problem was that I didn’t. I wish I had prepared more. You always do. But those type of situations really depend on how and where the artists wants to go in terms of dialogue. Often times they are nervous and don’t really want to talk. Son Little didn’t seem like he wanted to talk (he wasn’t nervous!), but Kurt drew it out of him (which takes balls!) and it led to some hilarious conversation and a very long detailed story of how he came to record with The Roots. It was so good! That audience for Son Little was treated to a very “insider” story.

LJ: How does KEXP remain so successful? And, what sets KEXP apart from other non-comm radio stations?

GV: It’s because we are supported by our listeners. And we are organized. There’s a plan. Our listeners hear the call and respond with huge support, because we are honest about the plan of sustaining a new platform of “Listener-Powered” radio free from advertisers. Every time we ask, they give.

LJ: Who and what kind of music is currently playing on your iphone, ipod, radio, or in your car on your own time?

GV: Israel Nash’s “Rain Plans”. Best album of 2014. If you like Neil Young at all…..

LJ: Do you play an instrument? If so, what instrument?

GV: No. I have a standard answer to this question which is I live in Fandom. Fandom is this place where you get to enjoy music and never have to bother with creative struggle. In Fandom it’s all good all the time and you never worry about if people like your music, or if you’re good enough, and there’s no learning curve! It’s a pure place that leaves very little time for anything else. I’m a big fan and like collecting things and organizing them. Like a nerd. Maybe someday I’ll have kids and we can learn the xylophone together.

LJ: What do you think of the new KEXP studio/headquarters? How do you feel the new space will change the way KEXP operates?

GV: It’s gonna be good. The best part is that touring bands can have a rest-stop at KEXP and not only play in-studio, but take showers, do laundry, and take a nap! It’s hard on the road. Also, listeners can come inside our building and inter-act with us. The only thing I fear is being watched when doing my show, cuz I scream and curse far too often when making the many mistakes I do. I’m also without pants a lot.

LJ: One very hot topic right now is how can the industry survive with new artists being virtually compelled to give their music for free in order to just to be heard. Everyone seems to be talking about it, but no one seems to have an answer. Do you have any thoughts or insight on it?

GV: I’ve made a habit of not paying attention to the industry. Which is why I rarely benefit financially from what I do. I’m trying to stay as much a “fan” of music as possible without being too much involved in the industry. I have an opportunity to share good music via the radio and my web-site (American Standard Time) while being as independent as I can. Which is both healthy for me and my audience because there’s no commercial influence. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but most of my favorite musicians never got paid much. With that being said, do you want to buy an ad on my web-site?

LJ: Do you think LP albums are still a viable format, considering the recent trend has been to release a stream of singles/EPs?

GV: Yes! more songs

LJ: Are you involved in any side projects (aside from your work at KEXP) at the moment?

GV: As mentioned I have a new web-site which I’m proud of called American Standard Time. It’s about “American Music and Vintage Lifestyle” and it’s about records, photography, music features, film, travel, food, ticket gives, and all the things that we like. We take the premise that if you like Gram Parsons you just might like a photo essay on Joshua Tree. If you like New Orleans music, you probably would like a red beans & rice recipe. It’s all related and fosters an appreciation of real stuff based on a tradition that most of us grew up with as Americans. My show streams via KEXP on there too. www.AmericanStandardTime.com (see “What It Is” under the “About” tab)

I’m also writing a book called “26 Songs In 30 Days: Woody Guthrie & The Columbia River Project” which will be published by Sasquatch Books in May of 2016, which is the 75th anniversary of Woody’s experience working for the BPA (the Fed Gov’t) in Portland, Oregon. It’s exciting stuff and my first book.

LJ: You may not be familiar with it, but I follow a very popular photographer/blogger who calls his work “Humans of New York.” He walks the streets of NYC each day photographing individuals amidst their everyday routines and asks them some questions. He then posts a piece of their conversation to Facebook. He has over 8 million followers and the posts really are astounding. He often asks a question that is a personal favorite of mine that is not necessarily related to Americana, but I’d love to ask you:

If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?

GV: Stay calm. Woman and children first.

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