Skip to content

NYC Blog Part 2: Subway Psychology and Radio Waves

NYC Blog Part 2: Subway Psychology and Radio Waves published on No Comments on NYC Blog Part 2: Subway Psychology and Radio Waves

There was no Monkey business on Tuesday the 15th. Instead, I had a double-duty schedule for the day: recording an in-studio radio performance and interview in the afternoon, and playing a “regular” (i.e. with just one Echoplex) solo gig in Brooklyn.

This was a bit of a daunting prospect, not least of all because I’d never gotten around NYC on my own, and never ridden the subway before -let alone going from Queens to Manhattan (for the radio taping), then to Brooklyn (for the gig). (Poor Todd had no shortage of bemusement at my repeated inability to comprehend the fundamentals of the New York City subway system; no matter how eloquently he would decscribe things, I kept looking at him with a wide-eyed expression of panic. Some day I hope to prove to Mr. Reynolds that I actually am more or less equipped to get through day-to-day life as a semi-intelligent adult, but my time there in March will offer no support for such a notion.)

I actually walked to the Queens subway station, stared at the two flights of stairs leading up to the platform (for the “subway” was actually an elevated train at the point where it went into Queens), and turned around in fear, thinking there was no way I could manage the route on my own, and that I’d take a cab instead. Before long, though, I had a change of heart: I decided to be a man – and save about $20 dollars per one-way trip – and brave the vaguaries of public transit.

If this sounds hopelessly cowardly of me, I should explain that a big part of my subway trepidation stemmed from the basic logistical issues of my rig. Because I was going straight from Todd’s place to a performance taping – and from there, straight to a gig – I needed to have my entire performance rig with me. As electronic music setups go, my rig is pretty minimal, but it’s still approaching the limit of what one person on his own can comfortably manage:

Two Echoplexes (though I only use one at a time on normal gigs, I carry a spare just in case), a footpedal to control the Echoplex, and a bevy of cables all go into a small carry-on suitcase, replete with a retractable handle and roller wheels (which is essential, as the combined weight of the case with the aforementioned gear is somewhere in the 25-30 pound range). In addition to that is a Vox Tonelab (a table-top guitar amp modeller, which is designed to replace an amplifier in the signal chain, and which feeds the Echoplex signal), which is carried in my “man purse,” since it’s somewhat fragile and heavy (as it uses a real vaccum tube to help generate its sound), and too big to fit into the carry-on luggage.

On top of all of that, of course, is my guitar, which was slung across my back in a softshell case. (Thankfully, the Reverend I brought to NYC is a semi-hollow instrument, weighing in at less than seven pounds, so it was no great burden to bear.) My cell phone, keys, CDs to sell, and my master notepad with crucial phone numbers, addresses, and information all found their way into whatever spare nooks, crannies, and pockets I could come up with.

The point being, I had both hands full at all times, and it wasn’t a huge amount of fun carrying all of this up and down stairs to various subway terminals. To say nothing of the… UNIQUE experience of making my way through subway turnstiles with the aforementioned gear.

But, this is independent, guerilla touring. So I hauled my stuff up the stairs, barely squeezed through the turnstile without getting stuck, and got myself onto a New York City subway for the first time in my life.

A lot of people talk about New York and Los Angeles as being polar opposites, and that’s certainly true in many ways. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the realization of how travel throughout the cities acts as a metaphor for their different social dynamics. In Los Angeles, people drive everywhere; driving “across town” can mean committing to a half hour or more of freeway time when you’re talking about a city that covers over 50 square miles. (Public transit is also pretty clearly delineated by social class in LA; at the end of 2003, I went without a car for a couple of months, so I got fairly well acquainted with the bus and subway system, and I was often the only white person on the entire vehicle.)

On the other hand, plenty of people in New York, of any walk of life, go without a car, and as I rode the subways over that week there was an enormous variety of races, social castes, and ages in evidence. LA is somewhat infamous for being an easy town to withdraw into onesself in, and I’m a loner by nature as it is. So the NYC subway was quite an eye-opening experience; there’s something about standing shoulder to shoulder with random strangers, hands placed inches apart on whatever support rails are available, while the subway car hurtles down the tracks, that I found utterly fascinating… and about as far-removed of a travel experience from sitting in a car by myself on a sun-drenched freeway as I could imagine. I had suspected the subway would be a necessary ordeal, but I soon grew to relish the experience.

The first stop on Tuesday was WNYC, a New York public radio station where I had an afternoon appointment for a taping of the show “New Sounds,” with host John Schaefer. Mr. Schaefer had been spoken of in extremely high terms whenever his name was mentioned, so I was delighted when he’d agreed to do a show with me to help publicize the Monkey gigs. WNYC is located right next to the Brooklyn Bridge, so I exited the subway terminal to have my first dose of disorientation as I emerged at ground level in a completely different geographic environment to where I’d left.

Yes, yes, I can hear you now – “isn’t ending up in a different spot from where you start the whole point of travelling?” Very cute. But the subway’s about the only mode of transport I can think of where you don’t get to see the distance you’re travelling. Being an Iowa boy in New York is disorienting enough, but walking out of a subway terminal and seeing a corner of the Brooklyn Bridge looming off to the side is a whole different head trip.

I made my way into the building by way of a security check-point, which required me to put all of my gear through an x-ray machine. The raised-eyebrow look I got from the guards as my Echoplex suitcase went through the x-ray was one to relish, and fortunately the believed me when I told them it was musical instrument gear for a recording at WNYC.

Once through, I got to the station’s offices and met John (which was a bit odd for me, as I’d only ever emailed with him up until then) and Irene Trudel, the engineer for the show. I made my way into the studio and started setting up my gear, while talking over the logistics of the show (and the audio signal in particular) with John and Irene. WNYC struck me as being a very cool and exciting place; there was a buzz of activity and energy going on, and everyone I talked to seemed to radiate the very particular energy of a creative person who’s very busy doing things they really care about.

The show went quite well – John’s a truly masterful interviewer, not just because of his highly intelligent and engaging discourse, but also his immense musical knowledge and experience. I was actually quite surprised at how technically in-depth John got with his questions about what I do from a technological standpoint, and there was also a great deal of discussion about the conceptual, creative side of things as well. John has dealt with both David Torn and Robert Fripp on numerous occasions in the past, so he was distinctly qualified to pose questions about the evolving nature of guitar looping.

I wasn’t thrilled with my musical performances during the taping, but I wasn’t horrified by them, either. And as it turned out, a number of people who showed up to the Monkey gigs later that week did so specifically after hearing this program. (I also got some online CD sales immediately after the show aired, which was a nice surprise… as was bumping into a well-known guitarist in LA in mid-April, who told me he’d heard the broadcast while driving around New York and was struck by the evolution of the music from what he’d heard on Normalized.)

Need I say that I was delighted beyond words to do the show? Need I or no, say it I do. The show is archived online here:

Coming up: part 2 of the day, as I cross the pond to Brooklyn to share a bill with an electronic-tinged vocal jazz ensemble, a one-man laptop punk act, and… a trio of drag queens.

Leave a Reply

Primary Sidebar