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Exclusive Interview with Al C of Signal to Noise

// Feature, Interview // January 26, 2018 // Adam

There’s not enough good music on the radio.  That’s probably more fact than opinion at this point.  Remember how excited everyone got for like twenty minutes when they heard 92.3 was coming back?  And then 92.3 actually came back and everyone wished their car radio got stolen like a 21 Pilots song.  Anyway, there is still some good music on local radio and it’s usually brought to you by Al C. on WFDU’s Signal to Noise Sunday nights between 11pm and 2am.  In the coming weeks, Al will be hosting a series of shows as fundraisers for Signal to Noise.  Because the show is on college radio, Al is not able to charge for advertising spots on the air, and because nothing in this world is free, must instead look to other means to raise the funding necessary to keep the show on the air.

I’ve been honored to be a guest on Signal to Noise a few times and I have seen first hand how passionate Al is about promoting local indie music.  I appreciate everything he’s been doing for the community and everything he’s done for us at N.J. Racket in helping promote what do here as a shared passion, and as such I got in touch with him in the last week to speak about his history in the indie scene, what he’s got planned for Signal to Noise, and how the internet is ruining music.

Al, first off, thank you for taking the time to speak with me, and really, thank you for everything you do and have been doing for indie rock in New Jersey.  Of course, today you’re probably best known for your show on WFDU, Signal to Noise, but you’ve been at this a long time and have done a lot of really cool shit.  Why don’t you start us off with just quick background on some of your past projects and where you got started in all of this?

Thanks so much for the opportunity.  I love what you’re doing with NJ Racket.  Anything devoted to helping promote loud independent music in NJ is okay by me.

As for me, I have been involved with independent rock music since college.  Probably the thing I’ve done the longest was be the owner of Dromedary Records, which has been putting out mostly loud music on and off since 1993.  We’ve done somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 or 50 CDs, LPs, 7”s, compilations and digital singles.  At various times I’ve also been a writer for Jim Testa’s excellent Jersey Beat zine, written reviews for other publications, promoted a bunch of area shows, and today I host the Signal To Noise radio show on WFDU.  It airs every Sunday night from 11pm on 89.1 FM, and I play pretty much nothing but noisy independent rock music from bands that don’t get much exposure elsewhere.  Sometimes I’ll go down a rabbit hole where I play a few vintage garage or punk songs, or some 90s indie rock, but about 90% of what I play was released within the last year.

And how long now have you been doing a radio show in one form or another and how did you find your way in that media?

I ran the campus radio station at the University of Hartford, my alma mater, in the late 80s and early 90s.  I hosted a show there for four years and loved every second of it.  Then I had a long, long layoff before launching Signal To Noise as an internet radio show on Lazlo’s Blowupradio network in 2015.  After I was invited on to Shaun McGann’s radio show on WFDU to talk about Dromedary, he and I got to talking about my possibly hosting a program on WFDU.  So, it’s his fault.  Blame him.  Also, listen to his show on WFDU’s HD2 station on Friday nights at 7.

So, when and where are your fundraiser shows going to be held and who are some of the bands you have lined up to perform?

There are three different shows at three different venues, and each of them is going to be great.

The first one is on Saturday, February 10, at Rose Gold in Brooklyn.  That one features King Missile, who’ve been making excellent music in various incarnations since the late 80s but you might know them from their MTV hit “Detachable Penis.”  Also on the bill is Flower, another NYC band that was a precursor to Versus, Ruby Falls and Cell.  And last but definitely not least is Charles Bissell of the Wrens, one of the greatest indie rock bands ever to come out of New Jersey.

Next, on February 17 at Pino’s in Highland Park, we’ve got Stuyvesant, Lyons and Joy Cleaner.  I like that bill because it groups together three unique bands from three different scenes, but they’ve all got the common thread of great loud pop songs.  All three bands are going to pick up new fans at this show.

Lastly, on February 23 at Piano’s in NYC, we’ve got a killer lineup that kicks off with Scupper, an NYC band who’s new album “Some Gauls” is kicking my ass right now.  Then come WV White, an amazing loud pop band from Columbus, Ohio, who are coming into town just for this show.  Lastly, Kerbivore, an excellent band from Staten Island that features Sean Kuhl, one of my favorite guitar players.

And for those that don’t know, explain a little about how this money will be keeping Signal to Noise on the air? 

Realistically, in a world where most people are discovering new music by letting some algorithm on Pandora or Spotify or Satellite Radio tell them what music they should hear, there aren’t a lot of resources where actual human beings who are passionate about music are digging around, trying to find the best stuff to share with people.  Without shows like “Signal To Noise” presenting people with interesting alternatives, we’d wind up in a situation where every band sounded like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Imagine Dragons.  Who the fuck wants that?

As a noncommercial station, WFDU is not allowed to sell advertising like most radio stations, so it has to depend on listener contributions to get most of its funding.  There are only a few shows on the station that play loud music, and “Signal To Noise” is the only one that’s 100% noisy independent and DIY rock and roll.

I put these benefit shows together – and the bands are generous enough to donate an evening of their time – which helps produce some of the money that comes from the “Signal To Noise” time slot each year.  The rest comes from me begging for donations.  Between those two things, the “Signal To Noise” audience is able to demonstrate to WFDU’s management that it values loud rock and roll music, and that they’re willing to make a small financial contribution to support and sustain it.

Courtesy of James Damion Bottom row: Lisa and Ben Deily co-founder of the Lemonheads, now in Varsity Drag). Middle row: Tom Barrett (of Overtake), Sean Adams (Stuyvesant), Josh Pickering (Varsity Drag), Ralph Malanga (Stuyvesant), Joe Pugsley (The 65’s), Brian Musikoff (Stuyvesant), Al Crisafulli. Back row: Dan Smith (Shirk Circus and The 65’s) and Cindi Merklee (The 65’s and Speed the Plough). Taken at Maxwell’s.

Something I think that’s impressive considering how long you’ve been at this, beyond even just being able to stay so current with things, which alone is tricky on a yearly basis, but given how many bands you’ve heard, or shows you’ve seen, or Signal to Noise guests you’ve hosted, you’ve been able to maintain so much passion and enthusiasm for all of it.  Fast forward about 25 years since you first started Dromedary, where is that still coming from?

I don’t know, it’s so easy for me to love this stuff, and I still get the same level of excitement when I hear something great that I got when I was a kid.  It seems like every couple of weeks there’s a band that puts out a record or plays a show that kills me. It’s really easy for people to become complacent and just let The Man tell them what music they should like, but there are people out there who are working their asses off, writing music that’s challenging and different – and it seems like it’s harder and harder for them to cut through the crap and reach people.  It seems ridiculous to me that everybody doesn’t know who bands like Glazer or Scupper are, and it also seems ridiculous to me that there are bands out there I haven’t heard that other people love.   So, if I can spend some of my time turning people on to music they might not have heard otherwise, either with my radio show or with the record label, the only thing I ask is that they do the same for me.

And still, I feel like there’s this stigma present in the scene and a pretty apparent age gap.  Typical to the punk rock ethos, nobody ever likes to be told what to do or how to do it and one of the biggest clichés in the scene is the out of touch guy who can’t stop talking about how great things used to be and how its all dead now.  As someone who is very much in touch with things, what in your opinion is being done right and what are some of the best aspects of today’s scene?

I think when Maxwell’s closed, there were a few years where everyone sort of sat around, waiting for someone else to start the club that would take Maxwell’s place.  Once everyone realized that wasn’t going to happen, things started to spring into action.  Today there are a lot of resources in NJ and NY – there’s a thriving scene of DIY spaces, galleries and gig shares that are happening, there are local video shows like “Do Your Worst And Don’t Worry,” there are publications like NJ Racket, record labels like State Champion, offbeat venues like Pino’s and Stosh’s and the Mill Hill Basement.  All these things are popping up as a result of people who care about music, and the result is a scene that’s as fertile as I ever remember it being.  It’s great, it’s a lot more nurturing, and a lot less competitive than it used to be, I think.  While there’s not one key music venue like there used to be with Maxwell’s, there are a lot more avenues for bands to reach people than there used to be.  And there are a lot more people who are happy to see a band in someone’s basement, or in a small outdoor festival, or at a public DIY performance space.

To address one thing in your question, though – about the out of touch guy.  One thing I can say for certain is that there’s a long history of punk music in NJ and NY, and a lot of those punks are still here, contributing and doing great things.  As hard as the people in today’s scene work to be inclusive with respect to race, gender, orientation and such, the ageism in this environment is discouraging.  Punk doesn’t have a uniform, and that includes the color of your hair or the amount of wrinkles in your skin.   I heard a story recently about a guy in his late 30s who was approached by a person at a DIY space, all pissed off that this old guy was in their space. The old guy was in the band that was playing the space that night, and was more punk than anyone else in the room.  Punk started a long time ago; at this point, some of us are old.

What, right now, do you think are some of the biggest threats to indie music?

Computers.  Seriously.  It’s really easy to sit back and read Pitchfork and listen to XM Radio and get the idea that the things they’re writing and talking about are what’s happening in music today.  It’s so easy, that it turns out that’s what most people do.  It’s no different than watching MTV in 1995 and thinking as a result that Smashing Pumpkins or Blink-182 were decent bands.  Discovering new music can be a pretty fucking amazing experience, but you’re not going to discover it by sitting on your ass and waiting for it to hit you in the ears.  The music that hits you that way gets there as a result of lots of corporations trying really hard to find ways to take your money.  The music that hits you as a result of you going out and looking for it is the stuff that stays with you for life.

Alright final two questions.  After 25 or so years in indie rock, what is the single thing or moment you are most proud of, and what is the most important thing you’ve learned that you’d like to pass on?

I’m proud to have been a part of a community of people who have created some beautiful art – musical and otherwise – over the years.  And if there’s an important thing that I’ve learned, it’s simple: make something.  Write a song.  Put out someone’s record.  Put together a show.  Start a zine.  Take pictures.  Put yourself out there, and then support the other people who also do those things too.  There’s room in an art community for everybody, and the more people who are involved, the more rewarding it is.

Al, thank you again so much for your time, and the best of luck to you and Signal to Noise in 2018.

Cover Photo by Lenny Zenith


Written by Adam

Adam gave man-birth to N.J. Racket and is as close to an "editor-in-chief" the site has. He's a god awful photographer.