• Record Collector: Jeff Conklin

    Between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m. on Monday evenings, WFMU radio host Jeff Conklin takes his listeners on an auditory exploration. If you’re listening to The Avant Ghetto, you’re along for the whole ride. Conklin weaves together both far-out and accessible folk, jazz, noise and more with ease. His commentary is thoughtful and rooted in a deep admiration for the artists he spins. 

    Pivoting to WFMU in 2014 after NYC staple internet-radio station East Village Radio closed its doors (he was content manager and host of experimental show Just Music there) has brought new ears to Conklin’s loyal following. Broadcast from their headquarters in Jersey City, WFMU is the longest-running freeform radio station in the US. His listeners trust him — and rightfully so. A true crate-digger, he curates a run of tunes no algorithm could ever duplicate.  From a quiet coffee shop near his home, Conklin spoke with us about vinyl, DJing in Brooklyn, where he sets the vibe at the Wythe Hotel and Greenpoint bar Ramona, and the care that goes into each episode.
    Photos by Cameron Holland, words by Jeffrey Silverstein

    When and where does your interest in vinyl begin?
    I collected comics as a kid. I would drive around with my dad to check out new comic stores to see what they had. I’ve always been a collector. My dad and his brother had tons of records — he graduated high school in 1970. My uncle was a few years older. They were buying the records that formed the bedrock of what I loved. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t take very good care of his and they ended up in a basement that got flooded. He threw them out. He was part of that generation that was just like, "Whoa, CDs, they’re lighter, easier." We’d go to CD stores together but it didn’t matter to him, CDs were fine. I wish he took better care of them, whereas my uncle took great care of his and still has them. So part of that made me realize these can last a long time if you treat them right. 

    Are you methodical about cleaning and organizing your collection?
    It’s funny, maybe once every six months I’ll start trying to organize my records. I’ll get up to the F section and just give up. I DJ a lot in addition to the radio show, so I have a lot of gigs. When I’m pulling these records so often, it’s a pretty big task to re-file. My records are quasi-organized right now, but it makes it difficult when I’m using them so much. As far as condition, obviously I love finding records that are mint and unplayed. Of course, it sounds so great, but I won’t pass something up that looks super interesting that I want to hear because it’s not in optimum condition. I clean my records fairly often. 

    When you’re in a shop, are you seeking out original or rare pressings?
    Not really. Especially at this point — just like when I started — I’m looking for something I haven’t heard before. I’m not one of these people that are replacing CDs I had in the '90s with vinyl. I don’t need it. I’m not a luddite and am not anti-digital. I’ve got a huge digital library of music that I listen to and enjoy. That being said, I have a core favorite zone of bands and artists that where if I see a different pressing, and it’s reasonably priced, I’ll pick it up. Garcia’s self-titled first solo album, that German pressing on white vinyl. You know what, I’m a freak for that stuff so I’ll get it. Maybe a Fahey record, a pressing with a different cover. If it’s cheap, sure I’ll buy it.

    Justin Gage from Aquarium Drunkard has a similar sentiment. He’s mentioned that colored vinyl actually makes DJing harder for him.
    Exactly. When you are looking at it used, it’s very hard to tell if there are any imperfections in the wax. Certain colored vinyl, it’s almost impossible to see the grooves. It’s a nightmare for DJs. There is all this back and forth about what sounds better, but I’ll always opt for standard black vinyl over anything else. I’ve never A-B tested a white vinyl or colored vinyl versus black, but I’ve never heard colored vinyl that sounded amazing to me. I just don’t care about that at all. 

    How do you prepare for your DJ sets?
    It changes a bit venue to venue. Generally, the places where I DJ, there are people who know my aesthetic and are aware of what I’m coming to do. I bring a fair amount of moods and tempos and feel the crowd. I look around, see what people are nodding their heads to and maybe I’ll go with more of that. It’s variations on a theme for sure. I’m not DJing to make people dance. I want to play people music that they haven’t heard and songs that sound good together. I think it works. 

    It’s funny what people’s expectations of a DJ are and what happens when they aren’t met.
    Sometimes when I do the Wythe Hotel gig, people come up and say I asked the bartender what Pandora station this is but I didn’t realize there is a DJ over here. It makes me think, I don’t know of any algorithm in the world that would go from Alice Coltrane to Agitation Free or something like that. In a way, I’m proud because there is no Spotify playlist or Pandora station that would do this. At the same time, it makes me feel like people look at at a DJ and think they are just clicking on a playlist or that all of a sudden I am a jukebox. I don’t ever take requests. 

    What should a good radio host be doing for a listener that Spotify or Pandora can’t?
    Provide context. I don’t use Pandora and my experience with Spotify is pretty limited. As far as I know, you can’t see session dates on Spotify or the musicians or who wrote what song. Maybe most people don’t care, but I do. People who have created this music should be honored in a way that is respectful to the work they have put into it. A guy like Clarence White who played with the Byrds who is amazing. Sure, someone may log on to Spotify and listen to the Byrds all the time, but they don’t know that Clarence White played with them and that’s the guitar you are hearing. If you want to be a good radio DJ at least in the realm of noncommercial radio, you have to dig. You have to offer sounds that people aren’t hearing elsewhere. Otherwise, what’s the point? People have everything, they can listen to whatever they want all the time. 

    You do a hell of a job with that on your show. You also manage to blend the far out with the accessible. Is that a mission of the show?
    I like being able to make these transitions from something that is a standard rocker or folk tune into something more out there. It makes the listening experience more interesting. Anybody could go on the air and play The Dead, Moby Grape, Quicksilver. Then it would just be a classic rock, greatest hits deal. I’m trying to match these sounds and juxtapose psychedelia from the '60s with modern experimental music that owes something to the older music, but it might not seem obvious. 

    You posted the other day that just one person saying they dig the show makes it worth it.
    It’s amazing to me. I didn’t get that when I was at East Village Radio. It was just a smaller, start-up deal. The listener base wasn’t as broad. Since going to WFMU, it kind of always blows me away when I meet people that I don’t know who know the show. When I started doing radio, I knew my dad was listening, my girlfriend at the time was listening and maybe a few other people. That was fine, I was learning. I never did college radio so I was learning on the fly. It was fun. I was at [record shop] Heaven Street Earlier, they are called Material World now — their focus is more punk, metal, and noise, which is awesome — but I happened to be there today and I’m there talking with a friend when a guy behind the counter who I don’t recognize goes, do you do the Avant Ghetto show on WFMU? It blows me away. 

    Social media helps for getting new listeners. People have faith in WFMU. They turn it on and hear a new show and say I’ll give it a shot. After the Ryley Walker show the other night, the guy you mentioned came up to me, he’s in his 60s, and said "I just want to thank you. I never would have been here if it weren’t for your show." He’s been listening to NYC radio since the early '70s. We were talking about the history of radio in New York. He goes, "There really has never been anything as great as WFMU." It blew me away, he knew his stuff. He knew about the heyday of FM programming in New York. He said, "What I really like about your show is how much you talk about how much you love the artists you play." He said not a lot of people do that.

    You make it clear.
    We are free from. Everyone is playing what they want to play. Nobody there is playing something because the station manager is like, "This is in rotation now." It’s a shame, it’s a rare thing. There are a lot of internet stations now where people can do it, but I like the idea that I’m on the FM signal and maybe someone driving down the NJ Turnpike bleary-eyed is hearing a new guitar piece from a guy from England. 

    So you learned mostly just from doing?
    I’ve always loved radio. I remember my father playing this reggae show in the early '80s called Night Nurse. I remember him tuning in every week. That was an inspiration to me. I never listened to anything religiously and said, "Oh, that's how I want to do it." One thing that inspired me was the first time I heard WFMU. I was working in Manhattan at the time. Really early on a Sunday I was just scanning the dial and came across Dylan’s "I Threw It all Away." The very next track was a song that blew me away by a singer-songwriter from California named Jon Wilcox. He did an album called Stages Of My Life. This song "Heavy Rains," it haunted me for the rest of the day. This is maybe 2004, so I looked up this guy's playlist on WFMU and I kept listening over and over to the archive. His name is Jeffrey Davidson and he hosts the Shrunken Planet show. He’s been on for a long, long time. It put WFMU on the map for me. His show especially, he would always be on early in the morning. The way he constructed his sets always flowed really nicely. It’s what I believe makes good radio. A focus. You don’t have to play all the same genre but have things make sense sonically one after the other. I’ve always strived for something like that. His was probably the first show where I thought, "This guy gets it." He plays ambient music and then acoustic music. 

    My show is different, there is more heaviness in it, but it’s a three-hour experience. One thing that bugs me — this has happened a few times — an artist will tag me on Facebook and Twitter and say we’re honored to be on this Avant Ghetto playlist. I don’t make playlists every week at WFMU. I make a three-hour journey. It’s not a playlist. I bring more records than I’ll ever need every Sunday and it changes all the time. It’s a radio show. A playlist is something I put together for my mom’s Sunday card game with the family. A playlist is this rigid thing. 

    They mean well, but sometimes people listen and say why don’t you post mixes to Mixcloud. I’ve done that, and I still like making mixtapes, but I do this every week. It’s three hours. Man, I love music and I spend all day listening to it but how much more do you need every week? I rarely ever take a week off. For the past two-and-a-half years I’ve maybe missed four shows. You need mixes? There are hundreds of archives you can listen to. 

    Where should people be shopping for records in NYC?
    Ah. I knew this was coming. Part of it is that a real hardcore record person never wants to give up their secret spots. But on the other hand, I love stores and I want them to do well and thrive. The most underrated shop is Record Grouch. They get great records and nice in-stores. For me, Academy will always be number one. Even when I first started there, it always blew me away. It’s hard to compete. Record Grouch does a great job and so does the Captured Tracks shop. That guy hustles for records and prices are cool. I try to buy something from every store whenever I go. I want to find a record from $1-$20 that I’ve never heard that sounds amazing. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve spent more than $50 for a record. I’d rather buy new speakers.

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