Monday, February 23, 2009

Dr. Demento Interview

The name Dr. Demento may or may not mean anything to you. Barret Hansen (Dr. Demento) is a famous radio disc jockey who got his start in the 70s with his own radio show of obscure music. The “obscure” soon turned comedic after playing such artists as (the then unknown 16-year-old) “Weird Al” Yankovich. To this day, Dr. Demento still has his own weekly broadcast and is most famous for bringing “Weird Al” to the attention of the world. I was given the chance to interview the great fake doctor last week. Here’s what he had to say…

Peter: Besides being a disc jockey, you’re also an avid collector of just about every type of recording. So, looking back at all the types of recordings there have been over the years, which would you say is your favorite? What do you think was the best era of music recording?

Dr. Demento: My favorite at any given time is something that's new that my listeners like, or that I think that they would like.

As for the past, I'm partial to the 1920s and 1930s, when a lot of great blues, country music and jazz was recorded along with some nifty pop tunes and comedy songs. However, I grew up with the 1950s and 60s and have lots of favorites in those eras as well.

P: Are you a believer in the idea that LPs have a higher sound quality than today’s digital CDs and mp3s?

DD: Not really. Some LPs have fantastic sound IF they were pressed on first quality vinyl, mastered by the very best engineers using state of the art equipment, and if the records are in immaculate condition and played on multi-thousand-dollar systems. Otherwise, I'd rather hear CD's. As someone who uses recordings to produce a radio show, I'd say CD's are so much handier than LP's because they cue automatically, they don't have to be treated so delicately, and in 99.9% of cases they reproduce sound that perfectly mirrors what was recorded on them. One cannot say that about LP's. As for mp3s, they vary considerably in quality. I do use a lot of them in my work, and I love my iPod, but I recognize that they are generally a little lacking (or a lot lacking) in comparison to CD's. The current migration of many listeners from CD's to mp3's as their primary listening technology is not a step forward in sound quality. That is one of the few cases in the history of recorded music that a new technology has not involved an improvement in sound quality. However, mp3's are good enough for most people (including me) most of the time, and they're incredibly convenient, so there you go.

P: How were you given the name Dr. Demento?

DD: I was introduced to commercial radio by a DJ named Steven Segal, known on the air as The Obscene Steven Clean, at KPPC-FM in Pasadena, CA in 1970. On my second or third appearance with him, out of the blue, he introduced me as Dr. Demento. When I spoke with Steven about it later, he said he had conceived of the character of Dr. Demento some time earlier, giving credit for it to a musician named Peter Wolf (of the J. Geils Band) -- Dr. Demento was supposed to be a guy who knew everything there was to know about records. When he met me, he decided I was Dr. Demento, and that was that. It caught on, that's all.

P: Of course fans have many favorite songs that get requested over and over. Does it ever drive you crazy to hear some of the same songs each night?

DD: Well, I don't play the same songs each night. Even "Fish Heads" only gets played three or four times a year. Hot new songs might get played ten or twelve times a year (such as "The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny" in 2006) but no more. So it's not quite the same as a live band that has to play their most popular songs every night on stage, or a local DJ who is playing the same Top 40 songs day after day. I'm OK with it.

P: What are your favorite songs to play on the air? Off the air?

DD: On the air, whatever's new that my audience seems to like. Off the air, lots of old stuff from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s (or whatever) or whatever pops up on my iPod's shuffle.

P: Many point to you as the man who brought Weird Al to the world’s attention. What did you see in him at the time that got your attention?

DD: The very first tape he sent to me was "Belvedere Cruising", an original song (not a parody) about driving around in his parents' 1964 Plymouth Belvedere. (The song was written and sent to me in 1976). The accordion accompaniment caught my ear - accordions were extremely unhip in 1976, but I'd grown up with them - and even more, I was impressed with the clever lyrics, the rhymes, and the general fine craftsmanship of the song. Al was 16 at the time, and after that he just kept getting better and better.

P: What is your favorite Weird Al album/song?

DD: I think "Yoda" is the all time request favorite...but my most exciting moment with Al is when he played "Another One Rides The Bus" for the first time, live on my show, on Sept. 14, 1980. The response was overwhelming, and stations all over the country were soon signing up to carry my show.

P: Is there anyone else you’ve helped you think should have become more famous than they did?

DD: Logan Whitehurst. His 2003 CD "Goodbye My Four-Track" is my favorite funny music album of recent years by anyone not named Al. He wasn't with a major label, and had no budget to promote it...and he came down with brain cancer in 2004 and died two years later. (Sorry for the downer!)

P: You’ve been a radio DJ for over 30 years now. What keeps you going?

DD: New music comes in every week, and people still enjoy the show and tell me so, and I still make a living doing it, so why not?

P: You now have a few “best of” collections. Did you help pick these out? What would be included on your own personal “best of” compilation?

DD: Yes, I picked out all my compilation CD's. Of course my selection was limited at times by business issues...Adam Sandler's management wouldn't let me use any of his songs, for instance. Outside of that and one or two other songs, I couldn't improve much on the "Very Best of Dr. Demento" CD (except to include a song or two that was released after that came out, like "The Ultimate Showdown...")

P: What people can get away with in comedy today as opposed to years ago has changed rather dramatically. Have you been able to get away with airing “dirtier” material over the years?

DD: That comes and goes. I have to watch that carefully. For instance, the word "fart" is OK now; it was taboo when I started in 1970. Same with references to condoms, and references to masturbation as long as they aren't too graphic. In the 1980s and 1990s I had to be very "politically correct" especially with reference to races, ethnic groups and sexual orientation. That has loosened up a teeny bit in recent years; gay people, for instance, don't go ballistic about words like "queer" and "fag" as they once did (it does depend on the context), but we still have to be extra careful about racial references, more so than in the 1970s. When Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson had that "clothing malfunction" at the Super Bowl in 2004, there was intense reaction in Congress and elsewhere in public life. Many radio executives panicked, afraid they were going to lose their stations' licenses if anything "dirty" went out on the air, and we had to really clamp down on the more explicit things and even on the subtle innuendo for awhile. Things have loosened up a bit since then, but that could change at any time due to unforeseen events. I just have to watch what's going on.

P: What sort of changes have you noticed in the funny music business?

DD: The biggest change is due to the growth of computer technology including the Internet. People who make funny music (and all other kinds of music) are now able to produce their own CD's at home, master and duplicate them on their computers, and sell them online. None of that existed during the first 25 years of the show. People back then could produce their own records, but they had to persuade local record stores to carry them on consignment, or sell them by mail, with very few opportunities to promote them aside from my show and a few other outlets. For most of them, the returns were meager at best. Today, someone like The Great Luke Ski can get a whole lot more people to hear his music...though the prospect of real financial return can still be elusive.

P: You used to look for most of the obscure music you played yourself. Do you still do this yourself, does someone else help/ look for you, or do most people just send you submissions?

DD: I still look for records...but most of the new stuff comes online or in the mail.

P: What do you typically look for in new songs you play each week?

DD: Something that's funny and entertaining to listen to. It's very subjective.

P: Now that you’ve been doing your show this long, what plans do you have for the future?

DD: More of the same. When I did my first shows in 1970, I had no way of knowing whether I'd be on the air the next week, never mind the next year. I had no way of predicting or even dreaming that I'd still be doing the show 38 years later. I have no way of knowing what the future will bring, but people still enjoy the show, I make a living, so I press on. Thanks for your interest!

P: Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions. Good luck to you and here’s hoping we see another 30 years of your show.

DD: Thanks!

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