Exclusive: KCRW’s Chris Douridas on the LA Scene, Paul Simon, and the One Reason to Stay on MySpace

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With the doors to LA’s Indie 103 recently shuttered save for a minimal online presence, Angelenos bid farewell to a champion of local up-and-coming acts as well as weird and wonderful segments like Jonesy’s Jukebox. If it weren’t for KCRW, discerning LA listeners would be orphaned. Thankfully, the Santa Monica-based radio great still pumps fresh and innovative tunes across the airwaves daily.

KCRW tastemaker and DJ, Chris Douridas, gave us a call at the outset of the station’s current fundraising push to chat about the LA music scene, Paul Simon, and why public support for KCRW is so crucial. Through the telephone, we could hear birds chirping as the man who helmed Morning Becomes Eclectic through the ’90s and created soundtracks for watershed films like American Beauty and Austin Powers, stepped outside the studio to chop-it-up with Flavorwire.

Flavorwire: KCRW is subscriber-supported, and the winter pledge drive is happening right now. In this economy, raising funds has got to be tough.

Chris Douridas: Yeah, but we’re seeing good signs so far. So that’s good. The public radio system in the U.S. is all based on listener support. The future’s always a question mark, but the upside is, we can do original programming as long as the audience will support us.

FW: You started hosting Morning Becomes Eclectic (MBE) in 1990. How has LA’s music scene changed since then?

CD: The adage used to be, “Nobody gets signed in LA.” You have to go to another city, make noise, and get signed there. When I first came to LA, that was the general sense, you couldn’t really get your start in LA.

FW: It was too big a pond?

CD: No, I think it was that record labels needed to see a band could work outside of LA, because things that work here, don’t necessarily work across the country. If they could see a band was selling a lot of records in (pick your city), then they’d be more willing to take a chance that it would set fire nationwide. Once KCRW started to become a place that supported new bands, new artists, playing demos and that kind of thing, the complexion of the music scene started to change. I noticed the growth most dramatically after Beck. When Beck came to KCRW in ’93 and played on MBE, the record labels started to take notice. After the bidding war for Beck, KCRW was taken seriously as a launch pad for artists. So I think that helped to make it okay for bands to get their start in LA, in a way. Certainly, KCRW can’t take all the credit for that, but I do think it was instrumental.

FW: You’re always coming up with great stuff for your Saturday show. You just find things of real quality. How do you source new music?

CD: Well, you know I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and so the music is kind of coming at me in all different ways. I get mail at the station, I get mail at my house. It comes from the major labels, and it comes from artists making records in their bedrooms. Also, I find stuff online.

FW: Where do you like to go online?

CD: Believe it or not, I still find music through MySpace. If I find a band that I wasn’t aware of, I can look at their friends, and see what other bands they know about. Following music that I like, I find more music that I like. I’m actively searching for music off-line too. I’ll go to Amoeba, and I go see bands live all the time. I usually see shows with bands that I’m not familiar with, bands that haven’t recorded or released anything. If I get something from a new band that I like, I’ll go see how they sound live.

FW: The list of musicians you’ve interviewed is robust to say the least. Have you done an interview where an artist really opened-up and gave your audience a flash of insight into the music that was surprising?

CD: I’d say one of my favorites was probably Paul Simon. He’s so thoughtful about what he does. I did a couple of interviews with him that I folded into one, two-hour special a couple years ago, and he talks about the structure of a song in such a way that makes you appreciate how consistently he has succeeded as a songwriter. He said he always tries to walk the line between the sentimental and the pretentious. And he’ll start a song with some kind of truth, like “I am just a poor boy,” explore an idea from there, and then leave the song back up in the air at the end. He’s one of the best that’s ever been.

FW: We caught the re-airing of your tribute to Elliott Smith this past October. He’s such a beautiful songwriter. Is there a line or song of Elliott’s that’s always hit you?

CD: His song “Everything Reminds Me of You” is an important song for me. His line about lost love…”Why are you staring into outer space, crying? Just because you came across it, and lost it?” You can actually hear the lump in his throat throughout that song. I still think of a heartbreak from 12 years ago when I hear it. He’s one of those guys that I think will be re-discovered in years to come by new audiences again and again.

FW: The first film you were music supervisor on was Michael Mann’s Heat. How did you make the jump from radio to doing film as well?

CD: In the stages leading up to the making of Heat, Michael Mann would call me on a regular basis, asking me about what I was playing on MBE, and I said to him, you know you can hire me as a consultant. And he did. I don’t think he realized that was an option.

FW: Ha! You were like, “Um, you know you can pay me for this.”

CD: Yep.

FW: At what point in production are you typically brought in on a project?

CD: I prefer to be brought in before they shoot a frame of film. On Austin Powers, for example, I was brought in before they started shooting. I met with Mike Myers and Jay Roach to discuss the shaping of this ‘shagadelic’ sound they were trying to create and afterward, went back to KCRW. I remember pulling this thing by Roland Kirk that I always loved off the shelves. It was produced by Quincy Jones⎯ this track called “Soul Bossa Nova”. I put it on a first compilation of ideas and turned it in. In the next creative meeting we had, Mike told us that he wanted to re-do the opening of the film to be this sort of A Hard Days Night montage, and that song became the theme. So often music is thought of as icing on the cake at the end, but I think it works really well if directors have a tone or sound of the movie in their heads as they’re creating the shots.

FW: On top of it all, you’re currently starting a music label, Quarter Past Wonderful. What was the impetus for doing so?

CD: The last thing I ever wanted to do was start a record label.

FW: Were you bored, having already tried everything else?

CD: No, it was not in my mind to do that ever. A couple years ago I came across this artist that I was really impressed by, Oren Lavie. When I found out that he had just put an album out in Germany and nowhere else, I told him I would do what I could to help him get it out in the U.S., because I thought it was a beautiful album. So often I’ve seen great albums fall by the wayside. I sent his music to a couple dozen record labels, and everybody loved the record but didn’t, you know, see an audience for it. After a year of trying to get other people to release it, I reluctantly said, let’s move forward and try to do this on our own. We put it out digitally officially in January, and we released the first video for the album on January 20th and it’s become a phenomenon online. It’s at two million views on YouTube.

FW: Wow, that’s great.

CD: Yeah, it’s kind of ridiculous.