Turn it Up: An Interview with John Kelly

For over a decade, John Kelly has been broadcasting his own distinct mix of music on national radio, first with the BBC, then Eclectic Ballroom on Radio Ireland (now Today FM) and Mystery Train on RTÉ Radio 1, establishing a reputation as a broadcaster who is always at the musical cutting edge, and building a particularly loyal listenership. His current show, JK Ensemble on RTÉ Lyric FM, is a rarity in Irish broadcasting, mixing classical, traditional, jazz and the avant-garde on weekday daytime national radio, and it has just reached its second year. In this interview, Toner Quinn, Editor of JMI, talks to John Kelly about his views on broadcasting, the current Irish music scene, the artists he admires and the listenerships that aren’t being catered for.

Toner Quinn: It’s a little over two years since the JK Ensemble began on RTÉ lyric fm. What were your ambitions when the programme started?
John Kelly: The first thing I had to ensure was that it didn’t appear as a half-assed version of the previous programme, Mystery Train. There were a lot of people saying to me when I moved to Lyric to just do what I always do. That wasn’t on. I knew that. The plan was to do a programme that was completely different. That was the challenge. I talked with Lyric for a solid month, with Aodán Ó Dubhghaill [Head of RTÉ Lyric FM], trying to work out if it would work for them and if it would work for me. Obviously I wasn’t going to go in there and play Vivaldi all day or whatever CDs some producer handed me. Aodán didn’t want me to do that anyway. He wanted me to do my own thing, but I knew I couldn’t do what up until that point had been my own thing.

TQ: How would you define your ‘own thing’?
JK: At the core of my musical interest is black music, that is, R&B, blues, funk, rap, and a lot of contemporary music which might be sonically aggressive, i.e. there is drums in it. That is missing from the JK Ensemble. I knew that would have to go. I wasn’t going to go in there and open up, as many people wanted me to, with Jimmy Hendrix or Led Zeppelin. Personally I wouldn’t have a problem with doing that, but I had to be respectful of Lyric, what it’s about, and its sonic landscape. I spent the whole summer thinking about it, putting together a programme that I could live with personally, that would be sufficiently different from Mystery Train and still be a good programme. I then realised that there would be a certain amount of music I would be able to ‘smuggle’ in. Lou Reed, for example. If you pick the right track, sonically the whole thing works. Maybe I haven’t gone far enough. Maybe I have gone too far.

TQ: This is the first time in your broadcasting career that you had a classical music brief.
JK: I never had a brief. I always slipped in the odd classical piece over the years, but this is the first time I had to take it beyond the casual interest I had. I always had classical music in the house, but I never had to engage with it with any kind of rigour. All that summer before I started, I read a lot of books and I spent a lot of money buying stuff. I swotted up quite a bit, and realised that I wasn’t too far off the mark – that the classical collection that I had was a pretty good one in terms of the canon. I had somehow already filtered out the stuff that didn’t appeal to me very much.

TQ: You moved from RTÉ Radio 1 to RTÉ Lyric FM, but you also moved from evening to daytime radio. What kind of pressures does broadcasting on daytime national radio bring?
JK: Those pressures don’t necessarily apply to Lyric. It’s a separate kind of an entity, so there is no real pressure on me. There is no sense of me being in any way censored or curtailed. I decide if I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to play a kind of music, even though I might love it and even though I might play it in the car on the way home. Now Lyric could, and I hope it does, try and mutate a bit. I could conceive of a situation down the line where something that somebody else is doing on another part of the schedule starts to free me up to do certain things, or I might do something that might free somebody else up to do something. And perhaps organically it might develop.

TQ: But Lyric quite obviously does have those kinds of pressures because apart from your show it plays predominantly mainstream classical music during the day. If it’s a separate entity why does it do that?
JK: I don’t know. But will it always be like that? Am I the thin end of a wedge? Or am I an experiment? Will I do what I do until somebody decides no, it’s all well and good hearing Bartók at three o’clock but let’s get back to playing the Best Classical Album in the World Ever?
I was in the same position in Radio 1. It’s always going to be the situation when you do the kind of programme that I do. I am never going to take a bundle of CDs from somebody, just play them and not know or care what I am doing. I have no interest in doing that.

TQ: The playlists on the JK Ensemble suggest that the music of, for example, Bartók, the traditional fiddler Tommy Potts and John Coltrane aren’t so far away from each other. Is that indicative of something changing in our musical life, or our perceptions of music?
JK: To me they never were, and I know lots of people who think like that. Everybody I know thinks like that. In fact I don’t know anybody who thinks the other way.

TQ: Why then has it taken so long for an Irish broadcaster to bring that to daytime radio?
JK: I think broadcasters, like regular companies, always miss things. Look at the music business. It missed rock’n’roll, it missed punk, it missed disco and hip hop. It missed everything until after the event. These are people who are supposed to be on the ground and know what is going on. Radio is probably the same.

I hate using the world eclectic – it’s just thrown around so much – but I think people have always been like that. I don’t know anybody who just listens to one kind of music, but I think radio hasn’t served that very well. There is a strange, reverse kind of snobbery – the wider your interests the more likely you are to be called a musical snob. The people who would disapprove of my programmes over the years – not just in RTÉ, but in the BBC also – are the people who themselves are so snobbish about music that they don’t listen to jazz, black music, or rock’n’roll. They don’t even go there.

If you do what I do, you need support from people, from individuals who believe that what you are doing is something that we should be doing, or are obliged to do. Over the years, be it at the BBC or RTÉ, there always comes a point where someone comes along who doesn’t give you that support and you have to do it somewhere else. To keep doing what I have been doing for twenty-something years involves an awful lot of ducking and diving. And the thing that gets most tiresome for you is justifying what you do to someone who has just walked in the door.

TQ: Do you think that would be the case in any broadcaster in Europe?
JK: Yes, I would say so.

TQ: Do you not look at, for example, BBC Radio 3 and see the range of programmes there and think you would fit in and would not have to justify yourself?
JK: BBC Radio 3 and also BBC Radio 2 have an excellent approach to music, but don’t forget that for years they were the pipe-and-slipper stations. BBC Radio 2 was appalling. The audience was dead for about fifty years before they copped themselves on. Suddenly they realised that your average forty-year-old was not some beard-stroking existentialist, but is listening to Arcade Fire. I think in England they have caught on. They have sorted out the age side of it. I think in Ireland we still struggle with some hangover from the showbands. It’s still there. We still haven’t come to terms with Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Seriously.

TQ: In what sense?
JK: I think there is still people around who are sore that Elvis Presley and the Beatles came along and took their gig. I encounter that. There is a suspicion and a dislike of just about everything from Elvis Presley, all the weird funky stuff.

The amount of people who say to me: you play some terrible shite on the radio. I say, ‘Well, what are you into yourself?’ And they say, ‘Music you don’t really have to listen to’. I have been told that! Why are we all paying attention to people who don’t like music in the first place?

In broadcasting terms, these rules don’t apply to sport. They don’t apply to politics. They don’t apply to economics. George Lee can talk about the intricacies of the economy. He doesn’t have to water it down. He doesn’t have to leave out big words because people out there might not understand. If a soccer match goes to extra time they play the extra time. They don’t think that people out there have been watching this for long enough. It’s only when it comes to music that people who aren’t interested in it, and who know nothing about it, feel absolutely qualified to talk about it.

I would love to see a music station that could encompass a very wide range of music for people who are interested in music. And by that I don’t just mean the people who listen to me because they might want to hear a Coltrane piece or a Johnny Cash in the same show. I just mean people who are interested in music. I would love a radio station that Donal Dineen could be on, which I could be on, where it’s just somehow aimed at those people who we all know are there, who are interested in music. Who buys CDs? Who goes to concerts? I am not sure they are being catered for in radio. I know I am not.

Maybe I am a total idealist, but I’m convinced that if you like Hendrix, you will like Coltrane. If you like what Joe Strummer was about you will like Beethoven. I always think that if you stumble across Thelonious Monk then suddenly that would open a door to Messian. All those things just start to connect up. If people have got Johnny Cash and Miles Davis on the same shelf in their house, why can’t you play it on the same radio programme?

When Steve Reich was here in 2006 I talked to him a lot. It was a public interview, but I also talked to him off stage as well. That was a very encouraging moment for me, meeting him and talking about music. He was sitting there talking about Junior Walker, Motown Records, Dylan singing ‘Maggie’s Farm’, all these things that meant something to him, all rolled into one.

I think the way pop music is going at the minute, younger people would love all this music. The classical music world is not a million miles from what they are really into. I think that’s why a group like Ensemble ICC [the performance group of the Irish Composers’ Collective] went down so well at the JK Ensemble Button Factory gig recently. I am not so sure if ten or fifteen years ago, half the audience wouldn’t have gone, ‘Oh my God, what is this, this stuff is nuts, get me out of here.’ It was all slightly demanding, but you forget that these people have been listening to hip-hop, techno music and all sorts of things which are very demanding.

TQ: It’s ten years since you left BBC and came to Dublin. What are the energies and trends in music during that period which you think are particularly significant?
JK: I think the accessibility of music has been significant. When I was growing up, the reason I had such a narrow interest was because I hadn’t heard anything much. It was through a lack of exposure to anything else. When I went to university there were all these people who were much more clued in, who were listening to The Smiths and Joy Division and all these sorts of people. It seems ridiculous that in the 1980s I hadn’t heard that kind of music, but it wasn’t on Irish radio. I think what is different now is that there is a lot more exposure. There are so many people in Ireland now who are into, say, electronica, which just wouldn’t have been an option twenty years ago.

It’s to do with access. I meet people all the time who know so much more about music than I ever did. I keep meeting people who say to me, you should listen to this, this and this. I have heard of none of them – and I am fairly clued in. There is just so much music now. But again, I don’t think that television and radio necessarily represent all of that, because musics get dismissed as being weird. The singer-songwriter thing is hugely acceptable because it doesn’t look weird. MySpace pages are a different kettle of fish, and there is great music being made. When I hear people like Jeff Martin, the Jimmy Cake, Julie Feeney – that there are even artists like that in Ireland – people doing their own thing, I think it’s wonderful.

It’s not that long ago that I was coming back from America with bags of records, after going to some shop in Chicago or New York. Nowadays, if I want something I go on Amazon and I have it in a couple of days. It’s a shame in a way. I like that adventure of walking into a shop in New York and never having seen a CD by a particular artist before, but now I can see them on YouTube. Just type in Big Joe Turner and there he is, singing in your house. While it’s a wonderful facility, and I make full use of it, it does remove a little bit of the excitement that there once was.

TQ: Do you think that the accessibility of music is also responsible for what you heard at the Button Factory gig, that merging of classical, rock and alternative genres.
JK: I think so. I think young people are more curious and interested, and they seem to be far more so than when I was at school. God forbid if David Bowie had been in my class: they would have torn him apart. If I had been the kind of person that I admire, I would have caught on to Morrissey and people like that far earlier than I did. But growing up in Enniskillen our tendency was to dismiss everything.

TQ: Are there any particular artists on the Irish scene that strike you as particularly interesting at the moment?
JK: In Ireland, I think some great music is coming from the traditional music scene. I don’t go so much for the groups, I tend to listen more to solo performers, and I think some of the younger traditional musicians are pretty extraordinary. I am curious as to what Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is doing. I am not entirely sure I understand, but I like it. I am looking forward to his next work because the last one was a strange sketchbook.

On the more pop end of things, I think Lisa Hannigan has got something. She has a lot of soul. There is a rock band called Fight Like Apes – they have great energy – and I love them. I think Arcade Fire are a great band, and Feist. But I think the most interesting stuff is coming from Iceland. There is some great stuff there, both Sigur Rós and the producer/composer Valgeir Sigurðsson.

I think Sigur Rós have benefited from the fact that people are less prejudiced now. A while back people would have said, oh this is prog rock, and that’s not good, but there is something very beautiful about what they do. I do think it’s part of the new openness. When I was growing up, if you were into rock music you didn’t like Ska. If you were into Ska you didn’t like rock music. If you liked disco you were a weirdo. I think that has changed. I think people are much happier to embrace all different kinds of music at the same time.

TQ: You mentioned Steve Reich’s visit to Ireland for the 2006 RTÉ Living Music Festival, which featured his music. It was an important weekend for you. Do you think it was important for music in Ireland generally?
JK: I think that was a very important occasion, a very important event. In years to come, we will be interviewing some Irish musician who will mention the time Steve Reich came to Dublin. People came out of the woodwork for those shows. I was just delighted to see it, a packed contemporary music festival in Ireland, one that was making no concessions to anybody. I think the Reich festival was one of those moments when it dawned on everybody that there was a new audience. There have been certain gigs over the years that personally meant a lot to me, but I think in terms of a mass impact, the Reich festival was very important. There were loads of people at that festival who will do something, but we don’t know what, and we don’t where or when they are going to turn up.

TQ: In the weekly RTÉ television arts programme The View, which you present, you are doing something similar to the JK Ensemble in bringing new work to a broad audience. What are the challenges involved in presenting The View?
JK: I certainly don’t want to encourage windbags or encourage the kind of art speak that drives people away from the arts. I am not one for the jargon and psychobabble that you hear about music or painting.

I object even more to the attitude that the arts means nothing to the ordinary person, which is often suggested in  newspapers. Columnists tend to take this approach, setting themselves up as spokesperson for the common person and deciding that all this stuff is a load of old tosh. I resent that. I grew up in a family where my father was an ordinary man who read books, who liked opera, who watched all the movies, who if there was a play on in the town would go and see it, who was well read, self-taught and self-educated. And yet you have some person trying to say that the arts aren’t for him. Well who says they are not for him. Let him make up his own mind.

TQ: Is there a nervousness in our broadcasting culture about putting out something too sophisticated or challenging?
JK: I think there is a resistance to that in broadcasting generally. When I was growing up you would hear people on popular chat shows like Peter Ustinov, Kenneth Williams and Malcolm Muggeridge, and when they were on, the attitude from my father was that you should listen to this man, this is a very bright man, a very intelligent man, that you should listen to him. You rarely see people like that on television anymore or even on radio.

TQ: You mean intellectuals?
JK: Well, people talking at length. Alan Bennett said he was on the street in Camden with Jonathan Miller and this man came up and said, ‘You fucking intellectuals!’ And he said that in Paris that would be a compliment.

TQ: In Ireland it can be an insult.
JK: Yes, but I mean actual intellectuals. I don’t mean people pretending to be intellectuals. There is a difference. I have heard people talk about my guests onThe View, dismissing them and saying, what was he on about, what was he talking about. Just because you can’t understand what someone is saying does not make that person an idiot.

TQ: What triggers that reaction?
JK: It’s safe and easy to put that cloak on. Then you don’t have to engage with anything. I was at Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days in the Abbey and people were laughing their socks off. Anybody would, it’s just hilarious. And yet the amount of people who would say, ‘Oh God I wouldn’t be into that.’ Well why not?

TQ: What kind of future do you think the next ten years of music-making holds?
JK: In terms of the music scene in ten years time, who knows how it is going to change. Pop music as we know it might cease to exist. A guitar and drums rock band could become a thing of the past. You just don’t know what can happen. What I am hoping for is some kind of thunder bolt, something that we don’t expect. Is it going to be somebody playing an instrument we have never seen before, or is it going to be some kind of music we have never heard before? As the world changes are we all going to be listening to music from Egypt in ten years time? Something kind of revolutionary? Something that nobody sees coming, that actually changing everything? We are probably due one of those peaks.

TQ: Are you constantly looking for something like that?
JK: I suppose so. It’s not that I am going to discover it, but I think it is needed.

TQ: And why is it needed?
JK: Because things get very complacent very fast. The system moves in on it and takes ownership of it and dilutes it. The one thing you can be sure of is that the record companies will miss it – and broadcasters will miss it.

TQ: RTÉ Lyric FM is ten years old now. In the next ten years what would you like to see happen at the station?
JK: I would like to see Lyric called RTÉ 3 or RTÉ 4, so there is no distinction between it and RTÉ 1 and RTÉ 2 in terms of its importance. I would like it to be an indispensable music station where curious, interested music lovers feel that they absolutely have to be listening to know what is going on, that it is essential listening for the people that are listening to Sigur Rós as much as it is for the people that go to the National Concert Hall. I would also like to see it getting more attention and people becoming more aware of what is there. There is a whole lot more on lyric than people realise. I hope Lyric becomes strong and is perceptibly strong, and is not seen as some kind of polite alternative. I am not interested in radio as an anaesthetic. That’s not what it’s for.

November 2008

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