For ten years, since the days when ‘Internet radio’ was as futuristic a concept as the electric car, dublab has been adding color, texture and depth to music in Los Angeles and the world beyond. Hip-hop and soul and jazz and psych and punk and folk and cosmic genius and more—whether from L.A., from deep history or from someplace no one’s even sure about—all find a permanent home at dublab.com as well as in the work of an army of DJs and artists and musicians and listeners who constantly prove that there is always something new and beautiful to listen to and learn about. Labrats Frosty and Ale meet at Girl House to talk about their anniversary. This interview by Chris Ziegler and Drew Denny.
Daedelus said dublab started when a bunch of super-nerds at USC found each other—true?
Mark “Frosty” McNeill (co-founder and president): Lies! Where is that guy? The ‘nerds’ part is very very accurate. Intense record geeks is probably a good description. The whole idea—we don’t know everything and we always wanted to stay open. We always wanted to discover, get turned on to something new. We were trying to share something with our listeners and we discover things along the way, so it always remains fresh. You learn more and more. You never know what direction it will take you.
Brad from Wounded Lion was saying that as a kid he learned from Rodney on the ROQ that all eras of rock ‘n’ roll are friends. I’d even say all genres of music are friends.
Mark McNeill: They’re all connected. There is a lineage. Everything is derivative and that’s not a negative term. Everything influences everything. That’s the whole idea: keep it open and broad. When we started on Real Media Player or Windows Media Player, it was in the midst of all that Internet stuff. We got a lot of free lunches and heard the word ‘synergy’ a lot.
Didn’t you almost have a million-dollar investment?
Mark McNeill: We were offered money before we even launched. I was fresh out of college and I’d sit in meetings with these people and think, ‘If you’re dumb enough to want to give us money, there’s something wrong with your company and you’re not gonna last.’ Everything was very shaky. We had one investor—the only one who seemed good. He was basically the guy who came up with the banner ad. He had tons of money. We were days away from signing papers and everybody was ready to do it. He was giving us money and then the morning the NASDAQ crashed, we got a phone call and my partner Jon’s face just fell. The conversation was basically, ‘I think we need to re-think the nature of our investment.’
Shoulda got the guy who invented the Viagra ad.
Mark McNeill: We do! He’s here—Ale, pull down your pants!
Alejandro Cohen (general manager and treasurer): In the long run, maybe it was a blessing in disguise.
Mark McNeill: We said no to everything for so long. There was such hucksterism in it. Very in the moment. It’s like a pop trend that’s on the radio. You see it from the start—it’s a flavor of the moment. If you take it as that and have fun, it’s cool. But don’t imagine it’s gonna be around for twenty years. All that stuff was a fly-by-night vibe. We probably would have been done nine years ago if we’d taken some of that money.
You’ve DJed at places like LACMA—do you think big institutions fetishize the DJ as a symbol of what’s cool?
Alejandro Cohen: Yeah. They ask, ‘What’s your DJ name? Just, uh, Ale?’
Mark McNeill: For the past three years we’ve done a lot of ‘cultural institution’ gigs. They’re cool because they’re not at places where people wanna go crazy and slide across the bar. It’s kids, families, all ages—people that are not gonna be at Part Time Punks. They trip out on seeing records. It’s weird.
How were you able to make dublab a place where Damo Suzuki, Linda Perhacs and Neil Hamburger can all feel equally at home?
Mark McNeill: We have really good incense!
Alejandro Cohen: You lose perspective on the variety of music because it all mixes. I’ll be visiting friends back home and play dublab for them to give them an idea of where I work. For them, it’s extreme worlds mixing in one place, but to me it sounds kind of like the same place. Latin to the other guy doing Middle Eastern . . .
Mark McNeill: Maybe it makes them nauseous.
What are the extreme limits of dublab’s programming?
Mark McNeill: The oldest music comes from Jonathan of Excavated Shellac—a lot of international 78s from the ’20s.
Alejandro Cohen: Some of the stuff Danny Holloway plays, it’s the only copy maybe existing. He did an all-Beatles covers set and was telling me about it. Stuff from Cambodia and weird things he knows. He’s certain they’re pretty much gone forever. Like ‘Hey Jude’ with steel drums—versions where you’re like, ‘What the hell?’
Mark McNeill: Or a lot of those $1,000 45s—B+ will come back from traveling and he’ll bring stuff from Addis Ababa. Original Ethiopian 45s. The idea is to bring it back to the old soul days when people would cut a record and then immediately go play it on the radio. Stuff like that. We play versions that never come out. Weird studio things.
What’s it like to hold the last-ever copy of something in your hands?
Mark McNeill: You should just eat it so it’s part of you! Cats like Jonathan—the records he specializes in are international. It wasn’t for export, it was for those locales. Cambodian records sold in villages but on RCA Victor. They survived in these places that were a pretty harsh atmosphere since the ’20s. They aren’t collector cultures. You get something new and throw the record away.
What kind of people would you have never met except for dublab?
Mark McNeill: We wouldn’t even have met each other if it wasn’t for music. That camaraderie of geeks!
Alejandro Cohen: When I was a kid, I was a very scared kind of guy. I’d look at people who play instruments and be like, ‘Oh, you must be so serious! I don’t deserve any of your time—you must have such important ideas.’ And at the end, most turn out not to! But in music you DO meet people with great ideas, and you feel honored to give them a ride somewhere!
Mark McNeill: The guys from Cluster were a treat.
Alejandro Cohen: They were joking about Brian Eno not being a strong boy.
Mark McNeill: They were living in the countryside of Germany and Eno was coming in from England—kind of a glammy boy. They’d be out chopping wood and all this stuff to warm the house—Roedelius is like a big lumberjack grandpa!—and Eno would be like, ‘I wanna chop wood!’ ‘Go back inside, sissy boy—we’ll make music later!’
When you interviewed James Brown, was it before or after his wife got ass implants?
Mark McNeill: Before she did but after I did. We had the same doctor. One of them fell out and now I have to wear a thick wallet. Have you ever been to the Experience Music Project? I don’t know if they still have it, but they had a ride like ‘DISCOVER FUNK MUSIC,’ like an EPCOT Center total after-school special thing. There were two kids and they turn into an alley and Bootsy Collins and James Brown spin around with sparkles coming off and the screen goes, ‘And now—INTO THE FUNK!’ And you go through James Brown’s legs. It’s nuts. It’s probably from the mid-’90s and really fucking bad. Or did you ever see the Miles Davis scooter ads? Lou Reed and Miles Davis—both at fucked-up points in their life. Miles Davis in a parachute pantsuit and stuff. Weird.
Alejandro Cohen: I’d love to have seen them shooting that. ‘Just give me the check!’
What would a horrible dublab commercial be like?
Mark McNeill: Nick Harcourt-y. ‘It’s 2012 and the city is bumping—the spirit of the night!’ We were thinking we should make one for Cinefamily with robots and stuff. ‘Morning becomes … erotic!’
Do you have the same relationship with KCRW that we do with L.A. WEEKLY?
Alejandro Cohen: KXLU has that relationship.
Mark McNeill: There are people there that are true music fans, but when you build a machine depending on that money, then they’re not any different than commercial radio as far as money and power. They rely on their fund drive so much they can’t take chances. The DJs there are great people and music fans but they tread so lightly. It’s like when I was at KUSC. It’s elevator music—classical music. They found their subscriber base and they keep them happy and that’s it. So it’s not such a service. When you have power like that and you can’t take chances, you should.
Anytime anything declares itself ‘independent,’ it’s sort of a political act. Why is it important for dublab to be independent?
Alejandro Cohen: In a good sense of the word, I’m ‘stuck’ with what I am. That’s what we do. I couldn’t do a conscious commercial thing.
Mark McNeill: All that stuff has a purpose. Certain people do certain things. Maybe they’re just happy with it. We try not to judge what people are up to; we try to give them an opportunity to get something different.
How important to a healthy music community is the sort of infrastructure dublab provides?
Mark McNeill: When we started, the idea was we’d be a for-profit business that did good things with the profits, that was grassroots/community-based. But there was never a profit! You look at Ben & Jerry’s—‘Cool, we’ll make money and support farmers!’ Not that we wanna make ice cream, but nonprofit is in line with the original idea. It fits in with the ethos of why we started dublab. If you go nonprofit, the public owns it. It’s the idea of the listeners being part of it.
Alejandro Cohen: It almost makes the mission of dublab more genuine. There’s not a guy behind it getting rich or hoping to get rich. Even the live sessions are all through a Creative Commons license. So in a sense it really is doing it for the music. Through the years, dublab found itself operating more on a nonprofit model. We were an LLC, but we were doing fundraisers and projects mostly with museums and cultural institutions—we had to do the switch! When we were applying, I was a bit afraid. But a friend of mine who’s worked for many nonprofits said this is very very common—organizations operating for ten or fifteen years with no status at all and then they switch.
Mark McNeill: It’s all very fragile. I remember my grandfather, the last thing he ever said was, ‘You know what? Do what you wanna do. You’ll be much happier. Do what you wanna do. I went through my whole life worrying.’ When I was at USC, most of my friends were film students and some make really good money. Some have Mercedes and houses they bought. I’m somewhat envious. I wish I had a car that wouldn’t break down! But they’re envious of me doing something I dig. I spend my day around good people. I put a little time into the world of bullshit and it’s much more fulfilling to be around intelligent people who are creative. That’s part of the reason for being nonprofit. We don’t wanna bow to the wishes of someone selling the flavor of the moment. We think of a more timeless aesthetic, something that isn’t commercially viable. That’s a major reason to go nonprofit. You can be timeless.
DUBLAB’s TENTH ANNIVERSARY EXPLORATION RUNS FROM THUR., OCT. 1, THROUGH SAT., OCT. 10, AT MULTIPLE LOS ANGELES VENUES INCLUDING THE ‘VIBRANT VISIONS’ RETROSPECTIVE AT THE CONTINENTAL GALLERY ON THUR., OCT. 1; A LABRAT MATINEE FILM SCREENING WITH LIVE PERFORMANCE BY DAEDELUS AT THE DOWNTOWN INDEPENDENT ON FRI., OCT. 2; THE FUTURE ROOTS STAGE CURATED BY DUBLAB AT THE EAGLE ROCK MUSIC FEST ON COLORADO BLVD. IN EAGLE ROCK ON SAT., OCT. 3; DUBLAB MEETS PART TIME PUNKS AT THE ECHO ON SUN., OCT. 4; GIVE UP: SAD FILM SCREENINGS WITH SORROWFUL LIVE SCORES AT CINEFAMILY ON MON., OCT. 5; DECKADES AT THE VERDUGO BAR ON TUE., OCT. 6; A LIVE PERFORMANCE BY LINDA PERHACS AND FRIENDS (INCLUDING HECUBA, CRYSTAL ANTLERS AND MORE) AT REDCAT ON WED., OCT. 7; DUBLAB AT THE DOWNTOWN ARTWALK AT THE CONTINENTAL GALLERY ON THUR., OCT. 8; A JOHN LENNON BIRTHDAY BED-IN RADIO BROADCAST LIVE ON KPFK 90.7-FM ON FRI., OCT. 9; AND A FINALE BASH WITH REPRESENTATIVES FROM INTERNATIONAL MUSIC ROOM, MAS EXITOS, SKETCHBOOK, TONALISM AND MORE AT A VENUE TBA ON SAT., OCT. 10. MORE INFORMATION AT DUBLAB.COM/EVENTS. LISTEN TO DUBLAB AT DUBLAB.COM.