MARY ANNE HOBBS: SCREW EVERY CONCEIVABLE SOUND
Mary Anne Hobbs does for electronica on her BBC Radio 1 show what John Peel did for everything, and for years now she has been delivering L.A.’s best beatmakers to the world. When she first came to L.A. as a girl, she wore a glitter bikini and drove a motorcycle to Hollywood bars to drink with Megadeth, but tonight she’ll be doing a special DJ set at Low End Theory. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You’ve been such a good friend to Los Angeles music on the BBC.
Mary Anne Hobbs: Well, your city—you’ve got it going on in such a big and serious fashion right now. Los Angeles is without question the most exciting city on the planet. I could feel this incredible sense of momentum building—even an ocean away. I kept hearing about this club, Low End Theory—it was echoing in every corner of my brain. I thought, ‘This club is calling my name right now, so I’m going to have to check it out.’ And that’s where I hatched the plan—in a filthy dirty northern rain in Manchester in an underground car park with Gaslamp Killer, just before Christmas last year. It was without question the most inspiriational trip that I’ve made in years. Those types of clubs are absolutely crucial in terms of providing a home and providing a space that people can gravitate towards and share their ideas and share their dreams. It’s been very important in terms of the whole dub step scene expanding. I think from the second I met Daddy Kev, you can tell he’s a godfather beyond a shadow of a doubt.
You said you can’t categorize an artist like Flying Lotus musically—do you think you can categorize any of the L.A. beatmakers philosophically?
Mary Anne Hobbs: I think for me Lotus is absolutely key. He’s right at the forefront and he is literally building a new sonic causeway brick by brick every day out into the ether. I think in a way you need those types of figureheads—people like Lotus, people who are so brave creatively and fearless in the way they forge these new pathways. Because they lead by example. I always look at Lotus and I think he is like the Hendrix of his generation. What Hendrix did with a guitar, Lotus is doing with electronic instruments. I’ll tell you a good story. The first time I ever saw him he played at a little club on the east end of London called Cargo. I was hanging out with people at Warp and they said, ‘You’re gonna love Steve—you’ve got to meet him after the show.’ He blew my mind so completely when I saw him perform that I literally could not form a sentence at the end of the night and I had to leave the building.
Do you remember what you said to him was when you finally recovered?
Mary Anne Hobbs: I didn’t meet him face to face until Sonar Festival 2008. The first exchange was this incredible bear hug between us because we had so much dialogue online. We developed this incredible friendship. In the aftermath of the Cargo show he asked for an email address and we began to chat backwards and forwards—we did a whole heap more work on the BBC show and then I asked if he would come and play Sonar in 2008. It’s a strange scenario with these virtual relationships that you have because you build incredible bonds that blossom creatively and yet often you might not meet people for years. It’s freaky because you think, ‘I know this person intimately and yet I’ve never shook his hand.’ That’s another reason why clubs like Low End Theory are so crucially important. In my case—and I’m sure it applies to many people—you spend almost your entire life in a virtual world. You live online. Almost every interaction is an electronic exchange. In spite of the fact that I have thousands of friends all over the world, in human terms you are extremely isolated because you do so much in a virtual environment. Even a show is virtual—it pops up in the ether and then it’s gone. So these places that you gravitate towards as kindred spirits—as human souls—to exchange energy and ideas and feel the frequencies of the music in a real tangible physical environment—it’s so important that these places exist! Even more so in 2009! So for me places like Low End Theory and Forward and Sonar in London where everybody gravitates toward each other to exchange those human emotions and to dance and sweat and sing and shout and explore their dreams—they are such important places.
Your new Wild Angels comp is named after an Alice Coltrane reference—do you think there’s a connection between her music or the music of someone like Pharoah Sanders and what’s happening in L.A. now?
Mary Anne Hobbs: That came from an expression that I used in the West Coast Rocks radio documentary that I did as a consequence of that trip I took in January to L.A. and San Francisco. I went to play Alice Coltrane and then I played a Lotus track afterwards which was called ‘Auntie’s Harp.’ It’s a tribute to his aunt. He’s got the beautiful arpeggios in it. I guess Lotus is a product of many different influences but Alice Coltrane—his great aunt—is a significant influence, I feel. A lot of the younger artists he nurtured are now featured on Wild Angels—people like Teebs and Take and Mono/Poly are all his boys and he nurtures them like his great aunt nurtured him, and you hear them traveling the generations. She is a seminal musician. It’s interesting how everyone talks about John Coltrane but actually Alice is absolutely mindblowing. I wanted to work backwards and show that particular reference point. Obviously so much of the new West Coast sound is represented on the record, but you can hear it echoing down the generations. I wish I would have had an opportunity to meet her—it would have been such an honor.
You’ve said that you want to make sure your own radio show exists without prejudice and boundaries.
Mary Anne Hobbs: The way that I see the show in my mind’s eye is like a bridge—it’s like a crazy old rope bridge that hangs across a crevasse in the jungle, and on one side are the world’s most fearless producers and on the other side are the hungriest audience that you could possibly imagine. And what the show does is bring those two groups of people together. There are no prejudices and everybody is welcome. I think at this point in the history of the whole of humanity it seems crazy to be setting up boundaries. That’s how I want it to be—as simple as that. There is now so much online that your choice is infinite. You can listen for the rest of time. I think there is more of a demand for somebody who will do what I do, which is sit there for ten hours a day everyday listening to every conceivable music that comes in and also seeking all the time—at some time you have to draw a line in that sand and say, ‘OK, this is a show—this is what we are going to do this week.’ But I think hopefully people trust me now. They know that I’ll do the work and I’ll do it consistently and they come back to me.
Do you think the artists you play feel the same way about music?
Mary Anne Hobbs: I guess my greatest hero in radio terms was always John Peel. His show would endlessly surprise and delight. Every week was like a Pandora’s box of chaos. You never knew what was around the next corner with Peel. And I think to a degree what was interesting when you listened to Peel was that you would probably only really love about one in three or four records, but you knew that everybody else who was listening would have the same ratio but the records would be different. So I might like record number one and number four and somebody else will love three and seven and everybody would have a different one they thought was incredible. But also with Peel as well you would think, ‘This isn’t necessarily something I would seek out and buy for my record collection but just to hear it—what the hell is this?’ From extreme European death metal to the craziest scratchy old 78 from one of the original blues men to something that he picked up from a tribe in Africa—it could be anything with Peel. Whether or not it was to your own personal taste was almost irrelevant. It was one of those shows that you wanted to hear because you wanted to experience the sounds. It wasn’t a question of him informing a perfect record collection but it was more like an adventure in sound. He was a broad person who knew no boundaries whatsoever and he responded in the same way. He was one of my teachers. I think everybody responds to music emotionally, ultimately. It doesn’t really matter what genre or tempo a piece of music is—it’s twisted into the DNA somehow and it either touches you at the very core or it may be an interesting artifact but it doesn’t move you in the same way. It was Peel’s spirit of adventure in sound that always informed me as a child. I loved it because you would just ride the rapids with him every single week and you had no idea what he was going to do next. He would go to Fabric which is one of the biggest dance clubs and play death metal records just for a laugh. I don’t think there’ll be another John Peel in this life or the next, but that sense of adventure and ambition and that quest that he was on just inspired me so much. And that’s how I feel about music.
You once said one of the most dangerous mistakes you could make would be to underestimate the intelligence of your audience. Do you think that’s why big labels and old media are dying?
Mary Anne Hobbs: That’s a really interesting question. It’s up to every generation to decide their own fate and this is why I do what I do. There’s no point sitting around moaning with your thumb up your ass. If you don’t enjoy what’s out there, go there yourself and try to make a difference. That’s what I’m trying to do with the show. What’s interesting in terms of what’s happening in the UK is that TV used to be the most powerful of all mediums, and now an entire generation of people almost completely disregard it. They are reverting back to listening to pirate radio and they are reverting back to watching YouTube and filming their own films and getting involved—the dubstep scene is a fantastic example of that. An entire scene has become a global thing without any patronage from the broader music industry because nobody wants to go with that shit anymore and everybody wants to be the master of their own destiny. It’s been proven now that it can happen. It’s a really exciting time. This is another thing with Peel—he was part of a different generation but he was an amazing example of how to tread a different pathway. He showed you that there is another way—you don’t have to follow the rest of the sheep, you can build your own pathway. I think what you’re saying is absolutely true. The dumbing down of the media giants’ output will be the death of them because they massively underestimate the audience. You can see now how the drift is happening with this generation. They are just completely disinterested with old school media establishments and they want to do it for themselves.
Is part of this because old big labels stopped caring about the long term and only wanted to get quick next-big-things?
Mary Anne Hobbs: I think that’s really true. In terms of most artists’ lifespans—when they signed a record deal with an old school traditional company—it was only ever meant to be a few years, wasn’t it? Like three albums tops, and beyond that people were always searching for something new. I think now longevity is the key. People want an entire career—they want to be in this game for a lifetime. Record companies in the U.K. are just like loan sharks, really—they hand you a few thousand bucks in advance but 24 hours later they are banging your door down saying, ‘Where is my hit single? I need this money back tenfold!’ They interfere with the tracklisting of the album—they say, ‘There aren’t enough singles on there and we’re gonna call in a whole heap of remixes that you don’t like to make sure we can spin records in the direction of the big DJs!’ You don’t have any control over the artwork or marketing. But if you define yourself online—say who you are and what you stand for—that’s really valuable. The days of Mercedes Benzes and Rolex watches and all that—I think they realize those days are long gone, or certainly you are not going to get them over night. But something like dubstep is like a new blueprint to how a scene can operate globally without any patronage at all from the music industry and continue to grow at an incredible pace. This is what I’m experiencing more and more. People aren’t thinking, ‘This is a teenage crush that I have on music—I’m going to do it for a few years and then I’m gonna become a doctor.’ People want to do this for life—it’s their calling and they want to make it work. But it’s like Darwinism—you have to adapt to survive.
Do you know the painter Joan Miro at all? He said the more true you are to yourself as an individual, the more universal your appeal will be.
Mary Anne Hobbs: I completely agree. For me, the artists that will really make it in the long term are people who come with a completely unique sound. We’re all a product of our influences—that’s what it is to be human. We absorb and process the things that we love. But the idea is to put a unique spin on that. John Peel taught me a number of very valuable lessons but my show does not sound anything like his. The principles that underlay are from him but the show is unique and individual. It’s a really valid point in terms of what I look for on my show—totally elemental pieces of music with their own identity that you would gravitate towards over and above everything else. What’s interesting is that people build up a body of work you can identify without knowing the artist. You can say ‘that’s Lotus’ and the music actually has a direct correlation with that person’s character.
What do you think is most special about what is happening in L.A. right now?
Mary Anne Hobbs: If I had to sum it up in word, it would be freedom. When I attend a club like Low End Theory or I watch an artist like Lotus play, I just see people tearing up the rules and it’s so liberating for me to watch this. I see Lotus play live and I watch that boy screw every conceivable sound into a live set—it doesn’t matter what genre it is! If he thinks that sound belongs in his set on a particular night and the stars are in the right formation, he’s going to find a way to screw it in there. In the U.K., it’s very interesting because we come from a culture where beat matching is very important, other than old school Jamaican dancehall DJs who are pretty much the only people who get away with stopping and starting records. In the U.K. you need a seamless flow of music and you’re not considered a DJ until you can do that. It’s so liberating for me to watch the way that Lotus and Gaslamp and all these people actually construct what they do on the stage. To watch artists play and deliver a set with that degree of freedom in their soul is absolutely incredible—it’s just a complete revelation for me and culturally its totally separate from what you can do in the U.K. It is so liberating because it means that your boundaries are limitless. I’m trying to absorb something of that freedom and distill it and reapply it to what I do because I love that energy and spirit—I haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet.
What were your own years in L.A like?
Mary Anne Hobbs: Oh, it was absolutely incredible. I was 21 years old and I lived in West Hollywood about a block and a half away from Barney’s Beanery and I had a lovely Yamaha motorcycle and I used to ride around in my bikini—I used to hang out at the Rainbow all the time.
Did you have an American flag bikini?
Mary Anne Hobbs: No—it was kind of a navy blue glittery one. These were the days when I would go see Guns ‘n’ Roses play at the Troubadour before they were signed. I was a fully paid up rock chick. Jane’s Addiction used to—before they were signed—play shows in downtown in these really sweaty warehouse raves and I rememer Perry Farrell coming out on stage in all his crazy dreadlocks. He used to wear this red rubber corset back in the day—it was fantastic. I used to hang out on Venice Beach when it was ghetto. I was writing for a music paper in the U.K. called Sounds and so I was interviewing everyone from Guns ‘n’ Roses to David Lee Roth.
Was he as David Lee Roth as you hoped he would be?
Mary Anne Hobbs: Absolutely. Motley Crue—I went on the ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ tour with Motley Crue and Tommy Lee had a very serious conversation with me about the possibility of building a roller coaster around the edge of every venue so he could do his drum solo on a roller coaster. He would tool around in a little roller coaster doing his drum solo. At that point Motley Crue—I’ve never seen so many groupies in my entire life. Their manager used to grade them in what he called ‘dog kennels.’ There was probably something like 300 groupies backstage every night and they would grade them into the amazingly pretty girls and there would be a room of sexual freaks and mother-daughter combos who would do whatever. I’d never seen so many women all sitting on six different passes, five of which were the wrong pass—I don’t know how they went about acquiring those passes. I would dread to think! The tour manager said to me, ‘Do you have any idea the number of road crew that we’ve got working on this tour? These girls are just for the crew—they’ve got absolutely no idea that they will never ever meet the band.’ The shed that I lived in was what they called in L.A. a pool house, so it was a room with a shower in it. I remember every time it rained I had to get all the pans out because the water would just pour through the roof. I used to hang out at a bar called the Firefly which doesn’t exist anymore—it was on Hollywood and Vine. They used to light the bar every night with lighter fuel. Lots of the metal bands like Megadeth and stuff used to hang out in there. You would hop up on the bar and you would talk to some incredible character—it was like being in Pulp Fiction, so yeah—I loved it. Have you seen that movie The Decline of Western Civilization?
Part 2? Is that what it was like?
Mary Anne Hobbs: Slightly earlier than that was made, but I liked a lot of the thrash—it was thrash metal and hair metal in L.A. back then, so David Lee Roth, Jane’s Addiction, Motley Crue, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Megadeth. Metallica could play to a thousand people and them and Megadeth were considered completely avant garde at that point. And Jane’s Addiction too. I just had heard so much about L.A. and on a whim I sold everything that I owned and I bought a one way ticket and I had 600 dollars in my back pocket and I thought, ‘Let me just see how far I can get.’
What’s the most profound thing David Lee Roth ever said to you?
Mary Anne Hobbs: Let me see if I can think of some advice. I remember the best story about David Lee Roth. When he first released Eat ‘Em and Smile, another member of his entourage that I knew very well said to me that every morning the first thing that Dave would ever do before he left his bedroom was see his accountant. This guy would show up at Dave’s house—full suit on, everything—and he would visit Dave in his bedroom. For years and years everybody thought this suited briefcased-up guy was the accountant. Many years later it came out that David Lee Roth was all but bald and this guy was actually his hairdresser—he’d come in every morning and sew in some fresh extensions so that Dave could come out with his hand grenade blond bomb of hair and nobody would ever know any different. So that is probably the best life advice there—whatever you’re lacking, first thing in the morning have a guy with a suitcase come and bring him in as your accountant.
MARY ANNE HOBBS WITH FLYING LOTUS AND NOSAJ THING PLUS ALL LOW END THEORY RESIDENTS ON WED., SEPT. 23, AT LOW END THEORY AT THE AIRLINER, 2419 N. BROADWAY, LOS ANGELES. 10PM / $10 / 18+. LOWENDTHEORYCLUB.COM. MARY ANNE HOBBS’ WILD ANGELS IS OUT NOW ON PLANET MU. VISIT MARY ANNE HOBBS AT BBC.CO.UK/RADIO1/MARYANNEHOBBS OR AT MYSPACE.COM/MARYANNEHOBBS.