On The Road With NPR Music: John Vettese At WXPN, Philadelphia

Beyond travel, we’re also big music fans here at Gadling; largely because music is a great way to get to know a place. This month happens to be Public Radio Music Month and we’re teaming up with NPR to bring you exclusive interviews from NPR music specialists around the country. We’ll be learning about local music culture and up and coming new regional artists, so be sure to follow along all month.

Name: John Vettese

Member station: WXPN, Philadelphia

Regular Show/Contribution Beat: Philly Local Show co-host on WXPN; editor, writer, photographer at The Key

1. When people think of music in your city, what do they think of?

A lot of things; different things. Some people think of the Rocky theme, or that Elton John song; ’70s Philly Soul is a big association people have with us, of course – and a good one to have. As far as artists active in present day, it’s not so easy to pin down. The most successful musicians that have emerged from Philly in the past few decades range from hip-hop (The Roots, Meek Mill) to psych-rooted, classic-rock-informed bands (Dr. Dog, The War on Drugs) to wild art-rock (Man Man, Kurt Vile) and singer-songwriters (Amos Lee, Melody Gardot), which, for me, covering the scene, is great – it keeps it fresh and exciting, and doesn’t make Philly music so easily reduced to a “sound.” You know, grunge/Seattle, garage/Detroit, psych/SanFran, punk/DC etc. Philly has all of those things; there’s no one single thing it makes people think of, musically – which I guess is the one common refrain you’ll hear.

2. How do you help curate that musical scene?

I stay open-minded. And I try to showcase a little bit of everything. For about three years now, I’ve produced a weekly series of in-studio recording sessions with Philly musicians – it airs on WXPN on Tuesday evenings and is released as downloadable audio on The Key on Wednesday mornings – and I make sure the artists I bring in for The Key Studio Sessions are, for the most part, representative of that range. This makes for some interesting and unusual week-to-week match-ups. In January / February, for instance, we had a traditional folk trio (The Stray Birds) one week, a rockin’ alt-country five-piece (The Naked Sun) the next, an aggro thrash band (Pissed Jeans) the next. We’ve had metal, hip-hop, experimental, electronic, blues … I’m recording my first Brazilian music band later this spring. I do often wonder, for instance, what the audience that tuned in (or went to the blog) for the emo-punk group the one week might think of the ethereal singer-songwriter the following week. But looking at the bigger picture, I feel like if it didn’t have that kind of range, it wouldn’t really be showcasing Philly.

3. How has that scene evolved over the last few decades?

Kind of like the music scene nationwide, it’s become a lot more self-reliant. Getting a label deal isn’t something bands are realistically expecting. They hope for it, sure, and many take the opportunity when it arises – The War on Drugs are on Secretly Canadian, DRGN King is on Bar/None, etc. But I’ve also heard stories of musicians turning down label deals because they are fine doing it on their own and don’t want to trade that freedom for restrictions or demands from an outside party (in exchange for better exposure, hypothetically anyway). Musicians are really learning to do things themselves – book shows, handle publicity, fund recording projects and put more care and artistry into their self-released products. When I started covering the scene in the late ’90s, self-releases were treated like demos – tossed-off, hastily recorded, quick and cheap things to get an artist’s songs out there, figuring that they’d rerecord them for real once they get signed. And while an EP released to Bandcamp is still, pretty much, a demo, I’m noticing they sound a lot more like finish products than any CD I received ten years ago. (When they go the extra step and press it to vinyl, even better.)

Other changes – the studio scene in Philly has boomed, and rather than a room or two monopolizing everybody’s recordings, there are now between a half-dozen to a dozen major players (in addition to the do-it-yourselfer basement studio types). I like this for a couple reasons – competition is good for business, of course, and it also gives more variety to the recordings that are making it out there, rather than one producer’s sound dominating all corners of the scene.

Live music venues in the city ebb and flow, as they are wont to do, but there’s more of a sense of stability than there was when I began covering Philly music. Johnny Brenda’s and World Cafe Live have been around for a solid six years; new small to midlevel rooms like MilkBoy, Underground Arts and Union Transfer are doing well for themselves; even our 3500-cap room The Electric Factory is pressing on amid somewhat tricky times and a bizarre split with promoter Live Nation that’s probably too inside-baseball to get into here. Suffice it to say, we’ve thrived as a live music scene, against (some) odds.

4. What would you say is the most unique thing about your music scene?

The variety that I mentioned before, which I guess might not be THAT unique – every city has a hiphop scene, a punk scene, a folk scene, etc. But what is unique is the way Philly’s variety is so embraced by the scene players and the scene supporters, and even leads to cross-pollination and collaboration. For instance – there’s an Americana band called The Lawsuits that’s been making a modest amount of local buzz for a year or two now, and they were on a bill last summer with a rap three-piece called Ground Up. Now, to qualify what I’m about to describe – this isn’t a scenario where the former is some sort of funk-based jam band and the latter is some hippie backpacker rap crew, so they were kind of close in sound and style to begin with. The ‘Suits are a very Dylan-esque group, very songwriting-oriented and very much on the polar opposite end of the spectrum from Ground Up, which is uncompromising, hard-hitting, rap-for-rap-fans. But at this show, facilitated somewhat by two managers who grew up together, the band played an opening set, and then stayed onstage to act as the house band for the rap crew. It was great, went over huge with the crowd, and led even further to some studio collaboration that’s so far only yielded a few YouTube videos, but a lot of folks – myself included – are stoked to hear the results.

5. What are three new up and coming bands on your local scene right now and what makes them distinct?

These are all “new” as in within the past five or so years. All unsigned, with strong local fan bases and making outroads across the U.S. and elsewhere.

Hop Along – Punk-informed, introspective and arty rock trio centered by Frances Quinlan’s songwriting. She’s got a unique, powerful voice – one local critic described it really well by saying her singing isn’t classically “lovely” but is gritty, passionate and carries a tremendous range of emotion – and the band’s songs are very expressive, explosive, structurally unconventional and way exciting. They released their latest LP “Get Disowned” last year, toured the U.S. in support of it, and are embarking on their first European tour this spring. Listen to Hop Along’s “Tibetan Pop Stars.”

Cheers Elephant – Zany, playful psychedelic pop/rock foursome with three solid albums, a great track record as performers and the smarts to realize that getting out there and hitting the road is the way to grow your band. They’ve mounted several successful national tours and back home, their past two album release shows have sold out the 800-cap World Café Live. Their latest LP is called “Like Wind Blows Fire,” and it came out last year. Listen to Cheers Elephant’s “Leaves.”

Chill Moody – Somewhat of a minor local celebrity thanks to his masterful knack at working the social media world, Chill Moody has dropped about three mixtapes a year since 2009 and is a true showman, the type who kicks his show off by walking from the lobby, through the crowd, then up onstage. His style is very throwback and easygoing, recalling A Tribe Called Quest and Pharcyde, but he knows how to be hard-hitting without being overly macho. His first commercial album, “RFM,” was released on iTunes this winter. Listen to Chill Moody’s “Cotton.”

6. For a Gadling playlist, what are your favorite tracks?

Aside from the above, here are six tracks that were performed live for The Key Studio Sessions, my aforementioned sessions series.

Gymnopiede 1.2″ – Lush Life

“Bathroom Laughter” – Pissed Jeans

Sugar Sand Stitched Lip” – Heyward Howkins

Saint, Don’t You Lie” – New Sweden

End it On This” – Ethel Cee

Winter Misser” – Bad Braids

[Photo Credit: George Miller III]

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