As many of you know, WGBH-FM in Boston decided to drastically alter its programming in December and cancel all roots music programming. This included Blues on WGBH, the franchise started in 1978 as Blues after Hours with Mai Cramer and continued into the 21st Century with Brendan Hogan. New England music fans lost a great resource in Brendan's show, a light but reverent and always informative four hours of blues across the genre's entire spectrum.
But in the process of losing Hogan the DJ we're gaining Hogan the songwriter and performer. I caught up with him in Somerville a while back to ask him about his past on the radio, and his present relationship with music.
Mike Mellor: Most of our readers know you from your time on the radio. What was it, eight years on WGBH?
Brendan Hogan: Seven. Seven years plus.
MM: And you were on the Emerson [College] radio station before that.
BH: Yeah, two-plus years over there.
MM: Now that the radio era of your career is suspended—or over—can you reflect on it a little bit? How did it all come about?
BH: (Laughs) Well, I'll start at the beginning; I got into radio sort of as a fluke. I didn't go to school for it. I went to Emerson to be a writer and study poetry and it wasn't until between my sophomore and junior years at Emerson that a friend dared me to go to [W]ERS during the summer break and see if I can be a part of the blues show. Even back then I knew a lot about the music and knew I loved it, so I went into 'ERS and they told me to come back that night.
I had no experience in radio. (laughs) I didn't even know how radio worked. And from that point on...nobody else wanted to do the blues show.
I thought once I graduated from college that would be it with the radio thing, but I was pretty confident with it, so why not send out some air check tapes to some radio stations? The only people who showed any interest were at WGBH. They asked me to come in and do an audition and once I did that they asked me to come in and substitute. This was after Mai Cramer had passed away.
MM: They were having different fill-ins at the time.
BH: Yeah, that was November of 2002. Then they hired me in June of 2003. But radio for me...I was always more interested in playing the guitar, I was just really shy about it, you know, and I think getting involved with the music on the radio, presenting other people's music and talking about it was something more comfortable to me, so it just worked out that way.
MM: Can you think of any particularly valuable lessons you took from it?
BH: Well, I shut myself in a room for four hours on a weekly basis for ten years. I was intently listening to everything I played—the feeling of it, who is who, and what came when and what spurred on what. Being able to listen intently like that and having to form opinions and articulate them on air, I couldn't have asked for a better education.
MM: I'm having that same experience with the blues society work. I already knew about 85% of what I'm writing about, but with the other 15%, you just have to pick up and run with it. It's funny how that works, how one is all of a sudden an authority on the topic.
BH: Yeah, just by the nature of what we're doing.
MM: And if you take your work seriously, you really have to immerse yourself in it.
BH: I had a lot of help. Chris Stovall Brown was a real teacher and Peter Parcek, as well, really taught me a lot about the history of the music. But there's a lot to read out there. You know, this was in the fledgling days of the internet. I wasn't using the internet, I was just reading books and liner notes and stuff.
MM: So your growth as a musician, a music historian, etc. was helped by the intense learning you had to do for the show. Were there any hindrances?
BH: I like other kinds of music other than the blues! (Laughs) And having Saturday nights locked up. I mean, for a time, when I was doing radio that was what I was going to do. It wasn't really until I got the guts to play out a little bit that the Saturday night thing started to be a hindrance. I would go out and play and I would be the blues DJ, whereas in my head I'm only the blues DJ when I'm wearing that hat.
MM: It definitely will follow you for a little while.
BH: You know, right now that the show is over, I embrace it. Because I'm not actively doing that anymore.
MM: When I first met you, you were very quick to tell me that your album Long Night Coming was not “strictly a blues album.” Listening to it, I hear overt influences like Dylan and Van Zandt, as well as other songwriters. The influence I perceive isn't only in the language, but in the sound and feeling, too. We already talked about your interest in the blues. How do you manage to distill all of the influences and use it to inform who you are as an individual artist?
BH: Well, I've always been interested in music that is honest and [pauses] imperfect in some way. So in that regard it's kind of all the same to me. It has different names but it's all the same to me. I think Townes Van Zandt is a blues musician just as much as John Lee Hooker is.
MM: And they both probably would have agreed with you.
BH: Yeah. Bob Dylan is, too. Tom Waits is. I like stuff that's imperfect and gritty and lets it all hang out, blemishes and all. There is a beauty to it. I don't consciously say, “Well I'll sprinkle a little blues, add a dash of Americana,” or whatever that is, you know? It's just what I'm attracted to and I don't see much of a difference.
Johnny Cash is the same thing as Carl Perkins, which is the same thing as Chuck Berry, which is the same kind of sound as Johnny “Guitar” Watson. That's why I like the term roots, because it's just a blanket sort of term, or Americana because it's all American music.
MM: But Americana sounds a little more vague than roots. They're both, obviously, marketing terms. I personally prefer roots because it all came from the same place at the same time. I don't understand why music fans want to build walls between them.
BH: Chuck Berry is the perfect example of that. He was a black guy in St. Louis playing country and western music with a blues band backing him up. It's insane!
MM: And then he winds up in Chicago with the Chess people, and winds up being a major architect of rock 'n' roll. So, what is it?
BH: What is it? That's American music. And he winds up influencing the two biggest bands maybe ever, both of which came out of Britain, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It's just crazy.
MM: With your writing, there is the lyric writing, which is very singular and idiosyncratic, and there is the music that can fall into traditional roots music styles. How do you keep it in balance?
BH: Well, since I was a teenager in high school I've kept scraps of paper. I've always kept little scraps of papers and written little poems and things like that. I think the lyrics I write are just extensions of that.
The music is just…trying to capitalize on what I've found interesting, that sticks in my head. I like to think of it more as trying to create sounds rather than follow any kind of specific structure. If a song that I write falls into a blues structure, so be it. But at the same time I try to keep things as minimal as I can. I'm not trying to make anything fit or follow any specific guideline. It's more of a feeling.
MM: Does it work the other way, too? Say if a song falls into a structure, would you try and go in the opposite direction from the predictable?
BH: Yeah. That's why I don't have any harmonicas on the CD. I don't have any scorching guitar solos. I didn't want to fall into those kinds of…they are sort of musical clichés. That being said, I don't want to dis the harmonica; I love it when it's played well, but at least on the CD that was a conscious effort to not include those sounds because you expect to hear that.
When you hear this kind of blues thing happening you expect to hear a harmonica. Instead we were using an accordion. It's a reed instrument, it's kind of in the same family, but it's not a harmonica. It’s the same reason why we used a ukulele instead of a guitar solo. There is a conscious effort, at least on the CD, to not have those sort of obvious sounds on there,
If I'm writing a song I feel it's got to have something different. Otherwise it's already been hashed over. Why rehash it?