Influencers: A Conversation With Bob Boilen

Bob Boilen and Stephanie Williams-1425

Influencers is a new interview series on DCMD that profiles notable people whose impact on music stretches above and beyond the District border.

Photographer: John Paul Zajackowski 
Location: Jackie’s

Can you remember the very first show you went to and what it was like?

I remember being a kid and my family would take us to Upstate New York to the Catskills. Once we were there, the kids and parents would run off and do their own thing. One night, I went to a nightclub where there was a band playing Beatles cover songs. It was the first band I had ever saw. It was amazing to watch people play their instruments-I was literally at the front of the stage and singing, although I can’t say that they were a very good band. But it blew my mind to watch the music happen-it was very beautiful. I distinctly remember them playing the song “Michelle”.


What were your first few months at NPR like? 

It was a nightmare! I wasn’t a journalist -I was a college dropout who never worked in radio before. My first job was working on my favorite news show on the planet [All Things Considered]-it was pretty intimidating. Everyone was way smarter than I-these were renaissance people. When you spoke to someone like Robert Siegel [host of All Things Considered], you could talk to him about doo-wop one minute and about the president of Turkey the next and he would know equally an amazing amount. I had none of that in me, although I might have had something to contribute about the doo-wop!

How I got to NPR is such a backwards, crazy thing. Being there was totally out of my element, but I was determined to make it in radio.


What (or who) got you through that tough transition period at NPR?

The fact that people had confidence in me, as a non-journalist, kept me going. What I offered to All Things Considered was picking out music in-between the news stories. I could give a specific tone to the show and that was amazing.

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Bob Boilen and Stephanie Williams-1429

With All Songs Considered, I can’t even imagine the amount of submissions you get. How do you sort through all of it? I remember when we were on a panel together last year, and you mentioned that one of the ways you’d weed out submissions was through the album’s artwork.

The album art always correlates to the music. That said, it is less of a factor now since most of what I’m getting are downloads as opposed to CDs. I like to listen blindfolded and not be biased. It’s a pretty quick process. That first song is so important though.

What I look for is some kind of aesthetic where I can say that I’m intrigued. I don’t even have to be sold or won over, I just want to know that they have something interesting.


How do you manage to stay objective when listening to music?

I actually have two tricks to doing it. One of them is that I hardly ever read music press, so I don’t know what other people are doing. The other thing is that I try to listen to music blindfolded. It’s cool when you pick out a record everyone else is talking about and you have no idea that they’re talking about it.


What are the most common mistakes you see bands make early in their careers?

Pretty much every single band that you see plays their last song better than any other song. They put fire into their last song, so the first piece of advice is to play every single song like it’s your last song. So many people will run through their songs and do OK, and then all of a sudden they’re all fired up on the last song! You’re only onstage for an hour- put every single ounce of your soul into your performance.

Also, a lot of bands seem to lack the ability to banter with the crowd. But if they make some sort of connection, besides saying “What’s up, D.C.?”, that would be nice. I appreciate some artists that want you to be in their zone and they don’t say a word or acknowledge that you even exist. I do respect that to a certain extent, but I think there’s a line between those two things. While you’re traveling to a show, think of ways to make your performance special.


What kind of resources do you tap into when discovering D.C. bands?

I get a lot of Facebook invites. For a while, I sort of lost the thread of the D.C. music scene, but in the last five or six years I’ve tried to go to a lot more shows.

When I was in a D.C. band [Tiny Desk Unit] we would get paired with national acts for shows pretty frequently. That whole model has sort of changed in the last few years, since national acts usually come with other national acts, so the opportunity for an area band to get onstage with a headliner doesn’t happen as often. It is sad and I wish that would happen more. We got a lot of new fans from doing those big shows.


Since you go to so many shows-how do you choose which ones you’ll see?

I generally decide what I’ll see at least a day before. I’ll try to make out what I’m interested in seeing at least a few weeks in advance, but I can’t ever think a day ahead-there’s so many things coming up. Although there are some shows when you know that’s the only thing you’re doing that night-it’s that extraordinary.

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You’ve been in D.C. for a while-could you see yourself ever leaving this city?

I grew up in New York until I was a teenager, so I’ve had yearnings to go back there. But I really like this city a lot. For me, as a musician who quit his job to join a band who knew nothing about playing music, it was really cool to be a big fish in a little pond. Tiny Desk Unit sold out almost every show we’ve ever played in and it was amazing to do that.

I have so much history now in this town. Going out to clubs and getting know so many people, it would be hard to walk away from all of this. If I ever did move-it would probably be New York.


In past interviews you’ve mentioned that you make it a point to write back to every person who sends you mail-is that still true?

I can’t anymore-it’s impossible. But, depending on how personal it is, I’ll write back. I wrote to two people today who said that they were fans of the show, but I get probably 300 to 400 emails every day, and half of them could be submissions.


Where do you see the music industry headed?

The idea that you can be an artist now and can get your music out to people, without having all the industry gatekeepers in the way, is amazing.

I just hope that all the Spotifys and Pandoras out there figure out a way to pay artists more for their music. Most bands make their money off of merch, and the best thing you can do for them is pay for a ticket and buy something.

We can blame the business all we want and say how awful it is, but if people support the bands instead of grabbing stuff for nothing, everything will be alright. People have to start taking responsibility and give money to what they like.

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How do you and your son bond with music?

The day he graduated from high school, The Decemberists were playing Tiny Desk that afternoon, so we ran from the graduation to see them and that was definitely a bonding moment for us. He grew up playing in a contra dance band. I would play the guitar and he would play the fiddle. It’s a band of 25 to 30 people in Glenn Echo and it’s really fun.


You’ve accomplished so much-are there any doors that are still unopened?

It would be nice to do some more writing. I do some writing now for the All Songs Considered blog, and I would love to get more reflective. I’ve taken in so much; it would be nice to put it down in a more written form.


At the end of the day, what do you think keeps you grounded?

I really care about getting people’s music out there, and I’m driven to find something good. I don’t get tired of it at all. It’s easy to get jaded in a job like this. For whatever reason, that never happens.

Whenever I put on a record, it always seems fresh to me. Music is like the wonderful, unspoken language that happens between humans where you are channeling your emotions through an instrument. There’s nothing like it.