An Interview with Jeff Wagner and Hunter Ginn of the Radical Research Podcast

All this newfangled technology was supposed to uproot the way we communicate and share ideas. And it has. Ask anyone along the dark and frazzled continuum between Facebook accounts originating in Russia and a registered American voter. But in the end, nothing beats good, ol’ fashioned word of mouth. Recently, our Exalted Leader Mudrian had some glowing words come out of his mouth with regards to Radical Research, the new podcast headed up by former Metal Maniacs editor, author of Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal, Soul on Fire: The Life and Music and Peter Steele and sometimes Decibel scribe Jeff Wagner. And because of those kind words, I checked it out. After discovering that Wagner’s co-host was Hunter Ginn, an old pal and drummer in progressive instrumentalists, Canvas Solaris, and that topics included thorough and exhaustive looks at the careers of Beyond Dawn, Carbonized, Disharmonic Orchestra and Die Kreuzen, as well as forays into fusion, Italian prog from the ‘70s and the body of Dan Swano’s work, well, let’s just say it wasn’t a tough sell to get me on board as a listener. In a crowded podcast world – really, what form of media isn’t crowded these days? – Radical Research (subtitled ‘Adventures in Exceptional Musick’) stands out for its creators’ knowledge, their easy back-and-forth banter and the obvious love of the subject matter being exuded. We caught up with Wagner and Ginn to get the skinny on bringing years of nerd-ing out to the people, listening to music in a new and different context and why Hunter’s mom rules.

Was there a particular moment where you decided to take your everyday conversations about music and extend them into a podcast?
Jeff Wagner: I remember having that moment because prior to that moment, Hunter and I had been talking about co-authoring a book about the post-black metal, Norwegian avant-garde scene; the whole Arcturus, Solefald, Dødheimsgard thing because that’s something we have a mutual interest in. I think maybe one day we’d still like to do that. At the same time, parallel to that, I was listening to this podcast called Seincast which is all about Seinfeld and I was really taken by it in a way that I hadn’t been taken by any podcast since. I’m not the biggest podcast listener, but the ones I listen to I can really get involved with passionately, I guess. So, I had this thought that even though the podcast world is super overpopulated, what if we did something on this Norwegian scene we had talked about; a podcast, a blog or something like that. I kinda kept going back to podcasts thinking it would be the best medium for it. It just grew out of that.

Hunter Ginn: In some ways, it was kind of the most natural way to do it, because Jeff and I have been having these conversations about music for 17 years now and it was a way to sort of, I don’t want to say legitimise those conversations because they were legitimate in our minds, but we thought there was a void in term of our interests, especially in terms of experimental and progressive rock and metal and it was an opportunity to highlight bands we always considered heavily unsung and maybe give a voice to some of their music we thought was really special.

Jeff: I feel like it’s like how bands start or how you start a book: you want to see that thing that’s not out there, so you start that band or you write that book. If somebody was doing a podcast on Beyond Dawn and Carbonized and ‘70s Italian prog, I’d be first in line to subscribe to it, but nobody was. So, we thought we could add something unique to a crowded podcast scene. Because it’s so obscure it won’t be the most popular thing, but that’s not what we’re going for, but it just seemed to have a need to exist.

Is that how Ulver ended up being the focus of the first episode?
Hunter: Yeah, in fact Ulver was probably going to be the first chapter of the book. Jeff and I are both self-demanding masochists so it seemed like the perfect entry point to discuss Theme’s From William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, one of the most difficult and unyielding records in that entire constellation.

Jeff: In hindsight, I think it’s a terrible one to start with; how unwielding of an album is that to discuss by people who are completely green to doing podcasts? We didn’t even have the idea of how we were going to play snippets, we just dropped them in on that show. That’s the episode I don’t really stand by, but people tell me it’s fine, so that’s cool.

Hunter: It is amazing how little we worked out the infrastructure. We were both just really excited to do it and jumped right in. We realised we were in piranha-infested waters and that next time we should probably come up with a strategy.

Was Radical Research supposed to be the name of the book?
Hunter: No, it wasn’t the name of the book. We actually came up with a tentative title for the book, but Radical Research evolved over time as we were looking for the right words and Jeff stumbled across that combination. It seemed to be what we were going for because there was a definite scientific, analytical bent to what we’re doing and the radical part describes to a ‘T’ most of the music we discuss on the program.

Jeff: I think the subtitle, ‘Adventures in Exceptional Musick’ was an even stronger signifier that we’re kind of catering to a niche. We also didn’t want to put ‘prog’ or ‘metal’ in there because we didn’t want to box ourselves in at all. I’ve read and gotten responses from people who have listened so far and there are listeners who use the blanket terminology of it being a prog or metal podcast and I don’t think of it as either; it’s whatever the hell we want to do. I mean, episode ten was about ‘Ginncore’ and that doesn’t really fit either category. It’s pretty freeform I suppose.

I know you both have backgrounds in music and various parts of the industry, but maybe aren’t as visible or involved now as you once were. Is the podcast way of keeping in touch with the scene and your roots?
Jeff: For myself, I was looking for a creative outlet and was toying with ideas for a third book. I wanted to do something beyond just being a fan. I love just listening. My day job is in the music business – I’m the product manager for Inside Out and I also do a few Century Media bands, Voivod being one of them – so I’m around music all the time, but that’s a bit drier. So, I just wanted to do something kind of fun and when this happened I didn’t care how popular it was, who likes it or who doesn’t. I want to do it with my buddy and we have a blast doing it, so it definitely scratches an itch for me.

Hunter: My educational background is in writing and I’ve written very, very, very sporadically over the years about music. I’ve always been as interested in the discursive side around music as I have the music itself; I find really good writing about music to be almost as exciting as the actual music. I wanted an outlet outside of being a musician to do something creative and fun. I wouldn’t have done this with anybody else besides Jeff. He and I have always had such a sympatico relationship in terms of the music that we like and the attitudes about it and this was just kind of the perfect forum. We’re actually going to be adding a written component to the podcast; there’s going to be a blog piece that’ll be a companion. I work completely outside of the music industry and I guess I sort of envy Jeff’s position to work inside it. I guess the perspective is different and the grass is always greener, but this is definitely a way for me to stay closer to it.

What are the nuts and bolts of doing the podcast? In listening to it, it’s obvious you’re not in the same room.

Jeff: He’s in Savannah, GA and I’m in Greensboro, NC and we use a free service called Zoom which is like a meeting place that allows conference calls to be recorded. It’s great and wonderful, so a shout out to the good folks at Zoom. What I do is take that raw file and I do all the editing in some editing software and, honestly, that’s my favourite part of it. It’s just like editing a book or writing in a song or something. My favourite part of any creative endeavour is taking that raw lump and honing it into that final sculpture. I put the snippets in and we tend to decide on the snippets prior to the recording so we can talk about and address them. Each episode takes a few hours to edit, then I have someone help me with some backend work like getting the thing up and running, getting a site for it, putting it on iTunes. All that stuff is lost on me. I’m not a technical expert and it’s been a learning process. We do talk quite a bit and I think after episode one or two, we had a hundred ideas each for coming episodes, but we had to tap the brakes and figure things out first.

Do you find yourselves getting unsolicited offerings about what episodes you should be doing?
Jeff: The one that comes up the most is, “when are you doing the Voivod show?” I love that band so much and I guess people know that, but geez, we’ll get there. Settle down.

I’ve noticed that, for the most part, you focus on bands with endpoints. Is that deliberately done so you don’t have to potentially eat your words in a year or two?
Jeff: Sure. I think hindsight helps us hone what we like and what we think about something. We’re not opposed to doing something newer or modern, but for now these are the things that have occurred to us. There’s no hard and fast rule that we can’t do some album by some new band. Granted, between Hunter and I there probably aren’t that many bands per year that come out with albums we love, but they’re out there and there’s no rule.

Hunter: We’re really not opposed or in favour of any particular thing. Jeff and I have these talks and sidebars constantly about other things. I remember at the beginning looking through my iPod and every band I was like ‘them,’ ‘them’ and our lists were unmanageable. It was overwhelming. We’ve kind of been in this pattern of doing analyses of discographies or one album and I think that you’ll start to hear the podcast take some different shapes over time. We’ve got some interesting angles, not just talking about bands and albums, but approaching things from a different way. It’s important that it stays fresh for me as it does for the listener because I think that translates.

Jeff: That’s why you’ll never hear us do something like a Top 10 list of Slayer or Metallica songs. We love those bands and their classic periods and all that, but it’s been done. The other thing I want to note, Hunter mentioned an iPod and I think he and I are the only people in the world that probably still use iPods as a supplementary listening tool. We want an iPod Classic endorsement, but they don’t even make them anymore.

In doing your *ahem* radical research for each episode do you often find yourselves coming across stuff you didn’t know about the bands? Or is what we’re listening to you cracking your head open and spilling out what you already know?
Hunter: More the latter, I would say. We put together notes. I can’t speak for Jeff, but I don’t do a lot of historical digging. For me it’s more absorbing the form of a song and picking things apart. I guess that’s a process of discovery or rediscovery, but I’ve found that I’ve learned new things about the contours of this music just going back and listening, as familiar as I am with Carbonized and Beyond Dawn. But I’m not on a bread crumb trail for facts that I didn’t know about these bands.

Jeff: I am! I would say that would be my exact answer, but I’m the guy who likes to bring in more of a historical context and some of the minutiae. We just recorded the Mind Over Four episode and I was talking about Triple X Records, which was their first label, and I was rifling off some bands that Hunter didn’t know were on Triple X and he comes back with two bands that I didn’t know were on Triple X. So, he can hang, but I just think he ferrets out this stuff differently than the way I do. I try and dig as deep as possible, but that’s just how I am as a listener.

Hunter: I think that anyone that’s obsessed with music finds themselves listening deeply, but I find myself listening with particular focus now when we’re preparing for the podcast because this is going to be a documented analysis.

More than a few times I’ve heard you mention how, historically, you discovered bands via an ad or a blurb in some magazine and obviously you both have an affinity for the written word printed on paper. Is the podcast you keeping up with times? Do you ever feel like you’re turning your back on an old friend, namely print media?
Jeff: Yeah, but only in the sense that maybe Hunter and I could start a magazine, but what a bizarre and ridiculous failure of an idea that would be. I like the idea of it on the surface, and I probably speak for Hunter and say that it would be our favourite medium, print media, but I do think we’re kind of having to submit to the times. But as I said, I’ve discovered Seincast and a couple other podcasts over the last couple of years and I’ve come to like the form. It’s fun having our own and discovering what we can do with it. I definitely prefer it to reading stuff online, which is ironic.

Hunter: I’m with Jeff; I’d rather be writing, but to me this is just as a legitimate a form of analysis and discussion. In some ways, it’s more organic because even though we plan for these episodes, it’s this evolving conversation and I think that Jeff would agree that we tend to both have revelations during the podcast. It’s a more dynamic model than writing, but I’m with Jeff. I’m a sort of anachronistic person anyway and typically don’t feel beholden to the times, but the idea of the two of us starting a magazine seems like a fool’s game. My mom gave it a title years ago, so at least we have that.

Jeff: What was it?

Hunter: Metal Waginn.

Jeff: Oh, like “Wag” “Ginn”? Great.

Hunter: I love my mom.

Jeff: Your mom is awesome!

Have your goals with the podcast changed in the short time you’ve been doing it?
Hunter: Not really. For me, it’s kind of materialized in exactly the way I wanted it to: talking about music with one of my best friends, mostly talking about music that not a lot of people know about, and music Jeff and I believe in and has been important to us. And I think it will always be like that. I don’t think you’ll ever find us digging through curiosities. To me it’s important that we talk about and share music that we love.

Jeff: We have talked about doing a point-counterpoint show and we might have that.

Hunter: But it would still be a passionate discussion.

Jeff: Absolutely, because there’s stuff I like that he doesn’t and vice versa. It might be a productive discussion that would be more than just us agreeing because we’ve been on the same page so far. This is why we’re such good friends because we connect on many, many weird levels of music. The other goal for me is turning people on to music; that is the most fulfilling thing ever. I’ve done it with my books and magazine stuff and when you have someone come to you and say, “I bought the Beyond Dawn discography or the Anacrusis catalogue because of you,” that’s so fulfilling and means a lot to me as a fan and a listener. We don’t do this just to hear ourselves talk; we want people to dig and that’s another reason we just play snippets of things.

Hunter: The discovery process is an intimate thing. Jeff has been evangelizing and turning people on to music for years. I haven’t and I like to think it’s a humbling experience to think that, as a result of this conversation, someone could be turned on to something that could really, really supplement their life in a way these bands have done for me.

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