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The “first Internet-only music show” is how an old Washington Post clip from 2000 describes the curious new NPR project from then-All Things Considered director Bob Boilen. The goal? The novel concept of collecting the songs he played in between news stories and putting them online, for curious music-lovers to devour. 16 years later and All Songs Considered—with its hosts Boilen and Robin Hilton—is still leading the conversation on new music.
And like every proper Sweet 16, All Songs Considered is throwing a big birthday bash—heavy on the nostalgia, with a slate of mostly yet-to-be-announced acts (“We’re trying really hard to make it a surprise,” says Hilton), all of which have been meaningful to the show’s history. The two confirmed performers are Baltimore electronic musician Dan Deacon and the virtuosic singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, two perennial All Songs favorites that represent the twin thrills of NPR Music’s beloved Tiny Desk Concerts; fun-sized sets from maximalist live acts who shrink their show down to cubicle-size, intimate sessions with tomorrow’s most prolific artists.
And from All Songs’ inception in the dial-up age all the way though their most recent Christmas episode, with skits from famous friends like Carrie Brownstein, Dan Auerbach, and Ben Folds, Boilen and Hilton’s winning formula hasn’t changed: two fans with the seamless rapport of radio pros and a boundless fascination for music, like hanging out with the nicest record store clerks on the planet.
City Paper recently spoke with Boilen and Hilton about their show’s big anniversary.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Washington City Paper: So, why 16?
Bob Boilen: Because we couldn’t pull it together for our 15th.
Robin Hilton: Last year was our 15th anniversary and we kept talking about wanting a big party to celebrate our birthday. And then come October, we realized we still hadn’t done it. So Bob had the brilliant idea of spinning it as our Sweet 16.
Also, when we started looking into songs about youth, there’s a billion songs about being 16. There’s not a single song that we could find about being 15.
WCP: Are the night’s surprise guests familiar friends of All Songs?
Boilen: The people we’ve chosen for this entire evening are people important to our history. That’s the whole idea of the show.
Hilton: We’re going to be taking a walk down memory lane, looking at the evolution of the show from its earliest days until now, and long the way we’ll bring out artists who’ve been important to us at different moments throughout our 16 years.
WCP: Something that’s been a constant with All Songs is that it’s rooted in a sense of discovery. Is discovering music still thrilling for you?
Hilton: Thrilling…is that the right word? I’m certainly not burnt out on it.
Boilen: I find it thrilling. Always. I go out to shows all the time, and I still find it thrilling, I still find adventure in listening to a bunch of music, nine out of 10 are just okay or less, and one—that one is the one you keep trying and hoping for.
And that’s what our show is. Each week, each of us individually, without the other knowing it, goes through a ton of music, and we each bring three to the table. We never know what each other will play. And that’s where the serendipity happens.
Hilton: I was just thinking [about] when I was younger, how hard it was to discover music before the Internet. I lived in a small town, and you really only heard what was on Top 40 radio… I sometimes wonder if the thrill is still there for people, that hard-fought music discovery, because people have access to so much now that we didn’t used to have.
I think the difference between the past and now is in the past, it was, ‘Would someone please help me find something—anything—out there.’ And now, it’s, ‘There’s so much out there, can you please help me make sense of what the needles are in this massive haystack.’
WCP: Bob, if you could take us back 16 years, and talk about how your time as director of All Things Considered eventually led to All Songs.
Boilen: It just so happens that one of the parts of directing a live two-hour news show every night, one of the quirky things directors do for All Things Considered, is that they play music in between news stories. And one thing I felt, because I had a background [and] knowledge in music, I chose good music [between stories].
So we would get tons of letters about the music that we played on ATC. And it was at a time—the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s—that music radio was being gobbled up and homogenized, and there really wasn’t a place for discovering things on the radio. So they were writing to me, and I realized they were music-starved. They just didn’t have a place, so that was the impetus to start—we’ll call it an Internet radio show—in 2000. I still don’t know if there were others, I don’t know of any others. I’m not going to say we were the first, but we were among them.
WCP: And you played the first 9:30 show! Tell us what music in D.C. looked like at that time.
Boilen: Before the 9:30 Club, there was one good radio station, WGGB, a college radio station, that played amazing music, and they were a focal point for the community of music lovers. But there were hardly any clubs to go hear original music by original bands—most clubs wanted to sell alcohol, and they would bring in mostly cover bands who would sneak an original two or four songs in their set, but would mostly would play hit songs on the radio.
There’s a fellow at NPR named Robert Goldstein, and Robert was in a band called The Urban Verbs, who formed in ’78. I saw their first show at what was called the Atlantis Club, which was the very same space as the 9:30 Club. It was a restaurant by day, run by this guy who had no interest in music at all, but Robert helped make that a music venue. Everyone hated it there because the owner just didn’t understand, and the sound was terrible. But it was a place where someone like The Urban Verbs—an original band from Washington D.C.—could play music. And it was them, and The Slickee Boys, and White Boy, and you could feel a scene coming and bubbling.
I lived downtown, and there were a handful of us who lived near 9th and F Streets, near d.c. space, which was coming up. It was started as a jazz club, but started bringing bands—the very first Tiny Desk Unit show was in the loft at d.c. space in 1979. It’s a Starbucks now.
And it was a small scene, you knew everyone, and it grew really well and fast. The club cared a lot about the artists that played—the woman who owned the club, Dody [Desanto], was an artist herself. She was a mime in the theater. And she tried to encourage young people, not just alcohol drinkers, to come to the club, and would do this “three bands for three bucks” night, and just wanted people to make a scene. Which is how you wind up getting hardcore in D.C.
Hilton: From a mime, D.C. hardcore.
Boilen: There were a few other places around town, there was the Ontario Theater, where bands like Talking Heads and The Clash and folks like that would come. Seth Hurwitz, who’s I.M.P. Productions, would put shows on there. Usually, every time you would see a national band in a nightclub like 9:30, you would see a local band open, which was huge for local bands like us. They don’t do that anymore, those days are gone. It was an encouraging scene, it was a place where things could happen, very much a ‘big fish, little pond.’
WCP: Do you still think it’s like that?
Boilen: When I go to little house shows, I feel that. But to get to a club and open for a national act? It doesn’t happen as much. And it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the clubs. It has to do with a whole different chain of events, the way booking happens, the way bands pair up with other bands to tour.
Comet Ping Pong is a place that still does that. What they’ll often do is sandwich a local band between national acts, so it’s not like they’re just the opener where 17 people are there.
WCP: Any other venues you’re consistently seeing do a good job?
Boilen: I made my list of all the shows I’ve seen [in 2015], and the two places I went to most were the 9:30 Club and DC9. DC9 has turned out to me to be one of my very favorite venues—the sound got really good, and the booking is really good. I go less to Rock & Roll Hotel than I used to. The backstage at Black Cat is smaller than the old 9:30 club, but captures that feeling of being in a room and looking around and seeing all the faces, where everyone’s tightly packed.
Hilton: I don’t see as many shows as Bob, who sees maybe 600 shows a year.
Boilen: I slouched this year, my number went way down. I wrote a book this year. [Bob’s final total: 506 shows.]
Hilton: I love the 9:30 Club, it’s probably my favorite place to see music I’ve ever been to. But I don’t think of a place as much as just the bands I see, because I’ve seen unforgettable shows at every venue that he’s mentioned, at U Street [Music Hall], at Rock & Roll Hotel, Black Cat, DC9.
WCP: Finally—it’s been 16 years for All Songs. Plans for the next 16? Do you have an exit strategy?
Hilton: For Bob, it’s called death. I’ve talked about, ‘Do you think you might be able to do this until you’re 80? I really appreciate it if you could do it until you’re 80.’
Boilen: It’s hard to imagine—the thing is, music’s got to still feel vital to me. And in some ways, I can feel times when the “vital” music of the day, I don’t connect with. And that’s part of aging. Let’s say the big community loves EDM: I’m like ‘Fine, this music is throbbing, it’s not lyrical, there’s rarely melody, the things that I care about in music.’ And if those things vanish from music and I don’t like music, then maybe we won’t do it. But the beauty of music these days is that there’s something for everyone, so I imagine that we will always be.
Hilton: We couldn’t have predicted the 16 years that we’ve had, and there’s no way to predict what the next 16 will be. But one thing about our personalities—and the way we’ve become such good friends and how well we work together—is [that] we’ve stayed very curious. And I still feel very curious, moving into the future. And as long as you’re curious, some things can happen.
Boilen: I’ve spent the last week listening to the Junglepussy record. I thought, ‘This name, I’m not going to like this.’ And it’s great. So there you go.
Photo by Mito Habe-Evans/NPR