Five Questions: Bob Boilen

NPR “All Songs Considered” host (and longtime electronic musician) documents music’s power to transform in his first book, 'Your Song Changed My Life.'
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Above: Boilen and his ARP Odyssey, 1979. Photo: Claudia Joseph

The NPR “All Songs Considered” host (and longtime electronic musician) documents music’s power to transform in his first book, Your Song Changed My Life.

You know him as the voice (and founder) of NPR’s “All Songs Considered.” And he’s been making electronic music for 30 years with his bands Tiny Desk Unit and Danger Painter. In Your Song Changed My Life, Boilen asks 35 artists to share the pivotal musical moments that inspired them.

You’ve been profiling artists for more than 15 years on the radio. What led to a book?
I’ve had so many interesting conversations with musicians about their lives and how they came to music as a way of life. I found it fascinating how often their path in life seemed almost accidental, coincidental—a song on the radio, a found guitar, seeing someone on TV. I also find it remarkable how we’re shaped by what we see and hear and how it changes us and forces us to take action, pick up a guitar, write words, beat a drum. I wanted to document those moments, put it all in one place to understand how small moments can become profound.

In the book, artists share the musical moments that transformed them. You’ve got Annie Clark talking about Pearl Jam, and Philip Glass talking about Spike Jones. Were there common threads? 
Often it was that light bulb moment of 'wow, I feel a part of this, I get this, this speaks to me.' And many of these moments happened at formative ages, often teens or younger, many times through parents’ record collections or an older sibling. There was often a sense of belonging and identity that happened—Philip Glass hearing humor in Spike Jones and I think identifying with a maverick like Spike Jones. Jones, like Glass, is a rule breaker. In the case of Spike Jones, he took and twisted classical music and made farce out of it, complete with comic jabs at Hitler. For Annie Clark, seeing a video of the Pearl Jam song “Jeremy” and then voraciously discovering all she could about a band that spoke to her gave her a sense of identity, something to call her own. 

You talk about The Beatles’ evolution from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “A Day In The Life,” and how that musical potential to evolve keeps you searching for new artists. What else thrills you about music discovery?
I’m still a sucker for a good song. I love melody, lyrics, and storytelling most of all. I don’t get tired of that. I’m very much a texture guy, too; I love layered sound and these days with all the richness that technology allows, there’s room for invention, for hearing something that literally never occurred before, and I find that endlessly fascinating.

You’ve been making electronic music since the ’70s. You even built a Serge Modular back in the day. And I heard that you just picked up the new ARP Odyssey. What excites you most about today’s synth technology that wasn’t imaginable four decades ago?

It’s funny, but I bet there are few musicians working with computers and electronics that think twice about the fact that when they end their day at a session that they can come back the next day and pick up right where they left off. When I started making electronic music, instruments and mixing boards didn’t have a memory. On my ARP Odyssey, if I had an amazing sound I couldn’t hit a button and save that sound. My Serge Modular had so many patch chords, I had to remember the position of all those sliders and switches…and more than likely getting right back to what you remember was elusive, an art as much as anything else. I remember leaving mixing sessions with big X’s of masking tape on the consoles with the words “DO NOT TOUCH” on them…sliders and knobs dialed in just right. 
When I played around with the Synclavier II in the early ’80s, I found the creation of sound near limitless; now an instrument like that might be one of a few dozen plug-ins used on a given song, and the range of possibilities that seemed endless before is now profoundly endless. It’s like discovering that there’s a galaxy and then realizing there’s a universe filled with galaxys.

You create an album every February as part of the RPM Challenge. What have you learned from imposing a time limitation on the music-making process?
Deadlines make me a better musician, a more reactive musician. I make music more from the gut, more from instinct than analysis when I’m on deadline. It’s closer to live music. It wasn’t unusual for me to take eight hours or more just to create a sound on the Synclavier II. It surely was fun, but I find that the combination of computers and music can create a giant rabbit hole, a time suck that for me made music more about the head and less about the heart. As a listener, I want music with heart and expression at its core and when I find it, then, to hold my interest; I want the kind of sound rich adventure electronic music offers.