Galactic Travels: AV Talks with Bill Fox 2011 Ambient Visions

 

Bill Fox

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AV:  Seems like you have been involved in music in one form or another for quite some time. Tell me about some of the high points in your musical history that helped to mold your musical tastes into what they are today.

BF:  While I always had something musical happening, everything was of a limited scope when I lived in Ohio.  Yet, all of those experiences prepared me for what was to come so I suppose the "high points" were high from my vantage point.  They just weren't high in terms of public profile. 

I formed my first band in elementary school and sang in choirs at school and temple.  The summer after the seventh grade, I was asked to join a band at Music Arts, and Crafts camp where I met my lifelong best friend.  We played two songs at the end-of-the-summer concert.  Not a real big thing, relatively speaking, but it was a high point for me. 

 From high school through my adult years, I played saxophone in concert bands, played in duos, filled in last minute for bands, played in pit orchestras for musicals, and was exposed to radio broadcasting.  I played at a folk festival in a university's large auditorium while I was in high school.  My first musical in 1986 was "Jesus Christ Superstar" and I was the guitarist.  (As I type this, it is Easter, 2011.)  In high school, I won a contest to be a DJ for 15 minutes at WUJC (now WJCU). 

It was prerecorded but I insisted on spinning the disks (vinyl, in those days!) and running the sound board myself, not just do the announcing.  These events were only big to me but they were very formative. 

When I moved to Pennsylvania, things would, at times, be of a higher profile in terms of public awareness but I'm still swimming in a small sea.  Almost upon my arrival, I played saxophone in a community concert band, played in pit orchestras, and played in classic Rock cover bands. 

The first incarnation of the Rock band played at Musikfest, stealing audience members from the Tom Jones concert at an adjacent venue and holding a crowd of 3000.  Being in ShadowPlay and Pulse were highlights for me because these bands played at a very high level trying to sound like a tribute band on everything we played and covering Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues, Beatles and more.  Mastering so many styles instead of only one is challenging. 

Pinnacle is the only original band I've played in as an adult.  That has been and continues to be amazing.  We've opened for Spock's Beard and Riverside and played at ProgDay, a big outdoor Progressive Rock festival in North Carolina.  But some of the real high points came from recording and playing with Karl, Greg, and Matt, the members in that band. 

None of this had anything to do with electronic music!  I actually studied electronic music production while I attended Ohio State.  Then my emusic interest hibernated for many years.  I didn't even know about Tangerine Dream, only about academic electronic music.  Then in the late '80s and early '90s while driving home from rehearsals with the Westerville Community Concert Band, I often would tune to WOSU-FM.  This is the period where I started growing away from commercial radio.  I had no idea for the longest time that I was listening to Music from the Hearts of Space.  This was my first real exposure to "popular" i.e. non-academic emusic.  Playing at all but the first Ricochet Gathering were high points as well as playing on vidnaObmana's "Opera for Four Fusion Works - Act II: Phrasing the Air."  Of course, meeting the musicians and fans at these and other events were the highest points, sometimes in more way than one!  ;-) 

AV:  What was it about music that prompted you to be involved as a musician as opposed to just another listener spinning discs in their CD player?

BF:  Music always spoke to my heart, even at an early age.  One of my mother's favorite Bill stories was to tell about how, as a preschooler, I would hum along with the Roger Williams records she would play over the house intercom.  (Not very high fidelity!)  I'd sing not only the melodies but the counterpoints, too.  In the first grade, I wanted to learn the piano but that was not in the cards.  In the fourth grade, I started to learn the guitar.  By the fifth grade, I bought my first records and started trying to learn them by playing them over and over and over... and playing along on a nylon string guitar.  At the same time, I tried to analyze the music to see what made it tick, from chord relationships to arrangement.  I had no idea that they taught such stuff in colleges!  Looking do deeply into music, how all the parts fit together, and how it is produced is the manifestation of my love of music. 

AV:  You started off in northeast Ohio and ended up in the Lehigh Valley in PA. Do you see the company transfer that brought you to PA as doing you a favor in terms of being exposed to a more vibrant electronic music scene? Do you think that had you stayed in northeast Ohio that you would have eventually traveled the same path musically speaking that you have now?

BF:  Location always has an effect on our lives.  Upon arriving in Pennsylvania, I quickly discovered WMUH, a college station.  2 to 6 am on Saturdays was a show called "Beyond the Barriers" hosted by "Lunar." 

I'd sometimes call Lunar just to learn about the music.  (Lunar is still there although he now calls the show "Krautrock All Night" having changed the show's focus.)  The drummer in the earliest carnation of ShadowPlay was into electronic music and turned me on to Star's End.  In 1993, we went to a concert that is part of what is now known as The Gatherings.  I think it was the third concert that Chuck Van Zyl hosted.  These are influences I never would have had in central Ohio. 

But who can say that I wouldn't have had other, equally powerful influences in Ohio?  After all, I already had a predisposition for emusic, had met Max Mathews (sadly departed only a few days ago), earned an electrical engineering degree, and had a deep love of all aspects of music and its creation.  We can only know what actually happened. 

AV:  When was it that you first discovered electronic/ambient music and what was your initial reaction to it?

BF:  My first exposure was listening to Music from the Hearts of Space on WOSU-FM.  At first, I didn't remember to tune in all the time.  But in 1990 - 1992, before moving out of state, I remembered more frequently over time.  My reaction was, I hate to admit, one of mild curiosity.  I didn't run out and buy a bunch of albums or decide on the spot that I wanted to make this kind of music.  But I did start collecting some CDs.

AV:  How have you been involved in the local music scene as a musician since you moved to the Lehigh Valley?

BF:  I arrived in April, 1992.  Before summer, I was playing saxophone in the Municipal Band of Allentown and bass in what was ultimately to become ShadowPlay.  I've played in a Jewish music group, a Country band, two Celtic bands, joined a duo called the Critters that eventually became a five piece, doing coffeehouse material covering Country, Country Rock, Folk, and Rock.  The Critters turned out to be a transitional band between ShadowPlay and Pulse having many members in common.  So I've played lots of local gigs.  In order to play in Municipal Band, I have to be a member of the Musicians Union.  Through that, I've logged a few musicals.  I logged even more musicals at the Pennsylvania Playhouse.  I even left the pit and appeared in three productions. 

Back in Ohio, I knew Howard Moscovitz from MMML (the Mostly MIDI Mailing List).  Like me, he was an AT&T employee at the time.  He was already in Allentown long before I arrived.  We met the summer of 1992 and have been friends ever since.  We formed an emusic duo that didn't do much until we added Greg Waltzer and became xeroid entity.  Since 2009, whenever Greg was unavailable, we'd play as a duo rather than turn down playing opportunities.  By 2010, that was happening so often that we resurrected our duo now called Twyndyllyngs.  Mostly we play the (near) weekly Internet concert Chez Mosc on http://radio.electro-music.com. 

Locally, we've played the NJ Festival of Electronic Arts, electro-music Festival, and the Soundscapes Concert Series.  There aren't many local emusic events to play. 

AV:  Tell me about how it was that you became involved with WDIY on a regular basis? Had you ever thought about being involved with radio before this? Why now?

BF:  I used to hang out at WUJC (now WJCU) at John Carroll University where I had won that 15 minute DJ prize.  (I lived across the street from one of their dorms!)  When I was at Ohio State, I looked into the college stations there.  WOSU-FM was almost 100% Classical and used professional staff at a studio located far off campus.  They had no interest in students at all.  The students had a "station" that used AM carrier current which means only the dormitories could receive the broadcasts.  Since it wasn't broadcast over a traditional transmitter for all to hear, I didn't see the point.  Radio as an activity went dormant in my life. 

In the first month or two after arriving in Allentown, I met Charles James when he walked into my office at work to tell me about the community public radio station he and others were starting.  He was looking for volunteers.  But I had just arrived and had other priorities for establishing a life in the new location so I had to pass.  In January, 1995, WDIY went on the air.  I was a listener soon after and called to make a pledge during their first Spring Membership drive. 

Feeling a little established with my new life, I called the Program Director, Christine Dempsey (now at WHYY in Philadelphia) to offer my recording studio skill set as a volunteer.  I soon was engineering a 30 minute art program.  I quickly got qualified to do on-air shifts and my opportunity came the next New year's Eve when the host of Disembodied Voices needed a fill in.  This was my first time on-air solo and I played emusic!  Throughout 1996, I filled in on Disembodied Voices and on some Jazz shows whenever possible.  I also did the first over night broadcast that WDIY ever had, presenting a Robert Rich Sleep Concert. 

AV:  What was there about your time spent volunteering your skills at the radio station that kicked your interest in spacemusic into overdrive?

BF:  By the time WDIY started broadcasting, I was already listening to Beyond the Barriers and Star's End, attending what was then known as Star's End Gatherings, and collecting emusic CDs.  I was already in overdrive.  In 1996, I used every on-air opportunity to play spacemusic.  I always posted my playlists on the mailing lists I read.  Groove Unlimited, then called Cue Records, saw fit to start sending me promos even though I didn't have a regularly scheduled show.  I'll always be grateful to Kees Aerts for that.  Then, when I saw a post on a mailing list by someone at Hearts of Space announcing Robert Rich's Sleep Concert tour, I pounced on the opportunity to produce a concert and to do an over night broadcast.

AV:  How long did it take after this increased interest until you started proposing a spacemusic program to WDIY? Did you know at the time what you were going to play and what kind of format you wanted to the show to take?

BF:  Everything was in place by the end of Summer of 1996, including a written proposal submitted  to Christine Dempsey for a show called EMUSIC, named after the genre of music and EMUSIC-L, one of the mailing lists where I participated with the on-lime emusic community.  I knew exactly what I wanted to do and how to present it.  To this day, very little about my show has changed in terms of format and content.

AV:  Was it different for you going from producing shows to actually doing the shows? Did it take some getting used to?

BF:  Moving from engineering someone else's show to doing my own show was not a very large leap.  As an electrical engineer in a manufacturing plant, an audio engineer, and as a gigging musician, I had the skills to plan things and the skills to engineer a program live.  Stepping in front of the microphone was the only challenge.  Of course, I was accustomed to speaking over a mic at gigs... not that I did that very well.  I usually limited myself to quips and bad jokes... really BAD jokes.  At the radio station, you can't even hear the audience breathing, let alone see them.  That's the hardest part.  You have to work all the time at how to enunciate clearly without sounding like a dork.  Modulating your voice away from a monotone without sounding like a game show host is another on going skill to develop.  Over time, one develops little tricks to help you know what you want to say before you open the mic, short of writing out an actual script. 

AV:  Tell me about the music that Galactic Travels means to spotlight and why you have a passion for letting people know about this type of music.

BF:  Galactic Travels is advertised as playing electronic, ambient, and spacemusic; always has been.  While the meanings of these terms seem to have drifted a little over time or even fallen into disuse (does anyone talk about spacemusic any more?), I think that it is clear that what I present on GT includes melodic emusic, Berlin School, tribal ambient, drone ambient, and even music that's a bit on the experimental side, so long as it isn't too harsh or too boring.  I present this music because, as I moved away from listening to mainstream, commercial radio and moved into spacemusic and Progressive Rock in my private life, I felt that these genres of music were in dire need of exposure that very few had the opportunity to provide.  Of course, this was before Internet "radio" became feasible and before traditional radio stations would also stream their audio.  Now, anyone can do "radio" on the Internet... 24/7, on demand, and so on.  I'd like to think that I am an established outlet for emusic and can still be considered relevant despite today's state of technology.

AV:  How is it that you go about programming your show from week to week? Listener input? Most popular new releases? Do you request music from artists or do you just play the review copies that show up in your mailbox?

BF:  It's a trade secret!  ;-)  Since I've been at this for so long, a lot of music shows up in the P.O. Box without any prompting from me.  Being an established name and having a visible profile on-line and in places like the Indie Bible, many people contact me to ask how to submit music. 

Still, when I find out about an artist or label for the first time, I'll make contact if I think their music is a fit for GT.  So I guess the answer is, "All of the above."  Although I solicit listener feedback, now more than ever, I rarely get any.  As a result, I mostly depend upon my personal taste.  By the way, if you listen to the show, I usually remember to give out an email address so that requests and comments may be made.  I don't give out that address on-line to keep all the spambots from picking up on it.  You have to listen.  But I'm all over MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, mailings lists, and forums that it shouldn't be too hard to find me!

AV:  What other projects have you taken on in the Lehigh Valley to help promote electronic/spacemusic to the area besides radio?

BF:  I started doing Thought Radio at WMUH. That show is divided into three parts, the first being for emusic.  I started the Soundscapes Concert Series in 2002 as the concert companion to GT and TR and to continue what I had started in 1996 with the Robert Rich concert at the Open Space Gallery.  Unfortunately, the pyrotechnic event in New Hampshire made the city of Bethlehem's insurance provider require that anyone renting the Ice House carry a $1M liability policy.  Just you try to find an insurance agent willing to provide that.  They all think that I'd burn down the place. 

Me: "But ambient music is like Classical music but even more boring!  People bring sleeping bags to these concerts.  There are no mosh pits and no pyrotechnics." 

Agent: "What's ambient music?" 

The cost from the one agent who would insure me was prohibitive and I had to shut down the series until a new venue could be found that didn't require insurance or my first born to rent the place. 

Luckily, the Nazareth Center for the Arts opened in my own home town and they want me to do as many shows as I can.  I restarted the series at the NCA in 2010 and produced six concerts.  I've already done one this year and am looking for more acts interested in playing.  Admission is free and, so far, attendance is light due to the economy.  That makes the financial benefit to artists minimal.  They have to want to do it for the sake of having a performance opportunity.  But Jez Creek, who came over from the UK to play at electro-music in upstate New York, sold a LOT of CDs at Soundscapes and the patrons are generous with donations more often than not so the artist often gets more than just gas money. 

It's a nice, comfortable, intimate event.  I'm hoping that it catches on as the economy improves.  Plus, playing a live set on GT is great promo for the Soundscapes Concert Series as well as The Gatherings and One Thousand Pulses.  Now, if I only had a budget to advertise in print and on radio.  I could also use some volunteers who can do lighting and/or visuals. 

AV:  So how long has Galactic Travels been on the airwaves in PA at this point? Has it changed much since when it first started?

BF:  GT first aired on January, 23, 1997.  Since February was the first full month of operation, that's when I started the Monthly Special Focus as supported by the Featured CD at Midnight.  That format hasn't changed.  I did a feature called the Vinyl Starter for a few years but retired that once the vinyl library was exhausted. 

AV:  How is it that you compile your top 20 lists for each month? What criteria do you use to put albums on the list or take them off for any given month?

BF:  Without sufficient listener feedback, it's mostly a matter of personal taste.

AV:  Since it is your own tastes that determines what ends up on your programs or on your top 20 lists maybe you can go into some detail as to what your "personal tastes" are when it comes to spacemusic and what you are looking for when you listen to a submission. What stands out to you or what turns you off when you hear a new piece of music?

BF:  It's like going to the movies.  Very few of us are movie critics, able to write about a movie's qualities.  Most of the time, we just go with our emotions.  It's a gut feeling that makes you decide on the merits of a movie.  As a music listener, I mostly go with that gut feeling.  That being said, the audio engineer in me expects a certain competence in the production values.  I've heard perfectly great pieces of music that are totally ruined by horrible engineering.  While I don't require perfection in audio quality, there comes a point where you know that a recording won't survive the broadcasting processes (including compression and limiting) or the listener's tolerance.  Then there's the musician in me who, after a lifetime of performing in a large variety of genres, knows the ins and outs of composition, orchestration, and arrangement.  While Ambient may be perfectly boring to most mainstream folks, those of us tuned in to allowing melody to take a back seat in importance to other musical qualities, still need the music to be interesting in some way.  Melodic emusic is more in line with mainstream values except for orchestration.  I hope that I have developed a good sense for detecting musical qualities and how they balance with each other in more than the traditional ways and what will appeal to the listeners.  Then there's the educational component of GT.  I'll stray into some slightly more experimental music than some may like.  But I feel it is an important aspect of the show and try to balance that in without scaring away too many listeners.

AV:  When you get new submissions do you have any suggestions for artists sending in their music to you as to what you'd like to see in the package or what kind of information you'd like to have in the package they send?

BF:  Glad you asked.  I have recommended guidelines to share.  This is a big reason why I prefer one-on-one contact by an artist or representative before anything is sent to me.  I have a form letter that I send out so that everyone understands my circumstances and needs.  A visit to one of my blogs at http://www.myspace.com/billfox/blog/410535951  spells it out.  In it, you'll find suggestions about including liner notes and dividing long form pieces across multiple tracks for easy access to more than just the beginning.  Can you believe that I have been sent CDRs that had no writing on them, came in a paper sleeve that had no writing, and no artwork was included.  Not even a letter to say who sent the CDR came in the package. They may as well have not sent the CD.  The music was great but how do I log it in the station's playlist where artist, track title, album title, record label (if any), and track length are required?  Always contact the host before sending anything for the first time.  It'll save the starving/aspiring artist a lot of grief.  Then, once you've seen your music in my playlists, then send all future releases that are appropriate to the show.  Too many artists forget to market themselves or don't keep a list of where they have sent to in the past... or even what they sent.  Keeping good records and being organized isn't always on the artist's mind.

AV:  Have you seen more recognition come about in the general listening public for space and electronic music over the years since Galactic Travels went on the air?

BF:  It's really hard to tell since there isn't much in the way of feedback. 

Since the show is on at 11 pm, past bed time for most, few people call in or get on the computer to send email.  But that's OK since the show is great for helping you get to sleep.  I ought to start each program with a disclaimer not to drive cars or operate heavy machinery while listening!  Oh, and power tools, too!!  ;-)

AV:  Do you ever get together with Chuck van Zyl of Star's End just a little south of you and discuss strategy for getting the word out more effectively about electronic and spacemusic?

BF:  We talk back and forth on occasion.  But Chuck has been doing this far longer than I have and so doesn't really need my advice.  I've developed the skill of promotion but I have to do it without any budget.  I promote concerts on GT and TR and on all the related websites and social network presences, as well as on the appropriate mailing lists and forums that allow such things.  I also employ all the free concert calendars in the local papers, magazines, and non-commercial radio stations.  That's a big effort but it sure would be nice to have an advertising budget.  Word of mouth is powerful but it's hard to know if/when it happens.

AV:  What course do you want to set for Galactic Travels in the years to come?

BF:  I've done a few on-air concerts whenever the opportunity presented itself to have guest musicians on the show.  I'd like to do more of that.

AV:  What kinds of interaction do you have with listeners of the show? From the comments do you feel like you are achieving the goals you set out to achieve when you started Galactic Travels?

BF:  Unfortunately, there has been nowhere near enough interaction over the years.  Lately, a few listeners have taken me up on the opportunity during the show to email me, although that can be done all week long. 

But I'd like for there to be more.  When I do get feedback, it's mostly positive or an expression of appreciation.  I solicit requests.  I might not be able to act on them during the course of a show but I can usually fill a request on the next show.

AV:  People seem to write things at the drop of a hat on blogs, comment on news stories and just generally love to share their opinion on just about everything. Why is it that the ambient/space community is reluctant to offer feedback on programs like yours do you think?

BF:  That's a great question.  There's this anonymity thing when posting on-line that lowers people's inhibitions.  But when aimed at a show's host, perhaps that particular phenomenon doesn't come into play.  I'm just guessing.

AV:  Any last thoughts about spacemusic in general or Galactic Travels in particular before we say goodbye?

BF:  Spacemusic is a wonderful genre of music.  Even the bands that explore TD-like textures have the flexibility to say something new and make sonic explorations beyond what has already been established.  It's the trip, not the destination that is so much fun, like life.  I hope that GT can continue to bring new music to the attention of listeners.  Even those who don't listen, read the playlists to see if they can spot something they haven't yet discovered on their own.  Giving musicians a platform for exposure is the main point of GT.

AV:  Thanks for taking the time out to offer the readers of Ambient Visions a little glimpse behind the scenes of Galactic Travels and its host. I appreciate what your show and others like you means to keeping spacemusic out there and in the public ear. Spacemusic as a genre may be a little niche in the scheme of the overall music industry but I think that the listeners and fans of the music are one dedicated bunch. Just not as vocal as we would like but dedicated nonetheless.

 

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