Irwin Chusid is a record producer, radio personality, journalist, and music historian. He was the primary force behind the resurgence of interest in pop composers Raymond Scott and Esquivel, and produced the heralded Langley Schools Music Project. Chusid hosts a weekly free-form radio program on WFMU, has produced/curated dozens of albums, and has written for The New York Times, Mix, Mojo, New York Press, and other publications. He has co-authored and edited three anthologies of work by artist Jim Flora (published by Fantagraphics). His outsider music book and CDs are called Songs in the Key of Z.
Your term “outsider music” is now part of the underground music lexicon. How did that occur to you?
I’ve been drawn to marginal self-expression since my mid-teens. It’s my “inner outsider.” Although I can’t claim to exhibit the personal or artistic characteristics of the outsiders I chronicle, I’ve long felt distanced from most (but not all) mainstream culture.
As a typically nerdy record collector, I had been accumulating outré sonics for decades, without considering it categorically. It was the stuff others considered “bad,” or “incompetent,” but which struck me as having a certain “realness” quotient. There was some genuine, if self-unaware, creative impulse at play in this music. In record shops, these discs weren’t found in a particular bin — they were usually found under the bins.
A turning point came in 1978, when my buddy R. Stevie Moore played the Shaggs LP for me. He had an original copy, obtained from his uncle, Harry Palmer, who saw the group in Fremont around 1970. Of course, we couldn’t stop laughing at the Shaggs’ spastic arrangements and club-footed rhythms. It was funny, but we never doubted the group’s sincerity. We also knew the story, from HP, so we had some insight about the album’s genesis. It alerted me to the existence of this alternate musical universe, and I began to
explore it more avidly.
I coined the phrase “outsider music” in a 1996 article in Pulse magazine. It seemed to be the logical term for the sonic counterpart of outsider art. That said, the phrase is meaningless. There is no such thing an “outsider musician,” and no one aspires to be an “outsider.” The category is a journalistic and a marketing convenience. Performers so categorized are, simply put, musicians, artists, entertainers.
What defines that term to you?
Music — or a reasonable facsimile thereof — that people with mainstream tastes would consider “wrong,” “inept,” or perhaps woefully “naive.” It’s created by people whose intentions are sincere and who often lack rudimentary self-awareness of how truly removed from reality their efforts sound. These musicians are often self-taught, and they are the sonic counterparts of long-celebrated “outsider artists” in visual fields. Their work often has a strikingly distinct identity. Mental illness may or may not be a factor. There is no universal profile.
Free associate with the following names if you please ( skip any or all you want) :
Talented songwriter, erratic performer. Tragic mental state, but Daniel exemplifies what is best about outsider music. That his music has been covered by “inside” musicians speaks to its broader appeal.
Feel free to reprint anything I said in my Key of Z book chapter. I stand by every word. (get your copy here)
Bad Boy Butch Batson:
Don’t know much about any of these.
How involved were you with cassette culture in the so called “golden years” 1980-1995? Did you ever feel part of the home taping community?
It was the music storage medium du jour. I used it.
Your show, while not necessarily focusing on the home recording element has certainly incorporated it. Was there a criteria for getting airplay from home tapers? Did it have to be weird or somehow twisted?
I had to like it.
To me, Cassette Culture was as much a social phenomenon as a musical one. Your take?
Again, it was the music storage medium du jour. I used it. When CDRs came along, I used them. Still do. And I love downloads. Such ease at collecting new sounds. To me, it’s never been about storage media. It’s about music.
In my opinion, with the advent of CDs came even more delusion than before in regard to independent musicians. And now, the endless glut of mp3s thrown around. Is there even more delusion than before about “making it” because of the ease of communication now?
The phrasing of the question implies a certain contempt for those who work outside the traditional (i.e., corporate) channels of music distribution.
Do you think there is a lasting legacy of cassette culture?
No, except for artifacts of particular musicians which exist only on cassette. Which is unlikely, because anything worthwhile that existed on cassette has by now been transferred digitally. That said, digital media will not last forever. It’s durability is unproven, esp. since new digital machines aren’t necessarily compatible with old digital storage media. Analog is more durable (as long as playback devices remain available). There will be newer storage technologies ahead. Keep your originals. If they’re on cassette, preserve them.