Interview with Dave Segal
The raddest writer that northwesterners have ever read on a weekly basis is Dave Segal. He is the go-to for underground music knowledge in Seattle. Around the neighborhood you can spot him from time to time as he walks or runs past you or at various shows or parties, and in those moments it may feel like you transmuted into some suavely raw ’60s film, especially if you get a chance to say, “Hey.” What I find most intriguing about Dave Segal is his cunning sense of humor, extensive knowledge in music and worldly facts, and if you go to one of his deejay gigs you are guaranteed to hear something cool or learn something new about music. He deejays a lot with DJ Explorateur at various spots around the city, but seems to be always on an adventure, is obsessed with records, and builds up many bands, producers, and deejays in the community. What drives such massive passion? His work is so vital for the underground music front on Capitol Hill, which may be on treacherous uphill trek right now with a new condo coming up every five seconds. As old venues and diy places close their doors, new stuff opens up, and we get to see a lot of transition. Rest assured that Dave will be there scoping it out for us by turning you on to the right sounds.
What’s a day in the life of Dave Segal like?
Dave Segal: I try to get in a 2-3-mile run first thing in the morning. It’s a great time to think and ponder all of the poor decisions you’ve made in your life. If it’s a weekday, I’ll start reading emails (I get about 5 per minute; no boast, that’s simply the harsh reality of my job) in the morning and conceiving blog posts for The Stranger. Later, I’ll head in to The Stranger’s office, where I work with some of the smartest, funniest, and messiest people in Seattle. At The Stranger, I mostly write about music and music-oriented events. I also edit other people’s writing.
On many evenings, I’ll do more writing, working on freelance projects for various record labels (Medical, RVNG Int., Light In The Attic, Further, Nuearth Kitchen, Innerflight), for whom I do liner notes and press sheets. Many nights I’ll go see live music or DJs, because it’s my job to keep tabs on the scene. Some nights I’ll be the one DJing, often with my partner Explorateur (Valerie Calano, one of the best in the city, if not the country; she’s in that Dust & Grooves book by Eilon Paz). It’s fun to subject people to your weird-ass record collection. Somehow, I’ve never been thrown in jail for doing this. I try to listen to music every second of the day, because it is pretty much my oxygen. . . and I have a lot of DJ gigs to prepare for.
Tell me about where you grew up and what fun experiences you used to get into back in the day.
DS: I grew up in the medium-sized city of Southfield, just north of Detroit, Michigan – yet I hate cars. I was a goddamn jock up through high school (wanna see my letter jacket?). I played all the team sports except hockey. I played tennis and racquetball, ran track, cross-country, and road races. I threw a no-hitter in Little League at age 12. My life has been all downhill since then.
I taught myself how to spin a basketball on all 10 digits of my hands. I ran a lot of marathons in my teens and twenties. I never smoked a cigarette as a kid, and to this I day I’ve never taken a puff. I didn’t take drugs or drink, because I was too busy trying to qualify for the Olympic marathon. You’ll be crestfallen to hear that I didn’t make it. And I read a lot of books and magazines — for fun, damn it.
I was a very driven youth – maybe because I am a first-born/Arab-Jew/Aries-Taurus cusp person. Whatever the case, I was always working on my game (whatever that happened to be at the time), so I guess the fun came in improving at whatever skill obsessed me back then. While my peers were engaging in frivolous activities like “partying,” I was getting faster and smarter (theoretically).
I know you are big on record collecting. When did that start and what drives that passion?
DS: My younger brother Michael was crucial in getting me interested in non-mainstream music around 1979-80 when we were in high school. He’s the one who turned me on to the British weekly mags NME and Melody Maker, which opened up new worlds of great, unconventional music that most US media outlets and radio weren’t covering/broadcasting. We began to hit the Detroit/Ann Arbor-area record stores every week, scooping up British imports of post-punk bands that those papers were hyping.
From then on, I’ve been on a voracious quest to discover as much amazing new and old music as I can cram into my mind. I want to know about as many different musical styles from as many different countries as possible. Surely every genre and nation has something to offer – even Albanian ska.
As a child, I listened to commercial radio back when it was pretty good (’60s/’70s) and I would obsess on certain songs (Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” Smokey Robinson’s “Tears Of A Clown,” Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft,” Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride,” the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” etc.), but I never bought records as a lad. I made up for it once I got in my 20s, though, and the urge to accumulate great quantities of music has intensified like crazy with every successive decade. It’s tied up in my occupation (music critic) and my avocation (DJing), but even if I weren’t involved with those pursuits, I’d probably be just as neurotically acquisitive about recorded music. Music upholsters your mind; you don’t want to adorn it with junky gewgaws. Somehow, music has become my religion, but it also works on the pleasure centers (when it’s great) like drugs and sex. And this is why I break my back every time I have to move residences.
How did you begin your writing career?
DS: I began writing for Wayne State University’s paper, The South End, in 1983. I was obsessed with music (see above) and I was a print journalism major and I figured why not combine my obsessions – music and writing —and see where it takes me? Plus, I was useless at everything else, so it was either writing or working retail or some other godforsaken task.
From The South End, I went to Creem while still attending college. I worked there as a copy editor for a few months before that legendary music mag moved to LA and nosedived. I also worked for the Cleveland-based magazine Alternative Press as a freelance writer and editor from 1990-2002, before I moved to Seattle and began my association with The Stranger. I’m proof that you can sling words at very bizarre music in an attempt to make readers care about it and somehow make a living doing so. It’s kind of crazy.
What are your favorite things to do in Seattle?
DS: Digging for records and DJing with said records and bringing people pleasure through said DJing. I also like to go to the Space Needle with a cup of Starbucks coffee and listen to Nirvana on my Zune.
What do you think has changed in the arts and music scene since you arrived in Seattle?
DS: I moved to Seattle in the fall of 2002. There was no Decibel, no Debacle, no Substrata, no Hypnotikon — all great festivals that have substantially improved this city’s musical health. Hip-hop has really exploded in both mainstream and underground circles. Seattle right now is home to both one of the world’s most popular hip-hop artists (Macklemore) and one of the most adventurous (Shabazz Palaces). Electronic music has remained strong; we’ve lost some great people (Bruno Pronsato, Jeff Samuel, Kris Moon, Son of Rose, Big Spider’s Back, etc.), but some amazing producers have surfaced, too (Jon McMillion, Big Phone, Lusine, etc.). KEXP has increased its influence and Hollow Earth Radio has emerged as a superb counterculture incubator. I hope they both continue to thrive – especially HER, because I love underdogs.
The club scene always has been precarious and volatile, with many spaces folding and opening over the last dozen years. That’s just the nature of the beast. Recently, we’ve lost some key venues for adventurous music (Comet, Electric Tea Garden, Heartland), but the appearance of Kremwerk and its supremely open-minded owner Austin Stone, is fantastic news for the electronic music scene.
On the down side, Capitol Hill is becoming intolerable on the weekends with droves of mainstream tools and cultural fools infiltrating the neighborhood. The boom of high-end condos and apartment buildings doesn’t bode well for the future of edgy cultural happenings in Capitol Hill, but, damn it, let’s not give up without a fight. Support Vermillion, Wall Of Sound, Elliott Bay Book Co., Everyday Music, and other bastions/repositories of forward-thinking artistic expression. I really don’t want to have to move my record collection to Beacon Hill.
You are a big advocate for exposing underground music. Tell me about why you focus on exposing that in your writing.
DS: It’s partially because I have a strong aversion to most commercial music and my tastes skew toward the weirder end of the sonic spectrum. Call me a freak, but I’d rather champion music I think is worthwhile than tear apart music I loathe. Once in a while it’s fun to slam a record or a band, but ultimately that depresses me. Another thing: There’s always a clusterfuck of critics swarming toward popular music; I don’t need to add my voice to the unwieldy chorus. I simply find it more gratifying to shine a light on the music world’s margins, where I think the most interesting things are happening. It’s supremely rewarding to be the first writer to cover a great, obscure musician/band and then witness that musician/band go on to wider exposure and renown. Never underestimate the satisfaction of telling people, “I told you so.”
You seem to really love everything about writing, wearing vintage clothes, and spinning records. Can you give advice to people to aspire to go down that path?
DS: Well, I wear vintage clothes because I’m a poor journalist. I’m not really a fashion-oriented person; I usually just go for comfort and earth tones and black. I’m in no position to give anyone advice on that front.
As for spinning records, you ought to be insanely curious about all styles of music, learn as much as you can about them, and develop a refined sense of aesthetics. Read thoughtful music criticism and find out as much as you can about new and old music. You should observe great DJs in action and talk to them about music. Then you should scour record stores and online retailers (Dusty Groove, Experimedia, Other Music, Bent Crayon, etc.) in search of what you think you want to play out.
The amount of music coming out now is overwhelming, as is the amount of information about this music – same goes for the vast archive of old music. You pretty much have to become a part-time music scholar if you want to rise above the mediocre morass of DJs. Never be satisfied with your level of knowledge; always keep digging for more. You could live for hundreds of years and never learn about or hear everything that’s been released. (Another thousand hours of music just came into being as I typed this paragraph. Sigh . . .)
Writing? It depends on what kind of writing you want to do. But, generally speaking, you have to feel a biological need to express yourself. You have to write every damn day. You should read great writers, maybe even emulate some of them, until you find your own voice. You should master the basics of language and learn the rules, so you can break them with more authority. (Did you realize that being knowledgeable about grammar is sexy? That knowing how to deploy semicolons can get you laid? True story.)
Where was I? You don’t have to write for your school paper or take journalism courses in college to succeed as a writer, but they could help. Basically, you have to be curious about many things and possess the creativity to document/express them in an accurate and distinctive manner. Unless you want to write fiction or poetry (the world has enough plays; don’t even think about doing those). Then you just need to know how to tell flagrant lies and convince readers of their inherent truthfulness – while drunk and/or high as a motherfucker. No good fiction ever has come from sobriety. I almost forgot: ESCHEW OBFUSCATION… unless you’re writing speeches for politicians.
Tell me about an epic life experience that you have had. It can be anything.
DS: It was 1983. I was 21. My friend Paul and I drove to Washington DC to run the Marine Corps Marathon. My hairstyle at the time was shaved on the sides and longer on top, because that was how some of my favorite musicians were doing it in Manchester, England. I didn’t realize that this cut resembled so closely that of the Marines. So when those Marines who were handing out water along the course saw me, they thought I was one of them. Ergo, they gave me their special shout of encouragement whenever I ran by them (something like “AROO AROO”).
I was floundering around the 15-mile mark, but somehow I rebounded, aided by the Marines’ unwitting camaraderie, and I ran my second-best time ever: 2 hours, 43 minutes. However, I couldn’t bask in my accomplishment, as Paul and I had to check out of our hotel room ASAP. We had no time to shower, even though we’d just run 26.2 miles. All we could do was retrieve our belongings and get in his car. We proceeded to drive from DC to Detroit (520 miles), reeking of marathon sweat, still in our racing gear, and our poor, overworked leg muscles stiffening like crazy in his unspacious automobile. It took about 8 hours to get home. Then I took a shower and ate something. You still awake?
all photos by Marz