|90.1 at Night with Paul Slavens
Every Sun 7-10pm on 90.1-FM/KERA,
New DJ Paul Slavens brings
a strange mix of sounds
By JIMMY FOWLER
You could call singer-musician-composer-improv actor Paul Slavens a pillar of the Denton music scene and be right literally as well as figuratively: He’s uncommonly tall, slender, and bald, like a stalwart post, and he stands as high as many of the great and oddball artists who’ve influenced the city’s thriving college scene for the past two decades. But the 42-year-old Slavens — arguably still best known as frontman for the long-defunct Ten Hands but a veteran of many other projects like Green Romance Orchestra and the Texclectic Unsumble — recalls feeling significantly smaller when he came to Denton in 1984 to pursue a graduate degree at the University of North Texas. He had earned a bachelor’s in piano performance from an Iowa college, hardly a license to bloviate in a town so sonically diverse.
“I was just this kid from the farm fields of the Midwest,” he said. “I didn’t really know much about different kinds of music. I wanted to go for a master’s in composition, but I was too chickenshit. I went for music theory instead.”
Midway through the program, Ten Hands and its eccentric blend of jazz, kitschy pop, and world-beat flavors began to heat up in North Texas and eventually caught short-lived national exposure. Slavens says Ten Hands worked because of his burgeoning music sophistication, the abilities of the countless young instrumentalists with whom he worked, and a man who, every weeknight on the local public radio station 90.1-FM/KERA, played weird music. DJ Chris Douridas was later lured to Santa Monica’s public station to enliven the influential “Morning Becomes Eclectic” format and then moved on to a series of corporate gigs with music and film companies. But during the 1980s, as KERA program director, Douridas taught the best kind of “Intro to Music” course from the studios in Dallas with the unlikeliest play list imaginable: Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane next to Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Kronos Quartet, Fairport Convention, k.d. lang in her cow-punk phase, Hüsker Dü, John Cale, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and The Pixies — to name a very few. It was stylistically chaotic, anachronistic, and exhilarating, and it forced many listeners to keep a pen and a notebook by the stereo speaker to scribble down song titles and artist names.
“The only criteria for Chris was, it had to be good music,” said Slavens, who became friends with Douridas. “He told me one of his goals was to stop people from saying ‘I don’t like that kind of music,’ because he didn’t believe it was possible for someone to dislike an entire genre with so many different artists in it. Placing one very different style beside another tends to break down those prejudices.”
With the Douridas philosophy in the foreground of his mind, Slavens recently took another turn in a career full of artistic detours: DJ. In late June he was named the Sunday night host of KERA’s music show, now called “90.1 At Night with Paul Slavens.” Relatively brief though his on-air time is, Slavens has already given listeners something to get excited about: A randomly chosen September night found him spinning Nina Simone, The Zombies, Cat Power, Laura Nyro in the brilliant flower of her New York Tendaberry youth, Elvis Costello, Bjork, and a Beethoven sonata performed by Glenn Gould.
Slavens’ own web site declares his new KERA gig is “not exactly as I had planned but in many ways better than I had hoped.” Friends and colleagues knew that Slavens had been actively negotiating to get a chunk of time on the tight KERA schedule for more than five years. The vehicle he first sold to them was a hybrid of his own performance past.
In 1997, he became musical director and cast member of Four Day Weekend, the Fort Worth improv comedy troupe that often worked in the dearly departed Caravan of Dreams space. They specialized in riffing on audience suggestions both topical and musical. During these hit-and-miss performances, Slavens concocted the idea for what he calls a “younger, weirder” version of National Public Radio’s hugely successful “A Prairie Home Companion.” It would contain, natch, live numbers from invited musicians and comic sketches performed by multiple actors, backed up by sound effects from an in-house band and a mood-setting host, to be played by ... Paul Slavens.
He attempted this format with his club spin-off from Four Day Weekend, known as The Texclectic Radio Hour (And a Half). At Caravan and venues in Denton and Dallas, he was bandleader of both the accompanying The Texclectic Unsumble and producer of a series of recorded performances that he hoped would sway NPR to a create a syndicated “Texclectic Radio Hour.” It didn’t ascend far enough on the public radio chain, but KERA program director Abby Goldstein, who’s known Slavens for years, managed last year to squeeze a revamped “Texclectic Radio Hour” into a series of one-hour Saturday night slots. They were created live in the Dallas studio, with a handful of musicians and audience members and Slavens frenetically working the mike, the telephone, the computer, and the keyboards. In this case, all the challenging elements of a live radio show with improvised comedy and music didn’t gel in time to give Slavens a long-term hold on the time slot.
The current “90.1 at Night with Paul Slavens” is a much simpler showcase. He’s audibly unpolished as a KERA on-air personality — he occasionally mispronounces the more obscure artists he plays; he segues uneasily from song chatter to weather and football updates and station promotion; and sometimes he pauses suddenly, as if unsure what to say next. While he’s determined to relax more in his new role, the rough-hewn quality jibes well with the unpredictable, even disorienting program list he wields. And, God bless him, he scorns the snobby aesthetic pretenses of so many classical and jazz radio hosts: Slavens spells the names of those obscure or foreign-sounding musicians, so keep your pen and notebook handy.
In the meantime, the eclecticism that he brings to the DJ role has also led him into another musical endeavor of his own. Slavens is now writing for and playing with a Denton woodwind quintet as well as a loose 10-piece outfit called Cobra that employs the improvisational techniques of composer John Zorn.
Not surprisingly, he works to make local musicians a part of “90.1 at Night.” Slavens says that right now he plays an average of three tunes by North Texas artists per show. Acclaimed Fort Worth scenesters like The Theater Fire and Sub Oslo have already netted air time. He wants to play more, but so far relatively few local outfits have sent him their c.d.’s. Slavens promises to play anything — anything — if it has reasonably professional production and mastering, if it tickles his fancy, and if he can fit it into the fast-and-slow, old-and-new, local-to-international seismic chart of a Sunday show.
There’s another important rule that keeps the broadcast in check: “I rarely play anything over six minutes. There’s too much out there waiting to be played, and I like the idea that, if you don’t like what you’re hearing, wait five minutes.”
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