[JPL] Interview: Pete Gershon, editor, Signal to Noise

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Thu Oct 4 07:19:54 EDT 2007


October 3, 2007
Interview: Pete Gershon, editor, Signal to Noise
 Signal to Noise is a globally distributed quarterly magazine focusing on
improvisational and experimental music. You'd be hard pressed to find a
larger, more eclectic mix of album reviews and artist spotlights in any
other publication. It's celebrating its 10th birthday this year. Editor Pete
Gershon now calls Houston home and sat down with us to talk about his
magazine and his favorite topic ­ music.

How did Signal to Noise begin?

Ten years ago, I was living in Burlington, Vermont, doing some freelance
music writing for a couple of regional weekly arts rags. Luckily, the
editors gave me a lot of leeway and let me write about whatever I wanted to,
but I wanted to take things a step further. At that point, I was sensing
that there was a continuum of improvisation which ranged from jam bands like
Phish and the Grateful Dead, to modern jazz acts like Charlie Hunter,
Medeski, Martin & Wood, and then all the other stuff coming out of downtown
New York¹s Knitting Factory scene, like John Zorn, the Lounge Lizards, that
kind of thing. None of the other music mags were really focusing on the
connections between these types of music. Signal to Noise has evolved a lot
in ten years, and now it¹s more accurate to say that we¹re covering the
confluence of avant-garde jazz, electro-acoustic improvisation, and
left-field modern rock. A lot of the music we feature really transcends
whatever genre labels you might want to apply to it.

Why did you move from Burlington to Houston?

I got married. I¹m originally from upstate New York and went to Hampshire
College, a liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts that focused more
on evaluations than grades. I met my wife, who is a Houston native, when we
were going to school there. We rekindled our relationship around the turn of
the century, and I have been living in Houston off and on since 2001. I
moved down here permanently in 2005 after we had our first baby, so we could
be close to her career and family.

How did the name Signal to Noise come about?

The magazine was originally called Soundboard, but I had to change the name
after about a year because of a conflict with another publication in another
part of the country. It was hard to find a new name hat everyone liked, but
eventually a friend suggested I call it Signal to Noise, which seemed to
resonate with what we were doing. We¹ve operated under that name since 1998.

Why a print magazine in the age of the Internet?

I firmly believe there are a lot of people who spend their day in front of a
computer at work, and when they get home, they'll want to kick off their
shoes, sprawl on the couch, and actually enjoy the tactile experience of
turning some pages. I guess it's the same way some of us will always dig
shopping for CDs in a brick and mortar store and putting records on the
turntable as opposed to downloading MP3s. I love the Web, but it seems like
something is always lost in the digital transaction.

Who are some local artists/musicians that you find inspiring?

Houston has always been home to great blues and jazz music. Artists like
Kenny Dorham and Arnett Cobb come to mind, but of course it goes back even
further than that. The tradition extends from artists like Pauline Oliveros,
Mayo Thompson and the Red Krayola, the 13th Floor Elevators, to
Charalambides, outsider singer-multi-instrumentalist-enigma Jandek, DJ
Screw, Linus Pauling Quartet and Rusted Shut. Devendra Banhart, he of the
unfortunately-named ³freak-folk² movement, is going to be on the cover of
our next issue, and he was born right here in Houston. But I should stress
that I¹m still new in town, and I¹ve got a lot to learn about the local
scene, past and present. I¹ve just barely scratched the surface, and now
that I have kids, it¹s tough to get out at night and check it all out.

Are there enough outlets for experimental music?

Well, there are some. KPFT and especially Rice University¹s KTRU play
artists that you will rarely hear anywhere else. I especially like Dave
Dove¹s show on KTRU. Dave also heads up Nameless Sound, a non-profit
organization that teaches kids, for free, to express themselves through
musical improvisation. What he and the members of his Youth Ensemble do is
absolutely amazing. The clubs seem to do a really good job of bringing
interesting music through town, and the proximity to Austin is also helpful
in this regard.

Tell me about the writers.

They¹re spread all throughout the U.S. ­ many of them in New York, Chicago,
the west coast ­ even in Europe; in fact, I¹m met very few of them face to
face. They range from some of the most accomplished veteran writers in the
field to talented upstarts that have never had their work published before.
I really don¹t go searching for writers; most of them contact me, because
they love the magazine and they love the music.

How do you differentiate yourself from other music magazines?

We are probably the only magazine in the US that offers this particular mix
of musical styles. The music we are dealing with is so on the fringe that I
don¹t think anyone else is crazy enough to want to cover it. For years, it
was kind of a money pit, but we¹re finally gaining some traction. I think
it¹s pretty obvious that it¹s a pretty non-commercial venue, and
consequently people can really trust our writers¹ opinions about the music
they¹re writing about.

Will there ever be a Signal to Noise festival?

Funny that you mention that. We¹ve had some preliminary discussions about a
Signal to Noise showcase at SXSW next March. It¹s all still in the works,
though, but the idea is to host a night of Houston-based talent. We used to
hold concerts at our office up in Burlington. It was a dusty old warehouse,
and musicians would play for tips, but for a lot of them it was a fun
stop-over between Boston and Montreal. I don¹t know if we ever drew more
than 30 people, but some of these concerts wound up being issued on CD.

If you could be a Houston landmark, what would it be?

I would say the River Oaks Theater, except that I wouldn¹t want to be
bulldozed by a heartless realty company. So instead I¹ll be content to be
the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection.

You can find Signal to Noise at most local music retail stores.
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