Interview: Jerry Bryant, JBTV
By Karl Klockars in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 5, 2008 6:32PM
"We're the strangest show on television," Jerry Bryant tells us, although if it's strange it's only in the sense that it's almost a throwback to the days of old school radio. Nothing more than one host, one microphone, maybe a guest or two, and a long list of his or her favorite music.
It's next to impossible to not have seen an episode of JBTV if you've spent any time in the city and made a passing attempt at paying attention to music. Since 1986, Jerry Bryant has brought an innumerable amount of local music to television screens across the Chicago area, as well as unplanned, off-the-cuff interviews with some of music's biggest alternative and rock acts. The show itself has bounced around to any number of different local channels over the years, and is currently ensconced on WEDE with the occasional appearance on WJYS; if your rabbit ears have been lost to the ages, cable channel 25 in the city on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
After the jump, Jerry on official complaints, hate emails, and what Phil Donahue taught him.
C: You've been around for a couple decades now - can you recall how the show started?
JB: When RCA sent me their master video reel, it had Madonna on it. And then on the same reel, there were 20 other videos. I go, “I’ve never seen any of these videos. Peter Murphy? Why isn’t this being played?” And that’s how I started the TV show. I was doing commercials for radio stations. I would then find these extra – back then, they were incompetent. They would send master tapes out to anybody.
So they would send us a master, and I would see Peter Murphy, and then Peter Murphy found out that I was playing his video, and he came into the studio just to talk to me. Frank Black was the same way. He stopped by, and said “I just wanna play for you guys.” It was unscheduled, he just came in.
And he did four acoustic songs, one for Joey Ramone that I played for him. He started singing this song and said “I want Joey to hear this!” And Joey came in like, two weeks later, and I played it for him. He thought that was pretty cool. And these are two artists that weren’t getting – they were getting snubbed by MTV.
Like, “You guys are has-beens, nobody cares about the Pixies, the Ramones, these are all has-beens, bad, crummy bands. Unless you’re playing whatever we want on the air…” So they sorta cast them aside. I don’t think you can cast great artists aside.
C: You started out in radio. How do you feel about the state of music media in all its forms: Radio, TV, print, podcast, etc.
JB: Well, I don’t know –the traditional record companies have really destroyed the business, it seems. Even the media that’s out there that’s supposedly “media” – my analogy is like, CNN? That I call “Clearly No News” now? Because they can’t do news, like MTV can’t play music videos. Then they put on all these different channels like MTV2, that’s the “music” channel, now it’s like MTV.
Then Fuse came on, which was [from] MuchMusic. They said “Well, MuchMusic, no one understands that, we’ll call it Fuse, just to say ‘Well, MTV can’t play music.’ We will.” Now they’ve become MTV. So I don’t know where the choices for music are anymore. But I think it’s good because it’s pretty much taken the corporate world and put them upside down. Because those few places you used to be able to get music that were sort of controlled? Now we have the internet where any band who has a computer and is able to put something on line can get their music out there.
C: Well, not only that, but people can get their opinion out there where before they couldn’t as well.
JB: Right. But you know what I question about that? My TV show, when we’re on a real TV station like WJYS occasionally, even at 3 in the morning, that show can get 20 or 30 thousand viewers. And I look at the website, you’ll see 200 hits, 50 hits, 25 hits. It’s all okay, but you know what I’m saying.
C: You’re talking the difference between broadcasting and narrowcasting.
C: When I watch the show, the thing that I think makes it work more than anything else, is that you come off as the consummate fan, and maybe more of a kind of “hippie dad” kind of persona, that loves absolutely everything about music.
JB: Yes, I do. And I give all these musicians credit, whether or not someone says artistically they’re a great band or not, just the fact that they are working at their careers, I have to give them a chance. The viewers tell me, trust me. Whenever I put someone that they don’t like, I hear about it.
C: And what do you say to that?
JB: "Well, that’s your opinion, and thanks. Thanks for watching." Some of ‘em start out, I’ve gotten emails at the beginning of the show saying they hate this artist. Like 30 minutes later, I get another email from the same person saying “Disregard my last email. I hated ‘em for the first two songs – now I love ‘em!” [laughs]
Any song that you listen to – and I remember this from radio, Top 40 is the one that really blew it in – if you play a song once or twice, the first time you hear it you may hate it. The next time you hear it you may find something in there. The third time you go, you say “I sorta like that song!”
When I played Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” on my TV show on WGBO Channel 66, I got complaints. “What is that crap! We can’t understand what they’re saying!” And literally, I did a video of it where I put the lyrics on it.
C: I remember seeing that on MTV…
JB: Well, they copied us right away. They used to watch us all the time and copy us. I remember when Moby came on, he had that song “Revolver.” And MTV, everybody made him change the song. And that’s a classic song! They made him change the lyrics in it. And on the CD they had the right lyrics. So what I did was, I took the CD audio, mixed it with the video that I had, so the audio wasn’t censored.
Moby, when he came in for the interview, he [said] that was the first time anyone had done something for the music. Because what was wrong with that song? Lyrics are lyrics. Unless it’s obvious where someone says “fuck” or that kinda stuff.
So I changed it. He was so excited about that. He says, “MTV made me edit it once, then they rejected it and made me edit it again. I hate MTV.” And MTV heard that and they gave him his own TV show after that! [laughs]
C: Well, you could probably get away with some edgier stuff – you’re usually late at night, in that Safe Harbor area.
JB: Yeah, but I sometimes beep things if it sounds like a bad word, even if it isn’t. I don’t want any trouble. We’ve been on the air all these years, we’ve never had a complaint – I take that back. We had one complaint with a drag artist. Some film festival did Memory Lane, something called “Condoms are a girl’s best friend.”
And it had a line like “from big dicks to small pricks” and they didn’t like that, and it ran in the afternoon. But it was in some film festival in town, and it won a film festival award, so I broadcast it because it won that award.
It was something locally done by a local artist and I’m trying to support local artists first. There are so many great bands – the reason I built a sound stage is because for years we went to Metro, Double Door, the Vic, all these different venues to shoot concerts. But our costs have gotten so expensive. Venues want a fee, there’s insurance, you’ve gotta rent equipment, you’ve gotta hire people...so it got way too costly for me to do that. That’s why I built a stage here.
C: You’ve done about a billion interviews – it always looks like you get the people that have never done much press before –
JB: Oh, this is usually their first interview.
C: Right, so they don’t have the stock, canned responses because they’ve done a million interviews; you seem to get a much more honest interaction with the bands.
JB: Well, everything on TV is scripted. Look at the TV shows that can’t do anything now. It’s the brilliant ones that aren’t scripted that stand out. Look at even the MTV stuff. I look at some of the early Ozzy shows, those seem more unscripted than the new ones. It seems like everything is set up. It doesn’t even look real. I think bad reality TV doesn’t look real. [laughs]
C: But you guys take bands that have never answered a question in front of a camera before, and stick a microphone in their face. And sometimes it works – but sometimes they just kinda stand there and mumble and shuffle their feet – but that works too, I think.
JB: I leave that on deliberately sometimes. When I shoot an interview it usually takes about an hour or so in the studio. But an hour show only has about ten minutes of interview in it. So I have lots of stuff that I’ve never even aired.
C: Does anyone ever do the interview and then get embarrassed about not being…particularly media savvy?
JB: Trust me, I have enough stuff to incriminate every band! [laughs] But no, I wouldn’t do that to a band. I’m not a shock jock, I’m not into that part of it. I think every band, you want to show in the right way, and sometimes they say stupid stuff. It’s cool to have as an outtake ten years later.
We just had Silverchair in, and I remember shooting them at the Metro, and I showed them the tape of it, and they were these little kids. They came in, and they hit the guitars and the amp burned up. And I said, “Do you remember that?” Of course, they didn’t remember. But it was fun watching it happen.
Because the way I did the interview, even with Silverchair, who is an established artist, we didn’t have anything prepared and they thought that was so much fun. Because every time they do anything, it’s the same stuff. It’s like, follow the herd mentality of whatever questions or whatever happens to be out there.
C: Well, you never seem to go for the gossip info, or the big “gotcha” questions.
JB: I guess that’s why JBTV’s never been successful. We haven’t had the big dirt.
C: You’ve never made the Sneed column.
JB: [laughs] We don’t do stuff to cause problems like that. I think it’d be easy to do it. It’d be simple. What I get a kick out of is taking – you ever hear of Company of Thieves? They’re a brand new band, their first performance ever was on our sound stage. Now they’re doing sold out shows at the Metro and Double Door. That’s just a local band that had no following. Even we’ve had artists on like Ted Aliotta, who did “Lake Shore Drive” of Aliotta, Haynes and Jeremiah – but now just Ted is doing stuff.
I said, “You’ve gotta do Lake Shore Drive. I’ve put your whole band on TV.” He said, “Oh, but it’s such an old song…” And his show aired on 62 and he got so much response off of it, from an old rocker that sorta got rediscovered again, by the young kids. And that’s my goal – I want to get as much music out there.
The problem I have is that we’ve gotta get on a real TV station.
C: Well, you guys do podcasting and things like that, right?
JB: Yeah, but I haven’t really figured out how to do that, and the problem I have is that I’m just one guy with a couple of helpers. Everybody on JBTV is a volunteer. From our camera people to Paul and Carol who do graphics for the show. Everyone is donating their time, so it’s not like I have a crew of people to do that.
The internet requires someone to sit there and pretty much put it together and program it and monitor it. And I’m a quality freak. So anything you see on JBTV, usually that we’ve shot, I shoot multiple cameras, we use decent audio and mix it well, we don’t take board feeds or camera audio. I think the band’s gotta really sound good. You can take a great band, and if it’s a camera at the back of the room picking up the audio, it’s horrible.
That’s not the experience. I want to put everyone on an equal level. I mean, if you’re the Rolling Stones you’re gonna sound this way, but if you’re X band from Chicago that’s never played before you’re on the same level.
C: If you had a carte blanche choice of channels, where is best fit for your show?
JB: Locally, I would say like a Fox 32, or a Channel 50, or a Channel 26. The channel we’re on, WJYS, is a nice station, but it’s a religious station. And we don’t really fit into their program.
C: Yeah, you’re the heathen longhair hippy rock n’ roller destroying the nation’s youth.
JB: Yeah, well I think that’s actually a good thing. [laughs] Actually, it’s funny, guys like Johnny in Kill Hannah…all these different bands have grown up and their parents watched JBTV; now he is a band and he’s watched JBTV and been on JBTV. It’s like we’re going generational here.
C: With all your 20 years of interviews, do you ever take out some of the really old ones and wonder what you were thinking, or do you wish you could go back and redo some of them?
JB: Well, I think I look at every interview like, “what was I thinking back then.” But yeah, I wish I could ask better questions. I don’t prepare too well. I don’t do any of that. I don’t like to know too much. Another problem I have is that I don’t like to talk to a band before an interview. To me it’s so much better – because I’ll start talking and we’ll get all that great stuff, and then we go to do the interview it’s like, “Oh, we don’t want to talk about that any more.”
I actually learned that from Phil Donahue. In Milwaukee, we had a radio station, 93 QFM on the radio, and we were one of the first stations at Summerfest up there. And Donahue did a week’s shows out of there, and our tents were back to back. So I would go over and…”Where’s Phil Donahue?”
And he has all these guests out there, they’re asking “Where’s Phil Donahue? Don’t we get our pre-show prep? Don’t we get to meet him?” I talked to Phil right after it, and he said, “I don’t talk to any of the guests until after the show. Because I want that spontaneity on the air.” I thought, that’s a great way to do stuff.
C: Is there anyone who you haven’t interviewed that you just haven’t been able to get on the show?
JB: Well, I’ve never booked an interview. I’ve never called anyone to be on the show. Anybody that’s been on the show has called us.
C: Well, that makes your job a little easier, doesn’t it.
JB: Yeah! Right now I’m sitting on Ha Ha Tonka, Villains of Verona, and Silverchair, another show with the Tossers, and another with the Young Sea that I have yet to air. So I’m way ahead of myself right now.
C: So, how about someone who’s never called you?
JB: Well, I mean I guess it’d be great to have any artist that wants to come on the show, you know.
C: Something like, oh, say, the Beatles would be cool to get.
JB: I did a Paul McCartney interview once, it was for radio though. That was another interview where I was like, kneeling at his feet with my shotgun mic. He says, “Don’t you ask normal questions?” I said, well no. You’ve been asked everything, you know?
We had Sean Lennon in, and during the interview, we talked and he talked about his father here and there, and I didn’t really edit that into the show. But after the interview, he says to me “you didn’t ask me one question about my dad!” He was thrilled, but it was like he was waiting for one of those to come up.
John Lydon was one of the hardest interviews, but one of the easiest ones. Because when he came in, he blew off WXRT. I guess he walked out of their studio, he came over to our studio an hour early. I didn’t have my camera guy, no one was here, and the guy that was here said “well, we’ll take you through a tour.”
He goes “I don’t want a fucking tour, one question and I’m outta here. And I’m doing it now.” That’s pretty much his attitude. So I picked up the camera myself and I stuck him in the studio, and that’s when he was with Public Image Limited. That tour. Literally, I couldn’t get rid of him.
I’m sitting there with a camera, we didn’t ask any questions. We’re just rapping, and talking like we are now. And it just went on and on. The other guy from PIL was going, “aren’t we going to leave soon?” And he’s dropping his pants, and talking about corporate radio, all the stuff that he doesn’t get a chance to talk about because when they ask him those kinds of questions, he doesn’t want to answer stuff.
That was one of the interviews that I thought would be the hardest, it turned out to be the easiest. One I thought would be a good interview, was when we had Oasis in, because we had just shot them at the Metro. And I said, “Well, we’ve got all this great concert footage,” and he says “I don’t want to see my fucking concert footage,” he sounded like he didn’t care about anything. And they walked out on that one.
C: This is the “gun to your head” question. You have five videos to play before you die – what would they be?
JB: Well, the five latest videos I have into the studio, of the five bands that need the most help. And, those are the five bands that aren’t getting airplay in other places. So if I see them on MTV, or other TV shows, I don’t think they need the help. I mean, if they’re guests I’ll play them. But I sorta look at, well, this is a great song and needs promotion, or if radio’s not I’ll at least try to play it.
Getting the music out there is the most important thing for these artists. Plus, the excitement these kids get when they get their stuff on radio or TV. It’s like your first time. It’s always like “how was it when you heard your stuff on the radio for the first time?” I have bands in, like Ha Ha Tonka, and I said “How’s it in your city?” “Well, no one’s playing us there.” You’ve gotta come to Chicago to get airplay?
C: So, the top 5 bands on the pile, throw it in and you’re good to go?
C: I think that’s a valiant philosophy.
JB: Well, what am I gonna do, play the “best of” for the last 20 years? I tried to make a compilation one day. It’s over 20-some hours long now. I’m not kidding. And I’m not an editor! I don’t like to cut stuff out! I’m like, “oh that’s good. Oh, that’s real good!” [laughs]