[Sprawl of Sound] KCRW's Eric J. Lawrence Airs the Gems Most Radio Ignores

Alt-Radio Auteur
KCRW's Eric J. Lawrence airs the gems most radio ignores

What are you doing as Monday nights segue into Tuesday mornings (midnight-3 a.m., specifically)? Snoozing? You lose, then. Because you're missing the excellent broadcasts of Eric J. Lawrence, who hosts the best show on KCRW, the influential Santa Monica-based radio station that reaches much of Orange County. (Thankfully, his shows are archived at www.kcrw.com.)

Formerly called Dragnet (after an LP by the U.K. band the Fall) until the station eliminated show names, save for Nic Harcourt's well-known Morning Becomes Eclectic, Lawrence's program is the special product of an obsessive music fan with winningly unconventional aesthetics—a vanishing breed in this Clear Channel-ed, anti-idiosyncratic era of radio. I discovered Lawrence's show by chance shortly after I moved to Orange County last year; his unpredictable and obscure selections instantly riveted me. I couldn't figure out what his guiding principle was—and that's utterly refreshing.

Ultimately, I concluded that Lawrence simply plays great new and old music from many genres. What an elegant, simple concept. Yet it's a modus that most radio outlets avoid like the FCC's seven verboten words.

As a bonus, Lawrence's voice is devoid of annoying timbre or mannerisms. He deploys a conversational tone that conveys the basic, vital info of his song blocks with no airs or affectations of hipness. In many regards, Lawrence follows the example of the late John Peel, and his tastes are just about as outstanding and encompassing as the legendary BBC disc jockey, whom Lawrence's idolizes.

Lawrence's radio career started at KLA, UCLA's student station. As with most college radio, non-mainstream fare reigned, and Lawrence thrived in that environment. “I continue to be motivated by this 'alternative' spirit,” he says, “and however alternative KCRW is to other stations (and it truly is), I aim for my show to be somewhat of an 'alternative' even within KCRW's own diverse programming.”

Lawrence debuted on KCRW in 1996 as a substitute host, and then nabbed his own slot in December 1997. He notes, “We've had a number of personnel changes since then, but the general aesthetic of the station's music programming has remained the same: to offer an eclectic mix of cutting-edge tunes.”

To give you an idea of his range, on a recent show, Lawrence spun tracks by Don Cavali, John Foxx, the Royals, Jerry Reed, Terry Reid, Faust, Planningtorock, the Free Design and his favorite band of all time, the Fall. It's an odd amalgam of artists, but your WTF? gradually morphs into OMG! the longer you listen to Lawrence. He admits to being “a rocker at heart,” but his selections reflect diversity and acumen.

“KCRW has always been open to singular people with idiosyncratic tastes, and Eric J. Lawrence is emblematic of that,” KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour says. “He brings to the station a truly singular perspective, an unflappable good humor, and a sincere and appealing way of interacting with both the music and the audience.”

So what are Lawrence's criteria for determining what he plays, and are these choices guided by whim or meticulous planning?

“I'm particular about incorporating a high percentage of older songs into my show,” Lawrence says. “Too often, I feel the music industry is hyper-focused on promoting only the newest of the new. But I like to organize my show in the same way my own musical discoveries develop: by hearing something new (or new to me) that I like and working both vertically, with finding similar-sounding artists, and horizontally, by tracking down older artists who might have influenced this new thing. The word 'eclectic' is an important touchstone for us here at KCRW, and I like to make sure that I keep as eclectic chronologically as I do with genre. Frankly, more so.”

Besides his on-air commitment, Lawrence also serves as KCRW's librarian. “My duties involve helping acquire, organize and assess the 200 to 300 CDs that are sent to the station every week. I'll hit up the record labels for things we don't have, purchase imports of releases not available domestically, even troll MySpace for new artists,” he says.

“Inevitably, part of my day will be to help other DJs or producers here at the station find a particular piece of music for their shows,” Lawrence continues. “I also serve as a liaison for the folks who send their music to the station to check to see if we have played their submission. These things represent about half of my day, with the other half taken up with assorted special projects, like wrapping up our recent digitization of the music library's collection.”

While Lawrence loves his job, he does find one aspect dispiriting. “Worst thing about my job is having to tell people that we've passed on including their music in our library,” he laments. Space limitations and aesthetic considerations keep many releases from earning shelf space. “[I]t's a bit soul-sucking to have to tell so many artists . . . that their music isn't up to par for us. I give myself the nickname of 'Dream Crusher.'”

Fulfilling Lawrence's dream, though, is the aforementioned band the Fall. “They represent what pop music is all about: challenging, mysterious, insistent, not always pretty, but witty, energetic, idiosyncratic, often catchy and always individualistic. And that's what I try to offer on my show.”

For a complete transcription of this interview, go to blogs.ocweekly.com/heardmentality.


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