Music for Leisure: Alex S, Lower Grand Radio

Alex S, waiting to get plugged in.

In Oakland, Lower Grand Radio is the city’s go-to community net radio, founded by Alexander Shen (Marbled Eye). Victoria Porter (Vanity Crystal, Repetitive Strain) & AS made a long distance call and caught up with him.

Vic: How did you get into punk? Because Marbled Eye are a band that, when they came out it really took me by surprise how immediately kind of fully formed it is? And how it doesn’t really sound like any other band doing that style of music. I kind of feel like a Marbled Eye song to me is like very recognisable. 

Alex: I don’t know. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the Bay Area where there has always been that rich scene, you know, that the West Coast and big cities have and all that. And I grew up going to Gilman and other all ages clubs cause we had those back then, which we don’t really have now. Yeah, and I would go and just see like a very wide range of guitar bands, like anything from like Long Beach Shortbus, the Sublime spin-off, to like a grindcore Speed Trials fest and stuff like that at Gilman. So yeah, and then my cousin got me into music and she’s like a straight nineties kid. She got me my first CDs which were No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom and like Alanis Morissette. I feel like my tastes have always been really eclectic, guitar based? But yeah, for the live aspect, punk has always been the most exciting just, you know in whatever format it’s kind of presented in, whatever subgenre. But I met Michael and Chris a little later on in life. And I think they kind of come more from maybe like a, you know, Sonic Youth, like indie field and we’ve kind of found a balance of all the guitar music that they really like. We’ve all had similar tastes of music and just kind of found like a balance between friendship and I don’t know, just making a little weirder music, cause maybe we feel like we didn’t fit with all the chain punks and butt flaps that Andy, the bass player has a background in.

Vic: I was going to say, when I met Andy, he was wearing like a sleeveless, like Crass top. And I was like, this guy knows!

Alex: I feel like we’ve found, try to find the balance, but it’s been, you know, with quarantine and everything, just a little slow going with writing new stuff, but we’re trying to put out a little more time.

Vic: And yeah, that’s actually what I was going to ask you about next, as someone else who’s in a band. I feel like Marbled Eye is really quite similar to Negative Space in like the way it exists. We’ve always been pretty self-sustaining and I feel like it’s the first time I’ve been in a band where I really feel like I’ll do it like in some configuration of a band, like forever. Even if it all sounds like extremely different to how we sound now, and I feel like it’s one of the only ways to stay kind of sane? We’ve been trying to make a record for like three years now and the pandemic has really fucked us over at every turn, like almost every time we try and get together, one of us gets Covid and I also get that feeling from Marbled Eye where it’s like, super not like “I’m on tour, like 12 fucking months of a year!”, but it is super cohesive and just like, “no, like it will be done, and when it’s done it will be solid.” 

Alex: Yeah. I agree with our writing process too. Marbled Eye loves a good work life balance, not just, you know, career -job -surviving, but you know, I guess just the creative flow.

Vic: I know Andy from Marbled Eye records and like mixes and masters stuff, but like for the rest of you guys, I’m presuming you all have full-time jobs, right?

Alex: Yup. I’ve actually been working part-time for the Oakland library system. I actually hit my eight year anniversary, but I’m just a page, I just shelve books and do light programming, open and close this one branch in Oakland and talk to all different kinds of people. Yeah. I guess it’s been a really good way to sustain the music for awhile. And the radio.

Vic: Yeah. So you founded Lower Grand Radio in 2017? 

Alex: I think I actually made the website and maybe the name as early as 2014, but it was always really just sporadic and just whenever, like maybe friends on a weekend would wanna come over, play some music and, you know, broadcast it over the internet. And then, over time people started emailing with resumes and pitches and stuff and I’d be like, yo, it’s just me in my garage, with like a pretty shitty setup! But if you want to come through, play music for an hour, please do, you know? Yeah!

Vic: I feel like it’s really taken off in the past sort of year or two. You built your own studio, right?

Alex: Yeah. Which Andy and Chris helped out immensely with. You know, they knew I wanted to do this thing and Andy had built studios before, he knew what I needed and what I wanted it to look like. Did all the math, helped me out. But yeah, we’ve had several spaces before this one. I’ve always done it with Jeff and Gabriel from like Unity Press and Unity Skating and now their skateboards. But really, yeah, I think the growth is because of the new studio and the new space that we have in, allowing us to do more. 

Vic: I was going to ask, how much work do you personally put into it? Cause I was curious initially, before you kind of mentioned if it was like your everyday gig now. Cause it just seems there’s like this point, right, where community radio stations start to become a huge undertaking. And I had no idea how many people were really involved or anything. 

Alex: Yeah. I like the slight mysteriousness behind it! I guess I’ve always done the emailing, coordinating and scheduling. And you know, a lot of the flyer and merch design work and stuff like that. I never grew up doing much visual stuff at all, but you know, I had this outlet to make something and I found out I like doing it! And I don’t really have to answer to anyone else, so you just kind of do what your limit is. And maybe there’s not enough push sometimes, but it’s still enjoyable.

The Lower Grand Radio studio in Oakland, CA.

Vic: Yeah, I was going to ask, cause like pretty much all your design is working with risograph printing, right. 

Alex: Totally.

Vic: So that’s like a really DIY form of printing, but it’s also kind of weirdly tricky to get into, at least here, like not many people have the machines here. And I was just wondering like what your intro to that was. You own your own machine now, right?

Alex: Yeah. I have to thank Jeff for that, because they started Unity Press. He had a studio in this space that’s not there anymore called Lobot Gallery, but they used to have shows all the time. And he picked one up because of a friend that had got one. And there’s this Bay Area based guy, I think he was a former seller at Riso? Like he worked for the company in the nineties and he must have a storage facility filled with backstock and all this stuff, but he is like the go-to guy in the Bay Area for any Riso related stuff. And if you bought something off Craigslist, if he had put it up, it would be him that shows up and fixes your stuff. But when Jeff used that and I just tried it out, that kind of changed the whole visual thing. I was like, oh man, I really like using this thing. And I know there’s like so much more that you can do with it, with all the CMYK and stuff, but I still feel like my capacity for, you know, multiple layers and colours, I can’t do that. So I just do the bare minimum of one or two. 

Vic: It’s a lot of work, like a lot of patience as well. Like anytime I’ve ever, I mean, you’ve seen like Negative Space’s artwork, I really like grain and dirt and things that look like a little fucked up. So like once, in the periods where I’ve had access to Riso machines, I’ve always been like immediately on it because it just, I think it just elevates like anything I’m trying to do and really fits like the kind of visual aesthetic references that I’m trying to touch on. 

Alex: Yeah, I know. And I think they’re harder to come by now too, because more people want them. And you know, they’re analogue machines. So there’s like, there is actually hella dust up in there if you don’t clean it out. And we definitely don’t! [Laughs] But that’s how I got it. Just friendship, just people sharing their Risos and stuff. 

Vic: I feel like that’s the exact way that anyone else I know who has ever used one has got into it. It’s like the ultimate form of communal printing, I think. Yeah, I guess I also wanted to ask, like on the kind of radio thing, what drove you to want to start a radio station? Because here there’s a huge pirate radio tradition, which is a specific response to like in like the sixties and earlier, with the kind of monopoly that like BBC and the national media had on radio. And in the UK there’s also practically no university radio infrastructure, there never has been.

Alex: I didn’t know that. 

Vic: Yeah. It’s just like not the same, as someone who’s also done college radio and stuff before in the US, it’s so different.

Alex: I really got into it because I remember going to shows and some of the people that played in bands had college radio shows. And I live very close to the University of Berkeley and their college radio station is like one of the more well-known ones on the west coast, KALX. And I started volunteering there in high school and really started liking the kind of, yeah, community and low stakes, but low stakes with a professional infrastructure? I did college radio at Santa Cruz and when I moved back to the Bay Area, I just wanted to keep that going but didn’t want to have to volunteer and play in the middle of the night. So I thought, let’s start up a dumb radio station! But yeah, I’ve always been a big fan of UK music and scenes and the whole, the DIY like pirate aspect of that has been a huge influence for me. That makes total sense why there would be so much pirate and other stuff going on. 

Vic: Yeah, I really feel online radio is such like a seismic shift in that culture as well. I mean, pirate radio is still here. If you drive around you’ll hear like, kinda scuzzy sounding like reggae stations but I really feel like where maybe that infrastructure used to be placed in literally, you know, putting a radio receiver on top of a block of flats, and now it’s become so easy to do now in a way. You know, you still need like the kind of equipment. But I’ve really felt like in the past few years here, like the amount of stuff that’s popped up is crazy. And even that’s just thinking of London alone, there’s so much. And it’s really fun, I love all of it. Everything has its own little weird niche.

Alex: Yeah, each has its own identity and people that go along with it. Yeah. It’s all love, it’s all love. I’ve been seeing that just because of social media too. Like there’s another one here, there’s one in the south, there’s quite a few in the Bay Area that have popped up. And then, you just find out about stuff in Mexico or South Africa, like Canada, you know?

Vic: What the fuck is Oakland like after the past two years? 

Alex: I think I’m feeling, you know, getting older, I’m feeling the past two years, but there have been a lot more renegade raves happening, which is cool to see. And I’ve gone to a few and I feel like it’s definitely more like, it’s pretty cool that it’s just more like gabber and high BPMs, you know, like kids just want to go nuts. 

Vic: I noticed like a lot of this at the start of the pandemic. There was some really weird shit happening in New York that just all seemed to be like really freaky queer people playing the most high intensity music possible. And I was like, okay, that’s your response to this worldwide threat, like I guess I can’t knock that in certain ways, you know? 

AS: There were some quite strange raves in the countryside in the UK, which kind of had an absolutely chaotic energy to them.

Vic: People started doing like woodland raves again! They’ve kind of always happened here, it’s like, there’s subculture and then there’s like sub sub culture. And I feel like woodland raves have really become this kind of dark thing that you barely ever hear about. Just for context, they made like tons of shit like that illegal here in the eighties, so that’s kind of like, I guess why that stuff’s way harder to find out about now.

Alex: I feel like for us, as much as there was a lull and stuff, there seems to be a lot more? I mean, I haven’t been following it at all, to be honest, but I hope that like levels are better, like the weather’s getting nicer again, but I think there just been more renegade things and shows happening again, like more DJ nights, yeah. Oakland is kind of, has always been hurt. [Laughs] Always kind of a struggle city with creative stuff, but it’s always happening. And I feel like people here are always pretty low key about stuff, you know, but yeah, no, it’s still popping off. I still rep the Bay hard and I love it here and I want people to be included and check it out.

This interview was originally published in Alternative Strategies‘ spring 2022 issue. Alex S was also the guest DJ for the May 2022 episode of Repetitive Strain; listen on Mixcloud. You can support Lower Grand Radio on Patreon and listen live on lowergrandradio.com.

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