Interview: Chic-A-Go-Go’s Jake Austen

8 Jun

The history behind public-access television is almost as interesting as the content it has spawned. Public-access television was created in the late 1960s as a First Amendment response to the dregs and slants of commercial broadcasting in order to cater to true social needs (The Public Broadcasting System, or PBS, is not public-access as it is funded by public and private entities). One of those needs is education and entertainment for children. Who knew something as awesome as this would evolve:

Chic-A-Go-Go is the brainchild of Jake Austen and Jacqueline Stewart, a couple whose love for Soul Train and Kiddie-A-Go-Go led to the creation of their hit public-access show. Chic-A-Go-Go is billed as “Chicago’s dance show for kids of all ages,” features adolescent puppet rats (Li’l Ratso is the coolest!) interviewing some of the best artists in music. Previous guests include Lemmy, Fugazi, Pere Ubu, Built to Spill, Sonic Youth, Patti Smith, Spoon, The Slits, and the list goes on forever.

Patti Smith being grilled by Ratso

Each episode includes a dance segment while that day’s guest lip-syncs to his or her song. Jake Austen delivers the goods and tells us about the show’s inception, trekking for weird music in Chicago, why we need to let our “freak flags fly,” which legendary musicians were too afraid to talk to a puppet rat, and gives a brief history lesson on black musicians in punk rock.

Q: Talk a little bit about your musical background since your show resonates with adults just as much as children because of your guests.

Jake Austen: I have collected records since I was a little kid, always going for cheap thrift store stuff and always taking chances on unusual stuff based on cover art or odd names, so I always had a wide variety of (often un)popular music in my wheelhouse. I went to  a high school where people mostly listened to black radio music so I listened to that, and when oldies radio started in Chicago in the 80s I listened to that non-stop trying to learn all the old songs (Wax Trax Records, famous for industrial and weirdo stuff, actually carried old pop 45s at the store and I used to take long bus rides to the North Side to get stuff there). So basically, genuinely liking almost everything makes me a good deejay for a show where we play everything for everybody.

Q: Your wife, Jacqueline Stewart, is a highly regarded film scholar. Explain how the two of you came to create Chic-A-Go-Go.

JA: We were always big fans of dance shows, and always wanted to work on cable access (Jacqueline is a film scholar, specializing in the low budget d.i.y. films by early 20th century black filmmakers, and I think the spirit of cable access relates to her work in her mind). After meeting a couple, the Mulqueens, who did a local children’s dance show in Chicago in the 60s called Kiddie-a-Go-Go we realized this was something for us to pursue.

Q: Given that kids are likely being exposed to indie, punk and non-mainstream
music for the first time, what effect do you think the music has on the children?
JA: I think children respond to rhythm and noise and good music pretty naturally, and even if they think it’s weird, lots of stuff is weird to them, so inherently most kids are cool with any kind of music if you create an open, safe, festive environment. What may have more effect on them is seeing the artists lip sync, especially when they are “deviant” (gender bending, odd dressing, lots of body art, extremely eccentric) because they see how comfortable and fun it is to be around “weirdos.” We hope this makes a good impression, and most kids and parents return, often letting their own freak flag fly (as far as attire) on their sophomore trip, so it seems like it’s working.

Shonen Knife making the kids boogie.

Q: Chic-A-Go-Go is a show for kids and kids will dance to pretty much anything. Is that why there is so much freedom in choosing the artists you do?

JA: It’s not total freedom – it has to be dance music. It’s just that we (and kids) consider almost anything dance music.

Q: Do guests come on expecting the show to be a sort of tongue-in-cheek format, only to find out that the sincerity is 100%? Or is it that they are just as down for the cause?
JA: Most of our guests are are familiar with the show, or if not they realize right off that kids and our kid-like adult dancers are not keen on irony (despite the sarcastic tone of dialogue on shows like Hannah Montana and iCarly…but I think that’s faux attitude rather than actual irony).
Q: Guests don’t always seem as comfortable talking to a puppet as they probably imagined. Were there some instances in which a guest was extremely awkward or completely frustrated?
JA: Both Vanilla Ice and Lemmy refused to speak with the puppet, but agreed to get on camera and explain why they felt that way (Lemmy’s bleeped advice for kids: “don’t talk to fucking puppets”). The Streets only got through a few seconds of his interview before getting so freaked out he had to quit. Later a journalist told us he had the next interview and it had to be cancelled because the rapper was so rattled. Speaking of white Brit rhymesayers, Lady Sovereign bailed as soon as she saw the puppet. Some acts, a 90s garage boogie act called Quadrajets comes to mind, can’t fathom that they are supposed to look at the puppet and just look down at the puppeteer.
Q: The guests have been just as notable as the concept. How are you able to pull in such amazing talent?
JA: Many bands ask to play the show because they like it, but any bands that we approach seem to be inclined to say yes because they never get to do things for kids and they never get to work with puppets. And when we can get classic or hot, current acts into the studio they are often excited to lip sync. Who gets to that these days?
Q: You have a music zine called Roctober in which you did a four-part series on blacks in punk? Outside of the fact that it was extremely interesting (I had no idea that Neneh Cherry was in the Slits at one point), why was that important for you?
JA: In the magazine it was a one-part series, online it’s broken down into four pages. The writer whose idea it was is a black rock fan who (like many of the musicians covered) was always suprised he had to explain himself or feel like an outsider when enjoying music created by African AMericans. Showing the lengthy legacy of black punk rockers addresses this.
Q: Who in that group of black punk pioneers do you think has been criminally overlooked?
JA: ONO is beginning to get some acclaim now that they play several times a month in Chicago, but they are true artists and iconoclasts, and no one is weirder or more soulful than they.

ONO

Q: You have a Roctober Hall of Fame, which honors artists wholeheartedly dedicated to entertainment. Wouldn’t you include Chic- A-Go-Go in the Roctober HoF?

JA: It’s more for artists, but Chic-A-Go-Go belongs in the Chicago cable-access dance show hall of fame!

Q: What is your favorite moment to date on Chic-A-Go-Go?
JA: One time a group of actual Hassidic Jewish teens came into the studioand just let loose, mixing traditional Jewish dances with club moves. We didn’t know they were coming and thought it might be a joke (hipsters in costumes, doing schtick) but we soon realized that a great many Hassidic Jewish teens are from…Brooklyn. Meaning they are actually hipsters despite their Orthodox beliefs, and this group had seen the show on video and made a point of coming to the studio during a visit to Chicago.
Q: What was Jacqueline’s favorite moment?
JA: We had one episode where we did all blues music and we had a big group of black adolescents in the studio and they were really into it, totally grooving. It’s often said that black kids of the 2nd or 3rd hip hop generation (or whatever it is now) reject this music, and seeing proof that such belief is fallacy really moved her.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: