I remember it like it was yesterday...
browsing through the magazine rack at the
old Tower records store in Seattle and there sitting
in front of me was the oddest thing...a magazine printed
all on yellow-ish paper with no "official" cover...but what really
caught my eye was that it was talking about progressive rock music. The magazine was called Expose and I subscribed right away. I thought it might be fun to catch up with editor and publisher Peter Thelen.
Jerry Lucky: What’s your earliest progressive rock memory? And was that what got you hooked on the genre?
Peter Thelen: It’s hard to say, Jerry. Whatever was later called “progressive rock” was something that I just evolved with at the end of the 1960’s. I was always drawn to longer cuts on albums, songs that had different sections that created sort of an evolution, things that mixed up different styles and concepts, and things that were so non-commercial they would never get played on radio. But at the same time I enjoyed the radio friendly stuff too. And to this day I still like all that too, at least from that era. There was something truly evolutionary about all the music from the mid 60s to the early 70s that made it a very special time in the history of popular music. Artists were wide open to new ideas and experimentation. I think what we now call “progressive rock” (capitalize if you like) was just an outgrowth from the latter part of a musical evolution that began years before.
JL: I didn’t realize it until many years
of reading Expose that you also enjoy the psychedelic scene. Does that have anything to do with living in the
Indeed, that 60s psychedelic music was groundbreaking at the time. I didn’t arrive in the bay area until 1975, long after it was all
pretty much over. But in my formative teenage years I lived in southern
JL: Tell me how Expose got started and why? And maybe touch on the editorial direction you chose to take.
PT: Exposé was initially a promotional newsletter
for John Szpara’s national radio show “Exposure”. As he was in the process of getting started, the syndicator suggested that he produce
a newsletter for listeners of the show that paralleled its musical focus. At that point I was just a bystander, mostly writing stuff
in the earliest
After a few issues, Exposé started taking on a life of its own. My involvement grew over time, as well as a group of key early writers (including Mike McLatchey, Mike Borella, Dan Casey, Rob Walker and others.) Folks were subscribing from places where the radio show had no presence. John resisted my suggestions to go ‘magazine’, preferring to keep it as a newsletter format, even as the page count grew with each issue. I think in retrospect that was probably a good idea, as it’s helped keep production costs down so we could keep the focus on the writing and not be forced into a position where our survival depends so much on selling advertising. At one point early on, Joyce at Cuneiform Records suggested that we might try having several different writers review the same release in order to get a number of perspectives. That was the genesis of our roundtable review section, which started around issue #4 if I’m remembering correctly.
Over time John Szpara’s involvement focused more on the radio show side of things and my role became more the editor and publisher of Exposé. At around issue # 11 we made it official.
JL: How does an issue come together, because your contributors live all over the place? And tell how that has changed from the early days?
PT: There are
a number of key people without whom, Exposé would not exist today. Paul Hightower has been doing all of our layout and graphics since
issue #14, and has really turned it into the professional looking publication that it is today, and he’s done a number of great features
as well. Jon Davis has been editing the main reviews section for many issues now (a formidable task if there ever was one), and is
now working, along with Paul on significant upgrades to our website. Pam Thompson has been instrumental, working in the background
to help keep things going. Jim Chokey handled the advertising sales for many years.
Each issue begins with individual writers submitting their plans for features, reviews, and such. Then we execute. My job is more of a production planner and coordinator. I don’t give out writing assignments per se; each writer contributes based on their own individual interests. We’re not on a schedule; we work each new issue as fast as we can but we all have our regular day jobs that put the bread on the table, so that has to take precedence. Exposé has pretty much been a break-even endeavour from the get-go; we do it for the love and respect for the music that we cover.
JL: What are we at Expose #36…and you’re working on #37…what drives you to keep going?
PT: Issue #37 is completed now, and at the printer. Work is already starting on #38. Every person involved would probably have a slightly different answer, but my own drive seems to come from a desire to spread the word about artists that deserve to be heard.
JL: Being a veteran (of some authority I might add) of the progressive…what’s you assessment of the state of the genre?
PT: I don’t see ‘progressive’ so much as a genre, but as an attitude and approach to making music. From the crop of current artists I see some that are just reproducing variations of things that have already been done before. I’m not necessarily condemning that, I’m sure a lot of it is sincere, but in the grand scheme it’s just treading water and not breaking any new ground. Then there are artists whoare breaking all kinds of new ground, but that alone doesn’t make what they produce particularly satisfying or of any lasting value. I guess it goes back to that 60s ethic of being willing to innovate and experiment within the framework of producing something listenable and satisfying that can hold a listener’s interest. And there’s still music coming out these days that embraces that ethic to varying degrees. I just wish there was more of it.
JL: We’re seeing more festivals than ever before. These must be helping spread the music in some way, don’t you think?
PT: I think when a lot of these ‘prog festivals’ started back in the early 90s they were a lot more important than they are today. At that time fans were disconnected from one another and the festivals tended to bring those people together, in many cases for the first time. But after 15+ years I don’t really see these festivals bringing in any new blood. The audiences today are essentially the same people who were at the festivals in the early 90s. I think the internet is of far greater importance these days as a vehicle for spreading the word about music. One can surf around on MySpace for hours on end and find plenty of new and innovative music without a lot of effort. There’s a lot of junk there too, but at least one can choose and excuse. I still enjoy the festivals, especially those with a ‘local’ flavour (Baja, FMPM, ProgDay), but in general they aren’t as important as they were a decade or so ago.
JL: I’d like to get your take on the new bands being covered by magazines such as Classic Rock Presents Prog (Bands such as Muse). Is there a subtle growth going on…or are we simply stretching the definition?
PT: I really don’t read
any other music publications, except maybe “Ugly Things” and occasionally “Audion” from the
JL: My July Commentary proposed a solution to the question of illegal downloading…what do you think should be done to fix the problem?
PT: In your commentary the crux of your solution is “Every month we should collect a fee from everyone on the internet. Everyone would be free to download if they choose or not; but we could get rid of the threat of lawsuits and the guilt.” Well, I think that’s a bit unfair for the many – dare I say majority of responsible people who use the internet day after day for legitimate business or personal purposes and never download any music or movies, which would include most of the people I know. I know plenty of people who do download music from legitimate sites and are more than happy to pay the 99 cents per song (or whatever) that they charge. Why should they be forced to pay a tax for someone else who doesn’t want to play by the rules. Plus, I’m against more taxes of any kind. Any time a government gets involved in something there is waste, fraud and corruption, so again, we’re back at square one.
Let me pose a different, albeit peripherally related question. Should persons who listen to music on the radio be charged for the songs that they hear? Downloading a song and listening to a song on the radio are in many ways very similar. One listens to a song, but doesn’t get any physical product. In fact people who listen to music on the radio do pay for the music they hear, either through being forced to listen to repeated advertising, or in the case of satellite radio, via subscription. Artists do receive a royalty for this airplay. There is a free-market solution in here somewhere to resolve the ‘downloading problem’ to the satisfaction of all parties involved, and some innovative and clever marketing genius will figure it all out someday, but governments taxing internet users for some presumed crime that most don’t commit is not the answer.
Finally, let me tell you the story of an old cassette tape that I made from a friend’s LPs of “Foxtrot” and “Fearless” back in the early 70s. Two albums back to back on this one 100 minute cassette. At the time I was living the life of a poor college student, living in a rented room and surviving on a diet of popcorn, banquet meat pies, and anything else I could buy on a budget of nearly nothing. But I was still hungry for new music. Eventually when I had the means (a few years later), I bought my own copies of those two, which in turn led to buying copies of everything else that Genesis and Family had out at the time, as well as everything that came out later; in some cases I went through several vinyl copies of the early LPs. Then later I re-bought all the albums by both bands again on CD, and then a second time again on CD when they remastered them. Should I feel guilty for making that original pirated cassette? Look at all the sales that it led to later –sales that would have probably never happened had I not done that.
JL: What does the future hold for you, the magazine and the progressive genre?
PT: Since the ‘progressive genre’ means different things to different people, I’d like to politely sidestep that part of the question. Let’s concentrate on the magazine. Each successive issue becomes more costly to produce and distribute (especially the latter – don’t get me started on the US Postal Service), and although we’ve never had difficulty securing advertising to support the production at a break-even level, there is no profit to be found in the fruits of all this work. We would like to reach a much wider audience of readers at a lower cost (for Exposé and the readers) and in a more timely manner. Features are timeless, but when one reads a review of something six months to a year after its release – well, that may have been acceptable in 1993 when Exposé started, but in today’s fast paced world with information being disseminated all over the internet and actual sound samples available to listen to, it no longer makes sense. The plan is for Exposé to be moving to an exclusively internet based delivery after issue #40, at which point we will stop producing the printed edition. The ‘internet’ Exposé will not be a magazine or newsletter per se with issue numbers coming out periodically, but instead a site that is constantly updated on a regular basis directly by the writers. That site is coming together now and we hope to launch it shortly. Meanwhile, for persons who subscribe or renew the printed edition after issue #37, subscriptions will only be for three issues instead of four. After issue #38 it will be for two additional issues, and so on, so we can meet our target of making number 40 our final printed edition, and not leave a bunch of subscriptions unfulfilled.
I know that the change is going to make a lot of folks disappointed, especially those readers who have been with us from the early days, but the same quality writing and insights will still be available going forward in our online version, and we hope that our loyal readers and many more will appreciate our efforts. And we still have a garage full of back-issues from issue #11 through the current issue (some issues more than others) –so those will continue to be available for some time to come.
JL: Last question then…if you were stuck on a desert island…what 5 discs would like to have with you and why those ones?
PT: This is a tough question, Jerry. Mainly because I’ve listened to all different kinds of music over a lifetime. And I only get five? Give me at least seven, one for each day of the week! The answer I give you today might not be the same answer I would have given you yesterday, or might give you tomorrow, you know. Also, there are a lot of great albums that I no longer need to listen to anymore –I can just think about them and hear them play in my head, all those Beatles, Stones, Doors, Spirit, Genesis, 10cc, The Who, Crimson, Fairport, etc. from the late sixties and early seventies. I’ve heard those so many times that if you changed one single note in there anywhere I would know it immediately.
Probably at the top of my desert island collection would be “Electric Ladyland”. Some of the finest psych, rock, soul and blues all mixed together in a colourful psychedelic stew, and by far the greatest album that Hendrix ever recorded. Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma” would be there too… some of the most innovative sounds ever committed to a recording in a rock context. Sides three and four still make me just shake my head in wonder and amazement. Then I would need to take my copy of “Uncle Meat”, something that has a little bit of everything that Zappa did best and has truly stood the test of time. Here’s one you probably don’t know: Alio Die and Mathias Grassow “Expanding Horizon”. Just a fantastic mind-blowing concept album of ambient drone music, layers upon layers of sounds, some near, some far, and just dark as heck and stunningly beautiful. I have listened to the CD a thousand times if I’ve listened to it once –and I’m still hearing new sounds in there with each listen. So far these have all been doubles –since you’re only giving me five I definitely want to maximize my listening. My inclination here would be to take Soft Machine’s “Third”, another double, but that probably falls into that category of things I’ve heard so many times that I don’t really need to listen to them anymore. So instead I will take Steve Tibbetts “Yr”, one of the most dramatic multi-layered guitar albums that just defies categorization. I never get tired of hearing it, and like “Expanding Horizon”, I still hear new depths and nuances every time I play it, though I do prefer the original vinyl over the ECM CD version. And there you have it.
JL: Well Peter thanks for the scoop. I appreciate you taking the time to fill us in on the behind-the-scenes and wish you all the best in the days ahead.