NTS founder Femi Adeyemi interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Growing up in Switzerland I was inspired by curators like Harald Szeemann, but strangely enough my most important influences came from outside art like Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes and the Lyotard, the philosopher who curated “Les Immaterieaux” (1985). Can you tell me about your curatorial inspirations or triggers?
FEMI ADEYEMI: My main inspirations for setting up the radio were independent radio stations, like American college stations. They normally have a lot more freedom in what they can put out because they don’t necessarily have a commercial remit.
HUO: Can you give a few examples of a few protagonists from American college radio? Or are you referring to the phenomenon more generally?
FA: The main two that I listened to a lot during my time at university were KCRW and WFMU, but the whole system influenced me; it wasn’t just those specific examples.
HUO: Was someone like John Peele inspiring for you?
FA: Definitely, he was someone that I grew up listening to. There is also an Australian broadcaster called Phillip Adams, who covers all topics but tends to talk a lot about politics, art and history. He’s been in radio for almost forty years and I’ve listened to him religiously ever since I discovered his show. I hope one day we can make a show like his.
HUO: What is it about John Peele that inspires you? Is it his interviews?
FA: The interviews, but he was also the only person on commercial radio playing the kinds of things that he was playing. He was championing new stuff, which is what we try to do at NTS — opening up to what a lot of people might call left-field music. Considering the platform that he was working with, it was a huge risk, but he did it and he did it well. If it weren’t for John Peele a lot of artist would have remained relatively unknown.
HUO: How did that obsession with radio start? I’m especially interested in this as it pertains to this issue of Kaleidoscope, which is about curating. In the 1960s, Joseph Beuys spoke about an expanded notion of art. And it’s obvious today that we can talk about an expanded notion of curating. When I became a curator there was a rarified notion of what a curator was and now the term curating is everywhere — from the internet, to shopping on Amazon, restaurants, etc. Obviously, radio is also being curated in this regard. How would you connect radio to curating?
FA: Every day of programming at the station is designed with a theme. There is a deep thought process about what happens at a specific time, which is really what curating is all about. It’s almost like a progression or procession: we start the day with lighter programming, turn more experimental in the afternoon, and then darker at night and I think this carefully thought out process has partly led to our success. I got into radio from my love of radio and listening to radio. I enjoy listening to radio more than I do TV because I get to use my imagination a lot more when I listen to radio.
HUO: That’s an enormous rhythm! It’s a lot to do weekly exhibitions, let alone daily. What did you curate today and what will you do tomorrow?
FA: Sunday starts off with soul music. Most people don’t want anything that’s too challenging or heavy on a Sunday morning, especially on the last day of the weekend. In the afternoon we move into experimental rock, which is still light, but has a slightly heavier tone. Around 5pm, we get into the darker experimental stuff and then into dance music in the evening. On Monday morning, we start with a breakfast show, which is kind of a mixed bag to start the week off for people. We try to keep a balance of not being too energetic, but still getting people excited for the start of the week. We also try to keep the afternoons sort of quiet and light because most of our listeners tune in from their computers at their desks, but it starts to get a lot darker in the evenings. Monday evening tends to be quite experimental — we get into a lot of noise, drone and metal, which is how we end the night most of the time. We change our programming according to the hours of the day.
HUO: It’s often interesting how inventions happen and the role that chance plays. Do you remember how NTS happened and what triggered it?
FA: Yes, absolutely. I was unemployed at the time and used to hang around at a bar during the daytime. I’ve always wanted to set up a radio station, almost as a hobby. With the Internet you can do things like that on the cheap without having to start a pirate radio station and getting in trouble with the authorities. I just asked the guy who had this space if he was using it and if he wasn’t whether I could have it and that same second he said that I could have it, my idea of wanting to set up a radio station came flooding back into my head. This was around July 2010 and we launched in April 2011.
HUO: How did you find the name NTS?
FA: The name comes from the name of the music blog that I started a few years previously called, Nuts to Soup, which is a variation of the expression “soup to nuts.” I don’t know if you know what it means, but soup to nuts is an old American saying — it is derived from the description of a full course dinner — soup for starters and nuts for desert, so it became a euphemism that meant from the beginning to the end. We switched it up, so that it meant from the end to the beginning. When I launched the station I didn’t want to call it Nuts to Soup radio because I thought that was too much to take in. I just decided to abbreviate it and call it NTS.
HUO: You once said that music in radio is really repetitive and that newness wasn’t really a part of it. In these days of curating, how do you bring in newness?
FA: An important part of what we do is that we don’t have the commercial restrictions that other stations have. We believe that people want to listen to a lot more than what the charts dictate. When we welcome someone new to the station they are welcome to play what they want to play. That’s why when you tune into NTS you are likely to hear a track that no one has ever heard before. DJs are kind of like curators because each show for them is a project. They actively go out there to find music — they challenge themselves to find the newest and the rarest. I’m not trying to be snobby about it, but they definitely bring out the best music that you won’t hear on commercial radio. You could listen to us for a week and you’re almost guaranteed not to hear the same song twice. That’s the beauty of it, it’s how we keep it fresh.
HUO: Simon Castets and I are co-curating a project called 89+ that researches artists and many other practitioners who were born after Tim Berners-Lee invented the Internet in 1989. We also ask them about their musical inspiration. The name that has been mentioned the most so far is Chief Keef. I was wondering who you thought the most influential musicians are now in 2014. There are only a few people at any given moment who change the rules of the game. Who would these people be for you in 2014?
FA: The whole Grime scene, people like Skepta. It’s not something that I necessarily listen to religiously — but it’s a scene/genre that is now getting some well, deserved resurrection and recognition not just in the UK but also worldwide. As far as I am concerned, Grime is the British version of hip-hop. I’m sure a lot of people would dispute this but in the UK we have tried to do hip-hop but it never really worked.
HUO: Can you talk a bit about how your collaboration with the ICA is structured? How will the project unfold over the next couple of months?
FA: The main theme of the project is called Parallel Visions. The idea is to create an audio-visual experience, more than just the music getting both auditory and visual senses working at the same time. The first event was in February and was curated with Trevor Jackson. We built a massive mirrored room inspired by Richard Hamilton’s work Palindrome (1974). It was contained in the ICA theatre and was big enough to accommodate around 200 people. The entire room was mirrored: the ground, walls and ceiling. We started with performances and a DJ set from Trevor — people will thed enter the room and see different reflections of themselves from various angles of this mirrored box/room.
HUO: Do you have any unrealized projects? Projects that are too big or small to be realized? Utopias?
FA: There is a major project that I would like to realize that includes a simultaneous worldwide broadcast that plays with the idea of time zones around the world. I’m working on it at the moment, but it’s quite a major project.