Interview by Morgan Davis
Photo by Carlos J. Matos
Next Monday, November 14th, Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation will be unveiling their collaborative, Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project Heart of the City (which you can donate to here). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year. Earlier this week we shared our conversation with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez and now we continue with superstar KUTX DJ Laurie Gallardo, who has become the voice of independent music in Austin.
Morgan Davis for Ovrld: Laurie, we’ve been starting most of these interviews with asking people about their journey to Austin and I’m curious how you wound up in the city and what your experience was like when you first came here.
Laurie Gallardo: What a journey it has been. I’m originally from El Paso, Texas and career-wise there was nothing really I could get myself involved with. I had to make the move, make the decision so I said, “Hm, I love music, I’ve worked with music the majority of my life. Austin would be good.” So quite literally with no money–very little to no money–not really any real furniture, I got the teeniest, tiniest U-Haul you could possibly imagine, hooked it up to a very humble Honda Civic and drove out here with my dad. And after my dad helped me move into an apartment, he flew out that very evening. So there I was in Austin that first night, by myself, thinking “What the hell did I just do?”
I had no job prospects, so the one thing I did have in mind was public radio and I had already known about KUT–it was one station at the time–so I thought, “Well, I’m very familiar with public radio,” I worked for KTEP in El Paso, it was nothing strange to me. And I thought “Well, I’ll introduce myself to KUT.” There I am with two resumes. I showed up, since I had moved out here in March 2002, I knew it was about time for spring pledge drive and I thought “Oh bingo, I’ll volunteer. I’ll answer phones.” Again, I wasn’t intimidated by that, I thought “Well, oh, I feel right at home.” And at the same time I was handing off resumes at soundchecks in the hopes of, you know, kind of introducing myself, getting my foot in the door.
It worked. Maybe a few months later, after I had worked very briefly with Planned Parenthood here in Austin–and again that was nothing new to me, for about three and a half years I worked for Planned Parenthood in El Paso–about a few months into my life here, I got contacted by Hawk Mendenhall who was the program director of KUT and he said “Hey, um, do you have your Sundays free? We have an air shift on Sunday.” That’s how it began. And I’m really happy about the fact that I didn’t have to prove myself very much. He’d heard my sound check, thought, “Wow, this could lead to stuff.” I’m good.
Ovrld: It seems like KUTX and KUT on the whole is pretty much a large family. A lot of people have been there for a very long time and it’s beloved by a lot of people in Austin. As someone who is especially involved in helping a lot of new bands that are emerging and local acts that are starting to come up, what do you feel the role that KUT plays in the community other than being a radio station is?
LG: Well, I really think the role is an important one, because it is quite extraordinary to have a radio station promote music from local bands. We are in a very special area where we actually can. The quality of bands is astounding out here. I always say we have an embarrassment of riches. We have so many different bands from so many different genres to choose from. So KUT and now of course KUTX, we’re able to share pretty much all of it. And we have a ways to go, we have much more to share. There’s so much more out there to be discovered.
So I think the role that we have in the community is to keep sharing. Really, in essence, we are sharing music, and it’s such a special thing. Again, it’s an extraordinary area to be in. It is not very common at all for radio stations to do this. Yes, we are public radio but you don’t really hear about radio doing that, period.
Austin is a unique city and again, there’s just so much talent so we can show it off, and people around the country–around the world–are paying attention. And oftentimes they turn to us. They’re like “Well, wh-what’s KUTX playing?” They were doing that when we were just one station as well, but. And, again, I think having two stations now, that speaks for itself. We were able to separate our news programming, our information programming and our interview shows–and our music. We could actually have two separate stations. Blew my mind when it happened. And some people were kind of a little nervous about that at first, but now it’s just great to have the options. You can go back and forth. But what a great role we have. That’s not the case in many parts of the country. We’re doing something very unique.
LG: We keep it local. We don’t have DJs that are in other cities pretending to be in Austin. We do everything we can to let people know we are working with what we have in the community. We say “This is the Austin music experience.” KUTX is the Austin music experience. It’s Austin music. It’s music that really means something to people who live here.
But at the same time, these are musicians, these are artists who are so talented: wow, no wonder everyone around the world is paying attention to what they’re doing. But I think the secret to our success is just that. We really believe in the mission of taking this music and saying “Look, did you have any idea that this was in your own backyard?” We present shows, we host a lot of different events in the community that just kind of give most everyone the opportunity to check this music out. Whether you’re able to go to shows at night or if you can’t because of work, we do shows in the mornings during South By Southwest and Austin City Limits Live. We participate in many different festivals. I personally am asked to host many shows. What an exciting thing.
But we’re out there in the community doing it. We’re not just paying the lip service. This is really participating. And when I say sharing music, I have also put together shows–wow–which is not an easy task. But oh, it’s just incredible. And I’m always floored by bands turning around and telling me thank you. You’re thanking me? You’re making my job incredible. So thank you for what you do. We’re showing off this talent. My job is simply to say “check this out.”
Ovrld: You’ve also been involved in the Good Music Club, which is an organization that has a similar purpose where it puts together live videos for bands. What makes that experience different for you from your radio job? What are some of the ways that it’s fulfilling to you in ways that the radio is not?
LG: I really feel that both the Good Music Club and my job here at KUTX are equally fulfilling in that again, it simply comes down to sharing the talent that we have. And the Good Music Club provides a more visual aspect. There are plenty of people out there who, again, are unable to go to shows late at night. They have families or jobs or a combination of both. They can’t always make it out to the clubs. So, what we do at the Good Music Club is we do our best to have earlier shows, and we invite people out and say “Hey, this is being taped. Come be a part of the live studio audience.” And that adds to the atmosphere.
We produce the videos and it’s a very similar mission: taking this musical experience and sharing it with the rest of the world. That’s what the Good Music Club does. And Richard Whymark, our producer and director, is a phenomenal talent. I cannot say enough about his work. It’s just outstanding and that’s why bands are literally waiting in the queue. They are coming to me constantly saying “When is the next taping?” We’re trying to find an investor, so if you know of anyone let me know. [laughs]
Ovrld: You’re someone who has been here for I guess what would probably be about three generations of bands now. You moved here at a time when Austin was making some pretty big transitions in music. When you first moved out here would have been when Spoon and …Trail of Dead and those bands were first coming up. What has it been like to see these different schools of Austin artists come up and blossom or fall apart and disappear?
LG: It’s an ongoing story. And even if some bands are able to stick around and others don’t, I consistently see talented people moving on. So if one band is not together anymore ,that doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual talents that make up that band are going to completely disappear. So yeah I have seen that evolution, the growth I should say, and the different directions.
What started largely as just “indie,” what they would call “indie music” or back in the day “alternative,” has branched out a lot more, at least for me, into several different areas. You know, it’s not just one style that people stick to and even if they are known for a particular style, they tend to play around with other types of music as well. And I even know some people who are in several different bands that play several different types of music. Don’t know how they can keep track of it all.
But over the years the other consistent thing I’ve seen is the love for it. Oh, they just just, this is done with passion. You’re not going to become a millionaire. The reality is you don’t do this to be rich. I’m sure many people would love that. And there are very hard working musicians out there just not stopping, they keep going. But the drive, what drives them: they love it. You have to love it. There is no other way you can keep going. And that’s been the common thread. And how special I feel that all of these musicians think that they can share that experience with me. And they do.
LG: It is. It is a completely different time. It’s a combination of things. It’s a little frustrating because I think, you know, absolutely the city is growing. Cities will grow. And we will have our growing pains–some of them are very painful–what I have been seeing that is a little frustrating is I would love for more people, I would love for the population to become a little more involved, to invest a little more, to realize, again, we have this in our own backyard but they’re not really taking advantage of that.
People don’t want to pay for shows or pay for music. Not really the ideal way of working things, because our musicians suffer. 99.9% of them have daytime jobs, you have to. That’s just the reality. If you are making music for a living, it is not easy and you have paid your dues and you continue to do so. And again we have some of the hardest working musicians out here.
With all the growth happening in our city–and it’s happening rapidly–I would love to see more of an investment, not only for the people who live here, but our local government. And I see that in little bits but not enough. We need to keep the music going but in order to do so there has got to be a lot more investment into it. And yes I do hold all sides accountable, the musicians need to really go out there and push themselves but at the same time for all the promotion that they do, I really want the public to step up and go “Okay, well let’s say I can’t go to a show at night, if you were to put on something on a weekend during the daytime, yeah I’ll invest money. I’ll go, and I’ll pay to get into the show, buy some drinks, I’d love to buy your merchandise.” I would love to see more of that. It needs to happen. Some kind of investment.
And our local government, everyone has their complaints I understand that. I’m not really going to get into that discussion but my dream is to really just get a lot more participation all around. We need to have a bigger investment if our music scene is going to have a future. And sometimes it looks pretty dismal.
Ovrld: This year, 2016, we’ve had a lot of efforts by the community and nonprofit organizations to shine a light on some of the specific issues that are plaguing musicians, such as the census that found that 1,200 music sector jobs have disappeared and that many of our musicians are living under the poverty line. Was any of that surprising to you? Do you feel that people are perhaps unaware that musicians are struggling in this way?
LG: Sadly, I do think that many people are unaware that our musicians are struggling, that our creative class is struggling. For all the wonderful, glorious, brilliant reasons that people give for moving out here, they tend to neglect the side that says “Well, you know, if you’d like to see this continue. We need a commitment from you as well.” I don’t really think they understand that exchange. And, sadly, it does not surprise me. Because, as much as we believe it might be a unique condition, it isn’t. This is happening in many different cities across the country. And they really are unaware.
I am endlessly shocked whenever I tell people about a certain band or a particular show and I always get these responses of “Oh, I had no idea. I didn’t know this was going on. The Good Music Club? That sounds fabulous. Tell me–” or, “I had no idea this band even existed,” and even more shocking is when I hear from people who are still surprised by the fact that our musicians, our creative class, they have these day jobs, sometimes more than one. They’re struggling to pay the rent. I’m familiar with that part. I have the best job ever, which is a non-job because I am playing all this music and tell you about shows. But the cost of living, and different challenges that arise, I, myself, am struggling. I can only imagine what musicians are going through. It’s not a good situation.
LG: [Laughs.] Not good at that. And would I have taken my own advice? Oh, what is one thing that I could tell myself. The only advice I could come up with is not giving up, as cliche as that is–and maybe not very helpful–it’s going back to what I said earlier about the drive that keeps you going. When you love what you do, there’s no turning back.
When you have a passion about what you’re pursuing and what you’re involved with, that’s never going to die. That’s always going to be with you. It might be muted for a little bit, maybe–take a break–but it never goes away. I’ve seen musicians walk away from bands and, you know, they’re doing the adulting thing [scoff]. Forgive me, I cringe. Not very good at that myself. But it’s on a temporary pause. Something always pulls them back. And I feel the same about my own job. Yeah, I could probably go on hiatus, but my love is my full-time job. I live that 24/7.
Maybe that’s why I can relate to musicians. I just can’t quit it. I can’t quit the music. I cannot quit the music. That’s never going to happen. My only advice is to not quit. Maybe save your money but then again a lot of us didn’t have the money to save. I just hope for a better future.
Again, I cannot emphasize enough how much we need people here in Austin to wake up. There are people here with that disposable income. They can turn around and invest even just a little because it will go a long way. And it’ll keep our musicians going, it’ll be worth their while. And they’ll be proud. They’ll say “oh yeah, I represented.” I really want that to happen.
Ovrld: I think we all do.
Carlos J. Matos’ portrait of Laurie Gallardo will be on display alongside eleven other portraits at the Heart of the City opening at Antone’s next Monday. You can also donate to the project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.