Q&A: Michael Cumella Talks Old Records And His “Antique Phonograph Music Program”


As even Brad Paisley has pointed out, we live today in something like the future. The past few years of continuously shrinking computers and continuously growing cities seem to suggest that he might be on to something. Then again, we still haven’t mastered time travel, that single technology no future should be without. Fortunately, if you’re itching to hear a certain ragtime cylinder the way it would have been heard one hundred years ago, you’re not totally out of luck, for you can find Michael Cumella (a/k/a Mac) of WFMU’s “Antique Phonograph Music Program” spinning music from the period on equipment that’s as old as the records. Mac and I used some newer technology (Skype and a cell phone, respectively) to talk about his program and the timeless pleasure of listening to an analog recording.

On your show you play records from the early 20th century—I’ve heard stuff up to the early ’30s. Roughly speaking, what do you use as a cut-off?

The acoustic era, when electricity was not used for the record or the playback process. Some record companies [started using electricity] started in 1925 some in the late 20s. I really don’t play records from the 30s, guests do more of that. It’s sort of the by the technology, in terms of the cut off.

Did any companies continue making acoustic records into the ’30s or ’40s, or did the technology die out pretty quickly?

No, it was considered out of date really by 1925, but some companies that were brand-new startups had all this equipment, then electricity came along and were like, “Well we can’t just dump this stuff,” so they made acoustic records for a while. And a lot of people, even when electricity came along for the recording and listening process still had these crank machines for quite a while, so there was still a market for them somewhat.

Right, and in this sense technological progress and the recording process are central to the show. I thought there was an interesting moment of old meets new a couple episodes ago when the internet at WFMU was down, leaving you unable to access your notes on the records, so I’m curious how this clash plays out on the show or in the world of antique records.

It’s interesting because now I have a worldwide reach for the show. I have podcast listeners around the world. The idea was always the experience of hearing these machines and records—and in fact I do live shows now where I’m together with people and they’re actually listening to the machines more close—but the idea was always that the machines had a very specific sound quality to them, and I wanted people to hear what they sounded like, including the sound of the machines being cranked up and the needle being dropped. Sometimes there are technological issues with the machines themselves, but I would say that new technology has really helped disseminate and make this music more widespread.

When I was first doing this radio show 15 years ago it was just over the air, before shows were archives, streamed or podcast, so people had to listen on the radio at 8 o’clock, to hear the show. It’s all changed so much over the last 15 years, and my idea was always that people would be able to have access to this period of music which was only really accessible through that original artifact, that original 78, that original cylinder. Now these days there are a lot of collectors and institutions that have made huge collections available, so in a way my personal directive has been carried out, not only by myself but by a lot of others.

And there’s another side to the effects of new technology. Have you heard, for instance, the new Robert Johnson remasters? Because they did a really amazing job in cleaning up almost all of the fuzz and the sounds you’d expect to hear on a record that’s almost 100 years old, and I was wondering if that’s something you’re interested in. Or would you almost prefer the fuzz and the sound of the old recording?

Well, I think there’s nothing like putting on a 78 and hearing it analog. And I feel the same way about records and music in general. There’s a big difference between having a record and putting it on and listening to an analogue signal versus listening to a digitized record. And yes, I am one of those people who think records sound better than mp3 and CDs. I think analogue audio sounds better. There’s a discernable difference with digital audio. For me, my show is all wrapped around listening to these records. Surface noise is part of the experience that a 1910 listener would have listening to these records. I’m not against people cleaning up records—I think that people sometimes expect perfectly clean audio from these 78s—but I think that when they do clean them a certain sound quality is lost with the cleaning. But technology is getting better and better. Have you heard them? What do you think?

They sound great, but I’m sort of with you. For me listening to Robert Johnson is as much about listening to the surface noise and the distance created by the surface noise as the songs themselves. And actually I think they compliment each other in a way that the new version can’t really capture.

Yeah, I mean, I don’t sit around listening to 78s all the time. I have a huge mp3 library. I have a lot of records, and I will always opt for the record as opposed to the mp3. And as a matter of fact the artists today will often give you a download code. I’m a big fan of analogue audio and it seems to be coming back. I don’t think it will ever come back to where it was because most people don’t have turntables, but it’s got a huge fanbase. The experience of a record is much more engaging and fulfilling for me than listening to an mp3 on my iPod or computer. Putting on a record and reading the liner notes is just absorbing it more, giving it more of my full attention.

One thing I discovered through your show, something which I didn’t have much previous exposure to, was the early 20th-century comedy records. On a recent episode (5/11/11), a collector played something really clever by Golden and Hughes, but it was also by two dudes who were basically in blackface. How do you deal with the racist or morally objectionable content of some of these records?

Well, I feel my show is partially a music show. It’s also partially historical. I’m not passing judgment on what people were doing; I’m saying, “Here are records from that period. Here’s what was available for people to buy and listen to.” I’m not saying that it’s okay or not okay. I’ll make a couple comments about it sometimes. I think most listeners understand that I’m just letting them hear records. I think it would be inappropriate for me to censor material. I don’t play all material that I personally like on my show. I play a lot really bad ballads, these soppy love songs that are as old as the recording industry itself. But I’ll play them because they were huge selling records at the time, just like they’re huge selling records today. I play a lot of stuff I do like, interesting stuff like artistic whistlers. There are a lot of dead musical styles: ragtime still has a legacy but people don’t really hear a lot of ragtime. I’ll play that. It’s great music, and I personally like it. But I’m not always playing stuff that I like, and I’m not always politically condoning or affirming anything. Here they are, here they were and I think it would be inappropriate for me to say, “I will not play that song.”

Okay, and for readers who might be interested in antique records but haven’t listened to your show or much from this period, are there any episodes in particular that you’d direct them towards?

Not really, most of my shows feature a variety of music. I try to do short sets, playing a variety of music form the era—some singers, some ballads, some opera—and during that period the acoustic record was the birth of blues on record, the birth of country on record, the birth of jazz on record, the death of ragtime. I would say just listen to a few shows to get a sense of what that period of music was like. You may hear things you like; you may hear things you don’t like. But again, it’s a historic show, it’s about what was available, and it gives you an impression of what it was like to be a listener during that period.