By 1993, Matt Pinfield had been a DJ at the Asbury Park radio station WHTG, one of the first commercial alternative stations in the country, for nearly a decade. He had twice been awarded National Commercial Alternative Music Director of the Year. But he was “still making less than a McDonald’s manager” despite his exhaustive love and knowledge of alternative and independent music, not to mention his hustler’s spirit.
“I was doing three jobs at once. That’s what you do to support your family. But I loved it. I did whatever it took to subsidize. DJing at a club, doing fucking weddings, it didn’t matter, whatever it took,” he says. “I did it so I could still be true to the music. Even though I was at this small mom-and-pop radio station, I controlled the playlist, and I played more cool stuff than you could ever imagine in radio.”
On a July afternoon, in the Lower East Side rock club Arlene’s Grocery, Pinfield looks almost exactly the same as he did 11 years ago—it helps, apparently, to shave your head and treat each new record you hear like a Christmas present. Pinfield takes a break from filming host segments for the relaunch of MTV’s 120 Minutes, and delving into trivia-rich tangents about Dinosaur Jr. and Fucked Up, to talk about the gig that made him a hero to music obsessives.
The show 120 Minutes debuted on MTV in 1986, when bands like R.E.M., Hüsker Du, and the Cure, as well as publications such as Spin and zines like Touch and Go, created a groundswell of support for “college rock,” the genre that would eventually morph into “alternative” and then “indie.” Like many of the show’s fans, Pinfield taped its late-Sunday airings and watched them later in the week. (He was usually busy DJing.) Unlike many of the show’s fans, Pinfield had become friendly with the show’s creator and host, Dave Kendall. (Footage of him giving Kendall an inebriated man-on-the-street interview outside a Robyn Hitchcock show exists on YouTube.)
Pinfield had a reputation for having both sharp ears and unaffected enthusiasm; the latter is still uncommon among connoisseurs of the cutting edge. Kurt Steffek, who programmed 120 Minutes at the time, would often call Pinfield to track records and “see if they had any heat on them. He knew I wouldn’t bullshit him.” When Pinfield heard that Kendall was leaving, he called Steffek.
“I said, ‘You need someone like me who knows the music. What you need next is a guy the bands will respect,’ ” Pinfield says. “I don’t think it was arrogant, because I did believe it, but I never thought for a minute that I would actually get the gig. He said to me, ‘I don’t know if they’ll think you’re still in the demo.’ “
He got called in for an audition and was asked to guest interview a “tired and out of it” Depeche Mode. MTV brass told him he did a good job; then they told him they’d chosen someone else. Never one to be deterred, Pinfield would call the network once a month and restate that he was still interested in the gig.
Pinfield eventually won a job as an MTV programmer, a second shot at guest hosting, and an apology from the executive who had doubted him (he’s heard rumors it was because he was bald); he became the face of 120 Minutes in the ’90s, as well known for his impressive, pre-Google knowledge of an artist’s history as for his visibly sincere fandom. “It was sort of the antidote to the irony that was pervasive in [snarky VJ] Kennedy’s Alternative Nation and those kinds of programs,” says Stereogum founder and former MTV intern Scott Lapatine. “He was just a legitimate music fan.”
This past Saturday marked the premiere of the volubly titled MTV2’s 120 Minutes With Matt Pinfield. But even though the return of the ’90s alt-rock icon coincides with the rebirth of two other famous MTV faces from that decade—Beavis and Butt-Head—Pinfield doesn’t see the relaunch as a nostalgia ploy. “Indie, alternative rock is in one of the healthiest places it’s been since maybe the early ’90s,” he says, adding that the new 120 can fill a need for a curated, one-stop place for overwhelmed music fans to discover new artists.
Right now, 120 is set to air only once a month. But Pinfield hopes the revival will be popular enough to eventually go weekly. “I try to be an eternal optimist. But it’s hard sometimes,” he says. “Shit, man, we all get down sometimes, and listen, I’ve been down down.”
In 1999, he left MTV to work for the TV show Farmclub. Spearheaded by music executives Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine, it was an early attempt to jump-start the online hype cycle that today propels artists like Kreayshawn and Odd Future to evanescent ubiquity; artists would upload their music, and fans would vote on which acts deserved to perform alongside U2 and Eminem. (“Too early. Nobody had broadband.”) Pinfield then landed an executive gig at Columbia Records. But the timing was pretty terrible. “I was there for the initial contraction of the record industry, and it wasn’t a pretty sight,” he says. “A lot of those companies are skeletons of what they once were.”
In 2008, he landed a job as morning host of New York rock station WRXP, which took a big-tent approach to the genre, programming classic-rock staples like the Who alongside newer entrants to the game like Franz Ferdinand. In 2009, Pinfield talked about his substance-abuse problems on the air and then headed to rehab. “Listen man, I’ve learned to get a hold of it, but I was a pretty excessive guy,” he says. “You’ve got to remember that I grew up DJing in the clubs in the ’80s, drinking for free, people coming in to party, thinking, Oh, none of this shit will get me. But it doesn’t matter how smart you are—do it long enough, it will bring you down.”
Last month, Ennis Communications sold WRXP (and two Chicago outlets) to former Clear Channel bigwig Randy Michaels. Michaels reportedly plans to flip WRXP to talk; on Sunday one-time Chicago alt-rock station Q101 made the switch. “I will go on record and say the station was not sold because it wasn’t billing well and its ratings weren’t growing, because it was doing great, and it was starting to build in a big way,” Pinfield notes. “It was obviously bigger than us. The decision making of selling three rock stations was somewhere bigger in the higher echelon of the company.”
Ever since he was three years old, “rocking in front of the used record player my parents bought,” Pinfield knew he wanted to work with music. “I was lucky enough to know that. I have a sense that some people think it’s unfortunate. It’s one of the hardest businesses to stay afloat in,” he says. “Listen, I’m so positive about life every day. I’ve got two beautiful daughters. Life ain’t easier for me than it is for anybody else, but you’ve got to keep your head up. That’s the one thing I always tell people.”