Mirth, Music and Mayhem: The Tom Scharpling Interview

“Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?”

— Elvis Costello, “Green Shirt”

In 1979, Elvis Costello was a pitch-black witted young man.

That very same year, Tom Scharpling purchased what Elvis Costello had to offer. Specifically, his third record, Armed Forces.

You could say the rest is history because it’s all there in one auspicious purchase. Picture a nine-year old Scharpling taking in the at once funny, acerbic, neurotic and absurd take on the world promoted by Costello, and subsequently getting his first lesson on what it is to wholly entertain. One could say that Elvis put the fingerprints to Tom’s imagination.

Tom Scharpling has been imagining ever since, and for the better part of the last 13 years has hosted The Best Show on WFMU, a weekly radio show known for its “three hours of mirth, music and mayhem.” That would indeed be enough of a contribution to popular culture by itself but Scharpling has managed to carve out other roles in the entertainment industry as a writer/producer on Monk, co-host of the music-centered Low Times podcast, half of the comedy duo Scharpling & Wurster, and director of music videos for the likes of Aimee Mann and Ted Leo.

But let’s go back to the formative times of Armed Forces for a second. The record is filled with allusions to people who are out to get you, be it of the female, governmental or secret police persuasion. Costello is constantly on the lookout for “investigations” that will eventually “put you on the torture table”. The album cover displays a group of elephants charging full steam ahead, ready to leave you trampled underfoot. This is what Costello wanted to say about love in 1979. Not exactly the most happy-go-lucky fella.

“Happy-go-lucky” isn’t the first description that comes to mind when thinking of the often sardonic Tom Scharpling. But Scharpling diverges in one important way from his bespectacled influence: he’s learned that not all forces are armed and that unbridled appreciation can be just as relevant as ridicule.

So, while you may be on the lookout for him to give you the dreaded “heave-ho”, interviewing Scharpling is actually akin to hanging out with the coolest older brother in the world, eager to share his opinions on music, comedy and perhaps most importantly, fantasy basketball.

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How did Low Times originate?

I had done a fanzine in my late teens, early 20s called 18 Wheeler and I just loved talking and writing about music. I always wanted to do that again. I stopped doing the fanzine because I had to figure out my career. So I do not have the time to do a fanzine but now with podcasts and the accessibility and ease of that, you can get a $300 recorder and two microphones and go anywhere and you’re recording something that’s broadcast quality.

Like an audio fanzine.

Exactly, and I had done The Best Show at that point for a long time and enjoyed talking. And with Marc Maron doing long-form interviews, it was kind of like no one was doing music interviews the way they were doing with comedians. All those things added up and it just made sense. And then Daniel and Maggie [Serota] are friends and we had talked about doing stuff together and this was the first thing that made sense so we did this.

Is it a nice outlet outside of The Best Show?

Yeah, it is. It’s a good thing because I wouldn’t want The Best Show to be Low Times and I don’t want Low Times to be The Best Show either. I get to do things a different way that are just as much a part of me as The Best Show. It’s satisfying on that level because I’m interested in hearing what people who make music have to say and people who are in different places on the spectrum, even if they’re not my favorite artists. I’d rather talk to somebody who has amazing stories who might not be somebody that I listen to rather than someone I do listen to who is kind of boring. I’d much rather learn about the life of the person who’s got the story to tell.

I think that’s why having Richard Marx on the live Low Times podcast worked. He might not be your favorite artist but he still has something interesting to say.

Sure, that’s exactly it, I’m not gonna pretend that Richard Marx is my favorite artist, it’s just not my music, and that’s fine. There’s something for everybody. I have the things that are for me and there’s a lot of people who, he’s their thing. He has had an interesting life navigating through the music business and that’s what was interesting about talking to him.

Sticking with music, I’m interested to hear some of the records that were formative for you, like “turning point” records that turned you on to new sounds.

Ironically, you’re saying that and there’s one playing right now: Armed Forces. [Author’s note: Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” is playing overhead at the Hard Rock Hotel]. I bought Armed Forces when I was nine. The first couple records I bought with my own money were Armed Forces, Labour of Lust by Nick Lowe, and I cannot remember which Beatles album I bought, but one of those.

I started reading about music at a bizarrely early age. I was so into it and the only way you could hear these things was to actually buy them because they weren’t on rock radio. You’d read about albums and you’d have to lay down some money and that’s the only way you were gonna get to hear it.

But yeah, Armed Forces is a huge influence on my whole life. My Aim is True has great songs but not my favorite band he played with. This Year’s Model was the first perfect thing he did. I’m surprised people don’t look at his run as being as impactful as Bob Dylan with that run of his in the ‘60s. It’s easy for people to lose sight that he put out an album every year and he put out Armed Forces, Get Happy!! (where he drops 20 songs on everybody) and then there’s the B-sides record, Taking Liberties, which is another 20 songs and then Trust and Almost Blue and he’s just moving so fast at that point. Armed Forces to me is such a step forward in terms of a pop record. Learning how they were influenced by “Dancing Queen” on “Oliver’s Army” makes perfect sense when you hear it because that big piano sound is “Dancing Queen”, so it’s an interesting thing to take pop conventions and put them on his ugly wavelength. He’s mining some real ugly, dark stuff. I mean those songs are tortuous, the sentiment behind them is the world is a bad place. He’s housing them in really palatable structure. “Oliver’s Army”, if you read the lyrics you’d be horrified but you hear it and realize this is a pop masterpiece. He will always be larger than life to me, that guy.

You mentioned Marc Maron and I wanted to ask you about The Marc & Tom Show, which I look at as the perfect union. What do you like about talking to Marc and the process for that show?

You know what’s fun about that show is Marc does so much talking and hosting and I do so much talking and hosting that we come into it as equals and neither of us is the guest but neither of us is the host, so it’s a 50/50 conversation.

As a listener it feels like you’re eavesdropping in on a couple of guys just talking with no agenda.

Because it is that. We just recorded a few hours in Philly last month that should be one or two episodes probably, and I met him at his hotel room and within 45 seconds we were rolling. Let’s just put it on tape. There’s almost no reason to talk if we’re not recording, so we just did that. You know, I am a big admirer of the journey that Marc has taken as someone who honestly is trying to make himself a better person and he does it in front of people in a very public way which is not an easy thing to do, to expose yourself like that. I can’t – I don’t do that, so I admire him for doing that. I’m glad that we get along.

One of my favorite things that I wanted to mention comes from the Marc & Tom Show when you defended Christian Bale for his rant on the set of the Terminator movie.

This is what I’ll say: everybody that I’ve talked to who makes TV or movies is on Christian Bale’s side with that. Everybody who knows what it actually takes for an actor to go do that, they are 100% on his side and 0% on the D.P.’s side. Those things are mortifying.

Right, he’s staring at a tennis ball and he’s gotta make believe …

… that it’s a robot, yeah. A friend of mine said that everybody else on set is wearing their own clothes. I’m glad you liked it because the easy thing to do is rip on a famous person. That guy is trying to make these things Shakespeare with his commitment to it and he’s trying to make it real. I mean he makes these Batman movies and that is the dumbest thing ever. It’s a guy running around in a bat costume. But he makes it so that you say, “Oh no, I see how that’s real.” So he’s going that deep and then somebody’s gonna just shatter that reality just because they can. It’s unacceptable.

I’m interested to hear about your process for The Best Show. What does a week of yours look like leading up to the show?

I’m thinking about what the show is going to be all week long, every day. There’s a lot of, I guess what you’d call “administrative stuff” I have to do which is taking care of business for the show and writing people who write me back and trying to get the fundraising marathon stuff squared away. All those things and trying to get people to do this or do that.

It sounds like a full-time job.

It almost is. Wurster and I will talk all the time also about what a call could be and then usually a few days before the show we’ll just either IM back and forth or get on the phone and just hammer out what the call is and then he’ll write final show notes and send them to me for the call. And at the same time I’m working on the non-Scharpling and Wurster parts of the show — figuring topics out or figuring out a story I can tell.

How much do you leave to spontaneity?

A lot of it. I go in with 12 things that can be done during the show and we get to six of them because other things happen. I follow the show. The worst thing would be if I put a clamp on things and said, “No, I need to get to this, this, this and this.” You want to go where I don’t know where we’re heading. That’s the exciting part of it and that’s the part that makes it different than podcasts for me is that it’s also happening in front of people. There will be times I’ll try to get something going and it kinda sucks. It happened already, I can’t take it back. The failures are very public, but then when it goes somewhere and it manages to pay off, then it’s unlike anything else.

Is your persona on The Best Show a kind of wish fulfillment? Like how Larry David says the guy on Curb is the guy he wishes he could be.

That’s an amplified version of part of me, but it’s really me. In real life, I’m not mean to people. I would hope that it comes across that when I’m doing these things that it’s me getting a chance to be a version of something that I’m not, actually. It’s definitely in me though. I’m not playing a character. There are parts of me that I’m running with. It’s all in there.

You often come across as the “voice of the disaffected” in a way, when you call yourself the “Dollar Menu Dickens” or “The King of Free Entertainment”. I think a lot of people can relate to that in almost any job they do, that sense of not getting what you deserve. Do you get a lot of people reaching out to you for advice because of that?

Sure, and I try to help people but I don’t have the answers myself. I’m slogging my way through showbiz as much as anybody else is. I might be a couple steps ahead but I’m also … I know people who by any yardstick people would say they’ve made it, and even they’re fighting with it. It’s a fight for everybody. Tom Cruise doesn’t have to worry about money anymore, but he’s now a guy who knows that he’s about to be an old guy, so if you look, his next bunch of movies are all action movies, so he’s jamming in all these movies while he can still do that stuff. Before people don’t want to see an old guy running around. Everybody has to face reality and limitations. I’m not crying for Tom Cruise but even he has limitations, so it’s all relative.

Tom discusses The Who, Ricky Gervais, and — of course — Fantasy Basketball

What is it about the so-called “L.A. podcast scene” that drives you so crazy?

I tease that because it’s easy to tease but for me, ultimately, if that’s somebody’s calling to do that then they should by all means be doing that. But I think there’s a lot of people now who won’t be doing it in 10 years. They’re looking at [podcasts] as a means to get something, the same way people made viral videos five years ago to try to get a TV series out of it. To them it’s just a device to get somewhere else and I feel like that dilutes things for people who are in it for the long haul. If you notice on my show, I’m not chasing after guests anymore at all because that’s all these other shows are. I made a conscious choice that we’re going to be less guest-driven than we were before, and we weren’t particularly guest-driven. Now, I’ll have a friend come up if they’re in town, but I rarely ever have anybody who I’m not friends with on the show anymore because it’s just not worth it. There are podcasts that I don’t know what they would do if they didn’t have a guest. I don’t have that problem. It’s like a marathon where all those people are chasing a guest. Imagine like 100 feet ahead of the start of the marathon is Carl Reiner running ahead of everyone else and they’re trying to catch him. I honestly don’t listen to a lot of podcasts because I just want to listen to music. I’m more interested in listening to music than people doing a version of what I’m doing. I listen to Julie Klausner’s podcast, I listen to Marc Maron’s podcast and a couple others but that’s kind of it. I don’t want anything to impact what I’m doing either. I’m on my own path and I don’t need … there’s a point when you need to take in influences and then you turn a corner and you’re the one who’s putting out things that other people can take in. I feel like, 13 years in on this thing, I don’t need to figure out what the show is.

Marc Maron made a comment on Twitter the other day that he’s “tired of culture barnacles”. Then I heard your show last week where you were talking about AV Club commenters and their “rapid-fire anti-wit”. What do you think of this new era of constant feedback?

Look, it’s fine that everybody has a voice, that’s great. But I feel like if you’re not gonna put your name out there, if you’re going to live under a handle, you just, you’re not on the same footing as somebody who’s putting their own name out. You can delete that account and start another one and you will pay no price for that but the other person took the step to put their name and face out there and say, “This is what I make”. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. There’s 100 things I could list right now that I hate but I also put myself out there too. I also try not to rip on things I don’t like unless I can do it in an entertaining way.

It’s hard making stuff. I know it sounds clichéd or whatever but I don’t think I could have a better audience. They’re on board and I don’t have to deal with a lot of the negativity that other people get. But there are people out there who have to realize that they’re saying things about people. You have the right to say stuff about them, you can dislike what they do, but you do have to be aware that you’re saying stuff about a person and that there is a chance that that person might see a comment and that’s part of it. The thing that I’m always surprised at is the second you start to turn the tables on commenters, they get all twisted. I’m talking about your Internet handle and you’re acting like I’ve broken into your house. We’re all thin-skinned, just admit that.

Now for the most important question: how is the fantasy basketball team doing?

Well, I’m in three leagues. One is the “indie rock league” with Stephen Malkmus. My team is a disaster in that league. I’m in a “comedy league” with Adam McKay and his Philly buddies. I’m doing okay in that league. And then I’m in first place in this new league. I traded Carmelo and Noah for Durant, which was a pretty awesome trade.

If you have a chance to get Kevin Durant, you do it.

Yeah, you have to get a guy who shoots 14 free throws a game and makes 90% of them. He is the best possible player to get. He’s better than Lebron.

And he’s more fun to root for.

Absolutely. I was bummed to trade Melo, because I like Melo but then it also freed it up that I’m not watching the games and getting mad for two reasons if things aren’t going well.

Speaking of fantasy, I listened to the “Fantasy Band Draft” episode of the Low Times podcast, which was great.

Yeah, Daniel [Ralston] thought of that and it was a great idea.

I loved how, in one fell swoop, you imposed Carlos Santana on Daniel’s fantasy band and managed to utterly destroy it. Were you planning that move the whole time?

No, I knew I had a move to make and we set it up so that everyone couldn’t dogpile on the other team. I had to make a move on Daniel, so what would be like dropping a bomb on this band? I was just picturing Carrie Brownstein having to play with Carlos Santana and it was just perfect.

Isn’t everyone’s fantasy band basically Led Zeppelin? Each guy in that band is the perfect cog in the machine.

Yeah, I think I said it at the beginning of that show. As a kid in high school, when people would talk about their fantasy band they’d say, Robert Plant as singer, Jimmy Page as the guitarist, John Bonham’s the drummer, and then they’d throw in John Entwistle, because John Paul Jones somehow isn’t good because he’s not jammed all the way to the front.

People forget the arrangements he did.

Exactly, it’s like, someone’s gotta be subtle in this thing. That’s the thing with The Who that’s so weird, the drummer was trying to be the lead guy, the bass player was trying to be the lead guy, the guitarist was trying to be the lead guy and in the early Who, Roger Daltrey was the most passive member. And then Led Zeppelin come along with the idea of the capital “F” Frontman, and all of a sudden Daltrey has the long hair and everyone in the group is now fighting for position. It’s amazing that it worked at all. It’s a rhythm section that almost doesn’t communicate.

It’s the only band that has ever really been able to pull that off.

I saw them recently on their Quadrophenia tour and I admired it. I thought Roger Daltrey’s voice got better as the show goes on. I saw two nights and by the time it gets to the heavy parts of Quadrophenia, he’s digging in and hitting the stuff on “Dr. Jimmy”. I know people get mad because they’re old, but they’re not trying to tell you they’re not old. This is no secret that they’re old. Either go, or don’t go. They’re still alive.

Right, from their perspective, what else are they supposed to do?

Artists do not have to fit the narrative that fans create. It’s their life. There are fans who if they had their way, Bob Dylan would have died on that motorcycle and he’d have been the ‘60s icon who never saw the ‘70s. Guys like Neil Young still go and it’s like, look, if he puts an album out and there’s one good song on it, that’s how it goes. He gets a pass for the rest of his life.

It’s like when Willie Mays finished his career with the Mets, does anyone really look back and think of Willie Mays that way?

Exactly. You have to work at it to let those be the images that you hold onto.

Or like Jordan playing with the Wizards, that wasn’t the greatest thing, but so what?

Oh, I thought it was the greatest thing. That’s the image I’ve held onto. I loved him playing with the Wizards. He used to crush the Knicks so many times. Watching this guy lumbering out there, that was kind of satisfying to see. Watching him slow and Kwame Brown passing him.

To wrap up , I’m going to steal your idea from the live Low Times podcast and do a rapid fire segment. These are either/or propositions. In Through the Out Door or Presence?

Well, they’re opposites. In Through the Out Door is the John Paul Jones album and Presence is like the ultimate Jimmy Page album. I’ll say Presence.

Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town?

Born to Run.

Prince or Michael Jackson?

I don’t think Prince ever made an album as good as Off the Wall. He’s made more great stuff but I don’t think anything ever as good as that. So, batting average, Prince, but for MVP season, Michael Jackson.

Carlin or Pryor?

Pryor. Neither of them are my guys. I was more into Saturday Night Live and SCTV than that kind of soul-baring stand-up at that point.

Dane Cook or Daniel Tosh?

I’d take Dane Cook. He seems like a flawed guy who I don’t think is untalented. I think he maybe plays to the lowest common denominator sometimes but I think he’s definitely a guy with talent. I think he still could be good in something.

Seth MacFarlane or Ricky Gervais?

Ricky Gervais. I might not love where he’s at now but The Office is pretty special. I don’t love what he became though because it’s almost like the guy couldn’t wait to get famous so he could … it’s like he’s the guy who got hit with a hammer and as soon as he got a hold of the hammer he just started hitting the people below him.

Gary the Squirrel or Vance the Puppet?

They’re such opposites. Look, Gary’s the most fun thing ever for me to do. Vance is harder because it’s like a closed circle. He’s talking to himself and he’s not interested in anybody else’s thing. I need to do more Vance now. I need to even that out a little bit.

I think my favorite thing from last year was “Hey AP Mike”.

It was the funniest thing ever. Gentleman Jesse was doing a session at WFMU and then I jumped on to the end of their session and I rewrote lyrics to one of their songs and they love Gary the Squirrel so it’s one of those things where I’m in the studio screeching. So yeah, that was a special day.

Finally, the question you’ve proposed on your show the last few weeks, Elvis or G.G. Allin?

I would take Elvis I think, but … look I don’t admire G.G. Allin, but he was a force of nature that just happened. People talk about it now because it’s safe to talk about because he’s not around anymore. Like people loving N.W.A. now. Everybody loves to take a dangerous thing and love it when it’s less dangerous. That’s the easiest thing in the world because you get the cache of liking dangerous stuff but it’s not a threat to you anymore. I admire when people like the dangerous stuff when it’s dangerous. I know people who were at G.G. Allin shows and they did not know what was going to happen. I think Elvis had more great songs than G.G. Allin. G.G. Allin does have some great songs though.

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So, there you have it. A man that can find just as much to like about G.G. Allin as the “King of Rock & Roll”. It is in that sense of upending conventional wisdom that Tom Scharpling has made his mark. In a way, he has managed to follow the perverse career arc of original hero Elvis Costello, who is famous for putting his stamp on disparate areas of the map. Time passes, and with it, the hold of our influences. For this point in time, Tom Scharpling is the one putting the fingerprints to our imagination.

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