Before MTV made the full switch to becoming a universe inhabited by the Spencer Pratts and Tila Tequilas of the world, there was a strange moment in the late '90s when the network appeared to be at a crossroads. After years of serving as the launching pad for models-turned-VJs, one face on the network stuck out like a sore thumb when he arrived on the scene—Matt Pinfield's. Pinfield quickly made a name for himself as the only guy on the air who appeared to be completely serious and passionate about the music he played, as he would sputter off obscure punk references while engaging bands in ways they were unaccustomed to when dealing with MTV. He went from hosting the weekly alternative video show, 120 Minutes, to appearing on-air so often at one point that the Post joked they just give him his own daily block and call it "360 Minutes."
A decade later, Pinfield is still just as excited about the music he plays and the bands he gets to talk to, doing it now as a morning co-host for the modern rock station 101.9 WRXP (check out the podcast archives here). It has only been around for a couple years, but has built up a great word of mouth among rock fans as being a rare local radio station that keeps you guessing. Matt was kind enough to invite us down to the WRXP studios where he talked to us about not keeping quiet after a recent trip to rehab, which rock star was brought to tears over his contributions at MTV and how he truly broke records at his first-ever radio gig.
You have a good Fourth? Yeah, I did. I hung out with my 9-year-old daughter. I took her to a big fireworks thing in Jacksonville where she lives. Then we went to her to her great-grandparents for a big outdoor barbecue on Saturday. I only got there Friday afternoon and then I had to leave Sunday just to make it back for the show. So it was quick, but it's great to spend time with her.
You've mentioned on your radio show that you've lived in quite a few apartments around city. What kind of ground have you covered? I've lived in at least eight or ten apartments in the city. Let me give you some of the addresses: 99 John Street, 95 Christopher Street, 360 First Avenue, The Longacre House on Eighth and 50th, 504 Grand Street, 75 West Street, 110 Washington Street, 38th in The Montrose—let me think...that's quite a few though, isn't it?
It's amazing you still know all the addresses. No wonder you never forget a B-side when interviewing a band. Is he the New Yorker you most admire? Well I love Lou Reed. The picture he painted of New York in the 1960s and '70s and even in the '80s was groundbreaking. He took pop music to a darker side.
You just took a month off from your radio show to go into rehab. A lot of people seemed caught off-guard that someone they perceive as having such a low-key persona, sort of an everyman, would end up in recovery at this stage of the game. For me I feel that I've been born predisposed to alcoholism because of the fact that when I was very young—I wasn't drunk and falling all over the place—but it got to be a problem. It was one of those things where it was very casual and then you cross the line and you don't even realize that you're crossing it and you're drinking wine every day. It was a gradual thing.
What made you decide to talk about it so openly as soon as you started doing the morning show again? There are two reasons I went public about it. One because keeping it a secret was just detrimental to me. That at the end of the day, it would be a great weight off my shoulders. Secondly, I knew I could help others by being open and honest. Part of the philosophy of recovery is you help other people that are suffering from addiction or alcoholism. It just got to to the point where I knew that if I didn't get a grip on what was happening, it would eventually start to affect my career and my life. Like everyone else, if it takes you all the way down, you lose your gigs and your health gets destroyed. Luckily I wasn't that deep. But it could have ended up there if I hadn't done something about it.
And what has the response from listeners been so far? This is an amazing thing, but I've already gotten three letters from people who went into treatment because of my broadcast that first morning. And then I've run into others who have said, "My friend went into rehab because of your broadcast" or "my friend quit drinking or blow or whatever because he heard your story." So I believe it had a positive effect on people. When I went on the air that morning, I said, "I'm doing this because if you're going through this, you don't have to be doing it alone." Because there's nothing worse than going through trouble by yourself.
How scary is it being in your first month of what appears to be a long road ahead? Well, I just hit sixty days. And it's not really scary because I've got an incredible support system around me. Now more than ever, rock musicians, musicians in general, people in entertainment—there are so many people in recovery and of course we don't out each other. I don't talk about the program in depth because I respect the traditions of that. But there are so many people out there that you would be surprised are in recovery, that it's keeping their lives going. So I have this incredible amount of support out there. Not just from my listeners, but people I know, people in the industry—a lot of musicians—that are all there to support me and want me to succeed at staying sober.
It's cool that RXP records at the same studio next to Hot 97. You're neighbors with Funkmaster Flex. Well Flex and I have been friends for a long time since we both did MTV, doing New Year's Eve stuff in the window the first year MTV was in Times Square. It was a very cool situation from those early days because I've always received a lot of respect from the black community because people could sense that I was A)not full of shit and B) really knew my music. And what they respected was knowledge. The guys that did Yo! MTV Raps would go to me, "The black community is really feelin' you."
You guys were also there at the same time as Jesse Camp. What was that like? The Jesse Camp thing is funny. There was the whole "Celebrity Deathmatch" where I fought him. You never knew who was going to win—they wouldn't tell you. But I said to the guys working on it, "C'mon man, let me know. Do I win?" And one guy says to me, "All I can tell you is that the animation department doesn't dig Jesse."
There was such a contrast between the two of you when you were both on the air. It was always cool watching you that there was this guy on MTV with a look, but not really "A Look". (Laughs) I definitely had a look, but it was one I was born with and then turned into. As a kid, when I was 15, it was discovered that I had an aneurysm. It was a pulsating exterior aneurysm with an artery. My mother took me to a couple of specialists who said I was gonna die, that I couldn't live through the operation. Then she finally found a neurosurgeon who would do it and I ended up living through it. But the chances of surviving were twenty percent. At the time, I remember being in the hospital and having the doctor say to me, "Well Matt, we're gonna have to shave part of your head to do this operation. So we can either shave half your head or all of it." And here I'm just getting out of junior high to start over in high school and I'm the lead singer in a rock band. So of course I say, "Well shave my entire head." This was the mid-seventies, pre-punk. No one was walking around with Mohawks. So it's interesting how I felt so alien until my hair grew back with these stitches all over. But ultimately I went bald very young and it became my look. And it's actually what kept me off MTV early on.
Before you hosted 120 Minutes, you worked in the music department there, picking out Buzz Clips, right? Are there any Buzz Clips that you really pulled for? Me and Lewis (Largent, host of 120 Minutes at the time) were both really championing Radiohead, all those clips from The Bends and we were getting skewered by the industry. Because Lewis and I were saying these are the greatest videos, this record is groundbreaking and the industry had already written off the band as a One Hit Wonder with "Creep." But now there was "Fake Plastic Trees" and "High and Dry" and "Just" and these videos were pieces of art as far as I'm concerned. That was one of the ones we fought for as other record companies would give us shit, "What do you mean?! This record's not selling as much as our record!" But then one of the most amazing and satisfying days for me and Lewis and the Music Department was when Thom Yorke came in to give us gold records for The Bends. It took a long time to get there. But when they came in and handed us the gold records in our music room that day, Thom Yorke walked up to us and said, "I know you guys took a lot of shit for staying behind this and backing us on this record. And I just want you to know how much it means to us." And Thom Yorke actually broke into tears before he walked out of the room. He was literally in tears.
Wow, that's amazing. Can you think of a favorite "Only in New York" story? Well the first thing that comes to mind is a surreal van ride back from the Tibetan Freedom Concert in '97. Sitting in this van is me, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Steven Malkmus of Pavement and Sarah McLachlan. So you talk about how diverse—just a truly surreal moment.
Do you have an all-time favorite summer festival? I happened to be over in England for the Reading Festival the year that Nirvana headlined with Public Enemy and The Wonder Stuff, who were huge in England. That was the year that Kurt went out on stage in the wheelchair and the woman's dress. Another favorite was the year that had Jesus and Mary Chain and Lush at Waterloo Village in Jersey. I was covering that for the station I worked for at the Jersey Shore.
What's the biggest challenge of trying to get young adults to listen to RXP when so many of them here seem to have no connection to the radio in their lives anymore? I really want people to know about what we do cause I know a lot of people have left radio because it hasn't done anything for them in so many years and New York radio has sucked so bad. I'm constantly telling people that I mean this, not just cause I work here, but that this station has really made a lot of people who had given up on radio turn back to listening to it again. Because they've finally found a place where they can hear everything from Grizzly Bear and Gomez.
Last month I was driving to Philly and heard MGMT into Mellencamp. Well we subscribe to the philosophy that great music in rock can be from different eras and different styles. Things have become so sub-genred and specialized and niched that it doesn't give a lot of people the opportunity to grow. And that's why people have gone away from it. Radio has gotten so boring in so many parts of the country because people are afraid to experiment and give things chances. We support local music in a big way and are becoming involved in the music scene in a big way, all over—from Brooklyn to Jersey.
Even though I hate getting up at 4 in the morning like anybody else would, I'm almost always in a great mood because I'm so excited to play music for people. I'm a blessed guy because I've been doing cool, alternative radio for 25 years.
What first drew you doing radio? My start actually came from doing a pirate station that my dad and I built out of my basement in East Brunswick, New Jersey at 9, 10, 11. Other neighborhood kids would come over and play. I had this beat-up Radio Shack mixer and these two turntables, one that my father had built from scratch and one we got from a neighbor, and two microphones we bought. We ran a line on the antenna from the house on a wire. And it would broadcast a block.
So was your dad a big part of getting you into music as a kid? Well he knew I loved radio and loved music from the time I was 3-years-old. We were a poor family so my parents pooled the money to buy one of these old '60s 45" players that had the spindle, this tube that would come up, and you would stack the 45s and they would drop. And I was fascinated with this thing and would sit there at 3-years-old in front of it and rock back and forth, listening to The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Motown, whatever. My parents would offer me kiddie records cause they would buy me Peter Pan records and all this crap. And I would throw them under the refrigerator to hide them. So when we moved to East Brunswick, my parents pulled out the fridge and found all these broken records.