Monday, July 9, 2012

An Interview with Jersey Beat's Jim Testa

Chances are, if you're from the Tri-state area and had even the slightest interest in local music over the last thirty years. You've more than likely heard of Jim Testa and Jersey Beat. His passion, dedication and longevity have earned him the love and respect of musicians and fans alike. In the Spring of 2010 I gingerly approached Jim at ABC No Rio about contributing to the site. Since then I've been an occasional contributor as both a photographer and writer. All the while, learning from a walking encyclopedia of music knowledge and love. Learning, each step of the way, how to carry myself when it came to doing my own blog. Last week I finally got to ask some of the questions that had been rattling around my head since that fateful day on the Lower East Side. Thanks to Jim for his time and what he's passed on to me over the past years. James Damion

James: You're someone that really needs no introduction. However, I would love to give our readers a little background on what you do. Can you fill us in on the origins of Jersey Beat and what you were setting out to accomplish when you started the first issue?

Photo of Jim Testa courtesy of Dan Bracalia
Jim Testa: One of my best friends at Rutgers,       Howard Wuelfing,  moved to Washington DC when we graduated and we kept in close touch.    Howard became involved in the very beginnings of the D.C. indie and hardcore scenes and started a fanzine called Discords.  (This was before there was even a Dischord Records.)  In the zine, he had scene reports  (this was years before Maximum Rock N Roll had the same idea)  from places like Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago... and I became the columnist  from New Jersey, since I was involved in the early Hoboken scene at that time.   I called the column Jersey Beat, a pun on "Mersey Beat," which was a term used to describe the early Beatles (since Liverpool was on the Mersey River, and Hoboken was being called "the new Liverpool" back then.)  Long story short, Howard had to stop publishing his fanzine.  I was having so much fun doing the column that I just spun it off into a zine of its own and kept the name.  That was about April, 1982.

James: Fanzine culture was a lot different back then. Aside from writing for Discords, were there any fanzines, mags or rock writers that you particularly looked to for inspiration?
How would you describe your approach to writing the zine back then? Has that blueprint changed much in the thirty years you've been doing this?

Jim Testa: One of the things I think it's hard for people today to grasp is how small a community the zine/indie rock/college radio world was back in the Eighties. There were relatively few people involved and it seemed like we all knew each other.  I wrote for lots of other zines and magazines, including The Bob, Matter, Boston Rock, and for one issue (before it went bankrupt,) New York Rocker.  That was pretty common.  Steve Albini and Gerard Cosloy also wrote for Matter; try to imagine the three of us writing for the same publication today! Jim DeRogatis and Karen Schoemer wrote for Jersey Beat when they were still in college, then for Matter and The Bob, and eventually went pro;  Jim wound up at the Chicago Sun-Times and Karen wrote for Newsweek and the NY Times.

My two favorite writers were Lester Bangs (who died about a month before the first official issue of Jersey Beat came out, oddly enough) and Hunter Thompson, but they were such originals that I never considered them role models.  They influenced me to be passionate and creative, but in terms of style, my real hero was Jimmy Breslin, the hard-boiled newspaper columnist.  There's a famous story that at JFK's funeral, all the other press covered the ceremony and the Kennedy family and other politicians.   Breslin found the gravedigger who dug JFK's grave and talked to him.  That's the kind of angle I try to look for when I'm writing a story.  Try to look at the person or event and put a little spin on it.

My real guiding principle when I started Jersey Beat was that I'd write about anything that interested me.  In 1982, when all this started,  I was a regular at Maxwell's and writing about bands like the Bongos and Feelies, but I was also really into the early NJ hardcore scene and bands like Adrenalin OD.  There were a lot of great zines that kept a pretty narrow focus (like Al Quint's excellent Suburban Voice, which only covered hardcore and punk.)
I never wanted to do that.  Jersey Beat has always been about any and all kinds of music, which is why there was a "Quiet Corner" column for years about folksingers. In the Nineties, we had a ska column when that was hugely popular. We've had various people do metal columns over the years.  I really wish I had someone right now who was heavily into EDM and could cover that for us.

James: You're one of the many successes when it comes to people who came from the print age but managed to not only survive but thrive in the digital age. Did you see the writing on the wall? What was the transition like for you? Was there any gap between the last issue of Jersey Beat and Jersey Beat's online presence?

Jim Testa: Jersey Beat went online about as soon as it was humanly possible.
Don't forget, in 1982,  we had manual typewriters and scissors and rubber cement.
And our imaginations.  Luckily at work I got to work with personal computers from their first introduction as clunky DOS machines to Windows 3.0 to today. Jersey Beat had one of the first zine websites (I am pretty sure it was  I acquired the domain in 1997.

At first, since dial up was so slow and you could only use very minimal graphics and small photos, the website was really just an online advertisement for the print zine. But as it became easier and easier to put content online, the website became an adjunct to the print zine.  (Also we'd only do three print issues a year, so we could do live reviews and more timely stuff online in between print issues.) So there was never any sort of gap. I originally had every intention of doing at least one more print issue (which would have been #78) but time and circumstances just worked against me and I never got to do it. People always talk about Nirvana and Green Day changing mainstream culture, but the success of those bands really trickled down into the underground. Everybody was making money in the Nineties and labels like SST, Lookout, Epitaph, and so on put a lot of their profits back into the scene by supporting fanzines with advertising and promos. The loss of advertising hurt but what was even worse was the loss of distribution.  After See Hear (the fanzine store in the East Village) closed and then Tower shut down its distribution,  there was no way to sell zines except out of a backpack at shows.  So I was printing a thousand copies and giving away 950 of them, and maybe selling 50 by mail order.

James: In doing this blog I quickly realized that I can't be in more than one place at the same time. From working with you I've noticed you often cover more than one event in a day on your own. Between your day job, Jersey Beat, the podcast and every thing else, do you ever think that maybe your spreading yourself thin? Does it ever take a toll on your personal life and relationships?

Jim Testa: I think the secret of my longevity has been that  whenever I start feeling burnt out, I can take a step back and give myself a little time to recharge. Jersey Beat has never been my day job, in fact it's never been a source of income.
From the reputation I built doing the zine, I have been able to freelance for magazines and newspapers and that does bring in a little extra money, but I've never been so busy as a freelancer that it's intruded on my time.  My weekly radio show for and takes up a few hours a week, and that's mostly just downloading mp3s from music blogs and bands to play on the show.  Recording the actual show takes maybe two hours and I usually do that on the weekends.  I only do a podcast once a month or so so that doesn't take up much time. And I really don't go out to see bands - especially on weeknights - as often as I used to.

James: In all my years, I've not come across a single person with knowledge of Jersey Beat that didn't have the nicest things to say and share about you. Hard to fathom with the kind of work you do. How do you see yourself? A critic? A fan? A writer? Do you see yourself doing this ten, twenty years down the road? What do you think is the main characteristic responsible for your longevity and consistency?

Jim Testa: I'd probably put it in this order - writer / fan /critic.  Some people make music and it's what they do for a while; some people are musicians and it's who they are. Same with writing.  It's no secret that I am - even at my advanced age - still a huge fan and really enjoy seeing bands and listening to music.  And I'd like to think that after all these years, I have the perspective and taste to render intelligent commentary on it.

I recently recruited a new writer for and he asked if he was allowed to write negative reviews since so much of the site was so positive.  That took me back a second, but I guess it's true.  The fact of the matter is that there is more music out there than there has ever been, and we can only write about a little bit of it.  So I do tend to focus on the good stuff - especially the things I do myself.
I think if you look through the site hard enough, you'll find a few negative reviews or at least some constructive criticism in there with all the raves.  I probably spew more venom on Twitter and Facebook these days if I have something negative to say or a snarky comment to make.  I really do look at those forms of social media as an extension of the zine, or at least of my role as a media critic.  If I'm going to be remembered, I guess I'd like it to be because people thought I was fair and passionate and cared not just about the music, but the people who create it and the fans who enjoy it.

James: I'm glad you mentioned that. I was talking to my blog partner Dave and mentioned how most of our reviews were very positive. I don't want to be mean or become a jaded critic; but in the same breath, I don't want our readers or the artists to think we're kissing ass or that we're push overs. His response was that we really don't have the energy and time to cover the things we really don't like. Your answer gave me a sense of comfort in that we're going about things the right way.

Jim Testa:  I would agree with that.  When I did Jersey Beat as a print zine, there were dozens of record reviews in every issue.  Most of them were shorter than what we print online, and there was a smaller pool of material to choose from, so we printed lots of snarky, funny, snotty, negative reviews.  Today, I just don't bother with something I know no one is going to like or care about, there's just too much music being created and pointed in our direction. And it's harder to get people to read it. Even at the height of the DIY movement, there were only maybe a dozen fanzines anybody really cared about. Today there are hundreds if not thousands of music blogs competing for attention.

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