BEHIND THE SCENES with Steve Shepherd

How did you initially approach making a radio documentary about one of the most innovative sound generators of our time? Did you feel undue pressure to represent the sonic trademark of Zorn's style not just IN the program, but THROUGH the program

I sold the program to BBC Radio on the basis that Zorn was the creative hub of New York's downtown scene with an output that was extremely varied but consistently interesting. When they bought the idea I sat down and drew an enormous flow diagram, with arrows flying off in all directions for his various projects and collaborations. Imposing a timeline on this was fairly easy but i soon realized that i would need ten hours to cover everything, so some tough decisions had to be made. I wrote out a list of people I wanted to interview and started listening to Zorn's entire output. Stylistically I tend towards minimal presentation/script in my pieces, preferring to move from music to interview and trusting the listeners to follow. I like jump cuts and I like humour. So the shows do sound at times like a Zorn piece. The fact that he gave me such an animated and uncompromising interview also helped

Assuming you were a fan at the time, how did this influence your experience with him? Did it (the experience) live up to your hopes/expectations

I was a big fan of Zorn's music (especially Spillane and the first Naked City album) and of his approach to music. Many of the documentaries I've made (Lenny Bruce, Jaco Patsorius, Bill Evans, Evan Parker) have dealt with people whose work I love. When you commit to making a show about one of your heroes you feel the weight of responsibility settle on your shoulders. I tried to maintain some critical distance but the purpose of the series was to illustrate the great work he had done, show how he'd achieved it and how the different aspects related to one another. Being a fan didn't impair my ability to do that but it wasn't all plain sailing and I started the process with a bit of a shock. (see next answer)

Any memorable tales from your interview sessions

I got to New York, having set up around 20 interviews, the most important being with Zorn himself. He'd told me to ring when I got there and so I did. He asked who else I was due to talk to that day so I rattled off a couple of names, one of whom was an emminent critic who'd written a lengthy article about the downtown scene. Zorn's reaction was something along the lines of the following: "What the fuck are you seeing that asshole for? He knows nothing! I had to rewrite that fucking article for him, Jesus if that's the quality of people you've lined up may be this isn't such a great idea. I'm not sure man, call me tomorrow.

My heart was racing, I was taken completely by surprise by the ferocity of his reaction. What did he mean "not such a good idea"? I had visions of returning to the UK without Zorn on tape, and of him ringing round and telling people not to talk to me (I think jet lag was fueling my paranoia a little). Anyway, I decided to ring him straight back and defend myself. The critic's article had been informative about and sympathetic to Zorn's work and was factually accurate, how was I to know that Zorn had had to correct it before publication? Anyway as a program maker I had the right to interview whoever I liked, I was a fan and supporter of his music but it would be good to have a range of opinions, blah blah blah... Zorn listened and he argued with me but I could feel the ice melting. It seemed that I had risen to his challenge, he was testing me and I must have passed because I spent the next three afternoons in his apartment and recorded around 6 hours of material. After interviewing 20 or so of his key collaborators I discovered that my experience was not uncommon. Zorn likes to challenge and provoke

The program lasts two full hours, which - for American radio, at least - is quite long. How did you organize / keep track / build a structure to tell Zorn's story at that time? Did it air all at once on BBC Radio 3

I planned for weeks before conducting the interviews, drawing Venn diagrams and flow charts, looking for links and forming theories, but listening back the series is basically a chronological romp through Zorn's major projects. When I interviewed him I sat with around a hundred CD covers spread out in front of me in his apartment and used them to guide the discussion. Then when I came to producing the shows I tried to start each episode with a startling audio image and end each one with a cliffhanger of sorts. I was determined to feature as much great music as possible knowing most of it would probably never get a chance to be heard on radio again. The shows went out on four consecutive Saturdays at 6pm. (which makes the bad language even more remarkable - see later

Considering the doc is now eleven years old, how does it sound in your ears? Would you produce it differently today? Any additional questions for Mr. Zorn

I'm still happy with the series. There are a few clunky name checks - the hardest thing to do elegantly in my experience - captions are perhaps the one thing TV does better. The whole thing was mixed brilliantly by Peregrine (Pez) Andrews and it was great to work with presenter (and Zorn collaborator) Steve Beresford whose knowledge of Zorn's music was second to none

I'd ask how Tzadik, his label is doing in the current climate. My guess is they are doing well because interest in unusual and creative underground music seems to be growing as the multinationals collapse. I'd also ask how it feels to have achieved all he's achieved (pretty good I'd imagine) and looking back could he think of an instance where he acted against his artistic instincts. I can't imagine there is but I'd like to hear that voice say "no fucking way man!

You've mentioned that the program aired as is, without any 'bleeping' of - shall we say - the colorful language. Are British audiences just more tolerant than the FCC / public radio in America? Would you still be able to air the programs without censoring the language

BBC Radio 3 is without doubt the most adult oriented station in the UK. With regards to the language (Zorn likes to use the word "fuck", as do I) I had to make my case to the controller Roger Wright that the language wasn't gratuitous and that it was vital to convey Zorn's essence. He listened and agreed. There were no complaints from the audience to the BBC. Actually one person who missed the junction between mine and the previous show - Jazz Record Requests, which is presented by an American - did write in as they thought that Geoffrey Smith was having a breakdown on air. As for getting it on uncensored now, that's unlikely. The BBC lost its nerve after a high profile incident where a presenter made an obscene phone call live on air. Unfortunately that piece of nonsense compromised everyone's work

You've spent a lot of time with the production company Somethin' Else producing live jazz programs and documentaries about seminal, maverick jazz musicians. What draws you to this genre

Somethin' Else and their founder/CEO Jez Nelson (also the presenter of the weekly contemporary jazz show and many of my docs) gave me total support and a good wage to make shows about great music. I tried to push us as far towards the avant garde in contemporary jazz as possible and Jez was happy with that. Challenging music is the thing that interests and excites me most and if you can't be one of the musicians, then recording them and commissioning them to make new music is the next best thing

You're not making as much radio these days, but sounds like you're still involved in some interesting projects. Tell us a bit more about True Stories Told Live and The Real Record Club

The True Stories club was inspired by a club which started in New York called The Moth. Once a month we try to find 5 people prepared to tell a true story about their lives. They get 15 minutes and must deliver the stories from memory. The results have been extraordinary and audiences love it. The event has a totally unique atmosphere and is going from strength to strength. I like to think of it as pre-industrial entertainment

The Real Record Club is an attempt to get people away from their MP3's and computers and make them listen to albums properly, on vinyl all the way through. It's a hardcore experience for people who are used to music as background. Our next event features two classics from 69/70: Captain Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off Baby and Zappa's Hot Rats. There's no easy listening at The Real Record Club, and you have to turn your mobile phone off too!