The UnCola Interview with William Harris

In early 2021, I was interviewed by fellow blogger and DJ, William Harris for his site, The Music Of My Life, which I highly recommend that you follow.

Here are the links to that two-part interview: 

Or you can scroll down and read it here:

William Harris, January 2021: At the start of my second year of blogging, I re-purposed a dormant Twitter account originally intended to tweet out assignments to my students and began putting out links to new posts. One of my first followers was @theuncolafm; I soon learned that Erik Mattox, that account’s proprietor, hosts The UnCola, a weekly radio show dedicated to “forgotten pop from the last 50 years,” Tuesday evenings from 8-10 on Asheville FM, a low-power station in western North Carolina. I became a fan of the show almost immediately, and over roughly the last two-and-a-half years, have enjoyed both listening live via its internet stream and to archived shows on The UnCola blog. (Erik also writes with deep knowledge of and strong affection for 80s tunes at Music In The Key Of E.)

After a while, I realized I was curious to learn more about Erik’s show and the station. I recently reached out about getting together over Zoom for an interview (disclaimer: I’m not a journalist, nor have I pretended to be one since my junior year of college). A couple of weeks ago, we talked for more than an hour one evening.

Today and tomorrow, you get to check in on our discussion, which, as they say in the biz, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

First up: how The UnCola came to be, what goes into putting a show together, and recurring features/special programs.

WH: How did your relationship with Asheville FM and your radio show come about?

EM: I had been away from Asheville for about five-and-a-half years. I was living in New York, working in the film commercial industry. My wife and I moved to Savannah for a short time and we came back here. I’d been approaching radio stations in this area before I left, and I had been doing some podcasting and live deejaying up in New York. When I moved back here, I tried to get in touch with a low power community radio station, and unfortunately they were in the midst of kind of splitting up. Maybe six months later, I was in a record store around the corner from my house and heard someone talk about wanting to start their own radio station.  I got back to my house, I looked them up, contacted them, and immediately started joining meetings and helping them build the station, which was only a five-minute walk from my house, behind a coffee house. They had a lot of DJs from the other station, but they were looking for some new folks. I got lucky to be there in the beginning and be in there helping out and getting it started from the ground up.

They asked me what kind of show I wanted to do, and I really was not sure. I didn’t want to limit myself…. I’m going to give a short answer—there really is a long answer! One show that I really, really have enjoyed over the years for a long time is Barry Scott’s The Lost 45s, where basically he plays all the songs that were Top 40 hits that we’ve completely forgotten about. And I thought, why don’t I do the opposite of that, where I play songs people have completely forgotten about that weren’t even in the Top 40. And that way, I opened myself up and could call it a pop show. I wouldn’t limit myself, because pop can include tons of different genres, and so, in thinking of a name, I thought pop, I thought soda, and then immediately thought of Seven-Up, which was not soda, or the UnCola. And that’s where it got started, and it’s allowed me to continue since September 2009.

WH: You had no prior radio experience?

EM: I’ve never had paid radio experience. I did work at a campus radio station when I was a freshman in college, I’ve done some internships at radio stations, and I’ve done some free work for stations. Asheville FM got its start when the 2011 Local Community Radio Act opened up broadband to low power community FMs to apply for a license. It took many years for us to get that, so we started online only. We were able to get on the FM airwaves in 2015. It’s funny because locally, people weren’t taking us seriously, but we were able to reach an international audience almost immediately. People around the world found out about us, and we created fans worldwide before we had notoriety here in town, which was very interesting.

WH: So you have direct contact with listeners on other continents?

EM: Obviously, social media helps with that. One of the things I did was to reach out to artists and have them create bumpers for me. A lot of artists I reached out to are international, and they were like, “You’re playing my music in America? How awesome!” Because with traditional radio…they couldn’t just release a single to radio, or take it to the U.S…that just didn’t happen in 2009. So I was able to have people get interested and spread it that way, too. I wasn’t the only show to do that—there were a lot of shows that did, as well.

WH: Do you have a sense of how wide your listenership is? Is it possible to track that in any way?

EM: We do have access to Arbitron ratings, and there’s another one we have for low power FMs, but we can’t afford the advanced detailed version, so I only know from people who contact me and who I’ve reached out to. We had a big map of the world, and anytime someone has contacted us at the station, we’ve always put a pin in that country. At one point, we had somewhere between seventy and eighty countries pinned on that map. That’s pretty cool for a tiny little station.

WH: From listening to your show, it’s clear that you play an immense range of music and musical styles. Have your interests always been so wide?

EM: (Pauses.) Yes. Always. I grew up in New York, so right there you have every musical style at your fingertips. I grew up playing the viola, so I had classical music. My parents always had music playing, whether radio or records, and, growing up in the 70s, the variety was already there for you to sample. And even more so in the 80s, when there was a visual was added to it. Just the genre new wave is diverse enough. There was a station called WLIR, which was on Long Island, that was infamous mostly for playing new wave, but they broke everybody that was popular in the 80s. Madonna wasn’t new wave, but they had no problem playing her. They had no problem playing Wham! They had no problem playing Pete Townshend’s singles. There were so far ahead of everybody else—they would go over to England, buy records, and then play them on the air when you couldn’t find it anyplace. What they did in the 80s inspired me, because that’s what I want to do—I want to find music that people don’t know about and expose them to it.

WH: How big is your record/tape/CD/file collection?

EM: (Laughs.) I started out as a tape collector. I eventually got rid of all my cassette tapes, except for the mixtapes I’ve made. Vinyl—I’ve cataloged everything on Discogs, just in case of an emergency—I am approaching about 8000 albums. Digitally? Oh my god; I’m somewhere between 9 and 10 terrabytes of music backed up now. Part of that is I’m keeping more and more stuff either in FLAC or WAV format, so they’re bigger files. I do that partly for myself, because I’m getting older and for my hearing, but also for my kids, who one day will be interested, and I can go, “Here you go—here’s your library. Start listening.”

WH: I was looking at the early entries on your show’s website/blog and noticed that a number of the recurring features you do now, such as the XTC Song of the Week, were there from almost the very beginning. Do you have a favorite feature, either one that you still do, or maybe one you’ve discontinued?

EM: There are two. The first one would be The WestCoast Breeze. I started that because in 2009 there wasn’t this moniker ‘Yacht Rock’ for 70s and 80s soft rock yet. I kept discovering one band after another that I’d never heard before and I was, I’ve just got to get this out to folks. So many international bands were trying to get that LA sound. I began by doing that once a week, and I would do an annual full show. I even spun it off into a second show on Asheville FM for almost four years, to fill in a space on the schedule.

The other is one I did last year for about three months. De La Soul’s second album, De La Soul Is Dead, is unstreamable because of all the samples. I wanted to do a show where I played all of the songs they sampled from start to finish but that would have taken six or seven hours. So instead, every week I would pick one song, play five songs sampled in it, and then I’d play the song itself. That was fun to do.

WH: Are there features that you’ve stopped doing that you might bring back someday?

EM: I think I keep revisiting a lot of the same features. I’m always trying to figure out whether there’s something I should add. My show sometimes might not have any features, or they might have a few of them. Some of them are just excuses to go, “Oh, I’m going to play a disco song now,”, so I can have something to introduce it by, so it’s not too jarring. I will say this, though: it’s a mixed blessing that I’ve been able to be on the air for this amount of time where some of my musical heroes have passed away. Being able to honor them musically with a tribute show has been really cool. I try to do it in a nontraditional way where I don’t go, “Here are the hits.” I try to really dig to find some obscure stuff that they were a part of. It’s part of life that these folks are gonna pass away, like in 2016 when we had Bowie, Prince, Tom Petty, and Walter Becker, and George Michael. It was too much! But I’m honored that I have this privilege to do that and share that with folks.

WH: I fear your opportunities to do that are going to only increase.

EM: I’m also trying to jump ahead of it, too. I thought to myself, I don’t want to put together an Elton John show one day…I want to do an Elton John show while Elton John is alive—it’d be so completely different. So last year I did.

WH: Tribute shows are one kind of special show that you do. Are there other special shows that you particularly like to do?

EM: I love when I am digging into just one decade. Especially the 80s, the 70s, too. Because then when I’m going to do that show, I really, really take a lot of time to find artists that I’ve never played before. And songs that I’ve never played before. I keep track of all of that because I’m kind of a stats nerd, which I’m sure you can appreciate…

WH: Uh, just a bit…

EM: So I keep track of who I play, and sometimes I’m surprised, I’m like, “I haven’t played this artist in ten years on my show? I have no idea why.” That’s fun for me to do. But I struggle with 90s shows for some reason. 90s is a hard thing for me to pull together. I think I spent most of that decade really looking backwards. I don’t know what it is about it.

WH: Looking back over the eleven-plus years you’ve been doing this, can you see an evolution from your earlier shows to what you’re doing now? Can you articulate any aspects of that evolution?

EM: Doing the show by myself, I’m my own producer, so I have to be better technically, and I think I can get in and out quicker. I’m not the kind that tries to hit the post.  I think that I am better about using my words when I need to, and at having the songs fit together better, rather than be so random. I try to find themes sometimes, even small themes within my sets. And I think I’m better at doing that, so that it’s not just a jarring, all-over-the-place mess. I am a lot more cohesive with my song selections. On the other hand, I can’t believe that my voice doesn’t sound better…my voice still sounds the same, I still stammer, I still slur, talk too fast, but sometimes I just get excited about talking about stuff.

WH: How do you go about preparing for one of your standard shows? You just touched on this a little bit, but how do you pay attention to the sequencing?

EM: I have big databases of songs, separated by decade. I take a look and say, “OK, I need some more from the 90s, I need some more from the 2000s, or the 70s…” I go look in a million different places. I’ve been recently looking at old Billboard magazines and at old Record World magazines. I’m amazed at the stuff I’ve found in there. YouTube has been—it’s amazing how that has become a very big reference for me. I find a lot of really hard-to-find music there. It used to be very easy—people would just post music on blogs.  MySpace was a great place to find music—people would do tribute sites to obscure bands and put stuff on there. Do you remember iMeem? It was a free site where you could upload music—I discovered a ton of stuff there. I’m always looking for a new way, a new avenue to find stuff.

If I’m creating a five-song set, I like to do songs from at least four different decades—if I’m lucky, I can get five different decades. I want to make a seamless mix from five different decades, that’s kind of how I’m picking it.

I’ve streamlined when I play newer music. This past year, I’ve been putting it in one five-song block, rather than mixing it throughout. I’m enjoying doing it that way. I don’t know if I’ll continue to do it, but it makes it easier—people can focus on, “This is the new stuff right now.”

If I’m digging for vinyl, I can transfer it digitally. I don’t do that as much anymore, because of the time it takes. There’s still stuff that I can’t find online, but sometimes I figure out that I have it already—I just didn’t realize it!

WH: What’s your greatest recent discovery of “new” old music from the 70s or 80s, that you’ve come across in the last year or so? Something that you didn’t know about previously.

EM: Nothing hits me right off the bat from that era, but I will say that there’s a band called Baby Grand who put out two albums in the late 70s, and I constantly go back to those and listen to them. I’m amazed at not only how well they done, how well they were performed and produced, how complex they are, but that someone was allowed to do this, and put it out. The producer and two of their members became the Hooters and did something completely different. I love finding albums like that, that are just like, there was no chance in hell it was ever going to be popular when it came out. It’s obvious it was done because someone just really appreciated the artistic vision of these musicians and were hoping to expand the genre. It’s cool when you discover stuff like that, and so I keep going back to them.

WH: I’ve been digging through old Stereo Review magazines, and I recently came across one that had a review of one of Baby Grand’s albums, I think from ‘77. (Ed: It was the May 1978 issue.)

WH: You said you do your own tech work, so the intro to your show, the bumpers that you haven’t asked other people to record, those are things you’ve put together yourself?

EM: Right. Yeah.

WH: Let’s just take the intro and the bumper that you run after the second song each hour. I recognize pieces from the Eurythmics, and there’s a James Brown sample, and there’s the Buggles. What are the other ones? I’d love to know what else you’ve sampled.

EM: Okay, let’s see. The one that starts with the Buggles, it has “You are…” in it, the “listening to” actually comes from a recording program I had, so that’s just a robot. Of course, then it says “the UnCola” (from a 70s commercial). The “Bam! Who’s next?” is from a Pharcyde album. They were a hip-hop group who did skits in between some of their songs.

When I was doing shows for African American Music Appreciation Month last year, that was the first time I’d listened to my intro in a while. I’m realizing it doesn’t tell you anything about my show. I really need to change it. I start off with James Brown (“Keep It Funky, Pt. 1”), I forget where the drum roll is from—it sounds like it’s from Edwin Starr’s “War,” but I don’t think it is—and I’ve got the Pharcyde in there again, I’ve got a What’s Happening sample in there. And of course I use the Eurythmics’ “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To).”

Early on, I did a show dedicated to WLIR, and I contacted some of the WLIR DJs to do bumpers for me. And one of them—Andy Geller, the guy who does all the voiceovers and promos for the Oscars—he did an hour-long bumper for me, including, (drops voice to sound like Geller) “You’re listening to Erik Mattox, on the UnCola at Asheville FM.” It sounds so good and professional. As soon as I heard it, I’m like, “I’m using that.”

WH: I know which one you’re talking about.

EM: And people have recognized his voice, and they ask me, “Is that the guy from the Oscars?” And I’m like, “He was actually a DJ at a radio station, but yeah.”

WH: Can I still get an UnCola bumper sticker?

EM: Do I have UnCola bumper stickers?

WH: Back in 2010, you advertised on your show’s website that you could write in and get one.

EM: Oh my god, I’ve completely forgotten about that. I don’t know if anyone ever took me up on it. Maybe they did. If I do have one still, please send me your address, and I’ll send one to you. I don’t think that they were done very well. If I have one, I will definitely send you one even if it’s something that you want to just put on a water bottle.

WH: Thank you!

EM: Absolutely.

WH: You touched on this a little bit at the very beginning, but now that you are over the airwaves in Asheville, what do you see as the role of your show, of Asheville FM—what do you see as the community role of the station?

EM: One thing we didn’t talk about earlier as Asheville FM got started…I was so excited and I immediately wanted to be involved in lots of different areas. I did publicity and promotions, and I joined the Board. In 2011, I became the Board President, and I served for about five years, until we got on the FM airwaves. We’ve been able to grow exponentially, and fundraising has greatly improved. We now have a station manager who’s paid, we have an underwriting manager who’s paid.

Our role here in the community is to be a voice for people from all races, all genders, and give them a place where they can feel heard, because people don’t always feel heard. Not only do we do that with music, obviously, but we have talk shows, we have Spanish language programming, we have a sports show, we have a kids’ show, and we have a podcast program where we take underprivileged children that don’t get an opportunity to do anything outside of school, any extracurricular activities, and get them involved in creating their own radio shows, so that they can see the power in that. And we get involved with a lot of other nonprofits’ causes within the community and because we are not beholden to any corporate entities—we raise money ourselves—we can be as unfiltered as the FCC allows us to be. And we can show viewpoints from a neutral vantage point, so that we’re not swinging one way or another and we can give people news that doesn’t have any sort of bias to it, letting people know what’s going on—this is a tourist town, so a lot of that is geared towards letting people know more of the real stuff that’s happening here. There are some independent papers that are like that as well, but we’re the main radio outlet for that. Continuing to do that, continuing to get into schools, educating younger people and show that this is something they can do, either as something that they’re paid to do in the future, or just because they love to do it—all of that is important.

We want to be as inclusive as we possibly can. I’ve rejoined the Board this year and I hope especially with everything going on, to really reach out and team up with a lot more folks to bridge the large gaps we have in the community. Black people, Latinos—those are two big sectors here that just need to have their voices heard in order for their stories to be heard, in order for justice to start taking shape and equality to start, so that it’s not theory, it’s actually practice, it’s people actually working towards a goal. I think there’s a lot of stuff in the ether, but people don’t necessarily know how to go about helping, even if they really want to. We want to be able to be a conduit for that for folks.  

WH: Going back to your show, do you have any special plans for the upcoming year? You don’t have to give me any spoilers.

EM: I come up with stuff as I go along. I tried planning ahead early on; I think there was a year where I actually listed that on the blog. Probably new volumes of the special shows I do. I’m also trying to find artists that I haven’t done tribute shows for that mean a lot to me. I kind of take it one week at a time, and I probably should plan a lot better. I’m happy when I sometimes plan two weeks ahead of time. This is a fun time of year for me, because in January I know I’m going to do a couple of shows where I’m just looking back to the previous year.

I think there was one year where I did an “In Memoriam” show where I played songs from artists that had passed away in the last year. It was cool to do but I don’t want to do that again. It’s hard to imagine that someone like Little Richard passed away, an architect of roll and roll, and it wasn’t bigger. It felt like it needed to be a lot bigger for people, and so you see that disconnect already for older artists. It happens already for 60s artists, and it’s going to happen for 70s artists, too, and I want to get there and do those tribute shows before that happens.

WH: Is there anything that you hoping to talk about tonight that I haven’t asked?

EM: I don’t know—your questions were great. I didn’t really think about what I wanted to talk about, because I’m not exactly sure how to talk about myself and what I do very well.

WH: I get that.

EM: I’m just very appreciative of the fact that we are financially supported by folks and I’m allowed to do this every week. I thought for sure there’d be a point that I’d not want to do it anymore, like years ago. I’ve been way more consistent in the last four years than I had been—2020 was the first year where I did an original show every single week. I’m amazed that I still want to do it and I go, “Oh yeah, that’s cool, I should play that,” and I don’t get bored doing it. I have a feeling that if I stop doing this, I probably won’t do it anyplace else. I will say that if I have at any time turned anyone on to a certain artist they didn’t know about and they got into that artist, that’s all I really want. I’ve been told, “I didn’t know that person, I really like them…” That’s really to me the thrill of still being able to do this. There’s a well that just never ends with music. I can’t believe I can still find older music that I’ve never heard before. It’s amazing.

WH: I’ve listened to many of your shows over the last two-and-a half years. I’ve learned a lot, for sure, and I just enjoy it. One thing I remember really impressing me was a Jonatha Brooke song you played…

EM: Nice.

WH: …early on in the time I was listening to you. So I’ll say you’ve had an impact on me.

EM: That’s cool. I’ve probably seen her live about 5-6 times. She’s amazing, and like everybody needs to know who she is. Everybody. I don’t understand why…well, I don’t want to go down that path…but she is so incredibly talented, it’s ridiculous. She has a beautiful voice. Her songs are just amazing. What a great catalog she has. And just by herself with a guitar, she’s a great live show, though with a band, it’s even better. If you get an opportunity—if she comes anywhere near you… She hasn’t been to Asheville in like ten years; she used to play here all the time.

WH: It was “Last Innocent Year,” off of 10¢ Wings.

EM: I love that album.  

After I stopped recording, Erik asked me why I had wanted to talk with him. I told him about how I’d play-acted being a DJ during my junior-high years, enjoyed being at WTLX, my college station, and that I was just plain curious about how he managed his show from week-to-week. What I didn’t say is that in some ways he’s living one of my dreams, getting to play music I like for other people.

Many, many thanks to Erik for taking the time to chat. I had a blast, and hope we have the chance to get together to talk again soon.

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