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Second Set: Rob Wagoner saves the music of decades past

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2012 - Since the beginning of the year, you may have noticed that videos from the STL Music Video Preservation project have frequently accompanied Second Set pieces. Those video additions are thanks to the work of Rob Wagoner, who’s been ardently bringing life to dozens of tapes from St. Louis cable broadcasts of the 1980s and ‘90s.

His introduction could go on for a bit, but the essentials are as follows. He day jobs at Euclid Records, working in the busy mail order department. As a player, he’s been a key member of groups like White Suburban Youth, Ultraman, Culture Shock, Snake Ranch, Bent, the Adoring Heirs and shorter-lived groups such as the Steve Pick Experience. And while you can’t exactly quantify it, he’s been “on the scene” longer than most, a presence at the shows that matter for going on three decades.

His archaeological work in recent months has revolved around a pair of old-school editing rigs, which he’s used to rip dozens of three-quarter-inch tapes that had been sitting in basements and storage closets all over town. In doing so, he cuts away the extraneous bits and highlights both individual songs and entire sets from bands that have graced our town’s musical landscape.

This Saturday night, at Spirits in Alton, he’ll be sitting on the last three songs played by Judge Nothing, one of the groups that he’s been highlighting in the past few months. The same holds true for the reuniting Bishops and Autumn Clock, who’ll also appear at the gig. If you happen to be there and see Wagoner, thank him for the yeoman’s work he’s been putting in, without pay.

On Tuesday, we caught up with Wagoner, just after he checked in at Euclid.

How did this project begin?

Wagoner: I guess it started when Euclid had a couple copies of Joe’s “Psychotic Reaction” show, which he did with Chris Ballew. For years before that, I had it in the back of my head that a lot of those master tapes should be transferred. A lot of people had talked about it, with no one taking the next step. Eric Thompson, a producer of “Velocity” and a friend of mine came into the store one day. And off the top of head, i asked him if he had any old tapes. He said, “hold on.” He lives in Webster and came right back in with a big box of them. That’s the thing that set it off. I networked and found a couple of three-quarter-inch players and went from there. And when I started asking around for tapes, they started rolling in.

How many people have submitted, now?

Wagoner: Right now, probably four or five. The biggest one recently was KDHX. I reached out to Bev Hacker and they were really open to helping out. They had been in the same boat, with people talking about doing this, but no one putting out the energy to actually get it done. And I should add that Greg Kessler also helped secure some of the tapes.

What’s been the feedback, or most gratifying aspect?

Wagoner: I think the most gratifying thing would be that people are talking about these bands again. Before I put anything up, I reach out to at least one member of the band and make sure it was OK. With a lot of this, even the bands have never seen it before. And it’s also helped in getting these bands back together, not just because of the videos, but it does give that added motivation to get out there.

What would be the issues for a group to not feel comfortable?

Wagoner: A lot of this stuff, you know, is not the band at their best. There are technical issues and it’s done in a raw form. A lot of the groups, I don’t worry about, but some have gone on to bigger and better things. I wouldn’t want to air their laundry before asking first. It’s out of respect. It’s usually the main member that I talk to. PJ Sharimitaro of Soul Kiss, Donald Williams of Sinister Dane, Ken Nardi of Anancrusis. We hadn’t run them yet, but Ken’s excited to see good copies of this stuff that they’d done in the ‘90s.

How laborious is all this?

Wagoner: Pretty laborious. Usually, when I got on a roll and find a trouble-free take, I’ll just put the tape on and burn it for the hour. On a good weekend, I can get 25, or 30, tapes done. It can be frustrating at times, like if it’s an episode that has no local stuff in it, at all. But if the material’s exciting, I’m excited.

So we had “Psychotic Reaction,” then “Critical Mass” and “Velocity” and then?

Wagoner: “The Show” was another program that tried to do something after Dede was done doing “Critical Mass.” “Velocity” was more of an art program. They’d show videos, then talk to painters and stuff like that. I didn’t realize that until I started this. Then there are some one-off shows, things like “Live on the Landing.”

Any bands that were total head-scratchers or puzzling to you?

Wagoner: There were a few. “Velocity” was on once a week and there were a lot of bands on there that I’ve never heard of, and they’d be three, four times. I kind of missed out on some bands, like Ouija. I’d heard of them, but had never seen them before. Then Wash U. bands like Crime Cure Boy. They were interesting. For the most part, these were bands I knew before and that I still know.

Where are in the entire process? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Are you running out of tapes?

Wagoner: It’s gonna get harder. Right now, I’ve given up my main player. I had to return it and don’t have it anymore. I need another to get through what I call the end of the “easy stuff.” The hard stuff will come after that; those tapes will have to go to a professional to get baked and cleaned. That’s 30 tapes, at least. The hard stuff will take a lot more work and be a lot more expensive. But it’s way over halfway done now. And that’s a good feeling.

Any shock when you come across a video of yourself?

Wagoner: No, no. I like that. Even the embarrassing stuff is fun to watch.

Post-Script to Q/A: As Wagoner and I finished our phone chat, I heard the mail carrier at the door and went to see what had arrived. In the mailbox was a padded, silver envelope from Judge Nothing, containing the group’s latest EP, a collection of unreleased tracks, rarities and live cuts, released in time for the reunion/farewell shows this weekend. If that’s not a little bit of project kismet, I’m not sure what it could be.