Tom Armstrong interviews Streamline CEO John Maxwell Hobbs
Streamline CEO John Maxwell Hobbs has worked at the intersection of arts and technology for over three decades, from the embryonic days of Silicon Valley to the BBC via New York’s experimental music scene. This is our attempt at documenting some of the unique experiences and lessons learned along the way.
In the mid 1980s, having transferred from LA to NYC for the company who invented Voicemail, John found himself in the midst of an economically ravaged yet creatively exhilarating city, where a walk around the block might entail artistic opportunity, mass disorder or spontaneous combustion…
How did you end up working in New York’s clubland?
JMH: I was at work in the voicemail startup’s data centre reading The Village Voice, and there was a review of a performance by a Butoh dance troupe. Butoh is a form of extreme physical dance that was coming out of Japan, almost in response to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In the review they had a quote from the stage manager by the name of John Gernand, who was someone that I knew from when I was six months old, but we’d been out of touch since probably our early teens. After I read the article we started hanging out again.
At that point I was doing stand up in New York and getting really, really fed up with sitting on my hands waiting for something to happen with this startup. And this guy John, basically was like the mayor of the East Village at that point, and an all-round stage manager and technical person for this underground space called 8BC. He and a bunch of people from 8BC had gotten hired to be the tech crew at Limelight, which was one of the mega clubs, so he said ‘do you want to come and work with us?’ And I said ‘yeah, absolutely’, because it gave me a huge amount of flexibility. So I started doing followspot, then became a video DJ, as well as sound mixer and things like that.
What was Limelight like at the time?
This was an interesting period, around ’85, ’86. It was before its infamous period, where it got known for the whole Club Kid scene, covered in the film Party Monster, about the promoter Michael Alig who killed his roommate. But anyway, on a side note, a bunch of us left Limelight to open our own nightclub down in Tribeca, a place called Fallout. It was only open one night. Afrika Bambaataa and David Azarch from the Mudd Club were our DJs. It was Halloween and we had about 3,000 people in this tiny space in Tribeca. So that was interesting. There's a whole long story about why that place failed, which we won't get into, but we were just running it as a party - nobody was paying for anything, we weren't selling drinks, we weren't charging door. So we weren't in violation of any laws.
“No matter what you did you couldn't make any money, so you might as well do something that interests you”
What did you do after that?
By that time, I had shifted completely away from doing theatre and standup to doing music. I was doing a lot of freelance technical work in places like the Palladium, CBGBs, The World. I’d also put together my own band - nobody could ever agree on a name but most of our performances were under the name ‘Your Monkey’s Not Funny’. We played CBs and Cafe Wha? and a bunch of places.
Then once again, based on the recommendation of my friend John, I went to work at The Kitchen, which is a performing arts organisation in New York that’s been around since 1971. It was the first place that did video art. Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson, people like that got their start there, and I worked with a number of them when they were doing benefit performances for us..
And then [I worked with] up and coming artists in what became Trip Hop and Illbient, people like DJ Olive and DJ spooky, people like that. We started doing interactive online performances, because also I've been online since 1984. I built The Kitchen’s website, that was about ’92, so that was the first arts organisation in the world with a website. The Kitchen had a collection of video art that would be rented to exhibition spaces, universities and things like that, and we put the catalogue online on The Kitchen’s website and managed payment through this thing called First Virtual, which was the first online e-commerce service that allowed you to transfer money online. So we conducted the first online video rental as well.
In your opinion, what made the city such a fertile environment for music and art?
Cheap rents. And the fact that the economy was terrible - no matter what you did you couldn't make any money, so you might as well do something that interests you. It was also a very interesting time as far as the interaction of class, gender, race and everything goes. I mean, the Hip Hop scene, the Punk scene, the Reggae scene were all the same scene, basically. It was all the same people. Things weren't so strictly regimented.
Was there a particular artist or scene that really excited you?
It was the intersection of all those things. You'd have an East Village noise band playing Limelight the same night that Frankie Knuckles was spinning, or something like that. We'd mix it up so that a DJ would do a whole set of House and then I'd start video DJing, starting out with Cabaret Voltaire and then going into Art of Noise and then the Bangles. We'd do a whole thing where we’d take an instrumental House track and lay Dylan Thomas over the top of it.
There was a whole bunch of people who'd come up from Atlanta, called the 'Now Generation', RuPaul was an offshoot of that scene, it sort of coalesced around the B52s, and headed off in all sorts of different directions. Coming out from Washington DC there was the whole GoGo scene there. Then there was the Hardcore scene that'd come up to New York, personified primarily by the Bad Brains, so that was a whole mix of Reggae and Hardcore Punk.
We're talking about those scenes in terms of their geographical birthplace - Atlanta, Washington, New York - artists living close together and creating things. With everybody connected in the digital space now, do artists still have to be living in close proximity?
You need two things: you need serendipity, but you also need propinquity. Propinquity is about relationships that exist because of proximity. You need these accidental occurrences. There was this place on the Lower East Side, or more East Village, a magazine stand called Gem Spa, that had been there for years. There are some very famous shots of the New York Dolls outside, it was the place to get magazines and also to get a thing called an egg cream, which has no eggs and no cream, but it's soda water, chocolate syrup and milk. And so when I was living on the Lower East Side I kind of had this routine that I'd leave Palladium and stop at St Mark's Pizza to get a slice, which I would eat as I was walking down St Mark's Street, then go into Gem Spa, take a look at the magazines and get an egg cream which I'd drink on my way back to my apartment. One time I was in Gem Spa and ran into John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, and he said: 'Hey I know you're really into Keith Richards, I just finished reading this issue of Guitar Player and it's got a whole article about his tunings’, because Keith Richards does open tuning on guitar. So he said: 'hey I don't need it anymore, I'll let you have it'. So I learned all about open tunings, and a lot of my musical work to this day is based around that, 30 years later. So without that sort of geographic proximity that wouldn't happen. The problem with doing things online is it's all task based still. You go to something to do something specific, you don't learn about guitar tunings on your way to get an egg cream.
"You'd have an East Village noise band playing Limelight the same night that Frankie Knuckles was spinning”
Which club was known for having the best sound?
CBGBs. The sound system was created by this guy Charlie Martin, yet another person like me from Indiana. Charlie has an electrical engineering degree from Purdue University which is one of the top engineering schools in the United States. I remember asking him how he got to being the sound man at CBGBs during the Punk Rock era and all of that, and he said “You have to understand, I've got a degree in electronic engineering from Purdue, which means my choices were either the military or Rock 'n' Roll."
Hilly Kristal, the owner of CBGBs, was an example of management by benign neglect. His brilliance was trusting people, and that really allowed CBs to become what it was. He didn't try to control things in that fashion, it was like 'yeah you seem to know what you're talking about, and if you recommend this then yeah sure why not’.
Was there much public investment or government money in the arts at that time?
No. I mean, just look up the headline: 'Ford to City: Drop Dead'. The city was about to default. Government money for arts in the United States is minuscule, and there is this distinction between high art and popular art. And popular art gets no grant funding at all. Zero. And very little for even contemporary art that falls into the ‘high art’ category. The New York Philharmonic thinks it's being edgy when it plays Stravinsky, somebody who died 100 years ago. That's their idea of contemporary.
And yet the [popular] arts flourished during that time - we’re still discussing their legacy today. Do you think there are any lessons to be learned there?
You could work as a bartender two days a week, pay your rent and all of your living, and then spend the rest of your time focusing on your art. It's a bit like, although not as much as it was say, 20 years ago, but Berlin was like that, or a place like Glasgow is similar. You're not having to work 60 hours a week just to have a roof over your head and eat, you know?
“It's only in the past 15 years that disagreements in the music business stopped being resolved through the application of a baseball bat.”
You mentioned that you worked at The World. What was that like?
The World was a lot of fun. You were always expecting the balcony to collapse. The World was where I worked with people like Frankie Knuckles. It was really interesting. It was the very early days of House music. It was one of the first places that Psychic TV played when they moved into their Happy House phase, which was really, really interesting because I'd actually worked on a performance of Psychic TV before then when they were just complete electronic noise. And now, all of a sudden, they became a House band.
What was the attitude of the authorities towards the music and the club scene? Especially those businesses operating on the fringes of legality.
Oh they hated it. I don't know if it's still like this, I imagine it is, but the New York economy works, or used to work, as a very grey market. Everything is under the table and involves payoffs. If you took away all of that sort of stuff, at least back then, the economy would collapse. So it all depended on who actually owned what, and who's been paying off what to whomever. Particularly when you get into the music scene and the club scene. It's only been in the past 10 or 15 years that disagreements in the music business stopped being resolved through the application of a baseball bat.
What was it like living on the Lower East Side?
If you want to see the building I lived in, watch the movie Married to the Mob with Michelle Pfeiffer. The exterior shots show the building that I lived in. And I had a recording studio a few blocks away. The two buildings on either side of the studio were empty burnt out shells, there was a squat across the street, next to that was an abandoned synagogue, I walked out one day and it was like 'oh, the synagogues on fire'. You know, that's what it was like.
One day I went out in the morning, went to work in the studio and left really late that night. Turns out during that time the Tompkins Square riot had happened, which was when the police covered up their badge numbers with electrical tape and were beating on protesters and things like that. I was only two blocks away, people I knew were involved in it, and I completely missed it.
You've been around lots of creativity and successful artists over the years. What’d be your advice to young musicians facing difficulties today with the economy, lack of funding, restrictions on movement and everything else?
You just have to stick with it. You have to have the courage of your convictions to have the hard conversations at the beginning, and you’ve got to be really savvy. Don’t avoid the hard conversations. Being in a band is really, really difficult, particularly because when you're young, you mix up friendship and collaboration, and you need to understand when that's working and when it's not working, you know? You just have to keep your focus and stick with it.