Nic Harcourt, Find­ing and Shar­ing Lit­tle Gems

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts -

days from noon to 3 p.m. EST and streamed live on the sta­tion’s Web site, and you’re just as likely to hear Ater­ciopela­dos, Jorge Drexler, Ozomatli and Pacha Mas­sive as you are Ar­cade Fire, Ry Cooder, Patty Grif­fin and DJ Shadow.

On this day, on a whim, Harcourt dropped a song from the “Ba­bel” sound­track onto his free-form playlist: “Cumbia So­bre el Rio,” by Blan­quito Man — “blan­quito” more or less mean­ing lit­tle white guy. Apt, given that Harcourt him­self is what you might call a wispy gringo.

Or, as the 49-year-old gate­keeper says off air: “I’m just a [ex­ple­tive] English guy.”

Harcourt grew up in the Bri­tish Mid­lands play­ing soc­cer, work­ing in a plas­tic-bag fac­tory and lis­ten­ing to the Bea­tles, punk rock and a heavy diet of heavy metal. He’s a high school dropout who played in a band and fol­lowed an even­tual ex-wife to Aus­tralia, where he spent a half-dozen years ab­sorb­ing the mu­sic of Mid­night Oil and INXS. A dozen years ago, when he was work­ing at his first and only other ra­dio job, as a dee­jay for a mod­ern-rock sta­tion in Wood­stock, N.Y., all he knew of con­tem­po­rary Latin mu­sic was rock en Es­pañol. And he didn’t like it. “It just sounded like noisy rock be­ing sung in Span­ish.” And Harcourt doesn’t speak Span­ish. And yet, he’s be­come the most im­por­tant and sup­port­ive fig­ure on U.S. ra­dio for Latin al­ter­na­tive mu­sic. KCRW, which broad­casts only in English, plays more al­ter­na­tiva artists — and more of­ten — than any other ra­dio sta­tion in the coun­try. And it does so in the sec­ond-largest ra­dio mar­ket, which reg­u­larly ac­counts for 30 per­cent of U.S. sales of Latin al­ter­na­tive mu­sic.

“Nic gets this mu­sic, and he re­ally sup­ports it,” says To­mas Cook­man, pres­i­dent of Na­cional Records, the lead­ing Latin al­ter­na­tive la­bel, with a ros­ter that in­cludes Colom­bian rock­ers Ater­ciopela­dos, elec­tron­ica out­fit Nortec Col­lec­tive and Sara Valen­zuela, for­mer lead singer of the Mex­i­can alt­pop group La Do­sis. Two years ago, Na­cional even part­nered with KCRW on “Sounds Eclec­tico,” a com­pi­la­tion of live al­ter­na­tiva record­ings pro­duced by Cook­man and Harcourt. Nic Harcourt is el jefe! “It’s weird, isn’t it?” the dee­jay says. “I find it re­ally ironic my­self. But it says more about the state of the in­dus­try than it says about me. Span­ish-lan­guage ra­dio is the same as An­glo ra­dio: It’s run on the bot­tom line of ap­peal­ing to as many peo­ple as you can who will buy mat­tresses and beer. There’s no ad­ven­ture. There’s no­body will­ing to take a shot at do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent. Most of the ra­dio sta­tions are owned by big cor­po­ra­tions that don’t care what they’re play­ing. The mu­sic is just what’s in be­tween com­mer­cials.”

Whereas, Harcourt says, “I’m for­tu­nate to be able to just play what I want to hear.” And: “I keep get­ting turned on to Latin al­ter­na­tive mu­sic.”

Latin al­ter­na­tive is a neb­u­lous genre. It’s eas­ier to say what it isn’t than what it is: It isn’t re­gional Mex­i­can mu­sic (Juan Gabriel, Vi­cente Fer­nan­dez), which ac­counts for about half of all U.S. sales of Latin mu­sic. And it isn’t Latin pop — your Shaki­ras and your Marc An­tho­nys, who ac­count for about 40 per­cent of U.S. sales.

It’s the left-of-cen­ter stuff that of­ten blends the tra­di­tional with the mod­ern, in­clud­ing el­e­ments of rock, hip-hop and elec­tron­ica. It’s Pacha Mas­sive, a Bronx-based group whose bilin­gual mu­sic mixes cumbia, hip-hop, funk and dub reg­gae. That blend clearly speaks to Harcourt, who says the only cri­te­rion he has for adding some­thing to his playlist is this: “I just have to like it; it has to touch me in some way.”

Songs from Pacha’s new album, “All Good Things,” have been played 51 times by KCRW this year. No other ra­dio sta­tion has come close. (The sec­ond and third most sup­port­ive sta­tions — KYSP in San An­to­nio and KEXP in Seat­tle, pub­lic-ra­dio out­lets both — have played Pacha Mas­sive’s songs 52 times com­bined this year, ac­cord­ing to the band’s la­bel, Na­cional.)

Al­ter­na­tiva is a genre that gen­er­ates plenty of crit­i­cal ac­claim and even has its own an­nual con­fab, the Latin Amer­i­can Mu­sic Con­fer­ence in New York. Yet it can’t find a home on com­mer­cial Span­ish-lan­guage ra­dio save for a hand­ful of cross­over suc­cess sto­ries. Among them: Juli­eta Vene­gas, a Gram­my­win­ning ac­cor­dion-rock star whose mu­sic Harcourt started play­ing sev­eral years ago, be­fore Latin pop ra­dio caught on.

“Juli­eta was some­body whose mu­sic I re­ally con­nected to,” Harcourt says. “She had that great mix. What at­tracts me to Latin al­ter­na­tive mu­sic is that the peo­ple who are mak­ing it are con­nect­ing to their her­itage, whether it’s mu­sic from Chile or Ti­juana. They’re mix­ing that with the mu­sic they grew up with, whether it’s R.E.M. or the Smiths or some­thing else. It just fas­ci­nates me; there’s some­thing mu­si­cally that re­ally speaks to me.”

Harcourt’s ear­li­est ex­po­sure to the mu­sic came when he moved to Cal­i­for­nia nine years ago, hired by KCRW be­cause of his rep­u­ta­tion for iden­ti­fy­ing im­por­tant new artists, such as Moby and Ala­nis Moris­sette. Long­time “Morn­ing Be­comes Eclec­tic” pro­ducer Ari­ana Mor­gen­stern shared some mu­sic she thought he might like. Two artists in par­tic­u­lar caught Harcourt’s ear: Juana Molina, who is some­thing like Ar­gentina’s an­swer to Bjork or Beth Or­ton, and Mex­i­can rock band Cafe Tacuba.

“I was hear­ing some­thing I hadn’t heard be­fore,” Harcourt says. “It made me want to ex­plore it. And be­ing in Los An­ge­les, it just made sense.”

Lati­nos ac­count for nearly 47 per­cent of the Los An­ge­les County’s 10 mil­lion res­i­dents, ac­cord­ing to a 2005 Cen­sus sur­vey, and four of the top 10 ra­dio out­lets in the mar­ket — in­clud­ing the top two — fea­ture Latin mu­sic.

Ten per­cent of the KCRW au­di­ence is His­panic, ac­cord­ing to a sta­tion pub­li­cist, but Harcourt says he didn’t start spin­ning al­ter­na­tiva as a mar­ket­ing de­ci­sion.

Frank Gironda, who man­ages the Mex­i­can band Kinky, a fa­vorite of Harcourt’s, agrees: “I don’t for a minute think it’s a busi­ness cal­cu­la­tion. He’s driven by pas­sion and en­thu­si­asm.”

Harcourt looks the part of a mu­sic in­dus­try guy. He wears tor­toise-shell-frame eye­glasses and a thin goa­tee. His brown­ish­blond hair is art­fully tou­sled and nearly shoul­der-length, with a touch of gray around the tem­ples. There are sil­ver rings on his fin­gers, in­clud­ing one on his right thumb, and he has var­i­ous ban­gles and leather straps around his wrists. There’s also a tat­too peek­ing out from be­neath the rolled-up sleeve of his Ital­ian sweat shirt.

He does not ap­pear to be par­tic­u­larly im­pressed with him­self. “We have an au­di­ence that’s in­quis­i­tive and re­spon­sive to hear­ing dif­fer­ent stuff. I’m just the guy who gets to play the mu­sic I like, and thank God there are enough peo­ple who agree with it.”

Mor­gen­stern, who has pro­duced “Morn­ing Be­comes Eclec­tic” since 1983, is Harcourt’s se­cret weapon. She in­tro­duced him to Dido, a Bri­tish per­former whom Harcourt broke in the United States. She ad­vo­cated for No­rah Jones early in the chanteuse’s ca­reer. And she also brought Jorge Drexler to Harcourt’s at­ten­tion, be­fore the Uruguayan trou­ba­dour won an Os­car for “The Mo­tor­cy­cle Di­aries” sound­track.

“Some­times the per­son at the fore­front is the one get­ting all the credit,” she says. “But that’s part of my job. I give Nic a CD and then he takes it fur­ther. It’s tremen­dously grat­i­fy­ing to me.”

Harcourt has par­layed his sta­tus as a tastemaker into out­side work as a mu­sic su­per­vi­sor and con­sul­tant for var­i­ous Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tions, in­clud­ing “Love Mon­key,” a short-lived CBS se­ries about the mu­sic in­dus­try. He’s busy with two movie projects and he’s been host­ing “Break­fast With the Arts,” a TV in­ter­view show that airs Sun­days on A&E.

He also finds time to for­age through sev­eral hun­dred al­bums each week in search of the next new thing to put on his “Eclec­tic” playlist. Any­thing is fair game. Al­most. “I won’t play AC/DC,” Harcourt says. “It doesn’t fit into what we do. But I’ll play it in the car, bar­rel­ing down the high­way. It’s the per­fect car mu­sic.” Bueno.


“I’m for­tu­nate to be able to just play what I want to hear,” says Harcourt, here be­hind the mike at his “Morn­ing Be­comes Eclec­tic” ra­dio show.

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