Turning the Tables:
An Oral History of the Kitchen Sisters
Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson with Charles Hardy, III
Charles Hardy: So tell me a little bit about your backgrounds.Nikki Silva: (Laughter) I love it! What an awkward situation to be in. No wonder these people look at us like we're nuts when we walk in. Davia Nelson: Starting where?
Nikki: Yes, how far back?
Charles: Well, take us all the way back. Where did you grow up? Would you like to start, Nikki?
Nikki: Sure. I was born in Oakland, California. And my family all lived within a couple of blocks of each other. We were sort of a tight family unit, Portuguese and my granny lived down the block and my uncles and aunts lived a couple of doors away. I'm going to make a huge leap and come to UCSC, University of California at Santa Cruz, and that's where I went to school for the last few years of college. And did not meet Davia there. Did not. We were both at UCSC but we did not know each other during our college years. Davie?Davia: I grew up in a suburb in Los Angeles. My dad had gotten his place from the GI bill and it was just as my parents had moved from New York, actually to move to San Francisco to be journalists in San Francisco, which never quite happened, but anyway, they got waylaid in LA. And that's where I grew up and then went to . . . but not with a big extended family around me . . . much more of that sort of people leaving their parents behind and starting out in the west from New York City. And then I went to UC Santa Cruz as well. I was the noon disc jockey in my high school, and used to write fan letters to disc jockeys from, you know, the time I was ten, eleven, twelve in LA. I was just fixated on radio since I don't know when, and a sound--not just of the music but the people intro-ing the music as well. And so I was the noon disc jockey in my high school and then went into the campus radio station in Santa Cruz, UC Santa Cruz. And then to the community radio station. And especially got interested in the lives of the old people in the town and doing stories with them. And that led me to Nikki. Charles: Now how did you get interested in the lives of the old people? Davia: I think that, Santa Cruz is this beautiful town, the University was pretty new then, and there was such a division between the University and everyone who'd been there for years and years, and I kept feeling that as I was in school. And I always have loved stories and I didn't know a lot about my own family's history and I think somewhere in me--I'd always loved history--and I think a lot of it was like this curiosity about this family that I couldn't really find out about. And it just pushed me and propelled me towards everyone else's story. And the old people just seemed to . . . I mean none of this was conscious, I don't think . . . it's looking back I think all those things, and just kind of was getting drawn in those directions all the time and to who could tell a good story. Charles: And you were getting those stories on microfilm? To broadcast?
Davia: Yes, sort of, I think. I mean, I was starting on an old people's show called Every Wrinkle Tells a Story. I can't even remember exactly what it was. It was always eclectic mixes of Ravel's Bolero into some story of someone old, and then some swing music into something; was this eclectic early morning, it was on so early in the morning I can't remember cause I don't wake up until about 4 in the afternoon. And then Nikki was doing similar work at the museum in Santa Cruz. I was also at that same moment working on a documentary about 19th Century women outlaws of the west. And starting to kind of travel and get that going, as well, because again, the history, things in criminal justice issues were really important to me right in that same period of time, so I was combining all those interests. Charles: And what kind of documentary was this? Davia: It was what is now known as multimedia, which was, I did not know that definition at that point, but it became a slide, tapes, synchronized, multi-machines . . . but again, in the 70's, so low tech version of what now would be called a power point or whatever these presentations are. Charles: How then did you meet?
Nikki: I was working at the Santa Cruz City Museum of Natural History doing an arts program and a history program. I had just returned. I'd been in New York City for a year on a fellowship in studying museum education at the Metropolitan Museum and was this wonderful program where we were given money to do whatever our hearts desired. It was that very experimental wonderful era of big grant money and lots of people thinking suddenly in museums about "Oh, maybe we should let other people in the doors and try talking to them for a change and try to make the museum relevant to the people", and so one of the projects that I'd worked on when I was in New York was making a film. And when I look back on that film in that same way that Davie is talking--I didn't think about it at the time--but it really was in that same way that her Women Outlaws of the West documentary sort of foreshadows a lot of what the Kitchen Sisters have kind of become.
I think that film that I made in New York with another artist friend kind of foreshadows the work that we do. It was the story of a janitor at, or guard, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he gives you the tour: his vision, his view, of the Metropolitan Museum, from the skywalks, from the basements. And he was also a weight lifter, and so he on his lunch hour would walk in the basement of the museum past these row upon row of Rodan sculptures and all these wonderful muscular poses. They were in storage and he'd walk past those to this little room where he'd put on heavy metal music and pump iron, and so we got this guy's little snapshot of him in this museum setting and then talking about the Monets and the artwork from his point of view and talking about what he'd learned from watching the visitors and how they react and respond to things. So, it's kind of a straight forward thing with a little twist, a quirk. A quirky kind of look at history, or way in to art, or way in to the museum. And I think that kind of . . . is a lot of what we still do with history and our programs about people.
So anyway, I came back from this fellowship and was working again at the museum and I got a call from Davia, who says that I snubbed her. I was in a very difficult time but she says I just sort of snubbed her. But anyway, not for long, and she showed up one day to talk to me about these old people because I was doing similar things with exhibits. We wound up sitting on the porch of the museum, which if you've been to the museum in Santa Cruz, it's right across the street from the ocean and it has this glorious view, and we wound up sitting there for 4 hours and kind of talking about our love lives and falling in love and that was it. We began working together shortly thereafter. Is that about right?Davia: Totally right. Nikki: Is that how you remember it?
Charles: So what was your first project? What did you decide to collaborate on?Nikki: You know we've been trying to reconstruct that, too. Memory is fleeting. Davia: We think that maybe we did one or two radio shows, the live weekly radio show "Every Wrinkle Tells a Story." I had been doing it with somebody else at the time. And then we think that I left to do Women Outlaws of the West. For three months I traveled all over the west in a van chronicling the lives of these women, and I think that then the first thing we did together was that I left and Nikki did the radio show herself. Nikki: Which I had never done radio. Davia: But we're not sure. But that's something close to that. We kind of did a little bit together, we had the sense we wanted to do a lot together. I went off, she said "I'll try this" and then we think that she wrote a grant. I think you must have written the CCH grant. I think. Nikki: But we had obviously talked about it. Hadn't we? Anyway, the California Counsel for the Humanities. We wrote a grant to do this oral history project--the Tri-county Oral History Project of San Bonito, Monterey, and Santa Cruz counties--called "Every Wrinkle Tells a Story," and we had several themes we were going to pursue and do all of these oral history interviews and create these hour long programs for radio. That was our vision of it. We got the grant. But it was a matching grant. And we were given $12,000 and we had to raise $25,000 or something like that. Which at that time, in those years, was a lot of money to try and raise. We went practically kind of door to door raising money to do this project. And we'd get these $10 donations and $20 and at one point we considered selling Freshgar, this garlic product, to try and raise money for our project and it was a wacky time.
Davia: We barely did any radio because we worked so hard trying to fund-raise. But it was this really interesting point of view on a community, too, because suddenly we were at the Lions, the Kiwanis, the Rotary, any of those kind of local clubs, the banks. You suddenly see how a community supports or doesn't support projects in which it does. Because a lot of the same people we were interviewing, a lot of these older people who were part of the fishing industry or . . . for some reason I end up obsessively thinking recently about Battling Nardo.
Nikki: Battling Nardo?Davia: Remember Battling Nardo? Nikki: Oh yes, I just used part of his oral history in an exhibit that I was working on. Davia: Just different people and a lot of them have turned out were in these clubs, because they were these old Santa Cruziens who part of the kind of infrastructure of it. So, it was always that kind of crossover between who we were interviewing, who would then take us down to the club, where we would do a talk, kind of like what we did today--only we hadn't done anything really at that point we were just about to do it and had a vision of what it might be. But I think we thought we'd do far more traditional oral histories. We were doing weekly shows, so now we're back doing this weekly show, we both kind of cut loose from our other things and we were starting to just . . . It was a very luxurious kind of time where we just got to sit there everyday and say, read a newspaper, and see Nikki, I think, read a newspaper that said pool shark in town. And we would go see what the pool shark was and bring our tape recorders. Or go to the little convenience store and run into the Road Ranger and then decide to follow the Road Ranger as he rescued stranded travelers on Highway 17. It was election day and our show was always on Tuesdays so we would always try on Tuesdays to come up with something a little more interesting and offbeat. We'd call in our own show from telephone booths around town and drag people into the telephone booths to talk to us via the telephone. Each Tuesday was coming and featuring artists and writers. Nikki: Our friend had a Tupperware party and we went which just led into this big piece on Tupperware where we began tracking down all the different folks in the community and went to several parties and went to where they train the Tupperware dealers. And so, that was a real fun one.
Charles: So what year did you get the California Humanities Council grant?Nikki: Your asking really hard hitting questions. What do you think? Davia: '78 or '79. Nikki: '79 I bet. We didn't have National Public Radio in our town at that time. We'd never heard National Public Radio. Our station was a community station and didn't air any national programming. As we began experimenting on our radio program, we realized pretty quickly that we couldn't use these long form oral histories, as they were, on the air. We realized that right off. So we began editing and sort of taught ourselves to edit, as I remember. We thought that we had invented the mix. I mean we were completely convinced that we had come up with that idea. You know, you're putting a little music under there and doing a little of this and that. We started to make these short little snippets that we would then put on in the midst of our show. And we'd set it up, we'd say "Oh, we went out this weekend to San Bonito county and we saw Lola Golly, the woman who's the champion rodeo roper, and here's what she had to say." We started playing these little things. And then we ran into this costume to crusader, the Road Ranger, who was this fellow who would cruise Highway 17, the local highway--that very rugged windy road where there are lots of people breaking down all the time--and he would rescue stranded travelers. He would fix their automobile. And he wore a jumpsuit outfit and he drove in a Ford Ranchero pick up truck that said the Road Ranger on the side of it. And he had this wonderful demeanor, was very theatrical. We did a piece on him, we got in the car with him and drove up and down the highway rescuing stranded Davia: We went on patrol. Nikki: We went on patrol. Charles: What you were doing, you were calling oral history? Nikki: Yes, we were sort of going for the story. Charles: So what was your background or training in oral history? Davia: You know I think the word was just coming into the fore, right around then. Because, and again, if we could only remember, but we both have these memories of quickly meeting and me deciding to go to graduate school in oral history. We took a road trip to Santa Barbara, because she was sort of interested in oral history, too. So we went to check this program out. And I thought I'd go to graduate school there and we got to Santa Barbara. Did we even go into a classroom? Nikki: Something happened and it was just wasn't us. Davia: The place--it wasn't the place. And when I came here separately, and I can't remember if it was before--it couldn't have been before I met you because we were already doing the work. Someone had told me that North Carolina was this really amazing place for interviews and documentaries and oral history and think the Southern oral history program was just coming into existence, too. So I came here. I flew to North Carolina somehow and did a presentation before a class. I cannot remember if it's, I think it was at Duke with a guy named Bill who, I used to be able to remember his last name--everyone here knows him--and we went to the Ivy, I remember that after the class, and we all hung out. And I was deciding again whether I was going to . . . I think they didn't select me is why I think I blocked that. They didn't select me for the class, for this fellowship or whatever it was. But I was still kind of interested. And I think our early grants were using that word of "we will do oral histories." It just seemed to define what we did. Nikki: And it was in the wind, then, as this new upcoming thing of ferreting out . . . that was that same moment in time as the grant money is getting out. They were trying to get the people stories and document the people more and it was right when we were starting to do our work. Davia: And we always called our work actually pretty quickly, oral mysteries. We just started using that term for, especially when we met up and started calling ourselves the Kitchen Sisters. And we tried to do an oral history of the Kitchen Brothers and it was so quickly we became like these detectives and we would write in this kind of noir detective novel kind of way. And we would call it an oral, the story of the Kitchen Brothers, an oral mystery. So we were kind of goofing on the term as well. And then we used the term oral mystery again for a couple of things in the Lost and Found Sound series because it seemed to combine detective work and historical research. Charles: So you really hadn't done any reading in oral history. You hadn't read Studs Terkel? Nikki: Well, you were pretty interested in Studs Terkel and we loved Charles Kuralt, and we had these models in the culture that people who were doing those kind of things. But I don't think that we ever, I mean I never really imagined that we were doing that same kind of thing. Davia: See, and I kind of came more from a beatniky folk music background so to me it was The New Lost City Ramblers, and all that early music on Folkways. It all just seemed of a piece, kind of people who chronicled America sang old traditional music. I came out of the womb thinking I was Joan Baez, and played banjo and auto harp when I was a little girl, and guitar through my teens. I think for me it just segued into radio, oral history, being a folk musician, a beatnik, and a whatever since I was tiny. I never was aware of any of the seams, it all just seemed to connect. One after another. Charles: So who were your models then? You say Charles Kuralt, you listened to Charles Kuralt?. Both: Later on. Charles: When you were first starting out, you must of had heard something? Nikki: This is what I was trying to say about no NPR in our region. I had not, I mean I'd listened to radio certainly as a kid in Oakland and KDIA and all the big stations. But I didn't, mostly for the music, didn't have the same obsession for the disc jockey as Davia did. I think story is the thing that everything hangs on. I mean I think Davia's interest in story, storytelling, and my interest in story through museum work and exhibits and all those kinds of things. That's, I think, the hook more than, I mean for me, much more than radio or the medium, was the storytelling. Be it film, museum exhibit, book, radio, audio. Charles: So you all made it up as you went along? Davia: Or thought we did. I mean, Bob Dylan probably influenced me as much as Studs Terkel did. And when I started reading Zora Neale Hurston, I think she influenced me and her life, how she approached it. I always felt it was anthropological as much as anything, but an anthropology in the way of that you were it--you were part of what you were doing and kind of living it. And for me again it was back to the DJ's. I grew up in LA and transistor radios and on the beach and these voices and I always thought that disembodied sound. I wouldn't have probably done this in another medium. Even though I love to write, and on that, and have written. But there is something about this sound just in the atmosphere and the intangibility of it and the imagination of it. Not that I was hearing these kinds of things on radio in LA, I was hearing Janice Joplin and Cream and Jimi Hendrix. The long stuff and stuff that lets you travel in your mind. Nikki: Well, FM, you know that FM way of hearing versus the quick sound bite way of hearing. I think that made a pretty big impression at that time in my life, of just this endless stream. And things coming together in unusual juxtapositions and not necessarily having to follow in a . . . Davia: And Dr. Demento. Nikki: But before that the AM sound. I probably wrote letters to real Don Steele and Sam Riddle and the KFWV, and the other K station in LA at the time and being on the beach in LA and hearing all . . . and just hearing them kind of rhyme on the air, their little chant sounds to the voice, as much as the music. And then concerts, that's the other thing. Going to live concerts, that was the other kind of thing that I was obsessing on at the time. And started producing concerts all at the same time, too. Charles: So how then does the collaboration develop? Nikki: So I think the big turning point was when someone, a friend of ours, sent our tape to National Public Radio--of the Road Ranger. He sent that produced piece that we had played on our radio show and it was, I think, about 12 minutes the first one, the music and cut together. And one morning we were getting ready to leave my place to go on the road to do some recording and the phone rings and it's Alex Chadwick from National Public Radio. He said, "Hi, this is Alex Chadwick." And I said, "Sure, ya know, what, who, huh?" And he said,"Well we have your tape here and we really love it but the quality is so bad. What kind of machine are you using? What kind of microphone are you using? What kind of tape are you using? We want to train you to do this better." So that was really, I think, the real turning point in terms of we really began to think of things as shorter pieces and sort of think of them that way. And we tried to get a little bit trained.
Davia: And we went to Western Public Radio. Was that before
or after that? And Airlee ???? . Airlee
was a huge thing, producers' conference--a radio producers' conference
that was held. It was a changing point, I think, for a lot of people.
That's where we met Jay Allison, Terry Gross. We came together and everyone
played their stuff and talked about what they were doing and brainstormed,
and it was so exciting and seemed possible. And pretty quickly after
that, we went to a public radio conference and people began asking us
to come and teach radio production. By that point, we had begun getting
training and doing more and more things in the vein that we'd begun.
Sort of a little quirky, a little offbeat, stories and portraits cut
together in sort of unusual ways with music or whatever sound.
Charles: We made our way to Alaska here?
Nikki: Western Public Radio was before that?Davia: Oh yeah, Leo Lee. His name has to be included in any oral history of the Kitchen sisters because without Leo Lee we would not have done what we did. He was at Western Public Radio and he established this first training center, first national training center for community and public radio producers. And we were chosen to be in the very first training workshop. There were about 10 people from all over the country. And it was like being anointed and it was being supported. And up until then, we were just two people doing it on our own, making it up, and suddenly it was real training and it was sort of taking yourself more seriously because other people took us more seriously. We met Randy Tom, who is another key person who has to be named by name, and any saga of our work because he was one of the trainers there. He was also from NFCB and from KPFA and that group of people at WISO who are so important to radio in that moment in time. And he already started making the switch from radio to film, and he brought us into a mix of One From the Heart. And we saw . . . I've always wondered what you thought during that mix, because it's what made me decide to move from Santa Cruz because I wanted to be a film sound designer from the minute I saw that. Nikki: Oh, I know, it was really an amazing, amazing moment. I mean, it didn't make me want to move . . . Charles: What is this? What are you referring to? Nikki: It was a film, One From the Heart, Frances Coppolla's film and we'd watched the mix of the sound and music and being set with the film. And I think it was a real turning point for Dav. Charles: So you went to the very first Western Public Radio workshop, then? Davia: And they brought, as part of the workshop, we were taken in because one of the instructors was a film mixer so he brought us into a film mix. So we weren't in the course of these, it was a week long, I think, radio workshop or something like that, one of the afternoons was sitting in on a film mix. And suddenly, me, who loves radio so much, I mean I always loved movies too but I didn't imagine myself ever working in film. It wasn't part of my vision. But suddenly there was these pictures and this movie unfolding and someone sitting at a huge mixing board, beautiful all this. I remember them . . . what I even remember more and it's the thrill of my life, was there was a big cappuccino machine--really old--from Italy. And I remember walking in to the room and thinking, "I want to work here. I want to work in this building with this cappuccino machine and with this sound remy, because it was Tom Wait's ??????? music with Crystal Gail, with all the sound being put into the thing, and I was like, our work --but on, with visuals-- and it was just like, "Ah, I want this, this completes it". So it just had that. And then ultimately I worked with Frances Coppola, with that cappuccino machine. But Randy was so great because he really took our work seriously and really responded to us. And he offered to mix things for us, and so now it's kind of, I guess at that point, and we'd been doing it . . . Nikki: We'd been doing all of our own mixing. Up until Route 66? Except for War and Separation. Davia: I think we'd stopped mixing way earlier than that. Nikki: No, I think . . . Davia: Because Lullabies--and that guy Rich, who engineered a couple other pieces. Remember? Nikki: The stuff we did at NPR, they didn't mix. It wasn't this bad. We did the earliest pieces at KUSP. We had two reel to reel tape recorders, a cassette machine, and a turntable, and we didn't really understand the idea of pickups, being able to start and stop in the middle of a mix. So we would, on your mark, get set, go and the two of us would be running all the machines and all the levels up and down. We'd memorize the words, and go up and down on them, and this was a real feat in terms of our Tupperware piece. I don't know if you've ever heard Tupperware but it's the ultimate candidate for a heavy duty mix job, I mean with lots of pots going up and down. And that was a real breakthrough, I think that was a very amazing, I can still see us working. Davia: It's a piece that's a result of mistakes which is that I think people . . . probably so many people's works reflects mistakes. Because at certain points in that mix just all the pots are up by mistake. And out of those mistakes, suddenly we loved the sound of the mistakes so much the caophony, all these women's voices, one cascading into the next, and it just came because we lost control of it. And then we just said, "No, that's the sound." Nikki: And the clutter of Tupperware. I mean it was perfect for the subject matter. And I think trying to find a style that fit what we were talking about. That was like a light bulb going off, in a lot of ways. Davia: But it was different, we did mix probably a half a dozen, the first half dozen pieces or so, that we did, we did ourselves. And then NPR would start bringing us back and forth, sometimes to Washington. We'd go in for 4 or 5 days or 2 weeks or something, and for specific pieces and they'd assign us an engineer and they'd work with us. And we haven't engineered our own stuff ever since and it's a real trade off because neither of us are particularly inclined toward engineering and really detail-oriented in that perfect EQ kind of way--and all that technology--or all that interested. And at the same time, that effort to communicate your ideas. And somehow we'd try it. We have a communication between us where it's two people's ideas. We know how to hash it out together. To add that third element and finding that third person who you can get your ideas across to. Those are tricky things. It sounds better, but does it sound better? That kind of question. Nikki: And also, I think a lot of it was that we were willing to, because it was just the two of us and we were both going for this thing that we could hear and communicate with one another. We were willing to work it to death until it got . . . and there was no one to pay. Davia: No hourly rate. Nikki: Right. And there was no one to say, "No, you can't. You're done now." And I think that was a real luxury. And it defined a lot of our perfectionist attitudes when something's just not quite right. We want to make it right. And it causes problems when you're paying for a studio and paying for an engineer. Poor engineers! Davia: Remember grinding them into hamburgers? Nikki: Exactly. Davia: And they're going, "Stop, shut up". Nikki: I think we were also really lucky no one, or barely anyone else, at our community station was doing production. So we had almost 24 hour access to our studio there. And so we just lived there and tried stuff and tried stuff and tried stuff. But now people have that more with Pro Tools or one of those home editing systems, which is the kind of other side of the breakthrough. Charles: So your Tupperware piece was when? Nikki: I don't know. 1979? We don't know. Davia: Yes, probably right around '80, '81. Because I moved in '83 to San Francisco, so it was before that, so, it's somewhere between '80 and '83. Charles: And it was working on the Tupperware piece that you heard something new? Nikki: I don't know. I think Ernie Morgan, I think The Road Ranger, all of them were, those first couple of 3 or 4 pieces, I mean maybe it was just because it was us doing our first stuff. And we didn't have a lot of models, you know, like you were talking about who influenced you in terms of production. We didn't really, hadn't listened to what was happening on public radio or how they did it. And so we were just trying to make it up. And how we imagined it and, I think, our pieces have always been kind of like little audio movies. And I think maybe it comes from interest in film and interest in visuals and just making, conjuring those images through sound. And I think that's the layeredness of it and that's the multiple voices of it and, you know, you can't put a picture up. So what are you going to do? How are you going to take someone there? What are your signals to that person? How do you at the beginning of a piece establish a vocabulary that then your listener can understand? Oh, I'm going to hear these kinds of things in this piece and it's going to be like this. And establish a brand new vocabulary at the top, maybe, it would be nice if you could do it all the time, but, you know, people are used to hearing things in certain ways. So it's tricky. Charles: Ok. Where do we go from there? Davia: We decided along the way, as we were driving around the counties, that we wanted to do these tapes that you could put in your car, kind of audio tours. And so we spent, you know, so you could drive from Nikki's house to Lola Golly, the rodeo queen's house in San Benito. And not that anyone else was on that road besides us. But anyway, we were sure that we would record everything between here and there and you could put the tapes in and we would partner with the AAA, or we would partner with gas stations, or insurance companies, or something and we started to kind of develop this idea while we were still doing our local show while we were still doing the oral history shows, while our things were going on NPR. But that this would be our new direction and, I think you had the idea of Route 66, if I remember right. But somehow, and I can't remember exactly that moment, but one of us, I think it was her, said, " What about Route 66?". Because we were kind of thinking about roads and how you would do these tours. And suddenly it was like, Oh, there's a road. Now you're talking. Nikki: That's another road! Davia: Yes, history and needing all those elements and what was going to be that sound that kept people interested. But, had you already gotten married by this point? And have we come from Alaska? Nikki: You moved. Davia: No, but we hadn't done Route 66 yet. Because I did it after living here for . . . a year. Nikki: Right, you were driving when you drove back. Davia: Right, but that's what I'm thinking. We went to Alaska somewhere in there. Nikki: The teaching kind of becomes part of this gig. Which we really liked to do because it's fun to . . . Davia: This is helpful to us, Charlie, because we have not pieced this together, ever. We just lived this and never looked back . . . Nikki: And maybe now that we've tried . . . Davia: To enhance our memory, because it's really slagging. Nikki: Partly, maybe, we could fill in with some of the dates, if we . . . Davia: Oh, sure, right. Nikki: We're going to get right on that. No, I mean for ourselves. But the idea of teaching was great because we'd work other producers at little stations. And we'd come in . . . The Alaska trip was fabulous. We went to Kodiak, Alaska and we worked at a station for a month and then did several pieces while we were up there as well as teaching.
Davia: NPR happened to be in Alaska. There was a lot of serendipity in our life. Because NPR did All Things Considered, live from Alaska that summer. So we were feeding all the stuff that we'd been gathering all summer right to them. And again, we segued with them, so suddenly we knew Noah better and other producers, which is again, what it takes to get to do interesting work within NPR's. People knowing you and you knowing them. Nikki: And then we went to Juneau and we went to several other little towns in Alaska, to the public radio stations. Haines, Ketchikan, and worked with producers there. I don't know, did we do other . . . ? Then we started teaching at Western Public Radio as well, with the very workshops that we had taken that got us going. They began inviting us to come and teach there to get the new crop of producers going. Which is, I think, what's really missing in public radio right now is this lack of training and we all miss that so much, what Western Public Radio did. And, I mean, you really look at the work that they did and all the reporters, all the people we come to hear all the time, grew up through that time. And there's nothing quite like it now. Then Davia went back to North Carolina. Davia: Well, first I moved to San Francisco because I wanted to do film sound design. And I just thought, okay, I've lived in Santa Cruz for 10 years and just felt like it was time. We just knew we'd do, we'd figure it out. It was sort of like, okay, and I'll do film sound and Nikki would have her museums and we would just still continue, we didn't know . . .You'd gotten married. You weren't pregnant when I . . . Nikki: I don't know. I'd gotten married probably . . . I got married in '82. Davia: And then we went to Alaska, her honeymoon was a double-date. We all four of us went up to Alaska. Nikki: And we worked. Both: And they fished. Davia: We were the Kitchen sisters and they were the Salmon Brothers. And we had salmon and vodka every night. Nikki: That was great. Davia: Oh, it was really good. Nikki: So then . . . Davia: And then Bro got a teaching . . . just when we got . . . just when I felt my film sound career was beginning and Randy Tom was going to help me. And my first jobs in film sound was, I think the Ewok movie or whatever. I was wrapped in padding and pillows and cushions and they miked my body and I had to throw myself down hills. Over and over again to get the sound of like some Ewok falling down mountains. And I thought, "This is great." So I was at Skywalker Ranch falling off hills miked and then Bro, my boyfriend, got a teaching job at UNC. Nikki: But, you know, didn't we do some other things like we did all those pieces. When was Faces, Mirrors, Masks? Before? Davia: Right at the same time. Nikki: Because that's those programs too. We started working on with . . .
Davia: Because I was doing them out of North Carolina.
Nikki: And we did Cooper and Fonte.Davia: Remember because I have all my notes of talking to you from the kitchen and then remember they did Ballad of .(see 24:00) NPR at the time just in the same moment, started a series called Faces, Mirrors, Masks: 20th century Latin American Fiction Writers. A program that was so ahead of its time and should be re-aired endlessly. They were brilliant to come up with that idea and they brought, it was amazing, they brought twelve of us there, maybe more, probably twenty of us, to each work on it and they put us in a crash course, like graduate school, in Latin American literature. And for three or four days we sat there with all, Joe Frank, and Jay and Getty Davis and Larry Masset, and all these people in, just absorbing everything about Latin American fiction. And then they assigned out the stories depending, they kind of did a mix and match, who, what writer and what producer. We were given the exiled Cuban writer, Guillermo Cabrera Infante. And we traveled to England to meet him and France to do some interviews. Then cast the stories out of New York because we were dramatizing it and mixed it in New York with Tom Lopez. We got to work with Tom Lopez. And then now Nikki was pregnant. Because then they gave a second assignment for the Georgio Mato (see 24:50) piece. And I went to Brazil, and you couldn't because of being pregnant, right? Nikki: Is that what happened? Davia: But we produced it together. Nikki: Right. So we were doing, even thought we were living in different places we were coming together to do these sort of pieces throughout. And I was having babies and Davia was in movies. And I was doing museums and we were sort of doing different things but coming together for special projects.
Davia: And then Bro and I drove back across Route 66 together. We took the summer after his North Carolina job ended and then we came back and Nikki took all the tape from the Route 66 trip and then we shaped this history of Route 66 that we did at that point. And at the same time, for me, someone had sent me a book in the mail that was . . .they said, "Oh this reminds me of your family". And it was called Imaginary Crimes and I read this book and I just said, "I have to make a movie based on this book". I had never had that thought or idea before but there was something about the book and so, simultaneously at this point, I then started trying to option the book. And a friend of mine from elementary school was the one person I knew in the film industry at that point, besides Randy Tom. And so we did that and then so for the next ten years imagine as every story is going on between Nikki and I, and I'm starting to write a screenplay. So, that's all going on now for the next decade until the film was made with Harvey Keitel. And since simultaneously, so we come back and now Randy Tom is helping us mix Route 66. And then when Route 66 was done he said to me, "What's next?" And I said, "Movies", thinking film sound design. And he called me the next day or so and he said, "You have a job in movie". He said, "Yes, your working with Frances Coppolla." I couldn't believe it. He said, "Yes, your in casting." "What?" He said, "Well, that's the only job available. Do you want it?" "Yeah, I guess so." So I started, and I always thought, "Oh, film casting, I'll get into film sound any day now." And then I just really liked casting. And so I began working in film casting then for . . . that was in 1984. On Peggy Sue Got Married. Charles: On Peggy Sue Got Married? Davia: Yes, first film. Charles: Let me just check, there's a time counter on this thing . . . Davia: You have two hours. We have plenty of time on this. Nikki: You have to go soon. You're wanted in... Charles: I'm wanted soon. Davia: You have to go do the tuba people. Charles: Well, what time is it? Nikki: We're almost done. Charles: We're almost done? We're up to 1984. But let's leap forward then to the idea behind Lost and Found Sound. Nikki: Well, Davia was in Memphis working on a film. Davia: No, no. Way before then. At the NEA. That's where the idea was . . . Nikki: Oh, the NEA thing, right. Okay. Davia: Start there. Nikki: You start there. Because you were there. Davia: So, both of us would serve on NEA panels for helping them give out grants. I was asked to be on a television and film panel one time, and it was when they were giving out the Millennial, just beginning, just the very, very first, because they were under attack from the Gingrich gang and individual artists were no longer being able to get grants. And they were also how to make a splash at the turn of the century and how to get money out to artists. And so they showed us a Millennial grant. And it was a big photographic survey of the US. And it was a huge collaboration and it covered all these decades, all these different people's work. And would we read this grant and what did our panel think? And as we all discussed it I just said aloud, "Wouldn't it be interesting to do this in film?" Oh, I'm sorry, "Wouldn't this be interesting to do this in sound?" And a few months later the phone rang and it was the NEA and they said, "About that Millennial sound project you were talking about". And I was like, "No, I wasn't talking about it" And they said, "Oh yeah, you were. We have a grant process, a planning grant process coming up. Why don't you apply for funds and think about that? Why don't you guys consider that?" And so I called Nikki. We started brainstorming it. And they said, "Oh yeah, and the grant's due like tomorrow"or something. Nikki: That's always the way. Davia: So, we just said, "Big collaboration. Call Jay immediately." The three of us started brainstorming, hadn't seen Jay much in about a decade. But had always stayed in touch some. And we had barely been working together. We had done the Edith Piaf story and the Joe DiMaggio story. Yes, two stories in 10 years at that point. I mean, we're total friends and still hung but hadn't been doing radio. And we just kind of, this was like '95 or '96 when the first in what was called, what was the grant called? The American Soundtrack or something. We had a working title, then it went to Air Millennium and then it just kept evolving and then with the planning grant we just started talking to everyone we knew. And we would cook with people around the country. Cooked on the West coast. Cooked on the East coast. And would sit and eat together and incubate and brainstorm. And we immediately knew we didn't want it only to be radio producers. We wanted it to be people from outside of radio as much as inside. And this big collaborative idea. But we didn't imagine it as it became. I mean we imagined that all the initial grants, first of all don't say Lost and Found Sound, they say these other titles. And then they say An End of the Century Freestanding Eight Part Series, Four Hours Straddling Time and Sound. I had this great idea that it would be December '99, January 2000 for hour long specials. Instead Rick Madden at CPB--once CPB funded it--Corporation for Public Broadcasting said, "Make a splash. Do something. Don't waste time trying to get stations to take off other programming. Put it on where the existing shows and really have twelve million people here in a night. Not a scraggly whatever that catches it." And when they put it on at midnight on a Sunday in some town. But it moved our time line up by eleven months. Nikki: And by that time, we had through our meetings with other producers around the country and we kind of come up with this idea of some of the programs that we wanted to do. And we'd come up with this idea of a Quest for Sound. We knew we wanted to try and get material from listeners in some way. So we had these ideas, and then when we came together with National Public Radio, and they said, "Well, this is a good idea. We'd like to start in January of 1999. And we'd like it to be every week." Now this was about October of '98 when they said this. And we didn't have one thing in the can. We had anticipated that we would have an entire six - eight months to produce this series. And we went on the air January 1999. And we just dove in. And every week it was right down to the wire getting that piece on. Which was wonderful too because, I think it allowed us, rather than pre-preparing all this stuff that we thought would be meaningful at the end of the century, it just kind of gave us the ability to keep in the flow and see what was being done elsewhere, and try and move it to the next step, get that next idea versus being a year late for the party. So I think in some ways it was a grand idea. And having it be in a news show, where a station doesn't have to specially find a slot for it and where it's on a regular day at a regular time was a really unusual thing for NPR to do. And it branded the series in a way that I don't think we ever would have imagined had it not come down that way. Davia: And the other different part of it was that quest for sound, the idea and that was, especially as we were looking for a way to make it manageable. And I mean this thing is like this octopus, you know, Nikki's in Santa Cruz, I'm in San Francisco, there's a Lost and Found Sound office in Frances Coppolla's building at American Zoetrope, he supported the series throughout and so we're housed there. And Jay is in Woodshole. Art Silverman was the executive in charge at NPR. Plus Darcy Bacon, plus we had a product manager, Sandra Wong. Plus Laura Folger doing graphics and producing. And so we were just, plus any other independents and there were 50, 60, 70, 80, 100's of people then participating all over. So we were always trying to find ways to make that workable so Jay quickly on established himself as the Curator of the Quest for Sound. And that became his niche and he had this whole team around him because these thousands of messages were pouring in and who was going to listen to all this and make those decisions. And so that was the sort of a wonderful way . . . of a series within the series that could continue and he would be, you know, have his area. It's a series that couldn't have happened without e-mail and Pro Tools. It was just it hit at the right moment with the right technology. It was interesting because in another place and time you couldn't have collaborated quite like this quickly. And other radio collaborations have happened lots but for it to have that much of a being able to turn on a dime kind of a thing or respond to material that came in overnight and do something with it and create a new show for the following Friday together. Charles: How much longer is it going to last? Davia: It's . . . we know we're monthly till January and then we don't know what's going to happen after that. We don't want to, we don't want to just say this is the last Lost and Found Sound because it's too beautiful an idea and it's got such a life and there's still so much . . . Nikki: There's so many stories still that, I mean, so many that we're already working on. But I imagine it'll be a sort of an occasional piece, occasional series on NPR. And then hopefully we'll be working on some other project. We don't quite know. Charles: And at this point if you, ten years from now where you're thinking in sort of terms of legacy, right, and there's one program, only one program survives from Lost and Found Sound to represent your vision, what it meant . . . Davia: Does it have to be one program? Charles: Give me one. Two. Davia: Okay. Well, I mean, it has to be, for me, for our work because Lost and Found Sound is the Kitchen Sisters and Jay as executive producer and producing a lot of it, but remember it's every . . . NPR producers produced a hunk of them, independents produced a hunk of them so . . .but for our work, the Kitchen Sisters, it's the WHER story for me. Because, and Nikki was starting to say it, we had found that story out. I was working on the Rainmakerin Memphis--met Sam Phillips through that which led us to Sam and Becky Phillips. Sam, who created Sun Studios and one of the most amazing, you know, and was a lot like us. I mean, he supported himself in the early days before he hit it big. He'd record your wedding or funeral or your barmitzvah or whatever. He was just a guy with a tape recorder making his way through life and doing anything--burning up to record the sounds of poor black people and poor white people doing that music and having this vision for . . . he always wanted a radio station. He admired his wife so much, who he met on the radio in Alabama, and then ultimately he would sell Elvis's contract and with that money create an all girl radio station in the third Holiday Inn ever built. And meeting . . . that we were able to meet all these women, again, and I think Sam took a shine to us because we were women in radio, which was something he loved. And for us then to find all these women and meet all these women and find the console and the record library and kind of recreated, and then ultimately the things that happened for the story. Northwest Airlines flew all the women from wherever they lived to New York and we did a tribute to Sam and the women at the Museum of Television and Radio. They were in People magazine. They were in the New York Times. All the women, as we mentioned earlier today, all those women kept coming and finding us afterwards. We had a big reunion of them in Memphis with their families. Nikki: Plus we've just established these relationships with these women and we love them and we talk to them all the time. And there are, they came before us, I mean they were in the same profession before us. And I think just to, one of the most moving things for me, when we had these big celebrations in New York and in Memphis, talking to their kids, their children, who would come up to us and say, "Oh, thank you." I mean crying and saying, "Thank you for acknowledging my mother. Thank you for, you know, she never even talked about this. It was never validated that this was an important or significant thing in her life." That was very important and moving. And it's happened in so many of our pieces. But that one, my, there were so many women involved. Such a big story. Davia: The other story is, I don't know that it's my favorite production, but in terms of kind of the significance and the things that happened because you do a piece. One of the stories Walkin Talkin Bill Hawkins was about a man who never knew his father as he was growing up, didn't know who is father was, his mother was ashamed and would never tell him. And he became a disc jockey without knowing anything about his family. Anyway, come to find out that his father was the first black disc jockey in Cleveland in the 40's. And so the piece was called Walkin Talkin Bill Hawkins: Searching for My Father's Voice. And the piece aired and a guy was sitting in his car, a rented car, he was in Dallas on business, and he listened to the piece and he said to himself, "That man is my cousin." And Walkin Talkin Bill Hawkins had been his uncle. And here was William Allen Taylor looking for his family, looking for the connection. He was literally looking for the sound of Bill Hawkins because there were no recordings and that was a lot what the piece was about, you heard him going from person to person and trying and asking if he sounded like him because he would do what he thought Bill Hawkins sounded like. Ultimately this man who was a photographer gave him tons of photographs of his family. They just met up and went to Cleveland together and went looking through all these old tapes, and . . . just the power of a story, to be able to give someone something so fundamental to what they need and it was that one man's story but I think it's so many people's story so that one hits me in a deep way, too.
And Guy Tyler even, that he'd be dead and have done all this work and that you could then take this man's legacy and put it onto the air. All that effort people make. Because so much of our work is about people who are obsessed or possessed, just driven by some kind of passionate need to document and record and so you feel like when you are able then to give it air, it means something more. Charles: And this is something that oral historians should be able to identify with. Davia: That's right. Nikki: I'd pick WHER, as well. And I'd pick Cigar Stories, I think really so spoke to me and I love, I love the combination of elements in that piece. I like the readings from literature. I like the old recordings. I like the oral histories. We went to Tina Pacheco for her film sound, interviews she had done with the women cigar workers. It was like ferreting out all the work other people had done on this subject; to try and put it into one piece. And it all stemmed from this phone call which came in on our Quest for Sound line. We did a few of the Quest for Sounds, not many, I mean Jay was mostly the person that commandeered that, but, when we heard that that call had come in we jumped on it and said, "We want that one. That's the one we want." And although it was interesting we didn't ever use the record that Henry Cordova called in about, was not his grandfather reading as he read in the cigar factories. It was from this memory of his grandfather's voice and this disc that had his grandfather's voice on it that this whole story of what his grandfather used to do for a living, which then led us to this larger story. And trying to tell the big picture story from this little phone call. I liked that one a lot. And the music, the music's great. Davia: And then the whole Quest for Sound. I just loved that people kept calling and calling with all this amazing stuff. And that, you know, then all these people's stories made it onto air. I love that part of it. Nikki: Uh, you're late. Charles: No. I got to get this. Tell us how you go about recording your interviews. Davia: I'm taking that secret to my grave. Nikki: Naturally. Want some inside information on this? Davia: Do you want us to describe how we mike people? How we interview? Okay. Charles: This will be of tremendous interest to people who are just starting out and how do you go about recording a broadcast quality interview? Nikki: Well, probably we would be, if I were going to mike Davia I would be a lot closer to her than we are presently. I'd be about yeah close, very close. Our two chairs are up against each other, and this isn't even close enough. I'd love to be on a couch with her. That's where I'd like to be. Charles: Sitting right next to her. Okay, so you're taking the microphone. Davia: You should move here now. Charles: Okay, I'm going to move over to the far side. Who wants the headphones? Davia: Nikki. Nikki: I would have the headphones. We would have a splitter. Davia: I have a splitter that let's us both plug in to that. And we're both wearing headphones. Charles: Okay. Nikki: Okay, you're the other Kitchen Sister, okay? Davia: No, I'm the Kitchen Sister. Nikki: Oh, we're going to do him. Okay. Charles: You're interviewing me. Okay. Nikki: So Davia's got headphones. Pretend. Davia: And Davia has a pistol grip, which you don't have so there'll be mic handling noise . . . because we're always afraid of my mic noise. Okay, now, my arm is going to be tired. I know that. It's shortly, so I'm immediately looking for this, right. I'm looking for a point where I can lay my arm down. Okay. So that's the first thing. Nikki, in an ideal world, Nikki and I have some eye contact but often we don't. More important is that she, you can see Nikki. I know that. I know you can see me. Nikki's primarily watching levels when we're getting going. Okay, so you and I are kind of connected more in the beginning. And I'm going to do this and I'm also, we don't have two mikes, we only use one. So when Nikki's asking a question.. Nikki: She mike's me and I mike her. And the first question I'd ask you is, "So Charlie, what did you have for breakfast?" Charles: Eggs, bacon, one bagel, two cups of tea. And some strawberries. Davia: So you start with that. And then as the interview goes on what often happens is, and it doesn't always, but see, probably in this interview it might not happen but then again it probably would, because of the arm question and since as Nikki was saying yesterday that on a couch, here's the other thing, I would also be up here some other rest but pretty soon I know, actually I know it's going to happen in about two minutes, I'm going to wind up leaning against you and recording because we mike usually this close about three to four inches. But I'm trying to make sure Nikki will nudge me.But I have headphones on too. If I'm getting too much sibilance or . . . Nikki: Plosives . . . Davia: and I'll readjust. Nikki: We always say it's shooting in close up. Davia: And I'll be leaning against you and I think that why, yes, I think that's why our interviews are a little different because there's human contact. Because I have this gapping the spark plug theory of life that that's that kind of chain, and usually we can kind of have some--we're kicking each other, you know--and some way cueing. We're leaning. We learned yesterday that oral historians use booms and-- never--don't hand hold and don't touch. So this is why this is coming up in this interview. Charles: Few oral historians use booms. Most oral historians either use a table stand or just rest the microphone on the table. Or use a lav. Davia: No human booms, huh? Charles: No human booms. This is a unique approach. But this is, but the microphone now is and inch or two away from my mouth. Okay. Davia: But our levels would have been adjusted towards that. Nikki: Which I probably haven't done here. Davia: Yeah, so the levels might, but that's how we do it because we like that really present sound. We like it so that that person feels like, you know... there are times where we pull back. But I'd say our work is pretty much portraiture and close up portraiture and we want you to feel the... usually the people we've chosen have a certain kind of voice or certain kind of story and we want you mesmerized by them. Nikki: Or dentures. Davia: We want you to hear the clicks of their teeth. Nikki: Exactly. Davia: The clatter. But that's usually, and so, also for, it helps my arm rest and it just, I think it makes people feel more comfortable. It just somehow that subtle thing that's not intrusive. But as I said, I often wonder if a man, like I wonder if Jay or David Isay or Dan Collison or any of the people or you, find as men, can do that. We've always kind of said . . .also I think our interviews, we, because there's two of us, that's the other part of how we work, one of us is . . . we often ask questions twice in different ways. One of us is listening in the more immediate way. One of us is, kind of, and it's not a assigned, not like you take the big picture, I'll take the small picture. But we're both team tagging each other in terms of how we remember the whole of an idea. And, because people often deviate off the subject as they're going. So you want to make sure that you listen and go there with them but at the same time remember to get those things you need. We always ask people to state, to introduce themselves two and three and four times if we can. Except when we forget, which is all the time. What else? Charles: That's the fundamentals? Nikki: The fundamentals. Davia: And we don't turn off the microphone hardly ever until we leave or put it away. And if people say don't record it, we'll beg them to let us record it. But if they say don't record it, we won't. We don't ever secretly record. We don't walk in with the tape recorder on, not until the person knows that we're recording do we begin. And we edit, edit, edit, edit. Nikki: Which is a whole other story. Charles: Yes. But we don't have time for that story. Okay but now we have there then the Kitchen Sister's technique of interviewing. Which is unique. Davia: Which we didn't know it was unique. Because we never do anything but our own interviews. Nikki: Thank you. Charles: Okay.
Copyright © 2000, 2001 by The Journal for MultiMedia History
Comments | JMMH Contents