HomeInterviewsSXSW Film Spotlight – 'Faders Up: The John Aielli Experience' director interview

SXSW Film Spotlight – ‘Faders Up: The John Aielli Experience’ director interview

360°Sound recently had the pleasure of speaking with David Hartstein and Sam Douglas, directors of a new documentary film, Faders Up: The John Aielli Experience, about the life and career of the legendary Austin disc jockey John Aielli. Aielli is widely considered to be the progenitor of “weird Austin,” with a quirky six-hour radio program that aired on the University of Texas radio station, KUT, for over 50 years. Aielli’s passing was widely mourned in Austin in 2022. The film will premiere this month at SXSW 2024. The directors talk curated hoarding, Zen philosophy, and John’s impact on the Austin community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Filmmakers David Hartstein (L) & Sam Douglas (used by permission)

360°Sound: I really dug the cut of your film that I saw. It’s fun, it’s balanced, it’s uplifting, and it really tugged on my heartstrings. How is ‘faders up’ emblematic of John Aielli?

Sam Douglas: We were using that phrase to connote that everything was at full volume – his life was at full volume, peak interest. He was always on. ‘The John Aielli experience’ refers to the station he was on for so long [KUT in Austin], it’s called ‘the Austin music experience.’ And his show was unlike any other radio show – very bizarre, free-form, broke all the rules. It was an experience.

David Hartstein: And there’s the technical radio aspect of mixing console faders. John was pretty famous for having his technical snafus. Matt Riley [KUTX program director], who really helped make this film possible, talks about how John would have all the faders up, and be confused as to what mics were on, or which CD player might be going. That’s the root of John’s voodoo.

Sam: All the signals were firing!

The film is a fitting tribute to this guy who was much loved in the Austin community. Tell me about the experience of talking with the people who worked with him and knew him well.

David: Everybody’s got a John Aielli story. I was just randomly talking to my dental hygienist, ‘I’m working on this movie about John Aielli,’ and she’s got a John Aielli story. The really beautiful thing is that anytime somebody tells what they think of as their quintessential John Aielli experience, it’s in the movie more often than not. There’s this very shared experience that people have had. He had quite an effect on Austin and Austinites. It’s amazing to experience this collective thing. 

Sam: A lot of people will tell you, ‘I used to love when he did this on the show, or I can’t believe he got away with that.’ That’s in the movie; it’s all there.

John Aielli got his start in radio in 1963 (used by permission)

You also had the opportunity to interview John himself, late in his life. What was it like sitting with him in his house?

David: It was a really delightful treat. I’d been a fan of John’s. I first encountered him because I was at UT film school in the same building that KUT would broadcast from. I admired John and I knew of his presence both on air and off the air, but to sit in his house was a real treat. I was doing sound with headphones on, and it really felt like having my own personal episode of [John’s program] Eklektikos. But it also was so warm and easy. It was like sitting with a relative – sitting down, listening to my grandfather tell stories. It was just easy and beautiful. And it was the same whether the cameras were on or off.

Sam: He loves conversation. He’s been interviewing people for so long that he turned the tables and kept asking us questions. So the whole thing starts to feel like a conversation. Therefore, David and I are in the movie asking him questions. We just totally embraced it.

David: And big shout out to our editor, Field Humphrey, because our instinct is to not include our voices and try to remove ourselves. Field really embraced having us in there and having that conversational aspect. It works so beautifully, and really pushes the film to a lovely place. 

You mentioned John’s program, Ekliktikos. We get to see quite a bit of his house in the film, especially at the end, when it looks like there’s an estate sale going on. It’s wonderfully illustrative of the eclecticism that he brought to the air. He lived it.

David: I think it’s Joy Diaz [former reporter at KUT] in the film who says, ‘His life and his work were one.’ When you show up to his house, eclectic is the first thing that comes to mind. His physical space was a real reflection of the show. And of his mind.

Sam: There was so much stuff in that house. But it’s curated. It’s really not a hoarding situation. If you go in those rooms, there’s themes to them. There’s layouts, there’s choices. ‘My Parisian things go here, and my opera posters from China go here, and here are my little China dolls.’ He was really interested in things, and had all these great objects in his house. We were in his little cocoon – it was fun.

There’s also a lot of philosophy woven throughout the film. You show him reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying a number of times. And [KUTX producer] Art Levy even refers to him as ‘a weird Greek/Roman philosopher of the present day.’ Tell me about John as a philosopher.

Sam: John was really well read, and really in tune with his creativity and his muse. And he absorbed a lot. His philosophy was very Zen. Enjoy the moment. Stop and smell the roses. Be there, be engaged in things. And always be open to opportunity and exposure to new things. There’s a beautiful poem by [Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus] Seneca that’s read toward the end of the film that plays into that sentiment. Think big about your life.

David: The show is certainly an example of being in the moment; it’s all ‘in the moment’ radio. Part of John’s philosophy was knowing yourself, being true to yourself, and being yourself – not trying to change that or mold it into some other form. John is a real icon of being weird without trying to be weird.

He did seem to have this wonderful Zen quality about him. And that’s masterfully captured by Jake Patoski with his Twitter account, ‘Shit John Aielli Says,’ Tell me a little bit about that.

David: I think he kind of took John for granted, then left for a little while. He came back and realized this doesn’t exist in other places. This really needs to be captured. And I think  a real ‘of the moment’ forum was the Twitter ‘shit people say’ thing. Jake took that and ran with it. And I think we’re all better for it, having those tweets to go visit – whether you laugh or shrug.

John in 2016 (credit: Jorge Sanhueza Leon)

You dedicate some time to balance the love for John with some of the frustration people had with him. I particularly like the bit in which [KUTX disc jockey] Jeff McCord hides a CD John’s been overplaying. Were you going for that angle, or were you surprised by it?

Sam: We were going for that. We knew that was something to address for the film. Living in Austin, we knew that John was a take it or leave it kind of show. There was a love/hate relationship with John Aielli. He turned the squares off. What are you gonna do?

David: I listened to a lot of John, and at times you just have to go, ‘This isn’t for me right now,’ and turn the dial. Then you come back and it’s something completely different. For some people, they can’t just turn the dial; they have to express that frustration in some way. But you can’t really tell John’s story without telling that side of things. He was so idiosyncratic and so out there that even cool people would get sick of John. You have to embrace that, because it’s part of the charm too. You know, if there’s people who love it, and people who hate it, that’s something worth paying attention to.

Sam: Going back to the station letters they would get in the ’70s, you can see people who adored John, and you can see people who couldn’t stand him. And then all the KUTX people would tell us that over the years, many callers would say, ‘Why is he doing this? Why is he playing this song three times? Good, Lord, why do you put this person on the air?’

David: But he was also the biggest fundraiser for the station too. He got people to open up their wallets for pledge drives, and really was the star of the pledge periods for the station.

John’s passing had a significant impact on the community, as well. You show the Paramount Theater marquee, which read, ‘Without John Aielli in it, Austin is a bit less interesting.’ I’m sure that is an understatement. Tell me about capturing that emotion. It’s a really powerful section of the film.

David: It’s hard. The people we interviewed brought so much emotion to it. And their love and attachment to John really comes through when when we address his passing. But so much of the driving force for us in making the film was building a bridge from Austin now, to what it was like when John was in his heyday. It’s very easy for Austinites, cities in general but Austin in particular, to lament the things that are gone, that have changed. We really wanted to celebrate what was there – capture his spirit and keep it going. He is still a big part of this community. His presence is known and will be known and felt for years to come. When we address that part in the film, I get really sad; I get choked up at his passing. But what a great celebration of a man who had such a great impact on a city.

You really swept me up. I was surprised. I was tearing up. So I think this is going to have a big impact on audiences at SXSW and hopefully beyond.

Sam & David: Thank you for saying that. We hope so.

Finally, I want to ask, ‘Why was there a John Aielli?’

Sam: As he says in the film, ‘No one knows.’

The official premiere of Faders Up: The John Aielli Experience will take place at SXSW 2024 on Sunday March 10 at 2:30 p.m. at the historic Paramount Theatre in Austin.

Learn more about David Hartstein & Sam Wainwright Douglas’s production company, Blue Suitcase here.


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