Diego Glusberg is one of the leading lights of Wesleyan’s banjo-playing radical community. We sat down with him for a chat about his signature instrument, Zonker Harris Day, the role of radio in contemporary society, and his philosophy of “Lardcore.”
The Argus: I feel like when I came to Wesleyan, banjo was huge. I couldn’t go anywhere without someone playing banjo. But now it seems less common. Is that an accurate impression?
Diego Glusberg: Well it’s winter. I know at least eight people who play banjo, maybe. But I started here, and I think a lot of people started here.
A: Why did you pick up the banjo?
DG: Well Steve Martin said that it’s impossible to play a sad song on a banjo, which isn’t really true. But I saw people doing it my freshman year, and it looked fun. What I’ve learned since then is that banjo has two things going for it. The first is that old-time folk-playing communities are super welcoming and always want to play with you regardless of skill level. And the second is that everyone wants to listen to mediocre banjo more than bad guitar. Everyone’s already sick of you trying to play Led Zepplin, but most people have had no exposure to banjo, so they still get excited.
A: There are multiple ways to play banjo, right?
DG: I play clawhammer banjo, which is the most popular old-time style. That’s compared to the popular bluegrass style, which is also called Scruggs or three-finger. There are lots of other styles, but clawhammer is just the most popular in the folk revival.
A: What’s the appeal of that particular style?
DG: It’s got a built-in rhythm. You come down on the beat every beat with your index finger, and that makes a driving beat built into the style. It’s relatively limited rhythmically, but it also makes it relatively easy to play something that sounds like music.
A: Why is it called clawhammer?
DG: Well, you play it like this [while making a claw with his right hand], and then you beat down on the head, which is the hammer part.
A: So now have you discovered if it is possible to play a sad song on a banjo?
DG: Yeah! There are a lot of really great modal tunes, with weird creepy haunting melodies that are a lot of fun to play.
A: Are there a lot of contemporary banjo players doing new things with the instrument, or do revivalists mostly play it?
DG: There’s been a big renaissance with the banjo, with a lot of hindie-pop musicianslike Sufjan Stevens kind of discovering it. A lot of them play three-finger or try to apply their guitar knowledge, but there is definitely a renewed interest.
A: You were president of WestCo a few years back–do you think the new national attention on Zonker Harris day might revive the festival?
DG: I hope so. Zonker Harris wasn’t about the name change, it was about resisting the homogenizing force of the University. It’s not about this festival, it’s about presenting a unified front. It’s a symbolic change and that’s why it’s so important. This school is notoriously bad with student-run initiatives. WestCo has even less power now than it had four years ago, when it had almost no power. So bit by bit, they’ve chipped away at any sort of student-run space. I think the war on Eclectic was part of this, as are many seemingly small insidious slowly-creeping paternalistic movements.
A: What can students do to resist?
DG: Well it’s important that groups like WestCo push back and not let their traditions be squashed. It’s important that students realize that, as the clients of this institution, we do have real power if we would only choose to use it. As for what I’m doing, I’m in USLAC, the United Student Labor Action Coalition, and sort of tries to leverage the power of students to secure better working conditions for the staff on campus.
A: Is Wesleyan selling out?
DG: There’s definitely some radicalism left. I think that, since last year, we’ve seen an upsurge in campus activism, and I have to thank the Campus Republicans for their marvelous bake sale–it spurred a lot of people into action, so much so that we had three rallies in Usdan just in the last semester. It seems like campus activism is back on its feet, and while it’s unfortunate that we needed a straw man to oppose, I am thankful. There’s certainly always a feeling that when we were freshmen this activism was cool, but now it seems lame, with all these little kids running around. That’s partially true, but part of it is our own growing up and not letting ourselves be so distanced from cool things that are going on and seeing them as real and flawed. But I also think that over the last 20 years, there really has been a concerted effort by the University to consolidate its power and keep us feeling like we have none.
A: You remain pretty involved in the radio. Do you think radio is still a viable and important medium in American life?
DG: Well, most radio sucks, but community radio is one of the few truly independent ways that people like me and the fine DJs at WESU can directly talk to people. The power of voice is immediate: the way we talk to our mother is the same way we take in the radio. It’s sort of a place where opinion and news can go out directly to people and isn’t directly controlled by ClearChannel. But WESU, it’s not really independent, a third of its budget comes from the University, a third of its from the pledge drive, and a third of it’s from the Pacifica network, which was controversial at the time because people thought they were selling out by putting NPR on the station. But it’s in the daytime and there’s plenty of time on the schedule. But WESU is still really awesome for providing local community radio as a public service, and serving communities forgotten by mainstream radio.
A: Okay, finally, tell me about Lardcore.
DG: Lardcore is a fast-growing social movement, which is exactly what it sounds like. You take the raw energy of hardcore and combine in with extreme laziness. “TV Party” by Black Flag is a big influence. The ethos is Do It Yourself, Later Though. It combats the excesses of hardcore with lard.