How music has steered Pinfield through all the things he has done
For over 30 years Matt Pinfield has graced the world of music via various platforms. You probably saw him on MTV as the host of 120 Minutes. Or heard him rocking the airwaves of numerous radio stations. Perhaps, you have had the great experience of seeing him DJ in person — either at the legendary Melody or around New York City? Or most recently on the west coast, hosting the 2 Hours with Matt Pinfield podcast.
As a fellow New Jersey boy, I have been lucky enough to cross paths with Pinfield on numerous occasions. It started at K-Rock in NY where I had brief stint to start my career. Then, I would bartend at a hole-in-the-wall rock club called Snitch and a few times a month, a good night would turn great when it was “Pinfield night” behind the turntables (we’re talking mixing in deep tracks like Soundgarden’s “Mind Riot”). Most recently, Pinfield was kind enough to contribute to my 25 years of Pearl Jam tribute, and will also be a part of a Chris Cornell special we have coming up. Each collaboration we’ve had has been full of mesmerizing music and full of inspiration.
In late 2016, Pinfield released a captivating book about his journey appropriate titled, All These Things That I’ve Done. Though the “things” have taken Pinfield on wild ride all over the country, the heartbeat of it all is simply music. It’s this burning passion for music that has allowed Pinfield to forge lifelong relationships, and naturally made him the most trusted and well-respected person within not only the world of show-hosting, but the entire music entertainment business.
I recently had the opportunity to re-connect with Pinfield, and again, he generously took me inside his unwavering process of staying true to yourself and allowing music to steer the way.
How did you know music was your passion and what you were going to follow?
It has always been such a presence in my life. From the age of three I can remember sitting in front of a turntable and listening to 45’s. I knew I wanted to do radio by the age of eight. I was fascinated by it as a young kid. That’s when my father and I built the AM transmitter in our house and wired it up to the TV antenna. It broadcasted two blocks, but it was a great way for me to practice. I’m grateful that my parents never wanted me to stop. They instilled in me that I needed to get out and work. If I wanted records, I had to go out and deliver papers or work odd jobs to be able to buy them. They were not going to just hand them to me. That appreciation and that work ethic is something that has never left.
When you look at the landscape of radio at the time, college radio was such an important outlet. I started doing college radio in the 80’s at Rutgers in New Jersey. There weren’t a lot of alternative stations at the time. Even at that point, I was so hungry to find music and tell people about it. I was asking people in second grade if they had heard a particular song yet.
What does your first official gig in radio mean to you now and how formative was it?
I’ve been so blessed to be in situations where people care about my opinions. I started doing commercial radio in 1984 at WHTG down the Jersey Shore. It was a free-form station that played a lot of diverse and cool music. As soon as I knew of the station, I reached out with a demo and started working weekends. At the same time, I was a DJ at a club called Melody in New Brunswick. I was a constant and ended up being there 13 years straight for three nights a week. I built a big following. People would drive from Philly or even New York. My favorite story from this time was that Radiohead were told by a contact they had who worked in Oasis’ management, before Oasis’ first album even came out, they told Radiohead that if they were going to be in the area, don’t go out on a Sunday night in New York City. Go down to New Brunswick and listen to this guy spin. And they did! They rented a passenger van and came down to the Melody in 1993. It was pretty amazing. People knew they could come in and hear new music. I wasn’t snobby where I made people listen to what I wanted to play. My thing was that I’ll play things people like, I’ll talk to them and make them part of the experience. That’s why it was so successful. I literally supported my oldest daughter by DJ’ing clubs at night. I took an unorthodox path.
It’s great you have such fond memories of your early days. Did it feel like you had a seat at the table within alternative music?
There were maybe 13 alternative radio stations in the country at the time. I became a music director at HTG and that’s when everything opened up wide for me. I was working seven days a week. Record labels were talking to me to get support on bands. Asbury Park was incredibly proactive as a music loving area. It always has been. Obviously, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and more recently The Gaslight Anthem are proof. New York stations still basically owned what went on in New Jersey. As things started to change, we started to now own the music scene.
Like anyone else, I certainly did the things you didn’t want to do for love of the music, but to also get my foot in the door. I would drive back-and-forth a few hours a day, work every holiday, and do the things other people didn’t want to do.
How did radio lead you to 120 Minutes on MTV?
Within a year of becoming Music Director, Nirvana came through. Band like R.E.M. and The Cure were already huge, but now it was breaking through into the mainstream. It was so exciting to be there doing radio when that explosion of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam took place. We brought the station up in ratings, and we were in the Rolling Stone reader’s poll as one of the best stations in the country. I ended up meeting people from MTV out at shows. I became friends with the Program Director of 120 Minutes. They wanted to get a feel for what people were listening to. One day I open a radio trade just to read it and I see Dave Kendall is leaving 120 Minutes. Initially the plan was to then have artists host the show. I very naively told them, “You guys should have someone like me host the show — who artists respect and knows what he’s talking about with the music.” That same day, 120 Minutes called me to come in for an audition. I was very nervous, but did the best I could. After a few months, I get a phone call that they still want to have artists host the show. Depeche Mode was coming in, but they didn’t want to host, so they said, “This is your shot.” I was so excited, but it was a weird position to tell everyone I was hosting and all of these local news sources were covering it, but it was a one-time deal.
The interview went well. I had never done television before. I ended up getting a phone call from the MTV talent department saying they thought I did a great job and they would love to use me more. I was designated the backup and they would use me when they needed me to fill in. I was a bit disappointed. So, I just continued at the radio station and continued to work hard there. I stayed in touch with MTV, I’d leave a message once a month, and eventually I got a phone call to see if I was interested in coming there to program the channels — pick the music, create the specials, and work with the artist. It was an incredible dream come true. I loved the radio gig, but I still had to work two other jobs to make a living. I felt I had done everything I could there.
I’ll never forget the phone call from MTV offering me the job. At my radio gig we only had three phone lines so it took two hours to get through and get me on the phone. Finally, I am on the line with MTV and they tell me, “Why don’t you come work for us, Matt, and I’ll make sure you have a phone line.” I’ll never forget that. It changed the trajectory of my life completely.
What was the transition like going from radio to TV?
It was a big deal to leave the Asbury Park area. Bruce Springsteen even reached out to my bosses and told them to look out for me. It was amazing to me. He made the phone call in 1995 and I waited until 2002 to thank him. When I did, he said to me, “Oh no problem, Matt. What do you think of my new album ‘The Rising’?”
At MTV I was one of 10 in the programming department. I never expected to get back on the air. I never wanted my coworkers or bosses to think that I had a hidden agenda to get back on the screen. I was perfectly happy being a guy behind the scenes. We were picking the music for the country — really impacting the world and changing artists careers. It was everything I wanted to do since I was a kid. All of sudden one day they basically told me the hosting setup for 120 Minutes they had in place was not working out, Oasis was coming in and they didn’t want to host the show, so they needed me to interview them. That was the day that changed everything. I had such a great time with Oasis. I knew my way around the studio, I had worked with cameras and I was so comfortable. I still knew, regardless of the show, I still had a job at MTV. I thought I would just have a good time with it. Sure enough, that was it and the next thing I know I am now hosting the show for good. The research showed I was one of the most well-liked VJ’s and I started getting worked into other shows. The beauty of all of it was that I never had to stop trying to affect people’s musical taste.
You have always been a major inspiration to me because you have such an artist-to-artist connection. I’ve always appreciated how the artist trusts you. It’s not a reporter asking the same questions they’ve already been asked 100 times, it’s really a back-porch style conversation, talking as peers. How did you establish that?
It’s all because I care so much about it. I built these relationships because of my love and passion for music. The artist can feel that. An artist knows when it’s something you really care about, and you actually listen. I’ve always felt that one of the things that makes my interview style different is that I don’t have cards in front of me. When you do, it can force you to ask questions and not really listen to the answer. I understand when people who are doing a TV show use them if it’s a magazine style morning show, where they need to do a three-minute segment and they don’t have time to research everything, it makes sense for it to be their technique. But for someone who is going to interview an artist for a length of time I really think you should know as much as you can about them and find common ground. One thing is for sure — with every artist I’ve ever interviewed they have a love of music. It doesn’t matter if it’s in line with my tastes in music, there is always some way to connect.
It makes me very happy when an artist say that I’m basically an artist myself. Billy Duffy from The Cult was just telling me about some stupid question someone asked Ian Astbury. Billy mentioned how it was so nice to not have the same questions when they spoke with me. The point is, you must have questions that are going to entertain a listener, reader or viewer, but it also has to mean something to someone who is very passionate about that artist. It’s a crucial technique. It’s something I’ve grown into since I’ve been doing it for so long. I always keep in mind that the audiences have to remain engaged. The balance is that the super fans of that artist needs to hear something that really strikes gold with them — something they will learn about the artist they love. The average fan will also find something good there. The real trick is to be make sure you are being entertaining to the person who is not a fan at all. It’s about engaging in that human element and getting that story out of the artist that is relative to everyone. Artists are people too. They feel everything in life as we all do.
For you personally, what has been the role of music in overcoming obstacles? Was there ever a time where you needed to take a break from music completely or was it more of a guiding force?
Music was a very important part of me getting sober. It was constant in my life. It helped me get through it by giving me the strength and passion to fight those demons. It’s always been a beautiful constant for me. I’ve never wanted to step back from it. If anything, it was the opposite to help push me through it.
I find themes in your journey and I thought this was a foundation in your book All These Things That I’ve Done. One of the main things is your hustle, and how hungry you always seem to be. Is that the only way you know?
Part of that hustle is just never giving up. Like anything else, you are going to reach disappointments, even at this point in my life. For every 10 times people come to you with an idea, if one of those things works out, you are doing well. So many things only go so far and then they change. You have to be ready for a lot of rejection, have a thick skin and brush yourself off. I say this in my book — if you can’t go in the door or go over it, dig a hole and go under it.
My mind never stops working. I love what I do so much. My life like everyone else, has been full of turmoil, and full of stops and starts. There’s been chaos, but there’s also been absolutely beautiful and incredible moments. I’ve always been more of an everyday man and I think that resonated with people. I certainly wasn’t a pretty boy. I operated on passion.
Hustle is something that you get instilled in you early in life, but it’s also something you must maintain. It’s what drives you and keeps you healthy on a creative level. It’s important to never stop looking to move forward. It’s not to try and shoehorn someone out of their job, that’s not what I do, but it’s to work really hard and follow your passion. I can’t imagine myself not working or at least doing something because I love it so much. I don’t know if I could survive without it.
It’s interesting to hear you say that because you’ve had all these different platforms in your career whether it’s radio, TV, DJ’ing or your book, but the constant is the music. The wave you surf the entire time is the love of music.
Absolutely. I’m sure it’s the same thing that drives you to do what you do. I think it’s great. It’s something we just have to do, and it gives us so much pleasure and purpose. I consider myself blessed every day that I can do it.
Music is the great thing that always drives me. The power of song is everything. It’s universal and keeps evolving. There’s a creative force with music — it keeps changing. New music keeps getting written because people want to have that outlet of expression. There is always going to be somebody who wants to pick up an instrument and write a song. That’s why I am so grateful that I’ve been able to have this incredible soundtrack throughout my life that I can share with other people.
~ Matt Pinfield
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Produced by/in collaboration with Jeff Gorra: