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Arts Eclectic turns the spotlight on happenings in the arts and culture scene in and around the Austin area. Through interviews with local musicians, dancers, singers, and artists, Arts Eclectic aims to bring locals to the forefront and highlight community cultural events.Support for Arts Eclectic comes from Broadway Bank and Rock n Roll Rentals.

'We really channeled John's spirit': New documentary explores the 'John Aielli Experience'

An illustration of John Aielli wearing headphones. On the left side are the words, Faders Up The John Aielli Experience.
Blue Suitcase Productions

“I think we really channeled John's spirit and sort of [followed] the trail wherever it took us,” says David Hartstein, the co-director and co-producer of the new documentary film Faders Up: The John Aielli Experience.

The late John Aielli was, of course, the host of KUT and KUTX’s legendary morning radio show Eklektikos. He was famous for his musings and his music choices — which often included playing the same song multiple times or eschewing music altogether to play whale sounds — his sometimes rambling interviews, and for never quite mastering the audio board after decades in the radio business.

Hartstein and fellow co-director and producer Sam Wainwright Douglas thought they were making a short film about Aielli, but the movie itself had other ideas.

“We started filming, and we're working with our editor [Field Humphrey], and he keeps adding and adding and adding scenes to it,” Douglas says. “And he's getting all worried because he thinks we're just making this short film and he's worried about length, and I said, ‘No, man, just keep going. This stuff is great. Keep going.’ And David and I were getting pretty excited about what was coming down in the edit room, and we thought, 'Well, I guess we got a feature, y'all.'”

It feels pretty in keeping with Aielli’s aesthetic and general philosophy to let the conversation flow and perhaps go on a little longer than expected.

“I think one sort of precept I had in starting out was wanting the film to feel like another episode of Eklektikos,” Hartstein says, “and I think we did a real visual treatment … a real collage style to kind of make it feel make it feel eclectic, make it feel like John.”

Douglas and Hartstein share a fascination with Aielli that goes back years.

“I got turned on to John when I moved back to Texas from New York in ’06,” Douglas says. “A friend of mine said, ‘Dude, turn on Eklektikos. It's gonna set you up for the tone of the city, man.’ And I did and I turned on the show, and it was the morning show on NPR, and I just thought, 'Whoa, all right, I get it. All right. I see what kind of town I'm in. This is the morning show.'”

Hartstein’s connection to Aielli and Eklektikos goes back a few years further.

“I moved to Austin in 2000 to go to UT film school, which was in the building where KUT broadcast from at the time," Hartstein says. “And Eklektikos ... John was a real beacon for me, a real beacon to the Austin arts world. And [his show] helped me navigate and figure out and fall in love with Austin. But also, John would do some strange things in the building too. And so ... his presence, his figure loomed large for me in a lot of ways, both on and off the air.”

As someone who also worked in UT‘s Communication Center Building B at the time, I guessed that Hartstein was referring to Aielli’s famous habit of exercising his impressive (and loud!) singing voice in that building’s stairwell.

“I, yeah, [was] certainly referring to John singing in the stairwell,” Hartstein says, “which features pretty heavily in the film. It was a real, real obsession of mine that we couldn't really shake and had to recreate and revisit and sort of get real.”

“If you went to UT in the '90s or the aughts, or you taught there, or you were passing through,” Douglas says, “this [film] is your chance to hear that mysterious, mysterious, very odd, spooky, sometimes glorious sound of John Aielli singing in the stairwell, reverberating off the concrete walls throughout the entire building.”

A movie about John Aielli would obviously be incomplete without an innovative music score, and Faders Up found its composer in Graham Reynolds, himself a frequent guest on Eklektikos.

“He was a fan of Aielli’s and he really brought his best stuff to the table,” Douglas says. “I think he had to. John was so eclectic — the show was called Eklektikos. The music was eclectic. It was kind of whatever he was into that day. And Graham had his work cut out for him, because he had to do a lot of different styles for the score. He's an extremely talented guy.”

“You know, so many people have come out of the woodwork to provide stills and stories and let us film in their businesses. And just the enthusiasm that people have for John and for Austin has been infectious,” Hartstein says. “And it's been really incredible to sort of feel that again. Through making this film and revisiting Austin and John's Austin in particular, I've really fallen back in love with Austin.”

“I agree,” says Douglas. “I was getting burnt out on Austin myself. It's become such a boom town in recent years. And sometimes the culture feels like it's getting monolithic, and everything that's being built kind of looks the same. But over the course of [making] this movie, I totally rekindled my love affair with this city. There are spaces for the weirdos still. And we hope this film spreads that message to folks in town who haven't really picked up on that.”

Faders Up: The John Aielli Experience premieres at the Paramount Theatre on March 10 at 2:30 p.m., with two more screenings at the Alamo South Lamar on March 13. These screenings are SXSW events, but you don't need a badge to attend.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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