Q&A With Josh Kantor

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Fenway Park organist Josh Kantor is a utilityman of sorts, playing keyboards for a number of outfits in addition to entertaining the Red Sox faithful. His highest-profile gig is with the fantastic national pastime-themed band the Baseball Project; his hidden-track rendition of the group’s “Panda And The Freak” is a highlight of its aptly titled third album, 3rd (Yep Roc). We spoke to Kantor about song selection, interacting with fans and how he can’t get into the Baseball Project fantasy league. Kantor is guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

MAGNET: How does the organist job work: Do you have a full-time job and then play at games?
Kantor: I have a part-time job at a music library. I play a lot of club shows and recording sessions with a lot of bands. I play organ at Fenway Park for all the Red Sox home games during the regular season and postseason, and I play at a handful of other Fenway events—soccer games, hockey games, minor league baseball games, etc.—over the course of a year. These are the various things I do to pay the bills and stay out of trouble.

How long have you been the organist? How did you get the job?
I started at the beginning of 2003, so I’m now in my 12th season. I went in for two rounds of auditions. One of the people on the audition committee had previously seen me play several times and knew that I was knowledgeable about baseball, so he had recommended me for an audition. The auditions were basically a pop quiz on my knowledge of popular songs from a variety of genres, how well I could play short snippets of those songs and how those songs might (or might not) be successfully incorporated into a baseball game. I remember thinking that the first audition went relatively well and that the second audition went great. I was offered the job at the conclusion of the second audition, and I cheerfully accepted it.

How much leeway do you get in picking what you play? I saw that one time you snuck in The Best Show On WFMU theme.
As far as when to play, that’s determined by a variety of factors, most of which are outside of my control. As far as what to play, most of those choices are mine to make, though I very much enjoy getting suggestions from colleagues and fans at the games. Because I play for an enormous audience of people who may or may not be music fans, 90 to 95 percent of the selections are songs that are, or at one time were, pretty popular. The rest of the selections are little gifts for the rock snobs—and I use that term lovingly—on appropriate occasions. For the 40th anniversary of (Stevie Wonder’s) Innervisions, I covered the entire album. After Scott Miller passed away, a few people asked for a Game Theory song, so I played “Erica’s Word.” When the Big Star documentary came out and brought their music to the attention of larger audiences, I added a couple of those songs to my repertoire. If a lesser-known act with a devoted following plays their new single on a Letterman-type show or puts out a video that goes viral, I might play that song the next day, when it’s most likely to be recognized by the greatest number of people; Apples In Stereo, So So Glos, Redd Kross and Bob Mould are actual examples that spring to mind. After the Boston Marathon bombing last April, the Red Sox DJ, T.J. Connelly, and I made a conscious choice to play more songs by Boston-based artists as civic pride became a healing tool for the community. While this meant the Cars, New Edition and Aerosmith, it also meant Modern Lovers, Big Dipper and Morphine. The Best Show thing got a lot of coincidental attention because of the timing; if they’d announced the end of their terrific 13-year run during the summer, I’d have played their theme song then, and if they’d announced it during the winter, I wouldn’t have played it at all. Because they announced it during the World Series, I played it at a time when more people were listening.

How many songs do you typically play each game? Do you do some self-promo and play Baseball Project songs?
I usually play 15 to 20 songs during batting practice for the early-bird fans, maybe one or two more during the official pre-game ceremonies, about a dozen or so during the course of the game itself and then two or three more after the game as everyone is filing out. Because I play by ear and by memory, I keep a regular rotation of tunes that changes a bit from year to year in addition to all the one-off songs; I maintain a few hundred tunes in the rotation so that people who come to games frequently aren’t subjected to the same songs repeatedly. I rarely know what song I’m going to play more than a few seconds before I play it, since I’m often hoping to react to an instance of the game or the crowd. I’m not comfortable using the Fenway organ to promote a band that I play in, even when the songs themselves are about baseball. I played a Baseball Project song once because the band was singing the national anthem at that night’s game and many of their friends and fans had just come from the band’s nearby gig to attend the game, so it was a hat-tip to that contingent of Fenway patrons rather than an act of promotion.

You grew up in Chicago as White Sox fan. How much of an impression did longtime (now retired) organist Nancy Faust make on you? I remember at old Comiskey Park, she was in an area where you could go up and talk to her. Did you ever do that? What was she like?
Nancy Faust made a monumental impression on me. Her playing got me thinking about the ways in which live organ music can complement and enhance the enjoyment of watching and listening to a baseball game, and it got me thinking about wanting to do that. Before moving to the Chicago area for high school, I’d grown up as an Atlanta Braves and Dale Murphy fan in Athens, Ga.—back when my Baseball Project bandmates Peter Buck and Mike Mills were in a local up-and-coming combo down there called R.E.M.—and I’d deluded myself into thinking that I could play baseball for a living. Then I discovered Nancy Faust at the same time I realized that I wasn’t a good baseball player, and I was inspired by seeing her do this other fun thing that I thought I could eventually be good at doing if I worked enough at improving my skills as a musician. Nancy’s playing was often my favorite part of the games. I mostly enjoyed just listening to her song selections, though I did go watch her play and talk to her a couple times. She was incredibly friendly, and that left a big impression on me as well about accessibility and self-conduct of performers. After I got the Red Sox job years later, Nancy was routinely generous with sharing her invaluable insights and advice about being a ballpark organist, without which I might have gotten overwhelmed and wouldn’t have been as good.

Do you interact at all with Fenway fans? Do you take requests?
Yes and yes. I get several visitors at each game. They might ask a question or take a photo or share a favorite Fenway memory. I especially enjoy when they have a memory of meeting or listening to John Kiley, who was the first Red Sox organist and held the job for 37 years before retiring in 1989. I never had the pleasure of meeting Kiley, but the more I learn about him from others, the more connected I feel to the 62-years-and-counting tradition of live organ music at Fenway. Sometimes I play songs in reference to his old repertoire, and some of the old-timers will get and appreciate the references. On occasion, a visitor will request a song. Over the past couple years, I’ve been using Twitter as a way to receive song requests and interact with fans in the stands. It’s been a fun way to learn songs that I may or may not be a fan of and then see which ones go over well.

How did you end up playing with the Baseball Project?
I met Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon in 2001, when my good friend and former bandmate Jason Victor started playing guitar with them in the Miracle 3. I saw that band play several times, and we hit it off during post-show chats that often turned to music and baseball topics. The first Baseball Project album came out in 2008, and I liked it a lot. At some point around then, Steve and Linda came to a game at Fenway and heard me play. In 2010, the Miracle 3 was booked for a show in Boston where they were playing the entire Dream Syndicate Medicine Show album. It’s a great album with a lot of great keyboard parts, and they didn’t have a keyboard player, so they asked me to sit in for that one show. In 2011, when the Baseball Project was promoting the release of its second album, they invited me to play a few shows with them. I suspect that my Red Sox affiliation is part of what qualified me for that. The first time I met Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Mike Mills was the night before my first show with them. The whole band has been very welcoming and supportive and encouraging of my expanding role as their part-time keyboardist, and they’ve all invited me to perform with them on a variety of other projects. They’re a joy to play with and hang out with, and I continue to learn a lot from them.

Who’s the biggest baseball fan in the band? How would you describe your level of fandom?
Peter is a casual baseball fan who’s interested in the significance of the game’s place in American history and culture. Everybody else, including me, is pretty obsessed with just about every aspect of the game. As a result, the baseball conversations in the tour van are quite entertaining.

Steve Wynn told me that it might be a tossup between Scott McCaughey and Mike Mills as to who’s the most obsessed fantasy-baseball geek of the band. Can you shed any light on that?
I can’t even get invited into the Baseball Project’s official fantasy league—I think I’m still stuck somewhere near the bottom of the wait list—so I don’t know how much light I can shed. I think Mike might be in a couple more fantasy leagues than Scott, and I think Mike usually has better overall success in his leagues, but that may be partly because he has more time to devote to it in his “semi-retirement.” Because I see every game in Boston, Scott and Mike both hit me up occasionally for an assessment of certain Red Sox players whom they’re thinking of trading or acquiring or putting in their lineup for their various fantasy teams. But make no mistake, Steve and Linda are pretty into fantasy baseball as well.

Here’s your chance for more self-promotion: Fill us on in what your other bands are up to now or what they will be up to soon.
The Baseball Project‘s third album came out in March. It’s the first of the three that Mike and I have played on, and it was really fun for me to be a part of making it. And several ballplayers who are among the subject matter on the album have reached out to us to tell us they enjoy it, so that’s been very gratifying. The band will tour much of the U.S. this summer; I’ll probably join along for some of those shows when the Red Sox are playing away from Fenway.

I’m in a band called the Split Squad with Clem Burke (Blondie), Eddie Munoz (Plimsouls), Keith Streng (Fleshtones) and Michael Giblin (Parallax Project). Despite the sports reference in the band’s name, it is, unlike the Baseball Project, not a sports-themed band. Like the Baseball Project, the members of the Split Squad are spread out geographically, so we get together to play shows when our schedules permit; on a couple of occasions when Clem was busy with Blondie commitments, we were able to get Linda as our super-sub drummer. We released an album earlier this year called Now Hear This, which we had a great time recording near Boston at the studio of David Minehan (Neighborhoods), who has worked a lot with Paul Westerberg and the Replacements. Scott produced our album, and he and Peter guested on it, as did Hugo Burnham (Gang Of Four). The Split Squad played a handful of shows in the Northeast last month, and we hope to do more shows later this year.

I’m also in a Boston-based band called Jim’s Big Ego, fronted by Jim Infantino, who is one of the very best songwriters you’ve probably never heard of. I was a fan of this guitar/upright-bass/drums pop trio for about a decade before they invited me to make them a quartet in 2008. Jim’s Big Ego has seven LPs and three EPs. We don’t tour as much as we used to, but we recently started webcasting shows from our drummer’s studio, which has been great fun, and we occasionally perform “The Ego & The Oracle,” a theatrical show where we use our songs as fortune-telling devices for selected audience members.

And if you enjoy musings about the intersection of baseball and rock ’n’ roll from someone who’s a semi-insider in both realms—and let’s face it, if you’ve read this far, you probably qualify—then I’m worth a follow on Twitter: @jtkantor.

—Matt Hickey