MTV's big, bald, ubiquitous brain.
By Gary Susman
MARCH 23, 1998: NEW YORK -- It wouldn't be hard to make fun of MTV VJ Matt Pinfield. His appearance (short, bald, likened even by his fans to Uncle Fester), his gravelly voice, his awkward hand gestures, his endless flow of obscure trivia -- all make him a rarity, not just on MTV but on television in general.
So when the Bloodhound Gang parodied him last year in their video "Firewater Burn," he could easily have been offended. He wasn't. "I loved it actually," he admits from behind a desk at MTV's new Times Square headquarters. "I was sitting at a pizza parlor in New York City when [Bloodhound Gang lead singer] Jimmy Pop Ali handed me his demo. He told me he did an imitation of me. He started doing it in the pizza parlor, doing the Pixies' family tree. I was rolling on the floor, it was so funny. So when the video came in to MTV, I was almost anticipating a parody. He really got me down. He went to all the trouble of getting a bald cap. He was doing my nervous hand movements. I thought it was great. The sincerest form of flattery."
In fact, Pinfield's shtick is so popular, he's now on the air often enough that they could rename the channel MattTV. Best known for interviewing bands as the host of the weekly alternative-rock showcase 120 Minutes, Pinfield also has a daily video show, Mattrock, and a spot on MTV Live called "Take It to the Matt," where viewers try to stump him with trivia questions. On MTV's satellite sister, M2, he does a three-hour VJ stint every weekday. That's some 24 hours of original programming a week; counting reruns, he's on some 60 hours a week. If he's not the most ubiquitous person on MTV, then, as he puts it, "it's close. I think me and Bill Bellamy are on about the same amount."
Pinfield's effect on MTV has been subtle but apparent. He was offered the slot on M2, he says, "because of the vibe 120 had taken, where it was really music-informative, because I had given my own thing to it. I'm not really a teleprompter guy. I pretty much run with my musical knowledge. And they said, 'We're basing it on your vibe, your feeling, so it would be a natural thing for you to do.' "
"What Matt brings to the table is his personality, his charm, his incredible knowledge of music," confirms MTV VP of Music Programming Kurt Steffek. "For the music elitist who may not have been buying what the VJ had to say, he speaks to them on their level, but he doesn't come off as elitist. And he completely blows artists away with what he knows about them."
Indeed, Pinfield's knowledge of and respect for artists has drawn bands who might otherwise have avoided 120 Minutes. In fact, he first got to host the show, on a trial basis, in 1993, when Depeche Mode refused to introduce videos on the then host-free program unless someone interviewed them. Says Pinfield, "Bands who wouldn't go on it before actually started requesting to be on it. Metallica told their record company that the only person they wanted to work with was me, and I was flattered by that. Artists react positively because I'm well-informed, and I really love records. Artists know that I'm not bullshitting them and asking them the same four standard questions about when they're going on tour."
MTV recently released 120 Minutes Live (Atlantic), a CD of 14 performances that demonstrate Pinfield's influence on the show. Although his only contribution to the album was the suggestion of two tracks, Porno for Pyros' plaintive "Kimberly Austin" and, as the fadeout, Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees," the album makes a historical argument unusual for in-the-moment MTV. Only one track, the Verve Pipe's "Villains," qualifies as anything like a recent hit; the rest make a case for so-called alternative, in all its unclassifiable diversity, going back as far as 20 years. Old timers from the reunited Sex Pistols ("Pretty Vacant") to Bad Religion ("American Jesus") to the Violent Femmes ("Kiss Off") play with undiminished fire. Even Lou Reed, accompanying Victoria Williams on "Crazy Mary," stabs at his guitar like a combination of his old Velvet self and grunge godfather Neil Young. Other performances, mostly recorded between '93 and '96, reflect the early-'90s glory years of alterna-rock eccentricity: Oasis's gloriously snotty "Supersonic," guitar-free Morphine's "Honey White," They Might Be Giants' accordion-spiked "Particle Man," Björk's flute-and-tabla-accompanied "Aeroplane."
The historical approach is in keeping with Pinfield's segments at the end of many shows, where, he says, "I try to let young people know about great old bands, from Patti Smith to Richard Hell and the Voidoids to the Dead Boys, the Velvets, any of those bands. I even put Bowie on once so people could hear his '70s stuff. I showed '20th Century Boy' by T. Rex and recommended a few albums, and it blew me away that I got a call from [Marc Bolan's son] Roland Bolan, thanking me for the tribute I did to his father, because he was somebody I dug."
Pinfield comes across as the ultimate music fan, a spokesman for a demographic that MTV, with its emphasis on the visual over the aural, hadn't really addressed before. "It's definitely that silent majority, people that have a love for music and want to buy records and go out to see concerts. Music is a part of their lives. So being on the air is a privilege and a responsibility. When I go out, if somebody stops me and has a question about music, unless I have to catch a plane, I'll generally stop and talk to anyone. I'd be doing it anyway, looking for somebody to talk to about music, if I was in a bar, somebody to bond with."
The 36-year-old Pinfield started acting on his musical obsessions early, building a pirate radio station in his New Jersey basement when he was nine. By 16, he was DJing at the radio station at Rutgers University, where he would enroll two years later. In the mid '80s, he became program director at the pioneering alternative-rock station WHTG in Asbury Park, where his broadcasts drifted across the sea toward Manhattan. That's how 120 Minutes programmer Kurt Steffek first became aware of him, and he often consulted Pinfield to "get a barometer on records. 'How do people really feel about this record? Are you getting a lot of phone calls?' "
When the 120 Minutes host slot became vacant, in 1993, "I called Kurt up, half-serious and half-joking because I never expected them to put me on television, and said, 'You need somebody in there like myself who bands will respect, who at least knows something about the records.' And he called me an hour or two later and said, 'They think that's not a bad idea. They want to set up an audition for you.' That took a few months." The result was the Depeche Mode evening, which Pinfield assumed was a one-shot deal.
In the meantime, MTV hired Pinfield to be Manager of Music Programming. "You know what manager means. There's managers, directors, senior vice-presidents, senior directors. So it was just being part of the committee that picks the videos and works on specials." Yet after nine months there still was no 120 Minutes host. "It was ridiculous. So they said, 'Why don't you do it again for three weeks, see how it goes.' And the situation just became permanent after a time."
Pinfield knows that he's an odd choice for a network based less on erudition than on fashion, youth, and sex appeal. "It took the longest for them to decide what to do. I equate that with artists who don't fit comfortably into a genre, like a Fiona Apple or a Jamiroquai. But when they break through, it actually means a lot. People take notice. I didn't have the GQ or the model-boy looks. I've got a raspy voice. I don't smoke, but I know I sound like I smoke 10 packs of cigarettes a day. And I can be hyper, a bit nervous. I'm always using my hands on TV. That's just me, and I don't try to be anything but who I am on the air. I'm so glad they took a chance on somebody who actually is a big music fan. I'm sure there's always somebody superficial who's going to say, 'Hey! What's that bald guy doing there?' But one of the pleasant things I've found out is that people need to be given more credit for their intelligence and the fact that they love information. Real music lovers want to know more about music."
In fact, MTV has been surprisingly willing to critique its own aesthetics, notably on shows like Beavis and Butt-head and Daria. "I could definitely be a part of that," Pinfield acknowledges. "I see myself as kind of like the everyman out there. Like the viewers, I'm a music fan. My musical knowledge and my love for music is not an elitist thing. It's something I want to share. It's just that human side, and a lot of times television seems to get away from that. There's always the beautiful, and that's fine too. I understand what entertainment for entertainment's sake is. But I love what I'm doing, and it's fun."
One of the fun things is testing his trivia knowledge. "Kurt Loder says, 'I give you credit. It takes real balls to go out there every week and take the chance of making a fool out of yourself.' I try not to think about it. I don't ever say I know everything. Nobody knows everything. But I do know a lot because I love a lot of music. It's the biggest thing in my life."
Even when you have to jog his memory, he's a fountain of information. For instance, I asked him whether he recalled who Sonic Youth's first drummer was. He didn't, but when reminded it was actor Richard Edson, of Stranger Than Paradise and Do the Right Thing fame, he gushed, "Richie Edson! You know what band Richie Edson was in? Konk. They also asked my friend Jordy Gillespie to be the drummer in Sonic Youth. And Richie played in Sonic Youth, even though he played horns in Konk. Now, Jordy actually played drums in Konk, and the first place Madonna ever appeared in a video was in their video, trying to steal the show, dancing on stage. And Konk actually did the theme for Bright Lights, Big City. Donald Fagen remixed it. They're on one of those Rhino dance-classics-of-the-'80s CDs. They were an underground, East Village, cool tribal percussive-and-brass band. Richie's a great guy. He still plays in Los Angeles. He jams with all these Latin bands. He's always trying to get me to come out and see these bands."
Pinfield doesn't expect that his enthusiasm for cutting-edge youth music will
wane in years to come. "It's really natural for me to keep up on music because
I still go to record stores and buy records, and I still talk to people all the
time, young and old, and find out what they're listening to. It's never seemed
like a real job or chore for me to keep my ear to the ground for things. Maybe
I'm still 16 inside this 36-year-old's body because I still get excited about
records. It's funny when you're listening to bands who are a lot younger than
you are, but the records still affect you the same way they did when you were
16 and 17 years old. I'm glad I still have that passion."
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