The work of Joshua Fried aka Radio Wonderland spans experimental music, DJ culture and performance art. Many know him for Radio Wonderland’s steering wheel and shoes, others for putting headphones on some of Downtown NYC’s most mercurial stars of the 1990s and 2000s, and still others for his collaborations with pop stars They Might Be Giants. Fried’s music has been performed all over the world by himself and by the likes of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. In the 80s he was signed to Atlantic Records as a dance music artist. In the 90s he became the youngest composer discussed in Schirmer’s American Music in the 20th Century.
The celebrated East Village club and performance scene of the 1980s embraced Fried’s early solo work, which featured live multitrack tape loop processing. He opened for The Beastie Boys and RuPaul, among others, at the storied Pyramid club, where he was also employed as a sound engineer. Fried’s improvisational performances, rooted in the principles of dub reggae, came to the major counterculture venues of the time: Danceteria, Mudd Club, CBGB, Palladium, Dixon Place, King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut, La MaMa, Irving Plaza, Performance Space 122 (P.S. 122), 8BC, Knitting Factory, Club 57, Limelight, Danspace (at St. Mark’s Church), Darinka, Limbo Lounge, The Kitchen and others. His collaborations with Iris Rose and the performance collective Watchface were presented at The Bottom Line, Dance Theater Workshop and other venues across the country and inspired Fried’s later headphone-driven work.
Joe Mardin, son of the late legendary producer Arif Mardin (Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, The Bee Gees, Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Scritti Politti, countless others) discovered Fried’s solo act when Fried opened for Madonna at a benefit concert at Danceteria. Fried became the elder Mardin’s “pet project” (Billboard, February 7, 1987). With the Mardin team, Fried released the 12” EP, “Jimmy Because (My Name Is)” on Atlantic Records under the name Joshua, and contributed to songs by Chaka Khan and Ofra Haza. Remix and production work for They Might Be Giants, B-Beat Girls, David First and others followed.
In the 1990s Fried turned from the club to the concert hall, and from solo performance to works in which he did not perform. Beginning a pattern of large, multi-year conceptual projects, Fried developed Headphone-Driven Performance, whereby performers try to imitate vocal sounds that are played over headphones. After an eight-minute excerpt of the headphone-driven piece “Travelogue” (dubbed “a downtown classic…a mind-blowing, Hitchcockian theater piece” by the Village Voice and “a tour de force” by The New York Times) was performed at the Bang On A Can Festival, the Bang On A Can All-Stars approached Fried about performing similar material. Soon more groups came knocking. This lead to performances at Lincoln Center, The Kitchen, the Venice Biennale and in Jerusalem, Minneapolis, Amsterdam and elsewhere. Fried’s Headfone Follies ran for 16 shows at HERE Arts Center. Its rotating cast ultimately numbered 64, including performance luminaries Penny Arcade, James Urbaniak, James Hannaham, Cynthia Hopkins and Kate Valk. Fried’s collaboration with Merce Cunningham cohort Douglas Dunn (performed at The Kitchen and Lincoln Center Out of Doors) featured eight headphone-driven singer/actors, requiring the development of custom multitrack wireless headphone technology.
“One day around the end of the 90s I sat down to figure out what to do next with my life, and while it took a few years to answer that, I knew what was next for me artistically in about two minutes,” says Fried. “I saw I could use technology to reduce the creation time of my funky tape-loop collages from several weeks to about ten minutes – live in front of an audience, using nothing but bits of live radio. I could return to performing, this time able to process a new groove with every show.” (Music tech geeks will note that at the time, Ableton Live did not exist and MaxMSP was still just Max, without real-time audio.)
From this decision came Fried’s current and longest running project, Radio Wonderland. Radio Wonderland synthesizes his core interests: conceptual art, live processing, dance rhythm, and interrogating commercial culture. To launch Radio Wonderland, Fried invented a sound-processing instrument that uses old shoes and a steering wheel to control software which he wrote himself. Then he had to master actually playing it.
Radio Wonderland shows look like performance art and wind up sounding something like techno. All of the sound originates from the radio in an old boombox. Nobody knows what’s coming, so everyone is in on the game. Radio Wonderland makes danceable grooves using the simplest, most transparent transformations possible. Likewise, its controllers are manifestly clear: the wheel is simply a giant multipurpose knob, demonstratively dialing audio parameters up and down; the shoes are surreal drum pads which trigger bits of live and processed radio.
More than once, the TSA (U.S. Transportation Safety Administration) has stopped Fried at airport security to question him about his electric shoes. From 2007 to 2013 Radio Wonderland performed at Joe’s Pub, BAM Cafe, The Stone, City Winery, (le) Poisson Rouge, Galapagos, Warper Party, Rubulad, Cornelia Street Cafe and other NYC venues, as well as in Cleveland, Atlanta, Montreal, Miami, Boston, San Diego, Minneapolis, St. Johns (in Newfoundland) and other cities.
Radio Wonderland has its own radio show. Hosted by the radio art/sound art organization Wave Farm, it might be the longest-running weekly radio show ever devoted to a single artist performing brand-new original work. Broadcasts continue, Saturdays at 10:30-11:00am New York time (afternoons in Europe, late night in Asia, etc.) at http://wgxc.org, and over the airwaves on WGXC 90.7FM in NY State’s Upper Hudson Valley.
After ecstatic Radio Wonderland shows in Milan and Venice, Italy (for Elita’s Milan Design Week Festival and Altavoz’s CSO Rivolta warehouse complex, respectively) Fried decided once more to put live performance on pause. “By then it felt absurd not having a record out,” Fried explains. “Plus I made a solemn deal with myself–not to revise a single line of Radio Wonderland code until I put out an album.” Once again a quick realization set in motion a major project. Fried withdrew from public performance (while keeping up the weekly radio shows). After an intense, highly successful crowdfunding campaign, he developed methods for distilling half-hour concert recordings into five-to-ten minute tracks, and set out to create the Radio Wonderland debut album, Seize The Means.