For many of our viewers, Morning Joe is all about the music: the tunes that get them going each day as they sit with their coffee (or, for those coming home from a long evening: their night cap). Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Smashing Pumpkins, Carl Carlton, Wilco, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead are often what you hear over the three hours.
To get a better understanding of what gets played and why, I went straight to the source: Morning Joe’s audio engineer and music man, David Quanvie and sat him down for a proper conversation about how the role of music has been crucial to Morning Joe since its beginning in 2007.
MJ: Who are you and where are we?
Q: My name is David Quanvie, but everyone calls me Q. We are in the audio room, 3A. This nice cave, my man cave here. To my left here is the audio board, which is called a Calrec.
MJ: Are all of the songs on a server? How does this work?
Q: For Morning Joe/WTE, you could call it a file. But it’s more or less like a saved playlist of songs that we use. If needed, I can call up songs in our library at the last second. For the most part, MJ/WTE we have set songs that we use.
MJ: How many songs?
Q: In total, I honestly couldn’t really say. For MJ maybe over a 100. Some songs never get used, but they are there just in case. There may be songs that I won’t use for months and then if, spur of the moment, they’re talking about something that might relate to a particular song or subject, then I go and get it.
MJ: How long have you been doing this? For msnbc and Morning Joe?
Q: For msnbc, I’ve been doing this for about maybe as long as Morning Joe has been on the air. Maybe a little over five years. With Morning Joe, about all of the five years. I originally didn’t start off [on MJ] because it started off as a replacement show for Imus. So the guy that was doing Imus, he started off with MJ. But eventually, I don’t know how long after it started, he left the shift. May have been a month after. Small amount of time. Prior to MJ starting, I was training to do audio. Then I got approved to be an audio engineer.
MJ: What is your official title?
Q: My official title is audio engineer. As an audio engineer really you’re responsible for mixing the microphones and changing files for producers in the control room. It’s more technical things we’re supposed to do. In terms of selecting music and picking music, that really isn’t an audio engineer’s job. The way it should work and usually does work is producers tell you the music they’d like because they’re the ones who are going to be working on the stories. Usually they decide or direct me. Audio engineers pretty much never select the songs.
MJ: Were you always doing both?
Q: It’s funny how it started out. The way it started. When MJ first started there wasn’t such a large selection of music to be used in the library. Nobody really knew what they wanted at the time. Joe mentioned he wanted to use classic rock as a template, but it was all just beginning. At the time, I was doing camera, and I would be listening to the show and I would hear whatever songs the engineer would be playing or whatever songs the producers may have told him to play, and I would think to myself “Oh, that’s horrible. That’s not really working.”
There’s one early moment I can remember. They start off the show at 6 o’clock. They have a wide jib shot coming onto the set, and I hear the song by Jimi Hendrix “Hey Joe.” And it’s a pretty depressing song. They come in with that song, and it’s a morning show and if I recall properly, Joe’s reaction to the song was like “Oh great,”…I think he said something like “Well, I want to shoot myself.”
And I thought, you don’t want to play that. You want to wake people up properly and get something going that is more upbeat, more uptempo. And that is when I started chiming in and suggesting songs for the audio guy to play.
MJ: How did that go over?
Q: He was cool with it. He was more than receptive to me doing that. And so, because I knew him and we had a good relationship, I would go into the room and say “Why don’t you try playing this song?” or “Try playing this one.”
MJ: Were you really panicked ever about making the wrong choices?
Q: The thing was, there wasn’t a huge selection of songs, so I would start playing what the producers and directors asked me to. And then I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to be here for three hours every day, I am going to try and play stuff I think would go over well.’ I slowly started to infuse my own selections. The first song I chose that got a really good reception was “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins. It’s a staple song.
MJ: So is “Tonight, Tonight.”
Q: [Laughs] there are just moments where you have to play those songs. You can play it at any time. I call “1979” a safe song. You can play it when you’re in a bind, and it works every time.
MJ: What was your mental selection process?
Q: It was trial and error, but what helped because we did have such a limited selection was eventually Joe gave me a CD. He gave [Morning Joe director] TJ [Asprea] a CD of songs that he wanted played on the show. Stars, some classic rock. I didn’t know Joe liked Stars; I like Stars. When I heard that it was alright to play some modern songs I thought OK “maybe he’ll like that or maybe he’ll like this.” And that’s when I started incorporating other stuff with his stuff.
MJ: People really talk about the music on the show, which to me is interesting because you’re really only playing such a small sliver of an actual song, and it seems like music is so easy to find now, but there is still something about listening to the radio and hearing a song that you didn’t intentionally call up. So what is it about the music that gets played on the show that makes people seem to really respond to it?
Q: I can’t really explain it. It’s still kind of funny to me. People that follow me on Twitter, and I’ll play a song and they’ll tweet me and tell me it was a great song selection. I always thank them. Why? I really don’t have any idea why it connects with some people.
Me: Maybe because some of the people who watch the show grew up listening to the radio, and in a way that aspect of the show is like a DJ selecting songs that I’m hearing on this talk show that I turn into for political information.
Q: I really can’t explain it.
MJ: Talk about the way music works with the show in terms of the song you pair with something someone says.
Q: It doesn’t always work out that way, but if I can do it, I try and match up a song with a certain topic or subject or story or whatever we’re teasing. I’ll look for little key words in the teases when I read them, and if I see that a certain song will pair up with that particular tease or subject, I’ll try and match it as best I can.
People don’t always pick up on it. Some people do.
MJ: How has a song you’ve selected actually drive the conversation? I’ve seen that happen before.
Q: It may have been the first time I played “1979,” and I didn’t play it for any other reason than just to play it when we were going to commercial. And Joe mentioned “Oh, we’re playing ‘1979.’ [Q then speculates Joe then riffed on the fact that the Three Mile Island accident happened in 1979].
MJ: Any other memories?
It may have been a Spinners song. Joe is fond of their song “Mighty Love.” That’s a song he wanted played on the show, just because he loves it. Sometimes when I play it, he gets a good memory and he’ll start talking to whomever on set about what a great song it is. It is a great song.
MJ: How would you describe the musical sensibility of the show?
Q: It’s more of a classic rock vibe. I wouldn’t say there’s any pop music. When the show first started, Joe’s rule was that we could play songs from the ‘70s, some stuff from the ‘80s. He really didn’t want stuff from the ‘90s. Nothing that’s too now, too modern, too poppy type stuff…no dance music. It’s more classic rock, ‘70s rock, ‘60s stuff.
MJ: Let’s switch gears for a moment because “Way Too Early” is completely different musically.
Q: It’s definitely geared towards a younger audience. Willie and I are pretty close in age. When the show first started, maybe a week before it started, I was talking to TJ and said “Ok, great what do I play for that?” And he said, “I’ll talk to Willie and he’ll send you an email on what he might want.” Ok! And so Willie sent an email and he listed a Bob Dylan song “Hurricane” [from the album “Desire”], and then he listed EPMD. I think he listed “Strictly Business” and the Rolling Stones song “Loving Cup” (from “Exile on Main Street”). That’s one of his favorite songs, and I think that may have been it. So those were the only songs I had as a template to use on the show. And so I’m freaking out because I didn’t know what to do. That would get me through a week let alone a whole episode, so I had to really think. And an opening song, we didn’t have an opening song, and I had to look for that as well.
I didn’t know what to open with. I went home and started listening to a lot of instrumental songs. And I did eventually find one song, the song we used for a while. The song was perfect for the opening.
He mentioned Dylan, EPMD in the email, so I kind of went with that in terms of songs I could play. With the whole EPMD thing, I said “Alright, he likes ‘90s hip-hop,” so I can start gathering some other ‘90s artists as well. And then he did eventually mention he is a huge fan of Jay-Z and then Kanye West. He never mentioned Nas, but I started bringing “Halftime” in. And so, I decided to start gathering a bunch of instrumentals to use on the show. Didn’t really know what would work and what wouldn’t. Just more of a trial and error.
MJ: Would you still say WTE is a fusion of Stones, Dylan and Golden Age hip-hop?
Q: Not so much Dylan, but hip-hop, Stones, more modern pop, not dance necessarily, but I play some Miike Snow on there. It’s pretty hip-hop.
MJ: How do you go about incorporating a new song into the mix now? Is there any trepidation about trying out something untested?
Q: I once did, but now not so much. But it’s kind of hard to really find new songs to play. I wish I could play whatever I wanted to, but if I played it I might hear about it.
I think more now Willie and Joe trust my intuition and judgment. They know I wouldn’t steer them wrong and play something out there. But that also makes it hard to play new stuff too. I’m always looking and searching for something.
MJ: Has Joe or anyone else made any new suggestions for music?
Q: Not recently. There will be mornings where he comes in and he’ll say “I want to hear this, I want to hear that. I want to hear the Spinners, I want to hear this song by Carl Carlton called “Everlasting Love.” He loves that song. That’s something he always wants to hear. He’ll come in some days and do that, and the songs don’t have to match up with anything or any stories. He just wants to hear them. And I’m like “Alright, man. Let’s do it.”
MJ: There’s one guest in particular that has his own song. And there are no other regular guests who get that. How did that happen? I think that is also the only explicitly punk rock song that gets played on Morning Joe too.
Q: I was surprised when Joe suggested it, but yeah, it’s “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols, and I played it a couple of times before Roger Bennett. I was kind of afraid to play it, but it’s fantastic for an opening. When Roger Bennett started coming on the show, I used it one time and Joe liked it and now it’s become his theme song.
MJ: Talk about your Twitter account? How does that play into things?
Q: The way that worked out was Willie would get tweets about the music, and one day he emailed me and asked if I had a Twitter account. I told him if I did, I would only have one follower and that would be my mother. And then I thought about it and thought maybe it could be used a promotional tool for the show. And I ran it by TJ, and I got the clearance. I created it, and then one day Willie mentioned it on the show. And the first day he mentioned, I think I got like 400 something followers in a few minutes.
MJ: So more than your mom.
MJ: Yeah, Willie will come in here and film with you to let people know about it.
Q: People just started following and tweeting that they like the music I play. I have a pretty good interaction with fans of the show.
MJ: Are you able to play requests?
Q: People have suggested songs, and at times I have been able to incorporate them.
MJ: what do you think going forward musically you will do?
Q: More of the same, but hopefully I can incorporate more music into the show. I know I play a lot of the same stuff over and over again, and yeah that is annoying to me and other people but it really isn’t easy to try and please everyone. I wish I could play more of everything that people would want me to play and what I would maybe want to play but it’s not as easy as it seems. People make requests for me all the time, and I wish I could but I can’t if it just doesn’t fit or work.
Hopefully I can incorporate newer, more current music into the show. I’m always looking.
MJ: Tell people some newer, newish bands that people should check out.
Q: More this year than any other year, I’ve been listening to some electric and dance pop music. I really got into Cut Copy this year.
MJ: “Need You Now” is a great song and “Zonoscope” is a great record.
Q: Yes, and their earlier stuff is fantastic as well. “In Ghost Colours” to listen to that album from start to ending, wow. It’s a great album. I suggested it on Twitter, and one person responded to it.
Another band I got into this year is Hot Chip out of England. Saw them in concert this year. Fantastic.
MJ: What do you think music does for a politics show?
Q: For some reason, I guess it keeps the viewers engaged…based on the feedback that we get, a good amount of people do pay attention to the music.
For example, Carole King has emailed me in the past. I have played “Sweet Seasons” on the show, and she has emailed me a couple of times. She thanked me for using the song and she’s told me she enjoys the bumper music we use on the show. She’s emailed me and told me that. I hope she doesn’t mind me saying that. That kind of says a lot right there.
In the past Willie and Joe and everyone would go out on book tours and they would come back and say everyone talks about the music. It shows people pay attention.
My whole philosophy on it is it’s a morning show, yeah we talk about politics, yeah we get heavy in the discussions, but it is a morning show and people are waking up…you want to get to get people going in the morning. You want to play stuff they want to hear. You don’t want to just play anything. You want to play stuff that makes them feel good.
Q’s Top 5’s
Top 5 all-time favorites (in terms of musical influence and impact)
1. The Beatles
2. Stevie Wonder
3. Beastie Boys
4. Fleetwood Mac
5. Smashing Pumpkins (barely beating out Nirvana)
Five artists or bands/albums that I’m listening to the most now:
1. Hot Chip
2. Cut Copy
3. David Byrne and St. Vincent
4. Stars “The North”
5. Cat Power “Sun”