The audiophile behind KEXP’s weekly “Sonarchy” show who, for the past 22 years, broadcast hourlong live recordings from avant-garde Seattle musicians, is retiring. His last show airs at midnight Feb. 26.
Money and music have a complicated relationship. Forget the inflated egos, compromised visions or joy-sucking obligations that can come from fame and fortune. Even on much humbler scales, doing something you love for work instead of play can suck some of the fun out of it.
This isn’t lost on local sound guru Doug Haire, one of the lucky few who turned his passion for eccentric sounds into a career.
“Money does really [expletive] up art and music,” says the veteran sound engineer and field recording artist. “I don’t think anybody needs any more evidence to realize that the happiest people have a day job and they make music at night.”
Call it a modest epiphany, but Haire is delighted to stop getting paid. After a morning of yardwork, the audiophile behind KEXP’s “Sonarchy” show is hunched over an empty espresso cup in a Beacon Hill coffee shop, reflecting on a career spent championing fringe artists of the Pacific Northwest.
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For the past 22 years, Haire has run the weekly radio show, which broadcasts hourlong live recordings from avant-garde Seattle musicians. They’re the kind of long-form aural fracases — everything from droning gonzo jazz to delirious electronic opuses — that almost never hit the airwaves, even on freethinking stations like KEXP.
Making a comfortable living off music is a feat of its own, especially when your tastes are as far from commercial as they get. Still, the 62-year-old’s two-day stubble can’t conceal his glow as he excitedly discusses his decision to retire from the show and his sound-engineer gig at Jack Straw Cultural Center, where “Sonarchy” is recorded. And it’s not just the espresso talking.
“I would have never expected it to be so clear,” he says of his decision. “You don’t leave music and art. It’s an impossible goal to say, ‘I’m going to stop being an artist, I’m going to stop listening to music.’ I finally realized, well, I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to stop getting paid for it as a full-time recording engineer.”
The final “Sonarchy” show, with the Wally Shoup Electric Quartet, airs Monday, Feb. 26, at midnight (and into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, Feb. 27). After seeing three last records to completion, Haire plans to focus on his own work. The field recording artist, who performs improvisational sets with the Phonographers Union, is sitting on a trove of material from years of travel, waiting to be edited into fluid pieces.
Before arriving in Seattle in 1985, the South Carolina native was a bit of a nomad, doing stints in Charleston, New Orleans and Key West, Florida, among other cities. Aside from an NPR affiliate job in Louisiana, he mostly worked as a cable TV lineman, though his heart was in radio and sound.
Haire actually had tried to get to Seattle five years earlier, but the eruption of Mount St. Helens during his trip led to a semi-permanent detour through Santa Barbara and eventually Columbus, Ohio. Ultimately, Seattle’s strong music community proved too alluring. And no, it wasn’t the budding grunge scene. For Haire, the sheer existence of Soundwork Studio, a public-access electronic music studio located in the Odd Fellows Building, was a sign.
“I said if a town can support this kind of a thing, it’s probably the right place to be,” he recalls.
In 1990, Haire landed a job at Jack Straw Cultural Center, the nonprofit audio arts hub where he’s recorded 400-some records with the “peculiar ensembles” and eccentric artists from all genres Jack Straw attracts, he says. “Sonarchy” was born two years later in partnership with KEXP’s predecessor, KCMU, which wanted the show to focus on the bubbling acid jazz scene. Haire hit the clubs, recording live performances from hybrid DJ/jazz ensembles around town. But he quickly learned the single-genre format couldn’t satiate his vast sonic cravings. After six months, he expanded the show’s reach to include experimentalists of all stripes in a city Haire considers a hotbed for avant-garde artists.
“It’s been uniformly, year after year, a steady stream of people applying new thinking to established genres,” he says.
After Haire announced he was ending his show, The Stranger compiled reactions from more than a dozen local musicians, who heaped praise from the scene’s vibrant outer reaches. “Doug Haire and his show ‘Sonarchy’ was a real treasure for the Seattle area,” wrote Garek Druss, who performed on “Sonarchy” several times. “Weirdos don’t get too many options to play live on the radio.”
Shining a spotlight on those who rarely see one was the driving force behind the show Haire viewed as an “artist service.” (“I don’t understand the audience for a lot of this music, but I understand the artists.”) There were times even Haire thought “Sonarchy” might be too extreme for his signal-boosting radio partners, but he says KEXP’s hands-off support and Jack Straw’s funding kept “Sonarchy” alive. Kevin Cole, KEXP’s head of programming, credits Haire with helping “create a vibrant sonic arts scene” and plans to keep the show’s archive online.
“It’s important work that needs to be preserved and heard,” Cole wrote in an email.
After more than 25 years as a professional engineer, Haire’s excited about being an “amateur” artist again. He plans to explore “object theater,” creating narratives with inanimate objects and giving them soundtracks, and he looks forward to enjoying albums without obsessing over how certain sounds were achieved. “The only effective way to be useful in the arts is to just live it,” he says. “I was living it.”
And he still is. He’s just happily giving up the paychecks.