Greg Kampf, Prog Rock Relayer, Pt 1: History

With the imminent arrival of Pink Floyd’s The Endless River — either a collection of outtakes from The Division Bell sessions or an idea of what the band would have been like had Richard Wright had a chance to lead the band — prog rock is at the top of the news cycle.

And what better way to become reacquainted with prog rock than by listening to La Villa Strangiato, CHUO FM 89.1’s dedicated timeslot to celebrate the past, present, and the future of progressive rock? I had some time in June of this year to sit down and talk with the erudite DJ of that show, Gregory Kampf, and it was fantastic. As someone who appreciates prog rock, but is not a fanatic, it was fascinating to listen to Greg expound on the history of prog rock, what prog rock means in the digital age, and what prog rock means for the present and the future.

Full disclosure

I went to school with Greg’s wife Helen and I have been friends with her and Greg since those days. Even though Greg and I had not had an in-person conversation with each other in about 14 years, we still knew what we were up to through our regular Facebook updates. So this interview was really more of a friendly conversation, and it shows. I hope you enjoy it.

Part 1: Where did La Villa Strangiato come from?

Can you give me some background on La Villa Strangiato. When did you start?

Hmmm. I’ll even go back prior to that. I’ve long enjoyed progressive rock music. It was introduced to me by my mother Lynn back in the early 90s. She basically pulled out her King Crimson, her Yes, her Jethro Tull LPs from back in the day and said, “Listen to these,” because at the time I was just getting into Rush, the great Canadian progressive-rock power trio.

La Villa Strangiato - The Big 6
The great English “Big 6” of Prog Rock

Then I went off to university and I was spinning the dial one night on the FM band in the fall of 1997. I stumbled upon 89.1 FM, which is the community radio station at the University of Ottawa, CHUO, and I heard something that sounded very familiar. I think it was something by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, or Jethro Tull — one of the great English “Big 6” bands. I was like, “Oh my god, this is prog rock and it’s actually being played on the radio! What is this?”

And I just kept listening. And lo and behold, it was actually a radio broadcast on a Sunday evening by a francophone host who was doing a show called La Villa Strangiato. His name was Yann Grenier and he was working with a fellow by the name of François Laflamme. The two of them were hosting this program that they founded in 1996 and that I kind of found by chance one night on the FM dial.

By 1999 François had left and Yann was looking to move onto other things. He offered me a chance to actually host it and that’s where I came into the mix. I became a volunteer at CHUO that April.

Now when you did that, what was the format of the show? Was it any different than it is now?

It was a little bit different. Today it’s an hour and a half show. Back then, it was also an hour and a half show, but one thing that those guys liked to do, a tradition that they had established and that I continued was having an album of the week, which they called L’albume vedette.  So the first sixty minutes of the 90 minute program would be basically a melange, a hodgepodge of different tracks, but the last thirty minutes would be dedicated to featuring a number of tracks, or a suite of songs from one album in particular that was highlighted, so that’s something that I continued. But that fell by the wayside as I passed the torch on to another host when I left for Japan, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

But that was an early kind of format for La Villa Strangiato, having this album of the week, which was basically a chance for a new release to be featured —more than just one track. It was just kind of a great opportunity for whatever band was in the spotlight that week.

Listening to your podcasts, I see that the format now is basically you just dive right in, 2 or 3 songs, you speak a little and there’s, like, another 5 songs after that.

Typical La Villa Strangiato setlist
A typical La Villa Strangiato setlist

The format today is: there’s the opening theme that’s followed immediately by an instrumental track from one of the great or lesser known bands from the 70s. Then do a little monologue — try to keep it short. Then I do a first half hour of programming and then a second half hour of programming.

The distinction there is important because the 1st half hour — it’s kind of like a retrospective where I’ll pick one track from the 70s, one from the 80s, one from the 90s, one from the early 2000s. And the second half of the show is all more contemporary releases, newer works.

You were just talking not too long ago about the classics. The common cliche is of prog rock, from which there’s been sort of a backlash: ELP, and Yes, and…

Oh, they were the worst offenders towards the end.

Yes. All of them have been accused of things like noodling, and wankery, and self-indulgence, I think, is a phrase the “backlash” likes to say. But, in researching your last five shows, you actually go very contemporary. You avoid quite a lot of those clichéd ones. There was King Crimson, Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, and that was really about it. Everything else I saw was stuff that was, to me, all obscure and deep cuts. How do you get to that point?

Well, first of all that’s a great compliment. Thank you for finding out the fact that I tried to avoid some of the worst offenders in the noodling. You can look at it two ways.

On the one hand, a lot of those early 70s bands were really young musicians who had just lived through the 60s. They had lived through the Beatles, going through pop-rock and bubblegum music through to a very experimental period towards the end of the 60s.

At that time, the sky was the limit in terms of what was possible, and there were a lot of groups that were pushing themselves — let’s take Yes for example — to go beyond what they had made on the previous record. So it got to the point that by 1972, with Close to the Edge, they made an album that will never be surpassed in my opinion, by them or by any other group.

Which one is that?

Yes' Close to the Edge cover art
The cover art for Yes’ Close to the Edge.

Close to the Edge. But I think what ended up happening here is that you reach kind of a critical mass — I don’t want to say appeal — but this was the golden age for progressive rock. These groups were selling lots of records. They were touring internationally. They were popular. They were getting played on the radio and I don’t know if they just became a little bit lazy, a little bit lethargic, but something of that early spark which helped them to create these very impressive masterworks dissipated, it left.

So albums like Tales from Topographic Oceans — was that a positive or a negative?

Yes Topographic Oceans cover art
The cover art for Yes’ Tales from the Topographic Oceans

And that was the album right after Close to the Edge, which if you wanted — some people do see some positive things about Tales from Topographic Oceans, but that’s when they were almost doing too much, and in so doing, maybe made an album that was twice as long as it needed to be. And that was maybe kind of the excess and the self-indulgence that we often hear being used to criticize the genre, an album like that.

But they came right back with Relayer in 1974, which really holds up today.

It’s a bona-fide classic.

Yes Relayer cover art
The cover art for Yes’ Relayer album.

It’s a great record. There’s a lot of great jazz-fusion there that actually seeps into that record which you don’t hear too much of on Yes records. But towards the mid-70s to maybe 77, I think a lot of these bands were running out of fuel a little bit, out of energy. They were touring non-stop, and some of the albums that they started releasing by 77, 78 were really not in the same class of what had come before.

And then, of course, you had the punk musicians, the punk movement, where all these guys were like, “We don’t want to play all these scales, and arranging for symphony orchestras. We just want to play our guitars and play them loud and they kind of just surged onto the scene and all of a sudden, that became de rigueur, and progressives became kind of an afterthought and fell out of favour around 77, 78.

Great. That’s a really good history, but you actually didn’t address how you discovered all these obscurities and deep cuts, how you make your show as great as it is.

Well, thank you, that’s another great compliment. I’m glad that you appreciate the work that I do.

This is a softball interview.

Greg Kampf
Greg smiles during our softball interview about one of his favorite subjects – prog rock.

Yeah [laughs]. It’s like Conrad Black and Rob Ford [both laugh].

So what I guess just ends up happening as a byproduct of this process of getting well-acquainted with some of the more famous bands, some of the more well-known bands is you start to become a little bit thirsty to find out who else was making music like this at the time. Who were the bands that were influenced by these big-name groups? Who were some of these groups that were inspired, at that time, or maybe even two decades later?

And so you start to read a lot of reviews and you start to listen to other progressive rock DJs that are doing their own shows. For the longest time I was a subscriber to the great magazine of Massachusetts called Progression. That was a great source of information just as the Internet age was dawning and that really became like a crucible for the rediscovery of prog in the late 90s and early 2000s.

This ends Part 1 of the interview. Next week, I will publish Part 2, in which Greg and I discuss how the internet age has affected the creation, and acquisition, of prog rock.

Greg Kampf, Prog Rock Relayer, Pt 2: The Internet Effect

Greg Kampf, Prog Rock Relayer, Pt 2: The Internet Effect

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