If you've ever been to a live basketball or football game, you know the experience is an unending, brutal, and tacky onslaught on the senses. That's particularly true when it comes the sound experience, from the constant booming attempts to keep the crowd from falling asleep or staring at their phones the entire time, to the hackneyed musical cues in between the action. Despite the fact that they're two of the best songs ever written, no one ever needs to hear the opening riffs of "Machinehead" or "Welcome to the Jungle" ever again, I'm sorry.
At a baseball stadium, it's somewhat different, particularly at Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox, where, for the past 15 years, organist Josh Kantor has been cycling through a repertoire of thousands of songs, both expected and completely out of left field. And, weirdly, for our purposes here, many of the songs he plays, like his counterpart, the park's DJ, TJ Connelly, who's been known to drop in cuts from the likes of CAN, Television, XTC, and Sebadoh, are really fucking cool, which is surprising because it's hard to think of a less cool place on earth than Fenway Park.
Kantor, who regularly takes requests from fans in the park over Twitter, shared a list of the 400 requests he played this year, almost always learning them on the fly in the booth as they come in, including tracks from Superchunk, The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine, Bob Mould, The Clash, and New Order.
We asked Kantor, who has been playing piano and organ most of his life, and grew up in Chicago going to White Sox games, about how he manages to churn out so many songs over the course of a season.
Noisey: When did you first start playing?
Josh Kantor: I took classical piano lessons throughout grade school, then played in bands in high school and college, played synagogue services, and in orchestra pits for musical theater productions. I did a lot of live accompaniment for improvisational theater too, which is really good training for baseball because you don't know what's going to happen next and you're watching the players on the stage, watching the action unfold and trying to come up with song ideas that match what's happening.
How different are organ and piano? Is the transition seamless?
I wouldn't say it's totally seamless. It's very transferable. Organ has more things going on. I tell people it's like switching from knowing how to drive a small truck to knowing how to drive a big truck. I'm not a truck driver though so I don't know if that's a totally accurate analogy! But that's what it feels like. You know the basics and then there's a few extra things you have to learn and pay attention to along the way.
Was the idea of playing sort of meta songs commenting on the situation at hand in a game—"Don't Do Me Like That," say, after a bad strike call—going on when you started?
There's a fairly longstanding tradition of that. I was a huge fan growing up of Nancy Faust, who was the White Sox organist for 40 years. I lived in Chicago during high school and I would go to games and listen to her play. She was a real pioneer in that style, and I think wildly regarded as the best of the sports organists over the years. I feel lucky in retrospect to be exposed to that as a youngster. I got the sense from higher-ups in the organization it was something they were interested in here too when I started.
Every ballpark does it differently though and I think that's the beauty of it. It's not a cookie-cutter experience. When you go to Fenway, you have a certain experience, or Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium. There are regional traditions that make a certain place maybe feel a little like home. Boston's got a lot of that. But there have been a lot of places where there have been that sort of commentary on game situations. Faust was definitely one of the pioneers in that. TJ Connelly, the DJ for Fenway, he and I enjoy trying to incorporate that into the mix when we can. He also comes, like me, from a background of doing live scoring for improvisational theater. So we have a sort of shorthand when we talk to each other on headsets during a game, how to anticipate what might happen, how to maybe have a song at the ready but to be prepared and fluid and enough to change it at the last second.
When did you start taking so many requests in the middle of games?
Back in my first two years when I was learning the ropes and getting comfortable, I didn't have the social media mechanism to hear directly from fans and what they like and what they didn't like. Nancy was in this publicly accessible area, well before social media, and people would just come by and chat with her and make requests directly that way. I didn't really have that at the beginning. Once social media became a thing it occurred to me, with some advice and encouragement, that maybe this is something I could try, because I had a pretty good ear to where I could hear a song I wasn't familiar with and play it back, or at least play back the main hook or chorus. The parts that people would sing along with. So I tried it as an experiment, but I had no idea that it would succeed or not. In the six years I've been doing it, it has far exceeded my expectations for how many people are interested in it. Sometimes it's to pick songs of a particular game situation, or a favorite song of a relative someone is at the game with, or that has some special history for them. Sometimes, especially this year, people will share that story with me. There are these very human connections that happen in a technological environment that I find delightful.
Do you just punch up the song, give it a listen, and play it by ear?
I'll find a stream somewhere, listen on my laptop, and then play it. Usually one or two listens is enough to get the gist of it. From the process of just so much repetition of that sort of exercise, it comes relatively easy at this point. I probably play close to 30 a night, total. The requests were five to ten most nights this year, which felt manageable.
The challenge of learning the song is really fun. It can be stressful too, but it's fun. I've done it so many times now I've gotten to the point where I'm pretty good at it. I'm still a little terrified going in every day because I don't know what songs I'm going to play today, I don't know if I'm going to know the songs, but just trusting that I will find a way to learn them and play them and be able to have this playful interaction with people online while I'm doing it.
How many songs do you know?
I'm usually only playing for 30 seconds, so as far as knowing the hook or the chorus or something, there's probably a few thousand. But the thing is, they constantly flit in and out. Eighty percent of the requests I got this year were songs I didn't know, or didn't know well, but I was able to listen to it and learn and maybe retain it or maybe not. It's kind of like having a jukebox: You take records out, you put records in, but whatever's in there is in there.
What do people tend to request? Is there any sort of trends you've seen?
There are certain trends you can anticipate. Like when Tom Petty passed away, it was no surprise people were requesting him. But every time I think I have a grasp on what the trends are, it seems like they get upended. Fenway Park is very much an all-ages kind of place, from the youngest to oldest and everything in between, so you get a lot of different genres and eras. I would say 95 percent are for hit songs, popular bands. Sometimes they'll say, "Play anything by ABBA." But they're all over the map. Then there's that five to ten percent that is off the beaten path stuff, but maybe people have a real fondness for that song. Or maybe they like the novelty of hearing a song on the organ that you probably wouldn't otherwise hear an instrumental version of at a sporting event. I feel like I can't do those kind of things the majority of the time, since you're playing for a huge audience so you gotta play songs people know. Even if it's a gift for one person, there are a lot of people there. Sometimes word gets out, somehow, that this guy takes oddball requests, and then there will be a spate of oddball requests.
I noticed you played a lot of pretty cool stuff. Dead Boys, Neutral Milk Hotel, My Bloody Valentine.
Those are examples of songs that are maybe more cult classics or indie hits. But in each of those instances, someone requested it, and I played it, and someone else at the park unaffiliated with them sent me a message saying, "Thanks for playing that. That was so cool!" People enjoy hearing a song maybe they haven't heard in a long time and forgot they liked it, or they appreciate that it's something that's a little underground but it's getting a brief moment in the spotlight because it's this big place where there's a lot of people there." Part of TJ's thing, he plays big hits, then includes these little gems that are less popular in terms of playing to the masses—he might play one song where 38,000 people get super excited about it, then another where 300 people will get super excited, but they'll be really, really excited.
You play local Boston bands a lot too, from well known ones like Buffalo Tom and Letters to Cleo, to much smaller ones.
People who know those bands are particularly excited to hear them because they wouldn't expect to hear that song alongside something massively popular. There's a terrific local band called The Rationales I played this year. Someone was at the game and asked, and it turned out a relative of one of the band members was there, and a handful of other people at the game were fans who heard it and were just delighted. You can't do it all the time, but when you throw these special little treats in there it creates a special memory for people. I have people who come up to me and tell me, "You played this one song five years ago and I loved it so much and you made me a Red Sox fan for life." I'm thrilled.
I'm noticing a glaring D-shaped hole in the requests. No Dropkicks love?
When I posted this, people said, "I can't believe these no this, there's no that," and I said, "Well, you didn't request it." I really do play what people request. I'm not that selective about it. That said, as far as Dropkick Murphys, there are certain acts, and that's ones of them, that I think TJ and I know long in advance what people like and want to hear, especially in Boston. So we play Dropkicks regardless of request. So maybe people are like, "I've already heard a Dropkicks song tonight so I'm not gonna request one."
Do you hear from the bands you play ever?
Every once in a while I might play a song, and then someone in the stands recognizes it, and will tweet to the band, like, "Hey, Arcade Fire, I'm at the game and the organist just played your song." Then someone from the band might send me a thank you message or something. Or sometimes someone in one of the bands is at the game and I may get word through the grapevine. Someone might tweet that they're at Fenway Park, like Green Day did this year. I think maybe they'll enjoy hearing one of their songs. Or maybe they don't! But I'll play it and see what happens.
Are there are songs you're really sick of?
No. I don't repeat very often and I try to mix it up for my own enjoyment and so people who come all the time won't be subjected to the same stuff. Every night is so different. The only thing that's programmed for me is "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." I've played it every night for 15 years. I wouldn't say I'm sick of it, but I can hear it in my sleep. I actually do hear it in my sleep sometimes. Because the whole stadium full of people stands up and sings and cheers every night when it happens, it hasn't gotten boring yet.
Luke O'Neil is a Boston-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.