Boston Red Sox organist Josh Kantor : The Dream Job Q&A

To my fellow Boston Red Sox fans…this one’s for you. And to everyone else who thinks that you’ll never land your dream job, this one’s also for you.

Four  years ago I was at a Red Sox game sitting in the bleachers when I heard the organist play a riff of David Bowie’s “Starman.” I got home from that game and immediately figured out who was behind the magical moment and soon after followed Josh Kantor on Twitter.

Fast forward to April of this year when I saw a Tweet of Kantor’s saying that he’d be sitting in with The Jayhawks for a few songs playing accordion at Port City Music Hall.

So I of course showed up at the show and Kantor himself overheard me saying his name out loud. We said hello and having already established a rapport a few years back when I blogged about the “Starman” moment, I wasn’t a complete stranger to him. I was however a determined one so I asked him right at that moment if he’d be up for an interview. Bless his heart, he said yes and up we went to the dressing room where, much to my delight, a few Jayhawks popped in here and there  during our conversation (they’re awesome).

I busted out my digital recorder and it was off to the races for the next 20 minutes. We talked about how he got the job, how long he’s had it for and what it’s like going to work at Fenway Park 82 times a year (more if we make the playoffs!). And I’m going to share this interview momentarily.

But first just a few words about my love for the Boston Red Sox. It all began in my Papa’s backyard. Papa was my grandfather and when I was a kid I used to help him with yard work. He’d mow the lawn and pick up clippings with his ride-on mower and would dump the clippings in front of me and then I’d fling them over a rock wall. The yard was huge so this took a while. Atop a rock sat his big, heavy transistor radio and that was my first introduction to the Boston Red Sox and to this day, I still adore listening to them on the radio. When I get to Fenway (which is not nearly enough) I’m the nerd with the old school Sony mini radio and headphones so I can listen to the radio broadcast while watching the game. For real.

I survived the 1986 World Series because I was just young enough to not be as invested as I would later be in the team. Fun fact, at the time of that fateful series, Bill Buckner lived not only in my hometown of Andover, MA, but less than a mile form my house. I never ran into him but If I had I would have been nice.

The 2003 American League Championship Series was brutal. For all of us. I can close my eyes and still feel that pain. I know you can too.

Conversely, the joy of 2004 is something I’ll never forget. I know you agree.

I watch this clip at least once a year. It never gets old.

I’m telling you all of this so that you understand that I’m not some casual fan. I’m hardcore.

Photographic evidence: (and yes, that Big Papi in the upper right hand corner that I have my hand on and yeah, he signed my freaking baseball).

ALP Red Sox Collage photo
The top two pics were taken by my friend Jen on the day we got to go on the field before a game in 2005. The bottom left was when I got to run the bases circa 2007 and the lower righthand corner, thanks to my generous friend Anne, is me at the 2013 World Series. We lost that game but Papi homered and you know how it all turned out.
So back to Josh. He’s a hell of nice guy. Humble and kind and also a huge Sox fan. It was SO COOL to chat with him.

Boston Red Sox organist John KantorPhoto courtesy of Josh Kantor
Boston Red Sox organist Josh Kantor living the dream at Fenway Park.
And now for the Aimsel on the Record 2017 John Kantor interview:

Where you do live?
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Where are you from?
All around but I’ve been in the Boston area since 1990

How did you end up playing with The Jayhawks?
We were on a bill together in Mexico maybe two or three winters ago and I’ve been a fan of theirs for a long time and we just kind of hit it off and the next thing I knew they were asking me to jump up and play with them and we stayed in touch and so when they were swinging back through the northeast they asked me to jump up and play with them again.

What was your first instrument?
I started playing piano when I was about five or six and then got serious about organ shortly after I finished college and have kind of dabbled with some other instruments; accordion in recent years.

Where did you go to school?
I went to Brandeis in Waltham, Massachusetts

What kind or organ is there at Fenway Park?
It’s a Yamaha. The model is called Electone AR-100. It’s a mid 1990s model. I’ve been very happy with it. It’s one of those things you know no two models  are exactly alike so I spent a lot of time kind of getting to know the ins and outs of this one so it feels very comfortable and familiar to me, I’m really happy with it. I have a similar model at home that I use to do a lot of the practicing that I do for the stuff that I play at the ballgames.

How long have you been the Red Sox organist and how did you get the job?
This is my 15th year. I auditioned before the start of the 2003 season. I knew someone who was working for the team at the time. He and I had written songs together previously and he knew that I was a baseball nut and he knew that I was an organ player and he recommended me to the audition committee and I went in for a couple or rounds of auditions. I had played in a lot of different bands and I had done a lot of musical theater. I had done a lot of live piano and organ accompaniment for improvisational theater which I found to be sort of the most transferable skill for the baseball job because  you’re watching players on a stage and you don’t know what’s gonna happen next and you have to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice with the appropriate musical idea.

Do you sit near other?
We used to but I’ve moved around. We used to be in the same location. My location has since changed but we are in constant communication with each other via a headset.  Before the game, during the game, after the game, we give each other cues, suggestions, feedback and keep each other on our toes and make sure we both don’t play at the same time. He also comes from a background of doing that kind of thing for improvisational theater so we have a really cool, unique kind of verbal shorthand with each other which helps us keep things quick and sharp.

How long has TJ been doing his thing for?
He’s been there full-time since the start of ’08 I think and for maybe three or four years prior to that was the backup so he’d substitute occasionally.

Do you remember what your first thought you had when you were offered the job?
I was thrilled. This really is a dream job. It’s something that I remember as a kid thinking ‘that must be the coolest job in the world to play the organ at a baseball stadium.’ I kind of always wanted to do that. But I think I had probably mentioned that to enough people that the friend who recommended me for the audition probably remembered or heard me say it at some point and was able to connect me with the audition committee. I remember thinking that the first audition went OK but not great. And then some time passed and they called me back.

Did they have you audition right at Fenway Park?
I auditioned in the park. In fact the first audition was over the loud speakers in the ballpark which was not the plan but one of the people on the audition committee was stuck in a meeting in a conference room with a window that faced out into the park and couldn’t leave so he just opened the window and asked the audio engineer to just turn on all the speakers. That was a little nerve-wracking for me to have my audition be in an empty stadium for the whole neighborhood to hear. Then I remember the second audition, I felt maybe because they called me back that was a sign that they liked me. I remember going into the second audition feeling comfortable and confident and I remember feeling like it was really long. It was at the end of that audition that they offered it to me and they said “Can you do every home game?”

What’s 162 divided by two?
81 games plus playoffs if you’re lucky.

So your first season was 2003 right?
That was the year they lost to The Yankees.

Were you playing during those American League Championship Division games?
Yes. And especially since that was my first season I really rode the rollercoaster everyday the way that so many of us did.

Then the 2004 ALDS again against the Yankees did you play during all of those crazy extra-inning late games that felt like they lasted until the middle of the night?
Yes. I remember they were down 0-3 and I remember walking into the gate for game 4 and just telling myself I have to believe we are going to win tonight in order to walk through that gate.  I remember leaving that game thinking “that’s the most exciting baseball game I’ve ever seen in my whole life” whether I was working it or not.

That was the famous Dave Roberts steal game.
Yeah so they won that game in 12 innings on the Ortiz  home run. The next night, game five, they won in 14 innings.

Right. When Big Papi muscled out that game-winning single.
Yeah. I remember leaving game give thinking “that one was even more exciting that game four” and then they went to Yankee Stadium and won two more and then they came back and beat the Cardinals.

Did you play at the World Series?
Yes.

“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch is you playing live right?
Yes. That’s the one thing that’s scripted as far as live playing.

When did you join Twitter and when did you start having fan interactions because I get a big kick out of seeing that stuff.
I joined Twitter fairly early on but I didn’t understand it and I didn’t see the utility of it. I was sort of instructed by the boss at the library where I was working my day job to get on it and I was skeptical. TJ Connelly and the organist for the Atlanta Braves, I saw them starting to use it in interesting, clever, creative and interactive ways with fans at the games and I thought “I bet I can do that.” And so I just started doing it and I started just as a wild experiment offering to take people’s requests. I really had no idea how it was going to go. I didn’t think anything was gonna come of it other than it might be fun for a week . That was about five years ago and now it’s turned into a pretty self-sustaining thing. I’d say most of the songs I play during a game are fan requests that come in live via Twitter from people in the stands.

I see that you do get heckled sometimes.
I do. People tell me what they don’t like. People also tell me what they do like and it’s fun. I tell people what I like and don’t like too. I’m not there to play what I want to hear, I’m there to play what other people want to hear. But I will tell people “I think that’s a dumb song.” I’ll gladly play it, let’s have fun with it. I also make fun of my own musical taste constantly.

Do you feel pressure to keep up with all the popular, hit songs?
Not a ton of pressure. I think part of the job means keeping to some extent your finger on the pulse of what’s popular. I’m 44 so that charts are not aimed at me. I’m not paying a ton of direct attention to it other than for occasional work related purposes but I can take a peek at it every once in a while. I kind of know who some of the big names are. The other thing is, people will tell me. I have young colleagues who are newly minted communications graduates from Boston University and Emerson and they’ll tell me what’s hip. Or fans will come to the games and they’ll tell me what’s hip or what’s new.

So if Beyoncé had some scorching hot single that the entire planet was singing, it’s not like you have to learn the whole song right?
It depends. Sometimes you’re just looking for the one little hook or the chorus and it can be ten seconds, fifteen, thirty. Sometimes I’ll play the full song if it’s before or after the game.

But you’re not going out buying sheet music right?
I don’t read music. I knew how to as a kid but I just haven’t practiced it.

So if there’s a popular new song, you’ll just kind of figure it out?
Yes, if it’s simple enough. I do this every night. Now if it’s a straight-forward tune , then usually one listen and I’m good to go.  But sometimes it takes a second or third listen to get the nuances of it, especially if you’re really trying to nail the hook or an extended chunk of the song.

I know you play a lot of requests but you also have a keen appreciation for some 80s alternative music.  I think I heard you play a Plimsouls song once. Do you ever get to work in some of your own snippets?
I play whatever people ask me to play so if people ask to me to play a Plimsouls song, I will play it. Now I happen to be in my  sort of freelance music “career” I’m kind of connected with a lot of the sort of 80s and 90s indie rock world because those are the bands I end up meeting and playing at festivals with and connecting with. I’m in a band with Eddie Muñoz who was the guitar player in The Plimsouls.

What’s that band called?
It’s called The Split Squad. So it’s Eddie Muñoz, Clem Burke the drummer from Blondie and Keith Streng the guitar player from The Fleshtones. So those kind of people.

How often do you play shows?
Everybody lives all over the country and everybody’s in lots of bands so I would two or three times a year we get together for like a week.

How long has this been going on for?
This band formed about four of five years ago.

So it’s a cold, rainy night in say June and the game sucks and we’re getting our asses handed to us. Is that when you really try to lift people up?
That’s when you have to earn it. Because if they’re in first place and they’re kicking ass and everyone’s in great spirt and the place is packed and it’s the weekend and everyone is in an awesome mood, it’s not difficult for me to wind people up because they’re already pretty wound up. But when the weather is miserable and the team is having a bad night and people are in a bad mood… I mean we’ve had a couple of seasons recently where they were in last place it’s tricky because you want to be light-hearted, you want it to be buoyant, you want to keep people optimistic. At the same time, Red Sox fans are really savvy by and large and if you whitewash it they feel like you’re insulting their intelligence and you kind of are insulting their intelligence so I don’t want to do that. So it’s  bit of balancing act. If the team’s not playing as well then maybe there’s a little more pressure on me to at least make it so people are having fun.

Remind me of what happens between innings? Are you and TJ both playing songs?
Yes. Sometimes it’s him, sometimes it’s me. We trade off. During a commercial break there’s almost always music being played at the ballpark by the DJ or by me.

Do you play songs for players as they’re coming up to bat?
Every park does it differently. Each player has a song that is associated with them and a lot of times it’s personally selected by the player and so when they get introduced and they come up to bat or it’s a relief pitcher and they’re coming into the game than that song will be played at that time. 99% of the time that’s a DJ thing cause that’s what the players tend to prefer. Then as far as incidental music that happens in response to plays or lulls in the action or anything like that, that’s a combination of me and the DJ. By and large the DJ and I have the leeway to make those decisions.  Sometimes we get input from colleagues, bosses and we take that all into consideration.

Do you ever get to interact with the players?
Occasionally it’s a quick “hi, how are you you? but I kind of observe them much in the way that fans do. Do you get to interact with the players ever?

Where is the organ? 
We’ve had  a few different locations over the years but right now it’s directly beneath the press box where writers sit. It’s level four in that’s called the State Street Pavilion Club with is a restaurant/bar area.

Even after all these years and all of the times you’ve walked into Fenway Park to go to work, do you still have moments of “this is so cool!”?
Oh yeah. Everyday. At least one, usually several times every day I kind of stop and soak it in and pinch myself. Even on days I’m not there sometimes, throughout the off-season I think “I can’t believe I get to go there and do that?”

 

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