I sat down with Allen at Kayak's Coffee in St. Louis to talk about how he prepares to go on the air, his favorite musicians, and waking up in time for a 5 a.m. Central show.
Brian Benton: We'll start at the beginning. Do you remember your first exposure to KDHX, maybe listening to the station or seeing the red stickers around town?
Allen Dahm: It wasn't the stickers. It would have been listening, probably in college. I was a sporadic listener until about 10 years ago, which is when my musical palate, let's say, got a lot broader. It was probably college when I was introduced, but it was probably 10 years ago that I was fully cognizant of everything that it offered.
From there, how did you start DJing? What got you involved?
I had a friend who volunteered at KDHX, and I had never really even given thought to volunteering but I thought, "It would be great to do a show," and she said she could get me the application and talk to some people, and she came back with the application, and I always loved making mixtapes for people back in the day, mixed CDs now, so it just kind of evolved from that. I just kind of thought doing a show would be like making my own mixtape. She brought me the application, I filled it out and did all that work, and I've been doing this for five or six years, something like that.
How did you come up with the idea for "Bittersweet Melody"?
It's just my favorite kind of music. It's just a show that I would really want to listen to myself.
How would you describe it to someone who's never heard the show before?
Oh gosh. It's built around rock and country, and it's built around melody. If a song has a melody, then it fits on my show. And really, there's a lot of songs outside of rock and country that have melody, but I try to keep it within rock and country. I really focus on the melody, not so much on the lyrics, which is how I've always listened to music. Some of my favorite songs, I have no idea what they're singing. R.E.M. for instance: I have no idea what a lot of the words mean, what a lot of the songs are about, what he's actually saying. It's always been more focused on the melody and how the words fit the melody of the song.
Beyond songs that you've always loved, how do you find music to play? Do you go through KDHX's library or do you have your own system?
I do that, I do [go through the library] once a week generally, or maybe once every two weeks. I listen to other shows, I check out playlists of other DJs, I hear stuff online. I have a LISTSERV, basically a group of friends, who all connect through the unifying – well the unifying thing is Uncle Tupelo, which is a band from the early '90s from Belleville [Ill.], that split off and formed Wilco and Son Volt. All the people on the list are all huge fans of Uncle Tupelo and we branched off into whatever we branched off to, but we talk about music we like, and I can hear a lot of stuff [from the list] that I don't hear on KDHX or anywhere else.
How long does it usually take you to prepare a show?
It varies. I've kind of evolved how I create a show. I used to overanalyze and go back and forth and map out the entire show, so it used to take me maybe four or six hours to do the show. And that was just to do the show, not time spent listening or coming into the station or things like that. Now I've kind of gotten it down to maybe an hour and a half. Instead of planning a whole show, I'll try to plan bits of a show, maybe a 10 or 15-minute segment, and then I'll leave room for spontaneity. Maybe there will be something that hits me, so I try to leave more room for spontaneity and leave gaps in my planning.
When I work, I have an iPod dock, and I'll just play it on shuffle. When I hear a song that I really like or I've never noticed before, I'll five star it. And when I make a show, I include those five star songs in there.
When I listen to a song, I sort of get an idea of what would sound good with it that I know. I'll try to play sets of two or three or four songs that have some kind of similarity. You don't want to go from Aretha Franklin to Japandroids back to back; that would just not sound good to you. You want to go Aretha to Sam Cooke, or Japandroids to something else that's a little heavier. A lot of the time, when you look at the playlist and go, "Wow! He knows a lot of music," chances are if you see a band you've never heard of before, I just heard about them not too long ago and I'm just kind of learning about it myself.
Where do you think your love of music came from?
I have no idea because my parents are an older generation, and when I grew up, the only albums in my house were like Lawrence Welk -- seriously. I had a brother who got into music, but he was more of a casual listener and he wasn't really deep into it. I listened to Top 40 probably up until college. When I got into college [at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville], I kind of branched out a bit. Most of what I've heard I picked up on my own. I've had some [people] that have influenced me, but for the most part it wasn't family and it wasn't childhood friends; it was just college and seeking it out.
With the show, the name "Bittersweet Melody," the first thing I think of is the song "Bitter Sweet Symphony" [by the Verve].
That's actually where it came from!
That's what I thought!
Melody was such a crucial part of any show I was thinking about doing, and "Bitter Sweet Symphony" has always been one of my favorite songs, so I just kind of built from that.
Have you ever played it on the show?
Did it feel clichéd or weird?
You know, yeah, a little bit. But also I don't feel like Dick Clark and American Bandstand or something where the eyes of America are on me. It kind of felt like it just fit that time in the show, that moment. It's something I didn't really think about.
So the early time slot, 5-7 a.m. Central, is that what you've always had?
It is what I've always had. I started on Mondays and I moved to Wednesdays about two years ago. With a 9-5 job, there are limited windows of opportunity for a rock show.
Aside from DJing and working, how do you spend the rest of your time?
I have a corporate, you know, finance job, and live in the city, not too far from the station. But I'm a huge sports fan, and family, friends and all that stuff. Going to shows. On average, during the year, I probably go to about two shows per week.
Do you have a favorite place in St. Louis to see a show?
Off Broadway is probably my favorite place, but the Pageant, Off Broadway, the Firebird are usually where I end up seeing shows.
Do you have a favorite local band?
Oh yeah, John Hardy and the Public.
Do you get to work a lot of local bands into your show?
I'll probably play two or three local songs a week, but it's not the focus of my show. But exposure is a good thing and some local bands certainly deserve it. There's a lot of local music that's as good as anything nationwide or worldwide, and it's easily missed.
So you mentioned R.E.M. and Wilco, but what are some other bands that you really like?
New Pornographers, the National, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, R.E.M., Son Volt and the Smiths. Field Report is a band that's not really well known yet but are excellent. Nada Surf is probably my favorite band right now. There's so much. I wish I had a list in front of me.
The Beatles are probably my favorite band of all time, but that's too easy of an answer. Everybody will say the Beatles. But I've always been more of a Beatles person than the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. They don't make it on my show that often, because pretty much everybody has heard every Beatles song there is. I'll put some in, but usually it's because I'll just feel like hearing a Beatles song. But I'll never play "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or "Hey Jude."
Do you know if your family gets up in the morning to listen to the show.
My mom does, not religiously, but she does. My brother lives in San Francisco and will stream the archives. But the rest of my family just isn't really music fans.
You're probably not up 5 to 7 a.m. on a typical day, either.
No, not at all.
And it's funny. Most of my friends, my family, they ask me when my show will be on, and after I tell them, 98 percent of the time, their answer is, "Oh, I'm not up that early." I have listeners that do hear the show that are up that early, but anybody that I ever tell, 98 percent aren't up that early. But hopefully some do stream it. That's the price you pay for a 5 to 7 slot.
So is this something you'd want to keep doing for as long as you can?
Do you think you'd ever change up the show?
I don't know. I guess if my musical tastes changed, I would maybe change it up, or maybe if my time slot changed, but I can't envision that now. My show is not so focused on any one genre, so I can work around it. It's a pretty wide swath of music that I play now, so even if my tastes changed I think I could still stay within that. I don't think I'd have a problem with the format I have.
One last question. What is your favorite thing about working for KDHX?
Well, outside of doing the show, KDHX is such a community thing. I've never done anything or worked with anything where there's such a unified purpose. It's really great to work somewhere where everybody wants one thing, which is for the station to be as good as it can be. And that's probably my favorite thing about working at the station, that it is is so unified. It is a unified community.
Allen Dahm hosts "Bittersweet Melody" on 88.1 KDHX on Wednesdays 5-7 a.m. Central.