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Tuesday, 31 January 2012 12:43

88.1 KDHX DJ Spotlight: Jason Robinson of the Mixtape

88.1 KDHX DJ Spotlight: Jason Robinson of the Mixtape Sara Finke
Written by Matt Champion
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"You shouldn't do a job just to do it; you should do a job because you give a damn," says Jason Robinson, host of the Mixtape on 88.1 KDHX.

Now that he's settled into his new, earlier time slot (Monday evenings, 11 p.m.-1 a.m. Central), the father of two and member of St. Louis rock band the Orbz paused for a discussion about music, life, mixtapes and how it all comes together.

Matt Champion: Let's start with an easy one.

Jason Robinson: Sure.

How did you get started with KDHX?

Well, I started volunteering after I met [KDHX Co-Executive Director] Bev Hacker. I was doing my undergrad program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville majoring in communications, and one of my projects was to talk to someone who was a director at a station to get the feel for how it is day to day. I visited the offices over on Euclid and it was really interesting. I got to learn about how to volunteer and I picked up a packet that day and was like, "I'm going to take the first class, do orientation and become a member." So that would have been about 10 years ago at the ripe old age of 20.

I had a nice interview with Bev and got interested right then. So I became a member, put in a demo and waited and waited until I heard from Andy [Coco, Production Manager] then cut another demo. At the time the name of the show was Ninja Rock Radio. I was working doing production and one of the things was to put together a package. What I did was a fake radio show that I recorded myself. It was interesting. I got to learn the board and the equipment there. That was my first demo. It was only about three or four years ago that I submitted it. I had to submit three shows worth of material. I was like "Okay!" Actually, I still have those mixes around somewhere.

Around three years ago I was working, well, volunteering I guess, for Riverfront Radio, one of the Internet radio stations. I had a show on there. That's where I learned how to structure a show, and once I got that I was comfortable enough to approach KDHX. About two years ago I got a call in January that said, "Hey, we've got a slot open" and I was so jazzed that I didn't even care that it was from 3 to 5 in the morning on a Monday. Well, Tuesday morning/Monday night. I made it in and started doing the show and found out that my wife was pregnant. 3 to 5 a.m. was not going to cut it since I needed to be up with those kids. It kind of snowballed from there.

I changed time slots about a year ago in January. I switched to 11 p.m.-1 a.m. to take over for Tim and Matt of Super Happy Fun Hour. I've been at that particular time slot since then.

What made you decide to choose the name "The Mixtape" and go with the random format?

It had a lot to do with the fact that when I was a kid that was how you expressed yourself to other people. You would put together a 90-minute tape of just stuff. That was when cassettes were the new thing. I'd go get some $5 compilations over at Streetside Records and mix the best tracks on those and give them to my friends and say, "Listen to this, you gotta hear this stuff, man." I remember BMG mail order CD service. That was huge for me since I would send off for a bunch of stuff and then never pay for them. I'm sure that somewhere out there a BMG representative is still out there looking for me.

Yeah, Columbia House put a contract out for me back in the day.

Ah, Columbia House! That was the other one. That and my mom worked as a travel agent and did some work for some people at Atlantic Records, so every once in a while I'd get a bunch of new stuff from Atlantic. The one that really stuck out was the Bottle Rockets. That and the Uncle Tupelo record came out and I was like, "Those guys are from here?" I went to an all-boys Catholic high school and you didn't really get any exposure to music inside such a small, insular community. There were bands that formed from people in the high school and then you were fans of that band. One of which was called Heterosexual and Ashamed. They were a great band. They're long forgotten, but I still have their CD somewhere called the "Adventures of Two-Headed Jesus."

So it kind of grew out of that idea, the mutual awareness of taking all kinds of stuff and arranging it in such a short amount of time. Even back in the Riverfront Radio days I was trying to give it that feel of how it was to receive a mix tape from me all those years ago. The name and format went hand in hand because of the way I used to make mix tapes. It's the same thought process that goes into the show now.

I know you interact with fans on Facebook and Twitter. Is that how you come up with some of your show ideas?

Yeah, I do. The best interaction actually comes during the show. During the music I'll have somebody call in with a suggestion and I think, "Hey, I could build a whole show around that" or I'll get comments from people I know. You don't see a lot of comments on Facebook or Twitter, but interaction face to face from people is where it comes from. I'll see people and say, "Hey, I do this show" and they'll say, "Oh wow, I love that show. Did you ever think about putting such and such on the show" and I'll say, "No, but I'll go home and check it out."

I'm always looking for people to say, "By the way, here's this thing." That's what's cool about the other KDHX DJs. If you're there on some random day they'll be like, "Hey man, listen to this" or even listening to the shows. Tuesday morning I go to work listening to Darren [Snow] do Rocket 88 and hear something and think, "Wait a minute, this is in the KDHX library? What?" I'm always hearing new stuff just by my association with KDHX.

It's interesting because music is like this lingua franca, a way of communicating between like-minded people. It is a world within itself and has a language within itself, and I'm not just talking about notes or structure. It's the sharing aspect and the friend-to-friend contact. Back in the mid '80s when the RIAA said that taping would kill music they were wrong. Dead wrong.

It's the same with music sharing today. If I download something and like it, the first thing I do is go out and buy it or go see the artist in concert.

That's the way bands these days are making their money. I mean, if you go to a show you're putting more money in their pocket than if you bought their new release on iTunes or wherever. That's why I like stuff like Spotify. I'm a big fan of Spotify. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet of streaming music so you don't have to wait for a download. If you want to hear this random record from the '80s that was cassette only and someone out there has put it on there, you can hear it.

This band Urusei Yatsura, named after the anime, they're from the UK. I only found them through Spotify and friend recommendations, and now they're one of my favorite bands. It's one of those weird things. Music has become so integral to the Internet now and it all kind of feeds into itself. You hear about this, like this band Ace Bushy Striptease leads you to Johnny Foreigner who I like. You get this weird little spiderweb when you trace back the bands through things where you heard about them. The spheres of influence are fantastic.

It reminds me of another thing from back in the day, College Music Journal. They'd put out a magazine every month that would have a CD on it. That was the first time I'd heard Portishead, well before their single became big. I'd heard Finley Quaye, Tricky's uncle that is a reggae superstar. It all came to you monthly if you subscribed to the magazine. Well, now the barriers of subscriptions are over. If you post on Facebook or Twitter that you listened to Finley Quaye, someone is going to go listen to it and become a fan and start them on a journey.

That's the way the show is too. It'll take you on a ride and also be like, "Hey, by the way, there's also this which you might like too." It's a great platform for me to share all this stuff that I love. The Internet. There's no way I'd be able to do this kind of show nearly as well if I'd have been doing it 20 years ago. The way it comes together so organically wouldn't have happened.

It's funny that you mention CMJ. I've got about 10 of their old CDs out in my car right now.

Oh, it's such great stuff. They were the preeminent place to get a mix tape. I could tell you about Royal Fingerbowl, a smoky little blues outfit pre-Black Keys that did this little goofy thing. Listening to them you'd think it was like five black dudes but it was three scrawny white guys. It took the whole concept of image and marketing and just shattered it. When you'd get the CD, you would know some of the bands and they'd be familiar but others you wouldn't know who they were or what to expect.

I like to make the show like that. For me, I really like to put the emphasis on local bands. Not because I'm a local musician but because there's just so much talent in town that just is not getting played.

How long does it usually take you to prepare a show?

That depends on the show. Sometimes it will take me an hour, sometimes it'll take me a day. There was a show that I did that was all Japanese rock. That took me forever. [laughs] I was finding stuff and would have to record a track from a YouTube feed or I'd want to play something and would have to find someone who had it on a CD that they bootlegged.

Sometimes I can go in with a rough outline and pick some things out of the library or go online and make a patchwork of what I find. Most of the time that's how it comes together. I'll go in and find something new and give it a listen, decide I like it and keep a hold of it. It's trial and error. You have to listen to it and either like it or not.

So it's just like you're making a mixtape when you're planning the show.

Yeah, it really is. Most of the time it's making a list of what not to include due to time limits. This week [previously in January] we're doing a "best of" week two. There were so many good records that came out this year that I had to roll it into a second week. We're going to do a part three, but that will be local bands only. I have to go through all that stuff and sift through and play the stuff that I really like.

So, do you ever play your own music on the show?

I'm going to plead the fifth on that one. [Laughs] I have, but it always feels kind of wrong to do it. I never let it on that I'm in the band, I don't tell people, "Yeah, this is from my band." I think that if I'm going to play something I should come to it organically. I do in extreme cases, like when we opened the Ultimate Fakebook show. They were big heroes of mine growing up so I made an exception for that one, but for the most part I tend to divorce myself from that content. Now, bands that I've played with or bands that I'm friends with, sure I'll play their stuff. There's no reason for me not to since I like their stuff and like them as people and all that. My own stuff I'll shy away from as much as possible.

Outside of the family, what kind of work do you do?

I'm a teller at a credit union. I believe in the philosophy that the big banks are taking advantage of people these days and people need an alternate source for loans and a place to keep their funds that is secure, so I perform that service as a teller.

For a while, about a year ago I was working for KMOX, the big talk station. I was producing an overnight show, Jon Grayson's Overnight America. I'd get in a creative decision or two, but it didn't feel like I was really in radio. I was behind the scenes, way behind the scenes, and you hardly even knew I was there. With the job I have now, it feels like I can make an actual difference. We offer a lot of different products that most banks wouldn't touch, like home and auto loans or revolving lines of credit where people wouldn't normally get it since their credit is bad. I believe that what you do should reflect what you believe in. You shouldn't do a job just to do it, you should do a job because you give a damn. And so, I give a damn and that's where it comes from.

Your kids, the twins, are they fans of the show?

They're never up late enough. [Laughs] They're almost two. They aren't up late. They go to bed at like 8 p.m. They're fans of the music I play in the car when I take them to their grandparents' house. You know, they're little musicians themselves. My son, Elliott, is an amateur drummer. He bangs on the table yelling, "Elliott drummin'!" They love to sing. They're actually big fans of They Might Be Giants. They put out a series of children's albums. We've got the DVDs of those. "Here Come the 1,2,3's," Elliot will sit there singing "High Five" all day if you let him.

I also turn on Musical Merry-Go-Round. When we're in the car and it's about that time I turn it on because Grandfather Stark plays a lot of great kids music, and that's something that's lacking these days. The last good kids album I remember was Kimya Dawson. She did this album called "Alphabutt." There's this song "A is for apple, B is for butt. C is for cat butt, D is for doody." It's fun. Kids' music is really different from what you'd expect. You always think of stuff like Raffi, but there's a whole lot of really cool stuff out there and I can find it on the station. Eva wants to play keyboards. They want to be in my band. Elliott will say "Elliott drummin' in daddy's band!" I'll say, "Well, not yet son, but someday."

What was your first album?

Oh man. This is embarrassing. Well, you need to specify. Do you mean the first album I bought with my own money, or the first single? Every format has a different first. My first cassette was Faith No More's "The Real Thing" followed shortly by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack album. Yeah. Technotronic was on that one. Then there was MC Hammer's "Too Legit to Quit" as a single. It was the B-side to [sings] "Tell Me Have You Seen Her?" Then it was Paula Abdul's "Spellbound."

As far as CDs go, the first one was actually the Harry Connick Jr. album "She." It's kind of weird. I played it once on the show. This tune called "That Party." It's about all these people talking at a party. It's just surreal. There's also this song called "Booker" about "Booker died of a broken heart." It’s really strange for a guy that did poppy wannabe soul music to really go out there. That record is a lot weirder than a lot of people realize. Like, "What the hell?" I put it on the other day and didn't know what he was thinking. This song called "Honestly Now (Safety's Just Danger … Out of Place)." What?

It's like he was trying to be his dad. A lot of that comes out in me, too. My dad was a musician, and you want to kinda take the path and make it your own. That's what I try to do both personally and with the show. That album had a lot of weird tracks on it. I'm gonna have to listen to that again.

What was the first song that you heard that made you want to jump up and get into music?

"Need You Around" by the Smoking Popes. There's something about that song. That and "London" by Third Eye Blind. There's something about that track, I don't know. Well, actually, Third Eye Blind and the Smoking Popes are kind of combined in my mind because we went to see Third Eye Blind at the Fox back in the day and the Smoking Popes opened for them. So I'm at the Fox and I didn't know who the hell they were. All of a sudden there's this weird punk rock band up there with this guy as the lead singer, and I'm like "Who are these people?"

From then on, I have gone to shows early just so I can catch the opening bands so I can see who's coming up next. Years later I'd see Tegan and Sara opening, or They Might Be Giants. Jonathan Coulton opened up for them and he's great. Every time you go see a major band, the opening act is going to be something interesting.

A couple of months ago we had Mariachi El Bronx come into the KDHX studios. They were opening for Foo Fighters. Now I envy the people who went to that show because when you go to a Foo Fighters show you are not expecting eight guys in Mariachi outfits just blowing you away. I knew who they were because I knew of the Bronx, the punk band they were in. Even after hearing the album I was expecting these punk guys dicking around and playing Mariachi music, but it's like, "Hey, this is real Mariachi!" It wasn't until I interviewed them that I realized that they all grew up in L.A. and were surrounded by it. That kind of gave me a new perspective on musicians and their culture. It's fascinating stuff.

It's the fact that you go to see a band and seeing something you didn't expect at all, that's the best part about live shows. On my show, I really try to get people out to see live shows. Part of the idea behind my show is to get people interested in going out to see the bands performing live.

All right … You have to assemble a four-piece band out of your favorite musicians. Vocals, bass, drums and guitar. Who's in?

Living or dead?

Doesn't matter.

OK. Prince has to be on guitar. I'm a big fan. Warren Zevon on the keys. Oh wait, no keys.

We can do a five piece. For Warren we'll make an exception.

OK. Vocal lead is Ike Willis from Frank Zappa and the Mothers and Project/Object. On the bass … that's a good one. For some reason the bass players escape me. Well, for drummers Yuval Gabay from Soul Coughing. Bass, gotta have some funk. Oh! Jimbo from Reverend Horton Heat playing the upright bass. I have no idea what the hell that would sound like [laughs]. It would be bizarre. I could also use Les Claypool on bass. Those would be my two bass players.

You [and the Orbz] opened for your heroes Ultimate Fakebook last December. Who else would you like to open for?

Smoking Popes. The Hold Steady, original lineup, Franz Nicolay included. I saw them with the Thermals. That was fun. The Hold Steady and the Thermals at Off Broadway when it was still a smoking club. The whole place was like a cloud. National acts, like big names? Interpol. That would be insane amounts of fun. I imagine that those guys would just be so chill, just the way they put their music out. She and Him just so I could meet Zooey Deschanel. I've got a bit of a crush, I'm sorry. Ever since I saw her in "Elf," I don't know what it is.

OK, if you had to pick another local act to open for you?

I'm actually getting that wish. Ellen the Felon and Mattronome, this guy Matt who plays the drums. Sleepy Kitty, they're always fun. I always wanted to play a show with False Moves. I'm a big fan of Mike C. and Greg Braun. He's a good guy. He's played on stage with my band a few times, like when we did the Pixies show for An Under Cover Weekend like three years ago.

Oh… and you aren't gonna believe Under Cover 2012. It's a secret, but [whispers] ...

You know, I could see that.

Yeah. A little hair dye and ... Hey, why don't we turn off the recorder before I get in trouble?

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