A few weeks ago Rob and I met at Meshuggah coffee house in St. Louis to talk about how writing, the '80s and KDHX have influenced his musical taste and affected his long-running show.
Kate Williamson: How did you get started at KDHX?
Rob Levy: I got out of college in '95 and I had a broadcasting degree with a marketing degree like every kid who comes out of a mass communication degree. I had done, in college, a radio show before, so I was kind of looking around, and my options if I wanted to work in radio were to go to Sikeston or Warrenton or some of those places and bounce around.
Back in the day people would go to a station in Warrenton or Sparta, Illinois, they'd be there for six months, there'd be a change, then they're off to some other station. And I didn't really want to mess with that. So I was really looking for marketing and PR jobs and trying to get a radio job, but figuring I wasn't going to. This was right around the time that the Point was in full swing, but I think I was a little too rough for that in terms of stuff I played and my style.
So, I'd listened to KDHX and I recognized a lot of people from shows and stuff growing up. I just thought one day on a lark I was going to call down there and see what would happen. And I called and it wasn't organized like it is now. It was like literally going through four or five people. I got a call back and it was like, "What would you like to do?" and I had a demo and it was a cassette. I got a slot, it was an overnight, I started off doing 3 to 5 [in the morning] which in a way was good because I got a feel for the station, and they kind of know you really want to do it. I don't remember much about the overnights other than I just sort of played what I wanted to play and did requests and tried not to make anyone mad. And then a slot opened up in the afternoon. I did an afternoon show for about a year, and then I ended up in the evenings.
Did the style of the show change? The type of music?
Yeah, kind of. When I was on in the afternoon they didn't have the schedule set up like they do now where they try to make everything flow into the next show. So I was playing everything from Fat Boy Slim, Billy Bragg, to Front 242 in the afternoon, which in a way was probably kind of jarring. Once I got the evening slot I thought I'm going to be able to do some stuff with this so let me build what I'm going to do. So then it was like ok, I'm always going to want to play new music. I've always thought the core of KDHX was new music and I've always tried to play new music.
I'm always going to try to play stuff that people aren't going to hear anywhere else because I think the basic reason people listen to the station still is because they want to hear programming that is alternative to anything else they're going to hear. But I always have tried to play something new or something really cool ahead of time before it comes out but also mix in something like these great records from the '80s that people may not have heard or may have forgotten about. And I don't really put any handcuffs on what I want to play. I try to think about the show that comes on before me -- Dr. Jeff and Kate after me -- in terms of what I'm doing and what other shows are on during the day. So it's about how it's all going to fit together as a puzzle and try to make it work.
So when you plan a show each week do you try to create an arc to go from one show to the other?
So here's where it gets really bizarre. I don't actually have with most of the shows an actual plan. I don't actually decide what order it's going to be, but it's like one day I may hear a song that's on a TV commercial and I'm like oh, I could play that on the radio. Or I hear a song on someone else's show and I'm like oh, I need to check out that album. Or I might know there's a new album out or I always check the calendar to see what historical events happened that day or what birthdays there may be if it's significant, like if the Clash played their final gig on this day. Or if there's a song that's, for example, when we had all this stuff when everyone was running around trying to catch Gaddafi, Front 242 has this song called "Funk Gaddafi," so I played that because it was funny because it was timely.
So most of the time I might think of mini-sets so I'm like ok I might play a set of fast, old, two-minute post-punk songs or I know I'm going to play four or five Slumberland bands or I might do this or that. I have an idea, but it's getting there that's the battle. And I try to keep everything pleasantly melodic to the ear of the listener which is the one thing I think I've kind of learned from having different time slots is to start thinking of how the listener hears things. So that's kind of the nexus of the show. There's not really a blueprint for the show.
Anyone who believes this show is organized, planned and regimented is sadly mistaken. It's very much sort of a work of chaos, which is great because I think there's a certain spontaneity. And I have to allow breathing room for things like requests or spontaneous ideas. I will sometimes hear a record with twenty seconds left and think "God, this song would sound really great after this," and find it.
And then there's how to figure out the breaks for the PSAs. The one nice thing that's happened in the last couple of years is when people critique the show they want us to think about the breaks. So, while there is no sort of thing it is planned around, ok I'm going to have a break, so there are sort of mini-sets of stuff because I try to mix it up a little bit and not give someone the same two hours of what they're going to hear. In the evening people are on the go, they're moving around. I get the sense they want more of a variety. They want a lot of new music but they want to hear some stuff like "Oh yeah, I remember that too." It works really great when you're talking about the influence of Joy Division and you play an Interpol record. It just sort of all works. That is the long answer to your question. It's not really planned, but it's sort of a dodge and lean kind of a thing.
So do you mostly find new music from other people's shows and in the station?
I read a lot of music magazines, I read the Word, Mojo, NME, and now that stuff is all online so it's much easier than it was when I was 18 and running out to Streetside Records all the time buying the newspaper version of NME and trying to find all these vinyl 7 inches. So I read a lot of press and I read a lot of blogs. The problem is that everybody and their brother's got a blog, so I go for the press and I see if the band's got a big buzz. And there's certain shows I listen to and I know if it's going to be played on that show that odds are I'll probably like it. So, yes, I listen to KDHX, I listen to Radio 1 or Radio 4 on the BBC. I will listen to other radio stations in other markets on the Internet and then I have friends who have musical tastes who turn me on to other things. And I go record shopping. It's not like I used to, but I make it a point to go to [a record store] a couple of times a month to see what's out and listen to things and explore. But ideally I find music through magazines, blogs, podcasts, mutual friends and I listen to radio.
Are you still going to shows in St. Louis?
I still go to shows, not as much as I used to mainly because it isn't possible to keep up with that sort of thing all the time, and there used to be a show a night, but now I'm a little more selective of who I see and what I see. We've also got so many exciting new places to see shows, because there's sort of break where we lost Mississippi Nights and had the Pageant, but didn't really have any medium-sized venues. We had them but they'd come and go, and now there's so many different places to go see bands. It's great. I can take a chance and go see a band.
I know that you do freelance writing. How does that work with your show?
I've always been a book person, I'm pretty much the squarest, most nerdy guy in the world. So, I read a lot and I've written for different music fanzines early on. I used to put out a fanzine and it sort of moved into, "oh, people actually want to read album reviews!" And there was a really great magazine in the past called Night Times, and I did some stuff for them. I did like concert reviews and a music column. So, basically I like to do film reviews, movie reviews, interview somebody, sometimes I'll do opera reviews, and now I'm actually doing some stuff for the Beacon where I'm doing hard writing.
I did journalism in college. I worked for the college newspaper, I did creative writing stuff, so it's something I've always done, but now I have time to write. When you have a job where you work 60 or 70 hours, you don't get to write and you don't get to listen to records, so in the last four or five years I've gotten to sort of reinvest myself into things that I like, which is an important lesson for all the kids out there. If you have a job that you hate, find time to do things that you love. I enjoy writing. It keeps my brain working.
What was your first CD or album?
So, this is how it is. When I was in high school everyone had places they could go if you were a kid under 21. There were bars you could go to hear records, which was great. They were juice bars. I had always grown up with different records around the house. My dad would play lots of jazz, particularly big band jazz, my brother would play a lot of his old school soul records. So I always had music on, and I was always kind of aware of it. One summer we went out to California to see my grandfather and he had a short-wave radio, and I was up at night and he had this really cool mad messy room with a short-wave radio and stuff everywhere. Now we would call it steam punk. So I was just going around the dial listening to stuff, and I found KUSF in San Francisco, and I heard the Specials and the Madness and the Clash and I was like, "Wow!"
I heard all this great music and literally went from hearing my dad and my brother's old records to punk and ska and new wave. So I missed that trial of youth where you listen to lots of classic rock. That came later. So I was the weird kid with the weird bangs at school. So, fast-forwarding to coming home this summer, not having access to this music, and finding out there's fanzines, there's places to go, there's a scene. I remember a girl took me to a record store, and I remember the first three records I got were the Jesus and Mary Chain "Psycho Candy," the Smiths "Hat Full of Hollow" and Echo and the Bunnymen "Crocodiles." Those are the first three I remember getting. And then I remember, a couple of months later branching that out and getting Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and some of that stuff. I very much early on got into that whole British new wave, post-punk sort of thing. That's kind of where it started.
So, did you ever have an awkward terrible music stage or did you just skip it entirely?
You know, God bless my parents and my sisters. They had no idea what the hell I was listening to when I was home. They thought I was going to be suicidal, I mean my sister found my Joy Division records and just kind of made a face once. My dad, I'd ride in the car with him and we'd listen to old jazz records, old Benny Goodman or old Glenn Miller. He'd talk about those records and how he was in the navy and he'd hear those records and what they meant to him, and that was pretty cool. And then he referred to it as claptrap or fright rock, "It's not like that noise! What the hell is that space man music you're listening to?" Honestly, if I'd never heard the Jesus and Mary Chain and I walked into my kid's room and he's listening to it I'd be like, "What the hell is that?"
But at the same time it's the early '80s so you've got Depeche Mode, the Smiths, you've got Echo and the Bunnymen, you've got ADC, the Madness and the Specials. I remember when I discovered the Undertones and the Buzzcocks, it was just like play the record over and over and over and over and over again. And they used to do these things where they'd be giving out samplers of records and you'd get these really jarring tracks. You'd get like a 4AD band, and then the Damned. So that was always kind of interesting and fun, listening to that stuff.
And then when I was in high school I had people pull me aside and say you should listen to Creedence, you should listen to Floyd, you should listen to Zeppelin. And I actually had religion teachers who used to be hippies who were like, yeah I knew about the Beatles, but I had a really great English teacher and he pulled me aside and he goes, "All right, take this home, there's a test in the morning." Side one was Velvet Underground and Nico, which was like, "oh my god, what the hell is this?" and side two was "Closer" by Joy Division, and that's how I discovered Joy Division, through this English teacher I had. I had my little Walkman and I used to take the bus to school with my beat-up homemade cassette tapes. And it was interesting because that was right when Public Enemy and Run DMC were kind of new, which I was curious about but didn't know about. But I got that later. I sort of knew what was out there and I'd get to it, but I was really completely immersed and I was probably really annoying.
Well, as the big ender, if you had to pick your top five favorite bands, what would you pick?
I'll pick bands that meant something to me at some point in my development. As weird as it sounds I have a soft spot for the British synthesizer stuff, which is horrible, I know most of it's cheesy, but I love the Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, Art of Noise, Propaganda, Soft Cell -- things like that. I can't say I'm ever not in the mood to hear "Tainted Love." The Clash were very important to me. I wish every person could frame in their life the first time they heard the Clash and go, "Oh my god, what is that?" Or the first time you hear "Sgt. Pepper's." A lot of that sort of synth-y '80s new-wave stuff meant a lot to me. I love Johnny Cash, and I've really learned to appreciate Loretta Lynn and Kenny Rogers. That's a horrible guilty pleasure, liking Kenny Rogers. I grew up with my dad playing [Duke] Ellington and Glenn Miller and Count Basie, so I always have a soft spot for that.
But trying to nail it down to five artists! The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Clash, Johnny Cash and the Pet Shop Boys. And that's a horribly unhip list. But that's the stuff I cut my teeth on.