Though he seemingly stumbled into the role of a KDHX DJ, Rakel now has a decade of experience under his belt. A fan of the variety of opportunities to enjoy live music in St. Louis, he makes sure to highlight a bevy of upcoming shows during his two-hour slot.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Rakel at MoKaBe's cafe after one of his shows to discuss "Mystery Train," St. Louis and his earliest musical memories.
Mariam Shahsavarani: How did you get started at KDHX?
Tim Rakel: I started doing the show called "The Graveyard Shift," which was Tuesday mornings from 4-6 a.m. The music director at the time was Tony Renner, and he lived in the neighborhood where I just ran into him. I think he just casually mentioned one day that they had the slot open for me, and bobEE Sweet, who does the Uncontrollable Urge show on Wednesdays, he and I were working together at the time. We both worked at the same bakery, so at four in the morning I actually happened to be awake and listening to the show that was changing time slots, and that was the opening that they had. When Tony asked about it, I was like, "Yeah, I'll try it out." I think bobEE came in and helped with the show a couple of times, and then I just started doing it on my own. At four in the morning it didn't really matter what I kind of learned on my own.
Then it switched to "Mystery Train," but that started in the summer of 2002. That started on Friday mornings. I was on from 6-8 a.m., and that was the drive time sort of thing. It seemed like quite a few people were listening to that, and then they changed me to Mondays the summer of 2008.
Do you have a favorite time slot?
I liked the Friday morning thing, the 6-8 a.m. one. It seemed like there were a lot more people listening in passing, getting ready for work, that sort of thing. But Mondays are nice, too.
How did you come up with the idea for "Mystery Train?"
The title is a Junior Parker song from the early '50s, maybe 1953. The more famous version is Elvis Presley; that's probably the one people know. I used to start the show with the Junior Parker version of the song at six in the morning. It was kind of a two-minute warning so I could get myself together. I knew what I was going to play first all the time. I haven't done that since I moved to Monday, but at six in the morning it seemed like the thing to do. I'd also seen the movie "Mystery Train" recently when I started doing the show, too, and I guess that movie was partially the inspiration for the title as well.
How would you describe your show to someone who's never listened to it?
I think it's pretty eclectic, and some people would probably say that's an understatement. It doesn't really have any specific genre that I focus on. It's kind of all over the place, but I try to have one song flow into the next.
I got a phone call this morning and some guy asked, "Were you the one playing Motorhead earlier?" and I was like, "Yeah." He was like, "And you just played Phil Ochs?" I'm like, "Uh huh. There's a lot of stuff in between." I try to make one thing go to the next, even if it's kind of disparate at the end if someone's just reading the playlist. I hope if they hear the show it makes sense.
How do you pick out the music for the show?
I guess it's a mixture. A lot of it is based on shows coming to town. I try to have a focus for part of the show on bands that are actually playing live in St. Louis. I try to keep track of what's happening and then play those records and just kind of mention the shows. I don't know if anybody really tunes in to find out what's happening, but I still mention it. I figure that's part of the KDHX duty to connect to what's happening rather than just be this radio station. I think that's really the only advantage we have over someone just listening to their iPod. They might actually learn something that's going on.
I play a lot of local bands, too, for pretty much the same reason. There's a lot of pretty good stuff going on here in town, and there's not really much of an outlet for it otherwise besides live venues. The rest of the show just kind of gets filled out with pretty much anything I'm listening to. I've got a pretty decent record collection of my own. Whatever I happen to listen to that week, that winds up in the bag. And then some new releases, too. As things come out, I kind of go through the station's library there, and if there's something I don't have myself, something that I know of, I'll listen to it at the station and put that on, too.
How do you find new music?
I probably find out more just going out to shows and stuff like that. I definitely browse through what's at the station, and other DJs occasionally will have stuff I find out about. A large part is, I'll see somebody open a live show for somebody I already know and I'll start listening to that band, too.
What's your favorite part of the St. Louis music scene?
There's quite a diversity in music that's going on in St. Louis. I think within a week last month I saw a classical string quartet doing Beethoven and a death-metal band. You can go see either of those anytime. I don't know if everybody knows about all those things.
There's lots of local shows, too. There's lots of people just playing in bands, mostly doing it for fun, but they have connections with people doing it professionally, and there's a lot of interaction of those different worlds that come through St. Louis. I think that's probably my favorite part of the whole thing: a lot of bands come through here, and there's a lot of people doing stuff in town, too. It's quite a lot of people to meet and music to hear.
You mentioned there's a lot of people playing music for fun. How would you classify yourself playing in a band?
I do that for fun, too, because I certainly don't make a living at it. I'm in three different musical projects currently [The Union Electric, May Day Orchestra, and Chainsaw Gentlemen], and I've been doing that as long as I've been doing the radio show, really, maybe longer. I try to keep them separate from what I do on the radio, but it makes sense if I know of something going on, that I try to get an artist or something to come into the radio station or at least send a CD.
What keeps you doing your show after all these years?
Same reason as the bands: it's fun. I think a lot of people would enjoy playing music for other people, I'm just lucky enough to have a larger venue to do that. It's like putting on records for somebody at a party, but it's a Monday morning and there's a transmitter tower involved.
Other than the three different music projects and your show on KDHX, what do you do?
Right now I'm working part-time at the Fox Theater and part-time at the Urban Chestnut brewery, and both of those are on either side of the new station site once that gets going over there on Washington [in Grand Center].
Do you have a record that you find yourself returning to time after time?
There's a record by Calexico called "The Black Light" and I think I've played every track on that. There's like 16 or 17 songs on there. I started playing it song by song over the weeks since sometime last fall. It's one of those things where probably nobody noticed, but I played every song on it over the course of a few months. That's always kind of a favorite record.
I've got a ton of other ones. I have pretty diverse taste. There's probably some Tom Waits records that I listen to a lot. I like a lot of different stuff. "Sandinista!" by the Clash is a favorite, too.
How did you first get involved with music?
It was probably in grade school. I remember there being an Amnesty International concert on TV that I saw. It was probably in the late '80s, but it had Peter Gabriel and Sting and Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen and Youssou N'Dour, this whole group of pop stars doing a benefit concert. I'd never really heard of any of them. I think I'd seen Bruce Springsteen before on TV. It was all these people, and I just sort of got involved in music and politics at the same time. Despite what some people say, I think those two things make sense to me together.
How would you say you're politically involved?
My bands tend to be pretty political as far as the material goes. Less so the radio show, but I'll throw some stuff in there occasionally. Not really any partisan stuff, but there are plenty of social issues that pop up in music. I don't really shy away from putting it on the radio. I just put it on the air and see what people think. It's not all the time, but there's plenty of that sort of music out there. If it's done well, I think it's pretty effective.