88.1 KDHX DJ Spotlight: Nick Cowan of Train of Thought
Take a break from your train of thought to find out about Nick Cowan’s show on 88.1 KDHX. Train of Thought airs Thursday night / Friday morning (depending on your lifestyle) from 3 a.m. – 5 a.m. Central.
Nick was born and raised in St. Louis. He grew up in North County, Jennings and Florissant, and moved out to Manchester with roommates in the ’90s. He also lived for a short while in the city. He’s a family man whose children are more familiar with Ozzy than Barney (he had to explain to his seven-year-old why “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” wasn’t appropriate for the Saturday morning KDHX show Musical Merry-Go-Round).
Try to follow us as we jump a train of thought — boxcar to boxcar, covering the classic rock station KSHE, how to handle intoxicated radio listeners and the realization that you don’t know as much as you thought did about music until you undergo the humbling experience of having your own radio show on KDHX.
Nick Cowan: I’ve got a blog that’s been neglected for the past two years. There’s a lot of stuff on there about bacon.
Erin Chapman: Have you ever had chocolate-covered bacon?
It’s so good. I don’t care where it comes from. It’s perfect, sweet, salty. One of the other best things in the world besides beer, and, you know, and my family.
What is your earliest memory involving the enjoyment of music?
My mom was pretty young when she had me, 19, I think. She listened to KSHE, like 1970s KSHE….
I’m not from St. Louis.
Where are you from?
De-troit. KSHE 95 was like the rock station. My mom listened to all that classic rock stuff. My first memories of enjoying music involve listening to that station. I listened to the cool heavy guitars, but then it seemed like at night the mellow stuff I remember Diana Ross for some reason and then John Lennon.
So you would listen to KSHE in the house, in the car?
It was always on. Radio was my beginning. Also a record club. There was one record I would have to defend now, I think it was Christopher Cross’s first album. My mom asked me, “Do you want this one?” I was like, all right. Gimme that Christopher Cross record.
Did you have your own record player?
Yeah, one of those little blue ones, with the little case on it. My dad always made sure I had stereos with equalizers and stuff, that helped.
Tell me about your show, Train of Thought.
This is my second show. I got my first show, which was called “It’s Late” named after the Queen song from the album News of the World. I started that in 1999 with a friend when the station first did a huge reorganization I think Bev Hacker first came on board and opened up a whole new slot of shows. I had been volunteering there for three years at that point.
What had you been doing as a volunteer?
Engineering talk shows. There was a show called “Psych Talk” it was on Tuesday afternoons, and just other random things that I filled in for. And I did that for about six and half years and took a break, got kind of burned out. And then when the schedule was redone about three years ago there was a slot open, where I’m at now, except that it was 3:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. After the reorganization, that time slot was still open so I emailed Nico [Leone] saying that I’m happy to fill in for this and if I don’t have a psychotic break at work on Friday from lack of sleep I’ll take the slot if you guys want me to. And poof! Here I am.
Concept wise, I called the show Train of Thought because I often don’t have a train of thought. I play mostly rock, two-thirds or three-fourths; I like that center lane approach that the station talks about. If you have a five lane road, go in the middle. If you want to go all the way over here, have a logical way to do it. I kind of think of it as a mixed tape in a way. You’ve got side A and side B and you’ve got a logical way that the songs are organized and that’s kind of how I do my show.
Are the songs that you play on the show are normally songs that you listen to during your everyday life?
Absolutely. All the time. I look back at recent playlists, I’ll listen to three or four records I played through this last week. I tell the listeners, I know I’m playing the same stuff over and over again because I’m listening to it all the time so you have to now also.
Which live music events do you attend in St. Louis?
I look forward to the family concerts that Paul Stark hosts at Off Broadway once a month. I think it’s so important for kids to be exposed to music, whether they play it or not. For kids to be able to go and see a concert and see how much fun it is. That’s just going to enrich their enjoyment of art if they have a way to relate to live music. Plus it’s fun. It’s like an hour and 15 minutes, which is the perfect attention span for a kid. We just have a blast.
I’ve been to a children’s show at Off Broadway on a Sunday afternoon and I appreciate the transformation that occurs.
It’s a heck of a movement. From salty bar to child-friendly, well-lit family establishment. Bright sunshine coming from behind everyone.
What other shows on KDHX are you a fan of and do you follow?
I really love Space Parlour, Thursday nights. I listen to it from the website usually. Nick Acquisto [used to] go on right before me and we’ve been friends for years he always plays really cool stuff. I really like Roy [Kasten's] show [Feel Like Going Home] and Musical Merry-Go-Round, Rocket 88. Really most of the morning drive stuff I listen to a lot.
Do you have any advice for anyone who is interested in volunteering (as a DJ or in other capacities) at KDHX?
Yes. I think that this is true for not just volunteering at KDHX but any sort of volunteer thing you’re jumping into. Show up, say you want to do something and whatever it is, you say “Yes.” If it’s stuffing envelopes, say, “Thank you. Give me another stack.” That’s what I did. When I first started volunteering I would leave work go to the radio station, go back to work and then go to school and then go home, that’s what I did on Tuesdays for two years and I loved every second of it. I think that because they knew that I was going to show up every Tuesday in the middle of the day, I was able to fill for other shows. I engineered for a show called “Newsroom” for a few years before that went away.
Don’t walk in with a sense of entitlement, especially if you’re someone who is coming in to be a DJ. A lot people might show up thinking, they’ll just give me a show I have all this knowledge. NO YOU DON’T. I had a lot of knowledge, but I tell my listeners this, I know nothing about nothing. Because for everything I know about Ween or the Bad Examples or whoever, someone at the station or a listener has everything they’ve ever recorded in every single country, their demos, they’ve called their grandmothers and gotten the tapes they made in high school and they will blow your knowledge out of the water. So remember that there’s always someone who can teach you something new about the music that you love.
Sometimes I lose my train of thought. Half way through the show you’ll see a break in the set list. It goes from Metallica to the Indigo Girls and I’m like I’m sorry I just lost my mojo for a second and then I start something new.
Do you have any plans for the show’s future?
I’m going to start having live music on the show. Way back in the day I engineered sound. There was a weekly show I engineered sound for called “Sounds About Town,” again because I said yes to anything I was asked to do. I would sometimes be there at 4 a.m., doing sound for 5 a.m. and I don’t have the time to do that now, but I can take advantage of the people who do. So I’m going to start having live music a lot more.
We will probably pre-record at a time when everyone can be there. That’s one of the coolest things that’s evolved with the station [goes into the voice of the old man from the Simpsons] back when I was doing live sound we didn’t have computers, unless the band could show up at the same time of the show we couldn’t record it.
Also, I want to put a picture on my profile on the website and start social networking, even though I’m slightly adverse to it because of time constraints. I think for the purposes of the show it would help grow it a little more. I get calls from people and three people who aren’t my wife have signed, on to be friends of my show. I’m like, how did they find me, who are you people?
What do you think the main difference is between having a show from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. in the middle of the night versus having a show from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., middle of the day?
Sober listeners. More people would be likely to call in. I love the folks who call my show now. Almost all call or send emails. It’s interesting, there’s a couple of folks who call regularly and they know music. They’ll ask, “Have you heard this? You should try this out.” And I can say, “If you like this you should check this out,” and then there are that mix of people who are, you know, drunk or otherwise altered. During the daytime, it would be interesting. I filled in for Roy on his show a few weeks ago and people called in. Those calls were really short.
So when the drunk people call, do you cut them off, hang up on them eventually? Or do you talk to them for a while?
I talk to them for a while. And sometimes, I’m kind of an idiot, because one gal called it was clear that she was upset about something. I was like, what’s wrong? I heard the little angel on one side of my shoulder, Dude you’ve got a radio show. Don’t ask. The other side of my shoulder, But dude she’s about to cry. Say something. Twenty minutes later I’m glad I did it, but it’s also stupid that I did it.
But anyway, getting back to your question: At night I don’t mind taking 15 minutes of air time for one song especially if it’s a really long, involved, like crazy free jazz piece, something with really long guitar solos. I’d keep things more concise during the day; not as many Phish tunes or 37-minute Television bootlegs.
See more photos of Nick from Sara Finke’s shoot at her Flickr.