Ever Musically Onward
Kate Kelchner’s Indie-Rock Adventures on Between the Bars
After graduating high school, even devoted music wonks might find their listening habits assuming a disturbing fixity. Whether this malady’s progress can be reversed, halted or simply slowed remains a matter of open debate, but certain preventative strategies seem promising. Surely one of the most effective is to have one’s own radio show, especially if one can log broadcasting hours on more than one radio station. This summer, Kate Kelchner, a bit of a college radio veteran who began her deejaying career at Cal Poly’s KCPR-FM, enters her fourth year at KCSB. She’s kept both her playlists and her own listening habits fresher and fresher as each one has passed.
“That’s my philosophy in life,” Kelchner told me when I sat in on her Monday-night show Between the Bars. “Onward. Progress. A freshman at KCPR once said to me, ‘I didn’t think there was good music anymore.’ And my friends are like that. They just hear commercial radio. They stick to old favorites, or bands they already like who have new albums out. You have to put the effort in.” And there’s no question that she’s putting the effort in. She listed all her sources for musical information, a group that included blogs like Stereogum and Pitchfork, shows like NPR’s All Songs Considered, regular updates like “Out this Week” from Seattle’s KEXP-FM, and, of course, the new-release rock shelves in KCSB’s own music library.
She assembles her playlists in advance, always remembering to “keep an open mind” so as to avoid sounding “samey.” Her process leaves plenty of room for improvisation: “I’ll go download new tracks, I’ll bring in a few songs that have been stuck in my head, and then I just need to fill in the holes to make everything sound good. My show definitely has a sound—I do have favorite artists—but I really want to make sure I don’t play again soon whatever I played last. I try to keep an open mind, and I try to keep it varied. I don’t repeat many artists. My habit is to play similar-sounding songs together, but then I break that up with some song that’s completely different-sounding.”
Between the Bars’ musical mandate could, broadly speaking, be called “indie rock.” But these days, when rock accepts more cross-pollination from other styles, genres, and even art forms than ever before, that category admits a vast tract of the modern sonic landscape. During the two hours I sat in the studio with Kelchner, she played everyone from that eclectic exercise in style-mixing the Gorillaz to the late punk rocker Jay Reatard to the always-R.E.M.-esque R.E.M to—get ready—the Flaming Lips with guest star Henry Rollins taking on Pink Floyd’s “Money.” “I play the less poppy-sounding stuff, the more avant-garde, the strange, the genre-mixing,” she explained. “Some nights I go on tangents where it’s too weird and I have to reel it in, but that’s what I love about college radio. We have more freedom here.”
Kelchner had less freedom on KCPR, but that, in its own way, helped shape her broadcasting sensibility. “They had what was called a ‘regular format’ there,” she explained, “which mandated that you play six new releases per hour, mostly indie rock. My show on KCSB is actually pretty similar to what they do standard.” Outside the regular format, KCPR also offered slots to DJs interested in working in a “special format,” which Kelchner said referred to “really, really specific shows. That’s how I started hosting the goth/industrial show.” When she graduated from Cal Poly and began the hunt for grad schools, one important factor was the presence of a radio station where she could take her newly acquired gothic, industrial deejaying skills.
Dark Entries, Kelchner’s first KCSB show, thus debuted not long after she joined UCSB’s electrical engineering graduate program. Luckily, her new broadcasting home proved freeform enough to accommodate her eventual stylistic shift. “I got tired of my collection,” she remembered. “At some point, my show had basically already become about indie rock, and every so often I’d say, ‘Ah, I should put some of the sad stuff in.’ Eventually, I realized I should just broaden it. I like the broad category of indie rock; it lets me make each show different.” She finds advantages in retaining a little bit of limitation and not going fully eclectic: “I can honestly say I like everything I play on my show. I definitely love some hip-hop and some electronic, too, but I don’t have time to focus on it. I like my weird stuff.”
Kelchner, alas, is one of all too few KCSBers from the “other side of campus” from the station, the one with all the shiny new buildings filled with the stuff of engineering and scientific research. She told me of her interest in “living an eclectic life,” which may not be most common engineers’ lifestyle: “I have good friends who are engineers, good friends who are artists, good friends who didn’t go to college.” This desire originally led her, in her undergrad days, to KCPR, which she described as “an oasis of blue hair and tattoos, with some nerds too.”
Perhaps positioned between one intellectual world and another cultural one, Kelchner displays none of the bothersome stereotypical traits of either. You can see something of the engineer’s focus, though, in the way she assembles her shows. The playlists designed beforehand are one thing, but her attention to detail extends to carrying CDs of instrumental tracks in her purse at all times. “I use them to speak over,” she explained. “My old station called them ‘bed music.’ I have anxiety dreams about dead air. Sometimes I’ll hear deejays on on the stations and think, ‘Okay, I cannot let myself sound that bad.’ When I listen to the radio, I want people to shut up and play music. I want to put on a good show where people aren’t irritated by me.”
As a result, Kelchner gets in and out quickly whenever she pops on the air to announce song titles and artist names, preferring to tend to the modulation of Between the Bars’ unbroken musical flow. Still, the life of an engineering grad student brings with it certain potentially nightmarish elements—projects, qualifying exams, the inevitable dissertation—that can put the crunch on even the most robust radio program. “There have been a few times where I didn’t plan as well, where things were more random,” she admitted. “But those are the days I get more phone calls! Maybe I’m focusing on the wrong things.”
Between the Bars airs Mondays from 8 to 10 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM. For more information, visit deejaykate.blogspot.com.