Coffee With: Cheryl Waters of KEXP

Aug 10, 2016

We’re huge longtime fans and supporters of KEXP, the influential nonprofit independent radio station broadcasting out of Seattle. The station has played a role in the success of many a young band over the years, and since its inception as KCMU in 1971, KEXP has become a beacon for new music discovery and continues to churn out some of the best live studio performances on the internet.

A few months ago, they opened a new expansive space in Seattle Center that is four times larger than their previous studio. The new space is also home to an incredible cafe run by our friends at La Marzocco and serves as a home-away-from-home for bands to come, play a show, drink a coffee, take a shower, do their laundry and leave their gear before soundcheck for their evening show.

KEXP DJ and Producer Cheryl Waters is a deeply respected icon that has been behind the dials at KEXP since 1994, when she moonlighted as a volunteer (she worked the overnight shift) while working by day as an environmental scientist. She has since become an integral part of the station, hosting the well-loved and oft-listened Midday Show and booking and interviewing hundreds of artists that have performed at the KEXP live in-studio performances.

We recently took a tour of the bright new space and caught up with Cheryl to talk about KEXP then and now.

How did you get started doing this?

I was so lucky I got involved when I did because, at the time, my college radio station at the University of Washington was KCMU. I didn't necessarily have a passion to be on the air when I was in college but I always loved music.I transferred to Western Washington University (which also has a great radio station, KUGS) to complete my degree in environmental studies, and after I graduated I moved back to Seattle and I went back to listening to KCMU.

I remember calling in on the phone, and asked to get a volunteer application in the mail. The application was like ten pages long. It was so overwhelming and so preposterous, really. (laughs)

Whoa!

This was in 1989 and they asked you to name ten or fifteen genres of music. But I was working part-time at KUOW, the NPR-affiliate next door, and used to go over and talk to Don [Yates, Music Director] all the time and ask about having a radio show. So I started volunteering and I'd run into him in the hallways and ask, "When are you going to let me on the air?" One day he just said, "How about this Friday?"

Did you have another job?

Yeah, I was still working as an environmental scientist part-time and part-time at KUOW.

How is KEXP different now then when you started here 22 years ago?

Back when I started, it was an all-volunteer station, and the music director Don was the only paid employee at the time. He still is our music director and he spends all day, every day, listening to music.

We can still really play anything we want. We program the same way, now, that we did when I started twenty-two years ago, but always, really, with passion. Now, we're in this big, beautiful space but we still do what we do the same way, we just have a lot more tools now.

Obviously, the main changes that have happened over the years is the way that people can ingest music, and discover it. You used to turn on your radio, and if you lived a few miles from our transmitter on Capitol Hill, then you could hear it. If you lived in Phinney Ridge, you couldn't because you were behind a big hill.

When we went online, and we were online early, we were doing things that no one else was doing, and that was because of our association with the University of Washington. They were using the station for computer and communications research. We did the first CD-quality audio online. We did the first full-song podcasts. We actually came up with that idea internally and we started that. Obviously, you think now, everyone's doing that.

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What music were you really interested in back then?

It's kind of hard to remember that far back. I loved Smashing Pumpkins, Jane's Addiction, but I also loved Dinosaur Jr. and The Stooges. I discovered Spoon, which is one of my favorite bands. That was when they made their first album, back then.

Richard Buckner was an artist I discovered in those first couple of years, that we still play today. Son Volt. I was a big Uncle Tupelo fan, I discovered that here. A lot of the things that I still love, that I've been listening to for over twenty-two years, I discovered as a DJ.

There's so much music and my tastes have shifted and grown but I still love a lot of the same stuff I used to love. The only bad thing about my job is that there's so much music that I get anxious about missing something. If that's the worst thing about your job, you've got it pretty good.

Is there anything that you’re really loving right now that you’ve heard recently?

That's the most frequently asked question I get. Almost a hundred percent of the time I go completely blank. It just seems like every day I discover something new that I love.

I’ve been listening to a lot of bands from the UK, incidentally. Haelos, I love. The new Daughter album is magnificent. Savages. This new band I recently discovered, Desert Mountain Tribe.

I love the Canadian band The Besnard Lakes, that's one of the bands I always loved. When they have a new album I just know it’s going to be good. Operators. Black Mountain, from Vancouver. They're another favorite of mine.

Locally, Car Seat Headrest released one of my top five albums last year. Damien Jurado just released a beautiful new album. Shearwater is one of my favorite artists. All Them Witches is a band I just discovered out of Nashville.

Of all the interviews you’ve conducted, what would you say was the most interesting or memorable?

There's so many that I love, it's an impossible question.

The War on Drugs is one of the most popular ones with our listeners, from their 2014 album, Lost in the Dream.

There's a young London band called London Grammar that came in-studio. I'm actually starting to tear up as I'm telling you this story. I had heard a couple songs from their album and thought they were beautiful. I had them in-studio. The album is gorgeous but when they played their first song "Hey Now" I literally was speechless. You could tell, and I get more comments on that in-studio, and on the War on Drugs, than any other.

Because you were visibly moved?

Yeah, I knew they sounded good but that just blew me away. I was at a loss for words. And they're so young and obviously that felt good to have that visceral reaction. What's really exciting is people that watch that video email me and tell me they felt the same way watching it. It's neat to have that experience with the bands but also with the listeners. So many people watch that video and feel compelled to get in touch with me.

The War on Drugs is another one that people loved. I'm just so lucky to be able to share these bands with people.

You're like this conduit for everyone to get to see this stuff.

It's really neat. Our in-studios, most of them, are live and, to be completely honest with you, we started doing it that way because of our limited resources. You need extra staff and time and budget to tape and edit a session. So we just did them live because it was cheaper.

What we get as a result is just so electric. The bands feel it and I think that sense of just getting all nervous and geared up really creates something magical. I don't think we really envisioned or intended that on the outset.

I feel really lucky. Kevin [Cole, longtime KEXP DJ] gets mad at me when I use the word luck because he says, "You have worked really hard to get where you are." And I think, well, that's true but I definitely came along at the right time.

Thank you Cheryl!