It's 11 p.m. on a Friday, and Alex Ruder isn't scheduled to be on the air for another two hours, but he's already busy in KEXP's library, cutting five-by-five-inch track-list sheets for CDs of unreleased songs that he burned for the station's DJs—on his own time, in his own apartment. "This is my favorite time of the week," he says while bringing down the blade on yet another sheet of paper. He's irrepressibly industrious tonight, even after putting in a full day's work as manager at Video Isle and coming off Hanukkah dinner with his family.
The 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. graveyard shifts Ruder pulls at Seattle's popular listener-supported radio station are the 28-year-old DJ's weekly highlight. They're the culmination of a serious music fan's obsessive quest for great new and old (but mostly new) sounds for KEXP's global listenership. Ruder—who grew up on Bainbridge Island—served as the electronic-music director at the University of Washington's Rainy Dawg Radio station for two years in the mid '00s before becoming an intern at KEXP in June 2005. It took almost three years of apprenticeship before his first broadcast on February 5, 2008, and he finally secured his own regular slot June 21, 2009. (First song? Steinski's "The Pay Off Mix," reflecting Ruder's love of hiphop and collage-style production.) Ruder has been holding down the tough 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. Saturday gig ever since. He's also the first-call replacement when one of the DJs in the long-running Sunday night electronica-centric show Expansions can't make it.
Like his role models Riz Rollins and Kid Hops—both of whom spin on Expansions—Ruder exudes positivity both on and off the air. In addition to his weekly show, Ruder assists music director Don Yates by reviewing loads of new releases each week and overseeing the ever-expanding KEXP library—playing a crucial role in what makes it into rotation on other DJs' shows. Those CD comps composed of blog downloads further boost Ruder's influence. "They've given me that freedom to dictate what goes on those things," he says. "Whether anyone spins them is totally up to them. The internet has really changed how quickly music becomes available to listeners."
"Alex has excellent musical taste," says Yates. "He's constantly digging up new musical discoveries to share with the station and its listeners."
Yates is correct about Ruder's musical taste, although Ruder admits he has his weaknesses, including a dearth of familiarity about "the classic alternative rock and the classic, influential '70s groups. I wasn't really raised on that kind of music like a lot of colleagues my age were. I feel like I'm always playing catch-up, but I'm too blinded by new stuff to do that. But I feel like I have strong enough knowledge and roots in hiphop and electronic music, although there's always more to learn.
"I listened mostly to hiphop growing up," Ruder continues, citing his 1992 discoveries of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as his introduction to that music. "And I think that makes my show a little different, but I'm not as familiar as I'd like to be with the rock staples. I missed all the Pavements and Archers of Loafs when they were happening."
Ruder typically plays about 70 tracks per show, the majority encompassing a vast range of current electronic and hiphop styles. But he also touches on current indie rock, old funk and jazz, shoegaze, and psychedelia, while occasionally indulging in nostalgic favorites like Deltron 3030's self-titled full-length and DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. Whichever mode he's airing, the quality remains lofty. He has learned well from Riz.
Ruder's preshow preparations would exhaust many other less-dedicated programmers. Besides the aforementioned track-list making, he's pulling dozens of CDs from KEXP's groaning shelves into about 10 cardboard boxes. He supplements these discs with those brought from his own collection and the newly burned comps of MP3s he's received over the past week. No way can he play them all, but he always wants to be prepared for any mood swing. One final update on his Facebook page announcing his imminent on-air stint, and then he's marching the boxes of CDs into the studio.
If you harbor notions that graveyard-shift DJs conduct themselves in a sordid, decadent, or slovenly manner, Ruder will negate them. He's the epitome of the nice, conscientious Jewish boy on and off the mic. Honestly, sloth and substance abuse just won't fly during a five-hour slot. There's simply too much to do.
Those 70 tracks Ruder plays per show all have to be cued and sequenced for some kind of logical flow, which takes time and focus. He's not big on random juxtapositions, so every set possesses a coherence that shows serious attention to detail. Every track aired also needs to be entered in a log, with song info captured from a database and posted to KEXP's website and eventually its archives.
On the night I join him for his shift, Ruder begins his show with Metaform's "I Feel Good," a soulful, funky number. "I tend to start high energy so I get a little amped," Ruder says. He never once sits down during his show.
He has no special ritual for staying awake during these crazy hours. He gets some coffee right before the show and brings a thermos of water and some oranges or bananas for sustenance. He's too busy thinking about music to eat a full meal, and he sometimes forgets about his coffee, so it goes cold. He doesn't take a pre-gig nap, either. "I don't know whether it's adrenaline or what, but I just love being able to do it. It would be one thing if it was a job I didn't like..."
Ruder laughs when asked if he's ever yawned or fallen asleep during a show. "The last couple of hours," he notes, "you gotta find a second wind sometimes, depending on how the week's been. I'm just typically hard on myself to make sure the show sounds as cool as possible." Ruder is more scared of dead air and fumbling to cue up a song and having it be a dud than snoring on company time. So don't look for traces of blow or Red Bull residue on the console.
Shortly after songs hit the internet, Ruder is playing them on his show. "That's the beauty of KEXP—we don't have to wait to see whether a song's test marketed before we add it to a playlist," Ruder gushes. "We have the freedom to play what we want to create an exciting show. I feel like the whole purpose of KEXP is to expose people to new music and enrich people's lives through the discovery of music. That's really close to what I'm passionate about, to have this station be a filter."
A little after 2 a.m., a listener e-mails while Brenmar's remix of New Edition's "A Little Bit of Love" is playing, asking if the track is downloadable. A minute later, Ruder sends her a link with a smiley-face emoticon. Shortly before that, he made an OC Notes/Sufjan Stevens transition sound unfeasibly smooth. During Lushlife's "Still I Hear the Word Progress," Ruder enthuses, "This is in my top 10. So much music! It's hard to keep up." He then mixes Gonjasufi into Tom Waits (both artists have very gruff voices, although their music differs considerably), explaining, "I think it's good to branch out into different styles."
As the clock nudges toward 4 a.m., I wonder: Wouldn't he rather have a more prime-timey slot? "I'm not gonna lie: There is a beauty to the overnight shift. It's in those hours where you can get a bit more out there. You can get away with playing a 10-minute-long ambient song. Like with any DJ [situation], you need to know your audience and the environment. So a crazy, long experimental jazz song that might work at 3:30 in the morning would sound weird at 3:30 in the afternoon. I like that aspect."
But wouldn't Ruder like to reach more people? "If something opens up down the road and I get to do a nighttime show, that's cool. But I don't think I'm cut out to be a daytime DJ, per se. I'm more of a behind-the-scenes guy. I'm pretty introverted and shy. Part of me is more stoked about doing reviews and general rotation stuff than about being..."
"Yeah. I don't have much personality."
Troy Nelson, the DJ who precedes Ruder, interjects, "Tell him"—meaning me—"about the whole no-pants thing you do behind the counter, with the duct tape and the broomstick. It's amazing."
"It gets a little weird in the summertime," Ruder says. "No, that doesn't happen."
"The quiet one spins the most interesting music," Nelson intones.
"I kind of like that," Ruder beams.
D>uring his mic breaks, Ruder sounds calm, thankfully not doing that annoyingly modulated commercial-radio-guy voice taught at radio school. "Sometimes people ask me for tips on what to do for their voice on mic breaks, and I'm like, 'I don't know—I just talk like I'm talking to a buddy about music.' There was no training involved, at least through my experience. Either I'm lucky with that or that's just part of the vibe here—conversational, hanging out with friends, listening to music. That's what I was doing in college. It's a beautiful thing to get to do that with a larger audience."
The soothing-voiced Ruder is unflappable on the air, no matter the time. "Even at my other job, people say, 'You seem to be calm and composed, even when things are hectic.' That's a fair assessment of my personality." When he
does receive negative e-mails or calls, Ruder simply responds, "Thanks for listening." Occasionally, someone will send a racy missive. "I got an e-mail earlier this year; it was like, 'My boyfriend just gave me my third "o" tonight. Thanks for the awesome mix.' I thought, 'That's cool. Someone's having a fun night.' But that's a rarity."
At 3:25 a.m., fellow KEXP DJ (and Stranger columnist) Larry Mizell Jr. writes via e-mail, "You are crushing" after Ruder drops cuts by Ragga Twins and 88:88. At 3:32 a.m., Ruder jumps a few times to help himself stay alert. "I'm a little more tired than usual," he confesses. "I had to work more this week and I'm fighting a cold." At around 4 a.m., he pops an Emergen-C tablet, while I take some Vivarin. Two more fucking hours to go?!
At 4:17 a.m., a listener e-mails Ruder to praise his music and vibe. Five minutes later, Ruder pumps his fist to an Apparat Organ Quartet song, saying, "I thought I might play Christmas music, but I'm just not feeling it." (Maybe there is a god after all.)
After spinning post-punk minimalists Young Marble Giants, Ruder gets on the mic at 4:46 a.m. "Hope you are doing well, wherever you are in the world." Off mic, he says, "I gotta get some pretty folk music in," and plays killer pieces by Six Organs of Admittance, High Highs, and Nick Drake. Following that, he tells me, "I want to get into some eerie, atmospheric dubstep sounds. Put you to sleep with this shit... in a good way." "Travelled" by Seattle's Kid Smpl fits the bill perfectly. Ruder says he generally plays mellower material in the last 90 minutes but sometimes picks things up with a half hour left to "fuck with expectations."
I'm glassy-eyed, but Ruder is as stoked as ever in the last hour. "All the DJs are here because they're passionate about music, and they bring their own perspective and knowledge to the shows," he muses. "There's a big umbrella that connects us all, which makes every show somewhat similar but at the same time different."
Close to 6 a.m., one of those DJs, Mike McCormick of Mind Over Matters, enters the studio to do his public-affairs/news program, as Wussy's "Waiting Room" plays. A diligent, nice Jewish boy to the end, Ruder asks his successor, "Is it okay if I'm like five seconds short?"