From the days when his main gig was scraping gum off the undersides of club tables as a roving reporter, David Campbell has been a part of the Minnesota music community because it was something he just plain enjoyed.
A decade-long staffer on the radio show Homegrown before starting as a temporary host for The Current’s Local Show in 2007, Campbell now hosts Radio Free Current and the Local Show. You can also hear him on The Current on Thursdays from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
From the gummy bar tables to First Avenue’s stage, Campbell has been a radio host, fan, musician, and all-around advocate of local music for 18 years. He has run a record label, sold wholesale CDs out of the basement of the Electric Fetus, and loves cover bands.
A witness and a force in Minnesota music’s rise to national esteem, Campbell is about to receive the inaugural Minnesota Music Champion Award. We caught up with him beforehand to talk about how he got into music, his weekly goals for the Local Show, and some memorable moments in his career so far.
Where did you grow up? How did you get involved in music?
I grew up in West St. Paul and Mendota Heights and my parents have one of those “obligatory child with the headphones on” photos that all of us who were born somewhere between 1970 and 1985 have. I always responded emotionally favorably to music. It was my favorite thing to listen to Saturday Night Fever or ABBA, or whatever else they had lying around.
Music was a big thing in our community, too. West St. Paul and Mendota Heights both feed to a high school called Henry Sibley High School, and there was a great junior high band program with this director named Bob Kline, too. The marching band in the community was a really big deal. The drum line was this thing that you could hear all over the community when they were practicing. And I just thought, “I want to do what those guys are doing.”
I like music, and not all of it, but the pieces that move me really move me, and so that’s how I got into it. I knew I wanted to play the drums, and my parents let me do it. I started playing drum kit in there too somewhere. I never really had the drive to write songs or anything. I just liked rehearsing and performing the songs in front of people clapping. My senior year of high school, I got really into the Grateful Dead from this band I was playing with called the Beads. Next thing you know, I was at the shows in Soldier Field and I totally took up with the Deadheads in college.
I went off to school at the U. I was in a fraternity and I had my drum kit out there and somebody would be playing an acoustic guitar and I would play along. I started to go to First Avenue. I remember going to see a group called the Samples, which were sort of like pre-Dave Matthews Band Dave Matthews Band.
There was the Beads in high school for like six seconds. After that, there were some little pick-up things in college here or there. And then the next thing I did was Accident Clearinghouse. I kept showing up at their gigs and I played jaw harp, and then next thing you know I was singing harmony and playing washboard. I learned how to sing, essentially, by being in that band.
I was in a group called the Winter Blanket for a little bit, and then all these cover bands — I love cover bands. We’re sort of on hiatus right now, but I’m in a group called E.L.nO. We bill ourselves as the second-best Electric Light Orchestra tribute band in the Twin Cities. I play in a group with eight people called the Blackberry Brandy Boys. We do cosmic country, Gram Parsons-era stuff. I played in a group called We’re Not Ween. Some of these groups were big enough that we ended up playing at First Avenue, so I’ve played on that stage. This has been a weird experience, you know? How did that happen that this guy who just liked to watch bands or be in the drum line ended up performing on First Avenue’s stage? Music-making is a real social thing. It’s fun to sing and play and perform with people and I just love doing it.
How did you get started in radio?
Somehow, I ended up interning at KQRS. Through that I met this woman named Mei Young, and she was doing a show called Homegrown. I started submitting music that I liked locally to her. Right away they called me back and said, “hey, do you want to be a part of this?” It was just this motley crew of people that were music fans. Nobody was getting paid or anything and the station was like, “don’t break anything.” It was pretty loose. And I ended up doing 10 years there.
My first job was the reporter out at the clubs. I would call in from the clubs, and cell phones were just happening. My job was to clean up the local music scene: I had this huge plastic container and huge putty knife — in fact, I got thrown out of the Poodle Club because they thought it was a weapon. I would bring it to these places and I would scrape gum off the bottom of the table, and nobody knew what the hell I was doing, but the bit was sort of funny and I ended up getting a lot of gum. I don’t know where that gum jar went, but I did that for awhile and then I started listening to the shows and adding a lot of input about the dynamic between the co-host and Mei, and I would actually air-check the shows and give her notes. When a couple of different co-hosts quit on her, I ended up starting to be her co-host in 1999.
There’s this thing about being a co-host: you have to totally surrender to wherever the host is taking you and willingly go along. The pressure is relieved because you’re not totally responsible for everything. And I really liked doing that and I did that for a long time. I was the host of the show for the last year, and that was the first time that I had done it, and I didn’t even know how to run the board.
I gave up on school around 2000, got a job at the Electric Fetus, and I worked at the Electric Fetus Onestop in the basement, doing consignment with local artists. I was doing stuff in this one area all of a sudden, instead of trying to become a lawyer or something while moonlighting it in a band. I was performing, booking, promoting, wholesaling at the Fetus, and doing the radio show. I helped run a label called 2024 Records for a year. My life all of a sudden had this great area of focus.
The real game-changer for me was The Current. And this isn’t about me complimenting the company that I work for. I didn’t think I was going to be a DJ anymore after Homegrown ended because commercial radio is not that fun. It’s not about picking music, it’s just about you being a voice and quite honestly, I don’t have that great of voice. But when The Current went on, it felt like it was just the right place for me to be. It’s way easier to not be out there hustling and tracking down bands and helping them — that stuff takes time. But to me, the value is about supporting and growing your community and really shining a light on something that’s beautiful and special that we have here that isn’t anywhere else.
Could you talk about the evolution of The Current’s Local Show? What do you aim to accomplish with it each week?
It’s changed a lot. Homegrown was always live and it was hard to book guests on Sunday night. When Chris Roberts was doing the Local Show when the station started, he was recording it all live in sequence and editing it in Pro Tools before it aired. Pre-taping it works much better as you have some flexibility when booking to make sure you get the guests you want. When I took over, David Safar and I kind of talked about it and we were like, “let’s pitch two hours.” It was only an hour at that point. And I just felt like that was not enough time to get all the new things that were coming out each week. At first I was always interviewing pretty much two people per show and had lots of local music and then it sort of migrated into this other area where maybe I do less interviews and less sessions but we really put our energies into playing lots of new stuff each week. At first it was just David and I, but there’s a team of people and we’ve got the blog now.
Our goal is really to be a doorway for you to walk through. If you decide, “I like living here, I hear a lot about the local music community, I don’t know what any of this stuff is,” we feel like you can tune into the Local Show each week and get a rundown of what’s happening here, right now. That was what I said to David Safar, and he was like, “that’s awesome, you should keep that.” And we say that in the promo each week for the show. So, that’s kind of what we’re going for. It’s changed a lot but it’s so nice to have this great team now.
How have you seen Minnesota’s music scene change over the years? What do you think is special about it?
The music just changes with the trends. But what’s changed a lot is the community. There used to be maybe one band in town that could sell out First Avenue. You used to be hard pressed to try and fill up the Cabooze. Bands like 12 Rods played big shows, but nothing like the sold-out comeback show they played at First Avenue. And now, with all the work that all the different people in town who are writing for City Pages, and all the attention they gave the local scene; Chris Riemenschneider over at the Strib; Ross Raihala at the Pioneer Press; all the writers, all the zines, and all the hosts that take this time out of their schedule — the cumulative effect of all that is now it’s really a thing to do here.
I mean, the Replacements are from here, Prince is from here, Semisonic’s from here, Bob Mould is from here. Most people know what that stuff is, but there’s also a general feeling that the local music community here is something special, and it is. It has a different status than it has in the past. But everything has to be working in conjunction with each other. You can’t have just people who write about it. You can’t have just a venue that books that kind of talent. You have to have multiple opportunities for all these bands to play and the bands have to be serious about it and the art has to be good.
And I feel like that’s one thing that hasn’t changed in all the years. There’s more people making really, really cool art now than I’ve ever seen before and I keep saying that every year. The output here, now, is especially strong and especially young. There’s these kids that are starting when they’re like 13, and by the time they’re 20, they’re just really great players and they know how to get along with each other. They know how to make things happen for themselves.
What are some of the most memorable moments of your career so far?
One thing that was really sad was when Homegrown died. We had to box up 10 years of CDs and haul it all out of there and we had a funeral. We used to have this little farmer guy icon that we would put on stuff, and one of the guys on the staff made a real version of him and put him in a casket. This rock ‘n’ roll minister named Russell Rathbun came in and we played the song “Homegrown” by Neil Young, and a ton of people came out to that. That was a meaningful event to me because I got to see how important it was to people.
One of the first interviews I did on the Local Show was with Siddiq from Rhymesayers, who doesn’t talk to a lot of people. It was pretty cool to get him talking about, “yeah, when we started, there were no hip-hop shows, so we would do these hip-hop raves. We would just take what rave culture did and made that for ourselves.” Interviewing Justin Vernon about Eau Claire and life post-Bon Iver was really cool, and interviewing Grant Hart and Bob Mould separately and asking them both about Hüsker Dü was interesting.
One of my favorite interviews was with Jim Walsh when he put out his first Replacements book. He came in and we talked a lot about how meaningful that band has been to him and it was just really earnest, intimate conversation about that. I think the best interviews are when you really get to see past the façade that most of us put up, and you get to see truly who that human being is. People ask a lot of questions about process — I think it’s so boring: “I sit down, I write things, and then I play ‘em,” you know? Mostly, I am personally curious about how these people work and what they’re like: where do they work? What kind of van do they drive on tour? What inspires them to make music, who their heroes are, strange things that happen making their record — the stuff that gives the record a context that you couldn’t experience unless you listen to that interview. So that’s what drives me and I just try to be straight and ask questions and make people feel comfortable. A lot of the guys that I’m interviewing haven’t been on the radio before, so there’s an art to making them feel comfortable.
Any parting thoughts on your experience as a host?
At a certain point I had to make a decision and commit, because it’s not a lucrative practice. It’s just, I like this stuff. I’m attracted to this. The same way that when I was a little kid I saw the drum line and I wanted to do that. I felt the same way about the community here. I liked going to watch shows. I like seeing my friends’ bands and making friends with people in the bands and I really like talking to them about their work. I don’t know that I anticipated that I would enjoy that as much as I do. I really like doing interviews. I still get nervous every single time, whether it’s Father John Misty or Timmy Smith from some local band that’s been a band for 15 seconds.
And I feel like if The Current wouldn’t have come along, you know, I’d been doing it for 10 years, I might not have continued on. But I’m so thankful that now this is a vocation for me. It used to just be an avocation; a hobby, an interest, and now this is my job. My job is to report on the Twin Cities music community and to play bands and to discover new music and to share it with the listeners of The Current, and if that’s what my life ends up being about, I feel like that’s about as good as you can hope for.
Hailey Colwell is a journalism major at the University of Minnesota and a co-director of Theatre Corrobora.