Longtime Twin Cities radio vet Brian Oake is joining the staff of the Current (!!!) to co-host the Morning Show with Jill Riley. The Morning Show is getting ready to re-launch on March 7, and in the meantime Oake will be on the Current on Fridays from 2-6 p.m. and filling in at other times as needed.
As a longtime fan of Brian’s work — especially his long-running Sunday night radio mixtape Freedom Rock and his late-night Facebook musings about music and life — I was eager to sit down with him and learn more about his musical roots and his fiery passion for music and radio.
Andrea Swensson: What was it about radio that made you fall in love and say, “I want to do that”?
Brian Oake: Well, I have a joke story I tell, and then the real story. The joke story is, my voice dropped when I was very young. So I was like 10 years old, and people would be calling the phone at home, and they’d think they were talking to my dad. And so, literally since I was a pre-teenager, people were saying to me, “Man, you’ve got that voice. You should do radio.” And I was like, well, ok. So when I actually started doing radio, I don’t know if I was just conditioned, like that’s obviously what I was going to do.
But for me, I loved listening to the radio growing up. I grew up in the ’70s, and it was a lot of soft rock, a lot of light rock, but also some of those heavy rock remnants, and then digging through my dad’s record collection. And there was this connection for me: I liked classic rock stations, but I didn’t mind hearing the pop stations either. And there was something about morning radio. I know it can be corny, I know it can be ridiculous to listen to, but I liked the novelty songs, like the Mr. Shark songs and the Telephone Man song, the Streak, all that stuff. I loved hearing that stuff, and guys being kind of wacky and fun in the morning.
It was also a way to stay close to music. I love music more than anything. Digging through my dad’s record collection – I mean that was my highlight. Saturday afternoon, basement to myself, down in the family room, and my dad had a killer record collection. He loved music. And it varied, everything from the really poppy stuff like the Beatles and Beach Boys and Byrds to Hendrix and Cream, it went all over the map. He liked some outlaw country stuff too, Waylon Jennings. And then as I got a little older and I could get money doing chores — I grew up in Coon Rapids, so I would go to North Town Mall and just flip through and be like, there’s all this music! All this music. And I’d buy an album. First one I ever bought with my own money was Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, which is something Mary Lucia and I have in common. We found out years ago, that was the first album both of us bought. We’re the same age, so that makes sense.
Did you ever try to play music at any point?
I didn’t have the diligence to sit down and practice; that requires a specific mindset. I bought a guitar at one point, which I promptly sold within two years. I was the lead singer of a band called the Channel for about 15 minutes. Actually it was closer to two months. It was fun, but it was more an excuse to go down into this guy’s practice room and mess around and just sort of freestyle. We had a couple songs that were part of our repertoire, but they never sounded the same way twice, so yes? I guess?
So you basically know what it’s like to be in a band.
Well, I know what it’s like to start a band! [laughs] When it comes down to committing to the bit, and the hard work of it, no. But I’ve watched enough of it. I’ve had a front row seat for so many bands coming into the studio and going to see shows live, going backstage, you know, I understand a lot about the culture, and I find that part fascinating. When bands come in, for me, I’m that music nerd where, I don’t need to know everybody that worked on the album, I don’t have to know everything you ever recorded, but I always wonder, ok, some people love playing live and that’s their jam, and other people, they’re studio rats, and they could stay in there for years and be happy. That’s the stuff that’s fascinating to me. I like to ask the questions you’re asking me: Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your hometown. What informed you and got you to the point you’re at right now? That’s the stuff that I find fascinating, the bits and pieces.
When people are coming through the studio on tour and this is just a rote part of their day, do you encounter a wall, where they don’t want to get into the personal stuff? How do you break through that?
What I find is, having done commercial radio for 20 years, a lot of my peers in that realm are kind of goofballs, and they kind of think of themselves as the show. They’re like, “I don’t need to do any prep! We’ll just go around and have you sing the Friday Morning Fart Song!” So you find bands come in and there’s a wall up, either because they don’t like doing radio promo, or they’ve had to deal with so many cornballs they’re just like, “let’s just get this over.” I always make it a point to make sure I’m not the show. I know why everyone’s there. I know why people have gathered, I know why people are tuning in. I get to be a part of it, and I get to be close to it, but these bands — that’s what I care about. That’s what the listeners care about.
Whether it’s a baby band no one’s heard of or a superstar, internationally acclaimed rock star, I always make sure to put at least a couple hours of research in. Then, even if you don’t get a chance to talk to them beforehand, if they understand that you pay attention, that you’ve done your homework, that you’re a professional, their guard comes down a little bit. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re automatically going to open up about all their darkest secrets, but it generally means they relax. And if they relax and take a deep breath, it’s going to feel more natural, it’s going to be more of a conversation than just a stilted question and answer, and generally it led to a better performance, too. So, be respectful and be a professional. You don’t have to be the rock star. Let them be the rock star.
I have always wanted to ask someone this, and you seem like the perfect candidate. Brian Oake, what do you love about music?
I have never been attracted by the rock stardom or the fandom. When I first fell in love with music, first sitting down and digging through my dad’s records, it was transportive. It was revelatory for me. And it was amazing, because you could pick and choose, like it was a drug or a specific pill, where you wanted to go, how you wanted to feel, what you wanted to do. And it was amazing to me that it didn’t diminish with time. If you got tired of this particular pill, there were so many other pills to choose from.
Sometimes if you were in a mood you could find a song to complement it, but it was that unexpected journey you’d take for three minutes — the rest of the world would kind of vanish, and all of a sudden you’re lost in this amazing story or this music, and you could feel it inside of you. Whether it was like reading a good short story or just having this sort of dream, you were, for three to five minutes, somewhere else. So maybe that means I’ve just been chasing it to deny reality my entire life, I don’t know, but it never has stopped moving me, and I never lost that feeling of, when you hear a great new song, shutting everything else down, turning it up, and going, alright, what am I listening to right now?
So one thing I find really challenging when I’m doing an in-studio is if someone is on that level where they can transport you, or their music grabs you in that way, you have to still be a professional and still sit there and try to stay in the moment and interview them. Have you had moments where you’ve been moved to tears or had an out of body experience while interviewing someone, and how do you handle that?
Well, I don’t know if there’s any decent way to handle it, because if it really affects you, I don’t know that you’re doing yourself or the situation any kind of service by being professional and overriding it. I think that, again, you don’t want to lose your mind and say “I’m going to quit my job and follow you around the country,” but by the same token you know, that’s why they do what they do.
One time, Brandi Carlile was in Studio C. And even if you’re not a fan of her style of music, she is singular in her talent. She has a voice that’s not like any other voice I’ve ever heard. And her ability and what she can do with it is also singular. And she was going to do a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Which, again, it’s an impossibly amazing song, but it’s been done to death. And when I heard that I thought, well, alright, she’s amazing, let’s see what she does. And it was a jam-packed room full of people. We probably had 120 people jammed into the studio made to hold about 75.
She got into it, and it kept getting bigger, and more intense and more powerful, and you could look around the room and everybody was focused, eyes wide, on the whole thing. And of course I’m sitting in the big stool just off the side of the stage, and I’m going to have to come up with something afterwards, and she hits the final note and the music stops, and she’s singing, singing, singing, and she stops, and she steps back from the microphone. And usually, instantaneously that’s when the applause would start up. And I counted one, two… nobody could move. Nobody could say anything. So then, when they erupted in applause — thank god the applause went on for as long as it did, because there’s no question I can ask that’s going add anything to that interview or performance after that moment happens. I mean, even thinking about it now I have little goosebumps.
I have goosebumps, too.
It was one of those things where you can’t quite believe that it actually happened, and so you say something nice, and you look down at your questions, and you’re like, well, these are all the stupidest things I’ve ever written down on paper. Um, you’re awesome, thanks everybody, goodbye. So there’s not really a way to get past it, you just kind of stumble back into it. Because you were in this moment.
Interviews can be very informative, and I love doing them — interviewing artists and bands was probably my favorite thing I did at my previous job, but even if they’re great and informative and funny, they’re relatively mundane compared to the power of the music. The music is what draws people there. Again, you can learn more about them, you can gain more perspective, sometimes they can be very entertaining. But I mean, music has a magic to it. And not that the written word can’t, and not that interviews can’t be really great, but there’s no way. So I just stumble back into my words.
You’re about to be in a situation where you get to program your own music. What is the song you can’t wait to play on air?
I remember the second time I ever went to the old Northern Lights on Hennepin Avenue, this would have been in ‘84 — a silly new wave kid with his trench coat and his peg jeans and his Converse hi-tops, coming down from Coon Rapids to Northern Lights — I’m always going to be thankful, because I walked in, I had some money to spend, and I’m like, “What’s great right now?” And you know, cool downtown hipster record store guy could have spotted the suburban kid with the assymetrical new wave haircut coming from a mile away, and maybe buy something stupid or ridiculous, and instead he went over and grabbed Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, and he said, “This is the best record in the store right now.” So I took it home. And I had started to dabble with some new wave stuff, I had bought Blondie, I had bought the Police, I’d gotten into the B-52s, but this was me first stumbling into anything that resembled hardcore or punk rock. And I took it home and I had no context. I had no frame of reference. And so I listened to it again and again, trying to understand. I’m like, there’s a lot pain in here, there’s a tremendous amount of volume in here, and I liked hard rock so I got nothing against that, but even at its most savage and unhinged, there was always a super strong sense of melody. So it’s not my favorite record of all time, but I don’t know that anything changed me more ever than Husker Du’s Zen Arcade. So “Something I Learned Today” is probably the song that I would want to play more than any other song.
And it’s still — I was trying to be cool when I was meeting all the people here and try to figure out what this job was going to be like, and still can’t quite believe that I am going to pick some songs that I get to play on the air. And I don’t know that I will go that hardcore, we’ll see what happens, but I have a feeling that knowing what I know about the Current, that that’s not outside the realm of possibility. That, or “Gates of Steel” by Devo. I’ve never played that on air, and that’s my favorite Devo song.
So if someone has maybe only followed you in recent years, knows you from Cities, knows you as —
The Taylor Swift guy at Cities 97! Absolutely!
What do you want people to know about Brian Oake?
I am, first and foremost, a music fan. It’s the number one reason I do this. This is the only thing that I’ve ever wanted to do. You know, I did college radio, which you’re allowed to do, but I didn’t think I’d ever be allowed to do professional radio. Like I told you, I didn’t think that was a thing. I thought you had to be one of those professional show business types. But I always loved it. And so when I got the opportunity [at Rev 105], I assumed that when I lost that job, when the station got sold, I’ll never do this again. This was a fluke. It’ll never happen again. And then I got another job, and the format flipped there, and I’m like, “I’ll never work again.” And then I got another job!
And so I love radio, and I absolutely am as passionate about music as I ever have been – it’s maybe, other than my family, the most important thing in the world to me. And I love the Current. I’m committed to this. I am not coming over here to play rock star, or to make anybody listen to One Direction or Taylor Swift – unless that’s what you want. I just want to be part of this family. I’m so excited about the potential of what it has here. I’m really humbled, and really grateful that I have an opportunity to continue doing what I love for a living among a family of people who are ultra committed to it, and a group of listeners who care about it so much that they pay for it to be on the radio. I’m still kind of tingling and pinching myself a little bit. I’m very, very excited about getting started.