Mark Wheat talks DJ career, love for music

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Mark Wheat at the MPR booth at the Minnesota State Fair
Mark Wheat working at the MPR booth at the Minnesota State Fair. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
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Mark Wheat left The Current in May 2020, but not before recording an interview with Cecilia Johnson for The Current Rewind. Today, we're releasing that interview as a Rewind bonus episode. In this conversation, Mark talks about how he got a star on First Avenue's wall, how music intertwines with his spirituality, and what he sees as his greatest impact on Minnesota music.

This is a bonus episode of The Current Rewind's "10 Pivotal Days at First Avenue" season. If you missed the first four episodes, catch up below.

April 3, 1970 (The day it all began)
Nov. 28-29, 1979 (The days that told the future)
Sept. 27, 1982 (Bad Brains/Sweet Taste of Afrika/Hüsker Dü)
Aug. 3, 1983 (The birth of "Purple Rain")

Listen on Apple PodcastsSubscribe: Apple Podcasts, NPR One, RSS, Spotify, Stitcher

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of The Current Rewind season 2, Mark Wheat bonus episode

["Hive Sound" by Icetep]

Cecilia Johnson VO: Hey, this is Cecilia Johnson, the producer (and now host) of The Current Rewind, and I have a cool conversation to share.

Even before starting work on this season of The Current Rewind, I admired Mark Wheat. If you're not a regular listener, you may not know that Wheat hosted weekday evenings for about 15 years on the station. I listened to a lot of his evening shifts while driving home from college, and I loved his nightly sign-off: "Stay safe and be peaceful to one another." After joining The Current's staff four years ago, I got used to seeing him in the evenings – he'd pick up his music logs from the printer near my desk, and we'd say hi before I left to catch the bus.

But even I had no idea how perfect he would be for this season of Rewind. It turns out that even before he helped start The Current in 2005, he spent years as a resident DJ at First Avenue. For a while, he even had a star on the outside wall.

As we started planning the second season of Rewind, he started telling me stories about his days as a club DJ. I asked if he'd join me in a recording booth to go on the record about his connection to First Ave, and he said yes!

But of course, that was in about February 2020, right before the pandemic, and a few months before Wheat's surprise goodbye. Most of The Current's staff found out about his departure just a few minutes before MPR notified the public. But I have no regrets about working on this season's first few episodes with him.

Most of all, I'm glad Mark and I were able to share this conversation. The Irish goodbye doesn't exactly lend itself well to closure, but I was hoping this sort of career recap would help you if you're missing our favorite evening host.

Cecilia Johnson: I thought we should just start with the basics. What's, like, the few-sentence version of how you ended up in Minnesota?

Mark Wheat: I met my first wife and came over to the United States 1983 permanently. She was an artist and wanted to go to art school, so first off, she went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and so we were lucky enough to live there. And I waited tables, and that's where I learned to push the buttons in radio, because I worked on WFMU. Then Susan, my wife, said she wanted to finish school somewhere else. So we had that conversation, and she knew about the University of Minnesota, and we knew about the Walker Art Center, and we were both huge Replacements fans. So the Twin Cities was top of our list. So we came in '92, and shortly thereafter parted company amicably, and so I was here in '92. [I] went straight to KFAI and started volunteering behind the scenes and teaching others how to push the buttons, and got on the air in 1993 with my first local radio show, which was Local Sound Department.

Cecilia Johnson: And I assume that, probably, once you got here you started going out to shows pretty often.

Mark Wheat: Yeah. It was funny; in the period that I was at KFAI they went through a major schedule change. They rearranged everything, timing-wise. And it came to pass that whoever was doing the local show couldn't do it anymore, and literally nobody else volunteered. And I said, "Seriously, you're gonna let the Brit do the local show?" [Cecilia laughs] Because at the time I was just enamored with the local scene, because I'd never been in a city that had so many places you could go and see so many different bands on so many different nights. And so I was kinda – it was like my honeymoon period, and I was going out maybe two or three times a week. And so, it made sense to me, because I was excited about it, and you know, some of the other DJs were rolling their eyes and like, "Yeah, well, if you live here it's not as exciting," kind of thing. So I think that was the "right place right time" for me as well, because we needed a local show, and I got to do it on a pretty prime slot: 7:00 on a Friday night.

Cecilia Johnson: So how did you actually get hired as resident DJ at First Ave?

Mark Wheat: I was volunteering on KFAI, '93 to '98, and in that period I was lucky enough to also be on Zone 105, which was a commercial station at the time, which Mary [Lucia] and Brian [Oake] were on as well, and I did a show there called Across The Pond, which was an hour of – mostly British stuff, but of European stuff. And I know the first time I played at the Avenue was in what was then called the VIP room, upstairs next to the bathrooms. And I did it as an Across The Pond night – I think it was once a month for maybe six months. It didn't last long. But I loved it. I thought that was the pinnacle of my live DJ career then, and that was just the VIP room.

So that was my start, and then when I got hired at Radio K as program coach in '98, they had a sponsorship – a long-running sponsorship of a night called 2-for-1, which was Tuesdays, and the deal was, we would have other DJs spinning on that night, but it would be a way to give some of the Radio K DJs a chance to spin, and I was kinda like the anchor DJ that had to show up every week. And so that's how I got my foot in the door of being in the Mainroom, because there was a Mainroom party, and being in that booth. And from that they started letting me DJ before bands, which is part of the ongoing DJ core activity that you do. So you usually volunteer, or they say, "Do you wanna spin records before The Fall?" I'm like, "Are you kidding me?"

Cecilia Johnson: Like, "Of course."

Mark Wheat: That's my favorite story. Can I tell that story?

Cecilia Johnson: Yeah, please.

Mark Wheat: 'Cause The Fall, I've often said, are my favorite band of all time. I've often said, too, that I don't necessarily want to meet all my heroes. And Mark E. Smith was as big a musical hero as I had, and I got to spin records for him. And I had no idea what to do. I thought I would try something I'd never done before – play some 45s that literally, my parents owned when I was a kid, because I thought they would probably be the kind of stuff he liked. And it worked out to be the case. Conway Twitty was one of them. So I was spinning records, and they came on, they put on a great show. They were awesome that night. But about ten minutes after they got onstage, I was still standing in the DJ booth, obviously watching them, and this huge guy came storming into the DJ booth. He had hair down to the middle of his back, and he was like, "Who was the DJ before the band came on?" And I was like, "Uh, that might be me." And he was like, "Mark E. Smith wants you to come backstage for a drink afterwards. He says, 'That's the best Entry DJ set that's ever been played before The Fall.' He said, 'I can't believe you played Conway Twitty.'" And I was like, "Uh." [Cecilia and Mark laugh] It sends shivers up my spine again telling that story. And I didn't go. I decided that was enough for me, that Mark E. Smith had said, "You're an okay DJ," was enough. I didn't need to meet him. I knew he was notoriously difficult to meet sometimes, and I didn't wanna spoil it, so I didn't take the chance, but that was a highlight at First Avenue.

Cecilia Johnson: So as a DJ, were you often supposed to meet the bands, or invited, or did your paths cross?

Mark Wheat: No. I'm not one for lig-inners [phonetic transcription], as we used to call it in Britain, which was trying to hang backstage or as close as you could to the band, or take advantage of the trust that they had. As staff members of First Avenue it was actually cooler to be standoffish. They made that kind of a policy, and so none of us really pushed that. But some of them would come up into the booth. I remember Peaches one time coming up, and just storming up and making requests or something. So that was fun, that every now and again people would come up into that booth, because I think it's a cool space.

Cecilia Johnson: What is the view from the DJ booth like? Can you describe it?

Mark Wheat: [Mark laughs] It used to be terrifying, because the ceiling was notoriously the dirtiest ceiling anyone had ever seen. Most of the time, obviously, the way the lights worked, the audience didn't see. Above the lights, there was kind of a – a material had been sprayed on the ceiling that looked bubbly anyway, and then literally wads of dust bunnies. Like, it was just a moonscape of dust bunnies up there, so you got that view of it. [Mark laughs] But obviously, for sightlines, it's a great club, and you can see literally everywhere from the DJ booth and the owner's box next to the booth. So for a DJ, I still say it's the best gig in town. I say to Jake Rudh, when he kind of headlines New Year's Eve, to me that's the biggest DJ gig of the year, and as a live DJ, getting to spin anything there is great. And I had a few nights when it was packed for me and what I was playing.

Cecilia Johnson: That's awesome. What were you playing? I mean, honestly, I've only ever listened to you spin in the context of being on-air at The Current.

Mark Wheat: I mean at 2-for-1, you could basically spin anything. It was like a free-form dance night, except you didn't have to make people dance all the time, so there was a rock mix. But my specialty, and what I ended up playing to a dance floor at The Lounge, which was another club I was working at at the same time as First Avenue, my specialty was European house, because at the time, Ibiza was just blowing up – that whole scene of mega-DJs traveling the world, right before the turn of the century, really. Especially French house, I had a soft spot for French house, so – I used to go because I used to visit my parents at the time. So I literally would go back to Europe every year and load up on a stack of CDs – a lot of compilation, which I just used to take little bits out of and mix. At the time, before the internets were dominant, that maybe made me sound a little different from anybody else in town, just because of that, and just because of my rock tradition. Even in The Lounge I would occasionally drop rock in, or Johnny Cash or something, just to freak people out. [Cecilia laughs] And sometimes the staff weren't totally supportive. I used to get wolf whistles and boos, sometimes, at the end of the night.

But what I loved to do, too, was speak on the mic. And I always remember Conrad at the time, who has become a legend, obviously – stage manager and house manager for many, many years – was kinda the godfather of the whole place, and everyone was scared of him at the time. Most people still are. So we didn't have a lot of interaction, generally. But I remember one time him coming up to me and saying, "You know what, Mark, you're the best at talking on the microphone in between tracks or doing the announcements." That's part of the job, but a lot of the other DJs hadn't had as much experience, hadn't been on the radio. So that was high praise to me.

And Conrad was the reason why I got a star on the club, because I was there in 2000, I think, when they repainted the stars, and someone suggested Conrad deserved a star, and he got one right by the backstage door. I think he said, "Well, if I'm gonna have one, then the rest of the main staff" – DJ Smitty, Roy Freedom, Kevin Cole, I think, and I was there at that time, so they added me. So I was between Junior Brown and Lucinda Williams for about five or six years, I think.

Cecilia Johnson: What else are the differences between DJing live and hosting on the air? Like, how does that affect your headspace? Because in the club you can see people, like, hopping and bopping, but –

Mark Wheat: To me, the main job of a live DJ is to read the room. And so that's the main difference from radio, because in radio, you're not reading the room. Sometimes you can get feedback on social media, but that's always after the fact and might not affect your decision of what to play next. But in a live context, yes, if the boos and the whistles become dominant and a majority, obviously you gotta change direction. And if the dance floor empties, maybe you have to change direction, unless you're deliberately dropping the energy to build again, which is basically what you do all night long. I was never good at staying at one tempo all night long. I wanted to go up and down. But there's nothing like being the controller of the music where a room full of people are enjoying themselves. That's like that's as good as it gets.

Cecilia Johnson: What were you mostly DJing off of, media-wise, like CDs, or – ?

Mark Wheat: In the early days it was more vinyl, but that was kind of crossover time. It was almost – I think I was one of the first – because I hadn't DJed live, I didn't have a lot of vinyl. So when I had to DJ, I had to use CDs, and I know a lot of the guys thought that was cheating, and fair dues, because it's easier in some respects. So CDs were and always have been my main go-to.

Cecilia Johnson: I did wanna ask who some of your favorite colleagues at First Avenue were.

Mark Wheat: [Mark laughs] The two main ones I spent time [with] were DJ Smitty. He was a jack-of-all-trades. I mean, he would do a lot of different stuff in the club, but he kind of organized the DJ crew throughout the week. He was the one that made me feel comfortable in the space, taught me how to push their buttons, and kind of introduced me – because a lot of it is kind of chemistry with the rest of the staff, and so he was good at introducing me and getting me started, and I always kind of have him as my point person. Roy Freedom was still DJing there regularly and was always sweet. Sonia and Nate had started there at least by the end of my tenure. And Steve McClellan became a close friend, and I worked with him behind the scenes as well, and he was still a manager while I was there, so to go in the back office and talk to Steve, the great godfather of the place, was kind of a thrill.

Cecilia Johnson: So I was thinking about our previous conversations, and how we've talked a little bit about spirituality and paying attention to the world around us, and I was wondering, how has First Ave touched your spirit, or what do you describe its spirituality, if anything comes to you?

Mark Wheat: It's funny, because I always remember Kevin Cole being one of the first DJs I recognized there and got the chance to meet. And, to me, Kevin is a spiritual person: both about music, because to me music is part of my spirituality, and about the ways to approach life. And not to go into too much detail – gory – but he was always an inspiration about how to approach both life and the process of DJing and connecting with people that way, because that connection between the DJ and the live audience is a spiritual experience. I've never had anything that comes close to it. That's – maybe, we're unique in that case, in that sense. I don't know what it's like for everybody else. But most spirituality in some way, shape, or form, does have a way to bring people together, and value that experience. And that's what the club is all about to me, is bringing people together and valuing the experience of support, and the art of making music, whether it's by a DJ or by a live band.

I've often said that going into that space – and that's why I love that it's still there – was a spiritual experience for me, to the point that I said, "I want to do something in this community that will make a lot of people in this room know who I am and like me." That I'd done something positive to encourage the spiritual nature of supporting a local music and arts scene; that I'd contributed in some way to do that. And so, going back to [First Avenue] for [The Current's] 15th anniversary, and being able to stand in that spot and remember that – how I felt in the mid-'90s and feeling – like, I think I used the phrase "ticked that box" – you know, that's an unbelievable feeling for me. And it is the closest thing that I get to spirituality, because it's my way of connecting to people and feeling a part of community.

Cecilia Johnson: Yeah. So what would you call your greatest impact on First Ave and vice versa?

Mark Wheat: Definitely starting The Current. In 2004, I was involved in the behind the scenes...some would say shenanigans. [Cecilia laughs] The efforts behind the scenes to try and keep the club alive, because – some people don't remember that it went through a really tough time in the early 2000s and was literally closed down for a period in 2004. And I'd been involved in working with Steve McClellan and others in the community, trying to find ways of generating more business for the club. And that really failed, and I had to kind of walk away from that process, in [the] face of the failure, and was scared that it wouldn't reopen. And I literally remember thinking to myself, you know, all of these other things I've been trying to do didn't seem to help the club. [But] if we could have a radio station that was powerful enough to become essentially a promotional arm for First Avenue in a "synchronicity," kind of "synergy" point of view, that would be the best way that I could help this club.

[In] 2005, when I found out what Minnesota Public Radio were planning to do, I literally thought well, this is the chance. If we have a station that is going to support the idea of having a club like First Avenue in town, maybe that will do some good. Because the way I've always programmed radio is, one of the ways you connect to the community is by playing bands who are coming through town or playing local bands who are playing at the Entry. All of that made sense to me. So I thought if I could do that, maybe I could help the club. If someone had told me that within 15 years, we would've helped create the synergy and watched First Avenue not only thrive as a single venue, but thrive enough to take over control of many venues in town, creating venues like the Palace [Theatre], that's mind-blowing to me. And I think The Current is a very important part of that success, and they have acknowledged that time and time again. And so for me, that's the best way I could help the club.

Cecilia Johnson: You just made the setting of the Twin Cities way more real for me, circa like 2004-ish, because I came to First Avenue through The Current, actually. My first show was because I had heard Punch Brothers on the air – my first First Ave show. So it's cool to think about how they worked together back then, and how in your life, in your world, First Ave's context actually did help create The Current. So thank you for that.

Mark Wheat: It's kinda common sense, you know. And I think a lot of it is because of the personal connections, that we did know Nate [Kranz] and Sonia [Grover of First Avenue]. They knew us. I think that Minnesota Public Radio did a good job initially hiring us, because Mary [Lucia] had a great reputation; Bill [DeVille] had a reputation for supporting local music on Cities [97] for years and years; and I've been at KFAI/Radio K, and so it made sense for them to go, "Oh, these guys we've worked with before, so let's do it again." And it just gets better and da-da-da-da-da.

Cecilia Johnson: I mean, you've been in so many different areas of the Minnesota music scene, and we've been talking a lot about how First Avenue has evolved in your own life and career. What about the music scene? How do you think that's evolved in the last – your whole time here, but especially since your time at First Ave?

Mark Wheat: I think it's just gone deeper and stronger and more accomplished, and full of more talented people than ever before, because of this synergy and energy that we've been able to create over the last 20 years that fosters that. First Ave is symbolic to this – the way they feed back into the community by, for example, creating Best New Bands night, where those bands can play to a full room in the Mainroom, and that's part of now the fabric of our scene.

And we don't have a lot of the music business stuff based in the Twin Cities, and people have said that's a bad thing, that there's not many labels, not a big label – promotions companies – there used to be a dearth of anyone who was pulling the strings in the business, and that made us feel a little kinda self-conscious, like, we are outside of it because they're not here. But I think some people took advantage of that. And the people around – Poliça, Trampled by Turtles, even a Hippo Campus, that can blow up and go on national tours – that kind of energy and accomplishment is not to be taken for granted. It doesn't happen everywhere in the country, and I think it's just gotten – like I say, more and more talented, more and more filled out, more and more experience.

Cecilia Johnson: Lovely. Thank you for talking about First Avenue.

["Hive Sound" by Icetep gradually fades up]

Mark Wheat: That was awesome, Cecilia.

Cecilia Johnson: Yeah, great.

Mark Wheat: We could go on for hours.

Cecilia Johnson: Yes!

Cecilia Johnson VO: This bonus episode was hosted by me, Cecilia Johnson, and produced by me and the incredible Jesse Wiza. Corey Schreppel mixed this episode; our theme song is "Hive Sound" by Icetep. To Mark, wherever you are, we hope you're enjoying life and some great music. A fond farewell from your former colleagues.

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