“Most people are DJs,” as The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn has plainly put it, but deck maestro Jake Rudh is still an atypical figure. For one thing, unlike the nation of 20-something iTunes zealots, Rudh is a renowned veteran of local radio proving grounds such as Radio K and Rev 105, where he honed his craft amid stacks of CDs and vinyl. (He’s only just now testing the waters of software-based DJ tools.) For another, whereas nobody ultimately gives a shit what’s on your iPod, Rudh actually gets paid to make and execute playlists all over town. On March 18, he’ll celebrate the 10th anniversary of his popular “Transmission” DJ night—named after a Joy Division song and currently held every Wednesday at Clubhouse Jäger—with a six-hour post-punk and new-wave blowout in the First Avenue Mainroom. The A.V. Club spoke with Rudh about choice cuts, almost appearing on Mad Men, and the art of keeping Chuck Klosterman on his feet.
The A.V. Club: What do you remember about the first Transmission?
Jake Rudh: It was pretty small. It was a very, very slow growth. It started out as this thing where my friends would come down. It’s a lot like being in a band, how you go and see your friends’ bands when they play. So when I started a DJ night, my friends would all come down. It was really heavy on “dudes in bands” coming down for a while. That’s when it was more on the indie side, and I was doing a lot of new album releases, working with indies and major labels, but that was 10 years ago. They don’t send me boxes of free swag or posters anymore.
AVC: How does that playing-in-a-band comparison hold in terms of how you relate to fans and people who follow you?
JR: I’m honored that there are people who have been coming down to my night for over a decade now. I’m just as honored, though, to see how many new faces are showing each week. Social media has made it a lot easier to get the word out versus having to spread fliers all over Uptown and Dinkytown and downtown.
AVC: Outside of your work in clubs, you’ve also DJ’d your fair share of weddings and private parties. What are some memorable ones?
JR: [Writer] Chuck Klosterman and his wife Melissa Maerz hired me to DJ their wedding. I’ve never had a room full of so many music critics and writers depending on me to make them move before. The New York Times, Spin, Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield—they were all there. I’m happy to say that it might be one of the best weddings I’ve ever DJ’d. I kept them all on the floor for hours.
AVC: In your experience, what’s the quickest shortcut to a full dance floor?
JR: It depends on the event. Transmission is completely different from the private parties or other clubs or weddings I’m hired for. If you’re talking about Transmission, I’d say the top five would be Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life,” Generation X’s “Dancing With Myself,” The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” or The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”
AVC: Prince or Michael Jackson? And why?
JR: Rockwell. No explanation necessary.
AVC: Depeche Mode or New Order?
JR: Why would you make me choose? I’m a bit of a completist with both bands, but I think New Order barely beats out Depeche Mode simply because Power, Corruption & Lies was one of the very first records I ever bought. So I guess there’s a nostalgia piece attached.
AVC: How do you rate the proliferation of younger bands that are influenced by new wave and ’80s pop? Are paler imitations making it easier or harder to turn people on to the vintage stuff you so clearly love?
JR: Some of that [new] stuff sounds like it could come from the early ’80s. You can play Bloc Party right after Joy Division cuz it fits. […] We have 21-year-olds and 50-year-olds that come down [to Transmission]. It’s fun to teach the younger folks and also have people over 40 relate to whatever I’m playing.
AVC: Where do you do your record shopping?
JR: I have had my sources through the years that I won’t divulge, but I’ve had fantastic luck at thrift stores, garage and estate sales. When I do buy retail, I generally go to the staples, like Electric Fetus, Treehouse, and Hymie’s. I also look forward to spending more time at the new Yeti Records. I’m digging their grass-roots approach.
AVC: DJs tend to remember their most regrettable choices more than their best ones. Any big gaffes or nightmare gigs you care to recall?
JR: Once I was playing Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance,” and the lyric “Yo fat girl, come here, are you ticklish? / Yeah, I called you fat—look at me, I’m skinny” came on while a group of “curvy” women were dancing right in front of me. It certainly made me feel a bit awkward. […] I’ve been really fortunate that a lot of my business stems from Transmission. So if I do a corporate gig, they have pretty good taste and know what they’re getting into. I’ve done a VFW out in the sticks where it got a little scary—“Take off that shit and put on some Tim McGraw, for God’s sake!”—but that was in the early days when I really needed the money. Now I guess I’ve turned down gigs in cases when it’s not a good match.
AVC: How big of a room is too big for you?
JR: I’ve done the massive club spaces and I’ve done the intimate rooms, and the smaller venues are much more my speed. Part of what makes me tick as a DJ is feeling the energy of the crowd right in front of me, not to mention easy access for me to join them on the floor, which I do quite a bit. It’s hard not to when you’re playing some of your favorite songs.
AVC: Some people might be surprised to learn that you’re only now starting to investigate DJ software and computer-based tools.
JR: People seem to like that I DJ off CDs. It’s caught in that unsexy period between [vinyl and MP3s]. I learned on vinyl in the club days and learned to beat match, but I stuck to CDs. I’m not a really beat-matching kind of DJ. I’m a pop DJ, a radio DJ. As songs start ending, you kick on the next one.
AVC: You came famously close to winning a contest for a Mad Men walk-on role last year. Was that motivated purely by your love of the show? Acting ambition? Cigarette/Scotch fetish?
JR: Pure love of the show. I just thought it would have been a great story to tell the grandkids one day. “See that guy over there in the corner with the hat pulled down over his eyes sitting behind a newspaper by the Lucky Strike machine not saying a word? That’s your grandpa.” Though I do love a good Scotch.