NYC-based multi-hyphenate creative Braden Wells takes us through how she discovered her love of music to creating and landing her own radio show on NTS. Read on to hear all of the details, from equipment to recording that's needed to host your own show.
This interview took place over the phone between Tate VanderPoel Smith and Braden Wells in Los Angeles, and was edited by Duc Dinh.
TVPS: How did you get to where you are today?
BW: I grew up in suburban towns across the country; we were moving a lot because my dad was still in medical school when I was born and we followed his career around. Music came to me as a way to understand and identify myself, when I didn’t really identify with any of my peers. Everyone would go to the football game on Friday and make out under the bleachers—and that was the highlight of the week.
Discovering music and developing my taste was really formative, it was an identity builder. I’d spend time digging through the internet, listening and discovering music online. I was searching for a more meaningful experience in this world because I wasn't happy with what was around me.I was also a dancer growing up, from the age of three to sixteen, and that gave me a different experience with music.
There’s something about being in a rehearsal room for three hours every day rehearsing the same routine and hearing the same song over and over. The discipline in that and giving yourself over to the experience of creating a physical representation of a song—it gets under your skin, I think, and it makes you hear it in a different way.I was a ballerina, so I heard a lot of classical music. I also did modern, pointe, jazz, contemporary...everything—that exposed me to a lot of different genres of music.
When did you stop dancing?
I quit dance when I was sixteen, and that sort of rerouted my trajectory. If you asked me what I was going to do when I was younger, I would tell you that I was going to study at Juilliard and be a professional dancer in New York.Before, my number one defining trait was that I was a dancer. It was something that I identified myself with, through and through. Then I fell out of love with it, or rather, I just didn't want it to be my career, so I broke up with it.
What was that process like?
It was hard, I didn't know who I was after that. I didn't know where I could get my worth from in this world. I really saw myself as being not just a dancer, but also being a talented dancer. I lived off the validation of getting the solo and winning competitions. When all that left, I remember feeling, “Oh my God, I'm just a normal person in this world.”
How did you end up in LA?
When dance fell out of the picture, New York fell out of the picture with it. I moved to LA because I love the heat, the ocean, and hiking, and having access to nature. I lived through winters all my life so I wanted something different, but I also wanted to live in a big city and have that experience.
How did you get involved in the music scene?
I fell into doing college radio while I was at Loyola Marymount University (LMU). I had a friend who had a show at KXLU, the school’s radio station, and he asked me to cover it for him one time. For the show, I had to write out this tracklist and put it in this folder for the college radio staff to review after.A couple of days after my show, I got a text from the Music Director at KXLU asking me to submit an application to be a DJ. I didn't really think much of it, but I was super excited. Then a week later, I had a radio show.I've met so many people that have done college radio at their respective schools and we all share this universal experience. Doing a weekly college show was a very special thing for us.
What was that experience like for you?
I had a radio show from 2 AM to 6 AM once a week because new DJs at the station have to start out at that slot. I would go to bed from 10 PM to 1:30 AM, do my show, and then go to sleep for a few hours before class. It was crazy, but it was so special. I would never throw that time away for anything.During my first year, I also became an assistant to the Music Director. We'd sit together and listen to submissions that labels had sent to the station to get airplay—boxes and boxes of physical records—sometimes even before they were released. We had a music library at KXLU and we would add the songs we like to the suggestion stack for the DJs at the station to play them on their shows. It was really, really special to get to listen to so much, and that was very formative to my taste and knowledge of music as a whole.
What happened after that?
I actually became program director after my freshman year, I applied for that position. My college job was working at the radio station. As Program Director, I would hire new DJs and create the schedule. It was really fun to find the other cool, music-obsessed kids at LMU and ask them to do a show—giving them that experience that was given to me.After that, I became the Music Director, and I did that until I graduated.
Was it paid?
Yes, it was!
For the uninitiated, can you walk us through the structure of the radio show?
You’d play 25 minutes of music and then have an airbrake where you’d talk about the tracks that you played and then do another block of 25 minutes and so on.When I started out, I was pretty shy. I would only say, “You just heard this song by such and such band” and just get it over really quickly, then continue playing music again. Then as I get more comfortable, I started to touch on the artists, the year the songs came out, what label it was on, and from what country. That helped me developed a real respect for music and for what I was playing.We would sometimes do ticket giveaways for shows, and discuss what shows are going to be in LA that weekend. We also interviewed bands and recorded live sessions with them.
We’d also contact artists and management ourselves to book full-on shows and throw them at different venues under the station’s name. We were given a lot of trust and had a lot of power and freedom to do what we wanted as college kids.
How did the first show come about?
One of my best friends, Jess Makhlin, aka DJ Mishka, who now also has a show on NTS, thought it would be fun to stage a show. She’s very driven and just went for it.The first one was at a record store on the west side of LA, and it was with four bands. We would have KXLU DJs playing between the bands. We sold KXLU merch, worked the door, and sold tickets all by ourselves.We did it because we loved it—no one made a single dollar. We just made enough money to be able to pay the bands and for everyone to walk away happy.
What was the process of putting a show like this together?
The main pillars for a show are the venue, artists, and funds. The place where it gets most difficult is the money, that's why we would always use DIY venues, small and independently-run places because a lot of times you don't have to pay the venue. They were able to make enough money off the bar to keep the space running. We would have never had the ability to throw shows and have experiences like this if DIY spaces didn't exist.In general, just start scrappy. I think the most important part is having a perspective and caring about the artists that you are giving a platform to, and then finding a space that will host it, and lastly, promotion.
We had built-in promotions with the radio station where we could just talk about the events that we were doing, but social media is a really great tool for it as well. We would use the KXLU Instagram and our personal to promote the shows, ticket sales, merch, and so on.
Where did you have those shows at and how often?
We did them at different DIY venues in LA like The Smell or [now-defunct] Perhspace. There was also Non Plus Ultra, The Factory, Basic Flowers. There are also slightly bigger venues like Echoplex. We would do shows in backyards and warehouses. The list goes on and on.
We had a show once a month or so—it was sporadic because we were full-time students. If we weren't throwing shows, we were attending or DJing at different events. For those four years [in college], we went to shows constantly. The benefit of being at KXLU was that we were on the guestlist for four shows every week.
Every weekend, we were at something music-involved. There were also KXLU-sponsored shows, where we weren’t involved with the bookings, but we would help promote them under KXLU, and the team would get free tickets.
How did you make your way to NTS?
I knew that I wanted to continue doing radio after college, but I wanted to switch to online.
At the time, I was really obsessed with NTS. One person at KXLU, who also had an NTS show, gave me an introduction to a producer there and helped me get a guest slot to do a one-hour mix. After that, the producer contacted me and asked me to be a monthly resident.
What does that look like for you?
The biggest part is doing the research and developing a point of view and a level of taste that's distinct and personal to you. My college radio show at KXLU went through many phases during those four years. It was a very formative time for the development of my taste. A lot of my show had to do with an attraction to somewhat dark sounds. I was obsessed (and still am) with darker industrial, post-punk, and synth-y sounds. Some dark ambient, noise, and metal would occasionally make an appearance. But I also let myself experiment. My show went through a balearic and synth-pop phase. There was a phase where all I wanted to play was dance music. I once made a Halloween mix consisting primarily of Memphis horrorcore rap. I've made a truly chaotic dance mix that jumped from reggaeton to Chris & Cosey to Young Thug. Let yourself explore, don't confine yourself to one genre. Hook into a sound that you are obsessed with and let yourself go down the rabbit hole. I have spent countless hours of my life digging deep on Discogs, Youtube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Tumblr, and occasionally in record shops. It will be 3 in the morning but I can't sleep until I've heard every release that came out on some obscure Yugoslavian record label from the 80s. You get the gist. Be deeply curious. Research the music you're playing and let yourself experiment.
What has your experience working at NTS been?
Music sharing is a really intimate experience—it's beyond just listening to a set that someone put together and thinking that what they're playing is cool. In many of my most intimate relationships, sharing music has always been a really integral part of the bond—it's a whole different language to talk to someone in.Bjork has this lyric [in “Blissing Me”] that says, “Sending each other mp3s [is] falling in love to a song”—it's about her texting someone that she's newly infatuated with. With this radio show, I'm lucky enough to get the opportunity to do that with strangers, which shifts the perspective, but it’s still special in a different way.I've gotten messages from people across the globe, from Spain, France, or the UK, that said they've listened to my show in lockdown over the past year, and how meaningful it was for them during this certain period of their lives.
You’re infiltrating yourself and your taste into all the intimate spaces around the world that you'll never actually know or meet or touch—it’s romantic, in a way.
What equipment do you use to record your NTS show?
Before the (temporary) NTS studio closures last year, I recorded every show live on the CDJs at the studio. Since we switched to remote, I now record every show from home with my personal gear. I use a Pioneer DDJ-SB controller that I bought off eBay a few years ago and the Serato program on my laptop. My entire set-up consists of my laptop, controller, speakers, headphones, and 1/4" headphone adapter. If I want to record a voice intro to my mix I literally talk into my iPhone voice memo app and drop it into Serato. Find out what works for you. Are you more inclined to mix digitally or with vinyl? You don't need the priciest equipment on the planet. You can be scrappy with your set-up, especially when starting out. Ask to borrow gear from a friend!
And, how do you structure a show?
Some DJs are quite purist and believe that a mix is a perfect hour-long set that remains at the same BPM and has flawless transitions. I often find these mixes to be technically strong but otherwise boring. I love a more unorthodox approach. When I first started to learn how to properly mix, I was obsessed with a DJ called Brat Star. I would listen to a mix of hers on repeat that had both Cabaret Voltaire and Gucci Mane in the same set. I love mixes that are chaotic, that make me laugh, that go from 70 to 190 BPM and jump relentlessly between genres. I also love long and drawn out mixes with strange vocal samples interspersed over long, meandering ambient tracks. You don't have to follow any confined or perfect structure.
Like most creative things, I find that making a mix is about getting an idea stuck in your head that you can’t let go of until you see it materialized in the world. Making a mix is about accessing an emotion, for me. I’ve made mixes about melancholy, I’ve made mixes about crushes. My show now is recorded alone in my home and it selfishly consists solely of music I would listen to while alone. They are a bit intimate and I think they’re for personal listening. I guess I think of a mix as having a narrative structure. There is the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. It’s like storytelling. Many of my mixes build-up to a central apex point and then die back down to a conclusion. But the great part is that there are no rules. Make the mixes you want to hear.
What is the recording process like?
I learned how to mix on a Denon controller that belonged to KXLU. I was taught by another KXLU DJ how to properly load tracks onto a USB stick, how to set up and break down equipment, how to beatmatch, how to use effects, etc. I am forever indebted to him (hi Harley)! From there, my friends and I became obsessed. We would sneak the gear out of the station and set it up with massive speakers in my house and play around doing B2B sets for hours. From there I learned to play on CDJs intuitively. Learning the basics is really helpful, especially if you want to make dance mixes. I was lucky enough to have a teacher, but he learned on his own from Youtube! There are thousands of tutorial videos out there. Sit down with your gear and practice.
Before sitting down to record my show, I will have a pretty good idea of the track list. I keep a pen and paper next to me with my tracks written down in order. If I’m being meticulous, I will write down the minute and second mark of each track at the time stamp that I want to transition into my next song. Know your tracks! Listen to them in full before throwing them into a mix on the fly. I’m more at ease during the actual recording if I do a bit of pre-planning ahead of time. If you sit down to record a mix and it isn’t going your way, step away and come back to it. Let’s say you spend an entire day collecting tracks and creating a set and by the time you hit record you despise the way everything sounds and keep having train-wreck transitions. Come back to it the next day with fresh eyes and ears you’ll have a much smoother recording experience.
For anyone who wants to follow your path, what advice would you give them?
I’d advise anyone that would want to have a radio show to really care about doing the research, to know, and to have respect for what you're playing. Just be really, really curious and listen to hours and hours of music, know what label, what year and country it's from. Go after the things that you have a natural inclination or curiosity for—down a rabbit hole of your curiosity and discovering things that you care about.Find out what makes you happy, and find a way to make it your thing in life. Also, put yourself out there, and don’t be afraid to fail at something. Try everything under the moon that you feel like doing.If you have an idea to book a monthly party somewhere with DJs, or you want to start a music platform online, or you want to start booking shows with artists, just try your first one and ask friends for help.Ask a million questions. Don't be afraid to look dumb, and meet a lot of people also that work in your field.
Find an online radio station in your city and submit a mix. Get a foot in the door and go from there. Don’t be afraid to ask friends to connect you and don’t be afraid of a cold email. NTS has studios in LA and London but guests send in remote mixes from all over the world. LA has Dublab and KCHUNG. New York has The Lot Radio. San Francisco had HydeFM and Lower Grand. London has Rinse FM. There are hundreds of mix series’ like the now-defunct Sanpo Disco. i-D does a mix series. The list goes on and on. There is something out there for everyone.
Here's a playlist version of Braden's radio show:
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Special thanks to Polaroid