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New Sounds From Los Angeles: An Interview With Travis Holcombe

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Travis Holcombe is kind of the new guy at KCRW. He’s worked at the station for a few years now and, yes, you may be familiar with his name (and voice) from his previously late night Tuesday show. Now? He’s moved onto a bigger, more noticeable time slot: he’s on air Saturdays and Sundays from 3PM to 6PM.

“My show has definitely changed a lot,” he says from behind a sound operating board as he thumbs through a plan of what he’s going to play during his set. “At night, I would basically play two-thirds rap and dance music, which are two things I can’t play too much of from three to six. It feels weird to play dance music in the afternoon! A sustained two hour set of house music? It might very well evolve into that. I’m still trying to get a feel for things–and there’s definitely a focus on trying to find rock music over dance and rap.”

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He speaks with a sort of authoritative casualness, which comes from his deep and undeniably “radio” voice. Travis was born in Whittier but grew up in Atlanta which he moved to in the third grade. This is surprising since there is no affect to his voice. “I went to school at University of Georgia and I moved to LA right after I graduated in September of 2002,” he explains. “I came out to Los Angeles to work in the film and TV business. That’s what I thought I wanted to do after I graduated from college. I did that for a while, starting out as a PA as I tried to figure out what exactly I wanted to do.”

“I wound up getting into post production and worked as an editor at Warner Brothers,” he says. The job appeared to be a field that he was interested in but he eventually found that it wasn’t quite the job for him. “I liked assistant editing but actually being the full on editor wasn’t as much fun for me: it’s a constant barrage of notes which I didn’t really like.”

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He began to question what he was doing, realizing that he needed to find what he really wanted to do since editing clearly was not it. He made an exit strategy, stuck with it, and executed his plan. “The money was good so I realized pretty early on that I had to pay off all my bills and start saving up like crazy so I can take some time to figure out what I want to do and not be a slave to my job.”

“That’s exactly what I did too: I worked as an editor for three years. I kind of lucked out in a way because my editing/post production office ended up getting outsourced to this company in Miami. I lost my job right around the time I wanted to quit so I was able to get unemployment. It was ideal.”

“I still needed to figure things out though,” he says. “Obviously anyone who is into music listens to KCRW and wants to be a DJ on KCRW. I was just like that: I thought I would give it three or four years as a volunteer and work my way up. If that doesn’t work out, I tried. If it does? That would be amazing.”

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His plan obviously worked and the time and effort he invested in the station payed off. He ended up getting his first big opportunity through the station by way of KCRW DJ Mario Cotto, who he knew from outside of the station. “He had an opening as his volunteer so I started working on his midnight to three show. He moved around, eventually settling at ten to midnight on Saturdays. Mario helped steer me. He got my foot in the door and then advised that I should volunteer at the front desk to get to know everyone at the station and see how everything works.”

The volunteering system is an integral part of the KCRW family too: most people at KCRW start as a volunteer. The volunteerism culture at KCRW is a vital part of the public radio station’s chain of command. “When I worked at the front desk, most of my job was answering phones, answering emails, and typing up transcripts for stuff that ends up on the web. Sure, a lot of it isn’t fun but there are a lot of fun things you can get into. You can work for three hours setting up an event and then you get to watch a band you would have paid twenty bucks for. They make it fun and worth your time. I feel like a lot of people on the staff start off as volunteers and then everyone sees that you are dependable and will show up to work everyday. If a job opens up, things shift around and a volunteer is sucked in.”

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Travis’ volunteering evolved into a track that headed toward DJing. “Volunteering at the front desk turned into working on Morning Becomes Eclectic as the production assistant which turned into assisting the engineer on certain mornings when we had a band in. I was going all around the station! I worked for Anne Litt as her assistant and Nic Harcourt for a while too.”

“I guess it was probably two years ago that I started working on my demo on GarageBand with a little shitty USB speaker,” he says of his first steps toward becoming a DJ. “I put together a rough one hour demo and gave it to Anne. They got a decent idea of what my taste was and they more or less knew what my voice sounded like. Anne just said to work on my demo here at the studio and make something that sounds good.”

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“I ended up getting lucky and, in a weird way, Nic Harcourt leaving caused a lot of stuff to shift and I was able to slide in and do a midnight show on Tuesdays nights. That’s what I did for the past year and a half until the new weekend show happened three weeks ago. It’s been crazy: everything’s happening a lot faster than I thought it would have.”

“This whole weekend thing was not on my radar at all,” he says with a laugh. “I was the last one in! I thought I would be he first one out if anything changed. All I was hoping for was not to lose my midnight shift. That’s what I was fighting for. It came out of nowhere and it has been crazy.”

Travis has been at KCRW for a two and a half years, one and a half of those years being spent on air doing his Tuesday night show. He occasionally does some club gigs and recently had the opportunity to try out hosting a live television show. He has KCRW to thank for these opportunities, too. “I get gigs from my friends and stuff but having the KCRW exposure opens up a lot of avenues to people who may not normally hear you,” he says. “It’s weird. Funny enough, the week before I heard about the change in the schedule, I got a job totally out of the blue kind of through KCRW: I got an email from an executive producer saying that he was looking for a host of a television show and was wondering if I would be interested. I was like, ‘Fuck yeah!’”

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There are obvious differences between radio and television, though. He noticed lots of fundamental differences between the two that made it a little more challenging than expected. “You don’t have scripts and you don’t have to worry about how you move your arms in radio,” Travis says. “It’s something that you have to take note of in television.” The opportunity for the television hosting gig came and went but still stands as a testament to just how powerful and respected KCRW is in relationship to the world of music: people look to the Santa Monica station for the top authorities on the subject.

Travis’ time at KCRW has been full of career shifts for him but, because of the nature of his time slots, his musical tastes and what he broadcasts has had to shift dramatically, too. “I have to be a little more aware that there’s probably people under the age of 15 and over the age of 65 that might be listening and that their sensibilities might be different than the after-midnight crowd.”

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“There’s a lot more scrutiny too,” he adds. “With the new shift there’s a lot more listeners so I’m getting a lot more feedback–mostly positive, but sometimes not so positive. It’s to be expected, I guess…I’m bringing a different perspective and different sound to weekend afternoons and a lot of people are averse change and their knee jerk reaction is to say, ‘It sucks!’ I’m still trying to figure out where the line is.”

He also finds that he’s making more of a specific plan of what to play to ensure weekend listeners have the best possible experience. Instead of flowing in and out of sounds, he likes to have an outline of what he is going to play and work from there by way of live mixing. “I started making a plan of what to play a few weeks ago because I knew I would be super anxious going into it and it would be really difficult for me to find things. I stared preconceiving playlists and I feel like it works better because I do like to jump around between genres. Sometimes, the way a song ends allows you to sneak something completely different in. You can make it work. Plus, if I have my whole library in front of me, it’s more easy to click and drag than run around the studio to check if we have it.”

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Ironically, Travis doesn’t find that there is that much an influence of the city on him. Music is music and you can find it anywhere. He does try to slide in as many local acts as he can. “That’s kind of hard to answer since music is so innate: it’s in the air. I know a good fifth or sixth of my show is local bands like Hanni El Khatib and Cayucas or whoever. I definitely feel like LA has took the mantle from New York in the past few years (or at least after 9/11): the balance of power has shifted to LA. There is so much going on in the rock world and dance world, especially. It’s blowing up here. A Club Called Rhonda, Jerome LOL, Kingdom, Fade To Mind, the Echo Park Records sphere: there are so many great artists out here.”

He pauses. “I can’t really put my finger on exactly how LA has influenced me,” he says. “But it definitely has. I’m a fan of LA’s music scene first and foremost–and likely above any other regional scene.”

The city has changed him and has molded what he is doing. He came out here for one thing the city is known for and now is doing another thing the city is known for from an insider’s perspective. Of course, his path could be seen as tangible in other cities but it does have a unique LA slant because KCRW–and the way it functions–represents the city that surrounds it.

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This said, film and affordability are precisely what drew him Westward. “I thought I wanted to get into film or television once I finished college. Looking at what was out there, I knew I was going to be poor for a couple of years and it seemed like it was easier to be poor in LA than it would be in New York. That was kind of the deciding factor. Obviously LA has a much bigger film scene than New York, too. It’s a lot more affordable and the weather so nice that even if you can’t do anything you can at least enjoy that. That was it: film business and affordability.”

Radio is currently his primary focus. It’s a medium that works for him and one that he is clearly excelling at. He plans to keep up what he’s doing and adapt to whatever opportunity comes to him. “It’s hard to get caught up thinking about those sorts of things because it’s out of my hands,” he says. “The only thing I can do is focus on making a good show every week. If it gets bigger, great. If not, they’ll probably move me back to midnight, which is fine.”

“I don’t have a grand plan,” he says. “I’m going with the flow of things.”

For more on Travis, check out his Twitter and Facebook. You can catch Travis’ show Saturdays and Sundays from 3PM to 6PM. Get more on him and his KCRW show here.

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