Will someone please buy this woman a silver watch already? Stella, the ever-serene host of KXLU’s Stray Pop, has been on the air for nearly 27 years, and in the world of L.A. radio, that’s far more than mere longevity. Stella’s taste-making three-hour thrill ride of punk rock — with pop, rarities, interviews and other weirdo stuff thrown in — is the place where rockers of every stripe still tune in each week as Friday night turns into Saturday morning, midnight to 3 a.m. Not only do they count on Stella to provide the most rollicking modern music on the air (sorry, Rodney), they depend on her all-important warnings: “The bars and liquor stores are closing!”
Who is this Stella? Almost anyone who has attended a punk rock show over the past couple of decades has stood in the same room as the dark-haired, fair-skinned Stella. She’s usually the one in some kinda red-polka-dot thrift-store dress and a swirly hairdo that barely contains her wavy locks. Her last name is Voce (which, appropriately, means “voice” in Italian), but many people can’t think of Stella’s name without tacking on her show’s title, as if it were part of her family tree. Stella Stray Pop.
Still, management at the Loyola Marymount station she helped put on the punk rock map have yet to acknowledge the contributions of their most famous DJ — her silver anniversary passed without even a crappy office cake — but then again, most of her colleagues weren’t even born when Stella started playing this newfangled punk rock.
No matter, Stella has her loyal fans. When she walks through the door in a faded Butthole Surfers T-shirt at Chocolat on Melrose, general manager Igor Nicolas bolts over, bestowing kisses on her as if she were royalty. Nicolas then beckons various wait staff over for a brief lesson in Stray Pop history, telling them how Stella “created such chaos and mirth by being the first person to play bands like the Germs and so on.”
Meanwhile, actor Robert Culp, sitting a few tables over, accidentally puts a shard of glass into his mouth, thinking it’s a piece of ice cube. Blood ensues. “How punk rock was that?” Stella later remarks.
Though she can be prone to tardiness — just ask the DJs who’ve hosted the shows before Stray Pop — Stella is on time today. She’s also not great on linear recollections, and often resorts to the stacks and stacks of playlists that fill the closets of the Fairfax-area home she’s dubbed “Punk Rock Gray Gardens.” This is how she knows that the actual date of her first show was February 5, 1980.
Born in Cleveland, Stella came to Southern California when she was 6 months old and grew up in Gardena, “not far from where Red Cross [before they became Redd Kross] grew up, and where Keith Morris’ [of the Circle Jerks, of course] mother lived, one housing tract over.” The youngest of three, Stella was “a good Catholic girl” who attended St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood. “I don’t know if they brag about punk rock DJs coming out of there,” she observes.
“I had strict parents. They had me chained to the house. It was so Italian. In fact, I blame them for the fact that I never got to see the Screamers perform.” Stella was a well-behaved, quiet teenager: “I read Creem and Circus and listened to Deep Purple, Aerosmith, T. Rex. I was just waiting for punk rock to happen.”
When it did, Stella dove right into the Hollywood scene. “[KXLU veteran] Reverend Dan asked me recently what the first punk show I went to was, but I don’t remember. Whenever there was a show and I could get a ride to Hollywood, I’d go.”
Continuing her Catholic education at nearby Loyola Marymount University was a logical step. While at the school’s orientation in 1977, she wandered into the campus radio station — but at this point in our narrative, the rest isn’t quite history yet. She was given a daytime show.
“I got into trouble for the music I was playing. The station was playing dinosaur rock at the time — people don’t believe me when I tell them that KXLU was playing Journey, but they were. The program director finally gave me a specialty show on Tuesday night so I could play whatever I wanted. He was always on my back looking for anything I did wrong, but the response from people was really good.”
Stray Pop was born.
A sampling of Stella’s early in-studio guests includes Stiff Little Fingers, the Fleshtones, the Stranglers, the Go-Go’s, X, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, Berlin, the Blasters, Psychedelic Furs. Before you say, “Hey, chump, those bands are so not punk!,” listen to Stella, who knows more than you: “I never viewed punk rock as being that aggressive or violent. I was always a pogoing, happy person.”
When asked how she prepares for her show, her reaction is typical Stella. “It’s freeform radio,” she responds in that tone of hers that is both haughty and nonchalant. “I’m good at spontaneity.” Copies of her hand-scrawled playlists read like obscure time capsules: the Bangs, Gleaming Spires, Eddie Angel, Leopard Society, Brainiacs. And who can forget Roach?
Victor Kosuda, a Stella fan for more than 20 years, has been taping every Stray Pop episode since the early ’80s. “I started when she was on Tuesday nights. Very few people can do freeform radio — she’ll play a song by Dean Martin and then something punk rock, and it just fits together like a jigsaw puzzle,” he says. “I listen on Saturday when I wake up. One highlight was the show that had the Ramones, where they showed up just as the show was ending and Joey was more than a little tipsy.”
Stray Pop has been a good source of other employment for Stella. At the Rhino Records music store, she was hired by Phast Phreddie to fill in for Nels Cline as import buyer because, as Mr. Phreddie put it, “Stella knows all that Limey stuff, and she hates to work.” She also worked at Aron’s Records, was an editor at Larry Flynt’s heavy metal magazine, Rip, and has written for various British music publications.
After her son, Felix, was born in 1993, Stella would bring him to the studio, where he’d nap in his stroller while she did her show, nursing him every hour and a half.
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Is Felix a punk rock fan? “One time, I brought him up to the studio with his Cub Scout troop. DJ Brett asked him what music he likes, and he said, ‘Aaron Carter.’ I was thinking, ‘You’re killing your mother!’ ” These days, she’s proud to report that the Clash, Bad Religion and the like fill up his iPod.
Reverend Dan, host of Music for Nimrods, which follows Stray Pop, wants Loyola to give Stella an honorary degree. “She didn’t just talk to every L.A.-area punk performer who’s ever been worth talking about; she talked with exotica keyboard master Korla Pandit, wild man Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and dozens more musicians from out of the mainstream. She’s talked with artists, authors and historians, creating an expanded definition of just what the term punk rock disc jockey really means. And she’s been doing it for over 25 years. If this wasn’t enough, KXLU, because of her recommendation, added me to their lineup. So to me, Stella is not just a legend, she’s a hero.”
And she does it all for free. “You mean actually make a living at it?” she says when the question comes up. The idea of getting paid to do Stray Pop is greeted as if it’s never crossed Stella’s mind: “I’m not opposed to it.” But pay would mean a commercial station. Anyway, it’d be hard for her to quit now.
“Every year, I fill out the questionnaire to renew my show, and there’s this one question, ‘How long have you been doing your show?’ And I write down, ‘Longer than you’ve been alive!’ ”