Each week, Behind the Counter speaks to an independent record store to ask about its recent favorites, best sellers, and noteworthy trends.
Weirdo Records in Cambridge, Massachusetts lives up to its name. Rather than try to compete with the various stores selling indie rock and big-name artists, it’s found a niche in the esoteric and obscure — “records where people are literally just banging on their kitchen pots and pans and yelling,” according to store owner Angela Sawyer. We spoke with Sawyer and found out what makes Cambridge a haven for music (and book) geeks.
What was your motivation for starting a music store? / What is your background in music?
This year is my 20th year working in a record store. So I’d wanted to start one for a long time, but really couldn’t figure out how — mostly because I was always working in a record store, which meant living below the poverty level, and I couldn’t put together enough money to buy a car or a vacation, much less start a business.
When the Internet came into its own, I started using all my spare time to try and figure out how to build a website. I started with about 10 titles, and these days there are several thousand. I moved into a proper storefront at the beginning of 2009, and a few folks (mostly journalists) were surprised that I was opening a shop. Simply and frankly, I’ve been surrounded by and motivated by records my entire adult life. So I felt like, what was I gonna do — take up taxidermy?
What is the musical community like in Cambridge?
Flat-out amazing. Boston is home to more colleges and universities than any spot on Earth, so it’s the college town’s college town. All those students mean that it’s a real haven for book and music geeks. Right now, there are three different handmade paper pamphlets around town that are solely dedicated to listing different underground house shows (and they don’t overlap in what they cover). There’s a vibrant, world-class improvised music scene, and lots of crossover between noise, jazz, hardcore, avant classical, etc. There are also several unique regular DJ nights where people play all 45s or LPs, each focusing on something a little bit different (three different soul ones, several ’60s-only, one for international music, one for rootsy country, and so on).
New England is known far and wide for its adventurous and voracious record collectors, and the prices in town are cheap, and the selection is plentiful — especially for genres that are abstract or difficult. The record-collecting community here has been very good to me, and the shop is really theirs. I feel extremely lucky just to get to hang out in it all day, and I think that it just wouldn’t fly anyplace else.
Does your store have a specialty? What draws people in?
Yep, in fact, it’s one of the most heavily specialized stores in the country. I only carry extreme, underground, and experimental music here: free jazz, 20th Century classical, noise, outsider, etc. There is a much larger store in town which carries indie rock, so I mostly focus on records where people are literally just banging on their kitchen pots and pans and yelling. For most folks, it’s just a tiny room full of very uninteresting stuff that they’ve never heard of. People who look hard for unique and esoteric music have been generous enough to come often though, and some of them have kindly made the effort to travel from quite far away to visit.
What’s the Series on Mondays, and how does it work?
There’s a show here every single Monday. It’s generally low volume (The store is about the size of a dorm room, after all. Plus we try to be decent to my upstairs neighbor.), and usually just one performance per night. The shelves are on wheels, and we squish just fine. I think that there’s an increasing lack of social spaces or venues dedicated to any sort of aesthetic experience or discussion in the United States. If every music performance is forced to be popular enough to sell hundreds of beers, you risk choking out up-and-coming acts, instructive failures, and just about anything that requires more mental effort than a sitcom.
Give me three great albums that you’ve enjoyed lately.
Bill Cosby & His White Puddin’ Pops: The Passion of the Pops
Ah, just when all the records seem to take themselves a little too seriously, one like this comes along to pour beer over your head and de-pants you. Gleefully messy, out-of-tune party anthems with joyful keyboard slams and violently untutored horn solos. Though some sources say NYC, looks to be the work of two bands combining (Seattle’s Coconut Coolouts and TacocaT). Doesn’t matter, as the real point of the record is all the call-and-response shouting between the girl and boy teams.
Zito Righi E Seu Conjunto: Alucinolandia
Hallucination land, indeed. Bewitching little album with unforgettable cover art and the bright and vivacious singing of Sonia Santos. Background shouts and sound effects remind of the Beach Boys‘ Party record. Light and zippy tempos, mostly played on organ or funky piano, and some anachronistic lounge sax stylings from Zito — who doesn’t seem to be in charge of anything at all! — only add to the charm.
Which albums has your store sold the most over the past month?
Various: Brass Pins & Match Heads
Ian Nagoski‘s second big collection of 78s (following String of Pearls) leans toward super-obscure, unheard international sides, but tosses in a couple of well-worn hits to keep you on your toes. And it works. The queen of fado suddenly seems as smooth as Ella Fitzgerald compared to the tearjerking anguish of Macedonian folk singer Vaska Ilieva. The spikes in Jelly Roll Morton piano pieces are only highlighted when stacked up against the cutting and twisting harmonics of George Katsaros‘ rembetika guitar. Hear Persian classical music yodels, spectral and aching girl harmonies, people pretending to be cows, bereaved Native American wood flutes, and more old sides that will crack open your cold heart.
Various: Pakistan Folk & Pop Instrumentals
Swoon under the nectarous influence of syncopated skating-rink organ, sproingy sitars and thwacking surf guitar. Stuart Ellis has been posting lipsmacking rock ‘n’ roll singles from Pakistan on his primo blog Radio Diffusion for the past couple of years. Upscale hotels hired bands, especially foreign ones, and many of the acts featured here had contracts for regular gigs. You can also hear a couple of tunes outsourced from Lollywood, including one by Mr. Soul Sitar, Sohail Rana, and an insanely bouncy single by Nisar Bazmi. Whether you want to find out how far a Qawwali harmonium is from a Farfisa, or you just like swingin’ lounge groovers, get it together in time to get this one onto your shelf.
Charlie: Nothing Outside Inside
Charlie is known for his metal guitars made from old car parts, Takoma record of solo saxophone, and rants about macrobiotic diets. This fairly rare second LP is quiet in spots, but reeks of hippie from start to finish. Charlie flits around, playing the “holy stick” (a.k.a. flute) while a bedraggled, bearded buddy bonks some bongos. Obviously home-recorded, so you can just picture Chaz standing outside on a log, waving one foot in the air and thinking about bee pollen while he happily toots away.
What’s the weirdest request that Weirdo has ever received?
Truthfully, I’m not sure that such a thing exists. I spent most of my 20s trying to pull down as many fences in my head as I could about music and people — and once you’ve sorta gone through the looking glass, there’s not much that makes me uncomfortable. I guess I could be locked in a room full of evil billionaire dentists or something, but it’s not too likely. I’ve done my share of taking customers to the hospital or taking down requests while in a public bathroom stall — and I once traded a record for a car — but I’m not sure just how weird any of that is. I will say this though: it still gives me a thrill when someone who doesn’t really know anything about the music that I stock stumbles upon the shop and turns out to be open minded and curious. It’s contagious as all hell when someone’s eyes light up because they’re excited about what they’re hearing.
Any big future plans for Weirdo?
With the large numbers of mom-and-pop businesses, not to mention all the record stores, that have closed across the country over the last several years, my big plan is to stay put! Really, there’s very little planning involved. I just keep following my ears and see where they take me.