Behind the Counter: Zulu Records (Vancouver, BC)

With an army-green facade out front and wood-paneled walls and retro furniture inside, Zulu Records is an established musical stronghold in the Canadian metropolis of Vancouver, British Columbia. More than a place to buy music (though it covers that angle pretty thoroughly), Zulu has become a family-friendly, cultural centerpiece of the community with a number of notable in-store performances, art openings, and a continued independent, DIY approach to business.

What was your motivation for starting a music store? / What is your background in music?

Zulu Records grew out of the ashes of an old store called Quintessence that specialized in prog and rock. It was 1981, music was changing, and there was a community of young punkers who were starved for all of the amazing imports coming out overseas. Zulu Records’ owner, Grant McDonagh, was one such fan with big ideas who saw his part-time job at Quintessence fizzle out and an opening present itself. Grant had ties to all of the great Vancouver punk bands and, in the early days, worked closely with  this community, including later starting his own record label to press bands that he felt deserved to be heard. Today, Zulu Records concentrates completely on being one of Canada’s finest indie music shops, and it still prides itself on the model of building and maintaining community ties.

Melanie holds Destroyer's City of Daughters
Melanie holds Destroyer's City of Daughters

What is the musical community like in Vancouver?

Vancouver’s music community is tight-knit. Vancouver has always had a bit of an annexed feel to it; we are in the corner of Canada, and the city is geographically bounded and can’t really sprawl endlessly like other major Canadian and American cities. As a result, the spots where bands play, practice, and congregate haven’t really changed over the last 25 years. There is still a very punk/DIY feel to how bands go about doing things, as really we are pretty far away from the spotlight of the business in Toronto. In fact, we have more of a West Coast / Pacific Northwest vibe going on, and certainly, Seattle feels like kindred musical spirits.

Does your store have a specialty? What draws people in?

We are a general store that offers the best music of all genres, rather than focusing on just one or two. With that said, there are definitely some niches that we excel at, including underground, emerging indie rock from both Canada and the States. Also, a large attraction is our vinyl selection, which takes up one entire store. People come and spend hours hanging out, listening to the old gems alongside the latest limited-edition platters.

Will holds Cloud Nothings' s/t
Will holds Cloud Nothings' s/t

How is Zulu a community center?

We have made a choice to use our store as a meeting place for the exchange of ideas around music, as well as for people — music lovers, musicians, artists, etc. — to come together. We are an indie place, and this is definitely part of the mandate: connect with the people. As a result, we host in-stores for bands (recently The XX, Superchunk, Dan Mangan, Billy Bragg, Kurt Vile) as well as art openings, book launches, music parties, and more. Also, we should consider offering babysitting, as so many of our loyal clientele now bring their families along for the day.

Give me three great albums that you’ve enjoyed lately.

Tim Hecker: Ravedeath 1972
Absolutely beautiful drifts of organ and noise.

Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring for My Halo
Burned-out post-psych ballads.

PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
This is amazing. She is gritty in a cool way.

John holds John Phillips' John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of LA)
John holds John Phillips' John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of LA)

Which albums has your store sold the most over the past month?

Destroyer: Kaputt
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
James Blake: s/t
Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes
White Fences: Is Growing Faith
Sun Wizard: Positively 4th Avenue

What are some of your most memorable in-store performances?

The XX is probably the most memorable in-store we have ever done. There were over 400 people here, and it was [the band’s] first ever appearance in Vancouver. They sounded amazing and were wonderful people to deal with. To this day, we still have customers from near and far say that they wished they had hopped that train and managed to be part of that event. Here are two great clips from that day:


Any big future plans for Zulu?

Celebrate Record Store Day with a massive sale, great limited-edition releases, and bands and free beer in the evening.

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