Jonathan started stopping by D8R not long after we opened and after a few visits his wife and young son started coming in too. Elizabeth and Jonathan are the kinds of folks you want to meet when you open a record store. They are friendly and interesting, they ask about records I have never heard of and ask me what I am listening to. Sometimes they walk in knowing exactly what they want and other times they flip through everything while shooting the shit. They invited me over to their home a few weeks ago and from going through their records and talking I learned so much more about them as record buyers and music fans.
They think about sounds before they think about songs, and they are constantly exploring. Elizabeth told me she can listen to the same handful of records over and over and over again, hearing new things each time. One of the most interesting things I learned about them is that neither of them consider themselves record collectors. They are record listeners. This doesn’t mean they don’t love records but they don’t buy or keep records just to have them. I may be splitting hairs but to me there is a difference between a record collector and a record listener. If you aren’t sure what I mean their answers to my final question might help you see the difference.
D8R: You two met at a music festival and pretty quickly music became a part of how y’all were getting to know each other. Elizabeth can you tell us about you and Jonathan’s first musical memories together?
Elizabeth: I think a lot of our early music memories are either road trips and long drives with music or just listening to music on a CD player in the house I lived in when I was in college. I don’t have a ton of event related musical memories with him from the start of our relationship, but there was certainly a soundtrack to those early days. Right off the bat, Jon was introducing me to things that I hadn’t heard of before. At the time, I was (and still am!) listening to a lot of stuff like Mogwai, Sigur Ros, Don Caballero, and Slint or things that came out of the 90s/2000s Chicago/Milwaukee indie music scene so I think I played that for him (though he might have already listened to a lot of that). I remember him playing a lot of hip hop for me, which wasn’t a genre on my radar at all at the time. MC Solar, Talib Kwelli, and even the Fugees are all things I remember listening to in the car for the first time ever with him.
D8R: Jonathan, recently you did something I like to call the Beethoven Challenge. Can you tell us about that and what you learned about Beethoven’s music during that project?
Jonathan: Yes, that was a fun project. Seems as if people make up all sorts of challenges online, whether it be ice bucket challenge or whatever. The project started when I was browsing around Driver 8 and saw a complete set of all of Beethoven’s 9 symphonies recorded from the Berlin Philharmonic on the Deutsche Grammophon Label. Which has historically created some of the best classical recordings over the course of the 20th and 21st century. I’ve listened to Beethoven for years, but it was really neat to hear the progression of his symphonies in order. What I love about Beethoven is that his music displays the full depth of human emotion, good, bad and ugly. Beethoven also chooses to finish his symphonic life with optimism in the 4th movement of the 9th with Ode to Joy. It’s a reminder to me to always finish with something positive.
D8R: You have a pretty good size collection of classical records. How did you get into that music?
Jonathan: I do have a good size of classical records. Many of the records actually came through my introductory hifi system which was given to me by a friend of a friend who was unfortunately going into hospice care and his family had no use for his stereo or his classical records collection.
As far as my love for classical music goes, I was introduced to classical music in my college humanities course. One of the assignments was to go to an “artistic venue”. For me, this ended up being the Indianapolis Sympathy Orchestra. I honestly can’t remember what I saw but I remember being blown away by it, the raw emotion of it that can be so easily translated without words. Language itself only has words for certain societally defined notions, where music can convey the nuance between vocabulary.
After college, we ended up in Detroit for 7 years and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is also one of the best in the country, especially so because they had a program called NextGen which meant that tickets were EXTREMELY affordable to those under 38. For the years we were in Detroit, Elizabeth and I took full advantage of this and made attending the symphony a regular part of life there.
D8R: Tell me about the records in your Modern Classical section? That seems like a genre where you really have to work to find music that speaks to you. What resources do you use to discover Modern Classical records?
Jonathan: What I love about modern classical is that it is heavily influenced by many different types of music that have blossomed in the past 70 years. You can hear all sorts of elements of different genres in modern classical which makes it extremely interesting. Starting in the 50’s or so John Cage, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich and a lot of the minimalist classical artists blew the doors off what had once been considered classical standards. This really paved the way to artists like Hania Rami, Dobrawa Czocher, Mari Samuelson, Max Richter, John Luther Adams, and Olfur Arnolds now who are doing really interesting stuff with genre blending. A good introduction to modern classical I would recommend would be Spotify’s Classical X playlist.
Some of where I’ve discovered modern classical was at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra itself. Leonard Slakin, the conductor of the DSO at the time, always went out of the way to feature the next generation of composers. Others of it have been discovered through Deutsche Grammophon’s record label itself who does a good job keeping tabs on the emergence of classical artists throughout the world.
D8R: One of the artists that you have a large collection of is Nina Nastasia. Can you tell us a little about her music, how you discovered her, and what appeals to you about her?
Elizabeth: My high school boyfriend put Nina Nastasia on a mix tape for me. It was the song Stormy Weather off of her album Dogs. The guy I was dating at the time paid very close attention to whatever was coming out of Electrical Audio and that was part of the catalogue from that studio. I had never heard anything like it, and was really taken by the simplicity of the music, the production of it all, and her songwriting. I went and got the actual record and then every time she’d release an album I’d go get the next one and love it just as much. I think Nina Nastasia is music done well… and good storytelling that feels like it spans across albums. The music she writes is raw without being angry. There’s a sense of restraint and it’s not self indulgent the way some singer-songwriters can be. She’s writing very personal things for a broad audience and doing it well. Also, the production of her records has always been really good as well – I listen for the production just as much as I listen for the music itself which is a habit I can’t get out of – and they’re beautifully recorded and mixed.
D8R: One thing I realized after I left your house is that you have next to no classic rock records. Is that intentional? Or is it that you just don’t find yourself listening to that stuff when you are listening to records? Are you anti classic rock?
Elizabeth: We definitely have very little classic rock. I grew up in a very strict religious household and I also didn’t grow up in the United States so I have some cultural gaps and I think classic rock is one of them. I suppose someone my age would typically have been introduced to Classic Rock by their parents, but that just never happened for me since we were not allowed to listen to that growing up. Jon’s parents gave us what little classic rock we have, and I think he’s more in tune with that genre than I am. I think that if he ends up getting really into it, we’ll end up with more, but it’s not a genre I generally seek out.
Jonathan: I’m not anti classic rock by any means. I grew up listening to classic rock as a kid, maybe so much that maybe I’m a bit bored by it. One thing I know about myself is that I need to keep growing musically. I’ve never been able to play a musical instrument but I always enjoy pushing the boundaries of listening to what’s being produced. Maybe one day I’ll get back into it, but probably in a way where I’m looking for stuff that exists outside of the confines of the classic rock “standards”. I hope this doesn’t sound elelist because that’s certainly not the intention.
D8R: Jonathan, you are the gearhead in the family. Will you tell us about your current set up? Also, do you have upgrades you have in mind? What about dream set-ups, if money was no object?
My current setup includes PSB PB500 Speakers, an REL sub, Raven Audio speaker cables, Cambridge Audio CXA81 integrated amp, Cambridge Audio CXV2 network streamer, Nordist interconnects, Rega RP6 turntable with a Rega Exact 2 cartridge, and a IFI Zen phono stage.
I certainly have upgrades in mind, currently saving for some Sonus Faber Ceremonia M speakers. and probably after that a Luxman L-509x integrated amp. I got the opportunity to listen to some of the Sonus Faber’s at Listen Up in Denver and was blown away by their complexity of sound they delivered. Plus they’re absolutely beautiful. Our stereo system sits front and center in our living room, so on top of sounding great, my criteria for audio equipment is that it must be beautiful as well as sound great.
I eventually plan on saving and getting this stuff. If money were no object, these things would probably still be at the top of my list. It blows my mind that there are many companies out there charging obscenely crazy prices for equipment that is downright butt ugly. One of the great things about hifi audio is that it can be a lifetime hobby and immediate gratification in hifi equipment to me seems like cheating the appreciation of the experience a bit.
What I do love about hifi audio is it allows you to hear music in new ways and helps you to learn to appreciate music that one wouldn’t necessarily pick under casual listening circumstances.
D8R: Are there specific albums covers that you really love? Is there a style of album cover that speaks to you, or an aesthetic that makes you take a second look at an album when you see it in a store?
Jonathan: Nosaj Thing’s “Continua” and Ryo Fuki’s “My favorite tune” album cover are a few of my favorites. Black and white covers always get me, not sure if a certain aesthetic gets my attention, but I certainly appreciate uniqueness. Drive by Truckers have always done an excellent job in this department as well.
Elizabeth: I don’t know if there’s an album with art that I really, really love, but I know I’m going to get really good music if it’s a Blue Note or Deutsche Grammophon record. I also will sometimes flip the album over and see if I can figure out where it was recorded or who had a hand in the making of the album. I know certain people have a sound that comes out of their recordings that I’ll enjoy listening to at least once even if I’m not very into the genre itself.
D8R: You told me that you like to keep the ephemera that sometimes comes with a record. You showed me stuff from a Godspeed You Black Emperor album and Donavan Woods. Are there other albums in your collection that come with cool ephemera that you love? Why do you love the little extras that sometimes comes in albums?
Elizabeth: As an overthinker, I love it when people overthink things I guess! I also really love design in general and records are part of that love of design. One of my favorite things when I first started collecting records was looking for easter egg etchings on the edges of records and that delight still holds, though I haven’t found a new one in a while.
Back to ephemera… I imagine that must be a really fun part of the process of making an album – creating visual design that matches the music. I’m always happy when you get some sort of little easter egg in the album that you were not expecting. It just makes it fun. You know what genre is really pushing the limit with crazy inclusions? K-pop, actually. I was recently sent an album by a k-pop band and it has SO much stuff in it. Pictures, posters, stickers, weird cardboard things, an entire art book. I have never actually played the album but I have it on my shelf as an example of interesting product design. This is not uncommon for music in that genre and from a marketing perspective it’s really fascinating and clever. I do think that we’re seeing more and more of that. People no longer need to buy a physical album due to streaming but if you create a tangible piece of art that holds more than the music then you are more likely to get them to buy it.
D8R: You told me that you started visiting record stores in high school and college. What were the names of those stores, and what cities were they in? Do you remember the kinds of things you were buying then?
Elizabeth: Atomic Records in Milwaukee was the first record store I ever went to and maybe would be what I would have considered home base. I bought my first ever vinyl record there, uncountable CDs. It’s an indelible memory. Because I went to college in Milwaukee and spent a lot of time in Chicago we also went down to Reckless Records a lot as a side trip when we were down there for shows or just to hang out. I kicked off my record collecting with Nina Nastasia, June of 44, Shellac, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Fugazi, Don Cab, Slint, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Low, The Shipping News and other things adjacent to that… that’s what I listened to a lot of in college and was able to listen to anything I wanted without consequences.
D8R: Both of you listen to a lot of instrumental music. Are there specific instruments that you look for in instrumental music? Are there instruments that you often avoid?
Jonathan: As I said earlier and truly believe, instrumental music can convey the nuance of fullness in human emotion and feeling that vocabulary cannot, this is why I have always been drawn to instrumental music. I do love the piano and the violin for the reasons listed above. I wouldn’t really say there is any instrument I wouldn’t listen to, however I do find polka music and the accordian fairly annoying. (Despite the fact that my wife owns one!)
Elizabeth: I don’t think that there’s anything specific that I look for or avoid. I mostly want to hear how the person is using the instrument. I suppose there are tones I like better than others – a really chattery, brassy trumpet, a clear french horn, an undercurrent of violas carrying the violins – are all things that stick out in my mind as lovely sounds. I don’t avoid any instrument. There are no limits on human creativity and I always enjoy seeing how people use things in unexpected ways.
D8R: Is there a record that you have been looking for for years? Is there a record that you looked for for years and have since found? Where did you eventually find it?
Elizabeth: There has never been a holy grail type of record for me. Because all music is so accessible I can listen to just about anything at any time. It’s just icing on the cake to hold it as a tangible object. I think, though, there are some records that are more precious to me as a collector than others as they are less about the record itself and more about who I was and what I was going through as a young woman when I bought and played that album. I can put the album on and suddenly I’m 20 again and trying to figure out life or driving through the night to New Orleans, or sitting on the floor of my boyfriend’s house listening to music and watching the glow of the tube amp or whatever. It’s time travel, not music at that point.
I’m also definitely interested in listening to different pieces conducted by different people. So, for example, I’d like to get copies of Mahler’s 9th by Giulini and Karajan and play them back to back. It’d be a long, interesting evening. Or maybe Alban Berg’s Concerto with Itzhak Perlman/Seiji Ozawa and line it up next to Josef Suk/Karel Ancerl’s recording of the same thing. We can do this with some classical pieces thanks to Jon’s careful collecting of the classical music genre, so sometimes I’ll go through and pull out two recordings of the same piece by different groups of people and give them a good listen.
Jonathan: I wish I could say yes to this question, but no, not really.