Monday, November 23, 2009

ANGELA SAWYER: One Fantastic Record At A Time

Angela Sawyer runs Weirdo Records in Cambridge, MA. She's a dedicated musician with a weak spot for Julie London, a yen for the ukelele, and a skull tattooed on the back of her hand. She used to work for Forced Exposure and Twisted Village, played in Life Partners and created the pop-collage band The Phenomenological Boys. Her unique voice is as comfortable carving catchy melodic layers as it is hooting and swooping like Tiny Tim in Farsi. She used to run Weirdo out of her house as a largely online venture, but recently she moved into a storefront on Massachusetts Avenue where she specializes in the ultra-bizarre and hosts performances in the tiny shop space. Below, she tells us what its like.

I am a record collector & run a record shop that just moved into a proper storefront about 6 months ago. So lately, I've been working like a nutbomb, up to my eyeballs in it about 12-15 hours a day 7 days a week. And by it I mean records, and I mean a fucklot of them. And not just your run-of-the-mill records either. Nope, the name of the shop is Weirdo and it's the name for a reason. Freaky garage psychedelia from Bolivia. Soundtracks to French VHS pornos. Housewives in green pancake makeup sitting on the floor of their kitchens, banging pots & pans & shrieking at the top of their lungs. One sided 78s about baseball from 1904. Cocaine-damaged open-mic-night songwriters who wish they were rock stars. Singapore's answer to Nancy Sinatra. Off-key opera singers, mysterious bleeping boxes, jazz solos played on drinking straws, Beatles covers from Thailand, instruments that you wear like a shirt, nose flautists, tangles of cables plugged into unidentifiable objects, Hendrix fans from Zambia, one armed fiddlers, soundtracks to movies that were filmed in languages no one can speak, souped-up player pianos, and on and on and on. That's my meat & potatoes.

Now most people think they like music, same way that most people think they're funny or think they can hold their liquor. But there are some people, a small percentage of people, who organize their every waking moment around music. They give up relationships over it, pass on decent food & housing in order to afford it, and they rarely talk or think or dream about anything else. Some people do this, not just for six months while during a phase in college, but for years & years & years on end. Not only am I one of these people, I can't remember the last time I had a conversation of more than 5 seconds' length with someone who wasn't. Typical modern-day skills like cooking chicken, using a bank, or putting a band-aid on the knee of a child have, in my case, atrophied away to nubs. While I effortlessly sport seemingly esoteric skills like gargling coca-cola while using an electronic bullhorn, or remembering that Ananda Shankar & Laurie Johnson are men, while Blind Willie Dunn was not blind.

Why? Well, here's the thing about being a record collector. It's a lot less about owning stuff. For example, it's practically impossible to "invest" in records like you can in the stock market. People occasionally try some variant of investing with music (buying it 'for their kids' or for ebay), and they are a small source of amusement to collectors in their midst, until a few months later when the money runs out & they disappear. In fact, if you spend your life connected to records, you are conscripting yourself into a life of poverty, gar-un-teed.

Sam & Angela

People ask how I got here once in a while, because they usually don't know anyone else who thinks a decent selection of nose flute recordings ought to be as handy as spare batteries. I usually tell them, 'one fantastic record at a time'. Because that's the truth. The world is stuffed to the brim with meaningless drivel. It's often unsparing & ugly & desperate. Records are a corner of it where things mean something, where people care even a tiny bit, where what's precious is venerated and what isn't is left to the wind. I feel extremely lucky that I get to spend my time, say, tracing the hundred years of phrasing history that led to Ella Fitzgerald's intricate vocal acrobatics instead of... what? Some crap like mutual funds?

The thing that people ask a lot more often than how I got here is, 'how do you stay in business?' Seems funny, because I hafta tell you. I see lots stores that sell stuff no one actually likes, and lots of people whose faces light up with what they hear when they're here. The answer there is therefore: when you need your insurance, go see the insurance guy, and when you need your teeth cleaned, go see the dentist. When you need to be bowled over by something beautiful and genuinely unique, I'll find you.

See, instead of playing the violin, some folks like to turn the violin upside down & play it backwards. Other folks would like use the violin to imitate a scuffle with an injured cat. Still more folks would prefer to just put the violin down, then walk to the nearest pond & joyfully throw a bunch of rocks in it. All of these people are sort of 'my people'. And they are not most people's people. Definitely not. Even amidst friendly sorts who like to think they're quite open minded or quirky or curious by nature. Not most people's people. Definitely not.

Brendan Murray & Angela behind the counter, photo by DJ Ning Nong

But few collectors mind, because they care a lot more about carving out an aesthetic goal. They want to know. Is it possible to write a song that is both musically and politically urgent? Are funny songs automatically less profound? What is the secret ingredient that turns a mess of unformed noise into something meaningful? Is dancing a mode of appreciation or detrimental to it? Can a serial killer write a good song? How about a two year old? Are some chords better than others? Are some guitar sounds always cooler than others? What about the different kinds of listening that you do when something is live vs. when it's recorded? Or when something is a hundred years old vs. released this week? Memorized it from when you were a kid vs. never heard it before? These questions are not rhetorical. They have answers. Long, detailed ones. Because even if they never articulate such questions (some of them are nearly autistic, after all), record collectors define & delimit good music to themselves, by saving the worthy & pushing away the dross. Like a gardener, little by little, they weed garbage, plant seedlings, expand, upgrade, re-landscape, and continually focus, tighter and tighter, on the myriad number of ways that good music takes place. And they get to savor it along the way too.

So when people ask me how I got into my job or one of the bands I play in, I usually answer 'one record at a time'. The Four Freshmen & Lambert Hendricks & Ross convinced me not to go to grad school. The Beach Boys got me out of bed & to a doctor that time I had a 104 degree fever. I decided not to move to Chicago after all, because I was gripped by a fever for Emmett Miller yodels & figured it would take months to meet anybody I could talk to there. I nearly got arrested throwing things at a passing train because I was so hopped up on the Music Machine. Lord knows the gossip or bargains or morning coffees I've missed because I couldn't stand to be in a room with Carol King's 'Tapestry' for one more second. How many times have I freaked out my neighbors trying to sing along to Joan La Barbara records, or whistle to Evan Parker? And how about the recent risks in identity/postal theft in order to buy obscurities from Bangkok or Lebanon or Istanbul?

844 Massachusetts Avenue

A lot of people who collect records get started before they're 15. Sometimes an older brother leaves a collection on the way off to college. Many have fond memories of playing with turntables at age 4 or 5. I learned how to read from Disney read-along 45s, memorizing their sound & following along in a book until I had the book memorized too. Preferred it to being read a story by a parent, so I've been told. But I didn't have an older brother or a hip pal when I was a teenager, so I didn't get introduced to music that wasn't on the radio or tv until I was already in my 20s.

Which brings me to David Lee Roth, musical giant of my junior high & high school days. DLR is the epitome of what popular music can do. This is not to say that Van Halen makes the best music in all of popular music history. Doris Day, Steve Allen, or even the Ink Spots, for example, could all wipe the floor with Roth's bony white ass any day of the week. It's more that Roth's voice is uniquely textured and skillfully applied enough (don't think that there's no talent to emitting a sound like ripping sheets from your throat while in mid-karate kick, eh?) that it can answer any musical question: like the 8 ball can answer any question about your future. Sure, you can look at the guy and see a coke-addled, falsely exuberant jock who rips off Louis Prima (badly, no less). This would not be a mistake. On the other hand, just one step beyond the party persona, DLR can open a door for the uninitiated: to doo wop, extended technique, off-the-beat phrasing, the syllabic turns of foreign languages (yep, he recorded in Spanish & there's an acapella mix), 60s folk-pop (John Sebastian cover), the history of vocoders (don't ask), and so on ad infinitum. It would certainly be a shame if listening to David Lee Roth kept people from listening to say, Mohammed Rafi. But there's time enough for both so long as you're not wasting yours with mutual funds, and Roth is as fascinating as a car wreck, every time.

These days, I'm glad I got started collecting a little late. I vividly remember the sense of discovery when I realized that other people who did not fit in, musically or otherwise, had a place to go & congregate. Like the island of misfit toys, for burgeoning adults. Amazing! And I learned that these wonderful places were called (say it with me now) college... radio... stations. I worked at one (lived there between apartments even), and doing so helped me get a job at a record store in the early 90s. Didn't know much when I started, but loved having the top of my head ripped open day in & day out by mysterious black slabs of Pierre Henry or Albert Ayler. Experiences akin to seeing the face of Jesus on a piece of toast- except that it's as real as the hand on the end of your arm. One day another employee mentioned that a particular indie rock band was boring. I think I actually sucked in my breath, as although I'd heard plenty of guys in doc martins & hair dye knock Eric Crapton, I'd never heard any of them disparage some poor, tiny band of freaks. I slowly realized, that what makes music good is neither it's popularity nor it's obscurity, but simply it's quality. And that this was something you could learn to figure out, without the help of glossy magazines or tv specials, or even any local blowhards who might like to hold court. In a world overrun with crap, advertising, fear, etc., developing your own ear is a defense against meaninglessness, ugliness, shallowness, and idiocy. And here in my fortress, hidden behind my mounds & piles of music, I'm happy to say that I'm all loaded up & ready to shoot.

This month, the record shop I run is having a sale, because it's November and that's what I think should happen when people are thinking about getting their friends Christmas presents. It's not how most shops work- but I like to think of this shop as a place that zigs when everybody else zags. It's not a bad way to be. There's no money in it of course. I scrape for change & put things back on the shelf every time I go to the grocery store, and I try to stretch between trips too. But there's a lot of fun to be had. This autumn I learned to improve my duck call blowing, got a teensy bit better at the ukulele, accidentally whacked a guy in the balls with a mike stand while visiting Chicago, received several odd objets d'art from pals (one blew bubbles!), attended a Balkan-themed dinner party... And the records! Oh, dear me what sounds have been flying around in the air here! Columbian cumbias, zombie groans from Germany, field recordings of wallabies playing in waterfalls, the funny fartings of Danish policeman, drunken Peruvian teenagers on juvenile delinquent rampages. And you can bet that's just the short list.

please find Angela & company at:

844 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139
Images from Weirdo Records
Angela's Bands:


hanson ono. said...

best thing i've read all year.

Bhob Rainey said...

Absolutely fantastic piece! Thanks, Angela!