Ben Blackwell – Third Man Records – Nashville, TN
On my way back from Los Angeles back to NYC I decided to make a stop in Nashville and visit Ben Blackwell, originally from Detroit, and now resides in Nashville.
Ben has been a great supporter of Dust & Grooves from its early days but it was only after we ran the book Kickstarter campaign, that we finally connected and decided we need to meet.
He oversees the vinyl distribution and manufacturing at Third Man Records, does some A+R for the label and fold sleeves and removes the garbage twice a week.
As a passionate and devoted label that promote and conserve vinyl culture, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit their offices and their pressing plant, where they literally make magic!
Ben is also a close friend of Noah Uman, who was featured here in the past, and it made me think about something. For the upcoming book, would it be possible to connect all the featured collectors to each other? Is there an invisible thread that leads one collector to the next one and so on??
Back in Nashville, after a flight which took way too long, we first meet for drinks at Noah & Jenn’s house. Ben and his wife Malissa arrived around 8 PM and we sat down in their humble living room, listening to records, talking about future projects and having a laugh.
Early next morning I went to Ben’s house for an early morning photo session with his records. We had only 2 hours to squeeze in all the records you’re about to see. Sometimes working under time pressure is actually a good thing, and eventhough it feels like we only touched the surface of his collection, I’m sure this feature will take you on a wild journey into a man’s mind and musical taste.
Q. What’s on your turntable right now?
A: 2 Hyped Brothers and a Dog “Doo Doo Brown” Somehow weird Miami booty singles like this got massive radio play in Detroit. This is the kind of stuff I listened to before Nirvana broke. Malissa was singing it the other day so I woke up early one morning and BLASTED this as loud as possible to wake her up.
Q: What was your first album? How did you get it? At what age? Can you describe that feeling? Do you still have it?
A: The first piece of vinyl I truly felt that I “owned” was a copy of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Fat” single. I must’ve been five years old. I distinctly remember seeing a clip or “making-of” piece of the video on Entertainment Tonight. We didn’t have cable at the time so a music video was still kind of rare. My mother had taken me to the Harmony House (local Detroit music chain) on Mack Avenue and I saw the single on the racks and immediately recognized it from what I’d seen on TV. I don’t even think I knew it was “funny” or anything about it. It was purely motivating on a level of simple recognition. I saw thing X at place Y and later saw thing X at place Z. I had to have it. My mom probably just thought it was cute. I think it’s still in her basement.
Q: Where did your initial interest in music originate? Family? Friends?
A: Initial interest was probably solely connected to the radio and things my parents would play. I vividly remember my dad explaining to me the story behind “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” by Gene Pitney. I was in the front seat of his Renault, my brother and sister likely in the back, and he was driving to one of his basketball games (playing, not coaching) and it seemed like it was so late I should be asleep. But he was so animated, getting into all the intricacies and turns of the story. I don’t know if he even LIKED the song, but the story was so captivating that it made me like it. My grandpa was from Kentucky and I was always told my heritage on my dad’s side was “hillbilly” but very little of that seeped through to musical appreciation. Alternately, when I was about four years old my mom’s car was stolen and my main concern about the situation was what would happen with her cassette copy of Big Generator by Yes. I thought thieves steal your car, but would be kind enough to leave your cassettes behind. Because to take the cassettes too would just be cruel. Ah, the optimism of youth…
Q: Why vinyl?
A: To start, I always thought it was cool. When I really took the plunge in the mid-Nineties there weren’t really too many teenage kids buying LPs and 45s so the fact that it was a little odd, non-mainstream, different…that resonated with me. But once I got below the surface of it all, I latched on to the other hooks of vinyl…the fact that so much stuff unavailable on CD was available on vinyl, the reverence of dropping a needle into a groove, the relatively cheap pricing via thrift stores and yard sales. The more it became clear that I was a fan of music, the absolute necessity of being mobilized to listen to vinyl was non-negotiable.
Q: Do you collect other musical formats?
A: Collect? No. There’s mountains of CDs, a box or two of cassettes…but there’s almost zero collector mindset attached to any of it.
While I don’t collect 45 boxes, the White Stripes and Third Man have made a couple custom 45 carrying cases that come in handy. For vintage cases, I love the company Triad…nice sturdy wood, wrapped in an impressive cover, strong handles. These things will survive a fire no problem.
Q: Do you currently focus on a specific musical genre?
A: Sadly, no. I’ve decided to be fairly open-minded in regards to anything with a connection to Detroit and/or Michigan and that’s spread across pallid private press jazz band LPs from the high school I went to (Notre Dame Harper Woods), 45s that share the zip code I grew up in (48224) and all other sorts of geographic-based traits as opposed to anything rooted in a genre or style. I’d heard murmurs amongst old-school collectors that there were some Ku Klux Klan records from Wayne County, Michigan and while I’ve never seen any proof to their existence, something like that would be incredibly interesting just for the sheer factor of the unexpectedness of it all.
Detroit Teenage Record Collecting 101…early Bob Seger shit like “2+2=?” totally slays.
Seger’s “protest against protest songs” credited to the Beach Bums, a song called “Ballad of the Yellow Beret”
This is a $100 wall record any day of the week in Detroit. And it sells consistently
Jeez Bob, why won’t you reissue your old records? Come on!
Spanish-only picture sleeve for this Bob Seger System jam.
One of my personal collecting projects is original 45s of songs the Gories covered. This one’s tough…a 1959 instro on Tamla, the first white group on any Motown label. Nick and the Jaguars. Apparently the father of one of the band members was Berry Gordy’s lawyer and had him record this single as a favor. At most 300 copies were pressed. It is unreal. If anyone has an original Sun pressing of Doctor Ross “Chicago Breakdown” I think this collection will be complete.
Q: Tell me more how your passion for vinyl has affected your life.
A: For years touring with the Dirtbombs most of the money I made was just spent on records. I was living with my mom and I had nothing else to really worry about finance-wise. I was extremely lucky. My wife Malissa is very similar to me in her appreciation for vinyl and often says the only difference between our record collections is that she’s listened to all of her records! I’ve been very lucky (or discerning?) that almost all of my jobs have been tangentially connected to vinyl…working at Car City Records (store) in St. Clair Shores, Archer Record Pressing (plant) in Detroit or Third Man or Cass (labels).
Q: Tell me about your involvement with the White Stripes.
A: I’ve worked for them as long as they’ve existed. What started out as carrying amplifiers to sneak into shows while I was underage evolved into running the first incarnation of their website/email list through going on tour with the band and handling duties like driving the van, selling merch at the shows to now, where I basically oversee the bulk of the archiving and historical end of the band. I was pretty stoked to pull together Meg’s complete outfit from the Icky Thump album photos and send it along with her first bass drum to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a special exhibition.
Four copies of the original pressing of the first White Stripes single, “Let’s Shake Hands”. I always knew in the back of my head that this would be collectible.
Q: It must have put you really close to some real rare stuff.
A: Definitely. The holy grail seems to be the hand-painted copies of their “Lafayette Blues” single. They only made 15 of them and they were done by Jack and Dave Buick, the owner of the label that put out the single, Italy Records. I ran the merch table that night when they were put on sale and bought one for the tidy sum of $6. Ten years later I had a super-fan contact me saying he was wanting to buy one and that he had big money to put towards it. I hollered at a buddy of mine who I knew bought a copy and asked if he was interested in selling. He thought about it for a while and decided to let go of it for a price in the high four-figures. Once I had it in my hands, I really took stock of how nice the copy was…the cut-and-paste photocopy of Meg is so striking and it’s the only copy with any sort of assemblage to it. As anyone who’s seen numerous copies of these records, this one sticks out big time. So anyway…the buyer who’d solicited me to find a copy for him just said he wanted a copy of the single…he wasn’t picky, he’d never been presented with any scans of pics or anything regarding what he was buying. So I just sent him the copy I’d originally bought for $6 (copy #4) and held onto the Meg sleeve. Dare I say it’s the prettiest picture sleeve I own.
The ultimate hand-painted copy of the White Stripes “Lafayette Blues”.
Lucky #13 as painted by the lovable Dave Buick. I hope my kids are smart enough to get college scholarships, otherwise this thing may have to pay some tuition.
I’ve done good business connecting buyers with sellers of these records as I’ve been trying to keep track of where all these are as part of my archivist duties. A 10% finders fee doesn’t hurt either.
I’ve also got four copies of the Upholsterers single. It was a band Jack did with his upholstery mentor Brian Muldoon back in 2000. Jack hand-defaced some of the business card inserts with “blood” and numbered and signed those. I tracked down copy #1 last year and found #3 a while earlier. The white card is an odd variant he only did three of. The challenge of tracking these down is always fun.
Sandpaper as a fabric? A joke that was seemingly lost on most anyone who bought the Upholsterers single.
Hand-painted copy of the first Third Man release, the debut single from the Dead Weather. This copy was done by Jack Lawrence.
Q: Third Man Records has placed itself in the front of the music industry as advocates of vinyl records and culture. Does your passion to vinyl has any role in that?
A: Absolutely. I oftentimes say that the worst thing you can ever do is let a record collector be in charge of a record label. To add to that, having the pressing plant just down the street only makes matters worse.
The proper released version of the cosmos-colored vinyl. It’s black vinyl with flecks of glow-in-the-dark, meant to imitate the cosmos that Carl Sagan spoke so eloquently about.
Prototype of the Carl Sagan cosmos-colored vinyl. It took lots of trial and error to get the mix and the look of this just right.
Q: How does Third Man Records come out with all these weird vinyl ideas?
A: A lot of it is just playing with the format…we’re always trying to do something that’s never been done. When you figure records as we know them today have been in existence for roundabout 100 years, it seems like a daunting task. But we still come up with things. I’m particularly proud of getting grooves underneath the center label…that was a NEW way to hide music on a record that had never been done. We did that on the Dead Weather’s Sea of Cowards album. The liquid-filled records are pretty great too, if not an absolute nightmare to deal with leaking. There’s constantly ideas on a metaphorical drawing board that we’re trying to make happen. It’s nice work if you can get it.
Q: How do you organize your collection? Can you give me a useful shelving tip?
A: As of right now, 45s and LPs are in separate rooms. LPs are simply organized as “permanent collection” and “haven’t listened to yet.” 45s get weird…the main distinction is pre-MC5 and post-MC5. Amongst pre-MC5 there’s “white” music (country stuff, garage, pop, surf) and “black” music (mostly soul, gospel). But then I’ve also taken this geographical fascination pretty far…so there’s boxes for 60s Michigan garage. 70s Michigan psych/rock. Michigan punk. 80s Michigan not-punk. 50s/60s Michigan pop, novelty, country is one catch-all box. Motown and affiliated. Non-Motown soul. Funk/electro/rap. 90s onward. It’s the depths of the inferno I’ll tell you. Oh yeah, and dedicated boxes each for Third Man, Cass and Sub Pop. I think that’s generally it.
The bulk of it all is alphabetical, but the Michigan boxes usually are not. The label specific stuff is sorted by catalog number.
MC5 “Looking at You” on A-Square Records. Hands-down the best single to ever come out of Detroit. There’s murmurs about pressings with slight variations on the label paper stock. Can anyone prove or disprove this?
Q: What do you look for in a record?
A: Lately I’ve been looking for things that don’t make sense. Records that shouldn’t exist. Releases that seem stuck in a vacuum or created via time machine. But overall, a record should captivate you. It should elicit an emotion. It should tell a story. There’s no better format for the dissemination of a song that the 7” 45rpm record. That will never change.
Q: Show me some of your most prized possessions
A: The Keggs “To Find Out” is a biggie. They were a bass-less Detroit garage band in the Sixties. They only ever recorded one single and they pressed 100 copies of it. Tim Warren put both sides on his Back From the Grave comp series and it’s been high atop many wantlist since then. To me it just exemplifies the crude, inept, suburban garage sound that has a particular hold on me. The fact that it’s from Detroit only makes it that much better.
The most money I have ever spent on a record was $2561 for this single. I don’t regret it for a second.
This test pressing of Nirvana’s first single “Love Buzz” is pretty cool. I’ve got a stock copy too, a record that early on in my vinyl dreaming I never dared think I would be lucky enough to own. Back in 2000 I’d bought some records of Nils Bernstein who worked at Sub Pop back in the day. He’d sold his copy of “Love Buzz” years before but told me he’d be on the lookout of anyone he knew wanting to sell one. Chris Brokaw of the bands Codeine and Come ended up having a copy he was looking to unload. I used $500 of my high school graduation money to buy it and that was kind of the beginning of spending bigger bucks to get exciting things. As for the test pressing, I happened to find a guy who liked Third Man Records AND Sub Pop. A very deadly combination. Anyway, he had this test pressing and was willing to let go of it for things I had in my collection that were essentially all spares. How could I pass that up?
Similarly I’ve got a buddy who I trade with occasionally who owed me some money not too long ago. A copy of the Sloths “Makin’ Love” single came up on eBay. Now the record is hard enough to find as it is but this was one of two known copies with the picture sleeve. I’m a sucker for Back From the Grave and songs the Gories covered and I already had a copy of the single, just not the sleeve. So I told him if he could grab it and sell the record to put towards his costs that I’d be able to make up the difference of what I would owe him in trade. The sleeve along with a NM copy of the record now reside in East Nashville.
Italian-only picture sleeve of the Stooges. I could look at this all day.
The Sloths picture sleeve looks on with jealousy as the Keggs kick up an unholy racket.
Q: What about the acetate of the Keggs single?
A: There was a bunch of fake acetates of Michigan garage stuff going around in the 80s. This may or may not be one of those. It belonged to a good friend of mine named Jim Shaw. He died a few years ago and it really, really sucked. He was an influential guy in Detroit, he turned on so many people to so much stuff for years. Greg Cartwright was helping Sandy, Jim’s widow, deal with his collection. The idea was to put certain pieces with folks who they “belonged” with. Malissa and I spent a lot of time with Jim while he was sick, just good times spinning records and loving life. Greg said he felt like Jim would’ve wanted us to have the Keggs acetate. He said “Think of it as a wedding present from Jim” and I started crying.
The best wedding present Malissa and I received.
Q: What’s the story behind this Arby’s single?
A: I have absolutely no idea what the story is behind this record. What I do know is that “Rare” is a pretty intense psychedelic instrumental worth the price of several beef-n-cheddar sandwiches.
A combination of two of my favorite things…Arby’s and vinyl!
Q: What’s a record you never thought you’d own?
A: An Armed Forces Radio Television Services pressing of side two of the Stooges Funhouse. This shouldn’t exist for numerous reasons. It’s one of the few records that is totally deserving of being framed.
Q: Do you think collecting vinyl helps preserve our musical heritage and culture?
A: Absolutely. I think that’s part of my whole trip on Detroit and Michigan stuff. I think my way of coping with homesickness when I moved down here in 2009 was to really intently focus on the music from my hometown, from my home state. Regional collectors usually seem to be on the frontline of this world, knowing about particular records and oddities well before the rest of the crate digger world and the general population as well. With such an overabundance and availability of damn-near EVERY type of music ever made in the world, what’s the criteria for what you pay attention to? I’ve got garage comps from South Africa, an amazing collection of psychedelic Christian music from Spain in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Choubi music from the Middle East, Bollywood funk from India…the weird and exotic factor grabs me in extreme cases like those. But all-in-all, I feel like Detroit and Michigan, across the board, has made the best music, for the longest amount of time, across the widest reach of genres compared to any other city and/or state. And that is part of my culture, part of everyone’s culture from that area or any area.
Record collecting is a great, hands-on way for me to engage in a long-time fascination with history. I did a google map a couple of years ago that was just pin-points of addresses of Detroit record labels over the years. The year before that I started compiling a list of Archer Record Pressing master numbers with the hopes to start putting dates on records that weren’t known. All of this is just an extension of collecting records, through a Detroit/Michigan filter, and trying to learn more about the stories behind them. That to me is the best part of collecting.
Q: Vinyl sales are steadily increasing in the past few years. Why in your opinion people are going back to vinyl?
A: I think a lot of folks are doing it just as a trend or a fad. That’s inevitable. The upside of that though is folks who really become ingrained into vinyl and record culture. It doesn’t take much to get sucked in, but once you do, it can be very hard to extricate yourself from it.
On top of that, so many younger kids these days grew up in an era of minimal tangible music…mp3s and such. To hand them an LP, a pair of nice headphones, to engage them in that experience is something that an iPod will never be able to compete with.
Q: What are these records you have perched above the window?
A: These are all just things I like to see on an everyday basis…three copies of Henry and June’s “Going Back to Memphis” single, a Gore Gore Girls carnival mirror, a sleeve for Destroy All Monsters “Nov. 22”, a “Meg” copy of the White Stripes “Icky Thump” pic disc only available personally from Meg and an original Motown Records mailing envelope.
Q: Can you show me some other records you think are visually stunning?
A: Here’s the hand-cut “human skin” sleeve for Venomous Concept/Blood Duster split single. I got this in Australia in 2008 and I think there’s 300 of these, which seems like a lot when you consider how labor-intensive they are to make. I was told the guy who did the sleeves started showing signs of early-onset arthritis from having to cut all of them.
Just a flesh wound.
This 7” by Mooseheart Faith with artwork by Johnny Brewton of Bagazine is pretty slick. I couldn’t even tell you what the music on here sounds like. The sleeve is printed on blotter paper and perforated to imitate the appearance of hits of acid. I stole the perforation idea for a lathe-cut solo single I put out on Cass that I ended up just giving to friends.
Do not drop…
Again with the blood…the Psycho Surgeons “Wild Weekend” single splattered with pigs blood. Also obtained in Australia in 2008 although this was originally released in the late 70s.
This single was personally given to me by band member/the world’s top 60s garage collector, Mark Taylor.
Q: Your wife Malissa has her own collection as well. Is there a record that holds a personal story in your relationship?
A: There’s a couple. I managed to track down a copy of the What a Way To Die compilation LP early on in our courtship. Malissa said a friend of hers had it and that she wanted a copy, especially because of the Pleasure Seekers title track. I think I finally found it through Bomp! mail order. It wasn’t easy, but she’d only ever mentioned it in passing and I always try to make notes of things to search for in the future for gifts.
Most importantly though is the acetate of “Sunday Morning” by the Velvet Underground. This is what I used to propose to Malissa. I took a version of the song (which has always been “our” song) and added in my own voice “Malissa, will you marry me?” at the fade-out.
I then went over to our crack vinyl mastering engineer George Ingram and asked if he could cut a one-off acetate for me and let him in on the plan. Generous George cut the record free of charge…he said everyone deserved to be married and miserable!
From there, I waited until we were laying in bed one Sunday morning. I’d hid the record in a bedside drawer and had the portable Vestax on the nightstand. I said “Oh my god…I forgot to tell you, I found this unreleased version of ‘Sunday Morning’ that you have to hear!”
Malissa mumbled whatever (clearly unimpressed) and I put the needle down. She was completely preoccupied looking at puppies on the Nashville Humane Society website. Not listening to a damn thing. As the ending approached I grabbed the iPhone out of her hand and said “Let’s just listen to this.”
As the fade-out came I slipped out of bed, pulled the box out of my pocket and opened it up to display the ring while the record rang out…
“Malissa, will you marry me? Malissa, will you marry me? Malissa, will you marry me?”
I’d timed it just right so that George could make my message a locked groove and repeat over and over and over again.
She didn’t quite hear it the first time, so thank god the question was repeated. I’ll admit after a couple times it did sound a little bit creepy. In spite of that, she said yes. It had always been my intention to propose via record…I’d originally thought I would do it with a run-out groove etching. But honestly it could not have gone better than the way it did. This record will always be displayed in a place of honor in our house.
Q: Is there any rivalry between you two when it comes to records?
A: We were looking at some stuff the other day at a friend’s yard sale and she kept on pulling out 7”s and I’d just say “I’ve got that” and she’d respond “Why do you have a Stereolab single?” as it’s kind of out of my realm. And I don’t really have an answer…maybe I got it because I knew she liked ‘em. But more often than not she’s just happy we have something in the house. Especially if a record is a promo, something I didn’t have to pay for. We’ve never fought over a record. I did give her an original pressing of Pavement’s first single Slay Tracks and I think she dug that.
Q: What’s your comfort record, the one you could always go back to?? What makes it so special for you?
A: I think of two in particular. My first comfort record is In Utero by Nirvana. When it first came out I was 11 years old and think I was pretty bummed that it didn’t sound at all like Nevermind. But things changed a couple months later once Kurt Cobain was dead. The world (their world?) was suddenly imbued with a sense of seriousness and importance. Made Pearl Jam look pretty pale in comparison. As I look back on it, for Nirvana to release such a raw record at that point in their career…everything is in the red and there’s shit-tons of feedback on the record…it just seems comparable to if the Beatles had put out the Stooges Funhouse after their own Help! I own copies of In Utero on cassette, LP and CD…two variants of the cassette (“Waif Me” and “Rape Me” editions) and three each of the LP and CD. I can listen to that album anytime, anywhere and immediately be transfixed. There’s always something new to hear on there.
Of my three vinyl copies of In Utero one is a sealed European copy from the mid-2000s that was accidentally pressed using Steve Albini’s original mix of the album. They are actually not too hard to come by if you know what to look out for in the numbering of the barcode. I’ve got an mp3 rip of it so didn’t even bother with opening. I’m lame. My first vinyl copy of In Utero was a UK pressing on black vinyl from the 90s. Inside is a window cling of the album cover that I bought from a head shop when I was 13 years old. I have a habit of filing memorabilia with corresponding records. It’s usually flyers or setlists. I don’t think I own any other window clings.
The first US pressing of In Utero was on clear vinyl. I love that as I got older and smarter I recognized more and more of the names on the “thank you” list for this album. My favorite is James Osterberg.
Another comfort record is Kelley Stoltz Antique Glow. Back in 2003 I was shopping at Amoeba in San Francisco and a friend who worked there, Michael Cooper, was giving me suggestions on what to buy. He suggested Antique Glow and was telling me that Kelley was originally from Detroit, blah blah blah. I wasn’t really paying attention. I didn’t like the way his name sounded. But then he said “It’s self-released and limited to 200 hand-painted covers.” And I think the price was only $12. I knew I absolutely could not go wrong.
It was a little bit before I was home and actually got to spin the record. The first song “Perpetual Night” grooves on a kind-of “Here Comes the Sun” lick for a bit and my ears pricked up. About half-way through the song though, this thick, almost subsonic bass tone kicks in and lends a level of “aw shit” to it all.
A few months later I reached out to Kelley to ask him if I could put out the album on CD on Cass. He’d said he’d just signed a deal with Jackpine but that maybe we could do something else. That same night I was talking with Roe, the guy who does the Cass website and out of nowhere he said to me “You should get my buddy in San Francisco to do a record.” I immediately asked “Is it Kelley Stoltz?” His eyes widened and he said “Yes! How in the hell did you guess that?” I told him I’d already emailed Kelley THAT day. Turns out Kelley knew a lot of the same folks I did in Detroit.
I ended up putting out a 7” of Kelley as well as helping hook him up with Sub Pop and even playing drums for him on a tour. Lots of great memories with that guy…but it always comes back to the wide-reaching skill he exhibits on Antique Glow.
Q: Tell me about a dollar bin record you would never part with!
A: Songs of the Humpback Whale. I find this record insanely soothing. Worth it’s weight in gold.
Q: What about a record that is rare but not expensive?
A: Larry Comes Alive by Wild Man Fischer. Recorded live in suburban Detroit with backing by the equally-odd Tulsa City Truckers. This record is hard-as-fuck to find, but when I finally found a copy it was maybe $8. I equally love and loathe genuinely rare, hard-to-find records that are cheap. His a capella cover of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” is actually really endearing, almost heartfelt.
Q: What’s that weird 45 adaptor you have?
A: I got this from Dennis Lambiris. It’s a 1921 silver dollar with a hole drilled through the center. It’s the perfect size for a 45 adaptor. I think I paid $17 for it, but that was solely based on the price of silver at the time. Easily the coolest 45 adaptor I’ve ever seen.
Q: Tell me a particularly sad record story!
A: I lost a handful of records in a housefire back in 2008. I did lose almost all of my books which was depressing, but more than anything, going through something like that just further instills the idea that all of this is just “stuff.” A lot of my LPs now have smoke/soot staining on the spines and it doesn’t really bother me.
I’d always told my mom that if there was a fire to grab these boxes and she wouldn’t have to worry about the cost of a new house. They housed the heavy-hitters. She was almost crying when she told me, from the hospital, that she didn’t grab the boxes as she ran from the burning house. It was honestly the furthest thing from my mind. I was just relieved she was ok.
The records were ok too.
Q: Having worked for a handful of record labels and been involved in over 200+ releases, tell me about one release you’re particularly proud of.
A: Malissa wrote this song “Choke” that her and I recorded on her iPhone. We had Nate Young from Wolf Eyes lathe-cut the song on discarded x-ray film. It was all part of this Mail Art project I’ve worked with for a while called Bagazine. The theme of the issue was “vision” and it just seemed like the perfect art piece to include. I’m more proud of this than anything else I’ve ever done. It was the first real collaboration on a piece of art between her and I. It was the first creative thing we did in our own house (we’d bought about a month prior) and it was done just around the time we decided to start our family. It all came together so wonderfully.
MAMA-069 from Cass Records, available as part of Bagazine volume 5, a Mail Art “magazine in a bag”.
Q: Regrets! Tell me about a record you still regret not picking up?
A: I feel like I’ve been lucky in that I can’t think of any one specific record I passed on that I regret. I was the second-highest bidder on the only known copy of “Flying Thru the Sky” by a band called Spaced and THAT still burns me to this day.
Q: Tell me about some records you have that shouldn’t exist?
A: This is claimed to be a German, promo-only single from the NYC Ghosts and Flowers album by Sonic Youth. But it looks, feels and sounds like a bootleg. There’s next to no information about any legitimacy behind this. I got word to Steve Shelley (SY’s drummer) and he’d never even seen a copy and is searching for one for himself. Regardless, it’s one of my favorite albums of theirs and I’m always a sucker for a single…bootleg or not.
Third Man partnered with Griffin Technologies to make iPhone cases out of pressed records. These would be put in a special die and cut out along the yellow line in the center. This is a copy of a single by the Dead Weather, but with blank grooves. I managed to grab this one before it met its untimely downsizing.
Third Man did a pop-up shop in 2009 where we repressed all of our singles with new, Halloween-themed picture sleeves and on glow-in-the-dark vinyl. Except for this one copy that was pressed on clear vinyl. I think I just found this laying in a pile at United.
The only one in existence.
I asked Beck’s manager about this record and he didn’t know anything about it. The same with Beck. I guess it was shipped out with some pre-orders of the reissue of One Foot in the Grave but it wasn’t announced beforehand. As I love this song (see the Velvets acetate) and I love Beck and I love singles, it hits wonderfully on a couple of my favorite things.
Q: Has there been a person in your life that inspired you to collect records and has been a role model, a guide in the art of record collecting?
A: Early on it was Dave Buick. His collection just seemed so expansive…like he had everything I’d ever dreamed of. The first time I met him I asked if he had any Sub Pop singles, as that’s what I was collecting heavily then. I was 15 years old. He opened a drawer in this old antique buffet in his house and there was just a pile of ‘em. Things I’d only read about at that point. I specifically remember autographed copies of Big Chief and Smashing Pumpkins singles. I probably pulled a stack of 10-15 singles and sheepishly asked him how much he wanted for them. I was scared shitless he was going to say $100 as that probably wasn’t too out of line with what they were going for then. He asked for $20. It took all I had to contain my glee. He knew the shit was worth more, but he just wanted to be cool to me. I’ve always remembered that and tried to act the same way as him when in similar situations.
Johan Kugelberg has been a very helpful in guiding me on how to be a smarter collector. He said something very important to me that’s always rung true, “Records are not life. They are merely a part of life.” If you find someone who just lives and breathes ONLY record collecting, they are usually a bore.
Also, an old-school guy in Detroit named Dennis Lambiris definitely instilled in me the idea that all of this is bigger than any of us. You can have a collection, but it doesn’t really belong to you. He’d said to me that he felt like his stuff belonged to the City of Detroit.
Q: What do you wish will happen to your collection when you check out?
A: Johan and Dennis both figure prominently in my thoughts about this. First off, if I pass before Malissa, I want her to be taken care of. Sell whatever she wants. Stay paid. Live rent-free. Eating steak everyday.
But in terms of my wishes, Johan has done really interesting things in donating certain collections of his. I think all his hip hop records went to Cornell and most of his punk stuff went somewhere else. He kind of puts together an “archive” so-to-speak and then gets it to an institution that can oversee the long-term care of it.
When I’m gone, what I really think about is the Detroit and Michigan stuff. To me, that is an archive, that is a collection, that is substantial and could serve some purpose were it kept together. I do kind of feel like the collection belongs to the City of Detroit. Is there any institution currently in the city that could properly handle being gifted a big vinyl collection like this? Almost certainly not. Hopefully one develops between now and when I die in 80 years.
The flipside of that is…do records just end up collecting dust in a university library or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? What exactly is the best place for them to serve their purpose? What exactly IS their purpose when you can access mp3s of so much of this stuff so easily? Is there any library/university/institution that really promotes the idea and practice of listening to records and the research and study of them? I honestly don’t know.
At the same time, my collection would not have been possible had other collections themselves not been broken up. Maybe it should all be sold off, one-by-one.
Q: Who would you like to see next on Dust & Grooves?
A: The White House record collection! To see a pic of Obama dropping a needle would be unreal. You can do it!
Yes we can! (E.P.)
“Collect something because it moves you.”
Ben Blackwell has been working for the White Stripes and in the record business since he was 15 years old. Now at the age of 30 he oversees vinyl record production at Jack White’s Third Man Records while keeping a razor-like focus on the odd, obscure, weird and unexplainable release from Detroit and Michigan.