INTERVIEW

"Record stores changed our lives": New doc "Vinyl Nation" celebrates Record Store Day at home

Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone spoke to Salon about making their love letter to vinyl heads and indie stores

By Hanh Nguyen

Published April 17, 2020 9:47AM (EDT)

"Vinyl Nation" (Gilman Hall Pictures)
"Vinyl Nation" (Gilman Hall Pictures)

Vinyl heads, here's your chance to celebrate Record Store Day from your own home while still supporting your favorite shop. The new documentary "Vinyl Nation," is selling tickets for a virtual screening this weekend (April 18 and 19) with all proceeds donated to participating local record stores.

Shot over the course of two years, "Vinyl Nation" visits indie shops nationwide and talks to musical experts and everyday collectors alike to spotlight the breadth and diversity of the vinyl fandom. What emerges is a fuller picture of how the record renaissance of the past 15-odd years is no longer the domain of the older, oddball or affluent; it's a populist unifier. 

The doc was supposed to make its public debut at the Austin Record Convention in May, but won't get that chance because of safe social-distancing. Co-directors Kevin Smokler (author of "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies" and occasional Salon contributor) and Christopher Boone ("Cents") are both devotees of the discs themselves and decided to pursue the "crazy idea" of the limited digital screening with the help of Record Store Day co-founder Carrie Colliton.

"We love record stores. Chris and I – I probably sound a little more melodramatic than it's meant, but record stores changed our lives," Smokler told Salon. "And so the idea of them suffering to the extent they are while we're all under lockdown, and perhaps the record stores in our movie being nothing more than a memory when anybody finally gets to see our movie – it all really karmically and for the movie itself just made sense. You can't do much worse than beginning your movie's life out in public with a gesture of generosity and support for the institutions that were the spiritual basis for this movie."

After the initial blasts of emails were sent to stores asking if they wanted to participate, the response was immediate. 

"We got about 50 record stores to sign up within about 10 to 15 minutes of that email going out . . . and it just proceeded for the rest of the day for several hours," said Boone. "Every day we've been adding more and more stores to the list, and ticket sales every day have just been going up on an exponential scale. So fingers crossed that each individual store can sell a boatload of tickets so we can get that money into their hands to help them with rent, paying some of their employees, whatever they need to survive and come out of this."

Although the in-person Record Store Day has been pushed back to June 20, the digital screening allows fans to celebrate on the originally scheduled date of April 18. 

Watch the trailer below, and read out the rest of Salon's interview with Smokler and Boone, who discussed the making of "Vinyl Nation," where they shop, and what albums are on their turntables right now. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Vinyl Nation - Official Trailer from Christopher Boone on Vimeo.

How did the concept for this film come together?

Kevin Smokler: Vinyl's comeback is 15 years old at this point. . . . I didn't see [the comeback] anywhere else; I don't see VHS tapes making a raging comeback or Betamax tapes or kinetoscopes or throwaway dime novels that you pick up on subway platforms. I knew that enough had been written about why the comeback was happening, but there wasn't anything else to say about that. I thought maybe there's something bigger like, "What does the comeback mean?" 

We would just get on the phone once a week and sort of bat the idea around to see where we are, and we came around to this idea that maybe what was significant about this moment in time with records was that the person we imagined being someone who liked records was changing. And that records were becoming a people's medium rather than a weirdo's or an eccentric's medium. When Chris said, "Well, maybe this is a story about inclusion and connection," that was the moment I leapt off the chair and said, "That's our movie." 

Chris Boone: From a personal perspective, as Kevin and I were initially kicking the idea around, now I have a daughter who's now 16. She got a Crosley turntable when she was 10 and started listening to records, and my wife shortly thereafter said, "Hey, we should get our own turntable." And so that's back around 2014. So that's when we got back into it, but I could see, you know, the younger generation that we've been hearing about getting back into records, right here in my own house. 

With documentaries, you need to highlight these real people as your characters. Who are a couple of standouts we can look out for?

Boone: There are a couple that always kind of jumped into my mind when I think about characters. The first one I always think of is Roz Lee, who is Senior Vice President of the Ms. Foundation. She lives in Harlem with her family. And when I think about Roz, I also think about Kurt Matlin, who is better known as "Kutmasta" Kurt, a DJ and someone who's also produced remixes for several bands, like Beastie Boys and Linkin Park

On the surface, those two people you wouldn't think are similar whatsoever. But I think they're two of our most similar characters because the stories they told were remarkably similar about their relationship to music, how they both love digging for records through the crates at record stores. Every city she goes through, she finds a record store, usually before she goes to her conference for business, to go digging. Kurt's the same way as a DJ. And then what was really fascinating is they both tell stories in our film about how their their partners reacted to their vinyl collections, and then made a point to make sure that when they were buying their new homes, that their partners are the ones that said we need to make sure there's a place for your vinyl collections. And they both told us the same story without being prompted. And they kept doing that throughout the film.

Smokler: I'm glad you brought up two people who don't know each other and yet effectively told the same story. I feel like Elliott and Ellie [Eleanor] Fessler are kind of those two characters. One as an 11-year-old kid who lives here in San Francisco and is a huge vinyl head because it's the thing that he and his dad do together . . . going to record swaps together. Everything [Elliott] listens to is between like 1961 to 1973, which we thought was kind of charming. His record collection is in the dining room because there's a family record player and all of the records are underneath. And the kids choose what record plays at dinnertime. 

And then Ellie at the time [in the film] was a sophomore at Pratt [School of Design] in New York. When she was 11 or 12, started digging around in the storage locker in the garage and found her parents's old record collection and fell in love with records. And she talks similarly to Elliott about how records are from a musical time she was not familiar with, and yet for her, it was the equivalent of the patch on your denim jacket. It was a way to show that you really cared about a band or their music because a) you were spending more, and b) you could hang it up on the wall the same way you could have poster. 

She told us a story about when she was a freshman at Pratt, she had her record players out in her dorm room, and someone stuck their head in, introduced themselves. They got the talking and became friends. So I think of Ellie and Elliott similarly because they're both way too young to have participated in records the first time around. They both sort of found records through their parents, but now they have this relationship that is entirely their own. And it's an it's an emblem they carry around with how much music means for them.

Are record stores easy to shoot in?

Boone: If you can convince them to let you shoot in them before they open, they're great for visual and sound because you can ask them to turn off the music. The major drawback with that is you are shooting somebody basically in an empty record store. So while you can set them up wherever you want to, you don't have the customers going about. 

But that wasn't always the case. One of the most fun shoots we had was in Baltimore in Fells Point, we shot at a record store Hare's Breath Records, which has actually had to relocate since to Catonsville, Maryland. We had a nice back-and-forth with a lot of those characters, and people were shopping while we were doing the interview. It definitely adds another vibe to the whole thing. 

Same thing happened when we interviewed with Marc Weinstein at Amoeba Music. It was our very first interview of the entire film, and just based on the time, there's no way they could shut down their store. So we got a lot of great B-roll especially in Amoeba with people shopping through the aisles. Being able to engage with customers in record stores and watch them actually discover records and see the joy on their faces was truly priceless. And our cinematographer Sherri Kauk just did an awesome job with just running and capturing fantastic images for for the entire shoot. 

You have a music supervisor, Morgan Rhodes, and they're the person who picks the so-called "needle drops" in a project. Could you discuss Morgan's job on this film? Are there some needle drops we'd recognize? Or were there rights issues that interfered?

Boone: Morgan Rhodes is actually a character in our film, you know, In addition to being a music supervisor for films like "Selma" and some of Ava DuVernay's other films, as well as the "Dear White People" series on Netflix, we came across Morgan because of the podcast "Heat Rocks" she does with Oliver Wang who's also in our documentary. As we were talking with her, I mentioned to Kevin, "Wouldn't it be great if Morgan would be our music supervisor?" to which Kevin said, "There's no way. She wouldn't be able to do our project. We can't afford her." Because she was such a believer in the project, she was willing to come on board. 

She was limited in what she could provide to us – not because of her imagination, because she's fantastic at finding new music – but we did have a limited budget. So, what you hear in the film is a combination of Morgan's creativity as well as our composer Kathryn Bostik's creativity . . .  [Morgan] found a lot of independent artists that we could work with, but in terms of actual tracks that jump out, she did try to get some real classical tracks in there. One that did finally make the cut was "Every Way But Loose" [by Plunky & the Oneness of Juju] is in the film. 

And then our end credits track is from GRiZ. It's "The Escape." The reason it's actually in the film was because when we were interviewing Caren Kelleher at Gold Rush Vinyl, a new pressing plant in Austin, Texas. When we were leaving, she gave us each a record as a gift. And she asked me, What do you want? I said, "I don't want to tell you what I want. I want you to give me something that you think is great and you would recommend. I want to be exposed to something new because I stay too much in my lane for music." So she handed me GRiZ's "Ride Waves." And I came home and I put on the turntable and I haven't stopped putting it in on heavy rotation in the house. 

What are you spinning right now at home?

Smokler: I have been listening to a lot of '60s and '70s funk and soul, particularly this artist named Betty Davis who had a tremendous documentary done about her two years ago called "They Say I'm Different," and she had three three classic studio albums that were rereleased by Light In The Attic Records, whom we interviewed at in Los Angeles.

Boone: Kevin actually sent me an album that I've been listening to "Kiwanuka" by Michael Kiwanuka. It fits really, sonically with our project because I just feel that I can feel the history, that it's essentially quoting musically, but it feels very contemporary. It's something I know I'm going to be able to put on for years and listen to and it's just never going to get old. So that's on heavy rotation on our turntable, and then there's Jamila Woods' "Legacy! Legacy!" I just keep coming back to. 

And then one that I put on just the other day because I was thinking about our movie. When Kevin and I mentioned Roz Lee earlier in the interview, we were at Roz's apartment and we were in between setups, Roz put on some music for us. And as Kevin realized, everybody at some point in time, while we were setting up listening to the music made their way to the turntable to see what we were listening to. It was that good. And we were all ignorant. And we all discovered that it was B.T. Express "Non-Stop" and just could not stop shaking our groove things. 

We drove down to Baltimore to Hare's Breath Records shortly thereafter, and when we finished shooting, Kevin was looking through the store and lo and behold found not one, but two pristine used copies of that album by B.T. Express and went to purchase them and the owner Kat Peach said, "Oh, no, no. They're on us. You can just have them." They're just fantastic disco. It's something I never would have found if I hadn't met Roz Lee and gone into her apartment, and she put on a record for us.

To purchase a "Vinyl Nation" ticket, find a participating record store near you at vinylnationfilm.com. Then go to your store's website or social media page to purchase a Brown Paper Ticket. You'll be emailed a screening URL and password, and you'll have from midnight E.T. Saturday until 11:59 p.m. P.T. on Sunday to watch.

If you're a record store owner who'd like to come aboard, fill out this Record Store Day 2020 screening of "Vinyl Nation" form.


Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and food. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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