Monday, April 01, 2024

Record stores of Nanaimo: the East Van of Vancouver Island?

(main floor of the Vault, Nanaimo BC)

I don't have a great sense of Nanaimo yet, but as a music geek, I'm getting pretty intrigued. 

Vancouver Island has a few places of intrigue, in fact. Of course, Victoria has the biggest density -- record stores like Supreme Echo, Cavity, and Ditch, to start (or even The Turntable, in Fan Tan Alley; it's more tourist-oriented but that didn't stop me finding Contemplating the Engine Room there). Live shows are a bit harder to navigate; unless there's something happening that my wife wants to see, it's not really an option, though I have dragged her to DOA and Bison, and we've taken in the odd show at Hermann's, like that of her friend, jazz vocalist Emily Braden. But we're often on our way up island, and her family lives in Duncan, with two little dogs that we don't want to be waking up when we pull in at 2 in the morning, because little dogs can be noisy, and her parents will be sleeping... so it's a hard sell.

Mind you, Duncan itself has a couple of surprising spaces, like Time and Space Continuum, where I managed to see Selina Martin last tour -- she's touring through the island this very week, so see here for more -- or the Duncan Showroom, which I haven't made it to yet; and two record stores worth checking out (which is two more than you would expect), the Full Bug -- run by a former Vancouver punk, Matt Hewlett, who  knows what he's doing and the kind of customer he's appealing to, and Soulful Memories (who are a bit more varied than Matt in their pricing, and maybe have a slightly more area-appropriate customer in mind, which is to say that they will charge top-end used prices for Dark Side of the Moon and such, and I'm sure do just fine with that, but, for instance, I pointed a friend at a Toxic Reasons 7" at Soulful Memories, once, which I'm sure the owners thought they would never get their ask of $100 for, because who the heck are Toxic Reasons? Put it this way, my friend was very happy. The same 7" would have been twice as much or more in Matt's shop, if he elected to sell it at all).

But Nanaimo... Nanaimo has more going on than you might expect. It's has a bit of DTES vibe in some places -- there are growing pockets of poverty, addiction, and despair all over Vancouver Island, but Nanaimo has a slightly angrier vibe than some areas, and if you're coming in off the highway of late, it makes a bad first impression, with abandoned storefronts and roadwork where several of the barricades feature a very deliberate modification. 

But there's actually an interesting music scene happening, which reminds me in more than one way of the vibe around, yes, Vancouver's hardcore bar of yore, the Cobalt (I date myself but I'm speaking here of the Cobalt as "Vancouver's Hardcore Bar," with wendythirteen at the bar, Mr. Chi Pig bussing tables, and the Rebel Spell onstage -- except on Fake Jazz Wednesdays; anytime I speak of the Cobalt, that's the period I'm considering). 

The venues I can't really give a lowdown on, haven't even been to the Queens -- where I gather the Pointed Sticks will be playing this fall; it seems to be Nanaimo's equivalent of the Lucky Bar in Victoria (or maybe the Rickshaw in Vancouver?).  

But record stores... there are a few. The obvious and essential destination is Fascinating Rhythm. If you want a Vancouver equivalent, I guess the only comparable space would be Neptoon, but it's actually, I think, quite a bit bigger, might be older, and the owner isn't generally as sociable as Rob ("that guy's always so grumpy!" a friend observed in an email). And it's not as intuitively subdivided as Neptoon. I personally prefer it if rock is divided into no more than four or five categories: punk and metal (either in one section or two), used rock, and new rock, with a separate space for comps (which can be subdivided in and of themselves). But that's it: Let the alphabet take care of the rest! But Fascinating Rhythm also has separate sections for garage, for current indy, for 80s indy, and maybe a few other sections besides, while -- I think? -- mixing used and new together, so -- like with Vancouver's Beat Street, who have separate sections for 80s and 90s music, and separate sections again for higher end 80s and 90s music -- you may have to check five different places to see if the record you want is there. There are no Cramps records in the punk section, so maybe they're in the 80s indy? General rock? Nope, they're over in garage, next to the lounge music. What?

Add to this that they have more records in the room than any Vancouver store, and it may go a bit towards explaining why the owner is not as inviting, because by the second time you're at Neptoon, you know more or less where to find the stuff you're looking for, while I have yet to go into Fascinating Rhythm without having to ask multiple questions of the "Where do you keep _____?" variety. Steve (said honcho) has a warm and enthusiastic side, especially if you've seen his band, Teenage Tiger (they do a real fun "Goo Goo Muck;" I caught them opening for China Syndrome at the one Nanaimo gig I've been at and found their set delightful, even though, since they dwell far deeper in the garage than I do, there was probably a whole bunch of content I was not accessing, in terms of obscure covers and references). And clearly he's a man of taste, style and talent. So don't be put off:  I mean, which record store owner doesn't have his eccentricities...?

And what a store he has! I snapped only one interior shot, but see their Facebook page; Fascinating Rhythm is the sort of place where, if you're serious about music, you need at least $100 for every hour you plan to spend there. If it's only an hour -- and thank God that's the longest I've been able to stay, sometimes with my wife waiting in the car -- you may emerge with only three records and maybe a couple random movies or CDs, but of those three records, one will be something you didn't know existed, which has probably never even been in a Vancouver shop ("Don Giovanni released a 2LP version of Indian War Whoop with a proper mastering of Live in 1965 as a bonus???! Whaaat?!"); the second will be a re-issue that went out of print eight-to-ten years ago, that you haven't seen in a Vancouver record shop since, and that still has a 2014 pricetag on it (found a green vinyl version of the Cramps' Fiends of Dope Island new there for under $30 on a past trip; next time I saw a copy of that, a couple years later, it was on the wall for $50, used, at Red Cat, which is still cheaper than you'd be able to get it for off Discogs; I've only seen it on vinyl in the flesh those two times). My score of this type, this time, was an Omnivore Big Star Sister Lovers demos release that does appear to still be in print, but that I've never seen, ever, in Vancouver, which wasn't exactly a steal ($34.99 CAD for a 2LP set), but which would have cost twice that to order from the label (where it was $31.99 US before shipping, and probably $55 with, which is just under $75 CAD; meanwhile, the cheapest copy that you can get sent to Canada, with shipping, on Discogs comes to $72.36. So yeah: I wasn't letting it go by).  

As for the third record, maybe it will be an original pressing of a semi-obscure collectible record that was priced when it came in, when not many people were looking for it, that no one has actually bothered to buy, and that has basically been waiting there at that price since it arrived for the right person to look in the right section. It's a phenomenon you sometimes find at Vancouver shops, but not so often, as the customers-to-cool-stuff ratio tips in the wrong direction. This trip out, the record of this sort for me was the True Believers album, with Alejandro Escovedo singing the Modernettes "The Rebel Kind," which I had paid $35 to get shipped via Discogs, and scored at Fascinating Rhythm for a mere $10. Yes, folks, I already have it, but for ten bucks, surely someone I know will want it! I guess it's because it is out of the way that things can be found there that you will not find elsewhere, and even if the things you find are not the things you went in looking for, you're going to emerge happy to have found them (I was looking for Tupelo Chain Sex vinyl when I found the True Believers, Sugarcane Harris when I found the Holy Modal Rounders, and Bach's Bottom when I found the Big Star's Third demos). It's an essential shop, should be a destination for every collector who can get there.  

Up Nanaimo's own Commercial street from Fascinating Rhythm is a punk and metal shop called NoiseAgonyMayhem, which seemed to be actually the shop of two friends, one a punk and one a metal dude, who have competing tills and sections at either side of the store (they should have a small "crossover" bin in the middle). 

They're a small, new-feeling shop with mostly new stock, and there isn't much new stuff I'm hunting these days, but they seemed personable enough; the guy manning the punk half of the store was jawing with customers about the Australian pressings of AC/DC records (having a copy of the original 1975 Albert TNT on the wall, priced below the Discogs median but well above the low). He mentioned Dirty Deeds to them, and I chimed in that the Albert release of that had one of the worst album covers ever, and he retorted that that meant, of course, that it had one of the best album covers ever, so we immediately were on speaking terms. I mean, there aren't many albums with art in the "so-bad-I-want-it" category but: 

As we talked, he got on the theme of awesome Australian bands, and mentioned one I can't for the life of me remember, now, likening them to Radio Birdman. I may have mentioned that I was more of an Angels guy. I did not buy anything, but I will go back to any record shop where the owner knows who I mean when I mention the Angels, eh? (Without having to mention Angel City). I had already shot $86 at Fascinating Rhythm, so I kind of hurried out of NoiseAgonyMayhem, but I'll be back.

I still had a bit of time to kill (my wife was on an emergency errand via Horseshoe Bay to replace a defective CPAP machine so I had a wee spot of time to kill in the town). "Thrift stores near me" wasn't panning out, and Sound Heritage wasn't open (I haven't been in several years, so I can't speak to their selection).

Upstairs at the Vault

Turns out the most pleasant surprise was something I stumbled across quite unknowingly, a bit further out from the downtown core, above The Vault. The Vault is primarily a coffee shop/ restaurant, and maybe the most obvious art scene nexus, the equivalent of, say, our own much-missed Cafe Deux Soleil or such (but not totally vegetarian). There's a feeling of age and character, with walls full of funky art, records and CDs by locals for sale at the till, and a definite demand for table space among the young, weird creatives of Nanaimo, who appear to make up a good chunk of their clientele). But every seat was full, and it was an hour long wait for food, so I elected to eat at Tandoori Junction next door, who had the most coconutty vindaloo I have ever encountered, and a waitress who was at first unsettled by my speech, then overly inspired by having interacted with me, like it was somehow an honour to have a customer with a surgically altered tongue. I enjoyed the food, though!). But before that, I walked up the hill and saw that there was another Vault upstairs, with a sign promising clothing, books, and records... what?

So I went upstairs, to discover a long hall with rooms on either side, which surely once were apartments; there were vintage-y clothing shops with kind of a Mintage vibe, and weird art spaces that I did not enter, but loved the look of. 

...then at the end of the hall was a shop called Wyrd Wealth, which was where the books and records were. Which is what captured my eyes when I walked in the door, among other cool things on display, so I didn't really notice the guy at the counter until he said "Hey, Allan!"

It was Jeremy of Shearing Pinx, formerly of (Vancouver record store) Audiopile. It's his shop. I had seen Shearing Pinx were playing island shows, and figured that there had been some sort of move from the mainland, because I had not seen him in years, but I had no expectation we'd be running into each other.

I wrote two significant stories about Shearing Pinx, and a couple insignificant ones. One involved my sole article in the Wire, where I focused on the Fake Jazz Wednesdays scene, and talked to said wendythirteen about the future of the Cobalt given 2010 Olympics anxieties. Even though it was her space, I regretted later not getting a quote from Jeremy or Bill Batt, who were the curators of the series, but I did get Shearing Pinx mentioned, and maybe Stamina Mantis too. Sadly, my editors figured that "Shearing Pinx and the Mutators," who I mentioned as exemplars of Vancouver No Wave, were one band, and capitalized my "And The." So it was a mixed blessing: it acknowledged the Fake Jazz scene, which I don't think the Wire had run anything on, but it was not without errors and omissions. 

And yeah, I may have made too much of my friends in Ejaculation Death Rattle, but they were the glue that connected me to Vancouver New Music, so it wasn't JUST nepotism. Did the article criticize the forces of gentrification while participating in them? Were their contradictions? (Was nepotism actually a factor?). Surely it did Fake Jazz Wednesdays some good, anyhow. 

It was a bit stranger how I got the band into Spin, especially given that I have never written for Spin. Back when I was regularly contributing to the Straight, I wrote what I thought was an innocuous, funny piece about an unfortunate mixup that happened involving the Melvins. Somehow the article had some sort of viral appeal and attracted a level of reaction and condemnation far out of proportion to what had happened (it was the band who told me that it had been even earned them mention in Spin; as I recall, they were initially excited to see that they'd gotten a namecheck in such a big magazine, then disappointed to notice that the story was all about that fuckin' chucked cup). I think these were the early days of "internet outrage culture," which would later find more appropriate targets in acts of heinous racism, police brutality, or sexual misdeeds, but which at that point was like a hungry shark swimming in open waters, looking for someone, anyone to bite.  The days when people would show up armed at a pizza shop to bust the Satanic sexual slavery cult they read about on 4Chan, say. I saw no evidence that the band held the story against me when I did a later feature for them for Xtra, but that article really didn't do much good for them at all, I don't think). 

Anyhow, Jeremy's in Nanaimo now, and his shop is fuckin' great, though it is obvious that it is much, much easier with time and effort to put together a killer selection of cultish used books than cool used vinyl -- which is to say, I think someone shopping for cool books would do even better than I did, looking at the vinyl, as Wyrd Wealth boasted the single largest collection of Harry Crews books in one place, for instance, and lots else for readers to get excited about, but there were more new records than used. I was, once again, not as excited about new stuff, since the stuff on my want list is not in print, which is why it's on my want list, but once again, there were unexpected gems: I scored a Neil Young rarity with a live version of "Piece of Crap" on it -- a song I actually heard live the first time I saw Young in Japan. "Did you ever see our Neil Young tribute act?" Jeremy asked. "We only did about three shows, under different names, but one time we were billed as 'Piece of Crap!'" 

There are three shows worth mentioning that came up during our conversation -- because it turns out Jeremy is in another band, now, AND booking performers in the Vault, who I hadn't realized were doing live shows of their own. Two cool shows are happening there at the end of April, Ora Cogan (on April 26th) and Tower of Dudes (April 27th). I've actually neglected Cogan, knowing little more than her name, but I've seen and loved Tower of Dudes, who seemed like a slightly Slavic Camper van Beethoven, by way, perhaps, of the Creaking Planks; but the whole weekend is beckoning to me.  

Jeremy also has a well-received new band, properly called Earthball (if I got this right), but frequently rendered as Earth Ball, with a UK label, Upset the Rhythm, releasing their new album, a UK tour, and a Vancouver gig slated for the upcoming jazz festival. Jeremy seemed a bit startled by the unexpected enthusiasm for the project (saying of one gig, "We almost had Evan Parker sitting in with us -- I was shitting myself!")  but in great form (he's also in another band with one member of Earthball, Isobel Ford, called Behaviours). Was really nice to run into him again -- totally unexpected. And what a funky, fun, carefully-curated shop he's got!

People more interested in my wife's end of the art spectrum -- the making-of side, the paints, pens, pencils, pastels and paper end of things -- should take heart to note that Iron Oxide, Nanaimo's best-loved art supply store, have survived a flood and relocated to a slightly out of the way, but very cool destination, which we explored a little. My wife and Iron Oxide proprietor Willow had just been together in New Orleans for an art-supply-trade show, and when she got back from her CPAP run, we visited and I got to be a fly on the wall for awhile. It's a fine shop and Willow was funny, expressive, smart and clearly devoted to her shop (she'd been gardening and was living proof she wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty!). I'm sure there are people in Nanaimo who are both customers at the Vault and at Iron Oxide. 

Anyhow, those are a few good reasons why a mainland arts geek might want to explore Nanaimo. And I was only there for, what, two hours, but I felt every bit as comfortable there as I do on the Drive or on Main Street in Vancouver. If there's ever discussion of a move to the island, I think I know which town I'm going to lobby for. Kinda keen to go back! 

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