5 Questions for Angela Sawyer

Five Questions with... is a feature of Sound American where we take a very busy person and bother them until they answer a handful of queries around the issue's topic. This issue features Angela Sawyer, owner of Boston's great Weirdo Records. In the last five years, the east coast of the U.S. has lost some of its great brick and mortar purveyors of audio strangeness (Kim's in New York, Twisted Village in Boston to cite two major examples). This makes Angela's small shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts a true oasis to all those seeking aural objects: historical, American, strange, or otherwise. It was with great pride that we present her answers to our inaugural five questions. 1. What was the experience got you hooked on music? I feel like people are built to take in art and you start way before you're really imprinting anything. So I'm not sure I can get back quite that far, but I definitely have some great childhood memories of soaking up records. Every winter I used to hide under the bench of the piano in my parents' living room (both piano and room were expressly forbidden), with all of the Christmas lights around the house plugged into a little box. The little box made the lights blink, crudely, in time to a beeping carol. I'd turn off the overhead lights & turn the volume down on the magic box, so that the whole house was one big strobe light show to nothing. And then I'd put on Willie Nelson records really loud. Pretty sure I could still sing anything off Willie's Christmas record ('Pretty Paper', Columbia 1979) from memory. Feel free to stop by & test me sometime. When I got older I first heard mindblowing shit like Pierre Henry's 'Door and a Sigh' ('Variations Pour Une Porte Et Un Soupir', Philips 1968) or Albert Ayler's 'Spiritual Unity' (ESP 1965). I can still remember that feeling like the top of my head was being peeled off... that lightbulb feeling of 'Oooh, I get it!'. I'm not sure if I would have been able to train/grow my ear much further than that by myself. Luckily I got a job in a record store and so got lots of help from the other employees in developing overly judgmental thinking skills. 2. Can you explain how you found yourself in the position you're in now to promote underheard music? I think it's just that I'm older, truthfully. You hang around long enough, pretty soon people are like, 'Gee, you know about that?' But it was just that week, whichever week that was. Always lots of good and lots of bad records in every week. Lots will be forgotten and a few will be remembered. More importantly, whatever you hear this week might be good, bad, memorable, forgettable, or all of those things at once. I've been working in record stores around Boston for over 20 years now. So, at some point it just became impossible for me to get a job doing anything else. For people who aren't obsessive nerds, my resume is a pretty sorry one. 3. Was there ever a social aspect in being interested in music for you? i.e. playing records for friends, hanging at record shops or shows? I think of records as the sole medium by which I'm able to relate to other people at all. Each good record is like a pair of sunglasses that's a slightly different tint. You can look at anything in the world using them, and different stuff becomes more or less visible depending on which tint you've got on your face. It's a fantastic fantasyworld detective job, trying to dig around and piece together the point of view of a person who made a good record, and then applying that peculiar tint to the junk in your life. I'd say making a good record is mostly just a matter of doing that same kind of detective job, but backwards. But people just... unvarnished? They're vipers, and I wouldn't recommend going anywhere near them. 4. Do you consider what you do a business, a passion, or a moral imperative? It's a moral imperative, sure. But the imperative is not that I'm somehow going to save the unwashed deaf from the horrors of the top 40. Just the opposite. Thank the stars that a few misfits are curious about funny bearded guys making cassettes in their bedrooms, or guitar-wielding 60s superstars of Singapore, or the peculiar textures of burping. If there weren't people showing up in front of my face to ask pestering questions every day I'd probably have put my head in an oven 20 times over by now. 5. Do you have a ritual around listening to a recording? Nope. There's a zillion different kinds of listening, and only a tiny fraction of it is analagous to, for lack of a better gerund, praying. Sometimes it's more like going to a play, or talking on the phone, or interpreting a code, or sleeping, or (my favorite) nothing-remotely-like-anything-you-ever-ran-across-in-your-entire-fucking-life. I literally spend somewhere around 15-18 hours a day, 7 days a week listening to music. Very lucky to have that. I write up blurbs about several records each day, and have been jizzing them out onto the shop's website for several years by now. Each one gets an id number, and I'm about 2 weeks away from hitting number 15 thousand. That's a STINKING load of records. There's no time for rituals. Okay yeah okay, there is a bit of a pattern in going through them every day and trying to figure them out again and again. But mostly, I try to let them tell me how to hear.