Diggers Directory: Gareth Stephens

Credit: Heather Sheret

Since establishing in 1989, Mr Bongo has grown to become one of the leading authorities of Latin music in the UK, while also being early adopted of hip-hop and serious jazz heads. Best known as a label – which boasts Terry Callier, Jorge Ben, Seu Jorge and Marcos Valle on its roster – they’ve also venture into world cinema and publishing, fronted by a shop in Brighton where they relocated in 1999.

Gareth Stephens has been part of the team since 2012, the chief buyer for their shop but also one of the crew’s eminent jazz authorities who was heavily involved in Brighton’s first jazz wave in the 90s. With Mr Bongo curating the first three Jazz Club events at Patterns, Gareth has made a 90 minute vinyl-only mix, titled ‘Jazztravels’. We also spoke to him about a life collecting records and Brighton’s longstanding jazz heritage.

The next Jazz Club event hosted by Mr Bongo is with Penya (1st Nov).

DJs and producers often mention their musical education came through their family’s record collection. Was this the case for you? Can you pick out any pivotal records from your upbringing that informed your musical journey? 

My mum and Dad were music fans, and my older brother even more so. My Dad recently told me that when I was a baby he had a big record collection but it had to be sold to buy the family more clothes one shitty mean winter in the 70s. There would have been some gems in there, but they weren’t the priority at the time (I was sad to hear he’d had to give up his collection for us, but what a legend for just getting on and doing that). I do remember hearing Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ at a friend of my parents family party and my Mum buying me a copy, so that most have struck a cord. My Brother listened to John Peel’s radio show (even when he was really young), so I use to get to hear bands like The Fall as a kid. That Rocksteady Crew classic single and the Electro compilation series were probably the first things that really hit me hard though.

Hearing John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Fela Kuti for the first time were all pivotal moments. They sounded both alien and like I already knew them at the same time.

Also watching Theo Parrish DJ at Fabric in 1999 blow me away. He EQd and manipulated disco and house records to sound like his own productions. Additionally, around the same time (or maybe a bit earlier) hearing Afronaught’s ‘Transcend Me’ was a big influence. It took so long for that record to be released! I remember hearing Chris from Laws Of Motion play it off a test press white label at the Jazz Rooms in Brighton. I’d been after it for so long and I needed it so badly that I ran over and offered to buy it off him. After it had finished he took it off then deck and gave me it to me as a present – I couldn’t believe it. I was so chuffed when I woke up in the morning to find it sitting by my bed.

People buy records for a multiple of reasons. What first drew you to collecting records and what motivates you to continue digging after all these years? 

When I started collecting it was vinyl or tapes so the format picked me rather than the other way, kind of like Harry Potter. I’ve never been able to get into collecting other formats, but it’s not really rational thinking. Wav’s and mp3 are still the same music, but for me I haven’t really got them unless it’s on vinyl. In a lot of ways, I wish I didn’t care about that. I also take a memory stick out with me DJing these days as backup, but hardly ever play from it. I can’t remember what is on there without the covers to jolt my memory.

Credit: Heather Sheret

Where do you store your records and how do you file them?

My flat is a mess with records and there is no filing system or order. Weirdly I can normally find what I’m after, but on some occasions they just go missing for a while. Earlier today I just rebought Space ‘Carry On, Turn Me On’. I know I have it somewhere, but it was annoying me so much trying to find it that it was less hassle to spend a couple of pounds on another copy.

What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?

France, Amsterdam, Stockholm. I’ve heard Japan is the best place, but I’ve not had the chance to go. For Jazz I like Helsinki. Helsinki is a Jazz city to me and I always seem to be in the mood to buy it when I’m there. There are lots of great Finnish jazz records that you only really see there. which also makes it special.

Digging isn’t just about the records you find, but the people who help you find them. Who are some of the colourful characters you’ve met on your travels in record stores round the world? Any unsung heroes you’d like to shout out?

I love a shop where you can enter and leave with a bunch of gems which you knew nothing about before entering. I was in Paris recently and David from Gemini Cricket in the Marché aux puces area pulled out a bunch of magic after I’d asked him for one specific record I was after (I’ve included a couple in the mix). I’ve only been to his shop twice and he did the same both times.

Unsung heroes would have to go to Ewan who runs Rarekind Records here in Brighton. He always has interesting records at affordable prices. He kept his shop going through the dark days for record shops when they were dropping like flies, and that was no mean feat. Always head there if you visit Brighton.

Credit: Heather Sheret

Is there a record (or records), that has continued to be illusive over the years?

An Arthur Verocai original. I’ve come to the conclusion I will never own one. It’s so pricey these days.

Do you prefer record shopping as a solitary process or with friends to nerd out with and search for strange sounds together? If the latter, who do you like to go digging with?

I like digging with other people as long as they like records as much as I do. If not it’s not fair to take someone into a shop with you. I just feel bad if they are standing around looking bored. Going with Gary Johnson (one of the other Mr Bongo crew) is fun. He can out record shop me and he also has a crazy knowledge and makes great recommendations.

Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting experience. Do you have a digging process that helps you hone in on what you’re after? 

I can totally understand how record shops can be daunting, but as I’ve worked behind the counter they’re a safe space. There have been occasions whilst DJing in other countries where the airport pick-up has gone wrong, so rather than great stressed we’ve just jumped in a taxi and headed to a record shop whilst we track the promoter down. You can always get a feel of what a city is actual like from the characters behind the counter. For me I feel very lucky to get to do this. It’s one of the best bits about working in music – getting to meet like-minded people from different places. What unites you is love of music. Sorry, I’ve gone off on a tangent here haven’t I! My normal routine when entering a shop is to look for the ‘New In’ section then the Brazilian and African sections, then what’s on the walls, then move around the shop from there.

How big a role does album artwork play in your digging?

Artwork can grab your attention, but you can’t rely on it. Sometimes if artwork is super rubbish I like to give it a listen, that can throw up some nice surprises.

Credit: Heather Sheret

How/when did you get involved with Mr Bongo and what’s your role there?

I think it’s been six years. David Buttle (owner of Mr Bongo) had loads of record from his own collection and ones left over from the London store. He knew I liked records and asked if could I help him get them up on Discogs. For a few years I worked for both Nick The Record (a very dangerous place to work if you have a record habit) half the day, and Mr Bongo the other half. From there it involved into a full-time role. My main job is buying in records for the website and shop, but it’s a family operation so we all pitch in with jobs, ideas of releases, and whatever needs doing.

What Mr Bongo releases are you most proud to have been involved in?

The Arthur Verocai half speed edition. I got to go to Abbey Road Studios and sit in with Miles whilst he did the cut. He was a super cool guy and explained to me about the cutting lathe and how the whole ‘half speed’ process worked in a way a record geek would get. He had a great early 70’s EMI custom mixing desk which we used. I think he said it probably came out the same year the album was recorded, so it all felt right.

Mr Bongo have just hosted the first of three Jazz Club events at Patterns with Joe Armon-Jones. How did it go?

Man, Joe and his band are amazing! As well as being incredibly talented musicians they are nice friendly humble people also. I love how when Nubya and Dylan are playing in Joe’s band they just stand on the side (Nubya even had her hood up to hide her identity) so not to take the limelight, they’re just in the band. Kwake Bass is such a bad-ass on the drums. I love how he plays. These new wave of UK jazz musicians manage to make records that are both heavyweight and funky at the same time. It’s so great to see them doing so well and long may it continue.

It’s the venue’s first defined platform to support this sound since it opened 3 years ago. Has it been nice getting involved from the start, to help shape a side of Brighton music that’s fallen off in recent years?

Yes, Neil is a hero and has a super hard job to do. He regularly puts his neck on the line to promote interesting / cutting edge music in the city and we are super grateful that they asked us to host nights. We’ve put on Donna Leake, Henry Wu and Alex Nut with Nu Guinea was just last Saturday. It’s a real pleasure to be allowed to bring people we respect to play in the city. Brighton for the last 16 years or so has been a bit of an enigma. There are so many DJs, music fans and record collectors here but nights are often under attended. The change of the drinking license I think really affected Brighton’s club culture. There are so many pubs in relation to the population size and the wages are bad in relation to rent, etc. I guess that doesn’t help, but a lot of other places have the same problems and their clubs are buzzing. What was great at the Joe Armon-Jones gig was the wide age spectrum – from 18 year olds up to people in the 60s. It was nice to see people of all ages come together. It was the same at the Jazz:refreshed event at The Dome in Brighton earlier in the year. Nights run by students such as Disco Juice and Between the Tropics have been a positive force for club culture in the city too. People like jazz, techno, Brazilian, house, afro all at the same time. It reminds me of going clubbing again when I was young. If it’s good and you like it, it doesn’t matter what genre it’s from.

Credit: Heather Sheret

As a regular at The Jazz Rooms, one of Brighton’s longest running club nights, you’ve DJed and danced through the first jazz’s wave and are now well in the mix of its revival. What do you feel is unique about the sound now and what’s exciting you most about it?

The Jazz Rooms use to be so heavy. In the 90s I remember getting my pay cheque, cashing it in on the Friday and with my mate Joe we’d head to Brighton straight from work to stay with friends. We would go to the Jazz Rooms on the Friday and sometimes do the double bill and go on the Saturday night also. Friends in Brighton would want to try somewhere new, our reply was always “fuck that, let’s go back to Jazz Rooms”. It was a dirty, sweaty, grimy little club where you would leave with smelly clothes and trainers covered in disco dirt, but you would always hear the best music. I was so happy when Russ asked me to DJ there as it was a place I’d attended so much as a customer. Gary Johnson was more of a regular resident there than I was. Gazza played there loads alongside Russ and Stewart Chalk (who was an amazing DJ but sadly hung up his headphones as he got disillusioned with the music world). I met so my people through the jazz rooms – Nick The Record, Mark GV Taylor, Dom Servini, Nik Weston, also the fantastic DJ / collector and good guy Jake Behnan from Counterpoint Records who we sadly lost recently. A lot of people cut their teeth playing down there and I learnt a lot about music from that club.

I didn’t see a jazz revival coming but so glad it has happened. Jazz was a dirty word for ages. People would always make the Fast Show ‘Nice’ reference. The new musicians have a great almost punk attitude – “We are making this. Come with us for the ride and enjoy it or don’t, but we are not watering / dumbing things down” – and they’re working really hard on their art. I really want to go to Steam Down. Londoners are so lucky to have events like that bubbling on their door steps. Even though a lot of the musician’s swap bands, there is so much individuality in the projects. I saw Ezra Collective and Alfa Mist play on the same night at Patterns last year and was amazed how different those bands are even though they’re part of the same scene. The diversity and originality in the sound from each band keeps things fresh, so I’m sure there is bucket loads of amazing music to come from these musicians.

Could you tell us a bit about the mix you’ve done for us? 

To coincide with the new Jazz Club night at Patterns the focus is of course a jazz inspired mix. I wanted to focus on non-US jazz from countries I’d been to whilst DJing or on holiday or had lost in my collection – hence the name Jazztravels. I’d been to Paris recently so the mix is quite French heavy. I also included a UK jazz track to represent home and a Japanese track to represent somewhere I’d like to visit. To keep things interesting I’ve included a few tracks that aren’t really jazz, rather they have a solo, sensibility, or feeling that fits the vibe. I hope you enjoy.

Any standouts in the mix you’d like to mention?

There is a track produced by Finnish jazz hero Heikki Saranto which I bought in Digelius in Helsinki a few months ago. He was actually in the store when I was buying it, but I didn’t find out until he’d left and the dude behind the counter told me. I was gutted. It would have been nice to have meet him.

Credit: Heather Sheret

Casting the net wider now, who are some of the record collectors you most admire and why?

Nick The Record – he doesn’t have the name for nothing! It’s a world of gems in his record cave. Gary Johnson’s collection is off the hook, and Mark GV Taylor has all the Brazilian nuggets that are on your wants list. Bobby Coleman from Soft Rocks’ collection is meant to be legendary. I bet Hugo Mendez, Miles Soundway, Antal, John Gomez, Hunee, and Egon’s collections most be on a different level also.

And are there any young collectors emerging who we should keep a close eye on?

I DJd with Zakia and Shyone at Jazz:refreshed event a few months ago and they both had some serious heaters, but I’m sure they don’t need any introduction to you guys. Massimo from Nu Guinea had soon real obscure rare magic in his bag the other night. Debora from Sounds Of the Universe with her new Zel Zele label is bound for great things. Plus, Yad and Dan of the So Flute crew and Chris Banana Hill, all keeping that Manchester eclectic DJ spirit going. I also enjoyed spinning with Pierre Palma / Maggie and Thomas (Around The World) recently in Paris. It must be hard for a lot of young collectors at the moment as a lot of records are very expensive and at premium rate which makes it difficult to get some records at a decent price, never mind a bargain. However, there are more amazing re-issues out than ever and the access to information results in the learning curve being much faster, so I guess things even out. It used to take years to identify certain tracks. I remember once sending Gerald Jazzman a tape in the post and asked him if he could identify a track. To his kindness he got back to me with what it was.

Finally, is there anything coming up on your horizon that’s getting you excited?

Penya live gig at Patterns on Thursday 1st November, then back to Paris the day after for gig with Alma Negra at La Java. Plus a gig with SisBis crew in Liverpool on 23rd where I haven’t been before. I need to get off the sofa on a Wednesday night and get on a train to finally make a Steam Down.

The next Jazz Club event hosted by Mr Bongo is with Penya (1st Nov).

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