Diggers Directory: Tom Houghton

Manchester has no shortage of record shops. The city’s Northern Quarter alone holds old and important institutions like Eastern Bloc, Piccadilly Records, and Vinyl Exchange within a couple of minutes walk, while those willing to look a little further can find great digging spots as far out as Bolton. Spoilt for choice already maybe, but rather than squeezing out new possibilities, this relative abundance, along with the continued growth of vinyl consumption, has created a space for a different kind of shop with a smaller focus and emphasis on careful curation.

Tom Houghton opened the All Night Flight webstore in early 2018 as a natural step forward from buying additional records to sell during the digging trips that have taken him to Tokyo, Moscow, Utrecht, and further afield. Like others in the newest generation of UK records shops, the fellow Mancs at Hi Tackle or London’s Low Company, he eschews the comprehensive sweep of new releases already catered to by established stores, seeing the stock instead as an extension of his own taste. As a result the webstore and instagram feed are stunning resources for finding experimental or unusual records, selected and written about with obvious enthusiasm. While the stock covers ethnographic recordings, Japanese city pop, early 00s glitch, the weirder edges of Detroit techno, and much more, the sense of a sonic thread or coherent personality is ever-present.

Alongside All Night Flight, Tom runs Microdosing, the show-stealing chill-out room at Partisan Collective events, and its accompanying NTS show, exploring the well established connection between club culture and experimental non-dance music. The mix he’s provided is firmly a home-listening experience, full of unusual textures and wistful sonorities, which accompanies an in-depth interview about his life as a record collector.

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

Growing up my family were definitely interested in music, but we didn’t have a huge record collection that provided an education or whatever. The first two records that I can recall coming into contact with were two 7”s my grandparents had. One was ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back’ and the other was this track called ‘The Sheffield Grinder’. Me and my older brother would play around with them, trying to scratch and mess with the pitch and we’d get told off. So I guess from a pretty early age we learnt to look after records! But from my very early teens I used to watch a lot of skate videos, mostly for the music and would constantly be pausing the videos, writing down the tracks from the credits and going into HMV and either reading from the list or humming the tune and getting them to order in. So I suppose from an early age, finding music was a thing that required effort and patience. Begrudgingly now looking back now, I’ll admit my older brother probably put me onto Aphex, some weirder electronica and post-punk bits, but also somehow discovering Basic Channel, Terre Thaemlitz’s ‘Soil’, COUM Transmissions / TG / Psychic TV, La Monte Young and Ricardo Villalobos around the time I left school were all pretty crucial too.

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

It seemed a pretty natural transition from buying CDs. I used to buy the odd Hip-Hop LP if I had a bit of extra money but mostly because I liked the covers. Then when I was getting more into dance music it was the natural format to have, especially because it was fun to mix. I guess that gradually snowballed as my interests and knowledge broadened to incorporate other things. In terms of the continued motivation, well for me, it’s still the best way to discover music I’ve never heard before because there’s no telling what you might find. Also with running the website and increasingly selling more, there’s also the constant need to find new stock.

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

At home in the living room and sort of by genre but also grouped together by where they get played, I.E home listening, club stuff etc. Then things for the website are kept separate and unsorted. I imagine compared to some other collectors, especially ones featured in this series, I don’t have a huge sprawling collection and I’ve always been pretty ruthless in selling things that I don’t listen to or feel are over-priced. So I can usually do a full sweep in around an hour if something goes missing. The idea of having so many records that you constantly loose things and unknowingly buy doubles seems stressful to me.

What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?

Tokyo remains pretty much unsurpassed for the amount and variety of great records I’ve managed to unearth over the years, with Osaka not far behind. But then closer to home, the North West of England wildly fluctuates between being completely pointless and absolutely mind-blowing for digging. Patience and perseverance is key. Last year Moscow was an amazing albeit short dig experience, and also Utrecht record fair for the sheer vastness.

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 think anyone who’s worked in the Manchester record stores will know Hip-Hop Craig, he’s a true old-school and ridiculously low-key collector with an unmatched appetite for rummaging through awful records, despite doing it religiously every week for 30 years plus. He’s got endless stories and is definitely unsung. My first encounter with the angry, miserable record store worker stereotype was probably at Space Hall in Berlin with one of their intimidating chain-smoking clerks behind the counter who didn’t approve of me pestering him for T++ records. Further afield, Sasha in Moscow was extremely helpful in helping me navigate a couple of his local stores and put me onto some amazing music, which I’m massively grateful for. Also Yohei in Tokyo whose selection at HMV is absolutely second to none and he’s super nice guy too!

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

Yes and no. I think now increasingly with the Internet and contacts, there aren’t many records that are truly out of reach, only financially. I’m notoriously price-conscious and can’t justify spending a fortune on a single trophy record. The most elusive records are the ones I don’t even know about yet. That said, a nicely priced copy of Roberto Donnini’s Tunedless, Alessandro Alessandroni’s Light And Heavy Industry on Coloursound Library, David Behrman’s ‘Leapday Night’ on Lovely, or any of those Radiotaxi releases would make me happy, but I can wait.

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

Completely depends, I’m probably more effective alone, although local knowledge is always really valuable. The social aspect of going with friends can be fun to if you understand each other’s tastes but increasingly I’m a lone wolf.

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?

Again, I think depends on the type of store. If it’s well curated and they have an experimental / avant-garde section I’ll head there to get a feel for the prices and what they’re into, then into the punk / wave / industrial, then dance, then reggae / world, but effectively I’ll want to check every record in the shop, bar the 7’s, but sometimes them too. If it’s a more old school set-up its best to plot the most effective route around the entire store. If the staff really know their stuff, I’d just go straight to the counter.

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

A huge one, apart from the artist, label or people on the credits its probably the biggest influencer in terms of something being pulled out to listen to and eventually bought. Certain styles of music lean towards certain design aesthetics, but then many don’t too and there’s plenty of amazing music with shit covers and vice versa.

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

It was recorded in a very cold NTS Manchester studio on a Monday morning and is mostly records (+ a tape rip and a CD) picked up fairly recently and a couple of personal ‘classics’.

Any standouts in the mix youʼd like to mention?

There are two really beautiful tracks from a Japanese duo Ippei & Aki from a CD they privately made for their friends as thank you for attending their wedding party. I think with the seemingly increased concentration on rare or expensive records, its important to remember really great music can come from simple places, a friend of a friend, someone you know personally, etc, regardless of format. There’s also one track that’s composed entirely of insect recordings.

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

Many! Internationally it seems the Freedom To Spend / Portland guys’ tastes are very relevant at the minute and I always enjoy Nosedrip’s NTS show. Jack Rollo and the Time Is Away NTS show is always something I keep an eye on too. Although closer to home, locally in Manchester there are some incredible music lovers; Jon K and Tom Boogizm have put me onto amazing things over the past few years, Sean Canty’s digging stories and 4-deck sound college at Partisan last year continues to be an inspiration. Also endless admiration for locals and dedicated music heads Seb NTS, Space Afrika’s Josh + Josh, Will Boyd, Justin, Adam, Annabel, Lyster, Ruffy, P.Brunson, Kicking Pidge, Tom Contours (plus so many more I’m missing) for throwing great music my way on a daily basis and doing always their own thing. Big shouts to JR in Tokyo and Sam down under who pretty much have a 100% strike rate in putting me onto great music.

And are there any young collectors we should keep an eye out for?

Well I feel pretty young myself haha, although the previously mentioned Will Boyd who’s quietly putting out some of the most interesting experimental music Manchester’s seen for a while on his Sferic label. Dan Riley too! They’ve both got razor sharp ears and seem to be able to dig out the best in all genres. Thea HD always manages to really impress me with her impeccable taste and also Sofie K’s got a serious arsenal of oddball dance floor warheads that always piques my interest. Sure I’m missing a few as there’s so many!

Manchester has a pretty high density of record shops for a city of its size, though each seems to contribute to the musical landscape in a different way. What led you to start All Night Flight and how do you perceive its place within the city’s record shop economy?

I think it just happened quite naturally. If I was out buying records for myself and on the way saw things that I not necessarily felt the need to own, but appreciated and could pass onto others and make enough to cover my own buys, then I’d get those too. Working at Eastern Bloc and managing the Discogs-side of things there gave me an idea as to the level of service people should expect (and deserve!) when buying records online and it’s been good to translate that into what I do. But more than anything I just really, really enjoy sharing music than I’m passionate about with others. In terms of how it fits in within Manchester’s economy, I’m not really sure. Running a physical store and online store from home are very different things. Although there’s such a huge amount of extremely clued up music lovers in Manchester and I do feel there’s space for a more curated and not-necessarily fixated on a certain genre type of store, which would only benefit the city’s record shop economy in general as opposed to taking business away.

What do you look for when searching out records for the shop?

There’s no real formula, I get things that I like and that I’m passionate about. I’m less fixated on genres but I try to keep an even spread of rare, accessible, cheap, expensive, etc so as to not alienate certain record buyers. I’d never buy anything that I didn’t appreciate myself, mostly because I’d find it difficult to sell something I wasn’t passionate about, it’d be obvious. Plus I can write about things I know and like much quicker.

Have there been any particular records that you feel have been really in tune with All Night Flight’s identity?

Many! Although as almost everything on the site is a one off, there’s not really a ‘best-seller’ in the traditional sense. It’s always nice to sell on bits from Terry Riley’s back catalogue, especially if the person buying isn’t really aware of his work or if it’s the first time hearing entirely. I’m a huge fan myself and in fact the name of the store came from the title of one of his live recordings from the 60’s, Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band ‘All Night Flight’ (did anyone pick up on that??). It’s really hard to pick actually! The Vous Et Nous reissue from Brigitte Fontaine & Areski Belkacem is the sort of once in a lifetime, really unique masterpiece which I think anyone who’s really interested in adventurous music would appreciate regardless of what genre they’d be most comfortable with. The ethnographic records are always good to share with people and its been really encouraging to see other people equally interested in Tibetan Buddhist chanting and regional recordings from Ethiopia. There are so many others like the Scott Fraser LP, anything from Terre Thaemitz, Remy Couvez, Pole, Pandit Pran Nath, etc, although I’d say everything’s had a part in building the personality of the store.

In recent years the idea that DJing can encompass more than functional dance music has grown increasingly popular, both in the sense that music not intended for dance floors can be used to make people dance and also in that DJing as a skill can be used in settings other than the club. You regularly run the Microdosing chill out room upstairs at Partisan and your mix has little in it that could be called dance music. What’s the place of non-dance music in dance-oriented scenes, for you, and how does the skill of DJing this stuff differ compared to playing for a dance floor?

I think it’s really important and it felt like it was a piece that was missing from more dance-orientated parties. Ironically the (often cold and wet) smoking area seemed to become the space where people would chat and socialise, but I think having a social space where the music or the people playing isn’t the dominating feature is important and has so far been well received. Experimental (non-dance) and traditional dance music are so intertwined it seems odd not to have them side-by-side at events. In terms of the differing skill, from only my own personal perspective of playing I feel the ‘non-dance’ side can require a greater level of concentration and listening, whereas you can feed off the energy of a more traditional dance floor. Although essentially it’s the same, just playing music you like and trying to read and follow the mood. They’re both equally rewarding.

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