Diggers Directory: a mix series that salutes the diggers, record enthusiasts and music lovers. For more in the series, browse through the archive.
As the owner of Dark Entries, one of the most prolific reissue labels around, Josh Cheon has cemented himself as one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts of italo disco, industrial, post-punk and oddball early electronics. The San Francisco resident is also a key member of Honey Soundsystem, the label and party who celebrates the true roots of disco and house, without resorting to pastiche or imitation. We spoke to Cheon about where his unconventional tastes emerged from, life in San Francisco and what we can look forward to from Dark Entries in 2017. He’s also put together an 80 minute, vinyl-only mix of some wonderfully outlandish music.
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?
I grew up listening whatever my dad had on the record player. He was a DJ for school dances as a teenager in the 1960s, so his Soul and R&B 45s collection was huge. For some reason “Georgy Girl” by The Seekers sticks out in my head
since I would play that 45 over and over and dance around the house with my sister. I remember him so excited to turn me onto primal rawness of The Seeds, which lead to him digging out his Silver Apples LP with the metallic jacket. I also loved his Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison records because the vocals struck an emotional chord in me. I could go on and on…
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?
Growing up with vinyl in my house got me hooked and visiting my friends who also had parents with vinyl we would play. I was never satisfied with the just the album cuts, I would seek out B-sides, demos and alternate mixes plus live bootlegs. My friends also shared my love for vinyl and we would take the bus into Manhattan and spend our weekends digging in the record stores on St Marks Place and near Washington Square Park. I’ve always loved the programming of a side of a vinyl album. You can spend 18-22 minutes listening to a sequence of songs the band selected in that specific order. These days I’m digging for original copies of records that I want to reissue to study the artwork up close or buying records to DJ with.
Where do you store all your records and how do you file them?
My records are stored in my tiny studio apartment in San Francisco on IKEA expedit shelves. I have a 5×5 cube and a 4×4 cube and two 2×2 shelves plus a few stacks of vinyl on the floor with no place to go. They are filed by genre mostly, Disco, House/Techno, Italo/New Wave, Indie Rock, Classic Rock, International. Right now only the Disco, New Wave, Indie/Classic Rock bins are sorted alphabetized. Not sure how to organize the House/Techno yet..
What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?
Pyramid Records in San Francisco and A1 in Manhattan. Pyramid always has the record you never knew about but are meant to have and love. The owner Bobby McCole puts so much care and thought into what goes on the floor. A1 is the best store in the country for what I like to DJ when I play gigs with Honey Soundsystem. I’m there to dig for 80s and 90s House/Techno and the bins are organized by record label, but I always end up buying an obscure New Wave or Disco single too.
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?
My favorite record store clerk is Irwin from the now closed Aquarius Records in San Francisco. Each weekend I would visit the shop to bring in copies of my new releases and then dig for records. Aquarius mainly specialized in contemporary artists and Irwin would turn me on to so many amazing bands that I never would have found without his help. He has a radio show on San Francisco Community Radio every Friday from 10am-noon called Sleeves On Hearts where you can hear the music he loves. http://soundtap.com/sleevesonhearts
DJs and producers often talk about a number of records that never leave their bag. Do you have any records like this?
That changes month to month but the ones that have stayed in my bag since day one are Starcluster “Smoke and Mirrors”, Curare “To Have and Have Not”, Frak “Synthrilla” and Q Lazzarus “Goodbye Horses”.
Is there a record (or records), which you’ve wanted to own but cannot afford or find in print anymore?
There are too many to list but glancing at my discogs want list its almost 8,000 records. Hopefully I am on my way to reissuing a good chunk of the more expensive and rare ones.
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 love shopping alone always, I take ages to dig through all the bins and then listening to the big pile I’ve selected. I grew up with family who would always wait for me at a shop next door and constantly keep tapping on my the shoulder to get me to hurry up.
Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting process, with some many different genres and formats. Do you have a digging process that helps you hone in on what you’re after?
Depends on the mood, sometimes I am set out to look through every bin and sometimes it’s more about skimming and pulling out some random titles I’ve never heard before. I love to start with the New Arrivals if a store has a section for them. It helps determine what the buyers bring into the store and sets the tone for what else I may or may not find.
How big a role does album artwork play in your digging, esp. if you’re not familiar with something you pick up?
Artwork has landed me some awful albums, as I’m a sucker for a beautiful or shockingly ugly cover. But also sometimes the best records I’ve picked up have had a blank die cut jacket and the record label artwork is enough for me to pick up the record and give it a listen.
Aside from running Dark Entries, you are also a part of Honey SoundSystem, “a coveted queer DJ collective and production group”. How you become involved with this and can you tell us a little more about it?
I would see the individual members out at different dance nights in 2006 and befriended Robert Yang first. He was the first to invite me to play his weekly party Bailando at the now closed Deco Bar in the Tenderloin. From there I went to the first few Honey Soundsystem parties and they heard me DJ and invited me to play records with them.
Finally, what are your plans for 2017, and beyond?
I’m always working on the next 8 Dark Entries releases and trying to hold time my part time job as a research associate in a biology lab that studies stress and aging in humans. Also hoping to travel more always and throw more Dark Entries dance