Diggers Directory: Victor Kiswell

Victor Kiswell is a man of many facets, each one deeply rooted in a fervent passion for music and vinyl. From a young age he was immersed in sounds from across the musical spectrum, in turn igniting a love for records, and inspiring an enduring voyage of discovery for forgotten treasures.

This passion soon became his business. He began selling second-hand records to dealers and collectors from his home in his 20’s, and now runs a website offering a large catalogue of finds, including, but not limited to, Bollywood, library music and early electro. His hunt for rarities is chronicled on Vinyl Bazaar, a documentary series that sees him travelling to unexplored locations around the world. More recently he’s been sharing his finds on his monthly NTS show A Kiss In Your Ear, as well as through his contributions to the musical time machine Radiooooo.com, which he founded with friends in Paris.

Although a title we’re sure he wouldn’t want bestowed upon him, you could call Victor a “digger’s digger”. A man always willing to go that little bit deeper than the rest. Here, we talk to him about his relationship with records, the vinyl enthusiasts that came before him and what motivates him to continue his search after all these years. This sits alongside a vinyl mix of West African funk and Middle-Eastern groove.

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?

Yes my parents were preponderant. What they were listening to – everything except new wave and punk – is part of my culture. My father listened to French alternative chanson, for example Higelin and Brigitte Fontaine, then went on to classical music. This explains why, on the top of my pyramid, there’s Mozart. Mozart’s music fed me and is still part of me today.

My mother was into new wave and punk but also came back from trips with our first hip hop records, like Eric B and Bomb the Bass in the mid 80’s. She liked Prince, Adam and the Ants, Om Khoulthoum, Bollywood songs, Rita Mistouko and Grace Jones.

As for my stepfather, his tastes are the ones I mainly followed as a teen and young adult. Stuff like LKJ, Gainsbourg, Steel Pulse, Kraftwerk, Laurie Anderson, then some late 60s James Brown and some 80’s French sounds such as Mathématiques Modernes and Jacno. And he always spoke about Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and George Clinton when I was a kid.

One day he took me to a shop and the album he bought was Superfly… it was really a blast, I couldn’t stop listening to it the next days. My parents opened doors, maybe I just dug deeper. Of course, others influenced me, like my best friend and my neighbour when I was in my late teens: Herbie Hancock, Funkadelic and Parliament. Then I discovered that funk and jazz were not only played by black people, so I started listening to European sounds, underground albums, small pressings. Moreover, I listened to a great deal of hip hop. So before internet I already had that “education”.

Wow, that’s a lot of influences floating around when you were younger. Now, on to the subject of your relationship with vinyl. 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? 

At the time I started buying records, if you wanted to hear a tune there were two ways: either to wait for it to be played on the radio or buy the vinyl. There’s a couple of reasons that motivated me to buy and collect records: the discoveries, because it fed me and still feeds me everyday, and the need of new music to play, as I started DJing at 19. Then I chose to establish as a record seller. And that work solved two problems: how I could make a living and what could I do with this passion? Selling records is also the perfect motivation for finding and buying records.

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

I don’t have a warehouse in the suburbs, nor an office or a shop in Paris, so I store all the records in my flat. I need to have them close to me. I work with them, need to listen to them anytime, read some notes on a cover They are supposed to be tidy on the shelves, but you can find some of them on the floor, on the table. Some are more reachable than others, and it’s been a few years that my James Brown and George Clinton productions, from my youth, have been difficult to access. Anyway, there are two “corners” – my own collection and the stock of records for sale. It’s simply categorised: Latin / Hip Hop / Reggae / Library / Soundtracks / Euro Jazz / US Soul & Jazz  / Disco and electro 12” / Middle Eastern & Arabic / Caribbean. Then in each section I add a “country” so I know exactly where a Greek soundtrack is for example. But sometimes I am looking for one particular record and I come across this other one, and so on… I like making “discoveries” in my own collection, I find it amusing.

Your work for Vinyl Bazaar takes you to many different places on the search for records. What have been your favourite destinations and why? Beyond that, when you aren’t “working” what are your favourite shops to go digging?

When I am not working I don’t go to shops. Eh I’m joking… The good part of my job is that I can go to a shop and make a friend or get myself a present, or find something for my business. And if I don’t feel it, I don’t go digging. In Paris there are some fabulous spots. Some old shops indeed have terrific stocks, there are some very serious dealers and an experience at the flea markets is always exciting. With Vinyl Bazaar I wouldn’t put a destination forward, I liked them all, they all had many things to offer. I liked Beirut a lot, it’s not a secret. I felt at home. I am not from that part of the globe though… but that’s what I felt. I also have a special thing with Cairo. A romantic naturalist archaeologist crush. Incidentally, one of my best digging experience in Cairo was not for Vinyl Bazaar, but the second time I went there, when we recorded that Boiler Room mix. It was winter but the weather was perfect, the Nile was so close, I was in levitation.

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?

Before I started digging, there was what I would call the “gold generation”. People who were older than me and started before. They were only a few, and they only had to bend down to find what they wanted. I think the best discoverers have never been the shop owners. Before internet changed the rules, the best were the diggers-sellers, guys who had to listen to piles and piles of records to keep one album or two only. And guys who also knew how to make the buzz. I have learnt a lot from those guys.

They won’t appreciate it, but I’ll name a few. Fabrice “Ubu Pop Land”, had a bookstall next to the Seine where he used to sell subversive literature, 60’s magazines, and crazy records; 60’s French sounds, library, soundtracks, psychedelic grooves. Julian Baker in London, who held Recordkingz, he introduced me to the shadow world of the breaks, before we all had websites. He had Bollywood records, unknown Euro groove and soulful things that were quite easy to find but that no one knew. The way he introduced these records, all listed and described in mails sent to a mailing list inspired me somehow. Paulo from Superfly, I’ve also learnt a lot from him. I mostly knew about funk and soul when I met him, and, as I was digging a lot in the suburbs at that time, we found an arrangement: I was acting as a kind of scout for him, and our trades would please both of us. But my real key figure was Gwen Jamois. He introduced me to a lot of underground records with high potential and above all he gave me the desire to do the job in a dandy way. But this was almost a century ago (laughs).

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?

It’s not the same thing and to be honest I prefer going alone. Not for the fact that I don’t want to share the experience, but I like to take my time and not be distracted by someone else’s judgment. This being said I like digging with friends, once in a while, it can be very very very funny.

Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting experience, although one I’m sure you’re no stranger to now. Do you have a digging process that helps you hone in on what you’re after?

It’s a matter of time and primacy. Who else has been there before? How long do I have? Can I come every week and keep on discovering in a systematic way? It may be a spot in a foreign country, a book store in Guatemala, 5000 records, I have one hour and I know I won’t come back. I would do quick, I think I have seen many sleeves in my life, so my fingers would run fast on the shelves. I would take the ones I know, buy some intuitively, and if I have my turntable with me I would do some tests. But I might also be in a place with thousands and thousands of records, I mean, more than 100000 and only have a few hours to spend. And there’s no sign nor indication… Luck has to be on my side. You are not allowed to have regrets when you have this kind of activity, or your life is only bitterness.

You’ve talked elsewhere about ‘Shalimar’, a Bollywood funk soundtrack that’s inner sleeves open up like a flower. It’s a truly beautiful sleeve! How big a role does album artwork play in your digging?

The artwork always helps to sell record, but you’ve probably experienced that it could also be a trap. An appealing cover may hide the poverty of the music. So, if I was attracted by a record for its cover when I was a teen, I found out that some simple or even ugly graphic designs could decorate a very tough record. Some disco albums have really ugly covers, some records from the eastern block too, and the library music covers, they were not all graphic and aesthetic. When I was 17, I wanted afro hair cuts on the sleeves, but at 25 I was ok with East German bearded guys with brown leather jackets and logger’s shirts. When the cover is really beautiful it won’t cancel anything in case the music is bad, but when the album is brilliant, it doubles the pleasure. But back to Shalimar… Finding Shalimar with this special deluxe and fragile cover in good shape after more than 40 years… well, what a piece ! Hardly beatable… you would always hear “oh” and “ah” if you showed it to people.

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

Yes if you don’t give yourself the chance to get it. You want something rare, move your butt. Of course there are some very rare records, pressed in a low quantity in a small part of the globe, the Italian library for example, or the psychedelic groove from Papua. But nothing is impossible, or elusive: you can travel and inquire, spend time finding the recording, or you can wait in front of your computer and pay the price. That’s the deal today. And I do not despair of not owning a particular record. Someday, I’ll find it. And there are so many things proposed around the world that you shouldn’t be obsessed by one thing only.

A difficult question I’m sure, but can you pick out one or two records that are particularly special to you? What are the stories behind them and how did they come to be in your possession?

A difficult question yes. But one record may illustrate something I would like to express. One of my rarest and most expensive records are the Italian library Accadde A. There’s one track compiled on Dusty Fingers and sampled by Quasimoto, a now-cult abstract low paced instrumental that stays in your head. Well, this album was destined for the trash. And I had the chance to save it. This is not the only story I could tell, but this one’s representative: you don’t have to pay top prices for top records. That would be my advice. Spend more money on the adventures to find the record than on the record itself!

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

There are indeed many collectors or collections I admire a lot. There are different kinds of collectors; the guy that had inherited and buys on eBay as he would gamble, the guy that doesn’t want to spend too much on records – be he rich or not – trying to get the records at the source where they are cheaper and the hard working man spending all he has to travel to unsafe places to find treasures… different kinds of people. It’s not that I don’t like the first category, but the emotion and involvement are really different. And a collection doesn’t need to be too wide. You have to know your records, where they are, what they contain. This being said…from 1990 to mid 2000s the big collectors were in Japan and the UK. Now they might be in Switzerland, the USA, or in the Middle East. I’d name for example my friend Léandre from Holywax in Geneva, he has really good tastes and knows where to find the good records, so his collection is the museum of holy grails. I love my pal Julien Achard (Diggersdigest) collection too, as we more or less have the same tastes in every genres and he has got what it takes. I also respect and admire a lot Egon Alapatt. I haven’t had the chance to glance over his shelves, but I know what he’s into and what he comes across. He’s serious, a smart and humble man, and a trendsetter.

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

The process of buying and collecting as changed over the years. Now every one is after the same records, records that reach high prices. And who could buy these? Sometimes I see young people into rare and expensive records. In the 90’s when you couldn’t afford to buy Fred Wesley on People which was around 100$ in France at that time, you would open your eyes to library music because at that time you got them for next to nothing. When Caribbean jazz was too pricey, you could spend some euros on modern creole funk. But today, there’s no field left for non-expensive and attractive music. So I wouldn’t like starting a collection today. The young gifted diggers I knew have grown up now, they run labels and play in festivals. Today young people mostly dig audio files, or reissues and compilations. They don’t care – and I won’t blame them – about owning the original on vinyl. Except a few ones, they would rather put their money on something else…

Now we want to chat a bit more about your life as a record dealer. You’ve been selling to artists, collectors and vinyl enthusiasts for decades now, when did your passion become your business?

It came after I ended my studies. I’ve spent many years in different universities here in Paris and I had this little job in a record shop as a student. It lasted almost two years. So my first move as an “adult” – I was around 25 at that time – was opening a small business. A shop yes, but not like the ones you know, a shop in my flat. And people would call me or write to have an appointment. Risky, yes, but at that time there were so many Japanese collectors and dealers looking for the European sound. It was very intense but I discovered a lot through this and had a lot of customers. I would sell an Italian bossa jazz album forty times the price I got it for, and the records were cheap and everywhere! And the album didn’t come alone, of course there were five copies of it. I liked these years. Then I started selling to hip hop producers, for their samples or just for the inspiration. And I liked these years a lot too. I actually realised that I was living off of my passion when I started providing tracks for compilations I loved when I was younger (the Dusty Fingers series) or when I dealt over time with people such as Madlib or Gilles Peterson, figures that played a certain role in my musical education. Although I still live exciting moments I must confess I don’t take as much pleasure nowadays, hence my diverse occupations.

As a dealer what do you look for in a record? As time has gone by, has the process of discovering treasured vinyl become easier?

I am probably more experienced now but no, it became harder. Now everyone is buying and selling and particularly buying to resell. People have heard there might be some money to make, and maybe they think it’s hype to stand as “record dealers”. We now know there is vinyl almost everywhere, but everywhere there are people who’ll get them, there are Lebanese dealers on Discogs, Nigerian dealers on eBay, Algerian on Facebook, West Indian on Instagram. It’s not easy work. Internet has opened doors, it contributed to the knowledge we have, but as everyone wants to be a DJ and/or record seller today, there’s much more competition. And I don’t like competition too much. I’d rather take my time to appreciate my job a little more.

For Vinyl Bazaar – a documentary series following a quest for rare records in unexplored locations – you’ve travelled to many untapped destinations to find rarities, but there must be lots of places that are still on your hit list. Where’s next?

For Vinyl Bazaar the countries we wanted to visit had to have an interesting music history, a large culture, and we had to feel that there would be some records to find. Just to be sure to have something to offer on screen. Many countries meet these requirements. I would love to go to Eastern and Southern Africa, to some Islands in the West Indies, to Korea, Iran, Russia, Sweden, Mexico.

I’ve read that before the introduction of the internet, you’d phone your friends in Japan and play records down the phone for valuations. What are your thoughts on how the internet has made music easily shareable and discoverable these days?

Before the internet we know today, very fast and easy, it was not that simple to send pictures and even less to send sound clips. Fabrice “Ubu”, who I mentioned earlier, manufactured some pretty w&b catalogues with pictures, descriptions and prices. The first ones were in Francs. They had maybe 40 pages, and he sent them via mail, I mean the old mail, with a stamp. And people replied with a fax, to be the first to order. When I couldn’t have Japanese customers at home I indeed used to spend time on the phone, trying to put on one record after another. This must have cost a lot. They were calling. But I remembered I had an old minidisc and I recorded the best parts on tracks, and used the remote. So I was on my sofa, placed the phone next to the speakers, and only had to push the >> button. I opened my website in 2001-2002. But back then I only had pictures and a short description. Then the customers’ habits changed: unless it was cheap people wouldn’t buy a record without a listen anymore, so I introduced sound clips on the site. Then we had all these blogs, Discogs improved, eBay exploded and everyone found it cool to be in the music world. It’s good and it’s bad. It’s good because the communication between music lovers are made easier, the knowledge is almost free and the rare records can be yours with just one click. But the medal has two sides. The crazy prices, the people involved who think they know and the dramatic DJ fees – all this will go right in the wall someday but maybe I am a little pessimistic.

You’ve used the internet to your advantage for Radiooooo, a musical time machine for discovering songs from across the world and the last century, which you started with a group of friends. What sparked the idea?

The idea came up by Benjamin Moreau, a French artist and DJ, frustrated by the fact no radio would play music from the 30’s or 40’s in France or the 60’s in Brazil on demand. There weren’t any applications or websites providing this service. So a team joined by skilled programmers was created and brought music from diverse areas and decades. I took my part by providing many tunes from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe or South America and I am still told about it when I go abroad, so it must have been a good idea.

Could you tell us a bit about the mix you’ve done for us? Where/how did you record it, what was the idea behind it?

It’s mainly an afro mix. There’s a track from the Persian gulf but the rest is from Western Africa : Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea. I could have done an Italian soundtrack/library mix, or unexpected jazz, but African music is something I can never get rid of… it always makes me dance.

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

There’s a track by the Poly Rythmo that puts me into a trance. I also like the deep vibes on “Nyo”, a Guinean tune by Balla & Ses Balladins, and there’s a not-so-well-known track by K. Frimpong with keyboard lines that sound like Onyeabor’s. The mix is beginning on the funky side and it gets rougher and rougher.

What are you looking forward to in the coming year?

Travelling again. Discovering.

Photo credit: Madness of juju

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