Diggers Directory: Rowan Mason

In a sea of head-banging mixes series, Sanpo Disco has become one of our go-tos for healing listening. Not only does it consistently cater for a mood not often covered by other platforms, but it provides DJs an opportunity to express another side to their tastes away from the club. As such they’ve welcomed international luminaries like Pender Street Steppers, Jex Opolis, Elena Colombi, DJ Sports, The Pilotwings, Sacha Mambo and Ruf Dug, alongside the Antipodean selectors he admire more locally to his Melbourne home. Curation doesn’t stop with the music. Japanese hobbyist culture and transitional listening habits have helped form an aesthetic that’s both a creative and comforting accompaniment to the music.

Behind it all is Rowan Mason, the unassuming and studious record collector who has built something that both listeners and DJs are championing in equal measure. Rarely one to step to the fore, we welcomed the opportunity to unpack his life as a record collector, discuss the Sanpo philosphy and aesthetic, and dissect his first curated compilation.

His 90 minute vinyl only mix, titled ‘Terrence in NYC 1983’ (after his cat), takes inspiration from music journalist Simon Reynolds and steers towards the post-punk, no wave and disco side of his collection. In the interview we we unpack his life as a record collector, discuss the Sanpo philosphy and aesthetic, and dissect his first curated compilation.

Midday Moon: AU & NZ Ambient 1980-1995 is out 2nd November – buy from Bandcamp.

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?

Mostly Iʼve always disliked my parentsʼ taste. Dad is an ex-hippie who leans towards prog rock like Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull and Mum is more into grunge and post-punk sounds, as sheʼs a bit younger and grew up in the same neighbourhood as the Birthday Party. She actually has some photos of their first shows in a local church. They would occasionally argue about music and sometimes in a semi-intense way. From memory, Mum buying Iggy Popʼs ‘Lust for Life’ from JB Hifi once caused some serious conflict!

But they did expose me to Brian Eno, David Bowie, John Lennon, Lou Reed, The Cranberries, Neil Young, Annie Lennox, Kraftwerk, The Reels and The Cure… which I did enjoy at the time. I must admit thatʼs actually pretty good. Some friendsʼ parents only had like two or three CDs: John Farnham or Cold Chisel or some other pub rock, so itʼs nice that my parents exposed me to some classics at a young age. As I got older, a bigger influence was probably checking the soundtracks of skate videos online and getting some burnt hip-hop CDs from my cousin. To be honest, I think my favourite album throughout high school was Nas Illmatic. I still love it! I was introduced to Arthur Russellʼs music by a friend who kept complaining about my obsession with hip-hop when I was around 17 or 18. I still love his music 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?

I started purchasing records because I had a short-lived dream of being a turntablist when I was 16 and I saved up enough money to buy some turntables by working at a cherry orchard washing the cherries going through a conveyor belt. When I actually had them, the dream faded almost immediately! After that I listened to some of the records while painting or cleaning my room. Eight or nine years ago, my friend Simon Barry (Mousse) was buying records and DJing and I became attracted to all the records he was showing me. I think I still continue to purchase records because I like them and think theyʼre beautiful. I like listening while lying on the floor in our lounge-room and I enjoy absent-mindedly browsing at record stores.

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

I donʼt have an astronomically large collection. I have some wooden crates made by Like Butter that I stacked up in our lounge room and Iʼve labelled them with some rough categories because my partner complained about how hard it is to find anything!

What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?

I live in Brunswick in Melbourne so I often walk up the road to Muscle Shoals and Round & Round, or I go for a bike ride and visit all the shops along Johnston Street or High Street. There are a ridiculous amount of record stores on each of those streets now. Iʼm not sure if I have a favourite. Most of the time digging is an excuse to go for a walk or bike ride, and the shops are a convenient distance from my house. I think Licorice Pie is objectively one of the best shops, but itʼs a hassle to get there so I probably only go there once per year.

Digging isnʼt just about the records you find, but the people who help you find them. Who are some of the colourful characters youʼve met on your travels in record stores round the world? Any unsung heroes youʼd like to shout out?

Heresʼs a short list of some unsung heroes Iʼd like to shout out:

Our friend Ryutaro Seki who lives in Nakano is definitely an unsung hero, a hilarious individual who also collects plenty of records. He has great taste and his style of DJing is a little bit comedic. He runs a festival called Daibon Odori Kai outside a local shrine that he looks after with his family. He has an infectiously positive energy and I sense itʼs catching on, as the festival seems to be growing. When we last visited Japan he went above and beyond to show us a great time (taking us to many record stores) and has hosted numerous events for Becky (Sui Zhen). In my eyes, his intention is always to create and share a positive experience, without any notion of personal gain.

Marsden who runs Muscle Shoals Records is an unsung hero in my eyes and a colourful character in the best way possible. Add Muscle Shoals to your list of record shops to visit in Melbourne.

My friend Louis Kanzo – the DJ and illustrator who drew the Midday Moon cover has shown me several nice shoegaze records. He keeps a very low-profile, but deserves more recognition. Hire him for your next design/illustration project.

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

Iʼm keen to find a copy of The Vessels by The Makers of the Dead Travel Fast.

Do you prefer record shopping as a solitary process or with friends? If the latter, who do you like to go digging with?

Sometimes I go with my friend Bayu who lives just up the road. When we both werenʼt working so much, we used to do this all the time. But nowadays, mostly I go by myself. Both situations are nice. In recent times Iʼve also gone digging a couple of times with Gavin who runs Pharaohs Records.

Do you have a digging process when going to a record shop, that helps you hone in on what youʼre after?

Since my taste is pretty eclectic I think itʼs a good practice to look at everything in the shop and every genre.

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

Definitely a huge role. I probably wonʼt buy an album unless it has a nice cover, even if the music sounds amazing. Thatʼs a very superficial mentality if you apply it to other things, but I wouldnʼt buy a book about an artist or architect that has an awful cover. I feel the same principle applies with music.

Artwork also plays a role in discovering good music from the past, since many artists followed the aesthetic trends of their era or wanted to convey something integral about their music through the cover art. This means the cover is often a good indication of what the music sounds like. Iʼve noticed I often pick up records thinking the cover looks great, only to flip it around and see an artist glaring at me with a frizzy glam-rock style haircut on the back and swiftly put the record back on the shelf.

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

I recorded it on the two technics turntables and pioneer mixer at home.

In short, I have an odd obsession with New York and the way itʼs depicted in pop culture, but itʼs a place Iʼve never been.

This interest definitely informed the records I picked out. I wanted to include lots of music from the 80s that has emerged from an inner-city experience and feels sonically bound to that environment. Whether it be no-wave, mutant disco, electro or hip-hop, I hope that it creates a narrative or ambience for the listener. I explored this theme previously on my NTS radio show, so maybe this is volume 2.

Any standouts in the mix youʼd like to mention?

None that Iʼd especially like to mention. I think there might be many familiar songs for some people.

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

My friends are people I really admire. Bayu is great. He has great taste, knowledge and many interesting thoughts about music and DJing. A great DJ. Book him for your next festival.

My friend Simon Barry (Mousse) has an amazing and eclectic collection. Heʼs also a very talented DJ and producer. Buy his Butter Sessions release and book him for your next festival.

Becky Sui Zhen. She collects records sometimes and is an amazing musician. Keep your eyes peeled for her upcoming album and book her for your next festival.

Pete Baxter who runs Hope Street Radio. Heʼs a very open-minded musician and music-listener, and is doing great things with Hope Street. Allow him to do a live online broadcast from your next festival.

Also, I think some of my favourite DJ mixes come from Chris Kontos and DJ Sundae. So they are some of my favourite collectors. I think ultimately itʼs because they are really interested in the sentiment and content of the music and not completely drawn to hi-fi production, beat-matching or the rarity of the music.

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

By young, Iʼm thinking younger than me. These names came to mind: FB Perimeter & Sardines from Canberra.

Was the restrained approach to mix curation an intentional move with Sanpo Disco?  A reaction to what you didnʼt feel was being offered elsewhere?

It was definitely intentional and related to my personal interests. At the time it also felt like a void to fill.

Thereʼs an undeniable Japanese link to the series, both in the name and aesthetic, influenced by your time studying in Osaka in 2010. What about Japanese cultural have you found so inspiring, and how have you adapted it for Sanpo without it becoming a mere caricature or replica?

Definitely. I like Japan for many reasons. I feel it has a culture of hobbyists and enthusiasts, which stems from the school ‘clubʼ culture and maybe the need to assert an identity within a dense urban environment. I like the way people there personalise their apartments and have niche interests in obscure aspects of contemporary culture. I often feel that space is personalised and objects are curated with more consideration in Japan than in Australia. There is a strong interest in the aesthetics and feel of things in Japan generally. I think this same will to personalise space and appreciation for aesthetics has influenced my approach to constructing this platform for mixes.

In concrete terms: the word Sanpo, the vertical line resembling an obi strip, and numerous guest mixes from Japanese friends have also provided a clear connection to Japan. Also the fact the series conceptually hinges on Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita inventing a portable audio device (coincidentally conceived while walking around New York). However, there are also some other aspects at play that are perhaps not as noticeable, including the personal story behind the name, photographs of familiar places around Melbourne from myself and friends, and the personality of the mixes themselves (that come from everywhere). I think this makes it less of a caricature.

Thereʼs also a strong theme of transit with Sanpo Disco, from the name to the logo and brief you send guests. Without wanting to speak for you, could you explain that a bit more?

The Japanese word Sanpo means stroll. Itʼs a word that I have a personal connection with and was chosen to reflect my interest in walking for pleasure, a past time that evolved while I was studying in Osaka years ago. Conceptually the series reflects my interest in the way portable audio devices have transformed our approach to listening to music and each contributor is asked to provide a soundtrack for listening in transit.

What is it about the act of listening to music while moving that grabs you so much? Do you feel music consumption changes when movement is introduced and taken away?

I think perhaps due to the insular nature of listening in headphones while moving, the mixes are deeply personal, often calming and traverse numerous genres seamlessly. The mixes also often reflect the cultural perspectives and inner worlds of the people making them. Thereʼs an interesting essay by Iain Chambers called ‘The Aural Walkʼ that reflects on this question in some depth.

Congrats on the new compilation, Midday Moon. How did that come about and why did you feel Bedroom Sucks was a good home for it?

Thank you! This happened very naturally. Joe came to my house one day because I wanted to buy a copy of the first Superstar record he released on his label. He had seen me DJing a party at our house a few weeks earlier, and we also share many of the same friends. Somehow one of us put forward the idea of doing some type of retrospective compilation and then we met at the Lomond Hotel and ate a chicken schnitzel sandwich (a Lomond classic) and discussed it a bit further and the rest is history. Prior to this I had never seriously considered releasing or compiling anything.

What was unique about Australian and New Zealand ambient from 1980-1995 and why did you feel it was worth focussing on for the compilation, as apposed to the other spectrum of sounds covered on Sanpo?

When I commenced this project I knew several interesting ambient records from Australia that were produced during this period and felt there was definitely more to learn about. There was also only one similar compilation on vinyl produced in 1987 by ABC Records. Itʼs called Ambience. Thereʼs only two others on CD from a similar time period called Archon: Ambient Volume One and Transmission: A collection of Australian Ambience. So I felt there was definitely a void to be filled and that I could do something interesting.

I think there is plenty of Australian ambient music that gets lumped together with new-age records and views the natural landscape through a highly touristic lens and have those typical crystalline synth sounds. People like Ken Davis and Tony OʼConnor probably made fortunes peddling this stuff ages ago. I was trying to avoid that and find music that engages with a more unique sense of place.

Did you manage to meet any of the artists youʼve featured? How have they reacted to the release? Any particularly heart-warming interactions?

Most of the artists now live interstate in Perth, Sydney, and Brisbane so the interactions have taken place either over the phone or via email. Several artists have had a full preview of the files and theyʼve all said theyʼre very happy to be included, which is great!

Iʼve met Tony Rogers (The director of the cult classic Australian comedy series Wilfred) who was a dear friend of Sam Mallet (who sadly passed away a few years ago) and he has been amazing to work with.

Beyond the compilation, do you have anything else in the works with Sanpo or other musical exploits?

Musique Plastique (Portland), Tony and I are working on a compilation featuring Sam Malletʼs work. It should be available in the not too distant future. Also working on some other releases with Mousse, Sui Zhen and Marco Vella of Retiree. I also need to do a big update of the website over the Xmas holidays! Thatʼs all for now.

Midday Moon, Bedroom Sucks Records

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