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CRATERY 83: Dan Zacks

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Toronto-based collector Dan Zacks pops his Cratery cherry on this month’s episode. I first came to know of Dan through the two Cuban funk compilations he released between 2006 and 2009: Si, Para Usted, volumes 1 and 2 (Both very well put together). Soon after, I realized he shared mutual friends like the hommies Kaewonder and Alister Johnson. It wasn’t until hanging with Zacks and some friends at his home that I became more familiar with this unassuming, bespectacled gentleman with a penchant for the foreign and the funky. We’re happy to finally welcome him to Cratery. Track list and audio below.

How did you start collecting? What type of records were you buying early on? 

I started collecting because of Jason Palma’s Higher Ground radio show. I grew up in Toronto and in the mid-90s, when I was about 15, stumbled on CIUT, University of Toronto’s campus community station.  I became an avid and rather indiscriminate CIUT listener.  Initially, I was into a show that played a lot of Joe Frank monologues, but one Thursday I stumbled on Higher Ground and that was it.  I remember hearing Roy Porter’s Jessica and Candido’s Thousand Fingered Man and wondering what this stuff was and why I’d never heard it before.  I didn’t appreciate at the time that it was already two decades old.  I went to HMV and asked if they had anything by Roy Porter and got the blank look you’d expect.

I listened to Higher Ground with an adolescent obsession.  Once Movement started, I started sneaking my way in.  I bought a lot of CDs, mostly used, and read Straight No Chaser while loitering in HMV.

In 2000 I went to Montreal for university.  There were quite a few records stores there at the time, and a lot of them had reasonably inexpensive vinyl.  There was no scene equivalent to what was developing around Movement, and so the collecting culture was different.  To the extent that people were digging for the kind of stuff you’d hear on Higher Ground, it was mostly because they were chasing breaks and samples.  The result was that some of the records I was into were available at reasonable prices.  I started buying.

In the winter of 2000, I got my first radio show on CKUT, McGill’s campus-community station.  I decided that justified buying more seriously, and that’s when I really began collecting in earnest.  In 2001, I probably spent as much time in record stores as I did in class.

Jason Palma is the man. He’s responsible for so spreading so much good taste around this city. For some reason, I was under the impression that you were originally from Montreal. Or at least spent a great deal of time there.

I spent five years in Montreal and then moved to New Brunswick for some more school.  I returned to Toronto in 2008.  New Brunswick was then a surprisingly decent place for records, especially Canadiana–I found Henri Pierre Noel LPs in St. John! I cleaned out the province pretty thoroughly, so don’t even bother.  All that’s left are white baptist choir records and you don’t want those, trust me.

Ha! Montreal has always been such an amazing city for records. What were some of your favourite stores while you were out there?

Montreal hugely influenced my tastes.  I developed an interest, verging on a passion, for Quebecois recordings.  Ultimately, I began selling collectible Quebecois vinyl on a semi-professional basis.

I mentioned that there were quite a few quality shops in the early 2000s, but nothing in Montreal, and really anywhere else that I’ve been, compared to the glory of the late Mars Records.

Mars was then a cavernous basement on St. Catherine, a little west of St. Laurent.  It was evenly split between porn, posters, and records.  At any given time, the record section held hundreds of thousands of records–maybe millions–overflowing from shelves, stacked beneath them, stacked above them, stacked in towering piles on the floor, stacked in heaps in a mysterious roped off section.  Most records were covered in mould and dust and indeterminate filth that left your skin black.  The first stop after a Mars session was the washroom in the neighbouring Belgo building to clean the sludge off your hands.

I don’t know why Mars was so filthy.  I remember being told that there had once been a great flood in Mars, but also that an underground stream flowed adjacent to the record section causing perpetual mould growth.  The place was surreal enough that all of this seemed plausible.

You would go to Mars and dig for an hour or two (or more, if like me, you preferred digging to school), and you’d find maybe a dozen records of some value.  Because you’d have exerted a lot of effort to find the heat, and because you’d be covered in crud, you’d feel as if Mars should be paying you for your time, and you’d expect that Mars would sell you the records for just a couple dollars.

It didn’t work that way.  You’d present your records to Tom, who ran Mars with his brother, and he would pull out his Goldmine guide.  If it had a listing for the record, he’d quote you the NM price.  If the record was unlisted, he’d quote a price, maybe $20, maybe $75, based on what he thought you’d find most infuriating.  You could negotiate with Tom, but he rarely went half as low as the record’s actual value.

This routine left unprepared customers livid.  I witnessed at least a couple guys–always guys, of course–nearly take a swing at him.  Tom loved that.  The transaction would end with most people buying one or two records and leaving the rest behind.  Tom kept these behind the counter (which mostly held stolen electronics—I once saw a guy arrested in Mars while trying to fence a CD player he’d taken from the Bay down the street).

Over time, I became as friendly as you could be with Tom.  I used to talk a lot of nonsense with the colourful types who Tom let hang out in the store.  If Tom liked you, he’d stop you from sitting in the decrepit chair near the counter where a homeless prostitute spent her off-time because, he’d say, it was covered with lice.  It was undoubtedly covered with something.

Once friendly with Tom, he let me flip through all the records he kept behind the counter and would show me where others customers hid their stashes.  He also charged me fair prices.  My time then was cheap, and I spent endless hours digging through Mars over the span of two, maybe three years.  It was already then fairly depleted, but there was plenty of heat.  I’ll never forget my first big Mars find–a pristine Jarvis Street Review that I flipped for US$700.

I also found a lot of Cuban records in Mars, and that was how my interest in Cuban music began.

That is insane. I never came up in Mars like that. Always did better at Disquivel and Le Pick-Up. I guess it all comes down to relationships. Speaking of Cuban music, you really helped foster a love for Cuban Funk around the world with your “Si, Para Usted” compilations a few years back. Is there any one genre that has your interest right now? 

For the past decade I’ve been working on a compilation of Israeli jazz, funk, and psych.  The project was very close to coming together, but life intervened.  It still remains an interest.  The music is stellar (though there’s not a lot of it), and the various forces that shaped the music are unusually interesting.

For whatever reasons, I’ve also been into Italian jazz of late.  People know the Carosello label, especially stuff like Mayafra, but the other, cheaper releases are really good.

Israeli funk and Italian Jazz huh? Always on that other shit. Any guilty pleasures that people would be surprised you’re into? 

To paraphrase Leo Sayer, there’s no shame in my game.  I’m quite fond of opera…

What about record store rituals? Personally, I’m a sucker for the new arrivals section. I tend to hit that first regardless of the record store. Do you have any rituals? Certain things you always do regardless of the store? 

These days, my shopping ritual is to get popsike and discogs ready on my phone and….

I’m kidding, of course.  I usually start with the new arrivals, go to the jazz section, then depending on my mood and how the store is set up, go to the rock section.  The soundtrack section almost always disappoints me.  I think I have bad soundtrack luck.

You and me both. There’s never a Lialeh just chilling in the cut. Share with us, if you will, a couple of memorable digging experiences.

I once came across three boxes of library records in a store way out in the Montreal suburbs.  One of my fondest memories is going on a day trip with A Man Called Warwick and Jon Sikich looking for records in Eastern Township antique stores.  I don’t think we found very much, but it was terrific fun.  Actually, I’m sure Warwick pulled something ridiculous, because he always does.

I used to see a really lovely dealer named Marc Lambert.  I think A Man Called Warwick generously introduced me to him.  I would make the trip to his apartment in the east island, and he would offer me cake and play rare prog on his audiophile set-up.  Woe to those who didn’t use finicky belt drive turntable just right! Marc sold me lots of terrific records at fair prices really expanded my knowledge.

The ethically fraught business of “direct digging” also made for some memorable experiences.  I met Henri Pierre Noel, Ted Moses, and Lee Gagnon with that approach.  Turns out that the market for Ted Moses recordings wasn’t as robust as I had anticipated.  I think I lost money on that deal.  Want to buy some sealed Sidereal Times?

I think I got a couple of Ted’s joints lying around actually, so I’m hoping I kept them for a good reason. Besides the astronomical prices, any major pet peeves about digging today? 

In my opinion, to the extent that digging still exists, it’s in circumstances where people don’t have access to or understand the Internet, or where there’s a lot of volume and whoever prices the records can’t google them all.

Otherwise, the Internet, and smartphones in particular, has basically ended digging as it was even ten years ago.  Digging was about having more knowledge than whoever was selling you the record.  When you can access google on your phone, there’s rarely any knowledge advantage.  If we’re candid, how many truly exceptional records aren’t available on youtube or wherever? Sure, some rare stuff remains mostly unknown, but this is now a tiny minority of the vinyl we covet.

Damn. That was a real but depressing answer. Let’s attempt to end this interview on a more positive note. Give us 3 records from your collection you’d never sell and why.

1. Quintonal EP

This is a ridiculously good Montreal record that’s one of the very best jazz-funk recordings ever.  I stand by that.  It’s also one of those records that really was pressed in tiny quantities and handed out at shows.  Marc Lambert offered it to me one afternoon.  He said “I thought Symon [Warwick] might want this, but he turned it down” and I got all excited, because even then Symon had moved on to deeper stuff but i was still very much enthused by jazzfunk. It was the most expensive record I’d bought at the time, maybe 2003, at $100.  Later, I played it for Symon and I think he felt bad passing o on it.  Being Symon, he later found two copies in a shoebox while digging in Montreal. I don’t remember the actual size of the pressing, but it was definitely no more than 500, so this was basically a miracle bestowed on Symon by the fickle record gods.

2. The Nick Ayoub Quintet on CBC records.

This is a perfect jazz album, one of my very favourites.  I will always keep a copy of this.

3. The first Azymuth LP.

Sure, it’s one of the great Brazilian records, but for me it’s not even about the music.  This was my first great Internet dig. Some fellow in Rio had a geocities site selling mid-level Brazilian grails and after some correspondence it seemed legit.  I bought maybe $300 worth of records, including this one, which I think cost $25.  Months pass without the records arriving.  The dealer stopped responding to my emails.  I called the Canadian embassy in Rio, implied that I was involved in a significant trade deal, and asked if they could assist by providing me with the dealer’s telephone number, which they did (the Rio phone book was not then online).  The number I got was actually for the fellow’s mother, who spoke decent enough English.  She connected me with her son, I blustered a bit, he seemed a little taken aback, and the records arrived a month or so later.

TRACK LIST

1. Nick Ayoub Quintet – Ya Habibi
2. Overton Berry Trio – Guacamole
3. Basa Basa Soundz – Yes we can
4. Unlisted
5.  Los Canayes – Chikichaka
6. Som Tres – Horizonte
7. Ana Mazzotti – Roda Mundo
8. Celia – Detalhes
9. Spiced with Brazil – Casa Forte
10. Zaras – Forever
11. The Bendeth Band – I was there
12. Baba Yaga – Too cool to be true
13. The Daughters of Eve – The Sons of Adam
14. Andrew Wartts and the Gospel Storytellers – Rich man, poor man
15. Camel – Lady Fantasy
16. Chris Squire – Lucky Seven
17. The Nick Ayoub Quintet – Peridot
18. Pete Scofield – Introducing – My Man
19. Roger Rodier – Am I supposed to let it by again
20. The Rainy Daze – Snow and Ice and Burning Sand

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