About Eel Pie Records
Give us the background... when and why did you decide to open a record shop?
PHIL: I have a long history in ‘the music business’ – far too long for this interview, but it includes APT (which became Vital and is now PIAS), 2 stints at HMV 15 years apart (one in stores, one in head office), a long and happy time at Entertainment UK, and spells with Warners and BMG. And then freelance work for many others over the last decade. I’ve done such a variety of roles that I hope has given me broad experience and understanding. I’ve always loved retail from when I was a teenager in the local village newsagent, and I count my time in stores as some of my happiest. Every day in the shop is a joy for me – I love the social aspect; customers of all ages, shapes, sizes and tastes.
KEVIN: This is my first venture into retail. I have spent a lifetime until last year working in social housing so this has been a radical shift for me. But it’s one I was desperate to make to follow a dream that Phil and I had shared and had been talking about for over 5 years. I describe it starting as a 4 pint conversation, i.e., just a dream. But over time it became a 2 pint conversation, a 1 pint conversation. Then we got serious over coffee!
Like Phil, I have a passionate interest in and love of music. Since I was teenager I have been buying vinyl records, going to gigs and even more recently playing bass guitar and singing in a couple of bands. I already love quite a wide range of music but I am driven to keep broadening that by discovering and listening to new music. Having kids that love music is really helpful in that regard. They all introduce me to new stuff. My daughter Leila, for example, has opened my ears to hip hop!
I am loving learning about how to run a small business, particularly marketing, the interaction with customers in the shop and staging our events. I even love keeping an eye on the accounts! It’s a far cry from what I studied at University and was trained to do but somehow this feels like what I should have been doing all my life.
PHIL: We are hugely fortunate to have a store with a historical location and the perfect brand. We took a conscious decision to stock both new and second-hand vinyl. We also knew that the fabulous Banquet Records in Kingston does a great job at what might be called the ‘younger’ end of the market. We do have a broad base of customers, but the ‘core’ customer is a mature music fan, possibly a BBC6 Music listener.
Our new vinyl range is also broad, built on a base of classic albums, and of course ever-changing according to what our customers ask for, and what we like. As huge fans of new music, we focus our ‘championing’ activity around that, as the classics sell themselves. We have a monthly pub social night where we play our selections on vinyl and chat to customers about them at leisure. This has proved to be very popular. Last month we sold pretty much all of the records we brought with us to showcase!
I’m sure every record store has customers that are real ‘characters’ and ours is no exception – I won’t mention any names, but we love ‘em. We pride ourselves on our approachability and community ‘vibe’ and we think this attitude pays dividends.
We won’t rest on our laurels – we believe we have to keep moving forward to survive, and the biggest thing for us right now is the launching of our own record label (Eel Pie Records of course!). Our first release is out on February 15th. LPs have just arrived – double red vinyl, gatefold sleeve. Beautiful. It’s being distributed through 3rd party sales at Universal.
The artist - Buffalo Blood - is an international collaboration of three US musicians - Grammy nominee Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman - and UK musician Dean Owens, recorded on location in the New Mexico desert, USA. “An Americana supergroup for 2019” said Paul Sexton (BBC).
It’d be great of course to have the support of other independent stores around the country. We’d love to hear if other shops have labels and how they have fared.
KEVIN: It was really important to us from the very start to try and become an integral part of our local communities. That obviously includes the music loving community and fellow retailers, but we’ve also done things like talking to business studies students at a local college. And we’ve provided work experience placements in partnership with another school and with a local charity for people with autism.
We both have grown up children that are massive music fans too and it has been a great joy to have been able to give them responsibility for running the shop whilst Phil and I either have a day off or do other stuff around managing the business. And having young people running things bring a whole different feel to our shop. They each champion their own favourite musical genres and have developed distinct customer bases more tuned into their tastes than mine and Phil’s.
In terms of local bands, there’s such an explosion of fantastic new bands in London at the moment. Just picking on 2 scenes, I love what young jazz musicians such as Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia, Zara McFarlane and Moses Boyd are creating. And the scene centred on The Windmill pub in Brixton including bands such as Goat Girl, Jockstrap and Black Midi is just so thrilling.
Funny stories – well, John Cleese came in the shop once. He was filming in our street and I spotted him early in the day. Amongst a pile of 2nd hand records probably destined for the charity shop I knew we had a few old comedy records. I got them out, just in case. Later on, Mr Cleese came marching in to the shop and asked, “do you have any old comedy records?” Step this way sir I said.
PHIL: I have absolutely no idea what the first record we sold was. The opening day was a blur. The last record I sold was the album ‘Sistas’ by Big Joanie. But Kevin and I both remember the first song that came on the radio (BBC 6 Music) when we turned it on the day we got the keys to the shop – it was Goat Girl. Over to Kevin….
KEVIN: Bizarrely, I have no recollection either of the first record we sold. I guess we must have been too excited at the time for it to have registered.
But yes, the day we got the keys we walked into our new domain, smelt the air, looked around and saw the previous occupant had left a digital radio on a shelf. As we got to work tidying up, we plugged the radio in and tuned into BBC Radio 6Music. Amazingly the very first song that came on was ‘Country Sleaze’ by Goat Girl. My daughter Rosy is the drummer in Goat Girl. We took this to be a very positive omen.
At the time of writing, the last album we had sold was a remastered Hounds of Love – Kate Bush.
PHIL: Records were a huge part of my childhood and have influenced my whole life. I started buying records with my pocket money when I was just seven or eight years old – I have only vague recollections of the old-fashioned general store. It was in Horsham in Sussex where I grew up. As a teenager ‘Sounds Groovy’ in West Street, Horsham was where I’d go every week for my fix of punk 7”s. Then there was the market, and of course Boots, WH Smiths and Woolworths. Wherever and whenever I could.
KEVIN: I vaguely remember a record shop on our local high street in Hall Green, Birmingham where I grew up. I think I bought a few things there but nothing that sticks in the brain. The shop that I loved to bits when I started record buying properly in the 70s was the Virgin Records shop in Bull Street, Birmingham. In my memory this was a dark and pungent den full of mystery and free posters! The first thing I can definitely remember buying there was an early Tom Petty single.
PHIL: There’s so little time anymore to go to other stores. Most recently I was in Southsea and visited Pie & Vinyl. Great shop – lovely cosy vibe, good range, friendly staff. I guess Rough Trade and Banquet – location-wise they have to be considered competitors, but we don’t think they’ll be too bothered by our presence.
KEVIN: I had a very formative experience when on a day out with my daughter Holly in about 2010. We were wandering around the Brick Lane area and happened upon Rough Trade East. Walking in re-kindled that feeling in me from the 70s Virgin shop in Birmingham. I was overjoyed to seeing it have a similar impact on Holly. It was an important moment on the road to creating Eel Pie Records.
PHIL: First answer – Record Store Day. I’d never even bothered going to one myself before, and our first one in 2018 was incredible. Beautiful weather, long queue of lovely customers, and a fantastic vibe all day long. Even though we were novices, I think we got the organisation just right and didn’t overplay our hand by overstretching ourselves. So much fun. I have to mention our own events here though – we’ve had Q&As in store with Don Letts, Gary Crowley, Allan Jones, and Laurence Cane-Honeysett. All unforgettable.
KEVIN: Like Phil, RSD 2018 was just an amazing day. It surpassed all our expectations and we were all just buzzing by the end. As well as the in-store Q&As Phil mentions, we’ve had some live music too including, of course, Goat Girl. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever be in our own record shop, stuffed to rafters with customers, there to listen to a band featuring my daughter.
PHIL: Gigs can be so different and so many have be truly uplifting or special in some way. Once upon a time Sanctuary Records took me to New York to see Dolly Parton perform in a tiny theatre (standing gig). I’ve never seen a more charismatic performer. Best gig though? I was going to say Young Gods at the Kilburn National 1992…. J
KEVIN: An impossible question obviously. But I’m going to say the last gig I went to which was Black Midi at Bloc. This was a spell binding, thrillingly adventurous performance from a bunch of 20-year-old kids. I have seen the future of rock and roll!!
PHIL: I don’t think I have one. I rarely read a book twice. I used to love Kafka.
KEVIN: Ditto. I’m not a great reader. What I do read is usually music related. 4 recent favourites are
Patti Smith – Just Kids
Nick Coleman’s – The Train In The Night
Viv Albertine’s – Clothes Music Boys
James Yorkston – Three Craws
PHIL: Tough. Maybe The Blues Brothers.
KEVIN: Another impossible question. I’ll say The Motorcycle Diaries.
PHIL: This is just too difficult. It’s ever-changing. There are so many that have made a huge impact on my life, from T.Rex to Burial, from The Jam to Townes Van Zandt, from Misty In Roots to Sleaford Mods. Whatever I say today, I’d change tomorrow. Blame John Peel. The one LP that I would definitely take is ‘Damned Damned Damned’.
KEVIN: Maybe it’s a function of loving to hear new music that makes it so hard to commit an answer to paper. As Phil says, whatever we say today, will be different by tomorrow. But in keeping with the Desert Island Discs spirit, here’s 8 albums (not tracks, sorry) for today:
McCoy Tyner - Extensions
REM – Life’s Rich Pageant
Television – Marquee Moon
Tom Waits – Raindogs
Solange – A Seat At The Table
Echo And The Bunnymen – Ocean Rain
Shack - Zilch
PHIL: Not bothered….I’m not a festival goer. I’d rather go to a smaller gig any day.
KEVIN: I love a good festival. Favourites are Green Man, Cambridge Folk and Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide.
This list could be never ending but if I could have this dozen, I would be very happy. Please can you organise warm sunshine too.
Main stage, at their peak – Echo and the Bunnymen, REM, Allman Brothers
Jazz tent – John Coltrane, Mulatu Astatke, Sons of Kemet
John Peel stage – Goat Girl, Black Midi, Jockstrap
Dance tent – Underworld, Steel Pulse, Earth Wind and Fire
What's your all-time favourite record?
PHIL: ‘Damned Damned Damned’
KEVIN: This week, Alice Coltrane - Journey In Satchidananda