Difference makers

This year, we decided to approach the Triangle’s year in music with three separate but inevitably related approaches.

In this issue, we write about three people or organizations—the rapper Kaze, the record store owner Ethan Clauset and the record label Holidays For Quince—who beat tough odds in order to add something essential to local music this year.

On Jan. 5, 2011, we’ll explore the output of the Triangle in 2010, writing about the records and songs that landed best. We’ll close out our 2010 coverage that same issue with a wide look at the changing market for music venues, and what it means for the Triangle as a region. —Grayson Currin

One November afternoon, the owners of All Day Records worked quietly in their tidy Carrboro concern, nestled between the Orange County Social Club, the Spotted Dog restaurant and the Roulette boutique. Charlie Hearon, who also operates the vinyl record label FrequeNC, made All Day buttons with a hand tool. Ethan Clauset examined a record player with a worn-out stylus. On the counter beside them, two turntables and a mixer emitted exotic tunes.

While many record stores vibrate with visual noise, All Day is like a modern art gallery. The room vanishes to focus your attention on the collection. Besides a couch and lamp, the only adornments are LP covers neatly mounted on wall strips. The store’s name, in white, whispers along the top of the window. Unless you were looking for the place, it would be easy to pass by without noticing, which is a shame: There’s nothing quite like it in the Triangle. A vinyl-only boutique that carries cheap used records alongside pricey new releases and collectors’ items, it’s unusually DJ-friendly for this area. Entire sections are dedicated to early blues, Chicago house and DJ edits. The shop buys and sells turntables and plans to find a dealer for supplies like needles and cleaning kits. It serves as a performance space for an array of local and touring musicians as diverse and esoteric as the stock.

“We wanted the name to be succinct and evocative, yet not too specific,” Clauset said as shoppers milled about, “just like the store.” The shop’s unassuming presentation reflects Clauset’s own. Tall and thin, with long whiskers and thoughtfully halting speech, the 37-year-old has a wry, deadpan style that conceals a rare enthusiasm for volunteering, organizing and the documentation of local cultures. For decades, Clauset has been instrumental in outfits as diverse as the Empowerment Project, Webslingers, Internationalist Books, Chicago’s Lampo, the Nightlight bar and club and WXYCsometimes for pay, but often as a volunteer.

Clauset also helped found the electronically inclined Transmissions Festival and influential local DJ night Lingual. But he’s never assumed a fixed, flashy moniker or handle as an organizer. He calls that convention silly. When he lived in Chicago for a few years in the early 2000s, deejaying regularly, it felt much like Chapel Hill to him, a small town where you saw all the same people at shows. “Active people making things happen,” as he succinctly put it. But, as with a veteran DJ, good organization makes the organizer invisible. A self-described loner in some respects, Clauset avoids the spotlight while quietly tending to the practical mechanisms that keep your events calendar churning away.

Clauset was hired in 1994 as a DJ at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s radio station, WXYC-FM 89.3, a place where interviewers posed abstract quandaries like “If Brian Eno produced a Parliament album, which one would it be?” Within a year, Clauset sat on the other side of the table as assistant station manager. He tackled the job with gusto, working on everything from preparing the newsletter to managing station equipment. He organized a program with Kristin Post that enlisted UNC students to create short news pieces. When Bill Burton and Todd Morman retired from their talk show, Northern Hemisphere Live, in 1997, Clauset and Post took it over with ambition, shifting from a half-hour program once per semester to two hours every week.

This kind of escalating, self-directed involvement is characteristic of Clauset; from 1999 until 2007, when he returned to UNC to pursue a graduate degree in library science, he was on the board at Internationalist Books, Chapel Hill’s volunteer-run bookstore. He did everything from book buying to website development. “Like a lot of nonprofits,” Clauset says now of the Internationalist, “there’s a lot of latitude to really get involved if you have the initiative.”

The job combined his interests in organization, media and social advocacy, all of which he’d studied at UNC through an undergraduate major he’d designed himself. He tried to call it Propaganda Studies. Advised that it needed to be “less interesting,” he settled for Political Communication. For his honors thesis, Clauset made a documentary on TV news coverage of the Gulf War, using footage collected by the Empowerment Project, an Academy Award-winning production company that had moved to Chapel Hill from Los Angeles. He’d already worked with Empowerment on short documentaries about a Durham soup kitchen and global women’s rights issues. Clauset’s project passed, though one conservative professor dropped out of the honors committee because the documentary was, in his mind, a “polemic in the vein of Chomsky and Zinn.”

It wasn’t Clauset’s first gentle brush with illiberal authority. Clauset grew up near the Record Exchange in Winston-Salem, where he ordered tapes from the punk zine Maximum Rock’n’Roll to wean himself off youthful classic rock. When he was 15, his mother got a new job in England. Ready to escape Winston-Salem, Clauset moved with her in the fall. “I thought of England as this punk rock paradise,” he recalls. Not exactly: He wound up in small-town Swindon, a name familiar to fans of XTC or BBC’s The Office. While Clauset’s parents didn’t mind his combat boots and mohawk, his school’s headmistress did. She wanted to expel him. His mother struck a deal. He wore a stocking cap until graduation.

Nevertheless, Swindon wasn’t without advantages. Clauset religiously listened to John Peel on the BBC, where he discovered Public Enemy, the Pixies and Sonic Youth, as well as untapped world-music horizons. Nearby Bristol was a flood of zines and weeklies, like Melody Maker and NME. While grateful for the wealth of media available, Clauset viewed the weeklies with skepticism: “They had a history of wanting to define or create something that’s not there.”

After a year, Clauset moved back to North Carolina to attend Durham’s School of Science and Math. “I had some … talent,” he says, hesitating tactfully. “A lot of kids were there either because they had a real drive, or because they had the aptitude to get in and wanted to get out of the house.” Clauset fell into the latter category. He shopped for records at Poindexter Records on Ninth Street, where he sold a big chunk of his record collection as his tastes progressed.

Clauset studied photography, screen-printing and drama in the school’s arts department and joined a “guerrilla art” collective called Club Foot. He helped publish a few issues of an underground newspaper called Biting the Hand. It featured what Clauset now calls “satirical articles about imagined oppression,” smiling sardonically at his younger self, “with no explicit agenda other than biting the hand.”

After graduating from Science and Math and taking a year off, Clauset went to Bard, then Georgetown, where he determined that a career in physics wasn’t for him. But another seed was planted when he attended his first raves. He’d lived in England during its “second summer of love,” when all his classmates were mysteriously “running around in smiley face T-shirts, yelling acieed!” Being a loner on the rave scene, he was still only vaguely aware of its drug culture in college. “I still didn’t really understand it,” he said of electronic dance music, “and I wasn’t sure I liked it, but it had elements that appealed to methe noisiness of some of it.”

It wasn’t until the late ’90s that Clauset took up noisiness himself. He got a pair of Technicsthe same turntables now revolving in All Dayand convinced Webslingers to buy a PA in exchange for promotion on flyers. He began rocking house parties and started the sample-based band Zuerichten. Usually as a sampler and turntablist, sometimes dabbling in textural guitar and keyboard, he went on to play in outfits with local staples like Crowmeat Bob, Issac Trogden and Randy Pelosi.

In 1998, Clauset helped Keenan McDonald organize the first Transmissions Festival, which leaned heavily on experimental and electronic music. The first year was at Bub’s, a sports bar in Chapel Hill. “I think by the end,” Clauset said, “Bub’s was ready to get back to pay-per-view wrestling. Eugene Chadbourne on Sunday afternoon might have pushed them over the edge.” The second and third years were at Cat’s Cradle, while the fourthand finalwas in Chicago, landing out-music big shots like John Fahey and Christian Fennesz along the way.

By 2000, Clauset craved city life. He moved to Chicago with his girlfriend, Julie Shapiro. He got his first paying DJ gig at a bar called the California Clipper, spinning blues and early R&B. The fourth edition of Transmissions took place over a week at six venues. Clauset lost money and, as an uppity newcomer, experienced pushback from the local community. By 2003, Clauset was broke, and his relationship with Shapiro had ended. He returned south to find Chapel Hill excitingly changed.

Before Chicago, Clauset had deejayed at Lingual, which featured electronic music you didn’t really dance to. When he returned, local dance- and out-music culture was shifting. Isaac Trogden had just opened the Nightlight, and Clauset started volunteering on sound, at the door and at the bar. He’s remained a fixture there, building a sound system and DJ booth for current owner Alexis Mastromichalis. She calls Clauset “Papa Ethan” because of the “calm, reserved and mature attitude he brings to the table,” she says.

Trogden had also started a DJ night called Dyssembler. It retained Lingual’s esoteric flavor while offering more dance-floor fuel. Clauset joined, and Hearon, who deejayed the upstairs room at Durham’s Ringside, quickly became aware of his future business partner as “the guy with the Technics record bag.” Collectively dubbed “DJ Mothers Brothers,” they became fast friends.

The sheer volume of music Clauset had accrued as a DJ inspired the opening of the store, which contains more than a thousand records from his own collection. He and Hearon conceived the idea impulsively, in one late-night conversation. Hearon quit his job as a music and art teacher at an elementary school in Durham. He loved it but found it difficult to reconcile with his nightlife. Driving back from Santa Fe, Clauset did research by stopping at every record store he could find off I-40, finding particular inspiration in a Texas storeowner.

“Look at all these jerks running record stores,” he told Clauset. “If they can do it, so can you.”

While CD sales are steeply declining, vinyl sales are reportedly on the upswing. “They’re definitely looking better than they were just a year ago,” says Chaz Martenstein, the owner of Durham’s Bull City Records. “There’s a large group of new music buyers that are starting to see vinyl as their non-downloadable format of choice, which is great news for [local record stores].”

All Day began to sell records online well before the store opened. Now they do a few thousand dollars in mail orders each month, and even more in-store. That’s plenty to pay the rent and two part-time employees. Clauset and Hearon aren’t making money themselves, but they’re used to that in their cultural endeavors.

The space used to be the Smokeshop, a mysterious bar that often kept its doors locked. It had to be gutted and brought up to code, which took contractors seven months. After signing a lease in February, All Day opened its doors on Sept. 25, 2010. Their stock will become more diverse as they buy up collections in every genre they can find, and they plan to keep improving their performance specsHearon is about to build a stage, and Clauset hints at the possibility of some kind of festival, if not Transmissions-sized in scope. So far, they’ve already hosted Fat Worm of Error, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Greg Davis, Secret Boyfriend, Veelee and many more.

While Clauset’s focus has narrowed to accommodate running a business and attending grad school, his commitment to community-building remains. You can still find himif you’re lookingworking at Nightlight, deejaying house parties and booking bands, now in a space of his own. “Looking back,” Clauset said, “I must enjoy organizing, or I wouldn’t keep doing it. One thing that first attracted me to DIY stuff was living in England and going to squatsplaces people had turned into little cultural centerslooking at all the zines and flyers. As a college student, I was more into the ideology of temporary autonomous zones, but now …”

He pauses reflectively.

“There was a book, Threat by Example, of interviews with movers and shakers from the punk community. The ideal, I guess, was not revolution through violence but by demonstrating that it’s possible to do things in different ways than the dominant culture would have you believe. By building up DIY organizations, you can demonstrate how other kinds of life are possible.”

As an active person making things happena loner, working collectivelyit’s an example that Clauset has followed to the letter. And it’s a threat to any worldview maintaining that self-glorification and personal benefit are the deepest artistichuman, evenmotivations.