by Jon Scorfina
Scott Phillips is the national best-selling author of the novels The Ice Harvest and The Walkaway; his newest book is the Western-tinged, black comedy Cottonwood. He's also a vinyl collector who has recurring dreams of shifting through bin after bin of lost music in an imaginary record store. Having briefly worked at a budget vinyl store in the '70s in his native Wichita, Kansas, he has since relocated to St. Louis with his wife and daughter. We met at his office where he stores some of his treasures, such as Michael Nyman's rare exhibition piece La Traversée de Paris. Read Phillips' blog here.
Last Collector Standing: What is your preferred format of listening to music? Scott Phillips: Probably CDs, just because I don't have a lot of my albums readily available. I listen to MP3s at the gym.
How many CDs do you think you own? I'm guessing 1500, maybe.
When was the last time you listened to a vinyl album? It's been two or three months. I've bought some vinyl, but I haven't listened. [laughs]
My brother is an obsessive vinyl collector. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and there are millions of cheap albums to be had [there]. He pointed something out that I think is interesting, which is if you listen to an LP, you tend to listen to it all the way through. You can't just make a playlist; you tend to listen to the whole album. It's an interesting point because I will listen to a CD and say, "I don't what to hear that, I'll skip it."
Taking from that, how did you react when the format changed from records and cassettes to CDs? Very badly. I worked at a record store actually in 1978 and 79 when 8-tracks were being phased out. [It was called] Budget Tapes & Records in Wichita, Kansas. People were freaking out. People were very upset that the new "whatever" wasn't coming out on 8-track, or at least we weren't carrying 8-tracks anymore. We just phased them out completely, and carried cassettes and records. People were just livid.
I remember when the change was going over to CDs, Motown announced that their whole back catalog, and all their new releases were just going to be on CD from then on. I thought, 'Wow, that's awful."
Then I moved. The big thing that happened to me was in '88, which was kind of in the middle of all this, things were still coming out on vinyl. I moved to France. I had to put all my albums in storage. You can't take your library, unless you're moving permanently. I taped about half of my album collection. A couple of years after that I broke down and bought a CD player and started buying CDs.
That was in the day when a well-made cassette of a vinyl LP was going to sound better than most of the CDs that came out at the time. The stuff that was coming out back then, anything on Columbia, [or] Warner, just sounded like they were being played through a kazoo. They were just awful. Take the first Beatles CDs; they just sounded awful.
I hadn't listened to vinyl in years. I guess about ten years ago I bought a CD burner and hooked it up to a pretty good turntable, and started burning CDs. The first time I put my headphones on and put on a 45, an Elvis Costello B-side, I remember thinking, "Holy shit! That sounds great!" The sound is just so big. I'd kind of forgotten about that.
Of course, a lot of my favorite records have never come out on CD and never will. It's obscure stuff.
For instance? Well, I have an old Albert Brooks album called A Star Is Bought. It's produced by Harry Shearer and Albert Brooks. It's the best comedy album I've ever heard. I've listen to it over and over again, and I still find it funny. That's never going to come out on CD.
Really, nothing is as good as just listening to vinyl. I'll play a CD at home through the stereo and think it's just not as good as sitting in the record store 30 years ago, listening to vinyl cranked way up.
Speaking about the artwork that came with vinyl, do you think music has lost some of its romance when it transferred to cassette or CD? Absolutely, I was just thinking about this because I picked up a Townes Van Zandt CD, At My Window. It was a beautiful LP. It had an altered Polaroid of him standing in front of a window. On the CD you can't tell what it is. It just looks blurry, like its printed off a register. I think that's another thing being lost forever with the MP3, all the beautiful graphic design.
Do young music fans appreciate music, and the artwork that accompanies it, the same way previous generations have? Well no, because it is not being presented that way anymore. For us, the album was something you sat and looked at, while you listened. You'd look at the artwork. The liner notes. You'd read the lyrics, maybe. Now, you download something, and maybe there's some artwork that comes with it that's on the window of your iPod while you listen, but it's certainly not as important as it use to be.
With your experience as a writer and dealing with print publishers, considering the similar music business, what do you think is the future of the industry? Boy, I don't know. Publishing is certainly crumbling. One interesting thing that is happening in publishing that may be mirroring what's happening in the record business is that a lot of smaller publishers are coming out. A lot of the more interesting books are coming through smaller publishers.
A lot of the [music] I'm picking up now is on labels like Yep Roc and Merge. Not to say those are tiny, but it's not like it's MCA, or Columbia or Sony or whatever they call it now.
I think it's a parallel thing. Artists are wanting more control over their releases, just in the same way authors are wanting more control.
Are any forms of tactile entertainment media going to survive the digital age? I think books will. For music, that's hard to say. There's something that's lost [not having a physical object]. There's a bonus. Maybe that's just a generational thing, but I like having something I can pick up, hold, and look at.
I have this recurring dream where I'm in a record store. I'm thumbing through the bins. It doesn't exist, but its funny because I always think, "Oh, this place. I forgot about this place." I'm always going through the bins. Sometimes it's CDs. Sometime it's LPs. Sometimes it's 45s. I'm always finding something where its like, "Shoot, look at the Marshall Crenshaw in didn't know about!" It's a real thrill to find that object and pick it up.
Do you find yourself listening to music when you write? Yes, all the time. It depends on what I'm writing. I wrote a novel called The Walkaway where all I listened to was Yo La Tengo.
I listen to a lot of Michael Nyman. La Traversée de Paris I've listened to for years while I write. It came out in '89, and it was to accompany an exhibition that I never went to. It's all orchestral stuff. This one is completely irreplaceable. I really think it's kind of un-findable, even on the web.
I find it easier to work listening to classical or jazz, depending on what I'm working on.
If you had one of your novels adapted into a film, is there a certain song or album you would want used in the adaptation? That's very interesting. When one of my books was made into a movie, it was a Christmas story called The Ice Harvest, I had a whole CD I put together, including a bunch from An All-Star Country Christmas. I wanted to end the film with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing, "I'll Be Home for Christmas." It's the most depressing thing I've ever heard. In the original end of the movie, the main character is killed. They changed that. My idea was that he was run over, and the people who run him over are riding away and you hear Rory & Dale singing, "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
I was just amazed. I couldn't get anybody to listen. I sent [director] Harold Ramis the CD, and he said, "You know how many CDs I've been getting from people who have ideas for music for this movie?" I said, "Listen it's a good idea." [ smirks]
Do you think you'll collect records the rest of your life? Yeah, absolutely, unless I go deaf! [laughs]