Last Collector Standing: Mike Zapf of Vivian Girls on Competitive Crate-Digging and Finding Vinyl Treasure in Unexpected Places

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The number of chain record stores nationwide has dwindled. However, St. Louis has become an unlikely safe haven for indie record shops as well as for DJs who prefer to spin the black circle instead of scrolling their iPods. In this weekly column, we'll focus on personal portraits of St. Louis' record aficionados and the rooms where they store their treasures. Meet the last collectors standing. (Know a collector who deserves the spotlight? E-mail us.)

JON SCORFINA
  • Jon Scorfina

Safety Words, a local production duo previously featured in Last Collector Standing, recommended we talk to avid crate-digger and musician Mike Zapf. Zapf's life has been consumed by music - both playing and collecting it -- since high school. We sat down in the record room of his second story University City apartment and talked about the competitive element of record collecting and the Sylvers record that almost ended a good friendship.

Last Collector Standing: How many records do you own? Mike Zapf: Over a thousand. That's a ballpark [estimate].

Do you think future generations of record collectors will ever amass a collection of that size? Yeah. Barring an apocalyptic event, I would imagine. While I'm sure every day thousands of records are thrown away or destroyed, there are still plenty out there. At this point [record collecting] is a thing again, and people are pressing them up again. I still see ample opportunities for kids to amass large collections.

How will digital music affect the culture of record collecting? I think it is going to turn into a specific personality type that is going to continue to buy records. Access-wise with digital stuff, if you want to find anything, you can. People still actively go out and buy records and go to grimy spots [and] get dirty and dusty digging for stuff. It's still about the thrill of the hunt - finding something that they've never heard of that blows their mind. For my own mental health, sometimes I have to go out on a digging mission. With digital stuff, you don't have to do that. I think the more organic form of discovery doesn't mean as much to [digital listeners]. It's going to be about personality types.

What is the experience of going out hunting for records like for you? There are several elements for me. One is almost like an archaeological [experience]. There is history deep in every record. For a while in various spots all throughout the city, I was finding records that had the name Uncle Earl written on [them]. They were all awesome records. At some point Uncle Earl got rid of his collection and it got spread out to various junk stores and flea markets. I find them and obviously align with his taste. I like to think of the various owners whose hands [records] have passed through to get to that point where I got it. As much as it's about the music that is on the records, there is a connection - the discovery and rediscovery of lost artifacts.

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So what was Uncle Earl's musical taste? He had a lot of funk and a lot of late '70s early '80s hip-hop. A bunch of Sugar Hill [label records].

How would you describe your collection? The majority is soul, funk, hip-hop and rock, but I could go through there and find half a dozen bird call records. [Laughs] For whatever reason, at one point I was like, "I need to have this canary record." Nothing would strike me to go look up on the computer bird calls, but I was like, "Oh, this might be interesting." When I got those it was almost the same thing as an impulse buy. Over the years, I've learned to discipline myself from buying oddball records just because it has a cool cover.

What's been your favorite experience hunting for vinyl? When I was nineteen or twenty, my mom was friends with this lady. She wanted some yard work done. I went over [to her house] and was doing some work. When I was getting stuff out of the garage, I saw a couple crates [of records] and a box of 45s. [They] had leaves and crap piled on [them]. I went through it, and it was awesome stuff. One of my favorite 45s that I've ever gotten was from that day. [I asked], "Instead of paying me can I just take these records?" She said, "You'd be doing me a favor getting rid of them." It was a crate full of heat. I got this 45 of Ricco Wake and Tyrome Burrell "Smash Inflation." Oliver Sain produced it. Made in Archway Sound Studios in St. Louis.

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One [other] digging experience that sticks out to me... a friend of mine is a connoisseur of porn. He used to attend a porn shop regularly, and he started to notice they would have really cool [music] playing -- like DJ Shadow, different good hip hop, good funk. He eventually started talking to the clerk and asked who was playing this. [It was the clerk.] This is a weird way for someone to become friends with somebody, but they started talking. [My friend said to me], "I met this dude at the porn shop, and he is actually pretty cool. He's into records." We started to hang out. The first time that I took him out digging, [we went to] this one spot on the north side, I got Fela Kuti Zombie. It's crazy rare. I got that and another Fela Kuti record called Expensive Shit at the same spot, [on] the same day for 50 cents. For St. Louis ... that's insane that I would find these records [here].

So we go and this is when I really got exposed to digging as almost a competitive sport. I take this dude, and he is a big guy. As soon as he sees where the records are, he is almost pushing me out of the way, trying to get stuff and going lightning fast. He is a totally nice guy, but I'd never seen somebody get that hardcore that quickly.

Is there one particular record that you've been really competitive about? The Sylvers II nearly ended my and Sean's [from Safety Words] friendship. That's where I go back to it being almost like a competitive sport. You go out digging with other people and -- especially if you have similar taste -- it can get a little heated if somebody pulls something [you want]. Sean was the one who turned me on to The Sylvers in the first place. We were out digging in our favorite spot to dig. I pulled [The Sylvers II] and showed it to him, and things got pretty tense. He's happy that it's in the camp at least, but he was bumming pretty hard that I pulled that ahead of him.

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I hear that people who collect things, the reason they collect is because they are filling some void. I don't know if subconsciously that's it, but I get so much joy out of it [that] I can't imagine it's that bad. The competitive aspect is: if it's something you love to do you want the best records. You have to be stealthy to get them. I don't know if it's a bragging rights thing, or if it's just, " I want this in my house, in my hands, on my record player, to have whenever I want to listen to [it]."

You play in a local band called the Vivian Girls. Now that there is a national band also called the Vivian Girls, have you considered changing the name? No. We definitely had the name first. I came up with the name when I was 15. I was in New York, and I went into the outsider art museum. There was this weirdo artist named Henry Darger who wrote a 15,000 page manuscript and made all these painting that went with it [called] The Story of the Vivian Girls. I saw that, and it blew me away. I was already in a band with my cousin Ben [from Grace Basement] and Sean from Safety Words [who's also in Grace Basement] -- playing under a different name. We weren't sold on whatever name we had at the time, and I really liked [Vivian Girls], and that became the name. We played [together] since early high school. We know we had the name first, because the Brooklyn [band] has only been around for two years.

Given the competitive nature of record collecting and the accessibility of digital music, why do you still collect records? I like the gamble aspect. I love being able to be like, "I've never heard of this." You get to a point where you make very educated guesses. You know all the house bands and session musicians. You look at what year it's from [and] who produced it. You get to a point where you are gambling - I know I'm going to drop 50 cents on this. It may be the hottest thing I've ever heard. It may be absolute garbage, but I won't know that until I get home and play it.

I also really like the tangible aspects. I can sit and stare at a record while it spins. I feel it's a deeper connection to the music.

[Writer's note: St. Louis' Vivian Girls will be playing Saturday, February 26 at Lemmons 5800 Gravois]

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