Wednesday, July 02, 2008

cf interview: travis elborough, vinyl fetishist and author


travis elborough is famous for a few things: dressing snappily, writing very funny and entertaining text and being able to talk about pretty much anything. his 2005 book, the bus we loved, about london's routemaster buses (the kind you could jump out the back of), did phenomenally well. people still hate the bendy buses that replaced them, or the airless double deckers that you cannot exit in terrible traffic unless you have a sympathetic driver. his brand-new book, the long-player goodbye, pays tribute to our most treasured musical format. the book will be available for purchase in the united kingdom on july 10, while soft skull will publish it in the U.S. in 2009. bob stanley recently mentioned it in the london times in an article about vinyl fetishists. we caught up with our man travis via email. of course, if I were still living in london, I would be able to ask him these things in person...
chickfactor: what ebay find are you most proud of?
travis elborough: Too many to list but a phrenology head, an olive green olivetti typewriter and a signed photograph of Jo, one of the Doctor Who assistants from the 1970s, posing in the nude with a dalek would have to be up there somewhere.
what shopping experience do you miss the most?
As I am sure you remember, there used to be a fantastic, if admittedly rather overpriced, vintage clothing shop in Covent Garden in London called Cenci. It closed down probably five years ago now. It was chock full of old Italian deadstock suits from the 1950s and 1960s, and similarly period ski jumpers and golfing caps, none of which were ever in my size. Even the hats seemed to have been crafted for a special race of human beings, very possibly rendered extinct since by substantial changes in diet, whose heads were either vast or tiny. But while I bought very little from there (one of those striped yachting jumpers and a single suit, at the most, I think) I loved visiting it simply to witness its manager, Massimo, in action. He didn't so much practise the hardsell, as look heartbroken if you chose not to purchase whatever garment he was convinced you should buy. 'It's a tad on the snug size', you might say, while struggling to do up the buttons on a pea coat whose arms were a foot shorter than your own. 'Nonsense, it fits you like a glove, feel the weave. You don't get that kind of quality today', he'd reply, shaking his head in a motion intended to convey a certain dispair with the modern world, and you in particular. 'Well, I was really looking for a slightly narrow cut of trouser', you could venture, having found yourself in a pair of strides that could easily have provided the sails for the Mayflower. 'Honestly', Massimo would respond, clutching, demonstratively, the leg of his own -- and infinitely narrower -- trousers, 'once you get used to them, you'll never wear anything else.'

describe a typical day of you researching this book.
I suppose, the most typical day consisted of hitting the British Library, and then idling away about seven hours flicking through ancient issues of Gramophone, Billboard, High Fidelity, Downbeat, Disc and the NME, and raiding their excellent sound archives. I spent some days, some weeks, actually, just listening to albums. And I did buy a small battery-operated turntable specifically to perch on the corner of the desk in my office so that I could spin discs while tapping away.
any tragic loss of an LP that's still breaking your heart?
For purely sentimental reasons, I mourn the loss of, what was most likely a terrible, sound-not-alike Beach Boys LP, I had as a child. It was one of those session musician jobs that were sold in wire racks in Woolworths and local newsagents, something like The Surf Men Pay Tribute to the Beach Boys By Playing Their Hits Quite Badly. I think I bought it with a voucher I'd received for my sixth birthday. It had "California Girls," "Good Vibrations," etc. on it and, from what I can only dimly recall, an image of a suitably sun-drenched beach on the cover. The LP vanished years ago, and the original versions of the songs, which I didn't know then, have long since supplanted any real memory of it but I seem to miss it all the same. And, as I have no idea what it was really called, ebay, Gemm and so on are no use. Which might be just as well.
will there be a turntable at the launch?
Oh yes. Two I think. And prizes for the most amazing, interesting and awful album anyone brings along.
your last book, the bus we loved, turned you into the "bus man" at parties. you got really sick of talking about those damn phased-out routemasters. any chance you'll ever tire of LP chatter? are you already?
I am still talking about the Routemaster, it's the Bela Lugosi of buses -- blood red and undead! The LP book, came in a way, out of responses to The Bus We Loved. I did genuinely love the Routemaster. For anyone who doesn't know, they were the last London buses to be built with open platform at the back and were staffed by a conductor as well as a driver and were taken off the streets after nearly fifty years in December 2005. I used to catch them every day, and when I first moved to London and was living in bus-bound Dalston, their routes really shaped my impressions of the city as a resident. I liked them enormously, aesthetically, and when I learned they were being phased out, I just started taking photographs of them with my Lomo camera and I gradually began to dig into their history. The book grew out of that. I wasn't a bus fan as such, I was a writer who happened to be fond of this particular bus. While I was researching the book, I did, however, meet people who were absolutely fanatical about the Routemaster and buses in general. These people tend to get a raw deal, they are mocked as anoraks and the like. But I have to say, though some were a touch odd, I thought there was something rather admirable about their enthusiasm. Meeting them made me wonder, why it was that certain hobbies, bus-spotting for example, are deemed less socially acceptable than others, record collecting, say. Which in turn, led me to think about all the hours I'd personally wasted in record shops... and you can see where this is heading... Will I tire of talking about LPs? I hope not. But ask me again in six months...
are there any movie scenes featuring vinyl fetishists like the likes of our gang?
Well, I am excited about a new documentary by Emma Pettit about independent record shops. I think it's still in production at the moment, but Emma's also edited an accompanying book just out called Old Rare New, that has some great pieces by Byron Coley and Bob Stanley and interviews with Billy Childish, Rob Da Bank, Simon Reynolds and Joe Boyd, that's magnificent so... buy that and look out for the film in due course.
is there any real evidence that it will come back?
There is some. Wandering about shops in central London, I do find myself thinking, God I can remember when all of this was CDs. Certainly shops like Mister CD have gone. And last October even Amazon.com began selling LPs and a range of players. So sales of vinyl are up, but they still represent a small percentage -- and it tends to be a niche interest. Singles have taken off again among the hip and young, apparently. Hayes, the plant in Middlesex immortalised on the Beatles sleeves and mothballed by EMI in 2000, and now in private hands, currently turns out something like 20,000 records a week. A far cry from the 250,000 a day it produced in the early 1970s, but not bad for a format supposedly consigned to the dustbin by its digital successors over a quarter of a century ago.
click here to buy the book

photographs: travis elborough, london, 2005; and some vinyl in a paris shop window, 2004; both by gail o'hara.