Runner, not only
In conversation with Justin Gage
Our friend Ian Rogers caught up with Aquarium Drunkard founder Justin Gage over the phone this Spring. Check out their conversation below.
Bonsoir mon ami !
How are you doing brother?
All good here in Paris. How's L.A.?
It's good, I'm good. We'll have to catch up proper sometime when you’re back here.
Yes please! And run!
Absolutely. Did you get to dig in to the (Satisfy Aquarium Drunkard Playlist) mix at all?
Yes I did. I listened to it yesterday. I ran in Rome, did 12K and I listened to it the whole time. So thank you very much for accompanying me on a run in the city of Rome.
Absolutely. I hope you found some new jams.
I did. It worked for me! Both the songs I knew and those I didn’t know were right up my alley and – well hold on, let’s do the proper interview and get to the playlist in a bit…
So Justin, we met more than 10 years ago…
Yes, we met in ’06 or ’07…
I was just a fan of what you were doing on Aquarium Drunkard then and still am now! I'm curious to know how you started. You kind of came at music on the internet from the blogger direction. Is that true?
Yes. In high school I played music. In college I was a record store clerk and then I got into writing. My first job out of college was at a dotcom in 1999 that folded into another company. I was their music editor. In 2005 I started Aquarium Drunkard.
And what was Aquarium Drunkard, why did you start it? What did you think you would become?
To be honest when I first started it was more of a means to catch up with friends that were not only spread out across the country but even more so around the globe. Most people would think of political blogs when the word “blog” would come up in 2004 or 2005. So what I was doing, which was an easy way to communicate with friends about what I was listening to, quickly became solely a music blog. At the time there were only maybe a dozen music blogs going. So we all got to know each other and chat about what was working and what wasn’t and it really just took off from there. I mean this is all obviously pre-social media as we know it now so the comment sections were very robust and it really collected a community. I felt like I was learning as much from the readers as they were from me.
And what was your take musically? How would you define what you wrote about?
I always approached it from more of a record head point of view. A lot of the music blogs in 2005 were primarily concentrating on the nebulous term of “indie” or “indie rock”. I remember reading all that stuff and it didn’t seem like I was reading much depth into where they’re coming from. Like someone was writing about LCD Soundsystem and it didn’t sound like they were really familiar with Can or Talking Heads. So with Aquarium Drunkard I guess I started to try to make a point of really talking about records that were important to me - whether they were new or old but always treating our essays and reviews as if it was about a new record or a new release.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I went to school in Athens. That’s where the record store clerk part of the story comes in…
The REM part of the story...
Well the Elephant 6 stuff was happening when I was there in the ‘90s but since then you know…
When did you start running?
I started running seriously when I was in the seventh grade. Cross country and then I got into JV track the next year when I was a freshman.
What was your event, your distance?
I started with the half mile and the mile then I got up to two miles in cross country. On the track team I was doing everything from 800, 1600 relays, all kinds of stuff...
Why are you still running?
We're talking about distance running now. Some people have a meditation practice but I guess that’s what running does for me, just getting out there in the zone. My best creative ideas come to me when I’m running -- not always with music. Sometimes I don’t run with any music at all and when I do run with music it’s not always the high-energy forward propulsion kind. There are a lot of times where I’ll listen to something like the (German jazz and classical label) ECM sound where it gets pretty far out there and it just kind of lets my mind to drift along with the landscape.
You started at the very beginning of music blogging in this really small community. It’s completely changed today. The web has changed. Blogging has changed and digital music has changed. How have you changed with it?
Aquarium Drunkard is really not a blog anymore. It’s a music magazine. There aren’t comments anymore since that entire conversation seems to have moved to social media for better or worse. So in terms of Aquarium Drunkard today, it is an online magazine with all the features of a magazine but also takes that vibe beyond the Internet -- whether it’s events that we’re doing or DJ sets or playlist or if I’m doing music supervision. I’m now one of the co-owners of Gold Diggers in Hollywood which is a recording studio, bar and boutique hotel. So I’ve taken basically what I’ve been doing in Aquarium Drunkard and it’s now in this real world setting. The studio part of the building once was Ed Wood’s sound stage, 8,000 square feet, nine different studios. Dave Trumfio from Kingsize Sound is one of my partners so it's a full-on robust recording studio. The building in front of it ran on Route 66, there’s a bar downstairs with a 150-capacity. We’ve been doing secret shows there like Kevin Morby and Ice Age and we've got DJs there every night. Upstairs is a nine bedroom boutique hotel. So this is like a living breathing Aquarium Drunkard. This is a place of music discovery. Every record that I bought for the hotel rooms and the bar is me finding them in L.A., Tokyo, Kyoto or wherever. All the playlists I've done by hand. People are recording in the studio, staying in the hotel and hanging out at the pool. It’s a place of discovery to find like-minded people. So that is a long way to say that since 2005 I've been building on this idea I had about wanting to bring people together to discover music and having an authoritative voice but not preaching to people. Just wanting to share this music.
And now it’s led to a physical incarnation. It follows a bit the arch of the internet, no? In the same way that lots of internet companies now have a physical store or a physical presence, Aquarium Drunkard has moved into the real world.
Yes it is. We do the Aquarium Drunkard podcast and if you live in Los Angeles you can come participate – we host it live once a month. My guest next month is going to be the artist Johnathan Rice who’s now also doing the haikus. We had William Tyler as our guest last month and he did like a four song selection from his new LP before our chat. Aquarium Drunkard is now incorporating visual artists and filmmakers and storytellers. So it’s rounding up all of my interests through the Aquarium Drunkard lens. If you like what we’re doing with music then you might like our guide to Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo or whatever. We started doing an email newsletter again which I've found extremely rewarding. This has a lot of recommendations that we don’t put on the site such as books I’m reading or podcasts or even recipes. It’s funny - It’s 2019 and I'm enjoying dialing it back. I think a lot of us are really disconnected with all the social media so I’m really trying to dial it back to something that feels a little more personal, whether it’s the website proper or the email coming to your inbox or these physical events we’re having in East Hollywood where you can actually have a real conversation with someone.
Right and in a real physical space.
We launched our Patreon account in November. I’d never had a pledge drive. I’d never asked people to donate to Aquarium Drunkard or anything like that but having got to know these guys at Patreon, I felt comfortable, it’s legit. As part of the rewards we are making real old school mix tapes and that kind of stuff. It’s been fun to make it feel more like a personal relationship instead of some funky thing on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
How does running connect to dialing it back or lifestyle or what you need to live your life?
Again, for me, some of my best ideas come during running. The headspace I get in, tapping into something but also breaking away from the static of everything. It’s that Me Time where you’re one with yourself - it’s just you out there. Besides the obvious physical benefits, the psychological, spiritual and mental benefits are huge for me in my interpersonal interactions with my family, my friends and colleagues. It’s a practice and it’s a lifestyle.
You were competitive once upon a time in high school that’s how you started running.
Do you train for events? Do you look at your time or is it really more about meditative and getting at like, what’s your approach?
Yes. For me it really is just about that solo time for myself and getting into the zone. I do have apps on my phone just to track what I’m doing for my own curiosity.
Do you start your week kind of knowing what you’re going to do this week or do you just freestyle it every week?
It’s usually freestyle. It depends on what’s happening with traveling and kid life and all the other things that come up. In terms of technology I think there are really cool and useful tools to see correlations between what was happening in your life personally and business-wise and then see where you were with your running, with your workouts. Were you able to get out there as much as you wanted to? If not, do you see a correlation between other parts of your life maybe not flowing as well? Being in that state of flow which a lot of people talk about in terms of a meditation practice... but that’s not something I’ve been able to tap in to. The closest I have ever gotten to that state is running. I know that when I am not taking the time to make running, wellness and all that a priority, that in hindsight I often am aware that that is the exact time that I really needed to be making it a priority. If you’re not able to at least try and maintain that kind of flow in your life and take care of yourself, then other things begin to slip. I’ve seen that throughout my 43 years on this rock.
And just a couple more questions, you mentioned that you’re not always listening to music when you’re running, what are you listening to?
It depends. Here’s an example: for some reason I quit listening to Radiohead like 10 years ago. Not that I didn’t like Radiohead anymore but I just never thought to check out the new records. It went through a bunch of my old records and I found In Rainbows and Kid A. I was reminded how much I used to love these and realized I’ve missed like three records since. So I ended up picking those up and I listen to Moon Shaped Pool and a bunch of the other ones. I got really into this Radiohead kick. So that’s an example of just something that it’s kind of playing catch up but other times...
Yes and when you’re running you can actually crawl inside the record and...
I appreciate that. I can’t listen to books. I did – Well I take that back. I did listen to the Beastie Boys book when I was running which I enjoyed your chapter. That was cool.
Oh thank you very much.
I did listen to that but I haven’t been able to listen to any fiction while I’m running. Part of what I like about running is I space out, so I’m not able to keep up with any kind of real narrative flow. I got into this kick a few months ago where I was listening to just a lot of stuff I loved back when I was an early teenager like Minor Threat, early Black Flag, Bad Brains and stuff. But sometimes I just want something completely ambient and run to that and really zone out and take in the landscape. I bought a house at the top of the canyon in Glassel Park on the border of Mount Washington, so I run a lot of these trails. We’ve had a lot of rain so it kind of looks like Scotland right now! It’s pretty far out. I’ll put on something more ambient and just really let the mind go.
How has your personal music taste changed over the time you’ve been doing Aquarium Drunkard?
Oh man, it’s constantly evolving. When I started the website I was super into all that old like Carter Family stuff. A lot about the music that Will Oldham and Jason Molina and some of those folks were doing. I guess kind of more of a warm kind of almost southern gothic kind of country folk world. That’s what I was heavily into when the site launched and as it has gone along, I think it’s become whatever’s kind of been weaving in and out of my headspace whether it’s Latin music or African music or Scandinavian jazz. There’s been so many interesting reissues over the last 15 years. I think that’s been incredibly interesting.
A lot of international reissues too. Do you think we’re becoming more international in our access to music?
I think so, absolutely. Light In The Attic records have been doing this whole japan archival series; a lot of this music wasn’t available historically in the west. It’s even hard to import and the licensing of this music has been really challenging for the label. So I think we’re getting to a point now where you’re 17 years old and you have access to Spotify or Apple music or YouTube, you can just go down the rabbit hole that you and I could have taken our entire lives getting to. I mean I can remember first hearing like… Lee Perry was a big deal to hear when I was 18 whereas now that would be like I don’t know, you’d probably be like 10 years old and you’d find that. But when I first heard like Fela Kuti that was a moment - the search isn't the same now. Now it would just be recommended to you on YouTube. But yes, it's a pretty cool time to be into music with all this access where as you well remember, it once took a lot of time and pocket change to try to find this stuff!
Totally. From the time I saw Steve Caballero wearing a Misfits T-shirt in a magazine to the time I got my hands on a Misfits record was like two years. And I searched for the entire two years.
Oh man. Yes. That’s exactly it.
It’s hard to imagine today but it’s true. The playlist is great. Thank you again. You covered a lot of ground but one thing you really over-index on David Bowie. Why is that? Are you heavy on Bowie in life or just while running?
You know what, he is someone I've listened to for 25 or 30 years now. He was just dabbling in so many different sounds. The stuff that I put on that mix was when he’s collaborating with Eno then I had the Byrne / Eno collaboration around the same era. Both of those guys were very early and very hip to African funk and polyrhythm. When I was thinking about this mix I was trying to sequence it so you would have some kind of reflective moments but then I’d want to bring it back up in case you were on a hill or something. I was trying to think of a way that it wasn’t just like hammering you over the head with that theme of propelling you - I wanted there to be some levity in there to give you a break. But yes, David Bowie, I mean he’s a huge figure in my musical life so there was no way he could escape this mix.