Jonathan Smith is a true working man. Between driving truck during the week, he manages to churn out four episodes of his Thirty Bucks Vinyl podcast a week on all things music. Based in York, Smith has a great rapport with bands from the scene, but his passion remains what led to the podcast initially: vinyl records. He’s also currently attempting to fix up his studio and production equipment with an IndieGoGo fundraiser, which you can find out more about here. We talked about the passion for collecting, radio techniques and which Gwar record he’s planning on picking up on Record Store Day.
Kevin Stairiker: I came across the podcast through the episode you did with Apes of the State, but you’ve been doing it for a couple months now, right?
Jonathan Smith: Yeah, the first episode was December 27th. It honestly started out of boredom. I was working with a friend trying to get something going, and I really like the technical aspects of things, so I’d rather gain information during a conversation. So I went out with my wife and my best friend, spending all of our Christmas gift cards shopping. I realized as the day went on, we probably stopped at five places and I had picked up about a dozen records and spent less than 30 bucks. I thought, well, I should do a podcast and give all the information about these records and post it. Cause, you know, it’s fun. I’m a big vinyl fan, and there are people in town that are crazy collectors with gigantic rooms filled with records and they know obscure stuff. It’s like, if I want to know about obscure stuff, like if I want to know about a-Ha’s second album, I can’t find a podcast about that. It started out with my fascination with the technical aspect of music and recorded media. Eventually, there was a band that hit me up for an interview out of the blue, and it was my first interview, and it worked out well.
KS: What band was it?
JS: I believe the first one was If Not For Me, they’re some guys out in Mechanicsburg, a metal, metal-ish band. But they hit me up and I was like ‘sure, come on!’. I had to scramble because, technically, I’m not proficient at what I do [laughs]. I’ve been doing the podcast for three months, I have an old two-channel mixer that I’ve been kind of haggardly trying to get exactly right, and I think I finally hit that point. I honestly have no idea how the thing works.
KS: Well, the episode I heard sounded good, so at least that one was alright.
JS: There was an episode I did that I was bummed with how it turned out. It was with Cody Kilburn (Water For Breathing) and I ended up having to do it on my iPhone and it was a good interview, but at the same time, when you listen to a podcast with that audio, it really kills the entire thing.
KS: Did you have any prior radio or interview experience?
JS: Not really. I wrote two novels two years ago, so I had to orate in front of people a little bit. I grew up in middle America. In my late 20s, I didn’t do anything but go to work and not deal with people, so I sort of forced myself back into that creative avenue. I’ve always had a good phone voice, or at least my dad tells me. I realized through doing the podcast that it wasn’t a good idea to do it straight from the top of my head and it didn’t work out at all. It worked terrible. So around the third or fourth show, I started writing everything down. So all the episodes that aren’t interviews, I physically hand write them down and read them out. If I don’t, I have ADHD, so it’s directionless and boring if I don’t. It works out better that way. I’ve had no experience at all.
KS: That’s great that you can just pick it up and run with it. What’s your production schedule?
JS: Originally, I was going to just do one episode a week, and that quickly morphed into doing featurettes on albums that I like once or twice a week. Then it got to the point where I was trying too hard. I got hung up on the history of recorded media. I think that episode took me a week and a half to compile it all and get everything researched. It turned into a 24 minute episode, a lot of effort to put into a short episode like that. I figured I needed to stick to something. After the first interview went well, I scheduled another one and figured I’d do one interview per week. My work schedule is Monday and Friday, 11:30 in the morning to 1:30 the next morning, so a fourteen-hour day is pretty intense. I didn’t want to jam up my weekends with interviews, but the enjoyment I get out of doing interviews with bands I’ve never heard of is so much that I started doing two interviews a week. Now I’m up to four interviews per week.
KS: What’s your day job situation if you’re doing all of these episodes every week?
JS: Well, I drive a truck. It’s a pretty simplistic job that allows me to think. If I’m thinking about something, I’ll take a voice memo note and I’ve got about an hour break in my day usually for research and writing. It’s basically like working two jobs at the same time.
KS: Right. Could you just combine them and record an episode live on the road?
JS: I actually found out that the audio quality in my truck cab for recording is really nice, and I’ve got a secret spot up North that I deliver to. When I’m up there, it’s not near any highways and it’s dead quiet. I can actually get a really clean recording on my iPhone, I’m not gonna take my audio equipment in the truck because there’s no power source. It’s a lot of fun. I’m from York, I love the York scene, but there’s so much going on in Lancaster, Reading, Allentown, Wilkes-Barre, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Maryland, Baltimore, Frederick…and everything else within a two and a half hour drive. If something piques my interest, I’ll tell you about it and maybe you can catch a show at Sit and Spin in Philadelphia on Thursday and you didn’t know about it otherwise. That’s what I try to do with the podcast. Like, for example, you might go see the band Night, who’s playing Future Fest at Reverb. I’m a big fan of their band, they’re atmospheric rock like Explosions in the Sky or bands like that. I don’t want to just tell you, “Hey, you should go to Future Fest.” I want to have those guys on so we can add personality to it.
KS: Right. You can talk about a band until the cows come home, but you’re not going to sway someone until they hear the music.
JS: Exactly. It’s the coloring that’s inside the pencil drawing. It gives them more flesh, more value, and then you might found out the drummer is really funny or the bassist agrees with you on something. Suddenly, you’re thinking that it piques your interest and maybe they’re worth a shot. And if I can be a proponent for that, I’d rather do that than nothing at all. It’s the frustrating thing of organizing people, especially when I’m mostly a stranger [laughs]. I’m well-known from five years ago and when we had a scene and constant activity going on, I made my friends then. I know 185 people in bands in York, but it’s just knowing them, not actively engaging them. So when we hang out at a show, I run through an old memory and something fun happens. For me, it’s a super fun way to get something out of life. Driving down the road pays well and it’s fun, and I really do have a passion for the job, but it takes up a lot of my time. If I don’t have something to look forward to, I get a hollow feeling, you know? So it’s definitely helping me, at least.
KS: Where did your love of records come from?
JS: I’m honestly not even sure. In 2003, I thought collecting records was going to Goodwill and getting the “Romeo & Juliet” soundtrack and I’d listen to it and feel dumb. The whole thing then was “Hey, look at all the records on my shelf, aren’t I the hippest dude around?” At some point, I had a bunch of straight-edge friends that were showing me all of these obscure bands’ seven-inches and they were all sorts of colors. Suddenly I got into hardcore, and my exploratory nature had me collecting all of the editions of things. I realized that there’s so much going on that I needed to spread out further. You can go to any of the local auctions, and some Grandma died and suddenly there’s boxes of records on the shelf for five bucks each. The first auction I ever bought records at, there was a collector in York, New Salem who died and his entire collection went up for sale. I was buying boxes and boxes of records for about twenty bucks each. Eventually, I’m looking at about 140 albums, and sure, they’re not all gems. There’s a good bit of Annie Lennox in there and stuff you don’t need, but, at the same time, I scored a Sex Pistols bootleg and goofy obscure stuff, and you’re not paying a lot. A couple of pieces in there, I sold for more records and got the value back.
KS: A lot of “Whipped Cream and Other Delights,” I’m sure.
JS: I probably have eight or nine copies of every Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album ever and I don’t need them, but I like to have them. At some point, it goes from actively seeking records to being the weird guy at the flea market with 40,000 records in his house. Now that I’m married, it’s just finding a balance between that. Now I’m at the point that if a band really hits with me, I’ll make the effort to seek out their vinyl as opposed to just idly going out and impulse buying junk at a yard sale.
KS: I guess I can ask you the question that my girlfriend asks me, which is there an end to buying records? Is there a final point?
JS: Honestly not specifically. Reasonably like, if you were a huge fan of the Ramones, I have all but one of their original studio albums on my shelf, including the last one…
KS: “Adios Amigos?”
JS: Yes! “Adios Amigos,” end of the vinyl boom, there were very few pressed but I have one. But, if you can obsessively collect them and spend time collecting all the seven inches, all the white label pressings, all the promos, studio albums…if you can focus on one band, yeah there probably is an end. But, when it comes down to it, there’s so much going on that it’s impossible to stop. With music, I can jump on Bandcamp and pay what I want, hit the download button and get the music for free. When that band comes out with vinyl then, I can buy four or five copies because it’s hard to sell vinyl when you’re a small band. Actually, Left Lane Cruiser, they’re phenomenal, I met them in Nashville, Tennessee. They played at 10 in the morning and had all of their albums on vinyl. I was talking to the singer and I was like, “Look man, I feel really bad because I discovered you guys on peer-to-peer sharing and I have all of your music. Give me two copies each of all your vinyl to make up for it.” And he looks at me and goes “I appreciate your honesty, but don’t ever tell me that again.” And then I bought the records, of course. The mystique of buying a CD is dead. There’s absolutely no reason to ever buy a CD. If I buy a Postal Service vinyl set, and it’s a three-album 180 gram set with a CD and a digital download, cool! It affords me all of those avenues.
KS: Is there a specific store or two or three you go to on a regular basis for records?
JS: Specifically, I go to Tom’s Music Trade in Red Lion, who we just did a special promotion with for a $30 gift card. It’s a really good place for used stuff and thing you’ve never heard. Two weeks ago, I found an American Speedway album. They’re a band from Reading, they press vinyl. I saw them once when I was blackout drunk so I never heard their music. It’s really good, and now I have it on vinyl. When I want new music, I go to Iko’s in East York. There’s absolutely a plethora of stores between York and Lancaster and Ephrata and even all the way down to Maryland that are great to go to. For anybody, that’s trying to get into vinyl collecting, I’d say jump onto auctionzip.com and look up records on there in your area code. You’re gonna spend $20 on a box of records and it will be a great start.
KS: Since you’ve started the podcast, has there been a particularly great cheap find that you wouldn’t have found previously without setting the thirty dollar limit?
JS: The one thing I was really excited to find was Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” single, I found two copies of that for fifty cents at a punk store. I was so happy to find it. I was just there this morning and found a lot of really good ‘80s stuff. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re rereleasing that “Planet Rock” single for Record Store Day.
KS: I would assume for a lot more than fifty cents.
JS: Way more than fifty cents. I’m not downing Record Store Day, though. I think the one thing I’m excited for this year, which I’m willing to pay is Gwar’s album ‘Scumdogs of the Universe’ was pressed on a two-LP set. The importance of that is that Metal Plate Records, who was Gwar’s label from 1984 until now, was never focused on vinyl. The label started around the creation of the CD, so Gwar didn’t put anything out on vinyl except for picture discs which I hate. I can’t play a picture disc, it’s ridiculous and sounds awful. Since the band didn’t particularly care about vinyl, it’s great to finally have their pinnacle album. The super last point of it is, when it comes to collecting records, decide whether or not if you’re planning on selling them down the line or if you just want your music on vinyl. There’s a mass difference, because if you’re shelling out a lot of money on exclusives, it might pay off in the end or maybe not. Personally, I collect records so that I can throw one on the turntable and listen. The word “Crossley” does not appear in my setup in any way and I’m pretty stoked on it. I enjoy it and I enjoy having that moment. I’m Dr. Dre laying on the floor in a pile of records, just enjoying myself, you know?
The podcast is available on iTunes and online here.