Front Range Vinyl Hop: Albums On The Hill (Boulder, Colorado)
A Community Music Landmark And Its Keeper Of Sound
“The Hill” is Boulder’s youth culture center: the Colorado University students’ hang out, housing area, and commercial strips catering to serve that crowd. So, when you see Johnny Cash giving you the finger in the shop window on 13th Street—you don’t blink—you open the door to a staircase leading down to a gig flyer-plastered, deep-sprawling basement record store that immediately transports you to the ambience of a used CD shop from the ‘90s.
Andy Schneidkraut, who has owned Albums On The Hill for over 31 years, is the musical landmark of this community. Gloriously, his is one of the two last standing record stores in Boulder and along with his knowledge, are both in demand. The interview with Andy was interrupted many times—the store had a constant flow of people looking for vinyl. Between being interviewed, answering the phone, helping a customer find what they need, and preparing an online order, Andy made the roomful of vinyl shoppers laugh with his sarcasm and charm. So, here is what he shared with us.
―― So what’s playing in your shop Andy?
Right now, it's the folk singer Terry Allen who is from Texas. He did this record with musicians from Thailand. He was kind of looking at what America did to Thailand during Vietnam. He describes it as “America's landlocked aircraft carrier,” or something like that... about the bombing of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I am not that familiar with the record, but I am familiar with Terry Allen and I like a lot of his work. I just sold this one online, and I told myself, "I should have listened to this!" The name of the record is Amerasia.
―― Where are you from and how did you end up in Boulder?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1952, and I was raised in Queens. I went to college at Colgate in Upstate New York, and I went to law school for a little while in Washington D.C. I came out here to live temporarily in 1976... and I never left. There is a Native American legend—Curse of Niwot—and once you come to Boulder you don't get away. I bought this store in 1987, so 31 plus years now. I bought it as a used record store, and within three years, no one cared about records, and it became a CD store. The store always had records, and the store always had a large selection of used records, but there weren't that many people interested in them.
―― What musical influences did you have growing up that led you to become a record shop owner?
Well. We all make mistakes in our lives…. [Everybody in the shop laughs.] And some of us continue to pursue that path—despite better judgment and better advice. You know, I was a music addict from very very early, and I was raised in New York where there were a lot of flavors you could listen to. New York had radio that was very diverse, and so initially I was listening to any of the regular pop radio—like any kid—the first things that caught my ear were novelty songs: Ooh Eeh Ooh Ah A-Ah Ting Tang Walla Walla Bing Bang! You know, the Witch Doctor, or the Chipmunks.
In the '50s, when I was a kid, I had a little portable transistor radio and I would listen to the Top 40. The Top 40 radio, at that time, was really eclectic: there were different styles that would bump against each other, you know, The Beatles and the British Invasion changed things, but at that point, you could hear Louis Armstrong followed by the Supremes, followed by The Beatles, followed by some teen idol singing something. I found myself pulled to DJs. There were DJs that I would listen to and their patter was important to me. You know, there is an old joke in the '60s: I used to go to bed with Cousin Brucie every night. I didn't go to bed with Cousin Brucie himself, he just happened to be on the radio at night! [Laughs.]
My natural father died when I was five years old, and he was kind of a jazz aficionado. So, jazz was interesting to him. My mother was a dance instructor—she taught for Dale Dance Studios. Then we had a period of time when we had, what they used to call then, "Mother's Helpers," who would be young African American women from Southern communities who'd come up to New York and take care of your kids. Nowadays, it's a nanny or an au pair. After my father died, and my mother went back to work, we had a series of young women, in their mid to late teens. They were like family members: they had their own room, they took care of us a lot, and they made us meals and other things. I have to say, one of them really brought Motown into my life—her name was LaVonne—and she was really important to me, and she cared about us. So what happened was, I would start to explore other places on the dial, in terms of music. If I wasn't listening to baseball, I was listening to music. I incessantly had a transistor radio hanging by my ear.
Music also changed. New York became a pinnacle for early experimental FM radio with DJs who also had personalities—but they were odd—you didn't have to have great voices, you didn't have to have patter, but you had to have chatter—which is different. I remember Alison Steele, “The Nightbird,” the sexy late night voice, or on MCA, Frankie Crocker's Sex Machine, and that would be soul, funk and stuff. I was also able to get a station out of Bedford/Stuyvesant, called WWRL “The Soul 16 Survey!” So I would listen to deeper cuts, soul and R&B. Motown was relatively vanilla, compared to stuff playing that was really aimed towards the African American community. Motown changed too, and started to get psychedelic, and I found myself going down those roads.
There was a DJ on WNEW named Jonathan Schwartz who made you happy to have intellect. He examined and talked about music in a way that I hadn't heard people talk about music on the radio before. He would play weird stuff for the FM format. So there were all sorts of music coming in at that time, and music was and remains a solace for me—an antidepressant—music really afforded me an opportunity to explore many emotional roads. I played the guitar a little, and I sang, but I never really performed music, but music was a salve.
~Customer is digging through the "New Hip Hop" section~
Andy: "That's Danny, D5!"
D5: "Oh, an interview—I will tell you more about him later!" [Laughter.]
Andy: "Anything he tells you should be taken with a grain... no, with a whole shaker of salt!"
D5: "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have the hip hop tracks that I have. When you need something, Andy will get it for you in only a day or two. This shop and one more shop, and that's it."
~Andy and D5 chat for a while and D5 exits, “I’ll be back tomorrow!”~
―― So, how did you end up buying this shop?
Prior to this store, I was a record collector. My youngest sister worked at this store before I bought it. She never worked for me, but I did inherit employees who had worked with her, and worked for the previous owner, Buddy. I took over the store at a very difficult transitional time: I took over a used record store and it transitioned very rapidly into CDs. We are near the University, and students are always early adopters of new technology. The projection was: records will linger until 1995 and CDs will gradually take over. I bought the store in November 1987, and by November of 1989, I wasn't selling records anymore.
In the '90s, the Compact Disc explosion was a real boon to the big record industry—because there were some enormous hits that really moved
“I had maybe one of the first DJ stores in Colorado. We probably had at least a half dozen of the
most serious working DJs in the area work
short shifts for me.”
the market. People also got convinced that records didn't matter anymore. They were dumping their records, and replacing things they already had on records with a new format. The new format (CD) was over sold as: Oh! [Speaks with a commercial voice] Indestructible! Best sound ever! You know, a lot of the ways they sold that proved to people to be kind of a crock.
Music was a mass-market product in the '90s. Dave Matthews paid a lot of my bills. He didn't write the check directly, but he paid a lot of my bills. So, CDs was what it was. I never stopped carrying records, but people stopped buying records—except for a small segment—there were people who really took advantage of the fact that people were unloading their records.
The upstairs part of this store, now it's back to being warehouse, but I did really well during the '90s, so I slowly took over more of the space to do different kinds of stores up there. Initially, as records were dying down here, there was a growth of DJ culture. So, I had maybe one of the first DJ stores in Colorado. We probably had at least a half dozen of the most serious working DJs in the area work short shifts for me. Maybe 12 hours a week to get their records cheaper, and then to tell me what I should be bringing in. The “two turntables and a microphone” dance culture was really hot in the '90s, and there was also a very serious rave culture during that time—there were raves every night on the weekends. Friday, Saturday, even Sunday to the wee hours, and every Monday morning there would be 12 young guys who thought they could be DJs! [Laughter.] So, the DJ store did great!
The large percentage of the things I was selling were imports, and I was buying from import vinyl dealers what the DJs with their own characteristics were into. So, one guy was a house DJ, one guy was a Goa trance DJ, a techno DJ, one guy was EDM (that period of EDM,) and they were not really broad based in terms of the music that they were spinning. The interesting thing is, that was a very hot business for a while and almost every DJ who worked for me went and opened their own store—for a minute! [Laughter.] Down in Denver or someplace. I don't think any of their stores lasted more than three or four years—because they were narrow and the market was not broad enough in this area to be a house exclusive DJ store and make it go for a very long time.
―― Were you selling rare grooves? Sampling sources?
Yeah, I was selling beats. You know, some of the guys who worked or passed through here went on to create Beatport. When things transitioned to computer for everything, all of a sudden, people are dropping records like it was a hot potato. There are guys spinning records again, but now a guy presses a button and he dances beautifully—he has become a "hype man" for the audience with music he may have put together... it may be great, but it's not like then: when you had a guy mixing beats and doing really outrageous stuff—like Kid Koala did back in the day, or DJ Shadow.
―― There were 18 record stores in Boulder in the heyday, and now there is only two, and at one point, it was only you. What kept you going?
Ah, foolishness! I am serious! I still think it's foolish. I am pigheaded and I am addicted. Can't really make a living at it, and I spend most of my time now as a data entry clerk and a packing clerk putting things up, attempting to sell online.
I also have a landlord that is incredibly patient. Who believes in me when I don't deserve it, but it is possible that he is just sadistic [chuckles] and he is just stringing me on into oblivion. At my peak I had 18 employees. Now I work alone. So the willingness to do that—that is foolish as well.
You know there were a number of things that happened in the 2000s that drove everyone out. It didn't help when the economy tanked, but when the economy tanked it also hurt your ability to sell successfully online, because everyone who lost their jobs were selling their stuff online. The online thing is: the road to the lowest price—almost without fail. It's kind of what the Amazon market creates. Even eBay: they are more of a fixed rate site now.
―― Do you personally have an affinity for vinyl?
I had a collection that probably numbered around 12,000 records. In 2013, when we had a flood in town, I pretty much lost it. I lost most of it, and I had to examine whether I was a collector, a hoarder, or an archivist. I have an affinity for collecting, and I have those characteristics of a completist. But I no longer am a collector.
【 Andy's Top Picks 】
■ Small Change by Tom Waits
I like the earlier Tom Waits records—I like Closing Time—but Small Change seems transitional to me. In the early records, Tom Waits is a kid writing songs and trying to make a living selling songs. He had an individual voice, even then, but there were songs he was writing that other people could do.
On Small Change, all of a sudden, Tom's carnival barker and pitchman personality comes to the forefront. He is going: [voice sounding gruff like Tom Waits] "Step right up! Step right up! How do we do it? How do we do it..." Or, "Small change got rained on by his own thirty-eight," and the storytelling element of Tom started to rear its head and really show itself. Many of the records he had after that were more challenging, more difficult, but it still had that richness of storytelling songs, and also the unleashing of the showman in Tom. So, though I love many Tom Waits records, Small Change is dearest to my heart.
■ Isle of View by Jimmie Spheeris
This one is not available on a reissue vinyl that I am aware of. This record is a kind of a mystical spiritual record to me. It's pretty much a folk rock record, but it has emotional heft. Jimmie died tragically—I believe he was on a motorcycle hit by a driver—I could be wrong....
The song I Am The Mercury is one of my favorite songs ever, and it always uplifts me spiritually. It's interesting because I would have never heard of him unless I came to Boulder. He was not played on a lot of stations back East, but he was a perennial on the radio in town here. It's beautiful. I always thought I Am The Mercury would be a great song for someone to cover and resurrect.
■ Curtis / Live! by Curtis Mayfield
Great band. This album was recorded in 1971 at The Bitter End in New York, and it kind of covers what Curtis Mayfield covers musically in many ways and also politically. It starts off with Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey) and deals with race issues, but he always had songs, particularly when he was writing for The Impressions, that were people empowerment songs as well. So, it's funky, it's dancy, it's got a good mood and feel, but it's still political. It has a beautiful rendition of Gypsy Woman—his song covered by many folks.
He did Superfly, there are also other Curtis Mayfield live records, but this record—I really needed it at the time when I first heard it. It did a lot for me and meant a lot to me. Talk about things you can listen to over and over again. They create a vivid memory of when you first encounter them, but also give you memories you look back on from this time you are listening to it right now. It never stops giving me that. You know, he could have left out the Carpenters song, We've Only Just Begun, but other than that.... [Laughter.] He also does his song that has been covered by everybody: People Get Ready. That's an uplifting spiritual piece to me. So he's down on the gutter and he brings you up to the heights. I have a musical religious faith, and music can bring me to those places—and Curtis can bring me to those places.
Albums On The Hill
Location: 1128 13th Street, Boulder, CO 80302
Hours: Monday-Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sundays: 12pm-5pm
Tel: (303) 447-0159 USA
Interview, article and photos by Mika Anami