ABOVE: Still from the 1955 film noir crime thriller The Big Combo.
Words by Rafe Arnott, photography by Andrew Wilk for Resistor Mag unless otherwise specified.
My father, while not a musician, had an extensive LP collection (that continued to grow throughout my life). This was the early ’70s, so unless you were into reel-to-reel, records were the medium of mass consumption for physical music. He was genre agnostic, and looking back on what was played, his tastes were eclectic and he had forged a deep, broad swath across styles, movements and eras. I mention this because it was this collection that ultimately helped inform my music tastes – in particular during the two decades I spent under my parent’s roof. As someone who grew up with music as part of daily existence, I wanted to know if Cartmel had a similar experience.
Part Two of the Andrew Cartmel Q&A
Rafe Arnott: Did you grow up with a music-first influence in your home – was there a turntable? Did you play a musical instrument? Listen to the radio, swap records or cassettes with friends?
Andrew Cartmel: “I didn’t play an instrument or listen to the radio except when someone else had it on, like in the car. I never did much cassette swapping, though I later lovingly crafted mix tapes for girlfriends. I did swap LPs with friends as a teenager. The very first records I remember hearing were 45rpm singles, on orange vinyl that were in my family home. They were aimed at kids and had songs from Hanna-Barbera cartoons — a song about Pixie and Dixie (a couple of mice) and Mr Jinx the cat still sticks in my head. Come to think of it, Mr Jinx is a damned great name for a cat. My parents had a couple of albums I remember — original cast recordings of My Fair Lady and South Pacific. Well, I say my parents. I’m sure those records were actually my mum’s. Our record player was far from high end and resided in a cabinet in our living room.
“My father, who was a highly practical man and who had a formidable gift for languages, ran a speaker down into the basement where he did his beer and wine making and had his workshop. There he listened to the records that he owned, which were instructional records that he used to teach himself (still more) foreign languages. My older sister possessed a suitcase style record player in her bedroom upstairs (we lived in a big house overlooking the Red River in Winnipeg). She also possessed considerably more exciting taste in LPs. Her collection included Wheels of Fire by Cream (with the gorgeous Martin Sharp cover art on silver foil), The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield (Norman Rockwell cover painting!), Cotton in Your Ears by the James Cotton Blues Band, John Mayall and the Blues Breakers with the “Beano” cover, Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground, records by Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, the first Jethro Tull, the first Led Zeppelin, and, if memory serves, Through the Past Darkly by the Rolling Stones (a greatest hits compilation).
“My older brother and I both also listened to these. I have the impression my siblings preferred the Rolling Stones’ harder edge and rather considered the Beatles to be wimps, although my brother had the Help! LP and my sister had those fantastic Richard Avedon psychedelic posters of the Beatles on her wall. My brother owned Santana’s Abraxas, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Happy Trails by the Quicksilver Messenger Service and Green Onions by Booker T. and the M.G.s. Both my brother and sister were into James Taylor’s magnificent Sweet Baby James, which I also fell in love with, and still love to this day. (In fact I think I’ll go and play it now.) Later on, my brother did a wonderful thing by introducing me to such fabulous albums as Exile on Main Street by the Stones, Pretzel Logic by Steely Dan and Innervisions by Stevie Wonder.”
Probably my favourite charity shop score was a mono pressing of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I was so proud of that I put it in my first Vinyl Detective novel.
RA: At what age did you recognize what types/genres of music you were gravitating towards?
AC: “It really began as soon as I began buying my own records. One of my first LPs was a cheap cut-out of John Barry’s Thunderball soundtrack bought at what we’d now call (but never did then) the mall. And then I got a secondhand copy of Burt Bacharach’s Casino Royale, still a favourite album on all sorts of levels. Bacharach is a genius, ‘The Look of Love’ sung by Dusty Springfield is one of the greatest love songs of all time, and the cover art by Bob McGinnis remains a classic. Along with these James Bond soundtracks I was excited by a TV show called Mission: Impossible. This was also a spy adventure story, but it was Lalo Schifrin’s unforgettable theme music which had me utterly besotted. And Schifrin’s music irresistibly moved me in a jazz direction. Oddly, I wouldn’t find the soundtrack to Mission: Impossible for years. But almost immediately I borrowed a friend’s copy of Mannix, the soundtrack LP from another TV series with Lalo Schifrin music. And this was even more jazzy; specifically a breezy West Coast big band sound. These were formative, pre-teen discoveries and although they are period pieces, and evoke their period, they still have validity today.
“Then as a teenager, I discovered Shaft, another soundtrack but this one funky as hell, by Isaac Hayes. A double album! With Sides 1 and 4 on one disc and 2 and 3 on the other — so you could stack it… (Appropriately, it was a Stax release). This is another album which absolutely defines its era, and yet transcends it. Still a towering classic today and I still love it. So jazz and film scores were foundational in my love of music and vinyl. There were three milestones LPs that followed which, though I didn’t know it at the time — as with Casino Royale — were setting me on an audiophile trajectory. These were Marquis de Sade by Lalo Schifrin again, Walking in Space by Quincy Jones and Eastern Sounds by Yusef Lateef. All three were albums that I loved and I would discover, many years later, all three were recorded by Rudy Van Gelder and, if you found the right pressings, were also mastered to vinyl by that same genius.”
RA: How much of Vinyl’s protagonist’s drive to search for and acquire vinyl is manufactured to suit the personae of the character and how much is a direct reflection of your own personality? Do you, for example, frequent London charity shops hunting for records?
AC: “Well, I have to confess that the Vinyl Detective is me, at least in that respect, at least back then. I really did haunt the charity shops (read thrift stores) and boot fairs (read swap meets or yard sales) and jumble sales (read church sales). But these days I no longer do that, because I simply don’t have the time, and hunting treasures in such places — crate digging — is an enterprise that, like fishing, requires time and patience to succeed. And I’m too busy. Not least, writing the books. As for where I look for LPs, these days it’s pretty much exclusively online. On the same computer I can move from the book I’m writing to a web browser window featuring a record I’m after and purchase it a second later. (Which I might well do if I feel I’ve done enough writing to earn myself a treat). And it’s hard to beat that.”
RA: What are some of the most prized albums in your collection, and where did you score them?
AC: “Probably my favourite charity shop score was a mono pressing of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I was so proud of that I put it in my first Vinyl Detective novel. Later on — this wasn’t in a physical store — an even more fantastic find was Space Walk by the Don Rendell Quintet, a modern British jazz album on the Lansdowne label (absolutely not to be confused with Walking in Space) which I bought with a stack of other jazz LPs from a seller I met through the Amazon marketplace and struck up a correspondence with. I just chose the Rendell because it looked interesting. It turned out to be a dramatically rare item and I picked it up for a couple of quid. I like to remind my friend the London Jazz Collector of that, because it drives him nuts. It’s a promo pressing, too. (I’m listening to it now. Rendell who is a virtuoso on all sorts of reeds, is on tremendous form).
“I don’t think I’ve found too many great items in actual record stores, since they’re usually picked well clean. Though I did once find a German pressing of the Schifrin Marquis de Sade album in a record shop in Brighton, which had a Van Gelder stamp in the dead wax. But, as I say, it’s more and more online these days. And yes, Discogs, but of course eBay too. Although word of mouth and personal connections remain crucial. The aforementioned London Jazz Collector put me in touch with a guy who was selling his dad’s jazz albums and I made a deal with him for a Van Gelder Plastilyte mono pressing of Coltrane’s Blue Train, and also an original RCA of Mingus’s Tijuana Moods. Another time I just happened to send an email to a record producer to wish him a happy birthday and he replied and mentioned that he was brokering the sale of some immaculate original Blue Notes. And I was lucky enough to acquire Byrd in Flight by Donald Byrd and Whistle Stop by Kenny Dorham. But we’re not talking about spending a few quid per record here, but a few hundred quid.”
RA: Many serious record collectors have fairly basic vinyl rigs. You on the other hand, take hi-fi seriously. What is your current system?
AC: “The big turning point for me was the discovery of just how damned fantastic the vintage Quad electrostatic speakers sounded. They were — and are — stunning. I used original Quad tube amps with them initially and I have stuck with our warm little friend the vacuum tube ever since. The superiority of tubes to solid state is, to my ears, as decisive as that of analog to digital. I have, for decades, been using Audio Note Kit 3 monoblocks (which run 300Bs) and I am in the process of acquiring an Audio Note M1 preamp to partner them. The M1 not only sounds superb in its own right, it also has a lovely phono stage. My turntable is a vintage Garrard 301 (harking from the same era as my Quad speakers, incidentally) lovingly restored by Terry O’Sullivan, who is the man to go to for these things. My cartridge is an Ortofon Kontrapunkt B — I swear by Ortofons. And I recently completely transformed the system when I upgraded my arm from a Rega to an SME M2-9R.
“This brings us to your point about record collectors and music lovers who don’t take an interest in upgrading their basic systems, and who really should. When I heard the SME (which I had Terry O’Sullivan fit on my Garrard), it was a revelation. Rare LPs which I owned that were great recordings and superb performances, but which had been rendered unlistenable by surface noise, suddenly sounded fabulous. There was still a ghostly trace of that surface noise, but the majesty of the music so overwhelmed it, it was like a mosquito buzzing around an elephant. Trivial and insignificant. That is what the SME does. It emphasises the music so triumphantly that what had previously been fatal flaws in the vinyl simply ceased to matter.”
RA: When did you start down the hi-fi path?
AC: “I’d always taken an interest in hi-fi. Loving music and not caring about what you’re playing it on is like loving food and not taking an interest in cooking. But initially I really didn’t have a clue. However, I met Ken Kessler, the hi-fi journalist, soon after I moved to England when I was a teenager, and he provided some useful guidance. My real awareness began when, through a circuitous chain of events (Ken was involved again), I once found myself working as an editor on a British hi-fi magazine. I just took the job because I was a freelancer in need of a gig, but it reawakened my interest in vinyl, and led to me acquiring those Quad ESL speakers, and my Garrard turntable, and from that point on there was no looking back. Working on the magazine allowed me to hear equipment at hi-fi shows, and also — crucially — borrow it to take home and listen to in the context of my own system. I did my reading, listened to the views of people whom I respected and, above all, learned to trust my own ears. And my gut. If you’re playing music and your mind starts to wander to other matters, or you find yourself making excuses to leave the room to attend to minor tasks, something is wrong. Either with a component in your system, or with the recording you’ve chosen to listen to.”
RA: Have you fine-tuned your system over the years?
AC: “From the time I acquired the Quad speakers and the Garrard 301 turntable, it has just been a process of refinement. For years I was using a passive pre-amp (a very good one) partnered with my Audio Note power amps. But when I finally heard them with an Audio Note preamp, their natural partner of course, I realised what I’d been missing. And then I upgraded from my budget Rega arm (a very good piece of kit and unbeatable at the price) to a serious SME and the results were revelatory and staggering. The next step is to experiment with a different Ortofon cartridge.”
RA: What’s next for the Vinyl Detective?
AC: “Next up, the plan is for the Vinyl Detective to go Scandi Noir — on a mission to Sweden with Nevada, Tinkler and Agatha in search of a rare death metal LP. I’ve begun writing this novel. Meanwhile, we’re shooting a short film, about 10 minutes long, to promote the series. It features those four characters on a brief adventure (though not in Sweden!). I’ve written the script and got the cast, a director, a photographer, an editor and a composer for the soundtrack (Joe Kraemer who wrote the superb Vinyl Detective theme for the LP). We’re planning to shoot it in the next few weeks and it should be finished this fall. We’ll put the film online and announce it on social media.”