James Cassar (Modern Vinyl) - Sound In The Signals Interview

I recently had the chance to interview James Cassar who is the head review writer over at Modern Vinyl as well as the co-host of the Modern Vinyl podcast. Check out the full interview after the jump.

You do a few different things but you are most well known for writing for Modern Vinyl as well as cohosting the Modern Vinyl podcast. How did you get started at Modern Vinyl and what got you interested in vinyl records?

I had just joined the staff of my college newspaper during my first semester at the University of Virginia when I decided to write an article on a traveling record fair that was headed to town at one of the Holiday Inns off-campus. The buses weren't running their regular routes, it was like 95 degrees out, and my girlfriend had just broken up with me; I was miserable but on a mission. I saw handfuls of people, young and old, bond over dusty crates and cardboard sleeves, and I figured the connection didn't just lie in the music between the grooves. I left that day with three LPs and a 7-inch despite not owning a record player. After that feature ran in print the next week, I decided that vinyl wasn't just a format, it promised a social experience -- a decision I stand by a couple years later.

That same girl that called it quits with me my first week of college decided to give our relationship another chance and started collecting vinyl faster than I did. In the spring, she pointed me to Modern Vinyl, which at the time had about four or five regular writers and suggested I join the staff. The rest is history, even though I've only been an active member of the community for a short while.

Outside of the podcast you do a few other things for Modern Vinyl. What are some of your responsibilities with the website from a day to day standpoint or on a weekly basis?

I'm the site's Head Review Writer, so my main responsibility is evaluating new releases for not only their music, but their sound quality, packaging, and any extras that may have surrounded its vinyl pressing. It's a really unique feature of our site that really goes beyond standard cultural commentary and I can safely say it's helped me become a more diverse writer. I don't review records every week, but you can probably find two or three write-ups from me a month.

Chris, the site's founder and one of my podcast co-hosts, found himself wrapped up in some other obligations this summer so I've been also writing news posts and sharing them via our Twitter and Facebook feeds. Both Chris and I track the social media accounts of countless record labels, subscribe to mailing lists and view Vinyl Collective forums in order to keep our site updated with any fresh vinyl or, to a lesser extent, cassette-related happenings. That's what Chris contributes on a regular basis, and sometimes on a busy day we'll be writing these briefs until 10 p.m. Eastern Time or later. It's not the most fun part of writing for Modern Vinyl, but without it, a lot of our social media followers would miss out of some really neat pre-orders and releases. It's cool we can deliver a service that can help them find what they want to spin next.

Our podcast primarily focuses on music and Modern Vinyl has more traditional aspects that keep in line with other music sites. I've helped premiere album streams and new songs, interviewed bands, and contributed to special features such as Please Press, which lets us present a case for an album that hasn't been given the vinyl treatment but definitely should in the future. Chris has run some really cool feature ideas by me, as well as our other co-host Mike, and I'm really excited to help launch those very soon.

The podcast itself has really gotten a ton of buzz and some of the bigger websites around the blogosphere have listed it as a favorite. I know I personally make it a point to check out every new episode. when did the podcast idea come about and outside of Chris (who owns the site) why did he decide on you initially to co-host it with him?

Chris and I really get stoked when we see any sort of feedback on the podcast. I know when we first started out, there were a few really constructive listeners that helped us pinpoint what we needed to work on to make a really engaging show, and since Mike's returned from a long hiatus (he used to be a regular contributor before I joined the staff) our flow has really morphed into a conversation, and that's something I really dig about our progress. I appreciate you listening!

When Chris approached me about starting up the Modern Vinyl podcast, he and I were the only two people regularly volunteering our time to create content for the site. I had spent the semester becoming a DJ for two radio stations at school so I was getting comfortable with talking in a live setting. I think by then Chris was also volunteering for a few shows during his free time at school, as well. Around this time, other sites were starting up their own podcasts and we felt that since the whole idea was gaining momentum, it seemed like a great time to join the fun.

If you had to recommend one episode of the podcast or had to pick a favorite for listeners to check out which episode would you pick and why?

Episode 12, "These Are Dark Times," is a personal favorite of mine. Although we've had other great episodes that really show our growth in the past few months as podcasters, as well as an episode that honestly was just Chris and I curating ten of our favorite songs into a "mixtape" of sorts, this particular week really flowed well topically and had great music as bookends between segments. We talked about the merits (or demerits) about Urban Outfitters' secondary focus as a record store, there's music from Dads, Park and a new favorite of mine, Vasudeva, and the three of us told quick stories about missed show opportunities. I think when we step back from our critics' corner for a second and just have a talk between friends really goes back to my point about vinyl being a social experience. I guess Modern Vinyl has its fair share of social moments, as well!

The vinyl resurgence is getting things pressed left and right and obscure gems are finding their way on to vinyl every week. What is one thing that's been pressed this year that had been on your list for a while? Did it turn out as good as you wanted it to?

Last summer, I interned in Southern California with Warner Music Group (WMG). A few summers before that, I finished a book I started writing when I was sixteen. The common link between these two summers is that both my internship experience and the content of my novel heavily dealt with the band R.E.M.

At WMG, I had the amazing opportunity to work with Rhino Custom Products on a few Record Store Day projects. I obviously can't reveal the ones that aren't released yet, but I remember telling them to look into pressing some deep cuts in R.E.M.'s back catalog. They had just broken up and there is still a lot of material that needs to be reissued. Lo and behold, the official Record Store Day list for 2014 gets revealed and R.E.M. Unplugged 1991 & 2001 gets an awesome 4-LP box-set. I'd like to think I was responsible for this release, although I'm obviously not the only one who thought it might have been a good idea. R.E.M.'s Facebook team also shared Modern Vinyl's news post about the upcoming reissue of that release that's going to be split between the two concerts, so I thought that was super rad.

The 4-LP set sounds awesome, especially when considering that it's two live performances spread a decade apart. It's also packaged like a book and the artwork has some high-res images from the concerts that are affected by some really gnarly VHS noise. I'm super happy with it.

What do you think your favorite vinyl release of all time is and why?

Shortly after Modern Baseball signed to Run for Cover Records, they returned to their friends in Lame-O Records and put out a split with The Hundred Acre Woods. I really think I'd worn out my vinyl copy of Modern Baseball's Sports by the time this was announced. The Hundred Acre Woods were also featured on Topshelf Records' 4-Way V-Day Split, and I've loved everything they've put out since.

I was at my internship when pre-orders for Lame-O's split went live, and the girl I was dating at the time promised to snag me a copy but didn't do it. After extra copies sold out everywhere months later, I decided to give up and just kept supporting Lame-O's releases anyway, especially since it was the best way to follow The Hundred Acre Woods' new output. I had ordered the latest 12" from The Weaks from Lame-O and found a copy of the split in the sleeve. This was honestly one of the coolest things to ever happen to me. I'm just going to go on the record and say that.

While it's not a legendary release (hell, it's not even that old), the fact that I have one is legendary enough for me. Lame-O also has really oriented themselves as a label on the rise with their latest offerings, so I'm glad I caught that train early.

One thing I hear vinyl consumers constantly complaining about these days is prices going up. What are your thoughts on high vinyl prices as of lately? (I guess for examples looking at things like Hot Topic raising prices and the recent Coheed And Cambria press priced at 39.99)

I personally only venture into a Hot Topic if they have an exclusive reissue, and I'm not ashamed to admit they're really capturing the distribution rights to some of my favorite records. I've found that a lot of their other stock can be bought for much cheaper via their original labels -- No Sleep, Run for Cover, etc. While retail-exclusive colorways are all good and well, if you can get the album elsewhere for cheaper, why don't you?

As a cash-strapped college kid juggling a part-time job and a million other responsibilities, I find it really hard justifying shelling out $30-40 on a record I've wanted to own on vinyl for months. When Third Eye Blind put up the reissue of their self-titled LP, I was so excited because it's one of my favorite albums. When I saw the $35 price tag, I had to pass on the repressing and that still bums me out. Even new releases find their way onto vinyl at price points upwards of $20 for a single LP. Given the fact that independent labels sell their releases for far less, I can't help but wonder why major labels can't if not do the same, at least meet in the middle for some of their offerings. There's so much great music out there and vinyl is an excellent way to take it in, and sometimes I just opt for the digital version because it's easier on my wallet.

I know it's expensive for smaller labels to gain pressing rights for major-label releases and that it's incredible that some of my all-time Top 100 Records are getting loving vinyl treatments, but I'm not at a point in my life where it's realistic to match these price tags. I think everyone's realizing that vinyl is slowly becoming less of a hobbyist phenomenon and more the primary way some people consume music. Hopefully the economics of the culture can welcome even more people soon.

What is one thing you're still waiting to get pressed that is high on your want list?

blink-182 has been my favorite band since I was nine years old, so I've followed every side-project to its end. Angels & Airwaves' first record finally got pressed via Modlife and then Shop Radio Cast more recently and in a sharp moment of contradiction, I put down $30 for a copy. However, their second record I-Empire hasn't been given the green light for a vinyl reissue, as far as I know. That record has more sentimental value to me than the first one -- I quoted a line from it in my high school graduation speech, as dorky as that is -- and I really would love to relive that record in a different way.

I guess that about wraps it up. Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions. Do you have anything else you would like to add?

Thanks for this, man!


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