Full, unedited transcript of "The Collector" interview, Record Collector magazine February 2014:
DJ and radio artist Jim Backhouse was turned onto a lifetime's twin obsessions by tuning into seminal pirate stations CentreForce and Fantasy FM in his parents' house in suburban Hertfordshire in the late 80s. This prompted his first tentative experiments with tape recorders and cheap keyboards, while sharing his primitive efforts through the international tape network would link him up with a weird world of DIY electronic arcana. Later in the 1990s he became part of the Kosmische collective and a resident DJ at their legendary krautrock nights, also producing shows on artists' radio station Resonance FM. Jim now records and performs as Xylitol and his latest release 'Kunst Ist Tot', on filmmaker Peter Strickland's 'Peripheral Conserve' label, is graced with artwork by Nurse With Wound's Steven Stapleton. He currently lives in Canterbury and co-runs Radio Arts, an artists' collective promoting hands on radiophonic experimentation. www.radioarts.org.uk.
THE COLLECTOR QUESTIONS
What do you collect, and why?
I collect experimental, unusual and interesting music from around the world, mostly on vinyl but also on tape and CD. I'm drawn to music that overreaches itself or strives beyond the limits of genre or taste. The most interesting records to me seem to have that desire etched into their grooves. I see record collecting as a form of self-curating that millions get up to without even giving it a second thought, so I'm interested - when I acquire a record - not only in the context of that record within some 'canonical history of music' and the mythology that accrues around it in that way, but also in its social side: the forms of subjectivity that record produced in the people that heard it, how it might fit into wider social struggles. I suppose it follows that I'm not too worried about keeping 'Near Mint' copies filed away. In fact if it's been added to - say with a child's cartoon drawings on the cover or the obsessive's annotations - then that's a bonus as far as I'm concerned.
I can be a faddy collector, sometimes hunting down underground NDW 7"s, or else obsessively collecting early white label grime 12"s, but krautrock and early electronic experiments have been a constant. When I first started DJing in the early 90s a friend's dad had a collection of the fabled Phillips 'Prospective 21' LPs; with their shiny silver covers they held a totemic fascination. Despite their almost total evasion of anything I would've recognised as rhythm or melody, their weird, spectral electronics seemed to resonate with the cold abstraction I loved in the best early 'bleep & bass' and techno sides. I suppose that tension between the communal jouissance of early house and hardcore and the supposed hermeticism of the 'avant-garde' still drives my collecting to this day.
How big is your collection?
It's not an enormous collection as I have fairly regular clearouts, but I'd estimate I've around 3,000 LPs and 12"s and about 1000 7"s. I have lots of CDs and a few tapes too, if they count. I also have the minidisc archive of 'You Are Hear', the radio show I co-produced on Resonance FM which holds several hundred sessions and interviews with the likes of Carter Tutti, Simon Fisher Turner, Nurse With Wound, Momus and The Bohman Brothers. One day these will be rescued from ye-obsolete-digital-medium limbo in order to make them available for all, permission from artists pending, of course.
What do you think it is worth?
I'd only consider about half of them to be particularly rare or collectable, but if I were to set a hypothetical median of £10 per record, then that would make the collection worth around £30000. That's probably a very inaccurate estimate though, but as I'm not keeping them stored away in lieu of a retirement plan I won't worry too much.
How and where do you store it?
They all live at home, the bulk of them resting precariously on Ikea shelves lining the walls of our spare room that doubles up as Radio Arts' 'office'. An ever shifting selection of current favourites are also stacked in the front room next to the stereo which is, of course, where they should be.
What’s the rarest/most unusual/most valuable item you have?
Some of my 'minimal synth' singles and LPs are quite rare: the Monoton 'Blau' LP is a wonderful set of dub-inflected minimal electronics from 1980 that also happens to be uncannily ahead of its time. The man behind it, Konrad Becker is a fascinating character, pretty unique in straddling the outer reaches of experimental DIY electronics, hardcore techno and hypermedia activism. I also have some pretty rare Krautrock records, although they're probably not quite the mythic 'holy grails' the hardcore collectors get so hot under the collar about: I have the first Gila LP, the Ash Ra Tempel LP with the multi-fold-out sleeve, as well as a couple of other nice Ohr LPs and 'Green Brain' records, a few nice Conrad Schnitzler LPs and tapes; the lovely Herr Roedelius, Dieter Moebius and Michael Rother were also kind enough to sign the gatefold of my 'Musik von Harmonia' LP after their gig at London's South Bank. I also love this test-pressing of the Arts Council funded 'Experiments In Disintegrating Language / Konkrete Canticle' LP that came from Bob Cobbing's personal archive, even if it's not much to look at. It features some joyously unhinged sound poetry experiments by Bob, Charles Verey, Michael Chant and others.
What elusive gem are you still looking for?
I don't often go out searching for particular records, preferring to let them find me by a combination of chance and intuition, but that said, in my dream bargain basement I would look forward to finding a copy of the Toshio Ichiyanagi 'Opera for Tadanori Yokoo' box set, while in the singles pile I might hope to find a set of Ake Hodell's self-published text-sound 7"s. I have a big list of Italo Disco rarities I dream of one day finding too, although the prices on discogs border on terrifying.
What’s given you the biggest thrill?
It's always exciting to find something unfamiliar, and to uncover how it fits together, to join the dots and create a narrative. I found a copy of the 'Great Complotto Pordenone' LP in a charity shop in South London, a compilation from 1980 documenting a northern Italian local punk scene that embraced a precociously smart and gloriously snotty form of media subversion and self-mythologising to such a degree that it almost became a form of avant-garde provocation in itself. Tracing the connections, from the aftermath of the radical social movements of 1970s Italy to the later experiments in collective myth-making and media intervention of the 'Luther Blissett' project in the 1990s and early '00s led to hours of research, networking and many fascinating conversations. Some of this stuff is well known in Italy, but almost nothing's been published on the experimental fringes of Italian post-punk and DIY media in English.
So, although that's an extreme example, the possibility of being taken again on that sort of adventure is for me one of the motors of collecting and I suppose it's one thing that the digital era and social networks have actually made easier, even while the proliferation of 'if you like X, you should try Y' algorithms pretends to have made such excursions redundant.
How do you track stuff down?
When I lived in London I was one of those dysfunctional moles who would spend hours digging through the bargain basements in the Music and Video Exchange shops for discarded 25p and 50p records - I somehow disinterred some fantastic, rare and at the very least a bit obscure records that way, like a set of the painter AR Penck's free jazz LPs with silk-screened covers, and a copy of Charles Bullen from This Heat's 'Lifetones' LP, which is a masterpiece of melancholic post-punk dub. Now, living in East Kent there's a wealth of charity shops, boot fairs and the odd record shop to keep me going, while I do the odd trade and enjoy getting tip-offs from other collectors. I buy on ebay or discogs occasionally, but for me it doesn't compare to the chance encounters you get out in the wilderness.
What’s your favourite record shop?
Discovering the These Records shop when I was in my early twenties was nothing short of an epiphany: a square room on an unassuming residential street in South London with a tin bath full of magnetic tape in the middle of the floor, the walls lined with racks of vinyl, CDs, tapes, books and pamphlets, categorised by their own idiosyncratic, consensus-reason defying taxonomy. Despite its untimely closure it still functions as my blueprint for the perfect record shop: a space of learning and play and an embodiment of experimental music as an indivisible part of a still unfolding counterculture. I also love Rare & Racy in Sheffield which I really hope is still going, and I have the highest hopes for Vinyl Deptford, which Rocket Ron, former proprietor of the legendary Ambient Soho shop on Berwick Street, has just opened.
How often do you listen to the stuff in your collection?
Having spent more than twenty years collecting and DJing there's no avoiding how embedded records are into the very fabric of my everyday life and rituals. So, yes, my record collection gets listened to every single day. I'm not averse to downloading and streaming too, but it's easy to be overwhelmed by the hyper abundance of booty on sites like Ubuweb. And apart from that, like everyone else I spend enough hours of my waking life staring at a screen to find listening to an MP3 or a webstream a poor substitute for the ritual and commitment of acquiring and putting on a record, CD, or tape. If nothing else the physical connection serves as a reminder that music isn't just a magical commodity that appears on your iphone from nowhere.
Is there a visual side to collecting for you?
Yes, the visual side is hugely important, and I'm easily (perhaps too easily) turned off from a record by particular tropes: I'm especially suspicious of conspicuously 'deluxe' packaging: the curse of the vellum-bound mausoleum piece boxset. On the other hand, any example of DIY ostentation, discordant geometrical design, baroque gimmicry, brash agit prop, desperate expediency, etc. will nearly always pique my interest. This formula has served me pretty well so far.
How will you eventually dispose of your collection?
For all my personal investment in it, I doubt it'll ever pay for my retirement, so in all likelihood, it'll be either passed on to my partner Magz (who herself has a formidable collection ranging from esoteric sound art to C86 jangle-pop) or else my son Ewart, now five, will some day have a very unwieldy inheritance to deal with and then it'll be up to him if he wants to keep it, share it out, flog the valuable bits on ebay, or just donate the lot to a charity shop.
What’s your all-time favourite record, regardless of value or rarity?
My favourite LP would have to be The Faust Tapes - it wasn't only a gateway drug for me, but it's also an inexhaustible document: even after 20 years repeated listening it still reveals some new facet every time. My favourite single would be The Apostles 'Smash The Spectacle' EP which is an unsurpassed volley of proletarian anger, bleak wit and self-reflexive intelligence that could only have been recorded under the darkest hour of Thatcherism, and yet today it's more prescient than ever.