Thursday, January 10, 2019

Some Questions with... Nate Niceswanger of Zzz Records

Des Moines in the year 2000 was pretty different than today. Seedy porn stores and dilapidated auto repair shops dotted the western end of downtown. The music scene was limping along with only Hairy Mary’s on University and The House of Bricks on Merle Hay providing space for local and/or smaller scale live music. Wells Fargo Arena wasn’t even an idea. Court Avenue was basically a strip of shitty chain restaurants (plus Buzzard Billy’s) and douchey clubs full of wanna be frat bros and whooo girls. There wasn't a single Starbucks in the entire metro. 
Nate Niceswanger, owner, founder, curator in chief, Zzz Records

I had just moved to the area and while it seemed like it could be cool, it just wasn’t. Not yet. Then one day I heard about a used record store that had opened in the old Masonic Temple building downtown. This was well before the vinyl boom that now has hipsters and soccer moms buying up records with little regard for price or quality. Being a dinosaur, I had never given up on my love of records so I was happy to hear about it. I wondered, though, how a shop like this could make it in such a sad, depressing town with so little happening.  

So I stopped by as soon as I could to check it out. On this first trip into Zzz Records I spent a few minutes talking to owner Nate Niceswanger and purchased copies of Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind and Motley Crue’s Too Fast For Love. I still have both records. 

I’ve been giving my money to Nate in exchange for records ever since. Thanks in part to Zzz, I've compiled a pretty decent Zappa collection, picked up some great and not so easy to find metal and punk records, some amazing jazz, soul, old-school country, amazing local music, and too much stuff from the $2 bin to even recall. The shop really does have it all.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Nate opening this shop, a remarkably cool and fiscally irresponsible thing to do at that time, marked a turning point for Des Moines. Here was a young person opening a business, doing something he loved while supporting the burgeoning music scene, filling a need in the community, and serving as an example of fearless entrepreneurship, creativity, and chasing your passion in a time and place that didn’t really encourage that sort of thing.

Things changed quite a bit since then. Nate has moved the store a couple times — to the East Village for a while and then to its current home on Ingersoll Avenue — leading the way for others to come in to these areas and help make them alive and vibrant and successful.

Nate was the first person I met in Des Moines who was doing something risky and cool, and a whole lot of people followed his lead to make Des Moines what it is today. They mayor should give him a medal or the keys to the city or some such shit. Really. The man is a Goddamn hero.

The shop that I doubted would last six months is pushing 19 years old now and is nothing short of a Des Moines landmark. And Nate is still just a quiet, down-to-earth dude who sells records and does whatever he can for music fans, local musicians, record lovers, and foul-mouthed writers bugging him with questions for their blog.

He was nice enough to agree to do a Five Questions With…. for The Bigfoot Diaries, so of course we hit him with a lot more than 5 and, as always, he was game.

Check out the interview then get to Zzz Records and show him some much-deserved love.  While you're at it, check the shop out on Facebook as well.
What was the first record you ever bought?

“I bought my first record when I was 10. It was a 7" single of Thompson Twins' "Doctor! Doctor." I probably got it from K-Mart or Target, because that was all we had in Fort Dodge at the time. I guess you could say my collection started in 1984. But I didn't get really serious about it until the late 90s.”

Zzz records is the longest surviving record store in Des Moines. How do you do it?

“It helped a lot to be the only store in the entire city that really focused on vinyl for many years. My main competition from 2000 to about 2005 was Half Price Books. They had a decent selection of used CDs, LPs, and tapes, which was similar to my business model. Our other main competitor during that time was Peeples' Music, but they had mostly given up on vinyl by that time. For some reason, they invested heavily into odd things like Dave Matthews CD bootlegs; I think our inventories were completely different.
So, it worked out well in the early years, because I was actively searching out record collections, and didn't have much competition. It wasn't until the mid 2000s that Red Rooster opened up in Highland Park, and we finally had another independent record store in town. It's exploded since then, of course!

What’s changed in Des Moines since you opened in 2000?

Des Moines has obviously changed a lot since 2000, but I think the biggest changes happened in the first few years. DSM was pretty sleepy in the beginning. We were still in that stage where there was almost nothing to do downtown after 5 pm, and very little to do on weekends. If you were under 21, the only real hangout was Java Joe's on 4th Street. We didn't have much in the way of venues — no Vaudeville Mews, no Wooly's, Hoyt Sherman was pretty sleepy, and House of Bricks was OK, but way out on Merle Hay Road in a strip mall. And the entertainment options on Court Avenue were really limited, it was basically a bunch of lame Larry Smithson bars. It felt pretty dismal in many ways, and explains why so many young people wanted to leave this area in the late 90s and very early 00s.

Yet, at the same time, you could sense that maybe something cool was on the horizon. There were a few people sticking their necks out, trying to make DSM a little more interesting. Some of these stores/restaurants/venues were successful, and some were not. But I think psychologically, the idea that Des Moines could be an amazing place was starting to sink in with the younger crowd. Heck, I remember going to Someplace Else at 2:30 am and discussing my idea for a record store with the cook and some complete strangers.

It just felt like there was a new energy starting to emerge. People were starting to actually fight the city in their quest to demolish every historic building from the downtown district. And over time, you started to see downtown Des Moines and the East Village really transform into a pretty amazing area.

New Arrivals at Zzz Records, kind of pissed I missed that Dio record
When will hipsters get tired of buying vinyl so prices can go back down? Shouldn’t they be into retro CDs by now?

I actually think we've either hit or will be hitting very soon a bubble in the record market. Demand and prices can't keep climbing forever. There's actually a lot more supply than what many people realize, and more and more people are starting to retire. I feel like, except for the truly rare items, prices have to start leveling off and probably dropping soon. But that's just my hunch, I could be completely off here, too.

It's also funny that you mention CDs, because a lot of folks feel that used CDs could be the next big item. I hope so, because i have a LOT of CDs here.

What is the crown jewel of your personal collection?

I'm kind of an unusual collector in that I don't necessarily seek out really expensive items. Part of it is because some of my favorite artists were fairly popular and easy to collect — R.E.M, U2, Talking Heads, Devo, etc. And although groups like these all have some expensive pressings, I don't get wrapped up in that. I don't need the 2xLP version of Elvis Costello's "Get Happy"; I've already got an original that I picked up for $4 or $5. I guess if I did have to pick one item that I'd hang onto no matter what, it would be my original UK copy of My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless". I don't even know what the current value of it is, but that would be the last thing that I'd sell.

What is the rarest or most expensive record you’ve ever sold?

The rarest record I ever sold was something called "Blues Climax". It was a 1969 recording, very raw garage rock. I think it was mostly one guy, although he had a drummer help him out. The record was a rare, hand-made version before he had a "real" pressing made later. I can't remember exactly what we sold it for, but I'm pretty sure it went to a Japanese collector.

What is on your wish list in terms of records? Anything you’ve been looking to add to your personal collection?

I actually don't have anything specific that I'm looking for, believe it or not. I'm kind of at the point where if something odd comes in at the store, I'll give it a quick test and if it sounds good, I'll go ahead and consider keeping it for myself. So now I'm mostly picking up things like odd acid jazz or obscure new wave titles.

What album or artist could you happily go the rest of life without ever seeing again?

Jimmy Buffett. My god, do you remember when there were multiple bars in the area that would have Jimmy Buffett nights? I'm pretty sure they'd host them once a week. Ugh. I realize that he wasn't always a goofy caricature, but I just don't understand the rabid fan base that worships him. Having said that, I'm pretty tolerant of most artists, even things that I would consider cheesy. I've done this long enough to know that everyone's tastes are different. AND I also recognize that there are artists who I really didn't appreciate when I was young, but love now. My dad was a big Moody Blues fan. I wasn't. Now I probably have 4 or 5 of their LPs in my collection. Same with Leon Russell. And Neil Diamond. And others, I'm sure.

Early shoppers for Record Store Day
What is the coolest and weirdest thing you’ve had come through the shop doors?

I am terrible at recognizing famous people. At my very first location, Henry Rollins actually came in and looked around for about 15 minutes, before another customer came up and whispered, "You've got fuckin' Henry Rollins in the store." I had no idea it was him. Chris Robinson (Black Crowes) has actually been in our store twice undetected. To be fair, sometimes celebrities will disguise themselves a bit to fit in. I also feel like if we do recognize a famous or semi-famous musician, we just try to leave him/her alone. If a conversation comes up at the checkout counter, so be it, but I don't want to be that obnoxious owner who asks for pictures and an autograph, and then posts it on social media.

Desert Island, five albums. Don’t think about it, just list ‘em.

Loveless" by My Bloody Valentine has usually been my #1 album of all time, although I don't listen to it quite as much as I used to. But it still holds up well, so I'd leave it on my list. Other ones I'd probably pick right now would be "Script of the Bridge" by The Chameleons, "Fear of a Black Planet" by Public Enemy, "Fun House" by The Stooges... and "Mezcal Head" by Swervedriver. I realize I have 2 shoegaze-ish albums on there, but that was a huge influence for me when I was in college.

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