Playlist: John Kunz, Owner of Waterloo Records, Austin
When I first hit my teens, music became everything to me. My local music shop was an old-fashioned one, with massive rows of records and an instrument section where kids would hang out and annoy everyone by playing wonky renditions of Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple or Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. But this stuff was old-fashioned to me — punk had hit the shores of Australia.
Every Saturday morning I would head to the music shop, my pocket flush with enough cash to buy a record from my after school job. But the music I was after wasn’t played on the radio and my music store guy was my connection to this other world. For the next few years it was the same routine. “Did you like the Talking Heads?” he asked me. “Try XTC, I’ll order it for you!”
The next week the record would arrive and I’d virtually run home, put the headphones on, and be transported to another world. While some people said this music I was listening to was weird and dangerous (it was Brisbane, Australia after all) the music probably stopped me from being bored out of mind (this was Brisbane, after all) and becoming weird and dangerous.
If I grew up in Austin, Texas, Waterloo Records would have been my go-to shop. The staff here don’t just take your money and give you a bag and receipt, they love music. Every musician we spoke to in Austin, from Suzanna Choffel to Dan Dyer, said we had to go to Waterloo Records and we had to speak to the owner, John Kunz. So we did.
We spoke to John on a busy day. He had a meeting to try and save one of Austin’s most famous music venues, Cactus Cafe, followed by an in-store performance that afternoon — complete with free beer!
We chatted to John for a while about the local music scene before jotting down his Austin Playlist.
“In lots of places other musicians are the competition,” John said, “But what I like about Austin is that it’s collaborative. The musicians are really supportive of each other and even the record stores are cooperative.”
With music sales declining and the Apple iTunes store being the number one music retailer in the United States, we asked John about the state of the retail industry.
“Here in the USA sales have been in decline for the last decade, but we’re developing well in other areas. If only the record labels were as focused on music as they are on business and money, but unfortunately a lot of record executives thought they were the stars, not the musicians. But I don’t know of many industries that can compete with ‘free’. If a fan truly believes “this band changed my life and I want to own everything they’ve ever made!” but they don’t want to pay for it, then there’s a huge disconnect there.”
One bright note has been the increase in sales of vinyl in the store. John remembers the days when locals would bring in their old vinyl to give away when CDs came in vogue. He had to convince people to keep at least half a dozen of their favourite albums! But John hasn’t let the iTunes steamroller take him out. The albums listed below all have links back to an online music store under the ThinkIndie brand — a collective of independent record store owners who sell digital downloads and physical product.
Interestingly, John’s own bricks and mortar, Waterloo Records, has all of its music listed alphabetically — no genres here — so we asked John about the breadth of styles of music on offer in Austin.
“Geographically, Austin is in the right place to be a melting pot — originally part of Mexico, then Spain and France, and we’re near Mexico now, so we have all those influences, which I think is great,” he says. “We border Louisiana, so we have Cajun music from there, then the cowboy singer tradition from the High Plains, blues from the big cities like Dallas and Houston, plus songs of the sailors from the Gulf, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, the ‘third coast’ Houston rap scene… all those things come together… we’re part of a stew! Austin embraces it all! It’s one reason we don’t catalogue music by sections in the store, because the music of Austin defies categorization!”
After just a short time seeing bands in Austin we had to agree with John. But we still had to corral him into giving us his top five artists, albums or songs that define Austin. Of course, this top five goes to six, because in Austin they do things different!
John Kunz, Owner of Waterloo Records on music that defines Austin
1. Alejandro Escovedo
He’s an Austin legend. He played it live here the day it came out. I love the lead track. Alejandro’s always been a friend. He was recently joined by Bruce Springsteen on stage and played on Letterman. He worked that one through at the Continental Club — I went to every show. My all time favourite is Gravity (1992) but I picked this one because this is where he’s at right at the moment whereas Gravity was 18 years ago, after the death of his wife.
2. Bob Schneider
This is his recent record. I like the track called 40 dogs (like Romeo and Juliet). He’s the number one best-selling artist here at Waterloo Records. If that doesn’t scream Austin, nothing does. There are many sides to Bob Schneider — bluegrass, raunchy, he’s had other bands, but under the guise of Bob Schneider — he’s a folk rock singer. With his first ‘solo’ album, we sold over 10,000 records on consignment before he was picked up by Universal. At the time he was dating Sandra Bullock and she was schlepping in CDs with him! She spends a lot of time here. She owns a restaurant and bakery in Austin.
3. Ruthie Foster
Ruthie is a gospel, folk singer and she has a phenomenal voice and stage presence that comes together well on this record — it’s gospel, blues and folk — and I love the whole album.
4. Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel
Willie was here to launch it and it plays tribute to the Western Swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Willie’s really dedicated to keeping country and western music alive, and is equally adept at jazz and blues. He’s an incredible guitarist in that Django Reinhardt way. Trigger, his guitar, has been with him forever. I chose this because it’s a great gateway to the music of Bob Wills.
This is another band we had the launch here for last January, and we had to open up the entire parking lot — there were 1500 people! It was the fifth or sixth time they had played here. They’re my favourite of Austin’s indie-rock bands. Britt Daniel is a great guitar player; he’s literate, that’s what.
6. The Flatlanders
Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely, they’re just incredibly good songwriters and performers, typical of those Lubbock High Plains guys who are a big part of making the music community what it is.