Interview: American Music History- Talking with Brett Ralph of Surface Noise
Artinformation talks with the mind behind Louisville's favorite record store. Brett sells music, books, and art at Surface Noise. We discuss life, music, and these strange times.
Brett Ralph, former teacher and founder of Surface Noise provides to the Louisville community what no one else can.
Brett, in a profound way, extends his insight into his product, spanning several decades of music history. Perhaps entering Surface Noise is a dive into the psyche of it’s creator. Brett Ralph sells records,books, and art. His store is called Surface Noise.
...Brett offers me a seat.
We start chatting about his store, , and everything else happening in the world.
"Wait" I said, “let’s go back.. Not too far back, of course, but just a little bit...to provide context....”
Ai: Brett. How did you first get into albums and LPs?
Brett: ...There's something about albums. There's something about LPs; 33 1/3 records captured my imagination early on. I bought 45s, and I was already into music. The way you get a whole world in an album. An album to me is a cross between a record and a book. And with used records, you
know— I joke a lot of time to people; I've never found naked polaroids, marijuana seeds, and bad poetry in a jewel case. But you don't know what you're going to find folded up in an album; it was a place people hid stuff back in the day. There's something about albums that's always fascinated me.
Ai: Wow. What was the most memorable thing you've found inside of a record?
Brett: I found a lot of poetry, a lot of art, a lot of 6-period study hall doodles. I did find naked polaroids one time. I found money,--so probably the naked polaroids. They were old, they were like, from the 80s. They were going way back. I found 3D glasses... all that stuff you just lose when it's shrunk to CD size.
Ai: What was that transition like when the world first moved to CDs as the way to listen to music? What was that like for you?
Brett: I mean, I was into it. I liked the cassettes and 8-tracks. I mean, vinyl records remain my favorite format but not to the exclusion of others. I think we've learned that CDs were a pretty cheap ephemeral medium that hasn't endured that well. I mean, if you scratch a record, maybe one song is fucked up, but the rest of the record still plays, but if you scratch a CD, it's toast, it won't work at all. CDs just aren't as durable and they aren't as pleasing as objects. I have some CDs in the store and I hate how they stack up in racks and how they sound when you're going through them. It's not the same to me as thumbing through records or books…the solitude, the introspection. CDs seem more convenient,and fast and consumerist in a way.
Ai: Did that feeling develop over time? Did you feel that way about CDs when they first came out?
Brett: Yes, I did. For me, they replaced cassettes more than they replaced albums. I wasn't against them, though. And foolishly, I sold a lot of records when I got them on CD, earlier on in the game.
You know i'm not a boomer, I dont want to be an old white guy that resists change and the future , but I think one of the things we're learning about contemporary society is that there has to be a sense of forward thinking and responsibility in embracing new technology. Just because something is developed and folks can make money off of it doesn't mean it's necessarily good for us.
I think we need to figure out when CDs come out, for example, you have the choice of embracing that and seeing it as a step forward in music consumption, or you can see it as a consumerist ploy to dilute the experience and not be a step forward. I don't want to put to fine a point on it, but when the internet started, who saw it as a tool for undermining our election? I'm not saying we can predict the future, but we need to try to a little bit.
Ai: yeah, and there are people who are paid to predict the future.
Ai: When you deal with young people, do you know any difference in attitude when they experience your store? What do you think about streaming?
Brett: When I expanded to books, I didn't know young people would be into books. I knew they were into content, but I didn't know they were into books. I knew people were into records for the reasons previously mentioned, but it's so easy to get content online. Why would you pay for a book if you can read it online for free? But I heard that more books on poetry sold in 2018 than any year in the early 90s. And I have a theory about that: I think that with instagram and facebook, when you develop a caption, its almost like a haiku. Youre trying to come up with a spicy sentence that sets that image off. And I think that's shaping young people's mind towards a more poetic impulse, thus creating more of an audience. And I sell a lot of poetry, partly because i'm a poet and thats what i'm stocking. But i've been very pleased at how many books I sell to people in their teens and twenties and how much people seem to be reading. Of course, since Corona hit there's alot more time to read and listen to music. Ironically what i'm doing almost seems more necessary.
Ai: Do you consider your work a public service?
Brett: I don't think there's ever been a shop quite like my own. When I was coming up there were clearly a lot of funky shops that were a projection of the owner's personality. I think that's something that's disappeared over the years. When Amazon and the internet came out, for small businesses the profit margins just werent there. I've been falling back on money I squirreled away as a teacher. This business has been dicey for me but its something I really want to invest into. I think young people are blown away and surprised when they encounter a unique and funky place that's aggressively curated and idiosyncratic, and I think people are digging that. I think also the non-binary social revolution we're going through encourages everyone to put their freaky self out there a little more. And I think that creates an audience for weird places like this. That was the one thing that made me reluctant to shut down at first, before we understood the full gravity of this [pandemic], I know that a lot of people get psychic and emotional solace coming into a beautiful, clean, aesthetically inspiring people enviornment and meeting like minded people, and talking about big ideas or little ideas together. And thats something that pains me to subtract from the community because I do see Surface Noise as much about community building and creating community as a place of commerce. I don't give a shit if you buy something or not when you come in here; that's why there are chairs. You can hang out talk, and if your'e moved to buy something cool, that's only one part of what i'm trying to offer. I'm an only child, i'm used to spending time alone, my capacity for solitude is pretty much through the roof. I didn’t realize how much i missed this place and sharing this place with other people until I had to close down for 5 months. And when we re-opened just the palpable excitement that people have had coming back in and seeing nice things, and thumbing through what i've got, that's been very fulfilling and very validating.