Interview & Photos by Eilon Paz
eet Jess Rotter, an incredibly talented illustrator from Brooklyn, NY.
Back about a year ago, while shooting in LA, I was also working on a mixtape for Westelm’s Front & Main culture blog. One of my favorite mixtapes on the blog was by Jess, so I reached out to her and we scheduled a photo shoot for when I return to Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, a couple days later, I met Zach Cowie for a photo shoot in his apartment. The first thing I saw on his wall was an illustration of Robert Wyatt, created by Jess. I told Zach that I recognized that illustration, and he mentioned Jess as one of his dearest friends. So here it is happening again, the vinyl people have a cosmic link to each other, and it really makes me so happy to reveal these connections as I go along.
Your name, age, where are you from, and where do you currently live?
Jess Rotter, 33, Brooklyn NY (Currently in Los Angeles, CA)
What’s playing right now on your turntable?
Na Hawa Doumbia- La Grande Cantatrice Malienne, V. 3-released by the great Brian Shimkovitz of Awesome Tapes From Africa, The Hot Dogs -Say What You Mean (pre-Summer fun), Annette Peacock–X-Dreams, and my best friend Susannah just bought me a Grateful Dead vinyl box set of all the Warner Brothers studio releases, which I can’t turn off…
What was your last purchase?
Athanor-Graveyard, Phil Manzanera Remixes (so expensive, but so awesome), Laurie Spiegel The Expanding Universe reissue, To What a Strange Place Vol. 1 compilation by Mississippi Records, ready to get dark with the latest Death Waltz Horror soundtracks (mind blowing cover art), Affinity’s self-titled reissue.
What was the first album in your collection? How did you get it? At what age? Can you describe that feeling?
Gosh, I would say it was the In Harmony compilations put out by “Sesame Street” that was children’s music sung by heroes like The Doobie Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor (I still listen to “Jelly Man Kelly” all the time), and Bette Midler. Both volumes 1 and 2 were gifts – most likely from family – I would just lay on the floor, stare at the cover art, and sway. Both records were highly influential to my childhood-the artwork nails my wacky sensibility depicting all kinds of psychedelic creatures chilling in the bathtub. Part Peter Max, part Fritz the cat -a match made in Rotter scribble heaven. I still have the originals-featured in this shoot!
This In Harmony compilation series Sesame Street put out is a major influence on my childhood and the first records I owned. Major critter hang in the tub.
Who sparked your love of music?
My Father for sure. It was his collection that opened my eyes and became an old soul super quickly. He made sure I had my own little Fisher Price Record player at a very early age. It was love at first play- even when asleep as a child I would wake up, turn the side the record, then go back to sleep-repeat. My family was all about channels to bring your imagination out-as they firmly believed the world tasted much sweeter that way. Enjoying records was a great way to unleash that…making pictures immediately in your head.
Listening to music via computer speakers is just not as groovy…
Do you focus on a specific musical genre?
I definitely listen for the most part to music of the past, but within that time period- all kinds of genres.
How has your passion for vinyl affected the rest of your life — friends, life partners, lifestyle, jobs?
Vinyl has always been this endearing way of communication I have with people. A friend once told me a life well lived is when you have a heavy music head(s) in tow to teach you about records. Through the years, mixes I have received and exchanged with greats like Zach Cowie (Turquoise Wisdom), Chris Ruggerio (Preservation Sound), Keith Abrahamsson (Mexican Summer), Matt Werth (RVNG) in particular have been constant inspirations and bonds between us. It can get deep! I try to send mixes to friends from time to time, as a little diary of what has been found via myself and others, always hoping to pass those lil zingers on..I still hold on to that gasp passion of learning about music-that enthusiasm and drive never goes away.
This is the gatefold of The Bobby Beausoleil Orkustra album Mexican Summer released in 2009-was a heavy/awesome project to work on and Bobby made this artwork for us whilst in prison. I ended up buying this painting from him and it proudly hangs in my apartment.
You’re an illustrator and a lot of your work is based on music and album covers. How did you get into that?
The music scribbles came to play when I was in college-I spent every summer interning at London/Mo’Wax records in the city, whose aesthetic was heavily built on album art and creative promotion. When I was living a semester abroad in London, my scribbles caught the attention of a clothing label called “Birdie” who commissioned me to do prints and tee shirts paying homage to bands and artists of the past. We did prints for dresses of Elton John’s “Benny and The Jets” and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord“- was such a great and exciting time- I was only 22. One of my favorite designs we did was of the song “Oh Yoko!” which featured John in the middle of a bath calling to a large portrait of Yoko (In Harmony reference, anyone?). When Birdie ended in 2006, I began my own tee shirt line called “Rotter and Friends”, that paid homage to even rarer music of that time like Link Wray, Badfinger, Ya Ho Wha 13, Big Star, and Linda Ronstadt. R + F to this day garners so many supporters and good vibes it definitely helped shape my illustration and painting career to where it is now. It is an honor to still receive letters and mixes from young teenagers and older adults who are looking to learn or reminisce about the records we salute.
The Legendary Christine Perfect Album
I can definitely see an influence from this Hobbit album. was it one of your first records?
This Hobbit record set was actually a recent gift by my friends at Co-Op 87 shop in Brooklyn, but that cartoon was one of the biggest influences of my life. The Rotter household was a major J.R.R. Tolkien headquarters filled with Lord of the Rings books, hand painted Hobbit mirrors, and this movie-which was on major VHS rotation. Rankin and Bass are geniuses…
Country Funk compilation cover I illustrated for Light In The Attic, harping a little Hobbit composition… This was a really amazing project to work on. There’s also a 20-page book w/ more drawings and one of my dearest friends, Jessica Hundley wrote the rad liner notes.
This is a drawing of two record dudes asking the age old question “Can You imagine being able to listen to this record for the first time….again?”. Very 1970’s driven scribbles as usual.
Where do you acquire your vinyl these days: flea markets, record shops, personal dealers, eBay, other online stores?
A dream day is to wake up, grab a coffee, and quietly hit the shops for inspiration. Personally, record stores are like little art galleries and I enjoy them also greatly when out of town. Pretty thankful to receive a number of records on the frequent as gifts-those mean the most as someone had put thought into the piece. Also working at record labels for over ten years is a pretty awesome and easy way to nab vinyl.
What other goodies have you found while looking for records?
I love when people draw on used record covers. It happens a lot with The Beatles, arguing who is the cutest one with little arrows and hearts. (For me, it’s George) One of my favorite pieces is a crayon colored version of Neil Young’s Zuma, which Mike Sniper from Captured Tracks surprised me with when going through records for his shop. Looking at it, you can just imagine the person listening to “Danger Bird” cracklin’ on the stereo, while quietly coloring in the black and white cover drawing-that’s magic.
What do you look for in a record?
Oh I like to listen to something that allows me to escape, place perspective, fall in love, cry, reflect, fantasize, hope, and create.. (not all at once of course.) Good artwork helps too!
French avant garde awesomeness of Ribeiro + Alpes…a serious trip indeed.
Once appearing as the Sesame Street house band, The Deadly Nightshade have a great song on here about female insecurity called “Nose Job” which I am obsessed with and is a mix staple.
What is it about men with mustaches?
Ha! Well gosh-maybe mustaches represent a certain masculine gusto of the era? One of my favorite record ‘staches is Jade Stone’s on the cover of Mosaics: Pieces of Stone. Biker rock and roll fu manchu!
Here is by far one of my favorite records by Jade Stone & Luv called Mosaics Pieces Of Stone. Paul Major said it best: “Groovy love vibes thru a prism of jade statues in swinging singles apartment complex action…” Of course, I had to make a watercolor based on that insane cover…
Jade Stone, currently…and apparently..floating in Space.
Do you think collecting vinyl helps preserve our musical heritage and culture?
The beauty of vinyl is the act and sound-no other format works the same. Music breathes on vinyl, it has heart and forces you to listen in a much different way than an mp3. I enjoy the physicality of the experience.
Do you have a record collecting philosophy? Any special routines when you enter a store?
I definitely always peek at the walls for the store’s weekly “edit” and then head straight to the “New Arrivals” bin. I rarely go to record shops knowing exactly what I want, prefer to just take the ride of digging and see what happens…
What’s your comfort record, the one you can always go back to? What makes it so special?
The Ted Lucas album really makes me feel safe. That man had one of the most beautiful voices out there and the songs are full of warmth. There’s a bootleg version of Neil Young’s song “On The Beach” that will always be a special go to as well for comfort. Also, since my early teens-there is no other band like Led Zeppelin- forever and always.
Back of the Ted Lucas record…a holy one indeed.
Some are blessed with a copy of On The Beach that has floral print from the umbrella featured on the cover, printed inside. Check your copy!
Any unique packaging, shapes or colored vinyl?
A few of the reissues Mexican Summer released years back had some my favorite packaging which included Fraction‘s Moon Blood and Ramases‘s Space Hymns. The Fraction piece had red foil cellophane to reveal a slip out Moon and the Ramases had an 8-foot pull out cover poster of a painting by Roger Dean. Of course Ambrosia’s pop-out prism packaging from Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled is amazing and was later used as influence for The Alps‘ Easy Action. Mo’ Wax did some amazing packaging with their records like the fun UNKLE one featured in this shoot. Of course the Link Wray self-titled album‘s die cut is pretty great. I tend to gravitate towards strong profiles on album covers (ie: John Phillips’ The Wolfking of LA and Bob Dylan’s Desire).
Prism packaging! So cool-from Ambrosia and later the influence for The Alps record, Easy Action.
UNKLE pop up fun from back in the day.
Amazing original Link Wray die cut cover.
Piano fun for Elton John-who I didn’t mention enough in this interview but love to bits.
Show me an unexpected album with unexpected cover
I love this Neil Young live bootleg record from the late 1970’s-it has an adult themed illustrated comic book cover of with a different song title in each stanza told through the eyes of piggies! Super influential!
Amazing Neil Young live bootleg that is laid out with all the songs comic book style-each stanza is a song title from the concert done in piggy vision.
Q: Tell me about a dollar bin record you would never part with.
A: I have 3 dollar bin staples that I always put on mixes and…on the rare occasion DJ, that I shall never part with. Fox- “The Juggler”, The Deadly Nightshades- “Nosejob”, Mr. Indian and Time- “I Want To Be An Eagle”.
I adore the psyche-muppetry of this Mr. Indian and Time record-fave song is called “I Want To Be An Eagle.” RIP Eugene Beyale.
What about digging buddies? Do you share or go solo?
I definitely go solo a lot when record shopping. Though it is nice to visit a shop with a friend in tow, I feel a bit more relaxed on my own, taking my time, etc. Going to record shops where my friends are on staff like Mount Analog, Other Music, and Co-op 87 is the best because they give great advice and guidance on what’s cookin’ on the shelves. I like going to record stores that have “barber-shop” banter.
What’s your saddest record story?
I get pretty choked up whenever I play my mother’s copy of Cat Steven’s “Foreigner Suite.” It’s a beautiful 20 minute song that goes in all different directions musically and takes up one whole side of the record. When she gave it to me and played it for the first time, I was blown away as she took me through the song step by step and revealed a time in her life that seemed to be the best. She brightened up at moments and would get choked up at others- speaking of her youth and certain freedoms that were lost as she became older. Listening to that record for her was like pure time travel and it is a very important and emotional piece to hear-especially as I age and understand more how moments like that matter so much.
List a record or two with the power to heal a broken heart. List a couple more guaranteed to make a broken heart even more painful.
When I was 26, my heart was truly in pieces and Zach sent me a mix that included Judee Sill‘s “The Donor” on it-what a life changing song. To this day, that album-ending opus still gives me goosebumps and tears, but definitely serves as a meditation to release the demons. I was in a record store earlier today and saw the album Heart Food with a big hand-written note taped on top that said: “This one has THE DONOR on it-heavy vibes!” Had to beam as I know most people that heard that song belong to the same club, it is …something.
When I first heard this record, I literally fell on the floor face down. Painful, honest, and gorgeous-this is a very important one. And to think at one point it cost $1.99!
Regrets! Tell us about a great record or two that got away from you.
I remember having a crush on this guy ages ago and basically giving him a giant vinyl Bob Marley box set hoping I’d get a date out of it and that was far from the case. So lame! Gimme that back!
Mentor. Was there a particular person who inspired you to collect records, a role model in the art of record collecting?
This is a no brainer, as Zach Cowie is the most significant musical mentor in my life. We met many years ago when he hired me to work publicity on a Smog record, bonded over The Wolfking Of LA, and formed one of the important friendships I have. Back in the day, he started to send me mixes called “Boot Cuts” that included Terry Reid, Mickey Newbury, Terry Melcher, Judee Sill, Gene Clark and it was like someone sending editions of the bible. To this day, he has been a teacher, frequent collaborator, and responsible for an extreme amount of influences that have saved me.
What do you want to happen to your collection when you check out?
Please have it delivered to my high school and put in the hallways as a free for all. I love to share/talk about the music I scribble with my peers and elders, but it is the kids that need to learn about music the most. We need more filters for them to hear records that come from the heartstrings and be inspired to take those references into something new and lasting just like those albums were.
Who would you like to see profiled next on Dust & Grooves?
It would be sweet to see my fellow record head sisters Mahssa Taghinia (Mount Analog) and Amanda Colbenson (Chouette Shop) profiled. More women need to share their great record collections in this world-we do exist..
Any vinyl thoughts, contemplations, reminiscence?
I was recently in Japan for an art show, and my dear friend Frosty from Dublab had recommended a spot called The Lion to check out in Tokyo. Amongst the Shibuya’d chaos, the old 1920’s building quietly sat and when you entered, it revealed a 2-story gorgeous church-like atmosphere, where instead of an altar, there is a humongous pair of speakers and vinyl everywhere-however there are rules: no talking allowed, no booze, and only classical music is played. It was one of the most spiritual joints I had ever been. The Lion was indeed the temple of vinyl-to know a place like that exists, where people are stopping everything (including their phones) to quietly close their eyes and listen to beauty-that I shall never forget. It’s a shame how often we miss things and people right in front of us, or don’t fully get to experience because we have 50 other things to do in our heads, trying to ‘net edit our egos and existence.
Vinyl helps with that-it forces you to listen in a way that hopefully shuts other things down and for that, I am thankful.
Like the great Willie Nelson said: “Slow down, old world”.
Jess and many other vinyl collectors are featured on the Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting book.
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