15 alternative music stars who got their start working in record stores
Record stores are magical places. A good, well-stocked and curated record shop with a knowledgeable staff can influence tastes, expand horizons and serve as the hub for a local musical community. It can be a community center, a place to meet with your friends, promote your band’s upcoming shows by hanging up flyers, even sell on consignment your homemade 45 with the Xeroxed sleeve and labels you and your bandmates assembled with a few glue sticks on a beer-fueled assembly line the night before. Or sell your Xeroxed fanzine. The clerks can serve as gurus of sorts, tastemakers who can steer you to cool new releases, guiding you to the good stuff. (Which might be generous—at least eight times out of 10, the guy working the counter is more like Jack Black’s burnt-out snob Barry in 2000’s High Fidelity, screaming at you for approaching the register with the new Green Day record when you should be buying Stiff Little Fingers.)
So is it surprising at all when considering the number of musicians who have sustained themselves working in a record store during the lean years? They’d be paying the bills with something still involving music, even if “paying the bill” might be stretching it a might. The Muffs’ Ronnie Barnett acknowledges he’s worked most of his life in record retailers. Some bands actually formed in record shops—in Hüsker Dü’s case, even rehearsing in one. Axl Rose confessed he put Guns N’ Roses’ entire original lineup on the payroll when he managed Tower Records’ video outlet on Sunset in Hollywood. (Perhaps Tower deserves a medal or some sort of award for the sheer number of future rock heroes it employed over the years?) Most importantly, every last musician chronicled below confesses he or she had their musical tastes blown wide open by their days stocking the racks and clicking the pricing guns. It is with that knowledge that Alternative Press presents 15 musicians who got their start as record store employees.
Iggy Pop (The Stooges, solo)
“I got my name, my musical education and my personality all from working at a record store during my tender years,” Iggy Pop said in a video released when he was an honorary ambassador for Record Store Day 2012. The human missile who fronted history’s first punk band, the Stooges, was employed at Ann Arbor’s Discount Records in the mid-’60s, stocking shelves when he was Jimmy Osterberg, teenage drummer for local garage rockers the Iguanas. Store manager Hugh “Jeep” Holland was a local music mover and shaker, booking agent/manager/producer of now-legendary bands such as SRC and the Rationals and founder of A-Square Records. It was Holland who nicknamed him “Iggy,” mocking his band. The store’s employees took up a collection to fund an extended sojourn to Chicago to learn blues drumming from Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Sam Lay. He returned six months later, determined to front a delinquent band featuring local hoodlum brothers Ron and Scott Asheton.
Grant Hart and Greg Norton (Hüsker Dü)
In See A Little Light, his 2011 autobiography, Hüsker Dü leader Bob Mould wrote of a fateful 1978 day walking past Cheapo Records in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was attending Macalester College. Hearing the attendant clerk spinning cutting-edge records from X-Ray Spex and Pere Ubu on a PA setup outside to entice customers, Mould went in to introduce himself to Grant Hart. Conversation led to closing Cheapo so Hart could accompany Mould to his dorm to hear him play guitar. “We gotta play together,” Hart finally managed. “I play drums. I know someone who’s got a bass.” This was Greg Norton, an employee of Northern Lights Records. Soon, they were in the latter store’s basement, rehearsing and writing songs behind the back of putative keyboardist Charlie Pine. Once he was kicked out, they named themselves Hüsker Dü, after a Scandinavian board game.
Ronnie Barnett (The Muffs)
“When we started, I worked at Doctor Dream Records,” the bassist for the Muffs, the legendary garage/punk/pop outfit led by the late Kim Shattuck, told AP. “They had a retail store in Orange. I’ve basically worked in record stores my whole life, except for 10 years or so when I didn’t need a day job.” When Barnett returned to clock-punching in the ‘00s, he manned the counter of Amoeba Records’ Hollywood location on Sunset, one of the world’s greatest independent vinyl retail outlets. For the past eight-and-a-half years, he’s been employed by West L.A.’s Record Surplus.
Kepi (Groovie Ghoulies)
At the time the Groovie Ghoulies’ trash/glam/punk debut Appetite For Adrenochrome was released, leader Jeff “Kepi'' Alexander was employed by L.A.’s Aron’s Records on Melrose, eventually moving on to their Hollywood Boulevard outlet. “Working at record stores, I learned about consignment and trying to be creative getting your stuff out there,” he told AP. He notes that Adrenochrome’s bassist also worked at Aron’s, and the record was financed with a loan from the owner of Mar Vista’s Record Rover. “It took a couple of years, but we paid back every penny,” Kepi says. “The guy that drew the original Ghoulies logo worked there, too. I guess I owe my band to retail record stores.”
Peter Prescott (Mission Of Burma, Volcano Suns, Kustomized, Peer Group, Minibeast)
“I worked at a record store in the ‘90s,” Peter Prescott, drummer for legendary Boston art-punks Mission Of Burma, told the Village Voice in 2012. In fact, the singing/songwriting skin-slapper worked at a few fine diskeries over the years, including Mystery Train, Looney Tunes and Smash City, where he was interviewed while on the clock as a used buyer for the 2006 Burma documentary Not A Photograph. “Without a doubt, it started at Mystery Train,” Prescott reflected via email. “My tastes and curiosity expanded exponentially, which totally led to my present group [Minibeast] being far weirder than my earlier ones.”
Rachel Haden (that dog., the Rentals)
To say singer/bassist/drummer/keyboardist Rachel Haden boasts a strong musical pedigree is a bit like yawning that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is a pleasant little doodle. Ignoring that list of indie-rock luminaries on her resume, there’s the fact her father is jazz bass colossus Charlie Haden. Then there’s her other two sisters (she’s a triplet)—that dog. bandmate Petra, creator of the genius a cappella remake of The Who Sell Out, and actor Tanya, cellist on that dog. recordings. Rachel punched the clock between tours for many years at the Hollywood Amoeba Records location.
Alejandro Escovedo (The Nuns, Rank And File, True Believers, solo)
Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo—a punk pioneer in San Francisco’s Nuns as well as lead guitarist for one of the earliest bands to fuse punk and country music, Rank And File—is also a member of an esteemed West Coast musical dynasty. The Escovedo clan numbers members of Santana as well ‘80s pop star Sheila E. After the dissolution of True Believers, the driving ‘80s guitar army he co-led with brother Javier (himself a punk vet from the Zeros), Alejandro worked in the vinyl department of prestigious Austin music retailer Waterloo Records.
Pat Smear (Germs, Nirvana, Foo Fighters)
Germs guitarist Pat Smear came to record store employment fairly late in life. Singer/poet/autodestruction machine Darby Crash had been gone 10 years when Black Flag guitarist/SST Records founder Greg Ginn opened a retail outlet in Los Angeles. Kurt Cobain found Smear toiling behind the counter at the SST Superstore just as In Utero was about to be released, inviting him to become the grunge superstars’ second guitarist. It was obviously then that Dave Grohl met Smear, leading to his charter membership in Foo Fighters once Cobain died, bringing Nirvana to an end. Speaking of Grohl…
Dave Grohl (Scream, Nirvana, Foo Fighters)
Before he became the most omnipresent rock musician on the planet in Foo Fighters—before he even became the drummer in early ‘90s grunge monolith Nirvana—Grohl worked for two months in 1990 at Tower Records’ Washington, D.C. store. At one time the world’s most successful record store chain, Grohl recounted in Colin Hanks’ 2015 Tower documentary All Things Must Pass, "I got a job at Tower Records because that is the only place I could get a job with my haircut." When Grohl promoted 1999 Foos release There Is Nothing Left To Lose by working a register for two hours at the Manhattan Tower, he found former D.C. Tower assistant manager Tim Devin was promoted to the NYC store’s general management. When the rocker showed up a few minutes late for the event, Devin wasn't surprised. "He had a little problem with lateness," Devin told MTV News, adding that he was "not a particularly bad employee."
Axl Rose and Slash (Guns N’ Roses)
“I worked at Tower Video for a while,” Axl Rose informed late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel in 2012. Seems in the mid-’80s, the Guns N’ Roses frontman was employed at the video annex directly across the street from the legendary Tower Records store on Sunset. “I became a manager for a very short amount of time,” he continued. “I let everybody have beers after work. I hired everybody else [in GN’R], too. I hired everybody in the old lineup. We had a great time.” According to Slash in his autobiography, he confronted Rose at his workplace after their first band Hollywood Rose broke up over rumors that the singer had slept with the guitarist’s girlfriend. “[Axl] told me of course he did, but that at the time, I wasn’t fucking her, so what did it matter?” he wrote. As a reconciliation gift, Rose offered Slash a job. “Axl always chose to patch things up with grand gestures.”
Rivers Cuomo (Weezer)
“Working there was my crash course in music,” Weezer mainspring Rivers Cuomo said of his 1990 employment at Tower on Sunset in a 2007 Paste magazine piece. A teenage metalhead at the time, Cuomo credits the job with broadening his musical tastes exponentially. “That’s where I first heard Nirvana, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, [the Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds…That was such a great education in music. Without having worked at Tower, I don’t know how I would have moved beyond just listening to heavy metal, and Weezer definitely would have never existed, at least not in the form it exists.”
Ian Curtis (Joy Division)
Before working as a civil servant through Joy Division’s early days, funereal vocalist Ian Curtis was a teenage rock fan in his native Macclesfield fond of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground. He became adept at shoplifting records from local shops out of poverty, presumably before his stint working at Rare Records in Manchester City Centre. As with much of this list’s population, Curtis credited his record shop employment with broadening his musical interests. It was also via a bulletin board ad in Manchester’s Virgin Records Store posted by the members of Warsaw (Joy Division’s original name) that led to Curtis’ joining. Seems record stores loom large in the post-punk heroes’ legend.
Nels Cline (Wilco, solo)
A brilliant avant jazz guitarist who eventually became a key part of Wilco while retaining his solo identity, Nels Cline has made a career out of doing things so astonishing with six strings, he makes many well-known guitarists consider a career change. Before joining Chicago avant-roots collective Wilco, Cline told NPR Fresh Air host Terry Gross in 2017, “I was working for almost 10 years in a record store in West Los Angeles called Rhino Records.” He says the store’s stock of $1 exotica releases—“many of which I put up on the bathroom wall [for] the covers—were direct inspiration for Lovers’ “mood music” album.