Mary Lucia: Q&A with Eric Isaacson of Portland's Mississippi Records

Eric Isaacson
Eric Isaacson in his store, Mississippi Records, in Portland, Ore. (Simone Muller)

Earlier this year, the Washington Post did a feature on a Eric Isaacson, a record store and record label owner from Portland, Ore.; Isaacson seemed like a fascinating person, so I wanted to get to know him a little better.

We got in touch, and Eric took the time to answer all the kooky questions I threw at him. Here's what Eric had to say:

MARY LUCIA: What you've created is so unique in the sense that your choices seem to be formed on autonomy and not a conventional business plan. Did you make it up as you went along?

ERIC ISAACSON: I absolutely made it up as I went along. Never in my life did I have any aspirations to be a businessman of any kind, and I started the business with no plan. I really started Mississippi Records just because I was having trouble finding a job elsewhere. On our first day, I had spent every dime I had except for $50 in one- and five-dollar bills as change for the register. I had no plans on what to do if we did not make the rent for next month. I pretty much expected the place to go under in the first three months, and I was pleasantly surprised when it did okay.

A lot of my personal quirks accidentally helped make us successful in the early days. Not being on the internet (just because I did not understand it or have a computer) created some weird mystique and intrigued folks enough to seek us out more aggressively. Working with fringe genres such as African guitar music, Gospel and blues (just because those were my favorites) let us dominate markets where no one else was releasing any records in on vinyl. Making janky homemade covers (because I did not know much about design) made our stuff stick out on the racks of record stores, and so on. Ultimately, the success came from the quality of the music shining through all my buffoonery. We've released undeniably great stuff on our label, and our store has really good stock — I ain't afraid to brag about that.

All these counterintuitive things I did mainly due to my limitations ended up working out for me for a while, but nowadays, these quirks are working against me a bit, at least financially. Still, I've grown maybe too comfortable with these formulas and have no plans to change. We are more or less successful these days despite my stupid business practices.

Do you think this operation works successfully because you're based in Portland? Could you see yourself doing this in another city?

I don't think i could have started my shop or label anywhere but Portland. Hell, I could not even have started it in Portland nowadays, what with the rents being so high and the city being overrun by great record stores. Luckily, I got my foot in the door at a time when there was not as much going on record-wise in my neighborhood, and it was cheap and easy to start up something like my operation. We are definitely the product of a time and place in Portland that is long gone, and we are definitely an outgrowth of this community. I was incredibly lucky with my timing.

Music consumption as a younger person struggling to figure out where they fit or don't fit in the world is crucial. What records saved your life?

The first music that made me suspect that there is a bigger, better, more beautiful world out there than the one I was stuck in were classic rock, soul and R&B being played on the radio (Beatles, Stones, Buddy Holly, Kinks, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan and so on). I think I can safely say that stuff saved my life.

When I was around 13, hearing "Cool Drink of Water" by Tommy Johnson really changed everything. I heard it on the college radio station, and I could not identify what kind of music it was for the life of me — it sounded so much like it was from another world, and yet completely encapsulated how I felt inside. I went to the record store and tried to figure out what the hell this sound was (I missed the announcer telling me on the air). I could not tell if it was a white person or black person, it sounded sort of country and sort of like blues, but nothing like the types of either I had heard before. I was obsessed with it and spent two years trying to find it. It led me down a wormhole into discovering country blues, which is still my favorite kind of music.

Other records that saved my life when i was young include The Kinks, Village Green Preservation Society; Beach Boys, Pet Sounds;Hank Williams — EVERY ONE!
Various artists, Really! The Country Blues and Country Blues Encores (on the OJL label); Charlie Patton, King of the Delta Blues; Skip James, 1931 Sessions; and Blind Willie Johnson, Praise God I'm Satisfied. I wish I could recapture the thrill of first hearing those records. Nowadays I'm still just chasing the dragon.

Describe some of your favorite regulars to the store.

I love when kids come in and buy their first record ever. Yesterday a seven-year-old came in and bought a Leonard Cohen record as her first.

I have one regular who drives me nuts. His name is Mondela. He has come in almost every day for the past 14 years and listens to records at our listening station while dancing and making disturbing grunting noises. Once a month, he buys a dollar record — I usually let him slide and get it for 25 cents — and he then gives the record to the punk house down the street. Sometimes I have a sad realization that Mondela is the most regular consistent relationship I have in my life. He exhausts me, but I have grown to love him over the years. God damn family.

I also love Nick, who started coming into my store to buy soul records when he was 13 and is now 26. I really do love all of our regulars. Sometimes I think there is a magic forcefield around our store, keeping chumps away.

When Peter Buck first approached you to put out his solo record, did you consider not doing it for any reason?

I considered not doing it for Peter's sake! Peter is a friend of mine, and I thought him putting out a record on my label was career suicide. Once I talked with him about it and realized that I, in fact, fit into his plan to just make music for the sheer joy of it and only work with friends, I got more comfortable with it. I really am one of the worst labels a living artist could choose to be on. I do zero promotion, have no internet presence and I don't try to hock wares to movies or commercials for licensing. It's really inspiring to see someone like Peter, who has been through the commercial machine, choose to go small and simple and work with a podunk operation like mine. I suspect it's because he wants to be on the same label as all the great African, blues and early-rock music I put out, and he knows I will never bug him to do anything he doesn't want to do — and who can blame him?

It seems that every day is Record Store Day for you so there is no need for hoo-ha. Do people still come to your store expecting hot dogs, pony rides and face painting on April 22?

Nope! We are famous in Portland for being major curmudgeons who do not participate in Record Store Day. No harm, no foul. It's just not our scene and everyone seems to somehow know it. Last Record Store Day, I forgot it was Record Store Day until about five hours into my shift!

If you were to mail me five singles that would make me a better person, which ones would you choose?

Johnnie Frieson, "Have you been good to yourself?"

Joe Tex, "The Love You Save"

Irma Thomas, "Wish Someone Would Care"

Exuma, "You Don't Know What's Going On"

Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra, "Enlightenment"

It's hard as hell to pick just five! I could have gone 300 if you would have asked. The next 10 runner-ups were all Gospel tunes.

Have you ever slept in your store?

Yep! We've also had people living in the store back in the day! Bed mats were hidden under the racks. Really.

When you were a kid, did you take care of your records, or were they laying about without a jacket near a radiator?

I never really had records when I was a kid — just cassettes I made from taping stuff off the radio. I kept them all in a cardboard box willy-nilly. Once I got records when I was a teenager, I treated them like sacred totem objects and was very respectful towards them.

If you could have one song played every time you enter a room which would it be?

Moondog, "Pastoral" … or maybe Baby Huey's, "Hard Times."

Resources


"R.E.M.'s Peter Buck needed a new label. The one he chose won't take your credit card" - Washington Post story by Geoff Edgers

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  • Eric Isaacson
    Eric Isaacson poses with a giant beer in Kulgera, Northern Territory, Australia (Darren Hanlon)

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