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Oblique & Bent
 with Aquarium Drunkard

An evening at Gold Diggers, vectors of Angeleno strangeness, and the nonlinear, multihyphenate musicverse of Aquarium Drunkard’s Justin Gage
By Adam Vine|
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Photographed by Caitlin G. Dennis

What kind of man spends his life digging? It’s the second question on my mind, in a room full of vinyl, Blood on the Tracks on the turntable, two cans of Mexican beer sweating nearby, with an interview in full swing, while I’m still trying to understand what I’m writing about: What is Aquarium Drunkard? 

Justin Gage founded Aquarium Drunkard in the Spring of 2005, and after nearly 15 years, he himself still struggles to define what it is. In the beginning, Aquarium Drunkard was a music blog at a time when there weren’t many. “The landscape was totally different,” Justin says. “People associated blogs with politics.” 

Justin found himself dissatisfied with most of the music writing he’d been reading, so he stopped playing music, started doing the writing himself, and devoted his words to whatever music captured his attention. The site’s popularity grew quickly, and within a year, he’d quit his day job. 

He wanted to give “an equal platform” to different kinds of music, regardless of age or genre, and he has. Although the site avoids most contemporary hip-hop, electronic, and classical, it covers the global hum of nearly everything else: soul, Afrobeat, krautrock, Japanese post-punk, gospel, psychedelia, avant-garde funk, jazz, and beyond. In Justin’s words, “it’s probably easier to talk about what we don’t cover.”

Aquarium Drunkard now has a full-time editor, seven regular writers, and a rotating cast of guest contributors in a pantheon of modern music. Crucially, Aquarium Drunkard now calls itself an “online music magazine,” but it’s more akin to an independent media conglomerate. Its universe consists of the website (www.aquariumdrunkard.com), which is full of interviews, articles (not reviews, per se), and links to live shows and lost recordings found in the depths of the internet, as well as a newsletter, a satellite radio show on Sirius/XM (Wednesday nights on Channel 35 at 7pm PST), Lagniappe Sessions (short-form recordings of newer artists), Autumn Tone Records (an independent label), occasional concert promotion, and it now extends into Justin’s partnership in a Los Angeles hotel-bar-recording studio called Gold Diggers. 

Serial bar auteur Dave Neupert (of L.A.’s Footsie’s, The Short Stop, Melody Lounge, NOLA’s R Bar, and more) brought Justin into the Gold Diggers venture with the idea of creating the lived experience of Aquarium Drunkard. That’s what they’ve attempted on a grey, lonesome stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, near Western Avenue. But we start our evening in Justin’s home office, on a hillside in northeast Los Angeles, surrounded by vinyl and those two sweating cans of beer.

While fiercely independent, Aquarium Drunkard’s focus, or lack thereof, represents a purposeful expansion of the singular indie rock obsessions of other music sites. The name originates from the first line of a Wilco song on the 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but the college radio and music blog staples of “white, guitar driven” songs don’t do it for Justin: “It’s incredibly banal,” he adds. “Not interesting to me.” 

A look back at Aquarium Drunkard’s Best of 2009 list reveals a time capsule of Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire, and Animal Collective, as well as Tune-Yards, the godfather of Ethiopian jazz, Mulatu Asteke, and alt-country legend Vic Chestnutt. “We sat out some trends,” Justin acknowledges—“we waited out chillwave”—in order to stay true to the mission, and it seems to have worked. The site’s recent features include interviews with Lee “Scratch” Perry and David Berman of the Silver Jews, as well as a link to an Alice Coltrane live show from 1972. Justin has interviewed the man, Jeff Tweedy, who wrote the lyric that inspired the name. 

Aquarium Drunkard is not all about Justin, or any one point of view. They “review things all the time,” but never use a rating system. The site’s motto is “only the good shit,” so if they cover an album, it has already been deemed “good.”

The only commonality to the site’s content that Justin can name is that there’s “something oblique, something bent” about what they cover. He attributes his open-ended taste in music to his upbringing in Georgia and his father’s record collection (“My dad was a music freak”). I’d posit the I-10 freeway as the true backbone of Aquarium Drunkard, stretching from Justin’s childhood home in Atlanta, through New Orleans, so much Texas, Tucson, and into his present home in Los Angeles.

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By collapsing time and genre, but keeping a simple layout, the website presents a non-linear stream of gems. Something like the Criterion Collection for music comes to mind. It’s the fruit of all the digging, without any of the snark that pervades modern music criticism.

Justin himself works in a room full of records, not so full as to suggest hoarding, not so organized as to overwhelm with a sense of compulsion. The vinyl is loosely grouped by genre, with artists’ work grouped together un-alphabetically within that. When Justin puts on the Dylan record, it might seem too obvious, but in the context of the day, it feels right. He stands up when the first side finishes and flips it over. In the silence hang the questions: At a time when independent media and independent musicians alike are struggling to sustain themselves, can a project without a defined identity, a name for its vertical, survive? 

In the nearly 15 years since Aquarium Drunkard’s launch, music blogs surged in popularity, for a while, but now the tide has gone out again. When it comes to music blogs, Justin says, “We’re back to ‘there aren’t any.’ There just aren’t many independent voices out there that haven’t been acquired by a big media company.”  

If you haven’t been following the health of music blogs or independent media, consider this: In 2011, Stereogum won the Village Voice’s “music blog of the year” award. In 2016, Stereogum became a part of the Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group, in 2017, the Village Voice stopped printing paper editions, and in 2018, the Voice announced that it was closing altogether.

“You have to invest in these institutions that are not driven by economics,” Justin says. “We’ve seen what happens when that is the case,” he says with a nod to the recent story about the Universal Music fire, which destroyed decades of master recordings of some of the most important music of the 20th century. It bothers Justin: “There’s gotta be some custodianship of art and culture.”

Fast forward to now, and Aquarium Drunkard has launched a new Patreon campaign to help support itself. There’s a public radio feel to what Aquarium Drunkard offers: They provide a public benefit, in the form of a steady stream of mind-expanding information from all over the world, and if you pledge now, you’ll get the tote bag, exclusive mixes, special vinyl editions, and other goodies. No Ken Burns DVDs, though. 

When the second side of Blood on the Tracks finishes, we take a Lyft to Gold Diggers. Call it East Hollywood, but the neighborhood sits somewhere in the overlapping borderlands of Hollywood, Thai Town, Little Armenia, and Koreatown. Add a significant Salvadoran influence, and underneath all of that rests Los Angeles’ inherent Mexican-ness. The landscape of strip malls, laundromats, pupuserias, and Oaxacan mini-markets, just three and a half blocks from Hollywood Forever cemetery, means that Gold Diggers’ location is peak Los Angeles, and it’s bent indeed. Decades, regions, and immigrant cultures have collapsed onto and into one another, thereby creating inseparable layers of Angeleno strangeness.

Gold Diggers used to be a strip club dive bar where dancers wore bikini tops, and now it’s a new media multi-hyphenate. Is this gentrification? Third-wave cocktail culture? From the sidewalk, very little has changed. The partners kept the Gold Diggers name and its kitschy sign. Our Lyft driver asks, “Is it still kinky?”

Justin laughs and says no. 

He’s right; it’s classy. The bar’s dimly lit, as candles flicker, a few chandeliers and a strobe add some atmosphere, and the artist known as Sinkane is in the DJ booth, spinning some jams. We order mezcal from the ample bar. More beer shows up in cans. Drinks aren’t cheap, but they’re not too expensive. The crowd is mixed and still growing at 10 on a Sunday night. A few young people of color chill, flirt, and sway to the music, while one or two older white folks dance alone. (Is that dancing?)

The concept of Gold Diggers is stated as “Drink. Sleep. Record.” While two of the three may be extraneous to a tourist or business traveler, the trilogy represents a self-contained dream for a musician. The jukebox in the bar beckons with classic green neon, and it still plays CDs curated by Justin. That feels vintage now. The original jukebox from the old Gold Diggers bar, a behemoth the size of a newborn Cadillac, sits in the hallway of the recording studio that’s tucked behind the bar.

The space that’s now Gold Diggers’ recording studio once housed Ed Wood’s soundstage, and portions of Plan 9 from Outer Space are said to have been shot there. It then became Shamrock Studios, a low-rent rehearsal space where bands like The Germs, Guns n’ Roses, and Slayer practiced. Now that the ghosts of B-movie sci-fi and 1980s hard rock have been silenced, spotless poured cement floors lead you back to the nine studios. In Studio 1, where Danger Mouse and Karen O recorded together, a vintage analog mixing board—an API 2448—casts its amber light on the dark room. 

No matter how many hyphens, can one establishment encompass cult sci-fi, mezcal, Guns n’ Roses, Sinkane, Parquet Courts, Oaxacan markets, Danger Mouse, and the Beach Boys? Or is this simply the reality of any address in Los Angeles?

We walk around to the hotel, located above the bar. It has a luxe, noirish feel—a cross between an SRO and a boutique hotel (see: Hotel San Jose or any one of Liz Lambert’s hotels in Austin or Marfa). All of the rooms have turntables and records, as well as thick windows to mute the noise of Santa Monica Boulevard. All of the paintings in the hotel were painted by Parquet Courts singer A. Savage, and on the pillows, instead of mints, they’ve placed an LP. It’s a mix, curated by Justin specifically for hotel guests, called “Pastiche Beach.” 

The title names one of my fears. At what point does the curation, collecting, digging, and nostalgia blur into pastiche? When does the original become confused with the copy? Pastiche Beach contains songs that sound so much like the Beach Boys, you’d think they were Beach Boys songs, but they’re not. Yet they all stand up as quality songs on their own. At times they’re soundalikes, at others, mere homages. The aptly named Pastiche Beach succeeds because it avoids sunshine and surf tropes in favor of the cracked kaleidoscope of the Beach Boys’ post-Manson output.

I begin to wonder if the stack of cultural references adds character to the place or simply devolves into nonsense. No matter how many hyphens, can one establishment encompass cult sci-fi, mezcal, Guns n’ Roses, Sinkane, Parquet Courts, Oaxacan markets, Danger Mouse, and the Beach Boys? Or is this simply the reality of any address in Los Angeles?

Back in the bar, Sinkane transitions from West African horns into Steely Dan. The young people keep flirting and dancing. And just when I’m wondering whether Charles Bukowski or Arthur Lee would even be allowed in this bar, a soused middle-aged white guy who looks like a regular, more of a private detective than a cop, stumbles up with a smile and says to me, “Zabazu, zabazee, zabaza,” and it makes sense, nothing makes sense, and it all makes sense.

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