Audiophiles I know: Zach Cowie Part One

When I meet someone new and conversation inevitably turns to what it is both of us pursue for a living, people look at me in one of two ways when I tell them what I do: They either nod and give me a polite smile, having no real interest or their gaze intensifies, they lean in and they give me a knowing look because they love music too.

Audiophiles. We’re a strange breed in a way, I mean, how many of you have had people shake their head or whoop with laughter when you tell them what your speakers, DAC, turntable or, God forbid, power cables cost – my family thinks I’m a bit obsessed, but they appreciate good sound, so they tolerate my mantra of being a ‘music first gear fetishist.’

The thing is, once you’ve heard some of your favourite music on a truly great sound system, it’s hard to un-hear it. Suddenly whatever set-up you had been listening to music on seems rather diminished in comparison, regardless of how serious about your hi-fi you may be – I know I’ve been there – and you find yourself pining for the fjords as it were.

So, regardless of what darkened haunts we’ve emerged from as primitive LP/CD hunter-gatherers, live music aficionados, digital druids perfecting tags on high-res downloads, or crazed gear fetishists with closets full of NOS tubes for 2A3 power amps, there’s a commonality that brings us together in appreciation and respect for the recorded event.

That’s where the idea for this new series first saw germination – the realization that no matter where we started, we ended up here for a reason; we love the music.

So, it was with much difficulty and thought process that I set out to choose who I would want to ask to be interviewed as the premier candidate for this series. It's not an easy one to do necessarily because I wanted to experience and photograph each interviewee in their personal spaces. I know many incredibly interesting people within the high-fidelity industry whom I could tap for these stories, but I wanted to cast the net further, dig into an angle of this hobby – which, like a Venn Diagram, touches many aspects of the music and recording industry in varying degrees – that I wasn’t necessarily familiar with. The name which kept popping up on my radar was that of Zach Cowie; Emmy-nominated music supervisor, former record label man and band manager, DJ, slow-music entrepreneur and audiophile with bonafides. The fact that he is regarded as a great guy by anyone whose name I mentioned him to only made the choice that much easier. His unique story on why he maintains a 10,000+ record collection and has eschewed digital also spoke to me because that choice is a heartfelt one and not a ‘digital vs. vinyl’ debate that so many in the hobby get caught up in.

I hope you will enjoy this window onto an audiophile and music lover's life and join me for future instalments as time, circumstance and travel allow.

An ethos in art reflected in Cowie's home

Q&A with Zach Cowie

Rafe Arnott: Zach, you've been immersed in various music scenes and the business itself for many years now. You started out in record stores, moved on to record companies and now you work as a music consultant for film and television (Emmy nomination for Master of None. Congrats!). Can you talk to me a little about what it has been like to be involved for so long in a pursuit of a passion that pays the bills?

This is correct! I started working at a record store in Chicago when I was a kid, which lead quite naturally into four consecutive record label positions which ran me thru my 20s (Touch & Go, Sub Pop, Drag City, Rhino— and I continue to produce the occasional reissue for Light in the Attic), during this time I also tour managed (or DJ’d) with a lot of musicians I really like (Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Smog, Bonnie Prince Billy, Pantha du Prince, Vashti Bunyan, Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes, etc). I began doing music for film/TV/ads about six years ago (I’m 38 now) and have been DJ’ing with some regularity since back in the record store days. There was never really much of a plan — my goal in life has always been to share the music that I’ve deemed worth sharing and I’ve been fortunate enough that my curiosity has landed me in many of the right places at many of the right times. 

RA: Where did your appreciation for music come from? Was it a family member, or something you discovered yourself and cultivated? For example, I grew up, literally on the Persian rug between my dad's speakers while he and his brothers spun LP after LP and I played with Star Wars Lego, ignorant of what was really happening. I didn't know it at the time, but this was critically formative to my music knowledge and tastes that rose to the surface years later. Did something similar happen with you?

Dropping in on an EMT 930 turntable

ZC: The seeds were first planted by my grandma who has a love of traditional folk music of all kinds. She’d play my sister, cousins and I insanely dark murder ballad’y stuff when we were little kids. none of us realized that this was kinda weird music to play for children until we were much older. The next major moves were an introduction into Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead by a friend's older brother, I think that was about 4th grade. This was love at first listen and iIm extremely proud to remain a lifelong Deadhead.

The rest is a bit of a mystery. I have a very distinct memory of hearing Stereolab playing from a friend’s older sister’s room when I was either 15 or 16 – this hit hard and lead me into record stores looking for this and anything else like it. a turntable soon followed... Stereolab and Yo la Tengo were huge bands for me as a kid. They’re the ones that got me started on the idea of looking backwards while I was moving forward. This was a bit tougher to pull off pre-Internet but even still, it didn't take long for me to start drawing lines from Stereolab back to things like the Free Design, Brigitte Fontaine, all the Krautrock greats, BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers, etc. Between those connections and studying the bands Yo la Tengo would cover (Kinks, Big Star, John Cale, Sun Ra, Cat Stevens, etc.), as well as the artists This Mortal Coil were pulling from (Roy Harper, Tim Buckley, Chris Bell, Gene Clark, etc.), I was starting to form a knowledge base. Once a new sound ‘clicked,’ the next thing I did was find out what inspired that and so on, and so on. When you do this for a long enough time, you start to drop ideas/restrictions like genre, language, and time period — everything is related and there are only two types of music— good and bad.

It’s funny, now that I’m in my late 30s, it seems as though I’ve made it all the way to the beginning — I’m spending most of my time (and money) researching classical and ethnographic records.

Rare pressings and obscure labels abound in Cowie's collection.

RA: You've been involved in DJing for a number of years and gig around Los Angeles and California in a reasonably regular fashion as far as I know. Can you talk a bit about the sharp, pointy bit where analog meets digital culture when you're doing a show and how bizarre it can seem when people seem less interested in the music and more interested in seeming interested in the music for social media cachet? Did these experiences help drive your interest in getting people back to basics with music 101 which I touch in in the next question?

ZC: I might not have the greatest answer for this since I’ve never DJ’d with any digital material, I only spin records. I also have no social media (kinda hate it, in fact). I’m also not DJ’ing nearly as much as I used to. This comes from a handful of reasons; the first being availability… after the Master of None/Emmy stuff, music supervision has become a much bigger part of my life. So much so that it’s been increasingly difficult to find the brain space to do anything outside of that. Another factor is the sad truth that DJ’ing has lost quite a bit of the fun for me. Internet record culture has done wonders in terms of unearthing all that’s ever been great— this is ultimately a GOOD thing, but it’s made DJ’ing a bit boring since most of the heads seem to know everything now.

I got into this to turn people on to music during a time when a very effective way to do this was to stand in front of folks and play it for them. Lately I just don’t feel as connected to the crowd. I blame phones for most of it. Beyond the obvious bummer of seeing people looking at their phones on the dance floor – you’ve also lost one of the greatest joys of DJ’ing; that little line of people that starts at the DJ booth asking to ID a crazy track you played. Stupid Shazam killed that part. Don’t get me wrong, it will always be in my blood and there are definitely still DJ’s I really look up to and admire… I’m just not sure what all I have to contribute to that world nowadays.

DeVore Fidelity O/96 loudspeakers with part of Cowie's extensive LP collection.


blang11's picture

Interesting perspective on music, gear, and modern attitudes about music appreciation (for better or worse). KILLER room and HiFi!

volvic's picture

Very enjoyable!

Rafe Arnott's picture
Appreciate the good vibes
ceynon's picture

Looking forward to part two. Wonderful questions and photos (as always).

Rafe Arnott's picture
Too kind! Merci!
foresttireBB's picture

wonderful! i love this guy...can't wait for part 2...thanks for the great interview

Rafe Arnott's picture