Audiophiles I know: Zach Cowie Part Two

This is the second half of a two-part interview with Zach Cowie (first part HERE), the Emmy-nominated music supervisor, former record label man and band manager, DJ, slow-music entrepreneur and audiophile with bonafides. I traveled to Los Angeles in June for work and was able to connect with Cowie in person to not only meet in a shady hotel room to record a podcast with him and Brian Hunter (included below), but also to spend an afternoon at his loft in downtown LA and check out his Shindo-based hi-fi rig. In this part of our interview, Cowie discusses his unique angle on maintaining a 10,000+ record collection, why he has eschewed digital, his break away from social media and cell phones and what his record-buying routine entails.

RA: Talk to me about the realization of what the mobile phone was doing to your ability to be present and undistracted.

ZC: As for phones, about four years ago I started to recognize that they were creating bad habits in my life and I very consciously started to phase them out (I dare anyone to get lower ‘weekly screen time’ numbers than me! Ha!). In doing so, I bonded with other friends who were doing the same and began to realize that I wasn’t the only one who needed a break. This newfound importance of disconnecting leant itself perfectly to the ‘deep listening’ environment the bar (In Sheep’s Clothing) was built around, so we ran with it and do our best to enforce a 'no phones' policy. 

Garrard and EMT-fronted, Shindo-based hi-fi at Cowie's LA loft.

RA: You're a vinyl junkie and rightfully so, (I curate and maintain my own modest racks of flat black gold and love LP collecting) as I am the editor of a streaming music website that focuses on high-end gear for computer-audio playback, can I ask you, do you think digital can sound as good as analog? I'm often torn because as good as some DACs and streamers sound, the comparison is always to vinyl playback. Why can we not shake the decades of staying power that the LP has usurped as supreme high-fidelity playback device?

ZC: I started buying records in high school and just love the act of it. For whatever reason, I chose it as my preferred format. Through digging, buying, selling, trading, DJ’ing, etc. I met all the people who would be my lifelong friends. Through playing these records for people in clubs, I got to travel the world. I look at these records and it all comes back to me – the people and the places. I just don’t have that connection with anything digital and, frankly, I don’t need to because at this point I have an entire loft full of insane records.

Lately I’ve started to think of music as a pie chart— 50 per cent of that pie is the song itself and the other 50 per cent is the personal journey/people/places it took to find that music and those connections created. The digital thing will never give me that 100 per cent, so I don’t even bother. The only thing I use it for is to audition new releases (or new discoveries of older things) on my headphones. If I think it’s good enough, I find the vinyl, which usually makes its way to me with some kinda story attached. The final nail in the digital coffin is the realization that doing this activity which I love more than just about anything in the world for 20+ years now has left me with quite a valuable record collection. I’ve joked in the past about selling it all and buying a house — but what the hell would I want to do in a house with no records!?

"I’ve joked in the past about selling it all and buying a house — but what the hell would I want to do in a house with no records!?" – Zach Cowie

Podcast interview with Zach Cowie and Brian Hunter

RA: You're into a radical amount of differing types of music from what I've culled from previous interviews and the several shows I've heard on NTS Live radio with your Play It As It Lathes series. Everything from Albion and  Durutti Column to Hans Otte and Philip Sanderson can be featured in a segment, Can you talk about how all these disparate sounds engage you? Music tends to have not only lasting impacts, but lasting echoes as well... What's it like finding these artists and how does each new album that speaks to you affect your consciousness and DJ/mix tapes over time? Does one great find usually lead to another because of cross pollination works between artists, ie; collaborations and one-off ensemble LPs? Or is it random with similar veins found via universal musical synaptic misfirings?

ZC: I’m a firm believer in removing all categorization from music (genre, time period, language, etc.) and just thinking about it all in terms of GOOD or BAD. I like to think i’m into everything that’s GOOD, no matter where you’d file it at the record shop, and i’ve been looking everywhere for it tirelessly since I was a teenager. In terms of the things you heard on my Play it as it Lathes series- I think the more ambient/abstract/experimental nature of what ended up there was a bit of a retaliation to what gets thrown at me all day as a music supervisor. I try my best to hide from label/publisher/manager pitches, but they inevitably find me, and more often than not the music they’re pushing is lifeless, derivative, overly lyrical, and reeking of commercial intention.

The art of storytelling as we tour Cowie's collected works.

This was all totally subconscious and something I’m only recognizing now that you’ve asked, but I think the NTS show (Lathes) was a way for me to always have something musical to escape to and hide in so the ‘business’ side of music that I deal with by day didn’t kill me. The only real thru-line with the things I play on there is that very few of these artists were in it for the money… they just had sounds in them that needed to come out. That’s something I’m naturally drawn to in music —  if there’s two things I listen for, it’s honesty and authenticity.

As for mixing the shows themselves — I’m constantly buying records and I make notes of tracks I like before filing the new arrivals up on my shelves. Those shows begin with a handful of songs pulled from new arrival notes and are filled out by things that I’ve had for a while that I think compliment those tunes. It’s always from vinyl and it’s never planned beyond the day I’m making them. I never revisit the shows — I just make ‘em, put ‘em there, and hope they find someone who cares! 


dadracer's picture

Can you please tell me what these speakers in Zachs system as I cant find this in the article. Excellent read and very jealous of the EMT turntable

Rafe Arnott's picture
There's a link to Part One of the interview with Zach where his whole system is listed.


grantray's picture

...and rad to get a read on his approach to music regardless of genre. Burial to Pharaoh to Crosby to ECM because of the search for the Good? Man, that's the way. Especially because I'm a typical early 40-something recovering art-schooler that, like many of us from that era, spent the better part of the 90s amassing a couple thousand records before the internet became all-powerful.

Then it got even better with the podcast.

Lots of records and rad gear is cool, but Cowie's ability to bridge creativity with managing skills, and to frame those challenges the way he does, is the thing that's really exceptional. That was my favorite part of the podcast. Looking forward to more of these, and his bar is totally on my shortlist next time I'm in DTLA.

jky999's picture

The favorite part of this for me was culling out the herd. That part resonated. That and speakers as shrine. I used to regularly sort through my collection to get rid of stuff that wasn't worthy of a fully-intentioned listen.

I also like the self-imposed restraint. Yes, I have a problem and I'm trying to manage it:)

Everything about this hits a little too close to home.