BarRoom Blitz: One Bartender/Musician Shares His Playlist Secrets

Zachary Lipez talks TEEN, PWR BTTM and more.

I tend bar at 124 Old Rabbit Club in the West Village. It’s across the street from The Comedy Cellar, if you like to laugh. I’m lucky to work in a bar. When people ask me what I really want to do, I tell them about the dignity of labor, because I’m occasionally too often an insufferable prick and the fact that my band/writing — while not exactly keeping me in wine and roses — also satisfies me is none of their business. I always wanted to be a bartender and I am. But more than all that, I’m lucky that I work for a boss who, when he works a shift, plays the Killed By Death compilations at a trebly tooth-shaking volume, so whatever I play on my shifts, no matter how atonal or violent, is invariably totally cool by him.

Picking the music for the bar is something I probably enjoy/think about way too much. The bartenders and owner all make playlists, but as I work the slower shifts, I often play full albums. Selfishly, I like the sense of immersion, but also I think it’s novel and people seem to like it. I want to play music that people will enjoy. I’m willing to use the word “enjoy” in the broadest sense if I need to. Basically, I don’t want them to leave, but they’re largely there for the beer and each other’s company, so it would be arrogant of me to assume they give much of a shit one way or another what I’m playing. I’m told people come to the bar because we play different kinds of music, but it’s still the background noise to the life they’re living.

This column will be about the albums I play most at the bar in any given month. I’m thinking I’ll keep it to newish albums along with the occasional New York bar classic (Television, Sam Cooke, Cop Shoot Cop, etc.), and give you a little description of the record and why I play it and how customers react (if they do). Feel free to come by the bar and make requests. I play all this off my iPod, so if I don’t have it, I’ll politely tell you “no.” No, I won’t play anything off your phone, and tipping a dollar per drink is customary, thanks.

PWR BTTM, Ugly Cherries: This is the only current band influenced by Weezer that I can stand. Which is good, because I used to play the (’90s movies with amazing soundtracks) Angus and Clueless albums, but now I don’t have to play them and run to the iPod to skip the occasional bummer because PWR BTTM is both those soundtracks combined — but only the hits, man. Also, and this is anecdotal not scientific, PWR BTTM is good luck. Every time I play the album, the bar fills up. Not many people ask about the album, but the ones that do are either older rock dudes or girls with elaborate spectacles. I’m pretty sure those are the last two kinds of human who pay for music, so you’re welcome, PWR BTTM.

Teen Suicide, It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot: This band sounds like a Best of 120 Minutes compilation (with a focus on American Music Club) filtered through the Grifters and Nothing People and a number of other actually bearable lo-fi bands that I’m fully confident that Teen Suicide had never heard prior to recording Honeypot. Sometimes this album is too sad to play at the bar and sometimes it’s just right. It’s twenty-six songs long, too, so it’s perfect when I’m busy so I don’t have to think about it — and if it’s slow, I’ll sometimes stare at an empty unclean glass and by the time “The Things I Love are Killing Me” (track nineteen) comes on, I’ve already run through all the memories of dead friends I feel like going through for one shift and I’m ready to switch the iPod to Gorilla Biscuits. Only one customer asked about the record so far, but he was a good tipper so I’m counting him twice. I should mention that there are lyrics on this album that I would punch a mom to have written myself.

Aziza Brahim, Abbar El Hamada and Soutak: I got this West Saharan singer’s album Abbar El Hamada as a promo and loved it so much that I bought her earlier record, Soutak, and now I play them back to back at the bar. I play a lot of West African guitar music at the bar; it’s often peppy enough for the straights and mournful enough for the goths and everybody likes Dire Straits (in the ’80s there was a massive influx of Dire Straits tapes into Western Africa, so there’s often a hint of Knopfler in the proceedings). Up ’til I started playing Brahim, the biggest customer response I got to any of the music I played was for the Toureg band Tinariwen, Mali’s Songhoy Blues and Mauritania’s Noura Mint Seymali. But customers definitely dig Aziza Brahim’s more afro-Cuban vibe and we have a strong new contender for “Musicians I Like to Think I’ve Increased Their Sales by at Least Five Copies by Playing Them in the Bar (Even Though I Know the Customer Probably Just Added Them to Their Spotify List).”

TEEN, Love Yes: I’m not sure how to describe this one (Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle” as performed by Roxy Music? Prog Teena Marie?) or why I like it (I generally…don’t like this sort of thing…). But I do. Very much. I’d hazard to say that it’s going to be one of my favorites of the year. I think TEEN does fine for themselves, but they don’t seem to have caught fire exactly with audiences or critics. I see that in real-time, as I play the album all the time but few people seem to notice it. There were a few customers in for drinks before they went to see Beach House so I played TEEN for them and they liked it quite a bit. But I still don’t understand why people are wild about Beach House but not about TEEN. I have a theory concerning pot and music that allows people to indulge their own innate solipsism rather than something that asks them to focus outwards, but it’s a work in progress that I can guarantee I’ll never finish. Regardless, I like you, TEEN. The world will come around or it won’t, as the world is, on occasion, pretty dumb.

Behavior, 375 Images of Angels: Behavior are West Coast hardcore weirdoes. VERY shorthand: Their music sounds like a particularly mean Wire/Flipper amalgamation. I play this album late only. One customer told me she loved it, but then she said it sounded like Circle Jerks and asked if she could cut lines on the bar. I told her “no” because it doesn’t sound like Circle Jerks.

Oranssi Pazuzu, Värähtelijä/Obsequiae, Aria of Vernal Tombs: Two of the better metal releases of the past year. Obsequiae is anthemic-to-Boston-levels black metal with harps and shit and Oranssi Pazuzu is a better Hawkwind than our degraded age deserves. Black metal (or any metal not Black Sabbath) is always a tricky one at a bar. Played at the volume you’d perhaps like to listen to it, it prompts people to straight up walk out or, worse, stay and make “metal faces” and ironically throw devil horns. Sadly, most people don’t find metal scary; they find it either obtrusive or silly. We used to get a few metal-label dudes who’d come by for the music, but I think I emailed them too many times about my band so they stopped coming in. Anyway, Oranssi Pazuzu and Obsequiae (both on Olympia’s excellent 20 Buck Spin label) work in the bar more than, say, Immortal, because there’s enough variation in dynamics and instrumentation that they sound good even in the background. I doubt either band would take that as a compliment. They should rest assured that I play them at the correct volume after midnight or when I want people to leave. That being said, customers have asked about both bands, and only one person made fun of Obsequiae and only one person took my playing them as an opening to talk to me about metalcore bands he liked for forty minutes.

Vaaska, Todos Contra Todos: Swell Texas Spanish language d-beat with members of the almighty Criaturas and handsome former writers for Maximum Rocknroll. Vaaska has the enviable distinction of being the only band on this list that customers have specifically asked me to turn off. Some people just like state violence and state control I guess. I probably switched it to Grace Jones. I doubt Vaaska would argue with that.

(Photo credit: Kjersti Magnussen)

Zachary Lipez is the singer of the band Publicist UK. He is the co-author (with Stacy Wakefield and Nick Zinner) of a number of books, most recently 131 Different Thinks (Akashic 2018). He is a freelance writer in NYC and tends bar at 124 Old Rabbit Club.