Gabriel Szatan spends a day in Hamburg with the deeply eccentric label boss behind this deeply eccentric label.
In spite of forewarned tiredness—his newborn son hadn't been well in the days prior to my arrival, so he's picking me up from the airport at breakfast time on about four hours sleep—he is nevertheless off like a rocket, yammering away and aiming curious questions in my direction. Conversation tails off when the stereo flips over to something funky from Nice & Smooth's Jewel Of The Nile, a '94 Def Jam also-ran that he "sold in 2000, rebought two days ago and instantly had to rip." An obsessive hip-hop fan since his teen years, Basso used to chase down samples to find their origin. He still maintains a photographic memory for the things––music, food, wine––that he enjoys most, but he has a fogginess with words and names. "If I love it, I keep it," he says. "If not, it's gone. My neural nets are tight. If it's spiced with love, then they're really tight."
Basso cranks the volume and smacks the dashboard as we drive along the northern outskirts of a chilly Hamburg. He lifts his jumper to reveal a Public Enemy shirt. Welcome to the world of Basso.
Growing Bin makes a lot more sense having spent just a single day with the overgrown kid running the show. Basso is an endlessly enjoyable conversationalist, with a cheeky smile across his face at all times. Before we even step out the car I've absorbed tales of his hand-built didgeridoo, his attendance at the first-ever Jamiroquai gig in Germany, his undying love for Kajagoogoo, and his formative years spent renting out Lenny Kravitz CDs for one Deutsche Mark, which spooked prospective dates in his hometown. Everyone I speak to about Basso agrees that this passionate, generous, insatiable digger is inseparable from the dedicated family man, cat lover and pizza chef. His effervescent personality shines through it all.
Growing Bin began in 2007 as an online blog, before evolving into a shop around 2012, bolstered by Basso and a pal raiding a local warehouse of deadstock and "leaving with a moronic grin." The blog ostensibly existed to catalogue Basso's specialist tastes, but really it just gave him something to fill his time with. It was, he reflects, like "sitting next to an open window, shouting out, and that's it. There was no echo, except maybe an occasional thank you." Although Growing Bin today is very much in the business of selling physical records—a whole world of unknown, ultra-rare, special interest and generally curious records—there is no real-world storefront. Hamburg's scene, says Basso, couldn't really support it. The spirit of the city, he feels, "is quite open. But it's not easy to grab the people." No matter. The site is a fine window to his world.
The store still feels like a mid-2000s blog: charming, cutesy, pockmarked by spelling mistakes, but with evident care poured into it. The landing page's wall of sleeves seems to alternate between all-white, white-and-black and all-colour (as it was when this feature was published). While studying at the Braunschweig University Of Art, Basso found himself briefly under the tutelage of the English composer and filmmaker Simon Fisher Turner, who sharpened the young student's eye for presentation and playfulness. Learning to spot the sublime in the ridiculous helps. Growing Bin prominently features stock with wonderfully anachronistic and awful artwork, full of visual tropes that are easy to deride as eyesores. Windswept bouffants, slapdash student art and all manner of bric-à-brac abound. The winsome cover art for Wolf Müller & Niklas Wandt's Instrumentalmusik Von Der Mitte Der World, which depicts a quaint picnic scene littered with instruments, fits snugly.
A core appeal of Growing Bin is that this digger's cove is picked according solely to one man's esoteric tastes. There is no chasing of trends: if Basso likes it, he'll sell it. German metal, apparently hot with traders, isn't his bag, and therefore doesn't come into the equation. A Michael McDonald instrumental dub, or the naffest reggae-lite from late period Fleetwood Mac, is absolutely fine. Sometimes he lucks out and a popular YouTube channel will tip thousands of impressionable young listeners upon a curio he happens to have surplus stock of; other times, a box of something he's been hoarding appears somewhere, the price drops and a windfall is lost. Again, this is fine. If the process doesn't excite him, what's the point?
"He's doing his thing purely to celebrate the music he feels strongly about," says Mancunian producer James Booth, who released an EP through Growing Bin last year. "Which would account for the wide variety of weird and forgotten music for sale. The curation is 100% his taste. I can't think of another online resource where you can feel like you're having a direct experience with the person who runs the shop."
This invites repeat visits. So too does one of the shop's other unique traits: its copywriting. Growing Bin's site is a marvel. Categories including "Cocktails by the pool," "Cheap magic" and "dancing for mental health" break down into subcategories of "Embarrassing Mindblowingness," "Never Leave The Bag," "East of Kraut," and many more. The impressions for the records on sale go deeper still. Vladimir Ivkovic, a friend and regular customer, admits to visiting "just to read Basso's descriptions, and it makes my day." Some of my own favourites (drawn from hundreds, and with all spelling mistakes intact) include:
- "not even deaf people would be able to stand still when Zaka Percussion are on the move"
- "Yeah Space Invaders! But hell yeah that Space In Faders on the flipside will totally DUB the shit out of you!"
- "Maybe the only Halloween track suitable for a cocktail party? Have you ever had a Halloween on the beach? Too many questions?"
- "An astonishing underwater beauty by these two unknown library composers. Take a deep breath and join them on their snorkel trip meeting silverfish, murenas, octopi and sirens too. Maybe better get an oxygen bottle and dive deeper into the dark abyss. it's totally worth it…"
The jumbled nature of Basso's taste reflects the ad-hoc way in which the label emerged. It almost didn't get off the ground. A collection of celestial '80s offcuts from cosmic producer Jürgen Petersen under the moniker Trance was intended as its first record, yet it only saw release last year. It was another unobtainable record that launched the label in 2013 instead, 1994's Long Distance by the jazz outfit Merge. Five years on, there's still no label logo. (When we asked for label-related images for this feature, we instead received a handful of low-res holiday snaps and a 378MB .tiff file of a crab.)
Growing Bin has been a stop-start venture, with only 13 releases to date, five of which are reissues. Much like the store, there is little consistency from one release to the next. The "ketamine boogie" (another subcategory) of Moon B's Lifeworld is a galaxy away from the fretless-bass odysseys of contemporary space rock outfit Krakatau. A slowdown in output last year will look even more spare compared to the busy 2018 ahead. Frenetic Japanese drum-and-synth jams, "heavy underwater vibes" from Shelter (Alain Brand) and a reissue of Basso's "favourite German 'Fusion not Fusion' Jazz album" are all promised. The next album up, by Eleventeen Eston (AKA John Tanner, the "Tanner" in Wilson Tanner) has been gestating for years. Months have been dedicated just to getting the cover right. Now, with an agreed upon vibe of grotesque 16th century Italian frescos, the record is at last going into production.
When it comes to signing releases, Basso gives scant concern to what might sell. "If the hype helps, God bless the hype, but I'd rather have no hype and quality, because in the end that's what's sustainable," he says. One of the strands that does tie the label's output together is a family feeling. Even with a cast spanning multiple continents, styles and decades, Basso has cultivated ongoing relationships with his artists. Merge put together a follow-up EP of three original compositions in 2016 after their reissue renewed interest in the project. Another Baltic Beat from Bartosz Kruczyński is in the offing; Kruczyński, for his part, feels that the "vision and sense of trust in [Basso]'s selection over the years provided a huge thrust when promoting Baltic Beat," and described his approach as "patient and sincere." "Plus, I love that he always wears a '90s hip-hop t-shirt when we chat on Skype."
Growing Bin's free and unfussy style places it in the tradition of German experimental labels like Schneeball and GeeBeeDee, who found room for silliness even while releasing music from serious artists like Amon Düül II and The Birthday Party. In general, the ethos of Germany's musical fringes in the '70s and '80s informs Basso's methodology today. You get a sense that he's just making it up as he goes along, which, of course, he is.
Basso is initially evasive about his personal favourite on Growing Bin—"my favourites are the ones that are not out yet," he smirks. But a bit of cajoling reveals Andrew Wilson—the preternaturally talented Australian behind Wilson Tanner, House Of Dad and András—to be up there. I'm inclined to agree. For me, the label is at its best with expansive releases that drift by easily, suspended in time, calling to mind things like clouds, rippling water and sun beams. I remember (with unusual clarity, given how high I was) lying on my roommate's couch on a sticky summer's day in North Carolina, heavily affected by the still, serene sounds filling the room. I later found out this was Wilson's Overworld. At the time, I thought it might just have been the most perfectly pure music I'd ever laid ears on. In fact, I still do.
Over just a few hours, we visit Basso's office (cramped, with one wall of shop stock, some stuff for the store in a small alcove, a solitary turntable and almost no floor space free of clutter), his home (6000 records in his hallway, a few hundred in the living room), the post office (it's shipment day), a boutique wine shop (he has to swap a corked bottle) and a tiny café. Over risotto, we get onto the inherent conflicts of what Basso does. His omnivorous tastes and idiosyncratic approach to life might colour him as something of a prankster, or a dilettante. It can be easy to mistake Basso's animated manner of expression, clutching his face in mock horror over the slightest infraction to his ethics, for being sardonic. But his moral compass is set straight.
Disillusioned by those who made brilliant music in the '70s and '80s but didn't get a fair shake, Basso tries wherever possible to ensure artists are paid properly when investing in their bulk stock for the store. The same applies to the label, rather than sending his artists home with "a handful of artist copies and a warm handshake." He doesn't personally make much money from any of his music ventures, so keeps solvent with graphic design work. As a committed collector with a trusted network of fellow heads and regular customers—Schulte, Ivkovic, Chee Shimizu, Tako—he could quite easily leverage these associations to get gigs. But this goes against his ethos.
Schulte, a kindred spirit who connects with Basso "in positivity, modesty, and clumsy humour," highlights his friend's keenness for sharing. "I could write a whole article about the first night I visited him and his record collection," he writes over email. "He gave me a lot of chances to have listens to records that I knew just vaguely from flea markets, the kind that you could just not have a listen to anywhere else." One example sticks out. "He shows me an Italian record cover and goes, 'Do you know this? No? OK, then we have an occupation for the next 25 minutes.'"
This generosity formed a cornerstone of what established Growing Bin's name early on, but it later forced a self-correction. The blog has now been closed, with the trove of hard-to-find music that was available for download now yanked. "With mp3s still commercially available, I realised I was doing harm to someone," Basso says. "I mean, doing harm to big record companies is not hurting my soul"––he leans toward the recorder––"hey big companies, fuck you! But no, at some point, it reaches the artist. I have a better feeling of selling the original records. I can't live with cheating people."
There is a paradox that Basso's integrity rubs up against the cold reality of benefiting from reselling music, something he readily concedes. He remains grateful to customers who try and reciprocate some fairness, too, opting to pay that five or ten Euros extra at the Bin rather than going to the cheapest hawker on Discogs. Plus, his word holds sway and delivers a positive knock-on effect when it comes to reviving interest in artists that time long since left behind. "I visited at least two stores in the last year where I found great records I never saw before," says Ivkovic. "The price, not so much. Both times I heard almost identical explanations: they were cheaper, but then they appeared on Growing Bin, so now they are sought after. I should check the shop more frequently!"
Our final stop of the day, at Plattenrille, proves the most illuminating of all. It's a German institution, a lived-in record store in the most classic sense. French horns and hurdy-gurdies dangle from the ceiling, the musty shelves heave with overflowing stock of Klassik Orchesterwerke and 60er Jahre Beat, and a photo of the owner posing with The Beatles during their Hamburg residency hangs proudly above the counter. I spot just two things from the past quarter-century: Joanna Newsom and Pearl Jam. Basso is right at home.
I'm taken with how naturally he slides in here, a generation younger than every other person present, but conversing freely. He barely looks up as his fingers flick rapidly through records, but he keeps engaged with the regulars throughout what appears to be a dense conversation. It might be this ability to keep pace with both the haughty world of ponytailed prog fans and curmudgeonly record fair stall holders, as well as today's wave of globetrotting diggers, that is Basso's USP. He does a bustling trade to and fro between these two worlds. This establishes trust on both sides, which, given how much Growing Bin's various outlets are an extension of Basso himself, bolsters its reputation.
His hyperactive demeanour shows that he cares a great amount, and wants to maintain a positive force in this ecosystem. Carving out space to operate on his own terms as a vendor and label boss, he says, insulates his passion from forces that might drain the joy. "I form this self-chosen island where I can let go. I have a lot of responsibilities, a duty to my family and the burdens of business. Where I can, I take the freedoms where I can be a big kid."
As we speed back to the airport, conversation ebbs away from the big stuff and onto DJing. He doesn't play out too often, as the meagre financial incentives and dearth of open-minded audiences rarely justify the time spent away from family. A trip to the UK for a handful of dates at Leeds' Outlaws and Manchester's Soup Kitchen in late 2017 (both repeat bookings from friends) meant enlisting his wife's parents to help with the children. He only picks gigs he is almost certain will be worth the hassle. "It's annoying if you go away somewhere, just to get your bucks and stand around asking yourself, 'What am I doing?'"
When they do come around, his dance floor outings sound fun. Schulte underscores this well. "One time he stopped in the middle of a DJ set to tell a story about the record he will play next (an endless '70s funk instrumental track), and stating how long he searched for it (in the '90s!), and what makes it so unbelievable. Then he put on a rap record next. I think it was Ultramagnetic MCs."
Basso pulls from inside and outside of the Growing Bin universe in this strange and alluring session.
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