Just over ten years ago, in the spring of 2004, two recent college graduates drove to Asheville, NC, to look into opening a record store there. Neither Matt Schnable nor Mark Capon had ever visited the peaceful Western North Carolina city. Two days into the trip, the pair signed a lease on an old building in a run-down historic district in West Asheville. A few months later, they were living together in a one-bedroom apartment above their new shop, Harvest Records; doing everything they could to ready the space by its August opening date.
In the decade that’s followed since they welcomed the first customer through the doors of Harvest, Matt and Mark have carefully carved out a friendly, bustling environment that defies record store stereotypes and attracts music lovers from across the globe. They’ve also released records from the likes of Steve Gunn, Floating Action and the ever-elusive Brightblack Morning Light, and organized hundreds of live performances with artists ranging from El-P to Rodriguez to Stars of the Lid. The duo’s boundless energy has galvanized Asheville’s music community, as well as the now vibrant neighborhood Harvest calls home.
This Labor Day weekend, the store will celebrate its tenth Anniversary with Transfigurations II. The multi-day, multi-venue extravaganza features thirty bands, including the Clean, Lee Fields & the Expressions, Mudhoney, Michael Hurley, Sonny & the Sunsets, Endless Boogie, Little Wings, Angel Olsen and many, many more fantastic acts beloved by the AD readership. Most of which will be performing on an island in the middle of picturesque Marshall, NC. In anticipation of this upcoming soiree, we tracked down Mark to ask him a few questions about the last ten years. He and Matt also took the time to compile a collection of songs that reflect their first decade in Asheville. Enjoy.
Aquarium Drunkard: When did you meet Matt?
Mark Capon: I met Matt in college in Virginia at James Madison. We had a mutual friend and one day we were all together and he was prank calling other dorm rooms. That’s my first memory of Matt. And I remember thinking he was the funniest person I had ever known. He still is, man. He’s mellowed out in a lot of ways and we’re older now so we don’t treat life like as much of joke as we did at nineteen, but when he turns it on, Matt is still the funniest person I know. We became friends through a random group of friends and then also the college radio station. We were heavily involved there.
What really brought us together on a friendship level and working wise was our involvement in MacRock, the Mid-Atlantic College Radio Festival. At the time it was kind of big deal and it had very similar echoes of what we are doing now with Tranfigurations, plotting every detail and booking bands. That was the first time I learned how to deal with all aspects of the music industry, with publicists and booking agents and bands and their managers and their tour managers and their soundperson and all of that.
We were part of a very small team of five or six people for a couple years that put on that event. We booked a lot of emo and hardcore because that was really big at the time and really big in Virginia, specifically, but we also booked a Songs:Ohia show and Fugazi and Rainer Maria and Mountain Goats and of Montreal and a lot of stuff like that. That’s when Matt and I really got a vibe of how we could work with each other and how we were on a very similar wavelength in terms of priorities. There was sort of an unspoken understanding of each other that’s necessary at that level. You can’t be communicating with people all day every day and have things missed. You have people in your life that you don’t understand what they’re talking about and then you have people in your life that you can totally vibe with on a level beyond words, and that’s how Matt and I are.
AD: When did you decide to open a record store together?
Mark Capon: During those years and towards the end of college we threw around the idea of starting a record store somewhere. We had a very short list. We thought about Athens and we thought about Austin and we thought about Asheville. We visited Asheville first in March of 2004, or April maybe. And then we signed a lease the next day on our first visit here.
AD: How did you decide to set up shop there?
Mark Capon: We were both only slightly familiar with Asheville. We knew one person here. Maybe two people here. We had a couple people tell us things like, “Man, I just went to Asheville and it was pretty cool. You wouldn’t expect it but there’s kind of a weird vibe and cool people.” So we went and visited and thought, “It looks great. Why not?” I think we wanted to stay somewhere in the mountains. We also didn’t want to go too far away and it seemed like a good spot because it was equidistant from where I grew up in Jacksonville, FL, and where Matt grew up in Northern Virginia. I don’t know. We had a lot of friends in Virginia and a lot in North Carolina and so it seemed like a good place to try and we just loved it immediately and like I said, we signed the lease the next day.
AD: Did you scout the other stores in the area? Was that a factor at all in your decision?
Mark Capon: Well, that first year we were open there were about nine or ten record stores in Asheville.
Mark Capon: Yea, it was crazy. A lot of them were specialty stores. There was a hip-hop store and there was a guy that was pretty much only known from jam band people. But there was also a huge store, the one that everyone loved in town for years and years, called Almost Blue. It shut down right before we moved here. We are still in touch with them. They are really nice people.
Honestly, we never really…I don’t know how to say it. I don’t want to say that we were not paying attention to any other stores, because you can’t really just move somewhere and do that. You wouldn’t want to move next door to Amoeba on Haight Street and expect to do really well. We weren’t totally naïve to it but at the same time we didn’t worry too much about these other stores because we felt like whatever we had in our minds about what were going to bring to the table would be slightly different than what was already happening. We knew that we wanted to have art openings and put on shows—not that those things weren’t happening in town. We just figured that the vibe we were going to bring was going to be somewhat unique and we had this youthful exuberance. There was a little bit of naiveté and a little bit of “who gives a fuck” and a little bit of knowledge of your surroundings and so we just went for it.
The lease started mid-May. We moved in and the space had a one-bedroom apartment upstairs. We watched movies and ate spaghetti and played tennis and spent every god damned second together. [Laughs] Which is a bit absurd. But that’s what that first summer was like. We were just working on the shop and hanging out, because we were our only friends. We were starting to make friends but we didn’t really know anyone else here. So we worked all summer and opened on August 14th, 2004.
AD: What was your prior experience working in a record store?
Mark Capon: Neither of us had ever worked in a record store. I had never even really worked retail in my life. One important factor is that we had our buddy, Matthew Peterson. He co-owned a shop at one point in Greensboro, NC, called Gate City Noise that was sort of an inspiration to us because what they were doing seemed like exactly what we wanted to do. They were very excited. They were nice to customers and they were psyched on music. They eliminated a lot of the pretense and that’s what we wanted to do.
Matthew was helpful in that he was like, “This is who we order from. You should talk Dean at Sub Pop. You should talk to Touch and Go…” He was giving us sales rep and distributors to talk to. And it’s funny. A lot record stores order from one place. It’s sort of the lazy, easy way out. He was like, “We always try to get stuff straight from Matador and Secretly Canadian because we like to keep it cheap for us and cheap for the customers and we like to have relationships with those labels.” So we said, “Yea, that sounds good. That’s what we want to do too.” And we still do that. We still try our best to get, say, the Junior Kimbrough record straight from Fat Possum. That stuck with us. He really laid a framework for us that we still kind of follow today. He was very helpful.
AD: He gave you the sage advice necessary to get it off the ground.
Mark Capon: He gave us the sage advice, yea. And again, he was the perfect person to give us that advice because he had already been a part of a store that was similar to what we were looking for. Things are a lot different now. In 2014 it’s not uncommon for any small city or even certain towns to have a cool record store with cool people who are selling vinyl and stuff like that. But at the time, 2004, it was all gloom and doom as far as what people thought record stores were. It was like, “Oh, they’re all dying. The Internet has killed them all. And good riddance, because they’re all a bunch of old, crotchety, snobby assholes.” We were like, “No. That’s not what we’re wanting to do. That’s not why we’re starting a shop in 2004. We’re not starting a shop to live out some sort of snob’s dream.” We were a little overzealous. We were trying to combat that stereotype. Not as a life goal or as some supreme mission. But that was certainly part of our motivation. We can create a place where people can buy music and talk about music and they don’t have to feel like we’re judging them.
Living in Asheville and establishing ourselves as a local friendly spot, we’ve really benefitted from the community. So many stores are like, “Well, I’ve got to sell this shit because it pays the bills. I’ve got to sell all this shit I hate.” And granted, we don’t love everything we sell but I feel like because of our customer base and the people of Asheville that are forward thinking with their musical taste and into a lot of different things, we’ve been able to sell stuff all across the board. Everything we’re more or less proud to sell.
AD: Yea, there is definitely something in your shop for everyone.
Mark Capon: Not everything we sell is super challenging. And we’ve learned a lot from our customers. We’ve learned as much from them as they’ve learned from us. We’ve had our own personal tastes expanded because our customers have pushed those boundaries for us and said, “You should check out this, this and this.” Some of the times we don’t listen to them and sometimes we do and it ends up changing our world. We don’t treat ourselves as some sort of magical wizard, crystal ball for the community that tells them what they’re supposed to listen to. We try to learn as much from them as we can teach them.
AD: Did you ever think it was going to fail?
Mark Capon: In the beginning, we were trying to convince everyone that we could to come see us where we were. At the time a lot of our customers would say, “Wait where are you? Are you sure you want to be there?” It’s not a part of town that our customers were necessarily wandering. Which has changed a lot in ten years, but at the time one of our biggest challenges was trying to convince customers to come and see our place. We were convinced that once they came there they would say, “Okay. That place is all right. Those kids are okay.” That was a big battle. By about month nine or ten it was real bleak, almost to the point where we said, “We might be done.” And then it just kind of took a turn at that point and started to grow upwards. After that, pretty much every year got better, including this year, which is better than last year which was better than the year before. Every year, more or less, has grown. But that first year was pretty scary.
It’s like a snowball that keeps rolling down the hill and getting bigger. At some point you can’t really stop it. I don’t want to jinx it because you never know what could happen, but for the most part we got to a point where we at least weren’t sweating it every day. Probably every business owner knows the feeling during the first X amount of days or years where everything…every little transaction…can be gut wrenching or every bad day can bum you out. But we tried to keep a positive attitude and just know that we were in it for the long haul. I would say around year three or year four was probably when I thought, “Okay I think we’re going to be good for now.”
AD: And at that point you had more than just the store going on, too. You had started a label in 2005 and you were putting on shows from day one.
Mark Capon: Yea, we were nonstop. Both Matt and I were going out a lot, being really social; going to a lot more shows. Booking a ton more shows. Were still pretty out and about. But at the time we were go-getters. Nothing was going to keep us down.
I think that we’re naturally two social creatures. It’s not a surprise. But also we had the opportunity to try and get out there and promote our store at the same time.
AD: Yea and it wasn’t like you were selling something that you didn’t want to sell.
Mark Capon: Exactly. We believed in what we were doing and we were trying to spread the word.
AD: When y’all started doing shows, there really wasn’t anybody else that was booking those sorts of acts.
Mark Capon: Yea, that was sort of our goal for booking shows from the beginning. We had already booked a lot of shows as college kids. We understood that. We made a lot of friends that way and knew a lot of musicians that way. We had already dealt with Phil Evelrum in college. He was our first show. It was Mount Eerie or Microphones. I don’t remember. We booked him in September of 2004. He played in the shop and he played for $5 at the Wedge Gallery, which is now a fancy restaurant. It was just one square room.
Our thought was, “I don’t know if anyone is going to bring this band or that band to town, but my guess is probably not, so we might as well try to figure it out and do it ourselves.” So that was sort of how we always did it. There was a club called Vincent’s Ear that is legendary at this point. It closed about five or six months after we opened. That was a door that was shut as far as a place to book shows so we Our thought was, “I don’t know if anyone is going to bring this band or that band to town, but my guess is probably not, so we might as well try to figure it out and do it ourselves.” So that was sort of how we always did it. There was a club called Vincent’s Ear that is legendary at this point. It closed about five or six months after we opened. That was a door that was shut as far as a place to book shows so we were just doing them at weird places. We did stuff at the Wedge Gallery. We did stuff at the Phil Mechanic studios. We did stuff in the store. But eventually we made a strong connection with the Grey Eagle and that became a solid spot for us to book shows because they were willing to work with us and they were fans of a lot of the same music that we were trying to book. For years and years that was our approach, that we might as well do it because it might not come otherwise. But over the past few years, so many more people know about the town and so many more people are doing that kind of thing here. Right now I am at the Mothlight. [The Mothlight is a new music club down the street from Harvest owned by Jon and Amanda Hency.] Jon is our friend and is on our wavelength. A little before they opened here was when we started to think enough is happening here that we don’t have to feel like we have to bring all of these things to town. Except of course a thirty-band festival, which is extremely daunting.
AD: But you booked hundreds of shows. And you got in on the ground level on some pretty cool stuff.
Mark Capon: That only makes sense because a lot of times it would be like, “Oh, man, we got this promo CD in the store. It’s so good. No one really cares. We’re going to try and push it in the store. We’re going to try and play it. We’re going to try and sell it if we can.” We had the very easy gauge of “Does it sell? If it sells we’re good.” Certain bands like War on Drugs and Akron/Family and Brightblack Morning Light. Angel Olsen is a good example. We were trying to convince Angel to come and play the first time that we heard Strange Cacti. No one knew who she was other than the fact that she was touring with Bonnie Billy. There’s so many of those acts that we were just happy to try to dork out with and bring to town. Some of them have gone on to be pretty big. Some of them have not.
We had Cass McCombs play in the store a few years ago. That was amazing. We had one in-store that was Megafaun and the Great White Jenkins, which was Matt White, now known as Matthew E. White. We’ve had all sorts of people come through. I remember a show with that Italian band Jennifer Gentle that was on Sub Pop. They played in the store and there were thirty people there but it was unbelievable and people were dancing and I’m pretty sure it was summertime. It was so nice. Some of our best memories are shows like that. We got Tallest Man on Earth a few years ago to play back-to-back shows at this tiny chapel called Forsythia Hall. We sold a hundred tickets to each of those shows. The next time he came to town he sold out the Orange Peel, which holds 1000 people.
AD: And so you got out, but now here you are again throwing this massive three-day celebration with thirty bands, multiple venues and an outdoor stage on an island. Has the process been fun or a good reminder of why you stopped booking shows?
Mark Capon: So far it’s been totally great. We miss it enough to where we want to do something like this but not enough to where we want do something like this all the time. Now that I think about MacRock and our experiences, it makes sense on so many levels and it makes sense that Matt and I truly got to know one another putting on what seems like an overwhelming event together and getting through it and figuring it all out. So it makes sense that we’re doing it again over a decade later from when we were first doing that. It’s the best way that we work. Having that sort of pressure and that sort of long term problem solving, big organizational event challenge. That’s what’s in our blood, specifically in our joint blood. This is what we love to do.
AD: A lot of the bands that are playing y’all have hosted before or feature in the shop. Transfigurations II probably feels like a reunion of sorts. Who are you most excited to see?
Mark Capon: It’s true. A lot of the acts we’re friends with or have booked shows with before or have watched play a bunch of times, which is great. We’re going to see William Tyler with a full band and Hiss Golden Messenger with a full band and Steve Gunn with a full band. All those guys we’ve seen play bunch but I can’t wait for those sets. Also, of course the Clean, who we’ve never seen and are from New Zealand. That’s got a magical spin to it. Then there’s Dylan Golden Aycock. He lives in Tulsa. I don’t remember how I heard him, but I can’t stop listening to what he’s put out, both under his own name and under Talk West. He also has a label called Scissor Tail Editions. He put out a soundtrack to a film called The Hired Hand by Bruce Langhorne. I met him once. He came to Asheville. I’m almost as psyched to see him as much as anyone else. I listen to him all the time.
I’m also really excited about Moon Duo and Mudhoney. I could name them all.
AD: You’ve met a lot of cool folks during your time at Harvest. Who do you think is the most interesting person you’ve dealt with in the last ten years? I know you’ve got some pretty crazy regulars.
Mark Capon: The first person that comes to mind is Steve Piano. He came in on the first day we opened. Steve Piano is maybe sixty, and he’s a firecracker. He has so much energy. He’s always wearing a tank top. He’s a professional piano player. He’s a professional animal wrangler. He’s worked on movies like the Hunger Games. If you want a crocodile for your movie, he knows how to get it for you. If you need a kitten, whatever. He came in the day we opened and tried to trade back CDs. We didn’t even know how to sell our own CDs, much less use the register, let alone buy music from someone. He’s a very overwhelming personality, but he’s just become a total fixture in the store. He’s one of those guys that needs to have a book written about him or by him because he’s got insane stories about doing drugs and his house being burnt down and riding into Asheville on a white horse and his family having mob ties.
And then there’s also Big Ray from Puerto Rico that comes in and buys stuff every single day and sometimes two or three times a day. He buys cool stuff. I don’t know what he does outside of the shop but when he’s in the shop he’s a wildman. He’s super cool. He’s always trying to hear something new. One day we were playing Moon Duo and now he’s bought everything from Moon Duo and says, “I’m coming to see them at your festival.” But at the same time he’s got Kottonmouth Kings and ICP jewelry on! That’s what we love. We love a guy like that who is into all sorts of stuff. And some of it we might not be into personally but whatever, man, we can connect with Ray.
AD: Where’s the weirdest place your involvement in Harvest has taken you?
Mark Capon: The darkest moments are involved with the purchasing of used vinyl. Matt handles most of that. He’s made some house calls and had some pretty depressing scenarios. Often you get a great record collection in your hands because someone dies. So much of that revolves around death and it’s kind of a bummer.
AD: What’s the biggest collection that you’ve ever purchased?
Mark Capon: We bought a collection of 35,000 LPs. Just to put that into perspective, we have around 8,000-10,000 records in our store. We bought the records from a connection we have in Georgia who knew a guy that owned a storage unit. The family wanted to get rid of the records. We had to ship them in a 53-foot semi truck from South Georgia. We kept the records in a storage unit of our own for a long time. We’ve finally weeded through about two thirds of them. A lot of it is junk but it’s been worth it. There’s a ton of good stuff we’ve gotten out of it. 35,000 records. That is such a big collection that even people that make a living buying and selling records won’t touch it. You have to really be committed.
AD: You must have gotten a really good deal.
MC: Yea, we got a really good deal. Like I said, we’re still going through them. We still have about 10,000 of them. Maybe more.
AD: That is a lot of plastic.
Mark Capon: Yea, a bunch of Connie Francis records.
AD: You said earlier that 2014 is a lot different than 2004. With Third Man Records pressing 100,000 plus copies of Lazaretto, it doesn’t seem like the “vinyl resurgence” is a fad. What do you think? Were most of your customers buying records before?
Mark Capon: I think more of our customers are relatively new to vinyl. But we’ve had vinyl heads coming in from day one. Greg Cartwright, for instance, came into our shop on the day we opened. He’s one of the smartest, most knowledgeable record collectors in town, as well as a great musician. And now he actually prices our 45s for us. The important thing to know about vinyl is that even in the dead era it never stopped.
And in regards to the surge of the past few years, maybe it will taper off? I don’t know it exactly. I think it’s here to stay. I can’t imagine that we will be treating vinyl the same way that it was treated twenty years ago anytime soon.
I feel like there are a few different ways in which people will justify their own record collection, especially people that are coming along more recently, whether it’s because they think the sound quality is better or whether it’s because they appreciate the tangible nature of it and the big artwork and the experience of it or whether they just want things that maintain value more so than CDs did. However they want to explain, or even if they don’t want to explain it, even if there’s no logical reason you can explain to me why you buy records, it’s all good to me. I don’t really care. I’m the same way. As long as it means you are experiencing music in as fulfilling a way as you can or would like to, then I think you’re better off doing that.
I think that we’ve been lucky in that we live in a place…and now we don’t just rely on Ashevillians, a lot of our customer base comes in from out of town or comes in here on vacation because it’s such a touristy town, etc. We’ve been lucky that the people that come in our store are music heads. People are smart. They do their research and they really get into what they’re into. It seems like a pretty genuine group of people that come in and we’re lucky to have that. I know not every place has that and I know that maybe those types of environments aren’t as welcoming or as exciting as the one we have here. I don’t know. I feel lucky to be in a place where people are so positive and genuine and forward thinking when it comes to music.
AD: Well, y’all have had a lot to do with that.
Mark Capon: Yea, it’s been a symbiotic relationship, I suppose.
You know, Billy Bragg came in one time while he was on vacation. He and his wife brought in their son who was just in that moment of getting into vinyl. He combed through the used records and found LPs and put them on the turntable at the listening station. He was kind of new to the whole process and put the needle on the record and had the headphones on and there was this moment where he just closed his eyes and was really feeling it. It’s cool to see that happen quite a lot these days. words / j steele
Looking back on this first ten years of Harvest, we decided we’d make a mix that included two tracks per year since 2004 — one track each chosen by Matt & Mark — that represent important shifts and new awareness in our personal listening experiences. These aren’t necessarily records that were released in their respective years, but moreso records and artists that were put on our radars and altered how we listen to music from that point forward. After all, there’s no “right” or “wrong” time to discover music that’s important to you.
The first two tracks would be our 2004 representatives, then 2005, and so on… Hope you enjoy.
–Matt Schnable/Mark Capon, Harvest Records in Asheville NC