JACARANDA RECORDS has one of the few remaining Voice-O-Graphs in the world, a booth where you can record your music and receive it back in a few fair minutes on vinyl. Stuart Miles O’Hara speaks to the Jacaranda’s Graham Stanley and Joe Maryanji about the process and their plans for the Slater Street bar.
Once upon a time, you didn’t take anything away from music shops. They had hundreds of well-trained staff and hundreds more seats for customers, but the sounds on sale only lasted as long as you were in the shop – for millennia, music that wasn’t being played live or remembered in your head wasn’t happening. Then someone with a surfeit of science found a way of putting sounds between ridges engraved on plastic discs, and new shops sold them millionfold. The discs changed size sometimes, but everything went on them, from Bruckner to gamelan to rockabilly to electronic throbbing that never graced an instrument. For a while, shops let you hear what was on the discs before you paid, in little booths. Then, for a longer while, you couldn’t do that anymore. The process was reversed: you trusted the silent sleeve, paid for it, and were rewarded or disappointed when you got home.
Ensconced on the top floor of their venerable Slater Street venue, Jacaranda Records have revived old trends in new ways. The first is the ‘try before you buy’ nature of the old booths that populate the café-cum record store-cum hangout. The table I’m sat at is one of four with decks set into moody black marble, each with four volume controls for speakers in the seat cushions, and a sociable dial that lets you eavesdrop on another table’s tunes. At a glance, I can see Santana’s Abraxas, The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood!’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome playing at the other listening stations. It’s quite rare now to enjoy music out and about without headphones, and having a choice over what’s being played (rather than, say, having a DJ or Spotify playlist select your tunes for you). I’m sitting with Jacaranda managing director Graham Stanley and marketing manager Joe Maryanji, and we unanimously decide this interview will be soundtracked by Jane Fonda’s Workout Record. And we’re all giddy about the arrival of what will be Jac Records’ pride and joy: a re-fitted, fully functional 1948 Mutoscope Voice-O-Graph Deluxe.
For the uninitiated – and there’s no shame in that, because Voice-O-Graphs are rare – it’s a phonebox-sized recording studio which, for thirty years until the early 60s, let you record just over a minute of speech or music for 35¢. Despite novelty appeal and regular employment in sideshows, they often served a more sentimental purpose, allowing soldiers and tourists to send messages home.
“It looks like a 40s time machine,” enthuses Graham, who wears the stress of receiving it from restorer William Bollman’s US workshop lightly. “As far as we know, there are about five in the world. A collector’s got one, Jack White owns two, there’s another one at [White’s label] Third Man Records in Nashville, and ours.” The Jacaranda Voice-O-Graph has been improved by extending recording time to over three minutes and making microphone adjustments, and it now cuts onto a more durable medium than the old laminated cardboard which only withstood a few plays. It won’t be an ornament, though. Like Third Man Records’ booth, it will be open for business, as Joe explains: “We want to preserve what goes on vinyl in the Voice-O-Graph, build an archive of songs so people can listen to ‘Jac Radio’ online. We’d like to have ceiling mics running from the booth, record café sessions, maybe even down to the basement if the eight miles of cables we’ve already got allow it.”
So how does a musical TARDIS fit in with the building’s history? What’s the ethos at the Jac? A straight question gets two answers: “How much stuff can we stuff into what is really just three rooms?” says Graham as Joe just blurts out, “Music.” Looks are exchanged, hinting that each wishes they’d given the other’s answer. It’s clear that they’re two-thirds of a music business whole – the remainder being the building. Graham elaborates: “In the past, Liverpool has perhaps been too nostalgic, too reliant on its musical heritage. Before this place reopened, it was just another Beatles pub, one of many. I wanted to acknowledge the past and what [former Beatles manager and former Jac owner] Alan Williams did, but do it today, with room for the building – what goes on in it, what it stands for – to grow in a way we can’t imagine now.”
The booth’s arrival represents the endgame of two years of planning. But that’s not the end of the story. “The Jac opened in 1958, and it was open for 57 years before closing. We want to refit it for another 57,” says Joe. “We’ll offer free rehearsal space in the basement. Where can you get that round here today? Even with facilities at a premium, they’re few and far between.” He gestures over my shoulder, towards MelloMello and Wolstenholme Sq.
Joe and I chat like a pair of old men about the difficulties making a break as a new band 10-15 years ago, and how the new Jac could foster a music scene that’d be called ‘grassroots’ if it wasn’t so urban. “By offering open-mic nights with no ego, no hierarchy, we could do something that’s 100% better.” Beaming and gesticulating as the sun comes out, his manifesto is sympathetic to Graham’s vision for the building. “I love the idea of guys who drink in the bar downstairs, attend open mic in the basement, decide to jam one evening. They start a band, rehearse in the basement, and come up here to record an EP on the Voice-O-Graph. Even with bigger things afterwards, there’ll always be a sense of home here. And we can sell their records!” Stock man Dec chimes in from the bar, “Any local bands putting stuff out on vinyl, we want to stock them.”
We talk about how the ‘vinyl’ part of the revival is decreasingly relevant – there’s a video of a record cut onto a tortilla on Vimeo now – and the best part is rekindling the listener-music relationship. As Graham says, “You can think about vinyl physically: by putting the needle down, it plays. But with a CD, you also press play. [What they have in common is] a much more integrated experience, less bitty than listening up to the first chorus of a song then moving on. You can’t underestimate how novel listening to music on vinyl is to someone who’s 19, who doesn’t remember their parents having a gramophone.”
At Jac Records, at least, it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia. The technology here is new, and the Voice-O-Graph’s use will go way beyond its creators’ imaginations: even according to old Mutoscope ads, they were a money-spinning gimmick. A welcome party is planned for the Voice-O-Graph on 8th August, with sessions by Liverpool-scene luminaries for an inaugural EP, which Bido Lito! are delighted to be taking the lead on. They’ll need luck getting the Harlequin Dynamites into a space of just under 3m³ though.
With photos charting the booth’s progress (on their Facebook page) and the proposed ‘Jac Radio’, this is a thoroughly contemporary venture. The interior stylings are vintage, but was anywhere in the 60s so sexily black and blue in exactly these shades? The way Graham and Joe juggle ideas, every little change on Slater Street could inspire currently inconceivable plans. In a discussion that’s cited both Napoleon and Ozzy Osbourne, taking in Adorno and Dimmu Borgir en route, the last word is Graham’s: “I hope to inspire people to push the limits of a ‘typical’ business model. It happens in London but in a safe way. It’s not often Liverpool sees a first these days. This is something you’d expect to find in Shoreditch or Manchester that Liverpool would then copy. It’s nice to get in there first.”
Jacaranda Records is on the top floor of the Jacaranda Club on Slater Street.