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In Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, pop-music obsessive Rob runs a record shop called Championship Vinyl, rearranges his album collection after every failed relationship, and daydreams about painting indie-label logos on his living-room walls. His favorite customers are, like him, those who cling to music, particularly on LP, as a lifeline connecting them to their feelings. They wear John Lennon specs and leather jackets, and hunt for out-of-print Smiths singles. “They’re as close to being mad as makes no difference,” Hornby writes.
“The best customers are the ones who just have to buy a record on a Saturday, even if there’s nothing they really want; unless they go home clutching a flat, square carrier bag, they feel uncomfortable,” Rob explains. “These are my people, and I understand them better than I understand anybody in the world.”
Hornby’s characters have had their lives all messed up by listening to too many records. They live unbalanced lives: Their love of pop music precludes their getting jobs other than in record stores; they relate to people based on what they like, not what they are like. They fret over failed careers and friendships and wonder whether years of listening to songs about love and loss have done irreparable harm.
James Tassos understands that kind of obsession. Still, Hornby probably wouldn’t recognize him. Friendly, soft-spoken, and with dashing good looks, Tassos is a fanboy whose devotion is pleasant, even balanced. During the day, Tassos, 30, handles housing issues for a Washington nonprofit trade association, working closely with the mighty Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees. He has done plenty of good: Legislation he helped prepare this year will change the Internal Revenue code to help make affordable housing a reality for low-income families. It’s awaiting likely passage by the full Congress and the president’s signature next year.
But on his way to the office every morning, Tassos is likely to stop by the post office to mail the latest album by Northern Picture Library, Cat’s Miaow, or the Leslies to a customer waiting anxiously by the mailbox. Since August 1996, Tassos has run Roundabout Records, an international pop-music mail-order service, from his gorgeous Capitol Hill row house. It’s one of the only U.S. distribution outlets for essential overseas indie-pop labels like Shinkhansen, Harry Lime, Marsh-Marigold, and Siesta. And it all started because Tassos had no other way to find his favorite records.
“At first, it was solely because I needed the records for myself and figured this was the best way to do it,” says Tassos. “I’m a huge collector myself. Suddenly, there was no place to get this kind of music regularly. So I figured I might as well try it myself. But it’s really fun turning people on to new bands and getting extremely enthusiastic responses back.”
Tassos has been in love with bright, lovelorn guitar pop ever since a high-school adulation for the Smiths, Aztec Camera, and Orange Juice blossomed into full-scale devotion to late-’80s British labels like Creation, Sarah, Subway, and Summershine, and bands like the Razorcuts, Brilliant Corners, and early Primal Scream. When obscure, overseas vinyl became almost impossible to find in stores, Tassos turned to mail-order for his oddities, tracking down the latest Swedish flexi or German Sarah-inspired 10-inch in the legendary Parasol and Mousetrap catalogs.
When Parasol lost its cool and Mousetrap called it quits last year, suddenly Tassos didn’t know where he would find the latest indie-pop single, except by writing to the labels himself or dealing with overseas mail-order lists like Mind the Gap. Tassos knew that not many other people had that kind of passion and patience; he believed that somebody had to make these records available in America. So, in the indie tradition, he decided to do it himself.
“Bands can mean so much to you. It’s pretty cool to encourage that reaction in someone else,” he marvels. “I feel like I’ve gotten to know a lot of people on the mailing list. I’ve met people all over the world just by carrying their records. That’s the part I really enjoy. The labels are all very appreciative of what I’m trying to do and excited to get distribution here. For them to sell 10 or 20 records here, that’s a lot. And I still put some sort of personal note in every package I send. I still remember the day Parasol stopped doing that, and I got this computer invoice. It seemed so faceless.”
Indeed, there’s no better place than Roundabout to track down some of the most elusive pop music, from those hard-to-find Sarah singles to the breezy melodies of Siesta labelmates Club 8 and La Buena Vida to ebullient, strumalicious pop like Strawberry Story or Popundret. Such sounds are all the rage in the tiny but dedicated indie-pop subculture, which is so underground and obscure that few record stores carry the music it adores, but whose members are so passionate that mail-orderif not overseas record shopping tripsisn’t uncommon.
Tassos’ semimonthly catalogs, loaded with more than 400 pop selections, have become something of an indie-pop bible for 300 devout recipients nationwide. Everything inside carries Tassos’ own stamp of approval: He won’t stock anything he doesn’t truly like himself. A listing in the Roundabout catalog is a throwback to the days when most indie labels had a unique sound and vision that could be trusted.
“He’s really sharp,” says D.C. pop sophisticate Stephen Wood, a regular Roundabout customer. “He puts an enormous amount of effort into staying plugged in. He really cares about the music, and he’s pulling in some really great stuff you can’t find anywhere else.” Wood estimates that he does about 90 percent of his record shopping via mail-order. “[Tassos is] real knowledgeable and is good in pointing you in directions you want to be going,” Wood says. “Vinyl Ink’s probably his only competition in the area.”
The labels Tassos works with seem as happy as his customers. “We are receiving a lot of reactions from people who ordered our records from James, telling us about Roundabout’s fast, friendly service,” says Sara, co-owner of Madrid’s Siesta label (who, like many indie-poppers, keeps business on a first-name basis). “He is really helping us a lot to distribute records in the States. We are proud that Siesta is quite known in the States and that our image there seems to be a good one. We know that we have found the right person to distribute our records, because he understands perfectly our style and how to handle it.”
For Tassos, the hard part isn’t corresponding with the 40-odd labels around the world whose releases he carries. It’s writing the brief descriptions that accompany each listing, trucking packages off to the post office, and dealing with impertinent customers who interrupt University of North Carolina or University of Kentucky basketball games. But even the hard work turns out to be fun.
“I’ve learned that I’d be better off with a car than trudging to the post office on my bike with everybody’s orderespecially in the snow. I have to learn to time the catalogs better,” he laughs. “But every single person at the post office knows me by name, because I’m there every day, either mailing out orders or picking up new packages. Every single day is like Christmas for me. The people where I work just laugh at me because I get all these boxes. Every day I get to open something new, and there’s always something I haven’t heard of. It’s always a thrill.”
Sometimes it’s an overwhelming thrill.
“I have too much to listen to now,” he good-naturedly complains. “I never thought that would be a problem. Sometimes I wish for the days when I was a poor, starving college student, and you really got to know the records you had. You had to splurge to buy the new Smiths record, so you’d go back and listen to it and remember every word. I still do.”
He’s also an expert on the newest bands on the tiniest labels from the most far-flung corners of the indie-pop world, praising obscure labels like Aquavinyle and Fortunapop and lamenting that the person who runs Greece’s This Happy Feeling label has just been drafted into the army, meaning no new singles for some time.
“It takes a lot of work. It’s easier to listen to the radio and go out and buy the new Pearl Jam or Bush than it is to go out and find new bands,” he says somewhat disdainfully. “They don’t come to you. They’re not on the radio. You have to do a lot of reading. That’s probably the reason not a lot of people are doing mail-order or stocking the stuff. There’s a limited audience of people that know about these bands.
“Still, records are pretty cheap. You spend $5 on a single, and if you hate it, it’s no big deal. It’s like buying a beer,” Tassos reasons. “A lot of people don’t look at it that way. Chances are, they’ll never discover anything new. You have to buy flexis, 7-inches, singles. That’s the only way to hear a lot of this.”
So, at an age when many people have long lost their connection to music or have started pricing Sting CDs, Tassos’ ardor still burns brightly, and he’s helping to keep vinyl and indie-pop music alive in the process.
“The key is, don’t have kids. I have friends who are 35 or 40 years old, and they’re still into it. It gives me hope,” he says. “I still listen to every band I loved years ago. And I adore the new stuff: Belle and Sebastian, Morrissey, Trashcan Sinatras, Gene, the entire Swedish posse.”
So much so that Tassos just started a label, Matinee Records, to complement Roundabout and fuel his dreams of becoming a music mogul. His first single, by an Australian band called Sweet William that Tassos says bears more than a passing resemblance to the Smiths, came out last month. Two more singlesfrom the French group Ego and Pennsylvania popsters Bella Vistawill follow in early 1998.
“It’s such a different type of activity from running Roundabout,” he explains. “There’s very little creativity involved with Roundabout. With the label, I get to design the record sleeve, control the packaging, write the inserts. It’s a really cool feeling when you create something that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.”
Actually, that sounds a little like having children.
“That’s right,” he laughs. “Except it only took four months to put it together.”CP
For a Roundabout catalog, write to POB 76302, Washington, DC 20013-6302.