Where Records Go To Die

Scavenging used albums and mutilating forgotten vinyl with avant-turntablist Christian Marclay

The basement of the main Salvation Army on the northern fringe of downtown Minneapolis is quiet and empty as an anchorite's cave. It's not hard to understand why. The low-ceilinged room's fluorescent glare seems more conducive to open-heart surgery than shopping. The candle holders, board games, and cordless electric frying pans arrayed sparsely along the off-white metal shelves hold little allure for anyone but the most intrepid bargain-hunter. Only a few small kids make any noise, and they never stay downstairs for long. The record section is worst of all: a pauper's grave for the city's most unwanted vinyl. Which is exactly why Christian Marclay is here, his fingers flipping eagerly through the racks.

"Look at this," the beaming visual artist and composer enthuses, holding a tattered LP jacket aloft like poor Yorick's skull. "I'm going to have to get this just for the cover." The object of Marclay's admiration, The Joys of Christmas, depicts a late-'70s living room holiday scene that somehow screams cocaine--probably because of the cover's viciously garish hues. Sofa, fireplace, chair, tree, and ornaments all glow with a ferociousness that's positively radioactive. And the grapes in the fruit bowl look good enough to eat.

Made from scratch: Vinyl manipulator Christian Marclay
Cameron Wittig for Walker Art Center
Made from scratch: Vinyl manipulator Christian Marclay

Marclay pulls the record out of its sleeve. But it's the wrong one, a collection of marches. "That happens all the time," he sighs.

If anyone knows the trials of vinyl pillaging, it's Marclay. A little over six feet tall, with short brown hair and a gentle, almost sleepy voice that makes him seem far more Buddhist monk than museum circuit star, the Walker artist-in-residence has been drawing the dust of abject retail into his nostrils since 1979, when he first started using turntables as instruments. Unlike most DJs, Marclay cherishes pops, clicks, scratches, dirt, and all the other signs of degradation your average LP acquires over time. Never a club or hip-hop DJ, he has always been the O.G. of avant-turntablists, reanimator of dead records and creator of intricate sound collages that often resemble the early compositions of musique concrète pioneers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Mambo, waltz, flamenco, and bebop collide like cartoon ducks in his real-time cut-and-paste excursions, along with a hundred other styles.

"I have about this many records for actual listening," he says, holding his hands about the length of a tennis racket apart. "But I own a lot of them. Some I use for visual work, some for performance. I've been trying to cut down lately."

One would think the slim pickings in Sally's basement might help him stop. Back in the '90s, this place was three browsers strong; now it has shriveled to one. Are old people dying with fewer records, leaving thrift store shelves emptier than they used to be? Is Percy Faith making such a quiet comeback that no one wants to get rid of his albums? No matter; even with the used vinyl stock dwindling, Marclay manages to rescue an impressive selection of holiday cheer from the stacks. He's amassing a collection for "The Sounds of Christmas," a database he created from more than 1,000 Christmas LPs, which he makes available to adventurous DJs for performance and remixing. The task finds him playing instigator as often as performer.

"For this project, I try to force young DJs to remix Christmas music, which is the last thing they want to do," he says, drifting in and out of conversation in a state of vinyl hypnosis. "For years, I saw so many Christmas albums. They were telling me, Do something. They're the most disposable and disposed-of recorded music you can find, the same 12 songs repeated ad infinitum, so they're a perfect way to get DJs to deal with records as pure sound."

Marclay admits that the project also gives him an excuse to buy records. "I've never thought of myself as a collector," he says as he strolls past a motley selection of used table ware. "If I get something for cheap and I like it, then I save it. Otherwise, it just goes on the work pile."

Most diehard vinyl fetishists would be appalled at some of Marclay's working tactics: painting records, breaking them, sawing several LPs into sections, then recombining the pieces to create frankenrecords--which he then plays. He doesn't keep his records in jackets, though he uses album covers for other purposes: One of Marclay's contributions to "The LP Show," a massive 2001 record cover exhibition at New York's Exit Art gallery, was 80 copies of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream and Other Delights cover arranged in a massive square. Given his willful vinyl abuse, it's surprising that Marclay has never been accosted by angry record geeks after a show.

"The only time anyone has ever said anything to me is when I was using this guitarlike turntable device I had rigged up," he recalls. "I was playing this yellow vinyl Jimi Hendrix record--apparently very collectible--scratching with it and whatnot. Afterward, this fellow came up to me and said he thought that it was really cool that I wasn't a slave to commodity worship."

As Marclay searches for more music to manhandle, a middle-aged man walks by with a big keyboard like a mounted barracuda jutting out of his shopping cart. "Does it work?" Marclay calls out. The man smiles and nods. "A classic Casio," Marclay comments softly, like a man discussing life insurance in church.

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