L.A. is crawling with record collectors. But few are as charming as Elden M.
Elden Man — universally known among friends, fans and customers as Elden M. — is a clerk at Wombleton Records, a cozy record store in Highland Park. As an industrial/noise music veteran and longtime lover of the black-metal arts, he very much embodies the shop’s esoteric approach. On a recent Friday, he regales customers with minute analysis of the shop's rare records, and with fascinating yarns about his years plying the '80s San Francisco underground.
“It was a very dark time when the music was the light,” he recalls. He’s decked out in all black, his graying hair combed back and shaved on the sides in the manner of a hardened rivethead. “If you were on Broadway at the time, all the strip bars had the big huge neon signs, and the tourists would just be gridlocked. But the punks would be skateboarding in between the cars.”
Though it’s unclear exactly how old he is — he says that he’s simply very old — his age shows through in his encyclopedic music knowledge. Wombleton only has six dainty wooden cabinets for its vinyl inventory, but everything is painstakingly curated by the owners, husband-and-wife duo Ian Marshall and Jade Gordon. And there isn’t a record in the entire place that Elden can’t discuss at length, whether it’s a first-edition U.K. pressing of Depeche Mode’s Violator or a long-forgotten 12-inch by an industrial band called Cat Rapes Dog.
The archetypal record store clerk is a cheerless snob who revels in knowing about more music than you. At first glance, Elden M. might seem to fit the type. He has a way of casually itemizing subgenres and dropping obscure references in a way that would no doubt seem intimidating, or just confusing, to the uninitiated. Yet he speaks with the gentle cadences and free-associative tangents of a kindly older fellow, and if a customer asks, he’ll happily test out store product on the turntables by the cash register — even something extra-rare, like a $150 copy of The Walker Brothers’ 1978 avant-rock album Nite Flights.
It’s this benevolent attitude that makes Elden popular with the clientele.
“Let me tell you, he’s a helluva salesman,” says Rose Ghavami, a local DJ and regular at Wombleton. “But he’s also very kind and gives you a little bit of a discount here and there. As much of a salesman as he is, I think he just really wants people to have good, rare music, and his music taste is so vast, he can kind of curate that to anybody who walks through the door.”
Elden M. was born in the Philippines, where his dad worked for the Air Force on a secret U.S. military installation. His love for vinyl, and for heavy music, began at 13, when he dropped by a grocery store outside the base to pick up a copy of Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4. He loved the record so much that he went back to buy the heavy-metal pioneers’ self-titled 1970 debut, and he still thinks of that European pressing as the ultimate version of the album.
“The first song on side two is ‘Evil Woman, Don’t You Play Your Games.’ I’m still not used to the American version," he says. "When I hear the first song on side two, I don’t even know what song that is.”
When Elden was a teenager, his dad retired from the Air Force and moved the family to the Bay Area. There, under his new alias Elden M., he spent years immersed in punk, industrial and experimental noise, playing in obscure bands, working for the label Subterranean Records, and making friends with noise merchants like Merzbow and Boyd Rice. He'd often hit up a punk dive called the Sound of Music in San Francisco's seedy Tenderloin neighborhood, and though there were lots of sketchy characters around — including criminal gangs that terrorized the area — he fondly recalls eating pizza with Rice and, later, getting into heated debates with him over the finer points of black metal.
Elden says they eventually had a falling out because he was galled that Rice, himself a notorious provocateur with an interest in Satanism and extreme far-right politics, was outspoken against church burnings perpetrated by Norwegian black-metal bands. But Rice, speaking by phone from his home in Denver, doesn't remember any personal drama and has only nice things to say about hanging out with Elden back in the day.
"He was very sweet, very thoughtful," he says. "I think I identified with him because he always seemed intellectually curious. He knew about a wide spectrum of stuff that I didn’t know about. He was always a good guy, and because of his enthusiasm for things, he seemed to be involved in a lot of things.”
For nearly 30 years, Elden M. has put out solo releases under the moniker Allegory Chapel Ltd.; his latest release, from April, is a collection of minimalist synth and drone odysseys called Gnosis: Themes for Rituals Sacred & Profane. He also DJs and collaborates with other experimental artists regularly these days, including his old friend GX Jupitter-Larsen from cult band The Haters, who have been known to demolish entire Porsches and Harley-Davidson motorcycles during their shows in an approach towards musical "entropy."
Still, Elden has struggled with his relationship with noise over the years. For one stretch he abandoned it entirely to help run the underground label blackmetal.com. Today he regards some noise artists with skepticism.
“People are doing it who shouldn’t be doing it, lemme just put it that way," he says. "There’s a lot of good people doing it who need attention. But there’s a lot of people who are getting attention who — they shouldn’t be doing this."
In a plugged-in world with endlessly accessible info, it’s easy to forget that musical elders like him possess knowledge that can only come from spending decades in a scene. So it's worth paying heed to Elden's wariness of the recent vinyl boom and preference for vintage records. Though some labels are offering up quality goods, he says things like 180-gram vinyl are basically gimmicks — your records can still warp in the sun no matter how thick they are. He also cautions that cash-hungry labels are flooding the market with cheap reissues taken from CD masters or other lower-grade sources.
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“The public is totally inundated with all these crappy reissues when you could just go into a store and buy the originals,” he says. He pats a stack of classic rare records sitting on the counter at Wombleton, and adds: “These are always going to be a good investment. I have a lot of customers come in here and they tell me, ‘Oh, yeah, I bought a house with my collection.’”