[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Justin Gage's business card for Aquarium Drunkard bears a simple mantra: “Only the good shit.” This might seem self-evident for the proprietor of a music website, but empirical evidence suggests otherwise.
In the seven years since the Los Feliz resident founded Aquarium Drunkard — a treasure chest of soul, world, folk, jazz, blues and psychedelic gems — the unwritten rules governing blogs have been upended. Websites once dedicated to exegeses of rare songs and unbroken artists sold out to larger corporate interests, ditched their sites for more lucrative positions in media or the music industry, or became “lifestyle magazines” embracing nonmusic verticals (shoes, pop culture, sports). Whereas many once posted one or two long pieces daily, they now chase ad dollars through up to 50 posts of “buzz-worthy” ephemera.
“It's always been exclusively what I like,” Gage says of his site over margaritas at Silver Lake's El Chavito. Sporting a denim jacket, three-week beard and close-cropped brown hair, he resembles what he is: an Atlanta native in his mid-30s, whose teenage years revolved equally around Black Flag and The Grateful Dead. “If I thought every post could be awesome, I'd have no problem doing 30 a day. But how much thought can you really put into each one? I want everything that goes up to be absolutely fantastic.”
If everything posted on Aquarium Drunkard isn't fantastic, it's close. As I type this, its home page features articles on an Everly Brothers Christmas cover by folk-eccentric Bonnie “Prince” Billy, a psychedelic-drone metal box set, blissful indie pop from Tamaryn, rare jazz via Max Roach and Esther Phillips, and an early live performance from proto-punk gods The Modern Lovers.
“It's like a cool, weird bar you're hanging at,” Gage says. “But instead of drinking, you're reading about and hearing music. There's also a visual component in our posters and mixtape covers. I want it to hit all of the senses.”
Aided by a half-dozen staff writers, Gage has created the roots analogue to classic rap-leaning KDAY 93.5 FM, a tabernacle for the best of past and present. Never averse to new artists, AD helped break Father John Misty and Southern rockers Alabama Shakes. It isn't merely the finest music-discovery site based in L.A., it's the best in America. It receives half a million monthly page views, has nearly 25,000 Twitter followers, and its fans include filmmaker Jason Schwartzman and Eric Wareheim of comedy duo Tim and Eric.
Without compromising any integrity, Gage has built a mini-empire. The AD brand includes show promotion in L.A. and New Orleans, a satellite radio program on Sirius XM, an in-studio series (The Lagniappe Sessions) and a podcast. Gage also frequently DJs around town.
“When I was a kid, the radio next to my bed was always tuned into a black radio station in Atlanta that played jazz, jump blues and R&B,” Gage says. “It was an experience, something I couldn't get from television. That's what I try to do — create an atmosphere and vibe. You're not just turning on the radio, you're in it.”
There's also Autumn Tone, the label that Gage co-founded and does A&R for, which regularly sells out of its 500 to 1,000 pressings. Somehow, he found time to carve out an award-winning career in music supervision and co-author the book Explorer's Guide: Memphis & the Delta Blues Trail, with his wife, Melissa Gage.
“Doing those other things has allowed me to keep AD pure. That's the only way I could do it,” Gage says, over the jukebox fittingly roaring the Ramones. “I don't care about trends or being fashionable. I never have.”