Music

Vinyl Collector Alex Rodriguez On Curating Music In The LA Bar Scene

New bars crop up in Los Angeles almost daily at this point, so finding a way to set themselves apart is a priority for most spots. Enter Pinky’s, a Los Feliz cocktail bar from the owners of Atrium that opened its doors in 2019, just down the alley from the year-old restaurant. Aside from a lush, tropical vibe, with loads of green-blue tile, glass bricks, and vintage gold accents, Pinky’s owners Beau Laughlin and Jay Milliken also upped the ante with playful, unexpected drink menu created by bartender and co-owner Jordan Young — who also runs the beverage program at Atrium — and nightly music programming curated by vinyl collector and DJ Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is the manager of the Glass House Record Store in Pomona, the curator of Coachella’s on-site record store, and the subject of a forthcoming documentary, Record Safari, about his travels around America collecting vinyl. Aside from those bona fides, he’s also a veteran DJ and music obsessive, with a knack for curating other DJs in the LA community and beyond to bring a diverse, eclectic feel to the music programming at Pinky’s each night.

Though he’d all but retired from DJ-ing himself, Rodriguez’s new curator role at Pinky’s has renewed his interest and appreciation for the process, and you can catch him next to the bar spinning records most nights, drinking fresh sparkling water from the bar’s Suntory Whiskey Highball Machine. He met up with me recently to talk about his love for music and vinyl, which both began at an early age, DJ-ing in a bar versus other venues, and the kinds of songs he wants to play every night. Read a condensed, edited version of our conversation below.

When did it become clear that music was what you were going to devote your life to, and more specifically collecting vinyl?

I was born in LA and I lived in a really busy area, with lots of kids everywhere on every street. After school, everyone would go play. As a small child, I wasn’t really into music, but I remember hearing it through my sister and my mom. My sister listened to a lot of New Wave — Blondie Missing Person, Sparks, Tears For Fears — all that stuff. Then, my parents moved from LA to Bakersfield because my mom wanted to have a farm.

We moved to farmland in Bakersfield in the middle of nowhere, and there were no kids anywhere. We moved in the summertime, and there was no school, we were just home. My mom got cable because my dad wanted to watch sports, and I remember the first thing she said when she left us alone with it for the first time: ‘Don’t watch MTV.’ As soon as she walked out the door, that was the first thing I turned on.

How old were you?

That’s when I was eight. I didn’t have any kids to play with, I didn’t have anything to do. So I just started watching MTV all the time. Every time my mom would leave? MTV. And I just got sucked in the music videos. Sometimes I’d see songs I remembered hearing from my sister and I got all into hair metal: Poison, Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row. The very first music video I saw was a Cure music video, I don’t remember which, song, just that it was that’s how I started being obsessed with music.

When did it turn into a vinyl obsession?

I got into records when I was 14 and I started going to punk rock shows in Bakersfield. A lot of bands would come through and they’d have their music on records because in the ‘90s it was cheaper to make records. This was like, 1994, and CDs were more popular, so records were a lot cheaper than CDs. Now it’s the total opposite, records are really expensive to make now. But back then, bands always had vinyl records to sell. So I always went for the LP.

I remember going to my mom saying, ‘Mom, I need a record player.’ Mom said, “Why?” And I was like, “Because all the bands I like create all their music on records.” So my mom went and got one, I think from the thrift store or something. She came back, got me a record player and that was it, at 14. Before then, I had CDs and stuff like that. I remember the first CD I ever bought was Hole’s Live Through This. That was the first CD I bought with my own money.

How did your taste evolve as you were getting older?

When I was 15, I got into straight-edge hardcore music. And straight edge is no alcohol and no drugs, trying to keep a clear mind. So as I got older and I started working, I wasn’t going out to bars, I wasn’t spending money on alcohol and partying. So it just turned into records kind of becoming the drug. I amassed tons of records because it was all I spent money on.

Do you still identify as straight edge?

Yeah. I’m 40 years old and still 25 years later. I don’t drink, but I’ve DJ-ed in bars all my life since I was 21, even some of them at 18.

How did you get involved with Pinky’s specifically, and what’s your vision for the musical element you’re building here?

Well, I’m friends with Jordan Young, one of the owners and the bar manager.

His drinks are amazing, the flavors are so good.

Yeah, totally. I wish I could have them. [Laughs] I can have virgin versions. The cocktail my friends seem to be drinking the most is Cold To The Touch (vodka, Lillet, sake, grapefruit, yuzu) and the Deep End (gin, Aquavit, aloe liqueur, pineapple, lime). They also have a Suntory Whiskey Highball Machine that has sparkling water in it, and the sparkling water running through that is extra sparkly and it’s smooth. It’s better than buying sparkling water at the store, it’s better than just any sparkling water I’ve had at other bars. When I get one, sometimes the bubbles are hitting my face when I’m drinking it, so that’s pretty good.

Anyway, Jordan and I were friends — we met through mutual friends — and I guess he’d been checking out what I do with records and music and thought I was the right guy to do the job. Because my music taste is eclectic, he thought I could also book eclectic DJs. At first I was a little apprehensive about it, because I wasn’t sure I wanted more work on my plate, but I thought the bar was pretty neat. I had actually retired from DJ-ing. I DJ-ed twice or three times a month from 1999 to 2013 — that’s a lot of DJ-ing.

Lots of late nights.

Exactly. So in 2013 I stopped gigging. I’d take some gigs here and there or with friends or whatever, but it wasn’t like a job for me anymore, it wasn’t something I was really doing. I was just so consumed in my other work. But thought this would be kind of fun, and it’s got me back into DJ-ing and working with DJs. I’m also rediscovering some old records I have that maybe weren’t working a couple of years ago in a bar, but now they are.

Like what?

Through my sister I got into a lot of Italo disco from Europe, basically the European version of New Wave. It wasn’t a sound that was really cool to a lot of people. It was kind of cheesy-sounding or just too much energy. I remember some DJs trying to do it around LA maybe ten years ago, and for a second it was cool, but then it wasn’t. I always thought, ‘Man, I’ll never be able to spin those records.’ I love that Italo disco stuff, but it just doesn’t work and most people don’t dig it. And now it’s working. So it’s cool to go and pull all my old records.

How is it different DJ-ing in such a small space like Pinky’s as opposed to a big club?

At a small bar is it’s not about creating a party, it’s more about creating a mood. You can play slower stuff, you can mix in some more mid-tempo things, you can do a lot of different styles. When I DJ I like to go all over the place. I don’t like to stick with one style of music all night. DJ-ing a big dance party tends to be more themed, it’s like one style of music all night. In a bar, people are going to have their conversations, they’re going to tune in and out, but then, every once in a while, you’re going to play something that just totally grabs their attention, like a weird sound or a strange vocal or something, and they’re going to tune back in.

When it comes to curating other DJs to play in the space, what are some of your guidelines?

As far as selecting DJs, I don’t want the bar to get a certain kind of shtick. I try to be all over the place with DJs, all types, different age groups. I’ll have a young DJ, I’ll have someone who’s in their forties, I’ll have a DJ who’s been doing it for three months versus one that’s a twenty-year veteran. I’ll tell people to try to be eclectic with music, try not to make it one style of music all night. I definitely want a good mix of male and female, and I’m mindful that the bar represents all types of people: different age groups, different races, different everything.

Who are some artists or songs that you always include when you’re DJ-ing?

I have a pretty large collection so I’m able to bring almost a completely different set each time. But I definitely have some staples. I really love this Jane Birkin song called “Lolita Go Home.” I love playing that song. I play it a lot here. There’s another song by another French artist named Lio, and I can’t even remember what the song’s called, I just know where it’s at on the record. I like to make sure I always play some Italo disco. I always bring a little bit of Brazilian music. I always bring funk.

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