Jan’s Place: A Vinyl Bar On California’s Central Coast

My old buddy Jeff who I used to DJ with in Shibuya more than 20 years ago, has opened a new vinyl bar in California Proud to share his story here and look forward to visiting it on my next visit to the U.S! – Mr. OK Jazz
Location: San Luis Obispo, CA

1.Who are you? How long have you been into music and what started your love for it? You’ve lived round the world, how has this impacted your sense of musical taste, and now approach to opening a new spot for yourself?

I’m Jeff. I’m a Gemini. But call me Jan (pronounced “Yahn“).

I grew up just outside Detroit in the 70s & 80s. My parents had a decent hi-fi system, a good collection of records, and a living room that saw the occasional dance party. People would bring albums over, have some drinks, jump in the pool, make a fire, all that good stuff. I remember my dad coming home one day with the new Rolling Stones record, Emotional Rescue, and we were like, wow! Lots of Motown, of course, Bob Seger. Back then it seemed like everyone had a good sound system, and it was in a central part of their home. We spent a lot of time in the car listening to the radio. Good music was just always on.

As teenagers we never missed a high school dance. And there were these under-age clubs that we could go to. My older sister and I would sneak out of the house, and her BMXer boyfriend would drive us to dance clubs in nearby Pontiac and Waterford. Big sound systems, cooking dance floors. Same thing my parents used to do in their teens and early twenties. They first met at an all-ages dance. Not a concert, a dance.

FM radio was great. Rock stations, pop stations, and one rap station, WJLB, where on Fridays and Saturdays we were lucky enough to hear this guy called the Electrifying Mojo essentially inventing the genre of techno live on the air, blending the B-52’s with Prince and Kraftwerk and P-Funk. Mixing records, proper club DJ sets. The song Flamethrower by the J. Geils Band was huge–I just found that on 7″ the other day, by the way, so stoked. Every one of his shows was a journey: he did this extended intro where he’d tell you that the mothership was landing and that you had to flash your car headlights or your porch light, and you’d see people doing it! Then there was this kid called The Wizard that maybe was Mojo’s understudy or something like that. The stuff the Wizard played on his mix show was far out. Next level. Looking back, I now realize it was probably too sophisticated for my ears at that time. That kid turned out to be Jeff Mills. Radio in Detroit was just really good, not like it is now. And there was a dance show on TV called The Scene, which was like a local Detroit version of Soul Train or American Bandstand. Look it up on YouTube. It’s fantastic. As a teenager out beyond the suburbs, it was amazing to be able to watch this. The fashion, the music, the moves, the host Nat Morris. And at the same time heavy metal was in its prime, so when Russell Simmons and Rick Ruben mashed Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith together, to do their combined version of Walk This Way, it felt totally natural to us.

University, for me, was the same. I went to Michigan State, an hour from home, but a world away. Surrounded by people with good taste in music, and the money to buy CDs. Campus had a good radio station. Dance parties, good bands. Listened to a lot of stuff from the UK– the view from East Lansing was that Manchester had to be the coolest place on earth.

Then I ended up in Tokyo in the early 90s at age 21. Acid Jazz was coming in from London. Golden age hip hop was coming in from New York. Rave culture was in the air, and I knew people who knew how to find it. Made some close friends during that time, folks I’m still very tight with. Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 1. was huge for us.

In the 2000s, when you and I met, I really wanted to get better at playing records. We put together our “funk crew” as we called it and practiced as a team. There was that one place in Shibuya called the Ruby Room where they’d let us come in and play on their club system as the bartenders were setting up for the night. That was such a fun way to begin learning how to play in a bar/club setting. Then we’d go out and see acts like DJ Shadow or DJ Krush or Kyoto Jazz Massive or DJ Muro and watch how the super-pros did it. The record shopping at that time was phenomenal–so many shops, and such great prices, especially compared to now.

My wife Lisa, her family is from New Zealand. She was born in the US, but her whole family is Kiwi. When we were in Tokyo, she figured out how to get dual citizenship, so we were like, let’s go check out Auckland for a bit. Within a few months we’d found ourselves living in the middle of the club district and playing records on a very local low-powered FM station called KFM. The K stood for Karangahape Road, which is where the radio station was. We met yet another crew of just total music nutters, folks that we’re still super tight with. And one of them, by chance, was one of the guys I used to run around with in Tokyo back in the early 90s. So, we had all these immediate connections happening. We built up a sort of a home studio and practiced there all the time. Bought a lot of records. And played our shows on the radio, reaching a very small audience that lived within a mile or so of the transmitter. And now I’m realizing that this part of the story could be a novella…

Short version: over the next year or so we kept meeting more and more people in the music scene in Auckland. The phone rings one day and it’s one of our local DJ heroes asking if I wanted a show on this new low-power station that he was helping put together under the umbrella of a bigger, national station. The small station was to be called Base FM, which went on to become something quite legendary in Auckland. Just a magnet for talent. And its parent station at the time, George FM, was literally defining dance culture in the whole of NZ. I had imposter syndrome, full on, but I said, “Hell, yes!” Then as it turned out, I was not available to do my very first show. I had to go back to Tokyo for work. So, Lisa filled in. Nervous as all hell, but she pulled it off. Brought in a bag of her heaviest hitters, strung them together nicely, and spoke on the mic when she absolutely had to. She’ll never admit it, but she’s got a great voice on the mic. Things were rolling along.

A year or so later we got asked to do a regular show on the big station. George FM, nation-wide. Sunday mornings, 10am to noon. Replacing someone who’d been in that slot for eight years. This station reminded me a lot of WJLB back in Detroit because you could tune in to hear a pro DJ do a proper set, then go out that evening and see that same DJ working the dance floor. International DJs would do guest appearances on that station, giving you a sample of what to expect at their show later that night. We happened into a very good thing at a very good time.

I’m sensing a theme here: quality radio.

Then we moved to Australia. I got a job at an ad agency in Sydney. Lisa found work as a programmer and did a master’s in software engineering at the University of Sydney. We’d ditched our massive record collection back in New Zealand, spreading it out amongst friends in Auckland and Wellington, and for the first time in ages we did not have turntables at home. But we went to a lot of good shows. The festival scene in Aussie is rich. Something for everyone.

In 2014 we moved to Detroit. Downtown, a neighborhood called Eastern Market (home to the country’s largest, oldest public market, 40,000 visitors every Saturday). Was great to reconnect with friends and family there, and to witness the intense level of change that was happening in that city at that time. So much change, in every direction. Bought some turntables. Got some incredible Acoustic Research AR9 speakers from a guy who’d bought them new in 1978. I had them rebuilt by an audio engineer who used to fix speakers for Prince at Paisley Park. (These are now in our bar.) And we started collecting records again. The shops in Detroit are so, so good. People’s Records, Hello Records and Paramita Sound, and some others out in the suburbs. On a lark, I drove down to Gas City, Indiana and bought a collection of 8,000 45s. They’d been sitting in storage since the 90s. No one had ever picked through them. I’m still working through them, but I’ve boiled it down to about 150 singles that might make you change your mind if you’re one of those people who says they don’t like country music. Groovy, soulful stuff. Have you heard A Lesson in Leavin’ by Dottie West? It opens with a clean breakbeat and then this funky-ass bassline walks in. The first 30 seconds of the track reminds me of Hit or Miss by Odetta, it’s that good.

During pandemic we were living in Austin, Texas, and I did a weekly-ish show on Twitch where I’d mess around with playing these same records in nightclub style: doing doubles of a Dolly Parton track, for example, or mixing Emmylou Harris into obscure downbeat honky tonk factory blues from suburban Detroit. Cuts, blends, fades, echoes. Got a little sampler and played around with that. Played a lot of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, outlaw stuff. Did a Linda Ronstadt special. Tanya Tucker, Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson. Just sort of leaned into it as a way of getting through lockdown. I was trying to do good radio, I guess.

And now we live in San Luis Obispo, California.

  1. Tell us a little about the new joint: where is it, how did it come together? What kind of vibe will customers experience? 

We moved to this area a couple of years ago, but we’ve been coming through regularly since the early 2000’s, when Lisa’s parents moved here. We’re halfway between LA and San Francisco. Two hours south of us is Santa Barbara and Ventura. Two or three hours north you’ve got places like Big Sur, Monterey, and Santa Cruz. There’s a train called the Surfliner that can take us as far south as San Diego. And there’s another one that goes north through Oakland, Portland and on into Seattle. The area we’re in is called the California Central Coast.

The bar is something Lisa and I have been thinking about for 15 years or so, but it’s the first time we’ve lived somewhere long enough to actually do it. It came together because we’d met the owner, Jan, and loved the space, the neighborhood. I overheard her say that she was looking to retire. So, we started talking, and we put the whole thing together over the course of about 9 months. But it’s still a work in progress. It will continue to evolve.

We’re a neighborhood bar. Small. Capacity is 24. It’s the kind of place where you can end up talking with whoever’s sitting near you, if you want. We’re a simple mix of good sound and good lighting, with local beer/wine options and a few interesting snacks. This is a journey into sound. We’re continually working with trusted friends on the acoustics of the room–the sound absorbers on the ceiling, the diffusers on the walls, the rugs on the floor, the placement of speakers and furniture, the audio gear that we’re using, the records that we’re playing. We want warmth, a space where the acoustics are so good that you can sit and listen to music and have a conversation, both at normal volumes. Cozy, not loud. Intimate and relaxed.

We’ve got nice neighbors. To one side of us is a Louisiana Creole place called Bon Temps that does soulful live music on the patio on weekends for breakfast and lunch. Very busy. To the other side of us is My Thai, a nice spot for lunch or dinner. Across the street is Sally Loo’s Wholesome Café. Great breakfast, brunch. Long lines on weekends. Around the corner from them is a legendary Italian joint called Cafe Roma. Family run place, been around for years, has a great dinner crowd. So, we try to provide an interesting pit stop for people as they’re coming and going from these cafes and restaurants. Fun little multi-cultural village here, in an area right next to the train station called the Railroad District. Side bonus with that, and something that is not so common around here, is there is lots of free parking right close by.

  1. More in depth on the music, will you be hosting DJs or guest selectors? All genres? 

All genres. We’re not a DJ bar, we’re a vinyl bar–a bit like a proper jazz kissa in that sense, but multi-genre. I have a notebook that lists all the records we have. Am constantly updating it. Customers can look through it and ask to hear things. Or they can just ask me if I have any of this, any of that, and if I do, I’ll put it on for them. What are you drinking, and what do you want to hear?

On Wednesdays we play blues. It’s the only night where I try to keep to just one genre. There’s a bit of a blues following around here, some interesting local history. The town’s semi-pro baseball team is called the Blues. There’s a long-running membership club that brings blues acts to town. But other nights we’re open to whatever genres folks want to hear.

I don’t see us booking many DJs, but I do think that we’ll have the occasional guest selector, like yourself. And we have other friends who are pro DJs, pro musicians, folks we used to play on the radio with, so it’d be cool if we could get them to come through occasionally. But I don’t see us putting a cover charge on the door as a way of paying for touring name DJs. We’re a record bar, not a DJ bar.

  1. We talked about you taking wine classes, is this a California thing in addition to the craft beers you serve?

A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step, you mean? Lol. Yes, I did a few basic courses through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which is a globally recognized organization out of the UK. They work with a local training company here called the Napa Valley Wine Academy to offer a few different certifications. I did WSET Level 1 in Wine and liked it so much that I continued on and did Level 2. It’s entry-level stuff, but it gives you a systematic approach to trying to make sense of this massive, evolving body of knowledge. Which makes it all somewhat less intimidating. And it gave me sort of a basic frame of reference that I can begin to apply behind the bar. It’s been a while since I’ve used flashcards! Reminds me of studying Japanese. I’m now looking at doing their Level 1 in Sake. Doesn’t a sake class sound like fun! So much to learn, which is sort of the great upside to all of this. Endless wine journey, endless beer journey, endless sake journey, endless… music… journey.

  1. Can people make a weekend trip in the area coming up from Los Angeles? 

For sure. It’s a three or four hour drive up the coast, or a six-hour train trip. I like the train. Step off in San Luis Obispo and you’re right in front of our joint. There are over 200 wineries within an hour’s drive of us. The Paso Robles area is really something—gems all over the place.

And just about every town around here has a good record shop. Traffic Records up in Atascadero, for example, has deep bins. Vinyl Isle out in Morro Bay, a coastal town that people say feels like old California. Paradise Records down in Santa Maria, where there used to be a pressing plant, I’ve heard. And here in San Luis is the legendary Boo Boo Records which has been going for something like 50 years. Good digging in these parts.

The mountain biking here is world class, too. Breeds pros. And the farmers markets are exceptional. In spring it looks a lot like the North Island of New Zealand. Maybe that’s why Lisa’s parents settled here. It’s just really pretty, year ‘round. Mountains and oceans, man. We’re lucky to be here.

Previous articleOK Jazz Episode #168
Next articleOK Jazz Episode #169
Mr. OK Jazz is a 20+ year resident of Japan and spends all his free time wandering the Kanto area looking for jazz cafes, bars, clubs and record stores. For two years he hosted the OK Jazz radio show on InterFM Radio, currently the OK Jazz podcast. You can reach him at *protected email*