A WALL OF SOUND & VISION: Travis Klein on life-changing albums & the birth of Human Head

Human Head Records at 168 Johnson Ave
Photographs by Ryan Dausch

About a month ago, I was bored in Bushwick and while all my friends were busy that Saturday, I decided to treat myself to a record store day. Google brought up a ton of small places in the McGibbon St. area, but I ended up going to only one—Human Head Records—and easily spending over four hours there. Though the place was about the size of a railroad studio apartment, the rows of carefully curated records seemed endless. On top of that, the atmosphere was so relaxed and operated by the nicest people. I decided I needed to know more about this establishment, what made the vibes so great and what kind of music appreciation lay at the heart of it. Enter: Travis Klein.

Born and raised in West Bend, near the Milwaukee area of Wisconsin, Klein left the suburb for the tri-state area in 2005, settling in North Jersey. His life was basically centered in Manhattan, though, as his interest in record collecting, going to shows and hanging with friends kept him returning nearly every night. When he was laid-off from his warehouse job, Klein did what any hard-worker would do—kept moving. He started up online record shops to help pay rent and to keep his collection growing. Klein was even driving pretty decent distances to buy and sell records at fairs and stopping at stores whenever and wherever he could. His Brooklyn friend and now co-owner, Steve Smith, saw opportunity in Klein’s intense interest. A natural when it came to business (Smith owns a handful of restaurants in the city) he suggested the two of them open a record store. Klein was hesitant, but also knew he had nothing to lose. Records had kept him going for this long, would a brick and mortar really change that success for the worse? He agreed. The friends opened Human Head records on August 23, 2013.

HH_Records_0017But, like I stated before, this place is different from most other hipster hives that have recently opened. Of course you’re excited to see the rows of “just in” wax, but beyond that, there are about a dozen rows of $4 and $6 records—many of them original full-lengths with little wear. You forget you’re in Brooklyn, where your daily coffee costs $4. At Human Head you realize you can have that record you’ve been hunting down for the same price. How do they do this—how do they make this place affordable, keep the collectibles coming, keep the records moving and keep customers engaged? Much of Klein’s and Smith’s successful business plan lies in their Philly-based inspiration:

W: So, What’s your music memory?

K: Particular to the store, it would have to be the first time I went to this record store in Philly, called Beautiful World Syndicate. There was a record that I’d gotten on Discogs. I’d had a couple of orders from them. And their name was Philadelphia music. I was like, “is this a store? I’ve got to see this place.” So I clicked on their name. They’re a very understated store. There was a little blurb [about them on Discogs], so I said, OK I can make this two-hour drive and check this place out. It just blew me away.

W: And when was that?

K: It was January 29th, 2013. I have a spreadsheet that has a list of every record I bought that day. I was like—it blew my mind. I’d never realized that a store could be that. Every time I went in there, there were records on the wall that I never thought I’d be able to hold in my hand, much less afford to buy. I mean, it was amazing. It was our whole inspiration around this place, mine and Steve’s. In just 8 months we went from walking into that place to opening our shop. The owner, Jonathan Yates, has since become one of my best friends. He’s from Wisconsin like me (we’re the same age) and he’s been doing it since he was about seventeen. He knows all the records and is very generous with his time and his knowledge. It’s been unbelievably beneficial to us. We’ve been able to emulate some of the things that he does.

W: When you walked into the store, approximately how big was it?

K: Not too much different from the size of this place. It’s fairly similar…little dustier. Specifically, it was all about the records on the wall. The wall is, to me, the thing that is critical. They should be eye-popping. You go into some stores and there’s some rare promo, something that’s a ridiculous amount of money, and it probably is worth that, but you don’t care about that. The average person doesn’t care about that. You know? You should see [gestures to his own wall] Replacements records and Sonic Youth records. Collectible records that people want. People are into metal? There’s a Slayer record on the wall. Stuff that’s hard to find that people want.

I’ve been to stores where there’ll be the same shit on the wall for years. And that doesn’t benefit anybody. It’s all part of the aesthetic—the lure of the record store, the wonderment. And when records move off the wall and people come in a week later, and there’s different stuff up they’re, they’ll be like, “Oh man, stuff’s moving. Stuff’s happening. There’s change. I need to come back in here.”

W: What is it in particular that Yates does at Beautiful World that you find so unique?

K: He hunts collectable records and he does it very well. And you have to know how to find those records. Then you need to know how to find those records and have them be affordable. It’s more than just hunting. It’s about being personable. Building a relationship with other buyers who buy certain things and getting it to a point where they realize you need to make money. A lot of people in the record world are pennywise and pound-foolish. And you’ll find guys at record fairs who will not move off a number at all. Whereas, if you find the right guys who understand what you’re doing and you’re honest and up-front about it, they get it and it works. Then everything kind of flows.

W: So what were the handful of records that you picked up from there that you were super psyched about?

K: [Laughs] Well, I could tell you, the first four times I went in there, every record I purchased was off the wall. Ones, like I told you, I never thought I’d actually see. Original Beatle’s Please, Please Me, their first UK release before they ever had a U.S. release…that album cover where they’re being shot from below in a hotel lobby? This version was like a limited German version, but still, it was from the time period. Jimmy Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. The Avalanches’ Since I left You—my favorite album of all time—and I was just like “oh my god.” And they’d just do it every single time. I still go down there and will rip about ten records off the wall, just thinking, God, your guys’ wall is just fucking good.

W: Why The Avalanches record? Why is that your favorite?

K: I just love it. People ask me what my favorite album is and that’s the one I mention. I like multi-layered sound, whether it’s poly-rhythmic afro-beat or UK electronica, even like Hot Chip or LCD Soundsystem. But that’s one album that’s great because I can play it in the morning and it [snap!] gets me started. I can play it late at night and it keeps me awake. I like records that provide a good headspace that I want to live in. So after it’s done playing, I’ll be walking somewhere and it’s still playing in my head. It’s just a good headspace to live in…I don’t know how else to better describe it than that.

HH_Records_0028It’s a year after their opening now and the spot is gaining momentum with local audiophiles. Though there are a handful of upgrades they’re looking to make, it’s a steady and continuing process that involves a lot of friends and pure dedication. For example, the back area of the store is currently their pack-and-ship space for the online half of Human Head, though the plan is to build shelving for listening stations and more records on the back wall. They’re also looking to host more events in this space while keeping an eye out elsewhere for a potential live music venue. As Klein put it, things are moving. Things are happening. And who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Go shop for yourself at 168 Johnson Ave, Brooklyn or via their site: humanheadnyc.com

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Here’s a little something to help get you into that headspace. Grab your tambourine people and welcome the weekend: