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Interview: Virginia record collector Chris King talks about his debut book about ancient Greek music.



Chris King lives in a charming 19th century farmhouse in Nelson County where he gives the impression, through his surroundings and his world-weary mannerisms, that he should've been born during a much earlier era.

As one of the country's best-known collectors of vintage 78 records, King had a whole chapter about him in a book ("Do Not Sell At Any Price") about obsessive record collectors by New Yorker music critic Amanda Petrusich.

His day job as a sound engineer and owner of Long Gone Sound Productions has earned him six Grammy nominations, including a win in 2002 for best historical album with Charlie Patton's "Screamin' and Hollerin'." He's befriended and worked with folks such as Robert Crumb, Jack White and Tom Waits. And now he can add acclaimed author to his list of accomplishments. His debut book, "Lament from Epirus" from W.W. Norton & Co. chronicles his latest obsession: the rural music of northwest Greece, some of Europe's oldest surviving folk music.

Equal parts music criticism, philosophy and travelogue, the book has garnered praise from the New York Times and the Oxford American and film directors such as Jim Jarmusch and Terry Zwigoff. Petrusich correctly notes in a jacket blurb that "what [King] does best is listen" — and we're lucky to have him as an exceptionally informed member of the programming board for the Richmond Folk Festival.

Style Weekly: What spoke to you about this music?

Everything. But if I had to pick one thing, this music is so emotionally unhinged that I thought the 78 capture of it could not possibly compare, whatsoever, with what it was like in a live context where it's meant to be heard. When I found out it still existed there, I couldn't believe it. Nothing this intense could still exist. It's like seeing a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil and hearing, "If you go to this island, they still exist."

So you discovered a few rare Greek 78s in an Istanbul market, then you were able to track more down through your connections?

Yeah, it took me three to four years to acquire the collection I now have, which is about 99 percent complete in terms of music from Epirus. It's kind of strange that in the middle of central Virginia in a wooded studio is the largest and best collection of music from northwestern Greece. It's roughly 350 to 375 discs, or 600 sides total, spanning from 1915 to 1958.

How did you get artist Robert Crumb to do the art for the book? Did you turn him on to the music?

Yeah, he didn't have a single Epirotic 78, and now he probably has the second best collection, because he gets all my duplicates. … I got a few letters from Robert about the music of Epirus where he describes it as so otherworldly and so intense that he just doesn't understand what's in the people's minds when they play. He had the same visceral reaction I did, so he was on board pretty early.

What do you hope people take away from this book?

That if we allow ourselves to drop pretensions about what we think music is, we will be quite surprised at what its true nature could be: that it has therapeutic healing value. The worst way to write about music is to write about it as if it's music. There is a point where words express emotions and other points where they don't quite correspond and the cement crumbles. It's that necessary balancing act — trying to describe something with words that cannot be described with words: You have to pull tricks and cheat with language. So it's better to talk about what it can do for you, its function.

There's some interesting history in the book as well as a memorable scene where you watch a family make the Greek brandy, tsipouro, at home.

Yeah, most of the research I did was through oral histories [in Greece]. The making of tsipouro has a parallel with the social context of the creation of the music. I can't conceive of a good panegyria, or music event, without copious amounts of high quality tsipouro. It's the most psychotropic alcoholic compound -- beyond any state of inebriation one could acquire drinking whiskey, vodka or moonshine even. Literally, pure essence of alcohol with a nice sugar molecule attached to it. It invigorates you, enhances and amplifies your surroundings and allows these [religious community festivals] to go on forever.

Are you trying to bring this music to Richmond?

Yeah, I've been trying for three years to bring really good Greek musicians to tour the U.S. -- musicians from Karpathos, Crete, Epirus. The problem is the way the bureaucracy is set up in the U.S., the burden is placed on the artist to provide X number of Visas and X number of taxes. It would impoverish an artist from Greece to perform here for a month. There would have to be a significant amount of money to pay them, and that's not really the way the Folk Fest works. At the end of the day, everybody gets paid pretty much on an equal basis.

I guess you need a benefactor proud of Greek culture who wants to sponsor the music?

Exactly, right. You need to find just the right combination of elements. I don't know any [traditional] Epirotic musicians in the U.S. — people are learning from computers now. There are a handful in Boston who are good, but they just don't have the glue to hold them together that the real organic thing does.


Chris King will appear at Steady Sounds on Saturday, Oct. 20 from 3 to 7 p.m. He will be playing 78s, reading from his book and selling copies of the book.