21 Kentish Town Road has housed an eclectic range of tenants over the last decade. For years it was Squadron HQ, local purveyors of combat jackets, cargo pants and general army garms. After that, it hosted a group of squatters, who, once evacuated, headed a couple of doors down, to the old police station. Now, after a serious de-clutter, a fresh lick of black paint and a nice bit of neon-signage, it’s home to a slick new record store.
“It’s been eight months in the making,” says owner Kieran Smyth. “And it’s been far from a smooth transformation,” he says, recounting the arduous battle he and his team had with a wet-wipe infused fatberg lurking in the shop’s basement. Yuck.
Owning a record store has been a peripheral desire of Kieran’s for as long as he can remember. And that’s not – contrary to what a lot of his mates think – so that he can spend his days “sitting on a comfy chair, listening to vinyl, sipping on a cup of tea,” he says.
Rather, he’s looking to transform it into a “real destination store,” one that, with enough energy, innovation and elbow grease, will grow to be as reputable as the likes of All Ages (Pratt Street), Phonica (Soho) and Love Vinyl (Haggerston).
Limerick-born, Dublin-raised Kieran spent 24 years working in TV before he embarked on this project. “I got home from work one day and thought, I don’t want this to be my last job, I have to do something else,” he says, so with wife Janet, came up with a plan.
Despite the growing animosity Kieran felt towards television throughout his career as an editor, it seemed to place him on a sound trajectory towards his current occupation.
While noting serendipitous moments, like working with a group of friends on BAFTA award-winning series, This is Modern Art (1998), Kieran became ever more disillusioned with the industry.
“Being involved in the process and watching creative control constantly moving away from the directors and going to the channels instead was really frustrating. When I finished a day’s work, the last thing I’d want to do in the evening was watch TV,” he says. “So instead, I’d listen to music or turn on Radio 6.”While working in Soho, Kieran spent almost every lunch break feeding his passion by perusing the record shops on Berwick Street. “Roaming around the likes of Reckless Records and Sister Ray, in fact – and that’s how I met Gary,” he says.
Gary and Kieran have been friends for years, but over the past few months have spent little time apart, as they gradually piece the store together: everything from building interiors, ordering in records, stocking shelves and choosing the next background track.
The pair have also joined forces with music aficionado Alfie, a couple of decades younger than them. A tactical hire, jokes Kieran, who was keen for the store not to be run by “three crusty old guys who only talk about the great days of Judas Priest.”
Throughout our visit, the guys spent the duration ordering and categorising the couple of thousands of records they’ve got in store, which, true to the age-range in their hiring policy, has as much of a focus on new tracks as old and second hand classics.
“We’ve got your staples,” says Kieran, “Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Stones, but then we’ve got loads of contemporaries too, Solange, Syd and Chance the Rapper. We definitely underestimated things: I’ve been on the phone to Universal constantly, always calling more records in.”Interestingly, the store’s primary inhibition at this stage is a shortage of genre dividers. “I thought 50 would be enough,” says Gary, “but 100 was more realistic.”
Turns out Indie-Alt A-Z is their biggest category but, once the great shortage of dividers has been resolved, they’ll be able to get into their sub-categorising flow. “I’m really into my genres,” says Kieran who proceeds to explain how Jane’s Addiction changed the direction of the Smashing Pumpkins, while mentioning Hüsker Dü, Pixies, and The Cure in the same breathe.
All the while, we sip on our San Pellegrino from the fridge, noting that we should probably pick up a copy of Mojo on our way home and find out what “garage-psych” and “trash-metal” are.
“I have an appreciation of every kind of music,” says Kieran, “from doom metalists Sunn O))) to the Pet Shop Boys.”
Vinyl, he says, is the best way to get acquainted with new music. “It’s the whole ritual behind it, taking it out of it s sleeve, putting it on a player, listening from start to finish: as the artist intended. It’s a lot more satisfying that say, taking a CD out of a bit of plastic,” he says.
Likewise, the audio quality is equally important to Kieran. “I don’t see the point in having a record shop without a great sound system,” he says, as we glance over the speakers dotted around: a pair near the small seating area-cum-coffee bar out front, a couple more near the till.
Past this, the store’s also got a garden. Although covered in skip-ready rubble, in time, the pair want to transform it into an outside area with transparent roof, fairy-lights and a wooden-cladded patio.
If you ask us, lazing about, uncovering new and old music – while chatting about genres we’ve never heard of – sounds like a pretty dreamy way to spend a summer’s eve.
Main image: Clare Hand