Among Tokyo’s bustling streets, there is an underground collection of audiophile venues, sound-obsessed restaurants and clubs. Following in the footsteps of that model, this year two trendy new hi-fi bars have opened in Los Angeles from some notable members of the city’s music scene. In the hip Highland Park neighborhood, Stones Throw Records founder and well-known crate-digger Chris Manak (known professionally as Peanut Butter Wolf) founded the Gold Line in the storefront directly under his label’s offices.
“We took over the downstairs space a few years ago and used it for photo and video shoots and pop-up shops,” says Manak. “We did an event for Record Store Day in it where I rented a U-Haul and brought thousands of my records in there, crated and stacked them up floor to ceiling and had different DJs spin with them — the fun I had at that event made me want to build a permanent version.”
The idea was cemented in his mind when he learned of Tokyo’s kissaten culture centered around bar owners’ record collections. “It reminded me of that show we did,” he continues, “like, ‘We could really do this.'” Now, Manak tells Billboard, he sees Gold Line as an extension of his record label, which has been operating out of the same building for the past 15 years and has churned out releases from acts like Aloe Blacc, Dâm-Funk and Snoop Dogg‘s 7 Days of Funk.
The bar hosts DJs nightly, spinning selections from behind the bar, creating what Manak calls a “co-curation” between himself and the selector. And they have plenty to choose from: In addition to a thoughtfully curated drink menu, enticing patronage is 7,500-piece vinyl collection, which spans a multitude of genres and four decades to amass. It’s attractive to DJs too — among the many requests Manak receives to spin at the bar, a recent one included Marc Weinstein, co-owner of Hollywood’s famed Amoeba Records.
“My second grade teacher introduced me to disco and funk and soul music in 1977 and I was hooked on buying my own records ever since,” Manak says. “My mom would give me lunch money every day and I’d skip lunch and save my lunch money and buy a few 45s on the weekend. And by the time I was in high school, I had crates of records all over the floor in my bedroom and couldn’t even walk in there.”
While the drinks are high-end, Manak says a good portion of his patrons come simply for the tunes. “Adrian Younge owns a record store/recording studio next door and I can say he comes strictly for the music because, one, he told me so and, two, he doesn’t drink booze,” he says.
Of course music and booze alone doesn’t make a hi-fi bar, and Gold Line pairs Manak’s vinyl collection with an impressive sound system: A Rock-Ola 442 jukebox filled with 7-inch records plays nightly at opening before the music turns to a vintage Thorens turntable with McIntosh Amps and Altec Lansing speakers, outfitted by Kevin Carney of Silver Lake boutique Mohawk General Store.
Meanwhile, roughly 15 minutes away in Downtown’s Art’s District, tucked away inside the Brooklyn-inspired Lupetti Pizzeria sits In Sheep’s Clothing, a cafe by day and cocktail bar by night, created as an added bonus to the restaurant after owner Bryan Ling decided the space was too large to be kept to pizza alone. For the venture, Ling — who also owns No Name Bar on Fairfax Avenue, where labels will often host listening parties or artist showcases — wrangled music supervisor Zach Cowie (Master of None, Forever), to bring the musical component of the bar to life and curate the listening experience.
In Sheep’s Clothing features an audiophile’s dream designed and maintained by Cowie. The intricacies of which, like those of a high-end Japanese whiskey, are likely lost on the average layman, but still it’s worth indulging in the details: At the heart of the system are two Garrard 301 turntables with 12-inch Schick Tonearms in custom Vinylista plinths that head into a custom rotary mixer, handmade by Condesa in Australia. The mixer sends the signal to an Audio Note M5 preamplifier, which sends out two signals — the first to an audio note Jinro Shochu amplifier that powers Klipsch Klipschorn AK6 loudspeakers filling the front of the house, the other to a Mcintosh 6100 amplifier that powers a heavily modified pair of Klipsch Heresys at the bar.
The in-house record collection is split into day and night sections. Says Cowie, “Daytime features more relaxed ambient, modern classical, new age, folk and experimental records that go well with tea and the evening collection runs the gamut but leans heavily on jazz, funk and soul, which all go well with booze.”
Though the records on rotation will vary, Ling adds that the bar typically plays whole sides of albums, not just a track at a time. “This matters when experiencing the albums that are a part of our collection and the ones that our guest selectors bring in to play,” he says. Cowie also takes over every weekend to host Classic Album Sundays.
In addition to being open to an array of all-day customers, the establishment has featured a few dedicated listenings where labels, managers and the artists themselves have introduced a new album to those that they’ve invited to be there. “Our first one was of the late Richard Swift’s last album, The Hex — it was emotional and, thus, the right album to kick off this kind of experience,” Ling explains.
Ling says In Sheep’s Clothing isn’t a big room and so he tried to be cognizant of acoustics when designing it, which he says can work against you when there are those who visit who have a hard time keeping their voice quiet. “So far, the best representation of what our intention for the space has been happens during the day and early evening hours,” he continues. “This is when most people who visit do so in order to listen to what we are playing without being disruptive to the sound.”
Behind Gold Line and In Sheep’s Clothing, there is a similar motivation: To inspire listeners to gather and celebrate music in a cozy urban space. The goal is to captivate an audience into simply being in the moment and enjoying an album, rather than feeling the need to whip out phones and Instagram or live tweet the experience. Founders at both bars describe guests leaving their establishments with more than just a buzz from the alcohol.
Says Manak, “My friend Denny Holloway produced a lot of reggae records in the mid ’70s. He told me today that the DJ recognized him at the bar and played one of the records he made back then — Night Food, which he produced for The Heptones in 1976 — on our vintage sound system and he told me it literally took him back to the specific memory of being in the studio in Jamaica where he originally recorded it and he admitted that it choked him up.
“That’s the best compliment I’ve heard about the bar so far.”