by Joel Thomas
Note: This profile of Dave Sink is from 2005. Those of us who spent hours talking with him were privileged to hear his ideas on music, politics, baseball, and numerous other topics, but he didn’t talk about himself much. After hearing of his death, I decided to share this for others who might want to know more about him.
If it weren’t for the fact that my poor memory necessitates rapid scrawling in a notebook to capture conversation, I probably wouldn’t have needed to even ask Dave for an interview. He’s told me more than once that I, with my empty wallet, am always welcome to stop by the record store in the basement of the Antiquarium without shopping, just to visit and talk. Even with the invitation, however, I wonder what his reaction might be to something more formal, permanent and public when I deliver my request for an interview. Soon we are seated behind the counter, surrounded by sticker-covered shelves, stacks of CDs, and a variety of stereo components. Dave hits the “play” button on a tape deck, then pulls out his silver cigarette case while a song by Arty Shaw and the Gramercy Five swings around the store.
Interviews are nothing new to Dave Sink. A local independent label (Saddle Creek) and a few of its artists (Bright Eyes, The Faint, Cursive, The Good Life, Beep Beep, and more) began gaining national attention a few years back, bringing Rolling Stone and Spin writers to Omaha rock shows and long distance phone calls from far-away reporters. He’s become an expert at postulating and theorizing about rock music the way a nuclear physicist might when lecturing a basic science survey course. Today’s lesson is how much indie rock has changed since the 80s. “The difference between indie rock now and indie rock back in the 80s and early 90s is that back then it was made by misfits,” he points out. “Most of it now is made by well-adjusted people.” Most popular (in the underground or not) indie rock now, he continues, is mostly influenced by British bands; the old stuff was inspired by Americans. “The British bands – like The Smiths, The Cure, New Order, and so on – mostly just moped and moaned about things in their singing. The American bands got pissed off and sang angry, and that stuff just doesn’t go over as well.” When it did, however, indie rock suffered in the mid-90s due to overexposure and cultural saturation brought about by what happened to bands like Nirvana, Dave believes. “Never win a revolution,” he states. “When you win it, you’ve immediately lost it.”
Dave notices I jot notes but didn’t carry in a tape recorder. It’s unusual, he says, to see someone doing it the old-fashioned way even when tape recorders don’t cost much anymore. He knows a bit about interviewing, having spent his early adult years as a reporter for the first weekly paper to win a Pulitzer, The Omaha Sun (though he’s quick to point out the award was won just before his time there), from 1974-1983, the last three years as Associate Editor. During most of his journalistic career, however, he worked in the suburbs as the West Omaha reporter/editor. “I was really out of place out there,” Sink wryly recalls. “I’d drive and park my old ’65 Chevy Biscayne on those nice new streets and they couldn’t believe someone would actually do that over there. A lot of reporters are basically just like punks. I’d buy my clothes at Goodwill and wear the seediest goddamned things like they were a badge.”
Now in his late 50s, nothing about Dave Sink’s appearance begs controversy or social statement. He opts for plaid shirts, solid colors, jeans and simple classic sneakers. Most of the time he wears a baseball cap over his black, slightly graying hair. “I always wear my Kansas City Royals cap on the days they play, but their off days are my chance to wear something else,” he explains. The store itself offers very little in the way of flashy displays or elaborate merchandising -- just old stickers plastered here and there, collectable records mounted on the walls, and the occasional poster for bands unheard of by almost everyone who walks along the busy downtown street above.
When he first started working with music, Dave admits, he didn’t know about many of those bands himself. Perhaps he had been a punkish reporter, but the guy who now owns the record shop wasn’t into music a whole lot back then. I tell him about another project of mine in which I’m recording ideas and observations of “mature” long-term rock music fans and he isn’t so sure he’ll be of much help. “Before the 1980s, really, all I really had was a bunch of Dylan records and the shit most people had back then. I didn’t really pay attention to music a whole lot.” The Omaha Sun went belly up in 1983, leaving Dave unemployed. He spent more and more time at The Antiquarium, where he’d been hanging out for years, playing chess and relaxing amongst countless volumes.
Eventually store owner Tom put him to work, asking him to take care of the “record store,” which Dave remembers as “mostly a horrid collection of crap: things like beat-up BTO records and lots of Lawrence Welk.” Sink wasn’t doing anything else at the time, so he agreed to run the store – which to him meant throwing out ¾ of it and starting over – until he found another job. Despite the fact that he “didn’t know what was good or not,” he just started playing records, writing letter grades on the labels, and taking the job a little too seriously, he says, until someone finally came along and told him to just enjoy the fact that he had a job where he could just sit around and listen to music most of the day.
That next job came several months later when the former journalist went to work writing press for Walter Calinger, a local politician running for Congress. When Calinger was defeated in the primaries, his opponent hired Sink for his own campaign. That campaign failed to win against a popular opponent, so unemployment greeted Dave again. He worked the graveyard shift at a psychiatric hospital for a while. He spent the summer of 1986 living in Paris. Dave doesn’t elaborate much, but remembers enjoying .the area and speaking the language well enough to converse with almost all the French but not many Parisians. Back in Omaha he took a job working for the City Clerk, for whom he had worked during the 1984 Congressional campaign. “That job drove me practically fucking insane,” he realized, and soon left.
Unemployed again, he was soon living illegally in the Antiquarium. He and several others down on their luck lived in monk-like cells, sorting books and helping out around the store. Tom offered him a chance to run the record shop again, and Dave has been in charge of the store since 1987.
I don’t really remember meeting Dave, but it probably happened when I first visited Omaha in July 2000 and fawned over the kind of record store I’d never known existed. After I moved to the city in October of 2001, sometimes I’d browse the bins and chat with him on long afternoons, rewarding myself with a new record after a morning of fruitless job-hunting. When I found a job just a few blocks away, I knew where I’d spend some of my lunch hours. My wife is convinced that part of why we live where we now live is because our place within walking distance of the Antiquarium.
We go back and forth as our music conversations continue from visit to visit. He, the man twice my age, likes hard, high energy music thoughtfully constructed by rebels. He often mentions highly-regarded bands like Fugazi, The Minutemen, The Pixies, Husker Du and Dinosaur, Jr. as examples of bands he admires and who influenced the newer bands he listens to. I dig a good bit of that, myself, but remain a sucker for sounds inspired by Brian Wilson, The Kinks, The Zombies, The Byrds and T.Rex. He plays for me a few songs suited to my taste; then a few songs better suited to his. We haggle and gush over which band does what best and which record is the best we’ve heard in a while. A customer walking down the creaky wooden stairs and past the flyers for upcoming concerts is likely to be greeted by “primitive blues” made by someone named “Blind Willie” or an ancient swing record on one visit; a stinging swelter of guitars, drums and screaming vocals on the next.
Our interview pauses while a few customers hover near the counter. One of them is buying a vinyl copy of Blonde on Blonde. Dave asks which is his favorite Dylan record. The young man replies and Sink echoes, “John Wesley Harding? That one’s all right.” They discuss Dylan’s late 60s sounds. Dave doesn’t debate, only questions. They don’t seem like the types to be interested in the bands he tells me he’s pushing these days – The Stnnng, Routineers, Hot Snakes – so he doesn’t even bring them up. “Those are just bands full of old folks doing the kind of thing I like,” he replies when I ask what they sound like. He knows I bought some of them weeks ago and know damn well what they sound like.
According to Dave, much of Sink’s music education came at the hands of several suburban high school boys who started frequenting the store during the late 1980s. A “bouncing, energetic” young man named Simon Joyner, accompanied by two friends named Chris Deeden and Pat Buchanan (no, not that Pat Buchanan), brought in records they thought Dave should order for the store. “I’d put them on and listen for a few months, he explains. “Sometimes it takes a while to really get a feel for a record. For example, it took me 6 months of listening to Fugazi’s Repeater before I finally realized, ‘Hey, this is fucking brilliant’.” Sink found a few of his favorite bands, and the kids who would go on to heavily influence the Omaha rock scene (in various music styles) had found an important ally. Simon Joyner is known to many as “the godfather of the Omaha indie rock scene,” having built a solid reputation both locally and across the nation as an insightful, influential singer-songwriter. The others founded Mousetrap, which local writers and musicians still regard as one of Omaha’s finest years after their break-up and Dave calls “the best Omaha band of all time.” While most independent record stores hold a section for “local music,” the Antiquarium’s music shop keeps local records up front and on display, promoting the same musicians who no doubt are some of the store’s most frequent customers.
Pushing specific bands onto customers, in fact, works as a part of the store’s personality. Dave might hear a record he enjoys, and next thing you know his favorite customers listen to the band blare overhead while he points out what makes the album and group work so well. Sometimes Sink stumbles into a new favorite inadvertently. One afternoon, a band called “The Stnnng” (pronounced “the stunning”) was passing through Omaha on its way back to Minneapolis stopped by the store to ask him about carrying a couple copies of their latest. He agreed and started playing the CD moments after they left. They were back on the highway when he called them enthusiastically, urging them to turn around and bring a dozen more down to the store.
Eighteen years after he took over the record store, Dave Sink still hasn’t ever actually taken an inventory. He knows approximately how many records (yes, vinyl LPs), CDs and cassette tapes occupy the shop, and even has a pretty good idea of the average dollar amount to multiply those numbers by. He figures he should probably run an actual inventory now that things have changed so the lawyers won’t panic around tax time. After years of a simple partnership with Tom, the man who runs The Antiquarium, the used bookstore with the record shop in the basement, they’re finally in the process of making an official legal ownership distinction between the two, partly for tax purposes.
I ask Dave about settling down. Does a person at some point just get so old or settled in he can’t relate to new groups or go see loud rock and roll bands play anymore? “I don’t go to many shows anymore, but I’ll tell you why. There are two reasons: first, I’m 57 years old and I smoke, which means I just don’t have the stamina to stand, which is what you do at most shows, and watch several bands play. I just can’t physically do it anymore. Second, during baseball season most of the time I’m happier just watching baseball. There’s one kind of band, though, that I like better than a baseball game: a smart, high energy punk band. I’d miss a baseball game to go see that.”