There’s a bar under a shopping centre in Gangnam-gu called Electric Shoes. You could walk past the entrance 1,000 times without knowing that, a few feet beneath you, is a sort of Library of Alexandria for rare vinyl and recordings of niche live music.
The walls are covered in posters for Miles Davis and John Coltrane performances in Paris; photographs of Neil Young, Freddie Mercury and John Lee Hooker. Bathed in an orange glow, a small woman with dark hair moves silently behind the bar. She finishes making a whisky highball and turns to consult an enormous shelf packed tight with records and DVD cases. A projector in the corner plays a grainy rendering of The Cure’s Pictures of You — Robert Smith sways and yelps from a stage in the past.
“We could come here every night,” says Jay from Drake’s Dosan. “Sometimes we do!”
Owned and operated by Alex Moon (the woman behind the counter), Electric Shoes is one of countless LP Bars in Seoul. She makes the drinks and selects the music. We go several times during our visit to Seoul without seeing another member of staff. Bong Joon-ho, the Oscar-winning director of Parasite, is a regular. At the bar two young men with long hair and baggy trousers nurse bottles of Samuel Adams and nod their heads to the music.
You write down a song request on a piece of paper and hand it to Moon. She works out where it fits in the order, which version might work best, or whether she wants to play that song at all… ratifying or silently dismissing your taste. Mortifying. If you’re a regular regular, Moon will let you take beer out of a special fridge and pay what you owe at the end of the night.
According to The Korea Herald, vinyl sales amongst a younger generation of Koreans have risen by more than 100 percent year-on-year since 2021. The first ‘LP Bars’ opened in the 90s, mostly inspired by Japan’s listening bars, where aficionados would gather to enjoy rare imported records played on professional audio exquipment, drink whisky and smoke 100 cigarettes in a row.
“There’s not much space in Seoul,” says our friend JP. “The apartments are small,” adds Jay. “It can be like your living room here.”
Kompakt Record Bar is in Apgujeong, a short walk from the Drake’s Dosan store, just on the other side of the park. Opened in 2018 by Jinmoo Choi, a DJ and graphic designer who’s also part of the Seoul musical collective 360 Sounds. Kompakt is… just that, but in a way that works.
A concrete and wood-panelled box with ambient lighting and a beautiful vintage sound system, a wall of records (they only play vinyl, of course), and a highball that is heightened by the setting. It feels like you’re somewhere. The crowd trends younger than other venues. “This is the Williamsburg of Seoul!” jokes Jay. A Thursday evening, groups of co-workers and couples mix with guys in slouchy t-shirts and expensive trainers, eyes focused on the tiny DJ booth. I can’t place the songs.
You could spend an entire trip to Seoul visiting different shrines to pressed vinyl and mid-century sound systems; an endless loop of whisky highballs, mood lighting and 90s hip hop and 70s psychedelia presented in optimum conditions. Under shopping centres and wedged between office blocks, up the stairs in residential flats and secreted down side streets, the hunt for good music here can lead you to some interesting places.
In a basement just north of the river, Sound Planet makes itself known thanks to a sign outside in the shape of a London Underground station. Down the stairs we fall into a row of cracked leather sofas. Dominated by a vintage cafe racer motorbike, an American flag pinned to the brick wall and a set of JBL4350 speakers (the kind that send audio nerds spiralling on specialist online message boards), the DJ flitting between trap, Hendrix and… Every Time You Go Away by Paul Young.
“Picking up the pieces
Every time you go away (ooh)
You take a piece of me with you (be careful)”
The burger here is, well, it’s pretty special. Better than New York? I couldn’t possibly comment (yes, it probably is). An army of waitresses suddenly appear carrying platters aloft in a silent procession. Whisky glasses are topped up and Paul Young is cycled out of the mix.
At some point our conversation lulls and we sit in easy silence, ready for whatever the DJ has lined up next.