"I always say it's KISS vs. Bob Dylan," Nabil Ayers says, encapsulating how he and Sonic Boom Records partner Jason Hughes differ when it comes to music.
"It is! It's melody vs. lyrics," Hughes chimes in. "You grew up with KISS, and I grew up with classic rock."
The two, who became friends while working at Easy Street Records in the mid-'90s, may not have an identical taste in music. But they've shared a common vision since 1997, when they opened the doors of their first Sonic Boom records in a tiny Fremont storefront. The used section consisted of their two personal CD collections, and they had one cardboard box–worth of vinyl.
And they had a couch. "It was a pleather couch with a pullout bed," Ayers, the self-proclaimed social chair of the store, remembers fondly. "We had a listening station next to it, and we'd just sit there and drink beer."
In that first space they hosted packed in-store performances featuring the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, Creeper Lagoon, and Lou Barlow. Their first midnight sale, for Built to Spill's Keep It Like a Secret, surprised the store owners when they returned from purchasing beer to find a line out the door.
Times weren't always so lush, though: They did what they could with what they had, working other jobs and paying themselves as little as possible. "Jason would say, 'What's the least amount of money you can live on?'" says Ayers of Hughes' approach to number crunching. "And I'd say, '$250 [per couple weeks]'; and he'd say, 'I can live on $200.' And I'd say, 'OK, $200.'"
Friends like KEXP's Cheryl Waters manned the register when Ayers and Hughes would head out of town on buying trips to cities like Portland, whose high concentration of independent record stores spurred them into opening Sonic Boom. It wasn't until they made the leap into their current Fremont space, however, that the store began to take off. The more centralized location brought an infusion of customers, many of whom hadn't even been aware that there was a record store in the neighborhood.
"People would come in and say, 'Oh, it's so great there's a record store in the neighborhood now!'" Ayers recalls. "And I would be like, 'There's been one here for the last two years!'"
Over th e past 10 years, Sonic Boom has built three more stores, plus a vinyl annex/general store next to the Fremont location. The duo's business has become an essential, integral cog in the Seattle music community, and their Capitol Hill and Ballard outposts have become a regular stop for many national touring acts, performing in-stores in the intimate setting.
Ayers and Hughes also both run their own, separate indie record labels: Ayers' Control Group has been home to bands like Schoolyard Heroes; while Sonic Boom Recordings, Hughes' labor of love, has released everything from Death Cab 7 inches to United States of Electronica EPs.
"There were times when we had no money, says Ayers, "but it didn't matter. I can never remember going to bed worrying."— Locations in Fremont, Ballard, and Capitol Hill, www.sonicboomrecords.com.Jason & Nabil's Picks