John Vettese

Location (Philly Neighbourhood): East Mt. Airy

Hometown: Ambler, Montgomery County, PA


Current Project(s)/What you do in the Philly music scene: Editor of The Key / on-air host at WXPN / contributing music writer for Magnet Magazine

Past Project(s): Music and art writer at City Paper (R.I.P.) / Rockpile / The Stranger (Seattle) / SF Weekly (SF); also a brief, ill-advised attempt at putting on shows 

Instrument(s) you play (if any): I don’t play any instrument well. I do enjoy drumming on whatever surface happens to be available, and I learned how to play guitar growing up like most kids from the suburbs, but it went nowhere.


Location of Photo(s): My kitchen, as I prepare tofu scramble breakfast tacos // Main Street Music, on Record Store Day 2017.

What do those location(s) mean to you?

KITCHEN -- So I’ve been a sober vegan since summer of 2015; years and years of going to concerts and getting loaded and making dumb decisions and feeling gross all the time caught up with me and I sort of decided I needed do something or a few things to get my shit together. I try not to be preachy or a pain in the ass about either way of living; they just feel like the right decisions for me personally. I know plenty of folks who are totally capable of rocking the moderation thing, or functional levels of drunkenness, and that’s cool; it’s something I was never good at. As for going vegan, that is def backed by moral/ethical beliefs, but I also believe that people need to come to those realizations on their own, as I did…or maybe not, and that’s fine too. (I totally lose vegan points for having this outlook.) 

All that’s to say I’m chill being the sober guy at shows around people who are drinking (this surprised me) and I’m chill grabbing food in the company of omnivores (less of a surprise). But one of the biggest positives of making these changes is that my sisters-in-law, who are mad supportive and awesome people (sis-in-law Jenn also being a vegan), get me various vegan cookbooks every year for my birthday and the holidays. I LOVE cooking, and furthermore I LOVE vegetarian and vegan cooking. Not in a “oh well this is an acceptable substitute I guess” kind of way where I’m secretly missing bacon. (Confession: I sometimes do miss bacon.) I think that veg. cooking is incredible, and we are fortunate enough in Philly to have lots of talented chefs and inclusively minded folks in the food industry who incorporate veg / vegan options across the board at places like The Abbaye (buffalo seitan wings yummers), Johnny Brenda’s (their BBQ seitan is the shit), Front Street Café (buffalo cauliflower bites OMFGZ) and P.O.P.E. (top notch vegan cheesesteak). Plus, some of the city’s best restaurants are, indeed, vegan – yeah, Vedge is fancy shmancy and costs a fortune, but their food is goddamn worth it; V Street is the same chefs in a way more casual setting, and their food is almost better; Bar Bombon does an incredible job making mindblowing Mexican food with no meat or dairy; on the cheaper end, Hip City Veg is good for a treat on the go, The Tasty is a South Philly diner that lives up to its name, the falafel at Goldie is a religious experience, and I <3 food trucks Kung Fu Hoagies and Magic Carpet

In short – there are lots of Philly people doing really creative, really delicious things with food / without animal products, and I will never be as good as them at it, but I like to try. My wife Maureen is very patient with my attempts at doing so, which often involve me completely taking over the small kitchen in our small rowhome on weekends for multiple meals in a row; I’ll clean up from our late breakfast, have an hour to check email or so before I run to the store to get stuff I need to make dinner. Recent favorites include cauliflower tikka masala – how the heck did it take me till almost 40 to appreciate the wonders of cauliflower? – and tempeh bacon BLTs, which are quick and delish. My absolutely totally favorite breakfast dish to make, though, is the tofu scramble breakfast tacos as found in Thug Kitchen. It’s easy and quick, but has a lot going on flavor-wise – the tacos are filling, and one block of tofu plus various veggies (shredded carrot, broccoli, red pepper) yields enough food for a week’s worth of breakfasts. It also reminds me of the first time I went to Austin for SXSW and was blown away by b’fast tacos being a thing. I freaking swear by these things, so I made some for Carolyn and she took photos of me doing so – she can vouch for whether they’re actually good or not.   

Working in the kitchen often involves working alongside my intrepid tabby cat, Garfunkel. He gets in the way, but is a good dude over all.

MAIN STREET MUSIC – I seriously enjoy shopping for music. If you own a retail establishment and devote even a tiny bit of square footage to records or instruments or accessories related to either, you’ve got my attention for a few minutes at least. 

Of course, with record stores in particular, there’s a whole spectrum. The very corporate, homogenized, big box chain stores in shopping centers and malls (at least where malls still exist); the HMVs of the world and whatnot. Places with lots of Beatles and Nirvana posters on the walls and an in-store playlist that’s a canned cycle of classic rock and classic modern rock megahits; possibly they might have a selection of t-shirts with iconic album covers. Those places are somewhat adrift and out of touch, and buying from them feels like buying from somebody who is more interested in money than music; the selection is dumbed down and middle of the road.

On the other extreme, though equally adrift and out of touch, are the aggressively-curated, overly cool and often quite stuck up niche retailers where independent status is equated with exclusivity and elitism, the kind of place that specializes solely in short-run abstract electronic tape labels and obscure reissues from the Flemish folk revival of the 1970s (a thing I may or may not have just made up). Or perhaps the pack rat spin on aggressive indie shop curation, where you’re greeted with stacks and stacks of unsorted crates of various formats to get lost digging in but you stress about the pile of music you’re taking to check out because you just want a goddamn copy of The Hits 1 and 2 by Prince for your car that only has a working CD player and you know the cashier is going to sigh and roll their eyes at you for not getting that sick vinyl of Around the World in a Day instead since, you know, it’s right there on the new arrivals shelf! So you pad your purchase with like used copies of Odyshape by The Raincoats or The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett or something to maintain cool points. Not that I’m pissed at the dude from State of the Art Records on South Street (long since closed) who scolded me for buying Moby’s Play on CD in 1999.

Both of those examples are extremes; quite honestly, they’re both clichés. Most record stores fall somewhere much closer to the center from either side, I find, and having that balance is important. You want to buy from people who are knowledgeable and passionate about music, who can share your enthusiasm for Sleater-Kinney deep cuts and possibly turn you on to an EP or single you didn’t realize existed; but you also want to buy from people who are also friendly, approachable and accessible, people who want to share that knowledge and won’t make you feel like an idiot for not knowing who Huggy Bear is.

There are a few places in Philly that do that reasonably well. The relatively new Brewerytown Beats has incredible shelves upon shelves upon shelves of albums to flip through, a chill staff and one of the best dollar bins in the city; Repo on South Street is an institution, and beneath their gruff punk exterior, they are fans that are just as geeked out about music as you.

And then there’s Main Street Music in Manauynk. It is, as far as I’m concerned, the gold standard of Philadelphia record shops – they’ve been in Manauynk for two and a half decades, beginning when it was the East Kensington of its day, soldiering through the neighborhood’s long and brotastic 90s / 00s stint as the Northern Liberties of its day…and now that Manayunk is pretty much New Hope, Main Street Music still stands, still super pumped to sell you music.

On most days you’ll find owner Pat Feeney or manager Jamie Blood behind the counter, smiling and enthusiastically greeting you, quick to chat you up about your purchases; we’ve had equally solid conversations about Strand of Oaks records I’ve bought from them as we have about Spirit, a weirdass late 60s psych-prog band that I knew nothing about but (not gonna lie) was very drawn to their horrifying album cover photo.

They are conversant in just about every genre you can come at them with, they will not shame you for buying the hits, they keep on top of new releases and emerging artists with impressive tenacity, and most importantly, they foster the idea of the record store as a community, whether it’s through the summer days where they set up speakers on their sidewalk along with tables of discount items, or through their impressive series of in-store gigs, which in recent years has featured anyone from local punk troubadour Dave Hause to minimal moody Minnesotans Low.

Since we did this shoot on Record Store Day, I suggested we skip over to Main Street Music with Carolyn and Maureen to do some shopping and take in an instore set from an old Philly pal now based in Nashville and doing pretty well for himself, Ron Gallo.


Favourite Place in Philly: Wissahickon Park, particularly Forbidden Drive (where my High School cross country team used to practice and my parents used to take my sister and I to ride our bikes as children), and even more particularly the Valley Green stretch of Forbidden Drive, where Maureen and I got married in spring of 2011. When I die I want my ashes scattered here, for reals.


Favourite Watering Hole/Coffee Spot: I’ve got a soft spot for Joe Coffee on Drexel’s campus; it’s close enough to WXPN that grabbing a large coffee and a Dottie’s Donut is my morning ritual. Plus, a really sweet crew of musicians and artists and cool folk work there. I’ve also got mad love for HubBub and ReAnimator. And don’t tell anybody, but as far as straight up hangs, McMenamin’s on Germantown Avenue is actually the best bar in Philadelphia.


Favourite Restaurant: In addition to all of the above, The Khyber Pass is simply a wonderful establishment that I was not expecting to like – being that the restaurant replaced a beloved music venue of the same name where I pretty much lived in my 20s (saw The Strokes and B.R.M.C. there, Chicks on Speed, The Mountain Goats, countless locals like Bardo Pond and The Snow Fairies and Rarebirds and Dan Malloy). But that venue had long outlived its useful existence, Old City is a very different place than it was in the early 00s, and their food is freaking off the charts good – and vegan friendly! It was def strange going to The Khyber with my family and sitting in the clean and shiny interior explaining to my niece over Earth Balance popcorn that, yeah, this is where the stage used to be, and this is where the ceiling tiles fell on me after Trail of Dead tore them down, and this is where I passed out drunk during the Azure Ray show. But that’s kind of a magical experience in itself.


Favourite Cheesesteak Place: The best, truly, is Govinda’s Gourmet to Go on Broad and South, which also reminds me of a Dead Milkmen song.


Favourite Pizza Spot: Mt. Airy’s Earth Bread and Brewery is so right-on in so many ways, from its devotion to minimizing waste through composting and recycling to its creative flat breads and house-made beers; its West Philly analog, Dock Street Pizza, is also excellent.


Favourite Philly Venue: PhilaMOCA has everything going for it – good sound, good visuals, great shows, intimate size, all ages, rad arty vibes. Everybody Hits is also reliably awesome, ditto Johnny Brenda’s and Boot & Saddle. The bigger the venue, the less I tend to love being there, but I find myself enjoying myself at Union Transfer more often than not.


Favourite Philly Band(s): Are you seriously asking me this question? GUHHHHHH. I mean, Hop Along – anybody who’s had a conversation with me about music in the past eight years probably knows the extent of my love for this band. The Roots, who I got into in high school when I saw them open for Beastie Boys at the Civic Center in 19 freaking 95 – they were the first band that sort of gave me a sense of civic pride, even though I didn’t technically live in Philly at that point, they made me proud that Philly was “my city.” I also dearly love Cayetana, Strand of Oaks, Bardo Pond, Paint It Black, The Districts. I miss The Swimmers, Writtenhouse and Espers. I don’t think I can say much more without getting into you-left-all-these-people-out territory, though I fully admit that I’m solidly into that territory already.  


Best show you’ve seen in Philly: Jesus, really? Impossible. Let’s just say Beck with The Cardigans and Atari Teenage Riot at The Spectrum in March of 1997. One of the last concerts of my senior year of high school, Odelay era Beck – in his prime, arguably – and a really beautiful set from The Cardigans, who I’d previously dismissed as overly-saccharine bubblegum pop due to the overplayed “Lovefool” – I do enjoy being wrong about these things – preceded by one of the most comically confrontational / abrasive performances I’ve ever seen from ATR.


What are you listening to now: Cayetana’s New Kind of Normal on vinyl; when it’s done, I’m popping on the 7” to Big Thief’s “Mythologial Beauty.”


If you could sum up in one sentence what Philly / Philly music scene means to you, what would it be? We’re a community of creative folks that is passionate, ambitious, self-motivated, eclectic and refuses to be easily pigeonholed. 


Life motto: Just get the next train.


Random Fun Fact: I’m super into photography, and (hopefully) not in a photo-bro kind of way. I’m reading a book right now about the Group f.64 community in the Bay Area circa 1930s (Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham) which is super interesting and inspiring. In the past I’ve shown my pictures in Philly regional group shows of various degrees of formality and seriousness; nothing super high profile, but nevertheless fun. It’s been years since I’ve done it, but I nevertheless consider it a part of me and would love to return to it.


Childhood Dream Job: As a really young kid in a Catholic family, I wanted to be a priest; as a kid in the 80s, I wanted to be a Jedi. I think my first realistic dream job was being a writer, and I guess I’m kind of doing that. Go me, living the dream!


Pets: Three cats – Withnail (a stray black cat found as a kitten in my neighborhood), Garfunkel (a stray tabby found as a kitten in a paint bucket with eight of his siblings on a West Philly porch by my old co-worker and friend Jeremy) and Zero (a tuxedo adopted from Philly PAWS). 


Future plans: I spent so much time and effort in my 20s and early 30s figuring out how to make music my full-time job; now that I’m there, I don’t want to rush on to something else right away. So I don’t really have any future plans beyond pretty much staying in Philly, going to shows, recording bands in the studio and playing their songs on the radio.