Entertaining

Music for Thought

Dinner playlist tips from a top music sommelier
Music Sommelier Ben Swank
Photo: Steve Cadman via Flickr

At many restaurants, music is an afterthought, a random Muzak cherry on top of an otherwise deliberate, premeditated food experience. Not when Ben Swank is involved though. Swank is a music man about town in Nashville, co-founder of Third Man Records (with Jack White and Ben Blackwell), and one of a handful of people making custom playlists for restaurants. You might see his name, for example, on the chalkboard when you walk into Pinewood Social, an of-the-moment space combining restaurant, bar, coffee shop, bowling alley and dipping pools.

Swank's playlists pair the popular with the obscure, bridge decades and cross genres, but a few things remain consistent: They all make musical sense, and they're all prepared specifically for the physical space in which they're played. We caught up with Swank to ask him a few questions about the business and to get some next-level playlist tips (and we even scored a playlist).

When did you make your first playlist?
"Probably when I was 13 or 14—right around the time I started buying records after getting my paycheck from my first job as a teenage janitor. You know, there's that point in every kid's life when you realize, man, Physical Graffiti is a long-ass album. Maybe I can just put 'The Rover' on a tape, followed by Jimi Hendrix's version of 'Day Tripper' from his BBC Sessions, and make something I really want to hear for 90 minutes straight. And then, once I realized it was really easy to steal blank tapes from the local Rite Aid, it was off to the races."

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When did you first get paid to make a playlist?
"When I was living in London about eight years ago. It always drives me crazy when you go into a restaurant or shop and the music they're playing totally doesn't jive with the vibe or concept of the place. It seriously seems like the last thing people think about when they're designing their business. That was just driving me nuts, so I thought I could make some money going around and asking people if I could make mixes or DJ for them to improve their 'vibes.' A couple places took me up on it, but it wasn't a whole lot of money."

What are the important elements to take into account when planning a playlist?
"Anything from lighting, to room layout, to what servers are wearing, to what kind of food or drinks are being served. Is the place more mellow or boisterous? If it's a bar, you probably want the music to be a little more banging. You know, just common sense-wise, a bar is going to have a different type of music than a wine bar on a veranda."

Any absolute dos and don'ts when making a playlist?
"I don't think there are any rules. People try to play it safe, but I like to jump all over the place and tie divergent songs together that maybe don't make all that much sense on the surface. But you can be clever and find cues and syncs in common to make them work. I like to sneak things in that might sound challenging on their own but make sense in the context of the larger playlist."

What do you play at a summer cookout chez Swank?
"My wife is in charge of BBQ jams. She just plays 'Pop, Lock & Drop It' and 'Walk It Out' on repeat. But I like a lot of weird dub, African groove vibes or Detroit techno for tequila sunrise boozing in the heat."

Does food ever make you think of music, or vice versa?
"Ramones = Pizza." 

Do you have any go-to music and food pairings?
"The same math that works for Ramones and pizza works for Loretta Lynn and fried chicken, too."

In one word, how do you feel about the term "music sommelier?"
"Fancy."

Listen to one of Swank's playlists on Spotify. 

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