If you love music so much that the mere sonority of muso chitchat registers in your brain as its own type of song, allow me to point you toward the greatest thing on all of YouTube. It’s called “What’s In My Bag?,” a long-running video series hosted at Amoeba Music, the legendary California record store in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley. The show’s general concept is straightforward enough. Touring musicians drop by one of the store’s three cavernous locations, prowl the labyrinthine sales floor, grab up records by the armful for an hour or so, then blab about their purchases on camera.
That simplicity makes “What’s In My Bag?” a humble, handy tool for encountering new and unfamiliar music — whether you’re a fan of the artist rifling through their bag or not. But if you really dive into this thing, you’ll begin to learn how musicians hear, how they think, how they remember, how they forget, how they emulate, how they worship, how they fortify and defy their own tastes, how they communicate with one another, and, ultimately, how they experience the world.
For instance, cue up Flea’s appearance on “What’s In My Bag?” from 2016. You’ll learn that the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist has an affection for the late Detroit producer J Dilla. Cool, nice, right on. But keep watching. Once Flea begins weeping at the memory of listening to Dilla’s “Ruff Draft” album on a mountain hike through Big Sur, you might suddenly hear Dilla’s effortless beats (probing, cathartic) and Flea’s athletic bass-playing (vulnerable, humane) in ways that feel startlingly profound.
“It gets so personal,” says Rachael McGovern, a digital marketing manager and content producer at Amoeba who’s been overseeing “What’s In My Bag?” since its launch nearly 15 years ago. “When our guests get into why they’re picking something up, it’s like, ‘Oh, you danced around the living room to this record with your mom when you were a little kid?’ … They’re really showing who they are and what they’re excited about, and I don’t think you see that a lot.”
We don’t discover music that way too often, either. So much of today’s taste-making power resides in the mindless algorithmic recommendations made by musical streaming services — corporate interests doing everything in their power to lock listeners into sedative playlists, corralling our ears into tidy silos of prolonged engagement. “What’s In My Bag?” feels almost heroically antithetical to those bleak playlist-ification tactics. It steers us toward unexpected sounds via human beings telling human stories.
As for the story of the series itself, it begins with “Weird Al” Yankovic, the show’s very first guest way back in 2008. McGovern says the idea for the show had been quietly germinating in the Amoeba mindshare — “Whenever someone famous would come shopping, the staff always wanted to know what they bought!” — so when Yankovic materialized at the cash register one sunny afternoon, a staffer with a camera decided to pounce.
“I mean, there’s nothing more personal than asking somebody, ‘What’s in your bag?’” Yankovic tells me in an email. “So I suppose I was a little taken off guard at first. But the Amoeba folks are really cool, so I guess I just kinda rolled with it.”
Amoeba rolled with it, too. “What’s In My Bag?” is closing in on 800 episodes, having scored appearances by everyone from Questlove, to Kim Gordon, to Lars Ulrich, to Huey Lewis, to Ice Cube, to Mitski, to Steve Earle, to Earl Sweatshirt, to Phoebe Bridgers, to Gwar, to Ethan Hawke (movie stars appear in episodes shot at the Hollywood location from time to time). McGovern says the series has become the most important piece in Amoeba’s greater marketing efforts, and that instead of having to “ambush” celebrity shoppers as they did originally, artists have made “What’s In My Bag?” a concerted element of their publicity campaigns.
“It’s gotten a lot more ‘professional’ since the one they did with me,” Yankovic says, “which I think they shot with a potato. And I suppose the artists put considerably more thought into it now. When I did it, I was literally stopped as I was checking out of the store, and I certainly wasn’t aware that my purchases were going to be analyzed.”
The analysis doesn’t have to be superficial, though. Most of the purchases in Yankovic’s bag that fated afternoon were gifts for his daughter — which tells us that “Weird Al” is a generous father who ventures out into the world with the primary intention of making others happy. “White and Nerdy” sounds a little sweeter knowing that the guy on the mic likes listening to They Might Be Giants with his 5-year-old, right?
In the years that followed, “What’s In My Bag?” got deeper without much effort, showing Amoeba’s 424,000 YouTube subscribers what musicians are drawn to, what they return to, what they aspire to. McGovern says it all happened organically. “We don’t direct the guests. We don’t tell them what to shop for; we don’t tell them what to say,” she says. “And just because they make a particular kind of music doesn’t mean that’s what they’ll gravitate toward. So there’s no way to prepare.”
The psychedelic folk singer Jessica Pratt showed up prepared for her episode in 2019. A few years earlier she had worked a day job at Amoeba for roughly six months, first at the checkout counter and later as a chaperone to artists visiting the shop. “There’s something very good about being in a place where everybody’s thinking about music all the time,” Pratt says. “But beyond music, being a cashier at this record store in the middle of Hollywood, it became this phantasmagoric experience of ringing up celebrities and people off the street. … That might have been the best part of it for me.”
That swirl of familiarity and strangeness speaks to the fundamental appeal of “What’s In My Bag?,” too. “It’s like the equivalent of going over to a friend’s house and listening to weird records you never heard or maybe weren’t ready for yet,” Pratt says of the series. And as an artist, “It’s much easier for me to talk about other music [than my own]. There’s something so overwhelming about trying to condense your own sound or intent into a paragraph. … It seems like most people who create things are always seesawing back and forth between self-doubt and self-confidence, so to make some definitive statement about what you’re doing is difficult. You might disagree with yourself a day later.”
That said, Pratt knows she’s going to love the music of singer-songwriter Scott Walker tomorrow, next year and probably forever, so during her interview for “What’s In My Bag?,” when she calls the profoundly singular crooner “a man for all seasons,” she’s verbalizing a certitude in her listening — and in her exquisitely delicate songcraft — that she may not have been able to express any other way.
The show hosts scores of Los Angeles musicians like Pratt, but it also relies on the touring circuit to bring record freaks through the front door. McGovern says she tries to court artists who make record shopping the secondary function of being on tour, and based on their recent on-screen haul, the sharp London post-punk quartet Dry Cleaning certainly seems to qualify. “Browsing [record stores] is a really good way to get a feel for the city,” says Dry Cleaning drummer Nick Buxton. “I prefer used record stores, kinda smaller shops that tend to have more curated stock, and I think it’s worth the detour to find these kinds of places if you’ve got the time. And then it’s a matter of when you last got paid and how much you can fit in your suitcase.”
Buxton says his group’s recent visit to Amoeba tested his suitcase’s tensile strength, and the same goes for Blood Incantation, a stylistically promiscuous, wildly voracious death metal band from Denver that McGovern describes as “really knowledgeable and really passionate — the perfect guests, really.” Those good feelings were mutual, too. “We’ve been asking Amoeba for maybe four or five years” to be on “What’s In My Bag?,” says Blood Incantation guitarist-vocalist Paul Riedl. “We love the show. We actually ran out of time there, browsing and filming. I didn’t even get to the bottom of my bag.”
The recent Blood Incantation episode gets to the bottom of something else, though — that bands can form their ideas by listening together, building a collective musical vocabulary without having to discuss it out loud. On screen, the members of Blood Incantation are explaining their finds to the person holding the camera, but they’re ultimately in conversation with one another. “We’re listening to music in the van all day every day; we listen together at our practice space,” Riedl says. “For all four of us, it’s our total prerogative in life: to listen to, make, consume, understand music. It’s the whole deal. That’s why the band sounds so spastic.”
Blood Incantation’s talk might feel like a spelunk into a hyper-omnivorous groupmind, but other episodes show minds getting changed in real time. In one standout episode of “What’s In My Bag?” from 2016, the Detroit house and techno DJs Theo Parrish, Zernell and Marcellus Pittman playfully bend one another’s brains, debating which Gang Starr album is the best, reminiscing about Blue Magic’s proto-house and vying for the store’s last copy of a Universal Togetherness Band reissue. As digital listeners, we might stumble across these records on our lonely quests through the streaming service slush, but our encounters won’t feel anything like this.
The way Pittman describes it, discovering music among friends can change how we hear it. “I used to work at a record store with [DJ and producer] Rick Wilhite,” Pittman says, “and man, Rick can sell water to a whale! Sometimes you’d get the record home like, ‘Is this even the same thing?’”
Obviously, it was. Records don’t change. People do. “I believe everybody wakes up on a different frequency,” Pittman says. “You might not like J Dilla’s music, but you wake up on a new frequency one day, and hear one of his tunes like, ‘Oh, my God, what’s that?’ … And we [help each other] get on those frequencies. We’re humans. We’re frequency-beings.”
So what Pittman is saying is that all of this talk about music — the praising, the witnessing, the persuading, the interrogating, the confessing, the testifying that happens on every episode of “What’s In My Bag?” and inside every record store the world over — ultimately serves as a form of human alignment? “Exactly, man,” Pittman says. “Exactly.”
An earlier version of this article omitted Amoeba’s Berkeley location. Some episodes of “What’s In My Bag?” have been filmed there as well. The article has been corrected.