Nabil Ayers has held so many jobs within the music industry that the very concept of the “hyphenated title” could have been created just for him. “Musician-record label head-entrepreneur-record store owner,” and those are just four of many he held at the same time during two decades he spent in Seattle. In 2008, Ayers moved to New York where in addition to now running one of the biggest record labels — Beggars Group — he’s published the memoir “My Life in the Sunshine.”

But he is also the son of famous jazz musician Roy Ayers and “My Life in the Sunshine” is subtitled “Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family.” The book centers around his painful relationship with his father, and the title is a play on Roy’s 1976 hit “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” Much of the story is based in Seattle, though, where Nabil spent years as the co-owner of the Sonic Boom record stores, and played in bands including the Long Winters, Alien Crime Syndicate and Micro Mini.

“My Life in the Sunshine” is out June 7, and Ayers returns to Seattle for a reading at Town Hall on June 10 with KEXP’s Cheryl Waters. Last month he spent a couple of hours on the phone talking about how he came to write this memoir. He’s recently been appointed the head of Beggars Group, which includes labels like 4AD, Matador, XL and others.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family”

Nabil Ayers, Viking, 320 pp., $26


I know you from so many things in your Seattle days — your bands, Sonic Boom, and now Beggars — but how did the idea for this book come up?

I didn’t set out to write a book, although very quietly it existed in the back of my head. I started a memoir writing class that forced me to do free writing. And my wife suggested, “You need to write about your father, and your race, as that’s what you care about.” It was a lot scarier to tackle, but it forced me to deal with things I don’t talk about, or even think about. I wrote about the four or five times I saw my father, then I kind of ran out of those stories, so I started remembering times of hearing his songs. Eventually, I had a group short stories that turned into a book.


The book is centered on your relationship with your father, or more correctly the absence of a relationship with your father. Did you send Roy a copy, or hear any feedback?

What’s been interesting is that in the limited people who have read it, many have said “what an incredible book this is about your mother.” And that’s also true. With Roy, I honestly don’t have a way to get a book to him. He lives in New York, as I do. I have a phone number for him that I haven’t tried in a while. I emailed it to another of Roy’s children. I’ve done my due diligence. But the book really is about the my life. … I’m really happy how things turned out, and that’s not just what I think about the book, but what I feel about my entire life.


Much of the book is also about Seattle music, from Sonic Boom to the small labels you ran, to the bands you played in. It seemed like I never went anywhere in Seattle where I didn’t run into you. How long were you here?

I was in Seattle for 15 years proper, but I had four before that at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. It was right when things were just starting to happen in the late ’80s. I was just a kid, but I remembering going to a club show, and I saw Bruce Pavitt [of Sub Pop]. I thought, “holy crap.” It was just a fun time and place to be as everything developed.

You played in a bunch of bands, but most people in Seattle might still know you from Sonic Boom, first in Fremont, later in Ballard.


Sonic Boom was a special place. We wanted to open a record store that was a “third place” for people to hang out in. In that era, Fremont was cheap rent, and it felt like most of our customers were our friends, or neighbors. It was a very Seattle thing. It was like a clubhouse. It was rare that anyone would just stumble in, so it was a very insular place where we hung out, and also sometimes sold records. We eventually opened the Ballard store, Fremont closed, and we sold the business.

You had a Black father and a white mother, and you write eloquently about how you always felt as an outsider because of your race. One line really stood out to me on how you negotiated those barriers: “Black/white whatever will get me the best interest rate.”

I walked away from the book without having a conclusion, but I do have a better idea of how I feel with a “nonrelationship with Roy.” It’s much more complicated to understand how I feel about my father, than it is to tackle racial issues. It is interesting that I could come to a conclusion about my father, but in the end not come to a conclusion about race.

As a Black business owner in Seattle you tell the story of having a break-in, and then having to be very conscious when the cops arrived to make sure they didn’t see you as a threat.

You don’t realize some of these things when they are happening. I’d tried not to focus on that. There was a ton of crap. I just let it roll over me.

You’re now the head of one of the most respected label groups in music, putting out records by bands like the National and Yo La Tengo. Do you ever miss running a record store?

It’s still something I think about. I’ll walk down a cool block and think, “this would be a great place to open a store, and I could be one person working with limited hours.” I totally miss it, particularly the idea of having a gathering space. The world always needs more record stores.

Nabil Ayers with Cheryl Waters

7:30 p.m. June 10; Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5;