Making a music playlist to play over the loudspeakers at Espresso Royale seems pretty simple. For the servers who compile them, the ingredients usually involve indie rock (Radiohead and Broken Social Scene are common at both the Espresso on State Street and on South University Avenue), perhaps some punk and a sprinkling of pop – all of which is played softly while customers sip their lattes, hold office hours and do homework.

Brian Merlos
Illustrations by John Oquist

Matt West, a barista at the Espresso on State, either didn’t get the memo or didn’t want to read it. When he works, his playlist veers toward the hard rock end of the music spectrum, and not all the customers are thrilled about it.

Last weekend, heavy rock wafted through the otherwise tranquil atmosphere of the café as West explained his unconventional choices.

“A lot of the music that I play here, it’s more on the heavy rock sort of psychedelic rock side of things, it’s not really metal,” he said. “It’s bands like Black Sabbath, and a lot of the bands that they influenced, bands like Witchcraft, who are a Swedish retro-rock band, and The Sword,” he said. “I’d call it sort of stoner-rock.”

West has long red hair that falls down past his beard. He sported a worn leather jacket, matching worn black jeans, a belt composed of bullets and a small hammer around his neck – the symbol for Thor, the Norse god of thunder. It was cold outside, so he wore a red scarf that matched his hair and glasses. He could have easily blended in at a Wolf Eyes concert.

West makes drinks at Espresso Royale’s State Street location, where the servers choose music from a vast iTunes library in a backroom. When that isn’t enough, some staffers also bring in their own iPods and CDs. At first, West was cautious about his soundtracks.

“For a long time I didn’t bring any of my own music in and I just built stuff out of what I had,” West said.

That didn’t last long. The one list of acceptable songs West would assemble was fairly short and ended before his shift did.

“I wanted to bring in some more,” he said. “Just so that the playlist was longer than the amount of time I’d be working every shift so it wasn’t the exact the same songs over and over again.”

Indeed, monotonous is the last thing West’s work soundtrack is.

Responses to his disc jockeying vary. Sometimes patrons come up and ask to turn the music down or change it.

“A lot of people think it’s too loud even when we think it’s too quiet,” he said.

On past weekends, students have been observed grumbling that the serious rock is unfitting for a coffee shop. But West says sometimes he’ll see patrons’ heads begin to slowly bob. The manager regulates it, keeping the louder stuff mostly for the weekends.

But even West’s weekday soundtrack, laden with songs like “Black Sabbath” and “Seat Leaf,” is a little bit louder than the songs you’d typically hear at a café that targets the studious. In the end, though, West says he reconciles his taste for bass with patrons’ preferences.

“Basically, the music is supposed to be for the customers and not for us, so we just do what they want us to do,” he said. “People have their own stuff going on and we’re all pretty much happy for it to not be just dead silence.”

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