WE LIVE IN A WEIRD OLD WORLD, WHERE OBSOLETE RECORDING FORMATS
ARE COOL AND IPODS ARE FOR LOSERS. WHAT, YOU DIDN’T KNOW?
Steve Albini wrote ‘The future belongs to the analog loyalists. Fuck digital’ on the back of the CD version of Big Black’s seminal Songs About|Fucking. Probably when he was in a ‘dark place’, or in the heavy stage of his perennial man period (manses?). Righteous words from noise rock’s terminal grouch, but they were written at a time when the battle lines were still clear and tweets were sounds birds made.
Since then, Albini’s imagined future has been bummed into submission by record companies and tech-heads with a massive jones for turning all music into ones and zeroes. And yet, like some undead, brain-eating zombie, analogue just won’t stay dead.
Vinyl is of course the analogue format of choice these days. US consumer-electronics giant Best Buy confirmed it this past spring when it scooched over a pile of unsold Miley Cyrus CDs to make space for the audiophile favourite in its stores. Analogue loyalists may be applauding the move, but the nod to vinyl has turned antsy young record geeks into rebels without a cause. So what are they now turning to as an alternative to the alternative when even Middle America is giving the waxy slabs a chubby thumbs up? The answer: cassette tapes.
They may hiss, snap and melt into mixtape goo if left in the back seat of a car on a summer day, but the clunky plastic rectangles, whose home recording capabilities gave the recording industry its first taste of a piracy scare in the early 80s, are sitting at the top of every muso’s wishlist this year (second on the list is a tapedeck, duurrr). Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors and the ambient punks of Atlanta’s Deerhunter are just two of the high-profile indie acts who’ve released cassette versions of their latest records. But it’s the resurgent DIY scene, which stretches from LA’s The Smell club to London’s Hackney and New Cross, that has found a warm place for cassettes in its flannel-covered heart.
Leading the plastic charge is a number of tiny, often cassette-only labels run by bands and like-minded fans. Their limited-edition tapes are proving irresistible to people looking for something a bit more covetable than an Itunes MP3. “[Cassettes] are just things that we like, and the bands, the friends that we approach; so far they dig it too. Some people like to have this kind of thing in their lives,” explains Kevin Hendrix. A from no-fi London bromantics and new Sub Pop signing, Male Bonding. Hendrix and his bandmates also run Paradise Vendor Inc, one of several micro-labels to have popped up in the UK recently. Their 7’’ and cassette releases – featuring acts like Pens and Graffiti Island – waggle a bratty v-sign at an indie mainstream that’s all too ready to drop its Topshop jeggings for gig on next week’s Skins.
Critics are sure to file tapes next to all the other retro-fetish items NYC hipsters and Shoreditch twats have embraced in recent years, but Suplex Cassette’s Matt Flag insists there’s a place for tapes that extends beyond the weak grip of disposable fashion. “Not everyone has a tape player anymore and it’s definitely still seen as a boutique way of doing things, but I genuinely prefer it as a medium. I only buy vinyl and tapes to listen to at home, and I’m getting rid of my CDs as they are fairly redundant now.” Running his cassette label out of a Dalston flat he shares with his girlfriend and a pet rabbit who’s ‘learned to not chew on cassettes,’ Flag believes that tapes are the perfect choice for those faced with the no-budget route; “Noise artists have always held onto the tape format as they don’t expect to shift thousands of units. If you make 50 tapes for £60, then you can put out anything. It makes it easier to think about the love of the music rather than losing money, which is no fun for anyone.”
Office workers aren’t likely to ditch their iPods as they dust off their old walkmans for the morning commute, but tape production companies like the Cheshire-based Tapelines are reporting orders coming in at a rate not seen since the late ‘80s, early ‘90s boom years, and more than one US label has become an important early stopping point for a number of artists. Pitchfork darlings Wavves and Vivian Girls have both released cassettes on Woodsist offshoot Fuck it Tapes, while Los Angeles’ Dum Dum Girls, a blogger fave and recent addition to the Sub Pop records roster, are putting out a cassette compilation on San Diego’s Art Fag Recordings this autumn.
The little plastic box’s glory days may be gone, but it looks like the rewind button suddenly has a whole new lease of life.
Mixtapes once doubled as sonic love letters for teens in the 80s and 90s. They may have moved onto new formats, but Found magazine co-founder Jason Bitner is a man who hasn’t forgotten his days spent sweating over the making of the perfect tape. Cassettefrommyex.com tells the tales behind the mixtapes people have received from past lovers and features audio streams of the actual cassettes. Hilarious, awkward and super-addictive, the site is a reminder that you can sometimes spell out love by slotting Mazzy Star in between the Pixies and Pavement on a C60.
How did the site start?
Early last year, I was rummaging around in my basement when I came across this old suitcase that was filled with cassettes from my high school and college years. There were some awesome tapes in there, and some not so hot (Jane’s Addiction bootlegs stored next to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin? Ooph). There was one tape in particular that caught my eye; this mixtape that was made for me by my first girlfriend, Kate. It occurred to me that I didn’t even have a tape deck anymore, but I’ve been lugging these tapes around with me for the past fifteen years with no way to listen to them. So I borrowed a boombox from a friend, popped in the mix and all these memories flooded back about being young, awkward, and in love. I knew that if I’d still kept my tapes around all this time, that A LOT of people must still have them stashed somewhere, and that they’d all have great stories behind them.
What is it about the format that you like?
You know, I can’t say that I’m in love with the format. I know that sounds wrong, but the reality is that cassettes really blow. The sound is compressed, they hiss too much, you’ve got to fast forward and rewind and flip the tape to find a song, and they can get messed up if you leave them in the sun in your car. There’s a ton of downsides. BUT, when we go back and listen to them now, we get transported to an era defined by “the cassette sound”. The sound instantly puts you back in the 80s and 90s. For me, this is the appeal of cassettes- they’re little plastic time machines.
Since you’re documenting personal experiences and a musical form that, in some ways, doesn’t exist anymore, it’s kind of a modern take on oral tradition, isn’t it?
Cassette From My Ex is a straight-up story-telling project. These mixtapes are just an entry point to nostalgic tales of love and heartache. I mean, the title of the project already tells you how each relationship is going to end (badly)- but we get to remember what it was like when crushes and music were the centre of the universe.
Do you think we’ve lost something in the transition of physical to digital?
It’s hard to express the same kind of heart-on-sleeve sentiment with something that can be easily copied and backed-up. I remember obsessing over my stacks of records trying to choose the EXACT right song to kick things off, or the song to fill the last minute and a half of the tape. You could definitely become a skilled mixtape maker. But you know what? People will put that kind of love into whatever’s next. When you’re crushing hard on someone, you’ll put a ton of effort into some kind of meaningful gift. Mixtapes were my generation’s perfect way to let someone know you’re into them. But now, there’s got to be an equivalent, right? Maybe it’s the perfectly crafted text message, or a short film shot on your phone – I don’t really know. But when it comes to love, people will obsess and the recipient will spend countless hours trying to decode your intentions. But yeah, you can’t really drop a digital file into someone’s locker.
Think there’s a future for cassette tapes? Lots of people are taking to the format again.
Yeah, I’ve seen some kids riding the train in New York with their thrift store Walkmans. And maybe we will see them for sale next to the Polaroid cameras at Urban Outfitters. But I can’t imagine Honda starting to factory install tape decks again, nope. Boomboxes really did look cool though, come to think of it. Maybe we’ll have to invent some Wi-Fi ghetto-blasters or something?
What’s an absolutely essential mixtape track for you?
Some of the most popular ones I’ve seen are:
Prince: I Would Die 4 U
The Smiths: Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
Velvet Underground: I’m Sticking with You
Salt ‘N’ Pepa: Let’s Talk About Sex
Genre-wise, they’re all over the place, but they have one thing in common: they send a direct message to the recipient. Lyrics can be a great proxy for shy kids
The book Cassette From My Ex Stories comes out in October
ART ON TAPE
iri5, aka Erika Simmons, is a self-taught artist from Atlanta, Georgia. Simmons takes old cassette tapes, unwinds them and then cuts up and reshapes the tape ribbons into portraits of rock poster boys. (She also magics film star sout of VHS tapes). Plus, she’s totally DIY, displays her art on Flickr and, if you ask nicely, will even make you something on commission.
Why work with such a non-traditional material?
Initially I worked with these materials because I was too poor to spend money on fancy art supplies. Then it developed into a passion to recycle and reuse things that would otherwise go to waste. I feel very lucky to now have people donate their old tapes and film for me to use. It brings another level of satisfaction.
What is about tapes that appeals to you?
I really enjoy working with the cassettes because it requires a delicate touch. It definitely tests your patience, but when I’m done its so satisfying… also it is difficult to tell in the photographs, but the magnetic tape is shiny, so all the textures really sparkle in the right light!
Ever listen to the tapes before you chop them up and turn them into art?
I do sometimes listen to the tapes before cutting them up. I’ve got a commission from a client in Germany who has recorded his own voice on a cassette, then sent the tape to me to listen to. I’ve never seen a picture of the man; I’m just supposed to gather what he looks like from the voice; the “Ghost in the Machine.”
Think there’s a future for cassette tapes?
Sure! Why not? I still have a cassette deck in my car… I listened to one on it this week as it goes.
By: Charles Ubaghs
Photos: Alex De Mora
For: JUKE Vol.01