One hundred and twenty eight releases in under two years, each one under 30 seconds long. Such are the boggling statistics of the Archiseztsfew-koū Thirty Records label, whose discography is, to put it mildly, a confounding browse. Releases include:
MOURNHOLD by LIL QWERTZASDF (AkūTr007, 2019)
A Red Score In Tile (William Basinski Cover) by flac.aeyt3eaywsyh4ey (AkūTr015, 2019)
I Had Hella Titles Stashed In Some TXT File But Most Of Them I Think Were Too Offensive For This Label, And I Also Dunno Where That TXT Is Cuz Im Also Hella Awful (Had Some Covers Too, RIP) (19/2/20) by mhzesent (AkūTr117, 2020)
There is even a series of split releases, the Archiseztsfew-koū Thirty Records Three Way Split Series, which each cram three artists together in under thirty seconds total.
This madness is marshaled by an artist named Jacob Levesque, who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. He tells me he currently works part-time “not doing anything interesting,” but spends his free time creating music and art. Since 2015, he has run an experimental music net label called The Dark Thursday, where he has established an irreverent and perplexing collision of post-internet age avant-audio, eye-splitting visuals, and linguistic chaos.
Via email, Levesque introduces me to the concept of “low effort music,” which he says governs the Archiseztsfew-koū aesethetic. “I have always doubted my ability to make ‘serious’ or ‘good’ music because, in a solo capacity, I really only worked on experimental things,” he tells me. “I didn’t know at the time how to apply my sound collage-y skill set to things more people would like or take seriously. So my answer to that, I think, was to double down on experimental and low effort work.”
Levesque tells me that this tendency has its basis in chronic depression, linked to a feeling of low self-esteem in regard to his artistic abilities. Paradoxically, these psychological traits have helped give rise to an enormous body of work. As the label head behind Archiseztsfew-koū Thirty, he has published his own work and attracted the attention of several other artists, many of whom have repeatedly tapped on Levesque’s shoulder to release music.
One such producer is the eclectic Polish producer mhzesent, who has put out (or appeared on) 23 releases. mhzesent’s own discography extends far beyond Levesque’s label, with droves of releases on experimental net labels with colourful names like Genetic Trance, Monolithic Disclipline Recordings, and Centipede Farm. “I haven’t spoken to them in some months, but they would send many releases to me for both of my labels,” Levesque says. “The very interesting thing to me about their work is the variation and how personal it can be.”
Archiseztsfew-koū Thirty’s name is characteristic of the semantic absurdity Levesque embraces. “It just sounded cool,” he says. “It is vaguely inspired by New Zealand’s native language, Maori. It’s a language that I have been around culturally for my whole life, and I like how it sounds and reads as a language. It’s the koū part at the end.”
When he started Archiseztsfew-koū Thirty, Levesque had already become internet friends with several artists through his main label, and this allowed him to rapidly build up a discography for his new project. “I was already running my main label, The Dark Thursday and had run compilations with length restrictions. It was inspired by those and very short form genres like gorenoise and grindcore.”
The goal was to have fun and to establish “a platform for super niche and strange things.” That has involved a number of strange concepts:
Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit - FVEY (Pronounced Five Eyes) Is The Ninth Studio Album By New Zealand Alternative Rock Band Shihad, Released On 8 August 2014.
This release is 28 seconds of an unchanging tone, with a haunting vocal drone over top. It is, peculiarly, punctuated by short spells of silence.
Levesque explains: “The audio is just sine waves, me throat singing a bit (I’m not good), and sampling a very old track of mine from like 2015 (the glassy sounding stuff). It does contain a picture from the wiki, plus some stuff in reference to the band Shihad’s album FVEY. The title came off a bit cringey to me so I just wanted to take a bit from the wikipedia page.”
phonecallsforbedtime – Moing Moing Popular Songs Moing Bmoigf
Sixteen seconds of spooky, industrial-tinged sound collage.
Levesque: “The audio is some weird mouth sounds and some of my old tracks smashed together and chopped up, then coated in reverb. I keep a list of albums i’ve listened to since 2014, so there is a screen cap of that. Then I wrote sleep over the top because I needed to do so. The rest is pretty looking fluff.”
MyrT8. – Su558555551
Twelve seconds of incidental audio and dinky keys.
Levesque says: “I don’t recall where the weird key tones are from, but they are over the top of me crushing something onto my phone, some kind of plastic I think? The photo is of the Wellington Metservice building that I took from the Wellington Botanic Gardens rose beds from when I was visiting Wellington last year. It’s like a 1 hour, 15 minute flight from Auckland and is half way down the country.”
This is an unchanging, tinny drone that lasts exactly 30 seconds.
As Levesque explains, this record “was made solely because of the cover. I saw a miso paste packet and thought adding the word beat and a heart emoji over the top was mildly amusing. A lot of my stuff came about in this sort of low effort fashion. “
W I D E D R O N E – W I D E D R O N E
Despite its hypnotic cover, this is simple an unwavering and unchanging tone that lasts for 30 seconds.
Levesque puts it bluntly, summing up the “low effort” aesthetic: “Nothing more than tone generation in Audacity.”
Levesque is philosophical about what Archiseztsfew-koū Thirty represents — and more than a bit nihilistic. “I guess almost a fundamental rejection that music had to meet certain objective qualities to be called music, that anything can be music. I don’t hold too strongly to that though, part of the point also is that I don’t hold strongly to anything in particular.”
This year, Levesque shut down both The Dark Thursday and this eccentric sublabel. One wonders if the label helped serve as a catalyst for Levesque’s efforts to grow emotionally. As he helps put to words the concept of “low effort music,” he explains that this aesthetic can function as a crutch. “The mental health issues make it difficult to care about things at all,” he reflects. “I don’t usually have the emotional capacity nor did I used to see a point in extending any empathy or sympathy outside of myself and a few people that I’m around. As time has gone on, I’ve realized in working to become a healthier person, empathy and sympathy towards others is important for me personally, so I can start feeling more like a normal human being.
“Despite that I still consider myself a work in progress so to speak. Trying to attach myself to things is still something I struggle with.”
Thanks to Jacob Levesque for the interview. The label’s website is here. Jacob posts his unique artwork here.
“It’s just a perfect teen bedroom demo, just one guy and his guitar just whining.”
How would one enumerate the sheer amount of music on cassette that exists in the world? It is impossible.
As I argued in my recent article about Ezra Fike’s Cassette Archive, while reissue labels have recently been occupied with unearthing strange old private press records — esoteric cult phenomena like the singular Lewis — it is obvious that the body of privately recorded cassette releases dwarfs the number of vinyl records, likely by several orders of magnitude. After all, cassettes are much less expensive to dub than records are to press, and the tape’s heyday coincided with the democratization of audio production, both in the form of home recording and inexpensive recording studio time.
Which leads me to Bennett Williamson, an artist, a musician, former radio DJ, and current department manager at UC Santa Cruz’s Digital Arts & New Media program. He also likes cassettes. Although he once hosted his own show on WFMU, it was actually a guest spot that drew my eye. In 2008, he guest DJ’d on Marty McSorley’s show, playing a three hour set of tapes sourced exclusively from thrift stores, alongside one of McSorley’s friends, Forest. Incidentally, one of the tapes they played was a limited-to-ten-copy tape discussed in my profile on Unread Records: Erik Sahd’s Right Now You’re Always Been Here.
I believe that we’ve only discovered the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many tapes that exist in the world. Every day, who knows how many home recordings, band demos, and small-run releases disappear to the annals of time? Williamson, who has sourced tapes from thrift stores for years, agrees. But whereas I worry that the iceberg is slowly melting, last extant copies of cassettes dissolving into the ether as they’re euthanized from Goodwill racks or tossed out unsold after family yard sales, Williamson diverges from this archivist mentalist.
“Yeah but, you know, to take it one way: so what?” he asks. “The idea that we can have instant access and preserve all music from all times is false. In fact, it’s really good that media and ideas and music recede beyond the horizon of human understanding. If they’re bad, they can go away, and hopefully never come back.
“That’s a way that I can justify not hanging on to stuff. It’s cool that this thing got to live a life with me, and I got to appreciate it. I don’t know what’s going to happen to it next. But even that amount of existence that it had is a positive thing.”
Yet the joy of exhuming lost tapes is not lost on him. He is keen to differentiate his love of finding cassettes from the types of “grail records” that collectors spend fortunes acquiring. “I’m really not into that type of record collecting — I’m not good at keeping lists of things, and I don’t have alerts on Discogs or anything like that. I’m much more interested in discovering something I’ve never heard of, and tapes do that very specifically. They’ve always been a cheap way to get a new idea out into the world.”
When it comes to tape rummaging, the cost of entry is so low: thrift stores often sell them for a quarter apiece, and tapes tend to offer a greater variety of opportunities than the average vinyl bargain bin. In any given Goodwill, you’re liable to encounter home tapes, band demos, answering machine cassettes, commercial releases from the 70s through 90s, and scads of self-released/private-press music projects.
As Williamson puts it: “Since it’s low stakes, you’re like, well, the artwork’s not giving me much on this one, but one track’s got a cool name, and I see there’s a synthesizer listed amongst the instruments, so I’ll go for it, maybe it’s worth it.”
But he is also committed to holding on to those tapes that make a lasting impression. Over the years he has whittled his collection of thrift-store tapes down to the essentials. “I’ve definitely pared down and gotten rid of a bunch of stuff over the years, and I think I’ve kept certain ones because they’re the most unique and strange. But they’re still — I’ll listen to them sometimes, they’re not just collector pieces … That’s kind of fun, right. Came from the thrift store, back to the thrift store. I really like that cycle, just like, let it go back into circulation.”
Via Zoom, he took me on a tour of some of those tapes that survived the test of time. We cross-referenced these online, sometimes rescuing tidbits about each of them, sometimes coming up blank.
When it comes to found, home-recorded tapes, it doesn’t get much better than Franklin’s Demo — a study in teenage vulnerability. Side A is a mix of songs from the Christian nu-metal group P.O.D.’s 1996 album, Brown, including a track that Franklin charmingly misspells as “Raggae Jam.”
But Side B is the real treat: a “demo” by a pubescent teenager. As Williamson describes it: “‘I’m fifteen and I have an electric guitar and I’m writing unself-conscious silly songs but also staking a stab at writing love songs, even though I don’t really know, probably, what it means.’ It’s just a perfect teen bedroom demo, just one guy and his guitar just whining. It’s really good.”
Track titles include “Feeling Gray Today (the Ellen Gray Song),” “Mrs. Malone Blues,” and, best of all, “You Can Cry Tonight.” There’s also a punk version of the alphabet song and a track called “Sometimes” which Williamson describes as a song “about being sad.”
Williamson played a track off Franklin’s Demo on Marty McSorley’s show on WFMU, and “Sometimes” made it onto a mixtape he produced for Lateral Addition. It features nasally voice and a strummed guitar, and is amazing. Its lyrics alone are to die for:
Sometimes I feel like a dog with no feet Don’t you just hate it when that happens? Yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah Sometimes I like to cry for life, For all that’s died and all that might. And I can try to see the light that holds your face He loves you more than anything that you dream He wants you heal your broken heart Now you listen very closely, you’ll hear his voice You’ll hear his voice Crying sweetly and I’ll love you forever and ever For ever and ever
If you look at the liner notes above, you’ll see that it seems like Franklin sent this tape to someone named Eric. You can feel Franklin’s awkwardness as he tells Eric about the best P.O.D. songs, shyly neglecting to directly reference his own demo on the B-side. He signs off with a feigned cool: “Hope you like it, dude. Later.”
Yet, there it ended up, at a thrift store — callously discarded like a dusty copy of Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits.
Ryan Winter Age 8 1/2
This is another home recording, though Ryan Winter is younger and therefore not yet at his angst phase. The penmanship here (and the reference to “Ryan Winter age 8 1/2 3rd grade”) suggests that the track listing was assembled by Ryan’s parents. The bulk of this tape occupied with a stand-up comedy routine, including precocious jabs at Bill Clinton and Ross Perot that evolve into a cynical skewering of money’s influence on American politics.
But the real treasure here is a singular track called “If I Could Give A Gift To The World,” a Ryan Winter original that is the tonal opposite of his sardonic stand-up. Piano notes and Ryan’s prepubescent voice combine for a charming ditty about rescuing society from hatred and vice:
If I could give a gift to the world I would give it peace If I could give a gift to the world All bad things would cease
There be be no guns Or weapons that would kill Everyone one you know Would be filled with goodwill Drugs and drinks and cigarettes would all be put to rest Happy healthy people is what I think it is best Violence would be a thing that happened in the past Love and caring would be things that would always last
If I could give a gift to the world All bad things would cease If I could give a gift to the world I would give it peace
Susan Alexjander – Sequencia
Living in Santa Cruz, mecca of crystals and silent retreats, Williamsons’ jaunts to the thrift store have netted him countless new age cassettes. This is a rare cassette edition of sound artist Susan Alexjander’s new age concept album. To produce this work, Alexjander measured the wavelengths of infrared light absorbed by molecules of light. The ratios between the wavelengths were then converted to ratios of sound frequencies, which were subsequently transcribed into musical notation. The score was then performed by an ensemble, incorporating synthesizers, violin, vocals, tabla, and more.
This tape came out on a label called Science & the Arts in 1994. Strangely, the only two other catalogued releases on that label are two other cassettes, both from the early eighties, which also feature music based on DNA: Riley McLaughlin’s DNA Music (Molecular Meditation), and Dr. David Dreamer & Riley McLaughlin’s DNA Suite.
Various Artists – Music From Purchase ’93
Rescued from a thrift store in New York, this appears to be a compilation of student music from SUNY Purchase, complete with sweet early computer graphics imagery. Like many college and high school student samplers, it is part time capsule, part treasure trove. Spanning a number of genres, and concluding with an ill-advised group rap by the Purchase Rhyme Crew, it features a funhouse of obscure names. For one, there’s “Dinosaur Brain” by the impeccably named Tyrannosaurus Rectum, apparently a power trio that was twice voted Best College Band in the Nation (according to former band member David Hollander’s online profile.) What Hollander fails to mention is that “Dinosaur Brain” is a weirdo funk-metal classic, preserved on YouTube for the benefit of the 23 people who have viewed the video:
Then there is a band called Eric’s in Oregon, who supply the song “Waiting For the #12.” Clearly inspired by contemporary rock bands like the Gin Blossoms albeit lighter in polish, it bears the ironic subtitle and lyrical refrain, “Maybe We’ll Be Famous.”
And finally there is “Foolish Shadows” by Mirror, a magnificent prog-cum-hair metal ballad replete with soaring falsetto vocals. The song was subsequently included on the band’s 1995 album, Reflections, which has the best artwork in the history of recorded music:
Ancient Future – Visions of a Peaceful World
Another new age cassette rescued from the California thrift store complex, this is the debut from Ancient Future, a group of Americans who combined various culture’s musical instrumentals and traditions, popularizing the ‘world music fusion’ genre. As you can see, Williamson’s copy is a self-released edition of this album with a generic tape label and single-colour printing. The variety of instruments listed in the credits (zither, sarod, tabla, esraj, etc.) and the track titles (“Moonbath,” “Eternal Embrace,” and, best of the, lot: “Zzaj”) tell you exactly what to expect.
Macrofusion – Demo Sampler 1983
The font on this tape makes it look amazing, though Williamson tells me it’s a little underwhelming. Macrofusion itself was one pseudonym of Peter Spoecker, an ambient and new age composer who produced a number of home-recorded ambient tapes, mainly on his own label, Shining Lotus Music Productions. Tapes of his have sold for nearly $100 on the new-age collectors’ market. Macrofusion was his “computer music” outfit.
Oddly enough, there is only one online reference to this particular tape, which seems to be on the verge of extinction. That reference is a listing in Ohio State University’s Twyla Tharp Archive, “a large collection of materials which document her creative career in dance, film and television.” What relationship does Macrofusion have with Tharp? It’s hard to know, although her collection includes everything from Herb Alpert albums to old answering machine tapes, so perhaps the connection is tenuous.
Williamson’s enthusiasm for ephemeral media is reflected in his long history of radio DJing. While studying at NYU, he got a foothold on their campus radio station, WNYU, then connected with the legendary WFMU — attracted by their byzantine online archives of radio shows past. (Indeed, Williamson’s past shows can be streamed online in their entirety.)
Though he accepts the fact that the iceberg of lost tapes is slowly melting, some of his own art and sound projects betray a passion for audio preservation. In 2011, he exhibited a gallery piece called Summer of Salute that was all about retaining ephemeral media. His project involved writing a computer script that recorded Funkmaster Flex’s weekly set on the seminal New York City rap station, Hot 97.
“Living in New York, you’d be lucky on a Friday night to catch one of his sets, when he’s introducing the hot new rap jam of the summer,” Williamson explains. Flex is famous for these song premieres, which could be a huge boost to new artists. He often introduces these tracks by making liberal use of a sound effect of a bomb exploding. “He would rewind the track, and drop the bomb sound effect, and then rewind the track, then add some total non-sequitur.”
“It would be this fantastic thing that you’d get to hear, but it would be very fleeting because you’d be by a radio.” Williamson’s goal was to record and isolate these sublime moments.
Summer of Salute is a study in micro-archiving: in it, he isolates and stitches together just the moments of Flex deploying the bomb side effect, as culled over a summer’s worth of Flex broadcasts. For an exhibited in London, he dubbed his bomb collage to cassette, then connected a tape player to a small FM transmitter that broadcasted the audio on the frequency, 97.1 FM. A boombox then played the transmission live into the room.
Another Williamson project, which incorporates a few of the tapes discussed in this article, was a mix he put out called This Guy Put 39 Different Songs Onto One CD And It Sounds Amazingly Awesome. It is a response to the reality that people are increasingly consuming music through centralized bottlenecks, for example streaming music services. The mix in question deliberately sources audio from a range of different sources, ephemeral or not. There is music from different eras, sounds sourced from YouTube clips, audio from found tapes, digital downloads, old radio clips, TV clips, music from vinyl, live concert footage. It is a wonderfully post-modern sound collage, capturing the transient nature of audio in a world whose capacity to create still outpaces the ability to archive.
Before he became The Caretaker, Leyland James Kirby recorded music under the name V/Vm for many years. He opened his irreverent V/Vm Test Records label in 1996, and since then has developed a reputation for noisy, prankish releases, often reconstituting bits of pop culture to subversive ends.
As V/Vm, Kirby has engaged in all manner of hijinks, often to the chagrin of electronic music purists. (The denizens of Aphex Twin message boards, in particular, were irritated by a couple of AFX spoofs he released). His concepts are provocative and entertaining. 1999’s Pig was a field recording of pigs feeding, apparently mistaken by some as the sound of them being slaughtered — perhaps because the cover was a butcher’s diagram of pork cuts. Sick-Love was a collection of popular love songs that had been digitally degraded, including the glorious “The Lady In Red (Is Dancing With Meat),” which reduces its source material to Satanic rubble:
Then there was “I Wanna Fuck Miss Nicky Trax” and “Made in Belgium,” two 12″ records designed to emulate the Belgian New Beat sound of the late 80s/early 90s, albeit cross-bred with Kirby’s offensive sense of humour (tracks included “Anal Acid [Butt Plug Edit]” and “Cocaine [Pablo Escobar Mix]” and Kirby urged the pressing plant to print ‘Manufactured in Belgium’ on each copy, but was declined).
“Mouldy Dough ***the Official V/Vm Anthem***” was one in a line of V/Vm’s send-ups of tepid pop culture. The record is ostensibly a re-release of “Mouldy Old Dough” by Lieutenant Pigeon, a novelty song that rose to number one on the UK Single Charts in 1972. That song is bizarre in the way only UK chart hits can be. Frontman Rob Woodward alternates between playing the tin whistle and growling out the song’s title, while his mother, Hilda, plays boogie-woogie piano along with a plodding drumbeat.
It is not hard to divine Kirby’s perspective on “Moldy Old Dough.” The record’s cover lays out his opinions starkly:
“as the old adage goes ‘why try to fix something that isn’t broken'” we’d like to add the following words of wisdom, ‘why not re-release the worst ever UK number one single and make it even worse on the B-Side.’ Last seen offending children, beating up Keith Harris and orville duck whilst drinking enough Q.C. sherry to sink a battleship, PIGEON then spent the entire winter season at Butlins Bognor supporting BuCKs FIZZ and Boy George. After this success the PIGEON then disappeared to a life of crime and KEBABS to support his 27 siblings.”
Most of that is fictional, although Bucks Fizz and ventriloquist Keith Harris’ Orville the Duck character were both responsible for other despised UK novelty hits, as collected on this worst-of-the-worst compilation:
Side A of “Moldy Dough” is simply a re-release of the original “Moldy Old Dough,” whereas the B-side is a cacophonous re-working by V/Vm itself. But what makes this release especially remarkable are its accoutrements. With each copy came two small zip-lock bags, one containing a feather, and the other containing some genuine pigeon poo.
Certainly, this is not the only record that’s been come packaged with excreta. There are several records that incorporate blood in their packaging, for example the Indecent Liberties LP by power electronics act Taint, which was advertised as being spattered with “cat/dog blood.” (In fact, Keith Brewer, who was behind Taint, told me awhile back that it was blood sourced from a butcher.) Pushing things even further, Michael Ridge, who runs the Quagga Curious Sounds label, once pressed a latex record that had pubic hair embedded within it.
But this Pigeon disc could be the lone release that incorporates avian excreta, which is no dubious distinction.
A record such as this is an anomaly, but it is characteristic of Kirby’s ethic at the time. Perhaps this is best characterized as a work in the plunderphonics tradition, irreverently re-contextualizing pop culture run-off. In fact, Kirby’s vastly different, seemingly more serious work in the hauntological domain is guided by a similar set of principles, designed to tickle the memory banks. One of his classics under the guise The Caretaker, Selected Memories From The Haunted Ballroom, repurposed samples of old waltzes by slowing and warping them, then burying them in eerie ambiance. In that case, as in the case of this pigeon feces accompanied disc, the idea is to experiment with collective memory — though the end results are radically different, the process remains the same.
In 1992, a CD was released that was contained inside a metal box filled with salt. That alone was unusual, but the story behind it was even more unlikely.
Nigel Ayers is the main mind behind the long-running experimental music act Nocturnal Emissions, a stalwart figure on the underground music scene. In the early 90s, before Blasphemous Rumours came out, he was already an established figure, but times were tight. “I was living very preciously, struggling with debt, rent, food, and pretty desperate really,” he explains to me. “I didn’t have any other income other than music. I was working solo by then, and very focused on creating music and visual art, and working very hard at it.”
The year prior, Ayers had released the infamous Mouth of Babes, which was recorded exclusively using infant “singers” — recordings of babies that were sampled, looped, and collaged into oblivion, the result imbued with a sinister quality. Each copy came inside an (unused) infant diaper.
He had also done Magnetizdat, a series of audio zines on cassette that explored unusual religious sects, collaging audio produced by strange religious groups. The occult samples came from tapes obtained through his international mail art network. Back then, he explains, you could put out a request for cassettes on a certain topic, and people around the world would send you relevant items.
Amid this productive period, Staalplaat, a record store and label based out of Amsterdam, pitched the idea of releasing the next Nocturnal Emissions CD in a metal tin. But there was a detail they didn’t mention in advance: the tins would be filled with table salt.
“Staalplaat were very odd the way they went about things,” Ayers tells me. “They said they’re going to put it out in a steel container. So I say, oh yeah, alright.” It was only when his artist copy turned up in the mail that he discovered the full concept and was left to contemplate Staalplaat’s intentions. Perhaps the goal was for the salt crystals to abrade the surface of the CD, adding a bit of randomness to the audio? Or maybe the hope was that the CD would physically decay over time?
Ironically, because Ayers was expecting a metal box, he themed the music around the idea of permanence and sturdiness, trying to create “music that stands the test of time.” And although the salt did not cause the CD to decay, it did catalyze the metal box’s rusting process. “What happens is the packaging rusts away,” he describes. “There’s a sensational one from Brazil that looks like there’s some kind of moss or lifeform growing on it.” He tells me that it took about six months for copies to rust so extensively that they were trapped shut.
Ayers didn’t learn the full story behind Blasphemous Rumours until just recently, when Frans de Waard published his memoir of working at Staalplaat. Titled This Is Supposed To Be a Record Label, that book tells a number of anecdotes about the controversial label, including the tale of this disc.
As the story goes, the Staalplaat crew knew the experimental composer Tom Recchion, who had been involved in designing the packaging for the 1989 film, Batman, whose Prince-oriented soundtrack came in a special metal canister. Through Recchion, they connected with the company that produced the cans and were quoted a minimum order of 2000 units. “Since we had to buy 2000 cans, we’d have to use them for something we knew would sell,” De Waard explains. They chose Ayers because he was a well-known artist, then pulled their prank. “We filled 1000 cans with salt that we bought at the supermarket. Our entire premises became extremely dry and it made us very thirsty. We sealed the tins with tape we’d had specially made.”
But before he learned all the back story — on the day that his copy arrived in the mail — his immediate reaction was more visceral. “I thought, ‘What the hell have you done?'”
Amsterdam being notorious for its lax drug rules, he wondered if the crystalline powder might have been a reference to narcotics, or perhaps to Amsterdam’s moisture problem. “It’s a very Amsterdam thing to do. In our pubs they put sawdust on the floor, in Amsterdam they put salt on the floors to absorb the moisture… I was used to their sort of pranksterish ways at Staalplaat. I thought, ‘Right, okay, I put all this work into this CD and it’s going to be ruined in this salt. Put it down to experience,'” he laughs.
Indeed, since he was originally intending to produce a work of art that would convey permanence, he had put a lot of work into Blasphemous Rumours‘ audio. Ayers’ typical production style is to make acoustic recordings, then process them electronically. “It might be musique concrete, or it might be played music. But it all starts off with a real world source.”
For Rumours, he used recordings he had made of oboist/flautist Charlotte Bill, a Manchester-based musician and filmmaker. That source audio was recorded to a Greengate sampler then channeled to a reel-to-reel recorder.
Had he known what Staalplaat had in mind, he tells me he would have taken things in an entirely different direction. “I would have done something with salt, for a start. I would have worked with salt as a physical medium, the qualities of salt. Dealt with the idea of eroded sands — and if the idea was that it was to decompose the record, then I’d look at music that would rearrange and decompose. It would have that in mind when I created it.
“As far as it went, I would have been happier had Staalplaat told me that they were going to put it in a package that was going to decompose. Because I had been discussing that sort of idea with Ben Ponton of (fellow experimental group) :zoviet*france:. We were discussing putting a CD out in a Petri dish and various ideas that never came to fruition.” That idea, a play on Ayers’ own Sterile Records label, was to attach a record to a sterile Petri dish, which would, when opened, pick up organisms from the air and organically bloom. (In fact, the CD art on Blasphemous Rumours was an image of mould in a Petri dish, submitted by Ayers as a remnant of this idea).
For Ayers, this Staalplaat prank was somewhat against his ethic of artistic creation. “I do think that artists and curators ought to take one another into consideration, take their feelings into consideration.”
Ayers believes that artistic ideas are not the miraculous work of auteurs, but instead the result of people working together. “In creating art, it doesn’t always go smoothly from some sort of artist’s genius vision. Most of my ideas have come up from the people I live with, the unsung people, my partner, my wife, chatting with friends…”
He raises Marcel Duchamp, whose famous readymade artpiece, Fountain — a ass-manufactured urinal intended to be exhibited in a gallery, as a lampoon of high-art elitism — is speculated to have been the work of a fellow avant-garde artist named Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Blasphemous Rumours is a bit of an anomaly as a piece of art, since it came about as a result of imperfect communication. Ayers knew only part of the story, and his audio reflects only a partial picture of the overall concept. In a sense, it is a microcosm of the dynamics of real-life human interactions, where misunderstandings are germane. Still, for Ayers, it would have been nice to have been told about the payoff in advance.
There is a funny postscript to the Blasphemous Rumours story. “Amsterdam is under sea level, it’s all based on canals. So [Staalplaat’s basement-level record store] was damp. They were storing these metal boxes full of salt in this damp basement. I think they sold quite well, but after awhile they moved the store to Berlin, and they called me up and said, ‘Oh we’ve got a few hundred of these left, do you want to buy them?'”
“I said no thanks.”
Thanks to Nigel Ayers for the interview, as well as Frans de Waard for communicating via email.
“He would empty his mind, hang from his legs or feet and begin to speak the first words which came to his mind, transforming himself into a supple conduit…”
Behold: One of the most strange and mysterious albums I own.
According to the back cover of this bizarre CD-R release, this is a collection of intercepted cell phone calls from an American city, as captured by a visiting professor from Nagykanizsa, Hungary named Petros Drecojecai. They were supposedly captured in the early- to mid-1990s, while Drecojecai was attending conferences in Northern California, living in “furnished downtown flats.” While fiddling with an “antique radio” he had brought from home, he inadvertently tapped into the calls. According to notes he left behind, he believed he was listening to an American talk radio program, and thus he recorded samples and sent them back to Hungary on tapes to try to “demonstrate to his colleagues what this sort of programs [sic] represented culturally in the United States.” He had apparently been unaware that they were private phone calls.
Listening to the release, the calls do indeed sound legit, so whether the Petros Drecojecai story is true or not, there still must be some story to tell. Each features different voices, and the recordings don’t sound remotely staged. There is audio interference, as might be expected using a scanner to intercept calls, and several recordings capture conversations in progress. The best argument for these recordings’ authenticity is that, if someone were faking this whole thing, the calls would probably be a lot more titillating and a lot less non-sequitur.
While some calls on Mistaken Receptions are a little bit racy, many are mundane: someone checking their bank account balance, a wrong number, a young woman trying to engage her sleepy boyfriend in conversation. Yet sex and heartache are never far away. In one call, we hear a woman trying to convince her male friend to become male stripper with a promise of $500 per night, but he remains reticent: “Do I have to suck dick, put anything in my ass?” A number of the calls feature arguments, including a woman berating someone for offering her money for sex, and another woman chewing someone out for leaving too many voicemails on her machine. The most entertaining recording is also the longest — it’s another call featuring the woman who was earlier trying to convince a man to become a stripper. In this recording, she is chatting with another male friend; over nine minutes, she bemoans the deadbeat father of her daughter, discusses her own plan to lose weight via Jenny Craig and become a stripper (which she again cites as a $500 per night opportunity), and laments her crack-smoking mother, who is currently in prison.
The final track, a “bonus,” was reportedly recorded by Drecojecai in an apartment building in California. The recording claims to document Drecjecai’s “enactment of the exertion to depletion theory.” That involved hanging precariously by his feet from the balcony of the fifth floor apartment.
“He would empty his mind, hang from his legs or feet and begin to speak the first words which came to his mind, transforming himself into a supple conduit at the disposal of the elments [sic], thereby receiving paranormal signals emitted from local or transient electrical fields and acting as a repeater to orally reproduce the sometimes haunting results.”
Liner notes to Mistaken Receptions
The notes go on to explain that, four days after this performance, a “very strong and putrid odor” pervaded the apartment complex; it was later discovered that an elderly Russian immigrant had passed away in the room right below Drecojecai, and had been dead the whole time he performed his session.
Given the story, the recording of Drecojecai’s “exertion to depletion” performance is a little under whelming. It’s a three-minute lo-fi recording — you can hear the rumble of cars passing outside — that features a thin disembodied voice repeatedly imploring someone, or something, to “come in.” (At one point, he seems to be addressing the spirit of Amelia Earhart.)
The only mention of this CD-R online comes from the distribution catalog for Electro Motive Records, which is where I got my copy. For years, it was also listed in the legendary Aquarius Records catalog, where I first discovered it. Those may be the only venues that distributed this CD-R.
As I was buying my copy, I spoke with Peter Conheim, who runs Electro Motive Records, to find out what he knew about the Drecojecai story. Conheim, a former member of Negativland, told me that he was a neighbour of Drecojecai’s. Over email, he outlined the story as told in the liner notes. He points out that Drecojecai is a pseudonym, and that he cannot recall the person’s actual name. After Drecojecai performed his exertion-to-depletion demonstration, Conheim tells me he seemed to become more bizarre, telling Conheim about his “interceptions,” which Conheim assumed to be delusional. When Drecojecai played Conheim and his friend some of the recordings, he was shocked to learn they were real. Conheim wanted to press them onto CD-R, and Drecojecai agreed but disappeared before the pressing happened, never receiving a copy of the disc.
Inspecting the disc, I noticed a few details which were worthy of examination. There is an email address with a German Yahoo! domain: email@example.com. However, an email sent to this address returned undelivered (“Not a valid recipient.”) The same is true of an email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I then noticed that the CD-R had a catalog number: PD02. This suggested there may have been a previous release on the Petros Drecojecai Archives label. Curious, I reached out to Conheim again. This time, the story changed a little bit. He no longer endorsed being Drecojecai’s neighbour, and instead told me he received CD-R, unsolicited, to his distro’s PO Box — from the Petros Drecojecai Archives label itself.
He did tell me that he remembered asking the label what PD01 was, and was told it was a limited-edition LaserDisc release intended for museums and institutions rather than the general public. According to Conheim, it was the “kind of LaserDisc that was briefly manufactured in tiny quantities where each individual frame on the disc held a single picture or a document, and you could ‘page’ through them. Obviously some kind of presumably obtuse PD research project! Considering LaserDiscs held something like 30,000 frames, it must have been quite the project.”
He also mentioned that a letter that came with the CD-Rs was signed by someone named “H. Richard” — in the liner notes, the cover image is credited to this name. Yet, Conheim recalls paying for the CD-Rs directly to the Petros Drecojecai Archives, not to an H. Richard.
A question lingered for me: what is the provenance of these recordings? Was it even technologically possible to intercept cell phone calls?
The answer is yes. According to this Wired article from 1997, standard radio scanners were capable of picking up cell phone frequencies at the time. In 1986, The Electronic Communications Privacy Act made it illegal to listen in on cellular telephone frequencies, and in 1993, it became illegal to manufacture or sell radio scanners that could access the frequencies used by cell phones, or to modify scanners to do so. Yet it was still something that people did, particularly bored ham radio enthusiasts. In that article, the writer interviews a shortwave radio hobbyist named Ed:
“Monitoring cellular to me is something I do when the bands are quiet — the best times to listen are late at night. The middle-aged men haven’t scored any pussy, so now it’s time to call a hooker before they go to sleep — or a phone sex line for a quickie. I enjoy toking some good weed, when I can score, and tune around.”
So what is the story here? Did Petros happen to own an outdated radio scanner with the cellular frequencies unblocked? Or was the “Petros” story a tall tale, and this instead the work of a ham radio whiz?
Do you know anything about the Petros Drecojecai story? If so, leave a comment or email me at email@example.com!
How does a music collector contend with a release that literally putrefies over time?
This peculiar item is an obscure noise release from a record label called Turgid Animal, run by George Proctor and Nicola Vinciguerra, two producers that work collaboratively out of their separate homes in Britain and Italy. Proctor’s own noise act was named Mutant Ape, while Vinciguerra records prolifically under the name Fecalove.
Stalin vs Splinter was the work of Vinciguerra and his pal, Marco Pampaloni. The release in question, Pasta Electronics II, was in fact a sequel, although the first volume is less noteworthy.
Pasta Electronics II was a CD-R which could be ordered directly through the Turgid Animal website. Those who bought one of the 30 copies received a parcel in the mail containing a damp pasta box that was taped shut. What those ill-fated consumers learned was that the box has been filled with cooked pasta mixed with pesto and various other ingredients. The actual CD-R was buried deep inside the mixture; over the time it spent in postal transit, it had ripened impressively. The audio itself, which is now available on Bandcamp, was a hodgepodge of digital noise combined with chopped-up recordings of an Italian prime ministerial debate and Japanese television commercials.
This is an impressively revolting package. Though it left Vinciguerra’s home in edible condition, it’s a release that is fated to decay. Record collectors often take for granted that their releases can sit on a shelf and appreciate in value. Vinyl warp and CD rot are long-term threats to the stability of a prized possession, but those processes occur in the timescale of decades. What to make of a release whose packaging grows more offensive with each passing day? To better understand the motives behind the release, I reached out to Vinciguerra, who patiently fielded my questions by email.
any general background about the release? how did the idea come about?
I think that around the time we made the first Pasta Electronics (a couple of years before volume 2) I was crazy about the extremely elaborate special packaging of legendary Japanese label G.R.O.S.S. and unique, disgusting and bizarre relics from Lateral Agriculture Order. Knowledge of mail-art had some influence too I guess but my focus was, and still is, the worship of industrial/noise music. I also simply always liked to make a mess. Pasta Electronics II was the natural evolution of that earlier effort. More disgusting, more rotten. Me and my bandmate Marco recorded the sounds, I took care of the packaging.
where were you coming from? some people have a sort of theoretical meaning behind their art. was there a hoity-toity conceptual meaning behind the package?
It was the epitome, the apotheosis of Italy. Rotten food thrown in a box of highly recognisable Barilla pasta, with a noise CDr wrapped in alluminum foil. Pure tradition. I guess we don’t think very highly of our country. I liked the idea that you had to break the box and actually touch rotten shit if you wanted to actually get to the music.
was it pasta mixed with a cheese sauce, or just the pasta?
I remember it was fairly good commercial pesto sauce with the addition of some grated Parmigiano cheese and whatever else I had in the fridge. Ham, bacon, bresaola, pepper come to mind. Each box was different.
how long did you let it rot before you sold it? where did you keep it (outside, inside, etc?) if it took time for them to sell out, did they decay even more as they waited to be sold? (did you have to throw any out?)
I made the copies only to order, so the stuff didn’t actually rot in my house. It rot in postal offices, vans, planes etc. On the way to my customers. Nasty, eh?
did you get any feedback from customers?
Not really, but the face Klaus from Genocide Organ made when I handed him a copy was priceless. He shook the box for a while, not sure what to make of it. I remember a french friend writing me something along the lines of “it’s a good stink, the stink of Turgid Animal”, but I’m not sure it was regarding this release in particular.
how much did it sell for?
10 Euro? Maybe less, I don’t remember.
what did the music itself sound like?
We manipulated sounds directly from Italian tv (a Berlusconi/Prodi pre-election face to face and material from a football corruption scandal) and some Japanese commercials for pasta toppings. It’s two long, repetitive and not super noisy tracks as far as I remember. A retarded version of Vagina Dentata Organ, maybe.
if you can, describe the odor.
To me it smelled like amid and pesto. I never got to experience any nasty stench because I shipped the boxes pretty quickly after I made them.
In 2001, a peculiar record surfaced courtesy of Mars F. Wellink. That strange record was actually two 7″ records glued together, their surfaces deliberately scratched to the point of no return. It came accompanied by a booklet of silkscreened collage work.
To learn more about this strange anti-record, I tracked down Wellink by email. He explained that it emerged from his work as one half of the experimental music duo, the Vance Orchestra. Essentially, he was making use of their run-off. “Our soundscapes are built up by recycling old records and recording sounds indoors and outdoors,” he explains, explaining that he tends to cull records for cheap from flea markets and secondhand stores. He also collects found objects from around the environment.
“I have piles of stuff,” he explained. When this record came together, he was looking for a way to use it. “All the stuff you collect is the inspiration for a self-taught artist. I’ve made collages all my life.”
He had also developed a practice of combining recycled album covers and his own silkscreen prints to create collages, which served as the basis for previous album art that he’d done. For example, the year before, Vance Orchestra’s At Random Again CD featured a Wellink-designed cover assembled from ads in Japanese newspapers. Their 1998 cassette, Repeater, was contained in boxes made out of old LP covers — meaning each copy was one-of-a-kind.
Extending this practice, he created the Anti-Record using some old 45 RPM singles that had accumulated in his mountain of junk. He explains the process he used to create the anti-record.
First, he used an assortment of tools to “prepare” the records themselves, accounting for the irregular scratches all over their surface. He then played each copy on an old turntable, recording the audio for his personal archive. “Maybe I can use this later on, I told myself.”
Then came the gluing. “Two seven-inch records glued together and labeled — no hole was visible, so the buyer had to damage the object to listen! The cover was made of old record covers and found material and every cover has a rabbit jaw on it. The booklet was made of an old silkscreened poster I made for a performance with an image of Antonin Artaud, decorated with various stamp art and found material. Everything was sealed with an info sticker.”
He acknowledges the conceptual nature of this unusual record, explaining that he is “a great fan of the Fluxus movement,” referencing the interdisciplinary art community that frequently made use of anti-art concepts.
Around the time this anti-record came out, Wellink was also working as a master silkscreen printer at a Dutch production house called Plaatsmaken; these skills were useful for preparing the accompanying silkscreen art booklet.
Only seven copies of Anti-Record were produced in total, which makes it pretty scarce. Those copies were distributed by the Rund um den Watzmann mailorder, no stranger to unusual records. (Previous releases by the Rund um den Watsmann label include a zoetrope record and a three-dimensional LP.)
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was thinking, there has to be some sort of information on this somewhere.”
Ezra Fike is a twentysomething graphic designer who lives in a small town in Missouri with his family, having recently moved back home from Omaha due to COVID. An enthusiast of the cassette medium since some childhood adventures in home recording, he has a habit of scouring thrift stores for old mixtapes to use as recording media.
In early 2019, Fike bought a cassette shelving unit for five dollars at a thrift store, only to discover a few tapes inside. There were copies of the soundtracks to Conan the Barbarian and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There was John Denver album home-recorded onto tape from an LP. But something else caught his eye — a strange cassette that stood apart from the rest.
“There was this one that I had never heard of before,” he tells me via Skype. “It was called Adimus I, and it had a picture of a pink castle against a purple sky.” There was no artist name nor record label listed.
“It wasn’t a professionally produced tape. It was just a blank tape that someone had recorded something on to. And they had written ‘Adimus I 1984’ on it. I decided to give it a listen and it was just this crazy, lo-fi, home-produced synth-pop with a weird fantasy/science-fiction bent to it. It obviously sounded amateur — you could tell that somebody just made this in their home. But I was genuinely impressed by some of the melodies and some of the production.
“[When] I started playing [my roommate] walked in and was like, ‘What on earth is this?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea. I don’t know who this is.'”
Turning to Google, Fike wasn’t able to find any information about this strange tape. There were very few clues, apart from the unusual title, Adimus. The liner notes were just a track listing, offering no additional context — no names or other personnel.
“I became fascinated by it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was thinking, there has to be some sort of information on this somewhere. So I recorded the tape to my computer and uploaded it.”
He created a Bandcamp page for the tape, and then posted it on Reddit, hoping someone might recognize it.
“And it initially got some interest going, but very quickly people started accusing me of faking it,” he says. “That I had created this, and had aged the audio. People did some digging into my profile and discovered I make music myself, and so they were suspicious of me. They didn’t think it sounded like something made in 1984.”
He was disappointed by this response, and more or less abandoned the active hunt for information. But this led to a broader interest in arcane cassettes. “I started wondering how many other lost pieces of unknown music there are out there, sitting in thrift stores. It was so easy finding this one, there has to be more like this.”
Fike, at the time, was living in West Plains, Missouri, population 12,000. Fortunately, small towns can be a fertile bed for esoteric art. “I started scouring my local thrift stores, antique shows,” Fike tells me. “I was lucky enough to live above a bookstore that had a very large cassette and VHS selection. And I ended up finding a couple releases that were handmade, privately distributed, that I couldn’t find any information online. So I ended up recording those as well.”
He switched his Bandcamp page’s name to The Cassette Archive and started uploading tapes to it. He aimed for tapes with no online footprint. At this point, there are 31 tapes available to be perused. Fike told me the stories behind several of his favourites.
One mystery tape was a cassette called Straight To The Heart .....no sell out here by someone named J.R.S. “It sounds like this college-age Christian dude making this Christian rap album really amateurly with his friend. There’s something very heart-warming about it. It has some of these weirdest rhymes and beats. A lot of it is very tone-deaf Evangelical bullshit.”
Then there’s “Sour Dough Sam” Sings Gospel by Durwin Burtz, which is a ventriloquist recording an album as his puppet. “My favourite track on it is ‘Tommy’s Cry,’ which is this very grim tale of domestic abuse but with a weird, sugar-coated Evangelical twist on it. It’s, I guess, what you’d call outsider art.
“I found it in a church that I had attended as a kid. I happened to be back in the area and I knew that they had some cassette tapes so I decided to go over there and rummage. I talked to some people from church about it — do any of you know who this is? Did he come to the church, or did you know somebody that went to see him perform or something? I never got an answer out of it. But that’s certainly a lot of the weirder one.”
Doing some updated research, we discovered a couple mentions of a pastor named Durwin Burtz. On an old Tripod page for the Fraternal Order of Police #105, there is a message from Burtz about his puppet show:
“A few years ago I lost my right arm in an accident caused by a DUI driver. As Captain D the pirate I entertain and challenge school children with ventriloquism and magic and my personal story“
Meanwhile, a news article documents Burtz’s 3000-mile trip across America to return someone’s lost dog.
True Mystery Tapes
There are many true mystery tapes covered by The Cassette Archive — cassettes which render no Google hits, apart from those posted by Fike himself. One is a 1986 home-taped synth-pop cassette called Time Control Addiction by someone named D.O. Durant. It sounds like one man with a keyboard. A cover of “Heart and Soul” by Joy Division is included, hinting at Durant’s influences — indeed, his reverb-coated voice bears a striking resemblance to Ian Curtis’ vocals.
karaoke night at the fallout shelter by Peter King, released in 1999, is four tracks of overdubbed lo-fi pop, like something that would have come out on one of the many indie-pop cassette labels that circulated in the nineties. Yet, unlike most of the artifacts of the heavily catalogued DIY tape scene, no record of it is available online. It may be the work of a Peter King from Indiana who was a member of several bands in the nineties and 00s, including Buffalino and The Impossible Shapes, and who now records as Peter and the Kings.
Desert Storm by Fast Freddy is a cassingle featuring two ultra-patriotic rock anthems about the Iraq War, featuring blazing electric guitars and amateurish vocals atop plodding drum machine rhythms. From “Rock Iraq (Rock ‘n’ Rule)”:
American patriots Blow your skulls out the sky Saddam Hussein Mad dog will hit you between the eyes
Contracts, diplomats, we gave you every chance One nation under God, now it’s time to dance We’re gonna rock Iraq Rock and rule”
Then there’s a weird, thrashy sounding demo called First Is Next from 1989 by a band named C.I.A. This could be by the N.Y.C. thrash act of the same name — if so, it would be quite the find for thrash completists, since it doesn’t show up anywhere in discographies and demo listings — but the sonic resemblance isn’t great.
Fike tells me his fascination with the tape medium is rooted in its status as a relatively neglected format. “I’m not an expert on cassette tapes, but I feel that cassettes depreciate at a greater rate than vinyl does, and there is certainly a greater culture surrounding vinyl collection than there is cassette tape collection. You’re cleaning out your old house, and you go into dad’s closet, and there’s fifteen cassettes that you used to listen to all the time. It’s not like you’re going to be able to sell these for fifty dollars. Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they’re going to be valuable.
“Cassette tape was so cheap to produce. It was available to so many people. Which meant that there’s just massive, massive quantities of Patsy Cline, Pat Benatar, and Barry Manilow. All this junk that nobody cool is interested in. It’s almost mind numbing going through a thrift store and searching through boxes and boxes of this stuff. You just see the same three Christmas albums twenty times. It’s almost like the number of cassette tapes out there devalues them as a whole. People are less likely to pay attention to each cassette.
“When I heard the Adimus tape, I realized I really like this, the aesthetics of this. I love how wacky and weird it is. It really would be a shame if no one else got to hear it. I just got to think, there’s got to be lots and lots of undiscovered music collecting mold, that is probably going to be thrown out in three years.
Though his interest is rooted in the thrill of rescuing esoteric gems from the brink of extinction (one wonders how many limited-run, private-press tapes have already had their last extant copies sent to landfill), he recognizes that obscurity is no guarantee of quality. “I certainly have collected some unknown albums that I think are absolute shit. Not everything unknown is interesting. It’s not like every unknown cassette that I come across automatically goes into the Archive. At the end of the day, I’m interested in amplifying the voices of these tiny artists that wouldn’t get heard otherwise. I want them to survive into the amplified age.”
Fike’s background in graphic design infuses his project with a visual appeal. He tells me about how he agonizes over what part of the cassette J-cards to use for as each tape’s square Bandcamp profile image. As a result, scrolling through the Archive is a visual and conceptual thrill — each tape, be it a pastoral, new-agey treat like like Sam McNally’s Stargate, or the bizarre infomercial-style melodies of Break In ’84 by Hearts & Chips, brings a dose of intrigue.
These days, Fike has been busier on account of an internship, and the trickle of tapes has slowed since The Cassette Archive opened up shop. At one point, he explains, he had envisioned a growing database that would inspire people all over the world to send tapes to be memorialized in the Archive. But he also has reservations about courting popularity.
“I’m the curator, I’m the one putting this stuff out there. But it isn’t mine. I mean, man it would be really cool if I could send the Adimus tape to some sort of audio professional and get the audio cleaned up, then do a repress. But then you’re making money off this person.”
For now, the people behind these unusual audio treasures — largely remain mysteries. Perhaps one or more of them will stumble upon the Cassette Archive and reveal the stories behind their musical creations.
Meanwhile, Fike will continue his recovery work, trying to save these vulnerable relics from disappearing forever.
Update (Feb 15, 2021): On account of this article, the real-life Durwin Burtz (whose cassette is discussed above), reached out to us to tell us a bit about the origins of his tape:
“I was a pastor most of my life and did magic and ventriloquism in several venues, mostly churches. My favorite puppet ‘Sour Dough Sam,’ was made for me by a good friend 40 years ago this year. Robert Plate made him from a piece of basswood that I provided. He gave him to me. Along the way I home recorded and gave to folks that I met at different venues.
“I made them a lot of years ago. I’d say I made less than 50. Its the only one I made of myself. I haven’t heard of any showing up other than the one that was downloaded on the internet.”
Thanks to Ezra Fike for the interview and photographs. The Cassette Archive is here.
In 1984, the guitarist Gayle Ellett founded the instrumental progressive rock band Djam Karet with three friends. Over the years, they’ve put out dozens of albums, amassing a cult following. Ellett has also recorded music for TV and film, accumulating an extensive catalog of credits.
His 2002 album, Winds of War, is an anomaly. It is an abstract sound collage of field recordings — culled “from ancient Arabic deserts and 1,000-year-old villages, viciously processed and mangled forever by contemporary analog keyboards and other recording studio devices.” According to its press release, the goal was to symbolize the destruction of Islamic culture by the American military.
I spoke to Ellett about this unusual record. Ellett lives in Topanga, California, and around the time Winds of War came out, he was dating a woman who had lived in the Middle East and spoke some Arabic. They chose to travel to Morocco for a vacation, and he found himself captivated by the sounds he encountered there. “I made a ton of field recordings there,” he tells me. “I had a small portable DAT recorder with me that I used to record the sounds of the markets and mosques. I wasn’t sure at the time how I would later use these recordings, but I knew it was a good idea to at least capture the sounds I heard on the streets of Morocco.”
He then ran this audio through his Minimoog analog synthesizer, filtering and modulating the sounds and performing some digital touch-ups on his computer. “Once I heard how it sounded, when I ran it through my analog synthesizer’s filters and modulation system — it took on a rather creepy vibe,” Ellett explains. “And we were, as we are now, in the middle of a huge war in Afghanistan. Basically I was mangling the sounds of their Islamic culture by jamming it through an American synthesizer, and bending and distorting their world to my liking. And so the album began to take on a rather anti-American/anti-imperialism tone to it, and I maintained that theme with the track titles.”
Indeed, titles include “The Liberated City” and “‘Round ‘Em Up.'” He explains that he was inspired by his revulsion towards the anti-Muslim sentiment in the air at the time.
When asked about the precedent for this type of experimental record, Ellett puts it simply: “Everybody listens to John Cage, don’t they?” He explains that experimental music is commonplace in California and, besides, Ellett’s band, Djam Karet, would often utilize reel-to-reel tapes to add layers of found sounds to their live performances.
Winds Of War was released through the early digital music website mp3.com, which ran a service called Digital Automatic Music, in which they would produce CD-R versions of albums at artists’ request. Ellett believes 250 copies were made in total.
Listener response was mixed. “Well, it is a very strange recording! Seriously strange! So many people did not like it at all. But some did find it to be very interesting and unique. But I really made it for myself, not others, so I was happy with how it all turned out.” Only a couple of reviews were done, one from an American prog rock website and another from an Uzbekistani website.
Today, he reflects positively on this release, which is one among many. “I think it worked out really well, in my totally biased opinion,” he says. “I write music in a very wide range of styles, from art-rock to film music to traditional World music, and currently I play in eight bands and I’ve played on over 120 albums. So I am very interested in a really wide range of music, and making this avant-garde album was a unique experience, and a ton of fun!”
Thanks to Gayle Ellett for the interview. Visit his website here.
“Creating HNW in itself can easily get very obsessive, perhaps always is.”
Sven Kay has been interested in extreme music for a long time. Having arrived to the party as an early teenager via hyper-paced electronic genres like gabber and terrorcore, he then cycled through intense forms of rap and extreme metal, before discovering a short article about Merzbow in a music encyclopedia owned by his father. That was a key fork in the road.
In 2003, he started his own noise project named All Collapsed, and he hasn’t slowed down since. Over the years, he has established a name for his hyper-specific sound projects. The most obvious example is Opaque, a solo sound project based around a fetish for down jackets; most of the artwork featured women dressed in brand-name puffy jackets, with album titles like Short Pink Down Jacket With Fur Collar and Two Girls In Nickelson Moena And Jolina Down Jackets. The music consisted of unchanging blocks of harsh noise, a.k.a. harsh noise wall (HNW). There are at least sixty-nine Opaque releases, each a slight variation on the central theme.
Opaque is not his only such endeavor. His Immaculate Affection project has produced three volumes of HNW, each release dedicated to the Glee character Quinn Fabray. And his Unbelievable Black Magic label puts out noise inspired by old mondo films like Faces of Death — documentary-style video compilations that were popular in the seventies and depicted graphic footage, including clips of accidents and injuries. All of Kay’s Unbelievable Black Magic releases feature artwork inspired by the format:
Kay’s biggest fixation may be the subgenre of noise music called harsh noise wall. His Absent Erratum net label specializes in the style, along with the related genre ambient noise wall. (Stylistically, it’s less harsh, but just as monolithic.)
Absent Erratum captures two of Kay’ tendencies. For one, it showcases his tendency to cross-pollinate HNW with other ideas; in this case, HNW is imbued with a colourful and post-modern vaporwave aesthetic. Secondly, it is highly obsessional. Since 2018, Absent Erratum has put out a constant stream of new releases, each one carefully designed and often titled using baroque linguistic chicanery — album titles include ⌺⌺⌺⌺⌺ and 𝕯𝕴𝕾𝕽𝖀𝕻𝕿𝕺𝕽 𝕴𝕴.
Kay, a high school teacher from just outside Rotterdam, is a disarmingly nice guy. Via email, he told me about Absent Erratum and his unique aesthetic, enthusiastically sharing the many details behind the operation.
Kay started Absent Erratum in the summer 2008. Before that, he had been collecting images in a computer folder called “vaporhnwave,” as a process of refining the vaporwave-cum-HNW direction he was moving towards. As he developed the modus operandi for the label, he started to invite artists to contribute. “I sent them a list of core ideas/requirements,” Kay explains. “Each project was to have a new and unique project name; the release should thematically and/or sonically be ‘non-traditional’ — somewhat vague, perhaps by design, as many things have become fairly commonplace in (H)NW — but none of the typical gore or sex. They could work anonymously, if they wanted. And they were to submit an image that, for them, was a suitable visual companion to their track, which I would use in the artwork.”
Kay mainly works in his living room, though he keeps his pedals, cassette decks, and contact mics at his dad’s place, a vestige from the days when his kids were young and he was too busy to create music. He tends to work on Absent Erratum at night. He tells me he has a tendency to hyper-focus, staying up to 3AM engrossed in his work. “When I get into it I forget time, I forget to eat and drink, I am completely immersed in the creative process. I usually notice I am entirely parched and hungry by the time I stop,” he says.
“I’ve been doing noise and experimental music for a long time and while my girlfriend and family are always supportive, none of them really understand noise in the end,” he explains. “My girlfriend, for instance, has literally said time and again that she doesn’t understand it, but she is always super supportive and always speaks positively of my projects to her family and friends. My sister probably gets closest to really getting it. (I dragged her along to a The Rita show some 10 years ago and we share a lot of musical interests, generally). I’d say she understands it, as she likes plenty of weird music herself, but even for her noise is not something she listens to of her own accord. Everyone will take a passing interest in it, find the effort commendable, but that’s where it ends, pretty much. Apart from the odd friend who I share some musical interests with, I don’t even share my creative projects with my friends. If anything, I feel it’s way too alienating, most people in my experience just find noise/HNW ‘weird’ and see little artistic merit or even any redeeming qualities to it.”
Absent Erratum’s discography is a mixture of work by Kay and by other artists, most of whom have chosen to remain anonymous. Each album is attributed to a one-of-a-kind noise project, so you won’t find Absent Erratum artists anywhere else. There is one exception: an artist named Liz Clark has put out two releases on the label. “[This] of course goes against the idea of Absent Erratum; I can enjoy this particular case of rule-breaking though, as it seems to fit with the spirit of AE — it wants to do things differently, so when, within that framework, things are done still differently, when it plays with the restrictions imposed in a somewhat rebellious manner, I enjoy that, too. Of course, it’s been done now — Liz Clark was the original rule breaker. Other rule breakers would have to find new ways to be inventive enough to break some more rules.”
I was struck by the myriad concept releases Absent Erratum has put out, many of which are conveyed using cryptic images and symbology. Kay was ready to tell me the story behind a number curious releases, even rooting out the perspectives of the original artists when possible:
𝑭𝒖𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆+𝑵𝒆𝒐𝒏⁹⁹ – TIME WARP
TIME WARP is a collection of brief noise walls by 𝑭𝒖𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆+𝑵𝒆𝒐𝒏⁹⁹, one of countless pseudonyms of Sven Kay himself. This one is noteworthy because Kay created the walls by sampling ASMR videos from the internet. “I am not entirely sure how many videos I used, but it was quite a few as I was looking for very specific sounds,” he tells me.”For each track of five minutes I used about an hour of ASMR videos. The videos themselves came from various channels off YouTube. I’m not very familiar with ASMR, so I had to search around aplenty to find proper material. The sounds from the videos themselves were not altered significantly, mostly just cut and trimmed to remove all extraneous materials and volume-adjusted where necessary.”
Kay combined the ASMR sounds with distorted white noise to produce the final product. He sees a parallel between ASMR and HNW, pointing out that both areas of sound production involve obsessive, detail-oriented approaches to audio, especially when it comes to the “texture” of sound. He tells me about the recent emergence of non-amplified, or acoustic, walls, as well as the idea of field-recorded walls — for example recordings of waterfalls or humming machines.
“I remember a remark by Evan of Ritual Stance on one incarnation of a HNW message board where he had noticed how the sound of his suitcase’s wheels on gravel had made a great wall,” Kay laughs. “ASMR works with a similar ear for texture, and thus is a great potential source for materials. I wanted TIME WARP to work with this type of ‘field recorded’ sound while also further using ASMR to add to the intertextuality and pop culture references in the release’s theme and titles. Many of the textures [used on TIME WARP] are of the handling and opening of playing card booster packs.”
Interestingly, this is the second time Kay has used ASMR samples in his music. His super mario record release, produced under the name Wow War Techno, combines ASMR with sine waves.
This record may be a Bandcamp first: it has no name and no artist. “The intention was to have the artist anonymous and the record untitled,” Kay explains. “I did some work to find out how to generate entirely empty fields in Bandcamp, which made it come out excellently. It is definitely one of the most unique things on AE.”
Curious about the ASCII trickery responsible for gaming the system, I asked him to tell me how he subverted Bandcamp’s algorithms to create a nameless release. “There’s a lot of different whitespace characters besides the plain ‘space’ we tend to use most (by hitting the spacebar). These include figure spaces (for monospace digits), em and en spaces, tabs, and so on, each with their own function. While Bandcamp does not technically allow spaces to be submitted as characters in the submission fields, at the time of release this was not true for all possible spaces. The space that it ultimately did recognize as a character and not as a space was the Mongolian Vowel Separator. Thus the submission fields are technically not actually empty, but for all intents and purposes, they are.”
Forces Spéciales – Leviathan
This record is listed as the first release on Absent Erratum’s Bandcamp page; like many others, it is based on a complex web of ideas nestled deep inside Kay’s mind, which he has attempted to externalize via harsh noise wall. Kay traces its influence to Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, which he read 15 years ago. “Beloved, the character, served as the inspiration for a series of scenes I devised for a ghost story set in Central Africa that I intended to write but ultimately never did. The story disappeared somewhere in the recesses of my brain until I hit upon the image from which the picture on the cover was cropped. It’s a picture of a trio of Fulani women. Something about this image had the same mood as my conceptual ghost story had. I then combined it with various different influences that all share this powerful, mysterious, ominous sense.”
The title, Leviathan, is meant to conjure both Paul Auster’s novel of the same name, and the idea of a sea monster. He sees this double-association as a parallel to the Beloved and the scary ghost story he planned to write.
The name Forces Spéciales reflects his fascination with the Democratic Republic of Congo, another one of Kay’s obsessions. “Forces Spéciales refers to no particular military force, but is instead a semi-fictional one that is based upon a lot of reading that I have done on the DRC, the conflicts plaguing this country and the various militias involved. The French clearly has its origin there. It evokes militias, army groups, all huddled and hidden in jungles – Forces Armeés, Forces Démocratiques, and the Mai Mai of course – ghosts themselves almost, men sprinkling themselves with water to protect themselves from bullets, unseen and lurking in the dark, threatening and intimidating.”
Photos of Osho – Osho speaks on Meditation
Photos of Osho is not Sven Kay, but instead an anonymous artist; fortunately, Kay passed my questions on to that producer, allowing some insight into this mysterious release. It’s another bizarre post-modern noise wall excursion.
“Photos of Osho came about after reading material regarding the Rajneeshpuhram community in Wasco County, Oregon,” explains the anonymous producer. “During the 70s and 80s there was a surge of Indian godmen/gurus within the United States, such as Bikram Choudhury’s hot yoga, Swami Muktananda’s appearance in Woodstock, and Osho’s first persona, Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh. What attracted me to Rajneesh’s story was the idea of this mental barrier (i.e. wall) separating the previous persona from the current one. Many people that know about Osho haven’t heard of Rajneesh and the debacle that ensued, which included a bioterror attack using Salmonella that prompted the US government to shut him down. While all of this was happening, Rajneesh remained silent and isolated, having taken a meditation vow. Since my entire research took place after googling ‘photos of Osho’ it seemed natural to construct a release around these layers of silence and separation.”
The audio on this release has an interesting story itself. “There are some extracts of interviews that took place during [Rajneesh’s] incarceration and trial, in which you can hear this soft hiss in the background, especially in between words — or was it, perhaps, that the soft hiss was being interrupted by his words? The silent throb under it, that is mysticism channeled through.”
TRIBUTE – COMO UN MAR ETERNO
Another release by an anonymous artist, this one starts off as saturated dance music before fading into noise. Its producer explains that it is a tribute to La Favi, a contemporary singer who is considered part of the experimental fringe of reggaeton music known as neoperro. “I discovered her thanks to Sven, so it was a pretty obvious choice for a release on Absent Erratum,” says the person behind TRIBUTE. “On another level, that turned the album into a tribute to Sven — or a gift, or something he’d like — because his work is an inspiration on so many levels. Then, as with most side projects, it was also a way to go against a lot of my habits: the tracks are short, the post-editing was the biggest part of the work (at the time, I had more experience with single line, live walls) and finally it was an occasion to blend a wall with a melodic synth line.”
🐬 Ecco 🐬 イルカ 🐬 – The Marks On Your Head Look Like Stars In The Sky
This highly specific release has yet another exquisitely post-modern origin story. “The idea behind this release was my love for the game Ecco the Dolphin and other classic video games and the hidden themes of sadness and sorrow behind them,” says the anonymous producer. “A lot of classic games like this always had a happy and cheerful vibe to them, with the visuals, the soundtrack, etc., so for the artwork I wanted Sven to match it up to that look and theme, so listening to the release would catch some people off guard when hearing it for the first time after seeing the art.
“With Ecco the Dolphin you play as Ecco, who is on a quest to save his family and friends who were kidnapped by aliens. It has a cartoony and weird vibe to it, but the whole time you think of how sad, scared, and lonely Ecco must feel. He was just living a simple and happy life, just for everything to be taken from him. And he is forced to go on a quest to save everyone, and even though he probably isn’t ready for this, he takes it head on and is willing to do everything he can to save the ones he loves. When recording this album I tried to match those themes as closely as I could, with the title giving off that hopefully and cheerful vibe, while the tracks fit more with the underlying themes of loneliness and sorrow that Ecco feels during the game.”
The music, indeed, is a quiet and ominous breed of textbook ambient noise wall — like a massive boulder, all alone, rolling endlessly over a desert plain:
Stories & Themes
I return to Kay, curious about how he has taken such an abstract genre and used it to explore these very overt themes. “For me personally, harsh noise generally and harsh noise wall in particular, are very narrative, writerly media,” Kay says, explaining that his approach has almost always been to use the sound to tell a narrative. “My first ‘proper’ release ever, a harsh noise/free jazz disc by my project horsing, was called Chanzhengand its track titles were taken from the various chapters of a book called On The Long Road With Chairman Mao. At that time, I think, that ‘narrative’ was something very literal, and of course through the years that has changed. Absent Erratum is a good example of a journey ever further into the abstract. But at its core, this is still what it is to me. As a waller, you are a storyteller, a writer, giving shape to ideas, relating them. In the end, every project is a story – and every release for this particular project adds a chapter to the story, or a new perspective, or a footnote – it can do many things, but it will never be a new story.”
He recognizes that there is something unusual about blocks of unchanging harsh noise being a paradigm for storytelling. “Since the sound is so abstract, how can it truly ‘tell’ anything? I think that for many people ‘narrative’ music probably sooner conjures up images of story-telling classic rock concept albums, Ziggy Stardust or Tommy or things like extravagant Ayreon albums or that Scrooge McDuck album by Tuomas Holopainen. Music that in the most straightforward way imaginable actually tells a story and has the means to do so by employing dynamics, melodies, lyrics, instruments to convey settings, scenes, moods.
“HNW is pretty much the exact opposite, especially the monolithic kind that is entirely void of dynamics, melody, lyrics, instruments. Of course, this allows a certain freedom. It is actually extremely non-restrictive. HNW is a blank canvas that, in its purest form, in itself has no inherent ‘mood’ – that mood is imposed by the artist.”
He proposes an experiment: Take two HNW tracks, one by the producer Love Katy, whose releases are all glittery tributes to Katy Perry, and another by the very nihilistic French HNW project Vomir. Without the artwork and context, he suggests it will be impossible to distinguish them. “Try to decide what inherent characteristics within them make them, respectively, a glamorous, glittery pink pop tribute and a nihilistic void. It is only imposed by the themes, the language and the imagery that the artist provides.
“What also makes HNW ideal to engage with obsessions, passions, and fetishes is the fact that creating HNW in itself can easily get very obsessive, perhaps always is. I think for many creators, their engagement with their obsessions and passions and fetishes focuses on minutiae, super fine details – it’s micro-focal,” he says, citing my recent article about The Rita’s Thousands of Dead Gods, in which Sam McKinlay discusses his passion for great white sharks.
“You see that same kind of micro-focus all throughout [the HNW scene]. Runway releases are each dedicated to a single specific runway look; Oyasumi Punpun has a separate release for each chapter within each of the volumes of the manga of the same name; the h POKÉDEX project has a separate wall for each Pokémon (so far, at least, the first and second generations, about 250 in all); Cory Strand has done tapes for separate issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics…”
“That micro-focus on these details of the objects of obsession also comes into play when creating walls. It’s concerned with these minutiae: the pops and crackles, the spaces between them. In that sense, the engagement with walls parallels the engagement with the object of obsession.
“In the end, there is also a very simple reason for the abundance of project names that is seen throughout the experimental music scene but perhaps especially in HNW, which was also addressed recently by Richard and Sean in their interview for Noisextra: it is a very direct way to deal with or respond to an obsession, which can come from the most insignificant thing. In the interview, they talk about how a certain turn of phrase or a title of a movie could be enough, for instance where they talk about the origin of the project name Gourmet Shit Scene [which references a particular bit of dialogue in the movie Pulp Fiction]. I think that is very recognizable.”
Many Absent Erratum releases tend to experiment with language and typography, either by utilizing unusual characters or by toying with loose association. Kay, in addition to being a schoolteacher, also has training in linguistics, and when I ask him about his fondness for wordplay, he has much to say.
He first points to the Leviathan album, which makes direct references to a book. Yet other releases can get a lot more abstract. “I find a lot of pleasure in juxtaposing language from very different sources within a title or release; to me, this is a great source of tension, invoking erratic, odd mental imagery,” he says. “It’s one area where the vaporwave element comes in, of course. Vaporwave is all reference, extremely intertextual. A lot of the appreciation of it comes from the appreciation of its referents, whether we are familiar with them specifically or just with their time frame and associated atmosphere and feeling.”
Absent Erratum follows a similar method, he explains, taking me through one exemplary release: “[The album] TIME WARP is a fairly complex — or muddled — amalgam of influences and referents. TIME WARP refers to a Super Famicom Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, Turtles In Time, which is also reflected in the artwork, which uses a Shredder sprite from that game. In that sense, it plays pretty directly with this nostalgic idea of a callback to the feeling of carefree summers in the 1990’s — I was born in 1984.” He points out that this is also reflected in the “99” in the project’s name, 𝑭𝒖𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆+𝑵𝒆𝒐𝒏⁹⁹.
“At the same time, many of the other elements [of the artwork] are distinctly not 90’s but do intend to evoke that similar vibe of a carefreeness and youthfulness, except in a more contemporary way: the abundance of emojis, the picture of neoperreo singer Tomasa Del Real (saturation boosted quite a bit). The track titles again are structured after the way the levels in the same Super Famicom game are structured, except now they reference Latin American beach destinations and nightlife districts, a series of visits to them unfolding in a single night.”
1. Playa Hermosa, San Juan Del Sur, 2:00 p.m. 04:00 2. Gazcue, Santo Domingo, 7:00 p.m. 04:00 3. Miraflores, Lima, 11:00 p.m. 04:00 4. Galerias, Bogotá, 3:00 a.m. 04:00 5. La Reina, Santiago, 6:00 a.m. 04:00
TIME WARP‘s track listing
“It’s like a glimpse into the decadence of this unspecified jet set, time warping for all intents and purposes from the one place to the next. The future and neon of the title further shape this overall atmosphere: A 90s aesthetics of neon, the neon of nightlife districts, conceptions of future from the perspective of the 90’s and the actuality of that future that is this release.
“A lot of credit should also go to my contributors. There is some truly fantastic language that they use. Some personal favourite examples of the wonderful language in others’ contributions are I Swim In Prismatic Light, Unhiltered, The Marks On Your Head Look Like Stars In The Sky, Unbridled and Household.”
“Many other things are more or less abstracted amalgamates or derivatives from their sources of inspiration. S U D D E N L I G H T S U D D E N D E A T H was inspired by (though not taken verbatim from) a passage from Helen Winternitz’ travelogue East Of The Equator. The surface of the water reflecting the sky is a play on a Naoki Zushi composition. Xruelty And The Xeast is named after Cruelty And The Beast, in a way. Yet other things are inspired by the naming conventions for action movie sequels and J-pop singles. Yet others distort their sources even more.”
When I ask Kay to describe himself, he balks at the question, conceding principally that he is “compulsively productive.” I suggest the word generosity, given that Kay devotes so much time and energy to producing music for others to listen to, and to providing a forum for others to release their music.
“I think ‘generous’ is a very braggy term to use for oneself, but it’s funny that you mention generosity,” he says. “I release a tape batch about every half year and try to sell these tapes for as low as I can without bleeding money profusely on it — but bleeding it aplenty anyway, which I am absolutely fine with, as it only seems natural that you spend money on your hobby. Which, I guess, my projects are in the end. They’re not my day job.”
He shows me the math, explaining that he used to sell his tapes internationally for €5,50 apiece. At €4 in shipping fees alone, it was a losing proposition. And now that shipping outside the EU has ballooned to €11 per tape, he’s had to abandon the practice — though orders of multiple tapes can be more cost-effective.
Kay is tight-lipped about the future of Absent Erratum, saying he has releases in the pipeline, but wants to wait until they coalesce before announcing them. He does have a plan to bring the label into the physical realm, however. “Brief forays into the physical sphere have been made,” he points out. “A label patch and a tape (for Hair Like Water, Wavy Like The Sea).”
“The idea is to give more physical shape to the label, but to do so in a way that reflects its digital character appropriately. I have been compiling a list of the formats I would like to release on, some more suitable to audio (CD, LP, minidisc, VHS, etc) but some also decidedly not (perfume, candle, tote bag, sticker, pin). The idea is that they each constitute the true physical release for the album. The non-audio formats would include QR codes to refer people to the album. I have done some design work for some of these, but amidst all my other projects they have yet to take shape.”
Thanks to Sven Kay for the interview. The Absent Erratum Bandcamp page is here.