Label Archaeology: Unread Records, Pt. 1: The Lancaster Years

“I’m a big proponent of manipulating. Taking something and manipulating and degrading it somehow. I don’t like things to be pristine and real nice. Even if it’s something that I’ll draw, I’ll usually go over it with glue, somehow mess it up.”

The second edition of Label Archaeology focuses on a label started around 1994 and continues to release its stream of home-dubbed cassettes and limited-to-300-copy records into this current day.

Chris Fischer grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a medium-sized city about an hour and a half outside from Philadelphia. In 1994, he was a sophomore in high school putting out zines and hanging out with some older friends who played music and lived together in a home they called House 25, a collective “punk house that people got drunk in” and lo-fi recording studio.

“I’d gotten into making zines and zine culture, and ran a zine called Entropy, which was kind of a precursor (to Unread),” he tells me. He describes Entropy as an A5 zine filled with “typical high school zine stuff, music reviews, reviews of shows that were going on, and a lot of quote-unquote humor.” Around that time he was also selling bootlegs of tapes, including a Nirvana live set that he recently found in an old box.

Entropy was the work of Chris and his friend, Rob S. “We ended up making the zine in my graphics class, printed on an A.B. Dick copy machine,” he recalls. “We were passing it out in school and ended up getting in trouble with the principal, who thought it was very lewd and offensive, and almost got expelled from school because of it.” Fischer recounts a meeting with that principal, who read choice quotes from the zine in order to make his point that it was too offensive to be published, leading to Fischer cracking up in the office. He specifically recalls that the principal had circled the word “7-inches,” which he seemed to think was a reference to male genitalia.

He also recalls that their graphics teacher, who had defended the students’ creative license, ended up getting fired. He later bumped into her. “I was working for a grocery store and she came in, and I felt so bad for her because she got fired,” he remembers. “But she didn’t care, she was like, ‘Fuck them, they’re ridiculous’.”

There were 5 or 6 issues of Entropy, which continued even after their run-in with authority. At that time, Fischer was corresponding with other zines and labels via the post, trading letters, mail art, and zines. Some of those copies of Entropy came with tapes, which eventually became part of the early Unread catalogue.

Unread #1

The original Swingset demo, later "officially" released by Fischer, and eventually canonized as Unread #1. Note that the demo's (vanity) label was listed as "Space Records."

Around this time, a couple friends living in House 25 were playing and recording music under the name Swingset. “They had a made a tape that they had sent out to all these record labels,” Fischer explains. “They were in with SpinART Records, who started in Lancaster. Through them, they got contacts to all these different record labels. They ended up sending like two hundred demo tapes to all these labels. And I was like, ‘Did you ever hear back?’ And they were like, ‘We put the wrong return address on it.’ They were kind of giver-uppers. I was like, ‘Well you can’t let this just go, you’ve gotta get this out there.”

That became Fischer’s first tape release — the self-titled Swingset EP. At the time, Chris says that the ‘label’ on the tape itself was listed as Entropy, though it would later be re-categorized as Unread #1. It’s a release he stands by to this day, having included its six tracks on a Swingset retrospective that was Unread’s 136th release, Recorded on Four Track.

The cover of the Swingset tape.

Fischer reflects that if Swingset hadn’t bungled up their demo mail-out, Unread likely would never have existed. He was so impressed by the quality of the music that he felt it deserved to be released. The tape, which came out with a picture of a swingset on its front cover, was advertised in his zine under the tagline “Music to Impress People,” with mail order instructions included. He traded and sold a few copies via his mail network, and also peddled them by “walking the halls” of his high school.

He also remembers another tape, catalogue number “entropy 02,” that he distributed through his zine at the time. That was The People were few but the music was GRAND by Plan 7. “It was me and some friends, we played a coffee house. It was basically just improv. Every single person had left the show,” he laughs. Fischer was able to dig up an old copy of the tape and scan the J-card, visible to the left, which shows that “Music to Impress People” was also part of the record label’s name at one point. He believes this addition to the name arose when his friend, Mike Allison, entered the equation.

A catalogue that Fischer dug up from the time lists the Swingset EP and the Plan 7, and also gives a sense of what was anticipated. The third entropy release was going to be by the Side Affects, a pop-punk band that Fischer’s friend, Mike Allison was really into. Blue Box Agency was a band of talented musicians that played blues and jazz frequently around Lancaster, what Fischer calls “coffee house type music.” There was also at one point going to be a tape by a surf-rock band called Plan 9 From Outer Space, not to be confused with Plan 7.

Meanwhile, an old archive of the Entropy fanzine’s website reveals one other item — a reissue of an EP by Chris Fischer’s pre-Entropy hardcore band Humanities Harijan, which Fischer says was one of the earliest recordings he ever made. Tapes by two other mysterious acts, Sulu and Galactica, were also in the pipeline at that point. Today, Fischer can’t remember any of the details about either of those bands.

Unread #2-4

Fischer’s early tapes, like much of his Unread catalog, had Xeroxed cover art. The blank tapes came from a company called Crown Magnetics Inc., in a nearby town named Lebanon. That company specialized in tapes and audio equipment for recording church sermons. (Indeed, an archive of their early-00s website lists the many Pennsylvania churches they’d outfitted with audio technology).

“A lot of places you would get tape from would be religious companies where they would be used to record church music,” he explains. “You could also buy communion cups and stuff like that. I would drive up there and pick up hundreds of tapes.” He’d then dub them to order at home.

According to the official Unread discography, Unread’s second release was Erik Sahd’s Right Now You’re Always Been Here. Also attributed to the Entropy label initially, it was something of an homage to those religious tapes. Its cover was designed to look like one of them, with the title overlaid on an image of outer space.

Fischer tells me Erik Sahd was one half of Swingset, describing him as an endlessly creative artist who continues to record music to this day, but rarely bothers to release it formally. “Now he’s really into Tesla coils,” Fischer says. “He does electronic experiments with Tesla coils. He gets into these weird modes where he focuses on certain things and does that for like five years. The last time I saw him was at the studio [of Sahd and fellow Swingset member Mike Musser]. We went in the backroom he had all these reel-to-reels hooked up, but the tape was running through other objects and all around the room, almost like you would run a model train or something. It was all this tape going everywhere but also playing. Who knows what he’s doing? Crazy tape experiments.”

Right Now was a Sahd solo work, which Fischer still considers a really good tape. He recalls dubbing a bunch, possibly as few as 20, then driving around the country and leaving them in public rest stops and other random locations. Apart from a small batch that he left for consignment at a record shop in Louisville, Kentucky, those haphazard drops were the primary means of distribution. “I just gave ’em to [the record shop], and was like, here’s my address, send me some money if they sell. Other than that I think we just left them in rest stops and bathrooms and stuff.”

I shared with Fischer that this tape, somehow, was played on WFMU years ago as part of an episode dedicated to tapes found in thrift stores — a striking reminder of the intermittent permanence of physical releases. We speculated that one of the rest stop copies must have been picked up and, years later, found its way to a Goodwill.

Unread number three, still under the Entropy label, was a tape called Master Know by a one-off band, E-Pies, which was Erik Sahd recording with someone else. Fischer believes this record is “lost to history”; when he was moving at one point, a box of tapes literally fell off the back of his pick-up truck after a series of unfortunate motor mishaps. That box contained the masters to all of these original tapes, as well as, Fischer believes, the last extant copies of the E-Pies cassette. He recalls this tape, which he had purchased from the local record store where Sahd had put up a few demo copies for sale, as a bunch of “nonsense, if I remember correctly, a lot of handheld stuff, loops, talking, and organ.”

Unread number four, meanwhile, is so obscure it never actually came out. A few of Fischer’s Lancaster friends were playing as a band named Boss Rabbit. They had apparently earlier put out a tape called Shit. Fischer was set to release another tape of their named Eulogy, even creating all of the cover art, but the band never got the tape to him, so it never came out. Now that’s a deep cut.

Unread #5-10

The next few tapes were recordings that featured Fischer himself. The self-titled Yo Sci-Fi tape featured him performing with his friend, Mike Allison; it was a recording made while Allison’s parents were out of town, including several keyboard instrumentals. Unread number six was a demo by Nintendo, a hardcore band that Fischer played bass in. Number seven was Kilgore T Lost His Battle With Hypothermia, a “really weird tape” put together by Fischer and a group of friends over the course of a few days.

“We had a makeshift studio we called the Allison Compound, Mike Allison and Brian Allison’s house,” he remembers. “His parents had gotten divorced and they all lived at this house, but their dad didn’t really care what happened. So it basically was just run by us. We’d just stay up all night recording music.” Lost His Battle With Hypothermia features a “very drunken, late-night slice of life,” including some solo cuts by Mike Allison.

The actual original Unread Passive-Resistance zine, rescued up from old boxes by Chris Fischer.

It was around this time that Fischer began using the Unread name for his releases. It was borrowed from a zine that he put out called Unread Passive-Resistance, which he coined from two words randomly picked out of a dictionary. That zine, which only survived two issues and featured what Fischer terms “a lot of personal writing or something lame like that,” was perhaps most notable for birthing the Unread name. “And then I was just like, I’ll just put Unread on tapes. I thought it was really moronic but then the more I thought about it, I was like, that’s a decent enough name.” In fact, Fischer remembers retrospectively scratching out the Entropy logo on remaining copies of his previous releases and hand-scrawling Unread in instead.

Release number eight was another album by Swingset, this one also self-titled. Its provenance is unlikely. “That was a tape that I found on the lawn of House 25,” he explains. It was one long piece without breaks, each song flowing into the next, approximately seventy minutes in total. He believes that it was a recording that they were working on with the goal of producing a CD, which never panned out. “Swingset did a lot of recording and had no care in the world about [where the recordings went], they just did it for themselves,” he tells me. He rescued it from disappearing into the mulch.

Unread numbers nine and ten, which he now believes are forever lost, featured lo-fi bedroom pop by Fischer — just him an an acoustic guitar, recorded under the name November of 1959. He doesn’t recall this work being particularly inspired. Nine was a split with Mike Allison, then recording under the nom de plume Kyle Jacobson, their efforts titled Moderate Hearts Beat Once Per Minute. Number ten was just credited to November of 1959 and was titled, somewhat melodramatically, Love Is A Concept By Which We Measure Our Pain.

Unread’s eleventh release was his first vinyl release, a seven-inch single by Fischer’s hardcore band, Nintendo, which also featured his friends at House 25, including Mike Allison. Like all of Unread’s vinyl releases, this one was produced in an edition of 300 copies — below that figure, Fisher explains, the cost per record was much less economical. Unlike previous releases, which came out on a much smaller scale, many copies of Nintendo’s record were distributed through a distributor. Nintendo inconveniently broke up right after the record came out, and Fischer believes he threw a bunch of them away in the bitterness of their collapse.

As a side note, this seems to be one of the most permanent of the early Unread releases, likely owing to its relatively large pressing, which must have dwarfed the many cassette runs. The single had Fischer’s parents’ phone number on it, and he tells me his mom would get phone calls for years after, inquiring about booking Nintendo for gigs. When he moved to Omaha in 1999, this was the one Unread release that people had in their collections.

Post-Secondary Exploits

After high school, Fischer attended the Art Institute of Philadelphia to study animation, though left after a year, frustrated that the college had stopped teaching traditional animation in favour of digital production. Fischer, who found his first computer in a dumpster behind a restaurant, does use the internet to help disseminate his music, but prefers analog media. He loves tape recording and prefers corresponding via snail mail. “At that time I was a letter writing fiend. I just wrote tons and tons of letters to all those tape labels. And that’s how I got to know most of the people that Unread put out, through ordering their tapes. And eventually, probably ’98 or ’99, all those tape labels stopped. Because all those guys were probably in college and then got out and stopped doing it. And I just picked up where all those labels stopped.

“I met Charlie MacAllister through Rob Carmichael’s Catsup Plate. When I went to school in Philadelphia, I lived with my aunt and uncle, and they were right out side of Swarthmore, and that’s where Catsup Plate and a bunch of other labels came from. Their college radio station was big in that tape label scene.”

For Fischer, the reason he started Unread — and continues it to this day — is because otherwise this music risks going completely unheard. In our discussion, he brings up the artist Nutrition Fun, who has released several tapes on Unread. “That’s a really good friend of mine from high school time,” he tells me. “Everybody would record songs by themselves, and then give me a tape, and I’d be like, you should do something with this, and they’d say, no, I don’t care. So that’s why I always did it and still do it, is to help my friends get their music out there. The fact that there’s other people on the label is just because tape labels started to die off, and I’d be like, why don’t you put out a tape on Unread, I’m still doing it. I guess it formed in these formative years and it just seems like something that I decided to keep carrying on with. I’m not sure how to explain it, really.

“Even though I was in hardcore bands and stuff, that was easily expressed and not hard. I just played bass. I’m not a very good musician. I would see my friends, who I thought were really talented, waste away, so I wanted to boost them up because I knew I couldn’t do something like that. I’ve never been a super talented musician.”

Fischer has trouble saying this, on account of being such a humble guy, but he acknowledged that his label has done a service to his artists, and to those who have the opportunity to listen to them. “Otherwise nobody would know who Nutrition Fun is,” he says, laughing.

Cover art for an early tape which never came out.

At the same time, a big part of the label, and the tape scene in general, was about community. “There’s so many friendships I have across the country from when I was fifteen and writing letters, that I still have today,” he reflects. “It’s almost like the music is second. I think the friendship and getting to know all these people was always the first thing. Writing letters, getting to know [singer/songwriter] Simon Joyner.”

Unread’s visual aesthetic, an unmistakably DIY style that makes heavy use of line drawings, typewriter text, and deliberately crooked cut-and-paste assembly, is one of its most enduring features. “I like making the covers. And if people order stuff, nine times out of ten I’ll put a drawing in, or some junk. I like the corresponding and sending things out, it’s a good way to do art.”

When approaching each release, he solicits the input of the artist to craft the final design. “I’ll ask what the artist wants. If people don’t care, I’ll ask them to send me something to go off of. A lot of it is drawings I’ll do, or they’ll send me a photo and I’ll cut up and manipulate it. Ninety percent of releases I’ve cut up the covers and put them together, made all the copies, screen-printed them, what have you. It’s not always my art, but it’s me putting everything together.”

Referring to his aesthetic as “Xerox junk,” he goes on to explain his approach. “I’m a big proponent of manipulating. Taking something and manipulating and degrading it somehow. I don’t like things to be pristine and real nice. Even if it’s something that I’ll draw, I’ll usually go over it with glue, somehow mess it up.”

The cut-and-paste, fractured aesthetic of Fischer’s art fits well with the mutant pop music that he puts out. “I think of old Lou Barlow recordings. It’s a pop song at its core, but it’s almost messed up. I kind of hate that lo-fi has come back in this day and age of digital stuff. A lot of people will record digitally and then put on a lo-fi filter. I personally think the recording techniques are part of the music.

“With Lou Barlow, it sounds the way it sounds because of the weird techniques he uses. A lot of people that I work with on Unread do the same thing. It doesn’t necessarily need to be lo-fi. Even [more recent Unread artist] Razors — that guy is really good at recording and probably records everything on computer, but he cuts things apart and deconstructs it, in a weird way.

“It kind of flows together, but almost in bits and pieces. And you take it as a whole. I’ve always looked at tapes as being a whole thing. I’m not a person that picks out songs. I don’t listen to music digitally, I still listen to tapes. If I listen to a tape I put on the whole thing. That’s the way I’ve always listened to music. I feel that’s important. People miss that now”

He tells me about his extensive collection of tapes from old tape labels, and mentions that he has cassette racks and boxes filled with tapes from all eras of the lo-fi music scene. He’ll often grab one at random and put it on the tape deck. After I remark that his tape collection must constitute a national archive at this point, he tells me that there’s only other person he knows with a similarly voluminous tape collection. That person is Luigi Falagario of Bari, Italy, who runs the Almost Halloween Time label and is also responsible for a website that compiles discographies for old tape labels and lo-fi artists, complete with images from his collection. “We basically have the same [number of tapes], and we’ve traded in the past,” Fischer says. “I’ll be like you’ve got that one, and he’ll be like, you’ve got that one, and we’ll dub each other copies.” Years ago, Fischer sent Falagario the “official” Unread discography for his website, where it remains an invaluable resource.

The Swingset EP, Entropy version.

Together, we imagine that the time will come for a Nuggets-style compilation documenting the nineties lo-fi pop scene. “I was big into [the reissue label Mississippi Records] and I remember writing to them, saying, I think you should do a compilation of nineties compilations. All those old compilations, let me pick a couple songs here and there. But they never wrote back. But I always thought, one day. Maybe it wasn’t time yet, but now I think something like that would be pretty sweet. At some point I expect somebody to get a hold of me, and to ask, do you have this certain tape?”

Indeed, the vastness of the nineties cassette scene is a wonderful thing to ponder. “You can go down a rabbit hole and it can go on forever,” he marvels “There was just a label I saw the other day. I can’t remember how I got to it, I think maybe through Discogs. It was a label called In a Lighthouse Cassettes, and I had never heard of it, but then I knew one of the bands that’s on it, and I was like, who the hell did this? Totally around the same time, the mid-nineties, just something that I hadn’t heard of until now. And I’m sure there’s a million of them. If Unread came out of Lancaster, PA, imagine how many other tiny tape labels there are.”

Eventually, Fischer and I return to the story at hand, and he brings me to the next chapter in Unread history. In 1999, after leaving art school, Fischer decided it was time for a change of scenery.

“I had been writing to the guys responsible for [Omaha-based lo-fi label] Sing, Eunuchs! Also, I set up a show for Bright Eyes in Lancaster, and ended up palling around with them for a few shows around the area. They were like, Chris, you should come live in Omaha if you’ve got nothing going on. I was like, alright. So I ended up moving into Connor’s house, because I wasn’t doing anything in Lancaster, I was bored. So I just moved there.

“I moved to Omaha fucking Nebraska. I remember driving there, and I had never been there before, and I was like, what the fuck is this.”

But that’s a story for Part 2, The Omaha Years.

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