One evening, I found myself perusing a book of reviews of floppy disk releases compiled by Kai Nobuko, who runs the profusely prolific Yeah I Know It Sucks blog. On that website, he reviews a never-ending stream of contemporary music releases, almost all of them both bizarre and ludicrously obscure.
It’s hard to describe the confusing majesty of Yeah I Know It Sucks. Nobuko, who also records music under the name Toxic Chicken, provides detailed descriptions of releases in a breathless tone, his reviews occurring at such a rate that grammar takes a backseat — though that may also reflect that Dutch is his first language. Recent reviews include an ambient tape housed in a box of Lego blocks, an adult contemporary single recorded at a bitrate of 20 kbps, and a 206-track compilation of 10-second songs.
One review caught my eye. It was a six-artist album contained on two floppy disks, packaged in a paper cover made of recycled elephant feces, and limited to sixteen copies. In 2012, it came out on the SP label, a busy imprint run from 2004 to 2015 by Shaun Phelps, a noise artist who records as Flat Affect.
Phelps tells the story of how elephant feces ended up in the packaging of his release. “A good friend of mine, sadly he died about four years ago, got a job as a counselor through the military and it brought him to a variety of places. When he returned from one of his assignments he gifted me with a pad of recycled elephant shit. At that time my label, SP, was just starting to gain attention and notoriety for absurd noise releases on obscure formats. This is one of about ten releases I did in a short succession that locked my reputation in place at that time.”
I ask Phelps if he had pondered the philosophical and conceptual value of a dung-packaged release before putting it out, but it turned out it was more of a spur of the moment thing. “There wasn’t much thought put into it, I don’t think. I had this paper, and it was perfectly sized for a floppy disk. I posted on my group that I wanted to do a release in recycled elephant shit and received a lot more interest than I’d expected. So I gave everyone a kilobyte limit and then worked with Kai (Toxic Chicken) and Patrick (RedSK) on the theme a bit.”
Toxic Chicken and RedSK are two of the six artists on the split, along with Phelps himself, recording under the Flat Affect name. Eyerabbitmachine, another artist, was one of Phelps’ local friends.
Another contributor was Alexander Bianco, who put out a few noise releases in 2012 before disappearing. “He’s an interesting one,” Phelps tells me. “This is the second or third release I did with him. We released one floppy disk just released in toilet paper. He was very motivated and inspired and asked to release a castration themed compilation. We made plans and he got some big names involved. Wolf Eyes, David E Williams, I, Parasite, and a ton of other artists. I bought him some fancy equipment and he got right to the end and disappeared. He left about thirty pissed-off artists in the wake. He had all the tracks, what a mess! Haha. I see his profiles show up online sometimes and try to say, “hey!” And he’s never responded. He was a nice guy, I’d like to know where his life went from there.”
Several tracks embrace the elephant theme through a process of free association. “I think we all laid out some tracks near immediately, so there was a stream of consciousness effect. The idea of elephant shit was fresh in our minds. It was a fun exercise that captured the enthusiasm of our budding internet scene. We did this with a few other releases, just a revolving cast of enthusiasts with a growing list of repeat players. We did the Three Way Floppy Fuck which was packaged with magnum condoms with holes poked through them. The Rainbow Compilation with children’s artwork, petrified pancakes, peemixes, the list goes on. If it was absurd enough or interesting enough of an idea there was a group of us ready to record and release, and an audience that ate it up.
“As Flat Affect I maintained that music recorded in any moment told a story, held a value, and was a snapshot of a moment worthy of saving. So while a lot of artists spend a lot of time in production, the tracks I was making were pretty raw, and would go through edits, merge with other tracks and samples. The audio became a living thing and was colored by the topics and enthusiasm of the moment. So in one release you may hear similar sound structures except with a liveliness, sadness, or elaboration that was purely for by the moment or experience.”
When asked about his thoughts today on this goofy floppy disk release, he reflects positively on time. “I’m glad I made it. I always feel a little silly about it, because the shit really was just paper at that point. No smell to it. Still, it was hilarious to say, and a fun project for everyone to have a good laugh on the chat boards and to create.”
The SP Story
In 2004, Shaun Phelps, then studying to become a therapist and working both as an assistant manager at a Hot Topic and for the Department of Children and Families, was engrossing himself in the noise and industrial scene in his local Panama City, Florida. Part of the state’s Panhandle, it was home to a nascent collection of fringe music followers who congregated at house parties and at a coffee shop named The Java where they staged shows, often to an audience of four or five individuals. After the original coffee shop closed, it cycled through many different owners, with different levels of tolerance for the kids who came to shows. Sometimes they would instead stage shows in the park next door, or play at venues down the street.
The scene expanded in the mid-2000s. “We went from very small venues with not many people to over a hundred people showing up to the shows,” Phelps remembers. “Skeleton Key, a Grammy-nominated band, came out and played, and the dynamic was so funny. The band playing before them was Kid Caboose and the Lunchbox Crew and they were just eating Doritos on stage with some silly background Casio keyboards, and everyone was really hyped and involved. And then Skeleton Key got on and the crowd just got tired and slowly wandered off. I felt for them, and I could see it on their faces, that was not what they were expecting after seeing the first show. The time was ripe for that kind of sound.”
Phelps recalls another show, which took place in a park near The Java during a period when the cafe’s ownership wasn’t letting them play. He handed out torn-out and defaced pages from a Bible to attendees, and, while playing, threw pieces of raw chicken dipped in fake blood at the audience. Another band that played, Tenticular Genocide, beat each other up with milk crates while on stage. “We showed up the next morning though, and someone was getting married there, and I can only imagine… there must have been stains and possibly chicken parts everywhere, and there was a marriage. And it was beautiful that this was happening in the park where we were just destroying stuff and messing around.”
Phelps was highly involved in the scene at this point, and would create flyers and help promote shows. He recalls being at one show and chatting with Christopher Jon, a member of the band I, Parasite, who was running the merch table. “Then he excused himself and jumped on stage and did his music,” Phelps explains. They ended up hitting it off, and Jon allowed Phelps to put out a few unreleased I, Parasite tracks himself. Phelps founded SP for the occasion, adopting his own initials for the name, and packaging the release in printer paper. It was limited it to a scant thirty copies.
The initials are an interesting story. At the time, Phelps was working at the Department of Children and Families, which involved laborious paperwork due to the legal repercussions of his assessments. He was required to initial some documents two hundred times in various different places, developing a shortcut where he merged the S and P together — which became the SP logo. Although the letters started out initials, he tells me that their identity expanded over time. “It stands for about fifty billion things,” Phelps says. “When the group was going on full-blast, we would have threads that ran for about half a mile, just coming up with everything possible that SP could stand for. I’m sure Superfluous Poop was listed at least once.”
After the I, Parasite release, SP was, for awhile, mainly a platform for Phelps to put out his own releases, small releases that he mainly distributed to friends. “A lot of those early releases were actually demos. As I made a track, I would make a little three-inch CD, because I thought they were so cool looking, and I would pass them off to people that were interested in hearing them. I was just really pleased with what I could accomplish sonically.”
He had a fascination with the psychological terminology he was learning in school, and focused several of his efforts on the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, initially recording one CDR under the name Alogiac Avolution before shifting to his most frequently-appearing pseudonym, Flat Affect.
“I was studying psychology. At that point, it was my minor for my Bachelor degree, and I hadn’t decided I would do the Masters program yet. It just stood out that your ability to speak could go away, your ability to be motivated can go away. Your interest in hygiene. All of these things that we take for granted could just be removed from you in that age range, the late teens to early twenties. All of a sudden all this hope and all these dreams can be removed, just one little piece at a time.”
Around this time, he discovered Facebook groups where noise and experimental artists and labels were congregating, and started circulating his noise recordings to international labels like Snip-Snip (Music For Muscle Relaxers) and Smell The Stench (Mute Verses). He arrived at an aesthetic that became somewhat popular.
“I would record people telling really upsetting stories from their lives. I would have people calling and leaving me voice mails if they were upset, or to tell me some traumatic event that happened to them. And then I would take those voice mails and put them into the music, and kind of muddy it up and mush it up. It got a really good reaction and it grew a fanbase pretty quick. Not like a stadium-filling fanbase, but enough around the world that I started to gain some notability.”
His first release that employed this process was Mute Verses, a 2008 EP that came out on Smell the Stench. “It had four tracks on it, and it was four different females, and they’re all on the cover of the album,” he explains. All were invited to leave voice mails that could be incorporated in the release. Its artwork features images of the four women, making for a startlingly vulnerable piece.
The second half of the 2000s saw Phelps primarily releasing his own music on SP, but the label would eventually become associated with a hyper-productive period between 2009 and 2014. During that time, Phelps experimented with different formats and unusual packaging, and collaborated with artists from across the globe.
He started to develop SP’s aesthetic in that late 2000s period, dabbling in handmade packaging that often incorporated shocking imagery. A three-way split between Flat Affect, DRK, and Shitcaster was handed out to attendees at a live improv jam in April 2008, and came packaged with cut-out images of pornography. A solo Flat Affect release from September 2008, [Heresy], came packaged in pages from the Bible desecrated with images of pornography.
“If you can believe it, Bibles are easily accessible and people are willing to give them to you for free if you look like I do,” Phelps says. “For years, I collected Gideon Bibles. I took my first one from the hospital when my son was born. As far as I know, I’d collected every single colour of Gideon Bible that ever existed. It was this beautiful spectrum of them, and they became a centrepiece. And people internationally got involved in looking for these Bibles for me. So I would just get Bibles in the mail and I would up with a large amount of them. When my home was destroyed, the Bibles were holding up the ceiling in the kitchen, so that collection died with the house.”
He tells me about his fascination with shocking imagery, which became a hallmark of the SP aesthetic. “The noise scene, it’s a lot of in-your-face imagery and themes. A lot of what I did was horror, pornography, religion, and psychology. I liked offensive themes.” At that time, he also struck up a working relationship with a controversial figure in the noise scene, who used fascist imagery as part of his shtick. Phelps tells me that he does not at all share a fascist viewpoint.
Curious about the incongruence between his label’s shock tactics and his day job as a therapist, I asked Phelps about where his penchant for controversial imagery comes from. “I grew up overseas, a military brat. I came to America, and I’d always wanted to live in America, but when I got there I learned there’s a difference between being an American in America and being an American by existence. When I went in, I did not fit, and the acculturation went poorly. The social rejection, isolation kind of thing. I started moving in that goth / industrial direction.
“Then I happened to be one of those folks with a trench coat and make-up when Columbine happened, and that got me expelled. Death threats. And I had to move out of town. I spent a lot of time angry, and was treated poorly at the hands of religion, ‘good moral values,’ highfalutin’ folk. So I saw the ugly side of what is otherwise touted as the highest morals of the land. So I spent years in this fuck-you mindset. As a therapist, I’m really good at what I do because I can relate. Like, you won’t shock me with what you have to say. It’s not a prerequisite to be a good therapist, but it gave me an angle on life that few get to have.”
His Flat Affect and SP work seems to have acted as a purgative. “It took a long time to come out of the anger,” Phelps tells me. “And it still existed through a lot of this, played a role through a lot of the interactions. I’ve grown a lot since then. Like you pointed out, it’s been a few years since all this started. It’s been a process, and I had a lot of growth to do still.
“All Flat Affect work is people’s pain put to music. It really is in there. It’s just a large attempt to process, I guess. It’s not like everything that’s dark is wrong by any means. The community that was engaged in this, we’re all putting out this scary-looking-on-the-outside packaging. We were close-knit and we still, a lot of us, are. We would do a lot for each other to this day. There’s a camaraderie that comes from being an outsider and I think this kind of shows it.”
At the end of the 2000s, Phelps entered into the most prolific phase of SP history, which he credits to his enthusiastic nature. “If I’m passionate about something, I go all in on that something. I’m a collector, I’m an enthusiast, and I like cool things. It’s almost like a mania that kind of comes in and takes over, and it’s a contagious enthusiasm that other people join in on.”
From 2010 through 2014, he put out droves of music, including releases on a variety of formats. One boon to this productive period was his discovery of a wealth of packaging materials at his old job.
“I was working in a visitation centre at a mental health facility and they were clearing out their stuff from the eighties. There were all these old Rorschach tests and old dictaphone cassettes, and just a ton of office supplies that they no longer needed, as well as neat recording equipment. And so I raided it. I took everything. And then I had this excess. Like what do I need a stack of 50 Rorschach grading papers for?”
Those items were incorporated into several SP releases. His Music for Mental Health compilation incorporates the old Rorschach tests into its packaging. A split between Flat Affect and Consistency Nature uses several Thematic Apperception Test cards — it’s a projective psychological test where a participant looks at an illustration and comes up with a story to describe the image.
He also tells me about his ADHD compilation, which came out on an obscure floppy disk variant that was 720 KB in size, as opposed to the usual 1.4 MB format. Always on the lookout for unusual formats, he tracked down a bunch of these floppies on eBay, only to learn that, in order to copy files to it, he had to acquire a computer with a particular floppy drive in it. And that this computer would had to be running an operating system that was Windows Millennium or earlier. After a plea on Facebook for a computer that fit the bill, he tracked one down, and was able to realize the unique compilation. A group of associations contributed tracks, and 24 copies were made.
At SP’s peak, Phelps delegated components of the label to friends on the scene. Operations for SPnet, the netlabel division of SP, were taken over by Reed Forman, an Alaskan artist who records as Doomettes. Meanwhile, the European division of SP, named SPeu, was taken over by a Dutch artist named Johan Nedepal as a strategy to reduce transatlantic shipping fees. And he collaborated with the floppy-disk-only label, Top of the Flops, to create SPTOtfSP.
But around this time, in the mid-2010s, he also became busier from a personal standpoint. His career responsibilities increased, he was raising his children, and there no longer was time to commit the same level of energy to the label.
When he looks back, there are mixed feelings. “There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. But it’s a little bit muddy because I truly felt guilty and low and at a bad time in my life when this all ended. And there were a lot of hurt feelings. And so I kind of put this behind me in a box, and hid from it. But there’s so much cool stuff to explore.”
He compares his SP time to Forrest Gump running across America, then one day just deciding he’d had enough, and abruptly stopping. “It was something from nothing. It got so big, more than I ever wanted; it went from a hobby to work. It went from I’ve got the resources to do this, to I’m in debt. And enthusiasm alone was not enough to carry it.” Several bridges were burned, including with the person who ran SP’s netlabel, who Phelps suspects was upset by his waning enthusiasm for the label. He tells me he’s learned a lesson about not trying to be “everything to everyone,” reflecting that enthusiasm can be blinding.
During our Skype interview, Phelps moves his laptop to show me a room in which he keeps his enormous collection of CDR and CD releases. The collection was once larger, but boxes of items were lost in Hurricane Michael, which hit Panama City especially hard. Today, his CDs are stacked nearly from floor to ceiling without shelving. He tells me these towers of jewel cases include SP and many non-SP releases, including countless hopelessly obscure one-off releases and demos, especially in the domains of experimental, noise, and industrial music. He figures that he owns the only extant copies of many of these. I joke, sort of, that his collection must comprise a national archive at this point.
I wonder to Phelps about where his passion for physical releases comes from. “I’m a collector,” he reflects. “I love hunting for things, and I love finding cool things. The more unique the better. I think when I make releases like this I want to make something that would be a ‘Wow, what the hell is this?!’ level of interesting.
“And with obscure formats, well… You have to work for them. You have to dig to find the medium. And, honestly as I pull these out of storage and look at them, they all tell stories. So these gifts keep giving. And as you say, it is fun. The creative process going into a release like this built a lot of great dialogues and friendships. We are all a part of something unique and strange.”
Thanks to Shaun Phelps for the interview.