“Then I did one comp where I would leave the cassette out. You’d get the cover, and the plastic case, but there’s nothing else in it. There was no tape.”
Mike Tetrault used to make a point of being provocative. He still considers himself prone to pranks, but he was at his peak when he ran Epitapes, a cassette label that was part of the international tape-trading network. While at its helm, he released three compilation albums that were direct affronts to the controversial noise artist Boyd Rice. They were titled My Dream Date With Boyd Rice, Sex On The First Date With Boyd Rice, and, logically, Pregnant With Boyd Rice’s Baby.
Tetrault tells me via phone that, at one point, he sealed copies of these three compilations into an envelope and sent them to Mr. Rice himself. He never heard back.
This was only one of the curious concepts that emanated from the Epitapes headquarters in Western Massachusetts, where Tetrault grew up and currently lives. Unsurprisingly, this rebellious streak is deep-seated. Tetrault tells me that he became interested in punk music in the seventies, after buying a copy of the The Damned’s debut album from a record store in Amherst, Massachusetts called Sunshine Records. Soon after, he was picking up records by other bands. “Slaughter & the Dogs’ ‘Cranked Up Really High,’ then Johnny Moped… All these obscure bands that were really, really excellent and are now considered classics.
“So you buy one, you like it, so you start looking for more. And once you start looking, it gets easier and easier. So then you buy some punk fanzine, and order some stuff from that. Meanwhile, punk’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s still not popular and not a commercial thing, but there’s more and more punk bands. X-Ray Spex, The Drones… tons of bands. And then I discovered the LA bands — The Skulls, The Bags. And then you find about the Finnish bands. You find out more and more as you get into it.
“There was never a store in my area. I live in Western Mass. Most people had never even heard of punk. I only found one person in that first year who’d even heard of any band. So everybody would think you’re crazy, or listening to noise. It wasn’t fun to be into something, especially when you’re young and you just want to be doing something, and want to be having actual fun, not just playing records. This place wasn’t the place to be. So that’s when I decided I’m going to move to some city somewhere.”
Craving adventure and keen to live in a city with a real music scene, he picked up and moved to L.A., but shortly moved to San Francisco after realizing L.A. was no fun without a car. There, he engrossed himself in punk music while working a series of temporary jobs. “There’s a Sex Pistols line,” Tetrault says. “‘You won’t catch me working nine to five/It’s too much fun being alive.’ And that was my motto. I didn’t want to get a job. But I would get jobs, just to live. And I would always get temporary jobs.” His most consistent gig was as a bicycle messenger, a vocation that attracted several punks in SF.
While in San Francisco, he attended several industrial and experimental shows, including concerts by Throbbing Gristle and SPK. He tells me he still has a recording he made at an SPK show which he believes has never been released anywhere else.
In the eighties he moved back to Belchertown, MA after burning out on the city. “Everything seemed ugly. That’s when hardcore was taking over, and everybody I knew was doing heroin or meth. I didn’t want to be a junkie, but a lot of people continued to do it and were junkies. And it was just sleazy and ugly. Everywhere I looked on the streets, everything was ugly. And I thought, why am I living here if I think everything is ugly?
“Moving to the city was an adventure, but after awhile it lost its appeal, so I just went back to the country. I love nature. I take tons of nature photos. I hike every single day. I just love it, and it’s hard to explain why, I just do.”
The Beginnings of Epitapes
While Epitapes is often listed as being a Belchertown label, Tetrault explains that he had actually moved to a different town in the same area, Sunderland, by the time the first tape came out.
That first tape was titled The Beauty of the Warning and featured a number of artists that Tetrault was in touch with at the time. Some were friends from San Francisco, including numerous former roommates, including Robert Turman (one half of NON), Fortune Dagger, and Arkansaw Man. Others were people he knew via the mail. “I must have just written to these people, and they’re the ones that responded, and I liked whatever they sent.”
Tetrault still has the master copy of this compilation. Over the phone, he takes me through some of the tracks. “Endless Calm is me,” he laughs. “Randy Greif was fantastic, you don’t hear about him too much anymore. John Hudak is a very interesting person. He would do these really simple pieces. [His track] ‘Eighteen Pennies,’ he actually just played with a pile of eighteen pennies… When you listen to it, you can tell. It’s just a pile very slowly being fondled, basically. Just playing gently with these pennies. It’s a very relaxing little song, and everything he does is like that, as far as I know. He’ll hit tree branches together, it’s always these simple little things.”
There is also track from the legendary hometaper Ken Clinger, whom Tetrault later collaborated with via mail. “I sent him a tape of me reading poems, and he surprised me by setting them to music,” Tetrault recalls.
The cover of The Beauty of the Warning features an image of the Virgin Mary that Tetrault took at a cemetery. In fact, Epitapes’ name honours Tetrault’s lifelong passion for epitaphs. “I used to, and I still do, collect epitaphs. I go to old cemeteries all the time. And I took literally thousands of photos of old gravestones, and that’s how the label got its name.
“A lot of my tapes ended up using really good gravestone rubbings or photos,” he explains. The inserts were made via cutting-and-pasting, and were copied at a local copy shop. The tapes themselves were TDK blanks purchased at a local office supplies store.
In an improbable incident, Epitapes’ name almost got Tetrault in trouble. “The label Epitaph, the one that Bad Religion is on, wrote me a letter threatening to sue me, and they said I was trying to cash in on their name,” Tetrault says. “And I said, ‘I’ve been running this label since before you were a label, and the hundreds of people on this label will attest to that.’ So they left me alone. You record punk rock, and I record insects and machines and music boxes, how am I trying to cash in on your reputation? We don’t do anything similar. I was so obscure. I don’t know how they ever heard of me!”
When Beauty of the Warning came out, he intended it as a one-off. Though he coined the name Epitapes, he wasn’t expecting it to grow into a full tape label. From a logistics perspective, that single tape was a lot of work. “I had to make each copy by hand. I would record one tape at a time. There’s ten or twelve people on that tape, so I had to make ten or twelve copies. Each one would take 90 minutes. So it was a time consuming thing.” But what started off simple became an extensive hobby, and Epitapes eventually accumulated a discography of over 70 tapes, the vast majority of them compilations.
The second Epitapes cassete was another comp, Songs Of The Whippoorwills, featuring Randy Grief again, as well as seminal experimental artists like Le Syndicat, Big City Orchestra, and City of Worms. He seasoned the tape with brief interludes of his own home recordings of actual whippoorwills around his area.
Another contributor was the prolific artist Minoy, who has lately been the subject of a large box set. “Minoy used to do primal therapy through music. On this comp, his piece is called ‘Hell’s Bells.’ A lot of his work is just layers and layers of screaming, and some of it, even though he’s screaming the whole time, is absolutely beautiful. Everybody knew he had mental health problems. I actually didn’t know that at the time when he was contributing — later I found out about that, on the internet.”
Some of Tetrault’s most intriguing concepts were his themed compilations, in which he solicited submissions that all had to revolve around a particular idea or sound source. He is proudest of A Crutch Or Reel Or Water-Plant, a tape compilation in which he asked for untreated recordings of machinery. He explains that some of the artists even worked in factories, so they brought true audio exclusives to the table. The track listing reveals many interesting items. A mysterious artist named Diet/Labine contributed “Cement Mixer” and “Sri Lanka Coconut Grater.” Veteran artist Jeph Jerman sent in “Fan Belt.” And one of Tetrault’s own pieces is descriptively titled “Crane Used To Pound In Concrete Pillars.” Despite being a favourite, he acknowledges that A Crutch or Reel sold very few copies.
Another sound-source-specific compilation was Music Boxes, in which he asked artists to send in unaltered recordings of music boxes. That tape featured artists like Randy Greif and No Unauthorized, as well as a remarkable composition by Tetrault himself. “It was a pain in the neck,” he tells me of that track “I hounded everyone I knew for their music boxes and I ended up with like thirty of them. And I wound them all up at once, and recorded them playing. Slowly they died out until only one was playing. I really liked that.”
Then there was All Bare or Dead Forms Under Sunlight Cast Mysterious Shadows on the Snow, whose theme was “surrealism.” Artists were free to interpret that as they pleased, and the interesting results made this another one of his favourite Epitapes releases. Artists on this tape included No Unauthorized, Hybrids, Redemption Incorporated, Victor/im, Machine Made Man, Dead Goldfish Ensemble, Odal, and Adam Bowman.
As might have gleaned from his Boyd Rice themed compilations, subversion was a central feature of Tetrault’s aesthetic. “I was a troll before that word was used. I used to play all kinds of pranks on the tapes… I had a whole series of Genesis P-Orridge comps where I insult him basically, at least in the titles. One of the comps had all these people, big names in this kind of harsh electronic music, and at the end for about five minutes, I went into a really vicious rant insulting everybody, one by one. I would say, ‘Oh and this guy sounds like little kids throwing cans at each other, and they would call this fucking music?’ I would rant about every single piece. I would just have fun. The more I did the tapes, the less inhibited I felt about doing anything.”
Another Genesis P-Orridge comp was titled Genesis P-Orridge’s 20 Bad Disco Greats. “Somebody sent me recordings of bad disco albums,” Tetrault explains. “One was Star Wars music done disco-style. And then there was another bad disco one. So I filled the tape with both of those from start to finish. then I recorded the noise over that, leaving a minute’s gap (between tracks). So you had the bad disco in between every song. People liked that one.”
Eventually, his pranks lurched towards the realm of concept art. “I started to package the tapes in ways that were frustrating to people,” he says. “Sealing them in plastic where there was no way to open it — I would wrap and wrap it and wrap it in plastic, and keep melting the plastic. There would end up being no seams, so you couldn’t really open the cassette. I remember doing one where I stuffed the package and tape with razor blades. Now that I think of it, I could’ve gotten in trouble I suppose!
“Then I did one comp where I would leave the cassette out. You’d get the cover, and the plastic case, but there’s nothing else in it. There was no tape. So I would just play these games… I used to like provoking people. I still do, actually.”
For his harsh noise tapes, he might use a mellow piano track by Ken Clinger as a cheerful intro, then drop unpredictably into a cavalcade of abrasion. On one occasion, he targeted a contributing artist who was very particular about their music. “As I dubbed it, I made it sound like the tape was slowing down and being eaten and all this stuff. And I released it that way and that person got a little perturbed, even though I did it on purpose. Later on, when I told him it was on purpose, then he liked it, but at the time he didn’t like it.”
Epitapes’ Final Stages
The vast majority of Epitapes releases were compilations, but Tetrault did put out a few non-comp tapes. These include several cassettes of his field recordings, including audio of insects at nighttime (Night Insects) and daytime (Day Insects), as well Rainbow Gathering, where he took several recordings at a rainbow gathering — “a gathering of hardcore hippies, the kind that live in the woods or just constantly travel.”
Tetrault’s last releases were around 1992, at which point he eventually lost steam when it came to producing new compilations. But when he closed up shop, he had several that were in various stages of completion. “One was rock music, but it was music using only rocks, pebbles, or sand. Nothing else. Another was ambient versions of Sex Pistols songs.”
Another aborted comp was a collection of cover versions of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” — he found the submissions disappointing, but points out that this is likely a result of his own idiosyncratic expectations instead of the shortcomings of contributors.
Yet another was a planned compilation of “pagan music,” which didn’t attract enough interest in contributors. “Some people from Norway sent some absolutely beautiful songs, but nobody else was contributing.” He laments that those recordings never saw the light of day on an Epitapes release. One wonders if those recordings survive today.
After Tetrault wound Epitapes down, he continued to make his tapes available for distribution, even creating a catalog that listed all the available releases and their respective themes. Yet most compilations didn’t sell in quantity. In some cases, no copies were sold at all, and the only ones that were produced were the artist copies! This lack of interest was one of the reasons he wrapped Epitapes up. He also recalls being frustrated with the politics of whose music would get put on a comp. Rather than deal with complaint letters and snail-mail arguments, he decided it was easier to stop putting new tapes out.
The Digital Age
Tetrault and I talk about the fact that digital rips of some of his comps have turned up on blogs and on YouTube, and how some (partial) information exists on Discogs. He is okay with these comps finding their way online, since it means more people can hear them. But he’s surprised how many survived. “I sold almost no copies of most of these tapes,” he marvels. “I don’t know how the copies are all spread around so much these days! It’s all a mystery.”
Tetrault still has single copies of the masters of most of the comps. He sent a few of them to someone who said they would burn them to CD for him, but he is still waiting for that. While a few people have offered to digitize his tapes, he is scared of sending out the remainder of his originals, lest they get lost or damaged in the mail. It’s a reasonable fear — obscure bits of experimental music history such as these are often one copy away from extinction.
Tetrault’s own collection of other labels’ and artists’ comps has thinned over time, reflecting how esoteric music can become an endangered species. Tetrault explains that, over the years, he would downsize his collection by disseminating his tapes in unlikely locations. “I’d either leave them in a phone booth, or I would leave them on a table somewhere at the laundromat for some unsuspecting person to pick up and play. They’re the ones who would throw them away, not me.”
Remarkably, in the decades since Epitapes’ inception, not one of Tetrault’s master tapes has broken. We chat for a while about what he can do with these tapes, which aren’t getting any younger. He wants to work out how to transfer them to his computer, but isn’t sure about the logistics. If he can figure out the process, he’d be open to posting them online, because, as we both agree, they are important historical documents. I, for one, can’t imagine a world where his compilation of machinery sounds, A Crutch Or Reel Or Water-Plant, is lost forever.
“I shot and cropped every photo, typed every record entry, laid out every page, drove the masters to the printer, stuffed every envelope, licked every stamp, and shipped every order. If it hadn’t have been a labor of love it would have never been done.”
Exotica/Et Cetera was more than just a zine devoted to exotica music; it was a painstakingly researched celebration of bizarre records, run by a record collector and dealer named Preston Peek. What started as a mailing list to advertise used records to aspiring customers evolved into a full production that explored unusual music via interviews and articles.
I first encountered Exotica/Et Cetera (a.k.a. e/e) a couple decades ago, when the magazine was distributed by Tower Records. But I lost those copies years ago, only to be reminded of them recently while browsing a used bookstore, where several issues were nestled among old copies of Rolling Stone and Record Collector.
Preston Peek was not an easy man to track down online; after getting “undeliverable” auto-replies from several defunct email addresses — how many email accounts can one man burn through? — I eventually found his personal Facebook account, where my messages were finally returned.
Fortunately for me, Peek was happy to discuss the history of his seminal weird-music “zinealog” (half zine, half catalog), which was cherished for years by enthusiasts of oddball music. He explained that a major attraction for collectors were the pages of used record listings, which came annotated with tantalizing tidbits to entice potential purchasers. Collectors would vie for first dibs on new issues so they could get their orders in before others.
“Competition for the LPs was fierce,” he explains. “Several subscribers paid a premium for FedEx overnight delivery, and they would drop tidy sums before the bulk of the others got their copies. I had to alert them the issue was coming so they could watch out for it. One time I got a call from a disgruntled customer who got his late. The driver had apparently left his copy at the garage door instead of leaving it on the front porch. After I had to tell him that his first three requests had already been sold (to another FedEx fanatic) he said ‘Ah, screw it’ and hung up. That was a blow, because he was a top client. But he wound up calling back later and dropping a four figure order, so the story had a happy ending.
“My phone rang non-stop for a couple of days after a new issue landed. Fax machines were still essential back then, and I had faxes piled on the floor when I woke up in the morning, hearing from all the European and Asian collectors. Of course, there were an awful lot of disappointed folks when the pickings got low, but mostly they were good sports about it. If I remember correctly I shipped the overseas copies a few days early to give them a fair shot.”
But the zine was much more than a catalog; over its sixteen issues, it produced a number of fascinating articles, shedding light on obscure and neglected corners of odd music history. Via email, Peek guided me through the history of e/e, from its early days as a distribution list to its later heights as a source of high-quality historical information about neglected areas of music history.
“My maternal grandfather went to Printer’s College in the 1920s, and he and my grandmother published the Pike County Journal in Georgia, USA, in the basement of their rural home, from the late 1930s to the mid 1950s,” he explains, by way of background. “They were a two person shop, doing the writing, editing, layout, photography, printing, delivery, ad sales—you name it. So it’s fitting that I found an outlet for the printer’s blood in my veins by following their lead many decades later, but using a computer software program rather than a manual linotype. They put out an issue every week, no excuses, no holidays. I managed one a quarter. I honestly don’t know how they did it.”
Peek’s obsession with music started early. “I’ve been a record hound since 1965 when I bought my first album: The Beach Boys: Today! Next came Both Sides of Herman’s Hermits, followed by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Who could have been prepared for that? I continued buying…and buying…and buying.”
In 1984, he found a copy of Seymour Gibbons Plays With Himself in “the sweltering second floor of a sleepy record store in Culpeper, Va.” That record was a strange piano disc on a one-off label. According to the liner notes, Gibbs had previously performed as a two-piano act with his brother, Saul, but Saul had gone missing while on tour with the U.S.O. in the Congo. Thanks to the magic of multi-tracking technology, Gibbons was able to simulate the sound of two pianists playing at once — recreating the experience of his brotherly performances. And yet despite the supposed backstory, the track titles themselves are puerile double-entendres centered around the LP title’s gag: “Lovely Way To Spend An Evening,” “Only Make Believe,” “Once In Awhile.”
“Little did I know that record would form the cornerstone of a love of weird vinyl that would become a passion and a business in 1996,” Peek explains. “Seymour, the one-handed fapper and sometime pianist, gave me a whole new focus, much broader in scope than one particular artist. In the early nineties he pointed me to the dusty boxes on the floor nobody else wanted; I dove in and didn’t come up for years. Thanks to him I still have a garage full of wax nobody else wants. I don’t have the greatest memory but I can still pull a record at random and often remember exactly where I bought it.
“In 1993 I was moved back from Canada to the States by the company I had been working for. They told me (not too thrilled) that it was the ‘heaviest’ move in the company’s 100-year history. Books and records. At that point, mostly records.
“So I decided to transition from collecting to selling. After five years of learning the ropes, getting burned, and realizing that setting up at record shows is its own brand of hell, I decided to try mail order. At the same time my interest in weird and strange vinyl was coming on strong.”
Issues 1-6: The Corner-Stapled Lists
“In the mid to late 90s most real record sellers still used Goldmine magazine, or put out lists on their own,” Peek tells. “I was no exception. I had started getting interested in exotica and the general weirdness of the fifties and sixties album world in the late eighties. I’ve always been attracted to the unusual. I was getting bored looking for yet another jazz/blues/rock LP (although I loved them as well). I began picking up oddities wherever I went, astonished by their variety, and one day realized I had a pretty decent pile. So I decided to do a list. Tag line: ‘Birdcalls, gongs, moogs, sexy women, dashing men, flying saucers, schmaltz, laughs, brass, sound effects, belly dancers and platters extraordinaire.’
“I put an ad in Goldmine that basically said ‘If you like Exotica Weird Strange Cheesecake etc. LPs, send me your address and I’ll send you a list.’ I probably got a couple of hundred responses that that little ad, which I ran biweekly for several months. The people who received it said they loved the selection, loved the comments, and loved the photos. (I took the pictures with this old Mac golfball-sized b&w camera.) They also bought the records. It seemed to me that this was a market that had not been tapped, at least in this way (even though the Incredibly Strange Music books had been out since ’93 and ’94). No one else was doing it. So every list was a hit, and sold as much as 70%, which is unheard of.
“The pictures were key. Many of these records might have been listed in Goldmine, but unless you were familiar with a certain title you had no idea what it looked like. So much of the weird/strange/lounge/bizarre genre relied on seeing the covers that it would have been impossible to make this venture succeed without them. I guess I knew that much.”
Peek shared some scans of a few pages of those early Exotica/Et Cetera lists, including page one of issue one:
These early issues are a fascinating archive of schmaltzy music. The very first listing in that very first issue starts things off on an inauspicious note:
“101 Strings – Sugar and Spice – MINT- – Somerset SF-6900 (st) – $8 Uninspired easy listening LP featuring vixen Julie Newmar on the cover!”
from Exotica / Et Cetera issue one
Future issues, each of which seemed to come printed on a different color of paper, listed all manner of rarities. There was Korla Pandit’s At the Pipe Organ LP, one of the pricier selections; Pandit was a light-skinned African-American man who dressed up in a turban and claimed to be a French-Indian organist, releasing a pile of easy listening records from 1950 into the seventies. Former silent film actress Leona Anderson’s lone album, Music to Suffer By, was also up for sale. Notorious as “the world’s most horrible singer” when the LP was released in 1958, she was a regular novelty act on Ernie Kovacs’ show, where she charmed audiences with her deliberately shrill and tone-deaf performances.
“They ranged from six to twenty pages,” Peek says of these early issues. “I suppose it was good for the time. Laid it out in Word. Got it printed cheap. Stapled it, and away it went. Set the stage, as it were, for the bound issues.
“I don’t remember the moment I realized I wanted to publish an actual magazine (or zinealog, as I called it), but at some point I knew the corner-stapled format had run its course. The blurry photos were popular but not the best. I was already crossing over in Issue 4, with two ‘ads’ and a Hot Pick style of listing. I also could almost never list a record without a line of (usually smartass) commentary. So why not take it to the next level?
“Looking back, I also relished the opportunity to flex my writing skills. I had burned out on corporate PR (how many press releases/speeches can you write?), I was tired of corporate freelancing, and this presented a chance to write about things I cared about. Compared to the white collar world the money was…well, let’s just say it wasn’t. But this was fun. So I gave it a shot.
“I wrote every word in every issue except where by-lined by someone else. Somewhere in the 95+% range. I shot and cropped every photo, typed every record entry, laid out every page, drove the masters to the printer, stuffed every envelope, licked every stamp, and shipped every order. If it hadn’t have been a labor of love it would have never been done.”
Starting with Issue 7, e/e evolved into a true magazine, adding full-length features and capsule articles to the mix. Peek used the computer program Pagemaker to create the layout for this edition. It marks a bit of a transition period for e/e. There are reviews of contemporary releases as well as a page called “Bizarre Vinyl,” which showcases two peculiar records from Peek’s collection. One is the pivotal Seymour Gibbons Plays With Himself LP, and the other is the tasteless Colorful Stylings by The Crusaders of Illinois and The Singing Midget. There is also “The Cheese Gallery,” which features album art depicting female models.
Many of the reviews in Issue 7 were written about releases on the German label Q.D.K. Media, which is run by a renowned record collector named Thomas Hartlage. Q.D.K. releases covered in this issue include CD and vinyl releases of the soundtracks to several Russ Meyer films, along with Electronic Toys, a compilation of seventies synth music.
Peek tells me that Hartlage started off as an e/e subscriber. “We conversed quite a bit, and I would order wholesale, although he was very generous with promos,” Peek says. “The quality of his products, especially the vinyl, was beyond perfection. I thought the concepts behind some of his releases, like Pepperisms, the Love, Peace & Poetry series, and Doob Doob O’Rama, were brilliant.”
Peek notes that this issue also introduced a new tag line, “Celebrating the Vinyl LP as Art, Amusement and Artifact,” that served as a mission statement for e/e; it also was the first issue to zero in on cheesecake records as a graphic focus.
Peek points out that e/e‘s eighth issue is four pages shorter than Issue 7, yet considerably more substantial. That’s because of a shorter LP list, which left room for more articles.
This issue introduces a regular column, “The Esquivel Page,” which was written by Brother Cleve, a member of Combustible Edison. Cleve had visited the Mexico City home of exotica pioneer Esquivel numerous times, and this article discusses new music that Esquivel was arranging for a new album, including arrangements of “Wedding March,” “As Time Goes By,” and “Singing in the Rain,” along with a new original composition called “Guacamole.” That album was going to be produced by Brother Cleve, but — as far as I can tell — never came out.
“Brother Cleve was an early subscriber and composer of the soundtrack to the film Four Rooms,” Peek says. “He was also a close friend of Esquivel, so I asked him to write a column for each issue about the master. He kindly agreed — for Issues 8 – 14, when he said he ran out of things to say. At one point he offered to arrange a visit for me with Esquivel in Mexico (he was 80 or so and in poor health), but I couldn’t get it together. One of my real regrets.”
Peek conducts a thorough investigation of LP covers featuring Jayne Mansfield (“Un-COVER-ing Jayne Mansfield”), with pictures and summaries of each — including two separate releases that use the exact same cover photo. “I wrote the Mansfield article on a plane headed to LA for a week of vinyl scrounging,” Peek tells me.
Another highlight is an interview with Jim Silke, who was Capitol Records’ art director in he fifties and early sixties. That interview was conducted at Silke’s home outside of Los Angeles. They discuss the pragmatics and sociology behind cheesecake covers.
A personal favourite is Peek’s article, “Vinyl Karma,” which is a description of his experiences collecting unusual records.
“If records appear mysteriously when you least expect them; if you find some strange unknown LP and two people from different continents mention it that very week; if you search for years for a record and then five five copies within a month… it’s karma. Vinyl karma.”
Careful to distinguish himself from a crystal healing mystic, he describes his pooling theory, wherein experiences happen due to the sheer experience of bringing an item into consciousness. He cites the Seymour Gibbons Plays With Himself record. Prior to writing about it in Issue 7, he claims not to have found a record for a decade; yet shortly after Issue 7 came out, he came across a near-mint copy at the very start of a buying trip. That’s Vinyl Karma!
Issue 9 sees an interesting deviation from the exotica-centric perspective, boasting an interview with Jello Biafra — who, to be fair, was a keen collector of exotica and oddball records. “[He] was a subscriber,” Peek explains. “He loved this stuff. He had just released Wesley Willis: Greatest Hits on his Alternative Tentacles label, which I reviewed in Issue 7. Jello preferred calling to faxing, so we’d spend an hour or two on the phone, he asking about a record, me dutifully cueing it up and letting him hear it through the earpiece.”
In that article, Biafra describes some of the more bizarre records in his collection. There’s Rosa Linda’s Will Success Spoil Rock-Maninoff? LP, which consists of “rock and roll versions of classical tunes done way back in the late 50s.” Then there’s The Spiffys, a group of US Naval Academy members doing garage rock covers plus some originals. Biafra mistakenly assumes The Spiffys continued making records year after year, though it turns out there were only two volumes.
Biafra also describes his enthusiasm for private-press lounge music, citing Bob Springfield’s The Best Of Bob Springfield At Striker’s. “It’s just one guy with an acoustic guitar covering Eagles songs and contemporary hits, but he’s so aggro about it, trying to get the audience into his act … if he doesn’t get a response from his audience, he yells at them until he does.”
Biafra discusses a number of odd records, some of which still don’t seem to have filtered online. A live album by a lounge singer named Don Snyder, recorded at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco, is one that doesn’t turn up any Google search results. “He just can’t contain his bitterness about how much he hates rock and roll. His jokes are a little too hateful for the audience to even laugh at.” Then there’s an unlisted-on-Discogs gospel record called “Heaven is Our Goal” by the Gospel Tones:
“…the cover looks as hopeless as you might guess, but there are two marimba players in the band; it’s mainly several generations of one family from a teeny tiny farm town in Colorado. But the two marimbas give the music a ‘Martin Denny for Jesus’ feel, and the second song, ‘Suppertime,’ is such a depressing vocal tone that I seriously wonder whether they had just drunk purple Kool-Aid and were about to pass out.”
Other highlights of this issue include a spotlight on a Florence Foster Jenkins record and an examination of the Moog synthesizer as cultural phenomenon by David Schafer. There is also a wonderful article about the High In-Fidelity series from the early 60s, a collection of gag record covers with no records inside them, often featuring absurd or racy content (“Communist Party Songs,” “Music For Casual Affairs,” “Songs for Swinging Mothers”). This is also the first issue to feature Tony Maygarden’s Soundtrack Page, which in this edition covers the life and work of Bernard Hermann (Psycho, Vertigo, Taxi Driver).
Things were rolling by the tenth issue, which features a thrilling chronicle of Peek’s trip to Mexico City in which he travels to the heart of the city in search of rare used vinyl. The story includes a scary moment where Peek was mugged in full daylight, just one block from the US Embassy. Yet he still emerged with eight boxes of quality vinyl.
“I had a friend who worked at the US Embassy there,” Peek tells me. “I would never go if I didn’t have a secure place to stay and a friend to show me around. Although I talked with one subscriber who high-tailed it down there after reading my article and ventured deep into the urban flea markets, with considerable success. Even locals had warned me away from them as being too dangerous. So either he was lucky or I was a wimp.”
Then there is a colourful interview with a retired Episcopalian priest, Rev. Warren Debenham, who discovered e/e and called Peek to discuss his true love: comedy albums. “As frequently happened, the Rev came across the magazine God knows where (and I guess God DOES know where) and subscribed,” Peek tells me. “He bought the sixties comedy records with the nude covers. We had quite a few talks over the phone, and I found him so interesting I asked him if I could do an interview. One of the fringe benefits of the mag was getting to meet a lot of interesting people. They would call to order a few LPs and we would wind up spending an hour talking about records and life in general. I enjoy a good conversation so it happened quite a lot. And I was also receptive to a good story.”
He also points out a particularly memorable anecdote from that interview:
e/e: What does your wife think about those nude and sexy adult comedy covers you have in your collection? A friend recently saw my collection and said “Boy, you must have a tolerant wife.” Has it ever come up with you?
WD: (laughs) Well, my wife is great on that. She knows that I enjoy well-developed ladies and as we’re going down the street she’ll point them out to me.
e/e: You’re kidding!!
WD: Nope, you can’t ask more of a wife than that. She’s quite relaxed about it.
Also included in this issue is a review of a 1997 re-release of a 1959 RKO 10” record by Edie Adams, The Charming Miss Edie Adams. “Her son contacted me and asked if I would like to review it, which I did,” Peek tells me. “She sent word through her son that she loved the review. That was so nice.”
In Issue 11, Peek included an article titled “True Confessions of a Female Vinyl Junkie,” which Peek tells me was fully the idea (and work) of its author, a fellow crate-digger named Jessica Cameron. In it, she calls out the sexist assumptions she’d encountered at flea markets and record fairs, where fellow collectors had trouble accepting that she was a serious wax enthusiast. Along the way, she provides memorable anecdotes of cherished finds and withering character studies of the more socially inept record dealers she met.
I lose sleep over cheesecake album covers. I have this conflict: can I be a feminist and still own a copy of Sea of Dreams?
from e/e, Issue 11
There’s also an article about vampire movie soundtracks entitled “Soundtracks That Suck,” and a remarkable interview by David S. Miller with Dr. Paul Tanner, who played theremin on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” In that interview, Dr. Tanner discusses his creation of a hybrid theremin that allowed greater control of the pitch, leading to Tanner being hired for many recordings, including at least two albums. Like many guest articles, it came about because the writer was a fan of the magazine.
“I was chatting with David Miller one day and he mentioned the interview,” Peek says. “I told him I would love to publish it. He agreed. So I was lucky that Miller found the magazine and subscribed and found something to order and called and was pleasant enough to chat.” This was also the first issue with an ad in it, courtesy of a London, UK record store named Intoxica.
“What’s one of greatest perks of publishing your own zine?” Peek asks. “Being able to print a picture of your newborn daughter on the inside cover. Another is penning a tribute to your father, and the record collection you grew up with. He died on December 25, 1993, and this was the best eulogy I could deliver, even though it was a few years late.”
This issue also features an interview with another e/e subscriber named Pea Hicks, a musician (and collector of old Optigan records) who discusses a CD he created called Lucas and Friends, which took disembodied home recordings found in thrift stores and set them to whimsical music.
Then there is Peek’s seminal article, “The HeArt of the Cheesecake Cover,” which had been published in Goldmine magazine in 1996, discussing the rise in the fifties of LPs featuring scantily-clad women. “It’s an important subgenre during the fairly repressed times in which it flourished,” Peek argues. There is also a story about the first ever cheesecake cover, 1947’s easy-listening LP, Music Out of the Moon: Music Unusual Featuring the Theremin – Themes by Harry Revel, which pictured a model named Virginia Clark laid out on the simulated surface of the Moon. A follow-up record, Music For Piece of Mind, takes the same model but has her lying nude in a simulated cloud. Apparently, the material used to mimic the cloud was made of spun glass, leading to Clark’s skin getting pierced by glass particles — and apparently a lawsuit!
“I tried to save some money by limiting the press run of Issue 12,” Peek says. “And as a consequence I found myself without a copy. Several years later my mother died and I found the one I had given her, thereby completing my set.”
“OK, let’s just get it out of the way,” Peek starts. “I printed an interview with famed Hollywood bongo player Jack Costanzo, and… I spelled his name wrong. On the cover. And I knew better. He was gracious about it but I have still not lived it down. One of his nieces called to order extra issues, and pointed it out to me. The value of an editor can be priceless. When you have one. The interview was rock solid, however.”
Peek also tells me about yet another article that came to fruition thanks to a subscriber. In this case, the subscriber was Steve Young, who also happened to be a comedy writer for The David Letterman Show. “He collected corporate musicals – those extravagant and costly shows written for sales conferences in the 60s and 70s, with full story lines and original music/lyrics,” Peek tells me, pointing me towards Young’s 2013 tome, Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. “How’s that for a niche? We spoke from time to time, and one day he called to ask if I would like to come to Manhattan and take a look at ‘Dave’s Record Collection,’ which was for sale. This was one of the brightest gems that ever fell into my record selling lap. Long story short I went, I saw, and I bought.”
For those who don’t remember, Letterman used to have a bit on his show where he would showcase a bizarre record and make a few jokes about it, ending by tossing the record off-camera like a frisbee. These records, which included ill-advised musical turns by celebrities and amateur private-press releases, were sourced from thrift stores by Young and other employees.
Peek remembers combing through the Letterman collection as someone came to Young’s office door, asking him to write Letterman’s Top Ten list for that night. “I still have one LP with the post-it note jokes on the back that Dave would read before frisbeeing the record across the studio,” Peek says. “Steve begged him to stop doing that.”
In this issue, the massive Letterman lot is organized by theme, all available for sale via Peek. Some copies even came with the original post-it notes featuring recommended jokes!
Issue 14 has one of my favourite articles from e/e archives, an article by Ed Veenstra, a Dutch collector of unusual and anti-records. (As a side note, I’m hoping to arrange an interview with him for Anomaly Index to discuss his collection.) In the piece, Veenstra profiles a number of bizarre anti- and art-records from his collection, including:
Various Artists – The First Strike (Turnabout Tapes, 198?) A compilation of experimental music that came encased inside a (fake) turd.
Lyssa Humana – Hör Zu 7″ (private, 199?) A rusty iron anti-record that comes with a rusty iron stylus. (See an Anomaly Index article about this record here.)
Alex Sanders – A Witch Is Born (A&M, 1970) “The initiation of a witch by warlock Sanders, complete with whips, candles and chants. Withdrawn soon after release. Gatefold sleeve with lots of nudity.”
“[He was] yet another subscriber turned contributor,” Peek explains. “His passion was the truly esoteric: a chocolate and ice record, a cassette encased in an ersatz turd, broken records. I found his collection intensely interesting. We were a far cry from exotica, but it was certainly bizarre.”
Peek also included another narrative article about a home visit he did to collect some records — to a trailer in rural North Carolina. It reads like a horror story. First he describes being led into the trailer by a 6’6″ giant with swastika tattoos. Then, as Peek is pawing through a crate of vinyl, the Goliath’s much younger girlfriend seems to be smiling at him. Frightened that this may be misconstrued, Peek hurriedly buys some records and leaves.
Peek summarizes the state of his mail order operation at the time, which was broadening in scope: “850 LPs for sale. Definitely shifting away from exclusively exotica et cetera stuff. I think at this time I needed to reap more profits; the magazine was becoming a luxury I could not afford. So there is rock, jazz, and even alternative in this lot. Sales were good.”
Issue fifteen is a sad one — several articles were written when Peek’s computer crashed, taking all of the content with it. As a result, this issue is almost entirely a for-sale list of LPs. The one article, however, is an interview with Bob Thompson, whom Peek considers “the master arranger of the exotica/lounge era.”
“I had a full page ad from Goldmine. That counted for something,” Peek concludes.
Issue 16 is what Peek considers his “crowning achievement,” with a full-color glossy cover that featured a never-before-seen picture of the pin-up model Bettie Page, a fixture on cheesecake album covers. “Maybe I was saving myself for this final issue when I went so short on copy for the previous one,” Peek reflects. “I am myself surprised at its scope. And its length—an unprecedented 48 pages. I remember I pulled my first all-nighter in years to get it print ready.”
A highlight of the issue is an interview with Peter Dunn, who was the owner of a wonderful record store in Toronto, Peter Dunn’s Vinyl Museum. Peek had befriended him on his frequent trips to the record emporium. “CDs had finally brought him to his knees, so he was forced to close down,” Peek says. “He called me a few weeks before, however, and invited me up from North Carolina to go through the untouched stock in his basement. It took me three 12-hour days. One of the most fun digs I’ve even been on. While I was there a film company rented out the store to shoot a scene for a made-for-TV movie about Alan Freed, with Judd Nelson as the title character. So I would dig around in the basement, then come up and chat with Judd or watch them if they were filming. It was a hard life. Needless to say I interviewed Peter for this issue.”
“The magazine was doing well, and LP sales were excellent, so why did I cease publication with this issue? A couple of reasons: it was a tremendous amount of work (don’t forget I was also traveling to buy records, selling to other venues, and, after Issue 12, taking care of a toddler); and I never came close to recouping my costs on the magazine portion in ad revenues and subscriptions. In a way, the earlier lists were a much smarter way to go from a business perspective. Also, the idea of internet sales was really taking off, and I saw that I could devote more time to my web site without the additional cost overlay. For whatever reason, it was time to move on.”
At the time, though, he was undecided. “Hence the back cover ad. Thanks to my neighbors for posing with another cheesy record motif”:
Life After Exotica/Et Cetera
“Many people say they collect records, but there is a distinction between amassing and collecting,” Peek reflects. “Most serious-minded record hounds I have spoken to narrow it down to at least one very specific, and cherished, subgroup. One collected Japanese white-label promos. One liked samplers. Another treasured corporate musicals. Yet another sought out obscure northern soul. In all cases they reduced their general love of vinyl to a manageable subgenre that crystallized the real joy of collecting.
“In time, I realized that record collecting/accumulating can bring down the roof, both financially and literally. But it was hard to stop buying. They were everywhere. Record shows were a glorious discovery; you mean these nice folks brought all of this vinyl here just for me? As those years passed I added substantially to my archives, partly because I had the means, partly because I knew no one and was lonely, partly because I was single and had nothing else to spend money on, and partly because I travelled quite a bit and was able to hit tons of record stores across North America. When I moved to Toronto it was a whole new market. The records poured in. On one memorable weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the sad closing of one of Peter Dunn’s record stores — massive racks of LPs for minimal outlay. A trunkload found their way into my stacks. On most weekends I hit at least one store, if not a show. Things were getting seriously out of control.
“Amidst this insanity I was somehow able to fall in love with, and marry, a young lady with whom I worked. She accepted my passion, but love is blind. We decided to relocate to the States, largely because the company that had moved me there had to move me back within a certain period of time, or I would have to foot the bill.”
Peek’s record selling operation was hampered by his love of the records themselves. “I would fly to LA, return with 500 LPs carefully boxed and stowed (I still have nightmares about sitting in a hotel room surrounded with piles of discs and wondering how I was going to get them all packed and checked onto the airline), return home, and then have Christmas all by myself as I unpacked. The problem was that for every two I filed in the For Sale side of the music room, at least three made their way onto the Personal stuff shelves. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that things could not continue that way for long. Not only was space becoming a serious concern; I wasn’t making any money. Was this a business or an excuse to play?
“I don’t remember the specific LP I first held and thought, through my pain, ‘I can sell this one in a 30-second phone call. I can let this one go.’ But it must have started like that. Money had a lot to do with it. An early rationalization was ‘You know, as much stuff as I see, there is no doubt I will find another copy of this one day.’ Another was ‘This will pay for my daughter’s birthday party.’ And to be honest, I was also thinking ‘I will be such a hero to have scored this.’ Collecting and ego are inseparable, after all. So I must have picked up the phone, or made a listing for the next issue, and it was done. The businessman stared into the eyes of the collector, and the collector blinked. And thereafter the slippery slope opened wide before me.
“Almost immediately, however, a curious thing happened. The thrill I always felt when I found a real gem was actually heightened with the knowledge that I would be selling it for a nice profit. So in a way it was the best of both worlds. But as far as collecting goes, I learned an obvious, but still painful, lesson. You can’t collect everything. One by one, artist by artist, genre by genre, I slid my prizes from one side of the room to the other, then into a mailer, and finally out the door to points near and far. I had customers from Russia to Japan, from Miami to Australia, from Korea to Iceland. I had the satisfaction of knowing that each disc found its way to a good home, to be honored and displayed and spun well into the future. After a surprisingly short while I found I could part with almost anything.’
Curiously, it was Ed Veenstra, the collector of anti-records featured in Issue 14, that led to a shift in Peek’s approach to collecting. “He introduced me to a tiny but vibrant universe of artists who fused the sounds on the platter, the platter itself, and the medium it came in.”
Veenstra even sent Peek a curious gift. “It was a Christmas present 45, encased in wax paper with real chocolate and confectioners sugar dribbled over it. I still have it; the chocolate has survived two decades of storage. In keeping with the theme of Christmas the recording is of the electrical impulses of a sprig of mistletoe. It is the most artistically coherent object I own.
“At about the same time I heard from Charles Powne, who owns Soleilmoon, a three-decades-old mail order business in Portland that deals in ‘dark industrial ambient’ music. He loved my magazine and sent me a massive box of promotional items, vinyl and CD, for which I will never be able to repay him. His stock ranges far beyond ambient. The purely electronic recordings, the ones with electronic squigglings without tempo or melody, were especially appealing to me. I was able to forge ‘an emotional bond with this music,’ a phrase Charles used one day when I described my experience listening to it. In addition, the casings were pieces of art in themselves. Some even included postcards and other ephemera. It was as if the music was only one part of a panoply of art which the artist needed to express. I was hooked.
“So with these twin influences I started collecting what I termed ‘anti vinyl,’ but which could also be called simply ‘art vinyl’ (to include CDs and another media as well). Sometimes the appeal was in the sounds alone (the Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers 3-inch mini-CD). Sometimes the piece itself was the art (the Tumor Circus 45 picture disc with a 1-inch hole drilled into every copy, making it unplayable). And sometimes it was a combination of the two (1960s Polish plastic postcards with a record on one side — which I got, weirdly enough, in Cambridge ON). It’s all great stuff. It’s in short supply. And because of that, it’s a perfect thing to collect. And because I collect it, I have no inclination to sell it.
“It’s really not that farfetched that I wound up here. Album cover art (and liner notes) was always a huge part of a records attraction. Especially in the days of psychedelia it was sometimes hard to tell where the music stopped and the cover started. More recently, ‘incredibly strange’ wax had a huge cover art component, aside from its obvious sonic attractions. So it was logical that I find a home in this genre.
“One of my favorite films that no one has seen is The Legend of 1900. Without giving anything away, Tim Roth’s character finds meaning in the boundaries of the universe into which he is born. An infinite keyboard is paralyzing; 88 keys holds infinity. Freedom of movement is an illusion within a vast expanse, but it is reality between a bow and a stern. It is what prevents a collector from becoming a hoarder. Collecting, in order to be satisfying, should have those same boundaries. By definition, the term ‘record collecting’ is meaningless, as absurd as collecting leaves.
So to get down to it (finally) — If I got rid of every record I own but held onto my most prized examples of art vinyl, would I no longer be a record collector? On the most generic level, the answer is no. But having refined my stock, I could say, ‘I am a collector of art vinyl,’ which is a more definitive statement. I’m just not sure I can still say ‘I love records.’ But then you don’t have to collect everything you love.”
“We were asking listeners to destroy the cassette afterward, making that playback more ephemeral.”
From one highly obscure corner of the sound art world, I bring you a cassette that uses the sound of breaking tapes as its source.
In 1998, Ven Voisey and Andrew Campbell were studying together at San Francisco State University’s Conceptual Information Arts Program, which the school charmingly refers to as the CIA Program. Both Voisey and Campbell were experimental composers and artists. “We were both in very exploratory points of developing artwork/sound/music,” Voisey tells me via email.
Around this time, Voisey ran a record label called Throat in partnership with several creative friends. “Throat came together as a means for myself and a few friends to release sound projects and collaborate on compilations, and to occasionally perform in different ensembles.”
He explains that Throat had three “eras.” The first one was the t-series, which started with a compilation called errorCycle, allocated catalog number t0000. Another release from that era was 8L, a collection of “ambient recordings taken from living spaces as source material, then modified by the inhabitant,” by Voisey recording under the mysterious handle iot.
Throat’s second era saw the creation of a net-label named throat hz, while its third and final incarnation involved the production of a handful of 3″ CD-Rs. At that point, Voisey was also working with Chico MacMurtrie’s Amorphic Robot Works project, a collaboration between engineers and artists to create robotic sculptures.
Voisey remembers Plastic Memory Value starting life as a project for a class that he and Campbell were taking. “I’m a little fuzzy on some of these details,” he admits. “Which is just about perfect for the content of this project.”
He recalls the creation process as being relatively simple. “A microphone was used to capture the cracking of the tape case and unravelling and breaking of the tape,” he explains. “That recording was then used by both Andrew [Campbell] and myself as source material to create two distinct compositions : one was side A and one was side B of Plastic Memory Value“
As I ask him about the significance of a recording about destroying physical media, Voisey explains that I’ve got it wrong. “I think the inspiration for Plastic Memory Value had less to do with destruction of media and more to do with ephemerality of memory,” he reflects.
Voisey points out that Campbell, at the time, was reading the work of two authors. One was the economist Jacques Attali, author of Noise: The Political Economy of Music, which examines the history of music to show how capitalist forces are constantly turning music into a commodity — though Attali ultimately predicts that people are destined to reclaim the process of music production. The other author was the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, whose major work, Simulacra and Simulation, argues that society has replaced all meaning with symbols and signs, leading to our experience being a simulation of reality.
“In general Andrew was and is a hell of a lot smarter and more well read than I am,” Voisey says. “Both of us were pretty into exploring the idea of disembodied memory. I was deeply into Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape, which basically consists of a man rummaging through a pile of tapes to play back passionate rambling bits of his life to himself in circular poetic language… and lots of space and tape manipulation (moving back and forth through speech). Still love that play.”
The idea behind Plastic Memory Value was that customers were supposed to listen to the tape once, then destroy it. “And listeners were invited to continue the process of recording and re-compose the sound of that tape breaking,” Voisey points out. As Voisey points out, the goal is to create a chain of artistic action, from one person to the next. “We were both interested in taking a medium used to hold a memory of sound — in this case, the cassette tape — and creating a circumstance in which a disembodied memory could be passed to another person, or group of people and experienced; [they then partake] in the same action which originally generated the source sounds, which makes that transference of experience/memory have a sort of visceral finality.”
Voisey tells me they staged one performance of Plastic Memory Value as part of their class, playing the cassette and the breaking it after it played. “I think we got an A on the project,” he laughs. “The audience appreciated it, but the critique didn’t go too deep.”
He isn’t sure how many of the customers who received a copy of Plastic Memory Value chose to destroy their copy after playing it. From a collector’s perspective, it can be hard to justify ruining a tape. “We did an initial very limited release with a handmade cardboard sleeve and bits of the tape wound around the cardboard, then did the slightly later Throat release with the plastic shell and vellum cover in 1999. It had a pretty limited release and I mostly gave copies to friends and a handful of people around the globe that somehow found us. It’s possible I gave copies to folks over at Vital Weekly, which ended up being one of the main reviewers of throat releases, grateful for those folks.
“I was pretty terrible at running a label, but regardless, some of the things we put out were nice, so glad a few people got their hands and ears on them. And my own take? I liked it, it was an idea worth exploring and I enjoyed sharing ideas and sounds with Andrew. It was a visceral percussive satisfying texture to work with, and that aspect of it certainly stays with me.”
The ideas raised by Plastic Memory Value have been through lines in Voisey’s artistic career, in particular the way it encourages active listening. “We were asking listeners to destroy the cassette afterward, making that playback more ephemeral, and consequently, perhaps more valuable; a way of situating a listener into a circumstance of active listening — albeit through an act of violence/destruction which I might approach differently now … Active listening as a means of entering the present moment remains a practice of mine, and it still functions as a primary tool for creating work. My work now involves a lot of call and response: listening to environmental sounds, responding/mimicking with voice, recording, layering, playback, using the recording as an instrument.
Voisey isn’t sure if he still has a copy of Plastic Memory Value. There aren’t many in existence. But if he does have it, he can’t get it now. “I have a copy of most of the Throat releases in storage in the basement of a building in Massachusetts,” he says. “I am, however, currently in California.”
Thanks to Ven Voisey for the interview. Ven Voisey’s recent happenings are documented on his website.All images are taken from archived versions of the throat website (formerly throat.org), except where otherwise credited.
“I took the idea to the most extreme place I could.”
Imagine, if you will, a record label that does not divulge the identity of the artists it releases. One that puts out all of its releases with no titles and no artist information. There’s nothing but the music.
This has been done before on a small scale. In the late nineties, the noise label Freedom From released three tapes by an unknown artist, supposedly because “the credits were lost.” Around the same time, a mysterious German label called Indoor put out two seven-inch singles with images of obese cats on their covers with no artist information. In the early 2000s, the Kollaps label ran a series of 7″ EPs with unknown artists, entitled Of Things That Move. A 2000s-era ambient music net-label known as Ansiform released all their mp3s anonymously. And the Boomkat mailorder put together a series of untitled CDR releases which obscured the musicians’ identities. There’s even a recent label called Anonymous Records that puts out music by established artists but hides their identity – though the artwork is flashy and the marketing is rather maximalist.
Yet none of those labels pulled this concept off with as much gusto and conceptual purity as Alex Botten. His net label, Zero Info, kept all revealing information obscure. Starting in 2012, he distributed sixteen releases by mystery artists. The releases and tracks had no titles at all, apart from some dots and slashes to fulfill Bandcamp’s requirements. The cover art for each was identical – a blank white square:
I caught up with Botten via email to learn about this anomalous label. I first wanted to know a little bit about him. He tells me he has a day job working for a charity, and spends the rest of his time doing diverse creative work — “bits of writing (novels, ghostwriting etc), artwork for record sleeves, and my own musical projects,” he summarizes. “A dear friend at work described me as a ‘renaissance man’, which is nice but makes it sound like I know what I’m doing, which I absolutely do not. Currently, when not helping people in my day job, I am working on a couple of novels and writing/rehearsing songs for the two noisy bands I’m in.”
When he started Zero Info, Botten was in a slump. “I was living in a flat next to a pub, in Lye in the Black Country,” he says. My own music stuff was getting no interest, I couldn’t get gigs anywhere and I was feeling pretty glum. I’d been married to my (now ex) wife for a couple of years and things weren’t great. I’d gone from playing gigs every week, and getting played on the radio and reviewed in the NME a few years earlier to being ignored. So nothing was happening and I had to do something about it.
“I settled on making a series of what I called ‘SuperLimited’ releases, records, tapes, and CDRs in tiny runs of no more than ten. Those picked up a bit of a collectors vibe and sold quickly but I still wanted to do something that had no physical presence in the world.”
The idea for Zero Info came from a desire to explore a conceptual extreme. “I liked the idea of something completely anonymous and it fitted with my interest in doing something that had no physical format,” he says. “I took the idea to the most extreme place I could – the releases would have no information, all the artists would be anonymous, all the sleeves would be white. I had to compromise a little with the titling of the records, using various punctuation combinations to be able to put them on Bandcamp, but otherwise, the rest was as I wanted it to be. The label name ‘Zero Info’ was the obvious choice.”
It was all about the concept, which he imagined catching on with a certain subset. “I wanted the music to stand entirely on its own,” he says. “I hoped that people would eventually download everything on the off-chance it was made by someone well known. I tried to get the Wire to mention it in their news pages but nothing happened so the downloads were less successful than I’d hoped.”
He thinks he might have been inspired by Boomkat’s series of anonymous CDRs, which similarly obscured the identities of its created, and avoided song and release titles. “They had some way of differentiating between the releases that I wanted to avoid as much as possible,” he notes – signalling a desire to push the concept as far as it would go.
Order one was convincing artists to embrace a concept that deprived them of credit for their own work. For many, that wasn’t an opportunity, but an opportunity to experiment. “Through being involved in music for a couple of decades, I have a lot of musician and artist friends,” Botten tells me. “I just asked if anyone would be interested, then laid out the rules. I told any artist who was interested that they could never reveal that they’d been on the label or identify themselves with a release. I think that was liberating for a lot of people, and I got things from people who are known for other things that sounded nothing like their usual output.”
Most of the releases could be categorized under the drone, ambient, and experimental tags, which makes them particularly opaque from the perspective of guessing the artists’ identities. When I ask Botten for anecdotes, or any tantalizing details of the artist behind Zero Info’s impressive sixteen releases, he is tight-lipped, telling me they will go to the grave with him. “Partly because that was the plan, and partly because I’ve forgotten who did what,” he explains. “Time has erased who did what from my memory, and I haven’t listened to any of the releases in years. To me, that means the project has succeeded – the work is all truly anonymous.”
He does tell me that the artists he approached to contribute were “a mixture of well-known artists and people who’d never done things before. I like that there are these hidden gems by artists that are collectable that their fans are almost certainly unaware of.”
It’s only fitting for him that he has almost no memories of Zero Info’s activities – even though I find this a little hard to believe. “I wanted Zero Info to be like staring at a blank white wall, overwhelming in its underwhelming amount of information; I wanted it to be the sudden silence after the explosion that seems louder than the bomb,” he reflects.
Looking back, he has mixed feelings about Zero Info. It didn’t end up in the pages of The Wire, but it delivered on his concept in an unexpected way. “It was an art project that both succeeded and failed,” he reflects. “At the time I’d wanted it to become something that hundreds or thousands of people would download whenever a release was put up, but that didn’t happen. Now I know it’s succeeded in a completely different way, by being a pure expression of nothing.”
Thanks to Alex Botten for the interview. Botten’s many multimedia happenings can be explored here.