Label Archaeology: Epitapes (Massachusetts, 198?-1992)

“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.

Image credit: Mike Tetrault

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.”

Several Epitapes cassettes, from Tetrault’s own collection. (Image credit: Mike Tetrault)

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.

Image credit: Mike Tetrault

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.

Image credit: Mike Tetrault

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.

Image credit: Mike Tetrault

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.”

Image credit: Mike Tetrault

Themes

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.

Image credit: Mike Tetrault

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.

Tomfoolery Galore

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.”

Source: Mike Tetrault

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.”

Source: Discogs

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.

Thanks to Mike Tetrault for the interview.

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