Thrift Store Tapes with Bennett Williamson

“It’s just a perfect teen bedroom demo, just one guy and his guitar just whining.”

How would one enumerate the sheer amount of music on cassette that exists in the world? It is impossible.

As I argued in my recent article about Ezra Fike’s Cassette Archive, while reissue labels have recently been occupied with unearthing strange old private press records — esoteric cult phenomena like the singular Lewis — it is obvious that the body of privately recorded cassette releases dwarfs the number of vinyl records, likely by several orders of magnitude. After all, cassettes are much less expensive to dub than records are to press, and the tape’s heyday coincided with the democratization of audio production, both in the form of home recording and inexpensive recording studio time.

Which leads me to Bennett Williamson, an artist, a musician, former radio DJ, and current department manager at UC Santa Cruz’s Digital Arts & New Media program. He also likes cassettes. Although he once hosted his own show on WFMU, it was actually a guest spot that drew my eye. In 2008, he guest DJ’d on Marty McSorley’s show, playing a three hour set of tapes sourced exclusively from thrift stores, alongside one of McSorley’s friends, Forest. Incidentally, one of the tapes they played was a limited-to-ten-copy tape discussed in my profile on Unread Records: Erik Sahd’s Right Now You’re Always Been Here.

I believe that we’ve only discovered the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many tapes that exist in the world. Every day, who knows how many home recordings, band demos, and small-run releases disappear to the annals of time? Williamson, who has sourced tapes from thrift stores for years, agrees. But whereas I worry that the iceberg is slowly melting, last extant copies of cassettes dissolving into the ether as they’re euthanized from Goodwill racks or tossed out unsold after family yard sales, Williamson diverges from this archivist mentalist.

“Yeah but, you know, to take it one way: so what?” he asks. “The idea that we can have instant access and preserve all music from all times is false. In fact, it’s really good that media and ideas and music recede beyond the horizon of human understanding. If they’re bad, they can go away, and hopefully never come back.

“That’s a way that I can justify not hanging on to stuff. It’s cool that this thing got to live a life with me, and I got to appreciate it. I don’t know what’s going to happen to it next. But even that amount of existence that it had is a positive thing.”

Yet the joy of exhuming lost tapes is not lost on him. He is keen to differentiate his love of finding cassettes from the types of “grail records” that collectors spend fortunes acquiring. “I’m really not into that type of record collecting — I’m not good at keeping lists of things, and I don’t have alerts on Discogs or anything like that. I’m much more interested in discovering something I’ve never heard of, and tapes do that very specifically. They’ve always been a cheap way to get a new idea out into the world.”

When it comes to tape rummaging, the cost of entry is so low: thrift stores often sell them for a quarter apiece, and tapes tend to offer a greater variety of opportunities than the average vinyl bargain bin. In any given Goodwill, you’re liable to encounter home tapes, band demos, answering machine cassettes, commercial releases from the 70s through 90s, and scads of self-released/private-press music projects.

As Williamson puts it: “Since it’s low stakes, you’re like, well, the artwork’s not giving me much on this one, but one track’s got a cool name, and I see there’s a synthesizer listed amongst the instruments, so I’ll go for it, maybe it’s worth it.”

But he is also committed to holding on to those tapes that make a lasting impression. Over the years he has whittled his collection of thrift-store tapes down to the essentials. “I’ve definitely pared down and gotten rid of a bunch of stuff over the years, and I think I’ve kept certain ones because they’re the most unique and strange. But they’re still — I’ll listen to them sometimes, they’re not just collector pieces … That’s kind of fun, right. Came from the thrift store, back to the thrift store. I really like that cycle, just like, let it go back into circulation.”

Via Zoom, he took me on a tour of some of those tapes that survived the test of time. We cross-referenced these online, sometimes rescuing tidbits about each of them, sometimes coming up blank.

Franklin’s Demo

When it comes to found, home-recorded tapes, it doesn’t get much better than Franklin’s Demo — a study in teenage vulnerability. Side A is a mix of songs from the Christian nu-metal group P.O.D.’s 1996 album, Brown, including a track that Franklin charmingly misspells as “Raggae Jam.”

But Side B is the real treat: a “demo” by a pubescent teenager. As Williamson describes it: “‘I’m fifteen and I have an electric guitar and I’m writing unself-conscious silly songs but also staking a stab at writing love songs, even though I don’t really know, probably, what it means.’ It’s just a perfect teen bedroom demo, just one guy and his guitar just whining. It’s really good.”

Track titles include “Feeling Gray Today (the Ellen Gray Song),” “Mrs. Malone Blues,” and, best of all, “You Can Cry Tonight.” There’s also a punk version of the alphabet song and a track called “Sometimes” which Williamson describes as a song “about being sad.”

Williamson played a track off Franklin’s Demo on Marty McSorley’s show on WFMU, and “Sometimes” made it onto a mixtape he produced for Lateral Addition. It features nasally voice and a strummed guitar, and is amazing. Its lyrics alone are to die for:

Sometimes I feel like a dog with no feet
Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
Yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah
Sometimes I like to cry for life,
For all that’s died and all that might.
And I can try to see the light that holds your face
He loves you more than anything that you dream
He wants you heal your broken heart
Now you listen very closely, you’ll hear his voice
You’ll hear his voice
Crying sweetly and I’ll love you forever and ever
For ever and ever

If you look at the liner notes above, you’ll see that it seems like Franklin sent this tape to someone named Eric. You can feel Franklin’s awkwardness as he tells Eric about the best P.O.D. songs, shyly neglecting to directly reference his own demo on the B-side. He signs off with a feigned cool: “Hope you like it, dude. Later.”

Yet, there it ended up, at a thrift store — callously discarded like a dusty copy of Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits.

Ryan Winter Age 8 1/2

This is another home recording, though Ryan Winter is younger and therefore not yet at his angst phase. The penmanship here (and the reference to “Ryan Winter age 8 1/2 3rd grade”) suggests that the track listing was assembled by Ryan’s parents. The bulk of this tape occupied with a stand-up comedy routine, including precocious jabs at Bill Clinton and Ross Perot that evolve into a cynical skewering of money’s influence on American politics.

But the real treasure here is a singular track called “If I Could Give A Gift To The World,” a Ryan Winter original that is the tonal opposite of his sardonic stand-up. Piano notes and Ryan’s prepubescent voice combine for a charming ditty about rescuing society from hatred and vice:

If I could give a gift to the world
I would give it peace
If I could give a gift to the world
All bad things would cease

There be be no guns
Or weapons that would kill
Everyone one you know
Would be filled with goodwill
Drugs and drinks and cigarettes would all be put to rest
Happy healthy people is what I think it is best
Violence would be a thing that happened in the past
Love and caring would be things that would always last

If I could give a gift to the world
All bad things would cease
If I could give a gift to the world
I would give it peace

Susan Alexjander – Sequencia

Living in Santa Cruz, mecca of crystals and silent retreats, Williamsons’ jaunts to the thrift store have netted him countless new age cassettes. This is a rare cassette edition of sound artist Susan Alexjander’s new age concept album. To produce this work, Alexjander measured the wavelengths of infrared light absorbed by molecules of light. The ratios between the wavelengths were then converted to ratios of sound frequencies, which were subsequently transcribed into musical notation. The score was then performed by an ensemble, incorporating synthesizers, violin, vocals, tabla, and more.

This tape came out on a label called Science & the Arts in 1994. Strangely, the only two other catalogued releases on that label are two other cassettes, both from the early eighties, which also feature music based on DNA: Riley McLaughlin’s DNA Music (Molecular Meditation), and Dr. David Dreamer & Riley McLaughlin’s DNA Suite.

Various Artists – Music From Purchase ’93

Rescued from a thrift store in New York, this appears to be a compilation of student music from SUNY Purchase, complete with sweet early computer graphics imagery. Like many college and high school student samplers, it is part time capsule, part treasure trove. Spanning a number of genres, and concluding with an ill-advised group rap by the Purchase Rhyme Crew, it features a funhouse of obscure names. For one, there’s “Dinosaur Brain” by the impeccably named Tyrannosaurus Rectum, apparently a power trio that was twice voted Best College Band in the Nation (according to former band member David Hollander’s online profile.) What Hollander fails to mention is that “Dinosaur Brain” is a weirdo funk-metal classic, preserved on YouTube for the benefit of the 23 people who have viewed the video:

Then there is a band called Eric’s in Oregon, who supply the song “Waiting For the #12.” Clearly inspired by contemporary rock bands like the Gin Blossoms albeit lighter in polish, it bears the ironic subtitle and lyrical refrain, “Maybe We’ll Be Famous.”

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/4DB4Qal7szAMDcsjA1ZBxl

And finally there is “Foolish Shadows” by Mirror, a magnificent prog-cum-hair metal ballad replete with soaring falsetto vocals. The song was subsequently included on the band’s 1995 album, Reflections, which has the best artwork in the history of recorded music:

Ancient Future – Visions of a Peaceful World

Another new age cassette rescued from the California thrift store complex, this is the debut from Ancient Future, a group of Americans who combined various culture’s musical instrumentals and traditions, popularizing the ‘world music fusion’ genre. As you can see, Williamson’s copy is a self-released edition of this album with a generic tape label and single-colour printing. The variety of instruments listed in the credits (zither, sarod, tabla, esraj, etc.) and the track titles (“Moonbath,” “Eternal Embrace,” and, best of the, lot: “Zzaj”) tell you exactly what to expect.

Macrofusion – Demo Sampler 1983

The font on this tape makes it look amazing, though Williamson tells me it’s a little underwhelming. Macrofusion itself was one pseudonym of Peter Spoecker, an ambient and new age composer who produced a number of home-recorded ambient tapes, mainly on his own label, Shining Lotus Music Productions. Tapes of his have sold for nearly $100 on the new-age collectors’ market. Macrofusion was his “computer music” outfit.

Oddly enough, there is only one online reference to this particular tape, which seems to be on the verge of extinction. That reference is a listing in Ohio State University’s Twyla Tharp Archive, “a large collection of materials which document her creative career in dance, film and television.” What relationship does Macrofusion have with Tharp? It’s hard to know, although her collection includes everything from Herb Alpert albums to old answering machine tapes, so perhaps the connection is tenuous.


Williamson’s enthusiasm for ephemeral media is reflected in his long history of radio DJing. While studying at NYU, he got a foothold on their campus radio station, WNYU, then connected with the legendary WFMU — attracted by their byzantine online archives of radio shows past. (Indeed, Williamson’s past shows can be streamed online in their entirety.)

Though he accepts the fact that the iceberg of lost tapes is slowly melting, some of his own art and sound projects betray a passion for audio preservation. In 2011, he exhibited a gallery piece called Summer of Salute that was all about retaining ephemeral media. His project involved writing a computer script that recorded Funkmaster Flex’s weekly set on the seminal New York City rap station, Hot 97.

“Living in New York, you’d be lucky on a Friday night to catch one of his sets, when he’s introducing the hot new rap jam of the summer,” Williamson explains. Flex is famous for these song premieres, which could be a huge boost to new artists. He often introduces these tracks by making liberal use of a sound effect of a bomb exploding. “He would rewind the track, and drop the bomb sound effect, and then rewind the track, then add some total non-sequitur.”

“It would be this fantastic thing that you’d get to hear, but it would be very fleeting because you’d be by a radio.” Williamson’s goal was to record and isolate these sublime moments.

Summer of Salute is a study in micro-archiving: in it, he isolates and stitches together just the moments of Flex deploying the bomb side effect, as culled over a summer’s worth of Flex broadcasts. For an exhibited in London, he dubbed his bomb collage to cassette, then connected a tape player to a small FM transmitter that broadcasted the audio on the frequency, 97.1 FM. A boombox then played the transmission live into the room.

Another Williamson project, which incorporates a few of the tapes discussed in this article, was a mix he put out called This Guy Put 39 Different Songs Onto One CD And It Sounds Amazingly Awesome. It is a response to the reality that people are increasingly consuming music through centralized bottlenecks, for example streaming music services. The mix in question deliberately sources audio from a range of different sources, ephemeral or not. There is music from different eras, sounds sourced from YouTube clips, audio from found tapes, digital downloads, old radio clips, TV clips, music from vinyl, live concert footage. It is a wonderfully post-modern sound collage, capturing the transient nature of audio in a world whose capacity to create still outpaces the ability to archive.


Thanks to Bennett Williamson for the interview.

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