“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.
“I wanted to create a record with no score performed, but what is written is drawn to be played.”
Ursula Block’s seminal catalog of art records and anti-records, entitled Broken Music, includes several artifacts that today are coveted by collectors of unusual records. One seminal item in that catalog Njeqove Olovke Glas, a.k.a. His Pencil’s Voice, a “record” produced by the conceptual artist Braco Dimitrijević:
The piece is an LP jacket with a piece of cardboard inside; the “record” is a piece of cardboard inside the jacket. Dimitrijević used a pencil to draw a spiral on the cardboard record, meant to represent the its grooves. The title, His Pencil’s Voice, is no doubt a reference to the early record label, His Master’s Voice:
Little is known about His Pencil’s Voice, so I emailed Braco Dimitrijević to learn more. He is a man of few words, always keeping things to the point when conversing via email. He explained that His Pencil’s Voice was created for a solo exhibition in London’s Situation Gallery, which was a linchpin of the modern art scene in the seventies.
“What bothered me always was the process of realization from the idea, the sketch to the final art work,” he explains. “This was not only in visual arts, but in music too. So I wanted to create a record with no score performed, but what is written is drawn to be played.”
In essence, Dimitrijević saw His Pencil’s Voice as a more direct way of producing a final art product, cutting out the laborious production process. “I drew by hand the spiral on the paper and brought it to printers to make a zinc plate to emboss and print the label,” he recalls. “In other words, unlike a classic record where the music is written as notes, which are then played by one or several instruments, recorded, and listened to, for my record what is written is played directly by the record player.”
Dimitrijević points out to me that he has made analogous works using photographs and stone as media, but doesn’t elaborate. I suspect he is talking about the series of works from the start of his career that began life in 1968 as “Accidental Sculpture” and “Accidental Drawings and Paintings,” both projects he started while still in art school in Zagreb. On one occasion in 1971, he made a “portable monument” — a stone plaque that could be placed anywhere, which bore the inscription, “This could be a place of Historical Importance.” This seemingly satisfies the same criteria as His Pencil’s Voice, in that Dimitrijević is bypassing the creation process by designating any environment as artistically significant.
The other analogous project is his “Casual Passer-By” series of photographs, which is archived at the Tate Modern art museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For that work, he took portraits of people that he encountered on the street. His rules were simple: he took the first person he encountered that was willing to participate, documenting the person’s name along with the time and date. This image was then pasted, like a billboard, on a London bus for two weeks. By bypassing the usual selection of a formal “model,” as well as the typical methodology done to prepare for a photo shoot (makeup, lighting, set design), he again skips the typical artistic production process in favor of something more direct.
Dimitrijević isn’t sure how His Pencil’s Voice ended up in Ursula Block’s book, but he does tell me that it was included as the final record for an exhibition called “The Record as artwork: from futurism to conceptual art,” which was assembled by the famous Italian art historian Germano Celant. Celant is known for introducing the term Arte Povera (“poor art”), referring to a process of creation that breaks from the traditional practices and materials used in art, instead favoring cheaper and more rudimentary materials. One can see this tendency in His Pencil’s Voice, which substitutes graphite on cardboard for a professionally reproduced vinyl record.
Over the years, Dimitrijević has produced an extensive body of work, and I reflect that he may regard His Pencil’s Voice as one minor work among many. To wrap up my questions, I ask him what his thoughts are on this piece, nearly forty years after the fact.
“I did a good job,” he tells me, with characteristic brevity.
Thanks to Braco Dimitrijević for the interview. Visit his website here.
Felix Kubin is no stranger to unusual music. With Tim Buhre, he formed Klangkrieg, which produced noisy experimental music from 1987 to 2003. One tape they put out, covered in Anomaly Index‘s earlier article about the inventive Cling Film-Records label, came in a sealed tin can. He also released a record with René Heid’s iconoclastic record label, Rund um den Watzmann, that functioned as a zoetrope; as the record spun, an animation was produced on its surface.
In contact via email, Kubin enthusiastically described a project that recently materialized, a seven-inch record called Bücher Scannen that was created for a special jukebox designed by Ilija Lazarevic and Felix Boekamp. “It’s a jukebox full of theme-oriented seven-inches with mostly noisy recordings,” he says. “Their topic here was ‘Schaben’ (Scratching) and you can hear me rubbing microphones on books — my understanding of tactile reading.”
Kubin’s career certainly hasn’t been short on ideas. The reason I contacted him was to learn about an obscure limited-edition record he put out in 2016. It was a lathe-cut record that collected the sounds of different people sneezing.
Over email, Kubin explained that 2016 was a busy year. He composed what he calls both “the biggest music piece of my life” and his “Stockhausen moment,” a 70 minute opus called “Falling Still” that was was performed by a boys’ choir and string orchestra, accompanied by extended percussion and quadrophonic electronics. He also played concerts across Europe, “invented a synthesizer orchestra for 20 vintage KORG MS 20 synths played by students during a 5-day workshop in Gent, Belgium,” put out two records, and served as a jury member for an experimental film festival in Berlin. Perhaps best of all: “In October, my brother and I took our mother to New York for her eightieth birthday. She had never been in overseas before.
“That was 2016. A really busy year.”
Amid this frenetic schedule, he hatched the idea for Coughs & Sneezes. “The idea came during a train ride in Italy,” he tells me. “A friend and I were thinking about the different sounds of sneezes, even certain characteristics of countries.” Kubin reflects on the curious cultural specificity of this physiological process, pointing out that a sneeze sounds like “a-choo!” in France but “hatchi!” in Germany.
“[We considered] how nice it would be to have a selection of those on a record. When Renate Nikolaus of the Hasenbart label approached me for one of her handmade lathe-cut editions, [I thought] the sneezing could fit very well, especially in winter.
“So I started asking many friends of mine to send me recordings. That’s actually not so easy because most of the time you don’t have a recorder at hand when you are sneezing. So, I recorded a tutorial video. A kind of indecent little film, I can tell you.”
That “indecent” film demonstrated the use of a long Q-tip to tickle the upper interior of one’s nose. Not everyone implemented that method. “Some tried to use dodgy methods like sucking water into their nose or doing a handstand. The lucky ones had hay fever, they could go on sneezing forever … Some just stood in the sun waiting, as Wilhelm Busch, the famous inventor of Max & Moritz, suggested in a comic.”
This collection of sneezes was not entirely unprecedented. When Kubin was sixteen, he used to “archive” sounds from around his home. “I was always into sound archives, that’s true. On my release Chromdioxidgedächtnis (chrome dioxide memory), which is more a study of the history of the cassette tape than a regular album, there is a part where you can hear my brother and me doing the ‘counting in’ for noises that I wanted to record for sampling. That was back in 1985. My sampler was a Boss Digital Delay with a sample function of 0.8 sec.”
Another precedent comes from one of Kubin’s main gigs, creating radio plays — a very popular entertainment format in Germany. I reflect to Kubin that the typical process of editing audio might involve editing out the coughs and sneezes, rather than isolating them. “For sure, I love sounds that are meant to be edited out,” he says. “That’s what strikes me also with documentary recordings, you get a lot of redundancies, breathing, searching for words… the human being out of control. Already in 2004 I started to combine documentary with fiction, implant one into the other, play with the different forms of language and context. I have always been interested in the context where things happen. That’s why I love to create for very different, if not contradicting, forums and contexts. I examine the rituals (of speaking, acting, listening and moving) of different contexts and societies.
“I also love sounds that happen to me, instead of me looking for them. I often carry a little recorder with me and when I encounter a good sound, I quickly record it. I have a huge archive of these ‘one shot recordings” that I’ve collected over the years. In 2010, I made a radio play out of them called ‘Säugling, Duschkopf, Damenschritte‘ (‘Infant, Shower Head, Female Steps’) which is constructed like one of those sound archive records for Super 8 film enthusiasts in the 1960s. All the sounds are announced, then the descriptions get more and more poetic (and obviously wrong), until the play sublimates into a piece of musique concrète.”
Looking back, Kubin is fond of Coughs & Sneezes. “I love this record because it has a humorous and unique concept. It didn’t sell fast, if you consider the small handmade edition of 93 copies. I think it’s one of those records that people will appreciate more when it gets older, as with most of the things I do. That seems to be my destiny. The early four-track teenage music that I made in the 1980s was first released in 2002, and became quite popular then. I’m lucky that I started so early. I still have lots of sneezes.”
Thanks to Felix Kubin for the interview, and Renate Nikolaus for her images of the lathe-cutting process. Kubin’s many projects are outlined in detail on his website. The Hasenbart Records website is here.
“I’m quite sure that you destroy your record player by playing the disc, but that’s what it was about.”
While perusing an old issue of Preston Peek’s marvelous zine, Exotica / Et Cetera, I came across an article by a Dutch collector of abnormal and anti-records named Ed Veenstra. In that article, Veenstra provided brief descriptions of thirty or so bizarre records from his extensive collection. Several items stood out and are worthy of discussion on Anomaly Index. One particular favourite was a record made out of rusted metal. Named Hör Zu, it was produced by a German industrial group named Lyssa Humana.
Little information survives about the band, who were based out of Regensburg. However, I was able to get in touch with former band member Tilo Ettl, now a visual artist, to find out more about this unusual record. At first he couldn’t remember which anti-record I was talking about.
“Well, first I must admit that I destroyed everything I had from the Lyssa Humana time, because there was no interest at all by anyone,” Ettl responded. “After 15 years of storing the stuff I said to myself, ‘Why the hell are you keeping all that material?’ That was a quick and lethal decision, lethal not for me but for the anti-records I made. So I’m not sure whether Hör Zu is the disc in plaster or the tape with the mummy!?”
I ended up having to tell him it was neither. With that said, those unusual releases are interesting in their own right. The plaster record was called Ramstein Trash. “I took an old vinyl disc, mixed the plaster, quite fluid, then poured it onto the vinyl disc. Waiting until dry. That´s all. Sure you can play it. In fact it’s a negative of the original vinyl. If you are not afraid of ruining your diamond you can play the disc. At least two people did play it. (Great success!)”
Ramstein Trash is a little reminiscent of John Bender’s 1981 LP, Plaster Falling, which was a record that was coated in plaster, designed by Bender with the visual artist CV Mansoor. You had to pull a string embedded in the plaster to get to the record itself, which meant that collectors had to choose between listening to their record or preserving its value as a collectible. A Faustian bargain.
With regard to the Hör Zu disc, Ettl explains that he sourced his rusty metal from a factory near his hometown, Schwandorf. “[It was] quite easy to steal because there were no fences or security after they finished work at 6 pm,” he remembers. He was using that metal for his own sculptural art at the time, so it made sense to use it for an anti-record, too. The disc was named after a weekly German magazine for “ordinary families,” which included TV listings.
Ettl tells me the record was all about destruction and nihilism. “I’m quite sure that you destroy your record player by playing the disc, but that’s what it was about. Fuck everything.” He compares this to the aesthetic of noise music, citing the Einstürzende Neubauten track, “Hör mit Schmerzen,” or “Listen With Pain.”
He tells me a little bit about the mindspace he was occupying around the time he conceived this negative-centric record. “I was very ‘anti’ at that time, unsatisfied, unhappy, studying at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart in the painting class,” he says. He and the four other members of Lyssa Humana shared an enthusiasm for industrial bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, and would occasionally host performances in Regensburg. The band existed from 1986 to 1990.
Because of their short lifespan, Lyssa Humana now registers as little more than a blip on the late-eighties industrial scene. Ettl explains that this lack of longevity boiled down to the band members’ different personalities. “Edmund von Bachmeier was older, sort of a professional musician playing with [fellow Regensburg industrial band] Delir Noir. He was the ‘provocateur,’ but, because he had a real job, he had some money. William Kretschmer had been a student for 10 years and was pretty much into literature and movies. Walter Heilmeier was a semi-musician and really Bohemian, earning a living via some short-time jobs. And me, I was more into art and was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. I still wonder how it worked for so many years.”
The band was sometimes accompanied by Heilmeier’s girlfriend, Margarete, who “wasn’t very active but also participated in performances and was something like a female alibi for a boy group.”
A tape has been uploaded to YouTube and serves as a capsule of the band’s approach, which in this case is a combination of sampled radio, bass guitar, and what sounds like someone playing with some metal junk:
Ettl dates Hör Zu to approximately 1988 or 1989. Being the art student in the group, he was responsible for crafting the metal records himself. He figures the other members may have been involved in planning the release. “It is one thing to have great ideas, but another thing to realize them. William [Kretschmer] planned, for example, an opera — an industrial opera with singers singing in destroyed cars after a car accident. Good idea but it ended in some attempts and some beers. The performances were true collaborations, everyone put some ideas into them and was supported by the rest.”
Regarding Hör Zu, Ettl cites the influence of other unusual records and anti-records. He pinpoints two creations by the notorious Rudolf Eb.er as sources of inspiration. One was the Zerstückelte Denkkurbeln compilation on the Schimpfluch record label, which had a plastic fork glued to the cover. And then there’s Lieder Zur Analytischen Selbstverkrüppelung, a record by Eb.er’s project, Institut für Psycho-Hygiene; it came in a bizarre cover coated in black paint and a tampon. He also mentions Honeymoon Production’s infamous Manipulation Muzak, which was a solid wad of vinyl that came with instructions for the owner to create their own record by heating it up and flattening it. Lastly, he points to the power electronics opus All In Good Faith by Con-Dom, which came wrapped in a shroud inside a hollowed-out hymn book.
Ettl also cites the influence of writers like William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard (specifically Crash), and Kathy Acker, as well as the performance art of the Survival Research Laboratories, which he describes as “an American group of weird people making weird performances with machines made of scrap metal, fighting and destroying themselves. Fire, explosions, noise.”
“Maybe you don´t remember the times before internet came up,” he explains. “It was a challenge to find ‘censored’ material, films, books, VHS-tapes, and we thought we were rebellious by showing that material in public. Maybe it was — because people like you are doing research 30 years later.”
He estimates that only eight or nine copies of Hör Zu were produced. “Four for us and one or two sold,” he says, laughing.
Ettl intended this record to threaten the listener with the possibility of turntable destruction. Yet those brave enough to play it might not have faced the intended result. “I remember that I actually played the disk. Unfortunately the effect is not what it is supposed to be: the arm of the record player runs very quickly to the center, playing only for three seconds or so. It´s more the fear that is spread — shall I play it or not? What is the outcome? Is it worth it? What weird stuff is that?”
“I had to be fast with the buttons to make the conversation seem natural, but then I’d realize there would be a guy, you know, going at it on the other end.”
When I was in high school, one of my favourite albums was Kathy McGinty, which quickly became a hit among my friends. A cult phenomenon that first spread via the Aquarius Records shop and mail order, it had an irresistible concept. The ever-excitable Kathy McGinty prowled for love-hungry men in chat rooms, luring them with sexy talk and asking them to call her on the phone. When they did, they met “Kathy,” who was nothing more than a Yamaha sampler that rotated through a handful of phrases, sexy and not. The sampler was manned by Derek Erdman, and featured the vocal talents of his friend, Julia Rickert. Kathy’s treasury of expressions ranged from the mundane (“This is Kathy,” “So, what’s up?”) to the outrageous (“Your dick tastes like bacon,” “Taco Bell tastes so good,” “I think I might be having a miscarriage”), with not much in between. The men would eventually figure out the gambit, but not before a few minutes of awkward back-and-forth.
I speak with Derek Erdman by email to learn more about this legendary disc.
“Julia and I were roommates, living in a neighborhood that was a utopia at the time,” he tells me. “It was slightly desolate on the outskirts of downtown Chicago, and a lot of our friends were living nearby, so it was a fertile time for doing things. I can’t really think of a reason that Kathy happened other than boredom. I was into the internet then — 2002 or so — so I spent a lot of time on it. Julia didn’t care so much about it, she watched a lot of Passions and Family Feud. I clearly remember her being very critical that the first two rounds of Feud didn’t matter at all; if they won only the third round, that family would take it all.”
Erdman’s first forays into the exploitation of male desperation were low-tech. “I used to place local ads for people to show up to have sex, but I’d give them the address to the house across the street,” he remembers. “I’d tell them to honk their car horn and yell for Tammy because the doorbell was broken. I’d ask them to bring eggs or a gallon of milk as a nice gesture. Dudes would show up in groups with milk yelling for Tammy, and see others doing the same. Truly awful stuff.”
At the time, he was spending a lot of time in chat rooms, “pretending to be somebody that I wasn’t, probably acting like a jerk.” Since he also was a lifelong enthusiast of prank calls, it was only a matter of time before he merged the two interests. At first, this involved pretending to be a woman and instructing men to call the house to leave sexy messages on an answering machine – promising to call them back if they were “sexy enough.” (Some of these voicemails ended up on the CD).
Erdman says that, when these calls started coming through to their answering machine, they were impossible for Rickert to ignore. “It was her idea to interact with them in a way that we wouldn’t actually have to, and Kathy was born. I had a Yahama SU-10 sampler (still do!), and we programmed the sayings into it, spliced some wires to a phone, and away we went.”
Some of those samples are classics, including lines like “You sound like a child molester!” and “I think you might be racist.” Erdman says they were the result of inspired improvisation. “Julia and I came up with them on the fly, going for whatever would be the most jarring while callers were all worked up. It’s funny, ‘You sound like a child molester’ elicited a vague response, but when you’d call somebody racist, they didn’t like that at all. ‘I think you might be racist’ is such a funny thing to say, like the sex talk gave Kathy some clues to their racism.”
Finding men was hardly a challenge. “I’m sure we went for whatever chat rooms seemed the most explicit, ‘creeps for teens’ or whatever. There was no nuance to it whatsoever. We’d get right in a room and say something like, ‘Who wants to phone bang?’ and we’d get five takers right away. I have no idea what we called ourselves. Probably teen_for_creeps or something similar.”
Erdman says he was at a place in his life where he wasn’t worried about giving away his phone number or being traced. “What were people going to do, come to our apartment and admit to being a sex joke?” he pontificates. “This was right around the time when I first got a cell phone, so the landline was treated as a castoff. I hardly ever answered it seriously. The prefix was 666, I still remember the whole number.”
I asked Erdman to paint a picture of what it was like handling those calls. “[It was] usually late at night, usually just the two of us huddled around a beige 1980s Bell Systems phone on a red dining room table. I was usually the one to control the sampler, because it was a hassle to cycle through four banks of samples. There are 12 buttons on that sampler, so you’d use them up pretty fast. Especially with time buying responses. We figured out pretty early that we’d need something like, ‘Sorry, I’m on speaker phone so I can touch myself’ or ‘Hold on a second.’ I needed that just to catch up sometimes. I had to be fast with the buttons to make the conversation seem natural, but then I’d realize there would be a guy, you know, going at it on the other end.”
On one occasion, one of those men “finished” before giving up on the call, something that apparently left Erdman with a bit of a stomach ache.
One of Erdman’s favourite calls is “Very Large Hands.” On that track, the caller is immediately suspicious about Kathy’s phone, then cracks up and asks if the audio clips are being transmitted via computer or a keyboard. He then can’t stop laughing as Kathy commands him to “suck the shit out of my ass” and “drink my cum, fuckface!” Another Erdman fave is “I Have Somebody Else in the House,” in which a whispering caller stays on the line for over six minutes, persisting through Kathy’s cycle of absurdities (“I wanna jam my thumb in your dick hole,” “I can’t feel your dick, it must be teeny”), even when she starts speaking in reverse and a man’s voice blurts out “Kathy Robot version 2.1.”
These calls have left an indelible impression on Erdman. “I can still hear their voices echoing in my head,” he says. “They’re kind of like boyfriends of mine, in a way!”
The physical Kathy McGinty release started off life as a homemade CD-R. Erdman says that this disc was first championed by the San Franscico shop Aquarius Records, whom he commends for their honest business ethic and commitment to promoting Kathy. As that CD-R was selling like hotcakes, he learned that Kathy had been bootlegged and was being peddled at stores in Los Angeles. Michael Sheppard, who also put out the infamous Celebrities at their Worst on the Mad Deadly Worldwide Communist Gangster Computer God label, was responsible. “What a stupid thing to bootleg,” Erdman says. “But, also, he probably thought it was just an impossibly obscure thing that nobody would find out about. Also, the first versions we made were so homemade looking, why not just make your own? I guess that sort of makes sense.
“I think we had a phone conversation with Michael and he agreed to stop selling them and also send us money, but he never did. I really liked those other CDs that he did, I can see the connection to what he was selling with those and what McGinty was, so really, it makes sense. That Van Morrison CD is a revelation to listen to. ‘Want a Danish’ especially!”
Erdman also mentions setting a modem to call Sheppard’s 1-800 number on repeat “for a week straight,” but it’s hard to know if he’s being serious.
We discovered, in conducting this interview and browsing through Discogs, that someone also did a cassette bootleg at one point. Erdman also mentioned that an indie record compilation used one of the calls between songs without permission. And a band called Bell sampled it without permission on an album that came out on Soul Jazz Records. “We asked them to give us some money and went to Haiti with it,” he tells me, possibly joking. “Ethically questionable on our part, because we didn’t have permission from the callers.”
Erdman eventually pressed Kathy in an edition of 2000 professional CDs. He put it out on his own label, Hamburger Records, which was named after his “lofty house” at the time, which he dubbed Gallery Hamburger.
There were actually two releases on Hamburger Records; in addition to Kathy, there was a disc called 75 Voicemail Messages, by Simone Waters. “Simone Waters (not her real name) was a girl I dated briefly, I really liked her and she was waaaaay out of my league,” he says. “She used to call me way too much and leave messages, and they all sounded EXACTLY the same. So that CD is that. Probably so dumb that it shouldn’t exist. Very disappointing for fans of McGinty.” (He says now that he thinks this was a mean thing to do.)
Yet Kathy and Simone were hardly Erdman’s only forays into telephony. “I was a MAJOR prank caller as a kid — and, uh, adult,” he says. “Calling strangers screaming, anything non-sequitur, etc. I’m a huge fan of Longmont Potion Castle, Tube Bar, & the Screamer.” There are some other prank calls up on his website. He also ran a 24/7 psychic hotline for ten years:
“Derek Erdman’s FREE PSYCHIC HOTLINE, call 24/7 (206) 324 6276 for a pre-recorded message or a live psychic. Pre-recorded message changes weekly and includes upcoming celebrity news, impending disasters, lucky lottery numbers & other information. Talk to a live psychic about any subject that you desire. ABSOLUTELY FREE.”
Erdman learned, through Aquarius Records, that both Dan the Automator and Matt Groening had bought copies of Kathy and liked them – something he is rightly proud of.
Today, Kathy is a fond memory, although not one that he returns to often. “I don’t think about it much, but it is a funny thing we made a long time ago. It seems kind of early internet to me. Kathy is definitely more of a character, not a reflection of us, and she said some stuff that there’s no way we’d say now. I guess that comes with age, self censorship or empathy for other people in the world. It’s unfortunate in a way that I wouldn’t make something like these days, but I guess that’s a part of growing up. And Taco Bell does taste ‘sooooo good.’”
He does offer a teaser for passionate Kathy McGinty fans, however. He still has the old tapes in a box in the basement, and he estimates that there are about 30 minutes of calls that weren’t included on the original CD. He figures that the best calls are all included on the CD, thanks to Rickert’s curatorial discretion. But he’s happy to send the rest of the tapes to anyone who wants to digitize them…
Thanks to Derek Erdman for the interview. Visit Derek’s website, where you can learn about his paintings and various other exploits.
And why did he create a blank record housed in a sandpaper cover?
When Ursula Block’s seminal art catalog, Broken Music, came out, one interesting entry was this sandpaper record, attributed to “ANONYMUS”:
As the picture shows, the “record” itself is a square of sandpaper. Printed on the sandpaper is “Norton”, which refers to Norton Abrasives, a sandpaper company. Adalox, meanwhile, is the trade name for a type of sandpaper that Norton makes. P80 refers to the grit size of the sandpaper (this one is a medium grit.)
I reach out to Jan Van Toorn, who uploaded this anti-record to Discogs. He owns one of very few copies of this record. He explains to me that he purchased it at an art gallery-cum-bookstore in Cologne around 1990. Around then, he saw another copy at a different bookshop/gallery called Bucholz, but he hasn’t seen one since. When he tried to reach out to the original bookstore to find out who Göbel was, they didn’t have any information.
He shared the following images of his copy, which include the sandpaper-abraded surface of the blank LP, as well as an autograph:
He notes that, while the Broken Music catalog kept Göbel’s name “anonymus,” the catalog for Ursula Block’s 1988 exhibition with Christian Marclay, Extended Play, did list Göbel as the artist responsible — which matches the autograph.
So who was Göbel?
Was it a fake name, an appropriation of this famous German inventor who was falsely believed to have invented the incandescent lightbulb before Thomas Edison? Or perhaps named after this architect who authored an extensive history of European tapestry?
Both Heinrich and Göbel are common last names in Germany, which contributes to the information shortage.
Certainly, this wasn’t the only record, or anti-record, to experiment with sandpaper. Just two years prior, the Durutti Column released their famous album, The Return of Durutti Column, with an outward-facing sandpaper cover (designed to damage other LPs in your collection). Richard D. James used to put sandpaper on the decks during his DJ sets, and the conceptual artist Timm Ulrichs created variably-graded sandpaper records in 1968. But this one is among the most mysterious, since Göbel’s identity — and motivations — remain obscure.
Do you know more about Heinrich Göbel or this mysterious anti-record? Are you Henrich Göbel? If so, please leave a comment or contact me!
Thanks to Jan Van Toorn for contributing the three images of Göbel’s record, and for providing invaluable background information. Van Toorn runs ART RPM and Slowscan Records.
“He is truly the embodiment of the insecurity, shallowness, and self-deprecation that we all feel at one time or another.”
How did we end up here? George is an entire album dedicated to Seinfeld, part of a genre called seinwave, which is also dedicated to the show.
George compiles tracks from three previously released mixtapes that were recorded between 2015 and 2017. Its producer is a somewhat mysterious figure named Costanza, who took nearly four months to respond to my pestering emails, but who then readily agreed to tell me about this perplexing artifact. It was my opportunity to try to understand this highly specific digital release, which has become so legendary that it spawned an LP edition pressed on 160-gram, clear vinyl, along with a deluxe cassette boxset edition.
A novelty to some, George comes off as more than that when chatting with Costanza. “Seinfeld has always been a part of my life; in a way, it’s the epitome of nostalgia for me, personally,” he says. “The home video footage of my first steps as a child takes place amid the glow of a rerun episode of Seinfeld.
“Growing up watching the show, I found humor in the slapstick moments with Kramer, but it wasn’t until later on that I (like many) found myself relating to the character of George Costanza. He is truly the embodiment of the insecurity, shallowness, and self-deprecation that we all feel at one time or another; at the same time, there is an air of hope surrounding him, oftentimes seen in small victories in unexpected places.”
Costanza explains that he became interested in vaporwave in 2014, when he was only fifteen years old, a freshman in high school. His interest in convention-breaking music dates back further than that, though. “As early as middle school I was constantly searching for the ‘next big thing’ in music,” he tells me. “I have always been interested in the evolution of music as a whole and found myself growing tired of the same conventions that made up 95% of music that I came across. I got excited when dubstep started to become popular, because I had never heard anything like it before. I participated in that scene for a couple years before eventually growing tired of it and continuing my search, which eventually led me to vaporwave.”
His enthusiasm for vaporwave was catalyzed by artists like 18 Carat Affair (an early vaporwave and hypnagogic pop producer) and bbrainz. Very soon after, he started producing his own music. In junior high, after his family moved to Chicago for his dad’s job, he conceived Costanza.
“Costanza was developed in an afternoon with little to no planning prior to its conception,” he says. “That afternoon in particular, I thought it would be funny to make a vaporwave song based on Seinfeld that utilized a quote from the show. I had put together the debut song in a little under a half hour and threw together a sloppily photoshopped ‘album cover’ to accompany it. After uploading the song to SoundCloud and posting a quick self-promo on Reddit, I went to sleep. I woke up to more than 50 upvotes in just a few short hours followed by an entire day of my track being in the #1 spot on the subreddit.”
That Reddit post is now long gone, along with his Reddit username at the time, which was notvandelay, a reference to George’s fictional company, Vandelay Industries. But Costanza’s music has lived on, albeit not without hiccups. “I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which oftentimes shows itself through the music,” he explains. “There is a lot of perfectionism surrounding the metadata of the songs, in addition to the layout and timing of many of my releases. In the first couple years of Costanza, I would sporadically delete and reupload songs, much to the dismay of my listeners; this is the reason why.” Indeed, a few years ago, several Reddit users feared Costanza was gone for good when after his Bandcamp disappeared — though he subsequently reappeared.
Part of growing artistically has involved accepting imperfection. “Thankfully I have learned to cope with it effectively over the past several years and continue to work through it with regard to how it affects my creativity.”
Costanza assembles his tracks in Ableton Live. He tells me he will typically begin his process with a “sample hunt,” seeking a clip that will serve as a good base for a track. “I oftentimes opt for ‘proven’ samples that I know were used in other well-known tracks, but I challenge myself to approach them from a unique standpoint.”
He often draws from his favourite vaporwave artists. As an example, he cites his debut track, “Costanza,” in which he used a sample from a song called “Daylight” by the band Ramp. “Daylight” is an album track from the lone LP by this jazzy funk group, which was founded by the legendary vibraphonist Roy Ayers. Costanza tells me he chose this sample after hearing it used by 18 Carat Affair on the track “Sunrise,” off the 2009 EP N. Cruise Blvd. To make it his own, Costanza altered the way the sample was used. “I opted to take a unique, more upbeat approach than the 18 Carat Affair track by adding a drum track and chopping it up, which eventually became standard for most of my future tracks.”
The hyperspecific realm of Seinfeld-related vaporwave actually dates back to January 2015, when the vaporwave producer Abelard put out a single entitled “☆ＳＥＩＮＷＡＶＥ☆２０００☆,” which transformed the TV show’s slap bass theme song into a funky vaporwave epic. Costanza points out that simpsonswave, another pop-culture-specific genre of vaporwave – usually involving discoloured, slowed-down, and hazy Simpsons clips set to vaporwave music – actually came after seinwave.
I ask Costanza about these source-specific varieties of vaporwave, wondering why the genre serves as such fertile ground for these hyperspecific strains of recycled pop-culture. He explains that vaporwave is “innately nostalgic,” linking in with memories of “early experiences, typically rather insignificant ones like a certain commercial or jingle that has been pushed to one’s subconscious until it rushes back as the result of a certain trigger years later. I believe vaporwave is all about triggering that feeling.”
While nostalgia is often person-specific, he notes that phenomena like Seinfeld and The Simpsons have impacted many people. For Costanza, tapping into that “collective nostalgia” is the key to the wide appeal of these highly-specific genres.
Costanza has recorded under a variety of other monikers, including producing less-specific vaporwave/future funk music under the name Color Television. But today, his sound production impulses are evolving. He is dabbling in industrial music and dream pop, and is currently working on a noise project that he considers entirely separate from his vaporwave exploits.
“I believe that noise is the final frontier in terms of music,” he tells me. “The music that comes out of that scene is jarring, extreme, and completely independent of the conventions of music. The performance aspect is also by far the most entertaining you can find across any genre.”
Miles away from the funky and melodic tones of seinwave, noise seems to offer a rawer emotional outlet for Costanza, something less self-consciously post-modern and more purgative. “Noise appeals to me personally because it functions as the most cathartic genre possible in my opinion,” he says. “Many noise pieces are built on the rawest form of human emotions, frequently sidestepping established conventions of music in service of emotional expression.”
Thanks to Costanza for the interview. His Bandcamp page is here.
“We’re being spiritually sliced up by modern life? How about literally slice up the samples?”
Consider two musical extremes.
First, consider the extreme of hardcore punk, particularly where it meets the extreme of heavy metal. That absurdly loud, fast, and technical fringe where you might find a grindcore band like Pig Destroyer, or metalcore bands like Botch and Converge.
Then consider breakcore, an underground scene that took the hectic speeds and manic complexity of drum & bass, but kicked both elements up to impossible proportions.
So what happens when you combine those two musical extremes? When you take two genres noted for being fast, loud, and impossibly intricate, and merge them?
That question was answered in 2006, when a producer named Drumcorps produced an album named Grist. If you’re wondering what I mean by “answered,” take a listen to a track from that record:
On that track, you’re hearing samples taken from the 1999 song “To Our Friends in the Great White North” by Botch, a band known for its contribution to metalcore. Botch’s music is also sometimes filed under mathcore, a genre that weds extreme metal to the complexity of math rock. On this track, Drumcorps has taken snippets of Botch’s loud and precise sounds and has set them to mutant Amen breaks.
Drumcorps is the moniker of Aaron Spectre, who graciously entertained my questions about Grist via email for this piece. According to a previous interview he did for Japan’s Breakcore Guidebook, Spectre grew up in Massachusetts. Despite his maximalist music, his youth sounds tranquil:
“I was a quiet kid, and always pretty content to play alone and use my imagination. A stick can be a spaceship, an entire story can emerge from a caterpillar on a leaf. Later my brother came along and we’d play ball or frisbee or video games. But that ability to be still and alone for long amounts of time gives a kind of peace that I carry with me.”
After getting a portable tape player from his parents, he sated himself on Michael Jackson and Don McLean records, before being struck dumb by grunge. He still considers Alice in Chains’ Dirt the heaviest record in existence.
After awhile someone played him some thrash, and he ended up discovering Sepultura, teaching himself to drum by playing along to those records. (What a way to learn!)
There was no scene in his hometown, but in high school he became engrossed in the hardcore shows happening in nearby towns, attending all-ages shows and buying records at merch tables. Those small concerts were important in his growing affinity for underground music:
“To me, hardcore is a vital form of folk music, people’s music. It’s just a natural reaction to life in the USA, it’s something that you just have to do and you don’t necessarily realize why. It made sense right away, and seeing it in its natural habitat was a great gift. You go to the show, bounce around and go a bit berserk, and when it’s all over you go home feeling physically exhausted but also re-energized in a spiritual way.”
In parallel, Spectre was developing an interest in electronic music. The first instrument he learned to play was the piano, and he used these skills while toying with a MIDI sequencer on his father’s computer. His high school music teacher allowed him to use the school’s MIDI lab on his lunch hour, offering him brief opportunities to experiment with full equipment:
“I’d spend all day imagining what I was going to do, planning it out. Then the moment would arrive, I’d inhale a sandwich in 2 minutes and use the remaining 18 minutes to write music. I did this every day, for the whole year, using notation software on the black & white Mac Classic and a Yamaha DX7 & TG33. At that rate I’d have a few songs done every year.”
His true immersion into the electronic music scene would come later, while living in San Francisco. It was there, in 2001, that he discovered breakcore at an “outlaw warehouse party.”
Spectre tells me about the magic of that SF scene. “It was the first time I’d been fortunate to see a homegrown electronic music culture existing in the United States, in its natural habitat, on a bigger scale. I’d seen smaller scenes before, but this was another thing – something beyond a few dedicated folks – an actual community forming in a place, a world unto itself. By ‘natural habitat,’ I mean that all sorts of socioeconomic factors combine, and something just emerges. It has to happen, there’s a real need driving it …
“And so in SF, we had a bunch of absolute weirdos living in communal warehouses, building sound systems, forming crews, buying up old diesel school buses and converting them to veggie oil, making mixtapes for each other, bopping around the Bay Area in ancient cars, fishing through a pile of tapes in the glove compartment while crossing the bridge, building their own little self-contained scene, and finding wild stuff like ‘breakcore.’ Huh? What is this? Well, once you hear it, you KNOW. It was a spirit, a freedom of the time, and everyone in contact with it knew it was a special thing. Some folks were loosely basing a lot of their ethos on the UK’s Spiral Tribe, but making it their own. Music is the anchor, but the roots of this thing have to do with many other pieces of life.”
He talks about the anything-goes mentality of that San Francisco scene, which put young people together who were in it for the experience, not any financial incentive. “In reality it was a bunch of kids in a warehouse who neither knew better not cared to know, the wisdom and idealism of youth, the drive to actually do something with whatever you have on hand. This meant Christmas lights everywhere, homemade decorations, a righteous booming soundsystem, freeform and great music. There was absolutely no financial gain possible, so you get none of the icky stuff which appears later, just a bunch of people who are in it for the vibe, and perhaps something greater, perhaps the only thing there ever really is.
“The events happen when folks become a little more punky ravey and get some turntables, and oh was it special. Still is. The first was run by the S.P.A.Z. (semi-permanent autonomous zone) and 5lowershop crews, and there have been several more over the years, in different warehouses. Outdoor locations too. The feeling is like when you’re a little kid and it’s your birthday – everything is special – and you get that sense of wonderment and fun in your life, when things are at their best.”
Spectre moved to Berlin with his girlfriend in 2003, an experience that changed him significantly. In his Breakcore Guidebook interview, he describes the strange feeling of being in Berlin in Winter, not yet knowing how to speak German, how this “destroys every image you have of yourself which isn’t built in reality, and was instead a product of culture / advertising / other peoples’ thoughts.” He also mentioned arriving at a “truth about the world,” a “moment of shining clarity.” It was from that truth that Grist emerged.
I wanted to know what he meant when he spoke about uncovering this great truth. He indulged me: “As concisely as possible, industrial capitalism is a death march, we’re all playing our part in it, and no one is in charge. We follow the path of previous generations like lemmings to the abyss, the edges of which we are already starting to see, and which will become increasingly visible for the rest of our lives, the next generation, and anyone who may be left after that.
“Most people are good, and they want to help! But this isn’t good for the thing. To get us to cooperate with mass extinction, we must be forced, coerced, and propagandized. And so we are all sitting in our separate bubbles. We wake up each morning in half-truths, put our shoulders to the wheel, and advance a suicidal system which benefits the few, to the eventual destruction of all. It’s bonkers! It’s way beyond ideology. It’s not just labor versus capital… It’s capitalism versus all life on earth. I’m sorry, but that’s it. Obvious to most, but if there’s anyone left who doesn’t know this yet, they will know soon. “
These revelations came to Spectre during a period of relentless touring. When he describes those experiences, they almost sounds like a process of depersonalization. “You step into lots of different peoples’ bubbles, and you really feel what it’s like to be them, for a day. You eat their food, ride the bus together, watch their TV, sleep on their couch and feel what their blankets are like. You hear what they value and what they dream about doing. You meet their families and see where they grew up.
“I must clarify that this style of touring was very, very grassroots, and only barely possible. Super low budget, maximum grueling hours, every method of transport, every ridiculously long ride, sleeping everywhere you can, hauling lots of heavy gear, because I’m ridiculous and insist on playing guitar and using lots of MIDI controllers. There’s lots of half-sleepy daydreaming out the window, gazing at the woods and rolling fields and smokestacks out there, loading docks, cement factories, suburban stores, city centers. And then you arrive, and there are a host of people and things to learn and then, the show. It’s on. A flurry of activity, and then maybe a little sleep and then back into the moving tube / on the road again. I went absolutely everywhere. Each city contains many memories and a host of people whose lives we shared for a day or so. I used to keep all the flyers up at home, but I took them all down, because it started driving me crazy, everything reminds me of people and I wonder how they are doing.
“One day your mind integrates all this experience you’ve had into these words that make sense. At the time, it’s a mess.”
Shortly before Grist came out, Spectre released a handful of EPs. One was 2005’s Rmx or Die 10-inch, which included several extreme metal samples, including a breakcore reworking of a track by metalcore band Botch. Spectre considers this record a proof of Grist‘s concept. “I wanted to see if it could work,” he says. “The fastest way was to sample entire tunes and rework them, as you do in DJ culture, for the dancefloor or the geek enthusiast. You rework what you love, present it to people in a different way. So as the folk troubadour sings someone else’s song…. the producer makes a mashup. I’ve also always wanted to make hardcore punk electronic music since forever, so it was good time try both things and see what’s possible.”
That single was the second record out on Kriss Records, an imprint dedicated to “big fat mash-up madness.” Spectre explains that Kriss was seemingly the only label interested in this idea of combining heavy guitar music with breakneck electronic production, so he sent them a demo. But that record didn’t sell well at the time. “I actually ended up buying the backstock from the label guy after a few months, because he wanted to get rid of it,” Spectre tells me.
Around then Spectre also put out the “Amen, Punk” single, credited to his full name, not Drumcorps. This record includes a jungle remix of Bad Brains’ seminal hardcore anthem, “Pay to Cum.” Bad Brains were a band that started off playing hardcore, but shifted to reggae over the course of their career, many records combining both sounds.
Spectre sees Bad Brains as connected with electronic music, conceptually. “Bad Brains is the bridge, the key, spiritually, between the hardcore punk and the reggae worlds, rock & roll, and by extension jungle and drum & bass,” Spectre says. “It’s the Rosetta Stone of the vibe, if you will. These scenes we work in, we’re all branches from the same tree. [The “Amen, Punk” single] came from a desire to let people in our little subculture know about roots and originators, lest we forget.”
Though these mashups started off using samples exclusively, they paved the way for Spectre to add his own instrumentation to the mix. “On the technical side, I discovered that when you do mashups of something incredibly dense and fast, and you add amen drums into the mix… things get unbalanced. To get back to the good sound, you need to add other things as well. Some bass here, some more guitar there… and pretty soon you’re playing most of it yourself! So… oddly this remix mashup work started me on the path of learning how to make everything 100%, which is what I’m doing nowadays.”
Grist, a maximalist, numbingly complex work, was a feat of sound engineering. It involved Spectre rummaging through his CD collection to search out little samples from here and there. I ask Spectre just how many samples went into it, but he isn’t sure. “Oh, I have no idea. There’s a gigantic folder. I would say WhoSampled has got about 50% of the sources. When you sample little pieces of feedback, drum hits, etc., that becomes impossible to find, and for me too. It’s lost to time, it’s on a backup somewhere far away. Maybe the algorithms will improve drastically in the next few years, and they will be able to provide a complete list! The extended list goes deep, but the sources are confined to a relatively small number of bands. After doing this stuff a while, I realized that whatever you sample, you are promoting, so I keep it to my favorites mostly.”
I wondered to Spectre what it was like embarking on a project of this scope. “The first few days were like any other,” he recalls. “There’s rarely a plan. On the best days, I just go for what I’m feeling, and see what happens. Later after you’ve done a few tunes, you figure out that a theme is emerging, and it might be good to collect everything into a full album, a.k.a. a definitive statement. At that point, you follow the general plan and finish it, while still being open to unexpected new developments.”
Grist was made possible by Jason Forrest, who ran the Cock Rock Disco label, which co-released the album with Ad Noiseam. Forrest encouraged Spectre to convert his project into a full album.
From a technical standpoint, it was meticulous work. “It was just a lot of time sampling things, slicing it all up in Ableton. Not much external gear, just sampling. From vinyl as well. My computer didn’t like it one bit. Grist was really labor intensive, many tracks, many edits. It was the first Macintosh tower G5, the cheese grater, the one that sounds like a jumbo jet taking off under your desk!”
The entirety of Grist was produced in an apartment Spectre shared with his girlfriend. Spectre would work in the bedroom while his girlfriend did her work in a designated area in the kitchen. To optimize the experience, he fashioned his workspace to be as pleasant as possible. “When the music is heavy, everything else has gotta be cozy, is my general way. Heavy music is exhausting, and you need a place of peace and rest, to focus and do what needs to be done.” He surrounded himself with plants, stuffed animals, blankets, and items collected from travel.
Their apartment was located in the hip Friedrichshain district of Berlin, on what Spectre suspects must be “one of the most crazy streets in existence.” As he worked with his noisy music, their apartment was surrounded by noise on all sides. “Sometimes our downstairs neighbor would be screaming every obscenity in German, at full volume, watching football,” he recollects. “This could strike at absolutely any hour of the day or night, 4 am or 9 am or 5 pm. There’s always a game happening somewhere. The sound of clinking glass bottles rolling in the streets. The pool table ‘break!’ sound from a bar nearby. Barking dogs. Punks and Nazis fighting each other. Police patrols and that diesel van in low gear slowly creeping sound.” All this noise, combined with the outrageous whir of his computer fan, necessitated Grist‘s maximalist bombast. This was no environment for ambient music.
As he composed his blistering breakcore inside, the sights outside would sometimes synchronize with the audio. Just outside his bedroom window, there was “an armada of trash and discarded mattresses, chairs, couches,” some of which would end up on fire in the middle of the night.
And yet: “The other side of the house, the courtyard, was the polar opposite,” he says. “Bunny rabbits and cats free roaming, catching sunbeams in harmony, kids playing in the sandbox, flowers growing, barbecues and laughter. Nearby, good friends and epic nights of DJing and good tunes. Oh dear lord. I simultaneously miss the place dearly, and never want to go back again. Anyone who has lived there will understand this.”
Listening to Grist‘s dense tracks, it’s obvious that it was the product of serious time and energy. And yet even that understates the case. Grist‘s production process was so grueling that Spectre earned a repetitive strain injury from mouse-clicking so much. It took so long that it was sequentially released in two vinyl EP editions (the Live and Regret EP and the Grist EP). When combined, those two EPs became the Grist album.
Spectre sees Grist as grounded in a central idea. “Grist is a concept record, to give an actual soundtrack to this feeling of fractured humanity by technology. Make it actually sound that way! We’re being spiritually sliced up by modern life? How about literally slice up the samples? Take the screaming sounds from 1,384,892 different bands and splice them all together, play one person’s sound against another’s — maybe this would be a good way to hear it, and understand.
“You see, my favorite punky music at its core is a reaction to this techno-dehumanizing society, a way back to goodness, a critical eye, and at its best, hope for the future. Let’s see what happens. Dark versus light is actually a bit too simplistic for my liking. I think of it more functional. We got all this crazy tech now, but are still carrying values from pre-tech times, and millions of years of instinct. What are we gonna do? What do we want? What’s a good thing to keep, what’s good to discard? Toss all these broken up pieces in the air, let them fall to the ground, and see what we can build. We’d better sort it out, right now. Certain ones like true love and curiosity are worth saving, certain other ones like tribal division can go, in my opinion.
“Maybe it’s not all that different from the past, and the big questions just rage on, in slightly different forms.”
Thanks to Aaron Spectre for the interview. His latest release is The Quickening, released under his own name, and available on Bandcamp.
“I am not really part of the world and don’t usually even consider myself part of the human race.”
Wood Records was a fascinating American CD-R label that put out several bizarre and unheralded gems, nearly all of which seem to have completely disappeared from the collective consciousness. Despite accumulating a discography of at least 74 releases, only three have made it onto Discogs. And this is a label who put out compilations featuring artists like Zoogz Rift and Eugene Chadbourne.
Wood Records was started by Mark Flake, who is now an established visual artist. In a phone interview with him, I learn that his musical activities date way back.
Despite growing up in Memphis, Flake describes his early childhood as somewhat “isolated” from interesting music. “My father was very hostile to rock music, so I wasn’t allowed to listen to it, but he did have a huge drawer of old 45s. Sun Records, Buddy Holly… I was well versed in fifties rock, while all my friends were listening to Smokey Robinson.”
In high school he started diversifying his listening. “I’ve never been too crazy about the type of music you would hear on the radio, AOR music like Journey,” he says.” He started listening to 20th century Modern Classical music and free jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, then was captivated by punk rock when it arrived, parlaying that interest into curiosity about no wave and hardcore punk.
He picked up the guitar at age fourteen, fooling around and taking a few lessons. A school friend had a brother who owned records by Stravinsky, the Mothers of Invention, and then-Walter Carlos, which led to his musical boundaries expanding.
His first recordings were done around 1984 or 1985. He was living with his girlfriend at the time, and the two had listened to some tapes done by a friend of theirs. She suggested Flake might be able to record something even better, which inspired him to buy a Ross 4×4 four-track and start recording. He quickly became “obsessed.”
Flake’s first tape was CR ME DOG BAY, credited to his initials, MWF. “On my first tapes, up until I became more confident as a guitarist, I used a Casio two-second sampler,” he says, “This tape had a lot of sampling and scraping sounds. It was pretty avant-garde, like early people who did Moog work that was very noisy.” Interestingly, at this point, he was not aware of the cassette network of noise and industrial artists with whom he may have fit in.
Flake has just started archiving some of these tapes on his YouTube channel, and CR ME DOG BAY is up:
To put that tape out, and other tapes like it, he created his own Wyndham Garage label, its name a play on the new age record label, Windham Hill. He hocked those tapes at shows he did locally in Nashville, estimating he sold a total of 150 tapes total over the years. None have surfaced online, and he lost his own copies long ago.
The second tape was Big 70s Songbook, also credited to MWF. Flake tells me that this release was named after a book of sheet music he obtained. The songs themselves are freeform covers of 60s and early-70s songs played on various Casio SK 1 presets and electric guitar, with Flake’s weirdo vocals floating in and out of the picture. Flake recognizes the strong influence of the Residents (a band he still loves) and their label, Ralph Records. Kicking off with a baffling cover of “Yellow Submarine,” it moves through versions of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Young Girl,” and so on:
At this point, most of Flake’s tapes were solo MWF recordings, but he did release some music by bands that he played with. This includes Whack-A-Mole, which he calls a “punkified art jazz” duo. Flake says his bandmate was a very talented drummer and was responsible for the superior musicianship in their collaboration, though Flake wrote most of the songs, which trended to the avant-garde. On one album, Lies, Flake played acoustic guitar and his friend used electric drums. On the next, Home of Door Number, Flake played electric drums and his friend played acoustic drums.
Flake also released a tape by a prog-rocky band called Crayonfish, a trio of which Flake was part, though he says his creative contribution was minimal.
Wyndham Hill eventually petered out, and Flake started Wood Records in 1999. “I saw these other indie labels on the internet, and thought it would be a great idea to have people help each other with unusual music that would not otherwise be heard.” He launched the Wood Records website, which by most standards was fairly basic in design, filled with bright colours and liberal use of Comic Sans. But that’s part of what’s endearing about the label, along with Flake’s vivacious descriptions of his various wares. “People would ask if my website was made by a fly,” he jokes.
Around this time, Flake was living in Dodge City, Kansas, where he was teaching art at the city’s community college. “I had a nice studio in our basement there. It was a horrible, horrible place to live, though. I took a job there teaching at the community college. They fired me. They said, ‘You’re not one of us.’ The guy told me I’m the best teacher he’d seen in a classroom, I’m just not ‘one of us.’ I think it’s fairly conservative and somewhat deprived.
“I didn’t really have a hard time with the people of Dodge City. It was kind of an interesting culture there. But the weather was unpleasant. It was completely surrounded by cattle feed lots. It rains very rarely, but when it does rain, everything that’s evaporated form those feedlots comes down on the city. It’s basically like you’re walking out of your house into a cow urine and poo field.”
The first twenty-four releases in the Wood Records catalog were CD-R reissues of old Wyndham Garage tapes. The first new Wood release was therefore catalog number wd25, MWF’s 2000 B.C. It was a “suite for small midi chamber group [that] tells the sorrowful tale of Fritz Flintstein and his pals.” He tells me he had created this album while experimenting with a MIDI program he had obtained, MidiSoft. It was hard to do triplets in that program, so he didn’t bother. “It is probably the only album in existence which has no triplets in any music,” he laughs. It’s an unusual listen, verging on outsider music, like many of Wood’s releases:
Initially an outlet for Flake’s own music under the name MWF, the Wood website started to attract other artists, who sent Flake their demos in hopes of a release. “My guess is they just did a web search on where can I send my music that’s different, or something like that,” he says. “It probably only took a couple weeks for me to start getting a few emails from people asking, ‘Can I send you a disc, can I send you a cassette?'”
One mainstay of the Wood roster was a talented keyboard player who went by Lolwolf, who “was very much into prog rock and classical music, like Bach, and Gentle Giant.” Flake and Lolwolf also played together as EllenM (i.e. “L” and “M”). There are also two by-mail collaborations with experimental artists Ernesto Diaz-Infante, who had gotten in touch with Flake when he posted an ad on a musician’s resource website looking for musicians with similar interests.
“At the beginning especially, we got a lot of submissions from people who were doing more-or-less straightforward bar-band stuff, cover bands, things like that. Which of course would be completely impossible to release. Because if you’re doing Boston covers and sending them to me, that’s a big can of worms to open, not that I would want to release that anyway. After awhile, there was just something about it that attracted people that weren’t welcome elsewhere.”
Perhaps it is this that led to Wood Records’ roster of highly idiosyncratic artists, which include several remarkable finds. One was Johnny J from Sweden, who was one of the artists that sent Flake a demo. He mentions that they are still friends online. “Johnny is interesting. He seems to be a world traveler and a hardcore vegetarian.” Johnny has since become heavily into the conservative moment in Sweden.
Like many artists, all it took for Johnny J to get released was a demo. “He just sent me a disc of his material and I thought it was enjoyable. Not something I would go out and buy, mainly because of how the drums are handled. Sort of a techno-rock feel. I thought there was a market for it, and I liked Johnny personally.”
Then there was Charles Fyant, who also had sent Flake a tape. “I thought it was very sincere sounding,” Flake says. “He’s just sort of a no-BS guy. In terms of our whole aesthetic, what we look for is sincerity. Even if I don’t like it, if I feel it’s sincere, I can respect it. In the case of Charles, I actually liked his music, I enjoyed his guitar playing, and he’s a talented drummer as well. Charles and I did a collaboration as well did the Pill Poppers.”
“[Fyant] is very involved in making music. He plays in a lot of different bands in Montana. He’s very involved in his heritage, as a member of the Salish Native-American tribe.”
Then there was Knyaz Mishkin, a band from Belarus. “They just sent me some tapes,” Flake recalls. “It was a more thrash-y version of avant-garde guitar work. Kind of no wave, if Sonic Youth were angrier and less laid-back, and wanted to hurt their instruments a little bit more. That would be my take on them.”
Flake’s emphasis on sincerity is critical, because helps explain why Wood Records’ body of work is so unusual and so fascinating. The artists he releases often record unpolished music that is highly idiosyncratic in nature, and this is certainly true of Flake’s own work as MWF. I hesitate to bring up the “O” word, but in end, I ask Flake how he feels about the concept of outsider music, and how he might fit into it. “I think as far as my own music is concerned, I am self-taught which is usually called ‘naive’ and sometimes outsider, and I am often grouped with outsider musicians and composers,” he says, mentioning that he thinks he is filed under “outsider” in Jakki Di’s independently-published compendium on the topic, New Weird America: Freak Folk / Psych / Outsider Music.
“I would consider myself outsider in most of the other ways that term is used,” he reflects. “I am not really part of the world and don’t usually even consider myself part of the human race, and don’t think most of humanity would want to include me.” Careful not to generalize his own experiences, he adds, “I can’t speak for the other artists.”
Wood Records was not without an audience in its heyday. Flake tells me that the Wood Records samplers and tribute albums sold really well, and if an artist had a following, that would help bolster sales. But there were some Wood Records releases that never sold a single copy.
Flake was playing live intermittently around then, and a few live recordings found their way onto Wood, for example his 2003 album, Howling MWF.
Though Flake ran the label, he saw it is a collective effort between the artists who worked with him regularly. Some of the most successful efforts were his tribute albums, which included tributes to Phil Ochs (Poison Ochs), The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (Noises From the Limb), Nilsson (I’ll Never Leave You), Nina Hagen (Return to the Mother), and Barnes & Barnes (Party in My Palm).
He attracted a few bigger names to these compilations. Camper Van Chadbourne, a collaboration with Eugene Chadbourne and members of Camper Van Beethoven, contributed a memorable cover of “I Kill Therefore I Am” to the Phil Ochs comp. And the Bonzo Dog Band tribute featured tracks by R. Stevie Moore, Zoogz Rift, and Casper & the Cookies. Meanwhile, the early oddball band Barnes & Barnes became aware of Flake’s tribute album as it was being put together, even asking if Flake could include band member Bill Mumy’s son, Seth Mumy, on the compilation (he ended up contributing a version of “The Inevitable Song”). Barnes & Barnes even asked Flake if he would release their next album on Wood Records, but Flake told them he didn’t have the resources to press enough CDs for their audience.
Wood’s best-selling album of all time was Saturday Night Cedar, a 2005 label sampler. “The previous sampler had sold maybe 200 copies in the whole time it had been out,” he says. He recalls releasing Saturday Night Cedar, then waking up the next morning and being shocked by the orders that had poured in. It sold its full 500-copy edition in the space of the next two or three days!
But this posed a logistical challenge. “I was living in Dodge City then, and I didn’t have a lot of close friends there, so I had to do all that myself.” While Flake prides himself on his handmade packaging, he admits that Saturday Night Cedar‘s physical copies suffered visually due to the need to produce that many copies at once.
It’s hard to know how that release ended up selling so well. Most “promotion” came courtesy of the internet, but Flake tells me that, whenever he would travel, he would leave some samplers out around different towns, and would attach Wood Records magnets to the walls of public elevators. Those magnets provided the URL and featured Wood Records slogans like “Wood is Good” and “An Invitation to the Unusual.”
One of my favourite artifacts from the Wood Records catalog is now lost to time. It was Focus, an album by a duo from Italy named LAM. “It’s kind of like a cross between Santo and Johnny and Brian Eno,” Flake summarizes. He, too, considers it one of his favourites. “They just sent us a disc out of the blue, it came in the mail. And they already had put it together, all the production and engineering work. They even had their own graphic design work. All they needed was somebody to make it available to people.” Sadly, it wasn’t a big seller.
“I’m still friends with one of them, but long-distance friends,” Flake says of the members of LAM. “They seemed to be really interested in interesting music. We shared a lot of [interests]. I was very vocal on social media about my appreciation of Ennio Morricone, and they were very responsive to that. You can hear in their music that they really enjoy the music of Angelo Badalamenti, whose work I also enjoy. I think that they’ve broken up though, I haven’t seen any more music from them.”
Wood ended up winding down in the mid- to late-2000s because Flake found he didn’t have the same time to invest in ensuring that each Wood release was as great as he wanted. By then, he’d (actually) gotten out of Dodge City, moved to Wyoming for awhile (it’s a state he loves), and eventually found himself in Statesville, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte.
To me, Wood Records is a bit of an anomaly as far as small labels go. Flake and his friends’ outsider-ish approach to music has much in common with the hometaper scene of the eighties and early nineties, although of course Wood came a bit later and used CD-Rs. And Wood existed largely in parallel to last vestiges of hometaperism. Flake tells me he didn’t really correspond with other labels, nor did he trade Wood releases. “I was pretty focused on what we were doing and what our artists were doing, which may have been to our detriment,” he says, explaining that he hoped Wood would have sold more music overall — in order to get his and his artists’ music out into the world.
It is likely these factors that have led to Wood Records’ small online footprint. Saturday Night Cedar sold 500 copies, yet it only garners three mentions online! I think of Wood as one of those undiscovered artifacts from the dawn of the internet age, when physical music releases could be sold online by tiny record labels, but streaming and full album downloads hadn’t taken over.
Fortunately, Flake has been putting up some of his own MWF releases on YouTube in full. I encourage him to consider Bandcamp as another venue. Does this mean we may soon see the re-emergence of the Wood catalog online? Perhaps. But Flake is understandably cautious about posting other artists’ material online. He won’t do so unless he gets the go-ahead from the producers themselves.
Until then, good luck finding physical copies of these obscure Wood releases. Several albums sold in single digits, and those that sold more have somehow remained offline. Flake himself still has copies of almost everything, but those are for the private collection only.
Thanks to Mark Flake for the interview. His website showcases his visual art as well as his exploits with various media.