“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.
luvsound was a netlabel administrated by Erik Schoster that specialized in sound art. Between 2004 and 2010, it made a number of digital releases available, most of them single mp3 files. One of luvsound’s more curious artifacts was a four minute mp3 called “Tanger At Night,” produced by Nils Quak under the abbreviation NQ. What makes this sound file interesting is that it takes a short bit of audio and degrades it over and over again until it is nearly unrecognizable.
I contacted Quak to fill me in on the background behind this notable bit of sound art, and he was happy to furnish me with details. “In 2007 my father-in-law died and when we emptied out the house, I also checked the record collection — which had some nice records, such as a first pressing of Neu 2,” he tells me. “There were also a couple of seven-inch records with ‘world music’ recordings: Turkish, Chinese, Greek records and a lot of other stuff. There was also this flexi disc with klezmer music. Due to its age, the recording was already pretty worn out and sounded eerily beautiful.”
He explains that he recorded a couple of parts of that record to his computer and played around with them digitally, adjusting the pitch and speed, and adding effects like reverb and delay. “But even though they sounded gorgeous, I wasn’t able to arrange them into something coherent,” he explains.
“During that time, my commute was about one and a half hours each way. Since the largest part of the commute was by train, I often used the time to make music or to play with some ideas.” He explains that he was using a piece of audio production software called Max. That program provides producers with a visual interface to customize their music, which is much easier than having to program audio manually using text commands. Max is also highly modular, allowing independent programmers to create patches (or “externals”) which are custom methods of producing sound. When “Tanger At Night” came about, Quak was experimenting with a set of externals created by a programmer named André Sier. He tells me he was “quite into chaotic systems at that time,” and therefore gravitated towards Sier’s A-Chaos Lib –a set of patches designed to produce chaos using non-linear equations, through a mathematical concept known as “strange attractors.”
On one commute, he subjected the flexi disc’s klezmer loops to one of Sier’s A-Chaos externals called Lorenz. That external was named after a set of equations developed by a mathematician named Edward Lorenz; these equations, which generate chaotic results, are responsible for the concept of the butterfly effect.
“This led to a nice patchwork of loops fading in and out,” Quak recalls. “I remember finalizing the export of the audio file just seconds before I arrived at my home station.”
Yet he was unsatisfied with the results. “The recording still sounded way too clean and detailed for my taste and dirtying it up afterwards with distortion and waveshapers didn’t lead to the desired results.”
So he decided to go lo-fi. He thought of Alvin Lucier’s famous “I Am Sitting In A Room” experiment. Lucier’s concept was to record himself saying “I am sitting in a room,” then to play it back and record the playback, then to play that recording back and record it again, and so on. With each successive version, the resonant frequencies of the room, amplified relative to the rest of the audio, monopolize more and more of the sound field. Repeated enough times, the words themselves become inaudible, and all that’s heard are the resonant frequencies as tones.
Quak adapted this concept, using the tools at his disposal. “The lack of proper recording equipment led me to play this over my speakers and record it via my phone. I repeated this step various times in different locations around the apartment and outside on the street and the garden. So in this way the method differs from Lucier’s version, since I was not focusing on the room’s resonances, but always introduced new sounds and reverberations with each iteration. But since I always did at least a couple of recordings in each location, the resonances got superimposed on each other nevertheless, but not as much as in ‘I am sitting in a room.’”
He deliberately used cheap recording software and the sub-par microphone on his cell phone, adding to the sonic limitations and sense of degradation. “The speakers and microphones of the phone and dictaphone I used probably played a larger role here. Their strange frequency response definitively left a big mark on the recording. [My equipment was especially lacking] towards the extremes of the audio spectrum, so the lows and highs vanished more and more with each step.”
Indeed, listening to “Tanger At Night,” you would never know it started off life as klezmer. Instead it’s a tinny, foggy drone that seems to drift in and out of frame. It sounds a little like an early Emeralds tape.
In a sense, “Tanger” serves as a microcosm of Quak’s approach to sound art. “Chance and generative systems often play a role in my music,” he explains. “I like working with feedback systems, where the final result influences the starting point. But more often than not, this is not a deliberate decision, but comes with working with modular synthesizers.” He credits these highly customizable instruments with enabling him to design feedback systems, to tilt the balance towards randomness.
Interestingly, despite Quak’s technical knowhow and familiarity with sound art concepts, audio production is a hobby, not a career. “I never considered my music making as something that could have a career,” he says. “My relation to making music was formed in punk and hardcore bands and the related scenes. Making music was just a personal and social practice I enjoyed. I never wanted to turn this into a profession. I like playing small shows, releasing some records here and there, meeting people, and getting the chance to hang out with them for an evening. That’s all I ever wanted and that’s still what I do at 43.”
When “Tanger At Night” came out, it was the same story. “I was working at a regular job, trying to get the most out of my spare time, making music, hanging out with friends.”
Eleven years down the line, he is happy with how “Tanger” turned out. “I really liked how it all came together after struggling with the initial sounds,” he explains. “It’s weird that sometimes you can’t fit all the pieces together for ages and then at some point it just clicks and it comes together super easily and you already know what to do with the next step. The recording had that vibe, even though it was quite a long process. I still enjoy it today, but I haven’t listened to it for years until you contacted me. It has this weird familiarity: On the one hand listening to it brings back fragments of memories and at the same time it feels like listening to somebody else’s work, because it’s been so long since I listened to it closely.”
Thanks to Nils Quak for the interview and images. “Tanger At Night” is still available via luvsound’s archive.org page.Nils Quak’s Bandcamp page features many of his sound experiments.
“This seemed so stupid at the time that I had to try it.”
In 2004 and 2005, a Portland, Oregon label called SRR, about which little information persists, put out a series of one-minute cassettes called “Waste of Plastic.”
Short music is an area of study unto itself, but this series is notable because it produced at least eighteen releases, including tapes by noise music legends like The Haters, The Rita, Pedestrian Deposit, and The Cherry Point. Each edition was one minute in length, meaning 30 seconds per side.
The main surviving relic of Waste of Plastic is an incomplete Discogs listing , but through some complicated web searching, I was able to track down Travis Henke, who ran the label.
“So I started SRR while I was a junior in high school in 2003,” he tells me. “I was from Portland, Oregon at the time, which had a rather robust noise scene during those years. My first introduction to noise was through a no-wave band I was playing in at the time.”
That band’s vocalist, Dennis Naslund — whom Henke considers “the most interesting person I’ve ever known,” was into bands like Negativland, Smegma, and The Residents, which was how Henke got interested in experimental music. Henke and Naslund formed the band ith/ist/ism, which put out a few releases on Naslund’s bizarre label, The Terrorists Win!
“During that time, our whole interest was just doing absurd things with music,” Henke says. “We primarily recorded found sounds, junk covered in contact mics, circuit bent toys, etc. I think we even did a Crass cover.”
Eventually, Henke formed his own solo noise project named Dance Wounds. “I really had no idea what I was doing and just set off with a couple of distortion pedals, a contact mic I made from a piezoelectric transducer from Radio Shack, and a Behringer mixer. I started a tape label just to get my own stuff out there, which I called Self Released Records.”
Prior to getting involved in noise, he was interested in hardcore punk, and especially the hyper-fast, hyper-short genre known as powerviolence. That’s how he came across Slap-A-Ham’s seminal miniature (and unplayable) records, specifically a two-inch record by The Slight Slappers and a one-inch record by Spazz. “I never owned a copy of those two SAH releases, but a friend did. I seem to remember them being Barbie records that were repurposed. Oddly enough, that friend is now putting out 3” lathe cut records of powerviolence bands that are allegedly playable.”
Those novelty records fueled an interest in “ridiculous music formats,” which he parlayed into several experiments. “I made a split ‘record’ between Dance Wounds and (fellow noise artist) Haruki Murakami. I took some old jazz 45 and, using Elmer’s glue, stuck it to a piece of cardboard. When I peeled off the 45, it left a ‘negative’ of the record, which is still playable (although it could mess up your needle).”
That record, SRR023, is listed on Discogs but no photos of it exist. Neither Henke nor Paul Nemeth, who is the man behind Haruki Murakami, have any remaining copies.
Henke also put out an anti-record by Dennis Naslund and the Broken Records, titled Soundtrack For a Landfill. Each copy featured two pieces of 10″ records stuck together with duct tape. As the liner notes warned:
“WARNING: This Record WILL fuck up your needle. DO NOT play it on a decent turntable with a needle you don’t want ruined. For the proper effect, either switch your regular needle out with a shitty one or use your parents’ old busted up record player. This will produce the intended sound and save you the headache of having to repair your record player. Enjoy!
“Even odd formats that were still somewhat user-friendly interested me,” Henke explains. “I remember putting out a Maim business card CD-R (SRR014), which seemed like the most ridiculous format I could think of at the time.” (That format has since become common on noise labels.)
The idea for Waste of Plastic occurred in 2004. “I was placing a bulk order for cassettes and noticed that you could buy them in any increment of time down to one minute, meaning that each side would be 30 seconds long. This seemed so stupid at the time that I had to try it. I ended up titling the series ‘Waste of Plastic’ because it was the best description I could think of for a one-minute cassette.”
He would sell copies of his tapes on the message board for the Troniks record label, which was a popular hub for noise fans and artists in the early 2000s. Many of the artists who put out tapes as part of the Waste of Plastic series were active on that forum in the early 2000s.
Henke also disseminated his tapes in other ways. “I did a lot of label trades to get the tapes out to other people,” he says, “But the most I ever made of anything was 50, so it ended up being rather easy to sell out of everything. I went to an art school for high school and some of my friends were into experimental stuff, but I kept the label pretty separate from the rest of my personal life. “
His Waste of Plastic tapes came out in fifty-copy editions, with each one meticulously assembled by hand. “Most of my memories of doing the tapes were the numerous all-nighters I would pull at Kinkos. A good friend of mine managed it so I was able to do all my printing for free, but only in the middle of the night. I guess the other cool thing I remember was Thurston Moore always bought stuff from me, which seemed really random.”
Thurston Moore was not the only one buying these tapes; their unique concept likely endeared them to collectors. “Some of them sold out immediately, but ultimately, people were buying them pretty regularly as soon as a new one would come out. I think it was just the novelty of the length that was appealing for people. I’ve always been a fan of record clubs like Sub Pop, so looking back I wish I structured it more like that, where each month a new one would come out for members.”
He figures he had gained some credibility before starting the Waste of Plastic series, since by then he had already put out tapes by established noise acts on his SRR label. “Back then, the noise scene was kind of weird. It wasn’t completely over-saturated but there were definitely artists who would let any new tape label put something out for them, which I think may have cheapened the allure for listeners. The Cherry Point was one of those few artists who was excessively prolific but still viewed as a major contender in the scene.”
Today, the tapes are largely lost to the annals of time, though one wonders if Thurston Moore still has his copies. “Unfortunately, I do not own a single thing I’ve released,” Henke says. “I’m not really sure why. For some releases, I ended up selling my own personal copies to people who wanted them, just because I would rather someone else have the music to listen to. I’ve been able to find mp3s of some of the stuff on Soulseek, but there were some SRR releases limited to 8 copies that are gone forever.”
Henke indulges me for a minute and tells me what he can remember from this elusive series.
WOP3: The Found My Naked Corpse Face Down in the Snow – Untitled
“Wasn’t even a noise band, but rather an emo violence band that Dennis Naslund sang in.”
WOP5: The Haters – Audiothecary
“It was just a single tone throughout. The privilege of putting something out by The Haters was enough that it didn’t matter, but that one just seemed a little ‘phoned-in.'”
WOP8: Ahlzagailzehguh – Damaging Habits C1 (WOP8)
“I think my favorite out of all of them was the Alhzagailzehguh tape. There just seemed to be so much packed into 30 seconds.”
Some other highlights from the series include the first Waste of Plastic release, which was Generica by noise veteran Pop Culture Rape Victim (a.k.a. Matt Taggart). Another notable release was Hereyesran by the local Portland noise artist Nkondi (a.k.a. Erik Arteaga), who ran the prolific noise label dollfullofrivets.
Henke recalls there being 18 tapes in total. Three are not listed on Discogs (WOP10, WOP12, WOP14), and Henke could not recall the details on their identities. Fortunately, this catalog provides the details (but not images) of two of them. WOP12 is another tape by Naslund’s “emo violence” band, They Found My Naked Corpse Face Down In The Snow, entitled Spragg Vs. Sporr. And WOP14 is Dennis Naslund under his own name, with the provocatively titled Unconscious Cheerleaders / Central Park Joggers. That leaves WOP10 unaccounted for — a mystery for the ages!
I ask Henke how he feels about the project a decade and a half later. His feelings are mixed. “Looking back on it, I feel like the execution could have been better from an aesthetic standpoint. The design for the tapes is garbage. I let the artists provide their own cover art, but the overall layout was done by me to keep things consistent but I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing.
“I ended up stopping SRR in 2005 since I had graduated high school, was living on my own, and was too broke to put out tapes on a consistent basis.” Henke has since switched tacks and is on his way to a successful non-musical career, but he retains an interest in adventurous audio. “I haven’t kept up with the scene since then, but I still enjoy power electronics and death industrial,” he says. “I have played in other bands since then, all sorts of stuff.” He’s even started up a new coldwave project. But that’s another story.
Do you know the identity of Waste of Plastic tape #10? If so, please leave a comment or email me!
“I sincerely believe that every ventilation system becomes, or is, a wind instrument.”
In 2006, Éric La Casa put out a collection of recordings with an unusual concept. Fascinated by the ventilation systems that circulate air through modern buildings, he set about collecting audio from air ducts around town. He recorded thirty different samples, adjusted their volume levels to keep their loudness standard, and collected them on this CD in two minute intervals.
In the process of producing AIR.ratio, La Casa became an expert in the very contemporary phenomenon of mechanical air circulation. Via email, he tells me about how he developed his obsession with ventilation — and what went into creating AIR.ratio, which I suspect is the first album made entirely out of air duct recordings.
“Since my arrival in Paris in the early nineties, I lived in a Haussman-style building,” La Casa explains, referring to the big, cut-stone edifices created in the mid-19th century. “My daily life was that of a Parisian citizen whose indoors life was not governed by the standards of the end of the 20th century. The insulation in my apartment was as uncertain as the ventilation. The window was my only access to outside light and air. But the walls themselves seemed to breathe.”
But one day in 1994, he found himself in a friend’s modern bathroom, where his attention shifted to the air vent above the bathtub. “One of my friends had just rented an apartment in a building built in the eighties,” he tells me. While visiting that friend, he realized how much of everyday life is governed by industrial design. “The door code, the elevator, and even mechanical ventilation had become germane to life in Paris. All of this had become the standard of living,” he says.
“The elevator and the ventilation caught my attention very quickly. I have always appreciated the relationship between sound and space: how sound is diffused and how it informs me about the design of the environment. My awareness of mechanical ventilation in someone’s home was like a brutal shock. I was discovering that architecture could allow rooms to exist that don’t have windows. And in my friend’s bathroom, when I closed the door for the first time, I’m in the dark, with a constant sound that I don’t immediately think of as mechanical ventilation.
“And then, I rapidly became interested in all those Parisian rooms, public or private, without windows, which owe their survival to ventilation. And I was struck by the fact that each room has its own sonic identity due to the sound of the air extractor and the aeraulic system.”
That was in 1994. In the year 2000, he decided to start recording these vents. At the time, he didn’t have a final project in mind. “By dint of recording, and constantly being drawn to these air devices, I ended up with my final project. For over a year I did nothing more than that.” Today, he figures he created AIR.ratio to expunge himself of his air duct obsession; he figures he could have become pigeonholed as an artists who focused exclusively on ventilation systems. “But this is not my artistic endeavor,” he reflects.
Making the recordings in public spaces posed its own challenge. He attached two condenser microphones to a boom and held them up to vents and air conditioning conduits. They had to be suspended in the air, not quite touching the vents.
It turns out that it wasn’t easy to convince everyone about the goals of his recording, though many did seem receptive. “I often received a warm welcome when I explained the importance of the sound dimension in their interiors,” La Casa recalls. “But most of the time, I didn’t have permission to record, and had to sneak in with my equipment. Fortunately, the world was not as safe as it is today… I often arrived with my equipment completely dismantled and had to put everything back together quickly without attracting outside attention. And when you are in a toilet, installing equipment, quietly, it creates a bit of a weird situation with ordinary public toilet users. I often found myself in a washroom listening to a ventilator that sounded astonishing but but barely perceptible, while people waited to get in… before giving up.”
The disc collects two minute samples of each recording, each one identified by its specific location. Locations include a hospital, library, art gallery, and apartment. La Casa explains that bathrooms were often the easiest places to record to avoid drawing too much attention.
La Casa has thought deeply about ventilation systems. At one point, he hosted a radio show where he met professionals in the interior design industry, including architects, engineers, acousticians, and a sociologist. He worked with an organist, Jean-Luc Guionnet, which led him to draw a connection between the organ’s pipes and the air conduits in buildings. “I sincerely believe that every ventilation system becomes, or is, a wind instrument,” he tells me. “A continuous breathing system. As with an instrument, what happens in an air network is linked to the complexity of its architecture.”
The curves and twists in a building’s air ducts are analogous to the turns and valves in a musical instrument. This is why the vents he recorded all sound different. And much of the differences and sound have to do with imperfections in the system, which can occur for many reasons.
La Casa explains that, when buildings are being designed, the ventilation ducts need to be planned via sets of complex calculations. If those calculations are off, you’ll get turbulence — which produces noise.
Then there’s wear and tear. These networks of ducts must be kept in good, clean order. “A system that plays with forced air always ends up producing unforeseen effects if you didn’t have any maintenance,” he warns.
And lastly, there is basic user error. Since few people know why ventilation systems exist, many will unwittingly disrupt the system’s flow, for example by putting furniture in front of a vent. This one indiscretion can throw off the entire building’s ventilation network as a whole, causing turbulence and noise.
La Casa explains that mechanical ventilation was developed by engineers to solve a technical problem — circulating air in rooms that don’t have direct access to the outdoors via windows. But those engineers didn’t consider how users were adopt their system; those answers, instead, would have lain within the fields of anthropology and sociology. For example, cultural beliefs about the purpose of ventilation — and its adverse effects — have emerged over time. “Depending on the period, theories have spread in our societies to make mechanical ventilation responsible for benefits (filtration of fine particles …) or, on the contrary, for problems (mainly on health, instead of sound).”
La Casa explains that engineers are keen to develop technical solutions to human problems. And, La Casa points out, “mechanical ventilation technically meets new interior standards for human habitation while preserving the building.” As a consequence, it has been implemented universally.
“Living in southern Italy and northern Scandinavia is not at all the same. But in the end, it becomes the same in terms of normalizing indoor comfort. Architects seized on the fact that one can use the mechanization of the air in a building to expand their vocabulary. Thus, the interior space today is more and more equipped and governed by increasingly sophisticated techniques to guarantee and meet the standards of comfort of human life.”
The architects and engineers who design air conduits do take their sonic properties into account, but in a highly technical way. “Each object is defined by its sound level, which now meets strict specifications and noise standards. I went to a building measurement center to understand how these exhaust air measurements were made. In an empty building of typical dimensions, measurement microphones record the sound level. Here, no one cares whether the permanence of this noise in a space is desirable, or whether the user really wants it. The technical obviousness of a mechanical air system is something everyone now has to accept. In fact, the issue of noise is completely peripheral, even secondary. Engineers are more concerned with the flow of air in space. They don’t like people asking about noise.
“For AIR.ratio I put them face-to-face with this question while inviting them to be creative in their way of arranging their systems: why not call on musicians from the design stage to get out of the strictly technical culture and try to instead deal with the ‘musical’ question beyond noise? Let’s get out of this noise culture to see that we live in a complex sound world that could also have hidden musical goals.”
La Casa, who has produced an extensive discography, still looks back on AIR.ratio fondly. “I find that what ventilation tells us — about contemporary architecture, our relationship to the exterior, our need for control, our society, its relationship also to noise, and to the continuous, therefore to time, etc. — is particularly rich in teaching and expressiveness, and therefore artistic potential. I could continue to work on ventilation to this day. But because I don’t want to become an expert on this at all, I’m not sure I should. It seems to me that AIR.ratio allows us to enter into this topic of ventilation through our listening – which is quite an original way to address this question.”
Since creating AIR.ratio, La Casa hasn’t stopped thinking about ventilation systems. “Ventilation is at the center of our new strategy of living indoors, bringing to us the vital elements of our survival: water, air, electricity, and now food… This is the gradual establishment of an internalization of our society. The inside has now taken on more importance in our lives than the outside. Everything seems to indicate that we are spending more and more time indoors, and that goes through the elevation of indoor comfort. Ventilation is clearly one of the essential components of this strategy. Air is now an important building issue.
“To sum up: we have moved from the fields to the offices, and for that we had to increase the comfort of life and accentuate our technical and even technological efforts. And this is a process that accelerated at the end of the 20th century. It is a constant thought of engineers, and an increasingly growing demand from residents, to meet the new challenges facing the city.”
Thanks to Éric La Casa for the interview. Visit his website here, and his Bandcamp here.
“All Flat Affect work is people’s pain put to music.”
One evening, I found myself perusing a book of reviews of floppy disk releases compiled by Kai Nobuko, who runs the profusely prolific Yeah I Know It Sucks blog. On that website, he reviews a never-ending stream of contemporary music releases, almost all of them both bizarre and ludicrously obscure.
One review caught my eye. It was a six-artist album contained on two floppy disks, packaged in a paper cover made of recycled elephant feces, and limited to sixteen copies. In 2012, it came out on the SP label, a busy imprint run from 2004 to 2015 by Shaun Phelps, a noise artist who records as Flat Affect.
Phelps tells the story of how elephant feces ended up in the packaging of his release. “A good friend of mine, sadly he died about four years ago, got a job as a counselor through the military and it brought him to a variety of places. When he returned from one of his assignments he gifted me with a pad of recycled elephant shit. At that time my label, SP, was just starting to gain attention and notoriety for absurd noise releases on obscure formats. This is one of about ten releases I did in a short succession that locked my reputation in place at that time.”
I ask Phelps if he had pondered the philosophical and conceptual value of a dung-packaged release before putting it out, but it turned out it was more of a spur of the moment thing. “There wasn’t much thought put into it, I don’t think. I had this paper, and it was perfectly sized for a floppy disk. I posted on my group that I wanted to do a release in recycled elephant shit and received a lot more interest than I’d expected. So I gave everyone a kilobyte limit and then worked with Kai (Toxic Chicken) and Patrick (RedSK) on the theme a bit.”
Toxic Chicken and RedSK are two of the six artists on the split, along with Phelps himself, recording under the Flat Affect name. Eyerabbitmachine, another artist, was one of Phelps’ local friends.
Another contributor was Alexander Bianco, who put out a few noise releases in 2012 before disappearing. “He’s an interesting one,” Phelps tells me. “This is the second or third release I did with him. We released one floppy disk just released in toilet paper. He was very motivated and inspired and asked to release a castration themed compilation. We made plans and he got some big names involved. Wolf Eyes, David E Williams, I, Parasite, and a ton of other artists. I bought him some fancy equipment and he got right to the end and disappeared. He left about thirty pissed-off artists in the wake. He had all the tracks, what a mess! Haha. I see his profiles show up online sometimes and try to say, “hey!” And he’s never responded. He was a nice guy, I’d like to know where his life went from there.”
Several tracks embrace the elephant theme through a process of free association. “I think we all laid out some tracks near immediately, so there was a stream of consciousness effect. The idea of elephant shit was fresh in our minds. It was a fun exercise that captured the enthusiasm of our budding internet scene. We did this with a few other releases, just a revolving cast of enthusiasts with a growing list of repeat players. We did the Three Way Floppy Fuck which was packaged with magnum condoms with holes poked through them. The Rainbow Compilation with children’s artwork, petrified pancakes, peemixes, the list goes on. If it was absurd enough or interesting enough of an idea there was a group of us ready to record and release, and an audience that ate it up.
“As Flat Affect I maintained that music recorded in any moment told a story, held a value, and was a snapshot of a moment worthy of saving. So while a lot of artists spend a lot of time in production, the tracks I was making were pretty raw, and would go through edits, merge with other tracks and samples. The audio became a living thing and was colored by the topics and enthusiasm of the moment. So in one release you may hear similar sound structures except with a liveliness, sadness, or elaboration that was purely for by the moment or experience.”
When asked about his thoughts today on this goofy floppy disk release, he reflects positively on time. “I’m glad I made it. I always feel a little silly about it, because the shit really was just paper at that point. No smell to it. Still, it was hilarious to say, and a fun project for everyone to have a good laugh on the chat boards and to create.”
The SP Story
In 2004, Shaun Phelps, then studying to become a therapist and working both as an assistant manager at a Hot Topic and for the Department of Children and Families, was engrossing himself in the noise and industrial scene in his local Panama City, Florida. Part of the state’s Panhandle, it was home to a nascent collection of fringe music followers who congregated at house parties and at a coffee shop named The Java where they staged shows, often to an audience of four or five individuals. After the original coffee shop closed, it cycled through many different owners, with different levels of tolerance for the kids who came to shows. Sometimes they would instead stage shows in the park next door, or play at venues down the street.
The scene expanded in the mid-2000s. “We went from very small venues with not many people to over a hundred people showing up to the shows,” Phelps remembers. “Skeleton Key, a Grammy-nominated band, came out and played, and the dynamic was so funny. The band playing before them was Kid Caboose and the Lunchbox Crew and they were just eating Doritos on stage with some silly background Casio keyboards, and everyone was really hyped and involved. And then Skeleton Key got on and the crowd just got tired and slowly wandered off. I felt for them, and I could see it on their faces, that was not what they were expecting after seeing the first show. The time was ripe for that kind of sound.”
Phelps recalls another show, which took place in a park near The Java during a period when the cafe’s ownership wasn’t letting them play. He handed out torn-out and defaced pages from a Bible to attendees, and, while playing, threw pieces of raw chicken dipped in fake blood at the audience. Another band that played, Tenticular Genocide, beat each other up with milk crates while on stage. “We showed up the next morning though, and someone was getting married there, and I can only imagine… there must have been stains and possibly chicken parts everywhere, and there was a marriage. And it was beautiful that this was happening in the park where we were just destroying stuff and messing around.”
Phelps was highly involved in the scene at this point, and would create flyers and help promote shows. He recalls being at one show and chatting with Christopher Jon, a member of the band I, Parasite, who was running the merch table. “Then he excused himself and jumped on stage and did his music,” Phelps explains. They ended up hitting it off, and Jon allowed Phelps to put out a few unreleased I, Parasite tracks himself. Phelps founded SP for the occasion, adopting his own initials for the name, and packaging the release in printer paper. It was limited it to a scant thirty copies.
The initials are an interesting story. At the time, Phelps was working at the Department of Children and Families, which involved laborious paperwork due to the legal repercussions of his assessments. He was required to initial some documents two hundred times in various different places, developing a shortcut where he merged the S and P together — which became the SP logo. Although the letters started out initials, he tells me that their identity expanded over time. “It stands for about fifty billion things,” Phelps says. “When the group was going on full-blast, we would have threads that ran for about half a mile, just coming up with everything possible that SP could stand for. I’m sure Superfluous Poop was listed at least once.”
After the I, Parasite release, SP was, for awhile, mainly a platform for Phelps to put out his own releases, small releases that he mainly distributed to friends. “A lot of those early releases were actually demos. As I made a track, I would make a little three-inch CD, because I thought they were so cool looking, and I would pass them off to people that were interested in hearing them. I was just really pleased with what I could accomplish sonically.”
He had a fascination with the psychological terminology he was learning in school, and focused several of his efforts on the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, initially recording one CDR under the name Alogiac Avolution before shifting to his most frequently-appearing pseudonym, Flat Affect.
“I was studying psychology. At that point, it was my minor for my Bachelor degree, and I hadn’t decided I would do the Masters program yet. It just stood out that your ability to speak could go away, your ability to be motivated can go away. Your interest in hygiene. All of these things that we take for granted could just be removed from you in that age range, the late teens to early twenties. All of a sudden all this hope and all these dreams can be removed, just one little piece at a time.”
Around this time, he discovered Facebook groups where noise and experimental artists and labels were congregating, and started circulating his noise recordings to international labels like Snip-Snip (Music For Muscle Relaxers) and Smell The Stench (Mute Verses). He arrived at an aesthetic that became somewhat popular.
“I would record people telling really upsetting stories from their lives. I would have people calling and leaving me voice mails if they were upset, or to tell me some traumatic event that happened to them. And then I would take those voice mails and put them into the music, and kind of muddy it up and mush it up. It got a really good reaction and it grew a fanbase pretty quick. Not like a stadium-filling fanbase, but enough around the world that I started to gain some notability.”
His first release that employed this process was Mute Verses, a 2008 EP that came out on Smell the Stench. “It had four tracks on it, and it was four different females, and they’re all on the cover of the album,” he explains. All were invited to leave voice mails that could be incorporated in the release. Its artwork features images of the four women, making for a startlingly vulnerable piece.
The second half of the 2000s saw Phelps primarily releasing his own music on SP, but the label would eventually become associated with a hyper-productive period between 2009 and 2014. During that time, Phelps experimented with different formats and unusual packaging, and collaborated with artists from across the globe.
He started to develop SP’s aesthetic in that late 2000s period, dabbling in handmade packaging that often incorporated shocking imagery. A three-way split between Flat Affect, DRK, and Shitcaster was handed out to attendees at a live improv jam in April 2008, and came packaged with cut-out images of pornography. A solo Flat Affect release from September 2008, [Heresy], came packaged in pages from the Bible desecrated with images of pornography.
“If you can believe it, Bibles are easily accessible and people are willing to give them to you for free if you look like I do,” Phelps says. “For years, I collected Gideon Bibles. I took my first one from the hospital when my son was born. As far as I know, I’d collected every single colour of Gideon Bible that ever existed. It was this beautiful spectrum of them, and they became a centrepiece. And people internationally got involved in looking for these Bibles for me. So I would just get Bibles in the mail and I would up with a large amount of them. When my home was destroyed, the Bibles were holding up the ceiling in the kitchen, so that collection died with the house.”
He tells me about his fascination with shocking imagery, which became a hallmark of the SP aesthetic. “The noise scene, it’s a lot of in-your-face imagery and themes. A lot of what I did was horror, pornography, religion, and psychology. I liked offensive themes.” At that time, he also struck up a working relationship with a controversial figure in the noise scene, who used fascist imagery as part of his shtick. Phelps tells me that he does not at all share a fascist viewpoint.
Curious about the incongruence between his label’s shock tactics and his day job as a therapist, I asked Phelps about where his penchant for controversial imagery comes from. “I grew up overseas, a military brat. I came to America, and I’d always wanted to live in America, but when I got there I learned there’s a difference between being an American in America and being an American by existence. When I went in, I did not fit, and the acculturation went poorly. The social rejection, isolation kind of thing. I started moving in that goth / industrial direction.
“Then I happened to be one of those folks with a trench coat and make-up when Columbine happened, and that got me expelled. Death threats. And I had to move out of town. I spent a lot of time angry, and was treated poorly at the hands of religion, ‘good moral values,’ highfalutin’ folk. So I saw the ugly side of what is otherwise touted as the highest morals of the land. So I spent years in this fuck-you mindset. As a therapist, I’m really good at what I do because I can relate. Like, you won’t shock me with what you have to say. It’s not a prerequisite to be a good therapist, but it gave me an angle on life that few get to have.”
His Flat Affect and SP work seems to have acted as a purgative. “It took a long time to come out of the anger,” Phelps tells me. “And it still existed through a lot of this, played a role through a lot of the interactions. I’ve grown a lot since then. Like you pointed out, it’s been a few years since all this started. It’s been a process, and I had a lot of growth to do still.
“All Flat Affect work is people’s pain put to music. It really is in there. It’s just a large attempt to process, I guess. It’s not like everything that’s dark is wrong by any means. The community that was engaged in this, we’re all putting out this scary-looking-on-the-outside packaging. We were close-knit and we still, a lot of us, are. We would do a lot for each other to this day. There’s a camaraderie that comes from being an outsider and I think this kind of shows it.”
At the end of the 2000s, Phelps entered into the most prolific phase of SP history, which he credits to his enthusiastic nature. “If I’m passionate about something, I go all in on that something. I’m a collector, I’m an enthusiast, and I like cool things. It’s almost like a mania that kind of comes in and takes over, and it’s a contagious enthusiasm that other people join in on.”
From 2010 through 2014, he put out droves of music, including releases on a variety of formats. One boon to this productive period was his discovery of a wealth of packaging materials at his old job.
“I was working in a visitation centre at a mental health facility and they were clearing out their stuff from the eighties. There were all these old Rorschach tests and old dictaphone cassettes, and just a ton of office supplies that they no longer needed, as well as neat recording equipment. And so I raided it. I took everything. And then I had this excess. Like what do I need a stack of 50 Rorschach grading papers for?”
Those items were incorporated into several SP releases. His Music for Mental Health compilation incorporates the old Rorschach tests into its packaging. A split between Flat Affect and Consistency Nature uses several Thematic Apperception Test cards — it’s a projective psychological test where a participant looks at an illustration and comes up with a story to describe the image.
He also tells me about his ADHD compilation, which came out on an obscure floppy disk variant that was 720 KB in size, as opposed to the usual 1.4 MB format. Always on the lookout for unusual formats, he tracked down a bunch of these floppies on eBay, only to learn that, in order to copy files to it, he had to acquire a computer with a particular floppy drive in it. And that this computer would had to be running an operating system that was Windows Millennium or earlier. After a plea on Facebook for a computer that fit the bill, he tracked one down, and was able to realize the unique compilation. A group of associations contributed tracks, and 24 copies were made.
At SP’s peak, Phelps delegated components of the label to friends on the scene. Operations for SPnet, the netlabel division of SP, were taken over by Reed Forman, an Alaskan artist who records as Doomettes. Meanwhile, the European division of SP, named SPeu, was taken over by a Dutch artist named Johan Nedepal as a strategy to reduce transatlantic shipping fees. And he collaborated with the floppy-disk-only label, Top of the Flops, to create SPTOtfSP.
But around this time, in the mid-2010s, he also became busier from a personal standpoint. His career responsibilities increased, he was raising his children, and there no longer was time to commit the same level of energy to the label.
When he looks back, there are mixed feelings. “There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. But it’s a little bit muddy because I truly felt guilty and low and at a bad time in my life when this all ended. And there were a lot of hurt feelings. And so I kind of put this behind me in a box, and hid from it. But there’s so much cool stuff to explore.”
He compares his SP time to Forrest Gump running across America, then one day just deciding he’d had enough, and abruptly stopping. “It was something from nothing. It got so big, more than I ever wanted; it went from a hobby to work. It went from I’ve got the resources to do this, to I’m in debt. And enthusiasm alone was not enough to carry it.” Several bridges were burned, including with the person who ran SP’s netlabel, who Phelps suspects was upset by his waning enthusiasm for the label. He tells me he’s learned a lesson about not trying to be “everything to everyone,” reflecting that enthusiasm can be blinding.
During our Skype interview, Phelps moves his laptop to show me a room in which he keeps his enormous collection of CDR and CD releases. The collection was once larger, but boxes of items were lost in Hurricane Michael, which hit Panama City especially hard. Today, his CDs are stacked nearly from floor to ceiling without shelving. He tells me these towers of jewel cases include SP and many non-SP releases, including countless hopelessly obscure one-off releases and demos, especially in the domains of experimental, noise, and industrial music. He figures that he owns the only extant copies of many of these. I joke, sort of, that his collection must comprise a national archive at this point.
I wonder to Phelps about where his passion for physical releases comes from. “I’m a collector,” he reflects. “I love hunting for things, and I love finding cool things. The more unique the better. I think when I make releases like this I want to make something that would be a ‘Wow, what the hell is this?!’ level of interesting.
“And with obscure formats, well… You have to work for them. You have to dig to find the medium. And, honestly as I pull these out of storage and look at them, they all tell stories. So these gifts keep giving. And as you say, it is fun. The creative process going into a release like this built a lot of great dialogues and friendships. We are all a part of something unique and strange.”
I love record labels that specialize in inventive packaging, and this installment of Label Archaeology does not disappoint. Ghent, Belgium’s Cling Film-Records was noteworthy for releasing experimental music in unusual packages. For example:
The cassette is inside, along with the components of a first aid kit. The audio on the tape itself is by the influential experimental duo Klangkrieg, i.e. Felix Knoth (a.k.a. Felix Kubin) and Tim Buhre.
Laura Maes, who was one half of the team behind Cling Film-Records, describes this unusual release to me via email. “Felix and Tim liked the idea to create a musical aid kit,” she says. “The cans were sealed by a company. Inside each can is not only the tape, but also a pill and an injection needle. The cold, sterile look of the packaging resembled the mechanical sounds of Klangkrieg. The fun part was that people really had to open it with a can-opener. Die-hard fans of Klangkrieg sometimes even bought two so they could leave one unopened.”
This is but one of many packaging innovations spearheaded by the label, which was run by Maes with her then-partner Kevin Van Volcem. I spoke with both of them via email to learn about their project. Today, Kevin lives in Bruges where he works as an architect, runs a bed-and-breakfast and two vacation homes, and leads an electro wave band called We Are Ooh People. Maes teaches at the Conservatory in Ostend and is the artistic director of the Logos Foundation, an experimental music and sound art center based in Ghent.
“Kevin and I founded Cling Film somewhere in 1996,” Maes told me. “I was in my final year of high school (afterwards I studied at the Royal Conservatory of Ghent), Kevin studied architectural engineering at the University of Ghent. We were students and we enjoyed going to concerts and listening to experimental music. We decided to start a record label of experimental music, with hand-made packaging and limited editions. At that time very few concerts of experimental music or sound art exhibitions were organised in Belgium. Artists contacted us to ask if we could organize a gig in Belgium or if we know someone who could. So, not long after the start of the label, we began to organize small events as well.”
They tell me they were inspired by the unique packaging of releases on the Drone Records label, a German industrial imprint run since 1991 which by then had put out a number of vinyl releases with hand-painted and hand-drawn covers. They also drew influence from Koji Tano’s legendary MSBR Records label, which pioneered a number of extravagant packaging ideas. Maes specifically identifies the Daniel Menche/MSBR 7″ on MSBR as a point of inspiration; it came in a cardboard box covered in concrete.
As a result, it is no surprise that the first Cling Film release was a Koji Tano production. “The first release was MSBR, the noise guru of Japan,” Van Volcem says. “He made a lot of releases and was a wonderful guy — unfortunately he died in 2005. He lived for noise music and liked to give small labels the opportunity to release his music.”
“We just mailed him and presented our concept,” Maes says. “He was captured by our enthusiasm and he liked the idea of a tape label and handmade packaging.”
“So our first release was a big name in the scene, which was a good start to get us known,” Van Volcem reflects. “He was into Japanese masks and gave us, I think, four pictures of self-made masks we could use for the artwork. We wanted to make the packaging not too difficult, but [also wanted it] to match the music. Therefore we came up with the idea of using metal wire to wrap the tape. It has sharp edges and suited the noise music on the tape. It also looked like the tape was in a cage, held back by the metal, but once opened the noise on the tape represented the anger of the tape being caught.”
I wondered what inspired the label’s name. “We were searching for a name when a roll of plastic foil on the table caught our eye,” Maes explains. “Cling film was born. We liked the name as ‘cling’ refers to sound and we also organised sound art and film projections, so ‘film’ was also appropriate.”
After the MSBR release, Cling Film put out a number of different releases, many showcasing Maes and Van Volcem’s affinity for handmade productions. I went through a number of the more notable releases with them to understand their background.
Asche & Morgenstern – That Loop In My Eye (CF05, 1997)
A collaborative work between Andreas Schramm and Andrea Börner-Schramm, this one included some old-timey pornography on the tape label itself. Yet the real production is the over-sized cassette package.
“There was a store in the center of Ghent that had a large stock of wallpaper from the sixties and seventies,” Maes says. “We decided to do something with those psychedelic designs and came up with a large, but very impractical packaging. It sold out anyway and Andreas Schramm was fond of the final result.
“The tape and its packaging were conceived as a piece of kitsch art. The tape formed the center of the ‘art’piece. It even had a hook on the back of the packaging so it could be hung on a wall. It came with a little bell in the middle of the packaging. The borders were made of polyurethane foam.”
Aube – Moment In Fragrance (CF03, 1996)
Aube, of course, is the sound project of Akifumi Nakajima, a Japanese artist known for using only one sound source per release, for example Pages From the Book, which is composed of the processed sounds of him tearing apart a Bible. On this release, Nakajimi uses only Roland’s early synthesizer, the SH-2, as its source.
“Akifumi Nakajima (Aube) was very concerned about the packaging of his releases,” Maes explains. “He loved out-of-the-box ideas and was fascinated by special covers. That’s how we could convince him to release a tape on Cling Film. We were inspired by the title of the release ‘moment in fragrance’ and created a package that had various odors. The smell of a wooden cigar box filled with dried leaves contributed to the listening experience.
“The boxes were cigar cases from Laura’s uncle. We spray-painted them silver. The leaves were collected from our gardens.”
Troum – Dreaming Muzak (CF07, 1998)
This release was came in a miniature pillow; you had to open up the pillow to access the tape. “Kevin’s mother stitched all the pillows for this release. The package reflected the nature of the music. Each pillow was stuffed. The tape was placed inside the stuffing.”
Kling Film-Records / Pink Film Records
There was also a sublabel of Cling Film called Kling Film-Records which was home to four releases. These were plain CDs that came pinned between two plexi-glass sheets on a metal bolt:
The above images show Kazumoto Endo’s Never Gonna Make You Cry and Brume’s Erection. Both were business card CD-Rs in editions of 500 copies. Van Volcem explains that they got the Plexiglas panels produced by a factory, who drilled the holes in the middle. But Maes and Van Volcem had to add the bolts to each copy by hand, adding a chrome cone for a tidier appearance. That’s no small task for a 500-copy edition!
Parts of these discs have been uploaded to YouTube:
Meanwhile, Pink Film-Records was the imprint focused on experimental music with “a poppy touch,” and was curated by Maes. That sublabel produced just one release, a 2003 Minimax CD by Massimo, entitled Absolutely Free.
Many of Cling-Film’s releases came out on cassette, an aesthetic decision Maes addresses in a 1999 article in the Dutch magazine, Gonzo (circus).
“Our choice for cassettes is mainly due to the format: Kevin and I like special packaging and the small size of cassettes makes them particularly suitable for attractive packaging. What bothers me about some labels is that the emphasis has shifted to the packaging. For Cling Film the music still remains the most important, but it is much more fun if you can also present good music in an interesting way.”
Around then, however, Maes and Van Volcem were indeed branching out into CDs, including two CD compilations that came out in the subsequent years.
“The distribution of our releases is our biggest problem. Selling cassettes through record shops has never been a success and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find mail order companies that want to stock our releases. Thanks to our friendly contacts with mail order companies such as Tesco, Drone, and Nuit et Brouillard who do this for Cling Film, it is still relatively good, but I am sure there are cassette labels that are have much more difficulty. Even pioneers like Staalplaat no longer want to distribute cassettes. The same goes for magazines: try to find a music magazine that still publishes cassette reviews!”
The other arm of Cling Film were the concerts, including an annual Cling Film Festival which happened three times. In 1999, they staged the first one in a small theater called De Kelk in Bruges. In addition to performances by Klangkrieg, Klood/Kevueq, This Morn’ Omina, Klangwart, and Kapotte Muziek, there was a record fair and party.
The next year, they expanded to a much larger venue in Ghent, an arts center called De Vooruit. This allowed them to utilize several concert halls, and feature a larger bill of performers, including Klangkrieg, Noise-Maker’s Fifes, Daniel Menche, Troum and MSBR, as well as screenings of films by Mariola Brillowska & Felix Knoth.
“Most of the time we didn’t have a large budget to organise events, so performers were often staying at our parental home or student room,” Maes explains. “I remember that Daniel Menche was sleeping at my student home after his performance at the Cling Film festival in Ghent. My student room was situated in an old townhouse in the centre of Ghent. It was quite deteriorated and the first thing Daniel said when he entered the building was, ‘Wow, is this a squat?'”
The next year, they staged the final rendition in Vooruit, in a concert hall called Democrazy. Kazumoto Endo, Fennesz, Francisco Lopez and Acid Kirk performed.
Perhaps the most bizarre event came a year later, when they staged several activities as part of Bruges’ Bruges 2002 events. “Part of Bruges 2002 was a two-day festival on the Stubnitz boat,” Maes recalls. “Noise-Maker’s Fifes, Massimo, Machine Centered Humanz, Column One, Koji Asano and Jacques Brodier performed. Jacques Brodier couldn’t stop playing. He was in some sort of trance and we made all sort of gestures to attract his attention. The performance by Column One was genius but weird. A performer was sitting on his knees, dressed as a little girl. He wore a mask. Other members of Column one handed out mashed potatoes to the audience. The potatoes were thrown in the face of the ‘little girl’.”
There were other shows, too. Maes recalls organizing a performance by Princess Dragon Mom in Brussels at a venue called Magasin 4. For that show, the group decorated the stage to look like a boy scout camp, and dressed up as a bear, a gorilla, and a boy scout.
Today, Cling Film-Records’ unique cassette releases live on, selling for a premium on the secondary market. According to the Discogs marketplace, an intact Asche & Morgenstern tape sells for fifty euros with an intact frame, and there are still several Klangkrieg tape cans that remain unopened. As one seller puts it, “Can is still sealed but a little dusty.” Maes and Van Volcem’s packaging innovations live on…
Thanks to Laura Maes and Kevin Van Volcem for the interview. Van Volcem’s latest band, We Are Ooh People, will be releasing their debut self-titled album shortly; you can already listen to and buy the record on Bandcamp.
Fistful of Fuzz was a remarkable compilation from 1998 that collected a number of hyper-obscure 60s garage psych singles that had never appeared before on reissues or compilations. When it came out, little to nothing was known about the bands responsible for each song; in one case, even the band’s name was unknown!
Yet despite each track’s esoteric nature, they are all standouts. Lost relics from bands that only put out one single, which subsequently disappeared into the ether.
Even the cover was a little esoteric. It embraced an inexplicable Spaghetti Western theme, augmented with psychedelic background and text. As far as garage psych comps go, this one was a memorable beast.
Curious about the story behind this noteworthy comp, I tracked down the main man behind it, a passionate psych and garage rock collector named Mike Ascherman, who lives in Queens. Over the phone, he regaled me with the tales behind this compilation and shared stories from his trove of experiences collecting rare records.
Ascherman is now in his mid-60s and retired, having worked as an accountant for many years. He traces his interest in rock music to his high school days in the late sixties, when he would listen to WNEW-FM, New York’s first underground rock radio station. There he encountered bands and artists that today are icons, like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors. “I started reveling in the idea of being into music that no one else was into. You can like music, but if you hear it ten times a day it gets annoying. Most people listen to music as sonic wallpaper, and it doesn’t matter as much.”
A key fork in the road was his acquisition of Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, which included profiles of various artists, including then-obscure bands like Ultimate Spinach, United States of America, Love, and the Silver Apples. “I just wanted to get records by every band in that Rock Encyclopedia that I’d never heard of, just to hear them,” he says.
After high school, he went to Stony Brook University, where he encountered a few others like him. That’s when his record collection started to expand. “I spent more time in the Sam Goody in the nearby mall than I did in class,” he jokes. “I was always going through the bargain bins discovering bands like The Litter, and the British band Van Der Graaf Generator, which is still my favorite band to this day.”
After this he branched into progressive rock, then modern classical, and then jazz and avant-garde music, all in the quest of new and different sounds. But in the eighties, he circled back to rock — that’s when he got into “real collecting,” seeking and obtaining records using the Midnight Records mail order catalog and Goldmine magazine. Since then, he’s become ingrained in the garage/psych collecting scene, though he has always maintained an enthusiasm for many different styles of music.
The origins of the Fistful of Fuzz compilation date back to a record label Ascherman ran with two friends, which was called Parallel World. He tells me they put out several great records. Their first was a reissue of the 1980 private-press LP Classic Epics, by South African prog/psych band Steve Linnegar’s Snakeshed. Then came a reissue of 1973’s Chapter One, a Nigerian psychedelic funk gem by the band Blo. “Of course now everyone knows Blo,” Ascherman says. “I’m the one who discovered the band, because I found two copies of the record in one of the local record stores in Midtown Manhattan, a legendary — to my mind at least — store called Pyramid Records.”
Those two, limited-edition reissues sold well. The label subsequently diversified its scope, doing CD releases of “the two ultimate weird records of that time, and still two of the best,” Jupiter Transmission by Bobb Trimble and The Unicorn by Peter Grundzien — outsider, or “real people,” music, as Paul Major would call it.
But eventually Ascherman left Parallel World, as it was fizzling out. Around then, the label had put out a collection of Cambodian rock music called Cambodian Rocks — which was quite successful, and spawned several subsequent volumes on other labels. (It even warranted its own Wikipedia article!) The label was also working on a compilation called World of Acid, which Ascherman was helping assemble. It came out in 1997, after he had left their partnership.
After leaving Parallel World, Ascherman collaborated with another collector, who proposed the idea of doing a psych compilation using Ascherman’s collection. He tells me that the Parallel World partnership was often paralyzed by indecision, with the partners agonizing for days over things like compilation titles and even the name of the label itself. But Ascherman and his new collector friend, “Alex Martin,” made decisions with unprecedented efficiency. With only a few minutes’ consideration, they named the label DMT; they wanted a three-letter drug name but felt LSD was overused. Martin then came up with the acronym “Digital Music Transcendence” on a whim. And Fistful of Fuzz had a nice ring to it, so they went with that. Same with the artwork. “It was just a cool name, a cool picture. It was different,” Ascherman says.
The Spaghetti Western theme was chosen because it was fun. Many assume Clint Eastwood is the cowboy on the cover, but Ascherman tells me that’s not true. “My test press has the original with Eastwood’s face, but [the official cover] was actually an actor named Ty Hardin,” Ascherman says. They made the change to reduce the likelihood of legal problems. The artist responsible for the portrait replaced Hardin’s gun with a guitar.
Acherman explains that Fistful’s tracks come from a variety of vinyl singles and acetates. Several of the songs came from a Michigan record dealer. “He collected Michigan but he knew everything else. He only kept Michigan records, so other things got sold or traded.” In the early nineties, Ascherman acquired a heavy psych record worth a four-figure sum that this dealer wanted, and they worked out a trade involving several records. Ascherman received a batch of singles in exchange; some were records he was looking for, but the dealer also included several other obscure singles calibrated to Ascherman’s taste. Two of those records found their way onto Fistful: The Pretty’s “The Electric Hand” (“my favourite psych single, even though I don’t have a copy at the moment”) and Sounds Synonymous with “Tensions”.
Keep in mind that these were the days before you could look records up and stream them off YouTube. So when you paid good money for a record, you had to have a sense it was worth it. Ascherman talks about getting a “vibe” or “sixth sense” about a record, which would lead him to fork over the cash to buy it. “A lot of people these days, like everything is either turd or face-melt,” he says. “But it isn’t. A lot of things are just okay, some things are good. Rarely things are really the face-melt or fantastic. For every single that made it on to Fistful of Fuzz, there’s a stack of things that I didn’t like, or things I liked that weren’t comp-worthy.”
One of the most enigmatic of the tracks is a cover of “Purple Haze,” which Ascherman obtained at a WFMU record fair in the East Village, through a trade with a fellow dealer. “I had a good garage single that he wanted and he brought me over a couple things to check out, and I heard this and I said, ‘Man, I gotta have this.'” That scorching “Purple Haze” rendition came in the form of an acetate record with no information on its label. The identity of the band remains unknown to this day. As a fun touch, Ascherman listed the band as “John Doe & The Acetates” on the Fistful‘s track listing.
When Fistful came out, nothing was known about any of the bands. So Ascherman put a notice on the back of the disc, urging artists to get in touch to collect royalties — and he made sure he always had these available to pay bands who reached out.
The process of trying to find the bands who recorded these singles is a story itself. Ascherman tells me about the garage rock collectors’ phenomenon of “tracking,” in which they try to locate the members of the bands from the rare singles they’ve acquired. “I started this in the eighties. I went into Manhattan to the main branch of the New York Public Library and went into the phone stacks and was looking through phone books, writing down hundreds of numbers to call to try to find people. And if you actually found someone, it was an accomplishment. Nowadays [with the internet] it’s like, ‘Oh okay, here’s another guy.’ The fun was taken out of it in a way. And it became very cutthroat, people going behind people’s backs to try to find people and track bands.”
Ascherman tells me collectors used to abide by a code of honor when it came to tracking. “If someone was tracking somebody because they had the record, other people laid off. If you did the work, you get the fruits of your labor.”
A few of the Fistful artists ended up tracked. One example was the whimsically named Loos Foos & the Fiberglass Cornflake. “Eventually I got put in touch with the singer from the band, and I got a little background there. They were from Rhode Island. They were somewhat known there, he was a bit of a local legend. Eventually, someone with a music blog interviewed him and they had his whole story up there.”
Another interesting case was The Ruins. “I knew nothing about them when I put it out. But I later met one of the members of the band who was a fellow record collector. I told him, ‘I want to pay you guys for the royalties and give you copies.’ He didn’t want anything! He just thought it was cool it’s out.”
“One of the artists that I’d like to find, to pay him, but also to learn about him, is Don Malena and The Dry Ice. Don Malena turned into a country singer; I have a couple of his other singles on the Accent labels. I’d like to know more about him.” Ascherman thinks somebody somewhere once tracked down the band that backed him, The Dry Ice, though that information is now long gone.
Then there is the curious case of the Peabody Co. Ascherman found a set of six acetates at his favorite record store, Pyramid Records, shortly before they closed down. (He tells that Paul Major used to get first dibs on things from that store, but when Major got married and left town, Ascherman was granted the first right of refusal.) “When I got the [Peabody Co.] acetates, all that was on there was the name ‘Peabody Company’ and each track title,” he remembers. “The only other thing on there is the name of the studio where it was pressed, which was the first place I went to [to get information]. I went to the building and spoke to a security guard there who knew nothing about ’em. This was in the midtown Manhattan. All these little companies had tiny little offices in there.
“Even last week, I looked up a few of the song titles on BMI and ASCAP again, and still nothing was ever registered. Even though seven of the ten songs were originals, there were no songwriting credits on it. No other copies have ever popped up, not even an individual one.”
I ask him his thoughts on when this record might have been recorded, and what he hears in it. “It’s gotta be ’68 or so, I figure,” he estimates, with a collector’s precision. “By the sound, obviously these guys were into Blues Magoos and that kind of sound, they did the cover of ‘Tobacco Road’ with the little guitar and theremin and the drums freaking out in the middle. They also did the Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’ — it’s shorter but it has a similar theremin thing going through the middle of it .The originals have a New York, East Coast Blues Magoos-y psych influence. We figured they must be from New York, but without having any names to work with, they couldn’t be found.”
Just this year, the Peabody Co. acetates got assembled into a limited edition LP for the Out-Sider label, an imprint of the Guerssen reissue label, which is based in Spain. “Alex from Guerssen and I are hoping that, now that it’s getting out into the internet, someone from the band will contact us,” Ascherman explains.
Because there was no cover art whatsoever to work with, they used a generic cover art image that was used by the vanity label, Century Records, for psych records. (Ascherman owns multiple records that have this artwork). They figured, if Peabody Co. were to have self-released the record at the time, that could have been the art they would have used.
Ascherman shares a story about the magic that can occur while unearthing obscure old records. “I sell on Discogs,” he explains. “I had a record by a guy named Tyler Famularo from the Midwest. It was released on Audifex, one of a series of labels — not quite tax scam records but similar. They put out records they called ‘advance review copies.’ This was on one of those. I had a spare copy and I put it up [for sale]. Somebody ordered it and I noticed that the payer’s name was Rebecca Famularo. [I asked her about it] and she said, this was my father. She saw this, and she didn’t know he had a record, and [it turns out] he didn’t know he had a record! She was buying it as a Father’s Day gift. And I should mention I refunded her money, I said I couldn’t charge her for the record. She said she donated it, which is a nice thing. She wrote me back after he got the record, he was so thrilled about it. [In a lot of cases] they just sent out tapes and thought they were rejected and that was the end of it.”
An interesting addendum to the Fistful of Fuzz story occurred nearly a decade later, when it was bootlegged by an infamous bootleg label, Particles. Ascherman explains that this label is run by a UK collector who will shamelessly bootleg rare live recordings and comps, having previously run a notorious label called Radioactive Records. The bootlegs were mainly low-quality “needle-drop” boots, produced on the cheap and completely unauthorized. Yet Ascherman jokes that it is a “badge of honor” that his comp was selected for “reissue.”
The Next Chapter
Fistful of Fuzz was followed by another compilation, For a Few Fuzz Guitars More — again, another Spaghetti Western name and cover. Most of the tracks on that came from the collection of a friend of his, Steve. The artists on this compilation were also previously unknown, and mostly new to compilations — although in some cases, he uses the alternate side of the singles from Fistful.
One artist on For a Few is Sherman Marshall, whose single was released on the California record label Chartmaker, better known for putting out the 1969 self-titled album by Darius. That latter LP became a high profile psych reissue, aided by Darius’ larger-than-life persona — although many feel the real talent was in his backing band, Goldenrod. Darius was later tracked down by collectors, leading to the discovery of enough unreleased acetates to warrant a second collection. Yet Sherman Marshall has not been successfully tracked, and remains an enigma to this day.
One band from the comp that was successfully tracked was Peacepipe, whose scorching “The Sun Won’t Shine Forever” is a highlight of this disc. A friend of Ascherman’s hooked him up with this single, which was so incredible they were determined to hunt Peacepipe down. They put Rich Haupt of Rockadelic Records on the case. “He was the master tracker,” Ascherman explains. “If you had trouble finding something you went to Rich.” Sure enough, Rich found the signer in no time, and they discovered that there was a full album of unreleased material on tape. They worked out the licensing, and in 1995 the Peacepipe album came out on Rockadelic. The Peacepipe track on For a Few Fuzz Guitars More is from their single on the Accent label, the record that started it all.
There were intended to be two subsequent volumes of the Fuzz series, which never saw the light of day, though Ascherman has circulated them to some fellow collectors on CDR. In continuing the Spaghetti Western theme, they were titled The Good, The Bad, and The Fuzz and Fuzz You Sucker. Several of the tracks from the The Good ended up on the fourth volume of Aliens Psychos & Wild Things, a compilation run by a Virginia collector.
And at his Queens home, Ascherman owns dozens of CDRs filled with obscure psych and garage records that he’s converted to digital versions. These are the sum of his many years of collecting — Ascherman doesn’t hang onto every record he owns; instead, he privileges quality over quantity. Thus his actual collection has been whittled down to only the most cherished items:
I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but when I imagine it, I visualize the Strip as a single conglomerate of casinos and hotels, all interconnected such that you can walk from one building to the next without ever stepping outside. The rooms are jumbo-sized yet windowless, and mercifully air conditioned. A glitzy neon fortress set to twilight twenty-four hours per day.
Riviera, a vaporwave concept album designed to simulate the Vegas experience, is the soundtrack to that fantasy. It is named after a Vegas hotel that closed down in 2015, and each song evokes a specific context, thanks to the unambiguous titles: “Rainforest Cafe,” “Treasure Island,” “Mandalay Bay,” “Hotel Lobby,” “Red Leather.” The songs themselves use obscure samples from neglected corners of pop culture, then coat them in reverb to impart a vaguely dizzying effect. It truly is amazing how the album can evokle the the site-specific feeling of Las Vegas with little more than looped samples of pop music.
Vaporwave is a genre that is said to conjure nostalgia for an imagined past, and Riviera, a casino-themed album, does this with expert precision. It’s part of a group of vaporwave recordings that evoke specific situations. There is an entire vaporwave subgenre called mallsoft, which aims to evoke the experience of wandering through a mall. Climatewave is a subgenre focused on evoking the Weather Channel, circa 1987 or so. And there have been vaporwave concept albums about office buildings and phantom radio broadcasts.
Riviera evokes its casino feel through careful sound production and the power of suggestion, making use of pithy song titles and excellent cover art. As a result, it has become a cult album among vaporwave enthusiasts.
One element of Riviera remains a mystery, however: its creator. Like many a vaporwave name, Kodak Cameo is inscrutable by design. The name is borrowed from a 1996 point-and-shoot camera, making it somewhat Google resistant. We don’t know anything about the producer themselves — where they call home, what they do for a living, their gender. I imagine Kodak Cameo as one person, mainly because vaporwave tends to be produced by solitary producers working on their laptops. Many vaporwave producers adopt these sorts of cryptic monikers, and some degree of anonymity is fairly common.
The enigma quotient was increased when, some time after Riviera came out, Kodak Cameo fell off the face of the earth. Their Bandcamp website evaporated, and no contact info persisted. Nobody publicly got close to identifying who they were. Yet the album was embraced by fans.
Riviera came out as a digital release on a fascinating record label called Fortune 500, which was run by a producer named Luxury Elite, often shortened to Lux. She was prone to disappearing for periods of time, only to abruptly reappear with new music. But a few years ago she evaporated into the digital ether seemingly for good, her social media feeds running dry since then.
Fortunately, the Fortune 500 Bandcamp remains online, which is fortunate, because there are many gems to be enjoyed there. (Messages sent through Bandcamp to Lux went unanswered, sadly.) The Fortune 500 discography is an archive of whimsically-titled albums with enticing covers, each with a distinct visual aesthetic. Many of them belong to a subcategory of vaporwave called late night lo-fi, which evokes the experience of looking down on the city from a luxury apartment at 2am, circa 1992.
Given aesthetic similarities, some have suspected that Kodak Cameo was a pseudonym of Luxury Elite, but she has denied that. Kodak’s use of samples is polished, which suggests that this isn’t their first kick at the vaporwave can, so it is possible that they have also recorded music under other pseudonyms. (There are more than enough faceless vaporwave monikers out there that one or more could be Kodak under a different name.) But despite many question marks, Riviera has been embraced by fans, garnering effusive praise in reviews on Rate Your Music, including a 1462-word essay that reads like hypnagogic casino fanfic:
“It’s 2:38 AM. It’s 53 degrees. You’re riding in a Convertible from the 1950’s that your father got from his father from an Indian Reservation not far from Southern Nevada…”
What little we know about Kodak we can derive from his choice of samples on Riviera. Many of the selections are Japanese music from the eighties, particularly songs with synthesizers. Samples are taken from ballads by actress/singer Yuki Saito and idol singer Risa Honda, from 1987 and 1989 respectively; Kodak has taken their instrumental bits, slowed them down and looped them. Other picks from earlier in the 80s, including tracks by Toshiki Kadomatsu and Yuko Ohtaki, showcase a Japanese light-funk scene heavily inspired by American R&B trends of the day — a sound that came to be known as “city pop.” Only one of the identified samples on Riviera comes from outside of Japan: a 1983 b-side called “Never Too Late Your Lovin’,” by a short-lived New York funk group called Sunfire. Clearly, Kodak’s proclivities run towards the obscure. Perhaps he is from Japan, or simply infatuated with Japanese culture.
One fascinating postscript to the Riviera story is that Kodak released a sequel at one point. Riviera 2 apparently came out on Kodak’s very own Bandcamp page but then disappeared. For a couple years, people were hunting for a copy and coming up dry. In September 2016, someone found a high-quality version by “signing up for a Chinese streaming service to get it in 320kbps,” providing a life-line to those obsessed with the original Riviera. I believe this to be the cover artwork; it is the image for on a YouTube video that contains the album, and is also the image that comes up in the mp3 metadata:
There is also a SoundCloud account attributed to Kodak Cameo that includes some Riviera tracks as well as some new, stylistically different selections. The last track was uploaded a year ago. The location is listed as Tahiti, French Polynesia. Is this Kodak, or someone pretending to be them? I sent the account a message awhile back, but didn’t hear back. Like many things Kodak-related, it’s a series of dead ends…
Do you know who Kodak Cameo is? Are you Kodak Cameo? Do you have any more information about Kodak, Riviera, or Riviera 2? If so, leave a comment or email me!