Thrift Store Tapes with Bennett Williamson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franklin’s Demo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan Winter Age 8 1/2

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Alexjander – Sequencia

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

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

Various Artists – Music From Purchase ’93

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

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

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

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

Ancient Future – Visions of a Peaceful World

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

Macrofusion – Demo Sampler 1983

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Thanks to Bennett Williamson for the interview.

Unsolved Mysteries: Petros Drecojecai – Mistaken Receptions (Petros Drecojecai Archives, 2002)

“He would empty his mind, hang from his legs or feet and begin to speak the first words which came to his mind, transforming himself into a supple conduit…”

Behold: One of the most strange and mysterious albums I own.

According to the back cover of this bizarre CD-R release, this is a collection of intercepted cell phone calls from an American city, as captured by a visiting professor from Nagykanizsa, Hungary named Petros Drecojecai. They were supposedly captured in the early- to mid-1990s, while Drecojecai was attending conferences in Northern California, living in “furnished downtown flats.” While fiddling with an “antique radio” he had brought from home, he inadvertently tapped into the calls. According to notes he left behind, he believed he was listening to an American talk radio program, and thus he recorded samples and sent them back to Hungary on tapes to try to “demonstrate to his colleagues what this sort of programs [sic] represented culturally in the United States.” He had apparently been unaware that they were private phone calls.

The lo-fi cover art to Mistaken Receptions.

Listening to the release, the calls do indeed sound legit, so whether the Petros Drecojecai story is true or not, there still must be some story to tell. Each features different voices, and the recordings don’t sound remotely staged. There is audio interference, as might be expected using a scanner to intercept calls, and several recordings capture conversations in progress. The best argument for these recordings’ authenticity is that, if someone were faking this whole thing, the calls would probably be a lot more titillating and a lot less non-sequitur.

While some calls on Mistaken Receptions are a little bit racy, many are mundane: someone checking their bank account balance, a wrong number, a young woman trying to engage her sleepy boyfriend in conversation. Yet sex and heartache are never far away. In one call, we hear a woman trying to convince her male friend to become male stripper with a promise of $500 per night, but he remains reticent: “Do I have to suck dick, put anything in my ass?” A number of the calls feature arguments, including a woman berating someone for offering her money for sex, and another woman chewing someone out for leaving too many voicemails on her machine. The most entertaining recording is also the longest — it’s another call featuring the woman who was earlier trying to convince a man to become a stripper. In this recording, she is chatting with another male friend; over nine minutes, she bemoans the deadbeat father of her daughter, discusses her own plan to lose weight via Jenny Craig and become a stripper (which she again cites as a $500 per night opportunity), and laments her crack-smoking mother, who is currently in prison.

The final track, a “bonus,” was reportedly recorded by Drecojecai in an apartment building in California. The recording claims to document Drecjecai’s “enactment of the exertion to depletion theory.” That involved hanging precariously by his feet from the balcony of the fifth floor apartment.

“He would empty his mind, hang from his legs or feet and begin to speak the first words which came to his mind, transforming himself into a supple conduit at the disposal of the elments [sic], thereby receiving paranormal signals emitted from local or transient electrical fields and acting as a repeater to orally reproduce the sometimes haunting results.”

Liner notes to Mistaken Receptions

The notes go on to explain that, four days after this performance, a “very strong and putrid odor” pervaded the apartment complex; it was later discovered that an elderly Russian immigrant had passed away in the room right below Drecojecai, and had been dead the whole time he performed his session.

Given the story, the recording of Drecojecai’s “exertion to depletion” performance is a little under whelming. It’s a three-minute lo-fi recording — you can hear the rumble of cars passing outside — that features a thin disembodied voice repeatedly imploring someone, or something, to “come in.” (At one point, he seems to be addressing the spirit of Amelia Earhart.)

Not many clues on the CD-R itself.

The only mention of this CD-R online comes from the distribution catalog for Electro Motive Records, which is where I got my copy. For years, it was also listed in the legendary Aquarius Records catalog, where I first discovered it. Those may be the only venues that distributed this CD-R.

As I was buying my copy, I spoke with Peter Conheim, who runs Electro Motive Records, to find out what he knew about the Drecojecai story. Conheim, a former member of Negativland, told me that he was a neighbour of Drecojecai’s. Over email, he outlined the story as told in the liner notes. He points out that Drecojecai is a pseudonym, and that he cannot recall the person’s actual name. After Drecojecai performed his exertion-to-depletion demonstration, Conheim tells me he seemed to become more bizarre, telling Conheim about his “interceptions,” which Conheim assumed to be delusional. When Drecojecai played Conheim and his friend some of the recordings, he was shocked to learn they were real. Conheim wanted to press them onto CD-R, and Drecojecai agreed but disappeared before the pressing happened, never receiving a copy of the disc.

Inspecting the disc, I noticed a few details which were worthy of examination. There is an email address with a German Yahoo! domain: drecojecai@yahoo.de. However, an email sent to this address returned undelivered (“Not a valid recipient.”) The same is true of an email sent to drecojecai@yahoo.com.

The back of the Mistaken Receptions CD-R. The notes’ imperfect and awkward English does appear consistent with the back story.

I then noticed that the CD-R had a catalog number: PD02. This suggested there may have been a previous release on the Petros Drecojecai Archives label. Curious, I reached out to Conheim again. This time, the story changed a little bit. He no longer endorsed being Drecojecai’s neighbour, and instead told me he received CD-R, unsolicited, to his distro’s PO Box — from the Petros Drecojecai Archives label itself.

He did tell me that he remembered asking the label what PD01 was, and was told it was a limited-edition LaserDisc release intended for museums and institutions rather than the general public. According to Conheim, it was the “kind of LaserDisc that was briefly manufactured in tiny quantities where each individual frame on the disc held a single picture or a document, and you could ‘page’ through them. Obviously some kind of presumably obtuse PD research project! Considering LaserDiscs held something like 30,000 frames, it must have been quite the project.”

He also mentioned that a letter that came with the CD-Rs was signed by someone named “H. Richard” — in the liner notes, the cover image is credited to this name. Yet, Conheim recalls paying for the CD-Rs directly to the Petros Drecojecai Archives, not to an H. Richard.

A question lingered for me: what is the provenance of these recordings? Was it even technologically possible to intercept cell phone calls?

The answer is yes. According to this Wired article from 1997, standard radio scanners were capable of picking up cell phone frequencies at the time. In 1986, The Electronic Communications Privacy Act made it illegal to listen in on cellular telephone frequencies, and in 1993, it became illegal to manufacture or sell radio scanners that could access the frequencies used by cell phones, or to modify scanners to do so. Yet it was still something that people did, particularly bored ham radio enthusiasts. In that article, the writer interviews a shortwave radio hobbyist named Ed:

“Monitoring cellular to me is something I do when the bands are quiet — the best times to listen are late at night. The middle-aged men haven’t scored any pussy, so now it’s time to call a hooker before they go to sleep — or a phone sex line for a quickie. I enjoy toking some good weed, when I can score, and tune around.”

So what is the story here? Did Petros happen to own an outdated radio scanner with the cellular frequencies unblocked? Or was the “Petros” story a tall tale, and this instead the work of a ham radio whiz?


Do you know anything about the Petros Drecojecai story? If so, leave a comment or email me at anomindex@gmail.com!

Mystery Tapes Galore: The Cassette Archive

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was thinking, there has to be some sort of information on this somewhere.”

Ezra Fike is a twentysomething graphic designer who lives in a small town in Missouri with his family, having recently moved back home from Omaha due to COVID. An enthusiast of the cassette medium since some childhood adventures in home recording, he has a habit of scouring thrift stores for old mixtapes to use as recording media.

In early 2019, Fike bought a cassette shelving unit for five dollars at a thrift store, only to discover a few tapes inside. There were copies of the soundtracks to Conan the Barbarian and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There was John Denver album home-recorded onto tape from an LP. But something else caught his eye — a strange cassette that stood apart from the rest.

“There was this one that I had never heard of before,” he tells me via Skype. “It was called Adimus I, and it had a picture of a pink castle against a purple sky.” There was no artist name nor record label listed.

The Adimus tape. (Image credit: Ezra Fike)

“It wasn’t a professionally produced tape. It was just a blank tape that someone had recorded something on to. And they had written ‘Adimus I 1984’ on it. I decided to give it a listen and it was just this crazy, lo-fi, home-produced synth-pop with a weird fantasy/science-fiction bent to it. It obviously sounded amateur — you could tell that somebody just made this in their home. But I was genuinely impressed by some of the melodies and some of the production.

“[When] I started playing [my roommate] walked in and was like, ‘What on earth is this?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea. I don’t know who this is.'”

Turning to Google, Fike wasn’t able to find any information about this strange tape. There were very few clues, apart from the unusual title, Adimus. The liner notes were just a track listing, offering no additional context — no names or other personnel.

“I became fascinated by it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was thinking, there has to be some sort of information on this somewhere. So I recorded the tape to my computer and uploaded it.”

He created a Bandcamp page for the tape, and then posted it on Reddit, hoping someone might recognize it.

“And it initially got some interest going, but very quickly people started accusing me of faking it,” he says. “That I had created this, and had aged the audio. People did some digging into my profile and discovered I make music myself, and so they were suspicious of me. They didn’t think it sounded like something made in 1984.”

He was disappointed by this response, and more or less abandoned the active hunt for information. But this led to a broader interest in arcane cassettes. “I started wondering how many other lost pieces of unknown music there are out there, sitting in thrift stores. It was so easy finding this one, there has to be more like this.”

Expansion

Fike, at the time, was living in West Plains, Missouri, population 12,000. Fortunately, small towns can be a fertile bed for esoteric art. “I started scouring my local thrift stores, antique shows,” Fike tells me. “I was lucky enough to live above a bookstore that had a very large cassette and VHS selection. And I ended up finding a couple releases that were handmade, privately distributed, that I couldn’t find any information online. So I ended up recording those as well.”

Fike’s cassette collection. (Image credit: Ezra Fike)

He switched his Bandcamp page’s name to The Cassette Archive and started uploading tapes to it. He aimed for tapes with no online footprint. At this point, there are 31 tapes available to be perused. Fike told me the stories behind several of his favourites.

One mystery tape was a cassette called Straight To The Heart .​.​.​.​.​no sell out here by someone named J.R.S. “It sounds like this college-age Christian dude making this Christian rap album really amateurly with his friend. There’s something very heart-warming about it. It has some of these weirdest rhymes and beats. A lot of it is very tone-deaf Evangelical bullshit.”

Then there’s “Sour Dough Sam” Sings Gospel by Durwin Burtz, which is a ventriloquist recording an album as his puppet. “My favourite track on it is ‘Tommy’s Cry,’ which is this very grim tale of domestic abuse but with a weird, sugar-coated Evangelical twist on it. It’s, I guess, what you’d call outsider art.

“I found it in a church that I had attended as a kid. I happened to be back in the area and I knew that they had some cassette tapes so I decided to go over there and rummage. I talked to some people from church about it — do any of you know who this is? Did he come to the church, or did you know somebody that went to see him perform or something? I never got an answer out of it. But that’s certainly a lot of the weirder one.”

Doing some updated research, we discovered a couple mentions of a pastor named Durwin Burtz. On an old Tripod page for the Fraternal Order of Police #105, there is a message from Burtz about his puppet show:

A few years ago I lost my right arm in an accident caused by a DUI driver. As Captain D the pirate I entertain and challenge school children with ventriloquism and magic and my personal story

http://rsullum.tripod.com/FOP105/id9.html

Meanwhile, a news article documents Burtz’s 3000-mile trip across America to return someone’s lost dog.

True Mystery Tapes

There are many true mystery tapes covered by The Cassette Archive — cassettes which render no Google hits, apart from those posted by Fike himself. One is a 1986 home-taped synth-pop cassette called Time Control Addiction by someone named D.O. Durant. It sounds like one man with a keyboard. A cover of “Heart and Soul” by Joy Division is included, hinting at Durant’s influences — indeed, his reverb-coated voice bears a striking resemblance to Ian Curtis’ vocals.

karaoke night at the fallout shelter by Peter King, released in 1999, is four tracks of overdubbed lo-fi pop, like something that would have come out on one of the many indie-pop cassette labels that circulated in the nineties. Yet, unlike most of the artifacts of the heavily catalogued DIY tape scene, no record of it is available online. It may be the work of a Peter King from Indiana who was a member of several bands in the nineties and 00s, including Buffalino and The Impossible Shapes, and who now records as Peter and the Kings.

Desert Storm by Fast Freddy is a cassingle featuring two ultra-patriotic rock anthems about the Iraq War, featuring blazing electric guitars and amateurish vocals atop plodding drum machine rhythms. From “Rock Iraq (Rock ‘n’ Rule)”:

American patriots
Blow your skulls out the sky
Saddam Hussein
Mad dog will hit you between the eyes

[…]

Contracts, diplomats, we gave you every chance
One nation under God, now it’s time to dance
We’re gonna rock Iraq
Rock and rule”

Then there’s a weird, thrashy sounding demo called First Is Next from 1989 by a band named C.I.A. This could be by the N.Y.C. thrash act of the same name — if so, it would be quite the find for thrash completists, since it doesn’t show up anywhere in discographies and demo listings — but the sonic resemblance isn’t great.

Cassette Appeal

Fike tells me his fascination with the tape medium is rooted in its status as a relatively neglected format. “I’m not an expert on cassette tapes, but I feel that cassettes depreciate at a greater rate than vinyl does, and there is certainly a greater culture surrounding vinyl collection than there is cassette tape collection. You’re cleaning out your old house, and you go into dad’s closet, and there’s fifteen cassettes that you used to listen to all the time. It’s not like you’re going to be able to sell these for fifty dollars. Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they’re going to be valuable.

Some of Fike’s obscure tapes. (Image credit: Ezra Fike)

“Cassette tape was so cheap to produce. It was available to so many people. Which meant that there’s just massive, massive quantities of Patsy Cline, Pat Benatar, and Barry Manilow. All this junk that nobody cool is interested in. It’s almost mind numbing going through a thrift store and searching through boxes and boxes of this stuff. You just see the same three Christmas albums twenty times. It’s almost like the number of cassette tapes out there devalues them as a whole. People are less likely to pay attention to each cassette.

“When I heard the Adimus tape, I realized I really like this, the aesthetics of this. I love how wacky and weird it is. It really would be a shame if no one else got to hear it. I just got to think, there’s got to be lots and lots of undiscovered music collecting mold, that is probably going to be thrown out in three years.

Though his interest is rooted in the thrill of rescuing esoteric gems from the brink of extinction (one wonders how many limited-run, private-press tapes have already had their last extant copies sent to landfill), he recognizes that obscurity is no guarantee of quality. “I certainly have collected some unknown albums that I think are absolute shit. Not everything unknown is interesting. It’s not like every unknown cassette that I come across automatically goes into the Archive. At the end of the day, I’m interested in amplifying the voices of these tiny artists that wouldn’t get heard otherwise. I want them to survive into the amplified age.”

Fike’s background in graphic design infuses his project with a visual appeal. He tells me about how he agonizes over what part of the cassette J-cards to use for as each tape’s square Bandcamp profile image. As a result, scrolling through the Archive is a visual and conceptual thrill — each tape, be it a pastoral, new-agey treat like like Sam McNally’s Stargate, or the bizarre infomercial-style melodies of Break In ’84 by Hearts & Chips, brings a dose of intrigue.

Fike’s cassette playing set-up. (Image credit: Ezra Fike)

These days, Fike has been busier on account of an internship, and the trickle of tapes has slowed since The Cassette Archive opened up shop. At one point, he explains, he had envisioned a growing database that would inspire people all over the world to send tapes to be memorialized in the Archive. But he also has reservations about courting popularity.

“I’m the curator, I’m the one putting this stuff out there. But it isn’t mine. I mean, man it would be really cool if I could send the Adimus tape to some sort of audio professional and get the audio cleaned up, then do a repress. But then you’re making money off this person.”

For now, the people behind these unusual audio treasures — largely remain mysteries. Perhaps one or more of them will stumble upon the Cassette Archive and reveal the stories behind their musical creations.

Meanwhile, Fike will continue his recovery work, trying to save these vulnerable relics from disappearing forever.


Update (Feb 15, 2021): On account of this article, the real-life Durwin Burtz (whose cassette is discussed above), reached out to us to tell us a bit about the origins of his tape:

“I was a pastor most of my life and did magic and ventriloquism in several venues, mostly churches. My favorite puppet ‘Sour Dough Sam,’ was made for me by a good friend 40 years ago this year. Robert Plate made him from a piece of basswood that I provided. He gave him to me. Along the way I home recorded and gave to folks that I met at different venues.

“I made them a lot of years ago. I’d say I made less than 50. Its the only one I made of myself. I haven’t heard of any showing up other than the one that was downloaded on the internet.”

Image credit: Ezra Fike

Thanks to Ezra Fike for the interview and photographs. The Cassette Archive is here.

Nils Quak ‎– Tanger At Night (Luv Sound, 2009)

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.

A screenshot of the Max patch that Quak was working with. (Source: Nils Quak)

“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.

Quak’s modular synth rig. (Source: Nils Quak)

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.