“I took the idea to the most extreme place I could.”
Imagine, if you will, a record label that does not divulge the identity of the artists it releases. One that puts out all of its releases with no titles and no artist information. There’s nothing but the music.
This has been done before on a small scale. In the late nineties, the noise label Freedom From released three tapes by an unknown artist, supposedly because “the credits were lost.” Around the same time, a mysterious German label called Indoor put out two seven-inch singles with images of obese cats on their covers with no artist information. In the early 2000s, the Kollaps label ran a series of 7″ EPs with unknown artists, entitled Of Things That Move. A 2000s-era ambient music net-label known as Ansiform released all their mp3s anonymously. And the Boomkat mailorder put together a series of untitled CDR releases which obscured the musicians’ identities. There’s even a recent label called Anonymous Records that puts out music by established artists but hides their identity – though the artwork is flashy and the marketing is rather maximalist.
Yet none of those labels pulled this concept off with as much gusto and conceptual purity as Alex Botten. His net label, Zero Info, kept all revealing information obscure. Starting in 2012, he distributed sixteen releases by mystery artists. The releases and tracks had no titles at all, apart from some dots and slashes to fulfill Bandcamp’s requirements. The cover art for each was identical – a blank white square:
I caught up with Botten via email to learn about this anomalous label. I first wanted to know a little bit about him. He tells me he has a day job working for a charity, and spends the rest of his time doing diverse creative work — “bits of writing (novels, ghostwriting etc), artwork for record sleeves, and my own musical projects,” he summarizes. “A dear friend at work described me as a ‘renaissance man’, which is nice but makes it sound like I know what I’m doing, which I absolutely do not. Currently, when not helping people in my day job, I am working on a couple of novels and writing/rehearsing songs for the two noisy bands I’m in.”
When he started Zero Info, Botten was in a slump. “I was living in a flat next to a pub, in Lye in the Black Country,” he says. My own music stuff was getting no interest, I couldn’t get gigs anywhere and I was feeling pretty glum. I’d been married to my (now ex) wife for a couple of years and things weren’t great. I’d gone from playing gigs every week, and getting played on the radio and reviewed in the NME a few years earlier to being ignored. So nothing was happening and I had to do something about it.
“I settled on making a series of what I called ‘SuperLimited’ releases, records, tapes, and CDRs in tiny runs of no more than ten. Those picked up a bit of a collectors vibe and sold quickly but I still wanted to do something that had no physical presence in the world.”
The idea for Zero Info came from a desire to explore a conceptual extreme. “I liked the idea of something completely anonymous and it fitted with my interest in doing something that had no physical format,” he says. “I took the idea to the most extreme place I could – the releases would have no information, all the artists would be anonymous, all the sleeves would be white. I had to compromise a little with the titling of the records, using various punctuation combinations to be able to put them on Bandcamp, but otherwise, the rest was as I wanted it to be. The label name ‘Zero Info’ was the obvious choice.”
It was all about the concept, which he imagined catching on with a certain subset. “I wanted the music to stand entirely on its own,” he says. “I hoped that people would eventually download everything on the off-chance it was made by someone well known. I tried to get the Wire to mention it in their news pages but nothing happened so the downloads were less successful than I’d hoped.”
He thinks he might have been inspired by Boomkat’s series of anonymous CDRs, which similarly obscured the identities of its created, and avoided song and release titles. “They had some way of differentiating between the releases that I wanted to avoid as much as possible,” he notes – signalling a desire to push the concept as far as it would go.
Order one was convincing artists to embrace a concept that deprived them of credit for their own work. For many, that wasn’t an opportunity, but an opportunity to experiment. “Through being involved in music for a couple of decades, I have a lot of musician and artist friends,” Botten tells me. “I just asked if anyone would be interested, then laid out the rules. I told any artist who was interested that they could never reveal that they’d been on the label or identify themselves with a release. I think that was liberating for a lot of people, and I got things from people who are known for other things that sounded nothing like their usual output.”
Most of the releases could be categorized under the drone, ambient, and experimental tags, which makes them particularly opaque from the perspective of guessing the artists’ identities. When I ask Botten for anecdotes, or any tantalizing details of the artist behind Zero Info’s impressive sixteen releases, he is tight-lipped, telling me they will go to the grave with him. “Partly because that was the plan, and partly because I’ve forgotten who did what,” he explains. “Time has erased who did what from my memory, and I haven’t listened to any of the releases in years. To me, that means the project has succeeded – the work is all truly anonymous.”
He does tell me that the artists he approached to contribute were “a mixture of well-known artists and people who’d never done things before. I like that there are these hidden gems by artists that are collectable that their fans are almost certainly unaware of.”
It’s only fitting for him that he has almost no memories of Zero Info’s activities – even though I find this a little hard to believe. “I wanted Zero Info to be like staring at a blank white wall, overwhelming in its underwhelming amount of information; I wanted it to be the sudden silence after the explosion that seems louder than the bomb,” he reflects.
Looking back, he has mixed feelings about Zero Info. It didn’t end up in the pages of The Wire, but it delivered on his concept in an unexpected way. “It was an art project that both succeeded and failed,” he reflects. “At the time I’d wanted it to become something that hundreds or thousands of people would download whenever a release was put up, but that didn’t happen. Now I know it’s succeeded in a completely different way, by being a pure expression of nothing.”
Thanks to Alex Botten for the interview. Botten’s many multimedia happenings can be explored here.
“I 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.
“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.
“I used to tell people to tell their friends to send demos. I liked listening to unpolished tracks that were off the cuff.”
In a recent Label Archaeology article I did, Christopher Fischer, who runs Unread Records, marveled at the labyrinthine network of tiny tape labels that spanned America in the eighties and nineties. He told me that he just recently stumbled upon a label called In a Lighthouse Cassettes from Jacksonville, Florida. He was taken aback that, twenty years after the fact, he could still discover an entire label that he hadn’t been aware of. The tape scene was simply that deep.
Intrigued, I tried hunting down information about that label, but there wasn’t much apart from some partial listings on Discogs. But by looking at the available scanned J-cards, I was able to identify that In a Lighthouse Cassettes was run by someone named Carleton Peck:
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that this old prodigy.com email address is defunct (Prodigy died in 2001). But a Google search led me to a plausible Carleton Peck, who works as a creative copywriter. To my good fortune, he was indeed the same Carleton Peck, and was happy to chat about his experiences running In a Lighthouse.
Peck started In a Lighthouse around 1997, while living in Jacksonville Beach, a small resort city on the coast near Jacksonville, estimated current population 23,628. He had moved there from Minnesota. “Jacksonville Beach was a cultural shock after growing up in the Twin Cities up until 1993,” he tells me, via email. “I went from being surrounded by incredible record stores to having very few options to discover new music. In Minneapolis and St. Paul I would buy random tapes all the time, even on my walks home from elementary school!
“Jacksonville Beach was pretty rough in some ways. Most kids there plan to go to jail or the military—sometimes both. I knew a decent amount of people that ended up in prison. They have military recruiting in schools but don’t always allow SAT testing. What a set-up! The beaches south and north of there were and are beautiful. Undeveloped and inspiring spaces of shockingly sparse populations. I loved to read on the beach. Was a nice weather improvement from Minnesota winters.”
Peck found himself “stuck” in Jax Beach, with few worthwhile live music options to draw from. “I remember an early Modest Mouse show that was novel for Jacksonville to host. But overall not a lot going on. I would generally go up to Atlanta but mostly Athens to hear music.”
In his sojourns to Athens, he became friends with the members of Gritty Kitty, an early band on Kindercore Records, one of Athens’ stalwart indie pop labels. He discovered a number of other Athens bands, including The Gerbils, Kincaid, Elf Power, and Masters of the Hemisphere. “The irony was my personal life in Jacksonville was mostly centered around surfing, playing guitar in reggae bands with friends, DJing hip-hop, house, and techno at small parties, and generally totally outside any local indie music scene. I thought many of the indie people in Jacksonville were pretty insular when it came to indie cred litmus tests. Pretty funny when I look back. I tended to get along more with rave kids and people in punk and hardcore bands. They were more open and less judgmental and generally more laid back—more my speed.”
Release Number One
It was through one of the Athens bands, Masters of the Hemisphere, that In a Lighthouse came into existence. In late 1997, he released his label’s first cassette. It was a self-titled tape by Vetran, which was the solo project of Bren Mead, a founding member of Masters, who around then had just released their debut single, Going On A Trek To Iceland, on Kindercore.
“I first met Bren in the fall of 1997,” Peck explains. “I heard some other music he was doing, mostly on his own. It was brilliant stuff and I thought, well, I have a couple of tape decks for dubbing. I have no money. But I can send this to labels and college radio hosts and record stores and just see what happens. People really were into it which was cool. I was not prepared to spend the time I would have liked to spend on it.”
That Vetran tape was produced in true DIY fashion. The J-cards were Xeroxed at Kinkos, and the tapes were 30-minute blanks purchased from a DJ-oriented store in Brooklyn, ProSound and Stage Lighting. “I would say out of the first 40 tapes I dubbed I gave away 30 of them to bands or zine writers or labels—either in person or through the mail. Sometimes when I placed an order with, like, Up Records or someone I would send a tape or two with my order.”
He initially dubbed 100 copies, then made the subsequent 100 copies to order, for a total of 200. “I would say Vetran is a bit like a lo-fi Laurel Canyon sixties pop group. The additional instruments and sounds were more icing on the cake. But the songs were pretty much strummy indie pop similar to the Masters of the Hemisphere. I really like how Bren made everything sound though. Guided by Voices-style four-track recording. He has an awesome style to his vocals.”
I ask Peck why he chose the name “In a Lighthouse” — though, as a scan of the Vetran tape shows us, the label was just “Lighthouse” until the second release. “So this sounds corny, but it was all about making music alone. And I lived at the beach. I enjoyed four-track recording alone, and knew that many other people liked the ‘studio as an instrument’ approach to experimental recording. And I thought about how lighthouse keepers probably spent a lot of time alone. I was thinking In a Lighthouse would represent that solitary mindset well.”
Peck’s approach was to distribute his tapes on a very micro level. He did send some copies to a few small mail-order distros, but most orders were handled directly via mail. “I didn’t really advertise. I think I put some small ads in some small zines. I remember I did one ad that said ‘send me a picture of your cat doing something for a free tape.’ Much of it was word of mouth though. I would have them available at shows around the south that I attended.”
He would also sell tapes at shows, giving them to bands and labels he liked, and use them to network with people via mail. He recalls sending tapes to Mario Suau of a Michigan indie-pop duo called Shoestrings, which was Mario and his partner, Rose Uytuico. Suau ran a radio program called the Dream Kitchen Radio Show, possibly via the Oakland University radio station. Peck believes Mario may have played the Vetran and Mathlete tapes on air, but doesn’t recall for certain. “His radio shows were incredible. He was also one of the nicest people I have ever met. He would send me tapes of the shows he did… I listened to some of those 1997 and 1998 radio shows of his for twenty years. I still have a few in storage. He loved groups like Club 8, Eggstone, and tons of Spanish and French pop groups. Also some good things from Japan. I probably got more into Momus from his show.”
Peck’s enthusiasm for all things musical, and radio in particular, shines through when he reminisces about this time. “I loved radio shows from a young age. I use to make compilation tapes of beats… I would listen to the house and rap shows in the middle of the night on FM radio and whenever I heard a good beat I would hit record a get a minute or so of it. The first time I heard/recorded Art of Noise’s ‘Moments in Love’ I probably replayed the beat the same night like 80 times.”
1998: ILC-02 to ILC-08
In 1998, In a Lighthouse kicked into high gear. The second release was a self-titled tape attributed to Clarify, which was the solo project of Dan Sostrum, who was just starting the Clairecords label back then. That label would become a linchpin in the second-wave shoegaze scene. “Clarify was Dan making some noise music,” Peck says. “Lo-fi synths and drum machines. He gave me the tape to listen to just to hear and I enjoyed it a ton. I loved the fuzzy sound of it. I don’t remember how I first met him but I was just out of school [at the time]. I was 18 and in between being on my own and my Mom’s place. Dan is an absolute expert when it comes to shoegaze and noise pop. Has some of the greatest knowledge of anyone I have ever met when it comes to noise and dreamy rock from the large bands (Swirlies, Ride, MBV, Chapterhouse, etc.) to all the thousands of bands those groups influenced.”
Around this time, he was also networking with labels and artists from across the globe, expanding the reach of In a Lighthouse. “It seems weird now but I had a lot of friends in the mail,” he says “A lot of times it was exchanging mixtapes and compilations. Sharing new finds.”
He describes the ease with which some of these connections were made. “I think sometimes it was just writing label addresses and zines. Other times it would be something like someone being really into Tape Op magazine on a recording forum and me chatting with them… I know it was friends of friends too. Like, hey, my friend works at Tower in Tokyo and likes Broadcast. And I would be like, oh cool I will write them and just say if you like this mix and this Biwa tape then write back and say hey… even better make a compilation of your favorite eighties synth bands! If I had a decent job and situation I would have probably traveled to more places to explore those places and see the live music there in person. Postage to overseas addresses was cheaper back then.”
It was via these methods that he connected with labels like Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Fantastic Records, and a prolific Italian label, Best Kept Secret, which he admires to this day (“Alessandro Crestani was an awesome guy. I loved what he was about and how he released everything with a consistent look and feel.”)
This was how he ended up putting out In a Lighthouse’s third release: Prince Charmless by Kisswhistle, a trio of Penn State students. A few of the songs from this tape are available for digital download, as collected on Kisswhistle’s odds-and-ends compilation, Ginger Pale Ale. Those recordings reveal classic threeish-minute lo-fi indie pop replete with tuneful guitar chords and jubilant keys.
In a Lighthouse number four was Demonstration Tape by Biwa, a Japanese band. “They were tight despite being a really newly-formed band. I wish I had my old emails with them. I don’t remember enough. I think it started with them sending me a tape randomly through the mail. I used to tell people to tell their friends to send demos. I liked listening to unpolished tracks that were off the cuff. ‘Honor your mistake as a hidden intention,’ as Eno would say. I liked the rough edges. I wrote Biwa back and asked to put it out. I don’t know what happened to them though. They had a cool sound with nice guitar hooks and vocal harmonies.”
The fifth In a Lighthouse tape featured one of the label’s bigger names — that is, within the magnitude of the deeply DIY lo-fi pop scene. Teleport was the first-ever release by Mathlete, the duo of Mike Downey and Dan Marsden, then based out of Illinois. Downey was also a member of Wolfie, the well-regarded Parasol Records band. Fortunately, Downey has since uploaded the Teleport tape to his Bandcamp page, where you can enjoy their brand of pop, centred around cascading, outer-space-sounding synthesizers, drum machine beats, and weird vocals:
The sixth tape, which isn’t listed anywhere online at this time, was a tape called Future Boy by Entertainment, the solo project of Julian Garr from Winterbrief. “Really great guy,” Peck says. “I loved talking to that dude. I hung out with him in Philly once or twice. The music was more drum and bass styled, like Darla Records’ Bliss Out series or [the band] Color Filter. I love that type of stuff.”
Number seven was Denver’s self-titled tape. Despite the name, Denver was the moniker of Stephen Maughan from England. “Eighties style guitar pop with drum machines” is how Peck describes it. “I can’t remember the connection or how we met. He was in the band Bulldozer Crash and creator of This Almighty Pop! zine. Awesome music. I should have put it on CD or LP maybe and made it a larger release? It was cool stuff. He also had a 7″ on Elefant Records out of Spain. Elefant was one of my favorite labels of the 90s.”
River was the solo project of Fabrice Hervé, and his Venus tape, In a Lighthouse’s eighth, was one of several small-scale releases he put out around this era on labels like Home-Aid Recordings (the micro-label of the Pittsburgh band Tourister) and Bliss Aquamarine.
1999: The End of In a Lighthouse
Peck put out three tapes in 1999. The first one was from Australian lo-fi indie pop staple Simpático, whose first tape was on In a Lighthouse. After that came OPC by Other People’s Children, another project of Simpático main man Jason Sweeney, described contemporaneously as a “new and very buttery project” with plenty of keyboards, à la Stinky Fire Engine and Stereolab. “Jason was someone I spoke with probably online and then exchanged things with,” Peck says. “I loved a lot of reverb drenched Australian and New Zealand groups. The Cat’s Miaow was a favorite, and I thought Simpático had some cool vibes and wanted to share that.”
The final tape was A Category Fantasy by CJ Geno, which itself seemed to predict Peck’s shift in interest away from pure indie pop. It was a sample-based record by Kisswhistle frontman Cassette Jockey Geno, a.k.a. Marc Pattini. Kisswhistle has since posted the tape on Bandcamp for all to enjoy, replete with lo-fi beats and a delightful send-up of the “Flower Duet” set to a hip-hop beat (“We Have Lust”):
“With the CJ Geno release I found myself restless with some of the indie music I was hearing and seeing. I wanted to dive deeper into other things. And I moved a few times, including a summer working at Warehouse Music in North Carolina. Great crew of people at that store at that time. I started to really enjoy live jazz and African music more and more. And Brazilian music too. The label just ended when I dropped away from all that. I am someone that doesn’t like to hang on to things and rather just explore something or somewhere new. So I lost touch with everyone and got on with others things in life. But never stopped listening and looking for music with no less enthusiasm.”
Peck’s passion for music shines through as he talks about his In a Lighthouse days, and his thirst for new sounds comes through with every email. At one point, he sends me a list of 166 releases that he believes should be reissued on vinyl!
Even for the former proprietor of a tape label, he is particularly enthusiastic about physical media. “I love records and tapes because from a super young age it was just synonymous with listening to music. And that was addicting. And I love the artwork. I am not fixated on one type of medium. I even appreciate CDs and their packaging. In the early and mid nineties I bought m0st rap albums on CD for the car, so I have nostalgia for their format.
“I also like being able to put something on. There is a pushing play. There is an end. I have gone to people’s homes where they have 10,000 songs to stream but their stereo never works and the songs are always hard to find or don’t sound good. I’d rather just pick up a record with a tree on it and put it on. I like the visual relationship — you can search for things visually. I also think tapes sound good, LPs sound good, and CDs sound pretty clean but alright too. But a nicely pressed 180 gram record on a decent stereo is pretty impossible to beat for my ears.”
As an interesting footnote, while Peck was certain that he never ran a website for In a Lighthouse, several days after our interview, through some complicated internet gymnastics, I came across an archived webpage for the label. (It was listed on the Links page to the also-archived website for the band Winterbrief). It provides some valuable descriptions of the In a Lighthouse tapes that haven’t made it online, includingg a claim that Clarify’s tape has been “Hailed as MBVs ‘loveless’ on a shoestring budget and with only keyboards and drum machines as instrumentation!”
Worryingly, Peck’s archive of In a Lighthouse tapes is not with him at the moment. “I have a pretty unwieldy music collection (mostly vinyl) and pieces of it that are not with me are in LA, Boston, Miami… living in considerate closets of family and friends.”
This makes me nervous — tapes are delicate, and belongings have a habit of disappearing when under the possession of those who might not appreciate them. But Peck strikes an optimistic tone. “One day it will be united,” he assures me.
“I’m a big proponent of manipulating. Taking something and manipulating and degrading it somehow. I don’t like things to be pristine and real nice. Even if it’s something that I’ll draw, I’ll usually go over it with glue, somehow mess it up.”
The second edition of Label Archaeology focuses on a label started around 1994 and continues to release its stream of home-dubbed cassettes and limited-to-300-copy records into this current day.
Chris Fischer grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a medium-sized city about an hour and a half outside from Philadelphia. In 1994, he was a sophomore in high school putting out zines and hanging out with some older friends who played music and lived together in a home they called House 25, a collective “punk house that people got drunk in” and lo-fi recording studio.
“I’d gotten into making zines and zine culture, and ran a zine called Entropy, which was kind of a precursor (to Unread),” he tells me. He describes Entropy as an A5 zine filled with “typical high school zine stuff, music reviews, reviews of shows that were going on, and a lot of quote-unquote humor.” Around that time he was also selling bootlegs of tapes, including a Nirvana live set that he recently found in an old box.
Entropy was the work of Chris and his friend, Rob S. “We ended up making the zine in my graphics class, printed on an A.B. Dick copy machine,” he recalls. “We were passing it out in school and ended up getting in trouble with the principal, who thought it was very lewd and offensive, and almost got expelled from school because of it.” Fischer recounts a meeting with that principal, who read choice quotes from the zine in order to make his point that it was too offensive to be published, leading to Fischer cracking up in the office. He specifically recalls that the principal had circled the word “7-inches,” which he seemed to think was a reference to male genitalia.
He also recalls that their graphics teacher, who had defended the students’ creative license, ended up getting fired. He later bumped into her. “I was working for a grocery store and she came in, and I felt so bad for her because she got fired,” he remembers. “But she didn’t care, she was like, ‘Fuck them, they’re ridiculous’.”
There were 5 or 6 issues of Entropy, which continued even after their run-in with authority. At that time, Fischer was corresponding with other zines and labels via the post, trading letters, mail art, and zines. Some of those copies of Entropy came with tapes, which eventually became part of the early Unread catalogue.
Around this time, a couple friends living in House 25 were playing and recording music under the name Swingset. “They had a made a tape that they had sent out to all these record labels,” Fischer explains. “They were in with SpinART Records, who started in Lancaster. Through them, they got contacts to all these different record labels. They ended up sending like two hundred demo tapes to all these labels. And I was like, ‘Did you ever hear back?’ And they were like, ‘We put the wrong return address on it.’ They were kind of giver-uppers. I was like, ‘Well you can’t let this just go, you’ve gotta get this out there.”
That became Fischer’s first tape release — the self-titled Swingset EP. At the time, Chris says that the ‘label’ on the tape itself was listed as Entropy, though it would later be re-categorized as Unread #1. It’s a release he stands by to this day, having included its six tracks on a Swingset retrospective that was Unread’s 136th release, Recorded on Four Track.
Fischer reflects that if Swingset hadn’t bungled up their demo mail-out, Unread likely would never have existed. He was so impressed by the quality of the music that he felt it deserved to be released. The tape, which came out with a picture of a swingset on its front cover, was advertised in his zine under the tagline “Music to Impress People,” with mail order instructions included. He traded and sold a few copies via his mail network, and also peddled them by “walking the halls” of his high school.
He also remembers another tape, catalogue number “entropy 02,” that he distributed through his zine at the time. That was The People were few but the music was GRAND by Plan 7. “It was me and some friends, we played a coffee house. It was basically just improv. Every single person had left the show,” he laughs. Fischer was able to dig up an old copy of the tape and scan the J-card, visible to the left, which shows that “Music to Impress People” was also part of the record label’s name at one point. He believes this addition to the name arose when his friend, Mike Allison, entered the equation.
A catalogue that Fischer dug up from the time lists the Swingset EP and the Plan 7, and also gives a sense of what was anticipated. The third entropy release was going to be by the Side Affects, a pop-punk band that Fischer’s friend, Mike Allison was really into. Blue Box Agency was a band of talented musicians that played blues and jazz frequently around Lancaster, what Fischer calls “coffee house type music.” There was also at one point going to be a tape by a surf-rock band called Plan 9 From Outer Space, not to be confused with Plan 7.
Meanwhile, an old archive of the Entropy fanzine’s website reveals one other item — a reissue of an EP by Chris Fischer’s pre-Entropy hardcore band Humanities Harijan, which Fischer says was one of the earliest recordings he ever made. Tapes by two other mysterious acts, Sulu and Galactica, were also in the pipeline at that point. Today, Fischer can’t remember any of the details about either of those bands.
Fischer’s early tapes, like much of his Unread catalog, had Xeroxed cover art. The blank tapes came from a company called Crown Magnetics Inc., in a nearby town named Lebanon. That company specialized in tapes and audio equipment for recording church sermons. (Indeed, an archive of their early-00s website lists the many Pennsylvania churches they’d outfitted with audio technology).
“A lot of places you would get tape from would be religious companies where they would be used to record church music,” he explains. “You could also buy communion cups and stuff like that. I would drive up there and pick up hundreds of tapes.” He’d then dub them to order at home.
According to the official Unread discography, Unread’s second release was Erik Sahd’s Right Now You’re Always Been Here. Also attributed to the Entropy label initially, it was something of an homage to those religious tapes. Its cover was designed to look like one of them, with the title overlaid on an image of outer space.
Fischer tells me Erik Sahd was one half of Swingset, describing him as an endlessly creative artist who continues to record music to this day, but rarely bothers to release it formally. “Now he’s really into Tesla coils,” Fischer says. “He does electronic experiments with Tesla coils. He gets into these weird modes where he focuses on certain things and does that for like five years. The last time I saw him was at the studio [of Sahd and fellow Swingset member Mike Musser]. We went in the backroom he had all these reel-to-reels hooked up, but the tape was running through other objects and all around the room, almost like you would run a model train or something. It was all this tape going everywhere but also playing. Who knows what he’s doing? Crazy tape experiments.”
Right Now was a Sahd solo work, which Fischer still considers a really good tape. He recalls dubbing a bunch, possibly as few as 20, then driving around the country and leaving them in public rest stops and other random locations. Apart from a small batch that he left for consignment at a record shop in Louisville, Kentucky, those haphazard drops were the primary means of distribution. “I just gave ’em to [the record shop], and was like, here’s my address, send me some money if they sell. Other than that I think we just left them in rest stops and bathrooms and stuff.”
I shared with Fischer that this tape, somehow, was played on WFMU years ago as part of an episode dedicated to tapes found in thrift stores — a striking reminder of the intermittent permanence of physical releases. We speculated that one of the rest stop copies must have been picked up and, years later, found its way to a Goodwill.
Unread number three, still under the Entropy label, was a tape called Master Know by a one-off band, E-Pies, which was Erik Sahd recording with someone else. Fischer believes this record is “lost to history”; when he was moving at one point, a box of tapes literally fell off the back of his pick-up truck after a series of unfortunate motor mishaps. That box contained the masters to all of these original tapes, as well as, Fischer believes, the last extant copies of the E-Pies cassette. He recalls this tape, which he had purchased from the local record store where Sahd had put up a few demo copies for sale, as a bunch of “nonsense, if I remember correctly, a lot of handheld stuff, loops, talking, and organ.”
Unread number four, meanwhile, is so obscure it never actually came out. A few of Fischer’s Lancaster friends were playing as a band named Boss Rabbit. They had apparently earlier put out a tape called Shit. Fischer was set to release another tape of their named Eulogy, even creating all of the cover art, but the band never got the tape to him, so it never came out. Now that’s a deep cut.
The next few tapes were recordings that featured Fischer himself. The self-titled Yo Sci-Fi tape featured him performing with his friend, Mike Allison; it was a recording made while Allison’s parents were out of town, including several keyboard instrumentals. Unread number six was a demo by Nintendo, a hardcore band that Fischer played bass in. Number seven was Kilgore T Lost His Battle With Hypothermia, a “really weird tape” put together by Fischer and a group of friends over the course of a few days.
“We had a makeshift studio we called the Allison Compound, Mike Allison and Brian Allison’s house,” he remembers. “His parents had gotten divorced and they all lived at this house, but their dad didn’t really care what happened. So it basically was just run by us. We’d just stay up all night recording music.” Lost His Battle With Hypothermia features a “very drunken, late-night slice of life,” including some solo cuts by Mike Allison.
It was around this time that Fischer began using the Unread name for his releases. It was borrowed from a zine that he put out called Unread Passive-Resistance, which he coined from two words randomly picked out of a dictionary. That zine, which only survived two issues and featured what Fischer terms “a lot of personal writing or something lame like that,” was perhaps most notable for birthing the Unread name. “And then I was just like, I’ll just put Unread on tapes. I thought it was really moronic but then the more I thought about it, I was like, that’s a decent enough name.” In fact, Fischer remembers retrospectively scratching out the Entropy logo on remaining copies of his previous releases and hand-scrawling Unread in instead.
Release number eight was another album by Swingset, this one also self-titled. Its provenance is unlikely. “That was a tape that I found on the lawn of House 25,” he explains. It was one long piece without breaks, each song flowing into the next, approximately seventy minutes in total. He believes that it was a recording that they were working on with the goal of producing a CD, which never panned out. “Swingset did a lot of recording and had no care in the world about [where the recordings went], they just did it for themselves,” he tells me. He rescued it from disappearing into the mulch.
Unread numbers nine and ten, which he now believes are forever lost, featured lo-fi bedroom pop by Fischer — just him an an acoustic guitar, recorded under the name November of 1959. He doesn’t recall this work being particularly inspired. Nine was a split with Mike Allison, then recording under the nom de plume Kyle Jacobson, their efforts titled Moderate Hearts Beat Once Per Minute. Number ten was just credited to November of 1959 and was titled, somewhat melodramatically, Love Is A Concept By Which We Measure Our Pain.
Unread’s eleventh release was his first vinyl release, a seven-inch single by Fischer’s hardcore band, Nintendo, which also featured his friends at House 25, including Mike Allison. Like all of Unread’s vinyl releases, this one was produced in an edition of 300 copies — below that figure, Fisher explains, the cost per record was much less economical. Unlike previous releases, which came out on a much smaller scale, many copies of Nintendo’s record were distributed through a distributor. Nintendo inconveniently broke up right after the record came out, and Fischer believes he threw a bunch of them away in the bitterness of their collapse.
As a side note, this seems to be one of the most permanent of the early Unread releases, likely owing to its relatively large pressing, which must have dwarfed the many cassette runs. The single had Fischer’s parents’ phone number on it, and he tells me his mom would get phone calls for years after, inquiring about booking Nintendo for gigs. When he moved to Omaha in 1999, this was the one Unread release that people had in their collections.
After high school, Fischer attended the Art Institute of Philadelphia to study animation, though left after a year, frustrated that the college had stopped teaching traditional animation in favour of digital production. Fischer, who found his first computer in a dumpster behind a restaurant, does use the internet to help disseminate his music, but prefers analog media. He loves tape recording and prefers corresponding via snail mail. “At that time I was a letter writing fiend. I just wrote tons and tons of letters to all those tape labels. And that’s how I got to know most of the people that Unread put out, through ordering their tapes. And eventually, probably ’98 or ’99, all those tape labels stopped. Because all those guys were probably in college and then got out and stopped doing it. And I just picked up where all those labels stopped.
“I met Charlie MacAllister through Rob Carmichael’s Catsup Plate. When I went to school in Philadelphia, I lived with my aunt and uncle, and they were right out side of Swarthmore, and that’s where Catsup Plate and a bunch of other labels came from. Their college radio station was big in that tape label scene.”
For Fischer, the reason he started Unread — and continues it to this day — is because otherwise this music risks going completely unheard. In our discussion, he brings up the artist Nutrition Fun, who has released several tapes on Unread. “That’s a really good friend of mine from high school time,” he tells me. “Everybody would record songs by themselves, and then give me a tape, and I’d be like, you should do something with this, and they’d say, no, I don’t care. So that’s why I always did it and still do it, is to help my friends get their music out there. The fact that there’s other people on the label is just because tape labels started to die off, and I’d be like, why don’t you put out a tape on Unread, I’m still doing it. I guess it formed in these formative years and it just seems like something that I decided to keep carrying on with. I’m not sure how to explain it, really.
“Even though I was in hardcore bands and stuff, that was easily expressed and not hard. I just played bass. I’m not a very good musician. I would see my friends, who I thought were really talented, waste away, so I wanted to boost them up because I knew I couldn’t do something like that. I’ve never been a super talented musician.”
Fischer has trouble saying this, on account of being such a humble guy, but he acknowledged that his label has done a service to his artists, and to those who have the opportunity to listen to them. “Otherwise nobody would know who Nutrition Fun is,” he says, laughing.
At the same time, a big part of the label, and the tape scene in general, was about community. “There’s so many friendships I have across the country from when I was fifteen and writing letters, that I still have today,” he reflects. “It’s almost like the music is second. I think the friendship and getting to know all these people was always the first thing. Writing letters, getting to know [singer/songwriter] Simon Joyner.”
Unread’s visual aesthetic, an unmistakably DIY style that makes heavy use of line drawings, typewriter text, and deliberately crooked cut-and-paste assembly, is one of its most enduring features. “I like making the covers. And if people order stuff, nine times out of ten I’ll put a drawing in, or some junk. I like the corresponding and sending things out, it’s a good way to do art.”
When approaching each release, he solicits the input of the artist to craft the final design. “I’ll ask what the artist wants. If people don’t care, I’ll ask them to send me something to go off of. A lot of it is drawings I’ll do, or they’ll send me a photo and I’ll cut up and manipulate it. Ninety percent of releases I’ve cut up the covers and put them together, made all the copies, screen-printed them, what have you. It’s not always my art, but it’s me putting everything together.”
Referring to his aesthetic as “Xerox junk,” he goes on to explain his approach. “I’m a big proponent of manipulating. Taking something and manipulating and degrading it somehow. I don’t like things to be pristine and real nice. Even if it’s something that I’ll draw, I’ll usually go over it with glue, somehow mess it up.”
The cut-and-paste, fractured aesthetic of Fischer’s art fits well with the mutant pop music that he puts out. “I think of old Lou Barlow recordings. It’s a pop song at its core, but it’s almost messed up. I kind of hate that lo-fi has come back in this day and age of digital stuff. A lot of people will record digitally and then put on a lo-fi filter. I personally think the recording techniques are part of the music.
“With Lou Barlow, it sounds the way it sounds because of the weird techniques he uses. A lot of people that I work with on Unread do the same thing. It doesn’t necessarily need to be lo-fi. Even [more recent Unread artist] Razors — that guy is really good at recording and probably records everything on computer, but he cuts things apart and deconstructs it, in a weird way.
“It kind of flows together, but almost in bits and pieces. And you take it as a whole. I’ve always looked at tapes as being a whole thing. I’m not a person that picks out songs. I don’t listen to music digitally, I still listen to tapes. If I listen to a tape I put on the whole thing. That’s the way I’ve always listened to music. I feel that’s important. People miss that now”
He tells me about his extensive collection of tapes from old tape labels, and mentions that he has cassette racks and boxes filled with tapes from all eras of the lo-fi music scene. He’ll often grab one at random and put it on the tape deck. After I remark that his tape collection must constitute a national archive at this point, he tells me that there’s only other person he knows with a similarly voluminous tape collection. That person is Luigi Falagario of Bari, Italy, who runs the Almost Halloween Time label and is also responsible for a website that compiles discographies for old tape labels and lo-fi artists, complete with images from his collection. “We basically have the same [number of tapes], and we’ve traded in the past,” Fischer says. “I’ll be like you’ve got that one, and he’ll be like, you’ve got that one, and we’ll dub each other copies.” Years ago, Fischer sent Falagario the “official” Unread discography for his website, where it remains an invaluable resource.
Together, we imagine that the time will come for a Nuggets-style compilation documenting the nineties lo-fi pop scene. “I was big into [the reissue label Mississippi Records] and I remember writing to them, saying, I think you should do a compilation of nineties compilations. All those old compilations, let me pick a couple songs here and there. But they never wrote back. But I always thought, one day. Maybe it wasn’t time yet, but now I think something like that would be pretty sweet. At some point I expect somebody to get a hold of me, and to ask, do you have this certain tape?”
Indeed, the vastness of the nineties cassette scene is a wonderful thing to ponder. “You can go down a rabbit hole and it can go on forever,” he marvels “There was just a label I saw the other day. I can’t remember how I got to it, I think maybe through Discogs. It was a label called In a Lighthouse Cassettes, and I had never heard of it, but then I knew one of the bands that’s on it, and I was like, who the hell did this? Totally around the same time, the mid-nineties, just something that I hadn’t heard of until now. And I’m sure there’s a million of them. If Unread came out of Lancaster, PA, imagine how many other tiny tape labels there are.”
Eventually, Fischer and I return to the story at hand, and he brings me to the next chapter in Unread history. In 1999, after leaving art school, Fischer decided it was time for a change of scenery.
“I had been writing to the guys responsible for [Omaha-based lo-fi label] Sing, Eunuchs! Also, I set up a show for Bright Eyes in Lancaster, and ended up palling around with them for a few shows around the area. They were like, Chris, you should come live in Omaha if you’ve got nothing going on. I was like, alright. So I ended up moving into Connor’s house, because I wasn’t doing anything in Lancaster, I was bored. So I just moved there.
“I moved to Omaha fucking Nebraska. I remember driving there, and I had never been there before, and I was like, what the fuck is this.”
In this first edition of Label Archaeology, we turn to an early 00s CDR label from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who put out a remarkable number of releases between 2000 and 2006, most of which is very poorly documented online. Their old website can be accessed via archive.org, and many of their records are catalogued on RateYourMusic, though only a few have made it to Discogs.
I reached out to We’re Twins’ former label-runners a few years ago, and since then, Jason Voss, one of the people involved with the label, put four of the label’s compilations up on Bandcamp. These sprawling comps feature an exciting cast of unknown lo-fi pop names, bands with inscrutable monikres like Chicken/Mechanic, Strikeforce:Euler, and, my personal favourite, Website. One of those compilations, We’re Twins Sampler 2003, was available for free at the time — all you had to do was email the label and they’d drop a copy in the mail.
The folks behind We’re Twins were Jason Voss, Benjamin Tausig, Katie Linden, and Kelly Szott. They were all involved in the University of Michigan’s radio station, WCBN, and played in various bands with friends.
“I’m going to say that it happened sometime around fall or winter of 2000,” Szott recalls. “I think Katie and I came up with the name. I remember thinking that ‘We’re Twins’ was kind of a funny name to use because Katie actually is a twin. A group of us at WCBN were all interested in making low-fi, off-the cuff music. The creation of We’re Twins was a result of this and inspired us to make more of this type of music.”
Tausig elaborates on the origins. “We were college students, and had no obligations whatsoever in our lives, for the most part. We hung out at the campus radio station and all had various musical projects, which congealed under the scotch-tape-bound administrative banner of ‘We’re Twins Records.'”
Voss came late to the party, after their first release came out. “I got recruited by Katie and Kelly right after the Most Dangerous Game of Cat and Mouse Band EP came out. They expressed a desire to put out as many CDR releases as possible so I got on it.” That EP, billed as WRT001, was described on the We’re Twins website like so:
What is there to say about the Cat and Mouse Band that hasn’t been said hundreds of times before in broken Esperanto? Succinct pop songs with guy-girl vocals, mandolin, violin, and yes, even handclaps! Think a cuter version of The Shaggs crossed with a tape recorder.
A remaining mp3 of the song “Me Envelope” kicks in with thick tape hiss, then introduces a joyfully dyscoordinated mandolin/ukelele, bass guitar, hand claps, and goofy vocals that repeat the lyric “What have you find/In me envelope?” over and over in a range of goofy voices.
Tausig’s recollection of that EP’s recording is hazy. “[It] was recorded in one evening, when I was supposed to be scoring a soundtrack for this guy’s student movie. It was a plodding melodrama directed by a 20-year-old, so it was pretty dull and awkward even as it aspired to be polished. Suffice it to say I did not treat my $50 commission all that seriously. Instead of a soundtrack, we got high on probably chips and salsa and recorded a bunch of goofy improvised tracks that kind of mocked the scenes of the film. That was fun. I think a lot of We’re Twins releases were similarly conceptualized.”
According to an archived feature for Dusted Magazine, at least one copy came housed in a Warner Bros. promo jewel case, which the author suspected had been cannibalized from an unwanted WCBN copy. Perhaps this was right on the mark. As Voss explains, “We were music directors at WCBN in the late stages of the music industry taking over college radio as a promotions wing in the wake of the big ‘alternative’ boom in the nineties. Tons of CDs came in the mail every week and most of it seemed really boring, uncreative, over-produced, and safe to us. We became aesthetic radicals in response and probably over-corrected in the other direction.”
Szott elaborates: “To me it felt very liberating to make music and have a record label even though I could barely play an instrument or construct a song. It was my feminist response to what I perceived was a very masculine type of virtuosity in the music world.”
Tausig concurs. “I would say that it was strongly inflected by a DIY feminist aesthetic, coupled with a kind of indie rock indifference or irony as well as what was either snobby connoisseurship or boundless curiosity about new and unusual musics. Probably both, depending on the moment or the context.”
The scarcity of these releases on the internet isn’t surprising when you consider their scant pressings. Exact figures vary. As Szott recalls, “I think we would make five or so copies and give them to friends, put them in the WCBN library, maybe send them to other radio stations (like WFMU or Rice University’s radio station), and give them to the local record store to sell. Then, from there I think we would make them to order.”
Ben remembers the pace of CDR-burning varying by expected sales numbers. “Sometimes we would make a pile of 20 or 50, especially for ‘popular’ releases such as our compilations. Other times they would be made to order, or produced in a limited release of, say, ten copies. Or one copy.”
Voss also recalls made-to-order releases and a few bigger runs. “They were generally made to order with a batch to start off with, mostly college radio promo copies. Patrick Elkins and I decided to market our 2004 albums as “limited editions of 750” and counted down starting at 750. I think there were a few hundred of the New Folk Sounds, probably less than 100 of my album Arts & Crafts.”
Many of the We’re Twins discs were distributed locally, and Szott recalls being “kind of part of the Ann Arbor music scene to some extent.” Meanwhile, Voss recalls that the website was another source of distribution. “Our use of the Internet involved a website that instructed people to ask us for a free CDR sampler, which we sent in the mail. Easily dozens of random people from all over opted in and we also had the mp3s up on the website. We sent out quite a few promos to college radio stations and a couple publications. We were more geared toward making product that college radio geeks would be interested in rather than enjoyable music that someone would want to purchase, so it’s not surprising that our biggest successes were in that market.”
Tausig expands. “They were all extremely successful in that we loved them, and extremely unsuccessful in that they were not profitable or generative of social cachet or artistic influence beyond a very localized sphere. In my opinion. It was a big, big deal to get one spin of our music on WFMU, or frankly even on WCBN.”
And Voss remembers some releases getting into more hands than others. “The samplers got the most attention and since they were free it was easy to sell them. The New Folk Sounds of Patrick Elkins and There Is a Rat in Separate by Melting Moments have a small but devoted following to this day. The 7-inches sold relatively large numbers, but were a failure in term of percentage of the total that were sold.”
Patrick Elkins’ disc has been uploaded to Bandcamp by Elkins himself, and shares We’re Twins’ lo-fi, ramshackle, maybe-recorded-drunk-in-a-dorm-room appeal. The Melting Moments CDR, with its great name, is also up on Bandcamp — it was the project of Voss himself, along with Anna Vitale. It’s, in some ways, among the more coherent We’re Twins releases; a drum machine backdrops dinky Casio melodies and electric guitar, with Voss and Vitale’s unpolished vocals overtop, all in an indie pop mould.
Szott recalls the details of another release, an EP credited to Elizabeth –really just Szott’s one-off solo project. Its description on the old We’re Twins website read:
Who is this “Elizabeth”? We cannot say for sure. Many theories have been bandied about at The Royal Academy, but let us assure you that they are indeed all wrong. What we can say is that album of delicate pop songs will keep your teeth two shades brighter for up to three weeks with just one listen.
Szott was willing to shed light on the mystery. “I remember making my album, Elizabeth, using a karaoke machine and the backing music of a Madonna song. I was so dreadfully embarrassed about that recording.”
What started off as a forum to release music composed by the group ended up expanding into a growing roster. “The first batch of releases was pretty much all combinations of the 5 of us, then there was a larger group of people at WCBN who were involved to some degree,” Voss tells. “Justin Shay sent us an unsolicited demo, we enthusiastically signed him and he pretty much became a core member (later becoming a WCBN DJ appropriately enough). After most of those people moved away, I recruited a few local Ann Arbor bands around 2003-2004 for one-off We’re Twins releases: Jib Kidder, Umberto, Kelly Caldwell. They all had the deal where it says We’re Twins on the CDR, but the band makes them and gets all the money from selling them.”
As Szott details, “Nearing the end of We’re Twins I remember sending out a couple emails to people who had sent us good demos. We asked them if they wanted to join We’re Twins and then, in true We’re Twins style, we did absolutely nothing and never contacted them again.”
Voss sees We’re Twins as one node of a bustling network of DIY record labels, often connected to the noise scene. Unsurprisingly, John Olson’s American Tapes label, long run out of Michigan, casts a long shadow. “The Wolf Eyes guys were definitely a major influence in terms of aesthetics and quality control, especially American Tapes putting out a maximal stream of super limited releases. Everybody in the noise scene had a CDR label and we were pretty much just a really twee version of that. A little later, there were a lot of sister CDR labels in Ann Arbor in 2002 through 2006. I moved into a house with 6 other WCBN DJs and they were mostly all involved with at least one We’re Twins release or comp contribution.
“Randall Davis and Dustin Krcatovich lived there and had a zine/comic/record label called Horrendous Failure Studios that they had started in high school in the Kalamazoo area. Around 2003 Randall started a noise CD-R label called Stop/Eject Records that I was somewhat involved with. We had a duo that just layered skipping CDs live and he also released an unlistenable conceptual square wave composition I made. Dustin was doing a label called Casanova Temptations Edutainment Consortium and currently has a mostly tape label called FM Dust, based in Portland. Patrick Elkins had a label called Chew Your Own Records before, during and after being a We’re Twins artist. Dustin, Pat and I lived in the Totally Awesome House in Ann Arbor from 2004 to 2005, where we had weekly plus shows and were running all three labels from the house. Asaurus Records put out quite a few CDR releases in a more organized fashion with more quality control. The representative from Asaurus said that picking up some We’re Twins discs at Stormy Records was a big influence on getting that going.
“We were a little ahead of the times I think. After Ben, Katie and Kelly moved away there was more of a local CDR label scene and bands that we would have fit in. And Spiders got some pretty good shows, but audiences and sound guys were very confused by us. A little later, there was some interest in We’re Twins that mostly resulted in great bookings for the New Sound of My Bossa Nova who got flown to Houston for a festival sponsored by now-defunct radio station KTRU and a Steve Keene art opening in Big Rapids, MI. The slightly younger generation at WCBN was vaguely inspired by We’re Twins and there were several other CDR/internet labels a little later. There have been some notable musicians from that batch of WCBNers like Julia Holter, Laurel Halo and Jib Kidder.”
Szott recalls We’re Twins petering out when she, Tausig, and Linden left Ann Arbor and moved to Brooklyn, and Voss is lukewarm on the period when he was the main one in charge. “There was a period when the others lost interest and I was pretty much (badly) running the label. We tried to do an actual CD for Patrick Elkins’ Fruits of the Spirit but I think there was a tour booked and it didn’t come together in time for it so there was a CDR tour version and the ‘real’ one never really got properly released. Similar story with WRT SAMP 2005, which never really got finished in physical form, just the mp3s on the website. I got overly ambitious putting the 2005 Halloween set together. It was a 2CDR + 3-inch CDR wrapped up with a bunch of stickers and a scary plastic spider in a taped and mod-podged together halloween napkin where the package had to be destroyed to open it. I think I finished them in January or February 2006 and failed to sell any copies. I was having a rough time that year. Wikipedia deleted my entry citing my being a ‘completely unnotable local musician’ and I gave up my ‘singer-songwriter’ career and folded the label.”
Today, Szott is an assistant professor of sociology at Southern Oregon University. “Sadly, I’m not very involved in musical activities these days. I often bemoan this fact, but don’t know what to do about it … My husband makes music and sometimes gets me to record with him.”
Tausig is also in academia, as a professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University. “I talk at 200 students each semester about the history of rock music, framing that history (via a very We’re Twins worldview) as a fundamentally queer, colored, and female-steered musical tradition. This is probably a little iconoclastic, given how people tend to imagine rock, but it’s also backed up by plenty of evidence. And being part of We’re Twins, resolutely informal as it was, was certainly part of what led to that conception.” Having recently published a book, Bangkok is Ringing: Sound, Protest, and Constraint, and guested on WFMU, where he played a variety of Thai pop records.
Voss remains involved in contemporary music. “I’m kind of doing the same stuff – still at WCBN, still playing guitar and writing music, mostly in secret now. I continued working with Patrick Elkins on music and puppetry projects through 2012, playing bass in the Rainbow Vomit Family Band for the last few years of that period. Melting Moments is still an active project. We try to practice once a year and continue to be able to create songs very quickly in short bursts spread over long periods of time.”
The official We’re Twins discography:
CDRs: WRT001 Most Dangerous Game of Cat and Mouse Band “EP” WRT002 Strikeforce:Euler “S/T” WRT003 Paraguay Today “Montevideo” WRT004 Production Bee “#1” WRT005 I Am a No’kazu Tak’mura Cover Band “The Gravity 500” WRT005a Buckman-Kelley Overdrive WRT006 Cannibal Kitten “15832” WRT007 Lieutentant Disaster “Adrenaline Test Suit” WRT008 Strikeforce:Euler “Mis s Goodthighs” WRT009 Elizabeth “EP” WRT00A Most Dangerous Game of Cat and Mouse Band “Album” (never completed) WRT00B Savacald “’89” WRT00C Various Artists “Our Sampler 2001” WRT00D I Am a No’kazu Tak’mura Cover Band “2:58” WRT00E Various Artists “A We’re Twins Live EP” WRT00F State & William WRT010 Ryan and Justin “sing, play chords, hit drums, make noise” WRT011 Justin Shay “City Lights and Other Songs” WRT012 Cockroach Huxtable “Maidmoiselle Disco Technique” WRT013 Strikeforce:Euler “Everything to Do in Living is Smoking” WRT014 I Am a No’kazu Tak’mura Cover Band “The Jean Tinguely Appreciation Society” WRT015 X-Lemur “j.go” WRT017 Production Bee “#2” WRT018 S&WRMXPRJCT WRT019 Bennett/Ilgenfritz “made for tv movies will extend yr career by 5ive years” WRT020 And Spiders “In the Woods” WRT025 Website “Circa ’88” WRT026 Justin Shay “she said it looks like spring” WRT027 Ice Cream Social “The Ice Cream Social Album” WRT028 Ice Cream Socialist UK “The Ice Cream Socialists Come Alive!” WRT029 The New Sound of My Bossa Nova “S/T” WRT02A Ever Will You Get There “Maybe We Can Help You Find a Place” WRT02B The New Sound of My Bossa Nova “For the Kids” WRT02C Various Artists “We’re Twins All Hallow’s Eve EP for 2003″WRT02D Justin Shay and Patrick Elkins “Justin & Patrick” WRT02E Ever Will You Get There “Open Mic Ypsilanti” WRT02F “Hobo-A-Go-Go: The Official Tour CD” WRT030 Jacob Danziger “August First” WRT031 Capt’n Jus + the Fuck a robot band “remy didn’t give a damn” WRT032 The Vix Krater “Panorama” *WRT033 The New Sound of My Bossa Nova “Sing Songs of Love” WRT034 Jib Kidder “Thirteen” WRT035 Jason Voss “‘Arts & Crafts’ and other compositions for singer-songwriter” WRT036 Patrick Elkins “The New Folk Sounds of Patrick Elkins” WRT037 Melting Moments “There Is A Rat In Separate” WRT038 Umberto “There, A Somewhere Lies” *WRT039 Kelly Jean Caldwell “LOBO”
Halloween 2005 releases: Patrick Elkins “Fruits of the Spirit” WRT03D Justin Shay “Vocalizations 1” WRT040 Various Artists “WRT 2005 Samp”
Vinyl: WRT701 The Rants “Look Passive [7″]” WRT702 Saturday Looks Good To Me “I Don’t Want to Go / Disaster” 7”