Mystery Tapes Galore: The Cassette Archive

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

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

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

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

The Adimus tape. (Image credit: Ezra Fike)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True Mystery Tapes

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Cassette Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Ezra Fike

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

Lost Albums: Various Artists – BritneyWave (Sunbeam Records)

Lost Albums is a way of documenting records that exist in some manner, but don’t exist in the public realm — records that were recorded but shelved, records that almost-happened, records that never were.

In late 2018, a vaporwave label called Sunbeam Records, responsible primarily for digital releases, put out a call for submissions for a new tribute album. Run by two vaporwave producers named Opal and 氷河, Sunbeam was not new to tribute albums. They had put out two tributes already, one dedicated to the enigmatic Luxury Elite (who has since disappeared entirely), one focused on the producer Waterfront Dining, and the other an homage to 猫 シ Corp., a Dutch performer named Jornt Elzinga responsible for one of the seminal mallsoft records, Palm Mall.

But this tribute was different. They were pitching a vaporwave tribute to a very non-vaporwave artist, Britney Spears. The Oct 29, 2018 tweet came with the following image:

I connected with Opal via email to learn the background behind this proposed compilation, which had some submissions but never panned out. “Sunbeam has not been active for some time, due to me owing some people a few physical orders, and BritneyWave did in fact never come out,” Opal explained. 

Opal, who is in his early twenties and lives in “Amish country, Pennsylvania,” works full-time at Subway and produces music, plays video games, watches movies, and enjoys the outdoors. He is saving money now, possibly to go to at school. “I’m not sure what the future holds for me, but I’m excited to see,” he tells me.

He explained how he caught the vaporwave bug. “I got interested in vaporwave a couple years ago, probably about 2015-16, when a friend kept playing a lot of it for me.” He, by then, had been exposed to Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe, a seminal vaporwave record known for its post-modern mash of diverse sources, ranging from the now-forgotten seventies soft-rock band Pages to the soundtrack to the Nintendo 64 game Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. But it was the experience of completing schoolwork and listening to Canadian producer Blank Banshee’s 2013 album, Blank Banshee 1, that sealed the deal, inspiring him to download the sound editing program Audacity and to start experimenting with his own productions.

He then discovered a subgenre of vaporwave called late night lo-fi, which uses smooth jazz samples to evoke the experience of being up at night, circa 1993, watching TV and staring out the window of one’s luxury condo. It was Late Night Delight, a split release between Luxury Elite and Saint Pepsi, that did it for Opal. “I fell in love with it and spent probably a good month listening to many artists, like Saint Pepsi, Luxury Elite, Waterfront Dining, and tons more.

“Part of the reason that vaporwave appeals to me so much is because I grew up on classic rock and that blended into me discovering eighties pop. Vaporwave combines the internet era, which I am very acquainted with, and eighties pop. It’s a way to take an already created piece and make it your own. It also opens doors for me to explore new music that has been out for years that I’ve never heard before. It kind of symbolizes the known and unknown for me. It’s a blend of future, present, and past.”

Sunbeam Records occurred when Opal met 氷河 over Twitter. “I had wanted to do a collaboration project, and we met based on a tweet I had put out asking if anyone would like to either collaborate or make a split album,” he recalls. “氷河 messaged me and said he was interested. And so, our collab project ゴールデンアイ1997 was born. Shortly after our first album came out on Flamingo Vapor, I decided I wanted to start my own netlabel. And so, I figured who better to help me than my collaboration partner? I asked if he was interested and he said yes. And so we started Sunbeam Records. Most of the music in the beginning, and throughout the span of it, was made by us, with the occasional release by an artist or friend.”

Eventually came Sunbeam’s tribute compilations, which remain among their most popular releases. “The tribute albums were an idea I had while thinking about artists I personally liked, and realizing a lot of them, while similar, have a signature sound. I thought it might be a fun and interesting experience to invite artists to try to mimic their favorite artists’ sounds, while staying true to themselves. And as it turns out, a lot of other people liked the idea as well. Our first tribute, an album dedicated to Waterfront Dining, was by far the most popular album we released at the time. And so I decided to continue with them. We released a Luxury Elite tribute and a Cat System Corp. tribute. To this day, people still ask about them. The artists who were featured talk about them. A few have approached me about doing tributes to other artists. I think what appeals to me about this format is the sense of community. Many people were inspired by these artists to make their own music, and it’s a fun way to see how each person interprets the music and makes it their own, while still having the umbrella of us all having the same influence.

BritneyWave came about from a friend who really likes Britney Spears. An artist known as Valet Girls. He made a joking comment about making a Britney tribute, and I actually liked the idea. I thought it was a little more out there, but I knew a lot of people who liked her as well. Unfortunately, it marked the end of the tributes thus far, because we only got a handful of scattered submissions. At this point in time, I’m not planning on ever releasing it, but maybe sometime in the future if it becomes a popular idea again…

“We only received about four submissions. One was a male vocal cover of a slowed down ‘Toxic.’ The other three were original vapor pop pieces.”

As of late, Sunbeam has seemed to close up shop. “Sunbeam has petered out right now because of one simple problem. I got in over my head. I offered a CD set for a group of albums, and once a few people ordered, I realized I didn’t have experience shipping things out of the US. I decided to take hiatus with the label until I fulfilled people’s orders. Once I do so, we will be back up and running. The other reason we stopped is because I felt like most people didn’t really care to listen other than the tribute albums, and so we didn’t get many submissions.”

Sunbeam is an online endeavour primarily, but Opal mentions that he had made connections with people IRL. “There’s a handful of people locally interested, namely a man who fronts a local dream-pop band called Vicious Blossom. He contacted me through my Bandcamp and asked if I’d be interested in remixing their music. He also has proposed a music project mixing vapor and dreampop. We’ve grown to be pretty decent friends I feel.”

And he’s managed to intrigue a few associates. “My family and friends and girlfriend all know about vaporwave. I practically never shut up about it. They’re all proud, and a few are curious about vaporwave. Most of them never knew about it before me.”