In 1992, a CD was released that was contained inside a metal box filled with salt. That alone was unusual, but the story behind it was even more unlikely.
Nigel Ayers is the main mind behind the long-running experimental music act Nocturnal Emissions, a stalwart figure on the underground music scene. In the early 90s, before Blasphemous Rumours came out, he was already an established figure, but times were tight. “I was living very preciously, struggling with debt, rent, food, and pretty desperate really,” he explains to me. “I didn’t have any other income other than music. I was working solo by then, and very focused on creating music and visual art, and working very hard at it.”
The year prior, Ayers had released the infamous Mouth of Babes, which was recorded exclusively using infant “singers” — recordings of babies that were sampled, looped, and collaged into oblivion, the result imbued with a sinister quality. Each copy came inside an (unused) infant diaper.
He had also done Magnetizdat, a series of audio zines on cassette that explored unusual religious sects, collaging audio produced by strange religious groups. The occult samples came from tapes obtained through his international mail art network. Back then, he explains, you could put out a request for cassettes on a certain topic, and people around the world would send you relevant items.
Amid this productive period, Staalplaat, a record store and label based out of Amsterdam, pitched the idea of releasing the next Nocturnal Emissions CD in a metal tin. But there was a detail they didn’t mention in advance: the tins would be filled with table salt.
“Staalplaat were very odd the way they went about things,” Ayers tells me. “They said they’re going to put it out in a steel container. So I say, oh yeah, alright.” It was only when his artist copy turned up in the mail that he discovered the full concept and was left to contemplate Staalplaat’s intentions. Perhaps the goal was for the salt crystals to abrade the surface of the CD, adding a bit of randomness to the audio? Or maybe the hope was that the CD would physically decay over time?
Ironically, because Ayers was expecting a metal box, he themed the music around the idea of permanence and sturdiness, trying to create “music that stands the test of time.” And although the salt did not cause the CD to decay, it did catalyze the metal box’s rusting process. “What happens is the packaging rusts away,” he describes. “There’s a sensational one from Brazil that looks like there’s some kind of moss or lifeform growing on it.” He tells me that it took about six months for copies to rust so extensively that they were trapped shut.
Ayers didn’t learn the full story behind Blasphemous Rumours until just recently, when Frans de Waard published his memoir of working at Staalplaat. Titled This Is Supposed To Be a Record Label, that book tells a number of anecdotes about the controversial label, including the tale of this disc.
As the story goes, the Staalplaat crew knew the experimental composer Tom Recchion, who had been involved in designing the packaging for the 1989 film, Batman, whose Prince-oriented soundtrack came in a special metal canister. Through Recchion, they connected with the company that produced the cans and were quoted a minimum order of 2000 units. “Since we had to buy 2000 cans, we’d have to use them for something we knew would sell,” De Waard explains. They chose Ayers because he was a well-known artist, then pulled their prank. “We filled 1000 cans with salt that we bought at the supermarket. Our entire premises became extremely dry and it made us very thirsty. We sealed the tins with tape we’d had specially made.”
But before he learned all the back story — on the day that his copy arrived in the mail — his immediate reaction was more visceral. “I thought, ‘What the hell have you done?'”
Amsterdam being notorious for its lax drug rules, he wondered if the crystalline powder might have been a reference to narcotics, or perhaps to Amsterdam’s moisture problem. “It’s a very Amsterdam thing to do. In our pubs they put sawdust on the floor, in Amsterdam they put salt on the floors to absorb the moisture… I was used to their sort of pranksterish ways at Staalplaat. I thought, ‘Right, okay, I put all this work into this CD and it’s going to be ruined in this salt. Put it down to experience,'” he laughs.
Indeed, since he was originally intending to produce a work of art that would convey permanence, he had put a lot of work into Blasphemous Rumours‘ audio. Ayers’ typical production style is to make acoustic recordings, then process them electronically. “It might be musique concrete, or it might be played music. But it all starts off with a real world source.”
For Rumours, he used recordings he had made of oboist/flautist Charlotte Bill, a Manchester-based musician and filmmaker. That source audio was recorded to a Greengate sampler then channeled to a reel-to-reel recorder.
Had he known what Staalplaat had in mind, he tells me he would have taken things in an entirely different direction. “I would have done something with salt, for a start. I would have worked with salt as a physical medium, the qualities of salt. Dealt with the idea of eroded sands — and if the idea was that it was to decompose the record, then I’d look at music that would rearrange and decompose. It would have that in mind when I created it.
“As far as it went, I would have been happier had Staalplaat told me that they were going to put it in a package that was going to decompose. Because I had been discussing that sort of idea with Ben Ponton of (fellow experimental group) :zoviet*france:. We were discussing putting a CD out in a Petri dish and various ideas that never came to fruition.” That idea, a play on Ayers’ own Sterile Records label, was to attach a record to a sterile Petri dish, which would, when opened, pick up organisms from the air and organically bloom. (In fact, the CD art on Blasphemous Rumours was an image of mould in a Petri dish, submitted by Ayers as a remnant of this idea).
For Ayers, this Staalplaat prank was somewhat against his ethic of artistic creation. “I do think that artists and curators ought to take one another into consideration, take their feelings into consideration.”
Ayers believes that artistic ideas are not the miraculous work of auteurs, but instead the result of people working together. “In creating art, it doesn’t always go smoothly from some sort of artist’s genius vision. Most of my ideas have come up from the people I live with, the unsung people, my partner, my wife, chatting with friends…”
He raises Marcel Duchamp, whose famous readymade artpiece, Fountain — a ass-manufactured urinal intended to be exhibited in a gallery, as a lampoon of high-art elitism — is speculated to have been the work of a fellow avant-garde artist named Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Blasphemous Rumours is a bit of an anomaly as a piece of art, since it came about as a result of imperfect communication. Ayers knew only part of the story, and his audio reflects only a partial picture of the overall concept. In a sense, it is a microcosm of the dynamics of real-life human interactions, where misunderstandings are germane. Still, for Ayers, it would have been nice to have been told about the payoff in advance.
There is a funny postscript to the Blasphemous Rumours story. “Amsterdam is under sea level, it’s all based on canals. So [Staalplaat’s basement-level record store] was damp. They were storing these metal boxes full of salt in this damp basement. I think they sold quite well, but after awhile they moved the store to Berlin, and they called me up and said, ‘Oh we’ve got a few hundred of these left, do you want to buy them?'”
“I said no thanks.”
Thanks to Nigel Ayers for the interview, as well as Frans de Waard for communicating via email.
“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.
“It took me a while to collect enough dog feces. But then again not forever.”
How to approach a music release that comes accompanied by 3 baggies of dog feces?
In 2004, the iconoclastic artist Rudolf Eb.er, who records under the name Runzelstirn & Gurgelstøck, put out a mini-CDR that was accompanied by three bags of “original shit by Eb.er’s dog.” It was called Hirnstamm, Kotloch Und Scheisse, which translates via Google to “Brain stem, fecal hole and shit.”
Rudolf is no stranger to edgy antics, having adorned previous records with artwork depicting graphic sexual acts and disfigured bodies. On one noteworthy occasion, he released an anti-record called Roto Tract which was just an industrial grinding wheel; playing it on your turntable would gradually destroy your stylus, cartridge, and tone-arm.
Rudolf himself has been involved in experimental art and music for years, having formed the radical Schimpfluch-Gruppe collective in Zurich in 1989, whose “confrontational, physically demanding performances and shock treatments remove the boundaries of the body and open up accesses to the collective unconscious.”*
Indeed, the Schimpfluch-Gruppe’s actions have pushed boundaries. One infamous Runzelstirn & Gurgelstøck performance, “For Stringquartet and Asstrumpet,” features a string quartet played next to Rudolf’s frequent collaborator, Kaori Yakushinji, who screams gruesomely as she inserts a tube into her rectum.** That one is collected on a 2000 CD called Asshole / Snail Dilemma (Tochnit Aleph), which came in a jewel case “with human hair protruding from underneath the CD tray.”
Curious about the strange Hirnstamm, Kotloch Und Scheisse, I emailed Rudolf to clarify the story behind the release, and he generously provided a bunch of background regarding the concept and his methods. He explained that he created the packaging while living in Osaka, Japan. He collected the feces while walking his dog, then finished off the packaging and sent it to Björn Liebmann, proprietor of the Leipzig-based record label, Scrotum Records, who added the discs themselves and put them up for sale.
“Every copy was made the similar way and all of them included 3 packed samples of dog feces,” he explained. “The feces were collected during walks with my dog Chi. The completed covers for the entire edition were sent to Björn in Leipzig, who added the disc. I don’t know if this was the first ever record release to incorporate real feces. I’m not aware of any other release with real feces. As a painter, actionist and audio artist it was a natural process to come to this packaging. It is another step from the previous packing I made.”
Though he had heard of the work of visual artist Andres Serrano, who shocked the art world by submerging a crucifix in a container of urine, he denies taking conceptual inspiration from this work. Instead, he says Hirnstamm‘s design was purely an aesthetic decision. “I do not understand this packaging as anything shocking or controversial (for healthy minded people – sick people may be shocked). It came from entirely aesthetic reasons. The contrasts of the brown-black-green-reddish colors and the form/structure versus the plain white paper and minimalist lettering.”
He recalls the great efforts that was required to put this release together, saying there were a total of 100 copies made. “It took me a while to collect enough dog feces. But then again not forever. My dog Chi was a Husky / Shepard mix, not a small dog and with a big appetite. My woman helped me packing the feces I collected into zip-locks.”
Thinking back, he is proud to have disseminated this unique release, copies of which live on to this day. “It was my idea and I am very happy to see several friends and collectors having this release still now displayed on their home walls,” he tells me. “I was told they sensed a slight scent in their rooms but weren’t bothered by it. The release was made 13 years ago and most copies I saw recently do still look pretty good. No scent left I’d say.”
When it comes to record labels specializing in elaborate, handmade packaging, there’s no getting around American Tapes. It was a record label run by John Olson, a founding member of the seminal noise band, Wolf Eyes, as well as over a hundred other bands and solo projects. American Tapes started in the early nineties (there were a series of early, unnumbered tapes that are poorly documented prior to the start of their ‘official’ catalog around 1995) and ran for twenty years, closing shop in 2015, accumulating an incomprehensible mass of approximately one thousand releases in total.
Olson’s label was known for releasing minuscule editions of experimental music, often released in elaborate handmade packaging. In an interview conducted via Skype, Olson explained that he was inspired by the similarly inventive packaging pioneered by noise artist MSBR (Koji Tano), and that he often used extra odds & ends that he obtained while working in an antique store. He also shared with me his passion for lacquering things — which was often the final step in producing an American Tapes creation.
Many of Olson’s American Tapes releases were immortalized on the Geocities-hosted American Tapes website, where he documented his discography and included images of the creations, which now are all that remains of many of the releases. Much of the website has dropped from the internet, but subsists in archived form and on Discogs. It has been said that Henry Rollins himself has been attempting a full archive of Olson’s tapes and records.
Many of American Tapes’ releases were by John Olson sound projects, of which D.L. Savings T.X. was one. This “band” was originally named Daylight Savings Time, inspired by a particularly nerve-rattling daylight savings time day; he shortened the name after being inspired by a fellow Lansing experimental musician named D.S. Hastings, who himself once stuck a microphone in a laundry dryer, recorded the resulting rattle, and released it on tape.
Thank You Urine Doll, which was release number 28 for the label, has an especially distinctive cover. Olson, who loves commemorating occasions where he subtly mishears a spoken phrase, states he named this tape after drunkenly mishearing a friend telling him, “thank you, you’re a doll.”
To construct the cover, he took a bunch of seven-inch records and coated the surface of each with as many noxious chemicals as he could think of, including lacquer, enamel, acrylic, laundry detergent, Windex, oil, and paint remover. He then left the toxic stew for a month to react. Together, the chemicals were about half an inch thick, and by the end, the surface of each record looked a little like the surface of Mars. Each mutated disc was then fixed to the surface of one of the tape containers.
The tape, each side of which is a prolonged jam (at the time, Olson’s preferred method of sonic exploration), has two track titles. Olson loves naming things, expressing a preference to establish song titles first, then hit record. He explains that “Bird On Wire” is a Leonard Cohen reference, whereas “Front And Center At The Bargaining Tab” was a truncated version of an oft-spoken phrase on NPR.
The only known image of Thank You Urine Doll comes from the defunct (but fortunately archived) American Tapes website, and this is also the image that appears on Discogs. An mp3 rip of the tape was put up on the New Noise Net blog in 2009, which suggests at least one other copy still existed then, though the link is now dead.