Angus Tarnawsky and Nathan Liow – Artifacts lathe-cut 7″ (In Context Music, 2014)

“The algorithms—which I don’t know much about—are doing their best to arrange the signal in a cohesive order, but it doesn’t always work.”

In 2014, an Australian artist living in New York City named Angus Tarnawsky and a pianist living in Melbourne, Nathan Liow, staged three improvisational performances despite the distance between them. Liow played piano in Australia while Tarnawsky listened via Skype. Tarnawsky then took that Skype transmission, listened for imperfections in the data stream, then looped these back to Liow’s end via FaceTime, where the signal was broadcast live over speakers. The name they used to describe their performances, along with the lathe-cut record that emerged from those shows, was Artifacts—a reference to the digital warps and clips in the virtual call medium.

Tarnawsky caught up with me via Skype to share the story of this unusual release, while Liow weighed in via email. Though Tarnawsky is now living in Toronto, having recently completed his masters degree at the Ontario College of Art & Design, in 2014 he was living in New York City. It was an important place for him to grow artistically, though profoundly different from his upbringing. He grew up in Launceston, a small town on the island of Tasmania, then attended college in Melbourne, where he became engrossed in the improvised music scene. After several summers spent visiting New York and deriving inspiration from the city’s extensive arts scene, he moved there in 2010. Connections he had made with local improvisers helped soften the transition.

While living in New York, Tarnawsky stayed in touch with his friends back home using video chat platforms. As he stayed up late at night to accommodate the difference in time zones, he started to pay special attention to the digital aberrations in the signal he was getting. “In Australia, the internet is pretty unreliable, or at least it was at the time,” he tells me. “I would get such bizarre artifacts, bizarre glitches and sounds.”

He points out that, at the time, many Australian websites had their servers in North America, so even for an Australian to access a local website, their signal would have to cover an impressive distance. On top of this, the internet connection in Australia at the time was also relatively archaic. All this led to glitches in the data stream. “So I’m on these Skype calls, hearing lots of artifacts. I can understand from a technical reason it has to do with the packets of the signal. There’s a certain compression of the signal that is then transported from point A to point B. Occasionally that packet delivery has some issues with it it, where it might load faster or slower. The algorithms—which I don’t know much about—are doing their best to arrange the signal in a cohesive order, but it doesn’t always work.”

At the time, Tarnawsky saw this as an interesting phenomenon, but wasn’t sure what to do with it, “I just kind of put this aside as an interesting thing, a kooky phenomenon.”

One friend that Tarnawsky would Skype with was Nathan Liow, a fellow improviser living in Melbourne. In 2014, Liow mentioned to him that he wanted to put something together for the Melbourne Next Wave festival. Their mutual friend, Rosemary Willink, was one of the curators.

Liow, in touch with me via email, told me a bit about Willink’s concept. “She had been thinking about the idea of the internet and play – she called the exhibition ‘Can we please play the internet?’ Which reminds me of what I used to say as a kid when asking about Playstation, sport or whatever. It brings to mind the idea of the platform—be it a console or a soccer ball or the world wide web—being the fun thing in itself and not just a means for communication or an invisible tool we look over for the sake of our end goal.”

The official program for the exhibition documents the emails that led to Artifacts, but they are rendered in a deliriously warped format.

Tarnawsky recalls discussing the idea via internet call. “He said, do you have any ideas what this might mean? And I said, how about we take this artifact concept that is on my mind, and we try to use it as a core feature of a work?” He emphasizes the conceptual challenge of trying to figure out “a way to use the internet as an instrument.”

Liow remembers the details of that first fateful call. “I first Skyped Angus about the project while I was in transit at Tokyo airport so it’s fitting that we brainstormed the idea literally over the internet. Taking Rosemary’s theme of play, and also with both of us being musicians by trade (piano and Angus drum kit and programming) we were both certain that playing our instruments needed to be a central point in the work whilst being really fun and spontaneous with the internet. The internet was both the thing that facilitated the work, whilst being an obvious participant and an instrument involved in the art making itself.”

Stretching Out a Glitch

After they figured out that they wanted to pull off an in-vivo distance collaboration, the challenge was in execution. Their idea was to have Liow playing the piano live at the festival in Melbourne, with Tarnawsky listening in live via Skype, then sending the distorted signal back to Melbourne via FaceTime to be played over speakers, concurrent with Liow’s playing. Since the ‘artifacts’ were the key focus, they wanted to ensure there would reliably be enough of these digital distortions in the signal. They ran several experiments in which they tried to tax their internet connections. At one point, they ran multiple devices simultaneously in an attempt to eat up as much of the internet connection as possible, and even considered programming something to intentionally overload the system.

In the end, a simple arrangement proved best, since the calls were glitchy enough by nature, and didn’t require any sabotage. Tarnawsky recalls sitting in his apartment with his equipment assembled before him, often up at strange hours due to the time zones. “I would be on a FaceTime call with Nathan, and on a Skype call. The Skype call would be me hearing the sound of the piano coming in to New York.” That call was sent to Tarnawsky via an iPhone poked inside the piano itself, captured via the device’s built-in mic. This arrangement was chosen because they realized, after trying different set-ups involving professional microphones, that the audio compression involved in Skype calls rendered any audiophilic tendencies futile.

“I was using some software to grab moments when a glitch would happen, and maybe loop it or stretch it out. Doing on-the-fly sampling of what Nathan was doing, or maybe trying to eventually build some feedback…. Then that signal was going back to Nathan in the gallery [via FaceTime] and coming out of a speaker.”

Tarnawsky’s rig had multiple components. The Skype call was first filtered through his Roland 101, where he applied a space echo. That signal was then sent to his computer, where it was processed via Mio Console. Then, using a copy of Ableton Live linked with Max MSP, he would sample, alter, and loop the artifacts as they came through. This all had to happen live, since the signal was then sent back to Liow in Melbourne via FaceTime, where it was played live over loudspeakers. The time lag between made the results even more interesting.

Liow, the one charged with performing live in front of an audience, remembers the performances vividly. “The experience being on the piano in the gallery space was quite a disembodied feeling. We set up the audio feed to amplify through two large hi-fi speakers placed on either side of the piano. I was literally swimming in sound, and that provided great impetus for musical instigation and response—though I could not discern who I was playing with and what was deliberate or pure chance. I tried to clear my mind and just react and create in the moment, however it was hard to ignore the fact that a lot of what I was hearing was heavily imbued with what I had played moments prior, hidden amongst layers and layers of lossy audio and feedback loops. Serendipitously, the internet in Australia is so patchy that it really lent itself to surprises in every performance.”

Artifacts was staged as three live performances for the festival, and was also set up as an installation at a gallery, and released as a limited-edition lathe-cut record for In Context Music, the label run by Tarnawsky, which continues, in sporadic form, to this day.

Analogue-Digital Degradation

Source: Discogs

Artifacts was the fourth release on ICM, and the first to involve Angus himself. The first three releases, which Tarnawsky conceptualized as a trilogy, were releases by other artists who were living in NYC with him at the time. He wanted to do something creative with them, but in lieu of the standard approach of pitching a jam session, he had something else in mind. “They were far more established than I was, and I wanted to know how I could instigate something but not a performance.”

Initially, the goal was to create a series of objects that the artists could use in their performances, for example wooden objects to be played by hand. “For various reasons, it didn’t quite pan out that way, and I discovered lathe-cut records. I figured lathe-cuts would be a way that music could be a way that music could be presented, with each artist needing to think about the medium as really affecting what gets put on the disc.”

The distinct sound qualities of lathe-cut records were intended to interact with the sound contained on the grooves. “I asked the artist to try to present music that would really accentuate that a lathe is a noisy object that almost sounds like it’s been dragged through the dirt. You’ve played it five times and it already sounds like it’s been dragged through the dirt for a decade.

“It’s a really complicated medium. It doesn’t lend itself to clarity for every kind of project.” For Tarnawsky, the question became: “What could we work together to make that would be something that would seem strange, but would be beautiful in this weird lathe-cut world?”

He figures that Artifacts was perfectly suited to In Context Music’s ethic. “There was this kind of backwards-and-forwards, analogue-digital degradation conversation. We took this long-distance collaboration that was all about lo-fi charm, and we were able to put it onto this plastic disc that was a bizarre kind of degradation/compression/alteration of the sound.”

The audio for the record was two 5-minute parts that Tarnawsky felt were suited to the release—especially beautiful excerpts that most closely resembled the sound he and Liow had been striving for. Though he used his own lathe to make some of the ICM releases, he was too busy touring during Artifacts‘ production, so a friend made the 50 copies. He was satisfied with the final outcome and its distinctive, run-through-the-dirt lathe sound. “I felt immediately that it was the perfect medium for it,” he says. “It made Artifacts seem like it came out at the turn of the 20th century. No longer an artifact of the digital era, but an artifact of this way, way back time. Some kind of Berliner disc found in the thrift store racks.”

The piano and speakers, as per the exhibition program.

Today, Tarnawsky retains an enthusiasm for the project, though feels that he would tweak things on his end if were to try it again. He notes that the nature of their set-up could be a bit “out of control” at times, with the sounds he was feeding back to Liow sometimes veering into chaotic, shrill territory— “spiraling out of control,” as he puts it. With more time to practice he says he would try to run things “with more subtlety”—working around the aesthetic he captured in the vinyl release.

Meanwhile, Liow tells me that Artifacts still stands out to him as an achievement. “I’m still really proud of the project. The concept is so visceral and relevant years down the line. And it’s also remarkable how far the technology has come and yet still remains so unrefined. Mostly I’m just proud of the fact that it sounds really beautiful, and it was fun to ‘get together’ and collaborate with Angus on a project that has now found it’s place in multiple gallery spaces and playlists.”

Thanks to Angus Tarnawsky and Nathan Liow for the interviews. All images courtesy of Angus Tarnawsky unless otherwise specified. Today, Tarnawsky is planning to move to Montreal to complete his PhD in communications at Concordia University.

Sudden Infant And Ze ‎– WC-D 3″ CDR (Entr’acte, 2005)

Founded in London but now based out of Antwerp, the Entr’acte label is today known for their experimental music editions which come in distinctive shrink-wrapped packaging. The package must be punctured in order for the music to be listened to, staging a conflict between collecting and listening.

But there was a time before shrink-wrap, and the label’s early discography includes a number of now-obscure oddities, including a recording made in an underground car park (Formatt’s Engtevrees), a composition produced in a deliberate stage of half-sleep (Phroq’s Half-Asleep Music), and a collection of field recordings of French cable cars (Simon Whethan’s Ascension_Suspension). Many of these were very limited editions, often released on CDR.

In combing through the early Entr’acte discography, I saw an interesting listing which warranted further investigation:

Live recording of an improvised performance at a public lavatory which took place on Saturday, 29 January 2005 in Kentish Town, London, in front of an invited audience, a bemused attendant and an unsuspecting stranger…

It was a 2005 3″ CDR Sudden Infant and Ze, seemingly the third Entr’acte edition, albeit allotted no catalogue number.

Courtesy of Joke Lanz.

Intrigued, I reached out via email to Joke Lanz, the founding member of the legendary experimental outfit Sudden Infant, which at the time was his solo project.

He tells me that this release came about after he moved to London in April of 2004, as part of an artist residency funded by Switzerland’s cultural department. “I lived for six months in a studio apartment in an old warehouse building on Commercial Road in Whitechapel,” he recalls. “During that time I met Allon Kaye of Entr’acte label who was working as a graphic designer for the Architectural Association. And I also met Joe Caramelo, a.k.a. Ze. We became friends and decided to make some performances together. After my residency I stayed in London on my own expenses until I moved to Berlin in August 2006”

But living in London, he found it was difficult to find opportunities to perform live. “The concert situation in London is quite difficult. There are not enough clubs and live spaces to cover the needs of all those bands and musicians who live in London. That’s how I got the idea of performing in unusual public spaces. Why not performing a Noise show in a public lavatory? Actually, I wanted to tour London exclusively in public toilets/lavatories.

“I joined forces with Ze and we checked out possible spaces until we found out that most lavatories were already refurbished into high-tech pay restrooms with cameras and attendants which made it almost impossible to hijack the space for a live concert.”

After hunting for a suitable W.C., he finally found a suitable venue. “The best I found was in Kentish Town right opposite of a pub called Bull & Gate. I assume that public lavatory does not exist anymore. It was back then already a bit run down.”

The public loo in question, now converted into a fashionable cocktail bar. (Source: Google Street View)

Lanz is right. The restroom, originally positioned in an intersection, has since been converted into a trendy cocktail bar called Ladies and Gents, which seems fittingly ironic.

Courtesy of Joke Lanz.

After inviting some confederates/participants via email and text message, Lanz and Joe Caramelo staged their performance. “We had battery amplifiers and went down to the men’s room together with an invited audience of approximately 12 people and started immediately with our sound performance. We didn’t realize that there was an attendant in his tiny small cleaning room in the back of the lavatory. He came out for a second, smiled at us and went back to his room.. I saw him just for a brief moment because I was mostly focusing on my playing and the performance. But friends who were in the audience told me afterwards that the guy was obviously amused about the scenery and had a smile on his face before he returned to his booth.”

At another point, someone else wandered in to use the facility. “He came in and had to pass us to go to a cubicle. Maybe he wanted to use the urinals, but we were standing in front of it, therefore he disappeared inside a cubicle.” After the show, they went to the Bull & Gate for pints.

The WC-D mini-CDR is a document of that restroom performance, during a period of time when the Sudden Infant name was still Lanz’s solo project. “Occasionally I collaborated with other musicians or had guests for my studio recordings and live shows,” he says. “Sudden Infant as a stable group started to operate in 2014, when I transformed the solo project into a trio, with Christian Weber on bass and Alexandre Babel on drums.”

Despite original plans for a public loo tour, this ended up being the only show performed in one. “We did another toilet performance at a transvestite sex club in East London called Stunners,” he explains. “But this was not a public lavatory, it was the official restroom of the club where some guys changed their dresses and their gender. Some other time we performed inside the Arnold Circus pavilion in Shoreditch together with Devotchkas Conundrum, a female noise duo.”

The Arnold Circus pavilion show.

Reminded of the performance by my email, Lanz reflects positively on this unique moment in time — an obscure performance that took place a decade and a half ago, immortalized on miniature CDR of which only 25 copies were produced. “It feels far away, but I still got very positive memories. We were a group of highly creative and interested people sharing ideas and actions. Allon Kaye helped organising and published the recording. Martin Holtkamp, another friend, documented everything with photographs. From today’s point of perspective I can say: We were digging deep into the ground of performance and noise with a shot of Dada and some Punk spirit.”

Thanks to Joke Lanz for the interview. See the Sudden Infant website to catch up on Lanz’s happenings.

Seth Cluett – Undr CDR (BOXmedia, 2004)

“I walked that driveway every day for eighteen years to the school bus, so it’s filled with memories of my perception of the world, nature, and sounds, and being immersed in it.”

I came across this unusual CDR while exploring the discography for BOXmedia, a Chicago label run by Brent Gutzeit and Bill Groot from 1997 to 2004.

BOXmedia was devoted to improvised and experimental music, including CDR, CD, and vinyl releases of work by a variety of producers, among them Pita, Kevin Drumm, and Reynols. Their extensive discography is home to a number of limited-edition treats, including a disc of field recordings taken at a rural tractor competition, as captured by Gutzeit and Groot themselves.

Seth Cluett’s Undr CDR is another interesting artifact. Its basis was a recording of Cluett and four members of the Undr Quartet walking the long driveway of Cluett’s parents’ house. That recording was then digitally processed using sine tones, only leaving faint flecks of the original source audio in the mix.

Cluett, now Assistant Director of the Computer Music Center and Sound Art Program at Columbia University, recalls the era of his life when Undr came out. He had completed an MFA in Electronic Art at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute two years prior, in 2002, and subsequently became interested in the Chicago New Music scene after performing at a series of shows for a group exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Betty Rymer Gallery. The exhibition was called Resynthesis and was curated by Philip von Zweck, its intent to situate sound art as equal to the material usually featured in art galleries. For the show, Cluett rigged up audio equipment in a stairwell, turning the environment into a “large acoustic resonator.”

From the postcard to the Resynthesis group exhibition. Source.

Participating in that Chicago event led to a number of different collaborations and solo exhibitions, and also introduced him to BOXmedia’s Brent Gutzeit. “Brent reached out and asked if I wanted to do a CDR in the next batch of BOXmedia CDRs,” Cluett explains. “It was complicated because at the time I was juggling these long form composed works and installation pieces.”

Indeed, in 2004 Cluett put two other releases, both of which came out before Undr. The Masked Verticalities mini-CDR, on Crank Satori Records, was a recording of the stairwell piece he had staged for Resynthesis. The other was his first widely-distributed, professionally-pressed CD, My Own Thousand Shatterings, which garnered reviews in publications like The Wire. That CD, which took years to produce before coming out on Sedimental Recordings,was typical of Cluett’s focused, time-intensive process.

“I had just released this 74-minute monolith of a fixed media recording,” he explains. “It took me three years to make and I was not in the same head to produce another epic, long thing… I was tempted to use it as another opportunity to release something a little more ephemeral, a little less fixed-media. So I came up with a strategy to split the difference and make a site-specific piece based on a field recording.”

Around that time, Cluett was very interested in the way sounds occupied spaces and how this affected the psychological experience of listening. He was exploring these ideas in his live performances, creating tones using sine-wave oscillators to accentuate elements of the sound environment, including the resonant frequencies of the venues’ physical space. He wondered how he could create a recording that incorporated the same processes. Undr was the result.

That name — Undr — had two meanings. It originates in a Borges story of the same the name, from his short story collection Book of Sand. “I think the Borges relation is deceptively simple,” he shares. “I feel comfortable telling you that it is about allowing worlds to exist within less. For the people in the story, their poetry consisted of a single word. I was interested in how sound creates meaning, where content lives in our sonic memory, and how small sounds contain multitudes.”

The more immediate connection was Boston’s Undr Quartet, who, along with Nmperign, were what Cluett considers the “vanguard in Boston of what got dubbed by Steve Roden the lowercase improvised scene.” The members of the Quartet accompanied Cluett for the walk that comprises Undr‘s source recording.

Image of Cluett’s parents’ driveway, the location of Undr‘s recording. (Credit: Allen Cluett)

Cluett shares the story behind that field recording. At the time, the Undr Quartet were recording with Cluett at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, since Cluett still had keys to the recording studio. For convenience, the Quartet crashed with Cluett at his parents’ house nearby. “I grew up very rurally in Upstate New York,” he explains. “My folks have a quarter-mile long driveway with about a half-mile on either end of the driveway from either neighbour. I took a binaural microphone and I walked down the driveway with the Quartet slowly, listening, and then walked back up the driveway.”

His pet Labrador, Rudy, joined as well. In relating this story, Cluett acknowledges his gratitude to the Quartet’s members in joining him for this project. At the time, Cluett was in his mid-20s, a few years younger than these established improvisers, who were mentors to him at the time.

“I walked that driveway every day for eighteen years to the school bus, so it’s filled with memories of my perception of the world, nature, and sounds, and being immersed in it.”

After creating this recording, he took it and he weaved layers of sine tones into the source audio. Indeed, it’s difficult to hear any remnant of the walk in the mix; only by playing it at very loud volume can one make out a sporadic faint tinkle of the dog’s chain or the crunch of a leaf.

The sine tones were added via a twofold process. The first step was what Cluett calls an “aural” one, with him selecting sine tones by ear. He tells me that, around the time Undr was made, he had been performing live using a set of eight Heathkit sine-wave oscillators. “They were these big tube oscillators that I carried around in my car and set up for performances. At the time, I was doing these performances in which I would listen to the room and then bring in and tune tones to what was happening. Some tones were also tuned to the architectural space of the room. I would do a sweep before the show started and look for resonant notes in the space.”

He used these oscillators as phase one of Undr‘s production process, running the field recording, and playing along live with his oscillators, matching elements of the recording to specific tones by ear. After he recorded several runs, he layered them atop one another.

A look at the Raven program. Source.

Step two of the sound processing was where the process diverged from his live rig. “At the time we had this software from the Cornell ornithology laboratory called Raven,” he recalls. Using an algorithm called fast-Fourier transform, it would generate a spectrograph of a recording, providing Cluett information about the frequency, amplitude, and phase of the audio. He had access to this program since he had used it for a collaboration with Pauline Oliveros in which they examined the acoustics of Italian cathedrals.

Running the driveway recording through Raven, he used the resulting frequency data to select tones, which he produced using digital software and added to final Undr mix. “So it was a mixture between machine listening and human listening,” he explains. “Kind of bringing it between the immediacy of the performances I was doing at that time, and a compositional thing that was painstaking and slow, like what I had done for the Sedimental release.”

Undr served as an important conceptual moment in Cluett’s career. “It’s almost the keystone for what I got obsessed with over the next ten or fifteen years, which is this use of sine tones to pick apart content,” he explains. “There’s all these instrumental pieces that came later, like Objects of Memory, which was my first record on Richard Chartier’s Line label. Those pieces are buried inside of Undr. That way of thinking, really trying very hard to make real human connections through some mediation of technology.”

The driveway in winter. (Credit: Jennifer Eberhardt)

Indeed, in looking through Cluett’s writing, this idea of using sine tones as a sound production tool has been a through line over his years. It a technique that has evolved with his perspective on exploring the interrelationship between sound perception and physical space. In a recent interview in which he discusses the early stages of his career, he recalls proposing a series of compositions designed to highlight certain psychoacoustic phenomena to one of his academic supervisors, Pauline Oliveros, only for her to point out that the concept had been done years before, for example by Alvin Lucier.

I really had to stop thinking about making work in a notebook and started to make work in a studio. I realized I shouldn’t try to merely imagine what is possible with psychoacoustic effects. Most everyone had thought of and made work out of the obvious effects in the early development of the medium.

Interview with Cluett by Barbara London, for Max Feed/Mix Feed

Eventually, he shifted from an approach to composition that was centred around the initial concept to a dynamic process in which the piece is more than the idea — compositions that instead evolve as a function of the ongoing creative process. This interactivity has manifested most obviously in his site-specific pieces, where he will carefully explore a room, searching for ways the space will interact with his audio — in many cases, using surgically-precise sine tones to draw out these physical properties. In a brief artist’s statement written in 2006, he summarizes the approach:

Much of my practice has consisted of concert pieces and installations making use of sine tones, acoustic instruments and amplified objects, and field recordings that are tuned to the spaces in which they are performed. In these pieces I have been developing the relationship between sine tone pitches and a given room’s acoustic signature.

Seth Cluett, “Toward a Post-Phenomenology of Extra-Musical Sound as Compositional Determinant”
Credit: Allen Cluett

With Undr, this idea was extended to a fixed field recording that was created in a specific space. And while Cluett describes it as being a significant turning point in his career, only fifty copies of the CDR were reportedly produced. Despite its limited pressing, however, it did garner a few positive reviews in journals at a time when Cluett’s work was picking up steam following his CD release on Sedimental.

He has since uploaded the recording to Bandcamp, where it can be purchased or listened to via streaming. That he chose to make this years old, limited-run release available online hints at his fondness for the release. “I was always a little sad it was just a CDR and didn’t get distributed much, but there are still people every once in a while who tell me, yeah that’s a great disk. I’m not so invested in whether it was great or not, but I do feel like it was important. The work got me to a place where I needed to be.”

With thanks to Seth Cluett, whose website can be found here.

Interview with Cluett conducted May 18, 2020.

Various Artists – Soun – An Anonymous And Random Compilation / Composition (Gameboy Records, 2003)

“The record can be put on and simply played or treated like a puzzle and tried to be picked apart Invisible Jukebox style.”

Source: Discogs

In 2003, the Columbus, Ohio based record label Gameboy Records put out Soun, was a seven-inch single that incorporated 100 different artists. Gameboy’s proprietor, Mike Shiflet, had put a call out for four-second tracks, which he then arranged into one seamless compilation-cum-composition. The catch? The order of the tracks was kept obscure, so there was no way of knowing which artist was responsible for which four-second tract. The list itself is a who’s who of the early 00s noise scene, featuring Merzbow, Reynols, Ernesto Diaz-Infante, and Aube, among many others.

I connected with Shiflet to better understand the background behind this unique release, which originally wasn’t going to be a record at all. It turns out that Soun was conceived as a way of exploiting the capabilities of compact disc technology. “I’d pictured it as a shuffle-able 99-track 3-inch disc and the 4-second time frame for each contribution was established because that is the minimum time you could use for a track on a professionally produced CD.”

Shiflet expands: “There was an issue prepping the files for CD production though, and I don’t remember the exact problem but I believe it had to with the lead-in information for the tracks adding very small gaps in playback that would under normal circumstances be mostly unnoticeable but here stood out pretty significantly. To rectify the issues, I ended up editing the all tracks into a single, flowing, .wav file, and after that the appeal of the 3-inch CD waned and I decided the one-sided 7-inch record would work better.”

Not an exciting centre label. (Source: Discogs)

As a result, the randomness of the track sequencing was no longer part of the release, but he took pains to maintain the “Anonymous and Random” quality of the release, guarding the actual identity of each four-second segment secret. As you might imagine, this 100-artist collaboration wasn’t an easy record to put together. “My significant other and I were in different cities then, so I probably had more time on my hands than usual to dedicate to fairly absurd endeavors,” he explains. “From a label perspective, this was released in the midst of pretty busy time. Noumena (Shiflet’s sound project with Aaron Hibbs) had kind of wound down but I wasn’t quite ready to shift my attention to solo work yet, so I had a bit more energy to dedicate to other people’s projects and releases. Soun might have been the impetus to actually focus more on solo work, given that is as much an uncredited composition as it is a compilation.”

Some inspiration came from the famous RRR-500 locked-groove compilation, put out on the legendary RRRecords label. “Contributions to that aren’t exactly ‘anonymous,'” Shiflet explains. “But it is very hard to drop the needle and find an exact groove. The original idea was to do something similar in CD format with no two listening experiences being the same.”

The back of the record. Click to investigate the impressive list of contributing artists in closer detail. (Source: Discogs)

“Putting it together was a really fun process. I don’t remember how I decided who exactly to invite, but I knew I wanted to represent a broad spectrum of the artists that I was into at the time and still think it’s great to see people like Kim Cascone, Charalambides, and Kazumoto Endo side by side. The submission types ran the gambit and I won’t reveal anyone’s process but I got everything from custom cassette tapes (I just found and played one the other day) to being told to pull clips from existing albums. I had a few live recordings that I asked artists if I could add. There are side projects from people that appear almost nowhere else. It was fun. Almost everyone I asked was fine with the idea that their section would not be directly attributed them. I do think I got a few thanks but no thanks’ responses, but they are lost to time.”

I ask Shiflet if he recalled any anecdotes about particular submissions, but even years later he is careful not to provide any identifying information. “I do remember a few, but I don’t want to risk ruining anyone’s anonymity. One I can single out is Merzbow. As best I recall, I sent him a clip I pulled from a live performance that a friend had recorded (he had done a few West Coast shows in 2002) and asked if it was okay to include it.”

The record’s cover is silkscreened, and features text on top what appears to be blueprints or some form of electrical diagram. “A friend of mine who had previously helped us with some screen-printing got a job at a real printer and I got the pro-printed covers for a really nice price. Aaron, the other half of Noumena and early partner in Gameboy, had the blueprint drawings around from some of his early work in industrial architecture design. I think some of them may be from what became the Cleveland Browns stadium.”

Its unique concept and extensive track list, featuring many heavy-hitters, made for a successful release. “It was one of the few vinyl releases I did on Gameboy that sold out despite the fairly large edition number for noise vinyl at the time – 650, with every contributor getting two copies and 450 to sell. I think this was aided both by the uniqueness of the concept and the fact that it was actually fun to listen to. The record can be put on and simply played or treated like a puzzle and tried to be picked apart Invisible Jukebox style. 

“In hindsight, I think the concept still holds up and could work even better in the online music landscape that we have to day. I could easily see a Bandcamp release with 100 (or more) uncredited contributions and an accompanying list of artists. I’ll leave that to someone else though. I do wish the original 3” idea would have worked out.

“If I could change anything, I would have consulted with the artists to see if they wanted their submissions to be longer or shorter after the format changed. The rigid 4-second durations give the piece an almost rhythmic meter and were pretty unnecessary after the format switch, so if I could do it again I’d ask for something in like a 1-to-6 second range to add a little more variety.”

When he isn’t busy working at his job at Ohio State University, Mike Shiflet continues to record experimental music, which is available at his Bandcamp. His latest album, Every Possible Outcome, is available there digitally and in an unusual 3×3″ CDR format courtesy of Skeleton Dust Records.

Label Archaeology: Unread Records, Pt. 1: The Lancaster Years

“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.

Unread #1

The original Swingset demo, later "officially" released by Fischer, and eventually canonized as Unread #1. Note that the demo's (vanity) label was listed as "Space Records."

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.

The cover of the Swingset tape.

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.

Unread #2-4

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.

Unread #5-10

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.

The actual original Unread Passive-Resistance zine, rescued up from old boxes by Chris Fischer.

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.

Post-Secondary Exploits

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.

Cover art for an early tape which never came out.

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.

The Swingset EP, Entropy version.

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.”

But that’s a story for Part 2, The Omaha Years.

Joe Bloggs – CT Sketches anti-record (Fresnl, 1997)

Photo credit: fhwrdh

Years ago, I came across a peculiar CD called Music For Multiples which was attributed to a mysterious artist named Bloggs. It was an intriguing collection of sound textures, reportedly created using “metal bowls, clarinet, contact microphones, saxophone, trumpet, PVC pipe, harmonium, piano, etc…” According to the catalog number (lensone), it was the inaugural release on an obscure record label called Fresnl.

Years later, while putting together a book chapter about anti-records, the Bloggs name came up again in the form of CT Sketches, a clear record with irregular hand-etched grooves — that is, if you can call them grooves, since many of them were perpendicular to the path of a turntable stylus. Even more perplexing, the catalogue number was lensezero, suggesting that it may have preceded Music For Multiples.

Photo credit: Arthur Crawshay

I dug around for an answer, hunting for an email address for the man behind Joe Bloggs. As it turns out, the term Joe Bloggs is a British placeholder name, something like the “John Smith” of the UK. But through some digging around, I was able to learn that the Joe Bloggs of this record’s fame has recorded under a number of different pseudonyms, among them Ralph Haxton and Damon Cleckler. After reaching out to a completely different Ralph Haxton who runs a YouTube channel about cooking, I found the man responsible for all this, and Damon Cleckler seems to be his real name.

Despite the layers of obfuscation that had to be pulled back to find him, Cleckler generously provided me a wealth of background about CT Sketches and his broader experimental music exploits, which represent an interesting tangent of the American avant-garde music scene.

Prehistory

Cleckler first became interested in the mechanics of music in third grade — 1975 — when he disassembled an old stereo in an effort to figure out how it worked. “Mostly it was the speakers that obsessed me,” he tells me via email. “I would take apart old speakers I found at the dump, or from trashed-out junk-yard cars, and would daisy-chain them together in my room to try and make a bigger sound from my old portable stereo. I had no clue about impedance or power. I just knew that the shapes and sizes of the speakers (without enclosures any longer) had different frequencies and really seemed to sound better all together versus just the two that came attached to the portable. I used to lie on my bedroom floor surrounded by these speakers, listening to the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ over and over again. It was amazing!”

Growing up in a rural area of Northern California, not far from Oregon, he was sheltered from the “cool” record stores of big cities, but did experience punk rock vicariously by reading about it in Creem and Circus magazine. But a couple of things changed in sixth and seventh grade. For one, he bought an 8-track copy of Never Mind the Bollocks from the local record store. Then, a UK exchange student stayed with his family and introduced Cleckler to a world of punk rock and new wave records.

Photo credit: Damon Cleckler

Experimental music came later. “As we traveled every summer down to the Sacramento valley to visit relatives, I’d had started a ritual of combing through the radio dial when we got to my grandmother’s house trying to find more underground new wave or punk rock,” he remembers. “She had a shortwave, and it was incredible the things you could pick up. Even just the sound of tuning between stations was fascinating to me. I had a portable cassette deck (the kind that looks like a brick with a handle), and I used to record with that held up next to the portable shortwave radio. I only had a couple of tapes of this, but I can remember recording some of the weirdest noise/art/sound stuff I’d ever heard with no back announcing that made it to the tape.”

In the early eighties, he found himself recording radio broadcasts from UC Davis’ college station, KDVS, while staying with his aunt. “The best shows were at night, and usually involved some form of punk and hardcore, or at least just pretty odd stuff that really sounded like nothing else. I still remember the song segues to this day from all of those tapes.”

He ended up applying to only two schools after high school, then choosing UC Davis solely in hopes of deejaying at KDVS. “I was really a big fan of a weekly hardcore show that I’d been recording for some time. It was a show that had a few hosts over the years, but when I got to school it was this team of Mike (Trouchon) and Kristina. I listened religiously, Wednesday nights at 10 to midnight. I wound up meeting the two of them when they invited me down to do a show with them one night, and that led to me taking over the show the next fall quarter after both had decided to take a break for a while. I’d not had a proper training in the 3-6am ‘newbie’ time slots, and wound up with a primetime show through a side door connection.”

Though he initially selected geology as his major — to which he now simply reflects “who knows” — he switched into music that fall, specifically composition and theory, but was stumped when they required him to perform a musical instrument as a compulsory part of his degree. “Although I’d played the trumpet between 4th grade and senior year of high school, I quit playing when I went to college and never wanted to pick it up again. I just wanted to be surrounded by music while I was in school, and for whatever crazy reason, my parents were okay with it. And the music department was willing to work with me creatively allowing me to include electronic music studio, work at the radio station and performing in the choir as ways to satisfy basic performance requirements.”

Early Recordings

He also started playing bass in a Big Black-inspired band called Nest of Saws, powered by a Roland drum machine. “It later evolved into something more of a noise/punk/funk-ish power trio with a real drummer, but that’s because it was the late 80s and that’s just what happened.” He also performed in a lost-to-the-annals “free jazz/situationist/noise ensemble” named Tuba Mirum.

Photo credit: Arthur Crawshay

Cleckler teamed up with Mike Touchon, who had ushered him into KDVS, along with another friend, Pete Gomez, to record some improvisations in the studio KDVS used to record live performances. “Mike had wanted to call a band ‘Ralph Haxton’ and this was to be that band,” he tells. “We never got past a few jams, and some poor attempts at writing songs. Alas, school came first, Pete had to relocate back to Santa Cruz to finish his degree, and we had no time to make it happen.”

“As I recall, Haxton was a character that Mike told us would frequently appear on botany tests and other materials whenever some kind of crackpot science or buffoonery were being used in the examples. I may not have that exactly right, but it’s effectively what we carried forward with years later.”

After losing touch for awhile, Touchon and Cleckler regrouped in San Francisco, where Cleckler had been doing some solo composing. They decided to revive the Ralph Haxton name and set about performing noise music, sometimes with their other friend, Simon Whickham-Smith. “That eventually turned into the gyttja label we co-founded,” he explains. “We put out five or so Ralph Haxton releases, some work by other artists (Roy Montgomery, Loren Conners, Crawling with Tarts) and the first rhBand recording. Probably worth mentioning rhBand had originally been called The Ralph Haxton Large Ensemble, as we’d brought in a couple of our friends to add to the explorations.”

The Bloggs Years

Gyttja’s logo (Discogs)

One day, Cleckler was describing the origin of the name Ralph Haxton — a generic name used as a placeholder in geometry word problems. Accoring to Cleckler, that friend replied, “Oh, you mean like Joe Bloggs?”

“I had no idea who that was, and he went on to explain the commonplace everyman concept of Joe Bloggs in English culture. I’d been looking for a way to do my own solo stuff, and in an instant Joe Bloggs was born. The modern day everyman.”

Whereas the gyttja label had been “a bit of a pisstake on noise artists,” after recording a seven-inch single under the Joe Bloggs name for the label, he decided he wanted to get more serious about recording. As a result, he started up his new label, Fresnl. A “pure vanity label” by Cleckler’s description, it was designed to release his solo work, since he wanted to keep gyttja as the primary outpost for his and Mike’s collaborations.

An old, mysterious ad for the Fresnl label, from the fourth issue of the Halana zine.

The CT Sketches single was, indeed, the first release to come out on Fresnl. Interestingly, this anti-record actually came about as a result of the materials being used for a different record altogether. He had ordered 50 clear blanks from a local pressing plant called the Bill Smith Pressing Plant, which were to be used for the packaging of a 1995 Ralph Haxton single put out on gyttja. “The intent was to use two of them as a protective cover sandwich for the actual record, which was mounted on a post with a screw in a fold over package, complete with a unique polaroid cover photo. It was just a special edition thing we’d done for friends, and solely intended as a hand-made giveaway thingy.”

“[The pressing plant owner] Bill thought I was crazy and assured me he was going to charge me as if it were a regular pressing anyway, but he happily obliged. He’d never done something like that as far as I recall, and he thought it was kind of cool.”

Ralph Haxton’s single, which came sandwiched between two clear blank records. (Discogs)

The idea of creating a record with irregular sounds went way back. “Mike and I had long toyed with producing a ‘home loop kit’ that would include various sized circular (or not circular) things with a spindle hole in the middle, as well as other things that could be used to restrict or manipulate the tone arm to keep it in a position of stasis or lock on a track,” he explains. “I’d made a few of these for myself out of heavy paper and used them with a portable turntable as some of the background noise on the Ralph Haxton track ‘Bogota is Cold in Winter.’ It was just an easy hack way to get a certain sound without a sampler, and it was kinda Dada in its randomness. We were more serious than not about producing the ‘kit,’ but never actually made it happen. I think in some ways the blanks were sort of an experiment with that idea, but we never made it known in the packaging that you could use these as a looping tool for a larger record underneath. We figured we get to that as an actual project later.

He only used about 34 of the blank records for the Ralph Haxton single, so he decided to do something with the rest of them. “One day I took an X-Acto blade and cut some grooves into one side, perpendicular to a normal playback groove, just to see what would happen if I were to play it on the turntable. Seeing the stylus bounce around violently but also sometimes gently in the glassy portion inspired me to play around with it a bit more. I tried different patterns and angles on a few more sides, and then came up with the idea that I could actually make an anti-record that was interesting to look at, and no two would be the same. I only had 13 blanks left, so the edition of 13 was born. 

“I did the cutting over the course of a couple of days, designed a simple label, and christened the record with a matrix of “lensezero” with the goal of making other non-records following that same pattern.”

CT Sketches review from Oppobrium issue #4. (Source: Damon Cleckler)

I asked Cleckler if he had been inspired by other anti-records when putting CT Sketches together, and he responded by pointing to a number of sources of influence. “Seeing a Christian Marclay show at the Hirschhorn in Washington DC in 1990 was most definitely an influence. The piece (or pieces) where two records had been pieced together was very cool, as you could just imagine listening to it. Also the vinyl flooring that you could walk on really seemed like a cool idea, but I thought he got it wrong; it would have been better if the records didn’t have any pre-existing sound on them. That always stuck with me.”

He also mentions the seminal art catalogue Broken Music, which collected works of art that incorporated repurposed vinyl records, as well as various other conceptual pieces. He checked it out of the UCLA Music Library in the early 90s, right after he moved to L.A. “I recall photocopying several pages of records I had hoped to track down some day,” he remembers, singling out a number of memorable items covered in the book. In particularly, he mentions sculptor Harry Bertoia’s Sonambient record series and Marcel Duchamp’s visually stunning Rotoreliefs. “The Duchamp pieces in particular have always been at the core of everything I do, but I don’t know that I’ve ever said that. I tried to make an homage to one with the Fresnl label ‘logo’ which I’m sure is super obvious. Broken Music was just so astounding for the sheer mass of creative ideas in it.” 

“There was always a running theme of not really being able to play a lot of anti-records, so it’s just an idea or an implication of sound. Those that can be or are intended to be played, are ultimately just a variation of Cage’s ‘Cartridge Music’ sonically, and are often designed to do damage to some part of your system.” In that seminal Cage composition, the performers were instructed to insert small objects into a record player’s cartridge, then “play” the turntable at their discretion.

“I didn’t set out to make something special or unique, but I wanted an anti-record that could be played and would not necessarily damage a stylus,” Cleckler expands. “So accidental cartridge bumps, occasional grooves, and some patterns at play with the spiral of the disc kind of naturally fell into place. There’s an element of chance, like the Johnny Moped ‘Mystery Track’ or the K-Tel ‘Chance a Tune’ single, as well as some structure that may allow for occasional repetition. I find few things as comforting as the sound of run out groove playing endlessly, so it’s all intertwined I suspect.”

At just thirteen copies, most copies were given to friends. Cleckler doesn’t know how many have survived to this day, but he does know four people who still have theirs, and figures the fifth is in the hands of whoever created the Discogs entry for the release. “But the rest of them? I’m just not sure. I may have written it down somewhere, but I don’t think so. It was just sent off as a ‘here you go’ regular record package, and probably not much else. What I do know is that the folks who got one were people who had helped or participated in the gyttja releases somehow.”

Anti-Records After CT Sketches

After 1997’s CT Sketches, the Music For Multiples CD followed in 1999. It was produced in an edition of 1000 and given proper distribution. Tantalizingly, Cleckler tells me there were two other anti-records, both even more limited in production quantity than CT Sketches — which is remarkable, given that CT was an edition of thirteen. “Though I possess one of each of these still (or parts at least),” he says, “I don’t know that anyone else actually does.”

From an article in Halana #4: A discography including several Bloggs anti-records (Source: Damon Cleckler)

“One was called Vinyl 12 Inch (lensezed), and was a 12-inch linoleum floor tile with a center spindle hole. Those turned out to be very hard to stamp and dremmel into, so I abandoned finishing the edition, but some folks got one. It fit very well next to any other regular LP in ones collection, and it was kind of the other extreme to [Christian Marclay’s Footsteps, in which records tiled the floor of an art gallery.]

“There were two others, neither of which were distributed at all. One was Stylus for Anti-Record (lensenaught), which was never completed beyond the prototype, and Sleep Never Rusts (lensenull), which was an edition of one. Stylus was based on a stack of about 20 identical, unused seven-inch circular saw blades, all very old and very rusty. The intent was to metal stamp the title, edition and matrix, and then use a very heavy paper contraption as it’s container. Unfortunately it remains incomplete to this day. Rust was a single, 12-inch square, quarter-inch thick piece of steel that somehow had a hole in the middle just about the size of a spindle. It had great patinated patterns, and looked very nice on the shelf.”

Today

Today, Cleckler works in tech, “primarily user-experience and requirements.” Following the release of Music for Multiples, he focused his energy on work and his work with his group, rhBand. “Somewhere in there a marriage fell apart, rhBand folks started having kids, I started focusing more on architecture and design as interests, and before you know it, I am remarried and have a kid of my own,” he tells.

Today, he primarily finds himself listening to music. “There continue to be amazing releases of both new and reissued material getting issued on vinyl all the time. It’s fantastic. I find much of it inspiring, and often think about making work again. But I have not. Yet.”

Photo credit: Damon Cleckler

He still does play music, mostly long-form drone stuff in a “bloggsian” (his term) mould, and also plays with rhBand now and then. Despite his day job being fully computerized, he loves analog recording, and is lukewarm on digital production. “Our latest thing is setting up drones that just go on for several hours in a particular room in a house. We’ll change our experience with the sound by moving to different rooms (indoor, outdoor) and may occasionally change some dimensions to the overall sound. We carry on conversations, move in an out of the sound. It’s impossible to capture, but fantastic to experience. Kind of like [La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s] Dream House, but without purple neon and no rules about conduct.”

I finished our interview off by asking whether Cleckler owns many other anti-records, apart from those he released as Bloggs. He does own a copy of Marc Behren’s clean-clear, which was a cardboard record originally done as centrefold for an art magazine called Rogue. He used to own copies of the RRRecords locked groove records, RRR-100 and RRR-500, and was also apparently asked by RRRon Lessard to contribute to one of them, but declined.

“Most of what I have is experimental music or non-music oddball things, but none are really so much about the object or the art of it,” he tells me. “If it didn’t bring me pleasure to hold on to, or more importantly, to listen to, I have generally thinned my collection over the years. I no doubt must have had some anti-records from others but no idea what they would be now. Again, I was inspired by these external ideas, but it wasn’t so much what I had set out to do or was seeking. They were just ideas I had.”

Update: Cleckler found an old prototype of Ct Sketches in his archives. Take a look:

Runzelstirn & Gurgelstøck – Hirnstamm, Kotloch Und Scheisse mini-CDR (Scrotum Records, 2004)

“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.”


*http://www.runzelstirn-gurgelstock.net/about.html

**https://www.tinymixtapes.com/features/rudolf-eber

Label Archaeology: We’re Twins Records (Ann Arbor, 2000-2006)

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.'”

The first release on We’re Twins.

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.”

From the back of the The New Folk Sounds of Patrick Elkins CDR.

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”

Various Artists – Handle With Care (Sabotage Recordings, 1996)

Sabotage Recordings was an electronic music label run by Robert Jelinek from 1995 until 1999, at which point its remaining inventory was melted down and used for the dance floor at Vienna’s nightclub, Flex. As that stunt might suggest, apart from releasing electronic music of various stripes, Sabotage also acted as a form of conceptual collective known for insidious pranks.

Jelinek and co. have concocted several past social experiments. Once, they concealed microphones in a private members club and broadcast the conversations publicly via speakers posted outside the building. On another occasion, they swapped out the guided-tour audio for an exhibition at a local art museum with audio about various art heists. They also once replaced the telephone book in a phone booth in Linz, Germany with ones from Linz, Austria.

The Sabotage Recordings label has also been home to its fair share of experiments. One particularly memorable occasion was a compilation, Handle With Care, which came out in 1996.

The back tray insert, complete with subtle warning regarding the virus.

Featuring a few artists affiliated with Sabotage and some one-offs (Zink and Line, for example, were obscure pseudonyms of a producer named Markus Brand), Handle With Care was, by Jelinek’s description, “very repetitive, loop-like” electronic music. What was interesting about it was that it came booby-trapped with a “friendly virus” which, when played in a CD-ROM drive, prevented the listener from opening the drive up to remove the CD. According to Jelinek, this virus was created by “local hackers from the Chaos Club Berlin” and was set to deploy once the first track was played. He also tells me the only way to rescue the CD was to find and trigger the manual release button on one’s CD-ROM drive. “There was no menu, no manual, no preparation,” he explains. “Program started automatically.”

Jelinek compares this booby-trapped CD to Merzbow’s famous, limited-to-one-copy Merzcar release, a fabled CDR of noise that came inside a car! According to the story, the owner of the Releasing Eskimo label, which put out Merzbow’s Noisembryo album, owned an out-of-commission Mercedes that the police had ordered him to move. So he decided to entice Merzbow fans to take his problem off his hands by rigging up the car’s CD player to play Noisembryo indefinitely, modifying the stereo to prevent users from turning it off or removing the disc. He then promoted Merzcar as an ultra-limited-edition Merzbow goodie. The interested customer was required to buy the whole car in order to obtain the CD, representing the apotheosis of elaborate packaging feats! Jelinek reflects that, much like the Merzcar, which is locked into a car stereo, doomed to be played on repeat for eternity, Handle With Care has “a romantic motive behind it: a piece of music inseparable, forever. Implemented with the technical know-how of the time.”

Back of the CD.

Jelinek tells me a bit more about customers’ experiences with the album. “It was often a nasty surprise for the ignorant and there was a need for explanation. The handling of computer viruses was new at the time and accordingly one was awkward but also careful.” He explains that people who knew that track one was booby-trapped would know they had to start the CD at track two.

Handle with Care was also given as a mean gift,” he recalls. “And some club owners contacted us because DJs played this CD and they didn’t know how to get it out of their devices. And again, it was about our patterns of action in dealing with technology, trust and manipulation.”

It’s no coincidence that the label’s name was Sabotage, and it’s an idea that Jelinek has carried forward long past the end of the formal imprint. In 2003, he established a sovereign state called State of Sabotage:

 The State of Sabotage (SoS) was founded as a sovereign state in 2003 on the unpopulated island Harakka in Finland by the Austrian artist ROBERT JELINEK. Even before it had existed the end of the state had already been planned and set for August 30 2013. Exactly after ten years. Independently from the exhibition date the validity of all documents such as SoS passports and ID cards ends with August 30th 2013.

from Jelinek’s website, sabotage.at

That state, destined to be sabotaged from the start, was, indeed, shut down on its intended date, but not before issuing passports and ID cards, and corresponding with the United Nations.

Though Handle With Care was one of many Jelinek-initiated acts of sabotage, it’s a particularly pithy one. A CD that commandeers your computer and plays itself endlessly — in today’s era of unlimited musical choice, such a state of sabotage is almost unthinkable.

New Blockaders – Epater Les Bourgois C46 (Frux, 1985)

In 1985, the seminal experimental group The New Blockaders put out a 46-minute cassette of silent audio named Epater Les Bourgois, which translates, minus spelling errors, to Shock The Bourgeois. Released on a short-lived eighties label named Frux and limited to merely 25 copies, the release has nonetheless attained a mythical status, leading to two separate reissues. The most recent re-release appeared in 2017, courtesy of a Swedish label whose lavish re-boot included a special version housed in a handmade box with a t-shirt and sundry other goodies. As the venerable noise blog Do or D.I.Y.? opined, “If you listen to this collection of tape hiss for longer than ten seconds, then you are beyond pretentious, and beyond help……and probably Middle Class/bourgeois.”

Although there is limited supporting documentation about Epater available, its absurd uselessness as an audio object is consistent with the New Blockaders’ credo. In 1982, they published a manifesto that was a rallying cry against art:

Blockade is resistance. It is our duty to blockade and induce others to blockade: Anti-music, anti-art, anti-books, anti-films, anti-communications. We will make anti-statements about anything and everything. We will make a point of being pointless.

Scan thanks to Mark Lally.

In his PhD dissertation, writer William Moran Hutson argues that The New Blockaders regarded their noise performances as distinct from music altogether:

Their concept divided all artistic expression into two categories: Art and Noise, which they equated with anti-art.

He reflects that their noise was simply a byproduct of the performances themselves, which were conceptual in nature, located more closely in the performance art realm than the music realm. He views the subsequent boom of noise musicians, who peddled tapes and records through the eighties, nineties, and beyond, as diverging from the main point of The New Blockaders’ sound. While they enjoyed and perpetuated the sonic properties of noise, TNB’s motivations were conceptual, not sensory, in nature.

TNB’s extensive body of abstract noise tapes, records, and CDs stands as a testament to this philosophy of purposelessness, though by this metric, Epater seems like the conceptual apogee of their body of work. How better to subvert the expectations of music than with 46-minutes of silence on tape? It was an idea so good that they repeated it in 1991 with their blank tape Simphonie In Ø Minor, which much later was reissued on vinyl.

I reached out to Richard Rupenus, core member of TNB, to help shed some light on Epater and his other silent work. Epater was the first silent composition they released, but not the last, and he generously outlined the full history of TNB’s silent compositions, which I’ve summarized in a table at the end of this post.

Flyer for Epater Les Bourgois (notice the ‘E’ in Bourgeois scrawled out). Provided courtesy of Richard Rupenus

Regarding the motives behind Epater Les Bourgois, which he refers to in its properly-spelled form, Rupenus seems somewhat unsure. “I can’t recall what the ‘concept’ behind Epater Les Bourgeois was, if there even was a concept. Some reviews assumed that it must have been influenced by John Cage’s (in)famous ‘4:33’ but that wasn’t the case. The Pulp (w/ David Jackman) 7” had been described (by Paul Lemos in Unsound) as ‘Relentless musical violence, the most savage aural attack ever committed to vinyl’ so perhaps I wanted Epater Les Bourgeois to be the polar opposite of that?!”

He then provides some background on the title. “‘Épater les bourgeois’ is a French phrase that became a rallying cry for the French Decadent poets of the late 19th century including Arthur Rimbaud. It will not translate precisely into English, but is usually rendered as, ‘To shock the respectable classes.’ As stated in the sleevenotes to the the Nonchalant Acts Of Artistic Nihilism CD: ‘…Volume isn’t always the end-game. Silence is often far more interesting.’”

Frux

Frux was a short-lived record label run by Mark Lally, who was a teenager when he put it out. “I was one of those punkee kids that wrote to Crass and asked them questions when I was about 13 and I was going to do a punk zine,” he tells me via Facebook. “I was getting my records then from Probe Records which Pete Burns from Dead or Alive used to work for. He looked like Marilyn Manson in 1979, with dark contact lenses and a nun bone necklace from Bryan Gregory of The Cramps. I am from one of them underclass UK council estates about a mile in size, so it’s a proper no future thing. I funded my label with my 25£ a week wages and college grants and put any profits from releases back into the next release when I got the label more organised with distribution through Rough Trade.”

Mention of Frux in Dave Henderson’s Wild Planet column, Sounds magazine, August 1984. Thanks to Mark Lally for the scan.

Epater Les Bourgois was the third Frux tape. His first, a compilation called Not By Chance, featured tracks from Muslimgauze and Band of Holy Joy. Second in line was a collaboration release between TNB and Organum. He heard about the artists for these releases from Dave Henderson’s seminal Wild Planet column in Sounds magazine, and via suggestions from mail correspondence with artists, then reached out to them to contribute to Frux releases.

His connection with TNB was, similarly, a function of networking. “I just heard about them somewhere in 1983 to get a track for my compilation LP, Born Out of Dreams.”  They submitted a silent track entitled “Seinsart.” “I liked what they did and their manifesto so I just asked if I could release something else, whatever it was.”

“They might have done it as a joke or they might have been doing very anti music but I just released it anyway,” Lally explains. “It was a manufactured tape from the cassette copying place. It cost money to do, was not just a blank tape put in a cassette case. I did the label bit of the artwork for that tape — the expensive recent reissue copied that style. They might have sent me a blank tape which was copied or something. Have you been in touch with them about it? They do not say much. I did not tell them I was a kid releasing stuff.”

“The tape sold out at the time, quickly,” he recalls. “I do not know if people knew it was going to be silent though.”

Reissuing a Silent Tape

Kenny Johansson is a Swedish noise artist who records under the name Obskyr. He is also the owner of the Obskyr Records label, which in 2017 took on the extraordinary task of reissuing Epater Les Bourgois.

By Skype, Johansson talked to me about this unusual project. Johansson recalls obtaining the original tape years ago, only to be pleasantly surprised that the tape was blank. “I was like ‘Oh, yeah this is so great… oh wait there is nothing… even better!’” He has been a long-time fan of The New Blockaders’ irreverent take on music.

Ten years ago, he emailed Richard Rupenus, one of half of The New Blockaders, asking for his address to send some materials. “It felt natural to send gifts to a great guy like him. He and his younger brother Philip made ‘noise’ to what it is today and I am forever grateful for their work.” They ended up striking a friendship and have collaborated on many releases ever since, including a bizarre KISS tribute album under the name Torpedo Girl.

The special edition version of Epater Les Bourgeois, limited to one-copy. “White labels on black cassette C46 cassette, clear jewelcase with printed J-card. Case is affixed to the front of the box as part of artwork. 7″ black lathe cut with a large centerhole (jukebox) in handmade sleeve and partially painted/printed labels, housed in a dark wooden boxset with a Anti – 7″ vinyl, rusty junk and spewing tapes attached to the base of the box interior, and then coated with transparent crystal resin solution, sticker attached to back of box: ‘An exclusive release by Obskyr Records on Cassette Store Day 2017’. Also a 1″ pin is included.” (Discogs)

In the late 2010s, Johansson was working on a reissue of a New Blockaders seven-inch single from 1992, “Epater Les Bourgeois,” to be released on a Japanese experimental label called Siren Records. Though that single shares almost the same name as the tape (except properly spelled), it had more typical noise fare on it and was not silent. But it occurred to Johansson that the silent cassette Epater might be worth reissuing too, albeit on his own label.

“I asked Richard if we could do a reissue as it is a favorite of mine,” Johansson recalls. “Richard was very skeptical at first. But when I told him about my plans, he later agreed and we both had a blast working on it.” Johansson requested the master of Epater from Rupenus and received one in the mail.

“When I sent the master tape to Tapeline who made the tapes, they sent me an email saying, ‘Sorry but the cassette was empty, please send a new one.’ Ha! I sent an email back, ‘The tape is not empty, just silent, please proceed with the duplication!’ I think they raised their eyebrows a lot!”

Johansson acknowledges that there is some tape hiss on the reissue, which means it’s not entirely blank. It’s the magnetic equivalent to the pops and cracks that appear on the surface of silent records – reminders of the medium itself.

Epater Les Bourgois, tape (Frux, 1985). Later reissued on CDR (Kubitsuri Tapes, 2009) and tape (Obskyr Records, 2017). The original release was a blank tape.
“Seinsart,” track on Born Out of Dreams compilation LP (Frux, 1985)
Simphonie In Ø Minor, tape (Hypnagogia, 1991). Later reissued on LP (Harbinger Sound, 2009) and included on a 4-CD boxset, Gesamtnichtswerk: 20th Antiversary Antiology (Hypnagogia, 2003). The original release was a blank tape. Soon to be reissued on Menstrual Recordings, along with Simphonie in X Minor, described in Sound Projector magazine as “a full panoply of wild sounds: junkyard percussion, racing cars and industrial power tools, all providing a sense of unstoppable forward motion.”
“Null Bei Ohr,” track on Gesamtnichtswerk: 20th Antiversary Antiology 4-CD boxset (Hypnagogia, 2003). The audio, according to Rupenus, is “pure digital silence.”
Adapted from Richard Rupenus’ list of TNB silent works.