In a recent Label Archaeology article I did, Christopher Fischer, who runs Unread Records, marveled at the labyrinthine network of tiny tape labels that spanned America in the eighties and nineties. He told me that he just recently stumbled upon a label called In a Lighthouse Cassettes from Jacksonville, Florida. He was taken aback that, twenty years after the fact, he could still discover an entire label that he hadn’t been aware of. The tape scene was simply that deep.
Intrigued, I tried hunting down information about that label, but there wasn’t much apart from some partial listings on Discogs. But by looking at the available scanned J-cards, I was able to identify that In a Lighthouse Cassettes was run by someone named Carleton Peck:
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that this old prodigy.com email address is defunct (Prodigy died in 2001). But a Google search led me to a plausible Carleton Peck, who works as a creative copywriter. To my good fortune, he was indeed the same Carleton Peck, and was happy to chat about his experiences running In a Lighthouse.
Peck started In a Lighthouse around 1997, while living in Jacksonville Beach, a small resort city on the coast near Jacksonville, estimated current population 23,628. He had moved there from Minnesota. “Jacksonville Beach was a cultural shock after growing up in the Twin Cities up until 1993,” he tells me, via email. “I went from being surrounded by incredible record stores to having very few options to discover new music. In Minneapolis and St. Paul I would buy random tapes all the time, even on my walks home from elementary school!
“Jacksonville Beach was pretty rough in some ways. Most kids there plan to go to jail or the military—sometimes both. I knew a decent amount of people that ended up in prison. They have military recruiting in schools but don’t always allow SAT testing. What a set-up! The beaches south and north of there were and are beautiful. Undeveloped and inspiring spaces of shockingly sparse populations. I loved to read on the beach. Was a nice weather improvement from Minnesota winters.”
Peck found himself “stuck” in Jax Beach, with few worthwhile live music options to draw from. “I remember an early Modest Mouse show that was novel for Jacksonville to host. But overall not a lot going on. I would generally go up to Atlanta but mostly Athens to hear music.”
In his sojourns to Athens, he became friends with the members of Gritty Kitty, an early band on Kindercore Records, one of Athens’ stalwart indie pop labels. He discovered a number of other Athens bands, including The Gerbils, Kincaid, Elf Power, and Masters of the Hemisphere. “The irony was my personal life in Jacksonville was mostly centered around surfing, playing guitar in reggae bands with friends, DJing hip-hop, house, and techno at small parties, and generally totally outside any local indie music scene. I thought many of the indie people in Jacksonville were pretty insular when it came to indie cred litmus tests. Pretty funny when I look back. I tended to get along more with rave kids and people in punk and hardcore bands. They were more open and less judgmental and generally more laid back—more my speed.”
Release Number One
It was through one of the Athens bands, Masters of the Hemisphere, that In a Lighthouse came into existence. In late 1997, he released his label’s first cassette. It was a self-titled tape by Vetran, which was the solo project of Bren Mead, a founding member of Masters, who around then had just released their debut single, Going On A Trek To Iceland, on Kindercore.
“I first met Bren in the fall of 1997,” Peck explains. “I heard some other music he was doing, mostly on his own. It was brilliant stuff and I thought, well, I have a couple of tape decks for dubbing. I have no money. But I can send this to labels and college radio hosts and record stores and just see what happens. People really were into it which was cool. I was not prepared to spend the time I would have liked to spend on it.”
That Vetran tape was produced in true DIY fashion. The J-cards were Xeroxed at Kinkos, and the tapes were 30-minute blanks purchased from a DJ-oriented store in Brooklyn, ProSound and Stage Lighting. “I would say out of the first 40 tapes I dubbed I gave away 30 of them to bands or zine writers or labels—either in person or through the mail. Sometimes when I placed an order with, like, Up Records or someone I would send a tape or two with my order.”
He initially dubbed 100 copies, then made the subsequent 100 copies to order, for a total of 200. “I would say Vetran is a bit like a lo-fi Laurel Canyon sixties pop group. The additional instruments and sounds were more icing on the cake. But the songs were pretty much strummy indie pop similar to the Masters of the Hemisphere. I really like how Bren made everything sound though. Guided by Voices-style four-track recording. He has an awesome style to his vocals.”
I ask Peck why he chose the name “In a Lighthouse” — though, as a scan of the Vetran tape shows us, the label was just “Lighthouse” until the second release. “So this sounds corny, but it was all about making music alone. And I lived at the beach. I enjoyed four-track recording alone, and knew that many other people liked the ‘studio as an instrument’ approach to experimental recording. And I thought about how lighthouse keepers probably spent a lot of time alone. I was thinking In a Lighthouse would represent that solitary mindset well.”
Peck’s approach was to distribute his tapes on a very micro level. He did send some copies to a few small mail-order distros, but most orders were handled directly via mail. “I didn’t really advertise. I think I put some small ads in some small zines. I remember I did one ad that said ‘send me a picture of your cat doing something for a free tape.’ Much of it was word of mouth though. I would have them available at shows around the south that I attended.”
He would also sell tapes at shows, giving them to bands and labels he liked, and use them to network with people via mail. He recalls sending tapes to Mario Suau of a Michigan indie-pop duo called Shoestrings, which was Mario and his partner, Rose Uytuico. Suau ran a radio program called the Dream Kitchen Radio Show, possibly via the Oakland University radio station. Peck believes Mario may have played the Vetran and Mathlete tapes on air, but doesn’t recall for certain. “His radio shows were incredible. He was also one of the nicest people I have ever met. He would send me tapes of the shows he did… I listened to some of those 1997 and 1998 radio shows of his for twenty years. I still have a few in storage. He loved groups like Club 8, Eggstone, and tons of Spanish and French pop groups. Also some good things from Japan. I probably got more into Momus from his show.”
Peck’s enthusiasm for all things musical, and radio in particular, shines through when he reminisces about this time. “I loved radio shows from a young age. I use to make compilation tapes of beats… I would listen to the house and rap shows in the middle of the night on FM radio and whenever I heard a good beat I would hit record a get a minute or so of it. The first time I heard/recorded Art of Noise’s ‘Moments in Love’ I probably replayed the beat the same night like 80 times.”
1998: ILC-02 to ILC-08
In 1998, In a Lighthouse kicked into high gear. The second release was a self-titled tape attributed to Clarify, which was the solo project of Dan Sostrum, who was just starting the Clairecords label back then. That label would become a linchpin in the second-wave shoegaze scene. “Clarify was Dan making some noise music,” Peck says. “Lo-fi synths and drum machines. He gave me the tape to listen to just to hear and I enjoyed it a ton. I loved the fuzzy sound of it. I don’t remember how I first met him but I was just out of school [at the time]. I was 18 and in between being on my own and my Mom’s place. Dan is an absolute expert when it comes to shoegaze and noise pop. Has some of the greatest knowledge of anyone I have ever met when it comes to noise and dreamy rock from the large bands (Swirlies, Ride, MBV, Chapterhouse, etc.) to all the thousands of bands those groups influenced.”
Around this time, he was also networking with labels and artists from across the globe, expanding the reach of In a Lighthouse. “It seems weird now but I had a lot of friends in the mail,” he says “A lot of times it was exchanging mixtapes and compilations. Sharing new finds.”
He describes the ease with which some of these connections were made. “I think sometimes it was just writing label addresses and zines. Other times it would be something like someone being really into Tape Op magazine on a recording forum and me chatting with them… I know it was friends of friends too. Like, hey, my friend works at Tower in Tokyo and likes Broadcast. And I would be like, oh cool I will write them and just say if you like this mix and this Biwa tape then write back and say hey… even better make a compilation of your favorite eighties synth bands! If I had a decent job and situation I would have probably traveled to more places to explore those places and see the live music there in person. Postage to overseas addresses was cheaper back then.”
It was via these methods that he connected with labels like Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Fantastic Records, and a prolific Italian label, Best Kept Secret, which he admires to this day (“Alessandro Crestani was an awesome guy. I loved what he was about and how he released everything with a consistent look and feel.”)
This was how he ended up putting out In a Lighthouse’s third release: Prince Charmless by Kisswhistle, a trio of Penn State students. A few of the songs from this tape are available for digital download, as collected on Kisswhistle’s odds-and-ends compilation, Ginger Pale Ale. Those recordings reveal classic threeish-minute lo-fi indie pop replete with tuneful guitar chords and jubilant keys.
In a Lighthouse number four was Demonstration Tape by Biwa, a Japanese band. “They were tight despite being a really newly-formed band. I wish I had my old emails with them. I don’t remember enough. I think it started with them sending me a tape randomly through the mail. I used to tell people to tell their friends to send demos. I liked listening to unpolished tracks that were off the cuff. ‘Honor your mistake as a hidden intention,’ as Eno would say. I liked the rough edges. I wrote Biwa back and asked to put it out. I don’t know what happened to them though. They had a cool sound with nice guitar hooks and vocal harmonies.”
The fifth In a Lighthouse tape featured one of the label’s bigger names — that is, within the magnitude of the deeply DIY lo-fi pop scene. Teleport was the first-ever release by Mathlete, the duo of Mike Downey and Dan Marsden, then based out of Illinois. Downey was also a member of Wolfie, the well-regarded Parasol Records band. Fortunately, Downey has since uploaded the Teleport tape to his Bandcamp page, where you can enjoy their brand of pop, centred around cascading, outer-space-sounding synthesizers, drum machine beats, and weird vocals:
The sixth tape, which isn’t listed anywhere online at this time, was a tape called Future Boy by Entertainment, the solo project of Julian Garr from Winterbrief. “Really great guy,” Peck says. “I loved talking to that dude. I hung out with him in Philly once or twice. The music was more drum and bass styled, like Darla Records’ Bliss Out series or [the band] Color Filter. I love that type of stuff.”
Number seven was Denver’s self-titled tape. Despite the name, Denver was the moniker of Stephen Maughan from England. “Eighties style guitar pop with drum machines” is how Peck describes it. “I can’t remember the connection or how we met. He was in the band Bulldozer Crash and creator of This Almighty Pop! zine. Awesome music. I should have put it on CD or LP maybe and made it a larger release? It was cool stuff. He also had a 7″ on Elefant Records out of Spain. Elefant was one of my favorite labels of the 90s.”
River was the solo project of Fabrice Hervé, and his Venus tape, In a Lighthouse’s eighth, was one of several small-scale releases he put out around this era on labels like Home-Aid Recordings (the micro-label of the Pittsburgh band Tourister) and Bliss Aquamarine.
1999: The End of In a Lighthouse
Peck put out three tapes in 1999. The first one was from Australian lo-fi indie pop staple Simpático, whose first tape was on In a Lighthouse. After that came OPC by Other People’s Children, another project of Simpático main man Jason Sweeney, described contemporaneously as a “new and very buttery project” with plenty of keyboards, à la Stinky Fire Engine and Stereolab. “Jason was someone I spoke with probably online and then exchanged things with,” Peck says. “I loved a lot of reverb drenched Australian and New Zealand groups. The Cat’s Miaow was a favorite, and I thought Simpático had some cool vibes and wanted to share that.”
The final tape was A Category Fantasy by CJ Geno, which itself seemed to predict Peck’s shift in interest away from pure indie pop. It was a sample-based record by Kisswhistle frontman Cassette Jockey Geno, a.k.a. Marc Pattini. Kisswhistle has since posted the tape on Bandcamp for all to enjoy, replete with lo-fi beats and a delightful send-up of the “Flower Duet” set to a hip-hop beat (“We Have Lust”):
“With the CJ Geno release I found myself restless with some of the indie music I was hearing and seeing. I wanted to dive deeper into other things. And I moved a few times, including a summer working at Warehouse Music in North Carolina. Great crew of people at that store at that time. I started to really enjoy live jazz and African music more and more. And Brazilian music too. The label just ended when I dropped away from all that. I am someone that doesn’t like to hang on to things and rather just explore something or somewhere new. So I lost touch with everyone and got on with others things in life. But never stopped listening and looking for music with no less enthusiasm.”
Peck’s passion for music shines through as he talks about his In a Lighthouse days, and his thirst for new sounds comes through with every email. At one point, he sends me a list of 166 releases that he believes should be reissued on vinyl!
Even for the former proprietor of a tape label, he is particularly enthusiastic about physical media. “I love records and tapes because from a super young age it was just synonymous with listening to music. And that was addicting. And I love the artwork. I am not fixated on one type of medium. I even appreciate CDs and their packaging. In the early and mid nineties I bought m0st rap albums on CD for the car, so I have nostalgia for their format.
“I also like being able to put something on. There is a pushing play. There is an end. I have gone to people’s homes where they have 10,000 songs to stream but their stereo never works and the songs are always hard to find or don’t sound good. I’d rather just pick up a record with a tree on it and put it on. I like the visual relationship — you can search for things visually. I also think tapes sound good, LPs sound good, and CDs sound pretty clean but alright too. But a nicely pressed 180 gram record on a decent stereo is pretty impossible to beat for my ears.”
As an interesting footnote, while Peck was certain that he never ran a website for In a Lighthouse, several days after our interview, through some complicated internet gymnastics, I came across an archived webpage for the label. (It was listed on the Links page to the also-archived website for the band Winterbrief). It provides some valuable descriptions of the In a Lighthouse tapes that haven’t made it online, includingg a claim that Clarify’s tape has been “Hailed as MBVs ‘loveless’ on a shoestring budget and with only keyboards and drum machines as instrumentation!”
Worryingly, Peck’s archive of In a Lighthouse tapes is not with him at the moment. “I have a pretty unwieldy music collection (mostly vinyl) and pieces of it that are not with me are in LA, Boston, Miami… living in considerate closets of family and friends.”
This makes me nervous — tapes are delicate, and belongings have a habit of disappearing when under the possession of those who might not appreciate them. But Peck strikes an optimistic tone. “One day it will be united,” he assures me.
Thanks to Carleton Peck for the interview.