In 1984, the guitarist Gayle Ellett founded the instrumental progressive rock band Djam Karet with three friends. Over the years, they’ve put out dozens of albums, amassing a cult following. Ellett has also recorded music for TV and film, accumulating an extensive catalog of credits.
His 2002 album, Winds of War, is an anomaly. It is an abstract sound collage of field recordings — culled “from ancient Arabic deserts and 1,000-year-old villages, viciously processed and mangled forever by contemporary analog keyboards and other recording studio devices.” According to its press release, the goal was to symbolize the destruction of Islamic culture by the American military.
I spoke to Ellett about this unusual record. Ellett lives in Topanga, California, and around the time Winds of War came out, he was dating a woman who had lived in the Middle East and spoke some Arabic. They chose to travel to Morocco for a vacation, and he found himself captivated by the sounds he encountered there. “I made a ton of field recordings there,” he tells me. “I had a small portable DAT recorder with me that I used to record the sounds of the markets and mosques. I wasn’t sure at the time how I would later use these recordings, but I knew it was a good idea to at least capture the sounds I heard on the streets of Morocco.”
He then ran this audio through his Minimoog analog synthesizer, filtering and modulating the sounds and performing some digital touch-ups on his computer. “Once I heard how it sounded, when I ran it through my analog synthesizer’s filters and modulation system — it took on a rather creepy vibe,” Ellett explains. “And we were, as we are now, in the middle of a huge war in Afghanistan. Basically I was mangling the sounds of their Islamic culture by jamming it through an American synthesizer, and bending and distorting their world to my liking. And so the album began to take on a rather anti-American/anti-imperialism tone to it, and I maintained that theme with the track titles.”
Indeed, titles include “The Liberated City” and “‘Round ‘Em Up.'” He explains that he was inspired by his revulsion towards the anti-Muslim sentiment in the air at the time.
When asked about the precedent for this type of experimental record, Ellett puts it simply: “Everybody listens to John Cage, don’t they?” He explains that experimental music is commonplace in California and, besides, Ellett’s band, Djam Karet, would often utilize reel-to-reel tapes to add layers of found sounds to their live performances.
Winds Of War was released through the early digital music website mp3.com, which ran a service called Digital Automatic Music, in which they would produce CD-R versions of albums at artists’ request. Ellett believes 250 copies were made in total.
Listener response was mixed. “Well, it is a very strange recording! Seriously strange! So many people did not like it at all. But some did find it to be very interesting and unique. But I really made it for myself, not others, so I was happy with how it all turned out.” Only a couple of reviews were done, one from an American prog rock website and another from an Uzbekistani website.
Today, he reflects positively on this release, which is one among many. “I think it worked out really well, in my totally biased opinion,” he says. “I write music in a very wide range of styles, from art-rock to film music to traditional World music, and currently I play in eight bands and I’ve played on over 120 albums. So I am very interested in a really wide range of music, and making this avant-garde album was a unique experience, and a ton of fun!”
Thanks to Gayle Ellett for the interview. Visit his website here.
“Then I did one comp where I would leave the cassette out. You’d get the cover, and the plastic case, but there’s nothing else in it. There was no tape.”
Mike Tetrault used to make a point of being provocative. He still considers himself prone to pranks, but he was at his peak when he ran Epitapes, a cassette label that was part of the international tape-trading network. While at its helm, he released three compilation albums that were direct affronts to the controversial noise artist Boyd Rice. They were titled My Dream Date With Boyd Rice, Sex On The First Date With Boyd Rice, and, logically, Pregnant With Boyd Rice’s Baby.
Tetrault tells me via phone that, at one point, he sealed copies of these three compilations into an envelope and sent them to Mr. Rice himself. He never heard back.
This was only one of the curious concepts that emanated from the Epitapes headquarters in Western Massachusetts, where Tetrault grew up and currently lives. Unsurprisingly, this rebellious streak is deep-seated. Tetrault tells me that he became interested in punk music in the seventies, after buying a copy of the The Damned’s debut album from a record store in Amherst, Massachusetts called Sunshine Records. Soon after, he was picking up records by other bands. “Slaughter & the Dogs’ ‘Cranked Up Really High,’ then Johnny Moped… All these obscure bands that were really, really excellent and are now considered classics.
“So you buy one, you like it, so you start looking for more. And once you start looking, it gets easier and easier. So then you buy some punk fanzine, and order some stuff from that. Meanwhile, punk’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s still not popular and not a commercial thing, but there’s more and more punk bands. X-Ray Spex, The Drones… tons of bands. And then I discovered the LA bands — The Skulls, The Bags. And then you find about the Finnish bands. You find out more and more as you get into it.
“There was never a store in my area. I live in Western Mass. Most people had never even heard of punk. I only found one person in that first year who’d even heard of any band. So everybody would think you’re crazy, or listening to noise. It wasn’t fun to be into something, especially when you’re young and you just want to be doing something, and want to be having actual fun, not just playing records. This place wasn’t the place to be. So that’s when I decided I’m going to move to some city somewhere.”
Craving adventure and keen to live in a city with a real music scene, he picked up and moved to L.A., but shortly moved to San Francisco after realizing L.A. was no fun without a car. There, he engrossed himself in punk music while working a series of temporary jobs. “There’s a Sex Pistols line,” Tetrault says. “‘You won’t catch me working nine to five/It’s too much fun being alive.’ And that was my motto. I didn’t want to get a job. But I would get jobs, just to live. And I would always get temporary jobs.” His most consistent gig was as a bicycle messenger, a vocation that attracted several punks in SF.
While in San Francisco, he attended several industrial and experimental shows, including concerts by Throbbing Gristle and SPK. He tells me he still has a recording he made at an SPK show which he believes has never been released anywhere else.
In the eighties he moved back to Belchertown, MA after burning out on the city. “Everything seemed ugly. That’s when hardcore was taking over, and everybody I knew was doing heroin or meth. I didn’t want to be a junkie, but a lot of people continued to do it and were junkies. And it was just sleazy and ugly. Everywhere I looked on the streets, everything was ugly. And I thought, why am I living here if I think everything is ugly?
“Moving to the city was an adventure, but after awhile it lost its appeal, so I just went back to the country. I love nature. I take tons of nature photos. I hike every single day. I just love it, and it’s hard to explain why, I just do.”
The Beginnings of Epitapes
While Epitapes is often listed as being a Belchertown label, Tetrault explains that he had actually moved to a different town in the same area, Sunderland, by the time the first tape came out.
That first tape was titled The Beauty of the Warning and featured a number of artists that Tetrault was in touch with at the time. Some were friends from San Francisco, including numerous former roommates, including Robert Turman (one half of NON), Fortune Dagger, and Arkansaw Man. Others were people he knew via the mail. “I must have just written to these people, and they’re the ones that responded, and I liked whatever they sent.”
Tetrault still has the master copy of this compilation. Over the phone, he takes me through some of the tracks. “Endless Calm is me,” he laughs. “Randy Greif was fantastic, you don’t hear about him too much anymore. John Hudak is a very interesting person. He would do these really simple pieces. [His track] ‘Eighteen Pennies,’ he actually just played with a pile of eighteen pennies… When you listen to it, you can tell. It’s just a pile very slowly being fondled, basically. Just playing gently with these pennies. It’s a very relaxing little song, and everything he does is like that, as far as I know. He’ll hit tree branches together, it’s always these simple little things.”
There is also track from the legendary hometaper Ken Clinger, whom Tetrault later collaborated with via mail. “I sent him a tape of me reading poems, and he surprised me by setting them to music,” Tetrault recalls.
The cover of The Beauty of the Warning features an image of the Virgin Mary that Tetrault took at a cemetery. In fact, Epitapes’ name honours Tetrault’s lifelong passion for epitaphs. “I used to, and I still do, collect epitaphs. I go to old cemeteries all the time. And I took literally thousands of photos of old gravestones, and that’s how the label got its name.
“A lot of my tapes ended up using really good gravestone rubbings or photos,” he explains. The inserts were made via cutting-and-pasting, and were copied at a local copy shop. The tapes themselves were TDK blanks purchased at a local office supplies store.
In an improbable incident, Epitapes’ name almost got Tetrault in trouble. “The label Epitaph, the one that Bad Religion is on, wrote me a letter threatening to sue me, and they said I was trying to cash in on their name,” Tetrault says. “And I said, ‘I’ve been running this label since before you were a label, and the hundreds of people on this label will attest to that.’ So they left me alone. You record punk rock, and I record insects and machines and music boxes, how am I trying to cash in on your reputation? We don’t do anything similar. I was so obscure. I don’t know how they ever heard of me!”
When Beauty of the Warning came out, he intended it as a one-off. Though he coined the name Epitapes, he wasn’t expecting it to grow into a full tape label. From a logistics perspective, that single tape was a lot of work. “I had to make each copy by hand. I would record one tape at a time. There’s ten or twelve people on that tape, so I had to make ten or twelve copies. Each one would take 90 minutes. So it was a time consuming thing.” But what started off simple became an extensive hobby, and Epitapes eventually accumulated a discography of over 70 tapes, the vast majority of them compilations.
The second Epitapes cassete was another comp, Songs Of The Whippoorwills, featuring Randy Grief again, as well as seminal experimental artists like Le Syndicat, Big City Orchestra, and City of Worms. He seasoned the tape with brief interludes of his own home recordings of actual whippoorwills around his area.
Another contributor was the prolific artist Minoy, who has lately been the subject of a large box set. “Minoy used to do primal therapy through music. On this comp, his piece is called ‘Hell’s Bells.’ A lot of his work is just layers and layers of screaming, and some of it, even though he’s screaming the whole time, is absolutely beautiful. Everybody knew he had mental health problems. I actually didn’t know that at the time when he was contributing — later I found out about that, on the internet.”
Some of Tetrault’s most intriguing concepts were his themed compilations, in which he solicited submissions that all had to revolve around a particular idea or sound source. He is proudest of A Crutch Or Reel Or Water-Plant, a tape compilation in which he asked for untreated recordings of machinery. He explains that some of the artists even worked in factories, so they brought true audio exclusives to the table. The track listing reveals many interesting items. A mysterious artist named Diet/Labine contributed “Cement Mixer” and “Sri Lanka Coconut Grater.” Veteran artist Jeph Jerman sent in “Fan Belt.” And one of Tetrault’s own pieces is descriptively titled “Crane Used To Pound In Concrete Pillars.” Despite being a favourite, he acknowledges that A Crutch or Reel sold very few copies.
Another sound-source-specific compilation was Music Boxes, in which he asked artists to send in unaltered recordings of music boxes. That tape featured artists like Randy Greif and No Unauthorized, as well as a remarkable composition by Tetrault himself. “It was a pain in the neck,” he tells me of that track “I hounded everyone I knew for their music boxes and I ended up with like thirty of them. And I wound them all up at once, and recorded them playing. Slowly they died out until only one was playing. I really liked that.”
Then there was All Bare or Dead Forms Under Sunlight Cast Mysterious Shadows on the Snow, whose theme was “surrealism.” Artists were free to interpret that as they pleased, and the interesting results made this another one of his favourite Epitapes releases. Artists on this tape included No Unauthorized, Hybrids, Redemption Incorporated, Victor/im, Machine Made Man, Dead Goldfish Ensemble, Odal, and Adam Bowman.
As might have gleaned from his Boyd Rice themed compilations, subversion was a central feature of Tetrault’s aesthetic. “I was a troll before that word was used. I used to play all kinds of pranks on the tapes… I had a whole series of Genesis P-Orridge comps where I insult him basically, at least in the titles. One of the comps had all these people, big names in this kind of harsh electronic music, and at the end for about five minutes, I went into a really vicious rant insulting everybody, one by one. I would say, ‘Oh and this guy sounds like little kids throwing cans at each other, and they would call this fucking music?’ I would rant about every single piece. I would just have fun. The more I did the tapes, the less inhibited I felt about doing anything.”
Another Genesis P-Orridge comp was titled Genesis P-Orridge’s 20 Bad Disco Greats. “Somebody sent me recordings of bad disco albums,” Tetrault explains. “One was Star Wars music done disco-style. And then there was another bad disco one. So I filled the tape with both of those from start to finish. then I recorded the noise over that, leaving a minute’s gap (between tracks). So you had the bad disco in between every song. People liked that one.”
Eventually, his pranks lurched towards the realm of concept art. “I started to package the tapes in ways that were frustrating to people,” he says. “Sealing them in plastic where there was no way to open it — I would wrap and wrap it and wrap it in plastic, and keep melting the plastic. There would end up being no seams, so you couldn’t really open the cassette. I remember doing one where I stuffed the package and tape with razor blades. Now that I think of it, I could’ve gotten in trouble I suppose!
“Then I did one comp where I would leave the cassette out. You’d get the cover, and the plastic case, but there’s nothing else in it. There was no tape. So I would just play these games… I used to like provoking people. I still do, actually.”
For his harsh noise tapes, he might use a mellow piano track by Ken Clinger as a cheerful intro, then drop unpredictably into a cavalcade of abrasion. On one occasion, he targeted a contributing artist who was very particular about their music. “As I dubbed it, I made it sound like the tape was slowing down and being eaten and all this stuff. And I released it that way and that person got a little perturbed, even though I did it on purpose. Later on, when I told him it was on purpose, then he liked it, but at the time he didn’t like it.”
Epitapes’ Final Stages
The vast majority of Epitapes releases were compilations, but Tetrault did put out a few non-comp tapes. These include several cassettes of his field recordings, including audio of insects at nighttime (Night Insects) and daytime (Day Insects), as well Rainbow Gathering, where he took several recordings at a rainbow gathering — “a gathering of hardcore hippies, the kind that live in the woods or just constantly travel.”
Tetrault’s last releases were around 1992, at which point he eventually lost steam when it came to producing new compilations. But when he closed up shop, he had several that were in various stages of completion. “One was rock music, but it was music using only rocks, pebbles, or sand. Nothing else. Another was ambient versions of Sex Pistols songs.”
Another aborted comp was a collection of cover versions of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” — he found the submissions disappointing, but points out that this is likely a result of his own idiosyncratic expectations instead of the shortcomings of contributors.
Yet another was a planned compilation of “pagan music,” which didn’t attract enough interest in contributors. “Some people from Norway sent some absolutely beautiful songs, but nobody else was contributing.” He laments that those recordings never saw the light of day on an Epitapes release. One wonders if those recordings survive today.
After Tetrault wound Epitapes down, he continued to make his tapes available for distribution, even creating a catalog that listed all the available releases and their respective themes. Yet most compilations didn’t sell in quantity. In some cases, no copies were sold at all, and the only ones that were produced were the artist copies! This lack of interest was one of the reasons he wrapped Epitapes up. He also recalls being frustrated with the politics of whose music would get put on a comp. Rather than deal with complaint letters and snail-mail arguments, he decided it was easier to stop putting new tapes out.
The Digital Age
Tetrault and I talk about the fact that digital rips of some of his comps have turned up on blogs and on YouTube, and how some (partial) information exists on Discogs. He is okay with these comps finding their way online, since it means more people can hear them. But he’s surprised how many survived. “I sold almost no copies of most of these tapes,” he marvels. “I don’t know how the copies are all spread around so much these days! It’s all a mystery.”
Tetrault still has single copies of the masters of most of the comps. He sent a few of them to someone who said they would burn them to CD for him, but he is still waiting for that. While a few people have offered to digitize his tapes, he is scared of sending out the remainder of his originals, lest they get lost or damaged in the mail. It’s a reasonable fear — obscure bits of experimental music history such as these are often one copy away from extinction.
Tetrault’s own collection of other labels’ and artists’ comps has thinned over time, reflecting how esoteric music can become an endangered species. Tetrault explains that, over the years, he would downsize his collection by disseminating his tapes in unlikely locations. “I’d either leave them in a phone booth, or I would leave them on a table somewhere at the laundromat for some unsuspecting person to pick up and play. They’re the ones who would throw them away, not me.”
Remarkably, in the decades since Epitapes’ inception, not one of Tetrault’s master tapes has broken. We chat for a while about what he can do with these tapes, which aren’t getting any younger. He wants to work out how to transfer them to his computer, but isn’t sure about the logistics. If he can figure out the process, he’d be open to posting them online, because, as we both agree, they are important historical documents. I, for one, can’t imagine a world where his compilation of machinery sounds, A Crutch Or Reel Or Water-Plant, is lost forever.
“I guess it takes a special person to be excited about a CD of tractor sounds.”
Deselm, Illinois is a place. When you look it up on Google Maps, this is what you get:
The Wikipedia article for Deselm is three sentences long. It will tell you that Deselm is an unincorporated community in Illinois’s Kankakee County, that it was home to a post office from 1867 to 1902, and that it was named after its first postmaster, John B. Deselm.
Deselm is also the name of a peculiar CD-R by Brent Gutzeit and Bill Groot, two woodworkers who ran the BOXmedia record label out of their woodshop, Claremont Woodworking. In touch with me via email, Gutzeit tells me about the origins of this unique release. “Groot was the owner and I was the only employee. We ran BOXmedia on the side — out of the same office. BOXmedia was releasing a lot of CDrs at the time and I was also touring and playing a lot of shows at the time.”
Deselm is named so because it collects three recordings made at a place near Deselm called Burn’s Woods, which are so obscure they cannot be found on Google Maps. “It was in the middle of nowhere,” Gutzeit says. “I remember driving down many two-lane roads through endless corn fields.” Groot and Gutzeit were there to attend the annual Antique Tractor and Threshing Reunion, hosted by the Will County Threshermen’s Association. (That event has since been moved, and 2020’s rendition — the 58th! — was cancelled due to COVID.)
Groot and Gutzeit attended the Reunion in 2000 and 2002, making recordings of some of the engines. “Bill and I were both interested in field recordings. And we were both interested in machine sounds and noise. We had recorded a bunch of ‘sessions’ in the woodshop using the tools and large machinery as sound sources — some real Luigi Russolo kind of stuff,” he laughs. “Bill came across an ad in a trades magazine for the tractor fair and we decided to go and record it. Both of us being woodworkers, we enjoyed a trip into the past of motors, engines, tools and large machinery. To us it just sounded like a fun and interesting trip. We packed up the recording gear and headed downstate to Deselm.”
Gutzeit remembers the reunion. “There was a small engines section that was similar to an outdoor flea market but just had different people set up in booths running different motors. So as you walked through it was a weird sound collage of motors.
“Then there was a parade showing off all the old antique tractors. And the most interesting thing for Bill and I, being woodworkers, was the saw mill. It was incredible. Imagine a full-sized steam engine train, but without the wheels and without the cab. Now this giant steam engine has a huge pulley wheel on the side that is connected via 100 ft belt to a 10 ft saw blade. The saw blade is set up vertical and is ripping through 4 ft wide whole trees like butter. The steam engine is wailing like a train powering up a steep hill. Pretty massive. Pretty impressive. Oh, and the big thing for everyone was the noon whistle blow where all the tractors blew their steam whistles. I have to say it was way more interesting than we had expected. We ended going back a few years later to record more.”
Tractors were familiar to Gutzeit. “I grew up in a little town east of Flint, Michigan called Davison. And we weren’t even in Davison, we were in Richfield Township. The road we lived on was dirt until I was eight. We were surrounded by corn fields. So tractors were a normal everyday sight for me growing up.”
The CD collects two tracks by Groot and one by Gutzeit. “Bill and I both had different recorders and recorded our own sources,” Gutzeit says. “I basically did a more straight forward collage mix. Bill decided to do a more ‘DJ style’ mix where he took a lot of smaller samples and looped them.
When they made the recordings, they already had in mind a release on their label. “It was going to be in the fourth BOXmedia CD-R series (Hence the catalog code BOXCDR403), which was all field recordings.” Others that series include Todd Carter (collecting sounds from Chicago), Michael Hartman (sounds from Japan), Yannick Dauby (sounds from India) and a compilation called Vacation for Hourly Employees, which features sounds from all over the world.
When I ask Gutzeit what the response was like from listeners, he tells me that he sold very few copies, and that he wasn’t aware of anyone writing a review of Deselm. “The second year we went back (to the tractor reunion) we had burned off a stack of CD-Rs to hand out to people from the previous year. Most people were confused but some were really excited about it. I don’t know — I guess it takes a special person to be excited about a CD of tractor sounds,” he laughs.
Yet today, Gutzeit carries only fond memories of this unique release. “I thought it was wonderful. I’d recommend it to anybody – farmer or not.”
Thanks to Brent Gutzeit for this interview. He currently lives in Milwaukee and recently put out a split album with Mike Shiflet, entitled Welcome to Cleveland. Via his JMY label, he just put out a massive 106-track entitled Building a Better Future, whose proceeds all go to Black Lives Matter, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.