Mystery Tapes Galore: The Cassette Archive

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

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

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

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

The Adimus tape. (Image credit: Ezra Fike)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True Mystery Tapes

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Cassette Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Ezra Fike

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