Love Songs for Lamps
The 2012 Believer Music Issue Cassette
Compiled by Calvin Johnson
Cassettes—people love them. They want them. Cassettes are cuddly. They are Star Wars while CDs are Battlestar Galactica (MP3s, of course, are The Matrix). They come in colors; you can collect them and trade them. Hang them on your wall. Use them as Valentines. You don’t have a cassette player? Go buy one at a thrift store for three dollars. Join the fun. Join the cassette party and tape over all of your roommate’s favorite music. Here is a selection of contemporary artists who have, for whatever wise reason, decided to release their work as cassette-only. No CD version, no LP. No 8-track. These bands don’t come with managers, publicists, booking agents, or publishing deals, so no one told them not to make cassettes. Nor are they concerned with their “draw” or “following,” and they won’t bore you with endless discussions about their “careers.” They’re just doing their thing, baby. Dig it.
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A1. Hysterics, “Leave Me Alone”
Every couple of once-in-a-whiles, hardcore breathes new life into itself as a generation beyond redirects its energy from a new center. Hysterics are just such a musical cement-mixer, and they can’t be stopped, pulled apart, or dismissed. Their fierce ire blasts you clean. An all-female outfit whose logo is four bloody tampons hanging by a thread, they offer no apologies. “Leave Me Alone” comes from their second cassette, which sells out as fast as they make ’em.
A2. The Memories, “Higher”
One Christmas, while still a teenager living on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, Erik Gage received a gift card from his grandmother. While browsing online, he stumbled across one hundred C-10 cassette tapes. Encouraged by Adam Forkner of White Rainbow, he started his own cassette label, Gnar Tapes & Shit. The first release was Super Destroy, a series of ten-minute tapes with something different recorded on each one—noise, talking, random raps, whatever—to which Adam responded, “That’s one way to do it.” Since then, Gnar has released a buttload of tapes by folks from all over the world, plus several by the rock band White Fang, which Erik formed with neighborhood chums. The Memories is a variation of White Fang with a couple pals switched out. They play a decidedly unrandom brand of feel-good pop. Burger Records, the powerhouse of contemporary cassette culture, is obsessed with the Memories and will be reissuing their first cassette (which has already been reissued on vinyl by Underwater Peoples) and something new, too.
A3. Shana Cleveland and the Sandcastles, “Itching Around”
Shana Cleveland, a tall, cool woman in white jeans, is a visual artist and music-maker. Leaving behind the overcharged dried-flower power of her more widely known band, the Curious Mystery, she explores the hidden passages of blues-rockin’ soul with the Sandcastles. To wit: “Itching Around,” from their Oh Man, Cover the Ground album. The Sandcastles draw players from Seattle’s overlapping underground communities of renegade all-ages spaces (Cairo, The Black Lodge), internet-radio-station programmers (Hollow Earth Radio), and fallen heroes of the blues. Their music combines loping guitar work, piano, clarinet, cello, and drums with Shana’s hollowed-out vocals. A match made in heaven, delivered to us right here on Earth via cassette tape.
A4. Soviet, “Marbleyezed”
Hailing from the 2001 New York electroclash scene, Soviet stood out to Lee Rickard and Sean Bohrman at Burger Records because their music was more substantial than the standard synth-fest floating under the electroclash banner. Rickard contacted them to see if they were amenable to collecting some of their lost treasures for a cassette release, and discovered main creative force Keith Ruggiero living in nearby Los Angeles, writing music for commercials. Ruggiero is currently finishing the soundtrack for a public-access sci-fi movie, Life Begins at Rewirement. Seek it out.
A5. Tomorrows Tulips, “Untitled”
Laguna Beach resident and pro surfer Alex Knost has his own clothing line and designer sunglasses; he travels to Morocco and around the world displaying his lithe style and jazzing the glass, but there’s something missing: an outlet to unleash his true passions onto an unsuspecting public that does not yet know the real Alex. That’s where Tomorrows Tulips refocuses the picture. Knost writes and sings the songs, the band brings it all to life, and their Burger album, Eternally Teenage, documents the results. Expect a second Tomorrows Tulips cassette from Burger later this year.
A6. Laura Leif and Amber Phelps Bondaroff, “Love Song for Lamps”
Two singers from Calgary, who live elsewhere at present (Laura in Toronto, Amber in Minneapolis). “Love Song for Lamps,” excerpted from a self-released cassette in an edition of one hundred copies, was one of several songs written for inanimate objects that needed cheering up after the long, gloomy winter of 2010 in Montreal, where Laura and Amber were living together at the time. Says Laura, “The object in question was a sad and broken lamp. We wrote it this love song and threw a party, inviting anyone and their broken lamps. We baked and decorated sugar cookies shaped like lamps and made Valentine’s cards all afternoon. Amber and I serenaded that whole stack of sad lamps.” Laura performs under her own name or as Secret Brothers; Amber plays fiddle in Dr. Muskrat and his Mississippi Mud Steppas.
A7. Skrill Meadow, “Takin’ My Time”
Markly Morrison has been known to cover a few Carter Family chestnuts in his other life as a street busker. A cowboy boot inscribed with “Muchas Gracias” encourages tips while staking his busker’s territory at the Olympia farmers’ market and the occasional Best Buy location. Besides busking and running Brown Interior Music, Markly plays as a member of the bands Lazer Zepplin, LAKE, and Skrill Meadow, whose contribution here, “Takin’ My Time,” is from their Hard Water cassette on Gnar Tapes & Shit.
A8. MOM, “Boner Party (Tonite)”
A Sacramento performance artist and DJ, MOM freaks out the squares with gifts (slabs of meat and flowers), her choice of apparel (red velvet party dresses and tailored eye masks; no underpants), and scatological aerobic dynamics (you are bloodied and she is unbowed). Delightful. She shared a bill with Thee Makeout Party! at a festival in Portland, and Burger’s Lee and Sean (who were “blown away” by her performance) gave her a ride to Sacramento the next day. They’ve been best pals ever since. MOM’s Greatest Shits delves fully into her obsession with postwar suburban America and its ugly underbelly. Of particular interest is the invisibly central role of the matriarchal figure, explored via the deconstruction of prominent California artist Annette Funicello’s classic songs “Pineapple Princess,” “Monkey’s Uncle,” and “Beach Party,” mutated here into “Boner Party (Tonite).”
A9. KMVP, “Montreal Screwjob”
Sweatbands Understand is a five-song collection by KMVP. “Montreal Screwjob” finds her taking a more-thoughtful approach than she does as her other musical incarnation, as a member of Bash Brothers. But she’s still a punk.
A10. White Rainbow, “Darker Drift” (4:20 excerpt)
Almost an institution in Portland, Oregon (where he is currently Music Curator at the Yale Union contemporary-art center), Adam Forkner has been making meditative, ambi-tasting, improvised master jams (punctuated with dance-floor rhythms) since the mid-’90s—in collaboration with others in Yume Bitsu and World, and solo as [[[VVRSSNN]]] and White Rainbow. The music of White Rainbow flows through assorted albums on the Kranky, States Rights, and Marriage labels. “Darker Drifts” (4:20 excerpt) is from his third Gnar release, White Rainbow Gnarchives Vol. 1. Head food.
A11. The Great White Jenkins, “Where Shall I Be”
“Where Shall I Be” is drawn from Brown Interior’s ambitious C-93 compilation America Salutes the Carter Family, featuring over twenty contemporary artists interpreting the Carter Family’s impressive catalog of country, folk, pop, and spiritual tunes. Markly recorded this song in the Great White Jenkins’ backyard, in Richmond, Virginia. He had to squeeze the batteries in place to keep his handheld cassette recorder running; it died immediately following this session.
A12. Broken Water, “Normal Never Happened”
Without Dumpster Values, downtown Olympia, Washington, would be a desolate, forbidding place. The shop houses a radical collective, a record store, a silkscreen and letterpress collective, three record labels (!), practice spaces for half a dozen bands, a free bike kitchen called Bike and Bike, and, occasionally, all-night hundred-woman drummer parties. All this is the collective vision of Kanako Wynkoop, but it only sets the backdrop for her life as a filmmaker and musician. After fronting a few local musical incarnations, she started Broken Water (with fashion designer Abigail Ingram and guitarist Jon Hanna) with the goal of “being in a band that lasts as long as Mecca Normal” (a proto-anarchist Canadian duo that have been punking it hardcore since 1985). Broken Water modeled themselves not just on Mecca Normal’s longevity but on their productivity, and have self-released three albums and several singles in five years. “Normal Never Happened” is from their fifth self-released cassette, Peripheral Star, prepared for last summer’s national tour. Their most recent album, Tempest, was released in May by Seattle’s Hardly Art label.
B1. Briana Marela, “Take Care of Me”
There are two Briana Marela cassettes filled with her breath-sized musical bonbons: Water Ocean Lake and All Around Us. The latter supplies “Take Care of Me,” a yearning ember from the tip of a Neapolitan iceberg. Her debut LP, Speak from Your Heart, a peek inside a canvas tote bag filled with precisely colored beach balls, is just now available through Bicycle Records.
B2. The Shivas, “Thrill Yr Idols”
As a band, the Shivas are comparable to Black Lips, not only because they play unmistakably contemporary music that draws lovingly from the Brill Building aesthetic and draws blood from Cavern/Reeperbahn primitive rock, but because their watermark as a group of friends playing together since junior high closely allies them with the Atlanta crypt-kickers. The Shivas originate in Vancouver, Washington’s fourth-largest city, on the banks of the Columbia River. They first encountered Burger Records when quite young (according to Sean, the drummer was twelve). After recording their album Whiteout, they asked if the label would be willing to release it cassette-only. Burger jumped at the chance.
B3. Ruby Fray, “Love That Disease”
Ruby Fray is the brainchild of Emily Beanblossom (her real name), currently based in Austin. Her Spirit Gum cassette, a collection of song doodles “recorded in a bunch of different places with a bunch of different people over a long span of time,” is out now on Wild Animal Kingdom. You won’t need time-lapse photography to see the hair on the back of your neck stand on end when you listen to the Ruby Fray trembling deliriums. They also have a new album on K, Pith, and are touring across the country this summer.
B4. Baby Island, “King’s Crossing”
A willowy Whidbey Island foursome who gather at rural Bayview Hall to play and record their sweet, suffering sounds. Two of their members are also in the band LAKE. All four live on and around Whidbey Island, basking in their chosen remove and watery Puget Sound lifestyle. Tender mayhem of a cascading musical nature.
B5. Erin Earthling, “Bike”
Our story begins when a friend showed Erin McKinney (a.k.a. Erin Earthling of Lakeland, Ohio) a tape from the label Crash Symbols with her face on the cover. (They’d found the photograph in a Kenyon College magazine, decided her face looked “funny,” and included it in a cover collage.) Erin contacted them directly to discover exactly WTF. She makes music herself, her magnificent voice soaring above minimal guitar or piano accompaniment. The Crash Symbols people became instant fans and planned to release her Earthling cassette (which includes “Bike”), but their release schedule was so backed up that Erin founded her own cassette label, Killer Plum!!, to release Earthling last October. She uses cassettes manufactured right in Ohio and does everything by hand, from cutting out the covers and duplicating the tapes to selling them through her website.
B6. Old Night, “Old Night”
Ypsilanti has long been an important influence in underground Michigan culture, and Shelley Salant has been a force in the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor scenes since she was fourteen (she’s now twenty-three). She’s a record-store clerk, musicmaker (drums, guitar, bass), show promoter (basement, rock club), host of The Local Music Show on WCBN, and record-label manager. Her label, Ginkgo Records, has a handful of 45s and several cassette-only releases. The origin of “Old Night” is unclear—it might be Shelley herself. The tape cover states, “I have no recollection of recording it but I can’t think of who else it would have been.” Uh-huh.
B7. Margy Pepper, “Little Cat”
Three distinct personalities (like the Monkees or Village People) make up the Olympia band Margy Pepper: Erica Leshon, Ruth Kodish, and Nora McKinnon. They play loud without distortion; summer music with discordant harmonies. They have self-released two cassettes, the first a co-release with the Seattle band Sundance Kids, for their 2009 tour together. “Little Cat” is from their second cassette, No Boys No Bass. They’ll have a full length LP, Golden Webs, this summer, in collaboration with Corndog Records.
B8. Happy Noose, “One Way Ticket”
A classic rock-and-roll power trio with a pop habit they cannot shake. Fixin’ to die, laughing. Happy Noose have released several records and cassettes on their own Dead End Social Club label, and will record their new album, Amagosa, with Tim Green at Louder Studios in Grass Valley, California. “One Way Ticket” is from their eight-song cassette Happy Noose. It could be your next workout tape.
B9. Lovers Without Borders, “Athena from Bow”
Singer and saxophonist Karl Blau, perennial sideman (Earth, Laura Veirs), producer of countless softly flowing pop bands, and eccentric soloist, formed Lovers Without Borders with drummer Jessica Bonin and guitarist Alex Parrish. They began playing in the autumn and recorded their cassette in the spring, releasing it in time to sell over the summer at their outdoor campfire appearances. They’re a jolly bounce of a band that can thump a beat and get crowds onto the dance floor for some radical hip-sway action. Karl has been a proponent of cassettes since forever, and his most recent venture came after finding a box of sacred-music cassettes at a thrift store. He taped over them with his own Songles collection and released them on his impromptu Treble Treble label. The Lovers Without Borders cassette is seven songs in fifteen minutes, brevity being the soul of discretion.
B10. Mansion Music, “Maps”
Anita Sparrow lives in the Mansion, a large wooden residential structure in East Vancouver. Her Mansion-mates are a gang of like-minded feminists, many of whom also make music. Anita recorded a batch of songs about how life can go right and wrong; it’s all hearts and daggers haunted by the ghosts of bedmates past (“Your face looks different when we fight”), recorded by Mansion-mate Katie Caron and released as a cassette on Radical Clatter, a label run by Mansion-dweller Aaron Machettie. Last autumn she and some cohorts embarked on a cross-continental journey christened the “Smash Patriarchy” tour. Anita played in three of the four bands on the tour: drums in one, keyboards in another, guitar and plaintive voice in Mansion Music.
B11. Sewn Leather, “How It Works”
Griffin Pyn has been recording cassettes since childhood, releasing them as Tiny Pies, Deathgleaner, or Sewn Leather, a nom de guerre that has stuck around for several years now. His cassettes have been self-released or come out through Night People in Iowa City. “How It Works,” from his recent cassette on the Friends & Relatives label, finds him in a contemplative mood, Griffin is in perpetual motion: traveling, recording, train hopping, bringing his one-man electro-damage band to hardcore emporiums and basement rec rooms; another impulse-tattoo and he’s off again. He will never be branded, never be broken (except his teeth)—he is well on his way to achieving “living legend” status.
B12. Priests, “Diet Coke”
Three Washington, D.C., residents formed Priests in October of 2011, and by December they had their first cassette available. It’s a sound straight from the hips, a harangue with a double shot of Tang. “People ask, ‘Why are you putting out a tape?’” says singer Katie. “I like the way music sounds on a tape. If you love it enough, you wear it out, and it dissolves.” Priests started their own label, Sister Polygon, and are in the process of releasing tapes and 45s by other D.C.-area artists. Shattered riot under glass.
Illustration by Charles Burns
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