I've been thinking a lot about cassettes. This is probably no surprise, because it was recently cassette store day. That was a surprise though, because what the hell? Since when did so many people care about tapes?
It's a good thing. They're cheap, they're durable, and, often, when it comes to drone and ambient releases, the tape hiss is essential to the actual sound of the release. It's part of why a label like Bathetic that specializes in tapes can release so much ragged drone and have it sound so beautiful.
The best thing I've read about tapes is this piece by Nick Sylvester. In it, he writes about how the tape community is very much unlike most other music communities in 2013. It exists largely outside the hype cycle of music (probably because it pre-dates it), and to go to the trouble of getting a tape, let alone something that plays it, is sort of an automatic entry into a kind of club of people that are still looking for the excitement of discovery. Not discovery to tell some people about it on a blog, but discovery because it is still really exciting to find out about awesome shit.
At the beginning of Summer, 2011, I was in Austin, Texas, in dry, hundred degree weather doing a story on Pure X, Sleep ∞ Over, SURVIVE and a bunch of other bands in their scene. Some of those guys would go on to create Holodeck Records, a primarily cassette label that I've profiled extensively in this column. Most of the trip was spent shadowing the bands over a weekend. We drank at a couple bars, went swimming, looked at more synthesizers than I've ever seen or will probably ever see again and listened to a lot of music. Largely on almost-warped cassettes, in sunbaked cars, in the haze of early evening.
They turned me on to a lot of new music that weekend, and I left with a case of second-generation dubbed tapes by various Austin projects, all of which I still listen to regularly today. But the tape that we listened to that I spent the most time thinking about was Ray Lynch’s Deep Breakfast.
Deep Breakfast is a plainly new age album. It came out in 1984, and is the kind of record you'd see in a bargain bin and laugh at. The cover is all cheesy watercolors, and the songs are built on chintzy keyboards that sound like they were dragged right from a LucasArts fantasy computer game and mastered by a dude with a lot of imagination and/or mushrooms at his disposal. Deep Breakfast isn't necessarily obscure. It's actually a platinum selling album, but because it sits so firmly within the new age genre, it's largely obscure to most people listening to music today—I've seen it namechecked as a not-so-secret chillwave influence, so it's not like my hearing it for the first time in 2011 meant I was ahead of any kind of curve.
As I'm writing this, I'm listening to MP3s I have of the album. But it's not the same as when I heard it on that warped cassette, the tempo wobbling, the plastic just slightly melted. Those songs had heft in that format, but the MP3s are fine, and so long as you can divorce yourself from the obvious turns each song takes, there are moments of brilliance. "Celestial Soda Pop" opens with what sounds like a digital harp and a percussion loop based on a hand slapping the side of a plastic cone. Eventually, the song becomes dominated by a ghostly synth line that is as heartbreaking as you let it be. This music is cheesy because it's so obvious— so meticulously perfect that, for me, there isn't any emotional resonance to be gained from the recordings as they are. it was only once that tape appeared in my life, flawed and damaged by time and ownership, that I could hear the humanness that was lurking underneath all along.