I can’t remember exactly when Bret and I came into contact. It was the mid 80s for sure and he started off by sending tapes of scrabble, Derek Bailey style guitar, from his post in Korea. I thought this was pretty special coming from all that way and with the sound I dug.
Cassettes would appear fairly regularly, then CDs with much inherent variety and latent talent. There were songs, instrumental forays, weird experiments, collaborations and more. Eventually we ended up recording our own duets sometime in the 2000s.
I’ve even talked to Bret on the phone a couple of times and certain elements of his life resonated with mine. Having kids and wife, a regular job,musical influences… we even had the same type of 8 track digital recorder ( BOSS 1180). A real down to earth fellow who can span intellectual heights and then get down and dirty with some gutter blues and backwoods country.
His strengths lie not only in his dexterity and abilities on guitar and vocals but with his open mindedness and opinions. He reviewed music for many years and always made cogent points, accepted oddity but was never afraid to tell it like it is.
There is a link above to hear a compilation I put together especially for this article on Bret Hart. He gets kidded and confused with the wrestler of the same name but make no mistake: Just don’t get into an armlock with his telecaster.
In 2001 Bret produced a guitar compilation called “Delicate Furies” as a benefit for a local school. Many fine artists are featured such as: Ernesto Diaz-Infante, Bob Jordan, Phil Kellogg, Mark Kissinger, Fred Frith and even yours truly among others.
Written in 2003-2004 Bret uses his moniker, Rev. Bubb Pallbearer for this release called “folksongsinthekeyofstark”.
From another of Bret’s many projects, “Asteroid Schoolhouse” was a collection of three separate albums rolled into one from 1998-2001.
Some of the tunes go as far back as 1988 and I cannot seem to locate the release date of “Bee-Spit Architecture” by another of Bret’s aliases, “Blind Pineapple” Phillips.
I cannot find a date on this set of tunes by Bret but my guess is the early to mid 90s. “The Maximum Love Vibes Demos, Vol. 1”.
Released in 2001, this set of songs by one of several of Bret’s alter egos, “Alonzo “Blind Pineapple” Phillips” was called “Faced”.
“Mr. Axolotl” was the name of this 2010 collaboration project by Bret Hart, Pete Zolli, Eric Wallack, Greg Segal and Don Campau.
When you did first learn of the home recording scene? And what about it attracted you?
I was attracted to the acceptance for individuality that I found in the Op/Sound Choice/Option/Lowlife/Bad Newz/ Gajoob/Factsheet Five/etc family of underground magazines during the early 80s. I sent a writing sample to Op and offered to help review homemade cassette submissions. When Op’s editorial staff broke into two other magazines after hitting the ‘Z’ issue, I reviewed cassettes for both. This became a blessing and a curse, as I got to hear a HUGE slice of what was going on internationally, but began to have to start using pseudonyms in order to get a clean read on what I’d sent. I didn’t want any favors from any good ol’ boy network, but feedback I could use and grow from as a musician and arranger.
What were some of the pseudonyms you used when reviewing?
I reviewed using my own name, I issued music both as me and ‘camouflaged’: Wade Coldwater, Youth in Asia; some of the members of bands Asteroid Schoolhouse (Lois Poit, Sara Raisin, Pedro McCorkle), Maximum Love Vibes (Alonzo ‘Blind Pineapple’ Phillips), others that I’ll think of later.
When you would get a tape for review would you ever contact them personally and start exchanging tapes? Or would you look in the review section for addresses and write people?
Both, but I kept mostly to myself and may have been disappointing to some folks regarding collaboration. From 1982 to 1998 I was pretty much a moving target, changing addresses often because of the nature of my work; the first eight of which were spent mostly overseas or heading there. I’ve lived in four countries and eight states these 53 years. Tina and I have lived in this house of ours longer than we’ve ever lived anywhere else. I feels good to stop.
I remember doing things with Jerry Ford, “Crash” Osteen, Dan Fioretti, Dick Metcalf, umm.. I’ve got some gaps here. For quite a few years, I was a music factory, producing an inordinate number of projects and extended-experiments using limited resources. I would impose disciplines on myself for each 60m or 90m project. Things like these, use only a $2 yardsale Casio keyboard, or a 9-string electric guitar, only homemade instruments, only percussion, only FX’d remixes of previous recordings, only a table and chopsticks, 1/2 forward & 1/2 backward recorded compositions, “all funky”, “Dick Dale on Kayagum”. I wanted to extend my technique as far as it could stretch. I’d been listening to Fred Frith’s gtr solo records, Elliot Sharp, the Magic Band guys, Eugene Chadbourne, Hans Reichel, Derek Bailey, Loren Mazzacane, players like that. I looked in the magazine review sections of the mags I subscribed to to find others that might accept submissions. Being away from home and loved ones so long created in me a dependency on other means of connection. I remember being so tickled when Cadence didn’t hate something I sent them. As for exchanging stuff, I did, and those who responded to my mail-order thing always got a bunch of extra stuff, instant art, drawings, original art, additional recordings, an updated ‘catalog’, candy wrappers from the country I was living in, whatever jumped at my eye.
Streaming and downloads of most of my digitized output
When you were in Korea was any feeling of isolation lifted by trading with other home tapers? That could happen anywhere ( i felt it in San Jose) obviously not just Korea but still…?
Oh yes! Lemme tell ya, when my FPO mailbox had a music mag or box of tapes/records in it, my day was MADE. The day Dick Metcalf found the military phone number to the secure space I worked in, I knew I was making a friend, and visits and collaborations quickly followed. I had opportunities to play with genuine, non-professional musicians just about everywhere I went. I the Orient, music often happens spontaneously, just walking down the street or eating a meal, someone feels the push and busts into song, smiles erupt, people join in, there’s no competitiveness, just joy. I think the first tape of yours came to me while I was in SK.
‘Joy’ is what this is all about. When I allow myself time to commit to making a whole thing, and I make a lot of stuff in several media, it is the purest form of thought that I have found in any activity I have ever done, including dangerous sports, travel, volunteerism, you name it. At this point, most sports are out of the question, I’ve broken too many things. Gardening comes in a close second. Creating sounds and objects that have meaning and tending to plants that I can eat place me into a ‘head’ that is without worry, human expectation, impatience, anger, or forgetfulness. I crave that place and equate it with prayer. A Buddhist would call it meditation. I know that, to some, my faith is intimidating or tough to accept. There’s no avoiding being stereotyped, and those who know me know that i do not commit easily and when i do, i commit fully. One might expect me to be a huge snowball of all of the collective bad behaviors of people whose religion is worthless. The negative and mean behaviors of other people who include church in their lives is understandably offensive, I’ve been the recipient of an enormous amount of it locally. Having a property covered with loud sculpture does not indebt one to a materialistic neighborhood. I do not defend anyone who expresses their beliefs through hatred and fear. I have spent quite a few decades trying to examine what ‘soul’ is and have found a method, as it were, for navigating life amongst hypocrits and what I can only call Evil. I appreciate every belief system that leads to reconciliation and peace between individuals and societies. I haven’t changed, my choices have. When I am working as an artist or musician, I am in dialogue with larger forces and unmanipulated by the world. “In the zone” for me is a state where my hands are guided and an automaticity takes over. Ask anyone who’s been in a band with me, I don’t often do the same thing the same way twice.
Back to Op magazine, it exemplified what was great about the scene: BIG CAJONES. The concept was doomed to fail, but didn’t: Have each issue concentrate on artists, bands, countries, or types of music that start with particular letter of the alphabet, the first ish ‘A’, and so on until ‘Z’. I was a latecomer, and they actually stuck it out and MA it through the whole alphabet. Impressive. Every publication had a cool ‘thing’ about it. Once they liked you, you had an ally. Most recently, Jerry Kranitz of Aural Innovations has been an illegitimate digital stepchild of the very same ballet approach and heartfelt commitment to getting the word out about inexperienced sonic art. I owe a fistful of journalists and reviewers a huge thank you for even listening to my music, let alone defending it. Gracias!
You have done many collaborations? What is it that excites you about this way of creating? And would you call yourself a perfectionist?
I am not a perfectionist in the ordinary sense, because it isn’t the outcome that I am persnickety about, but rather the process. In other words, you wouldn’t know it by listening to it using traditional ears, but most of the thinking and decision making has already happened before the tape rolls. It can be complex and pre-planned, or it may be a deliberate discipline that hobbles a habit or imposes a limit, or it is improvisational.
A perfect solo project has a true signal being captured as it sounds in the headphones or room.
A perfect group effort or collaboration captures a heartfelt attempt from each participant to contribute to the whole. I’ll mix, but I don’t edit. This bothers some people. “A 70% incredible performance is better than a 100% ‘flawless’ performance.” – Me.
The bands HipBone, Maximum Love Vibes, Kudzu, Mr. Axolotl (which you were in), The Cat’s Pants, and the entire 30+ disc Improvised Duets Series were all and each perfect collaborations, in their way. Because I don’t dictate parts much and trust easily and choose the people I’d like to work with, it’s easy to simply let go and expect good stuff from others. Not necessarily anything I’d expect, but the best that friend could add at that recording moment in their life. When a producer/arranger, for example Steve Blake (Highway Patrol, Kudzu) or Peter Zolli (HipBone, Kudzu) or Mark McGee (MLV, Camera Obtusa) who ‘gets’ where the Bret musical universe comes from offers to do a record of my songs, I can send a clean (or not) 2 track voice/guitar home recording with a click track and…presto! … an amazing pop record gets made with no subsequent input from me. There are few things I do (I know you know this) that are as fun as giving a brand new record of your stuff as interpreted by someone else a first uninterrupted listen-through. it’s always worth the wait.
All waking activity is autobiographical; as a dad, son, husband, veteran, servant, learner, fallible individual, etc, I have been keeping a chronological journal, in several media, of my reaction to the world since around 1975.
The word “eclectic” gets overused a lot. But with your output and interests it seems to define you in a way. How did you get exposed to music besides top 40 radio back in the day?
Wow! I just found this in the Wayback Machine. it’s most of my cassette output from back in the day, from a website I thought I’d lost forever when Interpath went belly up
As for your question, my friends turned me on to new music. Eventually, roles reversed and I started sharing things I’d found at Spectrum Records, a great vinyl shop that used to be up at Syracuse University. I also found cool music on SU’s WAER-fm, which was very eclectic, & did some college radio DJing and got to browse the racks for unheard music, which was how I listened to early Residents, Beefheart, and Love Tractor. Everywhere I lived in the 70s/80s, I sought out independent record stores. When I began reviewing, I would get big boxes of stuff, which really opened my ears. At one point, I had most of the SST catalogue when they began to get behind and promote strange guitarists and their bands. I did a by-mail interview of lots of them that never got published. As a little kid, I listened to my parents records, Mitch Mitchell, The Baja Marimba Band, Herb Alpert, The Firebird Suite, lots of show tunes.
Can you contrast Cassette Culture of the past with todays internet society.Besides speed and ease of communication , what’s the difference in community spirit?
That’s an interesting question. Underground music is now in the slipstream and more readily knowable. The advent of “Like” and “Share” open up worlds of possibilities, insofar as getting a good thing to the right person by way of 6 degrees of separation. I can’t speak for the durability of relationships over time, the 80s were a different international animal than what we’re all living now. I don’t fear change, so the whole thing has been a challenge and and enjoyment along the continuum. People haven’t changed much over the ages and most of the same things as ever are still the important ones. It’s great not to have to go broke in phone and postage charges, and to be able to do things relatively instantaneously. Also, recording technology has come so far so fast. The material we are receiving is of a more deliberate and listenable fidelity than the friction-technologies you and I grew up on.
Community spirit. There’s a bone to gnaw. I share things I like pretty automatically. After a week or two, I purge things to unclutter the page. Nothing personal. From what I’ve learned about marketing, it’s the first impression that draws the click. Some of my friends like or share stuff I make known. I appreciate it. In many ways, I guess the FB community is more connected and able to show support than we were back in the day. Access to a wiki-world attaches souls together. When my Duets Series had shoes, it was a self-fertilizing organism that had music shooting all over the place, online, through the mail, there were realtime phone and email discussions, lots of pre project data to work with. My 80s collaborations were much more scattershot affairs, requiring more trust, I suppose. And cassette cover art was EXTREMELY homemade, charming on lots of levels, hands-on…you could see the fingerprints. Text could be read without a telescope, even though most were done with photocopy machines and dollar store art supplies. It would be so cool for a hotshot gallery to do a big show of tape cover art. The spirit hasn’t changed, the tools have.
Let me tack something onto my response before your “Can you contrast cassette culture…” question. Around 1976, a whole bunch of us artists and musicians in high school became interested in ‘Prog Rock’ in all of it’s available manifestations. Players had favorite players: drummers loved Collins/Peart/Seraphin/Bruford, guitarists loved Hackett/Fripp/Kath/Howe, bass players loved Squire/Wetton/McCartney, and so on. I was the older guy who found all the really ‘out there’ stuff – Eno/Gentle Giant/the Berlin Bowie records/Henry Cow/Television… Anyhow, “art anticipates life” and many of us got very serious about finding a personal style, something we recognized in the players that made us go ‘WOW!’. My old friend Paul Van Patten ended up going on to play drums with Quincy Jones, Santana, Michael Jackson, and others. Many still sing or play in pro or community acts. It was a huge high school and there was good funding and lots of talent at Liverpool High in the 70s. I became THIS.
In March 1996, while intervening in the assault of two coworkers, I was kicked in the head badly. It cost my medical insurer close to a million to get me back to where I am. Major memory loss, neck damage, hearing loss in right ear, constant pain, at one point I was having seizures. A Harvard neurologist medically removed me from my career after months of treatment and counseling. I only this year finished paying down graduate school loans for a career I can no longer pursue. It has been conversations with friends and family, like this one, that cement something I’d forgotten into useable memory.
Now, on the upside, I experience time differently, have built a whole new skill set in several areas, and now appreciate every moment ive got left to do something true and correct with my life. It’s a large part of why I am now a teacher, a Christian, remarried, and such a hard-charger. I have had the opportunity to rediscover a lot of things, and when I do, it’s a blessing.]
Did this unfortunate, violent incident affect your music? Was there any long lasting impact on your musical abilities?
Not sure. My left and right hand technique is fine and has grown since. I cannot remember lyrics and need cheat sheets. For quite a while I could not tune by ear, most of this is back. I tire easily and naps recharge me, I see double when I’m tired. I am nowhere near as motivated to perform as I used to be, maybe owing to lousy night vision making driving unpleasant, or just getting older. Since the injury, linearity has become more appealing than it once was, although what I choose to line-up remains weird. I hear timbre and tone differently, and have gotten painterly again, like I was years ago, with the signal-processing. I work a lot with synchronous layers using echo & looping technologies, and am drawn to longer tones and sounds than I was before the accident. I recorded my first CD – “No More Bandages!” – just a week or two after the injury, a record I ‘produced’. You can hear the damage, but it’s kind of a charming artifact, nonetheless. The long-lasting effects are not mechanical, but have more to do with memory and perception. Being kicked in the right side of the head hurt my hearing there, but it was the left side that got bruised, and the left side controls a lot of stuff. I don’t really dwell on any of this, it happened a long time ago and I’ve more important things to concentrate on nowadays. 96-97 were pretty awful. 2012 is great.
When you listen back to your body of work what strikes you?
My first cassette releases went out under the ‘Kamsa Tapes’ banner in 1983-84. Kamsa means “Thanks” in Korean. Two years later, I was living in Maryland and doing analysis at NSA. I got a little more serious about distribution and changed the name to ‘O-Right Records’, creating a nice homemade catalog and even making a flexidisc at one point of the song ‘Corn-fed Fisherman’ b/w ‘Alarm in my Heart’. After leaving the service and moving to Massachusetts in 1990, the name changed again to HipWorks, focusing on the music of HipBone and other New England projects. The Improvised Duets Series originally came out on InstrumenTales, and has fallen back into HipWorks three years ago when I decided to go with free distribution of everything by way of archive.org, an appendage of the Library of Congress. Most folks know my stuff via HipWorks, so I’m going to stick with that from now on.
What strikes me about this body of work is that it ever happened. When I started, there was little motivation to continue, certainly no monetary motivation. I dove into a type of freedom few get to experience, not knowing where it would lead. I have spent months of time hunched over a cassette 4-track. I’ve bought and fried three of them before going digital in 2000. All things considered, I am deeply ‘in the red’, but spread out over the long haul, every frustration has been worth the effort. Like you and many of our ilk, a great stretch of my life has been documented in an unconventional, often abstract way. I started as a kid in his 20s with very limited gear and lots of chutzpah. I’ve grown into an older guy with lots of gear, a lot more ‘chops’, something of an international ‘rep’, and many valuable connections. It’s going to be a challenge for my kids to decipher when I’m gone, but something I would have enjoyed plowing through if my ancestors had left such a varied artifact behind.
I’ve slowed down a lot, don’t pursue musical relationships as much as I used to, and am happy right where I am; doing a few things here and there, a little music, a little wall or yard art, setting my own pace, avoiding missing anything by rushing through an opportunity. I’ve got 10-20 years of productivity left.
Today, there are plenty of women involved in creative, underground and experimental music. That didn’t seem to be the case back in the 1980s and 90s. Did something change?
Yes, they because me aware of it and climbed on. I remember Laurie Anderson, Amy Denio, Lisa Suckdog, and a few others back in the day, but not many others. The more, the merrier.“Yes, they became aware of it…” I meant.
You mean you think women were simply not aware of it at the time? Or just didn’t care to participate in that way?
Oh, I can’t say, except to speculate, which I shouldn’t do. But I can say with objectivity that of the hundreds and hundreds of records and tapes I received to review, only a wee portion of it was by female artists. Many indie bands had female members (remember Sylvia Juncosa?), yet I remember more of this being on larger labels. A Bret’s or Don’s or Stevie’s or Zan’s or Hal’s homemade music was way more underground and self-produced, not to mention prolific/numerous, than your Laurie Anderson or Meredith Monk recorded output, insofar as having promotional and distribution helps that the “Cassette Underground” ever enjoyed. the homema precedent had already been set by Sun Ra with his approach to product, and later by The Residents. Perseverance matters. How many of us have vanished? I’m very outside the loop these days, there’s just not enough time amidst the things that I must do with my life to stay abreast of what’s going on with new music. Both of my daughters are very talented musicians on their respective instruments. Maybe they’ll be part of some interesting future music scene you and I can’t even guess at.
I meant “insofar as having promotional and distribution helps that the Cassette Underground NEVER enjoyed”. It’s this damn IPad’s auto-spell correct. My eyes suck and I miss stuff until after I send it. Grr.
Thanks Bret. What’s the single best URL for people to find out more or to contact you?
I’ve been using this page as a sort of consolidating place, and a GPS toward a variety of other stuff. Thanks a lot for this tumble down memory street. It’s been fun, remembering and refiling stuff. Peace always. – BHH