Charles O'Meara is C.W. Vtracek
When I first discovered the whole underground and cassette culture music scene it was through magazines like OP, Option and Sound Choice in 1984 approximately. One name I kept seeing was C.W. Vtracek. Authoring reviews and being reviewed and mentioned. He was a mystery to me for a long time and only recently did we make personal contact. To me, music that got released on any label like Recommended or was in the Cuneiform catalog was automatically many steps up from what I was doing in my little studio in San Jose. I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere and that no one in that relatively large city had any clue about this exciting culture. That’s before the hi tech world exploded and everyone then “knew” where San Jose was.
So, I had heard Vtracek’s name for many years and even a bit of his music here and there. He had been part of several groups ( Dancing Lessons, Forever Einstein, Biota) in addition to his own solo work.
Let me quote from the blog called “The Thing On The Doorstep” regarding this artist:
Multi-instrumentalist C. W. Vrtacek aka Chuck Vrtacek aka Charles O’Meara surfaced on the independent American scene in the early 1980s. As a self-declared “President of the Avant-garde”, he created a stir in underground distribution networks with his first two LP’s and a cassette parodying the Residents’ mannerism. Conflicting coverage in the then trend-setting magazine Option proves that Vrtacek’s music was often misunderstood, even by his own audience. He then unexpectedly turned to brief, tightly sewn, levellist rock forms. Ever since, his musical output followed a dual path. On the one hand, he sought to localize the perfect format for graphically transparent avant-rock ‘songs’.Rhythmically eclectic and often fiery, his guitar-based trios and quartets eventually led in 1989 to the foundation of Forever Einstein, self-proclaimed as an exponent of ‘cubist country progressive’. Drummer John Roulat has accompanied Vrtacek in this adventure since the beginning. By contrast, in his piano compositions Vrtacek expounded uncanny flair for nostalgic melodism. Flashes of genius cannot conceal the fact that he is well acquainted with both Eric Satie and ZNR – the legendary eminences grises of experimental melancholia. Early in his career, Vrtacek was capable of combining these nascent, apparently contradictory threads with evocative and often whimsical musical illustrations.These figurative collages, facilitated by early versions of samplers, proved highly rewarding at a time when many other avant-garde artists were also exploring the genre with memorable effects (e.g. Motor Totemist Guild, John Zorn, Alfred 23 Harth). Since the late 1980s, Vrtacek has also been a member of Colorado-based collective Biota.
Below, we hear from O’Meara in his own words about the early years and his feelings regarding this scene.
Home Taping/Op/Option/Soundchoice and me
by Charles O’Meara (aka Vrtacek)
I have an unusual perspective re: home taping and OP, et al. I was simultaneously writing for OP when I was releasing my own solo albums (reviewed in OP by others). I then continued putting out albums and when OP was done, I wrote for both Sound Choice and Option.
I was there. I was around at the start of the tape swap thing as well as the early days of ‘indie’ vinyl (my first album came out in 1981 on my own Leisure Time Records label). There were other developments happening around this same time that I, personally, view as interconnected with OP et al and important to the advancement of indie music. Among these, I would site the appearance of a Lower East Side scene in NYC which drew in Fred Frith, Bill Laswell, John Zorn and many, many others. Over in London, Chris Cutler had founded ReR Records and was releasing not only tons of influential music from his own bands, but reviving and reissuing music by Faust, among others. Meanwhile, Wayside Music in the USA was instrumental in distributing work by all of the aforementioned names plus many others. Somewhere in this stew, I was given an album by a new group from Colorado, Mnemonists, who would morph into Biota, develop a close working relationship with Chris Cutler and ReR and eventually draft me in as a member of the group. I’m not explaining all this to flatter my own ego, but rather to show how the strange loose threads of that time passed through OP, Option and Sound Choice.
The point? You need a point? Well, here it is: one never has any idea how the events of the present will spin out into the future. But back to our tale.
I had been involved in overdubbing via sound-on-sound using a reel to reel machine starting in the late 1960s. The next step was, as with many others, using two cassette machines to bounce tracks back and forth. It was beyond crude compared with traditional recording studio equipment and techniques. Count ins, click tracks, etc didn’t exist, editing was virtually impossible and the sound quality was hampered by tape hiss, among other problems. I know a lot of people have fond memories of the era, but I had already recorded in ‘real’ studios by this point so I was painfully aware of the limitations of the home cassette medium.
(Curiously/oddly/sadly, the best things I ever captured on cassette were a series of live improvisations featuring myself and Nick Didkovsky, composer and guitarist from Doctor Nerve, Bone and various collaborations. Nick and I turned on the tape and recorded hours of stuff every Sunday for a number of months in the very late 1970s/early 1980s. We may have sent out a few copies of this stuff, I can’t recall. It’s all gone now, though).
I don’t remember how I got involved in the cassette trading scene. Personally, my intention was always to go to vinyl, to get signed, to get rich and famous. I think I may have been older than a lot of the folks in the home taping scene at the time. I’m 61 now (in 2014) so you do the math. What this means is that I grew up in the shadow of the Beatles and the 60s, performing in rock bands starting in about 1965. And back then, everybody had the same dream: go to vinyl, be a star.
Some of my tape trading was with individuals who were friendly and doing interesting things. Some of my tapes were sent directly to people like David Thomas and Chris Cutler and other ‘known’ artists, whom I later became friendly with or collaborated with, or both. My taping projects were an offshoot of a project that I started just after leaving the School of Visual Arts in NYC where I was a fine arts (painting/drawing) major with a minor in photography and smart-assed-ness. There’s not room here, but I started a project that reached out to a lot of known, established musicians and my tapes were a calling card.
So I began the tape swap thing around 1979 or 1980, but by 1981 I had released my first vinyl LP, “Victory Through Grace.” About a year later I released “Days and Days,” again on my own Leisure Time Records. After I entered the vinyl world, the only cassette release was a limited edition called “Now Available” by the Presidents, a parody of the early Residents so accurate that one of them told me at the time, “it sounds like us” and other people began speculating that I was, in fact, one of the Residents (I am not, nor have I ever been).
As I said, I was simultaneously writing reviews and short pieces for OP (and, later, Option and Sound Choice). I think I became a regular contributor to OP starting around issue J or K. In my capacity as reviewer, I was asked to review two albums by Mnemonists, “Horde” and “Gyromancy,” both of which I loved and still love. This resulted in my becoming pen pals with Bill Sharp, the Mnemonist with the highest public profile, to the extent that title is applicable. He was the guy that communicated with me and vice versa. Since this is a site about taping, let’s go with a pun…fast forward to the 90s and Mnemonists became Biota and I was inducted into the band. The latest Biota release is “Cape Flyaway” and I’m still in there, in the mix.
Through my reviews I also met (via mail) Alan Jenkins of Cordelia Records and the band Deep Freeze Mice. Alan was generous enough to release my third solo album, “Learning to be Silent” (and ended up in the band Vril with another friend, Chris Cutler – a lot of the ‘six degrees of separation’ syndrome at work here). Meanwhile, my review work had put me in touch with Steve Feigenbaum, founder and owner of Wayside Music. Steve had just launched his own label, Cuneiform Records and sent me records to review, which I did. Steve was another generous guy who signed my band Forever Einstein to Cuneiform in the very early days of that label.
I learned a lot about a lot of things writing for OP. I learned that John Foster was hard to pry information from, a man of few words and nice guy. (If you want another thread to weave into this tale, all of my OP writing was done after I had moved to a town just six or seven miles from the town where John F. had grown up. By this time he had, of course, moved west). I learned about how editors work and what editing is or could be or maybe sometimes shouldn’t be. I bumped up against personalities. This includes an individual whose lying and back stabbing behavior ruined my relationship with a well known musician from the period. And you thought it was just a big post hippy love fest. Let me tell you, there were indeed some toes being stepped on as the ‘scene’ evolved.
The negativity resulted from the fact that there was a definite shift in tone when John Foster waved goodbye to OP and the magazine’s legacy split into Sound Choice and Option.
And now here we are with both feet over the threshold of the 21st century, it’s all digital baby, the internet is the new print medium. There are still ‘home tapers’ out there but they are recording their stuff on iPads and PCs and burning their own CDs. I was wowed by the amount of stuff that came out back in the OP etc days. I remember laughing my ass off at an ad in either Sound Choice or Option that featured one of the silliest looking bands I had ever seen called Motley Crue. “They’re headed straight to the trash can,” thought I. Lots of known names came out of that period/movement/genre and God bless ‘em all, especially the ones who did it sheerly for love of music. Which was most everybody.
Now, where’s my fucking Grammy?
More fun facts about Charles O’Meara aka C.W. Vtracek
His song “Revenge” on youtube
When asked how his name is pronounced: “the name Vrtacek, to best of my understanding, is usually pronounced vra-TA-chek,…at my house they said verTASSik.” To be clear, Vtracek was an adopted name because I am 100% Irish American, first generation.