A Brief Encounter
Reflections on two decades of homemade music
I consider myself a late-comer and early-leaver of the heyday of the global DIY tape-trading scene. Neither was intentional, but both were influenced by external life situations. First, here’s a little context. I was an imaginative kid with more than a passing interest in music, technology, and having other people appreciate the crazy and creative ideas constantly racing around in my brain. I assume that I wasn’t that much different from many of the other artists that I eventually met through the underground media and tape-trading (or CDr trading as it were) scene. As I approach age 40, I still recognize many of those same characteristics in my art and my actions. I don’t believe that those are things that will ever fade away.
My arriving late on the DIY scene had to do with the geography of my childhood. I was raised in a tiny little town in the hills of western Pennsylvania, far enough away from Pittsburgh that it was a big deal to visit. The trips were typically focused around big events like baseball games or rock concerts where we went into the city, did our thing, and got out. In the 1980s my little town had very limited access to radio and television and we essentially only received the major transmissions, carried over the major networks. Our local record stores were filled with the latest top 40 music, or whatever bands actually made it on to MTV’s specialty shows like 120 Minutes or Headbanger’s Ball. For the most part we were a heavy metal town, and the kids like me who were lucky enough to have instruments, played in heavy metal bands.
Every once in a while we stumbled upon someone with a cassette four-track recorder. Usually this was someone quite a bit older than us who allowed occasional, but limited access. To me, four-tracks were like magic! The ability to lay down separate tracks and mix them later was awe-inspiring. Then in 1989, after I had already left home to attend college in an equally tiny western Pennsylvania town, someone reported that my local hometown drugstore had purchased a liquidated warehouse of another drugstore and was selling a limited supply of one of the most bizarre pieces of cheap electronic equipment I’d ever seen. It was a stereo, like an 80s version of a bookshelf stereo with a turn table and two cassette decks, along with a four-track studio that also doubled as a DJ mixing device. And it was under $200. I rushed back to my hometown and headed down to the store to buy one. I had my checkbook out before even seeing the actual unit!
Somewhere, somehow, someone had come up with the idea of creating a low-quality, inexpensive stereo with a recording studio and DJ mixing station built in. The brand was called Sinclair and the unit came with four of the cheapest, lowest quality toy microphones I have ever experienced. The speakers were fair; no better or worse than any other cheap 1980s bookshelf stereo. The one great thing about it was that with two cassette decks, the unit had a self-contained mix down deck. In fact, I don’t think it was even possible to mix down to an external deck. The units sold like, well, they didn’t really sell at all, until they made their way into our small studio-deprived western Pennsylvania coal town where they flew off the shelves like hotcakes. And thus began my recording career. Like all equipment, it took me a year several attempts at making something to learn the unit and its nuances, but eventually I figured it out and made some pretty good recordings with it. In fact, the third album I made is called Homicidal Wristwatch (1991) and is still available. In 2001, I dumped the original tracks into Cubase and re-mastered it, but all of the original takes were recorded on the Sinclair.
For the next few years I attended college at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. I did three cassette releases using borrowed photocopiers to make the covers and a dual cassette boom box for my manufacturing. I even began producing demos for other artists in my dorm room and in my parent’s basement during breaks. It was an exciting and active time for me musically. In hindsight, though, I’ve realize now that those early recordings weren’t an extension of my own unadulterated creative adventures, but instead an attempt to get as close as I could to making music like that which I was exposed to through the typical major channels. Even at my college radio station, my idea of “underground” was more about the music featured on 120 minutes, than music that was being made by the people and for the people. Looking back, those recordings were the means to a hopeful end that was really beyond my reach.
By 1993 I was living in Nashville, playing in bands, and having a go at the music business. I had upgraded my recording gear to a Tascam 464 and bought a really nice Tascam mix down deck. I invested in an Ensoniq KS-32 midi keyboard with a really nice sequencer, and I continued to make my own homemade cassette releases while working as a bass player in bands and pro studios around town. As much as I enjoyed writing and recording those cassette albums, deep down inside they were still a hopeful attempt at something that would help propel me toward a greater end that lived somewhere off in the distance in the mysteriously shrouded music business. Even though I had recorded and released five cassette albums by 1995, I had yet to be introduced to the real underground cassette culture that had already been active for well over a decade.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that I was first exposed to what I consider now to be the real art and music underground, or at least a part of it. While that time period coincided with the initial growth of the World Wide Web, it was somewhat unrelated. An old college friend, Dave Bellard, was living in Los Angeles and was writing features and reviews for several independent print zines. He had always been one to have a finger on the pulse of the music and art that lived somewhere under the surface. We rekindled our college friendship through letters and phone calls at about the time that I was growing disgruntled with Nashville and all that gets wrapped up around the music scene in a big music business town. Dave sent me a bunch of zines to check out and I immediately fell in love! It wasn’t that I couldn’t have gotten my hands on some print zines during the three or four years that I had already lived in Nashville, but I guess I didn’t really know what I didn’t know. When I started reading those zines, I felt really drawn to the whole idea of self publishing.
It was 1997 and I was working on a new solo album in a pretty big pro studio. The album became Artichoke and I borrowed some money to pay for the studio and 1,000 copies. I certainly didn’t need 1,000 copies, but at the time that was all you could get short of paying a few dollars less for 500. But having that many lying around made it really easy to send a bunch of them out to the underground media for review. I was finally dipping my toe into a small corner of the DIY scene.
Two important things happened to me around that time. First, I realized how much money I actually spent trying to make a record sound “good enough” to be accepted by the masses, and that all the while, my DIY recordings prior to Artichoke were actually legitimate pieces of art and not just some failed attempt to try to do something beyond my own reach. Second, I realized just how rich and vibrant a music and art scene there actually was living below the surface of the mainstream, and how it was completely available to everyone through the DIY media and tape-trading networks. It was mind blowing!
As I have done my entire life, I threw myself completely into a new and exciting adventure. I started a small digest zine called The Kettle Black, which focused on ambient, electronic, space-pop and all of the related sub-genres. It included other bits as well, like random stories, comics by Dave Bellard, and even some reader-submitted poetry. I posted a free website and sent hard copies to new found pen pals in different cities around the country to put them out in their local record stores. In a matter of months I was receiving more music in the mail than I could even listen to. I had people contacting me from all around the world, including a guy in Russia who wrote a newspaper article about The Kettle Black and the whole idea of DIY media. It was madness, and a bit overwhelming.
Musically, rather than investing in another trip to a pro studio, I sunk more money into my home gear and went back to recording music in the living room. I even started recording other artists and turned that network into a small CDr label called Jack Kettle records. From 1998 to 2001 I could barely keep my head above water. I recorded two more solo albums and two experimental/ambient/dub albums with Dave Bellard under the moniker Jesters Longevity. I was doing CDr trades with dozens of musicians from around the globe, many of whom I had originally connected with through The Kettle Black, even though its short-lived run had ended in late 1999 after only three official issues. I even participated in some of the early days of Bryan Baker’s Homemade Music and Tapegerm projects. I did mixes on the first three germination CDs that were released through mp3.com; all with a dial-up modem for sample trading! I simply couldn’t keep up with it all.
My “dropping out” of the scene, at least as an active participant, was the result of getting a little older and moving into a new life phase. In late 2001 my life changed pretty dramatically when my wife, Susanne, and I welcomed our oldest daughter into the world and shortly thereafter I turned the ripe old age of 30. Feeling the pressure of settling into some stability to support our young family, I took on some extra responsibility at work and started dialing back my music time. While I loved all of the excitement and energy of the greater DIY music and art scene that I had become so involved in, I just couldn’t keep all of the irons in the fire.
We had been living in Lancaster, PA since 2000. I found it to be a slower-paced quaint area and my musical attention turned local. I found great pleasure in playing the occasional acoustic gig around town and hosting backyard jam sessions over cases of beer. A couple years later, with another little bundle of joy having just arrived, I entered a graduate program to further my career and dialed back my music even further. I spent a couple years writing and recording a full-length auto-biographical concept album called Boredom Breeds Curiosity. It barely saw the light of day, but was enough to keep my musical juices flowing between work, school, and family.
Over the past few years, I seem to have found a nice balance between the DIY ethic that I was so drawn to in the late 1990s and all that it takes to be successful in the local music scene of a small American city. My home studio has gotten bigger and I find myself recording a few projects a year for other artists in the area. I still do a lot of my own recording but also found it recently liberating to work in a pro studio again, with an old friend producing a new solo CD that’s due out in April 2010.
I guess I’ve learned over the years that there’s not really a right or wrong way to approach and appreciate the art of music. The music that affects me comes from an infinite number of different places, none with greater or less value than others, regardless of how or on what equipment it was recorded. I can move seamlessly from a multi-platinum Peter Gabriel album to a CD recorded in Daniel Prendiville’s kitchen and be equally as moved (you owe me one, Danny). Homemade music isn’t any more or less legitimate than small, independent studio music, or even pro studio music. In fact, in my opinion, that part of the process shouldn’t even be compared. My only regret over the past two decades of writing and recording music has been the periods of time where my own close-mindedness kept me from understanding that.
To this day much of the music that has made the most impact on my life came through those music trading and zine publishing days. I have made some lifelong friends through my involvement in the scene. While other relationships faded out as quickly as they faded in, all of them were meaningful and valuable in some way. I only hope that some of the music that others received in their mailbox from me, made some kind of difference to them…for better or worse!