I remember receiving a tape or two from this interesting underground band. They had a clouded, sort of dense indie sound that I liked a lot.
Tom Quinn, Mud Pie
Steven and I go back to around 1985 playing in various punk/garage bands with the focus on playing live shows. I was in high school and Steven was in college in Lancaster, PA. We thought we had to book expensive studio time to record something but then this inspiring little group of 8th graders in my school formed a band called Nobody’s Fools wrote songs and recorded them live on a boombox in the garage. I still have their tapes and they have this super muddy sound that I love like the crackles on old records or shortwave radio.
Eventually Steven and I both ended up in Philadelphia in the late 80’s where we formed the original “Mudpie” rock trio. We were trying to fit into the Philly grunge/punk scene and made some okay music for what it was. Then I went to study abroad in Rome for a year. The drummer disappeared too, never to be heard from again, leaving poor Steven to ruminate the meaning of it all. He wrote me a letter proposing that we stop trying to be a “rock band” and focus on writing and recording the music ourselves. Where did he get that idea? We were thus reborn and freed from the strict guitar/bass/drum format. Those instruments remained our foundation, but I found I could make more interesting sounds on instruments that I didn’t know how to play. I still don’t know proper guitar chords.
Steven was the distributor of the pair. He had this long typewritten list of zines that did reviews, college radio stations, and a few labels. He did all the dubbing and trading in those days. I loved reading reviews, good and bad, just because it was satisfying to know that someone had taken the time to listen and give it some thoughtful words.
Steven, Mud Pie
For a contrarian homebody like me, all roads led to home recording and DIY tape distribution in the late 1980s. These gateway influences in particular drove me to tape:
1. Billy Two / Tall Dwarfs: When I first heard “Billy Two” by The Clean in 1986, it struck me as one of the greatest pop songs ever. The sound was fantastic – those stereo acoustic guitars strumming frantically in your face, that crisp drum sound. A couple of years later, I read that this guy Chris Knox recorded it on 4-track in a home studio for a couple hundred bucks. The light bulb going off over my head at that moment read: “YOU CAN MAKE A GREAT SOUNDING RECORD AT HOME ON INEXPENSIVE FOUR-TRACK EQUIPMENT” (that, and “ACOUSTIC GUITARS CAN AND SHOULD BE USED AS TACTICAL OFFENSIVE WEAPONS”). This led me post haste to Chris and the Tall Dwarfs, two old married family guys writing and recording beautiful, warped pop music at home. This was appealing to me as a soon-to-be old guy (25!) who’d had just gotten married and wanted to write and record beautiful, warped pop music on his own terms but couldn’t figure out how to do it in…
2. Philadelphia circa 1988 : We were originally a live rock trio in the Dinosaur/Husker/Minutemen mold who played around Philadelphia PA in ’87-‘88. Most bands in our area at that time emphasized playing live over recording, so if they ever made it to a studio, they just tried to re-create their live sound rather than experiment. Few studios in our area had engineers (let alone producers) that understood underground music, so the scene didn’t produce many inspiring records (it’s improved a lot since then). There was also the typical parochial nature of local scenes where bands become “kings of the scene” but are not taken seriously outside their city. Meh. I tired of this quickly and was looking for better ways to focus on songwriting and recording without a lot of music scene noise.
3. Demo Tapes: A lot of bands in those days made demo tapes on 4-track cassette which, to me, had a soul that was often lacking from their “real” studio recordings. In fact, I thought cassette generational delay actually enhanced the wistful, distant sound of REM Jr. bands that were everywhere then. But most bands didn’t think of their cassettes as “real” releases. I started to think “why not?”
While Tom was in Italy in 1988-89, I played drums in the noisy Phila. band Blue. Their guitarist David had a cassette 4-track, a reverb unit and a basement. In the winter of ‘89, we made a tape that we thought sounded better than 16-track studio recordings we’d spent hundreds of dollars on. I just observed how he set everything up, got drum and guitar sounds , applied reverb, mixed, etc. and realized that recording wasn’t all that mysterious.
4. Cassette reviews: Around ’88, I started seeing reviews of cassette-only albums in The Bob, Sound Choice, Spin (Byron Coley did an all-cassette column once) and especially Option. When I saw cassette reviews alongside vinyl and CD reviews, it validated my thinking that all formats and distribution methods were equally valid as long as the music was good. I liked that most cassette releases completely cut out the middlemen of labels and distributors and promotion people. I started sending away for cassettes in ’89. One of the first I ordered was…
5. New Ears by the Silly Pillows: Jonathan Caws-Elwitt sent me this tape for $3 or $4 sometime in ’89 and it really sealed the deal on bringing me into the home-taping scene. The Silly Pillows were the missing link between the 60’s psych-garage pop Tom and I loved and the home taping world (some of which I had previously written off as “too much Casiotone”). New Ears struck me as a fully-realized musical vision (90 minutes – double album!) that was more intimate and human than many studio recordings. That combination of vision/ambition and intimacy/humanity was and is the big appeal of home recording for me.
So in the summer of 1989, I drove to some guy’s house in New Jersey and bought a used Tascam Porta Two 4-track cassette recorder and a Midiverb for about $700, and then picked up a couple of SM57 mics. The first song I wrote exclusively on the 4-track that summer was “What you Wanted to Hear” (from our “Rustle” tape). I remember recording it in our apartment in Germantown, Philadelphia on a weeknight after work while my wife watched TV in the next room. Tom later added bass and I added some feedback and noises, and we had our first home recorded song. The result was 180 degrees from what we had done previously and I was hooked on home recording.
In the fall of 89, I talked Tom and my old college pal Rob into doing Mud Pie as a home recording project to make full-length cassette albums and send them to people in the mail – a leap of faith on their part, for sure. We kind of dropped out of our local scene in favor of making tapes on our own terms to send around the world.
Home recording gave us incredible freedom not possible in a normal band setup. We consciously decided not have a drummer, not to play live, and to switch instruments as needed for each song. We could record songs as we were writing them, while the ideas were still fresh. With no limits on studio time, we started exploring how to use arrangements and sound experiments as integral parts of the songwriting and recording process.
Distribution-wise, we had one foot in cassette culture, one foot in the nascent punk-rock tape world (K, Shrimper, Xpressway, etc), and a third mutant foot in the psych-garage pop-rock world. I mainly sent tapes to, traded and corresponded with people and zines that I thought had similar musical visions to ours, using Factsheet Five as the internet.
Surprisingly, our first tape Rustle got some positive reviews in small zines we respected which was really encouraging and kept us going in the basement every Sunday afternoon. Jack Jordan wrote us a couple of encouraging letters even though we missed the boat on Option’s cassette review section.
I bought or traded most of the amazing Silly Pillows’ and JCE solo tapes from Jonathan. He was always kind enough to send me free copies of the Pillows’ records even as they became J-Pop stars in the 90s.
I was inspired by Linda Smith’s early tapes and recall that her label’s “catalog” was actually handwritten notes on a greeting card, which I thought was a nice touch.
I wrote to Jim Rao for one of his tapes, and he referred me to Acid Tapes of England. This put us in touch with Steve Lines, who ended up distributing all of our tapes in his great psych tape catalog, which expanded our distribution outside of the USA. I remember getting letters from Russia and Eastern Europe, which was mind-blowing to me at the time considering that this was just a couple of years after the fall of the USSR.
Even though the correspondence and self-distribution was time-consuming, that was sort of the point – in a world where music (including a lot of so-called “alternative” music) was a mass-produced commodity, here was a parallel world where the same hands that produced the music and the artwork also put the tape in the envelope and wrote you a handwritten letter.
And that typewritten contact list Tom refers to? It was from a spreadsheet on a Commodore 128 (KB!). I’ve since upgraded the home computer several times, but we still use the same PortaTwo 4-track for recording.