In my opinion, Ian Stewart’s work (along with Bryan Baker of Gajoob and Steven Fievet of babysue) in the 1990s kept the flame alive for many of the late comers to cassette culture and provided a crucial bridge to the next phase of this scene, the transition to online presence. Magazines like AUTOreverse were the last link to a more centralized focus of the home recording movement I’d say and the intervening years between the demise of this centralization and the dominance of the internet caused a scattering and blurriness that is only now sorting itself out as home recording artists re-connect and make new friendships.
Above, I think this might be the first issue of AUTOreverse from 1995. While Ian did most of the work he did get help with reviews from Kim Rizzo, Hal McGee and David Holusha. Also C. Reider/ C. McNinch chipped in with the cover art work.
Ian Stewart’s tape deck and turntable. Look very closely and you can see where the name for his magazine came from
WHAT YEARS DID AUTOREVERSE OPERATE?
IT SEEMS OBVIOUS, BUT WHAT INSPIRED THE NAME? DID YOU WANT TO ACCENT THE FACT THAT IT WAS ABOUT CASSETTE RELEASES AND NOT LOWER RUNG, HIP, ALTERNATIVE, INDIE BANDS?
Yes, I looked all over my tape deck, trying to come up with names. I liked the word “Balance” a lot but it seemed either too obvious or too vague or just probably already taken for a psychology magazine title. I kind of lucked out in the end, to have a title that would be synonymous with the subject at hand.
IN YOUR “EARLY EXPERIENCE” COMMENTS ON THIS ARCHIVE, YOU MENTION TERRY BURKE AS ONE OF YOUR FIRST CONTACTS. HAD YOU HEARD HIS RADIO SHOW? DID YOU END UP MEETING HIM?
I’ve never heard Terry’s show. He is one of the few people I have actually met & hung out with in person. (full disclosure, we were working for the same company at the time & he was going to be in my town anyway. We had dinner on the company’s dime. Good times.)
THERE SEEMED TO BE A LOT GOING ON IN OHIO FOR SOME REASON: EVOLUTION CONTROL, RAY CARMEN, MIKE CROOKER AND THE GGE LABEL, WAIF, PLASTIC EYE MIRACLE, BILL JONES SHOW. DID YOU MEET OR MAKE CONTACT WITH MANY ARTISTS FROM YOUR OWN AREA?
I don’t know what it is about Ohio. Mark Gunderson (Evolution Control Committe among many others) was a customer where I worked, so that was how we finally met in person after trading cassettes through the mail (yes, across town) for a couple of years. You might begin to notice a theme here. I’m sure per capita Ohio has the same number of artists as any other armpit in this or any other country. At one point I was hoping to stage an AUTOreverse Night at a venue around town, to maybe build it up into an annual thing. Obviously it never happened.
WERE YOU A READER OF OPTION, SOUND CHOICE, FACTSHEET FIVE, ETC?
I caught on to Option in the 90s & was a subscriber & loved it, along with that one with all the flexidiscs on the cover (called Flexi, perhaps?). I had a couple of back issues of Factsheet Five in the early 90s but I’ve still never seen Sound Choice! Do you still want to interview me now?
WHAT WAS THE IMPETUS TO START UP YOUR OWN MAG?
It was a gradual process of trading my own tapes with people through the mail and becoming aware of Jim Santo’s column in Alternative Press. In the beginning I just wanted to spread my music. At the same time, I was writing more & more, I guess these days it would be like blogging, but at that time I had to print out my own books & mail them out myself. My bright idea of writing my own books came directly from my enjoyment of the many Henry Rollins books that were available at the time. I just thought he hit on a new way of dealing with subjects in a very non-linear way that was funny and scary and weird and seemed pretty original to me at the time. It was like punk rock of the written word. (‘Punk rock’ for me means ‘doing whatever you want’, I’m not sure if that’s what it actually means to others.) My other writing influence was William Carlos Williams, the American imagist poet, whose most famous works include a note he wrote to his wife apologizing for eating her fruit. Talk about punk rock! I gradually gave myself more opportunities to do things, if that makes sense. I started as a bedroom songwriter, which led to trying to find an audience for the songs.
Thanks to Terry Burke I started trading and sending mail art with many interesting artists. I would paint postcards and write a poem in the corner before mailing it away to some anonymous recipient. What fun it all was. I enjoyed sending postcards to strangers. Hah. Everything these days is instant but it’s easy to forget how much time it took to make things, to mail them out, to wait for a response. The whole process could take two months.
In 1992 I acquired the “Cassettte Mythos” book and was very intrigued by the entire thing. Even without ever hearing or even hearing OF any of the artists, I was on board! I didn’t know how or where or when, but I wanted to get involved. It took a long, slow 2-3 years of trading my tapes with artists were covered in Jim Santo’s column, or in the backs of the few zines I did acquire, probably “ND” chief among them, and I think I had an outdated back issue of “Factsheet Five”. One guy reacted very badly to the tape I had sent him out of the blue. At this point I realized that the cassette, in my case, was probably not the best ‘opening line’ as it were, and that something like a postcard would probably work better. Around this time I started working the night shift at a place with unlimited access to things like computers with desktop publishing capabilities. But even this seemingly obvious move took a long time to become a resource. I started off slowly there, creating the occasional full-color (a big deal in the early 90s) cassette cover, typing the occasional essay, or as they were later referred to, rant. I had a growing postal posse who I enjoyed trading lengthy correspondences with, who I would send these things to.
One day I typed up a bunch of rants, along with a few music reviews and funny pictures, and reduced them on the copier to fit on one side of a tiny little postcard. I mailed the postcards, probably 200 in total, to everyone I could think of, and was surprised at how positive the reaction was (except for the miniscule size of the type, which some took offense to!) The postcard was meant to be quick, disposable, fun. I repeated the process a month or so later & it briefly became my thing. It was the first thing I created on my own that got a decent response.
The same process of writing rants & whatever else eventually came together in a book. And whatever it lost in immediacy it might’ve gained in um I don’t know what else. It was an experiment with nonlinear writing. The end result was quite bulky and not as fun to read as postcards but it showed me that it would be possible to do some type of regular publication or other.
I must’ve sent out a postcard before our first issue actually came out. As far as the mechanics of actually putting together a publication even on the relatively small scale of the first issue, I had no idea what to do, or even a game plan of how to go about anything beyond um just making a magazine out of thin air. And I wanted to have other people writing, for many reasons. Multiple perspectives, different voices!
I continued the design & layout experiments I had started with my book the previous year and just literally pasted the entire thing together. Contributors would mail me their contributions which I would then cut & paste into the master copy of the document. I didn’t re-type a thing. At least one person who wrote reviews was not a musician, not a recording artist, not a music critic, just a cool person who had a nice way with words. (I didn’t want our contributors to just be other artists from the scene, I thought some ‘real world’ opinions, in the right quantities, would be a nice balance. And the other rule was contributors had to describe what they heard. If something was good, you have to say so, and if it sucks, then say that too. This proved to be a major point of contention.)
Immediately after the first issue, a couple of the contributors (who had previously been super-cool and supportive) flipped out and decided that I was an a-hole, I was clueless, a hack, I sucked and the zine sucked worse! How dare I! etc. etc. etc.
It was a learning experience, certainly.
I never wanted to be divisive but this was like the last straw for some people – the fact that we’d dare to even print an unkind word about someone’s precious recordings was just unthinkable.
I wanted the honest opinions of the reviewers, because I wanted to experience everything firsthand, to form our own opinions, rather than taking the received wisdom on anyone.
It works both ways – good artists can have bad days and sucky dudes can get lucky, so I thought it was our job (not so sure now, but whatever) to point it out honestly and at length. Hm. The backlash became inevitable, because I had this magic way of deeply offending entire segments of the population by my mere existence. It was like, sure enough, every issue someone else would come out of the woodwork, speak up and give me the finger before disappearing into the ether!
That was the first few issues. Eventually the reviews gradually became more like summaries. And the features were our opportunity to spend time with our favorite artists. The whole thing improved with every issue, I think. It certainly got bigger every issue.
ALTHOUGH YOU WOULD GET OTHERS TO WRITE FOR YOU, MOST OF THE WORK LAY ON YOUR SHOULDERS. HOW DID YOU HANDLE THIS ENDLESS TASK?
It was just my own endless enthusiasm for the entire thing. I was always very excited by the entire process, until eventually it just felt like it had run its course. Most of my grand schemes lose energy around the 5 year mark. I was always hitting people up to write reviews for us. I tried to make it easy for people to contribute.
HOW DID YOU PLAN YOUR SUBJECTS FOR THE MAG? WAS IT RELATED IN SOME WAY TO THE TAPES/CDS YOU RECEIVED FOR REVIEW?
It was all part of the process of learning as we went along. It expanded & we made more contacts with every issue. The feature subjects were people we wanted to get to know better, or to just point out to the rest of the class.
YOU WERE CERTAINLY NEVER AFRAID TO GIVE A BAD REVIEW. WAS THERE ANY UGLY BACKLASH TO THIS?
Hah, well, no one likes having their feelings hurt and it is certainly true that we called out a few stinkers over the years. It was never the intent to be negative just for the sake of it. I think some people thought that we should only write about tapes we actually liked but that seemed like an elitist attitude to take. I mean, the artists have already asked for your opinion by sending you their tapes in the first place, it’s not like you hunted them down and made fun of them behind their backs. I understand the point of view that says it’s bad karma to say anything unflattering in a review, and I sympathize with that view, I just don’t happen to share it myself. And to me there was nothing worse as an artist than sending a package to someone & never hearing back from them. (Even if they only respond by politely saying how badly it sucks or whatever, just put me out of my misery!)
Which is to say that there probably was a lot more backlash than I’m choosing to remember.
FOR A WHILE AUTOREVERSE SEEMED TO CARRY THE TORCH FOR THE UNDERGROUND. GAJOOB WAS ALSO AROUND AT APPROXIMATELY THE SAME TIME. WERE YOU AND BRYAN BAKER EVER IN CLOSE CONTACT DURING THOSE YEARS?
If it’s true that we carried the torch, I was not aware of that at the time and that certainly wasn’t the intent. I did trade zines with Bryan a few times. Gajoob had much wider circulation. Bryan definitely knows his stuff & he’s a nice guy too. The publications were similar but we both had our own individual slants.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE GOOD MEMORIES DOING THE PUBLICATION?
Even though we all worked solitarily, I have fond recollections of all the hard work everyone did. I can’t imagine doing something like that now. The stamp-licking alone would kill me. I can’t say enough good things about all the peeps who wrote reviews and/or sent stuff in to be reviewed!
YOU DID SOME COMPILATIONS UNDER THE AUTOREVERSE BANNER. HOW DID YOU PICK THE TRACKS? FAVORITES FROM TAPES YOU RECEIVED?
I think we just did the one free covermount cassette, around issue 4 or 5 maybe? In that case it was two forces at work: 1) Bizarre Depiction propaganda and 2) favorite songs from current releases. Which is why you have, and I think this sums up the entire era for me, homepop songwriters next to a death metal band from the midwest, between two of my own badly-recorded songs. Good times. (For me. Only.) What, I’m the only person in the world who likes the Beatles and Cannibal Corpse? I had a few Bizarre Depiction compilations coming together at the same time. I don’t think I slept in the 90s.
HAVE YOU REMAINED CLOSE TO MANY PEOPLE FROM THOSE YEARS?
Yes, I have. I am still bro’s with many of those guys.
Toward the end of the printed zine’s life I put the word out that I was going to make an all-star ambient album & that I was looking for contributions. I think maybe like one guy responded at the time & I completely forgot the whole ‘ambient all-stars album’ thing for about six months, when I suddenly had two more contributions.
I went back & listened to the first thing, which was sent by my old friend Dave Stafford, who sent like two hours’ worth of Robert Fripp-inspired guitar drones & solos, all of which were amazing. The other two contributors were my oldest bro-from-another-mo’ C. Reider, who gave me some noisy drone action of his own making. And the third was a CD from MJB which included sound effects, clips of music, just weird random sounds that were not ambient in the least! But when I played all three of their CDs at the same time, something wonderful seemed to be happening. The separate sounds were playing off each other, interacting in a way that you can’t really plan for, it just came together.
It seemed to me, in that moment, that they layers could assemble in any number of ways & they’d all be fascinating to listen to. So, that’s what I did, I started layering the source material (using my beloved Soundforge software & adding reverb & whatever else) until I had like 10 separate pieces. I wouldn’t dare call them songs but certainly “unique sound things”. I made a 2-hour ambient VHS tape that was camcorder footage of a blizzard I shot, and the soundtrack was these source files looping and undulating. I also made a CD just titled ‘DRONE FOREST’ which had I think 10 pieces with goofy titles.
I was so psyched that I invented a ‘band’ on the spot, comprised of me, Dave Stafford, C. Reider and MJB, to be called, hardy-har, Drone Forest. A pun on the ambient cheese progenitor ‘Deep Forest’. I sent CD/VHS packages to each of the guys, informing them of my epiphany, and asking them to email me if they wanted to get on board for the ambient superstars internet band.
We were all terribly excited by the idea & quickly set about working together, collaborating online, using a private Yahoogroup for most communications. Eventually we had an FTP site where we could upload & download our newest pieces & latest source files. We all experimented with layering the sounds in our own ways, producing individual albums that still had the group identity, if that makes sense. It was all Drone Forest. & droneforest.com
We continued pretty hot & heavy throughout some extremely tumultuous times for all four of us. I forget how many albums we released in all but it was more than 10. One of my first large-scale pieces was a 10-CD boxset called “meta:drone”. I produced a very limited number of those, with handpainted labels, handpainted covers, tree-leaves kind of blasted to the surfaces.
The group eventually kind of faded into the background for me but I do still have one piece of unfinished Drone Forest biz in the form of my 100-hour “mega:drone”. The first 75 hours are complete but I wanted to change the approach for the last few pieces in the series.
Also, I still have no idea what form the 100 hours will take. A CD box set would be the most sensible but it would also be unreasonable for many reasons. Maybe it could be a download-only thing, I don’t know. I need to figure out what the final format will be before I finish the beast.
WHAT MADE YOU FOLD UP THE TENT ON AUTOREVERSE?
It just got old after a while. I felt like we were about to start repeating ourselves and I’ve found that you have to be totally committed to something like that for it to work. I considered handing over the reins but no one was interested, imagine that. :)
I have learned that I am good at coming up with grand schemes, and when the timing is right and the elements are in place, I can keep them running for about five years. Around the five year point the grand scheme is either supplanted by a new grand scheme, or just left to fester. In the sun. I don’t plan it this way, it’s just how it goes.
NOT LONG AFTER THIS (IF I REMEMBER CORRECTLY) YOU WENT ON TO PUBLSIH MOUTHY MAGAZINE. WAS THERE A DIFFERENT, MORE EXPANDED PHILOSOPHY BEHIND IT?
Good memory! Someone give this man a goldfish! The idea was to do a commercial version of AUTOreverse. For money. We’ll all get paid, we can all quit our jobs and do this music magazine publishing gig full-time. blah blah, it’s really lucky it didn’t work out. I know nothing about business, I know nothing about anything financial. The magazine ran for one year, three issues.
DID YOU EVER CONSIDER AN ONLINE ZINE?
AUTOreverse had an online presence from the beginning. In the early days we really had a hard time deciding how to use the website, like if it was just going to promote the hard copy magazine or if it was going to be its own thing. My friend Lance did all the coding for the first couple of years. I loved everything he came up with & we again found ourselves writing the rulebook from scratch. The AUTOreverse website outlived the printed zine by a few years. I got back into it in 2003 or 2004, something like that, after finding a whole new batch of home recording artists to be inspired by.
GETTING ALL THE COOL PACKAGES AND MUSIC IN THE REGULAR MAIL WAS ALWAYS SPECIAL TO ME. JUST GETTING AN MP3 OR A LINK TO A WEB PAGE DOESN’T SEEM AS INTIMATE OR CONTACTFUL. WHAT DO YOU THINK?
I definitely agree, at the risk of sounding like an old geezer. But it’s true, I think everything was so much more meaningful in those days, when it took so much effort to pull things together. All that postage! Those of us who felt that the whole package was our medium are kind of screwed now in a way. So the question becomes how to adapt to the changes, which I still don’t have an answer for.
I think the mantle of the music zines like ours has been taken up by MP3 blogs, which combine the passion and altruism in a way that still has relevance and conveys meaning to aging mofo’s like me. My favorites are the ones that focus on obscure, out of print stuff from the early 80s. I also like Chrome Waves since the guy’s music taste seems identical to my own!
If AUTOreverse were to come back it would certainly have an MP3 blog element to it. I went so far as to make one post but haven’t taken it any further.
Music blogging would require a lot of work & energy, neither of which I could guarantee over a period of months or years. The other downside is the lack of hard copies of many of the key AUTOreverse feature subjects. Songs in the key of AUTOreverse.
YOU ALSO HAD A MUSICAL PROJECT CALLED DEVILCAKE. WERE YOU GUYS SITTING AROUND ONE DAY JOKIN’ AND A-TOKIN’ AND CAME UP WITH THIS WHILE LAUGHING?
Devilcake is a heavy metal band that sings exclusively about food. We finally jumped the ‘unplugged’ bandwagon with our last CD, “Pizza Party”. Contrary to all evidence, we are not a stoner band & I’m still straight edge! Devilcake is just an excuse to hang out with the guys & talk crap & & have cookouts in the summer & pretend to be 80s rock gods. Every criticism about our music is true, but we just do it for our own amusement. We haven’t jammed in a while but in the last configuration I played drums. I’d love to get back to bass or even lead guitar. Our last gig was at the Hell City Tattoo Festival which was held at the same arena in Columbus where I saw so many great shows in the 80s (such as? Ozzy with Metallica opening, Iron Maiden, Ratt/Poison, KISS several times, Rush, Cheap Trick, um yeah). It was great fun just to be in the arena again. Previously Devilcake opened for the big Poison nostalgia tour and also we opened for Lamb of God and GWAR, which was also a lot of fun. My favorite gig was when I smashed my bass guitar & a kid asked me to autograph the pieces afterwards. Hah. Oh, and getting people to clap over their heads in time with our song “Pizza Party.” I always enjoy screaming “I want a Big Mac” at the top of my lungs as well. I’m not the singer either! Devilcake is fun, I miss doing it.
DID RUNNING THE MAGAZINE INTERFERE WITH DOING YOUR OWN MUSIC?
Yes, but not so much in terms of actually recording & producing stuff, more in terms of organizing things, making albums out of songs, sending copies out for review and promoting the stuff once it was ready. I might have a Samarkand box set ready soon as well. I’m not sure who the audience would be for such a thing, but….. in retrospect I should’ve spent a bit more time on maybe picking one direction for my music & following it to the end rather than half-heartedly trying to be the Cure or David Sylvian or Fatboy Slim or R Stevie Moore, depending on which day of the week it was.
DO YOU HAVE ANY MUSIC PROJECTS NOW?
I have a few ideas festering away, which may see the light of day before too long. I recently bought my first Pro Tools setup & am still at the reading the f-ing manual stage. I’ll be releasing MP3s of new solo songs by me, my first full batch in a long, long time. As to its listenability to others, one can only hope. I played a few solo shows a while back, just singing the same songs from my back catalog as always & it’s always fun. I’d like to assemble a band for this purpose & write some new songs too.
DO YOU STILL LIKE DR. PEPPER?
Sadly, not so much. How funny that you remembered.
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME, IAN.
Don, thank you!