Around 1990, Robin James edited and produced a book called “Cassette Mythos” which documented the cassette and home taping scene. It included features and interviews of musicians, articles by many home tapers/ underground artists and was generally a guide to the entire cassette movement. It was published by Autonomedia and, as far as I can know, the only book to ever document this slice of musical and social history. The book is out of print now but there are plans to re-issue it on CD format at some point. You can still view parts of it on the web.
With the resurgent interest in the cassette movement I thought it would be interesting to get his take on what cassette culture meant to him and his opinion on a few other things. Following the interview there is some personal information about him.
Email interview conducted by Don Campau, December 2005- February 2006
You seemed to understand much earlier than most the significance of the home recording, “cassette” network. What made you feel it was special or important? What was its significance to you?
I was an opportunist mostly, it just fell into my hands. My secret passion is the mystery, the edge of chaos, where thoughts and ideas are just barely less than words. My sense of theater is something that leaves the audient (participant and audience member) exhausted at the end of a good round. A good round could happen several times daily, or just once.
The importance of the cassette culture phenomenon: Finally the people had the means of production, not just the rich white men. Its significance to me was its versatility, its an electronic folk art, and represented a turning point in how folks use technology for their own purposes, expressing themselves in sophisticated ways for a modest amount of money. Now you can send your adored one a complicated seductive message, or you can rage against the government, or you can produce that great novel in audio form. No more time to watch television for most of your life.
What inspired you to create Cassette Mythos? How did you decide on the name?
To start the project, at the end of 1984 when Op had folded, I was inspired by Jeffrey Bartone’s friend Rob Chauflin, who was visiting from Boston. He encouraged me to do something with the resources I had. I did not know what I had at the time.
The name Cassette Mythos is directly taken from an anthology of the work of Howard Phillip Lovecraft.
You must be a music lover. What are some of your influences and favorites?
Musically, I have been a big Ani DeFranco fan for years now. Amy Denio is an important musician in my musical library. I am starting to collect the works of Kathleen Hanna. From the beginning I have been musically inspired by Jimi Hendrix Bob Dylan Neil Young John Lennon Patti Smith Bob Marley John Hartford Johnny Cash Tom Waits Roger Miller (Dang me) etc. Did I mention Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan? Those are the musical influences that I think of first. Homer and Jethro. Butthole Surfers…
Calvin Johnson and John Foster at Op Magazine have been strong influences (music politics and world citizenship). My buddy Jeffrey Bartone has kept me thinking about the arts even now after being a free-lance indexer for all these years. Jeff introduced me to Sue Ann Harkey, Jesse Bernstein, Sharon Gannon, Deran Ludd, Paul Hoskins and Jay Carlson, who were all doing the Kitchen Table Ensemble, Audio Leter and Patio Table. I went to High School with Bill Laswell but I have only been in awe of his work from afar. Fred Frith amazed me with his guitar work and changed my ears completely, and Eugene Chadbourne showed me the way of the Guitar Wildman.
Specifically, R. Stevie Moore made a huge impression me back in the beginning. When I first got involved with Op magazine he was the existing pioneer of home studio recording and making catalogs. John Oswald took my ears to new places with his brilliant editing and sound collage work. dAS was the guy who really broke me into noise and making amazing packages, he is the one who showed me how to really live, joyfully, with all these ideas all the time. Zan Hoffman is that way too, always got ten thousand things going at once, for relaxation and fun. The best cassette packaging artists in my opinion are Suz Dycus-Gendreau (CWT), Tracy Bigelow and Mark Sorrell (Silent but Deadly). Al Margolis changed the world for me forever and ever: Sound of Pig is the most influential and ground-breaking thing ever Ever EVER. Suz Dycus-Gendreau made the logo which crystallized the entire Cassette Mythos project. Your Host Bobby got me out of my post-Mythos funk and put me on the radio again, without him I would not have gone beyond the Mythos experience. I owe him everything. Steve Fisk is the guy who first encouraged me to volunteer at KAOS-FM, where I met Calvin Johnson. When I first met Calvin he immediately insulted and humiliated me and kept me on track. Olympia residents Calvin and Slim Moon and Bruce Pavitt each created their own labels (K, Kill Rock Stars, and Sub Pop, respectively) and took that whole do-it-yourself business notion to astounding levels. Dave Rauh, Toni Holm, Gena Gloar, John Foster, Steve Peters, Dana Leigh Squires, Norm Sohl, Matt Love, Lois Maffeo, Geoff Kirk, Rich Jensen, Marc Barecca, oh man, how can I stop this list before I try to name everyone? How could I leave out (you know who…)
Then there is Reverend Ivan Stang of the Church of the Sub-genius, has anyone heard from him since they all left in the sex-saucers back in 1994? Corresponding with him was always a blast.
Cassette Mythos looks like it was a lot of work. What was the effort like to put it together?
It was a lot of work but it was a great pleasure to undertake. The effort was all consuming, just what I was looking for. I have always loved making art in a way that brings me to a state of total absorption, ecstatic concentration, removed from time. Time and comfort become irrelevant. I have always felt that it must burn me completely, like good green-bud.
What was the reward to you?
It sure was/is not financial. Throughout the whole thing I had no idea of what I was doing, it just came naturally to me, with no plan. After getting the reviews done I needed to find something to do with them. The reward of doing that was (of course) More Tapes! Also a reward was the accomplishment of seeing my work in print.
Was there a guiding philosophy or was it simply a documenting of what you had run across?
Art is not a flower or even a mirror, art is a hammer. Awaken!
Everyone is an artist, but they have very different details and specialties. Its part of life to find those details and specialties, unusual talents and true passions. Surprises are good.
I think I got into trouble by being excited by all kinds of stuff, I wrote some powerful reviews about some mediocre or even lack-luster stuff.
It was a discovery too, for example I feel like I contributed to the career of Daniel Johnston, I really love his stuff to this day. Its bleeding and human and at first it was on poor materials, but its got something really amazing about it. Of all the artists on the Cassette Mythos Audio Alchemy CD he is the one (I know of) who eventually got an album on Warner Brothers. Not that he has gone on to MTV or bought a house in Hollywood, as if that was his goal, but he did get some deserved recognition and big studio time. I have no idea of what happened after the Warner Brothers record (records?). Maybe he did go on to MTV and now lives in Hollywood. I have no idea.
Did you call for submissions?
Many times I called for submissions, I always liked sending stuff off to other people so I figured that others like sending their stuff too, so I thought of some fun things to ask for, and it had mixed results, but overall it was a success.
It got started at Op when some tapes just showed up, so first they were added to the mixture of music reviewed (vinyl was all there was, really), then it was clear that they were different, not just albums in cassette form, they were something different. Just what about them was different is the ongoing question. Perhaps its the informality and freedom to have such a wide variety of approaches. I studied film making in school and I learned that if you take an 8mm camera and treat it like a hot crayon you can make quick fun crude jittery sketches, but if you treat that 8mm camera like a 70mm camera, with careful handing, and mind the optics, and use a tripod, you can make sophisticated creations. Its all in how you use your hands.
Many artists are constantly actively creating, they just need to be asked to make something and sometimes they are ready to do so. This idea of a call for submissions is something very powerful and can be easily tapped into. The problem is when money gets involved, its all ruined by money, mine was better, I deserve more than that other piece of crap from so-and-so, etc.
With a radio show, as you know, you can reward the contributor with exposure and airtime. It works very well if they live where they can hear the broadcast, but many will contribute without ever hearing how their work sounds on your radio show. There are many sound artists who are always looking for places to show their works.
Calls for submitting art is something that is underutilized. Festivals, compilations, celebrations, themes, festschrifts, all these parameters allow artists to create new things, unexpected things. I think you are really onto something when you bring up submissions. Calling for submissions really opens doors in artists minds. Many artists sometimes can make stuff very quickly and casually. It can be so easy. Also one can spend a thousand hours, years, on something huge and then pull out a priceless quickie in five minutes that really takes off.
Was there any criteria for inclusion?
For Cassette Mythos it had to be on cassette. That was about it for most of my criteria. On cassette, and (this was unspoken) it had to be untainted by the obvious stench of corporate motivations.
I tried all kinds of things. I have a strong foundation in poetics and radio theater (by the way, Willem de Ridder created some incredible improvisational works. Hats off to Willem!). I also made a collage designed for many (turned out to be17) tape players, the audience brought their portable tape decks, and there was no seating plan, just scattered all around. We passed out the tapes and we all pushed PLAY at once, and the collage throbbed and hummed and crashed, mostly looped guitar sounds altered using a reel to reel tape recorder in various ways.
Remember Pixelvision? It used a chrome Phillips format audio cassette at a high speed to capture cruddy video. That was something I thought about pursuing, but I never did.
I found that all the high end artists were using video devices for recording their music, some with and most without the visual component engaged. My jazz buddies in the early 1980s would have recordings on video cassette of their sessions and have these amazing digital quality sounds on tape (no picture). That was before R-DAT and all that stuff (late 1980s), which was before CD quality was even thinkable for the home recordist.
I keep wandering from the topic, criteria for submission, back to that. We would not get excited about yet another imitator of something you could hear ordinarily on the commercial radio or on MTV, that was just boring. We loved the stuff nobody has heard before, that does not sound like anything anyone has ever heard before. But heck, that is an impossible ideal, and you can technically only do that once, then its been done and after that it risks being imitative. As a growing artist it is vital to be imitative, but for making a difference, originality is very important.
Perhaps this is a good time to talk about the Audio Alchemy CD that was published by What Next?/Nonsequitur. My intention was to collect a little something from everybody, which really means mostly just the regular contributors, we asked for stuff that fit into a specific time length, not that had any kind of audio or thematic criteria. Lots of stuff came in. The funding for the project was from some college chums, and the final product really had nothing to do with me. I made the original call for submissions, something that fit into my idea of what Cassette Mythos was all about, and they took it from there. I sure could not have paid for getting it done, either pressing the artifacts (CD, and the nice cassette version with printing on the shell, the fancy booklet etc.) or undertaking the promotion, so I am very pleased that it happened.
How many hard copies were made and distributed? What year would this have been?
I have no idea, for most of the released (audio newsletters, syndicated radio programs, whimsical anthologies) I hand made copies one by one, so maybe thirty or forty folks have the original compilations, newsletters and experiments.
How did it come to be published by Autonomedia?
The book started with an idea about finding a way to get some income from the project, which would not only allow me to pay for materials, but also to feed myself and maybe add some helpers. The idea was that it would expose more folks to the project who would contribute their art, and their friends and relatives would buy it, and ideally snowball the whole thing to a new level of success. Funny how things start. So I went to a real literary agent and presented my ideas and she was somewhat supportive. I was working with a collection of reviews with an essay or two putting the whole thing into perspective. She thought I should contact Bruce Springsteen (this was just before Nebraska came out, that would have been a perfect connection, you probably know that Nebraska was originally recorded on a TASCAM or X-15 I forget which, it was the first famous album recorded on cassette), Frank Zappa (maybe I was trying to be too arty or something, nobody from Barking Pumpkin ever wrote me back but I still love his work, all of it, Freak Out really changed my life, so did the earlier stuff, I could go on but not tonight), and Tina Turner. Some stars! She thought some stars would make the book sell. So after a year or two of that I gave up trying to make a book for that literary agent.
My friend Sue Ann Harkey (whom I met through Jeffrey Bartone) was doing graphic design in New York (she was living in Seattle before that, and that is where I first met her) suggested that I send a little taste of the thing to her friend Jim Flemming (publisher of Semiotext(e) and key feller at Autonomedia), which led to me visiting the big city and Jim liked the idea for the book. It took a couple years to get it ready, Sue Ann took some time to do the graphics, and things happened. By 1990 I was completely done with Cassette Mythos as a daily thing. I was finishing graduate school and starting to do things that actually earned some income, which completely shot my time for working on The Muse. After I was long gone down the road and doing stuff elsewhere, the book came out.
I have some cassettes I got in the mail to review from that period between the end of my active Cassette Mythos days and when it quieted down and I was working elsewhere, a box of them, still in their unopened envelopes. I intend to one day celebrate them and listen to them and I do cherish them, but that box has been closed for many dusty years now.
My payment for the book was a box of the product. I still have one copy. I am pleased to say that my hometown public library has a copy on the shelves, but I have not gone to check on it lately.
During the height of the cassette era, there seemed to be a certain spirit of community to me although there were plenty of quibbles and clashes of personalities. That spirit seems missing now. How does it appear to you?
I am not involved right now with any of that stuff, from here it looks like it is still very active, this internet thing has brought the whole thing into an instantaneous existence. We had to walk the packages to and from the post office and it would take days or more likely weeks to have an idea of what others think about it, and then to get it out to be listened to by strangers, and to hear back from someone unexpected who was somehow interested enough to want to respond. The big difference between then and now is presence of the physical object, the tape with its packaging.
Can this spirit be revived or revised for the future? Should it?
The spirit I am thinking of has nothing to do with the cassette medium. The cassette medium now is (lets face it) an esoteric and eccentric historical folk art, some kind of anachronistic re-enactment club, which (don’t get me wrong) is a fine and splendiferous hobby. The materials can only be bought in thrift stores or swap meets, or harvested from garbage dumps. The cassette medium is no longer hot and happening anymore, but the true spirit of making audio arts is better and bigger and easier to jump into than ever. Hooray! The King is dead, long live the King!!
The cassette network was also self referential with a large of amount of back-patting from its participants, and I did my share of back-patting. The beauty of the review mags like OP, Sound Choice, Option and Factsheet Five was that it harbored a more removed type of subjectivity, and, to me at least, a grander sense of perspective. Plus, it just seemed cool to have your tape reviewed in print.
It has been famously said that “a bad review is better than no review”. My friends at Sub Pop took that to a whole new level. There was a time when they were really trying to get some of that spectacular negative exposure. Getting into a high-publicity lawsuit seemed like a great way to get major press. So they went and got naked teenage girls (who looked like they were younger than they probably should be) and a naked male midget, covered them all in blood, photographed them dancing around holding a bloody dead rabbit carcass and put them on the album covers and promotional posters, but it did not seem to work. Then they got sued by someone who recognized their own picture on an album cover, (that picture was purchased at a garage sale somewhere) depicting them doing something awkward from the bad old days, before they had a major religious conversion and changed their heathen ways. So Sub Pop had to recall all those album covers and re-issue the music with a new cover.
Negativland tried that spectacular lawsuit approach too, sort of, but with copyright issues. They did not mean to, but when they named one of their collages U2 and they got into an expensive lawsuit and publicity fest with the big guys (not the band so much), climaxing with a book called “The Letter U and the Number 2.”
Anyway, touching back to something I started on a bit earlier, I am truly guilty of blowing major happy horns for some real crap. I read some of those reviews and I think, I sure wish I had kept some of whatever I was smoking then. Someone once said to me that when they put my compilation tapes on they could see and smell the ganga smoke coming out of the speakers. But again I digress.
I would write three or four different (but I thought were accurate) reviews of the same tape and then send the reviews to three or four different magazines just to see if anyone would pick up on that. I got dumped from Option magazine for that reason. Scott (Becker) was not amused, so one day he just stopped using my reviews. I was sending out something like 60 reviews at a time at that point, every month (or was it 600?). That was a bad idea. I think I did succeed in communicating a general enthusiasm, but if anyone actually got to hear that stuff they would probably figure out I was happy just to be blowing the horn of publicity, I was not digging out the true pearls every time. I think that Dean Suzuki probably is also one who figured that out too. He would have been in a position to actually hear some of what I was writing about.
Talk a bit about the self referential nature of the cassette scene. Comment on the negative and positive aspects from your point of view. Was there ever a community spirit to you?
There was a wonderful community spirit. There are and were lots of inspired and inspiring folks who were very active, more coming forth every day, some fading away and getting jobs and raising families, some are still recording music to this day.
On the subject of being self-referential, it was once critically observed that many small labels (Sub Pop again) are just people producing and distributing music made by their friends. Well, gee, that is how it works, why should someone who is investing their own time and treasure into doing something not be personally involved and motivated by their friends? I do not see the problem there. Yes, there is bias, yes there is receptiveness to established contacts and often a reluctance to add one more new thing to an already impossibly full schedule or catalog.
Like I said, now its easier and it does not take a concentrated sustained effort to make things happen. Its now possible to get the idea of being a musician, then composing and recording some original music and posting something for the first time, in just a few hours.
Making music will always absorb just a bit more than you have the energy or facility to provide, we always want to do more than we possibly can. So we must strive to focus on just the best stuff and to do the best job we can with that. Its good to experiment and make lots of attempts, but what we trot out for others to hear should only be the best.
Sound of Pig Music created a large community of harsh music fans and sound-makers. They were pretty much the same folks, and Al Margolis was not the first, just the most prolific. He would be an excellent subject for another interview like this one. Once you get a taste for this kind of new sounding anti-commercial use for musical equipment, it catches on (or repels you forever). Often its the same folks in the audience as were on the stage performing last week, trading seats as it were. There were opportunities for travel, taking your “band” on the road, visiting the folks you exchanged tapes with.
You at Lonely Whistle followed the true traditional talented musicians approach, with all the attention to craft and musical composition, while the noise folks who broke all the rules probably had some tapes on your shelf, and your tapes were on their shelves. It was and still is such a rare kind of activity, it was good to celebrate each other’s new works. What do you think?
I guess it comes down to how you use the recordings. There are times when I play something night after night, and spend the day think about listening to it when I get home, etc. And there are times when I want to hear something I have never heard, and of course, ten seconds into the new tape I may decide to yank it out and put in something else. Cover art has a lot to do with this decision making process. I like lots of different sounds and even music too. Maybe I am the only one, but I suspect not. I guess I like the idea that the one I play over and over again might be the one that you yank out immediately, and vice versa.
OP magazine was the original publication that dealt with home recorded material as far as I know. How did you come to be involved with it?
I was living in Olympia Washington, I was listening to the radio, it was spring, school was just letting out, I decided to volunteer, and guess what! My timing was perfect, I got there just when they needed folks, so I went from fresh eager volunteer and having a poetry show on Monday’s during the noon hour, to being the Operations Manager in a few weeks. The great thing about being the Operations Manager is that you are usually the only one there when there are scheduling situations and temporary crises (no programmer) and I could do any and every type of radio show, classical, folk, rock, religious, profane, annoying, popular, Broadway musicals and Hawaiian. I was in heaven.
Just before I started at the radio (KAOS-FM is the coolest call sign that there could possibly be for me) there was a philosophical revolution and a station broadcasting policy was established called The Green Line Policy. There was a distinction made between main stream corporate type music that you hear on every radio station (designated Red Line music by the music director/music librarian, he used a red felt pen to draw a red line on the library sticker that the music library used at the radio station) and the music made by independent musicians. That was meant then to be the ones that may or may not aspire to be on major record labels, but for now they were on small labels that did it all themselves (record, design cover art, advertise, lug around boxes of records in their car trunk, go to the post office several times a day, make lots of phone calls), folks who have boxes and boxes of records in their living rooms and who drive around the country taking boxes into record stores they see and begging for some shelf space, consignment, anything. Anyway, back to the radio station. These records that nobody has ever heard of were marked by the KAOS music director with a Green Line from a green felt pen, where the Red Line would be if the record were on one of the seven (at the time) gigantic corporations that flood radio stations with their product: Warner Brothers, Columbia, RCA, etc. I forget the exact percentage, the radio station was supposed to play maybe 30% music with the Red Line (which is really what the callers request), and 70% music with the Green Line, so that the little guys could get some exposure. Sort of an affirmative action type effort, we are going to deliberately give extra help to the little guys.
So these mavericks who had been at the radio station for years and played basketball every Sunday afternoon and Wednesday night together anyway, they all decided to publish a magazine that started as a small insert in the KAOS-FM program guide. I think they got a grant to do this. They would mail the program guide to radio stations all around the world, promoting their ideas about celebrating the little independent record producers, and that little insert grew into Op Magazine. Once it was decided it would cover all kinds of music, emphasizing not the style or genre but the economic situation of small studio production. They decided to try all kinds of new ideas about how this kind of journalism would look and how it would be organized. They decided to make 26 bi-monthly issues (four years and four months) and then quit. This was decided before the first issue, so they knew that they had a certain time to pull this off, and then they would see where they were and make another decision about what to do then. Each issue was focused not on any personality or genre, but on a letter of the alphabet. I showed up about half-way into it, I think it was the O issue when I approached John Foster and said I would like to volunteer, maybe do some proof reading or help out somehow.
I have a complete set of the whole A-Z, all the issues, in another box in the back room here. Someday I plan on scanning each issue. The first issues were tabloid style in appearance, newspapers, folded in the characteristic tabloid format, then they shifted to a conventional magazine looking saddle stitched (stapled) type format, which is how they ended, with a cheap shiny color cover (think it was four colors) and cheap woodpulp paper within.
Since I brought up ganga earlier, I would like to point out that at Op magazine I was the only stoner, well, the only truly dedicated stoner. Nobody else there was a regular hourly reefer smoker. Pretty much all of them were drug-free, so I usually kept my indulgences to myself, just to avoid the harumph. We got along, I did not smoke in their presence and they did not tell me it stinks. Well, sometimes they did. What was I talking about?
Graham Ingels, OP’s first cassette reviewer, why did he do it? What ever happened to him?
I saw Graham the last time I was in Olympia, I think he would not mind if I told the story of how he chose his name and why, without either revealing who he is or invading his privacy too much. His name comes from one of the original artists who contributed to Creepy magazine way back in the 1940s or so, maybe earlier. He is a graphic novel buff, maybe comic book fanatic is a better word. Why did he choose to have a secret identity? Again, without trying to shine the light directly on the guy, lets just say that he was concerned about the inherent conflict between being free to write good or bad reviews, and accepting advertising money, which was one of his many part time jobs back then.
What was the general feeling ( if you are aware) at OP about cassette releases?
At first they were seen as just vinyl in a cheap suit, then eventually they were recognized as a whole new kind of creature, with unique super powers. They could be listened to in the car or (the walkman had just come out) underwater or at work, they could be recorded by making a quick dub at the big studio, or by holding the darned thing somewhere in proximity of the band, or near enough to the important discussion, or down in the crypt late at night. You could get something in the mail, listen to it, then add your part directly to it and send it on. Heck, I worked on Cassette Mythos just to find out what that special unique thing is that you can do with cassettes. I still do not know all the things that can or have been done with them.
One of my all-time favorites was when someone put the telephone into the dryer, turned it on, and they patched that on the air one time on WFMU. Then there is the train, put the recorder near the tracks and record the train as it comes from the distance, building to nothing but over-modulated rumbling, then fading slowly away into the distance again.
Then there is the audio walking tour. You put on the headphones and stand at the corner of thus and such streets and push PLAY and the instructions say to walk to this building over there and go to the roof, all the while hearing about the architecture or history or whatever. That is such a cool idea, lots could be done with instructions like that.
What was the spilt between the various factions at OP? And who was involved? Scott Becker (Option editor)?, David Ciaffardini (Sound Choice editor)? Were there others?
There were three folks that we know about who wanted to carry on as the post-Op magazine inheritors, Scott, David and Richie Unterberger.
There was a conference in Olympia during the summer of 1984, the X issue was just out and the end was in sight, John Foster and his merry band of radical radio thinkers wanted to figure out what would happen to the inertia they had gathered over the years that Op was being published. John and Dana (Squires) were going to go off with the Peace Corps and the magazine was slated to stop at the end of Z, just months away. Scott and David were both enthusiastic about picking up where Op left off, they thought about collaborating but it was clear very soon that they were very different, Scott was ready to make a shiny magazine that would compete with Spin (and it sure did), he ran the thing as a profit making operation, like a real business, with the help of Richie Unterberger. Option had segregated the mediums, vinyl was in one place, cassettes another, and those newfangled CDs exploded in their own area. Option was printed on nice fancy shiny paper. With Sound Choice, David Ciaffardini went another direction, he was more low budget in production values, and was doing it not just for making wealth, but with real passion and idealism, fighting the good fight. He had these long wonderful rants and had controversial covers and never used shiny paper. He had a strong Do It Yourself spirit and feeling to the paper, messy and chaotic, full of excitement and really annoying for people who like conventional or professional magazines. The reviews were not segregated by genre or medium. I am not aware of any other post-Op magazines but then, why would they contact me? They would probably just go for it. I hope there were others.
Was there serious infighting at OP before it finally folded?
Never, just basketball and pizza and a love of loud rock. Black Flag at full volume while eating breakfast. Everybody had bands they were in too. There may have been some serious infighting with the folks who went on afterwards, but among the hometown Op folks there was no quarreling that I know of.
What was EAR Magazine? Was it distributed nationally at the time?
Ear was, from my perspective, the New York City version of a music magazine, pretty much the same turf as Op without the specific political emphasis on manufacturing and distribution. They printed their later magazines in a physically large format. I think they had a radio connection too, but they had different circumstances. I think they were self conscious about being The New York City music magazine, they tried to be the Universal music magazine, but they were really good at being the NYC magazine. They had some shared resources with Op, but there was nothing more than a friendly wave and interest in the same resources. I think I remember an interview (discussion) between Sun Ra and John Cage that got in the S issue as well as in Ear. I could be wrong about that, maybe it started at Ear and only came out in Op.
Ear was distributed nationally and internationally because that is how you make money, only about 300 folks would pay for something like that so you better find and reach all 300 of them or you must die like all the others. And they did.
Was there a connection to OP?
No, well, I think Steve Peters did stuff with them, and later I too was a connection with them and Op. I was always very impressed with Ear, they seemed like they had their thing together, professional music scholars writing for them etc, and that we (Op) were just a bunch of kids playing and having fun. But then I found that they were more like us kids than I assumed, and hey, we at Op had some real scholars too. Dean Suzuki for one. Um, who else…
What about B SIDE Magazine, you also wrote for that, can you talk about it?
I just up and sent stuff to every music magazine I could find, and they actually ran my stuff and wanted more. There was no money for me involved (nor for Op nor for Ear) just the thrill of seeing my name and words in print. They were located in the south, Georgia I think. I never met those folks or even corresponded behind the scenes, just sent off my reviews and they would often send me the issue of the magazine the reviews were in.
You also wrote for The Rocket which I believe was a Seattle publication. This had quite a large readership if I recall correctly. Was there ever feedback about something you wrote? Were you overwhelmed with things to review?
I never heard anything back from anybody in the Rocket community, either inside the magazine family of contributors nor the Seattle readership community, except for some tiny snide comments here and there, as might be expected. Folks in Seattle had a general skepticism of the folks in Olympia. Sort of a classic neighboring city/small town rivalry. I was pretty oblivious to the Seattle scene even when I lived there, they may have had more to say. I was in transition and not trying to impress anybody. They did things differently. They were all about regular ol’ Rock and Roll, and promoting local entertainment, not just about eclectic exploration or economic philosophies of music production. Their money came from the local bars and venues who bought ads.
The stuff I reviewed for them I picked up at the main office, they had a huge box of tapes and one just gathered stuff that looked cool before someone else got to it. The reviews were not necessarily even complete sentences, and there were some issues of Rocket where you could not tell who wrote what, it was just woven together, which was just fine. They paid. It was cool. I got $20 one time. So I flew to Paris and had lunch, with the money left over I invested in speculation which I lost, the rest I just piddled away. Don’t let this happen to you. (by the way, I am not being original here, Jonathan Poneman of Sub-Pop made that joke in The Rocket first)
You had a radio show at one time on KAOS in Olympia Washington. Did you play home recorded works? Have you done any radio work since that time?
I had several radio shows that just focused on home recorded works, always late at night, I wonder why? (my favorite show title was DONT TRY THIS AT HOME and there was YOUR RADIO IS BROKEN), and some radio shows that were all about playing with sound effects and the mixer, you could play many sounds at once, several cassette decks, open microphone, the telephone feed, remote mics, stuff you could bring in and plug into the mixer, and we had things called “Turn-Tables” that you would put round flat vinyl discs on, and you could spin them forwards and backwards and at various speeds, and make such strange noises. These “turn-table” things were almost always found in pairs, so you could seque from one song to another with or without patter between songs. Oh the tales to tell. It was a wonderful time. Now its all about keeping the CDs from stuttering. They still have room for lots of wacky stuff. I wonder if one can put internet-based sounds into a live radio mix?
Now we come to the present and this brings me to the subject of the transitory nature of the internet. Everything moves so fast and there is so much to see, read and experience. To me, it is almost like having too many courses at a fine meal. Print publications have a different essence than the computer screen. I miss the tactile nature of print but the much cheaper costs of web presence makes print a lapsed species, specifically for DIY communication. Is the tradeoff worth it? Is a blog or web site good enough?
The internet is a new critter. That fine meal can be interrupted and later rejoined. I do almost miss the feel of the ink stains on the fingers that you get with newsprint, but then, too much wood pulp is still used, and old paper does not store so well. There is the issue of eyestrain from looking at the computer screen. I cannot read a computer as easily when reclining as I can a book or whatever. I wonder how the old websites will be preserved? You can burn them onto CDs which will be good only as long as the CD format still has functioning compatible hardware. But look at the cassettes, its harder and harder to find new equipment that uses the Phillips format, remember the 8-track cartridge? Makes me think of the bongs that you would see people wearing on their belt when they went socializing. And I remember when Detroit made cars too. This discussion of cassettes is also about how things change constantly, while the music continues.
With any new technology there are lots of new things to figure out. We are just starting on the internet. The Phillips cassette was first marketed in 1963, and the crazy stuff we did with those tapes happened twenty years after that.
Women seem more involved in the current avant garde art and music scene today than they were in the heyday of the cassette movement. There were certainly some examples of women home tapers but as a rule it appeared to be mainly men, perhaps white middle class men, that were the main population.
The few active women were always in high demand (come be in our band, please send us something for our anthology, be on our editorial board, etc.), that is an excellent question, but its like the joke, on the internet nobody can tell what you are. The other issue is why are there just white men doing these things? That is part of a larger social tendency I think Who has the inclination, the money, the leisure time, and the sheer vanity? Its changing all the time. I hope more folks get involved, and bring new ways of doing things, new aesthetics and customs and tastes to the scene.
Any thoughts on this? What about the art of collecting in general…is there to describe the difference between how men and women value “objets d’art”?
Too often women (and non-white males) feel that they have to over-achieve just to be accepted as equal to the hordes of standard vanilla boys. I have always been interested in bringing the clunky old ways down and allowing the new ways to flourish. Ooops, I am a white man. What can I do? Should I shut up and let others have a chance? As I look around this room there is nobody else here right now, I guess I should say that I think that this is so: we need more passionate involvement from interesting people. Here are my personal colors and unique designs. Dig it.
You have already done a lot of work revising and editing the original Cassette Mythos . Will this work continue and will it include new additions, specifically new reviews, features and resource material? Would you consider distributing a readable CD of it?
Yes, as time allows, but it seems to be in short spurts. I have shifted gears, I was so passionate when I started (and hey, truth be told I had nothing else big to do at the time, really) it was all new and seemed like I was able to jump in and create something unique. It was also part of the ethic and general spirit of my school in Olympia, way back in 1977-8, that would be The Evergreen State College. You would go and ask someone where the (for example) rural musicians club meets, and they would say, “There needs to be a rural musicians club. Since it was your idea, you are now the president of the rural musicians club, when do you want to meet?” I hope they still do that.
I see that you removed a specific article from the original CM, something regarding Yoko Ono. What’s the story with that?
Well, since you ask…. As you may know, doing it yourself is all well and good, and one person can do an enormous amount, but when you do things with several people, even more things can get done, and the things that get done are a product of compromises. On one hand, I succeeded in bringing Cassette Mythos into print, on the other hand, some things got done differently than I would have done them. One such thing was the inclusion of one article which referred to Yoko Ono in a negative way. I happen to have always been a big fan of her work, I read Grapefruit when it first came out (1970), and I like her work with Ornette Coleman, and Lennon. Anyway, this one article that got picked by one of the Autonomedia folks to be in The Cassette Mythos was not to my liking and I did have the opportunity to express my dislike for the article. It was written by a rising star, someone who was a favorite there in NYC. They tried to tell me that the words “Jap B——” were meant in a nice way, and that they loved her too. But I demanded that either the article be dropped or my name removed from the book, and I was appeased, and everything was fine until the book came out and there it was. I had succeeded at bringing the book to life, but I had failed because of a certain aspect of the whole thing. I guess that is what my poppa was telling me about when he said “such is life, my son.”
Again, I wish to emphasize that I am extremely grateful that the book has been published, its all a dream come true. But I truly wish I could have sent Ms. Ono a copy of the book and tell her about how I was inspired by her book Grapefruit. I probably would not have heard back from her either.
Did you receive any criticism of your publishing effort that you felt was unjustified?
Mostly I heard nice pleasant (but unsubstantial) things, the book (and all the project in general) seems to have been generally positively received, but I did get something negative from one guy. He wrote two letters to me that were so full of bitter pain and poison that I still carry a burden of failure, to this day. I saved them for years but I do not know where those two letters are now, maybe its just as well. They were written long-hand, maybe the author has them preserved more successfully. I am still not entirely sure about exactly what his beef was, what I do understand is that he was disappointed with the execution of an idea that he felt strongly about, it was something he wanted to do himself and he felt that I took it over and I botched it and ruined it for him too, forever and ever. I do hope he got over it and has had a good life since then. I did screw some things up in my execution of the dream, but I do not think it was done in a way so as to diminish anything he could have done, or still could do now. Again, these details are invisible to anyone else, it is just the way of the artist to see only the flaws in a work, the flaws that are either invisible to others, or inconsequential. Or who knows what they see?
Any final thoughts or ideas?
This is sort of a post script thing I feel appropriate to include. I mentioned my strong influence and inspiration from Jimi Hendrix. When the Experience Music Project was being built I was in heaven (but in Detroit physically) and I applied for various positions on a weekly basis and never heard back from those snobs. I showed up there in Seattle again just before the place opened and went for an interview, they looked at my application and took me into the hall and told me “There is nobody here that can talk to you today. Sorry. Good luck on your travels.” But did I give up? No. (Well, at first I did.) I wrote and offered to show them the Cassette Mythos Experience. At one time I would have given them the whole thing, because most of it was being eaten by spiders in a garage and they had a nice big place to keep stuff, which I could not provide for the collection so well. A terse dismissal.
That was lucky for me, because now I still have the collection except I had to dispose of the bulk of the correspondence itself. A couple years later I moved back to Seattle (to try to find a job etc.) and volunteered at the EMP. Not a peep, nothing happened for a long time. Six months later I was there in that fantastic and wonderful building (excellent job, Mr. Gehry) on Friday mornings when all the local school groups would come in buses, it was a great volunteer gig. To ordinarily go through there it costs about $20, and you get to see lots of video clips of Jimi, some guitar fragments, some of his clothes, high school doodles, hand-written lyrics, his personal record collection, plus even more novelty stuff from NW artists (Quincy Jones to Heart to Kurt Cobain and much more), plus old guitars, one with Bob Dylan’s gnaw marks on it, another with Eric Clapton’s cigarette burns, Johnny Cash’s black jacket, Maddox Brother’s beat-up old stand-up bass, a video clip of a young Texan named Janice Joplin singing traditional old folk songs on an acoustic guitar (before she moved to San Francisco), Michael Jackson’s glove, much more.
The EMP started with a great premise, a very exciting collection of fantastic artifacts, but it was handed over to bean-counters and it has failed miserably in my opinion. What the heck are they going to do with that building? Rent it for parties maybe. I am glad I went to check it out, and even more glad that I never paid a dime to go inside. I have never heard of anything happening there that was or is nearly as good as what it started out to be.
Don, thanks for this interview opportunity, and if I could focus my message to anyone who might read this, in the words of Janice Joplin, “get off your butt and feel things!”
Thank you for your time Robin.
Thank You Don. I should probably interview you about your activities at Lonely Whistle and No Pigeonholes, which both predate Cassette Mythos. You are one of those innovative Californians, like dAS and Crawling with Tarts, Dino DiMuro, and (there I go again with the list. Oh no, now if I leave someone out I will surely be killed)
History and personal bio notes about Robin James:
Born/ year and location: 1956, Albion, Michigan. The year of Sputnik and Elvis. Albion is on I-94 the highway between Detroit and Chicago, its near Battle Creek where the idea for the film Wellville came from, and immediately to the East, Jackson, the original home of The Nuge (that would be Ted)
Parents: Papa was a history teacher at the college, Mom was a high school teacher (history, English and home-economics).
various employment positions, generalize if needed.
Graduated from Albion College in 1989, took my home-made puppet show on the road with my companion Lorraine Tong. It was a duo called The Theater of Transformations. This was a personal fulfillment and an interesting learning experience but a financial disaster. I would do it again, but I would not base my measure of success on either box office intake or huge turnouts. I got into puppetry (symbolic theater) because it cost less than making films. I studied film making with Gordon Beck at The Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington. I invented and tried marketing a cluster of games using symbols on small square cards (Imagination Decks), later I got involved in volunteer radio, volunteering at Op magazine, and much later this lead to the Cassette Mythos project. For me the best of life is trying new things and seeing where they lead to.
Right now I am a temporary clerk at Lansing City Hall. This brings me $6.20/hr but they keep trying to tell me its $8/hr. I have a volunteer gig at my hometown website (www.albionmich.com) which I have been doing for years now. I take local history stories and make them into web pages. Recently I have returned to school, at the local community college. This will be career number three.
For my first career I never broke the $7/hr barrier. I had some interesting jobs, I delivered flowers (never once got invited in for sex), I moved boxes in a department store (same), processed salmon in the cold wet darkness, and I worked for Muzak from 1985-1986. That is where I met rock stars and musicians like TAD, Amy Denio, Mark Arm, and I already knew Bruce Pavitt and Chris Pugh from Olympia.
During my career writing about music (and playing music) I earned almost $90 total, yeah, it was that good. Most of that 90 big ones was from having one article derived from my work that was printed in the Whole Earth Catalog SIGNAL (1990), the rest came from $15 and $20 payments from writing for The Rocket (the checks all said they were from Murder, Inc. I should have saved one or made a copy of it).
After that, for career number two, as an indexer, I made some real money working for Microsoft, Aldus, WestStock, PhotoDisc, and for many smaller operations such as ResortsandLodges.com, and more. Those were the days, back in the 90s, everybody wanted to have a computer in their business but they had no clue of how to operate them or what computers could do for them, but they wanted to have these new hip and modern computers for their businesses. One could be an expert just by printing a business card that said “multi-media” on it. I still have a lot of cards from those days. Soon they had their pick of so many youngsters who know a heckofalot more about computers than I. Now they ARE those youngsters.
The best job I ever had was in 2000 at Archive Impact! in Detroit. Archive Impact! was a company entirely composed of librarians, my first job there was as a Film Researcher, finding moving images for in-house and outside clients in the GM Media Archives. Then I had an amazing assignment as a Video Indexer working for such clients as National Geographic and Coca Cola. That was the best dang job ever. Ever. Then things changed.
Thanks to my colleague, Frank Gunderson (from the Op days) I got an incredible job at the University of Michigan in 2001 working for the International Institute at (get this) The Center for World Performance Studies. My job was to manage the logistics for some of the various international performing artists coming to the University of Michigan, airport, dinner, performance, party, hotel, airport again. There was much more to that job. I had the honor of helping the new director of the center to re-write the job description for my position of Program Associate. The University of Michigan is a very competitive place and I was an outsider. I had a very painful and horrible time there, but it was an honor to have been selected for the position to begin with (I beat out 10 Phds who had applied for that job, but then I was the cheapest whore of the lot), and of course I continue to enjoy a warm friendship with Frank. My side of the story: basically they isolated me in a new building and then fired me for not being more involved in the activities at the old building. My role in re-writing the job description was to sign the letter of resignation they provided, and that allowed them to be able to start fresh. Sign it or the dreaded black mark will blight your permanent record, they told me. So far that was the most outrageous and high paying gig.
When I was a child I was dragged along on my father’s summer job, taking student groups to Europe for the Study/Travel program. I went all around Europe (from airport to hotel to museum to restaurant to bus) during my late elementary school years and early Jr. High period. We went to Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Budapest, Cairo, Geneva, Haifa, Istanbul, London, Madrid, Moscow, Munich, Nice, Oslo, Paris, Vienna, all around the continent. This was in the Cold War period with the Soviets, so I saw lots of grim but bored police with machine guns standing guard by hastily built cruddy cinderblock walls with broken pieces of glass stuck into the concrete on top.
More about travel. Because I have a powerful attraction for Olympia, Washington, and roots in Albion, Michigan, I have traveled the 2700 miles between Albion and Olympia many times, by air, rail, bus and by car. On the train you can just sit there and groove, listen to stuff in the headphones, read a book etc. I do not like airplanes. But in the car you can stop and go fishing every time you get the whim. I love driving on Highway 2. Best of all (don’t tell anyone) its deserted mostly, no semi’s coming up behind you. Highway 2 is a two lane country road for much of the way across this great land, I pick it up at St. Ignace Michigan and drive all the way to Everett Washington, takes me five or six days, unless I spend more time at Glacier National Park.
One great thing about living in Michigan is that I can drive out in the country and go for extended periods of time and not see another car on the road. The deer are a problem, the trick with them is to not go too fast and to expect that there will be several of them.
Sort of married twice, the first to another college brat for 2 miserable years, the second to an exotic San Franciscan for five years. Some relationships are very volatile and take up lots of time. Also its very hard to find the right person. Setting out to meet women has always been disastrous for me, so I tell myself that I am better off with my solitude now. But I am not done yet. Every day I think, this could be the day I meet Her.
My brothers are much older than I will ever be, one lives nearby (here in Michigan), and the other lives in Pennsylvania. Neither of them have any interest or even a clue about what I do. Both of my parents are now deceased.
Who’s is someone who’d like to find?
Mike Gunderloy where are you now?
robinja56 (at) yahoo.com