Thomas Bey William Bailey
A recent audio release by Thomas Bey William Bailey, “Progressive Lycanthropy” is a real aural adventure with twists and turns and a variety of immersive textures.
Why do you think there is a resurgence of independent releases on cassette? And why does it seem to be almost exclusively “experimental” music as opposed to song form?
It seems like the present-day attraction to cassettes differs from one artist to the next, or at the very least, from one musical genre to the next. One of the more commonly agreed upon opinions, though, came up in a discussion I had with Philip from the Tapeworm label, who said he likes the way cassettes put a certain amount of restraints on the listener and thus allow the recorded work to be heard ‘as it was meant to be heard’- in other words, you have to listen to the full music program in sequence and can’t integrate it into an iPod ‘playlist’ where the excerpted work may get diluted somewhat. So, seen that way, there’s a kind of altruism behind this phenomenon: listeners may have to “work harder” to receive the goods, but will in turn reap greater rewards by doing so.
At the other end of the ethical spectrum, there’s the very misanthropic fringe of ‘extreme music’ (a term that I now dispute, for reasons we can get into later) that uses this relatively inaccessible format to signify how impenetrable, exclusive, and dark their ideals are. The now-defunct black metal faction Les Legiones Noires [The Black Legions] gave a regular master class in this “promotion through anti-promotion”, where they seem to attract listeners by making their work as unavailable as possible, all the while making all sorts of nutty statements about being “aristocratic vampires” and noting how you, the listener, don’t truly “deserve” their work because you will never be able to penetrate their world of Night and Sorrow (yes, this is an exact quote from the album liner notes of an LLN member band.) It follows that, if they’re going to build a public image based paradoxically on their disappearance from the world, then they want to use what they perceive as the least popular recording format.
There’s a few notable exceptions to the ‘experimental’ thrust of current cassette revivalism, e.g. the “dream pop” band Deerhunter have a recent release done on cassette through a label that’s as ‘major’ as you’re likely to get in that milieu. But it seems like, for the most part, indie pop groups have already decided upon vinyl as their mark of authenticity, and their mark of resistance against digital lack of intimacy. So much time has been spent on vinyl “booster-ism,” with some pretty considerable success (notice how the record stores that haven’t gone out of business yet are the ones still stocking vinyl?), that it would seem contradictory to put forward a competing format at this point. I think much of indie pop has also unwittingly absorbed the major league view of cassettes as being a “transitional” format: i.e. they’re fine for acting as demos, and getting you to the point where a vinyl could be released, but not something to be enjoyed on their own merits.
All of the new cassette releases I have seen so far have been on commercially duplicated tapes, that is, not on Maxell or Memorex tapes one might buy at the store. I wonder if the “cleaner” looking presentation ( without the corporate stickers from Maxell) goes along with one of the philosophies you allude to. Plus, it’s hard to just go down to the store and buy blank tapes now.What do you think?
Well, first off, the presence of the media companies’ logos on tapes is one of the delicious ironies of the whole misanthropic underground I was mentioning- they’ll go out of their way to act like they create everything ex nihilo, with no mediating forces whatsoever, and yet there’s a big golden TDK logo next to the hand-scrawled label for “Blasphemic Fullmoon Expectorations Ov The Vampire Goat” or whatever. People seem to be getting more self-conscious about this, though, and even though we all know that some form of mechanical reproduction is needed to bring these releases to life in a physical form, it seems like more people are less willing to associate themselves with companies whose exact machinations and connections (e.g. contracts with the military) are either too obscure or, alternately, are clear but still problematic. So, better in this case to go to a pro-duplicating facility (and get your choice of snazzy custom-colored tape shells in the process.)
But, you know, it’s the same thing as buying an unadorned t-shirt from American Apparel or Muji [Japanese brand which literally translates to “no logo”], rather than one branded with a Nike swoosh. It’s still a mass-produced t-shirt, with all the “inauthenticity” that entails, and you do have the option to knit your own shirt if you have the time and commitment to do so. And, likewise, you can even become a 21st century troubadour who ONLY performs music live and doesn’t allow for any mechanically reproduced recording at all. Most people aren’t ready for an extreme off-the-grid lifestyle of self-sufficiency, though, and ‘deep ecologists’ like Pentti Linkola, who suggest this kind of lifestyle, have the privilege of living in generally resource-rich and conflict-free regions (rural Finland). For the 50% of the human population living in cities, the means of self-expression are going to be more readily available than any means of self-sustenance, and I have a hard time criticizing people who live in unhealthy, hazardous environments when they rely on technological convenience to express themselves.
What’s interesting to note in regards to all this stuff is the relationship that the blank media manufacturers had with actual record labels. A corporation like Sony, whatever their other faults, looks downright benign in comparison to the major labels and their fighting arm, the R.I.A.A., who fought those companies tooth and nail at every new development in storage media. In the ‘80s you had people like Walter Yetnikoff at CBS lobbying Congress to impose a blank tape tax, while the “spoiler” copy protection scheme successfully made DAT machines too pointlessly expensive for anyone to own (b.t.w., Yetnikoff also had his hands in the “payola” program of the ‘80s that made it nearly impossible for indie labels to be represented on commercial radio.) Anyway, these storage media technologies were meant to minimize scarcity, and they were running up against companies for whom the manufacture of scarcity was essential to their survival.
And why did you choose this path for your own last release?
I think this was a case of, quoting Paul Virilio “the velocity of the medium is the message”: a tape seems like a much “slower” medium in which, like a Polaroid developing before your eyes, there is (or should be) some time of “emergence” rather than an instantaneous explosion of sound. So, I try to consider the limitations of this format, and how those limitations can be converted into actual assets for an aesthetic experience. When releasing on tape, I tend to make more “slow-burning” pieces that seem almost to sync with the relatively slow revolving of the tape spools, and I also take the surface noise into consideration- to make sounds which complement that noise rather than pretending it’s not there.
Well, the thing about buying Maxell, BASF or Memorex at the drug/record store was that it was as proletariat as one could get. And the cheapest price, unless you bought 500-100 blank tapes from a wholesaler. One could also cover up the tape label with a label of your own too. I also sense a fully different kind of “community” than before. What’s the feeling you get from today’s tape revival? Are these people tape traders?
I think you’re correct in assuming that there’s a different kind of community trafficking in tapes now. Although it’s not completely different, because there are enough members of the original cassette networks still operating and intermingling with those who are just getting started. I have a recent missive from Hal McGee here somewhere, in which he’s offering stuff for trade with no mention of it being for sale, and others like Banned Production are starting new tape-only series of releases. It’s good that these people are still active, since it makes it somewhat harder for new arrivals (myself included!) to release highly derivative work and get away with it without being criticized.
As for all the newer people being tape traders, yes, it’s still a common practice, but I think with different intentions than before. Openness to trading is still common among independent audio producers, but the practice cuts across different formats and everyone has their own system for deciding how many copies of ‘format x’ are a worthy exchange for so many copies of ‘format y.’
Where I think this differs from earlier cassette culture is that “trading” then could be more of a combination of gift and game, rather than just a business exchange mutually agreed upon in advance: you might suddenly receive something in your mail box some day, from someone who had gotten your contact address from another node on the network, and then it was your “turn” to send out something equally, or more, surprising. Although he was speaking more in relation to Mail Art, Vittore Baroni likened this kind of networked art to the “potlatch” gift-giving ceremony of the Kwakiutl tribe in British Columbia. These days I hardly ever receive anything that isn’t preceded by a formal request to make a trade. There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever, although I love getting the very rare audio artifact that comes from someone I’ve never heard of, and whose intentions I have to find out for myself. If there was any one thing that was great about cassette culture, it was that- just putting more ‘wonderment’ into the world, generating mystery. Making a mockery of the defeatist assumption that “it’s all been done.”
I should also note for our readers, though, how a few people in the previous generation of post-industrial music couldn’t stand getting these surprise packages, since they felt obligated to respond with one of their “professional” products. Jim O’Rourke in particular said that “music is not a hobby for me, it is what I am doing with my life!” Yeah, ok, Jim…so Minoy or Merzbow weren’t “doing anything with their lives” when they were releasing heaps of cassettes?
That’s funny about O’Rourke. When I had some limited contact in the 1980s with him he called himself Elvis Messiahs. I’ve heard he doesn’t want anyone to know about that. Too bad, he did some good stuff then. So, do you think some artists will go to even more arcane media like mini disc or open reel or DAT or anything like that?
Some friends of mine in New Zealand have actually gone the acetate route, which is again interesting if you see it from the perspective of deliberately limiting the listener’s options…increasing authenticity by reducing convenience. Ideally, provided the listener doesn’t own a USB turntable providing for easy digitization of the disc, a format like that forces the listener to approach the recording in a more ritualistic way- you are only going to get so many plays out of an acetate before it deteriorates, so each listen has to “count”, as it were.
There’s also an entire chapter in the upcoming book devoted to why my beloved MiniDisc was never accepted internationally. There’s only one commercial MD release I’ve seen (Gescom’s album simply titled ‘MiniDisc’), and the only time I ever saw self-released MDs for sale was in a Tokyo boutique shop, Los Apson- I believe they were eclectic ‘DJ mix’ MDs rather than original works. The failure of the MD to catch on was particularly ironic, since, by the mid ‘90s, Sony had finally bought out some of the major American record labels and avenged all those years of the labels lobbying against them. They suddenly had the deepest catalog of music in the world from which to press MDs, but there was no sizable market beyond Japan (where sales of blanks alone were enough to keep the format going until the last time I was lived there, a few years ago.) Anyway, the international MiniDisc popularization campaign had the bad luck to be sandwiched between the introduction of the home CD burner and the MP3 wars.
Ultimately, I hope that artists use whatever tools they feel will help them to make the most complete and unrestrained expression (even if it means using media with a lot of ‘restraints’, as I’ve mentioned!) I would hate for any of these formats to become the de facto means of conveying ideas simply because they can comment upon some current societal trend. And it’s also good to remember that many of the participants in ‘cassette culture’ were active with all kinds of other creative endeavors before cassettes became a going concern- tapes provided another outlet through which to channel their creativity, but they weren’t the sine qua non of that creativity.
Good point about Cassette artists using various release forms. Especially vinyl in those days. Before I got a CD burner I bought a MiniDisc recorder ( that I still use) as a way to transfer some of my tapes to digital. I like the MD because of the editing capabilities. Like you though, I only have a couple of commercially released Mini Disc recordings.
Two formats that interest me are 3” CDRs and 10” records. I think those formats are neat but I’ve never done either. Why do a 3” CD when you can just put it on a regular disc? That’s what I like about Cds. One can put less material. With cassettes I always felt like I should fill it up as much as possible to avoid all the fast forwarding to get to the next side.Yes, I think “obligatory space-filling” is something that still needs to be addressed, even with less “work-intensive” formats where fast-forwarding, rewinding, and skipping is significantly quicker. It’s interesting how people can accept the concept of “negative space” or blank space on a canvas, but feel short-changed when listening to an audio recording that isn’t filled to capacity. But, as McDonald’s has shown us, you can stuff your belly to capacity with food and not have a feeling of satisfaction….a point maybe not absorbed by the hip-hop mogul Master P., who loaded every one of his label’s CD releases with the full 74 minutes of music in a direct emulation of the “give the customer what they want” business model of McDonald’s mastermind Ray Kroc.
Regarding all this, I’ve also been keeping an eye on the development of net-releases: note how many of them, whether they consist of a single piece or multiple songs, are designed to match the capacity of a CD (and the downloadable artworks in these cases are sized to fit a conventional CD jewel case.) On one hand, doing a net-release acknowledges that you don’t need a physical format to be heard, yet so many of these are being designed to eventually be ported onto a physical format. I’m sure someone will step forward to correct me, but I can’t remember seeing any net-releases that took advantage of the real radical feature of that format: that your only limitations on album length are the storage space of your hard drive, server etc. You could, if you really wanted, make a flowing 3-hour long piece, with panoramic artwork that disregards the need to fit into the little iTunes “now playing” window.
I have, on the other hand, seen people build up massive discographies of 10-second net-release “albums,” as is the case with some of the “artists” on the appropriately named Non-Quality Audio label. These are obvious provocations, since the releases are accompanied with all kinds of politically incorrect slogans, gross-out artworks and in-joke swipes at people in the audio underground who pioneered the creative space that these cement-heads are now loitering in. And, of course, these people seemingly think that they have checkmated you by announcing beforehand that you won’t enjoy the work- but that doesn’t really go a long way towards justifying it. Generally these releases are more pitiful / sad than annoying, which I think is the reaction these people really want: an email box full of hate mails that can be used as the creative raw material for new releases. It’s the subway graffiti of the Internet: the kid who defaces a pristine, glowing metro station in Kyoto probably sees his unattainable dreams as being a world away from this sleek, shiny utopia, and I feel it’s the same way with kids disgorging their dozens of hit-and-run anti-releases onto the utopian “walls” of the predominant communication medium.
Collecting music ( in large and copious amounts) seems to be a male thing. Why do you think this is the case? Do you know any female collectors?
Actually, yes, I’ve known a few gals who were heavy collectors (although not self-identifying as collectors.) One that comes to mind immediately was a friend of mine, an employee of Anomalous Records (r.i.p.) who had a really impressive stockpile of underground music (Zoviet France, Nurse with Wound et. al.) – if she still has it today, it would probably pay for an advanced college degree. I think we bonded over our mutual love of Georges Bataille and ice hockey, haha…
Anyway- female collectors of music do exist, although with what seem to be different intentions for collecting. I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who fit the whole “rare music speculator” mold, nor one who would buy a record but then refuse to play it because that would degrade its condition from “M” to “VG” or whatever (you might as well buy packets of seeds at a nursery and never plant them…) I’ll admit, this may be a case of me naturally gravitating towards people who appreciate music for the same reasons I do, but I generally find that women collect music not in order to merely possess it, but to use it as a catalyst for life experiences- to either make hazy memories come into sharper focus, or to provide an illustration of what some future experience might be like, an open door onto new ways of perceiving and interacting with the world. For what it’s worth, I also noticed that my female archivist friends had collections filled with personally dedicated records, records that had been given as gifts by friends and so on- a lot of material that was highly unlikely to be resold.
To determine why record collecting is such a male-dominated enterprise, I think I’d have to break down the collector market itself into two types: the “vulgar” collector-as-speculator who only cares about some future financial return or some accumulation of status, and the kind of collector I mentioned above, a sort of “searcher after experiences” (not possession itself as an “experience”, but, again, as a kind of portal leading to it.) The first kind, I think, can be adequately explained by noting how speculation, trading, etc. are already male-dominated sectors of society, so it’s not unusual that would filter down to record collecting. The second type of collector is more difficult to pin down, but I think their collecting has less to do with some stereotypically male exercise of monument-building than it does with a conservationist impulse- a passion for safely storing the objects that point to these experiences; giving them safe passage from our banal post-industrial society into a future one where they’ll be better appreciated.
And although I did know some women involved in Cassette Culture, it was far and away a guys thing, a middle class white guys thing. I’m glad there are now tons and tons of experimental and creative women artists. Why the dearth back then though? Just a reflection of music as a whole?
It’s odd, because the same question has been asked of every musical constituency from death metal to free jazz. With cassette culture, though, the movers and shakers have made such a point of encouraging all possible viewpoints, maybe to a degree that exceeds some of these other genres- so I understand people’s bewilderment at how few women signed on. One explanation I DON’T agree with is that women instinctively shy away from the confrontational extremity that you often find in these “way out” music genres…there’s no universal standard for feminine docility / gentleness etc., and you can see this everywhere from underground music to war (for one notable example, just look at the notorious Rote Armee Fraktion ‘wanted’ poster where half the members of the ‘urban guerrila’ group are women.)
The funny thing, though, is that I hardly ever hear women posing this question. From ‘zine editorials to personal meetings, it is uniformly the “fellas” who are anxious over, well, the uniform maleness in their respective musical undergrounds! The author of the book Culture Of The Copy even derided mail art as “male art”, which I’d dispute. There are plenty of men asking this question who, I believe, really do want a culture where perspectives other than their own will make the culture more dynamic and enduring. It can’t be denied, though, that there are also those who just want a larger pool of romantic partners to draw upon- I always run into guys who daydream of some stunningly attractive woman who has, say, every Keiji Haino record. And then we run into a situation where half the guys in any given ‘scene’ want women to provide alternative viewpoints and challenges, and another half want women to merely reinforce whatever aesthetic sensibility is currently ruling the scene. Confusion over how you’re going to be perceived within a scene is a strong deterrent to joining it, and so I salute everyone who is brave enough to leap into the fray without worrying what others think of them.
Now, perhaps the intimacy of cassette culture was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it was a refreshing change of pace from big, dumb, testosterone-fueled mega-concerts and the over-the-top objectification of women in ‘80s music videos. But you could also be potentially opening yourself up to people you might not care to have that level of direct contact with. I can imagine being one of the only women listed in someone’s directory of cassette contacts, and suddenly being inundated with deeply personal outpourings from other people within the network, and how it could get fatiguing after a while.
Collaborations have been major projects for home tapers since the 80s. What do you think about them and have you done them yourself?
I’m certainly not against the mail-music-collaboration concept. I don’t think they are any less “real” or “spontaneous” just because the participating musicians aren’t in the same room jamming in real time. And I think it’s a very valid form of correspondence art, since there’s only so many nuances that can be conveyed by verbal communications alone.
Now, there’s probably some weight to the theory that collaboration by mail reinforced certain people’s feeling that whatever music they were doing was good: in a live studio situation, you would be receiving constant corrections along the lines of “I don’t like that oscillator setting” etc., and people would be more likely to disallow your excesses or embarrassing idiosyncracies than in a mail collab, in which you’d already composed a full half-hour of music. Asking someone to just completely re-do that half-hour might cause them to sour on the proposed collaboration entirely, so you tended to enter into these situations with a pretty sound idea beforehand that you were going to receive something good or exceptional.
But whatever the case, I don’t take the hardline approach of someone like Bruce Russell (Dead C, Xpressway, etc.): “the sound that people make together in a room playing, to me that’s what recording ought to be about.” The whole romanticism of all-together-in-a-room, live, “one take” recording seems grounded in this idea that your initial reaction is always going to be the ‘best’ one, that premeditation or re-assessment is a means of hiding true intent behind a more technically sound final product. And anyway, Russell has his own political agenda and might see the myriad forms of “separation” (overdubbing, collaborating by mail, even giving people directions for what not to play) as being in the service of some capitalist divide-and-conquer scheme to keep people under heel.
I haven’t done any collaborations for some time, probably just because – paradoxically – I’m not nearly as sociable as I used to be, and am more and more making music just for personal edification and releasing very little (all this is subject to change.) One of the last collaborations I did in 2006, with Kenji Siratori, I deeply regret. At the time I wasn’t aware of where he was taking his whole program; that I was being invited along with every other artist he could find to help him amass a triple-digit discography in the space of two years. His was a completely egotistical exercise, but it became truly unforgivable when the reports started rolling in about him releasing recordings that didn’t even feature the other collaborator that was advertised on them. Or, sometimes, he took the raw materials he was given, and just put them into a massive data bank to be recycled for some other project that had nothing to do with the one being proposed at the time. Kenji provides a master class in what can go wrong with ‘distance’ collaborations when mutual trust isn’t built up prior to doing the recording. He appeared seemingly from out of nowhere and, luckily for all of us, is disappearing just as quickly, having ruined his artistic reputation in exchange for maybe 2 years’ worth of P.R.
Although more popular than ever generally, I get the feeling there is some rejection of social media sites and that there may be a movement just ahead to abandon these or at least work in a new way, maybe even go back to postal. What do you think?
This is interesting, because I got lambasted earlier by a reviewer at Wire magazine, for some statements in my last book that were supposedly in favor of social networking. I should clarify, though, that those statements were supportive of how these networks allow musicians to take control of functions that were previously outsourced to people who might care little about the music business than music: people who handled ‘product positioning’, booking and so on.