Interview with Chris Phinney
Why did you call your label, Harsh Reality? What year did you kick it off?
I started the label in 1982! It seemed a catchy name at the time & still does. The name went well with the first artists on the label & the music released & well reality can be a very harsh thing quite often it seems at least in my life & a lot of the music was very harsh & noisy in the beginning & throughout the endless amount of release’s.
Was there a guiding philosophy to the label?
No not really, I just wanted a vehicle to release my stuff through & others whose music I was into.
One my personal favorites on Harsh Reality was the tape above by Swinebolt 45, the project of Roger Moneymaker from Memphis. With his guitar, drum machine and bass he slashed his way through some vicious instrumental landscapes. Moneymaker also released a tape on audiofile called “Spank” which was the companion tape to this one. Part Pink Floyd, part Terje Rypdal, Roger’s guitar work is like a machete hacking through the jungle.
Viktimized Karcass was the Memphis quartet of R. Martin, R. Henson, Roger Moneymaker and Chris Phinney. Essentially a jam band, they recorded several tapes that also included vocals from Martin at times. The 1988 tape above was, like many ( if not all) of their tapes recorded live.
In addition to his own work as Mental Anguish and with Viktimized Karcass, Chris also curated several compilations from the international electronic underground scene. Above, “Music From A Divided Germany” was a nice representation of artists at the time working in that genre including, Nostalgie Eternelle, Siegmar Fricke, Das Freie Orchester, Doc Wor Mirran, M. Finnkreig and others. Harsh Reality also released tapes from The Netherlands, USA and many other countries creating fine documents of this burgeoning movement.
Although I cannot find any info on the cassette cover, I believe Paradox was an English space rock unit. This tape is not well recorded ( probably because it is a live document) and gives an impression of a chaotic free for all which builds , dissipates and lumbers its way back to the brooding core of the galaxy.
Scottish group, Expanded Metal, were a quintet (one track features Phinney’s mailed in drum track) intent on bashing and crashing their way onward in the spirit of Hawkwind perhaps. Dion Trevarthen was also a member of Sponge, I believe, another space jam band. This particular tape could have probably used some editing as the live recorded material gets tedious here and there.
My scanner cut off part of the LP cover for the split album by Chris Phinney’s Mental Anguish and ( on side two) Colorado’s Jeph Jerman’s Hands To project. Side one has Phinney setting up the drum machine with droning, probing synth on top. Side two features a noisy progression of sound from distorted voices and fuzz bombs, to blasts of metallic furnaces set to cook your ears. I guess this LP was also distributed by Jerman on his Big Body Parts label.
Who were some of your musical inspirations?
Tangerine Dream, Bourbonese Qualk, Nocturnal Emissions, SPK, Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse, Gong, Hawkwind, Amon Dull II, Can, Portion Control, Cabaret Voltaire, Vangelis, Heldon & many other too numerous to mention I guess.
Was HR at first just a vehicle for your own music or did you plan on expanding right from the beginning?
At first it was just for my stuff & the various projects I was in at the time. I expanded due to my liking of other indie cassette artists that I was into at the time & or trading with or they were releasing my stuff as well. It just seemed the thing to do & to help promote other artists with the same mindset.
Did you commission tapes for the label?
If you mean paying for tapes to be on the label, no I did not.
Before you played electronic music on keyboards did you play any other instrument? Like piano?
Ha – I dabbled on piano whenever I got the chance. In the 6th grade I got my first drumset – Apollo & took lesson’s etc. & then several years down the road tired of that & sold them & got a electric guitar & took some lesson’s but being a teenager I got interested in a lot of other things & gave up on it all for several years.
Were you ever in rock bands early on?
No, only rock bands were D.O.O.M. (Damed Offenders Of Man) never released anything but did record a tapes worth of material. Still have that stuff. Skoptzies, Viktimized Karcass & Planet 0 only rock bands been in & they were spacerock & these 3 were with the label. Pungent Odor was pre – Skoptzies & was my first release of something rock oriented. Odor was released in the beginning as one of the first 4 release’s.
Do you ever have an urge to play live now? Why or why not?
Every once in a while but its rare. It used to be fun but I got bored with it, plus the time it took to organize etc. I do not have the time right now & would only do it if it was in the right place at the right time or the pay was something I thought worthwhile. (Free Beer just will not cut it) :-) I do any live stuff today over the internet with Tapegerm a live streaming thing whenever we have one going on & I can find the time to be involved.
I tend to lump the so called “Memphis Mafia” together: you, Roger Moneymaker, the Viktimzed Karcass guys, and Mike Honeycut. Am I just making stuff up here though? Did it feel part of an underground music community with these guys?
No, you are not making stuff up! I believe Zan tagged us as the Memphis Mafia. We all recorded stuff, played live, wrote stuff, did lots of art, promoted concerts, got bands to come play here & put them up with a place to stay etc. We all got along really well & still do though life has pulled us all in different directions. We had a pretty decent underground community here back in the day. we are all still in touch but mostly do our own thing.
You have also collaborated with many home recording musicians: Hal McGee, Carl Howard, Charles Rice Goff III, and many others…do you prefer to send the initial tracks or do you prefer to finish the song? Do you just improvise over the top or do you listen to it a few times and try to “figure out” what you are going to do?
Either way really it doesn’t matter. I actually prefer to play & collaborate in a live home recording studio session or several sessions. The 3 artists you mention I have done this with on most or half of the collaboration projects that have been released. Of course this is very hard to pull off, getting together & expensive as well. IE: Travel. Both methods actually but I do love improvisation.
When you begin a new piece of music do you hear it in your head or have an idea of how you want it to sound? Or do you want to be surprised? Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
Yes & no to the first part here it just depends. The last two songs I wrote yes I had the ideas rolling around in my head for months. Others yes, I like the surprise factor. As for a perfectionist, yes more so today than in the past. You know though I had a discussion a few years ago with a friend Toda V & we came to the conclusion that a piece of music is never really finished. You can always go back & tweak etc. But you have to draw the line somewhere & just say its done.
Did you ever advertise in the DIY mags like Option, Sound Choice or Factsheet 5? Anything to share regarding this experience?
A small amount yes. Factsheet Five, Flipside etc. It really did not do much if anything for sales though.
Was there a point where you were actually selling substantial amounts of Harsh Reality tapes?
Yes but the sales never broke even with the expenses. I came across some old folders when redoing a room here months ago & have some figures for you. I saved a few of them maybe the best two years as I knew you had sent this question along. In 1989 sold $1591.50 spent $3,536.43 trades not included in this & the Endless Grindstone CD & Mental Anguish/Hands To split LP not included in this. Lost that year $1,944.93. In 1990 spent $2,135.38 again trades not included, sales were $1949.50. Lost that year $185.88 which was maybe my best year as far as sales go. I am sure there are others from back in the day that spent more, sold more etc.
I would imagine that you began by writing countless letters to people to trade tapes with. After awhile did stuff just roll in by itself?
Yes & Yes.
Harsh Reality also released a series of electronic music compilations from various countries. When and how did this idea come to you? Did you already have the tapes, or did you solicit them for the comps?
Ha – I had been doing lots of compilations & during the late 80’s the idea came to me to try & just do compilations from various countries with whom I had some contacts. I solicited them all, was quite a chore. Got a good response for the most part, as usual though when doing compilations you run across artists who either want money for a track which I refused to pay or a artist said after sending them a free copy you ruined their track which I dismissed as I did nothing to them at all except try & keep the volumes close to the same levels on the masters. What you sent in is how it came out. After I did the 12 country series I received from 2 artists compilations they put together to release one Danish Pastrys & one Swedish comp from Borft Records. Quite odd I thought at the time but very cool as well.
You have a wife, kids and a regular day job. How do you balance it all to get what you want done?
Its tough, always has been. They all know what I want to do or wanted to do back then. My musical output in terms of songs & new releases is much more limited today than back then. I am involved in music daily of some sort just not recording as much these days.
Your son, Grahm, is also an electronic musician and does some much listened to work on Tape Germ. Have you considered doing an album with him?
We have talked about doing a album but thats about as far as its gone. He sort of lost interest in recording music for the time being. More about work, sleep, college, girls, reading & video games these days. So it never came about. Maybe someday when & if he gets back into recording.
You and I did a CD called “The Black Ace” and I did vocals. I don’t recall you doing other releases with vocalists. Were there?
Yes I love “The Black Ace”! Lets see I have done vocals on some Mental Anguish tracks not a lot but some. Carl Howard has done some vocals on a few tracks we recorded. I used to sing in The Skoptzies & in Viktimized Karcass. With Karcass the vocals were split up between myself, Richard Martin & Mike Jackson. Most of the vocals in Karcass were Richard though.
Here are some names and phrases. Please free associate:
A great friend & band that I had the pleasure of working with on numerous occasions. Missed deeply!
Sonic space ritual space rock at its best! Heavy influence!
Heavy influence! Wonderful soundscape soundtrack material.
Heavy influence but not as much today as the old stuff & Roxy Music.
Always one of my favorite forms or style of music raw & in its pure raw form wonderful. At least it used to be. :-)
A big influence quite some time ago, not as much these days though but still there.
You and Bryan Baker were instrumental in starting the Tape Germ Collective. What year did you guys first think of it? I am not aware even now of another interactive site like this. Are you?
2000 – but Bryan had the domain & a site for it a year or so before that really cannot remember but was really not doing much anything with it. Several of us were doing a similar thing at Bryan’s HomeMade Music site. He chopped up loops out of cd’s by some artists & we did some mixing& sent him the tracks for the Homemade Music site. It grew & Bryan showed us his Tapegerm idea – us being me, Scott Carr & J. Mundok & asked if we wanted to start Tapegerm & get others involved & we said hell yeah! & so we did it & Bev Stanton (ALP) came along from Homemade Music as well.
I have seen a few sites similar but they are remix sites only really. At one time a few old Tapegerm artists that quit back when we changed a whole lot of things that we had to do in order to survive & be self sufficient tried to start something kind of like Tapegerm but not near as up to snuff or as interactive as Tapegerm. They died about a year later. It takes a lot of work to have a site like Tapegerm run properly & be self supportive as well.
Do you think there is any lasting legacy of cassette culture/ home taping?
Sure I think it will always be there to some extent, lots of small tape labels out there today with unique packaging & very limited release runs.
Do you think there was a greater depth of community before the internet? Has the net made communication more superficial in your opinion?
Yes there was in my opinion & initially the net was like this as well when I started getting on in 98. But its changed. As far as I am concerned the nets full of a total overabundance of music, just my opinion, lots & lts of stuff that I do not want to hear, much less read about, less quality as well to me. Sure there are some diamonds in the rough but takes a lot of time to find it all. I pretty much know what I want to hear & those artists usually let me know its there.
Yes more superficial.
Do you do much musical social interacting these days? Facebook, etc?
No not much at all. No time for it & not very interested really in spending all my time on facebook or myspace etc. Far as I am concerned its a big waste of time. If thats your bag then its good for you just not really my cup of tea per se. Lets see oh how many friends can I get etc & so & all that stuffing what a joke. Saw a cartoon the other day & this dude was answering his door & millions of people were outside & when he opened the door they said Hello we are your Facebook friends. :
) My oldest daughter Molly killed her myspace thing ages ago in favor of facebook & deleted her facebook a month ago as she said it had all become what it was not supposed to be about to her. She texted me on my way home from work & said that “she felt so good about it”. Enough on this as I could go on & on. :)
What excites you now?
My wife & kids & family members. Talking to good friends. Recording a piece of music that I think is awesome. A old collaborative friend visiting & recording. Landing a job I gave an estimate on. New Gear or new software vsts etc. Listening to good music. Listening to tracks at Tapegerm that use my material. Shooting photos. Vacation time. Sleep. Working on a good musical project. Getting any new End of Green or Lacrimas Profundere material. For that matter getting a new great piece of music via mp3 or CD.
What is something that might surprise us about you? A secret love for country and western? Frank Sinatra?
I don’t know. That I am a big basketball fan college much more than the pro’s & follow it religiously. That I still listen to lots of old music like Zeppelin, Stones, Rush, Cactus, Ten Years After & on & on that list could go. That I watch Lost, Desperate Housewives & Nip & Tuck on TV. That I have really over the last few years developed a love of Finnish & German (Love Metal,Gothic Rock, Heavy Gothic Metal, Vampire Music or whatever you want to tag it as) Bands like End of Green, Lacrimas Profundere, Spiha, Negative, 69 Eyes, Charon, Poison Black, Sentenced, Lordi, HIM, Death Starz & son or shoegazer band Silversun Pickups. That I would love to see Iron Maiden live & shall be going to see MegaDeth for the second time in a year in March.
Thanks for your time Chris and continued luck with your fine label.
Thank you Don!
Listen to some of Chris’ own excellent music at Tape Germ