Spool's Out With Tristan Bath: Blue Tapes Special
, November 3rd, 2014 14:01
This time out Tristan Bath talks to David McNamee of Blue Tapes, presents us with a mix of unreleased material by Plains Druid and reviews the best of October's cassettes
David McNamee founded Blue Tapes back in 2012, and has since put out several of the best releases to be heard on any format in recent years. Bhutanese guitarist, Tashi Dorji, contributed his first release of otherworldly electric guitar improvisations, Katie Gately's Pipes (one of The Quietus' favourite releases in recent memory) was the eighth release on the label, and the latest addition to the catalogue comes from thirteen year-old American keyboard improviser, Henry Plotnick. This week's edition of Spool's Out is something of a Blue Tapes celebration, and in addition to the below interview with the label's founder, we have an exclusive mix of unreleased material from Plains Druid - the craftsman behind blue eleven's epic maximalism - and a review of the young Henry Plotnick's awe-inspiring blue fourteen.
So how did Blue Tapes get started? What made you simply HAVE to start putting tapes out?
David McNamee: It kind of began as an escape hatch for my brain. In 2012 I was having some personal problems and I wasn't coping very well. As I've got older I've realized one of my most annoying characteristics is that I'm actually very OCD and have a clutch of compulsive behaviors that, if unchecked, can be destabilising - the thinking (rightly or wrongly) behind starting Blue Tapes was that by creating a project to funnel these behaviors into that might ameliorate them in my day to day life and prevent my brain from getting distracted by otherwise destructive things.
I also wanted to do a project that would consolidate all these different hobbies I had - music, photography, writing, obsessive list-making and alternative process printing - which until then had been competing in my life for space, despite none of them coming attached with any rewards, goals or overall purpose.
I'm actually not a very creative person, I think, because I kind of view art for its own sake as a bit pointless, and indulging in it just feels masturbatory. (Like wanking into the void.) I think creative people make things because they're driven to make them - or because they're driven to succeed - whereas for me I felt I needed to assign functions to the things I made in order to justify their existence.
So Blue Tapes kind of from its inception was this self-perpetuating eco-system of ritualized behaviours, engineered in a way that it produced one piece of art once a month and that piece of art would be a tape containing a piece of music, voice or other audio and an image, that wouldn't necessarily be 'cover art' as such but would juxtapose with the music.
(Also, all the tapes would be BLUE, obviously. As would - mostly - the cover art, which is produced using the pre-film analogue photography technique of cyanotype.)
Each release would be part of a series, identifiable primarily by a number, with the sound in each instance contributed by a different artist. Part of the idea was that rather than standalone 'albums' (which I'd never really liked as a way of delivering music) the entire series would build up into a coherent body of work.
If I'm honest, I didn't expect anyone to buy them anyway. The only person I knew who would buy this shit was me - and I couldn't buy the tapes, cos I was releasing them!
Increasingly, though, my role in this process has become less bureaucratic administrator and more cheerleader for these sounds, which I want as many people to hear as possible, so that all of the artists can get signed and hopefully find some way of monetizing or otherwise benefitting from their craft.
Note on the above mix for The Quietus: "All tracks except for the best one, the opening pastoral noise track are unreleased Plains Druid material. The first track is made by Devin LeCroy and is titled 'Child of the Spirit', and is also unreleased." - Plains Druid
The advantages of the tape format are well known - cheapness, awesomeness, etc. - what's most annoying about working with the format?
DM: No lie - I pretty much prefer everything about tape as a format to vinyl, CD or mp3. It maybe helps that I'm not much of an audiophile - but even people who are audiophiles have been known to rep for cassette, which (apparently) has a sound unique among physical formats because of tape-specific characteristics to do with uh saturation, color, noise - technical terms I don't really understand. Autechre, huge format nerds, loved tape and thought it was a really undervalued medium.
Even what people perceive as the regular drawbacks of tape - the unravelling, for instance - is encountered rarely compared to how often records or CDs get scratched or digital files get corrupted or deleted. I don't think I own an LP that isn't scratched - even the new ones have a brief lifespan on my stereo - whereas tapes dubbed before I was born still play just fine.
The real downside to working with tape from my perspective as a label guy though is obviously the limitations in audience. Our Katie Gately release got a lot of media coverage and general support from music fans, but it still took more than a year to sell 200 copies.
What's your own personal musical history? You were playing at the Rhys Chatham thing in Birmingham last year - how much of a guitarist are you? What sort of music do you like to make?
DM: I am definitely not a musician at all and I'm fucking lousy at guitar! The one time in my life I've related to Richey Edwards was when he said - when asked if it was because he treasures his guitar that he doesn't smash it up like his bandmates - "No, I dislike my guitar intensely. I can't even be bothered to smash the fucking thing. It doesn't deserve death."
The Rhys Chatham performance was super-great though and I'm incredibly jealous that you got to hear what it sounded like out front! The best thing about it, as a music fan, was actually getting an insight into the compositional decisions that made up the music - which is something you don't normally have a clue about as a listener.
I did the guitars and synths on blue six. It was the label's worst selling tape! It took nearly two years to sell 20 copies! Terrible. I think if the Whitney George box set was our 'Blue Monday' then this was definitely our 'My Beauty'.
I think if anything killed my enthusiasm for making music then it was probably Blue Tapes. There's no way anything I can do would stand up, quality-wise, to even the most lo-fi and basic of our releases. I've been involved in music in various roles in a semi-professional capacity since I was a teenager but I will never, ever be a musician, and I'm OK with that.
So what would you say is the overarching common element in Blue Tapes releases?
DM: It's changed over time. There were definite themes in the first half of the catalogue, which were a result of me trying to approach everything probably a bit too conceptually.
Erasure of information was a big theme. The early releases didn't have any text at all - not even the name of the artists. I wanted the only data available to the listener to be the sound and the image.
(I think this might in retrospect have been because of my jealousy towards art galleries, where you can stroll around a space and just happen across beautiful things without necessarily having to load up on biography - the artists blurbs in art galleries are very easy to avoid, especially if you're short-sighted. By contrast, discovering music without knowing anything about the artist or the context in which it was made is virtually IMPOSSIBLE. Even with the randomness of radio, they want to throw every detail and scrap of gossip at you. I have, in general, a distrust of words, which is perverse because in my day job I am a journalist and editor, but actually maybe it's not surprising - how many slaughterhouse employees wake up on a Saturday morning craving a bacon sandwich?)
Although individual items might not make sense, if you combine them then the whole thing coalesces into something that actually just resembles its own genre of music.
So how do you tend to discover, and get in touch with the artists you release? What about Threes and Will/Huerequeque from Estonia for example?
DM: Pretty much the same way everyone else finds music, to be honest. Threes and Will has so far been the only artist who approached me about releasing something before I approached them - coming to me with the entire Huerequeque split - but little did he know was that I was already planning to ask him to do a tape anyway!
I found him through a typically Bill Drummond-y OCD experiment - this year I decided to listen to music from a different country every day, going through a list of countries alphabetically. When I got to Estonia it was basically Maria Minerva or... Threes and Will! He got in touch after I followed him on Soundcloud.
Katie Gately and Tashi Dorji have gone on to do pretty bloody well! How do you feel about that? Did they stand out in comparison to other releases you've done (i.e. you could sense they'd have greater 'appeal')?
DM: They're doing super well and I really hope as a fan that everything continues to pan out for them and they're able to spend their lives focusing on their music, without the distraction of bad day jobs or hovering doubts.
Katie I totally think has the potential to do an album as important as Silent Shout in the 00s or Big Science in the 80s - something singular that also has mass appeal - though equally she might not want to be that person, and might want to be a Ligeti instead, all options are on the table for her at this stage I think.
Tashi is just my favorite guitarist - although the medium he works in (improvised solo guitar) isn't without precedent, he does things with popular music's most played-out instrument that I've never heard before. The only contemporary player I can compare him to - who he sounds absolutely nothing like - is Bill Orcutt, who basically just ripped up everything you thought you knew about acoustic guitar and blew the scraps in your disbelieving face.
Blue Tapes' involvement in Tashi's career is totally incidental - he'd already forged connections with Ben Chasny and the alt-guitar cognoscenti by that stage and his talent would always have found light and willing listeners.
Katie is a slightly different case, but only because I was lucky enough to happen upon her at such an early stage in her music-making. Like Tashi she would always have been successful, because she's a genius. But the first piece of music I heard by Katie was a remix that a musician called Schemawound asked her to contribute to a Bandcamp collection of his tunes.
She described her working methods in a piece of text with the track. It was one of her first pieces and she said "I actually had to ask Google what a remix was - it was that bad," but rather than supplying a conventional reinterpretation of a track, she instead sang the titles of all the tracks on the album and manipulated them - making that into the track. It was such a clever, simple idea and so brilliantly executed. It sounded amazing.
As a person she seemed so enthusiastic, funny, intelligent and unpretentious - which appealed to me a lot. She seemed like the kind of person I'd be friends with. I immediately asked her to do a tape. She replied that she was now doing pop music, but would I like a tape of this Arthur Russell meets Gregorian chant thing that she had an idea for? ERR YES I WOULD LIKE THAT THANKS.
So which release is your favourite thus far?
DM: I think my favorite releases are the ones yet to be released. There's a lot of stuff that hasn't happened yet that has been waiting in the wings. One of the main things I want to encourage are the collaborative projects, featuring all of the roster, of which two are currently in production, hopefully with more to follow.
Which release do you feel got the least attention in comparison to what it deserves?
DM: Blue one! Without it there wouldn't have been a Blue Tapes. I knew Matt Collins from Ninja High School from Toronto - a life-changing live band - and he sent me this weird "Tangerine Dream album" he made. I tried to find a label to put it out and failed and he suggested I start a tape label and put it out.
That Whitney George release was quite an undertaking!
DM: Haha, it wasn't an undertaking for me, but possibly it was for Whitney, who just seems to have a never-ending supply of music streaming through her veins! It was a product of the conceptual phase of the label. I'd decided I wanted to release a hip hop tape, a death metal tape and an opera tape, so I hit the internet to try and find these members of my superhero team.
Whitney had an opera I wanted to release. She also, it turned out, had a never-ending supply of music, which over the time we communicated only deepened and expanded. We ended up not releasing the opera, but five different very playful pieces across five cassettes, encased in a miniature treasure chest, with a series of playing card cyanotypes illustrating these individual surrealist modern classical symphonies.
Unfortunately maths were still a foreign land to me, and despite selling all of the copies of this box set, for some reason I made it available as part of our subscription option, which meant that I lost hundreds of pounds! I'm unrepentant. Every label worth its salt needs a 'Blue Monday', after all.
That C125 for the Plains Druid album - is that normal? It's so long! You rarely see such a long single tape.
DM: It is normal in our world! Originally Jon had four fairly long pieces for the tape, but he decided at the last moment to also include four long intervals - blissed-out synth washes and moodscapes - between each track, which doubled its length into the 2-hour narcotic odyssey we now know and love.
So your latest release is from Henry Plotnick. Please tell us a bit about the artist, how you discovered him, and how the album came together?
DM: I heard Henry's LP for Holy Mountain - released at the wizened old age of, er, 11 - and loved it, before I knew his story. Obviously when I found out how old he was it made me feel a bit like I'd wasted my entire life.
What would you most like to see happen with Blue Tapes in the future?
DM: A LOT of things are happening. For instance, I'm rebooting the label.
The name is changing to 'Blue Tapes and X-Ray Records' and it is no longer going to be exclusively a tape label. In parallel, there's going to be a vinyl series, a DVD series and a book series.
The DVD series is going to take in a mixture of short films and 5.1 DVD audios (plus some more interactive, experimental stuff that's in an early stage) and each release will come with a large format, high-quality art print of a cyanotype - not made by me but by a guest artist that I've selected and juxtaposed with the visual/sound artist.
The vinyl series - the X-Ray Records bit - is going to be very visual and have an equally idiosyncratic visual identity to the tape series.
The first release will be a vinyl reissue of the Tashi Dorji tape, closely followed by a really dirty analogue synth French house EP by Pour le Plaisir, which is totally different to anything else I've put out.
Katie will also be doing one of the vinyls - but unfortunately her idea requires quite a bit of work, and I don't want it to compromise her current commitments with Fat Cat, especially because she fucked her arms up with tendonitis working on both 'Pipes' and 'Pivot'. But it will happen.
Other things: it's kind of crazy, but I've been working on making a Blue Tapes instrument. It's a collaboration with Blue Tapes artists past, present and future, including Matt Collins, Whitney George, Chemiefaserwerk, Katie Gately, Father Murphy and My Panda Shall Fly.
Overall, I think record labels are a bit of an anachronism. I don't really understand anyone's motivation for starting one - let alone my own. Unless you're just a straight-up bank - essentially profiting from lending musicians money to make records - I think you need to contribute something unique or something of yourself to the process.
That's why I like labels like Stunned, Grapefruit and The Tapeworm - they inspire loyalty as much as the music they release.
Henry Plotnick - blue fourteen
This colossal set of six lengthy loop-pedal improvisations from the thirteen year-old Bay Area wünderkind, Henry Plotnick, builds vast swathes of guitar and keyboard improvisations into pulsating masses of sound. The wobbly synth arpeggios on opener 'Qualia' build and build into a stuttering kaleidoscopic epic, with triumphant piano chords and keyboard drum beats building to a grand finale over a quarter of an hour. The youngster's definitely got the goods necessary to correctly handle his limited kit in order to form symphonic giants. He instinctively hits the right notes; conducting and constructing with incredible prowess. 'Mechanolatry' amasses layer uopn layer of snapping, plucking, yearning synthetic string sound, slowly introducing each element into a hypnotic atonal soundscape, exploring the realm of beautiful chaos as successfully as Terry Riley did on In C, all created on the spot by a thirteen year old armed with little more than a keyboard and a looper! The sixteen minute 'Wapiti' is perhaps the most strikingly brilliant piece, diving headfirst into mutating rhythms, and cutting and pasting sections into a racing psychedelic trip down a series of unexpected turns. Epic closer 'Sun' inserts awkwardly retro MIDI sounds with all the apparent purpose of James Ferraro or Spencer Clark's absurdist new age ramblings, ultimately stomping the looper's 'reverse function' and reaching skyward to a luminescent finale. Perhaps it's very much because of Plotnick's young age that he can craft these improvisations so well. He's uninhibited, optimistic and courageous, unworryingly tapping away at his keys, exploring with wide-eyed joy, and almost audibly punching the air when every new layer of sound works out. This kid's undoubtedly got innate musical ability, but his true strength lies in his patience as a spontaneous composer, something which eludes many adults, and which lends his improvisations a gradually growing allure that would make them a killer listen, even in older hands.
Tlaotlon / Střed Světa - Untitled Split
It's difficult to know what to call this music, but the pairing of New Zealand's Tlaotlon with Střed Světa from the Czech Republic makes for one hell of a ride. Each producer offers a side of trippy polyrhythmic psych-techno cacophony apiece, and Tlaotlon's constructions err on the side of shimmering vibrations - all constructed from twisted digital drum machine rhythms, quantized into unrecognisable patterns while manic loops and buzzing synth lines cycle and evolve in parallel. On 'Omega Rooms' the beats in the background verge on footwork, while 'Cortical Method' conducts a growing symphony of looping analogue noises (at times reminiscent of a more calculated version of Acid Mothers Temple's spacey synth sprawls) which eventually ride a stomping 4/4 kick drum into near-danceable territory. The various manic elements of Tlaotlon's abstract soundscapes pull themselves in all directions at once, flashing all colours at all times. It's like Pollock, with a beat.
Střed Světa follows a similar path, albeit with all elements blurred together rather than madly coexisting. 'Propadající se nitrem lemovaným hmyzími křídly' (which Google assures me translates to 'Sinking lined inner self insect wings') uncomfortably awakens to crunchy field recorded footsteps and random sound effects, before mutating into a stuttering mess of synthesized bass tones and chopped up fuzzy noises. The rhythms are as indiscernible at Tlaotlon's, and evolve with schizophrenic urgency towards the climax. 'Vedoucí vratkými slovy' presents more skittered beats and frenzied stereo swapping, while the closing 'Rozplývající se v mnohočetnosti končetin' introduces sweeter sounds and bell-like chiming, creating an unsettlingly pretty finale. There's no real word for this yet, assimilating elements of glitch, techno and most definitely psychedelia into a colourful menagerie that wholly deserves its meaninglessly appealing collagic artwork. Few tapes actually deserve that too often bandied about word, 'experimental', but this certainly is one.
Cyril M - Diffraction
(No Magic Man)
This improvising French guitarist takes his cues from the soundscapes of Kawabata Makoto, Duane PItre, and fellow Frenchman Richard Pinhas, and has already completed a tour of Japan earlier this year, and gigged in Lyon's experimental music scene as both a solo guitarist, and as drummer for vioilnist Agathe Max. The sidelong title track comprises a 27-minute recording of a solo gig in Mulhouse's Chapelle St Jean in Eastern France, which sees Cyril M wildly exploring the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar. The opening passages of layered ambient minimalism, crafted from looped bowed guitar will be familiar territory to fans of Kawabata Makoto's solo drone albums, but M goes on to take in walls of wailing shredding that would make the Speed Guru proud, melting into towering passages of near-white noise sprawl that bounce around the innards of the church menacingly. Elsewhere he bursts into wordless singing during a moment of peaceful recline, and ultimately descends into atonal scraping and high-volume six-string attack akin to classic live Haino 90s recordings like Execration That Accept To Acknowledge. Side two is a wholly different affair, presenting us with two lengthy pointillistic improvised duets with pianist Sacha Navarro-Mendez, initially seing the pair meander around one another leaving plenty of space, much like Tetuzi Akiyama's disconcertingly beautiful acoustic guitar duets with Alan/Anla Courtis or Greg Malcolm. They do manage to take on a fiercer energy as arpeggios arise from Navarro-Mendez's piano in the first duet, while the pair seemingly mimic each other's movements in the second duet like some highly tense, atonal-avant take on that scene from Duck Soup. As an improviser, Cyril M's got the makings of a great, taking the listener with him on a real exploratory journey like the freeform trips of his Japanese idols, while also bringing with him an almost science-like approach to guitar experimentation; bowing here, plucking there - all in search of new and compellingly strange territory.
nebulo - akzidens
French electronic composer, Thomas Pujols, has compiled this 'cassette of cassettes' under his nebulo alias using nothing but sounds he could plunder from audio cassettes. The exercise wholeheartedly works, with nebulo presenting thirteen brief experiments compiled from a texturally rich variety of sounds rehomed from a multitude of disparate locations. There's plenty of beauty to be found in nebulo's constructions, with a gathering storm of plucked noises on opening prelude 'Fake Cadillac' or the Far-East flavoured wind loops on 'Canon', and perhaps most immediately on the tripped out choral samples that make up 'St. Fernand'. The loop used on the latter could go on almost indefinitely, decaying away like one of William Basinksi's epochal Disintegration Loops, but the dreamstate that nebulo finds himself in on akzidens isn't exclusively one resigned to languidness, and the apt theme of resurrection. From the hazy tape hiss of 'Rush' emerges a wholly surreal set of images underpinned by heartbeat like rhythms, while 'Dynasty Beef' stomps with furious beat-heavy energy. Nebulo's ability to reassemble the pieces from once separate jigsaws into new visionary musical entities in their own right is pretty astounding. While it's not quite another Dilla's Donuts the cut-and-paste method is too often resigned to either pure beatmakers, or absurd dada experimentalists, and nebulo is neither, both free from rhythmic confines, and meticulous in making sure the pieces truly belong together. In a field over encumbered with new electronic composers nebulo has already stood out via his previous releases on Hymen Records, and akzidens is the work of an artist continuing at the top of his game.
Aging - Troubles? I Got a Bartender...
In keeping with the Manchester label's recent run of genius tape releases, Aging presents us with a set of ghostly freeform instrumentals, self-contained in a gothic late-night chamber. Looped gently plucked guitar chords are centre stage, punctuated by sparse free drumming, and the occasional interjection of additional distant voices, saxophones and rumbling washes of bass tones. The (presumably improvised) interactions between the instruments take on a ritualistic edge, almost chanting together at times, and conversing at length - on the brilliantly scary aura of 'Vampire Body Blues', the lilting sax gets suddenly sidelined by an aggressive turn in the guitar, and the sax ultimate responds by blasting abrasively in return. Sonically, the cavernous atmosphere and in particular the skittering arhythmic drumming, bring to mind Knoxville, the potent collaboration between Tony Buck (The Necks) and Fennesz - but Aging is working with far darker subject matter. By the climactic, bittersweet tones of sax at the cassette's tail end, Aging have truly asserted themselves as world class masters of atmospheric, jazz-influenced gothicism, second only to the likes of Bohren und der Club of Gore.
Joseph Curwen - Shunned House (Invisible City Records)
These four 22 minute compositions from North-East Englander Joseph Curwen are some of the most dauntingly colossal sounding bits of music I've come across in a while. Consistently on the brink of clipping, Curwen's towering monolithic waves of mutated ambience wash over and over us, riding a never-ending percussive pulse. The stereo field is constantly awash with misshapen synths, harsh static and invisible choirs, occasionally coalescing into one great big punchy slab of monstrous noise. There's an immense feeling of staggering size and scope to this unrelenting music, travelling through distant unknown barren landscapes, trapped on a Lovecraftian nightmare trip into mountains of madness. It loops on and on and on, never resting or receding, journeying us further and further from home. The influence of HP Lovecraft over the artist is clear (the nom de plume Joseph Curwen comes from Lovecraft's own Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, and the musician and author undoubtedly share nightmarish visions of gigantic apocalyptic beings. This is dance music for Cthulhu if I ever heard it.
The Unquiet Grave - Whispers in the Wind
Often coming across as a mournfully weary hybrid of Mark Lanegan and Genesis P-Orridge, Canadian musician, The Unquiet Grave makes relatively lo-fi meditative songs, often imbued with tropes from industrial music. '20,000 Years of Suffering' again has something of Throbbing Gristle's most song like works, intoning stream-of-consciousness atop mechanised beats and whirring analogue noises, while 'Celebrity Lie' pairs mumbled vocals with a strummed electric guitar. The album's ten pieces invoke strongly envisaged atmospheres, with The Unquiet Grave's persona coming across as perhaps the first to bridge the gap between North-American slacker songwriters and industrial music's rough aesthetic. The tape comes packaged beautifully in a tin box covered in real life bits of foliage and mock earth, as if unearthing something dead and buried for every listen.
Signor Benedick The Moor - Spooky Reader's Theatre
The Halloween novelty release is a relatively rare commodity these days, and the insanely talented rapper/producer Signor Benedick The Moor's addresses the situation for 2014's night of terrors. We get three originals, and a pretty stunning acoustic version of an old SB the Moor jam, 'Mouth Of The Beast'. Lead track, 'Halloween Song' is replete with tongue-in-cheek creepy wails and an overtly gothic tone in all of Benedick's usual vast array of instruments at his disposal, including synthetic orchestras, fiery beats and the man's usual layers of guitar lines. Throughout the EP, those signature light speed rhymes continually spin aptly spooky tales of murder and madness. It's one of the few essential EPs of the year, and Signor Benedick remains the most promising polymath wunderkind in rap right now.
Marcus Whale & Tom Smith - Localities
(A Guide to Saints)
It's been a stellar year for Lawrence English and his Room40 label, with the artist's own Wilderness Of Mirrors ranking alongside the year's best ambient releases, and David Shea's recently dropped Rituals getting better and better with each listen. However, Room40's sporadically active tape imprint, A Guide To Saints, has just put out three killer cassettes in a batch for October, with harsh textural noise on both sides of Smedje from Ben Frost collaborator Daniel Rejmer, and dreamy synthetic instrumentals from Brisbane resident Pale Earth. Perhaps most compelling though is Localities, featuring collaborative electronic compositions from Sydneysider experimentalists Marcus Whale (aka Scissor Lock) and Tom Smith (aka Thomas William).
Four often rhythmic collages makeup the tape, with 'Lugarno' awaking as from hibernation amidst unfurling distant synths and chiming Tibetan bells before a heartbeat-mimicking bass drum evolves into an ass-kicking mesh of danceable drum patterns, perfectly weaved together by the two artists. It's one of best bits of beat along you'll hear all year, eventually returning to the dreamy depths it emerged from after ten blistering minutes. Later 'Panania' similarly takes glitchy vocal samples and beats them into a pulp with the help of some mega harsh crunchy drum smashes. The two shorter tracks - 'Edensor' and 'Kynemagh' - both feature soaring washes of gorgeous synths, with former clipping and fuzzing at almost aggressive levels, while the latter closes out the album with lingering, ghostly prettiness. Few tapes are as immediately gratifying, and as the album only really comprises an EP's worth of ideas, we're left hoping the pair keep it up and deliver a long player of their pretty much flawless beaty experiments.