Cassette Tape Revival (Boston Globe, 7.23.10)

Posted on July 25, 2010

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It’s three weeks into the Boston band Girlfriends’ first-ever US tour, and the trio is stopped in Albuquerque. They’ve spent the first half of the trip the way most do-it-yourselfers do — finding the bright spots in tiny shows they booked through Internet connections, sleeping on beer-stained floors and old mattresses offered up by hospitable locals. They make gas money huddled over a merch table every night. The hottest item? Their cassette tape. “We’re almost sold out of the third pressing already,’’ says guitarist Ben Potrykus.

Tapes are making a comeback. Chunky and hissy, plastic in custom colors, with crafty artwork on tiny rectangle sleeves and custom-made “j-cards,’’ they’re finding a second life as the go-to medium for underground bands working on shoestring budgets. For a handful of fans, tapes are the perfect antidote for the information overload ignited by digital music and blown up by the iPod.

“Tapes are cheap to buy, cheap to make, and easy to carry around,’’ says Potrykus. “You never see someone walking home from a house show in Allston with a CD or 7’’ in their pocket.’’

For Boston’s latest crop of cassette-carrying bands, the medium fits the message. A horde of psychedelic and garage rock bands — bands like Girlfriends, MMOSS, Quilt, and Doomstar! — translate well to the imperfections of tape. All find common ground in flavors of ’60s rock, typified by fuzzed-out guitar and dusty, echoing vocals. Historically, the genre doesn’t exactly match up with the heyday of the cassette, but the quality of the recordings are uncannily complementary.

Tim Scholl, guitarist in combs-and-stiletto-knives throwback trio Thick Shakes, praises tape’s flaws.

“You don’t know exactly what to expect,’’ he says. “Each tape has a different sort of tension, and each player has its own level of push and pull on the tape itself, so it changes the recording a little.’’

Garage rock isn’t the only snug fit. Bands across the country have been exploiting the medium to make greasy-sounding ’80s electro-funk (think nightclub scenes in “Miami Vice’’) and dreamy, faded pop music. Before that, tape has long been a favored vehicle for niche experimental musicians and labels (like Lowell’s RRRecords) erring toward squelched drones and squealing tape manipulation, all banking on tape’s unpredictability and inevitable decay to work some magic.

“Tapes are great because they have a really nice warm and fuzzy sound,’’ says Quilt’s drummer Taylor McVay. “But also, unlike CDs, tapes cannot be copied onto iTunes, so the tape itself remains a valuable object, rather than just existing as a transfer of data.’’ Vinyl has the same attraction, but as McVay notes, you can’t fearlessly toss a record over your shoulder into your car’s back seat.

Quilt guitarist Anna Rochinski echoes that sentiment. “The ultra-convenience of mp3s makes music very, very disposable to some people,’’ she says. “And I think that’s sad.’’

It’s a notion that collectors across the country are taking to heart. As a generation raised on mp3s begins to come of age and backlash against compact discs reaches critical mass, tapes are in an enviable position.

Al Bjornaa runs a label called Scotch Tapes in Ontario. “I used to run a CD label and sales were terrible,’’ he says. “I find a lot of people think CDs are irrelevant. They rip them to their iPod or computer and then never give the album a second thought.’’ Instead, Bjornaa works in small runs of tapes and a few vinyl releases.

“There are those who rip on the resurgence of tapes and that is their choice,’’ he says. “They feel it is a step backward, and I tend to agree. But I want to take that step backward.’’ It’s working — limited runs of iconic noise-rock bands like Oneida (themselves already geared toward a certain mystique and obscurity) lead to sure-fire sellouts and collectibility. “And I like knowing that I can continue to run a profitable label using dead formats while Sony and Universal whine about how much they are losing.’’

The story is the same for Burger Records, a music shop and tape label based in Fullerton, Calif., that just released the new MMOSS tape. It tends to do runs of 250 with handmade artwork, though high-selling tapes have earned repeat pressings. The lo-fi rock ’n’ roll Nobunny’s “Raw Romance’’ tops the discography at 1,000 copies to date, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a collectible already.

“One of those has sold for $40 on eBay,’’ says label head Sean Bohrman.

Bohrman got into releasing tapes just for kicks when he saw a friend’s band do it a few years ago. “We made CDs of two of our albums,’’ he says. “We still have hundreds and hundreds of copies of them. But we sell tons of tapes, so go figure.’’

Word has spread, and bigger labels are starting to complement wide releases with small runs of cassettes. Indie giants Sub Pop and Vice Records have started working with Bohrman to coordinate tape releases of bands like the Black Lips, Happy Birthday, and Jaill. The reason isn’t just to boost sales. Having a tape, especially one with homemade artwork, can reconnect with fans and ever-more-influential bloggers.

“I enjoy more tape submissions that I get as opposed to CD submissions,’’ says Jheri Evans, who runs a blog called Get Off the Coast from his home in Wilmington, N.C. “The people sending me tapes are usually the bands themselves, or small labels that have a more intimate connection with the music.’’

“I do love the tape hiss and the degradation, and even that little click when Side A comes to an end and you have to flip it. I think for me it’s definitely got a lot of nostalgia in it. My first personal music player was a little Walkman tape deck that my uncle gave to me, along with a few KISS cassettes.’’

“I think a larger sect of the public is willing to listen to tape today, which five years ago would’ve seemed asinine and archaic,’’ says Michael McGregor, who runs the Chocolate Bobka blog and the Curatorial Club tape label out of Brooklyn, N.Y. “Right now, people can make tapes and others actually really care — not just a small subset of collectors and uber-music nerds but the actual music-consuming public who is probably a little bored with mp3s, especially a decade after the iPod rose to prominence.’’

In fact, audio engineer Jeff Lipton, who works out of Newton on recordings by everyone from Arcade Fire to the Dropkick Murphys, begrudgingly ranks tape just ahead of mp3s in audio quality.

“I think tape is a terrible format,’’ he says. “The tape is played too slow to accurately reproduce the high frequencies.’’ He also says the speed of playback leads to audible dropouts and degradation, and that the small track size can’t even hold enough information to sound good.

But in the end, it’s that scrappiness that could be tapes’ most endearing trait. On top of the personality that ghostly bleeding of audio from other tracks lend to recordings, the pitfalls of tape recording can serve as another leveling mechanism, much like the way the Internet has redefined DIY publicity. The home-brewed tapes that Girlfriends are lugging across the country right now are a perfect example.

“The ceiling for audio quality is lower with tapes,’’ says Girlfriends drummer Andrew Sadoway. “The difference between a professional recording and something recorded in some kid’s bedroom is a little harder to hear. It’s sort of a great equalizer.’’

Potrykus agrees: “And we need any great equalizers we can find.’’

Link to original article at Boston.com here.

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