During the mid-to-late 1980s I spent several years immersed in what has come to be known as the “cassette underground.” As affordable home recording and duplicating technology became increasingly available, an international network of independent musicians emerged, trading tapes, fanzines and other artifacts through the global postal system.
I was still living in Washington, DC at that time, and having been active in a number of local punk and post-punk bands throughout my teens, my musical interests continued to grow in myriad directions. Having acquired my own Tascam 244 four-track cassette recorder in ‘84, and soon after adding a Aiwa cassette dubbing deck, I began in earnest to conduct my own musical experiments at home.
My earliest pieces were experimental rock and pop instrumentals similar to the music of the bands I was in at the time. These led to more abstract compositions in various contemporary styles such as ambient, new age and music concrete, and eventually industrial music. I began making compilations of my pieces and duplicating them, packaging each one individually with hand-made covers and inserts which I traded with friends in my local community.
During a visit to San Francisco in 1986, I met sound artist Cyrnai at a show where she performed a solo set. I was immediately attracted to the dark and percussive soundscapes she presented, and soon we began corresponding and trading tapes back and forth. She had already produced several of her own recordings and was actively sharing her work throughout this underground network. From her I learned how to begin to explore this global web of sound artists like myself who were corresponding and exchanging sounds, via cassette. At Cyrnai’s suggestion, we created a split cassette release titled Hypno-Seizure.
Soon I also became a regular reader of Unsound, a periodical, also incidentally from San Francisco, that focused on industrial culture. This led me to other periodicals and newsletters, and soon I was discovering a great diversity of underground artists from Europe to Asia and throughout North and South America. A trip to Europe in 1987 brought me into contact with Staalplaat, a legendary shop in Amsterdam that focused on the cassette underground, and soon after a similar enterprise, The Generator, emerged in New York City’s East Village.
By this time I was corresponding with a number of artists around the world, and regularly “releasing” my own work through this network, sometimes exchanging my tapes in quantity with various “distributors” in exchange for tapes from their catalogue. The music I ultimately came to produce fit in to what might be called ambient industrial, or dark ambient and was influenced in equal measure by Eno, Throbbing Gristle and Cage. It was a style that had many adherents, and was just one among many interesting styles to be found in this cassette subculture.
I also contributed to a number of compilation cassettes, something that was very common in the network. Among the more memorable compilations I participated in were several from the Epitapes series produced by Mike Tetrault of Belchertown, MA. Each of his carefully constructed collections explored a specific theme and brought together a great diversity of sounds from all over the world. There were many other compilation creators, and many labels, distributors and artists, too many to comprehend.
Throughout it all I produced a good deal of music, while also amassing a substantial collection of unique tapes and artifacts by others, most of which I still have. It was quite a remarkable moment in sound culture history, dizzying in its diversity and ingenuity. Here are some of the works I produced during that time:
(self-released cassette 1987, CD by Forced Nostalgia, Belguim 2015)
|The Woolly Mammoth Tapes
(works from late 1980s digital release by Nostalgie de la Boue, Ivory Coast 2013)
|NO. 3 (cassette 1988 by Sound of Pig, Great Neck, NY)||SONOROUS ALCHEMY (self-released cassette 1988)|