As things like self-isolation and social distancing became phrases and concepts the majority of the world has quickly become accustomed to, it’s been the art of the hasty pivot that has characterised lockdown: businesses that relied on face-to-face interactions suddenly thrust themselves into the hitherto unknown territory of digital engagement, restaurants suddenly offered take-out where they previously relied on seated diners, wholesale retailers suddenly became direct-to-customer operations; we have moved from the need to see, touch and meet people to drinking espresso and gin over video conference, walking in the middle of the road to bypass another pedestrian walking toward you, and following authoritarian one-way systems around supermarkets. None of this we could have conceived of a few months ago, yet we are now all – mostly – suddenly expert.
The way we consume and enjoy music was almost immediately disrupted by the measures governments put in place. Gigs and festivals were cancelled; release dates got put back; pressing plants shut down; critical calendar entries like Record Store Day were postponed; venues were almost immediately shuttered. These are existential events for artists, bands, labels, designers and the countless individuals and businesses that support the music industry.
In response, all manner of COVID-19 projects quickly sprang up: compilation releases to support frontline essential workers; isolation playlists were hastily assembled, often comprising lots of soothing ambient music; live-streamed solo bedroom gigs delivered your favourite artist into your front room; noodling Soundcloud tracks appeared with high velocity, the product of idle fingers, a need for expression, boredom and the advantage of a broadband connection.
One very special and highly distinctive project to emerge from this is Touch: Isolation, announced last week by Touch. “The pack of COVID-19 cards came down quite quickly, and we wanted to respond to some immediate problems many of our artists were experiencing,” says Jon Wozencroft, who founded the label 38 years ago, later bringing in Mike Harding to work with him.
Available through Bandcamp for a minimum £20 subscription, all of which is divided up among its contributors, Touch: Isolation consists of at least twenty tracks from Touch artists, each one mastered by Denis Blackham – that, in itself, an example of the label’s dependable obsession with quality presentation despite the speed with which the project was conceived and realised. At the time of writing, releases have already come through from Jana Winderen, Chris Watson, Bana Haffar, Mark Van Hoen and Richard Chartier with tracks incoming from Howlround, Claire M Singer, Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi, Philip Jeck, Carl Michael von Hausswolff and others who have issued released material through Touch.
“By the nature of what we do, it’s quite hand-to-mouth,” Wozencroft continues. “For Mike and I, the project is also a declaration of intent in a personal sense because we’ve both been experiencing some highs and lows in recent months.” Those lows are self-evident and are common to most of us, yet uniquely personalised to our own lives; the Touch highs include recent releases like Eleh’s brilliant Living Space, nurturing new artists on the label and Hildur Gudnadottir‘s success at the Oscars. Wozencroft justifiably calls it the “culmination of years of collaboration and shared ambition”. The idea of Touch going on hiatus just because normal life has been paused would thus have been a terrible, terrible notion.
“Between Mike and I it was kind of a Eureka decision to step ahead and do this,” he continues. “In effect, we pressed the switch in the third week of March and in no time we had a strong response from almost everyone we asked.”
A critical signifier of Touch has always been Wozencroft’s photographic accompaniment to the imprint’s releases, which presented a challenge for Touch: Isolation. “I had to think hard about how the Isolation series could be given a visual counterpoint, given the lockdown restriction,” he says. The result is a series of photographs of trees, leaves, pools, each one of something strangely quotidian yet now, thanks to the lockdown, mostly off limits; each one was taken on March 25 on Hampstead Heath’s West Heath and Golder’s Hill areas, just as the lockdown began.
“I’d been going to Hampstead Heath since being a teenager growing up in North London,” Wozencroft continues. “It was always a special trip, and so it was a challenge to make this familiar space reflect a certain unreality; the suspended state of beauty in the full gleam of the recent sunshine. But also its rarity and rawness as an urban environment in the current conditions. I was also remembering the damage of the Great Storm of 1987 – seeing the evidence of regeneration and a landscape transformed, and that sense of faith in the future.
“For me,” he concludes, “it’s about hope and detail, the hidden and its brilliance.”
In 2019, The Tapeworm cassette label celebrated ten years of issuing contrarian works of sound art. Starting out as a resolutely tape-only label with no accompanying downloads, The Tapeworm has since expanded to encompass music on other formats through The Wormhole and exquisitely-typeset books through The Bookworm. The label was formed in London by Philip Marshall, Touch co-founder Mike Harding and illustrator / writer / musician Edwin Pouncey (Savage Pencil).
In a rare interview, Further. spoke to Philip about the early years of The Tapeworm, how it feels to be celebrating a decade of operations, the occasion of releasing over 100 cassettes and the label’s ongoing ethos. “The Tapeworm was always structured to be a way of freeing ourselves from having to do any promotions or interviews,” he says. “You bastard! Look what you’ve done to me. I’m sitting here doing a fucking interview. I agreed to it in a moment of weakness. Damn you Smith.”
From a very young age I was obsessed by music, but I was never ever any good at it.
In my early twenties I figured out a way to be around musicians and get into clubs and gigs for free, while at the same time thinking about how I could support these people: I could do flyers. I could design things, like record sleeves. I realised that I could be involved in music through design.
I’d always been a fan of Touch, Mike Harding and Jon Wozencroft’s label. By about 2000 I’d gotten to know them through a mutual friend. They had a terrible website, and I was doing a lot of digital design at the time, so I decided that I would say to them, ‘Your website’s shit and I could do you a better website. I don’t want paying for it. I’ll just do it as a favour for the label – just give me a bunch of records for free.’ And that friendship then developed. Mike, Jon and I got on very well, and as that friendship deepened, a working relationship evolved out of it.
Fast forward eight years. I’m living in Paris, and I’m just ending a relationship. I’m a bit sore about that. I’m feeling a bit fed up and looking for something to do. Mike Harding said said, ‘Pull yourself together and get on with something. Let’s do a new project.’
Just before that an artist friend of mine in Berlin, D-L Alvarez, had invited me to take part in a group exhibition called Psychometry (The Space Between Seeing And Knowing Is Haunted). D-L asked me to do some sound work, so I did this installation called Three Questions And An Answer. It was a looped piece of tape playing in a corner of the gallery based around the theme of the exhibition. I said to Mike, ‘Why don’t we do a cassette? Why don’t we put it out?’ So we did a cassette on Mike’s label Ash International, and it sold out. I had no name as a musician, people only knew me as a graphic designer, but the thing sold out.
I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that’s a curious thing.’ Mike and I were steeped in tape culture. After all, Touch obviously came out of being a cassette magazine in the early Eighties. We both had a great love of that culture, but even so, we were amazed that people would buy, for no reason at all, a tape by an unknown name. Around the same time, we were getting frustrated by spending a vast amount of time and energy for next to no dividend in putting together releases that would be sent out to press or sent out to stockists, yet which would get no traction at all. Those releases were very much reliant on a good review in The Wire, or someone’s blog, but then for an arbitrary reason could be ignored. So we asked ourselves, ‘How can we make a structure of a business that doesn’t need promotion, that feeds itself.’ Almost like a tapeworm, you might say.
So we came up with this idea of having this thing where we could say to an artist, ‘Well, there’s no money here, but do you have something in your archive, or do you have a piece of work that is not part of your core body of work, but which something that you’ve always wanted to do?’ Choosing tape as the format created certain practicalities and gave a certain physicality to it. It dictated the duration and restricted the programming because you can’t easily shuffle through it. We were also interested in the more philosophical qualities of tape: it’s about memory, it’s about recording a memory, it’s an imprint, and then there’s the whole magnetism of it all.
I remember that we were sitting in a garden in Balham, where Touch are based. Vicki Bennett from People Like Us was there that day, and we just said, ‘Hey, do you want to do a tape?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve got my gran, and her best mate, and they do readings of texts – why don’t we do that? What shall we read?’ And then we gave her a copy of Le Xerox Et L’Infini by Baudrillard and two weeks later she came back with a recording of these two ladies doing this blind reading of this book of French philosophy. It was one of the most standout hilarious things we’d ever heard.
At the same time we’d emailed the turntable artist Philip Jeck and he said, ‘I’ve got these recordings where I’m doing the same live set-up with a bass guitar, which I can’t really play.’ So then we had our first two releases. Savage Pencil – Edwin Pouncey – met with us the day after and we said, ‘Oh you must be involved – we’d love you to do the artwork.’ And he said, ‘What’s it called?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ We came up with some really bad names – terrible, horrendous names. And Edwin said, in a very gruff, very blunt way, ‘Look, it’s called The Tapeworm.’ And there was no arguing with Edwin, so that was the name of the label. He drew the worm and said, ‘There’s your logo.’
For perhaps the first five years, we made a decision to not fess up to who was behind The Tapeworm. We wanted to be like Basic Channel: we liked the idea of being as anonymous as possible. Because if you suddenly go, ‘It’s Philip, who works with this bunch of people, and Mike Harding with his history of Touch, and Edwin Pouncey, Savage Pencil, who’s got this other history,’ it becomes a bit too fucking obvious about where it’s coming from. So we liked the idea of being a slightly weird, connected, underground thing that never revealed itself. In that way, the label became a personality rather than the people behind it. It started off with the intention of being a collective, and then I pushed my way to the front, because I was the person with the energy.
When we started The Tapeworm in 2009, cassettes were still quite an underground thing. Things have changed now. I don’t blame myself for the fact that you can buy Kylie’s Greatest Hits on cassette today – that’s probably a fucking brilliant release, but you don’t need it on cassette, do you? There’s no need for that. It’s kitsch. We always wanted to be a label that was investigating a format and being honest about the format, and its limitations, and its strengths, and its beauty. The initial call-out we gave to artists was all about making people consider the format. Nowadays cassettes have become a kind of thoughtless marketing tool
We’ve never allowed the releases to be released digitally at the same time. We’ve just done this Jay Glass Dubs tape, Two Devotional Songs For Spacemen 3 In The Style Of Love Inc., and I’ve literally had eighteen emails in the last two days from people who bought the tape asking ‘Where’s the download?’ We’ve always made it clear to the artists that they will retain the copyright of the audio, and if they want to release the audio digitally, afterwards, that’s brilliant: that’s their choice, but we’d prefer them not to because this is about an investigation of the format and the sound of the format and what the format means. We’ve always wanted people to be more precious. We wanted to create this idea of an intimate art object that sells for a fiver, and which is only available for a short run. But it’s also affordable and accessible to anyone, as long as you’ve got a tape player. And if you haven’t got a tape player, why the fuck are you buying a tape? It fucking annoys me. The only reason to buy things in a certain format is because you want to interact with the format. Maybe I’m old fashioned in that regard. I think people just expect to offer a download with your tapes these days. Fuck that shit. I can’t be bothered with that.
It’s strange to be celebrating ten years of The Tapeworm. It’s funny – we thought, collectively, that it wouldn’t work as an idea at the very beginning. And then, to make that worse, I had the idea that I wanted to release a stupid amount of things constantly, and so I think in the first year we put out something like twenty releases. That’s stupid, but then they all sold out and they all did quite well. We started off being really awkward about insisting on the cassette format, I think. After the first ten or fifteen releases, it seemed a bit silly to be less awkward. The series was working, so I think we just decided to just keep on being awkward.
Despite having a very distinct manifesto at the beginning, but we never had any forward-looking plans. Over the decade, things have shifted a bit. Opportunities would arise where we’d go, ‘Oh, you know, this doesn’t quite fit into this tight remit, but now we’ve got this history and body of work we can go different places with it.’
But that brings us to an interesting juncture, because we now release things on other formats through The Wormhole. We were doing The Tapeworm, and so we had to release everything on tape. Mike Harding had done a recording as Souls On Board for our seventh cassette and that featured Bruce Gilbert and Daniel Menche. Mike’s tape was brilliant. At our first live London gig at Café Oto in November 2009, Mike performed as Souls On Board, and Edwin and Sharon Gal performed as Melatot – Melatot was our eighth tape. We got the recordings back from the gig, and they were brilliant. Mike said, ‘We’ve got to release these.’ And I said, ‘It’s a tape!’ And he said, ‘No.’ At the time we had this principle that we would only ever release artists once. So we had this principle that we’d never return to an artist, like, ‘Okay you’ve done your tape, fuck off and never come back.’
So Café Oto had recorded our debut gig. We had these two brilliant recordings, and Mike said, ‘Well, we need to release this.’ And I said, ‘Tape.’ And he said, ‘No, we can’t do this on tape, I’m going to do a vinyl.’ So he released a vinyl on Ash International. At that time, I’d said, we could do a sub-label, for Tapeworm things that doesn’t fit onto tape, and we could call it The Wormhole. And he said, ‘No, we can’t do that – it’s far too complicated.’
Then a few months later we’d done this tape with Leslie Winer, & That Dead Horse, and Leslie turned to us and said, ‘Would you like to release this record of mine?’ It was her and Christophe Van Huffel under the name Purity Supreme. And I said to Mike, ‘Wormhole!’ And he said, ‘No. We can’t do that, there’s not enough time, I’m going to put it out on Ash.’ So those two records – the Souls On Board / Melatot performance from 2009 and the Purity Supreme 12-inch from 2011 – should have been the first records released on Wormhole, in my opinion. They were literally down the wormhole. In maybe every sense, every Wormhole release shouldn’t exist.
Then we decided to put out books. The Bookworm happened because a very dear friend of ours, Leif Elggren – one of the Kings of Elgaland-Vargaland – sent us a copy of one of the books he’d done, and I was like, ‘Oh we should do a book.’ ‘What shall we call it?’ ‘Let’s call it The Bookworm’. ‘What shall we do?’ And so then another mutual acquaintance of ours, Ken Hollings, formerly of Biting Tongues and a broadcaster on BBCs Three and Four, had written an essay, and so we brought out a book of the first 25 illustrations of The Tapeworm releases and Ken’s essay, Parasitic Infestation.
Again, it was quite a nice object and we really liked what it was, so we thought we’d do some more of those. It’s like, once you’ve done one you can’t just have one, can you? I mean, that’s just crap. You need to do a couple more, so we did a couple more, and they’ve sold as well. The third book was by Stefan Goldmann, Presets – Digital Shortcuts To Sound. It’s an epic book on presets. Right now we have this book out by Savage Pencil and Barbara Frost, which is amazing, a real bodice-ripping page-turner.
Once you’ve done one thing, you can just go, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ So once you’ve done one record, one Wormhole, you’ve got to do more, once you’ve done a hundred tapes you’ve got to do a hundred more. And then you’ve got to move on to other things. At the moment, I’m almost breaking the original idea of The Tapeworm, but it’s almost like we have to contradict ourselves eternally. I’m considering doing a label called Digital Archives Of Tapeworm, or DAT, which is going to be an archive of Tapeworms digitally, just to shut people up more than anything else. Once you’ve done one thing you might as well do them all. I gave myself rules and now I’m going to break them. I don’t like rules.
Having reached 100 releases on The Tapeworm this year, Mike, Edwin and I talked about starting again in exactly the same order, but we didn’t do that because it seemed too much like hard work. In any case, we realised that we couldn’t, because some people had died, and it would have got quite a bit complicated. But conceptually, it was a very interesting idea, and that’s what matters: having the idea was good, doing it didn’t matter so much.
Interview: Mat Smith at Fork, Bloomsbury, November 12 2019.