Bis dat (Give more) is the latest release from the long-running Spire project, which celebrates the venerable organ and the long shadow cast over the development of contemporary music, from its Roman origins to its divisive association with the architecture of Christian churches. This collection is the second to feature various artists creating new pieces using The Eternal Chord ensemble’s Semper Liber (Always Free) album from 2018 as their source material, and finds artists as diverse as Faith Coloccia, BJ Nilsen and Zachary Paul offering tracks that further invert any commonly held misconceptions about the organ.
The Eternal Chord is curated by Touch’s Mike Harding and consists of Marcus Davidson, Hildur Gudnadottir, Charles Matthews, Clare M. Singer, Maia Urstad, Anna Von Hausswolff and others. Live performance is a critical aspect of The Eternal Chord, and Semper Liber was compiled and edited from various Spire events that have taken place around the world since 2009. Generally being custom-built for the specific location into which they were going to be installed, the players are just one aspect of Semper Liber – the other is the distinct sonic personality of the organ which is being played, whether that be the 1877 ‘Father’ Henry Willis organ at London’s Union Chapel or the comparatively modern 1967 Karl Ludwig Schuke instrument at Berlin’s Passionskirche.
Very often, it’s not really possible to identify anything resembling an organ on these pieces. Even allowing for aggressive processing and atypical performance, the instrument has a distinctive character which manages to cut through any alteration process. Brief moments of that character emerge in Faith Coloccia’s ‘Voice IV Sarcode’ or in the frozen stillness in the background of strom|morts’ ‘Absolute Magnitude Hermetism’, but for the most part what the organ provides to these pieces is a suggestion of its tonal familiarity.
One of the organ’s technical innovations was the ability to create infinitely held tones, and these pieces are filled with such drones – static, immovable blocks of texture that are anything but still. In the hands of Rhodri Davies’ ‘HAARP’, he deploys his e-bow to his harp to create layers of squalling, overlapping drones over the course of his 31-minute contribution. His piece is, at first, aggressive and uncomfortable, but listen to the delicate microtonal shifts sitting just on the edges, and what emerges is strangely hypnotic and uplifting. Something similar happens on Zachary Paul’s visceral ‘Sunken Cathedral’, where his scratchy violin rests on top of a a shimmering, impenetrable blur of rapid oscillations and drones so ephemeral that they could be sonic approximations of heat haze.
The Eternal Chord is a collaborative project in its own right, and Bis dat is broad minded enough to accommodate collaborations within that collaboration. Alcibiades is a pairing of the elusive radio static-manipulating venoztks and Jay Glass Dubs. Their ominous ‘Omicronology’ exists as a combination of skipping, hopping waves of intrafrequency growling and unfathomable vocal bursts, over which an inquisitive gamelan-style melody is interwoven. We hear echoes of the piece’s background radiation in a concluding piece from The Eternal Chord – ‘Omnia transeunt’ – which is many steps removed from anything resembling an organ, a ringing synth pulse and whistling sound approximating an unpredictable melody.
We all have a perception of what organ music sounds like. With Bis dat, and indeed all the various Spire activities, we are encouraged – forcibly, noisily and occasionally uncomfortably – to rethink that perception.
California Dreaming: The Underlying, by sound artist Bethan Kellough and light breaker, by the anonymous venoztks, offer two very different sonic impressions of California.
For Kellough’s contribution to Touch’s Displacing subscription service, that impression was informed by field recordings made at the edge of Salton Sea, not far from the Joshua Tree National Park and the Mexico border. We hear birds, insects and a gently unfolding natural ambience, but we also hear an undercurrent of something darker – the drones and white noise from a nearby geothermal power station. The power source, heralded as one of several sustainable alternatives to traditional oil and gas, is nevertheless obtrusive and impactful on the environment that surrounds the power plant.
Kellough’s sleight of hand is to take those two sets of sounds – the delicate vibrancy of nature and the omnipresent hum of the power station as she approaches it – and augment them with a sensitive arrangement of sounds that somehow resonate much closer to the choruses of birds and insects than the mechanical interjections of the power stations.
light breaker is the latest missive from venoztks, an artist who doesn’t so much operate at the margins but within the interstitial frequencies of shortwave radio. The fifty-minute piece that light breaker consists of (‘Indent’) is structured from captured radio recordings – voices overheard as fragmentary mid-conversation non sequiturs, howling white noise, brittle static and resonant bass sounds that ebb and flow as menacing slow-motion pulses. The effect is like listening to an intense analogue synthesiser improvisation, but everything you hear came from the radio and the manipulation of its dials.
As well as being an intriguing, absorbing listen from the outer edges of found sound, the album also acts as a highly effective sonic screen. I found myself listening to this while undertaking an array of tedious domestic chores, where the barrage of abrasive, sculpted sounds and found drones also provided a useful means of drowning out the tedious mumbly hip-hop music that my wife was playing far too loudly elsewhere in the house.
The Underlying by Bethan Kellough was released August 27 2021 by Touch. light breaker by venoztks was released August 26 2021.
On Sunday August 22 2021 I flew for the first time since before the pandemic. A short flight to Edinburgh was something that I’d have done, before, fairly often, usually accompanied by things to review. It occurred to me a few days before that I’d need to plan what to listen to in the air, an active decision over what to listen offline after spending most of the pandemic period constantly online, with access to anything. It felt a lot like travelling as a teenager, where I’d pack my Walkman and choose a bunch of tapes to haul around with me.
I decided to trawl through recent Bandcamp additions – purchases I’d made or promos I’d been sent – and that formed the basis of my in-flight entertainment. While in Edinburgh I visited Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh’s Song Of The Union at the Robert Burns Memorial near Calton Hill.
Take-off: CARL STONE – NAMIDABASHI
Carl Stone’s contribution to Touch’s brilliant Displacing subscription series translates roughly as Bridge Of Tears and was recorded for Radio Free Nakano in his Tokyo base. The 15-minute piece is one of fragile momentum, seeming to rush forth and build into a sort of suppressed motorik groove while retaining an effortless, dreamy levity. Released May 28 2021 by Touch.
In-flight: LISTENING LANDSCAPES – LL#1 (MUSIC FROM RIVER DERWENT) / RIVER DERWENT SOUNDSCAPES
Two 2021 releases from Dan Davies, both recorded using the sounds of the river Derwent in Derbyshire. Both illustrate Davies’ approach to taking field recordings and responding to them with additional composition for a diverse array of instruments, or leaving them poignantly unadorned. As such, these releases straddle the tranquility of listening to water and wind sounds (River Derwent Soundscapes) with delicately composed accompaniments (on LL#1) that are both mournful, vibrant and often noisy. Released March 28 2021 / May 6 2021.
Simon Proffitt’s work under the Carnedd Aur alias differs from his usual solo output as Cahn Ingold Prelog and The Master Musicians Of Dyffryn Moor by opting for more of an intentionally accessible output. Originally intended to be a body of work that his parents might recognise as something vaguely adjacent to electronic pop, the project instead became an engaging leftfield project whose titles were all inspired by different sub-species of beetles, with a sound that’s pure insectoid minimal acid-inflected techno. Released August 6 2021 by superpolar Taïps.
Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s contribution to Edinburgh’s Art Festival is a thought-provoking seven-channel sound art work installed in the Robert Burns Monument near Calton Hill. For the piece, Ogboh recorded versions of Burns’ poignant ‘Auld Lang Syne’ sung by twenty-seven Europeans living in Scotland, one from each of the member states of the European Union that the UK left in January 2021. His work has a subtle power as you sit in the Burns Monument and listen to the interwoven voices singing atop one another; being of Scottish descent, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has always had subtle, stirring poignancy for me; heard in the context of a political work swirling and echoing around the circular space, its maudlin outlook is deeply unsettling. The day after I visited, I found myself walking past the building again. I could hear the plaintive voices wafting sadly into the aether, like ephemeral vapours of what once was. Song Of The Union runs to August 29 2021.
Take-off / in-flight: JAMES MAINWARING – MYCORRHIZA
Saxophonist James Mainwaring occupies a sort of indeterminate zone between improvisation and composition. His latest album for Discus is titled after the symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi and its 13 pieces carry a similar sense of integration between the instrumentation. The signature piece is ‘Komorebi’, which features Mainwaring’s sax alongside mournful strings and field recordings of birds made near the house where he grew up, an extra level of significance when you learn that the house is scheduled to be demolished as part of the HS2 construction project. On ‘Statues’, which begins as an understated ballad and ends as a free and urgent piece, Mainwaring’s playing nods reverentially in the direction of Paul Desmond; ‘Globe’, on the other hand, makes an unexpected left-turn into synthesiser minimalism and insistent post-rock, angular musings. Released Juy 13 2021 by Discus Music.
In-flight / landing: ANNA MEREDITH – BUMPS PER MINUTE: 18 STUDIES FOR DODGEMS
Bumps Per Minute was Somerset House resident composer Anna Meredith’s contribution to the London venue’s entertaining DODGE experience, which closed on August 22 2021. Though most people just went for the nostalgia of riding an old fairground ride after a few cocktails, every hour, Meredith and sound artist Nick Ryan would subvert the traditional dodgem ride so that every bump or collision would trigger a different one of her specially-written compositions. The companion album includes those 18 compositions played all the way through; it might lack the chaotic randomness of the ride experience, but it nevertheless carries a decent approximation of what it was like to laugh uproariously, half-cut on over-priced cocktails, as you careered around the track accompanied by a skipping soundtrack that felt like a malfunctioning player piano tackling Don Dorsey’s Main Street Electrical Parade music through an 8-bit computer. Released July 15 2021.
Sometimes in life you find yourself constructing walls around yourself, often subconsciously. Those structures form through the need for emotional self-preservation, retreat, a desire for safety or just through a need to fend off something that you feel bearing down on you. Some of those walls are temporary and as fragile as an ego; others are like a bunker, as permanent as a concrete cap on an atomic bomb-ravaged atoll.
As 2020 dragged itself without fanfare into 2021, I found myself building a few of those walls. I built those walls using sound – drones, soundscapes, textural ambience, deep listening – played loudly through earphones that allowed me to shut out the rest of the world. These listening sessions were like sonic screens, enclosed spaces that allowed me to breathe freely when life and relationships seemed to want to starve me of oxygen. They were both fleeting (the length of an album, the duration of a single piece, cut-off halfway through to attend to chores, teenagers, kittens) and enduring, often staying with me long after whatever I was listening to had finished; though these pieces typically lacked discernible rhythms, they allowed my mind and imagination to dance wildly in a cathartic nightclub, while also blocking out the incessant, relentless, repetitive sound of gloomy, compression-heavy YouTube hip-hop videos played at excruciating volume from our lounge.
Such was the case with Stardust, the sonic screen that seems to have provided the hardest exterior of all the things that I’ve listened to of late. Consisting of eleven pieces derived from dubplates of sounds recorded made by Faith Coloccia on Washington state’s Vashon Island between 2015 and 2018, these sounds were then processed and augmented by avant garde turntablist Philip Jeck in Liverpool last year as lockdown rolled its way toward the bleakest of winters. It falls somewhere between a collaboration characterised by an absence of direct collaboration, and a sound art call-and-response.
Not that Stardust is some sort of pastoral, easy-listening ambient fluff. Its architecture is characterised by a fretful, fidgety, wandering core, flitting between passages of wordless vocal murmuring and churning, antsy noise loops. And yet, for all its challenging adornments, as a whole this album is curiously soothing. Sounds and loops begin to slip out of reach, typically just as you’ve become comforted by their presence, and there is this continual sense of elusiveness, of sounds too fleeting to endure. It would be easy to be stressed by a piece like ‘Creosote’, which embodies all of these facets – and which moves seamlessly between the pretty and the pretty ugly – but instead it becomes weirdly peaceful; so much so that you drop this as a dirty sound bomb over a warzone and weapons would be laid down and ceasefires signalled.
Pieces like the title track have a gently swirling, endarkened motion, like listening to the sound of debris funnelled rapidly skywards after an explosion, yet a certain muted, choral stateliness seems to reveal itself as the piece progresses. ‘Archaea’ has some of the same qualities, its reverb-drenched fabric sounding like the dense throb of rush-hour traffic in a tunnel and a Latin hymn heard from outside a cathedral. ‘Mycorrhizae’ is the most wonderfully noisy and challenging piece of the collection, its distorted sonic core prowling into view like an incessant machine and staying richly grubby and enveloping throughout.
There are also moments of delicate levity – ‘Acquire The Air’ inches forward on held tones and brooding, looped spirals which give a sense of contemplation, while ‘Usnea’ has a ringing processed piano refrain that sounds like joyously peeling bells. Perhaps the most surprising moment here is also where Jeck’s presence is least felt – on ‘Speaking Stone’, which is essentially a vehicle for Coloccia’s beguiling, haunting vocal, here pitched somewhere between folk whimsy and dark nursery rhyme (Coloccia recorded while her newborn son was sleeping, so a nursery rhyme isn’t far off the mark). Jeck’s contribution is treacly rich reverb, giving Coloccia’s voice a displaced, otherworldly outlook. The same vocal appears again on the album’s concluding track, ‘Sun’, augmented by febrile sounds heard from an obliterated, broken point off in the distance, or from within the walls that surround me every time I play this captivating album.
Stardust by Faith Coloccia & Philip Jeck was released May 21 2021 by Touch. With thanks to the Minister of Names.
A new album from Downstream Records founder and fan of aliases Damon Vallero, who we last covered when he released last year’s Damaged Textures album under the name Local Sound Developer. Erratic Gestures & Static Instability finds Vallero deploying the quirky Cocoquantus and Plumbutter units from Baltimore synth house Ciat-Lonbarde, whose unique sound-creating interfaces give the album a playful suite of timbres but also more than an affectionate nod in the direction of some of the earliest electronic music experiments. The buzzing topline of ‘Wasp Having A Spa Day’ and its seesawing, wobbly foundation layer wins the prize for the most evocative track of the collection, while ‘Levitation’ has a soothing, contemplative quality ideally suited to a brief moment of calm in the maelstrom of our diurnal existences. Wonderful sounds from St. Albans and another release from Vallero worth spending some quality time with. Released February 5 2021.
THE GREEN KINGDOM – SOLARIA / SWEENEY – MISERY PEAKS (Sound In Silence)
Two new releases from the Athens-based Sound In Silence imprint. The first, from Michigan-based Michael Cottone’s long-running The Green Kingdom project, is a collection of warm, almost folksy ambient soundscapes for electronics and guitar that – to this listener anyway – evokes the subtle optimism that comes with the shift from winter to spring. The details here are what’s important: the eight-minute ‘Arc’ offers a melody that nods in the direction of The Isley Brothers’ version of ‘Summer Breeze’ and ‘Sol 1’ sounds like what happened when Depeche Mode opened the gate to A Broken Frame’s secret garden. The second, Misery Peaks by Australian Jason Sweeney, finds the singer and sound artist offering a ruminative suite of songs over an intricate backdrop of turbulent gestures, modern classical tonalities, harsh industrial noise and sparse, fractured rhythms. ‘Sun’ is the album’s towering highlight, a plaintive love song placed in the context of a constantly-shifting tapestry of sonic events underpinned by a shrouded, submerged pulse. Both released March 27 2021.
GENEVA SKEEN – THE CLAP OF THE FADING-OUT SOUND OF YOUR SHOES (Touch)
Geneva Skeen’s contribution to Touch’s Displacing subscriptionseries finds her using the recorded sounds of Los Angeles from earlier this year and augmenting those with electronic manipulations to form a single piece of episodic, adventurous sound art. Like Chris Watson’s Displacing contribution (Station Chapelle), Skeen’s sounds have a strange, slightly unplaceable otherness. We are told that these sounds originate from LA, but how can we really be sure? What are the critical signifiers of their provenance? What is so distinctive about the hum of a helicopter, a person humming quietly to themselves, what could be the sound of cars driving over joints in a concrete bridge or the rain that makes these sounds sound like LA? This is perhaps the beauty of any field recording taken out of context – they are sounds that need explaining, that need justifying, as if we could not expect to comprehend them otherwise. Put that irreverent psychobabble to one side and what you have is an exciting, vibrant suite of noisy-beautiful sounds that carry a brooding purpose and a dark energy… which I guess is a fairly accurate depiction of LA, actually, now I come to think of it. The Clap Of The Fading-Out Sound Of Your Shoes is another brilliantly evocative chapter in the Displacing story. Released April 2 2021.
A new album arriving through your letterbox from peripatetic Bourneville sonic magician Andrew ‘Sad Man’ Spackman is always a treat. Sidestepping the surprising directional shifts of his last three projects – the oblique radio play Stories From An Island with Francis Lowe for Cue Dot, the claustrophobic Music Of Dreams And Panic for Wormhole World and his soundtrack for silent movie Menilmontant – The Man From S.A.D finds Spackman riffing off the electronic wonkiness that characterised 2020’s genius Daddy Biscuits. More melodic than some of his other releases, for the most part The Man From S.A.D has a cheerful swagger and spring in its step, exemplified by the churning electric forward motion of the standout ‘Finny Feet’ and ‘The Green Opal’. We also find Spackman experimenting with vocal textures and samples across this album, always in typically skewed and playful way (see his brilliantly obtuse soul-inflected block party jam ‘The Shark’). What’s refreshingly omnipresent, though, is his dexterous, restless ability to endlessly hop from one idea to the next without catching breath, an effect that’s a lot like watching Charlie Chaplin in the mesmerising, chaotic but meticulously arranged conveyor belt scene from Modern Times. Released April 23 2021.
SATURNIN SEKTOR – NIGHT ENCOUNTERS (Cruel Nature Records)
Kinda hard to write about this new Cruel Nature album by Genovese electronic music duo Saturnin Sektor without using the expression ‘imaginary soundtrack’ or the superlative ‘John Carpenter-esque’ – mostly because Night Encounters is an imaginary soundtrack and its familiar tonality was inspired by the long shadow that Carpenter’s approach to scoring cast over a pivotal segment of the 1980s movie landscape. So you know the drill: stalking basslines, expressive melodies, resolute drum patterns and a heightened sense of psychological drama, which these ten tracks all have in an abundance. MS and TC (the anonymous minds behind the project) break with the format slightly on ‘Among The Ruins’, which manages to adopt a proggy stance courtesy of some soaring ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ organ chords; at just shy of five minutes, the preceding action in our imaginary movie suggests a heck of a lot of stuff got ruined. Released April 30 2021.
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS & BRION GYSIN – WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS & BRION GYSIN
This vinyl-only release from Cold Spring collects together rare recordings of Beat authors William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, drawing together pieces made while they were both staying in Paris in 1970, an October 1982 Burroughs performance from Liverpool’s Centre Hotel, and a series of poetry readings by Gysin from the mix-1960s. Listening to Burroughs’ familiar drawl from the Centre Hotel recordings, there’s a certain deft humour to his newsreader-like delivery which has the audience in uproarious laughter. Some of Burroughs’ racial language is enormously offensive when heard today, but it’s the home recording of his asserting a nihilistic surrender to junk on an extract from ‘The Beginning Is Also The End’ that’s arguably the collection’s most shocking moment.
Gysin’s recordings focus on the development of the cut-up technique, including the instructive tape piece ‘Cut Ups Self-Explained’ which sounds like a lecture on the process until its practical demonstration reveals the splices, leading to words placed out of context, suddenly making no sense, making new shapes and inferences instead. Alongside pieces like ‘Pistol Poem’, wherein the dry sound of a gunshot is looped into a nascent rhythm, Gysin initially appears the more experimental of the two word-innovators, but largely only because the Burroughs performance making up most of this album is relatively linear. The inclusion of three versions of the Burroughs piece ‘Invisible Art’, supported by inchoate found sounds and words, does much to even up the balance. Released May 10 2021.
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.
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