Etched on the blank Side Two of Dead Kennedys’ In God We Trust, Inc cassette tape EP are the words, “Home Taping Is Killing Record Industry Profits. We left this side blank so you can help”. There is something in that statement that captures the outsider nature of recording and mixing on one’s own cassettes. Home taping in the 80s didn’t necessarily kill the record industry but the cassette format gave a voice to those that the mainstream didn’t always have an ear for.
This is especially true when artists eschew modern home-recording technology the likes of Pro Tools and GarageBand and just simultaneously press Play and Record on an old tape deck. There are certain artists who come up whenever this genre is discussed, and some that, for some reason, get forgotten. Here, we will try to honour both…
No discussion of lo-fi tape heroes would be complete without mentioning Daniel Johnston, who made his mark selling cassettes in Austin, Texas. With his hand-drawn album covers, his reaching falsetto and his almost kid toy-sounding organ, Johnston’s songs were instantly charming and had a pop sensibility that couldn’t easily be matched.
When Kurt Cobain proclaimed that one of his favourite albums was Yip/Jump Music and was seen wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Hi, How Are You album cover, it caused a bidding war between labels. This was all while Johnston was still a resident of a mental hospital. Tom Waits, Eels, The Flaming Lips and many other artists have lauded his work and even participated on an album of tribute covers.
The Mountain Goats
One of the most prolific lo-fi recording artists is probably The Mountain Goats. John Darnielle, the band’s sole constant member and principal songwriter, has been putting out releases almost every year of the band’s existence, since 1991. The early recordings were made in a variety of ways, most notably is the recording of Full Force Galesburg and All Hail West Texas on a Panasonic cassette tape recorder. The songs are short and structurally simple but lyrically dense; Darnielle writes several songs with a story. He treats their characters with an endearing empathy.
It wasn’t until the mid-00s that he started to get more autobiographical, with the album We Shall All Be Healed. Darnielle has lived all over and he has several “Going To” songs, including ‘Going To Alaska’, ‘Going To Chino’, ‘Going To Wisconsin’ and others. There are also recurring Alpha Couple characters (‘Alpha Sun Hat’, ‘Alpha Rats Nest’, etc) in some of his earliest recordings. One could probably write an entire book on the output and songwriting behind The Mountain Goats, but a good entry point is We Shall All Be Healed, a personal and cutting album. For the full lo-fi experience, All Hail West Texas, is another standout, thanks in part to the opening track, ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’.
Even purveyors of the lo-fi scene often overlook the phenomenal Kathleen Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill break-up and pre-Le Tigre formation band, Julie Ruin. Not to be confused with her current band, The Julie Ruin, the Julie Ruin collection was written, performed, produced, and recorded in Kathleen Hanna’s bedroom, using a $40 drum machine. Some might think that these special, intimate recordings contain the seeds that would eventually bloom into the punk feminist electronic band, Le Tigre. There is something special about this recording as it sounds almost voyeuristic.
Kathleen explained in the biographical film The Punk Singer, “I really wanted to start singing directly to women. It sounds like bedroom culture. It sounds like something a girl made in her bedroom. A girl’s bedroom sometimes can be this space of real creativity. The problem is that these bedrooms are all cut off from each other. So, how do you take that bedroom that you’re cut off from all the other girls who are secretly in their bedrooms writing secret things or making secret songs? I wanted the Julie Ruin record to sound like a girl from her bedroom made this record but then didn’t just throw it away or it wasn’t just in her diary, but she took it out and shared it with people”.
Before Beck was recording Sea Change or getting himself a ‘Devils Haircut’, he was recording strange cassettes and selling them all over Los Angeles and New York. As a child, he lived in LA, soaking up Beat jazz places with his brother, or listening to hip-hop and learning how to breakdance. At some point, he discovered the blues and eventually made his made to New York, where he fell into the anti-folk scene. He figured out he could write songs about even the most banal topics with free associative lyrics, and it would be different and interesting. He made his way back to Los Angeles and gained an eccentric reputation for playing folk songs and doing performance art with strange props at bars and coffee houses, in between other performing bands.
Beck made tape upon tape during this time. At a certain point, someone introduced him to Karl Stephenson, a producer for Rap-A-Lot records, and, with Bong Load Records’ Tom Rothrock, they cut ‘Loser’ – and the rest is history. Beck’s lo-fi cassette period can still be found on the collection Stereopathetic Soulmanure, which features the fan favourite ‘Satan Gave Me a Taco’. Beck never stopped experimenting with genre-bending home recordings, and never lost his appreciation for outsider artists like himself. In fact, the “That was a good drum break” sample in ‘Where It’s At’, from the critically acclaimed Odelay, comes from the next artist…
Despite their lo-fi aesthetic, The Frogs were one of the most raunchy and controversial acts in rock’n’roll. Started by Milwaukee brothers Jimmy and Dennis Flemion, they attracted famous fans (Eddie Vedder, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins and the late Kurt Cobain, to name a few) but never quite broke as an act to a larger audience. Their songs are short and catchy but also irreverent, and tackle taboo subjects such as sexuality, race, and religion. Due to their inflammatory lyrics, people generally either loved or loathed The Frogs.
The band saw their songs as tongue-in-check, but others found them wildly offensive. While the songs are folk-rocky, the group’s look was decidedly glam. One brother would don six-foot bat wings and there would often be wigs and pyrotechnics involved in their stage show. Their cult status reached its pinnacle in the 90s, when the group opened for Pearl Jam and Mudhoney, and playing the second stage at Lollapolooza, where Billy Corgan would often join them. Their third album, My Daughter the Broad, is a great compilation of the group’s improvised homemade recordings over the course of the late 80s, featuring a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Reelin’ & Rockin’.
Masters Of The Obvious, or, as they’re better known, MOTO, is a garage band based in New Orleans, with Paul Caporino as the only consistent member. Often referred to as “Ramones with better jokes”, MOTO started their career in the home-taping world as a way to get word out about them. Caporino would record the tapes as demos and then decide if they were good enough to distribute. The songs are incredibly catchy, with have wink-and-nod references to other artists, including Joy Division, Black Flag or The Beatles.
Their songs are also mind-bogglingly fast. If you ever see Caporino live, he starts each song with “Ready, aim, fire”, not “One, two, three, four”. With titles like ‘Dance Dance Dance Dance Dance To the Radio’ or ‘Dick About It’, you know the subject matter isn’t serious, but you’ll be humming their songs for the rest of your days. Whereas punk has sometimes been short on humour, MOTO deliver their sophomoric gags with political bite.
The tape culture of the 80s eventually gave rise to the lo-fi aesthetic of the 90s, where poor audio quality was the ultimate badge of authenticity. While people rarely record on analogue anymore, the scrappy spirit of DIY recording remerged in the mid-00s, giving rise to lo-fi, anti-folk and scuzzy noise-rock bands like Wavves, The Moldy Peaches and Sleigh Bells.
While tape-sharing was once the hallmark of the indie underground scene, the format has remerged over the past couple years with big name artists reissuing their back catalogue on cassette, including Eminem (The Slim Shady LP) and Blink-182. Smaller labels have also stepped up to serve this cult market, including Burger Records in California and the London-based Post/Pop Records. Just when you thought the medium was dead, it’s come back to life and even has whole festivals dedicated to it, from the San Francisco Tape Music Festival to the Cassette Indoor Festival in the Netherlands.
Follow the Alt & Indie playlist for more underground artists from the 80s to now, including Dinosaur Jr, The Fall, The La’s and more.