Tenement Tapes: An Interview with Keith McIvor

As a recent Glasgow blow-in I first saw Keith McIvor (JD Twitch) between sets at the Old Hairdressers during a Zoviet France and O Yuki Conjugate night in 2019. He played a Frank Harris & Maria Marquez avant-pop rendition of the Venezuelan traditional “Canto del Pílon” (1985). Uncannily fitting to the title, although a reference to the conical pílon of sugarMarquez’ reinterpretation – accompanied by Harris’ synclavier escapades – evokes the pylon of an Egyptian temple leading through time, until a sequence of electricity pylons dot over the horizon. I mention this specific song because Keith has a knack for placing recordings into a space, which no matter how out of place they may seem to whatever else is occurring – in this case moments before the seminal industrialists Zoviet France took the stage – the contrasts break through as arrivals rather than disjunctures.  

Keith was at the forefront of two luminary club nights in Scotland. Pure, which for a decade throttled the techno-addled Edinburgh scene out of Thatcherism down a close lined with ecstasy (1990-2000). And Optimo (Espacio) (1997-2010), which has left an imprint on Glasgow’s underground that still informs the city’s multifaceted scenes.    

Keith also runs Optimo Music. As JD Twitch he has remixed the likes of Liquid Liquid, Konono No. 1, Charles Hayward of This Heat, Indoor Life, Harald Grosskopf and Steve Poindexter.  

For this interview, which we’re reclaiming as Tenement Tapes Day (known otherwise as Basement Tapes Day), Keith and I met in a park, where he handed-over a pair of cassette recordings from Freestyle with Twitch, his Subcity radio show in the 1990s, and an ostensibly random acetate disc pressed by Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin. As Keith no longer has a cassette player and acetate discs degrade effortlessly with each playback; and in lieu of being able to listen back to the material together at the National Library of Scotland’s magnetic tape and fragile disc studios in Kelvin Hall, I took the tapes and disc back to the studio for digitisation so Keith could have a listen back at home. 

This discussion is about Keith listening back to these recordings, but more broadly speaking, about listening back in general – how it engages and transforms memory in fashioning how we experience our surroundings, the agency we may or may not have, where archives fit in, and how the act of listening throws a much-needed spanner into the cadence determined by more rigid clocks in exposing deeper avenues of the self and our respect for the wider community as we move within it across time.  

Mid-1990s cassette of Keith’s Subcity show ‘Freestyle with Twitch (aka Keep Those Dreams Burning)’

Conor (C): Dance culture and the underground music scenes it sips from have been both a stalwart of inclusivity and praxis for developing diverse communities, and yet we also see capital and cultural capital siphoned to ensure power and influence remain in white, male and Global North hands. Many of us, myself included, learned about radical politics and lifestyles from outer jazz, Detroit techno, dub, and post-punk; and from going to raves and experiencing a diversity unavailable elsewhere. As someone who has spent your entire life in underground music, what are your thoughts on how dance culture navigates this struggle and how do we move forward to ensure histories aren’t appropriated, misrepresented and that marginalised communities have a seat at the table they created and have sustained for generations? 

Keith (K): I think ‘dance culture’ is too broad a church to be able to navigate this struggle. There are in fact multiple dance cultures that have as much in common with each other as, for example free jazz does to muzak. I feel people often expect them to act as a unified, united whole when in fact, this is an impossibility. The mainstream of dance culture is a machine designed to generate money and fame. It doesn’t and won’t care about anything beyond this, as it is capitalism incarnate and capitalism doesn’t care about diversity nor does it relinquish power unless it is of economic benefit. Mainstream dance culture may make a few vague concessions to diversity but only because it may be expedient to do so. 

Despite this, the so-called underground gets upset by this, when I feel they should expect nothing from mainstream dance culture, ignore it and come to the realisation it is a separate world. I also think the sooner the underground stops aspiring to embrace the tropes of mainstream dance culture the better. So-called undergrounds are much, much better at navigating all this when they devote less energy to trying to make the mainstream change and stop seeing the mainstream as some sort of mirror image. 

Then perhaps the underground can focus more clearly on the massive amount of work needing to be done. 

C: Since 1662 UK book publishers are required under Legal Deposit to entrust their publications to six UK and Irish libraries, but these laws don’t extend to audio-visual content. When we first spoke, you mentioned you’re a ‘shit archivist’. How do you envision the music scenes you’ve participated in being preserved for future generations? Will this occur organically, due in large to collective memory, or do institutions need to step in to protect the legacy? 

K: Part of the reason I am a ‘shit archivist’ is I don’t think everything should be preserved. We live in an era of over documentation. Sometimes live music and the club experience are best not preserved, as recordings can only document part of the story. Most of my gigs weren’t recorded – whereas there have been gigs that were recorded, which have been very special, but that I have then declined to make available online because they only made sense in the moment. People listening back to them might notice and focus on technical imperfections that in the moment went unnoticed and didn’t matter, or musical juxtapositions that seem to not make sense, but as it occurred was exactly the right thing for the energy in the space.  

Of course, there are untold numbers of great and worthy documented live recordings, but not all will have that special x factor, and sometimes just the knowledge a set is being recorded will impact the outcome. I have long been a champion of the idea of collective memory, but as scenes I participated in stretch back several decades, I have concluded collective memory often forgets, mis-remembers or completely fades away.  

Perhaps institutions really do need to step in and protect the legacy. The issue then is what to preserve as there is such a vast amount of material and who is the judge of what is worthy of documentation? 

C: Because of its unyielding power and dynamism I have Sonny & Linda Sharrock’s Black Woman (1969) in my head. Falling in love with underground, outsider, experimental and counter-hegemonic recordings circulates an agency that feels inert across other societal paradigms, particularly in uncovering escape routes away from the status quo. Receiving that agency – and I suppose I’m even getting spiritual here – is the only mechanism I’ve found to cut through the alienation of how we’ve ordered our surroundings. During the pandemic our listening experience has become unhealthily private – we have the recorded past to dip into, it’s a restorative period for new music and we can experience live music through streams, but without gathering publicly, without the release of dancing and listening together, we are tormented and dismembered. I know we must wait for a time when it’s safe to reconvene, but what are your thoughts on this purgatorial period, especially in how it’s forcing the collective expression of music into dormancy?   

K: I have found it extremely challenging. It feels as if part of my soul has been ripped out. I first started going to gigs at twelve and am pretty sure from fifteen onwards I haven’t gone more than a couple of weeks without immersing into live music. I’ve played approximately 3000 DJ gigs over the years and two weeks is probably the longest I have gone without performing in three decades. Recently I was privileged to get a little taste of what I and many others have been missing when we did a very controlled, socially distanced event in Glasgow. Even though the audience had to remain seated and there was no dancing, no mingling and low volume, the atmosphere was palpable and we all got a vivid reminder of that communal, shared cultural experience when human beings gather, which we are so desperately missing. ‘Tormented’ is a good way to describe what life is like without the release of dancing and listening together. I am really struggling without it. I feel drained of energy; drained of life force. My passion in this life is sharing music and of course this can be done online, but it is nowhere near the same. And so yes, listening to music at home in these times can absolutely feel unhealthily private. 

C: You dropped off an unaccounted-for acetate disc. As you mentioned, you didn’t want to play it at home to find out what’s on it because the disc deteriorates each time the stylus graces its surface. The recordings may have gathered dust for a reason, in this case plasticiser (a white discharge that looks like mould), but it could also be something impeccable and crucial. Now that you’ve listened back to it, was it lost in the heap for a reason or is it an example of the necessity to preserve recordings?  

K: It remains a mystery. I already have all four tracks on vinyl; it makes no sense to then have them pressed on an acetate. Usually I would have at least a vague memory of something like this, but in this case the memory banks are blank. It was in the sleeve of another record, so it is not as if I knowingly kept it either.  

Keith’s mysterious acetate disc, pressed at Dubplates & Mastering, Berlin

C: The disc features four seemingly unrelated cuts; Miroslav Vitous’ “New York City”, 20th Century Steel Band’s “Heaven & Hell Is On Earth”, Cameo’s “Money (Reese mix)” and Medium Medium’s Adrian Sherwood produced “Hungry So Angry”. Even though the final cut is about tensions in a relationship (maybe between Yoko and John?), it’s also a bright red brick into the window of Thatcher’s Britain. When I first heard it as a teenager, its beautifully punchy angst really struck a chord that still vibrates today. While listening back to the disc as it was transferred, I was again filled with this angst, but rather than feeling like it was a misplaced echo from youth, it felt utterly at home in this broken time of quicksand we are stuck in. Even though the disc turned out to be four seemingly random and published tracks, I’ve always appreciated how music follows us, catches backup and allows us to continue threads that keep haunting as we age. What are your feelings after relistening to these four cuts or maybe one of them stands out? 

K: Three of the four mean something significant to me. The Cameo track was played at Optimo, but was a really big anthem at Pure, and is definitely a track the regular attendees would feel as synonymous with me. Medium Medium was a teenage favourite of mine. I discovered them through being a Sherwood acolyte and I revived it at Optimo, while 20th Century Steel Band was one of the defining songs of the early Optimo era. Miroslav Vitous was to an extent a track played at Optimo and indeed was included on our first mix CD, but it’s a bit of an outlier here and just deepens the whole mystery behind this disc’s existence. 

Twitch DJ’ing at Pure in Edinburgh (c. 1996)

C: What memories surfaced while listening back to the cassettes from your Keep Your Dreams Burning radio show, which broadcasted on Subcity in the ‘90s? 

K: They have brought back vivid memories of the two locations on Park Circus where I did the show from. Most of the shows were out of a mews building behind what was then the original Glasgow University Maclay Halls of Residence. My show was at night, I think maybe 10:00 pm until whenever I wanted to stop. A friend of mine made some jingles and there was a machine to play these, but otherwise the set up was very basic. I never knew if anyone was listening but learned from friends at local record shops that quite a few people would come in to ask for records I played on the show. Since those years I have heard from a lot of people who said they listened. It is worth noting that Subcity had a temporary license to broadcast, and the transmitter could be picked up quite far outside Glasgow. 

The other location, a year later, in 1997/8 was a top floor flat on Park Circus, which Glasgow Uni must have owned. I think I only did one show from that location as I accidentally got locked in and despite making appeals on-air nobody came to let me out until late the next morning. I think that put me off continuing, but it was also around the time Optimo started and all my attention was redirected into it. 

I do remember a great sense of freedom to do whatever I wanted, and it was doing this that helped formulate the notion that a club night could feature all sorts of music – way beyond the sphere of what was generally perceived ‘club music’. Part of the inspiration for the genesis of the Optimo club night definitely came out of these radio shows. 

C: A lot of the content in these tapes, alongside more obscure material, are now canonised underground classics; New Order, Suicide, Television, The Stooges, Spiritualized, Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra, Can, etc. With the incredible access to our recorded past unleashed by the internet, we now have a tendency to rewrite music history, determining something as a classic, for example, even though at the time of its release it may have sunk into obscurity. The list of artists are all seminal in their own right, many of whom were also massive successes in their day, but now we can very easily delve into the most forgotten and neglected material. I am guilty of this, as are many DJs. After listening back to these cassettes, what are your thoughts around this abrupt acceleration in access and experiencing recorded music? 

K: It was quite unusual to hear this music at the time. I think my show was a bit different to anything else on Subcity. Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997 Dedicated) was just released – but Suicide, Television, The Stooges, Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra – they were mostly forgotten and felt quite out of fashion at that point. Most of my club audience would probably not have been familiar with any of them. At that time Can records were next to impossible to find in Glasgow. It’s around when I think I found my first Neu! album in Glasgow. I was looking for one for over a decade. Neu! were this mythical band that I had no way of hearing; I used to imagine what they might actually be like. It was such a different time from today. It is hard to get over just how difficult it was to hear and access lots of music; a lot of patience was required – It took fifteen years from when I first read about Fela Kuti until I finally heard a Fela Kuti album. I was going to say it might as well have been in the previous millennium, but of course it really was! 

Now almost the entirety of recorded music is at our fingertips, if you know where to look. I would never suggest that people don’t appreciate music as much today, but it is easy not to cherish it as much and to constantly be seeking out the next obscure record that would just never have been on anyone’s radar back then. Despite playing some artists that are now regarded as canonical on my show, in general I have always had quite an anti-canonical stance, but today there are many music freaks who don’t even know what the canon is, which is perhaps as it should be. A canon only exists because it is decreed to be so, often by self-appointed gatekeepers. I know experts on, let’s say, Latvian samizdat 80s synth pop or Indonesian Rock In Opposition (RIO) cassettes, who have never heard Pink Floyd. I’m not making a judgement, just noting this acceleration in access throws up previously unimaginable ways of approaching, discovering, judging and appreciating music from literally every corner of the planet.  

C: I appreciate when people know when to end something they love – whether it’s a band, a label or a club night. Regarding mortality, there is something genuine and biologically relatable to the acute awareness of lifecycles. Why did Optimo (Espacio) come to an end? 

K: It was time. We were travelling almost every weekend to play all over the world, but almost without exception we would find a way to get back to play every Sunday in Glasgow. Once we even played in Tokyo on a Saturday night, until 7:00 am, went straight to the airport and due to the time difference made it back to play Optimo at the Sub Club. But it started to get too much and one of the things about the weekly club was that we put so much love and energy into it and the ability to devote that on the level required was starting to diminish with all the touring. I also wanted to do other things, such as run a label, and it was important for the club to end on a high, rather than dwindling away. It was incredible it lasted over twelve years, and that each week, it was still the best club I had ever been to. It felt like it was only a matter of time before the odds had to stack up against it. 


Dunning and Brosamer – Glocken [Invisible City Records 2019]

Dunning and Brosamer’s “Metronome”

When I was a teenager I played tapes on my blue Walkman. I listened to and through music, and fell asleep with my headphones on. In the morning the batteries were exhausted. It happened all the time. Songs created a link or a tie – a vibrant map for living. I always listened to the same tapes (and more often than not, to a self-made copy of Beat Happening’s Black Candy and its obscure, pounding sweetness). I knew the music inside out; it invariably took me back home.

Later, other albums took me away, unlocking deep, unsuspected doors – unsettling the ground, the very foundations of identity. I remember the soft stridence of Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising, Warp’s Artificial Intelligence compilations, the pensive urgency of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. This was music for getting lost: lost in sounds, and, increasingly, lost to oneself, gently (yet absolutely) decentred, displaced, absorbed.  

Dunning and Brosamer’s minimalist Glocken (‘Bells’) belongs to the second category of albums (though, of course, the gate between the two is flying wide open). Every time I listen to the tape something emerges which wasn’t there before – and what was there before has changed again. Glocken retains nothing except, maybe, the beautiful record of its own alterations. White noise and tiny, subsonic vibrations – elemental electronics. The six tracks, all of which were recorded live, belong together like strata of the same geological ground. They seem to be governed by delicate climates and seasons of their own. This may be because they are mostly made of fragments, debris. According to the liner notes, Dunning and Brosamer made this album using an assortment of ‘gramophone, turntable, modified records, cast 78s, retextured disks’ (courtesy of artist Lisa Schlenker), ‘mobile devices’ and ‘synths’.

Glocken is a continuation of Dunning and Brosamer’s respective art practices, and former collaborations. In one of his early phono-archaeological projects, turntablist Graham Dunning had literally dug into the earth, where a storing facility for gramophone records used to be, excavating dozens of tiny shellac shards and trying to reconstitute and replay the broken records. Gramophone artist Sascha Brosamer, too, works with natural and manmade fragments – the cover of the tape shows a 78rpm disc cast from river trash collected alongside the banks of the Mississippi or the Panke. These waste-records, forever disintegrating, get played throughout Glocken. Because this composite album was assembled by people who let textures and materials speak, there are no recognizable words or singing, no soothing, familiar tones. Only the hands of the makers-discovers remain present, invisibly spinning, sampling and weaving sounds together – leaving imprints and marks which become embedded into the final object.

Despite its home-made, hesitant qualities, there is also something heavy and fiercely industrial to Glocken. It reminds me of the experimental pattern films of the 1930s – full of bright flashes, electric pulsations and abrupt disappearances. Films without actors, without a plot even. At one point (on “Ack”) a frail melody is heard, as if emerging from an old music-box – and gets immediately repressed. There are other attempted beginnings and hints of narration throughout the album. But (contrary, for instance, to hauntology’s love of storytelling and nostalgic reconstructions), no tale is told. Nothing gets repaired, mastered or organised. Only the ruins remain. Glocken is best heard in the dark – recalling, at times, the icy, infrasonic landscapes of musique concrète – the soulless, yet oddly poignant song of automation. And when the last dreamer falls asleep, the music will persist – indifferent and mechanical – almost absent to itself.

No One Will Ever Know: Flowers in the Sky turns 12 [The Grass is Green in the Fields for You 2020]

The Cat’s Miaow “From my Window” [Toytown 1993]

First suggestion: haunting is historical, to be sure, but it is not dated, it is never docilely given a date in the chain of presents, day after day, according to the instituted order or a calendar. Untimely, it does not come to, it does not happen to, it does not befall, one day …

— Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx 1

Delving back into the twee punk of our youth may seem counterintuitive during these times, yet at its most utilitarian, the music employs the blind optimism and mistruths of pop culture to burrow into the cracks. Inside the degraded adhesive of its pastel pink wallpaper, this sardonic exposé jangling out of a near-past body politic warrants revisiting. As illness metaphorises 2 across broken system after broken system; lo-fi outsider punk, C86, jangle, the paisley underground and related scenes from Glasgow to Auckland in the 1980s and 1990s portray a ruinous background, fattened into an omnipresent blob: not only from the onset of neoliberalism, but across its hideous maturation.

In our psychosomatic archives, it’s an act of play to connect the dots of what we were exposed to as tweens – in my case Flying Nun Records and the likes of the Dead C in New Zealand, Sarah Records and Glaswegian groups like The Pastels – to an increasing crop of likeminded bands we’re only hearing now due to reissues and browsing internet hall-of-mirror hellholes; Entlang, Toyland Tapes, The Kiwi Animal, Peter Wright’s Aotearoa lathe cuts, Peter Jeffries’ solo records, et al. My therapist advocates to get back in touch with our inner-child, and well, it feels wunderbar.

Tracing back to scenes we never encountered alongside those we may have participated in through online marketplaces masquerading as archives (Discogs, YouTube, Spotify, etc.) – whether in a wallow of nostalgia or otherwise – secludes us in a full-scale consumption-utopia predicted in The Society of the Spectacle 2. This isolation, as further flirted with in a lockdown, deflates our ontological sensations in its projection of spectral remnants of media and experiences onto Retina Displays displaying the eradication of our collective convening-energy. While marginal spaces are displaced, erased and reassembled into immaterial liminal coordinates in a server farm, the noise continues, but without the transpiration of gloaming escape or the peeling back of the hegemony’s scales. The master may have disrobed, but now he wears our clothes.

In Glasgow, as with a few other fortunate slabs scattered across the wastelands, we at least have spaces that very crucially and articulately counter the novel and distinct realms of separation and disembodiment we currently find ourselves in; providing outlets to climb out from the heap of streamable detritus. The Grass is Green in the Fields for You (TGIGITFFY), a small press/music publisher and its Subcity Radio offshoot Flowers in the Sky (FinS) occupy and share such spaces.

Printmaker, designer and Vital Idles drummer Matthew Walkerdine runs TGIGITFFY, while also organising Good Press alongside bandmates Jessica Higgins, Nick Lynch and a community of volunteers. Discussing Good Press is better left aside for another post – their role in providing space, materials and resources to local artists and eccentrics deserves more than a line or two. But for quick context, the nonprofit storefront not only carries artist-made ephemera from zines, chapbooks, prints, cassettes and other objects; it also houses Sunday’s Print Service for public risograph printing, the ‘Occupancy’ residence programme and events. Pertinent to this column was The History Of installation in 2013, which featured cassette compilations and writings from a group of artists and record labels.

As for FinS, the Subcity radio show started transmitting last year, and yet after only a dozen episodes Matthew kindly duplicated in mono and assembled the No One Will Ever Know mixtape, releasing it for a magnanimous £3 (the price of postage, or a jar of peanut butter). I mention the price as retort to the scabs on Discogs who sell rare punk tapes at extortionate prices. To put the gesture of the mixtape in context, I’ve broadcast nearly 40 instalments of There Is No There There (also on Subcity), I run a cassette label, and although I regularly make mixtapes, I have never made a gift for the show’s listeners. The mix’s accompanying letter echoes the same care directed into the show, reminding me of a time when independent and pirate radio wasn’t merely to promote club nights, for the sake of so-called selection/curation or as cultural capital dangling from social media feeds, but rather to reinforce the medium as conveyer of a message of community solidarity, however naively utopian – something to break through the desolation inside the advances of communication capitalism 3.

Letter accompanying No One Will Ever Know

As I’m nudging into nostalgic territory – a deplorable place to land, though it often can’t be helped, merely diagnosed – FinS and No One Will Ever Know transmit an effectual/affectual balance between underground ‘classics’ and contemporary lineations and detours; traversing shoegaze, the ever fertile and peculiar kiwi scene & its plump neighbouring island, post-punk, outsider CDr folk, dream pop, the more punk tinges of British art rock, et al. This inter-generational geology of outsider sounds isn’t banally compartmentalised as a timeline; but ricochets, so that the timelessness of a song written last week informs/deforms a song from decades ago and vice versa. The phenomenological temporality of the cover’s handless clock evokes a double entendre eliciting that the slow cancellation of the future 4 not only regurgitates the past, it understands full well, these partials and traces from the 20th Century, the dust continuing to accumulate, are here to loiter across the chain of presents.

1 Derrida, Jacques. “Injunctions of Marx.” Specters of Marx, Routledge, 1994, pp. 3.

2 Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Black and Red, 1977.

3 Dean, Jodi. Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Duke University Press, 2009.

4 Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books, 2014.

Killd By – Neotropical [Noumenal Loom 2020]

I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible. The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed.

–Chris Marker, Sans Soleil

I don’t want to leave pompeii.

–Killd By, Neotropical

Listening to work created by departed loved ones I can’t help but pause to tarry with the uncanny depth and complex emotional mixture surfaced when hearing a familiar voice associated with a body no longer embodied. In a world where we are bound to our mortality and the mortality of others, it may seem like a banal reflection to note the fact that all recorded sound is destined to be listened to posthumously, one day, after the recordist’s passing. However, if this is a banal observation, it is also a sign of how thoroughly naturalised the experience of hearing the voices and recordings of the deceased has become over the past century. Our species has only been privy to the experience of reproduced sound and media for a relatively short period of time. It is a form of hubris to assume that we understand all that it affects.

At the risk of making ontological statements about the nature of recorded sound that would take us too far afield from the matter at hand — reflections on a recently released cassette, Neotropical by the deceased artist Colin Ward Ferguson, presented under his alias ‘killd by’ — it occurs to me that, while echoes, earworms, and aural memories have existed in various forms for as long as we’ve been listening, it’s only since the advent of sound recording that humanity has begun the process of weaving the vast and unique tapestries of sonic affect (tapestries akin to Chris Marker’s ‘eternal magnetic tape’) through which our shared concepts of history, temporality, and epistemologies of occurrence are given to be refracted, renegotiated, re-heard, and re-wound. 

As a listener and DJ, I take solace in the exploration of this incipient archive. As a collector, I appreciate the ceaseless accumulation of testamentary traces that bear witness to so many lives lived and navigated through the medium of sound and its machinations. Loved ones are recalled, sonic spaces re-constituted, and relationships between all kinds of telematically mediated and unmediated experiences are revitalised in a manner that, although perhaps not fundamentally different with respect to the evocations produced by other media, certainly resonate in intimate and neurologically unique ways. When we listen to Neotropical, we are listening to a work of negentropy; a negentropic gift in a cosmos seemingly circumscribed as much by mortality as by the second law of thermodynamics – the entropic tendency of matter towards ash; equanimous, and impersonal dissolution ¹. 

Neotropical, nested next to one of killd by’s circuit-bent noisemakers.
“Leave Pompeii”

For everything that Neotropical is, and amidst all of the reflections that it incites, it is also a wonderful entrance into the body of work that Colin left us. As the first posthumous release of his, which we are told he was working closely with the label Noumenal Loom to prepare at the time of his untimely passing, Neotropical is also a curious attempt to review, collect, and reflect on a body of work that, given its incredibly sprawling breadth and volume of output, resists attempts at linear, cohesive synthesis. As an artist, musician, organiser, and staple fixture of the shifting DIY scenes that constellated around the arts space Rhinoceropolis in Denver, Colorado, he performed under a rotating litany of monikers and pseudonyms and created a beguiling amount of work before passing at the age of 27. One of his most well-known projects, alphabets, was alone responsible for over 50 records, released serially month-over-month until the termination of the project.

The body of work we’re given to hear is thus always both less and more than a body. It is a body that can only be constituted retrospectively, after the last note is played, so to speak; and even then its constitution is always provisional. The desire to determine the extent of an artist’s legacy or corpus of work is the conceit of archivists and historians as much as a task left to be completed by grieving friends, struggling to determine the edges of the artists expression through the feverish, necessary, exploration of what remains. On Neotropical we encounter a collection of work that is not entirely ‘new’. Alongside a jubilant collection of unheard music, we also revisit fragments of music iterated upon and already released, in the form of YouTube videos, art exhibitions, and B-side collections between 2014 and 2017. Are the A-sides to those killd by B-sides that we hear again on Neotropical (I count at least eight, sometimes obscured under the guise of slightly deviating track titles) to be considered the other nine records released under the killd by moniker while Colin was alive, or an invisible and as of yet to be heard record to come? 

In the way the music continues to give anew on each listen and the aporias opened by our attempts to wrestle with death always resist closure, Neotropical can be seen as much as an annotation on a body of work as a record proper; completed through the labor of others, it is a guide map, a technology of love, and a tentative bridge that we cross through the attention that we give in listening to it; it is a joyous device for navigating the bardo of life that we, the living are bound to and it is a testament to Colin’s spirit, which urges us – at the emotional climax of the record in “Leave Pompeii” – to stay with the coming catastrophes, to retain a fidelity to all of the figurative Pompeii’s the universe will manufacture, and in that sense, to revel in the tender sorrow of the ashes that are our access to the memory of life. 

Listen to Neotropical here.

¹ For more information regarding my views of media artefacts and their relationship to the principles of entropy and negentropy, see the work of Jewish Czech/Brazilian Philosopher Vilém Flusser. A good collection to start with, available in English is the collection ‘Writings’, published in 2002 and available here.

Merula – Sleep [Men Scryfa 2020]

Merula’s “Hor ch’è tempo di dormire”

Because I am a fresh dew woman, says
I am a moist dew woman, says
I am the woman of the dawn, says
I am the woman of the day, says
I am the saint woman, says
I am the spirit woman, says
I am the woman who works, says
I am the woman beneath the dripping tree, says
I am the woman of the twilight, says
I am the woman of the pristine huipil, says
I am the whirlpool woman, says […]
I am the daughter of Mary

— María Sabina ¹

Sleep awakens with the clunk of a tape player set to record. Tape passes across the heads. Here are the songs of sparrows; beautiful interruptions to convent solitude. Alone and in sisterhood, like other interactions in the cloister. The sparrows are reminiscent to arias I once heard spilling out of patio gardens in Oaxaca’s Convento de Santa Catalina de Siena. Perhaps the birds were recorded from a room with an open window; their texture originates in the background, but releases into the foreground. An innominate rendition of Tarquinio Merula’s (c. 1595–1665) “Hor ch’è tempo di dormire” begins to lift and lilt. A simple cello rhythm in the lower register enters, followed by unobtrusive guitar and the devotional Latin lullaby of the Madonna cooing her Christ-child to slumber.

The recording’s anonymity veils its performers, setting and era: hymnal voices as nameless and dispersed as the birds. Its chameleonic nature evokes an archival field recording of unknown date, likely captured around dawn or dusk, until contemporary traffic noise bleeds in, smudging its temporality.

On second thought it’s a digital recording, which nullifies the opening paragraph. The sibilant transients are merely the cassette; the carrier not the original recording.

Microphone handling noise, passersby, phase processing and digital tape delay meddle with the fib of the artefact – truths and untruths funnelled into uniformity – deepening the incidentals rather than dividing the native from the processed, as would be the case with a dubbed version, which in vague instances the laissez-faire non-production mimics. The consecrated emanations transcend a desire to translate, while the inalienable omniscience of the sacred engulfs faithlessness. Yet in its embrace of melancholia, temporal existentialism continues to reside: mother as comforter and silent mourner – aiding her child to sleep into the tide of death’s eventuality.

Over the first few listens I struggled to get through more than a few moments in trepidation of its otherworldly rapture. I succumbed. As with ecclesiastical, Quranic and appropriations of the holy – such as the Adhan, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares ², Georgian polyphonic singing and Current 93’s “The Long Shadow Falls” ³ – this version of “Hor ch’è tempo di dormire,” particularly with its sparse effects in tow, impressively blurs the boundaries of the secular and the sacred to keep the tired dichotomy down.

“Dags Att Sova”, the only composition of the b-side, responds to “Hor ch’è tempo di dormire”; slightly more electrified, disquieting, telluric and with an English translation, which as noted, feels unnecessary. Without the sparrows for accompaniment, vocalists Eva[?] and Thomas Bush seesaw before being swept away by an elegiacal and piercing organ. Eva’s voice returns without Bush. At the foreboding climax she recites “take this milk that I offer you / from this immaculate breast / savour the warmth of the sweetness / for it will not last.”

¹ Sabina, Maria, et al. “The Life.” María Sabina: Selections, University of California Press, 2003, pp. 40.

² “Marcel Cellier Présente: Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares ‎– Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares (Volume 1).” 1975.

³ Current 93. “Where The Long Shadows Fall (Beforetheinmostlight).” Dutro, 1995.

Mark Vernon – Ribbons of Rust [Flaming Pines 2019]

Mark Vernon “Only the Shell Can Tell”

In 2016 Glasgow-based sound artist Mark Vernon travelled to the abandoned seaside resort of Laem Thian (Thailand) with his recording equipment. It is unclear whether he deliberately chose to visit Laem Thian, or whether – in some mysterious way – the place called him. I like to believe that he intuitively obeyed a confused call. Once in Laem Thian, he started to record what was not there. He captured – without filling them – the absences; he documented the places where life had been, and the nooks, the fissures where it still grew. In the course of his three-month trip, Vernon also collected miscellaneous local tapes – Thai pop songs, religious hymns. Many of them had irreversibly deteriorated in the hot, tropical climate. And though the magnetic tapes were eaten with tiny parasites, there was still something to hear and grasp and see.

Ribbons of Rust stitches together Vernon’s personal field recordings with extracts from the mass-produced Thai tapes. It is a delicate assemblage of distant, plaintive singing, quivering piano notes, and half-erased, anonymous conversations. I like especially the drowned, otherworldly voices filtering through the album – like a choir of impossible sirens.

Vernon does for the ear what filmmakers Peter Delpeut and Bill Morrison – working with deteriorated archival film footage – do for the eye. He encourages us to listen closely to surfaces, to the minute fissures in the fabric of the world itself. Despite its careful composition, the album retains the spontaneous quality of a found object, or a phonographic fossil. What remains is the weather-worn, broken shell of sound, long after the song has dissolved. What we hear over and over is the distorted sound of the medium – its infinite vulnerability and exposed sensitivity.

For all its haunted resonances and liquid, decayed grace, Ribbons of Rust is not about distant ghosts. Rather it explores sound as pure, immediate presence. It recognises the radical, affective act of being alive in the present – of hearing, seeing, feeling. Something happens. A story gently circulates from Vernon to the listener, and dissolves again. As I listen back I do not visualise the wasted shores of Laem Thian, but other, closer waves – the island of Oléron (France). The place was full of indifferent cats and, (though I carried a camera) I knew they were the real, careless keepers of memory. Ribbons of Rust, similarly, seems to say that recordings exist so that we are free to forget, and start from another time, another place.

Laila Sakini – Your Day is My Night [PP TT 003 2020] Laila Sakini & Lucy Van – Figures [PP TT 001 2017]

Stars around the beautiful moon / hide back their luminous form / whenever all full she shines on the earth / Silvery.

— Sappho ¹

Excerpt from “Your Day”

Mixtapes are inherently Sapphic in their fragmentary insertion and omission of sonic extracts, frail reproductions, emotional spectres teleported from sender to receiver; the clippings, drawings and collage of folded paper, and the inclusion or exclusion of tracklists and notes. Like reassembling the words and vignettes of poems from disintegrating papyrus, mixtapes expose clues out of the redactions of time and space. Conflicting intimacies and distances concentrated in a small object unfurl into a room or the cocoon of a car’s interior ² — all for the sake of fragmentation and a splintering ³ of missed and retrieved messages.

A tension of coldness and warmth pervades mixtapes released on cassette labels. The consumer/receiver rarely knows the artist and usually the artist isn’t transmitting information to anyone in particular, merely a sparse group of collectors. The tape is more commodity than gift; nevertheless the materiality of the process, its arrival at a destination and whatever (shelf)life the object takes offers something more singular than a typical mix streamed on a market-driven platform or online radio station.

Laila Sakini’s Your Day is My Night mixtape on Purely Physical Teeny Tapes eludes the tropes that commonly compartmentalise mixes. In lieu of such trappings an affectual stream eclipses stylistic pinnings with neither side feeling futuristic or referential to the past — bringing a full-circle against the grains of style to its close. The A-Side, “Your Day” draws deeply into a stretch of solace and space. Spiritual jazz instrumentation provides textural motion in place of genre nods, before an outgrowth of drum sequencing patters into more synthesised pastures. The side’s closing moments stretch back across a plateaux of space, yet more fertile, moist and subterranean than the airiness of the opening segments.

On the flip-side, “My Night” momentarily carries over the ending passage of “Your Day”, before ricocheting back into kineticism. Mangled vocals that seem to call out from a vessel in the Indian Ocean delineate a grid, giving way to a sludge of rhythms — the digestion of lotus-eaters. “My Night” has a more smudged and grubby energy, like a car with an insect splattered windshield mainlining into the Tropic of Cancer.

“Those Who See” from Laila Sakini & Lucy Van’s Figures [PP TT 001 2017]

Purely Physical Teeny Tapes’ inaugural cassette features a bed of Sakini’s drifting compositions set to the nonchalant voice of Australian poet Lucy Van. The tape comes packaged in a plastic drug baggy, much like /\\Aught’s eleven tapes of unparalleled grainy particle techno (2014 – 2017). The entirety of Figures oozes with cloud-like pads, fizzling drum machines and meandering poetry, but I’ll merely focus on the opener “Those Who See”.

The extended poem arrives somewhere between Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson. It’s riddled with twisted ironies and sardonic deadpan humour, like “in your communist fantasy all is taken from me / all our enemies in an orgy of IQ to body ratio, of IQ to body radio.” I particularly relish the menagerie of husbands in circulation amid the unfolding of the non-narrative. “My husband is a weight lifter. Each morning I fill his Tupperware with meat patties. He lifts my weights to his mouth. Chewing through spit, my husband is a dentist, all swagger and sweet skin in a white suede coat, pulling debris from under my gums. Forcing my tongue against my teeth, I sound silly when I talk.” “Those Who See” closes on a germane warning as “the working class and immigrants yell for no reason: you are who you pretend to be. Be careful who you pretend to be.”

¹ “If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho.” If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, by Sappho and Anne Carson, Virago, 2003, pp. 68–69.

² Bijsterveld, Karin, et al. Sound and Safe: a History of Listening behind the Wheel. Oxford University Press, 2014.

³ P-Orridge, Genesis Breyer. “The Splinter Test.” Book of Lies – the Disinformation Guide to Magick and the Occult, edited by Richard Metzger, Disinformation Company, 2014.

LST – Hard Drive Vinegar Vol. 1 [Self-Released C32 2020]

3-panel j-card
A2 “One of th Blue Holes”

How can a preservation engineer possibly begin with anything other than a k7 ¹ called Hard Drive Vinegar Vol. 1? It’s the latest tape to pass through my letterbox — but besides its newness, cassette binders are polyester-based and never acetate — thus it’s safe to assume it doesn’t reek of herring gull beak, albeit they are circling. There is something acidic about the nine track collection, not as acid techno, but rather auto-catalytic, like acetic acid accelerating the decay process ².

LST (Tarquin Manek) has released a slew of donked-up tapes under various guises and as part of the trio F Ingers; via Night People, the recently deceased Blackest Ever Black, and Australian labels Another Dark Day and Chapter Music. As the title suggests, Hard Drive Vinegar contains material that rotted inside Manek’s hard drive from 2009 – 2019. Its decade timespan is surprising for such a cohesive work, especially with a geographic spread of recording at home in Australia and after relocating to Berlin. One of its enigmatic charms lies in how it seems to disregard time and place in favour of its own conformity; especially pertinent now while concepts like distance and closeness are both futile and ever-blending together in omnipresence. Distant like our next-door neighbours hemmed in and invisible, who are as close as those in other communities, cities and continents. As the hourglass marks the disappearance of time in one realm to record its swelling growth in its subterranean other, the belly of the infinity sign rotates upwards.

Hard Drive Vinegar sits somewhere between noise and ambient while transcending as neither. It rattles out loner beats, the occasional extinguished vocal sample or a dried up stream of radio static, billowing gently across a torn canopy of sporadic and disturbing synths, emptying itself in anticipation of another tranquil or unsettling pouring-out. It absorbs space negligibly, circulating it and returning it unconsumed. Such peculiar pacing is sardonically comforting during the lockdown. Like the streets, quieting and disquieting, the tape offers the compression and rarifaction of a vague anxiety building up and releasing.

¹ French slang for cassette, as in kah-sept.

² Casey, Mike. “2.3.5 Vinegar Syndrome (VS).” FACET: Format Characteristics and Preservation Problems Version 1.0, Indiana University, 2007, p. 33.

Introducing Oxide Ostrich: A K7 Column

Counter-memory is a practice that questions traditions of memory and attends to voids and gaps in narratives ¹. If memory is a construction, counter-memory is an alternative political construction, a montage of facts, objects, dreams, expectations, shadows and spectres.

— Lisa Baraitser Enduring Time ²

While we as an archive and society adjust to the imperativeness of social distancing and the existentialism of the home as confinement, I have shifted from preservation engineering and being alongside magnetic tape at the National Library of Scotland to the comforts, quandaries and cells of cataloguing long strips of VHS audio (6-8 hours per tape). In the intervening period our relationship with physical and digital material will manifest altered meanings and relevancies while our senses run amok across truncated domestic spaces. A poetics will emerge across a plurality of emotional terrains marked by immense hardships and transformative realisations, and for many of us, the hope of a less selfish and petty future. We have entered into a space Baraitsir poignantly mapped in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic in her seminal book Enduring Time, through her reflections on an elongated present and as the poet Denise Riley ³ relates, as living in a “great circle without a rim” rather than a linear entity hurtling forward.

Surrounded in this circle with a vague horizon, I’ll be ruminating on my dormant work with archival magnetic tape and connecting it to a separate but related interest in a weekly column on forthcoming, recent and not so recent cassette releases. I intend to heed the contemporary, but the circle requires drawing from the past to inform the present; if this is the archivist in me quivering in the corner, please shrug it off. 

Through Unlocking Our Sound Heritage my team’s work predominantly focuses on the preservation and eventual online access of unpublished sound carriers. In the meantime, without proximity to collection material, this weekly write-up will grow out of another type of unlocking – in the company of a shrunken and often eccentric community of reclusive, but occasionally social musicians (i.e. utilising the cassette as a social carrier), lo-fi recordists, printmakers, collage and postal artists, tape-heads and outsiders enamoured by the intimate materiality of the cassette and its connective and enticingly paradoxical qualities. 

The outsider cassette scene – although the format was invented in 1963 – burst-open in the late-1970s when experimental punk and electronic artists around the world blew the lid off of a conservative music industry clinging to the budding hegemony of neoliberalism. Throughout this column I will refrain from referring to the cassette community and its output through the media’s construction of a cassette revival – this lazy assessment sheds very little light on the music and its wider cultural, political and historical footings. Even when reviewing landmark tape releases (1977-1995), which continue to push the envelope, I will circumvent nostalgia, abstain from eclipsing the present through eulogising the past and avoid commemorating the retro. The onset of 1980s omni-capitalism, material superabundance, mass reproduction, environmental carelessness and its continuing spawn are ripely pertinent to this story, but not through the vestigial romanticism of re-inflating the aesthetics of the decade; rather these extremities and sociopolitical fissures impelled artists to burrow under the surface in dedication to art practices for smaller audiences (often only their immediate communities) and non-market purposes over the excessiveness of reaching people and capital as one and the same. Likewise, participation in the outsider cassette scene offers a praxis of counter-memory and counter-history ⁴. In this spirit, the column is concerned with the underground, its resilience and ongoingness, its pertinence today, its elasticity and noise within the walls of the current crisis and its dream of the collective over the individual, as the late Mark Fisher conceptualised in the posthumous manifesto Acid Communism ⁵. This column is about how people persist in the sharing of recorded material across alternate spaces, economies and power structures. Simply, it’s the cassette’s place across small-scale movements; from correspondence art to post-Fordist capitalist deconstructionism told through a different tape release each week.  

¹ Ahıska, Meltem. “Occidentalism and Registers of Truth: The Politics of Archives in Turkey.” New Perspectives on Turkey, vol. 34, 2006, pp. 9–29.

² Baraitser, Lisa. Enduring Time. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

³ Riley, Denise. Time Lived, without its Flow. Capsule Editions, 2012.

⁴ Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History.” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Cornell University Press, 1977.

⁵ Fisher, Mark. “Acid Communism.” K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004 – 2016), Repeater, 2018, pp. 751–770.