Unread Records and the joy of cassettes (in the column); The Stone Roses tonight…

Category: Blog,Column,Interviews — Tags: , , , , , — @ 2:01 pm November 6, 2013

Unread Records logoby Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

In this week’s column, the story of Unread Records and why the label, which is celebrating its 19th birthday this Saturday with an 11-band concert at the Sweatshop Gallery, continues to release (primarily) cassettes. It’s in this week’s issue of The Reader, and online right here

And heck, since the column is music-related, online below.

Celebrating Cassettes: The Joy of Low Fidelity

by Tim McMahan

Every year right around now, I put my Mini Cooper convertible in storage and replace it with a ’96 Geo Tracker. My Cooper has virtually no ground clearance, which makes it useless in any measurable snow, while the Tracker not only stands high above the ground but also is four-wheel-drive, making it virtually unstoppable.

The downsides of my Geo: It’s beginning to rust. The driver’s side door handle is broken. The rims are the wrong size, so the tires have a habit of deflating overnight. It smells like my dogs.

The upside: It has a cassette deck. There’s something particularly awesome about digging out a mixtape from the summer of 1994 and listening to forgotten bands like Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver or Morphine or The Wedding Present or Game Theory.

But for Chris Fischer, the label executive behind Unread Records, cassette tapes are more than just a nostalgia trip. The motto on the homepage of unread-records.com: “Creating homemade tapes from empty aluminum cans since 1994.”

Fischer used to live in Omaha. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania, native, now living in Pittsburgh, was wooed to our city in the late ‘90s by none other than Conor Oberst after Fischer set up a show for him in Lancaster back in the early Bright Eyes days.

Back then, Fischer’s Unread Records was part of the underground world of cassette-tape-only record labels. Now 19 years later, it still is, even though super-cheap digital music technology should have made cassettes obsolete. Instead, Unread boasts a catalog of 148 cassette tapes by artists such as Charlie McAlister, Ramon Speed, Spirit Duplicator and Omaha’s own Simon Joyner.

Those artists will join seven more from the Unread Records roster for Junkfest #19 — a concert at the Sweatshop Gallery in Benson this Saturday at 6 p.m. Fischer said the event, which celebrates the label’s 19th birthday, will be “a great show, very bizarre, an experience.”

When I interviewed Fischer back in 2000, the central question was: Why cassettes? Not so strangely, the question remained at the forefront when I talked to him last Saturday. He admitted cassettes have inferior sound quality, degrade faster and are more expensive to mass produce than CDRs. And if you thought finding a turntable was hard, finding a cassette deck means scouring eBay, Craig’s List or your local pawn shop.

Fischer said his love of cassettes is a product of growing up idolizing tape labels of yesterday like Shrimper, Catsup Plate and Omaha’s Sing! Eunuchs. “Cassettes are more artistically attractive to me,” he said. “It’s a mechanical thing, a physical object. It feels better to hold a cassette. It jangles around a bit. It has screws. It’s not that I’m anti-technology, there’s nothing wrong with CRSs, they just don’t look as attractive, and I don’t understand how they work.”

Plus, like vinyl records, cassettes have two sides. “Everyone now just wants to purchase a song off iTunes or just buy increments of music as opposed to a whole album,” Fischer said. “There’s nothing better than listening to an album — the A side, the B side, hits or no hits, I like to hear it all for what it is.”

Over the years, Fischer has gone from a production process that involved plugging tape decks together to dub six tapes at a time to using professional dubbers. He dubs between 50 and 150 tapes per title, depending on how well he thinks they’ll sell, then gives half of them to the artists. Not a total Luddite, Fischer said if an artist provides the master on CD, he makes the tracks available for digital download. But it’s the cassettes that are the cool, collectable thing, not the downloads.

Simon Joyner, who ran Sing! Eunuchs with Chris Deden, said cassettes became an important medium in the late ‘80s into the ‘90s because everyone had a cassette player and recorder at home. “So, people who wanted to create music could do it very easily and inexpensively. They could try anything they wanted because no studios were necessary, no label was necessary. Out of this, labels formed around this DIY concept that artists were everywhere and here’s the music, cheap and accessible.”

But Bandcamp and other digital music file-sharing sites have made cassettes unnecessary. “What’s going on now is fetishistic, econo-chic,” Joyner said. “There is nostalgia around the cassette medium because so many great, important artists and bands started out that way, during that time when it was the cheapest, easiest way to get music out there. (Today) most people releasing music on cassette are feeding that population of cassette fetishists while also releasing the same music in other ways, having their tape and eating it, too.”

Joyner said when he was putting out tapes, he “longed for vinyl, and that hasn’t changed.” Fischer agreed, and Unread has released a number of vinyl records. “I would love to do a lot more,” Fischer said, “but 80 percent of my catalog is cassettes only because of cash flow. If I won the lottery, I’d do more vinyl.”

But even if he did, there would still be a fascination for cassettes. “Nowadays, cassettes are cool and retro,” Fischer said. “A friend of mine approached me to put out a cassette and didn’t have the first idea how they worked or what they were. It blew my mind.”

Joyner, who never liked the “low-fi” label placed on him early in his career, accepted tape hiss as an unavoidable product of recording limitations.

“You should only love that sound if the music in the foreground is good,” Joyner said. “Then as now, a lot of music released on tape is no good, and having it on tape doesn’t change that fact. But when it is good, there is something nice about the hum and hiss as I drive around the city in my decrepit Ford Escort just to hear it.”

Or in my Geo Tracker.

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

First published in The Omaha Reader, Nov. 6, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

The latest mysterious message about O'Leaver's Black Friday event...What could it mean?

The latest mysterious message about O’Leaver’s Black Friday event…What could it mean?

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Village Pointe Cinema is hosting a special screening of Made of Stone: The Stone Roses. The documentary by covers the Manchester band’s 2012 and 2013 reunion tours, which culminated with a headlining spot at the 2013 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in California. The screening is scheduled for 7:30.

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OK, now O’Leaver’s is just playing with us. This showed up on the email right before lunch. Can you decipher its meaning?

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


Omaha Gives is today (as if you didn’t know): Hear Nebraska, Maha, Omaha Girls Rock; Unread Records now on Bandcamp; Mousetrap returns 8/16; Gordon tonight…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , , , — @ 12:46 pm May 22, 2013
Unread Records homepage

Unread Records homepage

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

If you’re on Facebook and you live in Omaha than you’re already tired of being inundated with people asking you to give money today as part of the Omaha Gives event. I will not pile on, other than to point you to what I said last week during Lincoln’s version of this same fund drive, i.e, give some cash to Hear Nebraska (by clicking here), and here’s why. Other charities to consider: Omaha Girls Rock, the Maha Music Festival (which you may not know is a non-profit) and FilmStreams. The rest is up to you. Do your duty. Give. And then do what I plan to do: Turn off Facebook for the rest of the day. Here are the give links:

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Max Larson, drummer of rock group The Dad (formerly know as Dads), emailed a head’s up about the band’s 7-inch release show (and tour kick off) this Friday night at Sweatshop Gallery in Benson.

We will be playing with Fletch (aka Mike Schlesinger of the late Gus & Call), Pro-Magnum (hippie-hating members of Digital Leather & The Fucking Party) and Sister-Kisser (female-fronted anger),” said Larson. “The record is $5, admission is $5, and I believe that all-you-can-drink keg beer will be available for $5 (This might have been a cruel joke, though).” This should be massive fun.

Larson also added this very useful PS: “P.S. I’m not sure if you’re a follower of Unread Records, but a week or two ago Chris put a large handful of his releases up for stream on Bandcamp. It is my understanding that, until now, a number of these recordings have suffered from limited digital representation. Most of these bands/singers are from Omaha (including Simon Joyner of course), so if you want to listen you should. The link is http://unreadrecords.bandcamp.com/

“Chris” is Chris Fischer, who I spoke with way back in 2000 for an article in the Omaha Weekly. I was going to post a link to that story (which still exists on Lazy-i), but you’d have to scroll around to find it and I figured what the heck, I’ll just post it below. Unread Records started out as a tape label and still is, though they also sell other media, including vinyl, as evidenced by The Dad 7-inch that Unread is releasing. According to the Unread Records website, the label’s world headquarters is now located in Pittsburgh. Check out the Bandcamp page for some very rare recordings, go to Unread to order / buy some awesome stuff, and keep up with the label on their Facebook page.

Now, into the Wayback Machine, from The Omaha Weekly, Sept. 14, 2000:

The roster of fall releases by Omaha’s Unread Records is crowded with a number of … wait-a-minute, you’ve never heard of Unread Records? That’s probably because the label is part of the underground world of cassette-tape-only record labels, a music scene so obscure that it makes an indie label like Saddle Creek Records look like DreamWorks in comparison.Operated by Chris Fischer out of his house/performance space known as Gunboat, Unread Records has produced cassette and vinyl releases from some of the underground’s most famous unknowns, including a tape by South Carolina’s “king of banjo” Charlie McAlister, as well as a 7-inch single by Shrimper and Catsup Plate recording artist Will Simmons.

Fischer says there are “zillions” of tape only labels. Some more-famous artists who have put out tape-only releases include Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow, folk-music favorites The Mountain Goats, and even undisputed funk-groove indie rocker Beck, Fischer said.

“I started my label three years ago to put out tapes for me and my friends,” said Fischer, who recently moved to Omaha from Lancaster, Penn. “I don’t have any artists signed to anything, and I don’t ever want to put out a thousand units of anything.”

That shouldn’t be a problem for the 20-year-old entrepreneur. Most his 27 releases include hand-made cassette shells or screen-printed jackets. Though promotion is usually through word of mouth or the Internet, Fischer has placed ads in fanzines and sent flyers to a handful of record labels that pass them onto their customers. His most popular release thus far is the McAlister cassette Turn of the Century Photograph of, which moved more than 300 units.

Fischer said the label will branch out to CDs this fall, with a release by Fizzle Like a Flood (Omaha singer/songwriter Doug Kabourek, who also performs as The Laces). Also look for a split 7-inch vinyl release by Park and A Boy Named Thor, a split-label CD with Twee Kitten Records, a Jarbaby one-sided LP, as well as cassettes by Church of Gravitron, Park, Caleb Fraid and others.

Just as obscure as Unread Records is Gunboat, Fischer’s performance space located in the basement of the house he rents at 301 So. 38th Ave. Past Gunboat performers include most of the Saddle Creek Records’ stable of artists, who have made house shows a staple on their recent tour schedules.

“House shows are a different kind of scene, a more personal performance that allows the fans to hang out with the people who play,” Fischer said. “There’s no stage, it’s kind of one-on-one.”

Gunboat shows attract a mostly under-21 crowd made up of house show regulars or people who have heard about the shows either by visiting the Saddle Creek Records website (www.saddle-creek.com) or by spotting a flier at The Antiquarium or Drastic Plastic. Fischer says his largest show drew about 70 people.

One recent night at Gunboat included performances by Bright Eyes, Philadelphia’s Jen Turrell (Rabbit in Red), and Pennsylvania band Chauchat. Last week, Fischer hosted Jarbaby from Normal, Ill.

Among the bands slated for Gunboat’s upcoming Sept. 20 show are The Good Life (a new project by Cursive’s Tim Kasher), Boston’s Kolya, Omaha emo-rockers Secret Behind Sunday and Lincoln’s Her Flyaway Manner (slated to release a CD on Caulfield Records) Fischer says the cover is usually two or three dollars, all of which goes to the touring band to help cover their expenses.

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Ah, those were the days…

Speaking of blasts from the pasts, I just got word that Mousetrap has been booked to play a return engagement at The Waiting Room Aug. 16 for what I’m told is being billed as a “Pre-Maha Party” (the Maha Music Festival is the following day). No idea who else will be playing this gig, but I’m told we should expect to hear some new Mousetrap material along with old favorites. Mark it down on your calendar.

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Finally, Maha Music Festival and The Slowdown are hosting an Omaha Gives Showcase tonight. Among the acts are current favorite, Gordon. Also on the program are A Wasted Effort, Rock Paper Dynamite and The Seen. It’s a free show, but you’ll be hit up to give money (and you should, you cheap-ass). Gordon I believe plays second, so get there early.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


And the winners are…; Updates: Jake Bellows, Unread Records, Cowboy Indian Bear, Will Sheff (Okkervil River), Willy Mason…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , , — @ 1:52 pm January 16, 2013

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Thanks to all of you who entered this year’s drawing for the annual Lazy-i “best of” compilation CD. When I announced this drawing, everyone was like, “just make your playlist available in Spotify,” but what fun would that be? And based on the response, someone obviously still likes listening to CDs.  With that, the winners are:

Evan Hayford, Berwyn, PA
Alexis Abel, Lincoln, NE
Tom Pacer, Omaha, NE

Your CDs will be dropped in the mail tomorrow, along with a commemorative Lazy-i vinyl sticker. Enjoy!

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Jake holds a copy of the Help cassette.

Jake holds a copy of the Help cassette.

In other news… Jake Bellows has a new cassette tape out called Help.  That’s right, it’s a cassette, but you can also purchase the cassette’s “A-side” digitally (the digital A-side tracks are free with cassette purchase).

The tape contains one song from the upcoming album and nine assorted b-sides and demos that we found interesting,” Bellows said in his email. I bought my copy this morning and can’t wait to play it in my 1996 POS Geo Tracker. Buy your copy here:  http://www.majesticlitter.com/store/

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Speaking of cassettes, one of Omaha’s favorite cassette tape record labels, Unread Records, has moved its world headquarters to Pittsburgh, PA, according to their latest update. Unread artists include Simon Joyner, Samual Locke Ward, Charlie McAlister, Will Simmons, Noah Sterba and a ton more.  Check out the catalog and buy a cassette, record or CD. Goodbye, Mr. Fischer.

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Omaha’s adopted Lawrence band Cowboy Indian Bear has a new single out called “Does Anybody See You Out” available for free download at their website: cowboyindianbear.com. Check out the track below:

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Okkervil River fans can download a new track by the band’s frontman, Will Sheff, called “Shock Corridor.” Says Sheff of the solo project:

“The album was intended to be something I was making for myself and I have no definite plans to release the whole thing. At the end of the process, I gave a couple copies of the album to some close friends I knew would get where I was coming from. After thinking about it a bit I decided I’d put a couple of the songs out there, but that I’d put them out for free since the album cost me almost nothing to make. So here’s one of them, track two on the album. The name of the project is Lovestreams.”

Get it at http://lovestreamsdreams.tumblr.com/

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Remember Willy Mason? He was the second act signed to Team Love Records way back in 2004. Well, Willy’s still kicking and has a new EP out called Don’t Stop Now on British label Communion. Check out the video for the first song “I Got Gold” below:

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.