What Can I Help You With: Making Cassette Tapes with Cryptic Carousel

Some of Bauer’s audio electronic equipment: resistors, transistors, and various tools Bauer uses to engineer custom audio-visual gear. Photo by Cole Girodano
“I just liked tapes. I thought they were cooler than CDR’s, and I wanted to stay DIY.”—Bauer

It’s Tuesday afternoon at Cryptic Carousel’s headquarters in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and Corey Bauer is hard at work, doing what he does on most days: making tapes. Today, it’s a batch of 50 cassettes for San Francisco-based avant-folk duo Dire Wolves. The group, who are old friends of Corey’s, are putting out their latest release on Cryptic Carousel, which, in addition to serving as an audio and video production company, also functions as a small record label.

Cryptic Carousel has emerged as one of the the most successful DIY cassette tape production businesses in New York, offering a wide-ranging number of services and equipment in addition to cassette and VHS tape dubbing, including products like modified Walkman players, custom microphones, and oscillators. As the website states, the company specializes in the “design, production, manufacturing and distribution of esoteric video and audio related materials.” As the only employee, Bauer works with artists directly to produce short-run releases of cassettes in quantities that typically range from 50 to several hundred tapes per order. He runs the business from his apartment and spends most days in a similar fashion: answering emails, designing labels, toying with graphic design in photoshop, corresponding with manufacturing facilities and various companies he partners with and, most importantly, synching, dubbing, and hand packaging tape cassettes.

Apart from a few residencies here and there, including a recent stint at Brooklyn’s Silent Barn, Bauer has learned his trade entirely on his own, largely through trial and error and from years of tinkering around with analog gear as a hobby.

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Behind the Scenes with Japanese Breakfast

Michelle Zauner’s work, whether writing or music, is deeply personal and memorial. Zauner has a deft hand; she easily manages to tease out the elegant threads of joy and love in grief. Her work is mournful, but it is also celebratory. Her first solo album as Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp, which she’s currently touring in support of, finds Zauner spinning lo-fi bedroom demos into sturdy, soaring dream-pop with glassine synths and Velcro hooks.

Photographer Chona Kasinger spent some time with Zauner before and at her recent show at The Crocodile in Seattle with Jay Som and Mitski. Our exclusive photo gallery is below.

—Jes Skolnik

Psychic Temple Premieres “Two Songs About Cults”

Psychic Temple
Psychic Temple

The music Chris Schlarb makes as Psychic Temple is almost eerily serene. On III, released in May of this year, he strung soft, beatific vocal harmonies over gently chugging folk-prog. On their 16-minute cover of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, notes were stretched out almost infinitely, to mesmerizing effect. In that context, the latest Psychic Temple 7″, Two Songs About Cults takes on a slightly sinister air—not so much music for relaxing as music for hypnosis. This isn’t accidental: Schlarb is fascinated by the psychology of cults, and he frequently works this interest into his music (For one: he’s in the process of assembling a list of classic pop songs that sound like they could be sung by cult leaders). And while the first song on the 7″ could scan as either a breakup ballad to a lover or a splinter sect, it’s the B-Side that’s truly sinister: a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” In Schlarb’s hands, the song becomes shadowy. “Even while we sleep, we will find you acting on your best behavior,” vocalistAaron Roche croons. Like any good cult leader, he delivers a sinister message in lulling, dulcet tones.

On the advent of the premiere of Two Songs About Cults on Bandcamp Daily, we spoke with Schlarb about his curious pastime and his superhuman work ethic.

So, by my count, this is the third record you’ve put out this year—you did III, Plays Music for Airports, and now this one. Is there an upside for you as an artist, to be so prolific?

I’m always pretty busy. It’s what I do for a living, I’m always producing someone else’s records, or one of my own. In the last year, I’ve kind of hit my stride a little bit. I’m in Virginia right now producing a bunch of records. It’s like how, if you’re a writer, the more writing you do, the better you get at it. I think the same goes for any trade. The more I’ve played music, and the more I’ve produced records over the last few years, the more accomplished I feel, and the faster the turnaround on each record. I did the Music for Airports record in an afternoon. We started at 8am and we were done by 3pm, and there are no overdubs. It only took another day to mix. By contrast, the first Psychic Temple record, which is probably the record that sounds the most like Music for Airports, took two years—and they’re only separated by a few years. So what used to take me two years now takes me an afternoon.

Psychic Temple
Psychic Temple

It only took you an afternoon to make Music for Airports? That’s insane. Did you have it all notated before you got into the studio with the musicians?

All I did was write out the eight-bar melody, and I sent it to the trumpet player who’d be playing it. That was pretty much it. The way that piece came together is that I had this lightbox, which has a bunch of switches on it so I can control the lighting around all of the different musicians in the room. So in a situation like that, everybody knew that the rules were when the light in front of you is off, you don’t play. When your light is on, you can play. It’s fun when there’s a little bit of confusion in a situation, so I’ll often try to create my own little pockets of chaos.

I wanted to talk about cults for a second—which are kind of the opposite of chaos. I feel like I’ve seen the “cult” motif turn up a lot in your work. This 7” is called Two Songs About Cults, I’ve seen you in press materials referred to as a “cult leader.” What’s the fascination with cults?

Initially, it was just two of my interests overlaping. I’m obsessed with music, and I’m kind of obsessed with cult psychology. As I started getting deeper into it, I was thinking, ‘Wow, what’s the thought process behind this?’ And then I started seeing all of these conceptual overlaps between cult psychology and band psychology. For example: in a band, you’re essentially proselytizing by going on tour. Every band has a ‘uniform,’ whether they say they do or not. You’re going from city to city trying to gather new followers. It’s kind of fascinating. And then, on a broader level, the ‘cult of personality’ idea is fascinating to me. You have someone like Kanye or Beyonce—they have a legion of people who will go wherever they go. I’ve been getting a little more into the Grateful Dead lately, and the idea of people following you around from city to city creating a lifestyle for people to emulate—there couldn’t be anything more cultlike.

Psychic Temple
Psychic Temple

And yet the first song on the 7”, “S.O.S.,” doesn’t sound especially “culty.” The first time I heard it, it felt like a love song.

I love that. Every time I sit down to try to write lyrics for a song, I’m hoping there’s at least two meanings. The best songs are the ones where you can take your own experience and incorporate it so that the song speaks to you in the most personal way. The worst songs are the ones that are just, ‘No, it’s just about this.’

So there were two contexts for ‘S.O.S.’ One was that I was thinking about my oldest daughter growing up and leaving home. I was writing the song from her point of view: ‘It’s time for me to go, I’ve got to get out of here.’ But then I was also thinking, ‘There are also parallels to someone trying to escape a cult.’ Your family is your tribe—that’s your cult. You do everything together, there’s a patriarch and a matriarch. I was just trying to think of it like, ‘I have to write lyrics that would allow both of these interpretations to be true.’ And the more thought I put into there being multiple interpretations, the more it opens the door for many, many more interpretations to be found.

Ironically, the B-Side, which is a cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” is a lot more overtly cult-like.

Absolutely. I mean, that’s just a great song, isn’t it? It’s a song 100 years from now that people will be like, ‘Goddamn, that’s a great song.’ A couple of years ago, I went on a solo tour across the country, and I had a few songs in my repertoire that I wanted to recontextualize.  ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ was one of those, where I felt, ‘What a great song for a cult leader to sing.’ I also sang ‘I’m Your Puppet’ by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. And I started finding that you can recontextualize some of these great old songs with sinister undertones. For example, cult followers are sometimes quite literally puppets. I did “Making Plans for Nigel.” I just love that a song can be funny and scary and sweet all at the same time. Some of the best music is when it hits all of those different notes at the same time. You know that Etta James song, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’? Fuck—what a great song for a cult follower to sing. When I sang ‘I’m Your Puppet,’ I told the audience that they were dedicating that song to me. All it takes is a little bit of extra layering and all of a sudden the song gets deeper.

—J. Edward Keyes

A Cure for the Curse of The Chills

The Chills

The Chills. Photo by Jon Thom Moodie
“The earliest New Zealand punk bands created their sound without knowing what punk sounded like.” —Martin Phillips

The Chills made their first US appearance in 20 years this past spring, headlining New York City’s Pop Fest. It was a rare opportunity for Chills fans to see the band outside of New Zealand—especially in 2016. I have been a Chills fan for three decades, and was a New York City resident for the better part of two; but by the time the show was announced, I had moved to Berlin. I mourned but, undeterred, I planned and plotted. After 14 hours on a bus I was in Paris, ready to see my very first Chills show a generation or so after pulling that first Chills record out of a bin in 1985. The show was originally supposed to be held at Le Petit Bain—but then the Seine rose, and the venue flooded. Of course it did. This is the Chills.

The Chills is essentially one guy—Martin Phillips—who, backed by a bewildering multitude of other talented musicians, has made some of the most gorgeous indie pop on any continent. His particular continent, New Zealand, is home to volcanoes, majestic landscapes, and Flying Nun records, the source of the so-called Dunedin Sound (their roster has also included the bands the Clean, and the Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, and the Stones; the latter three bands, along with the Chills, appeared on the definitive Dunedin Double EP, released in 1982, and reissued in 2014 for Record Store Day).

“Pink Frost,” their 1982 classic, is an eerie murder ballad whose moody minimalism echoes the best of Wire, as well as Joy Division’s “Ceremony.” The same geographic isolation responsible for the band’s original take on post-punk and indie pop also meant that precious few copies of their records made the trek from New Zealand to stateside record stores (The “Pink Frost” 7-inch still goes for upwards of $50 on Discogs).

The band seemed perpetually poised on the edge of international acclaim, but obstacles always seemed to arise. Fittingly, the title of a new documentary on the band, directed by Rob Curry, is taken from an oft-repeated headline from a New Zealand tabloid: The Curse of the Chills.

Sitting in their parents’ living room, the site of much of the documentary, Phillips and his sister Rachel (who started playing keyboards in the band at age 14, even though their parents worried the band distracted from her schoolwork) debate the origin of the “curse”: Martin says it first came about after a “weird debacle” when the band missed an awards ceremony in Wellington, New Zealand, allegedly due to a nautical mishap involving a yacht (not theirs) and a whale. But that was just one incident among many. Though plenty of talented musicians other than Phillips have contributed to their sound, the band has had serious personnel retention issues. When they swept New Zealand awards ceremonies for their 1990 record Submarine Bells, Phillips said, “I’d like to thank the Chills—all 17 of them.” (The band’s Wikipedia page requires a bar graph to chart all members of the past three decades — currently numbering 28).

Phillips, addressing the issue on camera, swears he isn’t difficult to work with. Martyn Bull, their original drummer died of leukemia in 1983 (inspiring a temporary name change and the hit single “I Love My Leather Jacket,” a tribute from Phillips to the jacket bequeathed to him by Bull). Rachel, his sister, dropped out with a note, saying she didn’t “feel appreciated.” (“But I always came back when you needed me,” she adds later. “Version four, was it?”). In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, The Chills were swept up in the major label signing frenzy that made stars out of indie bands like REM and Nirvana, and left Flying Nun for Slash, an imprint of Warner Brothers.

Submarine Bells, released in 1990, marked the Chills’ first entry into the US Billboard charts with the buoyant single “Heavenly Pop Hit,” a song as exuberant as its name (though its wistful last line, “It’s a heavenly pop hit/for those that still want it” points, perhaps, to the decline of the sunny pop sound they had perfected). Soft Bomb, their 1992 record, produced “Male Monster from the Id,” an upbeat melodic pop song about domestic violence, and the power pop classic “Double Summer.” But the band’s sound shifted with the times. “The Entertainer” could almost be a Morphine song: The lyrics sound like the internal monologue of, say, Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver,” and are delivered in a lower register than most Chills songs (Phillips has said that heroin lowered his voice).

Nevertheless, the label dropped them after two albums. They returned to Flying Nun for their 1996 album, Sunburnt, but when it came time to record in England, the entire band, minus Phillips, was detained by British customs and sent back to New Zealand. (Phillips went ahead and recorded the album with two talented British musicians, Dave Mattacks and Dave Gregory.) At around the same time, Phillips had become addicted to heroin, and contracted Hepatitis C from a dirty needle. He recovered and reformed the band in the early 2000s, but they didn’t release a new album until 2015.

That album, Silver Bullets, was hailed as a return to form when it was released late last year. It also kicked off something of a Chills renaissance: Phillips’ “Live at the Moth Club,” an acoustic solo set spanning three decades of his music, will be released July 24; the CD version includes a DVD preview of The Curse of the Chills (the full version will be released later this year). Flying Nun is also reissuing their classic albums, beloved and notoriously difficult to find, starting with a double LP of “Kaleidoscope World” on August 19. (Fans of their earlier work can also find their three BBC sessions for John Peel, collected and released by Fire Records in 2014; and Somewhere Beautiful, a live double album recorded on New Year’s Eve 2011. Phillips also recorded a solo show with Graeme Downes of the Verlaines in 2015). We met before his set in Paris (fortunately, they found a less soggy venue), where we discussed science fiction, songwriting and perversity.

The documentary begins and ends with “Heavenly Pop Hit,” your best-known song in the states, but it is the one song you do not actually talk about on camera.

I didn’t know they’d build the documentary around explaining the songs until after we did the Moth Club gig. I can’t play “Heavenly Pop Hit” by myself live, so it’s not in that set. It’s our best-known song in the states, but in Europe, we’re better-known for “Pink Frost;” in New Zealand, “I Love My Leather Jacket,” followed by “Pink Frost,” Kaleidoscope World,” “Doledrums,” “Oncoming Day” and “Wet Blanket.”

The Chills

The Chills. Photo by Jon Thom Moodie

One of the band’s go-to moves seems to be setting depressing lyrics to happy music.

Yeah, exactly. I find interest, beauty, and the human condition in those gray areas. Throwing a reasonably serious lyric onto a melodic hook, you instantly achieve something unexpected in music. It’s similar to what happens in real life: You can be going through the worst time in your life, but it’s a beautiful day. Or you can be feeling great, but you can’t go out, because there’s a riot in the streets, or it’s snowing, or whatever.

“I Love My Leather Jacket” was a very serious tribute to Martyn Bull, our drummer who died, but we thought only a very few friends and acquaintances would know what it was about, so we buried the lyrics behind this glam rock riff. After a while, people started understanding it, but mostly they just shook their fists in the air and thought, ‘Hey, leather jackets are cool.’ You’d see a lot of gay men fist-pumping on the edge of the stage—gay men in the ‘80s were probably the people most likely to know what it was like to have a friend die, and inherit their leather jacket.

When we played “Doledrums” during the ‘80s, people would punch their fists in the air, and feel it was a real protest song about being on the dole, and unemployment. In fact, it’s about what a great time I had being on the dole, staying home and writing songs. It’s very tongue-in-cheek.

What does that do to your head, when you are making art for which you are getting international recognition for both you and your country, and yet the only way you can fund it is by being literally on the dole?

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you’d have to hide the fact you were making music and pretend you were looking for other work. I pretended to design table ornaments. I’d bring sketches to my case officer: take skeletons of say, a horse and a human, and create a centaur, or a minotaur, objects you could put on a coffee table. They would have been beautiful!

We had already achieved quite notable success overseas, and when I came back to New Zealand, I was put on what they call a pre-employment call, where they teach you interview skills and typing and—I forget the term—when they teach you to walk like a model? Comportment? It probably could have come in handy. I was already minor-league internationally famous, and here I was, sort of apologizing, you know?

The Chills

Martin Phillips of The Chills. Photo by Jon Thom Moodie

My favorite records in the ‘80s were anything released on Flying Nun, and Dogs in Space, the soundtrack to the film about Australia in the post-punk era.  They are similarly weird: strongly influenced by post-punk, but with a unique sound that seems to come out of extremely geographically isolated areas.

In New Zealand, from my point of view, the environment was an incredible influence: You have access to beautiful, powerful, emotive scenery, where you can almost guarantee being alone. The landscape seemed bigger than a lot of human issues.  In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was hard to get new music and music magazines, and there was next-to-nothing played on the radio. The earliest New Zealand punk bands created their sound without knowing what punk sounded like. They would read descriptions in the magazines—which always came three months late—then make their music. It was more about the energy. Most of the key bands made an outdoor video. You’d get your friends together, go out in on the peninsula, have a party and film it. Sometimes you’d be on mushrooms.

Melody has always been crucial to your music, though it’s also very influenced by punk and post-punk. Do you consider yourself a pop band?

It means different things in different countries, but I try to avoid the term “pop” because it means more Taylor Swift now. But the Buzzcocks, some of those post-punk bands—that’s full-on pop. Chris Knox [of Flying Nun] was a huge Beatles fan. When I try to describe our music, I say “melodic rock.” But there was always a post-punk energy. So you’d have these aching, beautiful songs, but play them hard.

Many of your peers became these unlikely international stars. I still don’t understand why bands like REM got radio play and you did not.

Well, obviously I’ve thought about this…

Probably quite often! In the documentary, you say that you know that, with a few tweaks, your songs could be massive hits, but you won’t do that. What do you think those tweaks would be?

There’s always something a bit perverse about Chills songs. They’re never quite what they would need to be to be really radio-friendly. There’s always a twist in the lyrics or a weird bit in the song. Take something like “Wet Blanket”—if you just repeated that chorus a bit, then you’ve got yourself a hit single. I actually tried it live once—just repeated “You’re so, so, so beautiful…”

Flying Nun seems like a supportive, local niche label. But you seemed to have a bit of a rocky experience when you moved to a major.

I think they pretty much saw us as a New Zealand REM—or that’s what they said. The deal was: We’re going to build you up over six or seven albums. But then they dropped everyone who wasn’t selling 100,000 albums. It came as a shock, because I thought we had established some momentum and prestige that was going to carry us through the expected slumps, not that it was going to completely explode.

I just kept things moving forward. But then I realized everything around me was telling me to stop, step back, re-evaluate. I tried to use the drugs to get past those hurdles, but it was just the wrong time, wrong series of events. I lost a few years there. I don’t really regret it, because I learned so much about myself, about other people. You can’t really look down on drug users when you’ve actually mixed with them, you realize they are wonderful people who just have trouble going through things. Regrets, I have a few. But in the end I wouldn’t be who I was and able to know certain things if I hadn’t gone through it.

I know you collect comics and graphic novels. And many of the Chills videos are great. “Male Monster from the Id,” with all the archival footage from black and white horror films is one of my favorites.

I like that one a lot. It actually was so dark, some people didn’t like it. The scissors and eyeballs and stuff—people were just grossed out. “Pink Frost” is still one of the best. “Heavenly Pop” has some pretty good stuff. That was actually shot in Ireland, not New Zealand.

I’ve always thought, oh, look at the majestic New Zealand landscape!

The scouts went out and found places that looked like New Zealand. But it was northern Ireland.

So they were like, ‘Hey, let’s just roll this rock up the hill in Ireland?’

Well, we just found the rock. And if you look closely, there’s a goat. It got in the front seat of the tour bus. I don’t know why they wanted to coax the goat onto the tour bus, but.

That scene looking down at me on the rock, in the waves, that was very dangerous. They were like, “There’s a great rock down there.” And then, there I go, down the cliff face and we do a few takes, and they are like, “OK, cut.” And then around the point there is this huge wave coming. The soundtrack would start, and I start going, “Dum, dee dum, da, da, da da,” then “POOWW!”

I was expecting it would be the last time anyone ever saw me. I got out just in time, because soon after, the whole rock got washed over by this huge wave. I was in water up to my knees, but I was able to hang on.

—Amy Benfer

Album of the Day: Nonkeen, “Oddments of the Gamble”

Considering nonkeen’s debut album (the gamble) dropped less than six months ago, and its most well-known member (Piano Day impresario Nils Frahm) kept busy with F.S. Blumm, Ólafur Arnalds, and Robert friggin’ De Niro in the interim, it’d be easy to dismiss oddments of the gamble as a pile of soothing table scraps.

It’d also be wrong. Turns out the Berlin trio—Frahm, in full improv mode, alongside lifelong friends Sepp Singwald and Frederic Gmeiner—were on such a creative roll over the past couple years they ended up making two entirely different albums. A coin toss decided last February’s LP; the best of the rest was saved for this summer.

If there’s any connective tissue between nonkeen’s first couple full-lengths, it’s a flat-out refusal to sound anything like “Nils Frahm jamming in a basement with his drinking buddies.” Which is funny, because nonkeen is basically Nils Frahm jamming in a basement with his drinking buddies. Except they know better than to share their noodly parts with the outside world. From the propulsive locked grooves of “Glow” to the Radiophonic lullabies of “Back and Forth,” the final product remains completely focused. It also exists outside any particular subgenre or scene, opting to dip into slight ambient, pop, and experimental jazz stretches instead.

Neo-classical music this is not; it’s more like Frahm’s Lonely Island phase (a genre-hopping, playful experiment with lifelong friends), and if you’ve ever seen Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, we all know how much fun that is.

—Andrew Parks

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