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Here’s a recent article written for the print edition of Tape Op #81:

Four Tracks and an Attitude

by Luther Russell

As a teenager in 1985 I slaved away all summer as a prep cook to buy a $500 Tascam Porta One 4-track cassette recorder. I proceeded to do what a lot of musicians of my generation did: record like crazy. All I needed to know was that Sgt. Pepper’s… had supposedly been done on a 4-track (though I had no idea which kind) and I was off  creating manic bedroom opuses, ones thankfully no one ever heard. But there was an unexpected by-product of this medium: inevitably sounds were created on the Porta One which could never be reproduced in a “real” studio. Were we all crazy, or was there really an intimacy and immediacy being bottled which could never be recaptured? Seeing as cassettes have pretty much died out, and no one uses analog 4-track recorders much anymore, I wanted to list some reasons why we shouldn’t rule them out just yet and why I love my Tascam Portastudio 424 and have kept using it to record certain tracks on albums and singles to this day.

Ten Reasons to Keep Using 4-Track Cassette Recorders:

1. Cassette tape compression. Cassette tapes are 1/8-inch wide. If you stop and think about all the old classic records you love, think about the fact they were all mixed to 1/4-ich tape.  We’re talking about Led Zeppelin and The Who – you get the picture. It’s only a hop, skip and a jump to 1/8-inch! I’ve heard a persistent rumor for years that Sticky Fingers was mixed to cassette because it was a novel medium in 1971 and the Stones wanted to squeeze it even harder. Whether it’s true or not, it makes perfect sense when you think of how it sounds. Another great story I heard was that Oh Mercy was mixed to cassette because Bob Dylan was taking home rough cassettes and didn’t understand why the final mixes being pumped out couldn’t sound like what he heard at home.

2. Bouncing is fun. Come on, if you’ve never bounced your drums and bass and a shaker down to one track to make room, you haven’t lived. Whenever you are about to do it you always get that pang of stage-fright thinking that you’ll lose crucial balancing and fidelity, but you’re always happy as hell, with the sound of those three crudely recorded elements squashed together and sounding all washy and fat.

3. Limitations. I’ve recorded a lot of other artists on 4-track, whether for demo-ing purposes, or just for fun. I asked Sarabeth Tucek, some of whose cassette recordings have made it onto albums, why she likes it so much. “I think having less choices helps me get to the essence of the song.” Many artists agree with her, and there is a reason: in this day and age of Pro Tools, plug-ins and programs it gets tougher and tougher to make decisions, therefore working against artistic impulse. Cassettes keep options in check.

4. Some really classic albums have been made on 4-track cassette. Among them are Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Ween’s The Pod, Elliott Smith’s Roman Candle, Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand and Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank The Cradle.

5. It’s cheap! You (yes you) can achieve the glorious sounds of extreme acoustic guitar squeaks, popping P’s and tape hiss for a mere $50 on Craigslist. Throw in a few cheap cassettes, some rubbing alcohol, Q-tips and a Shure SM57 and you too can take a sizable chunk out of your life indulging in stoned analog kitchen experimentation. Hell, I found a Porta Studio for $10 at a sidewalk sale the other day.

6. Tricks. Yeah, you heard me, “Tricks.” Wait until you hear what the pitch control on a 424 does. Record a drum beat onto track 1 at top speed then slow it waaay down on playback. Some serious (yet manageable) bottom end, eh? Now flip the cassette over and listen back on track 4 – holy crap, it’s backwards! It sounds like Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced!” If you record on a used cassette, weird, random stuff shows up backwards. Now bounce that to track 2, but really overload it like crazy. It’s really good distortion! Now throw it onto track 3 along with some echo, because The Beatles had to do that in order to utilize multiple effects and so do you.

7. Limiting. As some of us older folks might remember when making mixtapes for our sweethearts back in the day, we had to make the songs appear to be same volume. We were like a whole generation of unwitting mastering engineers. Your editor, Larry Crane, remarked to me while transferring some old tapes recently, ”It reminded me of how the cassette limits the audio really hard but in a cool way.” That’s what I’m talking about. And this happens all the time in 4-track recording, whether you like it or not.

8. Vibe.  The original so-called “lo-fi” movement of the’80s and ’90s was really a result of lack of funding, but there’s no denying that it created a mood and atmosphere to some of the music which was missing in a lot of the overly-slick stuff of the time. Anyone remotely acquainted with the field-recording quality and desolate sounds of early 20th-century records cannot deny the spookiness it conjures up when coupled with the right song. Often this essence was stumbled across in some of these lo-fi cassette experiments, such as Michelle Shocked’s The Texas Campfire Tapes or Smog’s Sewn to the Sky.

9. It’s portable. This is what I like the most about the aptly named Porta Studio. I’ve recorded drums in an auditorium, a pipe organ in a church, a grand piano at a friend’s house and vocals in my shower – all on one song!

10. It really can be hi-fi. I have found that some the best sounds I ever got were captured on a 4-track. This was either a result of using some really nice gear or due to plain resourcefulness. Either way you can’t fake a good sound. I used a Neumann through a UA 1176 into a channel on the 4-track recently and it sounded amazing. I’ve used AKG 414s, Shure SM7s and even ribbon mics. Sometimes lo-fi instruments come off very hi-fi on accident. On my first solo record, Lowdown World, (recorded entirely on 4-track cassette) there is a song called “Seven” which was really a demo I recorded immediately after a gig late at night because I didn’t want to forget it. I didn’t have a mic available, so I used a cheap pair of Radio Shack headphones to record the vocal. It was a very dark song done after a very emotional night when a friend almost OD’d backstage. I captured a vocal sound I have never been able to duplicate. When I finished the demo, suddenly a live recording of my band came through the fadeout backwards through effects. Coupled with the only instruments I had lying around, an old Wurlitzer and a Univox drum machine from the ‘70s, I had created a recording that could not be bettered. Mood, emotion, strangeness and an intangible aura that could never have been recorded at Abbey Road.

 

Here’s a recent article written for the on-line edition of Tape Op #88:

The Lost and Found World of Jesse Roy
by Luther Russell

While outsider music isn’t for everyone, the genuine article speaks to the outsider in all of us. By its very definition, the genre is strange and impenetrable and yet inviting the same way we are drawn into an overheard conversation that seems to reflect our own buried thoughts. Wikipedia states: “Outsider music are songs and compositions by musicians who are not part of the commercial industry, who write songs that ignore standard musical or lyrical conventions, either because they have no formal training or because they disagree with formal rules.” I guess that’s sorta right and sorta not, since that could mean just about anyone who takes a stab at music. For me, Jesse Roy epitomizes the term because he meets an all-important criteria: he has consistently released his peculiar brand of “informal” music for nigh on 20 years now, either in cassette or CD-R form and in the guise of several bands and/or projects all falling under a general umbrella called Cellophane Rechordings. In other words, this is no hobby. Make no mistake, this an artist with something to say, and exactly what that is is not easily explained…

I came across his oeuvre quite recently and by accident, as I lived near where he works in Brooklyn, NY – we struck up a conversation. This led me to the site on bandcamp.com, which contains almost 60 records of his music dating back to 1987. And what I found there is more than just “good” or “bad” music… it’s someone’s life! Humor, sadness and more than a little experimentation. Plus a willingness to explore one’s inhibitions and influences – to try literally everything, whether or not it’s possible. This is what I like the most about making music in general. Not “musicality” for the sake of it, but an overall arching conceptual flow in someone’s work that tells a story about that person. Don’t know how to play a saxophone? Fuck it, here goes! But dig through the overflowing dustbins of emotional refuse and you will find absolute diamonds. And as we all know, real diamonds are forged the hard way: under unique conditions at great depths.

His latest single “Carried Away” b/w “Half A Hole,” recorded in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 2008 under a recent moniker, Tangled Routes & Criminal Chutes, is deceptively ramshackle. On first listen, “Carried Away” refuses to be classified. It begins in a frenzy of disjointed, thinly recorded gentle wah-guitars then turns into a chaotic bass riff straight out of Meat Puppets II. “Well it was the perfect day…,” he sings sheepishly, “September circles of grey….” Suddenly a Moby Grape-like feeling pervades. “You were the way and the light.” Then an uneasy breakdown of acoustic guitar and banjo. Then a build-up of echoing electric guitar and voice which pitch-bends drastically into wasted fuzz until it all falls apart into musical ash. Yet there’s no denying there is an evocative pop song beneath it all. And that’s just one tune. Now try 60 plus records and you begin to get the picture. Point is, you may have a little trouble figuring out where to start, but once you are in, good luck getting out!

A particular highlight for me is a one-off digital track called “Last Time I Saw You,” released in 2007 under a recent handle, The Melting Plastic Children’s Crusade. To even begin to describe it would immediately scare up images of opium smoke-laced carnival sounds from a children’s hospital as a backdrop for an affecting jazz-like melody evoking a nostalgia of “question marks & fiery sparks in a thousand different dreams.” Suddenly the music explodes into utter chaos like a clown-car crashing into a silly-putty wall and… oh, never mind. Just fucking listen to it, you know?? All I know is that there is an acutely creative mind at work here and there are many layers to this musical onion…

Jesse Roy began making music at the tender age of 13 by writing little Beatles-influenced songs and strumming them into his parents’ 1/4-inch tape machine in order to hear them back. Though brought up in a strict religious household in the small town of Chicopee, Massachusetts, his folks’ record collection improbably contained much leftover ’60s psychedelia. This music seemed to give him an identity and thus the sonic experimentation began. His first projects were bands such as The Four Lads, whose early recordings can be found on the bandcamp site, and the shoegaze-y Smile, whose various home-made cassettes he gave out frequently in high-school to bemused classmates.

From the late ’80s to 1994 he experimented musically in a collective known as Paperhead, all the while printing up small runs of recorded music. Their 1993 album, Vacuum, finds them exploring every conceivable sound from the overloaded guitars and synths of “Eye-Splitting Androgynous,” the dark, delayed whispers of “Vampire” to the gentle, almost ridiculous folk stylings of the flute-infused “I Saw You In The Dream.” The true classic of the record might be “Tear Me Apart,” with its hazy, hissy bedroom-stoner version of T. Rex. In a deceptively happy melody, the barely-audible lyrics enthuse, “Kiss me, kiss me/Make me happy/Tell me that you/Really love me/Then tear me apart…” His next band, Never Shake A Baby, existed as an entity for about two years in the mid-’90s and made a few serious cassette releases of a few hundred at a time, even staging a big release party for one. This music is best described as being closer to the burgeoning scene of underground ‘lo-fi’ indie rock of the time. The band’s third release, Never Shake A Baby III, is described by the tags on the bandcamp site as “1996/Bubblegum/Demonic/Possession/Post-Grunge/Pop.” It’s not far off, as after opener “Get Out Of Her My People” (consisting of harsh distortion and wild hayride-style harmonica), they launch into the brilliant power pop of “Bearing Boredom.” “Angel From Hell” bursts forth with ear-splitting noise before devolving into a mischievous, comic voice repeating the almost annoying phrase “I’m an angel from hell.” It’s hilariously pitch-bent and demented–and utterly unique. Sort of a leftover Ween track from The Pod or something. Another standout is “Sick” which can only be described as a circus-like version of a lost Nine Inch Nails song. Roy sings frailly, “I’m sick/ I’m tired/ I’m stuck in this body/ I don’t like it anymore… than you.” Suddenly orchestral synth stabs crash in with Mike Oldfield-like bells. On and on the sonic, melodic and lyrical invention goes…and again, this is just one obscure cassette release from the mid-’90’s.

But it’s in the Low Flying Planes, made up of five distinct musical personalities, where his creative intuition begins to shine, especially on the record Seagulls which contains such gems as “Seethesea” (sung by Su Paille) and “Deepinthegreen,” a kind of shotgun wedding between My Bloody Valentine and Notorious… -era Byrds. The Low Flying Planes were based in Boston at this point and played no shows and only released a run of 50 CDs of this particular record in 2001. Dedicated fan base or not, this album holds up spectacularly as an example of when disparate elements seem to coalesce and make an exceptional piece of art. “See The Sea” opens suspensefully with Paille’s beautiful and disturbing vocals. Then the band lurches into a thin, guitar thrum which descends constantly. “She went down, down, down, down, down to the sea” is sung over a haunting melody. After a winding, poetic verse, the band speeds up into the aggressive, Violent Femmes-like chorus of “See the sea, she’s angry with me.” The bitter-sweet changes constantly go around and around, until the group shifts into a pointed waltz as she cries, “I went down, down, down, down/ To the edge of the jagged rocks/ My heart was filled with lead and fuel/ My head was full of thoughts…” Though not Roy’s composition, “See The Sea” is nonetheless a lost classic of sorts, and might have only be shepherded to fruition through his undying drive and inspiration to gather no moss, as it were.

After a move to Brooklyn in 2003, Roy partook in a series of “improv” bands, as he calls it. This instigated a lighter, more exploratory phase culminating with Marvellous Stairs (with collaborator Joanne Hsieh). Essentially more home-recorded experimentation, the eponymous LP nevertheless kicks off with the effortless pop of “Slightly Blurred.” “Paint yourself into a boxcar/Spring is on it’s way,” they sing in unison to a bouncy melody, not out of place in a playlist containing a Moldy Peaches tune. What follows is an onslaught of Pollock-like sonic paint-splashing, the most satisfying result of which is the track “Wishing You All The Best, Now And Forever.” Though only made up of gentle, meandering guitar scraps and backwards loops, it is a beautifully realized sound-collage, the likes of which is sprinkled all throughout Roy’s copious library. It’s this level of sustained exploration that qualifies his collected works as important in it’s ceaseless searching.

After Marvellous Stairs, Jesse has recorded intermittently with one-time Low Flying Bird and Never Shake A Baby member Ian Johnson, who has elected to remain in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Which brings us up to date with Tangled Routes And Criminal Chutes. Whew! Pretty overwhelming, I know. But hopefully I have managed to convey some sense of an artist who, though his output can sometimes come off as insular and challenging, has always actively sought to have his voice heard during the many shifting climates of the music scene over the years. Jesse Roy has been putting himself ‘out there’ for two decades and in his mind the music has been made as much for other people to enjoy as it his for his own personal catharses.

Speaking of catharses, one change that has been made as of late is the adoption of the name Cellophane Rechordings as his current moniker “to make things simple,” as he puts it. Cellophane Rechordings began as a small label of sorts, a catchall to corral all of the various bands and projects he has undertaken from the start. Following this, everything he has uploaded has the default introductory “Cellophane Rechordings Presents….” But now simply as Cellophane Rechordings he has released such slabs of unadulterated sonic exploration as 2009’s ethereal Splash My Clown. Primarily acoustic, SMC is sprinkled with chants, chimes, the odd sitar, and generally pleasing tones that adorn an essentially avant-garde recording. “Buzzing Rainbows” is one such incantation. “Millions and millions and millions of rainbows…” becomes almost mantra-like and is at once strange and sun-dappled. Splash My Clown still maintains a sense of being on the outside looking in, but is a cohesive whole, drawing upon almost every instinct that has informed Jesse Roy’s musical world-view since his humble late-’80s beginnings. It’s delicately removed from the beaten path and yet feels emboldened with a hard-won confidence, unlike many of its freak-folk counterparts of today’s scene (I won’t name names). It’s just… good music. In fact, great music. And in the spirit of adventure, I am compelled to declare Cellophane Rechordings’ Splash My Clown a skewed, modern American classic of sorts, and one that will be enjoyed (with any luck) by many for decades to come. The title-track is the most successful version of a sound-montage he has yet undertaken. It is exquisite, and full of beauty and meaning, all conveyed without a single lyric… just found sounds and the fragile underpinnings of whispers and the sense of a lost universe. Found indeed.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2011 3:15 am

    Excellent article, and right on with the 4-track points. Searching for a 424 mkii as we speak. Keep it up!

  2. joe trudeau permalink
    March 2, 2012 9:29 am

    17 Mile Drive………

  3. OmAlone permalink
    April 11, 2012 6:44 am

    Luv ya Luther. As real and obscure as ever. Keep it kickin and stay alive. The world needs you but may never realize it. Stay tough brother being.

  4. Suzanne McDonald permalink
    March 26, 2017 8:20 am

    Hi Luther you guys were awesome tonight Woooo wooooo :0000000:D ~ Suzie

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