Exploring Cassettes With Eric Krueger of Geology Records
A little while ago, Josh Ranft asked the question, “Which Medium Do You Prefer?“, breaking down the ins and outs of various ways to check out an album. While many people are constantly looking for the newest technology to improve sound quality and the technical side of music, there will always be love for mediums that aren’t exactly keeping with the times. One of those slightly antiquated mediums is the cassette tape. Personally, I still drive a car made in 1996, so I’m no stranger to the cassette deck, even if it now it has an auxiliary cord for an iPod attached to it. However, I also did grow up with cassettes, and have vivid memories of the joys and frustrations that came with them. We discussed cassette tapes with Eric Krueger, who currently runs a cassette/digital label, Geology Records. Check out his take on the significance of the cassette tape and more:
The biggest question that I’m sure you have to answer all the time is, “Why Cassettes?”
The quick answer is that cassettes are cheap to produce on a professional level in low volumes (smaller volumes than CDs and MUCH cheaper than vinyl) which allows me to sell them cheap as well.
I still really like the idea of music as a physical object and not just some files getting lost on a hard drive. Putting music on a cassette gives it some analog warmth, even if it is from a digital source, and I kind of like the idea of an album slowly degrading over time. Nothing lasts forever and it is interesting to embrace that. I remember listening to some old Hendrix bootlegs my dad had on cassette. They were maybe 20 years old at the time and small portions here and there had started dropping out. The tape was old and deteriorating. It was kind of sad, since the proper recordings were being lost, but also kind of fascinating. Like William Basinski’s Disintigration Loops.
I actually hated cassettes up until a few years ago when a few bands I really liked “forced” me to buy cassette only releases they were putting out. These days I really love the format because it makes listening to whole sides the obvious choice which allows albums to really open up. This works well with more experimental music, but also doesn’t hurt on pop albums. A lot of people think they sound bad, but that is something of a misunderstanding. Like any recording, there is a lot that goes into making it sound a certain way and cassettes can sound fantastic if you let the format be what it is.
Which artists/projects are you currently working with?
Geology released it’s first three tapes a few months ago. The first one is by North Col, which is a long defunct collective I was involved with. It revolved around my roommate Kevin Schneider and I and various musician friends who stopped by our Riverwest practice space. We originally started writing songs – Kevin and I formed this after our old band Signal to Shore dissolved – but over time it evolved/devolved into a chaotic, sometimes extremely noisy improvisation group. We were almost always recording and this past winter I compiled a bunch of it into this release.
The second one is Milwaukee post-hardcore mainstay Disguised as Birds’ final EP, “We Buy Gold.” Really sad to see these guys bow out, but holy crap are they going out on a high note.
The third release is The Fassbinders “Earthworm” album. Giving this a proper release was one of the things that spurred me to start the label. It jumps all over the map from psych to Beatlesque pop to country and I love rocking this one in my car.
Besides the three tapes I’ve put out so far, I am working with Milwaukee’s Heavy Hand to do a cassette release of their upcoming album Northwoods Knives which is also coming out on CD on Latest Flame Records. There are a few other folks I am talking with for possible releases this year that I am pretty excited about, but nothing I can announce just yet.
Roughly how many cassettes have you manufactured?
So far 225. 25 of North Col and 100 each of Birds and Fassbinders. Everything is limited but also available digitally (although the tapes look a lot cooler).
Are there any artists/genres that you’d really like to work with in the future?
Right now I’m letting it all progress pretty organically. My tastes in music are wildly eclectic and I like the idea of keeping the label that way. It may start to move more towards a particular genre in the future, but in this early stage I like the idea of letting things go where they go naturally. One guy I’m talking to is pretty far down the electronic spectrum and I hadn’t had any plans of going that direction, but his stuff is awesome so why not? I have been really obsessed with the American Primitive form of guitar playing the past few years and would like to explore that direction at some point.
Vinyl seemed to kind of have a resurgence amongst music fans. Do you think that you’ll see something similar with cassettes, as one of those mediums that will never really completely die out?
I do think so, on a smaller level. I love vinyl and definitely buy my share and you just can’t argue with the looks and sound as far as physical media goes, but it is expensive. I can get three or four new tapes for the price of one new LP which allows for a lot more experimentation. I also used to really hate the way art worked out on a cassette j-card, but that was mostly because of the terrible job mainstream music did with it in the 80’s and 90’s. If you embrace the size you can make them look fantastic. My day job is as a graphic designer and I have really enjoyed trying to figure out the format.
What is the biggest challenge of making cassettes today?
The age old problem of getting people to notice anything you are doing. The label is still quite new and at the moment none of the bands I’ve worked with are active anymore, so they aren’t selling tapes at shows or anything. It doesn’t really bother me, though, because this is great music and it is slowly spreading. There is also the problem of a large swath of people not having cassette decks anymore or not taking the format seriously. You can frequently find good decks at Goodwill for $10 and really good ones on eBay for under $50. It’s actually a pretty cheap investment if you already have a stereo to plug into. If you are into more experimental music, there are just tons and tons of amazing releases coming out of cassette these days.
Do you focus on just Milwaukee artists, or has that just sort of happened?
So far I’ve been working with people I directly know and have a long-term relationship with so it has been more local. I’ve known Jeff Wanless from The Fassbinders since grade school and played with Chris Chuzles from Disguised as Birds in Signal to Shore. As for the future, I’m open to anything. Heavy Hand is a Milwaukee band and one of the others I’m talking to is from here as well, but I’m also talking to a guy from Montreal about a possible release.
Do you get a lot of requests from bands to put their stuff on cassette?
I have gotten a decent amount. I actually heard from a guy in LA a while back who’s music kind of blew me away, but his email communication worried me. I got the impression that dealing with him was going to be troublesome so I kind of passed. One of his songs was reviewed on Pitchfork the next week. Ha! Oh well.
What is your favorite project that you’ve put out so far?
Since I only have three I can honestly say I don’t have a favorite. Helping Birds get their final EP out as a physical object was a pleasure and they went out on such a high note. Seeing The Fassbinders album FINALLY officially released is something I had wanted for a long time, so that is really satisfying. North Col was such an odd project/non-project that I am just happy something is there now to say it even existed. Since I was a part of that project, it was definitely a lot of fun compiling it and it has been really interesting hearing people’s opinions on it. It’s a difficult listen, but I think a good one for the right ears.
Surely, you have an old cassette that wasn’t made by Geology that you love. If you had to pick a favorite old album/cassette, which would that be?
I can say for certain that it would be Def Leppard’s High ’N Dry (their best album) if I still had it. I think I got rid of all of my old 80’s tapes sometime in the 90’s when I thought they were lame. Big mistake. There was some gold in there. As far as something I still have – I have a pile of old bootlegs on cassette. I used to trade them online in the late 90’s before everyone had a CD burner and bandwidth was good enough for just trading MP3s and FLACs. I’ve got a couple of Flying Saucer Attack live shows that are absolutely mind blowing.