Those of us born in the mid-1970s or earlier have seen a lot of audio formats come and go — and sometimes make a slight return. (Hello, vinyl.) So when I heard that a local label was prepping a cassette-only box set of experimental and pop music from Burlington, I had two thoughts: Fantastic! and Um, why cassettes?
“It’s really an homage to underground cassette culture,” says Matt Mayer, one half of NNA Tapes, the cassette-only label he runs with friend and fellow experimental musician Toby Aronson. The three of us are sitting in Nunyuns, a coffee shop in Burlington’s Old North End. Already Mayer’s articulate, bespectacled geek is playing off Aronson’s wild bedhead and booming baritone voice. They constantly finish each other’s sentences.
Aronson is quick to point out that cassettes are a natural part of the experimental music scene that he and Mayer have been involved with for years. “We’d show up [for a gig] and there would be merch tables filled with cassette tapes. So, for us, since we’ve been playing shows with people like that, it’s more normal.”
For those unfamiliar with “experimental” music, it’s both an umbrella term and a bit of a misnomer. It includes artists who sit onstage bent over a combination of synths, mixers, samplers, microphones and found objects, creating drones, collages, noise or deconstructed pop. But it also may include free-jazz guitars, saxophones, recorders or any instrument artists use to make creative, independent work.
Aronson and Mayer started NNA Tapes in 2008 with a mission to release music from just these kinds of artists, whom they admired and thought needed more exposure.
Both musicians came to embrace experimental music, and cassette culture, in different ways. Aronson attended the University of Vermont to study guitar, but was unimpressed with the experience and instead found inspiration in what he calls “weird” music. Mayer was a studio art major who competed in DJ battles while attending Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Both now use cassettes featuring samples and loops in their live performances. Aronson adds synths; Mayer makes a point to not use any “real” instruments. He prefers amplified sheet metal.
Since the start of NNA, the pair have funded the label selling cassette tapes through their website, but most sales these days are through distributors such as Mimaroglu Music Sales or shops like Aquarius Records in San Francisco, both of whom order tapes directly from NNA’s Burlington headquarters/apartment.
Mayer and Aronson also teamed up to book and promote live music in Burlington. They have put on several performances in their Fucked Up Music series, and regularly book shows at low-profile underground venues around town.
“I would not have been exposed to so many different bands and labels if they hadn’t gotten involved,” says Nick Mavodones one recent morning over coffee and bagels. He has helped promote NNA shows as part of Angioplasty Media, which he runs with singer-songwriter Paddy Reagan. “They’re not just setting shit up, but they’re out there helping other folks. A lot of people don’t come out to shows, but I see them everywhere.”
Helping other musicians get exposure is the point of NNA’s first box set. Simply titled Burlington, VT, the eight-tape collection features one artist per 15-minute tape, each with a custom screen-printed cover. The set is nestled in a white plastic case.
Though NNA has been almost purely an experimental music label thus far, the new box set mixes things up — much the same way the NNA guys decided to diversify their shows by including performers such as tooth ache. and Ryan Power, both of whom lean toward pop.
“We decided a while ago that we can’t really have all-experimental-music shows,” says Aronson. “What we try to do is have a DJ playing dance music and then have a pop band play, and then noise music. And everyone is standing up and drinking a beer and that, to me, is rock ’n’ roll. It might be extremely abstract, and maybe academic, but the attitude of it is rock ’n’ roll.”
Mayer makes the connection between that philosophy and the tapes in the new box set. “The lineup’s pretty all over the place. We’ve got everything from harsh noise to pop music,” he says. “There’s definitely going to be something for everyone and, hopefully, with 15-minute tapes, if you have an auto-reverse deck you can just blow through each one and have a good sampling. And we want it to just be a snapshot of what’s going on in the Burlington underground in 2010.”
Both Mayer and Aronson riff on the perennial lament that if Burlington artists only play locally or don’t get distribution for their albums, they can’t expect to have much success outside Chittenden County. They could help some Burlington musicians bust out: NNA has previously released work that sold to distributors and customers way outside the state.
“We’ve probably sold more tapes in Belgium than in Burlington,” Mayer says matter of factly.
And yet, neither budding impresario is concerned that NNA doesn’t have much of a local buying audience … so far.
“I think that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to be surrounded by a town full of tape nerds,” Aronson says with a laugh. “And that’s almost what I love about this town, you know what I mean? I don’t hold any bad feelings about the fact that no one at all is interested.”
Toby Aronson and Matt Mayer feed us some sound bites about the artists featured on Burlington, VT.
Toby Aronson “Really inspired by ’80s Phillip Glass, like the really poppy sell-out stuff, and Vangelis and cheap, easy, soundtracky stuff.”
Greg Davis “More along the lines of his recent stuff, like really aesthetic drone pieces, heavy on the melodies.”
A Snake in the Garden “Really industrial-influenced noise with sheet metal and cassette tapes; pretty abrasive and really good.”
Ryan Power “His smoother ’80s sound he has going on right now. It almost sounds like Alexander O’Neal or The SOS Band.”
tooth ache. “It’s really minimal synth pop … melancholy with hazy vocals, but really catchy melodies.”
Lawrence Welks and Our Bear to Cross “A filthy version of late ’80s/early ’90s glamorous pop music mixed with an adult contemporary vibe played through garbage instruments.”
Chubby Wonder “Demented pop and abstract sound collages made with eraserheadless tape recorders.”
Cosmic Matrix “Mix the Beta Band with The Doors and out-there psychedelic stuff. Real mysterious, with a cosmic vibe.