What’s Said in the Pub Should Stay in the Pub: An Interview with the Tapeworm
Seemingly out of nowhere, an upstart cassette label called The Tapeworm based in the U.K. appeared in 2009 with tapes by Philip Jeck and Stephen O’Malley among others, brought forth by a mysteriously anonymous organizer/director known only as “The Wyrm.” The label’s dubious ties to the Touch imprint and curious operations have laid a fascinating narrative ever since, amassing 70 releases, a number of quasi/sub- and sister-labels, and crafting an immediately recognizable visual aesthetic. We caught up with The Wyrm immediately following the release of TTW66-69 (featuring tapes by Michael Muennich, Graham Dowdall, Sharon Gal, and Osman Arabi) to try and pin down the label’s origins, its adoration of the cassette format, and what drives the label to maintain such a prolific output.
The Tapeworm is now five years old. What did you hope to achieve when first launching the label?
The Tapeworm, born in a South London garden over a warm ale, was not especially conceived to be a long-term project — it was created on a whim for a giggle. The Worms were somewhat frustrated with the day-to-day doings of releasing lesser formats, and asked; could there be a way to take this back to basics? How can we make this fun?
The humble cassette was quickly seized upon as the affordable, DIY answer to our woes. We approached a few of our friends to contribute, informing them that their work should somehow or other focus on the history, culture or restrictions of the format. Their responses blew us away. And so, we had a label.
Five years on, our objectives are no more clear than then; we find ourselves in the lucky position to be doing this, commissioning people whose music we admire, organizing shows and releasing tapes of the stuff we love. We might be slightly less DIY than we planned to be. The longer the project runs, the more work it becomes. The frustrations we wanted to avoid still occasionally arise. But the thrill remains as strong.
What is it about cassettes that draws you to the format?
The shape. Such a beautiful paper-backed, pocket-sized shape. The tonal warmth. The way certain musics simply suit its sound. The flexibilities of duration. The A and the B, and the need to focus an artist to program their music into sweet suites. The way the listener cannot shuffle away the artists’ intentions. The affordability — in this bankrupt age of super-deluxe, remake/remodel $100 box sets, we like the idea that you can own a limited, exclusive, sexy object for a fiver. The immediacy. The speed of how fast a tape can be turned around, from conception to release. And so much more.
How do you choose the artists you work with, especially given the range of notoriety (Philip Jeck, Fennesz, and Stephen O’Malley to lesser known artists)?
We rarely release from demos we receive — occasionally, but seldom. Mostly, the releases come via our own contacts and our networks in the wider worlds of music, publishing, design and literature. We might have worked with the artist for a while, met them at a gig, performed on the same line-up as them, been introduced to them by a friend, cold-called them, been commissioned by them for a completely separate reason.
You’re about to hit your 70th release with no sign of slowing down. Do you ever have trouble finding new music to put out?
We are fortunate to have access to an amazing array of artists, as mentioned above. Also, we actively seek out specific people, performances or projects from the past. So, no — thus far, music has made its way to the wormery, with varying degrees of effort, but we’ve never been short of something special to work with. At the label’s beginning, we wanted to create an — a relentless, shameless energy — by a schedule so hectic, releasing editions at a breakneck pace. Our speed’s slackened over the years, not from lack of energy or tapes to publish, but to give each edition — and ourselves — some breathing space, and to create the time to allow more involved projects to develop. Our Nam June Paik tape took three years to pull together, from first learning of the work to final release.
There’s quite a bit of overlap with artists who appear on the Tapeworm and the Touch label. What exactly are your ties with them?
Mike and Jon at Touch have supported our efforts from the off. Mike Harding helps organize our manufacturing and Touch promote our tapes. They also handle our distribution, alongside the equally splendid Forced Exposure. It’s often said that there’s a lot of overlap in our artists, and there’s a small truth in that. But of the 70-plus releases so far, the vast majority — 60-odd — had no prior direct connection to Touch. The Tapeworm takes great interest in editioning tapes by artists who are utterly un-Touch-y.
When you mention most of the artists not being related in any way to Touch, it brings to mind the variety of sounds you’ve put out, from Elektro Guzzi and Wouter van Veldhoven to Burning Tree and Amy Winedeath. Do you consciously mix up the sound to not get locked into any one area?
A few years into the project, a writer for the much-missed website The Liminal, suggested that The Tapeworm functioned like an old-school mixtape from a friend, whose taste you trusted and yet would still surprise you with a track or an artist of whom you had never heard of. One of this worm’s personal favorite tapes ever was a c90 TDK mixtape, the handwritten inlay titling it as “The Dalston Selektor,” gifted to it by a friend back at the beginning of the 90s — a compilation with splendid segues, from Charles Manson to Alice Coltrane, Merzbow to Soft Cell, Beach Boys to Burroughs. We wanted our catalogue to mirror such variety — each tape musically different to the next but presented as an equal, regardless of genre. If the listener buys into what we do, maybe we can surprise them into liking something they might never had thought of listening to. (Likewise with packaging, we wanted to create a democratic approach, so a more famous artist such as O’Malley or Fennesz is packaged the same as a complete unknown.)
The label maintains a dark sense of humor about everything, from the label’s name to the brief phrases and messages on the artwork of each tape. Other labels associated with the artists and sounds you deal with seem to lack that sense of humor. Did you feel the need to actively depart from a more serious demeanor, or was it a natural thing?
The Tapeworm has always liked labels with a voice, labels who act as if they own the place. Historically, charismatic 80s labels like Factory, Les Disques du Crépuscule or Zang Tuum Tumb were the kind of labels The Tapeworm liked, when tapes were the thing to like. We wanted the label to have an immediate identity, in the way a Penguin paperback book has.
People say all sorts of amazing things to The Tapeworm. On each release you’ll find a quote, often said to us on or around the day the tape was commissioned, or as part of artist/label discussions, or overheard late at night just as the artwork’s being done. The quotes are much less a reaction to how other labels may or may not present themselves, and much more to do with the fact that they amuse us.
When did you first feel the need to branch the label into two sub-imprints, the Bookworm and the Wormhole?
The Tapeworm asks those we commission to create a work for the tape format. The Wormhole began when, at roundabout the same time, Dylan Carlson presented one worm with some splendid tracks not for tape, while another worm swooned at The Swifter’s debut in a Berlin bar — performing tracks that would not make sense on cassette. Two releases too good to let go of, so, a sub-label. Next up: “Release the DATs” by BJNilsen.
The Bookworm is a slower-burn project. Such is the nature of books and the work involved in getting them right. The amazing Ken Hollings had presented us with an essay too good to avoid. So, a book was made, the imprint’s name too delicious to avoid. We have other books in varying states of readiness — Stefan Fähler’s “Zahntasia” and Stefan Goldmann’s “Presets.” More on these at some stage soon, I hope.
Other sub-labels once mooted, entre-worm: a flexidisc imprint named The Wobbleworm, and ringtones via The Ringworm. But sometimes, what’s said in the pub should stay in the pub.
What are you up to next?
On Tuesday, September 15th we celebrate five glorious years with a gig at Dalston’s finest, Cafe Oto. CM von Hausswolff’s “Dark 80ies” tape, compiling 80s works from Phauss and more, will be out by then. Further into the future, we are promised tapes from Steve Beresford, Skull DFX, Ostgut Ton’s Steffi and many more… Whether or not they ever happen, we shall see!