The Whimsical and Grotesque Tape Manipulations of Cal Fish

Posted by on July 25, 2017

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Over the last decade or so, the affordability of cassettes has made them into more and more widely appealing medium for a slew of independent labels and artists. Producing cassettes remains an extremely cheap alternative to vinyl, though CD-R imprints often take the cake for craftiness and inexpensive home solutions. Tape sales increased by 140% during the 2016 holiday season compared with 2015, and Bandcamp saw a 46% increase in tape sales across 2016. A heavy nostalgia factor is at work, but for more and more listeners the format is an obvious point of entry — the appeal of affordability with cassettes versus vinyl extends to customers as well.

More recently the analogue tape revival has even manifested in the TV and film industry. However, bands generally adopt the analogue aesthetic purely for their visuals, still taking the digital studio route for recording, mixing and mastering of songs. Cal Fish raises the stakes by exploiting both audio and video cassettes to create seriously bizarre tape collages. Hailing from the raucous psych band Turnip King, he’s left his roots far behind for his solo project, pursuing a sound closer to John Cage’s tape experiments. October’s Fight for Free, an anxious zeitgeist revolving around last year’s political meat grinder, captures Fish sowing seeds that would bear fruit just months later for January’s Cassette Traveler via Fire Talk, which arrives with an extended tape video edit that shows some method behind the madness.

Compared to online streaming services, listening to any physical media can be a burdensome listening experience. Cassettes particularly so, requiring a specific player, a linear listen, waiting for rewinding, and inexact track location. Yet the format’s low-fidelity is its most unlikely and often its biggest draw. A digital music reproduction, in striving for a lossless translation of its master recording, eschews what cassette culture embraces: that the very medium on which an artwork is presented reconstitutes its message.

Traveler embraces this with a work that is complex and grotesque, far from the relative simplicity of running the songs through a VHS player until they’re sufficiently warped to share. Fish’s extensive source tape repository produces tracks with nearly melodic passages interrupted by detuned instruments (warped by tape or naturally out of tune), the warm analogue sound of distorted vocals, incomprehensible TV sound bites and found sounds, the mice-squeaking sound of fast-forwarding, cheap drum machine loops, and a hissing noise floor that would make any sound engineer balk. The sound resists its natural order, rebelling against tonality, clarity and timbre, like a more accessible Captain Beefheart — but not by much. Fish’s flute and his sporadic vocals punctuate the sound soup, anchoring it from becoming a complete noise journey.

But make no mistake about it: Traveler is downright dissonant. It is also unpredictable, which gives it a sense of mischief and charm. For music so far outside established genre norms, destabilization is the idea, yet its overall humor prevents the affair from becoming an academic exercise.

The aim of Fish’s method is to parse the rampant media around us into an organized format for a new kind of consumption. Fish states that “Cassette Traveler is the convergence of my whimsical, existential, and practical expressions about everything going onto a magical magnetic medium.” Judge for yourself. “You’re kNot Next Door” introduces squelchy tape fast-forwarding and degraded, faint percussion. There are multiple elements that don’t jive with each other, as if everything were running at their own tempos and in clashing keys. Near the end, the song stresses its dissonance by warping in pitch and distorting as Fish’s flute battles for audio space, cutting through the grit with its pure sinusoidal tone. “WW.CALM” fuses Fish’s mumbling with a clattering drum beat and bells. “3 Screens (On My Window)” uses a reverbed, delayed and distorted weather report. “December ’15” contains some of the thinnest sounds on the record, a dissonant guitar set against frenetic drums and his flute, horribly out of tune. “Muzak (feat. DJ Kren)” might be sampling a department store, but the song is sped up and slowed to different speeds, making it impossible to discern the tune’s original speed.

“There’s so much simultaneously banal and critical material floating around my room,” Fish says. “When my 4-track is lined into my VHS equipment the system collages it together automatically and transcendently. Working with tapes and trying to work with the indeterminacies of decaying machines and improvisation, I can be the producer and consumer of my work at the same time.”

Quotes from cultural theorists are peppered throughout Cassette Traveler, though you’d be hard-pressed to identify them. Fish’s work is linked to Derrida’s work on hauntology, which concerns itself with lost pasts and futures, of possibilities that never were and never could be. Consider that for a point in the past, an infinite number of parallel universes could have resulted. These unrealized universes can be said to haunt our current reality. Netflix’s Stranger Things soundtrack shows eighties music as a throwback, but its synthy tones are used to denote futurism and “otherness” that later became subsumed and normalized. The loss of the Democrats certainly haunts the new year. Steampunk is another easy reference point, a nonexistent era that posits an alternate, lost past. Lynch’s Twin Peaks posits a disjointed time referencing the cultural mores of the fifties in a strange twist of what they were, recontextualized from the nostalgia of the early nineties.

Cal Fish’s work is an even more bizarre take on hauntology, an affront on our remembrance of cassette culture. We marvel at the ghostly familiarity of an ancient VHS when it warps its content deliciously. Fish’s analogue tape transmissions come from an organic and alien planet, like 8-bit Nintendo games that look more foreign with each passing year but never seem to lose their charm. Cassette Traveler’s mutations force us to reckon with our nostalgia for inferior technologies — for what they never were, but as they could be. In an affront to even indie’s loose style, Fish resurrects and embraces the plastic containers collecting dust in our parent’s attics to bring us his bizarre, scrambled visage.