Sahan Jayasuriya of Goodnight and Good Morning has always been a fan of the tape – and he has
the old photo to prove it.
I bought my first car earlier this summer. It’s a ’98 Buick, and all it has, as far as entertainment goes, is a tape deck. So it was out of pure necessity that I started hanging around cassette racks at record stores and raiding my mom’s stash – which had been gathering dust in our “entertainment center” for years. I started noticing cassettes at merch tables, right there next to the vinyls and T-shirts. It had always been my impression that tapes were less cool and of lower quality than vinyl, and just impractical compared to CDs. So what, besides a car manufactured prior to the turn of the millennium, would give anyone a reason to still buy these things? And why do bands still release them?
I never actually had a chance to lay eyes on Brady Murphy’s tapes – because the collection is currently spread across a couple different cars and apartments – but he told me that he owns more than 100 of them. He credits much of their lasting appeal to affordability. “CDs passed them and people had all these leftover tapes,” he says. “On a bigger scale, recorders and duplicators are cheaper, too.” That means new tapes, as well as used ones, are still the cheapest way to go in terms of a physical product – for both fans and bands.
Isaac Sherman of Catacombz, which has put its last three releases to tape says the tape-pressing plant they deal with (National Audio in Missouri) doubled its business two summers ago. While Sherman names affordability as a major reason Catacombz makes tapes, he says the medium also conforms conveniently to the band’s style. “Lots of people still have cars with cassette decks, which is nice because we like to encourage people to listen to our music while driving,” he says.
Last year, local garage-band Slow Walker released Good For Business on cassette only. “We pretty much decided to put it out on cassette because it’s quick and cheap and sounds good,” says Andy Patterson. “No one that actually likes music listens to CDs, and we are too poor to do vinyl,” he says. While anyone who has ever bought a CD might take issue with that statement, Patterson is getting at something with his distinction. Tapes have an analog sound unique to the format, and observant listeners will be able to notice and appreciate that sound. “I hate it when people say cassettes sound bad,” says Sahan Jayasuriya of Goodnight and Good Morning. “Because yes, if you’re playing them on a Fisher-Price boombox they are gonna sound bad. But if you actually play a good cassette through a good set up, it doesn’t sound like a CD and it doesn’t sound like a record. It’s got kind of this weird compression to it.” Jayasuriya is so adamant about that particular sound that when he and his band recorded their last record, they bounced it onto audio cassette and digitized it to augment the record’s hazy sheen.
Jayasuriya is a tape nut. Somewhere in his apartment, probably buried under the stacks of tapes and vinyl that fill his living room, there is, allegedly, a photograph of him and his brother on Christmas day some 20 years ago. In the photo, the boys are showing off the day’s haul: For his brother, it was a teddy bear. For Sahan, it was a blank cassette tape. When people give him a hard time for his out-of-style obsession, he shows them the photo as proof that he was into cassettes before they were cool. “The idea of the cassette is kinda trite,” says Jayasuriya. “You can get the cassette belt buckle at Urban Outfitters. Or you can get the cassette flash drive and put your MP3s on it. People like it because of the fact that it’s primitive. But I never stopped doing that.”
Local rapper Juiceboxxx, whose latest release, I Don’t Wanna Go Into The Darkness, is available on cassette, shares a similar perspective: “Tapes have been really popular in underground rock and noise circles for most of the 00’s. Maybe the larger indie scene is slowly catching on, I don’t know. I bought DJ mixes on cassette as a kid and that transitioned smoothly into buying noise tapes as a teen. Tapes have always been there.”
When Jayasuriya began seriously listening to music as a kid in the early ’90s, however, cassettes were on their way out as CDs became popular. Still, he remembers a time when tapes were king. “Everywhere they had cassettes,” he says. “They had cassettes at Target, they had cassettes at K-Mart. I remember getting the cassette single for Rod Stewart’s Rhythm of My Heart at a Kohl’s department store. I didn’t hop on the CD train until like ’96. Before that it was all tapes.” He picks up a copy of Joy Division’s Unkown Pleasures and shows the insert. “This is really nerdy,” he says, “but they used the same textured paper they used on the LP. They went all out because this [tape] was gonna be the only way someone listened to this record.”
Talking with Jayasuriya and Juiceboxxx added another appealing wrinkle to the case for cassettes. If you are a music fan between the ages of 20 and 30, tapes could be to you what vinyl records are for your parents. While many of us feel warm and fuzzy when we drop the needle on a dusty old vinyl, few Generation Y-ers were actually around when that was common practice. It’s more likely we remember popping a cassette into the mini-van deck or untangling a sad mess of magnetic plastic. I’ll never forget the day my mom surprised my brother and I with N’Sync’s No Strings Attached on cassette. Tapes pack a punch of nostalgia similar to records, and there’s no arguing that nostalgia is a powerful force behind what people choose to listen to and buy these days.
They’re cheap. They sound good. And maybe they take you back to a simpler time when all you had to do – all you could do, really – was press “Play.” Tapes just might be cool again. But if you seek them out at merch tables or spend hours cobbling together the perfect mix-tape for a crush, you’re probably still part of a minority. “I’ve been making tapes for girls forever; it’s a thing,” says Jayasuriya. “But now it’s to the point where you gotta ask them ‘do you have a tape player?’” Even so, tape-lovers are in good company in Milwaukee where passionate bands and individuals have begun to carve out a healthy (and growing) niche for tapes.