Tape-Scaping [2017-04-12]Howard Stelzer is a respected & distinctive-sounding electro-acoustic noise maker from Lowell MA. His work often blurs the lines between ambience, subtle noise-making, creative drone layering, and general moody yet often detailed texturally sound making. Late last year (via Ballast) he released a six cassette box set Normal Bias - this excellent release highlighted both the scope of his sound, and his ability to create varied & memorable sound-works. Howard kindly agreed to give M[m] an email interview, where we discuss his influences, working methods, and his work in general.
M[m]:What are some of your earliest musical/sound memories? And do you think any of these made you want to start creating your own work?
HS I have vague memories watching MTV when it first started, and of listening to new wave and synth-pop on the radio when I was very young. By the time I was in 4th and 5th grade in the mid-1980s, I loved “Weird Al” Yankovic, Talking Heads and Billy Joel. In 1988, "Weird Al" did a show on MTV where he played "weird" videos... artists like They Might Be Giants, The Art of Noise, Steinski & Mass Media, Fishbone... I recorded the program onto VHS and would watch it over and over. Then, I held a walkman to the TV speaker to make an audio tape of the show. I listened to that tape obsessively. I was attracted to unusual sounds, more so than songs or lyrics. The aspect of music that really drew me in was the thrill of confusion. For example, Fishbone's "It's a Wonderful Life" (which is just a fast ska song) just sounded like a blur of noise to me... I became fascinated by how much I didn't understand it. Once I finally wrapped my head around the song and could hear the structure and melody, I went searching for more music that could produce the same experience. I'd set up my VHS recorder to tape "120 Minutes" on MTV every Sunday night, then rush home from school on Monday to watch the tape and write down the names of all the interesting bands. Then I'd comb the backs of magazines like ND, writing away for mail-order catalogs and absorbing as much as possible.
As for what made me want to start making my own music, I’ve no idea. I suppose that, as a geeky kid in the suburbs, it just seemed like a fun thing to do. I was what my pal Brendan Murray calls "an indoor kid"; instead of playing sports or going to the beach, I listened to records.
M[m]:Tell us a little bit about how/when you started to making your own sonic works?.
HS I started when I was 15 or 16 years old, in high school in south Florida. I loved music and records, but since I didn't have the patience to learn how to play an instrument properly (despite lessons in tuba, trombone, drums and bass guitar), I disassembled instruments and made noise instead. My friends and I would get together in my parents’ garage and bang on metal pipes, trash cans, car parts, oil drums, shopping carts and other crap that we scavenged from construction sites and found at auto salvage yards. We made extremely loud and messy sounds in that large and reverberant concrete room, but recorded onto a crappy boom box because we didn't know any better. Naturally, the little built-in condenser microphone on the boom box would distort everything and crush all the frequencies.
HS The first time we played the cassette back on my parents’ stereo, I was struck by two things: first, the realization that I could make music at all… and second, that the sounds coming from the speakers were so different from the sounds I heard in the garage. The very loud percussion and sharp highs that bounced mercilessly around that concrete box became squished so much that I could barely recognize it when I listened to the tape. That moment was a major revelation. The idea that the tape was somewhat out of my control, that I wouldn't really know what it sounded like until I played it back, was very exciting.
M[m]:You mention enjoying the idea of collaborating with others- do you have a favourite collaborative track or release you been involved in? And please explain why?
HS I'm excited about the work I do with Frans de Waard. He and I have been making music together since 1995 or 1996. We've traded sounds in the mail and performed live collaborative performances. I once went to the Netherlands to perform at the 25th anniversary concerts of his band, Kapotte Muziek, by using several original KM cassettes in my tape decks. I was terrified that, because of what I do to cassettes in live performances, I'd accidentally destroy Frans' master tapes. Luckily, the tapes emerged intact, but he didn't seem to care if I'd ruined them. Of all the things that Frans and I have done together, my favorite is a CD called "Pink Pearl" that a Polish label called Bocian published a few years ago. The title came from a brand of pencil eraser that my students use in school... and since our work involves erasing sounds and recording over tapes, I thought it was fitting.
HS I also quite like an album called "The World May Congratulate Itself That Desire Can Still Be Raised In The Hearts Of Its Citizens By The Rumour Of An Emerald" that I made with Campbell Kneale (aka Our Love Will Destroy the World, Birchville Cat Motel, Black Boned Angel etc) last year. Campbell released it as a CDR on his Don't Fuck With Magic label in New Zealand. He and I toured the Eastern US together a decade ago (yikes!), then he visited Boston a bit later for a New Year's Eve concert. For our album, I used the soundcheck from Campbell's New Year's Eve show in Boston, plus some sounds that he made more recently and built the music around those. I processed his source sounds in my usual ways (playing them out of tape decks, walking around with speakers, degrading the tapes over and over), then played a couple of concerts using that as the source sound. In my studio, I built the piece with his original elements, my processed tapes of his sounds and my live-performances of his sounds, all composed into this new thing. The initial idea was to make it sound as if we were performing live together, and it is sort of structured the way one of his performances might be. The title came from a quote from one of my favorite writers, Donald Barthelme. I was worried that it sounded a little too Keiji Haino, but whatever. I doubt anyone cares.
HS The most recent collaboration is an album called "Title One" by me and Insect Factory, who is a guy from Maryland called Jeff Barsky. Jeff makes very warm and lovely guitar-based music, usually textural or drone-based. I've been a fan for many years. Turns out, Jeff and I have something in common: we're both public school teachers! The album we made is based mostly on Jeff's sounds, which I messed up by putting them onto cassettes and doing my usual processes with them, then recomposed at my studio. The album just came out (April 2017) on a label called Chocolate Monk. I'm very happy with the music.
HS Other collaborators I'd work with again any time are AMK and Brendan Murray, two very kind and positive guys who are among my favorite people in the world. If someone wants to give me and one of those dudes plane tickets to somewhere where we can make music together and eat delicious seafood for days, please get in touch with me! Somewhere near a beach would be nice.
M[m]:Still on the subject of collaborations- is there anyone you’d really like to collaborate with?
HS No one who I haven't already worked with. I really only want to work with my friends. It's got to be stress-free and fun.
M[m]:. Have you always worked under your own name?
HS Pretty much, yeah. At the very beginning (when I was in high school), I used a "band" name or two that I quickly dropped once I realized how stupid they were. When I was in college in Tampa, I played in a noise band called Shit Richards. Once I moved to Boston in 1998, I was in a few short-lived groups, but the ones that stuck were Skeletons Out (me + Jay Sullivan), TWIN (me, Jason Talbot, Brendan Murray), and Ouest (me, Brendan Murray, Jay Sullivan). My ongoing project with David Payne started with an LP called "Swelter", but for our next album we decided to use Swelter as the "band" name. When we do our next album(s), we'll continue calling ourselves Swelter. Aside from those, I record under my own name. I'll sometimes go by my initials, HS, if I think it works better with the title or the cover image.
M[m]:Your work is often very layered, detailed, yet stretched & morphed in it’s feel- tells us a little bit about the set-up/ processes you use to create your work? And has it altered/changed over the years?
HS My music started out as very crude and ignorant cassette-tape collage, made using a two-cassette copying deck or else overdubbing by messing around with the record head on a single cassette deck. I had a reel-to-reel four-track for awhile, but couldn't figure out how it worked so I gave it away. Then I got a cassette four-track, which I only understand to the extent that I'm able to make the music that I make. There are plenty of switches and dials on it that are completely mysterious to me. I have no idea what they do.
HS At first, my published works were simply unvarnished recordings of live improvisations using tape players, but I was never 100% happy with those. As I listened to them, I'd notice that I was mentally filling in the gaps of what should have been fuller sound, more stereo separation, clearer dynamic range, tighter construction... I made plenty of albums like that. It took many years before it occurred to me that most of my music sounded unfinished or poorly considered. By the time I made the “Mincing Perfect Words” 3”CDR for Chondritic Sound, I felt like I finally produced music that worked as a home listening experience, and not a performance document. Thus emboldened, I diced up my failed earlier recordings and transformed them into “Bond Inlets”, which I consider my first artistically successful proper album after numerous false starts.
The next turning point for me was a residency I did in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. My friend Frans ran the program, called Brombron, at a cool artist-run live/work space called Extrapool that had a performance area, a recording studio, a print shop, apartments for artists (some who lived there and some, like me, who were visiting) and a gallery. The deal with Brombron is that, if you’re selected, you get to choose anyone in the world who you want to make an album with but haven’t had the chance to because of time and distance. You and that artist are flown to Nijmegen to record your album for a week and give a performance at the end. I chose Giuseppe Ielasi, who I’d met when he toured the US and liked very much. He and I improvised in the studio, then used elements from our improv as building blocks for a composition. The composition was Giuseppe's idea; until that point, I’d never seen composing done before. Kinda amazing. He showed me how to edit out chunks of sound, transform them, and use them to build a new work. It seems so obvious now, but at the time I didn't realize that it was even possible. When I returned to the States, I continued to do improv concerts, but steadily moved away from it to make studio-based music instead, which is much closer to the ideas that I had in mind but hadn’t been able to articulate. Nowadays, I perform a couple of times a year and spend most of my time in the studio.
HS My process has been more-or-less the same for many years. I’ll record sounds onto cassette tapes, then play those tapes into various acoustic environments and re-record them onto new cassettes tapes and on and on until the sounds are well blurred. I’ll go through my archives of performances and older or unfinished compositions and atomize them further with more of this tape degradation process. I don’t generally use software effects or pedals… I get my sound by a lot of layering, spatialization and equalization. I'll process sounds by playing tapes very fast (leaning on the rewind and fast-forward buttons) or very slowly (pushing down on the gears) and out of different speakers (tape decks, my car stereo, tiny computer speakers, etc). By the time all these elements come together into a composition, it’s a pile-up of various shades of pulverized sounds that I take a year or so to arrange and edit until they become music.
HS The music I play at concerts is now (more or less) composed beforehand. I’ll work on an album and get some drafts down, then record different iterations (faster or slower, with different equalization) of several sections of the piece onto cassette tapes. I’ll then choose tape players based on the sonic qualities they add to the tapes when they play them back; for example, my shoebox tape players are clear and loud, one walkman is very muffled, etc. Some have external speakers, some can be plugged directly into my mixer, etc. Then I’ll take the recording of that concert (if possible, I like to get two different recordings from different parts of the room… or one direct from the mixer and one in the room) and bring it back into the studio to rebuild the composition to include those acoustic elements. I did that on part of “Normal Bias”, which began as a performance I gave at the Longy School of Music. A couple of recordings of that concert were used as source sound for another concert at the Goethe Institut in Boston, though it went through some more edits and studio transformations before the final version made it onto the album. Right now, I’m writing my next album. I’ll perform one piece in Boston at the end of March, one in Lowell a bit later, and then I'll use those recordings as source for the performance I have planned at the end of April at Ende Tymes Festival in Brooklyn. The recording of thatperformance will probably become part of my album once I combine it with previous recordings and the initial source tapes.
M[m]:a major player in your sound is the humble audio tape recorder/ player- what do you think initially attracted you to using it? And have you ever considered using other tape format to create sound? i.e. video cassettes, reel-to-reel?
HS Nope. Cassettes are the machines/tools that I've stuck with, at first due to financial constraints and creative ignorance, and then over time they became the medium through which I think about music making. Once I kinda got my bearings about what sort of music I wanted to make and what my "voice" (ahem) is, cassette tapes became my language. No other kind of tape interests me. I continue to find new ways of communicating via cassette tapes.
M[m]: from my extremely rudimentary & half-arsed dabblings at creating sounds as a teen with cassette machines. I seem to recall them been quite unpredictable as sound tools, as I found tapes would often spin-out, break, crunch-up. Tells us a little bit about how you mange to tame & control cassette players?
HS You think I've tamed my cassette players?! Ha! You give me way too much credit. I barely know how to work these things, honestly.
HS I use cassette players until they break, and then I keep using them beyond that point until they don't produce sound anymore. Actually, even that isn't necessarily true; I have one walkman that mostly emits a high-pitched whine and some 60-cycle hum no matter which tape I put into it. I suppose I should throw it away, but for some reason I keep bringing it to gigs and letting it do its thing. It sounds terrible. Logically, it ought to be trashed. Sentimental attachment, perhaps.
HS But you are correct that the beasts are unpredictable. I've embraced that aspect of them, which means I've blown though a lot of tape decks over the years. I'm down to a hardy crew of 10 survivors that I use more frequently then the rest, and a few that I use for most of my studio recording and processing these days. Some are flat "shoebox" style, so they each have a large mono speaker and condenser mic built in and easy-to-access fast-forward and rewind buttons. I've torn the doors off of those so that I can lean on the play reels as a cassette spins. Sometimes that makes the tapes change speed, sometimes the tape just gets eaten. So it goes.
M[m]:Your work is often difficult to tie down into one distinctive genre, as it mixes in elements of drone, subtle noise, industrial texturing, ambience, field recordings, and sound-art. Have you knowingly created a sound that’s difficult to tie down, or has it just naturally developed that way?
HS I've never consciously set out to compose a piece in any particular genre or style (which is one reason I stopped playing improvisation... I realized that I wasn't doing much more than articulating the "free improv" idiom, which other people do much better than I've ever been capable of). I start with whatever interests me, then follow that until I have a piece of music that seems "finished", whatever that means. My job is to make the stuff; other people can figure out what it is.
M[m]:One of your more recent release is the six tape set Normal Bias. The set sees you creating a varied, yet very much connected series of works. Can you tell us a little bit about the concept/ themes behind the release?
HS Sure! The idea was suggested by Blake Edwards, my old friend who runs the Ballast label and who published "Normal Bias". He explained that the idea of Ballast was to publish handmade artifacts... small editions with unique art, objects as well as music. He's made lathe-cut records, CDRs and DVDrs with books and prints, very conceptual work. He also wanted Ballast to never make work available as a download, so the physical form was important. Blake said that I should think of a composition that could take advantage of what makes Ballast special.
HS My idea was to compose something very large in scope, to challenge my own innate sense of pacing, which usually leads to 45-minute albums on CD or else two 15-minute pieces for a tape. I thought of making an expansive album whose elements are more static than is typical for me. I'd push myself out of my own comfort zone and see what happened.
HS When I started composing it, I consciously allowed sound elements to transition more gradually. Or else, if my impulse was to shift from one density or color to another after a few minutes, I'd resist that and let sections breathe for an entire side of a tape. The transitions, then, would happen only once you flip the tape. I thought of composing sections that extended and developed, but took their time doing so. The overall dramatic/narrative component, then, would emerge if you listened to the entire thing in one go, or one tape after another for contrast. Not every side is static, but the album is definitely more monolithic than is typical for me. A few of the tracks grew out of a collaboration I was doing with Ryan Huber, but they folded nicely as more episodic sides bracketed by stasis. Another track, which functions sort of as the climax of the album, comes on the 5th tape. Then I take two more sides to bring it all down.
M[m]:Still on the subject of Normal Bias- unlike a lot of recent tape based releases the set is purely on tape, with no downloads or streaming. Did you decide on this or was it the labels decision? HS Blake, the man behind Ballast, insists that everything on the label has no download. The object, with all its handmade parts, is very important to him. I composed the piece with this in mind.
M[m]:Over the years Cassette tape has solidly remained the choice for a large majority of releases with-in the experimental underground/ noise gene. Why do you think this is? HS I'm not sure. I suppose it's just still a relatively low-risk investment for people who don't want to publish more than a handful of copies of an album. Tapes are easy to make. The format just suits some music, too. But this isn't my area of expertise, really. When I ran my label, I almost exclusively published CDs and CDRs. The fact is, people don't buy 500 or 1000 copies of a CD by underground/obscure "noise"-type artists anymore. A run of 50 tapes seems to satisfy the international demand for my music.
M[m]:In your day job you work as in middle grade teacher as - do you ever play the students, or parents you work? And if so what has the response?
HS Oh dear god no! No way. I’d never play my music for my students or their parents. When I’m teaching math, I’m 100% committed to teaching math, I don’t bring my personal life or other endeavors into it at all. Frankly, there’s no reason most people, especially kids, would care about my music. What I do is not in any way cool or interesting to anyone who isn’t already in this world (and, honestly, to most people who are). I think it's more appropriate to just do my job, which inspires the heck out of me every day. I absolutely love being a middle school math teacher! In fact, I probably wouldn't be able to make the music I do if I wasn't otherwise so happy and satisfied in my extra-musical work.
HS This happened a few years ago: I made an album called "Brayton Point", which is about a massive coal-fired power plant here in Massachusetts. The father of a student of mine happened to be an engineer who works on power plants. He was doing a Google search looking for power plant jobs in the area, and somehow stumbled upon the Bandcamp page of my album. I suppose he showed that to his son, who then emailed me through Bandcamp to express surprise and tell me something like “Wow Mr. Stelzer, I didn’t know that you were famous!” I replied that if he hadn’t ever heard of me before I taught him math, then I’m not famous. He agreed and thankfully dropped the subject.
M[m]:Following on from the last question- do you ever find mathematics making it way in the your sonic create works?
HS Math hasn't explicitly informed my work, no, but the experience of being a teacher sure has. For many years, I worked a thankless desk job in a book publisher's office. I left that world in order to become a teacher, and now I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. I love my job every single day. Loving the thing I do for a living affects my music in that, when I sit down to make music, I am relaxed and comfortable. I'm not stressed about work. My job gives me total satisfaction and joy, so that I can channel other ideas and emotions into my art. I think my music has become much, much better and more focused since I've become a teacher.
M[m]:You live & often record in Lowell, MA- how do you feel this influences, effects, and comes out in your work? HS Living in Lowell is a huge part of my work! When I was a kid, I hated living in Florida and couldn't wait to leave. When I was a young adult in Boston, I didn't make enough money to really afford to live there. I barely got by. Boston has only become more expensive since then, while my life has changed so much that I don't really take advantage of city life like I used to... I don't book concerts anymore, I hardly play live anymore, I'm so dedicated to my teaching job that I just enjoy coming home and hanging out with my family instead of going to restaurants and bars like I did when I was in my 20s or 30s. Lowell is a wonderful city with a terrific sense of community. It's also (for now) affordable. Lowell has everything I'd want in a city (great food, access to good beer and art, cultural events, beautiful architecture, friendly neighbors) and none of the hassle (driving endless circles looking for a place to park, paying too much rent, having to sit in traffic for hours or wait for ever-more-expensive and less dependable subways to get anywhere, all the college students having keg parties at night so that I can't sleep, etc). By living in Lowell, the only stress I feel is self-imposed by striving to become a better teacher and make better music.
M[m]:I believe you recently played some of your first few shows in a few years- how did these go, what did they consist of? and can we expect more up-coming shows?
HS Yep, I recently played my first show in awhile, and soon I'll go to New York to play at the Ende Tymes Festival at Silent Barn. I hadn't performed since last summer, so when Bob Bellerue invited me to play at Ende Tymes, I figured I'd book two local gigs to help me work out the new material and get back into practice.
HS The shows will consist of a new piece called "Across the Blazer", which will make its way onto my next album. I'm playing it at all my recent shows in order to record it and get a sense of the pacing of the thing. Hopefully, the energy of live performance translates to the music somehow when I bring it back into the studio. We'll see. It's kinda a continuation of the piece I composed with Campbell Kneale, more melodic than "The Case Against" or "How To". I'm happy with it so far.
HS Typically, I'll play a couple of shows every year. When I was younger, I'd play any and every show offered to me. I'd also go on tour every so often. That experience was real formative, helping me to understand my own music by doing it for several consecutive nights. But now that I'm older and so committed to my job and my family, I have less time and am less psyched to drive for hours only to play through a lousy PA in some empty basement and lose a bunch of money, then sleep on some stranger's dirty couch. I'll play a show if I know that the sound will be good, if I'm not going to lose money, and if I think it will be a fun time. Otherwise, I'd rather stay at home and hang out with my wife. Still, I do love performing my music live, so I'm excited to be doing these shows.
M[m]:What’s lined up next release wise?
HS The "Title One" album with Insect Factory is out now. I've got a cassette called "Sun Pass", which is made from music recorded live in Florida last summer. That one is coming out as a tape on Moss Archive. Then I've got a lathe-cut 7" called "Two New Songs for Summer" coming out on CJA's Heavy Space label. Other than that, I'm working steadily on what will become my next studio album, though I've no idea who will publish it or in what format. That one's still months away from completion, I'm just working on it and later I'll see if anyone asks me for something to publish. If not, I'll keep working on it.
Thanks to Howard for his time & efforts with the interview. His bandcamp page can be found here & as of writing Ballast still have copies of the Normal Bias, to find out more & order a copy head here. Also Howard’s most recent release Title One is out on Chocolate Monk, and can be brought here
Photo credits: first menu pic Bear Stelzer, third main text picture Tom WorsterRoger Batty