This year marks the tenth anniversary of The Tapeworm, the London-based cassette-only label founded by Philip Marshall. In the years since, the label has branched out into The Wormhole, an avenue for experiments with non-tape formats, and The Bookworm, their publishing venture.
The broader press reaction to the so-called tape revival of the last decade tends to posit our interest in tapes as motivated primarily by nostalgia for an obsolete medium. Yet “obsolete” media have a way of persisting, and the nostalgia that tape fans have may also be understood as a means of cultivating greater individual creative control while encouraging a kind of sociality that has long been in decline. Tapes are relatively cheap, so it’s easier to purchase and trade and mail them, often directly with the creators. The Tapeworm’s batches are small enough and their roster of artists wide enough that just such an extended social network comes into view.
Aside from their longevity, what distinguishes The Tapeworm from the many tape labels that appeared in the late aughts is the high-quality of their releases driven by the eclectic curation of Philip Marshall. The more atypical selections include some very prominent names from outside the music scene proper: a text by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, a conversation with queer cinema pioneer Derek Jarman, audio from a sculpture by the legendary media artist Nam June Paik, and an early 80s work by the composer Philip Corner which was recorded direct to a Sony Walkman. In all of these instances, the medium of tape was an inherent part of the original recording, making the release on a tape label formally consonant with the work.
Recent releases, just this year, include compelling works by Aaron Turner (ISIS, SUMAC), Marie E Le Rose’s Moon Ra, John Macedo, Blood Music, and more. The Wormhole has impressed with Tears|Ov‘s structured improvisations and Achim Mohné‘s presentation of ritualized voduo drumming. But the label has put out well over 100 releases, such an impressive body of work that it’s difficult to list just a few. Nonetheless, our readers are sure to appreciate editions from Philip Jeck, Oren Ambarchi, Fennesz, and Stephen O’Malley. But the best overview of the label comes in the form of their latest tape, a megamix of the Tapeworm’s first decade compiled by label-affiliate Dale Cornish, who also steers The Tapeworm’s Vanity Publishing imprint. The release of XYZ: an ABC of The Tapeworm as mixed by Dale Cornish will be released on 26 September to coincide with the label’s tenth anniversary celebrations. It’s often the artists we haven’t encountered yet that make the biggest impression, so I’d encourage our readers to take a chance on something new.
I reached out to label founder Philip Marshall to discuss the origins and future of the label in advance of their ten year celebrations. We discussed his relationship with the venerable Touch label, what attracted him to the medium of tape, and some truly fantastic stories granting a look behind the scenes of some of the 20th centuries great figures. If you’re in the greater London area, you’d do well not to miss the celebrations this week. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Let’s start with the most timely bit. Can you tell us about the two shows coming up in London to celebrate the big tenth birthday?
Occasionally, we do label nights. Rather than traditional two or three artist gigs, these typically have a vaguely “mixtape” format – several artists playing shorter sets, no one dominant style but a more varied selection of delights. To commence celebrations of our 10th year, we are doing two “XWORM” shows in London at the end of September. I’m very excited about the lineups.
On 26 September at Iklectik Arts Lab in Lambeth we will present AV performances from Blood Music and Zeno van den Broek, Barbara Frost and Savage Pencil will do a musical performance based on their book (a book singing), Tears|Ov will premier their upcoming album for us, Dale Cornish will do a megamix of his hits and there will be the debut of The Howling – a collaboration between Ken Hollings and Howlround.
Wow, The Howling is such a good portmanteau for Howlround and Hollings.
Isn’t it though!
Can you talk a bit about the origin of the label? You had been working at Touch for a while already by the time you founded Tapeworm, was this a decisive influence?
In late 2008 I was invited to create a sound installation based on an old VHS by an artist friend from Berlin, DL Alvarez. The work was played in the gallery from tape, and Ash pressed 104 copies of the work, Three Questions and an Answer to sell. We were surprised that the tape sold so swiftly and resolved to do more with the format. A few months later, in Mike Harding‘s garden, The Tapeworm was born during a conversation with Vicki Bennett and Savage Pencil – he named the label and drew its logo the same day, I believe.
By the time The Tapeworm was up and running, I already had many years behind me of working on and around a certain scene, which in itself has gifted me a number of dear friends and splendid memories. The label grew into a kind of never-ending mixtape – seemingly discordant styles sitting next to each other from artists unrelated, which over time become part of a series, a greater whole.
The Tapeworm was initially conceived as a means to present music in a manner that was entirely self-sufficient – with no need for press or PR or big budget campaigns. I wanted the label to be as egalitarian as possible – limited art editions but at unscary prices – available to all, with no fancy packaging but a strong house style which presented every artist, big or small, equally. The format afforded us the ability to be agile and speedy, quick and dirty, to avoid the slow processes of regular releases. That meant we could build a series swiftly and also follow my own erratic tastes.
Erratic indeed, but it seems fairly coherent to me as well. Can I ask then what are some of the influences that shaped your taste?
I am always somewhat suspicious of one-flavour labels – we contain multitudes – and wanted the label to have a broad as possible remit. I was born in London in the early 70s and became obsessed with music early on. Technology and politics created an incredible momentum for music in this time. Emerging electronics and the birth of indie (culture, Peel, and indie networks – The Chain With No Name), the rise and resistance of the right, the seriousness of the music press, the birth of techno. It was an exciting and tribal time. I tended to gravitate towards labels with strong identities, often for no greater reason than liking their sleeve art – the usual suspects: Mute, Fetish, Factory, Touch, Les Disques du Crépuscule, early One Little Indian – which resulted in a pretty looking, pretty weird collection… In 1994, mostly out of a love for techno, I moved to Berlin to study – those years were an education in themselves.
A teenager in London in the late 80s, in Berlin in the mid-90s. Pretty much the right time to be in those cities, no? From what I can tell, those early years of German reunification really afforded a lot of opportunities, especially with regards to the availability of spaces for living, studio, performance and otherwise. What do you remember best about Berlin in those days?
I was very fortunate to be near a city in my late teens when acid house hit. I studied German to give me an excuse to be in Berlin – that move was more premeditated. There’s not much I could write about early/mid 90s Berlin without it reading like a terrible cliche… That moment would require many more words to do it justice. It was an amazing city in a unique, confused time. Very liberating. Eyeopening. Leaving E-Werk or Tresor in daylight and walking home by the rubble where the Wall once was – that will never leave me.
So the success of Three Questions and an Answer inspired subsequent releases on tape. What made you decide to play your installation in the gallery from tape?
I considered but rejected, for reasons of time and boring practicality, installing on VHS. Cassette was the obvious next step. I had an awareness of the tape scene – had never really gone away – but that scene did not greatly inform The Tapeworm’s set-up or growth.
The Tapeworm catalogue includes “non-musical” works rooted in art or philosophy, such those by Baudrillard, Derek Jarman, Nam June Paik and Philip Corner. Material perfectly suited to the medium. So, why tapes?
To be honest, I am uncertain if I can explain why… For me personally, the format’s unshuffleability (let’s find a better word for that…) imposes linear listening – no skipping – which works well for longform and spoken word works. I wanted to reference the Audio Arts series with those releases, to a degree. Also, the format’s affordability meant I was able to take chances on superficially “difficult” or niche non-music recordings. Finally, the source material for many of these archival releases was originally tape…
Here’s how we came to release those particular works:
From the outset we wanted to be releasing more than music – spoken word. As mentioned, Vicki Bennett was present at the label’s conception. She was the first person we asked to contribute to the series. Her proposal was to record her grandma and her grandma’s best friend doing a blind reading of a text, which we thought was a perfectly splendid idea. We proposed a Jean Baudrillard piece, Le Xerox et l’infini – and a couple of weeks later we had TTW#02.
The Jarman tape came to me courtesy of its co-author, Richard Torry. I had been friends with Richard since the 90s and was often attending the more outré London clubnights he was DJing at. He had been discovered by [Malcolm] McLaren, worked with [VIvienne] Westwood before setting up his own fashion label, before abandoning it all and founding art rock group Minty with Leigh Bowery. He had these amazing cassettes of interviews conducted with Derek Jarman in late ’79/’80 – I edited them into a narrative. Keith Collings, another acquaintance and long-term companion of Jarman, gave the release the archive’s blessing.
In the case of the Nam June Paik tape, Ray Gallon was incredibly supportive and helpful, happy to have a long-forgotten work re-editioned. To release it was simply process and patience. My accountant has many fine artworks. Nam June Paik was represented in his collection with a mini robot sculpture which housed a C90 – an edit of the recording on our release. This edition took almost three years to produce – tracing its author Ray Gallon, wrangling a little with the Canadian Broadcasting Company who had first aired the audio. Am particularly proud of this tape. It’s a gorgeous work.
A dear friend, Gerard Forde, was doing research on Judson Dance Theater. In September 2011 he set up an interview with Philip Corner and Phoebe Neville at their place in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy. I tagged along as the designated driver on the trip. While Gerard interviewed Phoebe, Philip showed me his breathtaking cassette archive: tape after tape of all his works. He allowed us to release Piano Work’d and later a CD, Gong/Ear: Shaman on The Wormhole, for which I am ever so grateful.
That’s a great story about Philip Corner. And regarding Audio Arts, I have a copy of Bill Furlong’s excellent book, and was initially made aware of Audio Arts via Ubuweb (who also introduced me to Tellus).
Can you tell me more about how The Wormhole got started? And Vanity?
In 2010, we released a cassette by the amazing Leslie Winer. She asked if we would be interested in putting out a vinyl of her new project with Christophe Van Huffel, Purity Supreme. Mike Harding and I discussed releasing the EP, “Always Already”, on a non-tape Tapeworm sublabel, but the setup and logistics were too complicated to manage in the timeframe, so we released it on Ash International. However, the seed was sown for a subsidiary for non-cassette doings. A year later, Dylan Carlson submitted an amazing 4-tracker, designed to be released on two 7”s. In the same timeframe, I had seen The Swifter (BJNilsen, Andrea Belfi and Simon James Phillips) play a stunning set in Berlin. They offered us their debut LP. We suddenly had a label for other formats.
I’ve been friends with Dale Cornish for many years now. Think we first met in the 00s at NagNagNag. Both he and I had releases we had initially recorded for other projects and labels that had slipped out of view. We both liked the works still and joked we should just release them for ourselves – Vanity Publishing. Dale very much takes the A&R lead with Vanity Publishing, with me designing and organizing.
Can you say a bit more about the collaboration upcoming from The Bookworm?
The book is a collaboration between friends Barbara Frost and Savage Pencil. Every evening Edwin would do a drawing and mail it to Barbara. Every morning Barbara would wake, see the drawing, make some brief notes on her initial impressions and then write – a short story, or a poem, or a haiku, or… And very soon, they had a book.
Three Questions and an Answer was your first published solo sound work, but you had worked with some bands prior to this. Can you tell me how your personal sound practice developed?
I am a man of limited skills – I do not play an instrument, I am not a musician. But I am a fairly good editor, a skill that comes out of my graphic design practice. In the late 90s I taught myself Director and learned the very basics of timeline editing. So, I have these basic abilities and some good judgement, then try to find ways to achieve the sounds I want to achieve without having the entire means to do so!
With regards to your tape Casse-tête, are you by any chance aware of a work by Bernard Bonnier of the same name?
That’s excellent – and, no – I had not heard of it before your mail. Thank you for introducing it to me.
My “Casse-tête” release was made at the end of a confusing three-year relationship I had in Paris. Around the same time, friends Sven Schlijper-Karssenberg and Zeno van den Broek invited The Tapeworm to do a label showcase at “Le Guess Who?” festival in Utrecht. They asked me to contribute a sound installation based on field recordings they made around the city and so I went and put my frustrations into their source material! Each side of the tape opens with a piano piece composed and performed by dear friend Andrew Poppy. The Marais apartment my partner lived in had, over the course of our relationship, two intercom entry codes – 4263 and 9176. I took those numbers, transposed them into notes and gave them to Andrew, who then made something magical with them. That intercom used to feedback in the most wonderful ways and its howls can be heard in the mix on the other tracks.
And lastly, beyond celebrating the past ten years, what do you see for the future of the label?
We have never had much of a master plan, beyond presenting sounds we love and working with artists we enjoy collaborating with. We tend to respond to incoming offers or certain events and create moments around them – the 10th anniversary and its associated shows and releases are an example of this. We remain open to chance and interested for whatever might happen next.
With The Wormhole, I would hope to be able to develop some of our “discoveries” over a longer period with slower, planned releases, almost like a proper record label – which brings us back to where we begun, ironically…