Cassette Person: On Isolation and Falling in Love With Tapes

Posted: by The Editor

“I don’t even have a tape player,” my friend said to me one morning. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this thing.” Both of us had woken up early one Friday in April to purchase a cassette copy of Songs for Pierre Chuvin, the new quarantine-created and boombox-recorded Mountain Goats album. “Think of it like an action figure,” I said. A tape, to me, was something to look at, admire, appreciate. But I didn’t feel as if they had much life to them.

Still, there was no doubt in my mind, as John Darnielle teased the release of his quickly-produced new project, that I would be picking up a cassette copy the moment it became possible to do so. A couple of weeks in advance of the full album release, Darnielle had released a video of him performing the closing track “Exegetic Chains” in a dimly-lit room, the upright-turned boombox peeking into the corner of the frame. Everything about it immediately tore me to pieces. So much then was strange and uncertain and the anxiety felt insurmountable. Details about the pandemic were still unfolding, but it was clear long before Darnielle dusted off his Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox that the situation was only going to get worse. Will I get it? Will I pass it on? How long will this last? Now, these anxieties are daily routine, absorbed into the larger fabric of everyday fear. Back then, though, they consumed every waking moment, and I, among a sea of others, was not functioning very well. 

So when Darnielle sang these lines, it felt like I was brought to face something I had been refusing to make eye contact with, my eyes and head darting around the room looking for anything else: 

“Say your prayers to whomever

You call out to in the night

Keep the chains tight

Make it through this year

If it kills you outright”

Like my friend, I didn’t have a cassette player any longer. My big old combination record player/tape deck is collecting dust and swelling with wet heat in my parents’ Florida-baked garage. I sold my ‘95 Mercury Tracer when I left Florida for Philadelphia—an act of skin-shedding that came as a result of needing money and hating driving in equal measure. I spent most of my years in that little white go-kart with the (confounding) automatic seat belt plugging my phone into one of those cassette-aux converters, but my favorite bands had started slowly returning to tapes in my early college years. I let copies of Dig Up The Dead and Imbue and Grow/Decompose live in my car indefinitely, amazed as I was by the persistence of such a low-fidelity and surely outdated medium, but grateful for the strangeness of the thing, the plastic tactility that, unlike vinyl, could fit in my hand, hang out in my pocket, sit on my desk like a little memento of the things that mean the most to me. 

What little thin functional purpose the cassettes performed back then, they served basically no practical purpose now. I had no way to play them, no way to hear the objectively inferior recordings, no way to let the low hiss of the tape moving rumble my ears just ever so slightly. Why, then, have I gravitated so much toward them over the past four months? 

In the middle of the 2010s, when the cassette was seeing something of a defined resurgence, there was a lot of talk about why and how this tape revival was happening. The one I remember reading at the time was (I think) this one, printed in the (now defunct) print publication The Pitchfork Review. And I think the reasons I remember it are probably in line with the reasons that my interest in the cassette is reaching an apex. Maybe this is not cool or punk to admit, but I loved The Pitchfork Review and I think I had a subscription to it for the entirety of its three-year run. Beyond the fun and bright design and the chance to dive into topics that needed longer-form articles to do them justice, I just loved holding it in my hands. At the time, none of the other publications that I really loved were printing. I couldn’t flip the pages of Stereogum. I couldn’t get op-eds printed in some zine version of AbsolutePunk to replace arguments with troll-y news commenters. With The Pitchfork Review, it just felt good to turn my phone off for a while and dive in, even if I knew that at some point I’d be able to read all or most of it online. 

Re-reading it now, one line from the Pitchfork article particularly sticks with me. “Cassette people, I like to think, want romance and fantasy.” Existing somewhere in between the virtually imaginary digital download and all of the bells and whistles that vinyl affords, tapes are perhaps as minimal a physical music product as you can get. Even CDs usually come stocked with liner notes and lyrics—but tapes are usually adorned with nothing but the small cardstock insert (or a j-card, as they’re formally known) and a creaky plastic case. There’s not a whole lot there. Whatever meaning, whatever importance you attach to them, you kind of have to pour it into them yourself. 

And maybe now is the time to find something new to pour meaning into. Isn’t that why people started baking bread or playing Animal Crossing or…throwing hatchets? None of it really makes any sense at all but not everything has to make sense to be worthwhile. 

Instigated by Songs for Pierre Chuvin, I started picking up tapes again. I picked up SAME’s wonderfully retro nighttime indie record Plastic Western. I picked up Diet Cig’s open-hearted punk-rock party Do You Wonder About Me? I picked up Alfred’s uninhibited and wonderfully restless One Trick Pony. And as they arrived one by one, I felt a new kind of warmth. Maybe it’s some distant connection to the idea of handmade mixtapes (long obsolete by the time I came around), but there’s something about a cassette that makes it feel a little bit closer to the chest, the definitive limitations of the medium or, in my case, the actual practical uselessness of these little pieces of plastic putting them in the realm of inky letters or handmade crafts. The stakes are low but the event of their arrival means just as much. And something about that notion, in a time when loneliness and isolation are defining our lives, hit home in a powerful way.

But even if you’re not, say, an overly sentimental person who has a particular affinity for physical media (couldn’t be me), I was wrong to think of this format as nothing more than superficial or useless. Cassettes are notably inexpensive to produce and give smaller artists options for making physical copies of their music who maybe can’t afford to put up a lot of money to produce vinyl. In turn, they give fans a chance to support smaller bands while still getting something to hold in their hands. One step further—even if the band isn’t all that small, they’re a cheaper option for fans who maybe can’t shell out all that much while still, again, getting something to hold in their hands. 

I think that’s more important than we tend to acknowledge. With CDs largely falling out of good favor, a consensus seems to have coalesced around vinyl as the dominant form of physical media. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love and I mean love vinyl, but it’s a daunting and not easily accessible collecting hobby. It takes a bigger investment of space, money, and equipment and the stakes are higher across the board. As a result, a lot of people are probably left out of the experience of ripping the plastic off of their new favorite album, the magic of the best new music arriving at their doorstep. 

Comparatively, tapes are usually 10 to 20 bucks cheaper than LPs, and the physical product is more fulfilling than you might expect. Bedtime Khal’s Fog EP, for instance, is housed in a shell that’s bursting in silvery glitter and it came with a tape-only bonus track and fun little crossword puzzle. The Subject, the first and last full-length from Long Knives which Count Your Lucky Stars recently brought to tape, is a drab grey with a silvery sheen, a perfect reflection of the album’s mix of a dark personality with a sharp sense for hooks. SAME’s album has a reversible cover, lending their languid and star-gazey tunes a different aesthetic depending on which one you choose. There’s a lot of care put into these tapes, and discovering that fact over the past few months has been a rewarding and exciting experience. 

If you’re actually interested in the listening aspect of collecting cassettes, I did a lot of research into a number of different tape players and the expensive options don’t seem to be a whole lot better than the really cheap ones. For weeks and weeks I searched for the ideal player—I was looking for a small rechargeable boombox that I could carry around my house, but I began to bend on my desired specifications as it became clear that no such thing exists. I even enlisted my friends to help me out and we all came up empty handed—it seems like no perfect player exists, at least on paper (even the nicer ones appeared to have pretty shitty reviews). 

Which brings me to a turning point in this little rabbit hole I’ve fallen down. Collecting these things just for the sake of it had been fun, and I felt a certain fulfillment at the arrival of a new tape to sit on my desk while I worked my dayjob in my new office (my bedroom). But the other day, my friend sent me a link to this little blue cassette player, one I had come across a number of times during my search but had written off because the idea of owning something battery-powered just didn’t appeal to me. But I was tired of looking and this option was only 20 bucks, so I ordered it and finally shut my laptop. 

I was caught by surprise when it arrived less than two days later, so flippant I had been in going through with the purchase. In my head this had been an experiment, a logical next step, just something I did to see if I really felt like this particular collecting habit was worth it to me. 

The work day was barely half over and I had spent the morning feeling pretty run down. I am grateful that I have a job that has allowed me to work from home during all this, but it’s been difficult to stave off the feeling that my work has taken over my whole life, turning the things I love into a backdrop of a certain day-in, day-out cycle of doing what I need to do to survive. My office job has taken over the space that used to be reserved for my life, the things that I do for myself—writing, discovering new music, reading, disconnecting.

All of that was on my mind when the package I forgot I ordered arrived, when I sat back down at my desk when I pressed play on The Mountain Goats tape for the first time. I had too much to do to take a break, so I went back to work while I listened to the soft whirr of Darnielle’s boombox recording collide with the mechanical hiss of my new little blue tape player. I carved out a few minutes when the time came for “Exegetic Chains,” turning away from my desk to lay down on my bed, stare at my ceiling as I listened to Darnielle’s small, creaky recording sing to me once again—”Make it through this year/ If it kills you outright.” Here, in referencing the most popular Mountain Goats song, “Exegetic Chains” doesn’t just plead resilience. It challenges us to call back on whatever it was that kept us together through the bad times we’ve already had. Bathed in the glorious fuzz of low fidelity, the little blue machine clicking on top of my stomach, it felt like advice for the ages.

I went back to work when it was over, but listened to tapes all day. I listened to the new ones, but I also dug out the ones I had intermittently received over the years. Relics of bands long broken up, gifts from old friends. One thing that I have learned from writing about music in some form for over a decade is that, no matter how much you think you might know a song or an album or an artist, there will always be a new way to hear something. And on that day, it was like hearing some of my favorite sounds for the first time all over again. It was simple, and it solved nothing, but I walked around all day with a full heart, and that’s just not something to take for granted right now. 

I can’t promise that tape collecting will be a life-long passion or anything like that. More than likely, like most of my interests, it will wax and wane, fading away in the clutter for a while and perhaps returning when I need it the most. But hearing these little plastic boxes that were once nothing more than inanimate ghosts on my shelf come to life, some of them for the first time, felt like an unexpected blessing, and not one I’ll forget anytime soon. The idea of being a cassette person may be all fantasy and romance, but, these days, it feels as real as anything else.


Jordan Walsh | @jordalsh

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