Fixing things and thoughts on tapes

With the run up to the cassette release of the extended (full album) version of recent EP, Made in a Day, I’ve been getting quite into hoarding old, non-functioning personal tape players – AKA. The humble Walkman – and doing my best to repair them.

Another gorgeous cassette player that I've fixed.
Another gorgeous cassette player that I’ve fixed.

Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve had plenty of highs and lows. Those times when a tape plays and sounds so utterly beautiful are really, really rewarding. I’m not even going to pretend that the fidelity is up to almost any other format that you could choose, but in their infidelity they have this wondrous charm that I’m incredibly hooked onto. You may not appreciate it, you may come to appreciate it or it may be the best thing you’ve heard for the past decade.

But cassettes and cassette players can be pernickity things, especially in this day and age where so many are falling into disrepair or suffering from age problems.

So it’s strange, I say to myself, that I should be doing my releases of such a medium. Cassettes (especially if not looked after properly) can age and become tired. The number of cassette players that I’ve opened up and only to find, to my great dismay, do not just malfunction but also are near irreparable. The parts aren’t always easy to find and even getting to some of the parts may require unsoldering other joints that may not survive being de-and-resoldered. Old printed circuit boards (or PCBs, as they’re known) can be as equally unforgiving as tapes.

But, oh, to hear that beautiful sound! When I sit down with a functioning walkman (especially one I’ve fixed myself) and listen to a good tape. It’s like nothing else.

You may be familiar with the fact that different headphones, preamps and speakers will give you very different results. If you go to one of those ‘test out our headphones’ station in some electronics shops, you will probably be able to very clearly hear the difference. And not everyone likes the same headphones. Some can sound too tinny, too flat, too quiet or too boomy. My taste for cassettes is like that: a choice that I’ve made to help give me control over the sound of my upcoming release. And it’s a sound that I very, very much like.

But choosing cassettes isn’t just about the particular qualities of the audio.

Tapes have been with me for a long time. At the time when everyone else had CD players or MP3 players in their pockets/bags, I had my trusty cassette player. Tapes were always cheaper than CDs and didn’t skip all over the place. MP3 players were also quite prohibitively expensive. This was only 10 years ago. It’s weird to think there are kids these days who don’t recognise what a cassette player is, or how to operate one. It just goes to show how much can change in a decade.

For me, cassettes deepened my experience of music. Before that, I had a radio, or use of the stereo at home, provided no-one else way using it, and also if there was any music that I was actually interesting listening to in the rack. And believe me, there really wasn’t much that interested me in that music collection.

Although the radio was what turned me onto music, I had little-to-no control over what came on the radio. Occasionally there would be a show I would tune into at a specific time, but generally I just heard what was on. It helped me to form what would become some of my early interest in music, but it wasn’t until I owned my own portable device with my own music on that I would really come to form a love with music.

And as soon as I fell in love with music, my life changed. Forever.

I can honestly say, hand on heart, that music has shaped my life more than any other form of culture. Music moves me. It changed the way I view art. It introduced me to new friends whom I’ve had amazing conversations with. It led me down the path to becoming a musician myself. After all, how could I NOT want to make music? I had so much inside me that I wanted to express, and other media just seemed a little too direct, a little too ‘WYSIWYG’. Music felt really personal to me because it was so open to interpretation. Music allowed me the ability to imbue it with my own thoughts and unique feelings in a way that other media does not, so much. And every cassette was like a living, beautiful, unique simulacrum of the music itself.

Being an aspie, I often struggle to get my feelings across with words, and yet I feel so many things so intensely. True as well, is that I often struggle to understand the feelings in words, too. Music has this way of bypassing the part of my brain that struggles to understand something and crawls inside me. It takes control of my thoughts and moves my body. It allows me a way to talk about something without all of the fears, worries and anxieties that text brings. It is beautiful, imperfect and very, very personal. It is a connexion that I understand though the abstract mist- because I know how it makes me feel.

And there was my walkman, bringing soul, companionship and joy into my otherwise very difficult life.

With MP3s, it’s easy to carry a vast array of tracks, albums, artists and styles of music in one place. You can put the music on shuffle and just deal with whatever comes on or skip it. And it’s actually pretty cool. It’s very convenient and it’s cheap. But in that convenience, I feel like something is quickly being lost.

It seems almost inane to me that someone might only listen to one song by an artist and skip onto the next by another artist. To pick only the songs that they want to digest at the time. I’ve formed the habit over the years of generally listening to an album in it’s entirety – the way that the artist laid out the playlist. The good, the not so good, and the bizarre. Music is special to me and I really love to give it the reverence that it deserves. I can’t be a bystander for organised sounds.

I like mixtapes and good setlists too, because there’s intention behind the flow of tracks. They take me in unexpected, yet purposeful directions. Three and a half minutes never feels like enough time to experience an emotional journey. It might be fun to hear that amazing track that I love, but if I listen to it too much I get sick of it. Bored. There’s no dialogue between the tracks, merely the track itself.

We live in times where we’re so used to getting what we want so easily. We’re driven to consume more and pay attention less.

I believe that there are some things that should be at our very fingertips, like knowledge. The internet is great for things like that. But it’s also dreadful for keeping us away from books, in the same way that magazines do, too. They may have useful knowledge or interesting writing in them, but it draws me further away from concentrating on the bigger picture. I love books. I really do. I have hundreds of them, but these days I just read so much less. It’s the internet. It makes things like writing and friendships easier to cope with by giving it to us in smaller doses.

It can bring people together (some of my best friendships were made through the internet) and allows us to exchange ideas rapidly, but it’s sometimes all too tempting to scoop out only what we want, rather than what we need.

To quote Andrew Simonet from his book ‘Making Your Life as an Artist‘:

Art and entertainment do different things. Entertainment distracts our attention. Art focuses it. Entertainment is important, it allows us to check out, to give our attention a rest. I love action movies. But I don’t want to watch them all the time. Like eating sweets, too much distraction can be toxic.”

I love the convenience of being able to write music and upload it for the whole world to be able to access in almost an instant, transcending social, financial and temporal boundaries. But sometimes I just want to sit down and really experience something deeply intimate. Sometimes I want to lie back and concentrate on nothing but what has been presented to me: the music, the track order, the format, the sound, the visual art, the words and the writing. The whole of the work that the artist has put so much love, attention, detail and experience into.

Yes, tapes can be a pain in the ass… but sometimes it’s really worth it. And don’t worry; by the time the tapes of ‘Made in a Day’ are all dead, I will have long since released alternate format versions of them. But for now, I want audiences to listen to the album as it was intended it to be listened to, even if that means some moderate audience participation.

Cassettes represent a point in time when music was less convenient. But at their time, they enabled so many artists to bring their music to a much wider audience. Music that would never have been heard otherwise. Feelings, emotions and stories otherwise untold. It also connected a lot of people with music on a very personal level. It took music away from being in one spot to being a companion to take with you. But like friends, too many in one place can diminish the quality of those experiences.

My bond is with much music is complex because I’ve given it the time, patience and space to be itself and talk to me. I’ve listened and I’ve felt the swell of emotion wash over me. When an album ends and I get that mournful lingering feeling – like I’ve finished a book or a really good TV series – that’s when I know I’ve really experienced the musical journey and that it’s truly changed me. And each time I listen, the abstract nature of communication inherent in music different every time. Cassettes are but the transport that I love to take me there.

It is the journey and not the destination that leaves me with a sense of fulfillment.