Don't call it a rewind: The surprising, mysterious return of the cassette
Once doomed to the dustbin of history and the floors of '94 Civics everywhere, cassette tapes have been making an unexpected comeback. Sure, tapes won't be replacing digital downloads any time soon, and scores of Musiclands are unlikely to reappear in our nation's malls. But an increasing number of fervent cassette purists across the country—including a growing number in Milwaukee—have taken it upon themselves to keep the analog flame alive. Local groups like Farms In Trouble, Crappy Dracula, and Catacombz have all recently released their music on tape, while Riverwest-based label Activities Recordings has supplemented its traditional CD and vinyl releases with cassettes since 2007. Even Milwaukee's Jaill has gotten in on the action, signing to Sub Pop in 2009 based largely on the strength of its previous cassette releases.
For a format that was given its walking papers during the Clinton administration, the suddenly fetishized cassette tape is once again proving surprisingly durable. But why? Nostalgia for nostalgia's sake? Hipper-than-thou posturing? A fondness for winding up unspooled tape with a No. 2 pencil? Walkman firmly in hand, The A.V. Club dusts off its Cassingle collection and investigates.
Last night a tape deck saved my life
Aside from a few notable events—The Get Down, the Get On Up Soul Club—the vast majority of local DJ nights are performed via laptop. Bucking this digital trend is the newly minted Cassette Set, a tapes-only "spin" that occurs every first Wednesday of the month at the Cactus Club. The analog brainchild of roommates Sean Beatty, IfIHadAHiFi's Josh Davis, and former White, Wrench, Conservatory singer Dixie Jacobs, the Cassette Set "started as a joke but quickly evolved into 'We can totally do this,'" according to Jacobs. "We have a great selection that does lean toward the nostalgia realm, though it's pretty excellent to have a use for all these tapes, since they've basically been collecting dust for so many years." And while she freely cops to the inevitable kitsch factor, Jacobs has come to appreciate the "visceral, tactile effort" it takes to DJ with cassettes.
"When we started doing this, we found out right away how hard it was to cue up songs in time," she says. "You'd have to listen to two extra Pantera songs while Ministry was rewinding to the end of side two." Technique aside, Jacobs mainly sees the Cassette Set as a novel excuse to play novel music. "I've been enjoying what we've been able to get away with, simply based on the format. When else would I be able to play Toad The Wet Sprocket at the Cactus Club?"
When Milwaukee's Jaill signed to Sub Pop late last year, fans and band alike were caught somewhat by surprise. Even more surprising was the fact that much of the group's music had been previously released on cassette through California-based Burger Records. "I love Burger Records and what they're releasing," says Jaill drummer Austin Dutmer. "Honestly, they could put the same albums out on poop and I'd still love them. Luckily for me they're putting them on tapes." As to why his allegiances lie with cassettes, Dutmer's concerns are purely utilitarian. "I like tapes for more than just their nostalgic appeal," he explains. "They're compact, they don't scratch. You can throw a tape on the floor and kick it under the seat and find it months later, having forgot how awesome that tape was, and then throw it in and feel great."
Sharing Dutmer's analog enthusiasm is Milwaukee electro-minimalist ingénue Stacian, who recently released a split cassette with Chicago's Beyond, and incorporates tapes into her live performances. Again, the preference for cassettes has less to do with kitsch, and more to do with quality. "CDs tend to have to a tinny flavor that I can't stand," she explains. "I just like the sound of tapes, and think a lot of people are going in that direction." Like fellow Milwaukee groups Farms in Trouble and Crappy Dracula—who both have limited, 100-cassette runs currently in production at Minneapolis' Room Tapes—Stacian sees the current tape trend as a corrective to the sometimes intangible, disposable nature of digital music. "I feel like I have a digital curse," she sheepishly admits. "Every time I've tried to work in a digital format something goes wrong. You can dig a tape out from the depths of your car seat and it might actually still work."