Tymbal Tapes is a tiny label with a wonderfully high-quality and unique curatorial bent. That is mostly Scott Scholz’ fault. Scott has been active for many years in “D.I.O.” (Do It Ourselves – that’s D.I.Y. + teamwork / division of labor) music circles, booking, broadcasting, writing about and publishing experimental and adventurous recordings. Tymbal Tapes is his label, which is blooming lovely batches of fascinating recordings with exquisite packaging several times a year. I’ve been wanting to get to know him a bit better, so I sent him some questions that had been on my mind about his history and doings.
I first came to know of you from your podcast, Words on Sounds. What possessed you to do a podcast of this type? Why did it end? Do you intend to resume?
It’s funny how things shift over time! Words on Sounds started as basically a review blog, mostly focused on music but with some book reviews and more essay-ish writing about art and culture from my own quirky personal perspective. Then I was asked to join the DJ ranks of the Other Music show on KZUM community radio here in Lincoln, a very long-running 10-midnight Sunday show that’s a free hodge-podge of interesting music: avant-garde, classical, post-rock, free improv, and some pretty normal music gets thrown in there at times, too. I was part of that show for about five years, and I kind of took the lead on trying to broaden our audience reach via social media during my stint. As we got some listeners in other parts of the US and worldwide to start tuning in, a common complaint I heard was that the show could only be live-streamed. So a podcast iteration of Words On Sounds started to make more sense, something that listeners could use in an asynchronous fashion. I started working on that solo, and decided to focus the scope of the program to mostly new/recent music.
It ended–actually, let’s just say it went dormant–with more of a whimper than a bang, as time commitments elsewhere have prevented me from keeping up with it. Those remain ongoing, but I do intend to resume as soon as possible, and hopefully that will be quite soon! I miss it. It’s a lot of work, but I hope it was and could again be useful for listeners, and it was also useful to me as a structured framework for thinking about new music. I also intend to start doing some review writing on the Words on Sounds blog again, while still contributing to other music blogs.
How did you come to appreciate and thirst after the unusual music / recordings you release (through Tymbal Tapes) and consume? Can you describe the trajectory (exposures & experiences) of your interests? I wonder also if any formative experiences or projects stand out in your mind as having effected that trajectory?
Gosh, that was pretty gradual and intuitive from my perspective. My musical background in brief: I was a shred guitar kind of fellow in high school, and practiced my fingers off for several years. Then I went to music school, and ultimately switched my major to classical composition. Those adventurous 20th C. classical composers definitely opened my mind to a much broader spectrum of possibilities with music and art. I played in some weirdo bands/improv units and made some recordings over the years, and just kept listening to a pretty diverse range of sounds.
I feel kind of awkward thinking about “formative experiences” in a way, but I guess I had my share of mini-epiphanies like most folks probably do, and those add up to occasionally shifting directions in your life. Like hearing Steve Vai’s tune “The Riddle” made me really excited about cool guitar rawk but also interesting compositional stuff, rolling a bunch of exotic modes over a static rhythm/pitch setup. Then hearing John Zorn’s “Spillane” album, and especially that “Forbidden Fruit” piece at the end, made me want to go to music school instead of studying chemical engineering or architecture, which had been my inclinations at that point. But it didn’t feel like a “thirst for the unusual,” per se, just a more inclusive kind of listening that maybe comes naturally to those inclined for adventure? I’m not sure. But I was listening to the rock and pop of the moment, along with shred guitar instrumental craziness, and a good helping of what I came to understand were “weird” acts like Zappa and Bungle and the Residents was mixed in there, too.
Those kinds of mini-epiphanies keep happening every few years, it seems, like being excited when I first stepped into the (now gone) Zero St Records when I first moved back to Nebraska, and didn’t recognize more than a handful of artists in their fairly large selection. It was kind of exciting, knowing there’s all of this avant-punk/metal/noise music to enjoy that I’d missed. Or meeting folks like Bryan Day (Public Eyesore Records) or Joseph Jaros (man of many awesome projects) and learning about whole new scenes they were into and had a tremendous depth of knowledge about. And those moments continue: I was pretty stunned in 2005 when the Dirty Projectors “Getty Address” came out, and again around 2008 when I heard the s/t Dominique Leone album LP. Sometimes records just speak to you and stay with you in a stronger way than others, and those two have cast large shadows over all of the rest of my listening in their way. Most recently, about five years ago I was listening to a couple of cassette submissions to the Killed in Cars review blog, and one of them was the Grapefruit tape on Field Hymns, and something just clicked in a major way as I listened. Suddenly I’m hearing all kinds of amazing things in “synth zoner” jams that I’d totally ignored in the past, and I got way into checking out new artists doing that sort of music, as well as going back to classic artists I’d overlooked. And now that I think about it, more recently I’ve had really transcendent listening experiences related to hyperrealism, in particular Noah Creshevsky‘s work and albums like Giant Claw’s “DARK WEB.” I hope those kinds of experiences with music, new and old, never end!
Why go to all the effort to produce such finely tuned (very well-produced) products? Why are those products tapes rather than vinyl, cdr, thumb drives?
I think the effort to help make the recordings sound as good as possible, and to present them with imagery and liner notes that can help to contextualize and/or amplify the work just makes sense, I guess. I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of NOT going through that kind of process, ha! If you’re going to do it, you might as well try to make it as immersive an experience as you can.
On the “why tape” side of things, I guess it’s a combination of familiarity and practicality. I was doing 4-track recordings and making tapes back in the 90s, and tapes never really went away. Vinyl and CDs are crazy expensive to produce, and more expensive for people to buy as well. I’d like people to take chances on listening to artists they may know nothing about, which seems more appealing if you can get two or three tapes for less than the price of one record. But I have nothing against those other formats, and use them myself.
Do you have any environmental-ethical concerns about releasing physical products when we could all be doing everything digitally without disseminating more plastic & using more paper?
I do share those concerns. It seems like we’re in a kind of transitional era, most obviously between “digital” and “analog,” but also in the ways we relate to one another and our environment. Just as artists are evaluating their use of cross-cultural materials in art with more sensitivity to others’ perspectives, and making sure that women and minority groups are represented respectfully in art (and included in the arts community), we can also act as good stewards of the environment while creating. I think that can take several forms, from making digital art, to re-using/repurposing found or otherwise unused materials. The “cassette scene” is part of the re-use/recycle approach arguably more than commercial-CD scenes by its general underground-ish disposition, in a sense: even commercially produced tapes are being played back in mostly ancient tape players that people are repairing or snagging out of attics or otherwise keeping out of landfills.
But to the extent that physical objects are produced, I don’t think the environmental impact of avant-weirdo music distribution is especially large in the aggregate. And it seems like the folks who are into this kind of music tend to hold onto it, so these kinds of art-objects are a lot less disposable in nature than plastic cups or televisions or that sort of thing. And they’re not produced in mass quantities–I would suspect that all of the avant-freakout music produced worldwide in a given year combined won’t create the kind of landfill volume that a title or two of million-copy popular music CDs will.
The issue of cultural preservation and continuity is somewhat related, too. While I wouldn’t call myself a luddite, I’ve seen lots of problems with digital obsolescence in library work in the last decade, lots of ebook and audio formats that are created and abandoned with content orphaned in just a few years. I’m hanging onto a modicum of skepticism about the long-term health of digital content: what will computers look like 100 years from now?
Most of the art that interests me is a product of its time, with content that nurtures and informs present-day communities, and as such, I don’t think art/artists should be fixated on the distant future or preservation aspects while creating. If it’s gone, it’s gone. That said, we have to respect the notion that we’re all part of a much longer narrative of human experience, and that having the ability to go back and experience what those before us have done is profound, informing our own endeavors in so many ways. We can do this now with books and with most kinds of analog physical media quite readily. I hope that future generations will be able to inform their curiosities about us in a similar way, through digital or physical means.
How do you feel about net-only labels who release no physical products?
Totally cool by me. I’m personally not overly inclined to listen to many digital-only releases, but the volume of listening I do is probably unusual. In that context, I feel obligated to interact with physical releases before turning to digital-only work. Philosophically, net-labels are fine by me, though. I think of the essential roles of labels as curation and distribution, both of which can be done perfectly fine in an online-only context.
Do you think there is some inevitability that physical recording media will continue to evolve? -That perhaps at some point there will be a medium that satisfies the collector’s desire / need for a physical object as well as the need to avoid pollution of the environment?
This question could be the wind-up to some Silicon Valley startup’s pitch for precisely that new medium! It sounds attractive, no doubt. I think that physical copies of recordings can be both beautiful and useful objects, but it remains to be seen if our capitalist overlords see them as viable enough to keep selling. If the folks with the moneybags figure out how to get everyone to pay for streams of everything, there won’t be much financial motivation to innovate on the physical side, which would continue to have tons of overhead costs for manufacturing, storage, and shipping. Maybe that’s fine–so long as people are having meaningful experiences with music and art, that’s the important thing in the long run.
I think it’s interesting that you brought up the idea of “collector’s desire.” For whatever reason (probably because I’m surrounded by rather daunting piles of books and tapes/records/CDs), I’m pretty sensitive about the word “collector” and think of “collecting” as a somewhat wasteful kind of endeavor, a hobbyist kind of headspace that probably isn’t overly sensitive to things like environmental concerns. Maybe it applies better to things like collecting dishes or cars or something, or at least it does in my mind. And in those cases it reflects a certain kind of gluttony, having more of some otherwise-useful object than one could practically use, with no intention of using them.
For art-objects including music, I know the phrase “record collection” is as common as the day is long, but I feel like my role is akin to that of an archivist or librarian, personally. The nature of the material seems different than having a lot of plates or stamps or something, too: art objects are charged with a kind of vitality that could continue to refresh and amaze audiences of the art repeatedly, and differently on different days or different periods of life. They’re outside of the “useful object” routine in a unique way, and the practical considerations are different. But like plates and that kind of thing, they’re also meant to be used, and hopefully people play the tar right out of ’em. A worn, loved recording is the best kind of all.
Do you think most people view intangible things such as digital recordings or digital books as inherently less valuable because they aren’t physical?
I’m not sure, to be honest. There are a lot of factors to consider, and the definition of “value” itself is hard to pin down when the exchange of physical objects is involved. The economic kind of “value” becomes somewhat fixed with physical objects, because you’re paying for materials and manufacturing and other services all along the line of production. There is a production element to digital objects as well, of course, but presumably the overhead is lower and involves fewer steps than most physical objects. So you have a physical object with economic “value” invested in its creation, but that’s largely separate from the artistic “value” that motivated its fabrication in the first place.
When it became easy for people to fileshare books and music and movies, they obviously did so in droves. But I don’t know if that means they have a reduced sense of the value of the art involved. In fact, it may be the opposite, and that sort of behavior shows that individuals are excited enough about art that they’re spending much of their spare time finding and experiencing it. Their interest and capacity for enjoying the value of art for it’s own sake, in other words, exceeds their ability to pay for it on that object-value level. Obviously they’re finding lots of value in the material, or nobody would bother tracking it down.
There were a lot of “damn The Man” sentiments in the first decade of filesharing, and while the big media industry types have certainly made their share of money over time, I’m not quite as dismissive of their institutional value. Publishers find great books and make them even better with their excellent editors, record labels paid for the production of excellent recordings during many decades where such quality would have been impossible to realize at home, and ditto for film companies. Removing that infrastructure from the arts has its advantages, but it has drawbacks, too–I’ve thumbed through quite a few self-published books that are almost unreadable now, for example.
Whatever the case, those big-media corporations are clearly transitioning to a new kind of era in which they’re likely to be smaller and less powerful, at least where the distribution and sale of art-objects is concerned. But the question of how to compensate artists, whether they’re working with those corporations or not, remains. I don’t know the way forward on that front, but the best thing I’ve read so far toward that goal is some of Jaron Lanier’s ideas about “micropayments.” If there were some mechanism set up to aggregate and pay artists and other kinds of “content creators” on the web for their artistic or utilitarian contributions to the internet community-at-large, that would be an interesting starting point. How does one go about setting that up and preventing weird kinds of money-siphoning stunts, though? I have no idea.
What is the value of a home-manufactured audio recording in contrast to factory-manufactured (even in quantities less than 300) recordings?
You get that personal touch with someone hand-making part or all of a work, of course. In terms of recording quality, it can go either way–if folks have a lot of familiarity working with tape, for example, it’s likely that you can produce better dubs at home than the commercial places turn out with their high-volume, high-speed machines. But you also get lots of folks who are just getting started and hit the tape too hard for their tape stock, that sort of thing. I don’t think about it much either way. I think the goal should be representing the music with as much respect/resonance/dimensionality as possible, and if a small-run commercial pressing does that as well or better, that’s fine by me.
Why does d.i.y. work appeal to you and why should it appeal to anyone?
Well, it’s that community aspect. You meet or at least get in touch with like-minded folks both in your area and around the globe. I’ve heard the “DIO” phrase tossed around in the last few years, which is “Do It Ourselves” rather than “Do It Yourself,” and that’s maybe closer to how I envision things. We can bring our individual strengths together to make impactful art, and to simply be together in various capacities.
What are some of your favorite things to see in small labels or other independent publishers? Is there anything you see or have seen that you could wag your finger at in disapproval? Do’s and Don’ts ?
Ha, I don’t want to get all authoritarian about what folks should or shouldn’t do! We all have our tastes and interests, and hopefully those of us with similar tastes end up finding one another eventually.
From a technical standpoint specific to tape label folks, I guess I’d just say to check all of your dubs before sending them out–I’ve never gotten a blank CD, but I’ve heard a quite a few blank or obviously botched tape dubs in the last few years. And use shells with screws if you can still find ’em.
Is there any advice you could offer to other small label operators or d.i.y. publishers? Pitfalls to avoid, helpful pointers, other considerations?
I guess this goes back to the community perspective. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to impose my own curatorial thoughts on people via Tymbal Tapes, or even via radio/podcast activities–they’re things that you gradually find yourself involved in because you’re part of a community that cares about and advocates for adventurous music and art. So you’re most likely already surrounded with some like-minded peers, either in person or online. Go ahead and ask them for advice or guidance or to collaborate and see what happens!
One little practical pointer: make sure you find out how much international shipping costs before you start selling recordings internationally. It’s crazy expensive nowadays, as it turns out, and you can hit yourself pretty hard financially with a few underpriced international sales.
What is your connection to Tiny Little Hammers? Can you tell me about them and how you are connected?
Tiny Little Hammers is simply my favorite designer working in the cassette world, hands down. I first got in touch with him by way of absolutely adoring the music on his label, Field Hymns, which I mentioned a bit earlier. When I was struggling to get Tymbal started, kind of stuck on how to approach the art direction, he very kindly stepped in to help. I’ve been absolutely blessed to have his vision involved with all of the Tymbal design stuff since then, as my strengths are way more text and sound-oriented than visual/graphic. We have yet to meet in person–I gotta take care of that one of these days soon! This is a great example of the DIO concept in practice, by the way, as Tymbal would be a small fraction as active as it’s been without his help.
He’s looking for more work, by the way: if you need amazing, visionary album art or poster design, head on over to tinylittlehammers.com and get in touch!
Why is the Tymbal logo a fly?
It’s actually a cicada, whose vibrational membrane is called a tymbal. A few years back I was hosting house shows in my basement, and we had bran(…)pos and Sharkiface perform one night. When bran(…)pos stepped out of his car, he remarked at the amazing sounds the cicadas were making on that late-summer night. It was a great reminder to always embrace active listening and deep listening in life, as around here those sounds start to blend in night after night, and indeed they are fascinating.
And of course it’s a very appropriate name for an experimental label! My spouse Heidi came up with the idea and pitched it to me, name, logo/font, cicada image and all. And it’s pretty perfect.
Can you describe your interest in Dada & Surrealist art and any relation it may have to your activities with music / sound and recordings thereof?
The surrealist/Dada interest goes back to the late 90s for me, when I came across that “Little Book of Surrealist Games” that Shambala Publications had put out. I got pretty obsessed with several of those games and started hosting occasional surrealist game parties with my classmates at music school in Denver. The games are a lot of fun, for starters, if you’re inclined to hang out with a bunch of other artsy weirdos that find delight and potential in surprisingly-juxtaposed words and images. Then they’re great for generating the seeds of ideas that anyone in the group can round up and use in their own work. Over time, you start to find that working with different groups brings out different collective voices, that there’s kind of a collective collaboration happening subconsciously, driven by the different experiences and vocabularies that participants bring to the table. You can play solitaire versions of them, too, and bring out recombinations of your own thoughts and ideas.
I was also really into Burroughs and Brion Gysin at the time, their cut-up and fold-in work together and alone, and the surrealist games were definitely part of the same continuum. I came up with some analogous musical variations of the games, too, both using music manuscript paper and 4-track recording and/or music sequencing software. I don’t host them as often as I used to, maybe once every couple of years now, but I still love doing it.
That’s the hands-on part of my fascination with those early 20th C. art movements. More philosophically, I got really into reading the various manifestos and nonfiction work by many of the Dada and Surrealist participants, and I really appreciated almost everything about their collective work in sociopolitical terms, too. Broadly speaking, you had groups of people who had some experience with other forms of art of their time, some formal training, who found themselves wrestling with the implications of the first World War, and how to move forward culturally in a world that could be so hostile toward itself. So formal considerations had to explode, if they weren’t already on the edge of implosion, and new kinds of form and free-association had to step in as they learned to navigate this new kind of world. There are lots of ways to draw historical lines, but for me, Dada in particular feels like the beginning of the modern era, creating work that’s more similar than dissimilar to the work and conditions we remain in today.
Am I right that you just finished grad school? What value do you feel higher education provides to individuals, and how might that experience be effecting your activities in the d.i.y. weird music scene?
I did. I was there for practical reasons rather than “art,” so I don’t know that it had an effect on my art-related activities other than the consumption of time away from art.
I have mixed feelings about academia’s relationship to the arts. We live in a society that is arguably exposed to more kinds of art than ever, which is wonderful, but we may have less sense of context or history, really useful historical perspectives, on how that art came into being. And we have a collective tendency to dive right into the conceptual side of things without honing the skill-based “craft” aspect of the arts, hoping that evolving technology will make up the difference. Sometimes it does; other times, the discipline of honing artistic skills makes the art better, and also informs a period of time during with the artist continues to grow and develop their conceptual leanings. It seems like that need for multiple historical perspectives should be even more important as folks are exposed to even more work, in order to help make sense of things, to position ourselves more consciously both within our own communities and within the larger narrative of time.
In general, I think artists will develop a deeper relationship with their own work, the work of others, and an understanding of themselves and their surroundings by taking the time to learn as much as they can about the history of their chosen discipline(s) and to fully develop their skills. Achieving this through formal education certainly has its place, as these programs have been developed over time to hopefully help expose newer artists to a diverse range of approaches and skills they might find useful or inspirational. Is it entirely necessary? It’s hard for me to say, as it was definitely useful for me, though other more direct lines of communication and research were quite valuable, too.
I will say that within the present weird-music scene, there is a lot of music being made by folks with no formal musical training, and I like a lot of that music. I have noticed, though, that a pretty large majority of those folks do have formal training in visual arts, be it fine arts, graphic design, advertising, whatever. So on some level, they have wrestled with the broad kinds of fundamental considerations that are applicable across different disciplines of art.
You’re based in the midwest – in Nebraska. Is this close to where you grew up? What are your thoughts about being a person with such interests taking such actions amidst the midwestern social climate ?
Yep, I’ve pretty much always lived in parts of the middle of the country, and mostly in Nebraska. I don’t know that I’m perceiving much of a rural/urban divide or a coastal/central difference in the distribution of less-commercial music or labels nowadays, to be honest. Having lived a little bit on either side of the internet being a daily presence in peoples’ lives, I’d say that it was a little harder to find the “good stuff” before the internet if you lived in relatively rural areas, but it was still totally possible. You just banded together with your friends and shared your discoveries, talked to record store owners or librarians or your weird uncles, that sort thing, which is presumably pretty normal anywhere.