In a city rife with commercial recording studios famous for electronic trickery and slick, glossy production values, it’s probably difficult for most Nashvillians to imagine a music scene whose artists actually want their music to sound like crap. But in an era when it’s easier than ever to make a pro-sounding recording on a budget, there’s a bourgeoning underground movement of artists writing and recording music specifically for playback on old-school cassette tapes.
“CDs just aren’t interesting—they’re too disposable,” says Matt Sullivan, a Scene contributor and the co-founder and co-operator of Nashville cassette label Nailbat Tapes, which he started with bandmate Paul McCaige. The roster includes folk to noise artists from Nashville’s and Murfreesboro’s more marginalized trenches, such as Chris Freeman, Meemaw, JEFF and Sullivan and McCaige’s own metal band German Castro.
Clarity and convenience may have made CDs and MP3s the weapon of choice for most fans, but it’s the very unwanted artifacts and sonic colorations for which vinyl and analog were previously shunned that have kept these formats alive with underground audiences. And now, the hiss, distortion and limited dynamics of cassettes are incorporated into the music itself.
According to Sullivan, when consumers lost the hassle of scratched records and the tedious process of fast-forwarding our tapes to the next song, the music also lost a great deal of its identity. “Sometimes the medium becomes part of the aesthetic of the song,” he says. “A lot of the time I write songs specifically for playback on a cassette.”
Nailbat is one of the newest of many DIY labels around the world swimming upstream in the digital age to resurrect the spirit of the tape-trading culture of the ’80s and ’90s—but it’s not all nostalgic romanticism. Sullivan’s motivation to release tapes—which will be available soon at Grimey’s, Grand Palace and on the label’s website, myspace.com/nailbattapes—is born more out of thrift than anything.
“If we could afford to put out a seven-inch by all these bands, we would,” he says. German Castro have already been releasing cassette-only albums simply because it was the least expensive way to put out something other than a CD.
And the bands Nailbat has released so far are more likely to be found playing in basements and house shows than proper music venues. Nailbat’s first release, a compilation called The Sound of Justice issued in January, features the likes of JEFF, Meemaw, Dawn and Chris Freeman, who have all gained considerable local followings by adhering to a strictly grassroots campaign. “The bands we release tend to be the stuff below the radar,” explains Sullivan. “These are just the bands we personally interact with the most often.”
Justice is an excellent survey of Nashville’s underground rock scene, with a total of 20 little known but relatively successful local bands. Genres run from minimal folk to tuneless noise with plenty of brash rock/metal in between, and a DIY punk aesthetic acts as the glue that holds it all together.
The label’s latest offering is a self-titled full-length by formerly local singer-songwriter (she recently moved to Melbourne, Australia) Jasmin Kaset. It’s a bare-bones collection of wispy, acoustic folk-pop that’s accompanied now and then by friends on autoharp, musical saw and additional vocals. Kaset’s heavily sibilated lyrics mix equal parts cuteness, quirk and profundity, delivered with a feline croon.
With charmingly conversational prose and painstaking detail, it manages to be cute without being corny. Tracks such as “Halle Berry” offer a lovelorn ode to the actress, while “Words Get in the Way” is a catchy tribute to the delightful awkwardness of new love. The album’s centerpiece is a duet with fellow songstress Laurel Lane titled “Bottle of You,” an endearingly romantic and playfully crass love song that juxtaposes sweet lyrics such as “If they made a bottle of you / I’d drink it till the sun came up” with fierce lines such as “Tonight, motherfuckers / we dine in hell.”
As would be expected from someone releasing records on an outmoded medium, Sullivan’s attitude toward the future of the label is pretty casual. He mentions tentative plans for releases by Ark and The Protomen, and even the possibility of a VHS video compilation, but nothing’s set in stone. But at the suggestion that we’ll someday be reminiscing in our twilight years about the then-extinct cassette tape, he suddenly sounds quite certain. “I don’t think that will happen,” he says. “Someone will always be making and listening to tapes.”