Tymbal Tapes – A Q&A with Scott Scholz

In recent years, the resurgence of the cassette tape has been synonymous with forward thinking leftfield labels and the music they perpetuate. The reasonably affordable audiophile format has given many artists and labels a springboard to reach wider audiences through a format that is an iconoclastic enigma, with music that speaks to the counter-cultural value of the old format. Tymbal Tapes is such a label and in the few months of the label’s existence it has delivered striking music with an emphasis on bringing experimental artists like BBJr and Dept of Harmonic Integrity to a wider audience through the vision of a single man. Scott Scholz, the head of the label, works closely with these artists to highlight the appealing nature of each artist’s individual musical personality and package it in an accessible format for an adventurous audience. Tiny Hammers take on the responsibility of visualising the music through the impressive artwork that greets the listener before s/he even starts to journey through the immersive music always contained within.

Scott Scholz might be familiar as the man behind the long-running podcast, Words on Sound, where he selects music from the more obscure archives of music history for a show that always yields some hidden treasure for the more active listener. As the head of Tymbal Tapes he brings some of this enlightening value to the label and opens up new worlds to informed listeners through the artists he handpicks for the label. The latest batch represent this in the form of three releases from Arvo Zylo, IXTAB, Somnoroase Pasarele, bran(…)pos. More electronic in nature than the majority of the previous releases, this batch once again emphasises Tymbal’s ability to bring a diverse group of artists together with a singular strain tying them together through music and through Scott’s vision for each artist on the tape. It’s a vision that’s hard to define in a single sentence, so we decided to start a dialogue with Scott over email to pin it down and we were completely blown away by his extensive responses that give us a very detailed look into Tymbal Tapes and the man behind the label. Like the label, this Q&A is for the patient individual who enjoys a more extensive insight into the music.

First off. Can you tell me a little more about how Tymbal Tapes came to be?

I was part of an experimental music radio program called Other Music for about five years. The show has been on KZUM in Lincoln, NE at the same Sunday evening time slot since the early 80s. One of the other DJs, Joseph Jaros, and I had talked for a while about the possibilities of starting a label, which started to seem more practical as cassette submissions to the program became more common. Occasionally, we had guest artists perform live in the studio, and one night when David Moscovich joined us in the studio, doing his thing with synths and voice through delay pedals, live-reading text cutups, we turned to one another and knew this would the perfect place to start.

Among many other cool projects, Joseph is part of a long-running free improv collective called HowLooseANation, and he had recording equipment set up in their rehearsal space, the magical Fred Shed. He captured a set of excellent Moscovich performances in the Shed, and that session became the first release on Tymbal this year in April.

From recording to the first set of tapes, it took about a year, as the practical issues of preparing artwork and dubbing got complicated with busy schedules, and during that period, I committed to taking on the Peter Kris tape and the Dept. of Harmonic Integrity. Once Tiny Little Hammers got involved on the art/design, things started to move quickly, and I had some free time and just took on the other production/promotion stuff myself. That first trio of tapes were incredibly well received, and I ended up doing a small 2nd pressing within weeks. By then, I had some ideas for other artists I wanted to approach, and the project took on a life of its own.

Why did you decide to release those first three tapes as a batch and why have you kept up that tradition?

On the first batch of tapes, the production schedule kind of piled up in a way that it just made sense to do all three at once. But more generally, I think the “batch concept” has always had a home in cassette culture for both practical and adventurous reasons. Pragmatically, tapes are small, and you can get three or four of them into a padded mailer. On the adventurous side, because they’re inexpensive – with domestic shipping, you can get three tapes from most labels delivered to your door for under $20 – you can take a chance and experience something unfamiliar and new. With most records and CDs being in the $20 range or higher with shipping, audiences tend to gravitate toward familiar artists, but cassettes can nurture a different kind of listening that’s directed by a trust in the curatorial instincts of a particular label.

What exactly is the appeal of tape for you?

Oh man, there have been so many articles on the pros and cons of tape lately. I’m a pretty practical person, and in terms of technical issues, I view cassettes as a portable, inexpensive analogue format without the compression or duration limitations of vinyl. You can put out smaller editions without long production delays and make them affordable. They’re generally more robust and repairable than records, too. And I’ve grown to prefer that elusive “warmth” of the analogue format to digital, though I’m more focused on the music than media format fetishes.

When I first started recording music of my own, it was on cassette 4-track in the mid-90s, but like most folks of that era, I felt like it was more “legit” to have a CD out. I went to music school for classical composition, and my aesthetic interests increasingly turned toward avant-garde music, adventurous, creative approaches, “experimental,” whatever you want to call it, and a lot of that music only came out on tape back to the heyday of cassette culture in the 80s….

So you are a musician too. Are you musically involved with any of the projects that have appeared on Tymbal Tapes? If not will you ever consider releasing your own music on the label?

No, I’m not involved musically with any of the work. I would consider it, but I’m in a phase of my life where I’m not writing and performing much myself. My present focus takes on roles as an advocate and catalyst for interesting contemporary music, and my satisfaction with that work stems from the personal growth and enjoyment I get out of the music.

But getting back to the appeal of tapes…

There has been a huge resurgence in that sort of music on cassette in the last decade, and a lot of the values from 80s cassette culture have returned within that scene: collaboration, mutual support, friendship. So participating on that level makes sense for me. And hey, for folks who don’t want to grab a walkman or a tape deck (which are pretty easy to score inexpensively at thrift stores), you can always go for the download/digital version.

One other thing about physical versus downloadable formats is metadata: I think that the experience of handling artwork and liner notes while enjoying music is a really important practice. I’m into active, deep listening, and physical media in general demand a little more focus from listeners. Liner notes are important to me as well. They’re becoming a lost art, even on physical releases, but all of the Tymbal albums except one have some biographical and technical information about the artists and the recordings on the inside of the j-cards, along with short liner note essays from me that attempt to establish a context for the material. 

I completely agree about the significance of the artwork and liner notes. You mentioned Tiny Hammers have been handling that type of thing for you, but is there a particular aesthetic you wish to get across with the releases as a whole?

I totally put my trust in Tiny Little Hammers to do fantastic, sensitive visual work (with occasional input from the artists as well). He also created the basic layout for all of the tapes, unifying the formatting on the insides of the j-cards, how the spines look together, and using appropriate fonts, all of that stuff. The only part I’ve done with the visuals has to do with the printing, and for that I’ve chosen to print them in with pewter inks on linen paper, creating a relatively low-contrast print. I think that look resonates with a certain kind of deep listening, where you have to look “into” the art rather than “at” it.

The artists that have appeared on the label are for the most part pretty obscure (even if some might be anonymously more well known). How do you come across these artists and what’s the process like in getting them on a release?

My interests in doing Tymbal are twofold: from a curatorial perspective, I want to raise awareness of the work of artists whose music has deeply affected me, with hopes of nudging them toward a wider, more receptive audience. Secondly, for many of the recordings on Tymbal, I’ve communicated with the artists about writing a specific work or set of works for the label, with some loose conceptual or musical suggestions from me intended to highlight particular aspects of their work I particularly admire. So generally I’m working with artists whose work I’ve already been following, or became aware of through writing reviews, doing radio or podcast programs, helping book shows in my area, or hosting house shows myself. It’s very much that sense of community around cassette culture mentioned above.

The new triple-tape from bran(…)pos is a good example: I became aware of his work when I agreed to do a house show for him and Blood Transfusion back in 2013. My friend Joseph that I mentioned earlier also played that show with his incredible modular synth/electroacoustic duo Moss, by the way. I also did a review of the new bran(…)pos LP on Recipiscent at the time, which totally blew me away.

Anyway, when b(…)p stepped out of the car on a hot July evening, he remarked at the loud buzzing of hundreds of cicadas in my neighbourhood, a common sound in my area in late summer, but eventually you grow to tune it out. Redirecting my attention on those sounds, they’re quite amazing, indeed. Later, he remarked that some of the sounds that Moss focused on in their performance resonated nicely with the sounds of the cicada, an amazing observation. So the label got its name from b(…)p’s observations that night: the “tymbal” is the vibrational membrane of the cicada.

We have a backyard flock of chickens, and bran(…)pos also incorporated a mention of them into his set, saying that the chicken feathers will steal dreams. It was one of the best performances in the series of house shows I hosted in 2012 and 2013. So I proposed a loose narrative structure to him about the unending cycle of aggression between insects and chickens, broken into a conceptual trilogy, and he created Prickers & Peckers along that framework. It’s an incredible, singular work, and I think we’re both quite delighted with the results. To tie things together, each physical copy contains a feather from one of the birds in our flock. Do they really steal your dreams? Find out for yourself!

That sense of community that was inherent in cassette culture seems an inherent formula to Tymbal Tapes’ success. Are you on personal terms with all the artists like bran(…)pos?

Some, but not all. I have hung out in person with bran(…)pos, BBJr, Charles Barabé, and David Moscovich, but most of my relationships with the artists on Tymbal are through internet correspondence. And I’ve never corresponded directly with Somnoroase Păsărele at all. I deeply admired their tape on Baba Vanga several years ago, and their new release on Tymbal was coordinated through a mutual contact in Moldova (who is also coordinating several other exciting releases for them on other labels that will be announced in coming months).

Several of these artists are anonymous altogether, a phenomenon one finds more frequently in cassette culture. Presumably “Arvo Zylo” isn’t a given name, and the folks behind Peter Kris and The Dept. of Harmonic Integrity don’t wish to be identified at all. And I’m happy to preserve that space: in this increasingly digitally-documented world, I think that great art sometimes requires both conceptual and literal space to unfold, without necessarily needing to intersect with the public or professional lives of its creators. That also directs the focus of audiences onto the work itself, rather than the individual(s) behind it.

Does Words on Sounds influence some of your decisions for the label?

To an extent, sure. As mentioned above, I think all of my activities in and around music over the last decade are ultimately part of a continuum: When I was gigging regularly myself, I’d help book bands and open for them, and have bands crash at my place. Then I started writing reviews and doing the Other Music radio show. Now I’ve transitioned into doing Words on Sounds as a regular podcast with occasional reviews, and I’m writing a bit for other joints like Tabs Out and Record Collector News. I did the house show thing for a couple of years, and I still try to help coordinate shows for artists who come through my area (though I’m much less connected to the local scene these days, which makes that difficult). The exposure to wonderful music and people through all of those activities has been such a life-altering experience that it’s hard to articulate just how important it is to me.

There is one bummer about doing both the label and podcast/review stuff simultaneously, though: I feel like it would be a conflict of interest to put Tymbal recordings in the podcast, or to put them on “best-of” lists, that sort of thing. But to be honest, many of these recordings are in my personal top-10 of the year. I can hardly believe I helped get them out into the world. Incredible. But they won’t be on whatever list I end up making, alas.

Ah you mentioned house shows again. Can you tell us a little more about what you mean with house shows? It’s a concept that I’m not sure were too familiar with here in Europe.

Ah, yes. Most musical performances in the states revolve around playing in bars (and most bars in the US are strictly alcohol-based establishments, compared to the more cafe-oriented businesses I’ve seen in Europe). Long story short, weird music doesn’t draw large crowds or sell a lot of booze, so many shows featuring less commercially-viable forms of music and art find homes in alternative spaces, including the basements of personal homes. I had a modest series of these kinds of “house shows” in my basement for a couple of years. Generally, one’s role as a host is finding a local act or two to perform alongside the touring act, and taking responsibility for promoting the event. Audience members donate money, which is then given to the touring artist. And then the touring artist spends the night at your place before heading to their next show.

I should mention though that some venues, even in the relatively conservative area where I live, do make an effort to be supportive of less commercially-viable forms of art. There are several venues here in Lincoln that have been happy to book shows with unusual artists I bring to their attention, not to mention alternative performance spaces like art galleries, coffee shops, and collective spaces. On the whole, though, the economic support for non-popular idioms of music is dramatically less than what one finds in Europe. I’m not sure how that issue will ever get resolved.

So last few questions Scott and we better get onto the next batch I suppose: You’ve mentioned bran(…)pos and his prickers and peckers release , but can you tell us a little more about the core ideas from the other artists on this next batch?

On Arvo Zylo: I’ve been very enthusiastic about his work for quite some time. He’s been doing detailed, layered work with sequencers, such as his phenomenal “333,” and with recordings/samples, like his “Assembly” album last year with Blood Rhythms. He often labours over his projects for years at a time, and I proposed that he do something more extemporaneous, just using one small sample and letting the music unfold without belabouring it so much, with hopes of revealing a bit of his underlying approach to sound. As it turned out, he has been doing a series of recordings called “Upheaval” for some time that fit into that category, all created from manipulation of diva superstar singers holding long tones, and each version of Upheaval is created in one session. The results are varied and excellent, like etudes for his unique workflow.

IXTAB works with more beat-oriented approaches than I often listen to, while also bringing the sounds of field recordings, voices, and old equipment with sonic idiosyncrasies subtly into their mixes.  I hear a certain timelessness in their work that connects with me, a near-transubstantiation of the core materials they combine. The repetitive aspects of their work feel unusually potent to me, too, with motifs that feel more like aural sigils than melodic foundations.

Somnoroase Păsărele are somewhat mysterious to me. I can’t speak for their particular artistic direction from their own perspective, but their music bridges the gap between the unfamiliar and the familiar. They’re very elemental and heavy on sonic contrasts – large sections of “GAMA” have distinctly different activity happening on opposite sides of the stereo spectrum. The results, which have a wide dynamic range and timbral palette, feel very cinematic. As several more of their recordings will find their way into the public soon, I’ll be learning more about them along with other listeners, and I look forward to it.

Much like the other batches, the styles and sounds are very disparate between the releases. So, where’s the confluence between these releases for Tymbal Tapes?

I think this round is generally a bit “darker” than the previous releases, with leanings toward early industrial sounds and an embrace of intuitive processes that aren’t exactly “improvisation,” but more a force of guidance within compositional processes. The main confluence is probably just that I think all of the artists involved create exemplary, genuine, thoughtful work in their respective genres, however.

This batch at first appears a little more electronic in nature than the previous batch, especially in light of the BBJr tape. Do you ever have a central theme for a series of releases?

On the whole, yes, this batch leans more on electronic music origins than the others, though of course there have been synth/sample/computer works on the label already. I haven’t deliberately tried to follow any cross-release themes, though. All of the artists are doing their own thing with no knowledge of other projects in the works.

Was there anything fundamentally different in the process of finding these releases that perhaps wasn’t there in the last batches and how do you see Tymbal evolving in the future?

 Everything moved very quickly this year. Most of the material in this new batch has been in the works since a little before the first Tymbal batch was released in April, actually. And at the moment, I can’t maintain this pace. The Tymbal release schedule will slow down substantially next year, with four or five releases, compared to 11 this year. Over time, I suspect that it will lean more heavily toward works that incorporate a bit of conceptual or technical guidance from me. There are plenty of places for artists to find homes for music they’ve already finished, and I’d like to have Tymbal be a place where both artists and listeners can take chances with approaches they might not have considered before. There are a few excellent aural surprises in store for the spring, so stay tuned!