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  • Interview: Cassettes Won't Listen

    Wed, 19 Mar 2008 10:48:59

    Interview: Cassettes Won't Listen - The man behind the moniker chats remixes vs. originals, covers and the pros and cons of our modern technology

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    Operating under the name Cassettes Won't Listen, Jason Drake has been a blogosphere favorite for the last few years, remixing the well-regarded likes of Aesop Rock, El-P, Pela, and Midlake. He's also released three digital-only EPs, including last year's One Alternative, a freely available covers compilation of some ‘90s-era chestnuts. Drake even holds down a day job that's worthy of envy: directing the marketing department for Definitive Jux, one of the leading lights in indie hip-hop.

    Small-Time Machine is wistful and warm electro-pop, the sort of album that should appeal to fans of The Postal Service and The Notwist, with a smart sampling of hip-hop influences sprinkled in for good measure. To help spread their songs beyond the net, Cassettes Won't Listen have also taken the plunge into physical product for the first time; Small-Time Machine will be available as an actual CD that you can hold in your hands and pluck off a store shelf. Aww, just like old times.

    Drake took some time to chat with ARTISTdirect about hopping into his Small-Time Machine, the difference between writing and remixing, and the disadvantages of the digital revolution.

    You have a background in marketing. So do you have any grand master plans to drive attention to the album?

    I think the master plan is pretty much to pull as many favors as I possibly can. After working in the music industry and making friends along the way, I'm just passing the record out to them and being like, "This is my first physical release, I'm working as hard as I can, we have a relationship—let's see what we can set up."

    My master plan when I first started was to trick everyone into thinking that it was a full band. That seemed to go pretty far—up until I had to start playing live shows. [Laughs] That's when I had to come out and say it was me playing everything. But I'd come up with four fictitious characters—the bass player, the drum player, the guitarist and the singer. They were four different nicknames I had growing up. I grew up moving around the country, and everywhere I went, I had a new nickname from a new set of friends. Each of the "band members" were one of my nicknames. So that's how I came out of the box. But for this release, it's pretty run-of-the-mill marketing. The music ends up speaking for itself, and I'm just glad that I've gotten the positive response that I've gotten so far.

    Did you always have your eye on putting out physical albums instead of just releasing them digitally?

    Growing up, yes. Putting out a physical album was like, "Yes, I made it." Having packaging was always my goal—until I decided I was going to put it out myself and looked into the costs. I did the digitals mainly to test the waters to see what the market would think of Cassettes Won't Listen. But always, yeah, in the back of my mind, I wanted to get some sort of physical product out there. It was always goal, but it was all about the timing—and I feel like now is the right time.

    When I first started going under Cassettes Won't Listen, it was basically just to fool around and have fun. I didn't think it would catch on like it did; it was just a bedroom project. Once I saw things really catching on, I realized that "Alright, I gotta put records out."

    Do you think physical albums are going to stick around?

    That's the million dollar question right now: what's the next step? It's hard to tell. I read a recent study—some major label had people come in and listen to music and at the end of the study, they had a bunch of CDs out on this table, and they were like "Alright, kids, you can take whatever CDs you want"—and none of them took one CD. They're so used to playing digital music. When I was a teenager, a CD really meant something. Now CDs are just pieces of plastic—they're like an extra step, a pain in the ass. I don't know if CDs are going to be around. I can understand vinyl sticking around. I love vinyl, so I hope that never disappears. The music industry is in such a state of flux—and that's exciting.

    One of the consequences of that format shift is that a lot of people are doing most of their listening on shitty computer speakers. If you could choose how listeners were experiencing Cassettes Won't Listen, what would you choose? A dark room with headphone? A packed club with a great sound system?

    Those two are the ideals. It's hard to choose. Living in New York, you're basically required to have headphones because there's so much travel time and nobody drives a car. You're stuck with reading material or your iPod. So I've always created music for headphones—the "soundtrack for your day" type of music.

    I lived in Jersey before New York and that's when I really started getting interested in production. You'd do the car test—you'd take the music right out of the studio and put it in the car and drive away. If it sounded good in the car, then it passed. For me now, there's the headphones test. I'd probably choose the headphones.

    Is your own music more satisfying than doing remixes?

    It depends on who I'm remixing. It takes a while to write a song from scratch, but with remixes, you're already kinda there, because you have vocals and sort of a structure and melody. But I've gotten really emotionally attached to some remixed, and I've invested a lot of time into them, just like if I was writing the songs myself. So it's a case-by-case basis. There are remixes where I really feel like pushing myself, and remixes that I finish up for fun in a couple days. Ultimately, writing a song from scratch—that energy and time and emotion I put into something—that's the top of the list.

    I was reading an interview with you where you talked about remixing and finding the song within the song, the secret song lying underneath. Does that change the way you write your own songs? Do you go off in one direction and then come back and find your own secret song?

    Yeah! I do. I approach writing songs similarly to how I approach remixes. I don't go into it with any set notion of which direction it's going to head. It kind of creates a life of its own. Everything is sort of improvised until it comes together in my head. I'll play a few guitar parts and record them, then a few bass parts, a few key parts, a few synth parts, and then go back and listen to it all together and edit it and figure out the structure. But, yeah, there are definitely times when I'm writing songs and I go back and hear it completely differently and go back and change it. That's fun—I'm pretty much remixing myself.

    In "Metronomes," there's some crowd noise at the beginning, and it's interwoven again later in the song. It creates an interesting effect. Is that an actual field recording?

    I sampled a party setting and then I put "Metronomes" through a filter so it actually sounded like it was playing at the party. I wanted to take the listener outside of the CD and put them more in the setting of the party—you hear some music and you're like "What is that?"—and then the song actually comes in from that setting. I think I was listening to old Daft Punk one day and they did something along those lines, playing music that sounds like it's part of a field recording, then it comes up into your headphones full-blast. It twists things up a little bit, and I figured that would be a good way to start things off.

    One of your last releases was the One Alternative EP, which is made of covers of some pretty iconic songs. Were those songs all part of your own past, or did you arrive at some of them fresh?

    Everything on that release was something I grew up listening to, except for "Fuck and Run" by Liz Phair. Listening to the originals of any of those other songs will take me back to that point in my life—which is one of the reasons why I decided to cover them. I grew up listening to Sebadoh and Pavement and Breeders and Pixies and Nirvana. "Fuck and Run" was a track that one of my ex-girlfriends was playing one night when I was over at her place. Exile in Guyville was playing in the background and I wasn't even paying attention—then I immediately heard a different version. I was like, "I have to cover this. This is perfect!" It just reached out to me. I don't know why. But from then on, Exile in Guyville was in my headphones non-stop. It was an album I completely slept on. When the album came out, I was probably in my hip-hop phase, but it's one of those albums that I definitely would have listened to a lot growing up. I recorded it around Valentine's Day and I put it out as a free download; I figured "Fuck and Run" was a good Valentine's Day song. I threw it out there and it got a good response, and that was right at the time that I was recording the other covers, so I thought I might as well put those out there. The No Alternative compilation was something I had in my collection back in the day, and I wanted to do a play on that. I wanted to cover every song from No Alternative, seeing as how those were all cover songs—like cover the covers. But there wasn't enough time in the day, and I had to focus on Small-Time Machine.

    Yeah, all those covers would have been an ambitious undertaking.

    [Laughs] I know. I pulled it out of the CD collection and I was like, "Goddammit, there's like 18 songs on this compilation!" [Laughs]

    We've mentioned vinyl and we've talked about CDs—did you have the cassette collection, too?

    Yeah, I don't know if I still have it—it might be at my parents' place in storage. But I had this wooden cassette holder than held like 200 cassettes, and I carried that around for years and years and years. Slowly cassettes would disappear, and I ended up with like 20 of the best mix tapes. I definitely had a collection.

    Do you remember your first?

    I don't know if they were the first ones, but the first ones I remember having and completely playing out were soundtracks: Boyz N The Hood and New Jack City. All the West Coast rap was right up my alley. That was my favorite shit growing up. I was a huge Ice Cube and Ice-T fan. If I went back and found my cassette case, I'm sure those two would still be right in there.

    —Adam McKibbin

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