Public Works Productions

Article from Icon, January 2000

Meet the Tape-beatles

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by Todd Kimm for Icon, January 2000

As Iowa’s favorite multi-media band turns 13 and releases a new CD, can a case be made for their importance in art history or even the right to share the stage with Greg Brown?

John Heck, Lloyd Dunn and Todd Kimm at the Mill, Iowa City, January 2000

John Heck, Lloyd Dunn and Todd Kimm at the Mill in Iowa City

If you’ve never heard of the enigmatic, Iowa City-rooted multi-media band The Tape-beatles, don’t feel bad. “I would suspect that they’re only known locally by a small group of initiates,” Iowa City art historian Stephen Perkins said of the group that now includes Lloyd Dunn, John Heck and Ralph Johnson. Although more locally unknown than musicians like Greg Brown, Dave Moore and Craig Erickson, the Tape-beatles share with these peers a greater recognition outside the Midwest, especially in Europe. In the fall of 1997, the Tape-beatles were invited to Berlin for a music festival organized by their Dutch record label Staalplaat. The highlight was a four-hour improv session with fellow label mates.

“It was strange for us because we had an audience and people listened to us,” Heck said. “Yeah,” Dunn added. “They stayed until the end. It was pretty amazing. There were no seats.”

To be fair, the Tape-beatles have never made a habit of performing live. After all, their instruments of choice are tape decks and computers. They are a studio band, as were the original Beatles after the fallout from John Lennon’s claim that they were bigger than Jesus.

When band members all lived in Iowa City (Dunn is the only one left) back in the ’80s, the Tape-beatles’ local profile was much higher. But even then, any grab for notoriety was tempered by a complicated ideology, often enunciated tongue-in-cheek. They existed only as an idea even after they formed in 1987, plastering Iowa City with posters bearing their photos and name before they ever played live or released music.

So who are The Tape-beatles and why should you care? Well, they have a new release, their first since 1993’s The Grand Delusion. It’s called Good Times and takes on the so-called ’90s economic boom with The Tape-beatles’ usual arsenal of irony, bombast, humor and wistfulness. Italian music critic Vittore Baroni hailed the release as “one of the best works to come out of the cut-and-paste ‘no copyright’ underground scene.”

That’s another thing that should be mentioned about The Tape-beatles: They practice plagiarism as an art form. Their work is made up almost completely of found and stolen material—happy ad-speak from a women’s product syndicate to Aaron Copland musical riffs. The Tape-beatles manipulate and/or re-contextualize the lifted material to create something that, though sounding familiar, is completely new.

This may be one reason why they’ve never been sued, but more likely it’s because, well, you can’t get blood out of a turnip. In keeping with their most consistent and straightforward ideology, The Tape-beatles’ work is uncopyrighted and in the public domain, challenging the notion that ideas or creative work can be owned or even called original, especially in this age of cheap, easy duplication and distribution.

Even as technology makes it easier for artists to be heard, concentration of ownership in what Dunn forebodingly calls the “cultural production apparatus” makes it more difficult. Escalating production values further maroon the independent artist.

“There’s a sense that the rest of us can’t compete,” Dunn said. “So we don’t have our own culture anymore. We don’t have our own cultural voice. We’re just passive consumers to what they choose to send us. One of the big deals for The Tape-beatles is that we wanted to say that’s not how it is at all. We still can have a voice. We don’t have to sound like that in order to be saying something true and real and making some perfectly valid and interesting and entertaining commentary about society.”

One irony here is that, in many cases, especially on the new release, the re-appropriated samples come complete with the high production values The Tape-beatles so gallantly lament. Welcome to the ironic and contradictory world of The Tape-beatles.

The Italian critic mentioned above called The Tape-beatles “pioneers of applied plunderphonics,” plunderphonics being the term coined for this musical genre by Canadian composer John Oswald with the 1989 release of that name that sampled freely from the work of people like Michael Jackson (whose record company sued), Bing Crosby, Glenn Gould and Public Enemy. The West Coast cut-and-paste ensemble Negativland are the best-known practitioners of plunderphonics, having been sued by U2’s record company.

But were The Tape-beatles really pioneers of a movement that can arguably be credited with pioneering the type of sampling so common in today’s hip-hop, rap and their spawn? The critic Baroni’s assessment must be taken with a grain of salt since so much of what has been written about The Tape-beatles, crunchy with irony, can be traced back to the band members themselves.

Getting to the bottom of it

This writer sat down with two of the three Tape-beatles at The Mill restaurant in Iowa City to try and get to the bottom of things, to figure out who they are and what they mean—in essence, to “meet” them, upon excuse of their new release. Homey and solid, The Mill at first seems like the wrong place in which to interview people who are here and there famed for hijacking consoling ’50s slogans, “cutting up” catchy Beatles’ songs and, God forbid, being more about ideas than anything you can touch, smell or dance to.

It seems unnatural even for two Tape-beatles to be in one place at the same time. Normally 35-year-old Heck is in Prague, waitering in French restaurants or checking coats alongside elderly Czech ladies in the building where the late, great Czechoslovakia was signed into statehood in 1918. Heck was in Iowa City to care for his ailing mother (who died in December). Dunn, 42, makes his home in Iowa City and holds down a multi-media job with the University of Iowa College of Medicine. Johnson, 35, the missing Tape-beatle, lives in San Leandro, Calif., where he works as something called an intranet administrator at Mills College.

The three Iowa natives founded the group in 1987 with the now departed—not dead, he works for the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago—Paul Neff. (Linda Morgan Brown, Iowa City, was also a member 1989-94.) Although they actually rubbed elbows on a regular basis in Iowa City as UI art students, The Tape-beatles collaborate now mostly via computer modem. They resort to snail mail for exchange of cumbersome raw sound files.

The Tape-beatles’ are emblematic of everything happening now at a million bytes per second at the interface of culture and technology, where adults in Des Moines telecommute to jobs, and have affairs with people, in Moosejaw; where on the Internet, kids can grab the latest Rage Against the Machine for free and then turn around and burn CDs of their own stuff and sell it; where the mass media are both splintering into a zillion different channels, publications and web sites and, through concentration of ownership, moving toward becoming one mass medium. The Tape-beatles step into this maelstrom with arms, eyes, ears, mouths and minds wide open.

Well, not exactly. Although they are consumers like the rest of us, they tend to be wary, bemused, sometimes outraged shoppers.

After ordering French fries and a hamburger, Dunn notices something strange on the TV hanging over the bar. “It’s kind of disturbing television to go from watching Holocaust victims to the Pilsbury Doughboy,” he remarks. “I just saw that right now. It’s kind of interesting. In one shot you get starving, skinny people, and in the next shot you get the Pilsbury Doughboy going ‘hee hee.’”

“The History Channel. It’s owned by Disney,” Heck says matter-of-factly.

I don’t know which is more unsettling, the fact that such a juxtaposition occurred, that Disney apparently owns the History Channel or that the perfect manifestation of The Tape-beatles’ creative process has occurred out of nowhere within the first five minutes of the interview.

I suspect the two for some reason of conspiring beforehand. At the least, I wonder if Dunn’s comment is less than spontaneous. If there’s one thing a person needs to learn when “meeting” The Tape-beatles it’s that nothing they say, write about themselves or produce as art can really be taken at face value. Much of their oeuvre is borrowed from the mischievous Dadaists and conceptual art in general where the commonly held boundaries separating art from the rest of the world are challenged and trampled. (Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, for example, were just everyday objects presented as art.)

The artists themselves often get mixed up in the fun as well. Satirical self-enshrinement and self-mythologizing were particularly important early on for The Tape-beatles and remain so. Such shenanigans can be linked with the sincerity fatigue popularly associated with Gen-X and more. Their early “manifesto” states, “Spreadsheet statistics, rigorously formatted, reveal the Tape-beatles are the locus where the avant-garde and popular culture meet.”

Although the dividing line between fact and fiction is mostly obvious, it’s not always so easy to tell when they are being ironic or sincere, mocking or ready-to-burst with compassion. But it’s the times when they manage to somehow embrace two seemingly contradictory things at once that The Tape-beatles really come into their own.

Dunn dives enthusiastically into his basket of fried food. With seemingly blunt candor he explains some of what’s behind the façade: “When we first started working together we had a lot of rather grandiose ideas about changing the world, really.”

“Like we don’t anymore,” Heck says with a laugh.

“We could always be very comfortable with our grandiosity by taking the posture that it was satire,” Dunn says.

Bigger than Christ

Our objective is an ambitious one: to be brilliantly successful. Our strategy: to deny the possibility.

— The Tape-beatles manifesto, 1989

Attempting to measure The Tape-beatles’ success, fame or influence may be pointless, especially considering the fact that challenging the precepts on which these things are founded is so often what their work is about. Don’t expect them to agree on what they set out to do in the first place, either.

Heck: I think it was Ralph’s idea to have an audio group that maybe took concrete music and attempted to popularize it, much like Kraftwerk did to electronic music. [Concrete music, according to Dunn, was established by the “French movement from the ’50s that set about to make musical compositions using nothing but the sounds of the real world.”]

Dunn: Well, to be more precise, we didn’t set out to popularize concrete music. We set out to make popular music using concrete elements.

Heck: Well, it would be even better to say that we tried to make it popular in principle.

Dunn: But popular music isn’t necessarily popular. Popular music is a form, like jazz.

Heck: But we also simply tried to make it accessible, I think—to take something that was kind of abstract and make it accessible.

Dunn: I don’t have an issue with anything you said except “trying to be popular.” We never tried to be popular. Maybe you did.

Heck: Maybe I did.

Dunn: But our initial impulse was never to be popular. Our initial impulse was to make pop music.

Heck (sarcastically): On the other hand we had “hypermedia” working for us. Would you like to talk a little about that, Lloyd?

Dunn: No, that’s ancient history, man.

Heck: You’re not embarrassed by “hypermedia” anymore are you?

Dunn: Hypermedia is a word that we felt like we invented and then, you know, the world took it over from us … . We invented all sorts of names for imaginary art movements and imaginary techniques and things like that, and hypermedia was one of them. The notion [of hypermedia] was that things like painting and sculpture were dead art forms and the real art from the 20th century is collage. And collage doesn’t just imply taking pieces of paper and cutting them apart and sticking them to other pieces of paper. Collage really implies all media. Machines give us the ability to rip off reality and then reassemble it in a way that we see fit. In that sense it’s kind of a Utopian mission on our part to fix a broken society, at least in the world of The Tape-beatles’ art.

Heck: We really did construct our own world and then we proceeded to try and live in it, didn’t we?

Dunn: In some ways we did. Everybody, eat French fries.

Nailing them down

Meeting The Tape-beatles shouldn’t be so hard. Dunn tries to help: “There are a lot of things we could bring into this. A lot of it ends up being just sort of a sidetrack. We really have had a very scattered ideology, ideological mindset. Actually, ‘scattered’ is the wrong word. The mindset has been cohesive. It’s just that our activities have been very scattered.”

As people, Dunn and Heck are at first glance a little easier to nail down. It’s tempting to just reduce them to types, to Beatlize them so to speak: Dunn the pragmatic, grumpy Tape-beatle, Heck the impractical, sweethearted Tape-beatle. Dunn relates later by e-mail: “John is prone to imaginative flights of fancy that I am prone to squelch.” But he adds that Heck’s “goofy” and “over-the-top” approach leads to some of the group’s most “spectacular moments.” As for Johnson, Dunn characterizes him (as Johnson characterizes himself) as the imaginative, intellectual Tape-beatle.

It’s tempting also to just Beatlize the music, to say the Tape-beatles took “Revolution No. 9” (the eight-minute White Album found-sound epic that most not-under-the-influence Beatles fans resented because it meant they had to get up, walk across the room and lift the needle to get from “Cry Baby Cry” to “Good Night”) and made a career out of it. (Dunn points out that The Beatles practiced more subtle appropriation as well, “playfully borrowing” styles, melodies and musical postures from other musicians all along.)

In a way, The Tape-beatles are an artists’ collective that appropriated the “rock/pop band” collaborative model The Beatles sort of originated. The Tape-beatles are very much about collaboration—idealistically egalitarian collaboration. One member might come up with an initial sketch for a piece and then trustingly pass it on to the others for their tweaking or overhaul.

“One of the things we’re trying to work against is feeling ownership over our work,” Dunn says. True to the rock-band mythos, The Tape-beatles are always breaking up and reforming. But, adds Dunn, “We’re kind of three solo artists that bring it together at a later point anyway.”

It’s also important to remember that The Tape-beatles are a multi-media band. In the early days, their performances were veritable deathtraps of obsolete media machinery, including film-strip projectors and hand-crank gramophones. Their present stage show (last performed this spring at the Empty Bottle in Chicago) is a stringently choreographed event (sorry, no dancing) involving three 16mm film projectors clattering found footage with The Grand Delusion blaring along.

John Heck and Lloyd Dunn at the Mill The Tape-beatles have also produced influential ’zines (including Photostatic and Retrofuturism) that often made use of photocopied images and text. While publishing ’zines, Dunn worked at the UI copy shop, obviously for more than conceptual reasons. The fact that he now works as a web-page designer is also no accident. The Tape-beatles’ web site () is an integral part of the band’s work. MP3s are available for download. (The latest CD, sort of in keeping with their spirit of free exchange, is being serialized for free download there. The band’s entire catalog is available for order as well.)

But despite being a multi-media collective, The Tape-beatles are first and foremost a band, a band that uses the recording studio as if it were a musical instrument. But is it music? There’s no simple answer.

“Some people have a problem calling what we do music,” Heck says, “and maybe that’s not important for us as an issue.”

“It’s not for me,” Dunn replies. “I don’t care if it’s music or not. You can call it audio art if that’s what people have to call it to appreciate it.”

The Tape-beatles’ first two works, A subtle buoyancy of pulse and Music with Sound (self-released as cassette tapes and later put out on CD by Staalplaat) are more audio collages than music. A subtle buoyancy of pulse makes especially raw use of radio, from the ready-made cut-up machine of a radio plowing through static and stations to snippets from their own KRUI shows (at one point a listener requests “a microphone burning in flames,” and the boys oblige). The Tape-beatles really found their voice on Music with Sound, where their signature and much-copied use of condensed spoken texts (from President Eisenhower to Andrew Carnegie) came into its own.

The Grand Delusion and Good Times are more musical. On these concept albums dealing respectively with war and the economy, the band organizes found voices, music and sound effects to actually create new timbres, rhythms and melodies. Both works make especially deft use of found percussion, beating away as Dan Quayle justifies America’s involvement in the Gulf War (The Grand Delusion) or as a Hispanic food-service worker talks about the importance of moving her hands fast when making salads (Good Times).

But you can’t dance to it, at least according to one Iowa City art historian. Perkins, who sees The Tape-beatles as effectively revealing the subtext of mass-media messages, said, “It’s a cerebral thing. That’s fine, but they’re all sort of uptight white boys. If you could actually move your body to it, I think that would introduce another element. I hear rap stuff, and what they’re doing with sound sampling really streaks ahead of what was happening before. It’s very sophisticated, and you can get down and funky to it.”

“We’re not interested in dance music,” Dunn says. “We’re interested in music for the head.” Asked if the band might capitalize on the fact that many of their practices have been co-opted by the mainstream (The Orb sampled a piece from Music with Sound on a 1993 major-label release and artists from Prince Paul to Moby are making a more and more sophisticated use of the techniques), Dunn says, “I personally don’t have the critical faculties to make that kind of dreck.” He later qualifies the statement: “I actually think there are some very good works coming out of those genres. I’m just not familiar with them and I don’t know how I could approach them from an insider’s point of view.”

It would seem a foregone conclusion that a band whose latest release decries corporate exploitation would not take money to have their work used in, say, a Chevrolet commercial. But nothing’s set in stone with The Tape-beatles.

“We’d take the money,” Dunn says almost without hesitation. “Unless it was some totally offensive or ridiculous thing. Like we wouldn’t want to be affiliated with Orville Redenbacher popcorn or something.”

Heck is not so sure. “I’d have to think about that one,” he says. “I don’t know if I’d be insulted.”

“It would be hard to decide, but if I could quit my job, I think that would be a great value to society,” Dunn adds with a laugh.

Making a case

To get above the smoke screen of contradiction and irony that The Tape-beatles at once self-consciously and unconsciously create for themselves, I asked a few “outside experts” for their assessments. Although Cedar Rapids artist Mel Andringa credits The Tape-beatles for their contributions to the decentralization of art production (their work didn’t come out of a major cultural capital, or even one place for that matter), he predicted they would end up “a regionalist footnote.” Part of the problem, he added, is that technological advances in duplication and distribution are allowing so many artists to produce so much that it’s all but impossible for cultural stewards to sort things out and rank them into some sort of hierarchy of importance.

Steev Hise is founder and operator of the San Francisco-based web site detritus.net, a premiere chronicler of the cut-and-paste movement. He places The Tape-beatles within a “triumvirate of sonic appropriators” that includes Negativland and Oswald.

“I think most people who are interested in this kind of work would list these other two in their personal ‘short lists,’” Hise said, “but since The Tape-beatles have the misfortune of never having been sued, not so many people know about them. Oswald makes your jaw drop, but The Tape-beatles, at least in a lot of their work, actually touch you. They are much more about content than form. I’ve always found this characteristic of The Tape-beatles to be tremendously inspiring. It was proof that sound collage does not have to be about showing off your splicing-chops or what filters you use, and it doesn’t have to be silly novelty joke music either. It can be powerful, meaningful, dare I say it, sometimes even activist.”

Philip Blackburn, who runs the new music label, innova, in St. Paul, Minn., and heads the American Composers Forum, had this to say: “The Tape-beatles weren’t the first, and they’re not the last, but they are probably the most dedicated and enduring, even perhaps the best, of the whole lot. Widely known in narrow circles they continue to have a huge influence on a generation of dispossessed artists. Their multi-media base distinguishes them from the purely aural world of plunderphonics and means they have as much in common with Tom Tomorrow and The Atomic Cafe as John Oswald or Negativland. They were sampling and looping long before digital samplers were around or DJ Spooky was a gleam in his mother’s eye.”

Peter Conheim, San Francisco, is a member of the all-16mm-projector ensemble Wet Gate, as well as the plunderphonic groups Mono Pause and Negativland. He had this to say:

“Are they pioneers? Well, is something ‘plundered’ really pioneering anything? In an interview I did some years ago with Lloyd Dunn and Ralph Johnson, I asked how aware they were of the work of Negativland and like-minded folks when they started working, to which they responded that they were vaguely aware of these groups but were responding more to a ‘cultural moment.’ Thus, I guess one could consider them pioneers of the form. They are certainly pioneers of the ‘Plagiarism(r)’ moniker [they’ve used the signet ironically as a trademark of authorship], and therein lies one of their great influences on my own thinking. Tape-beatles and Public Works ‘Syntheties’ are as somber as they are funny, sometimes at the same time, and that’s another reason why I think their work is so unique. You can laugh aloud (and I do, every single time) when listening to ‘I Can’t Do It’ from Music with Sound, but there’s a melancholy quality to the source material (a slightly exasperated male voice talking about not being able to talk). It’s also extremely important to not overlook their work in film collage. So they’re filmmakers as well as audio plunderers, and they’ve brilliantly married the two forms in a completely unique way. The layers of found/manipulated audio complement the images, creating a solidly new work. And this, perhaps, is their most ‘pioneering’ aspect.”

Meanwhile, back at The Mill

Meanwhile, back at The Mill, Heck is taking a photo of Dunn eating his hamburger and French fries. Dunn came to the interview armed with a camera—digital of course. “I thought you might want to take a picture of us,” he tells me. And then to Heck, “I probably look like a parrot in that one.”

Good Times is The Tape-beatles’ first digital release (though the side project Public Works’ 1996 release Matter was digital, too). Back in the good old days, true to their name, The Tape-beatles maneuvered the hissing, often unpredictable medium of tape armed only with editing knives and the pause buttons on their tape machines.

“I can be nostalgic about some of the quirks of tape and tape recording technology,” Dunn says. “We left something kind of important behind, in a way, by moving completely digital. I’m not at all nostalgic about the amount of effort that goes into that kind of work. But by leaving those things behind we’re leaving behind some of the qualities they bring to the sound, the warmth, the harshness, whatever kind of flavor they bring. Whereas now we’re forced to imagine what we want the sound to sound like as opposed to accepting what the device gives us. We’re forced to imagine it more and that totally changes the way we work.”

“We still experiment, but the results of our experiments have a different character,” Heck adds. “I don’t know if we lament that.”

“No, no, not lament,” Dunn says, “just recognize the difference, that’s all.”

As with nearly everything, The Tape-beatles seem to have a paradoxical relationship with nostalgia. Much of the raw material from which their work is hewn has been lifted from the ’50s and ’60s, the decades of their childhood.

Asked if they consider themselves an Iowa City band, Dunn says “only in the sense that our post office box is here.”

That’s a pretty small space for a sense of place. But The Tape-beatles aren’t about sense of place, local or otherwise. Asked if they fit into some local art/music scene, Perkins said, “No, I think they would see themselves operating on a much more national, international scale. The fact that they’re in Iowa City is sort of happenstance really.”

“Our nostalgia is here,” Heck says. “From traveling around a bit, I miss Iowa City. I really think it’s a nurturing place for people.”

Whether a struggle at the heart of their message will pull them apart or just drive them on to create more fascinating work, The Tape-beatles are really about ideas not things, technology not apricot preserves.

Remember, The Tape-beatles’ existed only as an idea even after they formed. “We existed in hype form before we ever had any product,” Dunn says. “The first poster said, ‘The Tape-beatles. Seriously?’ and had our pictures on it. That’s it.”

“And actually it looked like we were thinking and writing and doing things,” Heck adds.

In many ways, The Tape-beatles still are only an idea, and their work some disquietingly familiar static swirling in cyberspace.

Dunn champions the destruction of the original art object, the notion that art has moved beyond the fetishizing of a single object of art like the Mona Lisa.

“Disembodying artworks is a really important step for culture, I think,” Dunn says. “If we can do this successfully without sort of like superimposing all sorts of horrible legalisms on top of cultural output to—quote unquote—protect the corporations that make it available, then I think that we’ll have crossed a pretty important boundary in human culture.”

“The direction of technology is to make the experience of the media more transparent,” Heck says, picking up the ball. “Forget the TV set that’s in front of you and just experience the space, the sound and the smells, whatever it is that is portrayed. That’s where it’s coming from and that’s where it’s going. Ultimately there may be a device that fills every orifice with pleasure. The mouth, the ears, the nose, the eyes.”

“Just make sure you wash it thoroughly before your share it,” Dunn cautions.

Copyright © 1999 Icon Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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