Public Works Productions

Contemporary VITAL Underground, no. 24, 1 June 1992

The Tape-beatles interviewed by Anton Viergever

Disk reviews

Minneapolis Summit (EP)

Numbers (EP)

Good Times (CD)

Matter (CD)

The Grand Delusion (CD)

Music with Sound (CD)

A subtle buoyancy… (CD)

Show reviews

The Chicago Reader

at the Empty Bottle

at the ATA Gallery

at Illinois State U


Artpaper (Philip Blackburn)

Icon (Todd Kimm)

Tractor (Steve Perkins)

Synergy (Steev Hise)

E-mail (Erik Benndorf)

Radio Free Berkeley

X Magazine (G. Daniels)

Vital (Anton Viergever)


Daily Iowan (1) (2) (3)

Neo (Beth Lucht)

Keyboard (Mark Dery)

Pulse (Paul Ashby)

Montreal Mirror (B. Kelly)

C.R. Gazette (D. Rexroat)

Artpaper (L. Roberts)

Black Book (Anuj Desai)

LAST YEAR, I first heard the Tape-beatles from Iowa City. I immediately got carried away; this was the best I had come across in years: concrete music that really made a relevant statement, especially because it went a lot further than just sound exploration, which seems to have become the common interest of most musicians and sound artists nowadays. I proclaimed them the discovery of the early 90s and was amazed to find out that they were already working in this field for more than five years.

The group was founded in 1986 by Lloyd Dunn, John Heck, Chuck Hollister (who left in 1987) and Ralph Johnson, who recently left the group. In 1987 Paul Neff from Germany joined their ranks, as did Linda Morgan Brown in 1990. In their most recent line-up mainly Lloyd and John are responsible for tape compositions, while Paul is concerned with the management. Their group’s name was not chosen by themselves. It started with a plumber who overhead a session they were having over a heavily pause-edited piece. He raved about it: ‘The Tape-beatles are great artists,’ he proclaimed. They found this collaged name very humorous and adopted it, also because it is often argued that the Beatles were the first popular musicians to use the recording studio as a musical instrument, which was something they wanted to do as well.

Their curriculum vitae covers four pages of performances, presentations, collaborations, radio and TV broadcasts, etc. Their numerous contributions to compilations are mainly new mixes and different edits of pieces that also appear on their two major releases. The same is valid for the release by SSS Cassettes from Pittsburgh, entitled Steal this Lick. Their first major release was a C-46 tape A subtle buoyancy of pulse (1988) that contains one piece on each side: ‘The Big Broadcast’ and ‘Plagiarism®’. Each side is divided into sections ranging from 11 seconds up to a piece entitled ‘Blank filler’ that is supposed to have a duration of 4 minutes, 33 seconds. This piece consists of pure silence and is actually only 2 minutes long. Those familiar with the work of John Cage will recognize the irony. Plagiarizing is the key-word to the Tape-beatles’ work. Their second and last feature work so far is Music with Sound (reviewed in Vital 22) was released as a CD in early 1991 by DOVentertainment (of Canada) but is also available on tape from the Tape-beatles directly.

Two feature releases in five years is not much, you might think, but the Tape-beatles simply work slowly and very carefully when composing their audio work. In addition they all have regular jobs to pay the bills. They also perform live regularly which requires a lot of time for preparation. The following interview took place through fax and mail during the month of April. The Tape-beatles answered the questions collectively.

The Interview

What inspired you to work as a group and what are your aims and goals?

We got together in an effort to make concrete music in an accessible, even ‘popular’ context. We wanted to challenge the accepted limits of ‘music’ and we wanted to make ‘art’ with tape recorders.

We are subverting spectacular culture by recycling it. In this, the Situationists have had a considerable influence on our thinking. Other influences include: popular music, American advertising and news, the modernist and post-modernist traditions, and a lot of more obvious stuff.

The essence of your work is Plagiarism®. Please submit to us your interpretation of that term. from what kind of sources do you plagiarize?

We steal our source material from the works of others without their permission; so we are essentially ‘plagiarists’ in the conventional sense of the term. On the other hand, we don’t wish to hide the fact that our work does not originate with us; in fact, we celebrate the act of ‘theft’ by calling attention to it. In doing so, we hope to make the point that

  1. Ideas are not real estate to be bought and owned; hence, our work is in the public domain
  2. All ‘originality’ springs from some source and hence is not really ‘original’
  3. Music that is viable and interesting as any other music can be made by using these techniques
  4. Why add more ‘originality’ to all the perfectly dreadful, but ‘original’ stuff that’s out there already?

We usually take from old sources which are found inexpensively in used-record stores and places like that. (Incidentally our performing equipment comes from used stores, too.) We rehabilitate this old information, which often is discarded educational materials and the like. By updating the context in which these sounds appear we force new contents out of them. Other people’s stopping point (with making audio work) is our starting point. We rarely use anything but plagiarized material. There is no need. That is our point.

In 1988 you applied for a registered trademark on Plagiarism® with the US Patent Office. A very paradoxical and controversial act, which also testifies for your sense of humor. Could you also explain, in short, the (il-)legal aspects and consequences of this?

Yes, it is our trademark. The ® signifies that this is our trademark and anybody who uses it without our permission better watch out! (Just a joke.) Registering Plagiarism® as a trademark is an absurdity and is recognizable as such, and on a deeper level it makes the current climate of idea ownership seem more absurd yet.

The legality of sampling has not been clearly decided for or against. But we believe that the legal issues involved are these: Are we diluting anyone else’s market by plagiarizing them? and Are we leading the public astray by plagiarizing someone else and presenting the work as our own? On both points we can say we are not. For example, no one would logically buy our CD instead of a Beatles’ record, i.e., we are not diluting the Beatles’ market. In addition, we are not fooling any reasonable person into thinking we are the Beatles (or Igor Stravinsky, or Esquivel and his Orchestra, or anyone else whom we plagiarize).

Comparing your older recordings to your newer ones, I have the impression you have changed from working with analog to digital equipment. Is that true?

We have not moved from analog to digital; we have always worked primarily in analog (loops, etc.) and are continuing to do so. Almost none of our work, probably less than 1%, was done on digital equipment. The only digital equipment we have is the Macintosh computer this was typed on. Any improvement in sound quality you might have noticed was due to our getting a 4-track cassette deck and a better reel-to-reel tape deck. It’s all done with razor blades and splicing tape. Really! Also, after five years we’ve become pretty good at this.

Some of you have followed classes in electronic and experimental music. Was this before the Tape-beatles were formed or afterwards? Did you know the work of, e.g., Pierre Schaeffer Pierre Henry, John Cage, etc., before you started recording as a group?

Each of us have studied under Kenneth Gaburo in experimental music, but work done under Kenneth was quite different than anything we do either collaboratively or independently in the Tb’s. Each of us were aware of electronic music composers such as you mention, but for the most part were not familiar with their works, even now. Most of our musical inspiration comes out of popular music, the sort which the Beatles inspired, and the sort which came from the new music/punk/indie/small label scene.

In a lot of the Tape-beatles’ press material there are stories and statements that are hard to believe, e.g., François Mittérand being one of your biggest fans. Due to such examples I have the impression you play with the media by spreading disinformation. This might be termed ‘media mystification’. You often use the term ‘hyper’ probably connoting the word ‘hype’. Please explain.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain some of our more inflated public statements would be to explain our hypermedia machine process. The remark that François Mittérand is one of our biggest fans came directly from a record cover text appropriation from a Mirielle Mattieu record which originally made the claim we copied. Simply put, our hype works the same way our audio pieces do.

I suppose American audiences are more susceptible to this than Europeans?

Most of our fans know the hype [our public image] is a bunch of baloney. Other Americans don’t seem to think enough about the images presented. We have no real basis for comparing American and European audiences, but we suppose that American audiences have a bit more to hold onto in our work, and therefore might get more out of it (because many of the references will be familiar to them from television and print media).

Did anyone ever compare your attitude to that of the early Residents? Although you are not anonymous, you do seem to have several striking things in common: a satirical fascination for the Beatles. Also both the Residents and the Tape-beatles didn’t choose their own group name. And both play with media, creating hype and cults. Please comment.

I suppose a comparison to the Residents is valid, to a certain extent. (I know Ralph, Paul and John have listened to quite a bit of the Residents’ work.) We are trying to create hype about ourselves; but not explicitly trying to create a cult, as you say. If a cult arises around the Tape-beatles, it will not be purposeful on our part. We want people to question our own ‘mythic’ nature and image as much as we want them to question the nature of the mass media images and sounds we steal and use in our work. The one thing we’ve always stressed among ourselves is that we are susceptible and culpable by our own critiques.

In a way your work is very political. It sounds like a satire on US capitalistic society. Are you inspired by Situationism?

We take from whatever’s around us, which right now happens to be US capitalism. It’s a matter of our situation. We have somewhat consciously adopted the Situationist technique of detournement — the injecting of mass cultural forms with radical or self-critical content—in much of our print and audio work.

I have read somewhere you don’t consider yourselves as avant-garde artists. In an earlier interview, Lloyd once used the term cultural worker instead. Could you explain the difference?

The Tape-beatles are the locus where the avant-garde and popular culture meet, as it says in our booklet, A subtle buoyancy of pulse. I can’t honestly distinguish easily between the term ‘artist’ and the term ‘cultural worker.’ It is a matter of sensibility mostly. My use of the term ‘cultural worker’ comes from my own disdain for what usually passes for ‘art’ and is a conscious attempt to distance myself from all that—or at least question the role of the creative person with something to say in capitalist society. I have been too lazy to come up with some intellectual justification for a distinction between ‘cultural worker’ and ‘artist,’ and such exercises are largely meaningless, anyway.

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