My best friend once told me about a teacher he had when he was in elementary school. He remembers him to this day for a number of reasons, but mostly because he taught him how to build a birdhouse.
“He’s probably dead by now,” he said, “but that birdhouse still feeds birds.”
It was years ago when he shared this simple yet powerful sentiment with me. Every now and then, someone or something reminds me of it.
This time, the reminder came to me through an email conversation I had with Nick Dentico, owner of the Vermont-based DIY cassette label Histamine Tapes.
Believe it or not, the DIY part of that last sentence is not a thoughtless redundancy. I know the acronym gets thrown around quite a bit in the cassette label world — so indiscriminately, in fact, that it has become about as bastardized as the word “indie”. However, if you would be so kind as to read on, I will try my best to explain to you why DIY retains its original meaning when it comes to Dentico’s operation.
Histamine Tapes relies — in almost every way possible — on the act of recycling. VERY little material (be it paper, plastic, or screws that hold the cassette together) is produced in the name of its content. Dentico scours thrift stores and garage sales for discarded cassettes to dub over (one of the Histamine releases in my personal collection was made possible by Aerosmith, for instance) and old maps or magazines to cut up and use as J-cards. And, of course, Dentico has procured a number of cassette decks from such outlets as well — you know, for the dubbing process.
Yes, in addition to everything listed above, he lovingly dubs each cassette in real time.
Though all of this sounds perhaps a little too challenging, it does not at all mean that things are not going well for Histamine. When I asked Dentico to outline the biggest challenges he has dealt with thus far, he responded both positively and realistically:
“Surprisingly, its not as hard as I thought it would be to convince people to buy tapes. People seem to be really excited about the format. I sell a lot more tapes than I do, or ever have, downloads. But still, it’s hard to keep the momentum going after the first week of a release —which is probably a problem I have built in doing releases only once a season. But, it works for me for now. It’s hard to balance my time with a label and my time as a father, a partner, a musician and a bread baker (my “day” job)…But a more idiosyncratic issue has been finding the right length of tape. Especially C30s! Since all my tapes are reused I’m constantly stopping at thrift stores and yard sales looking for tapes. The ones that go the fastest are in the 30 minute range. But again, my community has been super awesome for that. We have this great service in Vermont called Front Porch Forum which is like somewhere between Craig’s List and a list serve. I’ve made several call-outs for people clearing out cassette tapes form their basement and people have responded positively. I have received several large boxes of tapes for free over the past year. I’m very grateful!”
The origins of Histamine can be traced back ten or so years, when Dentico and a bandmate were inspired — thanks to the DIY aesthetic of noise purveyors such as Brighter Death Now —to start releasing their own material on CDRs and digitally.
“At the time I couldn’t care less about tapes, and CDRs were so cheap and plentiful and easy —so we never really pursued the cassette thing. We did release most of what we put out at the time under the moniker D.A.D.O.E.S. (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep — we were big Philip K. Dick fans) Records —which mostly amounted to digital releases.”
Years later, Dentico —like a great number of us — came to realize that cassettes were becoming a choice format for releasing music in a both cheap and aesthetically-pleasing fashion. Home-operated cassette labels began to emerge all around the world. However, it was not necessarily easy for him to find a suitable home for the music he had been making.
“While searching for labels to release a backlog of unreleased albums from my time running a house venue in Maine, I felt sort of discouraged by the music I was hearing. I submitted to a lot of labels that were certainly “experimental” — but I didn’t quite feel like my material fit.”
So, as you can see, the rest is quickly becoming history. Dentico decided to start Histamine Tapes and release small runs (usually 25 copies per album) of a few specific kinds of experimental tunes — mostly drone, sound collage, musique concrete, and improvised music. Word about the label has gotten around fairly quickly — as far as the underground cassette world goes — thanks to the likes of review sites (such as Tabs Out and Cassette Gods) and noise-loving Bandcamp patrons such as myself. A few titles have already sold out, while the rest are surely on their way.
As is the case with anyone like Dentico who selflessly spends an astronomical amount of time working (for free — making money in this business is rare) to champion the music of numerous lo-fi bedroom artists, I am always curious to know what their personal reasons are for doing so. He responded plainly:
“There are a number of reasons why I started a cassette label, but the biggest reason I started one when I did has to be my daughter. I want Histamine Tapes to be something that she can look at and A) feel proud of her papa and B) feel inspired to follow her dreams. I have abandoned a lot of my dreams, but this is one I feel like I’m going to hold on to a long time…I hope to keep Histamine Tapes going for as long as I can. I hope that I can sustain it, that it will sustain me. I hope that I’ll still be able to find cheap tapes at thrift store 10 – 20 years from now.”
Yes, I believe with this attitude Histamine Tapes will last for a very long time — perhaps in the same way that the birdhouse I mentioned earlier continues to.