Strategic Tape Reserve is a cassette label owned by Eamon Hamill (possibly the most well-spoken lad in the underground music game) — who operates out of Cologne, West Germany. Though STR’s canon is not genre-specific in any way, the complete body of work shares a common theme of explorative home-brewed quality.
In an effort to properly present the intricacies that define STR, I have included album reviews for the label’s two newest releases AND a revealing interview with Hamill that tells the story of the label’s inception, paints a picture of its geographical location (which, of course, has a considerable impact on its identity), and reveals a number of simple yet useful insights accumulated through its five years of existence.
Firstly, let us explore “Echolalia” by long distance buds Suko Pyramid and moduS ponY — a collaborative effort that took one year to complete.
“Echolalia” is an amalgamation of styles and influences from numerous eras and genres—comprised of chord progressions and melodies that could rival those of mainstream bands/artists like Grizzly Bear or (dare I say) the great Brian Wilson, yet riddled with bizarre lyrics/vocal arrangements and time tempo changes that follow in the footsteps of acts such as modern day Ariel Pink or even old Canterbury scene stuff like Robert Wyatt or Kevin Ayers.
Though there are not a whole lot of instruments used in these songs, an incredible variety of sound is accomplished nonetheless. The guitar work is auxiliary for the most part— being that it often politely blends in with more prominent keyboard riffs (see “Losing my Peripheral”). Effects are used sparingly but…effectively. And, despite the presence of vocals in every song, it never seems typical or mandatory; the words seem to exist more like decorative wallflowers than over-used rhetorical devices delivered via megaphone.
The end product of this album truly is a monument to the patience, care, and passion it must have taken from Suko Pyramid and moduS ponY to build such an elaborate and ultimately joyful piece of art without ever being in the same room together. The love of song-writing and collaborative experimentation is so tangible that it almost feels like a synesthetic experience when allowing the songs to escape the speakers and fill the room.
Secondly, let’s shift our focus to “Traditions from a Vestigial Intranet” by Emerging Industries of Wuppertal.
The album description on the STR Bandcamp page reads: “Defunct ceremonial music originally used to score gymnastic spectaculars, synchronized mass-calisthenics tournaments and dramatized creation myths put on by Ruhrgebiet industrial trade associations.”
Though I love this description and the overall mysterious nature of its appraisal, I want to add a few of my own thoughts.
To me, the album is a synth-driven work with one foot in the groovier side of the classic IDM camp (with vague similarities to the likes of Autechre—for lack of a better comparison) and the other in the muddy crossroads of eerie ambient/industrial soundtrack music. Throughout the album, bipolar melodies shift and shape the landscape while sampled/effected chants make one feel like an unwitting witness to some sort of fourth-dimensional digital seance (see “Bathysphere” or “Academy of Esoteric Motivation”).
Musically, it’s generally hard for me to put a finger on what hardware was used during the album’s creation — which is not at all a bad thing, of course. If anything, I prefer to baffled in this regard. It’s definitely possible a modular setup is responsible for the wide array of synthetic noise — but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of it could be attributed to well-seasoned fingers tweaking the knobs on a few stand-alone digital synths.
Atmosphere is the nucleus of this work —and it fabricates a sense of uncertainty born of the feeling of constant movement/transition. “Traditions from a Vestigial Intranet” is a moving vehicle, and the world outside of its windows is ever-changing — sometimes warm/colorful and other times cold/gloomy.
Anyway, as promised, here’s an interview with label owner Eamon Hamill:
Tell me about STR’s inception. What prompted it? Who’s all involved?
“STR is currently 5 years old. Our first release was the Modern Door Live in Hannover, which consisted of excepts from live recordings of two different shows. The concept of the Modern Door at the time was multitrack looper plus whatever else was around. One show was recorded in a weird old industrial complex that had been formerly owned by Thyssen Krupp. A friend was shooting this mostly improvised short film over a couple of days, and part of that included a music performance, which was also mostly improvised. Side B was recorded in an “baustelle wagon” which is something like an old-fashioned construction site container, which was filled with very drunk people and dogs. I recorded both of these events and had recently bought a box of blank cassettes so that became the first release.
I’d been making music myself for years and had never really thought about starting a label. Having a label just to put out mp3s seemed kind of unnecessary, and vinyl, of course, prohibitively expensive. I guess at some point I noticed that music I was interested in was being released on tape and people were selling them at shows. I’ve always liked tapes. Like a lot of people, I spent a lot of time as a kid taping music off the radio and first started recording on a four-track. Later, in the early 2000s, I had a weird period living in Prague where my only home music source outside of radio was a tape player and some of my old cassettes from home.
The first release was just sold at shows or given away to people – I didn’t know about Bandcamp at the time. It’s really just me “running” STR, but the artists usually contribute a lot to the releases in terms of artwork, presentation, etc. I think the recording locations of the first release, especially the dilapidated evil global corporation site, imparted a certain character on the label that has been a bit developed and fleshed out over time. A lot of the official communication has been delivered with a kind of stuffy, imperious tone and I feel that there should be something a bit sinister about the whole operation. A couple of years ago I put together our foundational corporate video (https://youtu.be/EmLBx81LN5I), which provides a hazy, symbolic framework for what Strategic Tape Reserve might be. For various reasons over the past decade, I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with bureaucrats (getting visas and that kind of thing). In my primary day job, I teach English to adults, often business people, and that brings me into contact with these German (or global) corporate environments that are pretty weird, but also kind of fascinating. It’s very likely that some of these experiences have filtered into STR.”
Genre-wise, I feel like STR is pretty flexible. Has this made it harder for you to sell cassettes, or easier? I only ask because it seems like a lot of folks who buy cassettes seem to make decisions based on stringent aesthetics more-so than variety/quality of music. Perhaps I’m pessimistic, but it’s nonetheless a trend I have picked up on over the years. Sometimes I see talentless rip-off Vaporwave albums sell out in less than a week while a brilliant album released by a diverse (genre-wise) label only sells three.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. If the label were just focused on one genre, it would probably have more of a straightforward ‘message’ and marketing direction, which I guess might even result in more sales. Who knows? I need variety though – none of this ‘play similar artists’ business. I don’t think I could have a vaporwave (or any defined single-genre) label, as that would necessitate listening to so, so much music of that one genre. And I’m not very good at identifying genres anyway. I’ve had experiences sending submissions to reviewers where I’ve described the music as XYZ-genre, and they’ve written back saying ‘this is not XYZ-genre’.
I would really be happy if we could release an even wider variety of music. In the future it would be great to have something related to, say, pop-country or epic trance or whatever really, as long as it’s a kind of warped, outsider version of that template. I’d like STR to be a label for music which is hard to place in a genre. Many STR releases are based on some kind of unusual concept (in terms of backstory, production method, etc) and for me that’s possibly a more interesting commonality than if everything fell within a defined BPM-range or all descended from the same musical tradition. I think there can be other, less-obvious connections between pieces of music than the ones that are often used for categorization purposes. Also, I like the idea of contrasting music – the tension and energy you get from listening to, say, a minimal drone piece right after a dirty, noisy techno track. I think you experience the music differently than if you listen to more similar tracks consecutively. I’m not sure if a label is the most efficient way to explore that idea, but I think it kind of still applies.
In October, the first STR compilation is coming out. It’s loosely based on the Jock Jams series, but focused specifically on the sport Nordic-walking. The idea was that each track should motivate the walker or somehow enhance the Nordic-walking experience. I’m very excited about it as there were many different approaches to sonically augmenting the sport, and I think it will be a good showcase of STR’s genre flexibility.”
Tell me about your location. What’s the scene like there? Try to be as specific as possible–being that I really want to paint a picture for everyone. How does location affect the operation of STR?
“I’ve been in Cologne for about 7 years (I’m originally from Hoboken, NJ). In my opinion, there’s a lot of good music around – way more shows that I’d like to see than have time to see. When I first moved here, Jaki Leibezeit was playing all over the place all the time, and I really regret never getting to see him. I live pretty close to the media arts college where they sometimes have open performances of e.g. John Cage works or interesting visiting artists playing and talking about their work. I try to get to that from time to time. There’s lots of electronic music around. Kompakt records is here, so lots of techno / house nights, but also more weird, experimental stuff happening with people doing interesting things with tables of noise boxes and modular synths and that kind of thing. I’m not sure how it works, but it seems like there’s some public money available to put on small festivals and events and those are usually good, paying opportunities smaller artists.
I’m sure the environment has influenced the label’s style and direction in some ways. Cologne isn’t a beautiful city. There’s a lot of industry and 60s brutalist buildings, which in some ways reminds me of the part of New Jersey where I grew up. Partially due to the fact that I’m not from here, I wouldn’t think of STR as a local label (and regionalism doesn’t really fit into our aspirational ethos of global technocracy). Like most labels, our artists are from all over. The majority of sales on Bandcamp are from abroad, Netherlands, UK, Ireland, North America, which reminds me of another way that location has influenced the label: for some reason, shipping tapes from Germany is really cheap, which of course is nice.”
What has been your most prominent challenge running STR?
“The most difficult challenge is finding time. That’s the only thing I can think of that’s kind of a downer. I work as a freelancer doing a few different things and have two young kids. Often sleep or social interaction gets sacrificed if I have to do a lot of stuff for the label. I need to work to, among other reasons, fund the label, and I obviously want to spend as much time as possible with my family. I’m sure a lot of people doing this have similar issues. Other challenges, such as reaching listeners or the logistics of DIY tape production, have been more fun to try to figure out.”
What advice would you give someone who’s thinking of starting their own home-based label?
“There’s a lot of advice on the internet for how to start a label by emulating a ‘real’ label – the correct way to write one-sheets, buying ads on facebook and that kind of thing. I guess it depends on the goal, but I would say that it’s probably more fun and rewarding (and possibly beneficial to the label’s unique character) just to make it all up as you go along. I guess just decide which aspects of label-running you can enjoy and do well, and just focus on those. I like developing weird concepts for releases, writing goofy liner notes, and working on the presentation. I don’t enjoy writing standardized bios or any of the more business-y functions, so that stuff usually doesn’t get done. STR might sell more and be a bit more productive/efficient if things were done the correct way, but then it would probably be less fun, and honestly I don’t even know what the correct way is, though I’ve gleaned a few basic cassette mores by listening to Tabs Out episodes: score the j-cards, don’t print spines upside down. I order my ‘j-cards’ from a very cheap printshop that does thick flyers in any size you want and dub tapes one at a time directly from Ableton. I really have no idea if this is what everyone else does. There are definitely some labels out there who are very creative with their artwork and packaging and I do find it inspiring to keep an eye on what’s happening in this regard. Personally, I like seeing labels where people have sort of created their own alternate world for music. That’s part of what I’d like to do and I think there are many ways to go about doing that.”
There’s so much music out there. How do you, personally, go about sifting through it all to find the stuff you want to release? Does it come to you? Or do you actively seek it out?
“That’s definitely a challenge, even just from the point of view of a music listener. It would be amazing to be able to dig through and try to actively uncover new music to release, but at the moment, I don’t really have the time. I’m pretty slow at getting releases out and almost always have a backlog of music that’s ready to go. A lot of the time, the music has “come to me”, via friends or people I’ve worked with before, or just as an unsolicited submission. I’ve recently started doing a monthly radio show which has forced me to be more disciplined about listening to new music. I try to approach the shows in a way that compliments the label, playing a wide variety of music types, with lots of disparate ideas all jumbled together – some calm, comforting sections, some weird, noise freakouts, some moments of beauty, some moments of ridiculousness.”