“I dance to some of the music that is released on Opal Tapes,” says label founder Stephen Bishop, “but I dance in the kitchen.”
That pretty much sums up the cult following Bishop’s cultivated over the past year, as he’s maintained a relentless release schedule of magnetic tapes that explore the increasingly grey area between heady clubs and headphones. Kinda like August’s Label of the Month (L.I.E.S.); at least in spirit, since Opal Tapes’ growing roster also worries more about obliterating the self-imposed boundaries of experimental and electronic music than ironing out the kinks in their cloudy and/or clotted compositions.
In a world that all but confirms its collective chaos theories on a daily basis, music like this is more than just a mere distraction. It’s essential…
Can you start by telling us about the Teesside town Opal Tapes is based in?
Teesside is just the same as any other ex-port town or city—somewhere which has had it’s meaning removed. The dockland and heavy industry is still present, but the employees are no longer those that live around it. As such, there are problems with society in the area but no more so than any other normal large English town. Well, at least to my experience of living here, not to the statistics which regularly explain to the world how it’s the anus of the country.
I’ve been studying and working in Teesside for six years. Redcar, where I’m from, is just a small seaside suburbia with red brick estates and a town centre. Typical Labour-voting northeastern town really, just a bit more depressed than usual. Influences from the area come from the heavy industry, certainly. My childhood bedroom looked onto the horse racing course in Redcar, which was backed by semi-detatched houses with the background of 200-meter tall cooling towers and chimneys with fire and steam. I would enjoy taping the radio and doing skits with my sister.
Do you think you’ll move to a bigger city as Opal Tapes continues to grow, or are you simply happy where you are, as it allows you to develop the label’s roster in relative isolation?
I’ll move in the future, most likely to Newcastle. I’m no longer working at the college here so things are easier now.
When do you remember first getting into music?
I was always into music when I was younger. Around 12, I started to actually be able to separate sounds and listen to them. The first CDs I ever got were like The Best of Santana and Time Pieces or some shit when I was about 9. Used to sit in the bath singing along to “Lay Down Sally” and feeling fresh.
The first music which I really got into was Smashing Pumpkins, and that period of guitar music in general. At the age of 15, my favorite band in the world was Deftones, and I was listening to Helmet, Quicksand and stuff like Mohinder and Angel Hair. Which was where I got sucked into underground music altogether, I guess. From there, I started to understand how feasible it was to make the music I wanted to—which was basically a total racket—and commit more to a DIY mentality for gigs, releases and lifestyle.
The first form of music which I could say I ever really felt passion for is drone and minimal electronics. After hearing so much noise with an apparent lack of control of timbre it was really liberating to hear controlled use of abstract or oddly-tuned sound. I was a total fanboy for Daniel Menche and Crawl Unit and lots of quieter musicians like Steve Roden and Marc Behrens. It was during this period of listening when I started to concentrate more on timbre and spatialization as a listener and the practices of making sound, using techniques I was learning through electro-acoustics. It’s this process which has allowed me to create my work.
When did you fall in love with cassettes as a format in and of itself?
Just buying music from gigs for £1 for three tapes…Getting two awful power electronics tapes and a death metal demo with sea lion cover art. That sort of thing. As I’ve said before, I like how they look and sound. They never went away for a lot of people and I can’t claim to love them; they’re just plastic things, but I think they make for a nicely sized object containing some sounds and visual work.
What were some of the earliest cassettes you owned?
Early tapes which I held dear included Birchville Cat Motel (Love, Lies, Bleeding), Aube (Moment In Fragrance), some Haters stuff. I really loved bizarrely packaged trinkets limited to three [copies].
What kind of stuff were you into that people would be surprised about?
I was a pretty normal kid, listening to chart music and radio stuff. I started buying CDs around the age of 8; back then, I’d buy John Heisman and Fleetwood Mac and stare at Motorhead stuff. I don’t know if any of it is surprising? I’m 29, so when I was a kid there was already a great eclecticism in popular media, much more so than now I think. I guess my most surprising admission would be to being a a bit of a junkie for power balladry.
Did you have lots of projects before you started producing/writing under the name Basic House?
Early music I did includes Brothers Yemen, an improvising three-then-two piece that played junky-lo-fi drones and scrawl. Did some music as Old Union Oyster House and BHHT years back. Basically nothing that really exists. Haha.
How would you describe Basic House’s sound to someone who’s unfamiliar?
Basic House is a couple of things. Some tracks are basically sketches—improvisations on basic equipment, tapes, contact mics, radio. Other tracks are worked together to create more formed pieces, some of which are rhythmic and can be aligned to techno and/or house, of which I am a fan.
When did you first start thinking about founding your own label? Did you try running one before diving into Opal Tapes?
The idea to start Opal Tapes came about spring time of 2012. I’ve never done a label before this.
Did you want it to be centered around cassettes from the start?
I wanted there to be a physical presence, which was not CD. To begin with, tapes make more sense than vinyl as there is less financial risk.
Do you hope to be more of a half-and-half cassette/vinyl label by next year, or will cassettes always dominate your release schedule?
Yes, it would be nice to release more vinyl and Opal will see vinyl appearing more regularly, but for many artists I work with cassette is an ideal way to present their work.
Considering you’ve celebrated the format more than most underground labels, what do you think about the supposed resurgence of cassette culture, right down to the recent Cassette Store Day? Are things any different than they were five or 10 years ago, or do you think it’s as fringe as it’s ever been?
In all truth, I don’t really notice any difference but then I’m not looking for anything. I did not take part in Cassette Store Day and will continue to just release music on whatever format works best for me.
I suppose my only real insight into this are feelings on the ecology of physical media and how if we see a genuine, prolonged resurgence in analogue media and playback systems, then how can we deal with the increased buyers market soundly and ecologically. I’d be genuinely interested to know if there are meetings taking place at TDK and Phillips now about how to return the tape to the mainstream, though I doubt there are. Haha.
You’ve made most of your releases available digitally through Bandcamp and other major outlets. Is that decision a matter of necessity—making the music widely available—more than anything else? In a perfect world, would Opal Tapes be vinyl/cassette-only?
Opal Tapes is my full-time job and that is only possible through the additional funds generated through stockless sales. I’m also all for people DJing with this music; I was looking for this kind of stuff for years without luck, and the tagged and sealed one track-a-pop nature of digital sales makes that a reality. Yes it would be great to be able to sell enough physical media but that’s not happening and the experience of listening is what I pay for with most music so I’m not abhorred by digital listening. Quite the opposite; I purchase digital music myself if it’s the manner in which I want to “own” something.
The rise of labels like PAN and L.I.E.S. has led some people to coin/co-opt the term ‘outsider dance music’. Is that even a thing in your mind?
I met [PAN founder] Bill Kouligas years ago in Glasgow and we spoke about the music we liked. He is someone who listens very deeply into sound. I think the shared quality with material on Opal and PAN is that there is no obligation or politic about dancing which is attributed to the release. The intention is firstly one of listening. The sonic environment which PAN has opened up is one which brings a music of great technique into realms which can be explored at volume through PA systems. This logically leads it to a dancefloor. I think the glue that holds PAN together is Bill’s steadfast commitment to true musicality and technical ability. Opal is a messier affair. If there’s a sonic aesthetic with Opal which is continual then it’s more about mistakes, under or over-recorded sound, dilettantism and the sound of the medium interacting with the components of song.
What’s one Opal Tapes release that hasn’t gotten much attention but should have?
I feel that the Traag tape should be heard by many more. They have this jerky style where you the impression a sick joke is taking place almost. The music flits between back-alley-bruised techno to sadistically controlled video game steppers. Real punk feel to it all and lovely people to boot. Travis from Traag will be releasing a 12″ under his Siobhan alias early next year.
What else can we expect from Opal Tapes the rest of the year?
There will be records from Lumisokea, Kaumwald and Patricia. More tapes from BODY BOYS, Manse, Love Cult, Dreamweapon and lots more. Winter compilation and lots more live dates for different Opal artists.
Stephen Bishop on …
Five of Our Favorite Opal Tapes
Tuff Sherm & PMM, The Pagan Cinema (OPAL001)
The first release for Opal Tapes. A tweaked collision of electro-noir and body-pop rhythms. There will be more music from PMM in the future.
Huerco S., Untitled (OPAL003)
Dystopic house music. Worn at the edges, warmed throughout. Sort of comfortably toxic sounding. One of my favorite things the label has been involved with.
1991, High-Tech High Life (OPAL005)
MCMXCI, Skogen, Flickan Och Flaskan (OPAL009)
I was hearing Axel [Backman]’s music on Soundcloud at the same time as a bunch of other people; it seemed there was a palpable buzz about the music due to be released. There is such gorgeous texture throughout this record, like peach fuzz to me. It has this great quality of being alien and then reassuring, almost homely. During communication with Axel, he introduced me to his MXMXCI alias and it blew me away. Hard-jacking techno caught on the fly, pumped hard into 1/4″ tape. Bleeping savagery gets swollen up and bruised ambient rollers take you back to touch.
Basic House, I’m Not a Heaven Man (OPAL006)
I recorded this immediately after a break up and felt a lot better when it was finished.
Wanda Group, Piss Fell Out Like Sunlight (OPAL008)
Louis [Johnstone] is a singular artist. He erases information, makes husks of places and musics. Piss Fell Out… came about after months of blabbering to him about beer, magic, surfaces and sadness. It was important to me to feature abstract music on vinyl early on with Opal and this was the perfect choice for it. Confused many people but they keep on listening. It’s like trying to listen to a monotone Rubik’s Cube.