Following on from the recent listener feature with Misophonia label owner, Andy Uzzell, this latest instalment brings Travis Shosa into conversation. Travis runs the Texas-based Under The Counter Tapes; launched in late-2018, the label has released music from indie rock to synth pop, including the likes of Sad Eyed Beatniks, Watergate Sandals, and The Ryne Experience. UTCT is supported by COUNTERZINE, an online publication with weekly roundups, interviews, podcasts, and more.
As The Listener feature has developed, the focus has become less about ambient music, and more about cassette culture in general. Travis discusses discovering the subtleties of music, loving the music he puts out, and the durability of the cassette!
How did you first get introduced to ambient/drone/experimental music?
Experimental definitely came first. My music world was relatively bog standard for the most part as a kid: I just didn’t know stuff. I remember most clearly getting into bands like Arctic Monkeys and they were on Domino, so I’d be online watching their videos and that eventually led me to the video for Animal Collective’s ‘Peacebone’. Everything about it blew my little mind and that dropped me down a rabbit hole of weirdness. From there you get into early Mercury Rev and once you’re into records like ‘Spirit They’ve Gone‘, ‘Spirit They’ve Vanished’ and ‘Boces’, you’re kinda in it. Ambient and drone took a little longer. I don’t think I had much of an appreciation for subtly when I was young and that’s just come through listening to tons of stuff and learning. Stars of the Lid’s ‘and their Refinement of the Decline‘ was the first ambient/drone record I bought and that was late high school. I’d heard it shortly after it came out and didn’t get it, then my dumb child brain did a thing and poof it was great.
What is the one album that you can play over and over without it getting old?
There are a bunch of albums I return to, but even though I’d call The Replacements’ ‘Tim’ my favourite album, the one I listen to most is The Fall’s ‘Grotesque (After the Gramme)’. So brilliant, so varied, so forward-thinking that bands decades later were scraping up indie cred just by watering down its concepts. I don’t think any album has so perfectly merged such heady, vitriolic thought-prose with the raw/DIY aspects of punk and the adventurous spirit of experimental music so well. Classic after classic and the amended version has ‘Totally Wired’ and ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’. Unfuckwithable.
How do you seek out new music? Once you’ve found it, what is your perfect listening environment?
There are a few big ones: I’d say Bandcamp, RateYourMusic, and smaller music sites are responsible for the lion’s share. Most tape labels have a Bandcamp and I’ll go on specifically looking for new tape releases to check out, as well as digital-only stuff. I’ve found some really great artists who’ve seen little to no push just due to circumstance that I would maybe never hear of if Bandcamp didn’t exist and I didn’t put forth the effort to look around (such as The Baddest Beams, The Lice, Menagerie, etc.). RateYourMusic is another great tool, and I use it to mostly keep aware of more broad hype. Bandcamp keeps me largely tunnelled in on lesser-know stuff, so I rely on it to keep me informed on artists like Freddie Gibbs, Weyes Blood, Hatchie, etc. Their user rating system is pretty good for filtering releases that might be worth your time, and I’ll use their ‘esoteric’ charts to finds unknown stuff as well. The rest is mainly smaller sites like Yeah I Know It Sucks, The Music Mermaid, B-sides and Badlands, and Houdini Mansions. Yeah I Know It Sucks is excellent in that they really don’t discriminate at all, and I’ve found a ton of really weird and interesting stuff through there. That’s my ‘experimental’ blog of choice I guess. Kai also has a real trippy and absurd writing style, so it’s just generally fun to read.
The Music Mermaid is probably the ‘best kept secret’ as far as professional music sites go. Savannah does really detailed pieces and has an excellent site layout, and I couldn’t recommend any site more for lesser-known artists to get really beautiful, professional, quality coverage. They mostly cover pop, indie rock and Americana, and I know about Marlboro’s ‘Convertible Life‘ and Postrich Bear’s ‘Buzzkill’ because of that site, two of the best indie rock records I’ve heard in recent memory. B-sides and Badlands covers a similar wheelhouse to The Music Mermaid. Jason is also fantastic writer and the site is more prolific with coverage, so there’s more to dig into. I found Jonathan Something’s ‘Outlandish Poetica’ though this site, which has been a recent obsession. Houdini Mansions is like my project: a label/blog hybrid, and it’s cool to check out other blogs coming from the same angle. My favourite thing I’ve found through them is William Lyon of Rosycross’ ‘Alter in der Fulle’. I actually found it before their review by scouring their Bandcamp fan page. Outside of that, it’s email submissions for the label and blog, recommendations from friends and shows.
For listening, I’m not too picky. I usually listen to music in my room with my cheap all-in-one Victrola or walking around the nearby lake, but whatever works.
Can you tell us about your favourite new release from the last 12 months?
Can’t pick just one. For not on my own label, it’s a tie between Curling’s ‘Definitely Band’ and Get a Life’s ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life or Debt’. Sean Lochridge (who releases as Imp of Perverse on UTC) sent me ‘Definitely Band’ and I had let it sit for a while. When I eventually got around to it, I was blown away. It’s sort of a blend of every good pop-rock band since the sixties: you’ve got the beautiful chamber instrumentation of the Beach Boys, ridiculous post-punk/math rock guitar work of Television or Polvo, the sweet vocal harmonies and uplifting crescendos of Big Star or Teenage Fanclub. Listening to it feels like a culmination of the form.
Get a Life’s album is a really raw, personal and adventurous indie rock record. Chase sounds a lot like Julian Casablancas and I’d say it’s perfect for people who find The Strokes a bit by-the-numbers but also feel The Voidz might be a bit too out there. Great pop sensibilities, but songs like ‘2 Plus 2 Equals 5’ go through so many melodic shifts, ‘Spotless’ is like a bipolar twee pop/drone record, I could go on. And again, it’s personal and often dark, but still fun for the most part. I really appreciate these records that are never too set on one emotion or aesthetic.
On my own label, I love all my babies, but I have to give special mention to The Ryne Experience’s ‘Hokey’ and Gabriel Bernini’s ‘Gabe’s Album’. I won’t drone on about them too much in the interest of keeping easy on self-promo, but I consider them at the same level, no doubt in my mind and, uh, you should check ‘em out [laughs]
As RTR is a tape label, we have to ask: What attracts you to the cassette medium?
To boil it down, simply as possible: affordability, durability, collectability, storability, and variety. Cassettes are the least expensive physical medium to collect and along with CDs these days are cheapest to produce. Durability, the music doesn’t hold up as poorly as many exaggerate, and beyond that due to the shells is probably the hardest to just carelessly ruin, at least to me. Tapes often have extremely limited runs so it’s fun to kinda craft your library with these releases. They’re much easier to store than records, comparable to CDs. The biggest though is variety. There are so many experimental albums that might not be pushed forward onto other mediums aside from digital. Tons of shell colors as well, and beyond that, tape types that alter the sonic qualities of a record in interesting ways. For a supposedly outdated medium, I think it’s still the most flexible, at least from a creator’s perspective. I also love that it makes track skipping a pain in the ass [laughs].
Part of it might also be nostalgia. The first album I ever owned was a copy of Beastie Boys’ ‘Check Your Head’ on cassette. Didn’t have a lot of money so we couldn’t spring for those fancy portable CD players. I can’t remember if they were hand-me-downs or I got them at a thrift place, but I got that and a Walkman and I’d loop that album on repeat for bus rides to shut out the white noise. So it’s all kinda inevitable I guess.