Conversation with a Tape-beatle
(Published in X Magazine, may1995 and Planet Magazine, 18jul1995)
Deuce of Clubs: Before I get to specific questions, perhaps
you'd like to recap your life/lives up to the current day. Well, okay, not so
much as that. Just whatever you'd prefer to have mentioned in the
introduction (a list of projectsCDs, Retrofuturism,
whateverthat you have done or participated in . . . that
sort of thing.) For example, Mark Simple mentioned that you are now down
to three Tape-beatles, so a personnel list would be helpful. Then
we'll get to the sexy stuff.
Lloyd Dunn: I helped found the Tape-beatles in
1986. Our (transient) membership includes: John Heck, Ralph
Johnson, Paul Neff and Linda Brown. John now lives in
Prague, Czech Republic and Ralph is studying composition at Mills
College in Oakland, Calif. Paul has quit the group and therefore
only Linda and I remain in Iowa City.
The 60s original plagiarized by the Tape-beatles
I have been active in the "zine community" since 1983, when
I started publishing PhotoStatic Magazine, devoted chiefly to
xerox art. Retrofuturism, the "hypermedia magazine of the Tape-
beatles" was founded in 1987. I have also published YAWN (a
newsletter devoted to the Art Strike 1990-1993) and The Bulletin of
the Copyright Violation Squad [CVS Bulletin] which reports on
copyright issues as they affect cultural workers. [There
have been 40 issues of PhotoStatic, 17 of Retrofuturism, 38 of YAWN,
and 1 of the CVS Bulletin.]
The Tape-beatles have released three major works since 1988,
A Subtle Buoyancy of Pulse cassette only, self released,
1988 Music with Sound cassette self released, CD on
DOVentertainment, Toronto, 1991 and The Grand Delusion cassette self
released, CD on Staalplaat, Amsterdam, 1993. The cassette differs
substantially from the CD so they are really to be considered
separate works. We also have a cinematic presentation using
some of this audio in conjunction with three 16mm movies shown
simultaneously which we use as our "performance."
I should note that I will be answering all the questions
myself from my perspective; perhaps the other Tape-beatles would
have somewhat differing takes on these discussions.
How would you encapsulate the central purpose behind the
efforts of the Tape-beatles?
We got together in 1986 to pursue what we thought of as a
new form of audio production: using the principle that anything that
could be put on tape had potential musical usefulness. We felt
that audio tape was a medium that had not been thoroughly explored
artistically, and we wanted to do that in a sort of pop
music context. We were, for the most part visual artists dabbling
in what was for us a new medium. We wanted a fresh, lively sound and
we wanted real content that everyone could relate to.
Over the years since 1986 we have taken on the related
project of liberating sounds and images from copyright strictures,
believing them to be inherently fluid and transitory in nature, and
thus, in some deep sense, un-ownable.
Our purpose is to make, first of all, good "music" that is
fun and interesting to listen to, and second of all, to put that
labor at the service of ideas that we believe in. It should be clear
from our work what we believe in.
Describe the perfect world, from the Tape-beatles' point
of view. For example, would plagiarism be widespread? Would
there be copyright laws at all?
I think we already live in the "perfect" world, by
definition, as this is the one we've received, "ready made" at the moment
of our coming into it. The word "perfect" means little more than
"finished," really, particularly if you examine the words
derivation from the Latin "per-" an affix that refers to
through, or thoroughness, or completeness; and "-fect" a variant on
the past participial form of "facere," to make or to do; therefore
something that is "perfect" has been "made thoroughly" and nothing
more can be done to improve it.
This is not to say that the world cannot be improved, but
begs the question, who is in the best position from which to improve
it? Clearly, the answer is not "artists," but at the same time,
artists do have a certain kind of power over messages, the ability
to present them well and convincingly, putting their aesthetic
sensibilities and training at the service of getting
messages across. The simple answer to the question "Why am I an
artist?" is that I believe I am well suited by predisposition and
sensibility to be an artist. If I were better suited to be an
accountant, no doubt that's what I'd be. It makes me happy if I feel my
inborn talents are being put to good use.
Back to the idea of improving the world; well that's a scary
project, isn't it? How do I know my ideas are actually going
to fix things, or make them worse? I don't. But paralysis is much
more wasteful than trying and failing. So we do try. In part it's
vanity, because we feel like our ideas hold the key that
everyone is looking for; in part it's self-interest, because we want
to live in the better world we are trying to bring about; but it
adds up to a project that at least strives for something good, as
opposed to being destructive.
As for "wanting" plagiarism to be widespread, I don't really
think that plagiarism is the real issue. The issue is whether or
not we have some dibs on the environment we live in, whether or not
the airwaves and our culture are in some way "ours, too" and
therefore resources to be utilized, not shackles for the mind and
spirit. I want people to feel this way about their culture; whether or
not they plagiarize is beside the point.
Compare and contrast: (1) the meaning of sampling as it
is practiced by the Tape-beatles and (2) the meaning of
sampling as it is practiced by rap artists.
I can't speak to how rap artists use "sampling"; although
sometimes I enjoy and admire their work, I just don't know enough
For the Tape-beatles, we don't "sample," we steal. The
difference is probably very subtle. We're not just trying to make new
sounds out of old ones (although that is part of what happens in
our work) we are trying to say that these sounds are just as much ours
as they are anyone else's. It's a refusal, you see. It's us
refusing to become mere recipients of culture; we want to be cultural
producers as well. In short, we want to participate in
culture and not just sit on the sidelines and watch it go by.
What I meant by my previous and (I now see) imprecisely-
framed question, was, roughly, this: you are opposed to the
existence of the private ownership of sounds; if your ideas about
intellectual property were to win out, to gain wide currency and
acceptance, what would the worldor, more specifically, the world of
recorded and published worksbe like? For example, how would
artists be compensated for their work? Or would they?
What I'm getting at is whether what you do is really as
radical as it might sound to some ears (when you say, for example,
"we are trying to say that these sounds are just as much ours as
they are anyone else's") or whether it is merely another form of a
long-established and accepted practicenamely, the idea of
"fair use" as it applies in literary matters. Words from a
published work may lawfully be cited in their original form in the
work of another author. For example, Author Smith, in his
nonfiction work, may legally cite passages from a short story written by
Author Jones. Smith might be using the passages from Jones's work
to help support a position contrary to the one held by Jonesor
even merely to ridicule Jonesbut Jones can't do anything about
it. That's "fair use." On the other hand, if Smith simply
reprinted Jones's short story and signed his own name to it, that
would be plagiarism.
In the musical realm, it's the difference between
sampling and bootlegging. It seems to me that the Tape-beatles perform
the aural equivalent of literary citation. You make use of
media artifacts, but you don't really plagiarize them. It would
be plagiarism if you merely copied, say, Vanna White's tape and
distributed it as your own. Instead, sampling from her tape
is, in effect, the same as "citing" it, by way of making a comment
on it. When someone takes sounds from the work of other artists and
incorporates those sounds into anothera differentwork,
I think of that as the equivalent of a literary citation. You
haven't disputed the ownership of the artifact, you're just
reserving the right to comment upon it.
If you'll be good enough to comment on all that, we can
just pretend it was a question. . . .
Good enough. My previous answer was a bit of a knee-jerk
confrontational one at that. I appreciate the opportunity to
Well, yes, "fair use" is well established in the literary
world and some of its aspects clearly apply. We do in fact "reserve
the right" to comment on the sounds of the world, including
those that are "owned". But we like to think that we are taking this
one step further, which is to say that we "reserve the right" to make
works that are entirely constituted of such "quotations." This
is practically unheard of in the literary world (or am I
mistaken?). (John Oswald has referred to this practice as
To put a finer point on it, we do, in fact, dispute that
"ownership" as such of the sounds in our cultural
environment (however much we might not be able to dispute its "origin".)
You see, we believe that when works are put before the public,
then the public comes to "own" them in some deep sense. This sort of
"ownership" goes far deeper than the kind of ownership that
says that you have the "right" to this work and what is done with
it. The main confusion that we want to clear up is the confusion
that exists in many minds between the object the "culture"
resides on and the culture itself. Can you imagine ASCAP or BMI suing
you because they caught you humming that catchy little tune you
heard on the radio? Well, they attempt to sue bars and restaurants
all the time for playing their records on "public" jukeboxes, or
even radios in these public establishments. (I read about it in
Rolling Stone.) Once it's in your head (the song, the beautifully
worded phrase from that novel you're reading, that memorable scene
from a movie you once saw) it's yours, it's a part of your life.
Copyright law says that when you buy a book or a record,
it's yours except the information is not yours. You can burn the book
or use the record for a wall hanging; the object is yours to do
with as you wish. But copyright law says that the very reason you
bought the item the information is not yours. You can't do with
it as you wish. Use it for another purpose. Make something new out
of it. This is what Negativland calls "an uncomfortable wrenching
of common sense."
We say that there are honest ways to make use of this
cultural information that copyright simply disallows. They've used a
sledgehammer when a scalpel was required. Copyright exists
to protectnot works of culturebut rather markets.
Copyright protected works are supposed to be protected from theft, the
wilful dilution of a creator's rightful market. But "plagiarism" of
the kind we do dilutes no one's market. No one would confuse a
Tape-beatle record for a Igor Stravinsky record. No one would buy
ours instead of his, thinking of it as a substitute.
Understanding that they are separate, unique works, they might, in fact, buy
If we use a Madonna fragment on one of our records, Madonna
is not harmed in any way, nor is she deprived of any rightful
income. Nor is her reputation damaged by our re-use of "her" sound
(unless we lampoon or satirize her, which is constitutionally protected
free speech (ask Justice Souter)).
There are lots of arguments on both sides. The other side is
missing the point, I think, when they talk of creator's
rights. The other end of the trajectory has rights, too. In fact, we
believe they have the duty to look critically at what's piped into
their homes and create a constructive experience out of it. We
believe we're being constructive in our uses of others' works.
Our work probably isn't all that radical; after all, "there
is nothing quite so radical as common sense."
I want to return to the themes we've been discussing, but
first, a strange interlude of softball questions:
One of the voices on Music with Sound's "Whole New
Animal" sounds like the same guy on one of the tracks on Byrne-Eno's
My Life in the Bush of Ghostsis it?
I guess it's possible; we got the voice from a tv
commercial, some tire company was awful proud of its new tread design.
Although I've heard "Bush of Ghosts," I'm not familiar enough with it to
pinpoint the track you describe.
"Animal" started out as a sketch from the very earliest days
of the Tape-beatles, in 1987. Ralph later added the newscaster
voices (Dan Rather, et al.) and beefed up the complexity of the sound by
laying the music on top of itself out of register (to play with the
Have the Tape-beatles ever sampled Negativland, or vice
We haven't and they haven't, to our knowledge. No particular
reason for that I suppose, other than the fact that their work is
pretty completely processed and mixed to begin with. We tend to
isolate relatively simple sound elements from records and combine
them, elementally. If a source has too many things going on in it
at the outset, it's often hard to add anything to it and have it
sound like anything. Any complexity or density you hear in the
sounds of our works usually come from us, and not from our sources,
because we've layered the sounds from different recordings or
different parts of the same recording.
What's your favorite record that you bought at a thrift
store or garage sale?
It's one that we've never sampled from, a Vol. II from
Dioris Valladares y su conjunto typico. It is a meringues record,
energetic and brassy, sort of sweet dance-rhythm love songs.
The grooves on it were absolutely gouged but I love it. The
tracks are too good to improve upon, so we've left it alone. We have
an Esquivel record in "Stereo Action." The liner notes describe
a recording technique of setting up two orchestras, one for
each channel, in different studios at opposite ends of the
building (to eliminate cross-talk). The record was done in some sort of
live mix and some of the instruments are in crazy motion all the time
across the stereo field. A very un-natural sounding use of stereo.
We've sampled quite a bit from that. Most thrift store records are
ultimately disappointing, though. You see this outrageous
cover art or bizarre liner notes, get it home, and find that there's
really not much you can do with the sound. But it's worth the
Name some representative Tape-beatles day jobs.
Lloyd works in a copy center at the University of Iowa.
Linda, also employed by the University, works in the Hospital graphics
department. John is now living in Prague, but waited tables
while he lived here. Ralph is studying composition at Mills
College, but was a secretary while here. Paul worked in a sheet music
store; currently he studies Library Science and works in the
Government Documents section of the University Library.
Earlier you said, "we feel like our ideas hold the key
that everyone is looking for." What key do you mean?
I said that? It sounds pretty self-aggrandizing, in a way. I
don't recall what the context was, but I'll strike at that pitch
in a few ways.
I think probably that most of us have felt a mild resentment
at seeing copyright notices on everything and saying to
ourselves, "Well, I bought it didn't I, I'll be damned if this is gonna
stop me from copying this CD for my friend," or whatever. The Tbs
are not the only ones saying that copy-right laws are completely
unrealistic; they've been thoroughly outstripped by
technology; that the people who made the laws don't really seem to
understand how technology works and what it's really good for. So the
Tbs are the embodiment of an attitude about copyright and an example
of how copyright laws ring hollow in the light of our works, which
are plainly plagiarized, and yet original, as well. Would a
lawyer maintain that we as Tbs are not allowed to express ourselves
in this way? It might be that there are first amendment issues
here, too, but I'm not sure how willing I am to push that concept.
Another idea that figures strongly in our work is the
do-it-yourself notion that was an outgrowth of punk. We have
made most of our stuff on analog home stereo equipment that most
young Americans have access to anyway. So we want to take the
means by which corporations pipeline culture into our homes and turn
those means into devices of production of our own culture. This is
a key concept for us, too. It's a kind of electronic "folk art" if
you will. We rejected the notion that cultural production is
purely the domain of "professionals" and decided that we have something
to say, too. Along the way, we've acquired only those skills
we've needed to produce our work, striving diligently not to get
lost in the technique, which has a great deal of seductive potential
of its own.
Aside from intellectual property, what are your thoughts
on property in general?
I'd be the first to admit that property is not going to go
away. I for one like the comfort of the space I've created for
myself, and the objects I've placed within it. I need that stability in
order to be creative. I don't think it's necessarily bad to own
things. But I do think it's somewhat dangerous the way in which our
culture glorifies ownership as its own reward, and the way in which
we are encouraged to apply status to individuals who simply own a
lot of things and do little with them. Freeing people from the
requirement that they need to grow their own food and scratch out their
own existence is one of the gifts that civilization brings. It's
a good form of progress, one from which we have the capability to
benefit. It allows me the time to do what I do, which is to attempt
to make people more aware of their cultural environment. Living
simply and "primitively" no doubt has its rewards, too, so don't think
that I'm knocking it.
James Brown has asked rappers not to sample his work in
songs that glorify drugs and gangs. If an artist you had sampled
heard about it and (for whatever reason) asked you not to, would
you honor that request?
It depends on the nature of the request. It seems that James
Brown is making some attempt to be socially responsible, and the
way you've phrased it, it sounds like he's giving rappers the
freedom to sample his work if they choose. We like to think that we
sample from a position of respect, and so if the request were
respectful and reasonable, we would probably honor it.
I was in Tower Records a couple years or so back when I
actually heard the Tape-beatles playing. I asked the surly record
store clerk type about it and his response was on the order of
"Uh, wuh? Tape who? This is The Orb, dood." I'm interested to know how you felt
being sampled, and whether The Orb asked permission?
I had heard that the Orb had sampled us on one (or more) of
their cds, but haven't actually heard the work. We were a bit
taken aback that they had apparently (we were told) used our work with
little or no modification (depending on how true what we were told
is). But we're not upset about it; in fact we are somewhat
flattered. We would have been happier if they'd turned it into something
that obviously was taken from us, but was nonetheless The Orb's
work. But we might be able to get some notoriety out of it anyway,
somehow, especially if people like you make a big deal out
of it in print.
No, the Orb did not ask us permission, nor did they inform
us of what they had done (in spite of the fact that our phone
number and address appears on all of our releases).
[From the Tape-beatles' liner notes accompanying 1991's
Death of Vinyl compilation CD: "The LP and the CD are all but
irrelevant to those with the will to make their own music
and share it with the world."] I was a little confused by this; given
your group's name it isn't surprising that you would favor tape,
but given the nature of what the Tape-beatles do, don't you
need LPs and CDsas well as television and radio (to "plunder," I
The text from the Death of Vinyl comp was intended to
lionize the cassette as the most pervasive audio medium of recording in
the world. I was just making a pointwithin the narrower
confines of my earlier passion, networkingthat the cassette is the
medium of choice for the small independent producer that can make
music but can't scrape together the bucks to do a mass release.
Clearly the LP and the CD are not irrelevant at all, but it often
seems like they are to some of the small producers that I've run
into. (Most of which are not media plunderers.)
Are you still publishing?
No, I stopped publishing over a year and a half ago. It was
time for me to turn my attention to other issues (I had published
PhotoStatic Magazine, Retrofuturism, YAWN, and the CVS
Bulletin over a ten-year period starting in August, 1983.) A lot of
back issues are still available.
Lloyd, thanks for your time and for your thoughtful
answers. Best of luck.
Thanks for the interview; you wrote good questions.
© Deuce of Clubs