The locally based label recently began uploading its catalog to Bandcamp.
Obscurity is hard to come by in 21st-century music. The sheer amount of good music available online and through record stores is overwhelming, but even artists with tiny followings are relatively easy to track down and discover if they’re using some of the basic tools of the day. Madison label Earjerk Records has defied this logic so successfully that a lot of its output and unreleased material is a bit hazy even to founder Tony Ennis.
The experimental label recently started uploading its releases to a Bandcamp page, which came as a surprise after 15 years of almost entirely limited-edition physical releases: cassettes (usually dubbed at home, not professionally reproduced), small-run LPs, CD-Rs, and some of those 3-inch mini-CDs you can only play if you have a tray-loading player or drive. Much of Earjerk’s discography documents the community of experimental musicians Ennis began playing with after he moved to Madison in 2000. That includes several of his own projects, from his wide-ranging solo outlet Endless to the cosmic drone duo Drunjus—with Dan Woodman, lately of Woodman/Earhart.
One important through-line in the Earjerk catalog is improvisational recordings from a wide array of ensembles, some of which played together only once or twice, and some of which have re-convened over the years with wide and shifting memberships. The most sprawling and prolific of those is Second Family Band, whose members over time have included Ennis, Woodman, Troy Schafer (Kinit Her), Clay Ruby (Burial Hex, Wormsblood), DB Pedersen, Brian Steele (Wife, X-Ray Mirror), Dave 3000 (of WORT-FM’s Kosmik Radiation show), Ian Adcock (Conjuror), Clay Kolbinger (Maths Balance Volumes, Private Anarchy), and quite a few others. (Full disclosure: Pedersen and I are friends and have played some music together, and Adcock writes for Tone Madison.) The Grass Magic, EJK000 in the label’s catalog, captures many of those same players jamming with other noteworthy experimental musicians, including James Ferraro and Glenn Donaldson, ahead of a 2004 festival in rural southeastern Wisconsin.
“The whole thing for me is spontaneity, catching things in the moment,” Ennis says. “Even with Second Family Band, that’s always been the deal. Nothing is really edited too much. At least with the stuff I put out, it’s very raw, to the point that you might have to listen to the first five minutes of the tape and wonder what the hell’s going on before the meat of the thing engages your interest.”
Aside from that commitment to improvisation, there aren’t any hard-and-fast boundaries on the kinds of sounds or approaches you’ll hear in the label’s releases: Field recordings, tape-loop manipulation, folk guitar, bruising noise, turntables, rhythmic and harmonic practices that draw on raga and free jazz. The Grass Magic winds its way from spectral, clattering percussion to squalls of distortion to a good-natured outburst of group vocals and acoustic guitar. Superjack’s ! (due for a vinyl reissue soon from Columbus, Ohio’s Backbacon Records) and a variety of releases from Craig Microcassette System (Ennis’ duo with David Mansfield Stearns) use tape manipulation to create wild patchworks of samples and dissonant textures. Tracing Scraps, from another Ennis solo outlet, Pan To Scratch, is a spacious, quiet take on almost purely abstract sound art. Drunjus’ Thorn Shield builds a formidable array of vintage synthesizers and effects pedals into rich, enveloping drones. Coffin Chile (Ennis, Woodman, and Billy Hozian) manages to be soothing and eerie simultaneously.
These disparate sounds and ideas accrete one on top of the other in ever-melding and changing layers, like leaf litter on the forest floor. Underneath it all is the fragile but versatile medium of the portable, inexpensive cassette tape. Ennis does play guitar, keyboards, and percussion, but the tape is clearly his main instrument.
“I have a little hand-held tape recorder that I record with, and I don’t want to go outside of that at all,” Ennis says. “What I do is I kind of overlay the erase head with a piece of tinfoil so that basically it’s a multi-tracker. I walk around and I can record over on the tape, over and over and over again and leave what’s on there on there but add to it. It’s a collage thing but it’s like ghosting. I can’t really hear what I’m playing over. So then when I go home after a walk or something…I’ll listen back to the tape, and if there’s really something on there I don’t like, I possibly could obliterate it by recording over that segment on a regular tape deck, but generally I just leave everything on the tape and just keep trying to mask it and mask it until it’s done and it all seems to flow.”
This reliance on tape, a good few years before the wider music industry began capitalizing on a trendy cassette revival, helps to explain why Earjerk is such a latecomer to releasing music digitally. Ennis didn’t necessarily try to make his releases obscure, but wanted to honor music that exists in what he calls “the real hard grey area between art and life” and mostly appeals to a small, devoted audience that’s eagerly keeping up with specific labels and artists. Most of the 120-odd releases he’s put out through Earjerk and his Object Tapes label have simply never been digitized in the first place. He has maintained a Blogspot for Earjerk since 2011, and sometimes a fan will upload one of the label’s releases to YouTube, but even that only gives you so much access.
“I guess it’s partly by design. It’s not really an aesthetic that I go for, but I just grew up with cassettes and analog sounds, so I’m kind of obsessed with that,” Ennis says. “It’s not that I don’t want to transfer stuff to digital. I just never have. Most of the stuff I had is on cassette, and when I would make a tape and put out a tape, I would go from the master tape onto the [dubbed] tape. There’s no digital version of most of that stuff. The weird part about the Earjerk Bandcamp page is that a lot of the stuff that I’ve posted so far is a little bit random, in the sense that it’s the stuff I already happened to have digitized.”
Experimental music in Madison is as fragmented, tenuous, and insular as any of our city’s other music scenes. And like those other scenes, it has been home to some standout talents and produced music of lasting value. On top of the artists mentioned above, there’s Gregory Taylor’s intricate laptop creations, Madison’s time as the hometown of avant-folk duo Spires That In The Sunset Rise, the area’s ties to the long-running drone outfit Pelt. (That’s not even accounting for the stranger corners of rock, jazz, and classical music in town, which sometimes intersect with the scene in which Ennis works, but just as often don’t.) WORT-FM has for years hosted an excellent block of experimental programming on late Sunday nights: Taylor’s RTQE, Ennis and Woodman’s Weekly World Noise, and the many-hosted In One End. Saxophonist Joanne Powers’ Tuesday afternoon WORT show, Fire Worship, focuses on avant-garde jazz.
Ennis doesn’t hold himself up as the epicenter of all this activity—it was going on long before he arrived in town—but he has obsessively documented it.
To this day, Ennis says, he still has tapes “to the ceiling” that he has yet to release or even go back over—his own performances and recordings, and those of others. One of the latest additions to the Earjerk Bandcamp is 2005’s The 90 Minute Tape—whose tracks titles are all just numbers, because Ennis wasn’t sure who was playing what across this collection of live recordings, tape experiments, and found sound. Ennis writes in the Bandcamp notes from the release: “Tracks from the Davenport Family, Right Arm Severed, Kino Rattlers, Craig Microcassette System – but good luck identifying any of them- I can’t!” In its sheer range of sounds, and its willingness to throw documentation to the wind, The 90 Minute Tape is the quintessential Earjerk release.
In fact, Earjerk started in part because Ennis felt shamed into keeping better tabs on his collection of tapes. Between 2001 and 2005, Ennis ran a record store on East Johnson Street called Endless Grooves (also, at different times, Endless Vinyl and Pasture Music). One day at the store, Ennis was playing back a tape of something he’d recorded. A customer came in and asked what was playing. Ennis had to admit that he didn’t actually know what was on the tape. This disappointed his customer: “He just gave me this look and he was like, ‘You’re a poor archivist,'” Ennis recalls.
One label can only hope to document a few flickers of this ever-changing and sometimes elusive area of Madison music. But what it does capture points to the vitality and resilience of experimental music here. During the early 2000s, Ennis got involved with free-jazz players including Powers and fellow reedists Tom Lachmund and Jon Arnold, as well as more self-styled experimentalists like Taylor and Pedersen. Then as now, experimental music mostly found a home outside of conventional Madison venues. (Ever watched a big biker guy get extremely irritated during a noise set at The Wisco? I can’t recommend the experience highly enough.) Arnold hosted a semi-monthly avant-garde night at Mother Fool’s called The Vortex. Speed Jump, a coffee shop where Johnson Public House is now, played host to a weekly experimental night called Glitch. One Earjerk release, Live Cargo, captures a Glitch night performance from Postage, a duo consisting of Ennis and Andrew Knackert. Another, from Craig Microcassette System, was recorded in 2003 at Nottingham Co-op, which has served as a vital space for underground music for years.
Perhaps most important for Ennis and many of his collaborators was The Tomb, a DIY studio and venue in an industrial building on Pennsylvania Avenue. “This place was massive and we rented it super cheap,” Ennis says. The Tomb hosted local and touring experimental musicians in the early and mid-2000s—including the late guitarist Jack Rose. It became even more important as a space for underground shows after Madison police shut down a DIY space called Mierda Verde in 2006, in the wake of a controversial Isthmus exposé. “Unfortunately for all of us, it was already imploding,” Ennis says of the Tomb, which is long-closed, but lives on in many live recordings, some of them released on Earjerk and some of them no doubt lurking in Ennis’ archives.
“2310 Pennsylvania Avenue was a fully functioning music production studio (sans clients), an artists space, a club house, a larping center, crust punk dive, hobo retreat, place of worship, cat clinic, community scapegoat, cult, smoking den and home to so many weirdos you just can’t count ’em,” Ennis says.
An obsession with tapes has also opened up some doors for Ennis in the hip-hop world. In 2012, the music distributor Traffic Entertainment Group was working on with Sony a reissue of Raekwon’s 1995 album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… When the Wu-Tang classic initially came out, there was a limited run of purple cassette copies, so it’s always been known as “The Purple Tape.” Naturally, the label wanted to put out another run of purple tapes, but was having trouble tracking down actual cassettes with purple plastic.
“Some subsidiary of Sony found me, because I was the only person in the country at the time that had these purple tapes, because I had bought the last stock and was releasing stuff on them,” Ennis says. “I’m not actually sure how they found out I had them. I believe it was because I was selling them on eBay. But once I supplied them with the purple tapes, they asked if I could be the go-between between them and the pressing plant because they didn’t understand cassettes. So many people were just oblivious about cassettes, about how the sides worked, how you flip them over, how you recorded on them, and how you got a cassette made… so basically I was the guy who received and submitted all the artwork, and submitted the audio to the pressing plant. and then they printed them up and I had them sent to the subsidiary who released the tape. So, I was just basically the guy who is doing all the legwork for getting these cassettes re-issued.”
Ennis didn’t pursue that line of work for very long, but his projects as an unlikely tape broker included cassette editions of Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Piñata and MF Doom’s Operation Doomsday. As fun as these tapes may be, their production values are a world away from Ennis’ usual approach, which revels in the ease, low cost, and accessibility of cassettes. “People would get ahold of me because all these labels started coming out with tapes and they were all slick and people were like ‘why [is your packaging] so janky?’ I was like, ‘you are missing the whole fucking point of what I’m doing.'”
Going forward, Earjerk might be operating as mostly an archival concern, and Ennis plans to upload more releases to the Bandcamp page. He also recently released a new album under another of his solo monikers, ReProCor. He’s working on more new music with collaborators including Woodman and Kolbinger. Being cooped up during the pandemic has also spurred him to spend more time going through his dense backlog of tape.
“I need to get through this stuff because no one is gonna know what any of this is, if I was to pass away or anything,” Ennis says. But those efforts should yield a rich and challenging journey for people who love outlandish sounds, including Ennis himself.