Why tapes and vinyl could outlast digital music: A conversation with M Sage
M Sage (due Saturday, May 15, at The Sidewinder Tavern) is Matthew Sage, who grew up in Fort Collins and has been involved in music along the front range as both a fan and artist. Whether in indie rock acts like Castles, the gritty freak-folk-esque M. Pyres or his more experimental offerings as M Sage, he's consistently made interesting music that isn't just cathartic but that also stirs the imagination. With his Patient Sounds imprint, Sage has released some of that music but also the work of other left-field artists who have inspired him.
In the digital age, Patient Sounds' release of not just physical media but specifically cassettes and now vinyl could seem quaint and even Quixotic. In this interview Sage tells us why he has continued to offer physical releases on a somewhat small scale and how his multi-media perspective on creating his own art informed the elaborate packaging of his latest record, A Singular Continent which he is releasing on Saturday.
Westword: Your new album, A Singular Continent, is coming out on vinyl, but your imprint, Patient Sounds, is known for being mostly a cassette release endeavor.
Matthew Sage: This is our second record, our first was Jerry Paper and it's called Jerry Paper Feels Emotions. It's a really fantastic, weird, synthpop record. I worked with a whole group of people on this one and the double LP was the format we were shooting for.
In this day and age, why did you want to release anything on cassette. What about that format appeals to you?
Cassettes are funny. They've become such a huge thing. For me it was always utility. They're really cheap and I've ruined so many laptops burning friends CDRs and I don't really listen to CDRs. I haven't bought a CD in five years or something. Cassettes are really easy to do at home and they're this weird, watershed technology that a lot of people didn't forget about but felt like, "Oh, we're past that now." That happening made them cheap and easy to do at home so everyone started doing it. Then the Internet made it this thing and now cassettes are everywhere.
I'm a proponent of it, absolutely. We've just done so many cassettes -- fifty-four cassettes in the Patient Sounds catalog -- and I've always wanted to do something other than cassette releases even though I'm all about that and they're fun. But the record is a sign of more developed work. I think that's why we decided to do something like that. Even with the Jerry Paper record, it's really funny and so bizarre but it feels like such an album and I didn't want to do it on a tape because it didn't feel right for a tape.
Tapes are great but there's something almost academic about a vinyl. It's more archival. You can wave a de-mag strip along some tapes and lose your entire cassette library. But records are records and they last for a long time with care. It's something I always aspired to do, to do a label where we put out records, tapes, shirts and 'zines. It just took five years to realize but I'm glad it took so long because I needed to grow up before I could do that kind of stuff, I think.
It's interesting to hear you say that because it seems like you've been so ambitious and motivated about what you do and what you're trying to do and how you go about it going back at least seven years.
I think that's just being in a small town and being bored too. In Fort Collins you have to be ambitious or else you just go to bars. I don't know, it's a cool city and there's cool stuff going on here. I'm also one of those people that's incredibly black or white. It has to be this way or this way. For me I'd rather spend as much time as possible working on my craft. Erik Wangsvick, who I worked with in Kick Majestic and he does Wrecked, I love that guy and he's totally the same way and we love setting an exceedingly high bar for ourselves, nearly unsurpassable. I think that's why worked well together--let's do this thing and work on this good live rock band for a while.
You're moving to Chicago for graduate school in a handful of weeks?
Yes. Fort Collins is a wonderful place. I grew up here. It's lovely and there's no crime. I just feel like there's no outlet for what I do here. I don't mean that in a negative way. I don't assume there has to be a DIY venue in my hometown. There should be and there has been, and house show scenes, but there isn't a scene for what I do here now. I think what has existed is kind of rooted in punk rock. That's why I think I do what I do. I listened to punk rock and grew up in a town where there was a secret punk legacy and I got into noise music. But it's just getting so vanilla. Maybe it's the bitter side of me talking. I don't have anything to regret because I love this place. Going to grad school will inspire a lot of different ideas for the label and music stuff. I'm don't have any grudge about this place, I'm just ready to get out of here.
There's a cool hybrid media program at the SAIC where you can mix creative writing, and I have a BA in Creative Writing from CSU, with sound installation and performance art and video art and multi-media.
The multi-media aspect of what you have done and will continue to do is obviously involved in some way with this latest release in that it's not just a record but there are poems and imagery involved in the artwork of the double LP. What inspired the approach to the music you did for this record. In the past you've done many different styles of music--you mentioned the rock band thing with Kick Majestic, but also Castles, your freak folk stuff and even your other M Sage material? The new record is reminiscent of Tim Hecker with the textures and soundscaping without really sounding like his work much.
It's funny, I hear that a lot. "It totally sounds like Tim Hecker but not really similar." I think that's great. I've always been into that cinematic, ambient kind of music. I've always found ways to sneak it into even when I was doing pop songs. I've released ambient music on cassette on Patient Sounds, Lux Collapsing. That's when I first started getting into the layering texture.
I have recorded plenty of ambient material with just oohs and ahs on a guitar. It's really basic and all that stuff is great to me but I wanted to do something where the texture serves as a narrative. That's what the multi-media aspect was close to. My friend Nathaniel Whitcomb started working on all these collages and sending to me and it was so much the universe I was seeing when I was working on these tracks. The project really snowballed.
I played CMJ in 2012 and had new material and came home and went super deep into the studio for two or three weeks--I call that going into the dark side. Then I come out of that and start editing that stuff and figured what's going on in terms of the recording process. With this one I knew it was different and knew I had to finish the first round and really think about what I did. In that process Nathaniel started listening to it and Grant Souders was working on poems. I had no idea what the album title might be but Grant had four poems and I found the title there. It coalesced in a really cool way.
It was organic but it took a lot of work with me sitting at home working on it at home on the computer and it driving me insane. I sat on the material for three months without really knowing what to do with it. I grew up listening to cinematic, ambient music and even early Black Dice recordings where they use ocean waves as textures in a song and mixing it with noise. All of that stuff was super early development of the vocabulary that I have slowly been building on. I always write pop songs and I still do Wellington Downs, a basement recording project making rock songs. But I think exploring texture and multi-media and narrative without use of language is really interesting to me.
The majority of the first layer of material that I made in the recording process was lifted off of records. So to me it was a piece of music about music's staying power in this format. I don't want to wax meta but that's how it felt like to me. I've always been into turntablism and plunderphonics and that kind of stuff. I always wanted to make a record that was an investigation into that. I also used a lot of guitar and synthesizer. In the end the album really came down to the stings for me. That was my favorite part, working with string players, and the live element with them. It was a record about records in my first recording process. Which is sketchy because there's so much of that question of the legitimacy of the sample and I was careful what I sampled. I picked it not because of what it was but how it sounded. I went to so many thrift stores and flea markets in Fort Collins looking for certain sounds and made a whole library on my computer.
I was just thinking about the record and how it's this interesting thing. It's just a container for data. Even on a tape, which holds a magnetic version of the sound, not just data. A record is so magical because these waves have been cut into this piece of plastic. It's so tangible. You can understand the engineering behind a turntable but there's something so mysterious and magical about it still and kind of timeless.
Theoretically, say worldwide civilization collapses in our lifetime, you could still build a device that plays records whereas the average person can't remotely build something that can play a CD..
Yeah, but you can put a needle into a paper cup and hear what's on a record. That's crazy. That's totally right. That's an idea I'm working on for when I go to grad school but I won't say too much about it except to say I've been thinking a lot about pure acoustic music like pure analog recording of an instance of live music. Lake Mary is super inspirational in that it uses the folk idiom to do something not so left field or progressive but to make this beautiful, pastoral, open thing using traditional folk instruments and doing that in a live setting.
So I've been talking a lot about writing a piece of music for after the fallout. I have zero musical training and can't read sheet music. I have inclinations of theory from playing with friends that know it. So the idea of writing a piece of music with someone that knows theory and releasing it with sheet music so it can be performed after there is no more electricity, or culture or what have you. I think A Singular Continent is a ramp-up to that idea.
The way your album is edited together, and the amount of time you spent thinking about it and putting it together and working in a group to assemble the concepts and then executing them and spending more than a year finishing the album all sounds like you just worked on a film. And the album sounds like a piece of sound design but not written as background music.
I had never even really thought about film in that way but it was totally like that. And the people who accompanied me were kind of like the actors because I knew they were people whose performances I knew I could count on and trust. I will probably think a lot about that. I love film and think films are fascinating.
I love sound design in movies. That's one of my dreams one day--making music for a film. Now that you've brought this up I never even thought about how the album is like this movie. Just the idea of how a movie, and novels too, is an easy way to make a universe. This sounds so pious or pretentious but it was a collaborative project with a bunch of friends where we made this space where we could let our imaginations dwell. Then there was a point where I suddenly realized it was finished and better get ready to put it out or something. I talked to Nathaniel about the images and we decided to make a book that had to be on the record.
I actually filed for a business loan to put these records out. Which is so stupid and crazy. And now I'm going to grad school. Who knows what's going to happen, Tom? But I believed in it so I just did it. It's almost like a parting gift to this place, Fort Collins, and I've lived in this house for four years and recorded stuff here. It's like a Talisman of this place for me too. You've known me for a long time and I never sit with material. So it was really super challenging for me to sit on material for a year and some. That was one of the biggest challenges that ultimately paid off in the end and I realized I could do it myself in the end if I did it right. I had to make some risky moves but what good has come from something that wasn't kind of risky?
The day the records showed up I was reaffirmed of all my convictions that I had earlier when I applied for that loan and gouged my credit forever. I spent so much time working on something that's supposed to be so unfixed from reality, and the reality of it is making me not sleep at night.
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