Between the fetishizing of vinyl and the portability of streaming music, it’s easy to forget that for the better part of two decades, the humble cassette tape reigned supreme. As Jason Heller tells it, that thrill still lingers.
“So there’s the punk me who started collecting records,” says Heller, guitarist for Denver dark-wave, neo-goth outfit Weathered Statues. “But before that, I was just this little new-wave kid who bought cassettes.”
As teenagers, Heller and Weathered Statues singer and synth player Jennie Mather worked at Denver’s Wax Trax Records. But long before that, Heller says, the store was his favorite place to shop for music — specifically, low-cost albums on tape.
“I would take the bus down from Northglenn, where I went to high school, and all the great punk and new-wave cassettes, they were all cutouts," he remembers. "They were discontinued, and they had the little notch cut out, and they’d be like $5. And that was the cheapest way to get a brand-new album, so I was buying all these records by the Cure and the Fall.”
Heller still has a place in his heart for cassettes, a format that nearly died with the rise of CDs, digital music and the Internet. Cassettes have made a huge comeback in recent years — in part, ironically, because of the popularity of vinyl.
“Back in the ’90s, when I started playing in bands, you could actually record something and get a seven-inch back in like six weeks, sometimes less,” says Heller. “Now that vinyl is so popular, there’s always such a delay. That’s no longer an option.”
With little time to get new music out before an October tour, Weathered Statues decided to release its new four-song EP, Desolation, on tape. Heller says it’s a good fit for any band with more music than money or time.
“Cassettes with a digital download are perfect,” he says. “That’s kind of the new seven-inch. And they’re way cheaper.”
Going the tape route also made sense, he says, because the Denver label that agreed to release them, Snappy Little Numbers, run by owner Chuck Coffey, is known for producing high-quality cassettes with minimal turnaround time.
“We just decided at the last minute to put this out as an EP,” says Heller. “We were doing it as a demo. Then we saw we had this show coming up, and we’re like, ‘Why don’t we just run some cassettes off real quick?’ And since Snappy Little Numbers has been doing a lot of cassettes lately, we were like, ‘Okay, let’s just do it that way.’ There’s no other label that would have been able to turn it around that quickly. Chuck is on top of it, and he’s got the mastering guy all lined up. He’s got the template all ready to roll so we can plug in some artwork. It’s great.”
On top of being cheap and fast, the cassette is also the perfect way to listen to Desolation, a record with its sonic roots firmly planted in dark wave from the mid-’80s, the heyday of the tape. That vintage sound has garnered Weathered Statues a good bit of attention, not only from music fans and labels, but also from alternative-rock royalty, including Lol Tolhurst, a founding member and former drummer of the Cure.
Heller, a novelist and journalist (and occasional Westword contributor), reviews books for NPR and other outlets and received a copy of Cured, Tolhurst’s autobiographical account of his life with the pioneering band.
“I didn’t actually get to review it, but through his publicist, I wound up saying, ‘I can’t review this, but I’m a big fan,’ and then Lol and I just kind of connected that way,” says Heller.
Shortly thereafter, Heller embarked on a tour in support of his own book, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded, which chronicles the convergence of some of the most vital space-inspired glam rock of the 1970s and the enormous bloom of science-fiction books and films that helped inspire it. That tour took him to California, where Tolhurst lives, and an opportunity presented itself.
“I was going to be in L.A., he lived in L.A., and I asked him if he’d like to do a joint book event where I would talk about Strange Stars and he would talk about Cured, especially because some of the music I cover in Strange Stars is like late-’70s post-punk, which is kind of the same scene he comes from.”
Tolhurst agreed, and the pair did a joint event at a bookstore in Long Beach, talking about their books and the music that inspired them. Heller says the reading went so well that he asked Tolhurst to collaborate.
“I asked him if he’d do kind of a dance remix for one of our songs, and he agreed to it,” says Heller, adding that the song, "Corpse Candle," is available as a bonus track on the digital download of the album Borderlands. “He’s been really supportive of just sending us encouragement and feedback and stuff like that," Heller says. "And obviously, the Cure is one of the big influences on our band.”
Oddly enough, Desolation represents a turn away from the guitar-based sound of bands like the Cure.
“A lot of the dark-wave bands are more synth-oriented,” says Heller, “but we’re coming at it from the other direction, where we didn’t even have synthesizer at first. We were just kind of more a rock band, like a punk band, and then we just started to add in synthesizers. First you’re playing a few keyboard lines, and now it’s really prevalent in all the songs.”
It’s been an adjustment for the whole band, but mostly for Mather, whose musical training is on the flute.
“It’s hard,” she says. “With the flute, it’s all about your embouchure and your playing, but there’s no singing and playing. So that’s what’s hard, singing and playing, especially on an instrument I never played before in my life. It’s a lot of practicing and singing.”
For Heller, the biggest change has been in how the band’s songs are constructed, and his need to step back from being the primary instrumental voice.
“I don’t want it to be a big mess,” he says. “I think with us, we started writing songs differently. I think there’s a different way you approach song composition on a synthesizer than you do on a guitar. We get different feels and dynamics, different song constructions, depending on who’s bringing the initial idea to the band. And now we have the synthesizer, with Jennie coming in and basing songs around synth lines, which is going to make me, as the guitarist, more minimal, because there’s already a melody.”
The bass, too, often plays a primary role in Weathered Statues songs, something Heller says is part of what makes new-wave music so interesting.
“I think that, in a lot of ways, post-punk music was a reaction against rock and roll, in the sense that it doesn’t have to be heavy or powerful,” he explains. “Even though it's heavy and powerful in its own way, it doesn’t need that bass to necessarily be as low and heavy as it possibly can, which is traditionally the roll of the bass in a rock band. It’s like, why don’t we just free that up, free up the bass to be a melodic instrument instead of it being about power and heaviness? In our band, it’s interesting, because you’ll find at any point the guitar or the synthesizer or the bass fulfilling the traditional roll of the bass. All of the instruments are free to kind of find their own spot rather than it being pre-determined. And it’s different from song to song, which I really like.”
The Weathered Statues EP release takes place at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, October 24, at the hi-dive, 7 South Broadway. For more information, go to hi-dive.com.