calling occupants of interplanetary craft…

Over the next month we ran the EC Rocker ad each week, and the demo tapes we received got worse and worse.  Each day brought more and more packages (which helped alleviate my daily mail jones), and each package was more disturbing than the last (which raised my anxiety that I’d never be able to put out a record).  We received some of the most atrocious crap you can imagine; from bland, cheesy metal with awful lyrics to downright embarrassingly bad bands that physically hurt your ears to hear.  At least once a day I would push the “STOP” button on my tape deck and think “Can these people hear the music that they’re sending?  Do they really, truly think they have any sort of talent?” 

Once or twice we would get something decent; a local band called The Play Trains sent us a tape that was good but just too quiet for my liking, and another band called Third Party was fairly decent but just seemed way too derivative.  We received a tape from a band called The Thing that was absolutely fantastic; a full-length cassette of low-fi, noisy garage punk that I just knew I wasn’t going to be able to use because there was no way there would be another band from New Jersey like them and they would stick out like a sore thumb on a compilation.

But for the most part, the bands who were sending us demo tapes were some of the most awful crap you’ve ever heard in your life.

What’s worse was that every person we knew that knew somebody who was a musician was dropping off a demo tape, or asking us to listen to their friend.  A coworker of Sandy’s – a really nice guy, but not the type of guy you’d expect to be doing A&R work – got me one night and asked me if he could give me a tape of his friend’s band.  “It’s really not mainstream stuff at all.  It’s more avant garde.  He’s really sort of an experimental guy, and so a lot of people don’t get his music.”

I was into a lot of fringe stuff like Negativland and Arto Lindsay and Ned Rothenberg, and was kind of intrigued by the idea of doing something a little more experimental, so I said I’d love to hear it.  And he produced the tape right on the spot, handing it to me right in my living room.

Even at that point I wasn’t stupid enough to listen to the tape with him in the room, as I wasn’t keen on the idea of giving an opinion on the spot, or even having my reaction judged.  So I put the tape away, and popped it into the deck as soon as he left our apartment.  What came out of my speakers was the funniest thing I’d ever heard in my life.  That these people would consider themselves “avant garde” in any way was laughable; I’d have been insulted if the music wasn’t so bad that it nearly induced a seizure I was laughing so hard.  Sandy and I sat in the living room and played the second track over and over, feverishly rewinding so we could hear it again, tears running down our faces, unable to breathe, throats and stomachs aching with laughter, calling Rich and Frank to play them the song over the phone.  

Here’s that song, called “I Tangoed with A Hallucination of You.”  I swear, this is real.

The scintillating badness of tape after tape was alternately hysterical and frightening.  After two weeks we understood why labels often said that they had never signed a band on the strength of a demo tape; after a month we understood why labels threw them in the trash without listening.  I promised myself I would never be that jaded, though, and so I listened to each and every one, making three piles: one pile for the very best stuff, one pile for the halfway decent stuff, one pile for the stuff that was so bad I had to keep it.  Everything mediocre got thrown in the trash.

At the end of a month, The Thing’s tape sat in the “very best” pile by itself, the Footstone tape sat in the “halfway decent” pile alone, and the “So Bad It’s Worth Keeping” pile had about a dozen tapes.

I wrote a letter to my college friend Brendon, who sang in a punk band called New Republic.  New Republic had a few 7″s out on a local indie called Headache Records.  The band was closer to hardcore, but they were really good and dangerous and a little unpredictable – just like you’d want a good punk band to be.  I hinted around a bit that maybe he’d want to get involved with Dromedary, but he didn’t take the bait – I think he was just into being punk, and being part of his community of bands and friends, that it didn’t cross his mind to get involved with another label.  Either that, or he was too smart – he always seemed like a pretty intellectual guy.

Paulie had another friend who was in a band; Gary, who I’d known since high school and who went by the name of “Grimm,” was the singer in a goth band called Rosary.  For a brief time in college I did some free radio promo for Rosary; Gary had started his own label called Cairn Recordings and put out a Rosary 7″.  The recording was muddy and low, but the song was pretty good, and I needed the experience.  Rosary was still together, recording alternately in Gary’s basement studio and in a studio in Saddle Brook that was part of an industrial complex.  Their whole goth “thing” was silly to me; the drudgy, religious overtones (and undertones, and middle tones) of their music and image was something I found humorous; the pretentious, pseudo-darkness of goth in general was the object of a lot of my ridicule; and the concept of guys playing in a band nobody knows, and yet having stage names, was also silly.  But Gary was also a nice guy and a good musician in a working band, and I was quickly hurtling to the point where beggars could not be choosers.

I asked Paulie to reach out to Gary and tell him what we were doing, see if we were interested.  Gary gave Paulie a few cassettes, and one song, “Asylum,” was interesting.  It was unlike most goth songs – and most Rosary songs – in that it was really aggressive, driven by a pretty powerful riff and some really propulsive drums.  The recording was pretty poor, but knowing that Rosary was planning to go back into the studio shortly, I put the “Asylum” tape in the pile with The Thing.

At that point I started going through the EC Rocker‘s directories, Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life, and any other fanzine I could find. I would read each review and determine whether or not the band was from New Jersey, and if they were, I’d send them a form letter, telling them about the label and what we were trying to do.  I had used MacPaint to make up a very crude logo by writing the word “dromedary” all in lower case with lines and circles, and then drawing an odd-looking, trapezoidal shape behind it.  The logo looked like it was made by a grade school student, but this was a punk label with no bands on it – who cared about the logo?

The good news was that the letters I was sending out – carefully choosing only those bands that received good reviews, or that had names I recognized from reading them frequently in club listings – were yielding a better quality of demo tape.  I had added one or two more to the “halfway decent” pile, and the packages were coming in at a faster pace toward the end of the summer of 1992.

~ by Al on January 14, 2009.

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