Alx Czo shares what it feels like to release music on cassette — A Cassette Store Day feature
September 26, 2014
Perched on the edge of Independent Ethos’ leather couch, Caso is decked out in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and canvas shoes. His translucent blue sunglasses are perched atop his bushy hair, as we share a listen to his ambient album, She is a Galaxy. He checks to make sure the noise reduction is off on our sound system. It’s the way he prefers people listen to his new albums.
Releasing his music on tape is not so much a choice to satisfy audiophiles as it is to have a physical end-product that defines the music. Let’s face it, cassettes have an inherit hiss by nature, and there is always a generational loss from the master, but when music can take those qualities and run with them it transcends the medium’s limitations, and Caso’s luscious, dreamy, rough-hewn music works aptly with it.
It’s not about pristine sound quality. The subtle hiss of tape adds an almost subconscious layer to the music, which itself is quite layered with the dreamy wash of synths and guitars. That it is rich with electronics that reverberate with a layered luster somehow makes it appropriate for the medium. But do not call it ramshackle or gimmicky. Caso put a lot of consideration into these albums.
Listening to the wash and sparkle of the ambient album, Caso admits a preference for this music over what he calls his “pop” record, Mujeres Infieles, which roughly translates from his native Spanish to “Unfaithful Women.” As you may infer, his preference is not so much about the quality of the music as it is what inspired the different works.
He wrote and recorded Mujeres over the course of a year, between 2011 and 2012. He calls them love songs, but they are not the uplifting sort of ditties that elevate the romantic notion to a pedestal. “I work a lot out of emotional needs,” Caso explains. “A lot of these songs I wrote after a break up. It’s all emotionally based. It’s like exorcising demons. They’re what I call heartmares.”
In fact, the album features two tracks named “Heartmares,” a “dub” version that closes out Side A and the original version, that ends the album. The dub version is an instrumental of layered, twinkling melodies and hums, that also has a steady, lashing crackle that actually sounds like a brittle, old tape. The original actually sounds like an early Depeche Mode song, if Depeche Mode made spy music. The only vocal is a distant howling wind, distorted by a ghostly echo.
It’s generally hard to understand what Caso sings on the album of pop songs. It could be by design, as he’s not really into revealing details about who the songs are about. Though, he says, they may know who they are. But it matters little, as it’s about his affection for sonics, which sound inspired by early Magnetic Fields and My Bloody Valentine. The album opens with “Princess Fantasy,” featuring an electronic beat mixed into a hissing, percolating melody that chugs along like a brilliant early Magnetic Fields song, in fact.
He is aware that ‘80s and ‘90s-era music is a big influence on him. He says pop songs from back then were just better than those of today. He notes there is just no vision in commercial or pop songwriting anymore. “The old guys were right because every decade the songs are getting worse,” he bemoans. “Everything now is a dance remix or songs about butts/big booty girls or a generic hum to drink your coffee at Starbucks.”
His vocals are mixed into the music in such a way that it is hard to make out exactly what he is singing, but the ambiguity is part of the music’s charm. During “Princess Fantasy,” I may have heard “She belongs to Satan” at one point. It works, as these tapes are a sonic statement to an era with sly little nods to its medium. Within the album there are also sonic effects like warped piano and some clicks of mechanics that might seem like the aural symptom of an aged cassette tape. That the music is often muscular and catchy is testament to this Miami music veteran’s skill as a songwriter.
Whereas Mujeres was completed in a year’s time, he notes She is a Galaxy is the product of roughly a decade of ideas. The springboard often came from a need to wind down from a night of work. “A lot of this stuff was recorded at 4 to 5 o’clock in the morning after DJ-ing,” he says.
Sometimes he would be wired from the rush of spinning and in need of mellowing at home, so he would brew up some ambient music on his keyboards and computer. He admits that the effects of the buzz of excitement, libations and sometimes exhaustion was not always conducive to judging his work. When he would wake the next day and listen back to the results he could either be delightfully surprised or horrified. Though he admits to the challenge of this music, he says he preferred working on the ambient work over the pop songs because of the amount of free-flowing creativity involved. “It’s based on a sound, and then you go from there,” he says.
Still, the former member of the Miami-based band The Waterford Landing — among other area groups — notes that he enjoyed working solo. Even though he also admits missing some aspects of collaboration. He found himself with some surprising challenges when dealing with some elements of the pop songs, from the way the music sounded to the bridges within the songs. “When I was in a band, things would get recorded faster,” he explains. “It’s always better working with more heads, and sometimes you get in the way of recordings with self-doubt.”
But he is quite happy with the results, and the neat package of the cassette offers a sense of closure and accomplishment. He says it’s about preserving an era, even if some of that was documenting an emotionally painful time (he’s currently in a content steady relationship). Music is by its nature ephemeral, but these tapes capture his songs in a satisfying physical object. “I wanted some sort of document,” Caso says.
He also says the package signifies the end of a project in a nice tidy physical object, but it also offers something deeper. “It is nostalgic too,” he admits. “It reminds me of when I was a kid. There is something about the sound quality.”
He only had 50 tapes manufactured of each album, and he still has a few left. He says he found the process easy and enjoyable. Now, Caso is already considering releasing more music, if not his then someone else’s. “If I could keep it as a boutique label, I’d be happy,” he notes.
You can order either cassette via Alx Cxo’s Bandcamp page: www.alxczo.bandcamp.com, and stream them in their entirety at no cost. There is also a 6-song covers EP called “Under Cover,” which you can even download for free. Both these albums are also available in the Miami area via Sweat Records and in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at Radio-Active Records. Tomorrow is International Cassette Store Day, and both stores will be running specials during that day.