In May 2004 I started my first tapedropping project. It involved leaving tape cassettes around the city for people to find, each containing a 90-minute mix of music and strange sounds that I made with some turntables and a VCR that made loops when you paused videos on it. By this point, I had been listening to the artsy radio station Resonance FM for about two years, and if you said the word ‘hellebore' to me, I'd have a vague recollection of a very strange show on the station that I'd heard from time to time.
The tape project went well.
Around about the time I'd called the whole thing finished, I heard a very startling episode of the Hellebore show being repeated on Resonance. To my surprise, it was a special about the very activity that I had been preoccupied with for the recent months, and instantly it grabbed my attention. Suddenly, I couldn't remember what caused me to start trying to communicate passively with people I've never met via the medium of mixtape. I just recalled feeling compelled to do it, it seemed like a logical next step for my work with public space. But hearing this tapedropping special, being delivered with an academic matter-of-factness that commanded respect made me question whether one of these times that I'd fallen asleep with Resonance on, maybe I had assimilated these ideas into my subconscious – ideas, which in retrospect seem like the culmination of a slightly desperate need to connect with people in unconventional ways.
“I know tape-dropping sounds like such an unprofitable, losery thing to do,” writes Dan Wilson, creator of the Hellebore ‘Shew', “but just be thankful that I'm not doing something really anti-social like making collages from cut-up Argos catalogues and porno magazines and super-gluing them to telephone boxes.”
Eventually, I could recall numerous instances of listening to the Hellebore Shew – though I didn't know it, my relationship with Dan Wilson was one of many months. I remember sitting in my girlfriend's room at uni, horribly hung-over after a 48-hour no-sleeper, listening to Dan introduce the Shew by welcoming me to ‘wash my face in soapy but noisy water with the Hellebore flannel'. I remember thinking then how it was all a bit convoluted, and a bit, well, difficult. It's not until my discovery about our shared hobby that I started really appreciating Dan's work, and then I had to investigate.
Dan Wilson is a 21-year-old drop-out, not from the education system but more generally from society. “I haven't been out the house in months so it's hard to adjust to seeing so many people in your field of vision”, he writes to me in an emailed reply to my request for an interview. When Everett True writes about ‘outsider music', what he means is Daniel Johnson writing earnest songs on his piano. But what about the true outsiders? Not the people who have some issues to resolve, and then form a band, resolve them and proceed to party, gather a fanbase and make scene friends - but the human gitches in the system - those people whose life inevitably becomes a genuine objection against the modern template.
“I live with my parents and sometimes with relatives. By day I travel to university and sit in corners scrawling automatic writing to look busy. Most evenings are spent in the shed building stuff to give me small pleasure from life (sound-based, not sexual). My most prolific recording days were between 1998 and 2002 because college was so unorganised we only attended one hour a week. I kept alternating between courses because I didn't know what to study. Sometimes I enrolled on a course just because there was a girl who looked 'interesting' - but it was all unproductive in every respect. The spare time alone gave me ample margin to indulge in mental recording sprees, on my own for days without social sustenance. Also, I worked in an office for a while until I got the sack for "lack of motivation" and incompetence (documented on a Hellebore Shew). Suffice to say I tapedropped the company in ballistic despair, songs begging for my job back. They didn't let me back. Compiling the Hellebore Shew was easy because I already had everything recorded! I still have a shedload of stuff for a possible Hellebore Shew second series. Although these days I can barely bring myself to record anything except moaning. A dodgy new show has been on air for about eighteen episodes, it is called Epistaxis Time and it could be seen as the 'tapedropping comedown'. Self-indulgence, yes. The people at Resonance are not happy with it and are very mistrustful owing to my recent downbeat output. Good! Tapedropping was supposed to confuse people, not make them happy! I'm jealous of happy extrovert people. Tapedropping is like smashing your head against a wall indefinitely, in isolation. The blank chasm of apathy from the public at large has finally seen the vultures consume my thin carcass; a wasted vessel of despair... for your entertainment pleasure of course!”
How and why did it first occur to you to start partaking in this weird pastime?
“Tapedropping is a magical way of proliferating unbounded weirdness to the public, who have been, by and large, rendered very sensitive to unpolished sonics thanks to the modern practice of over-engineering. We are constantly being manipulated by snatches of carefully equalised music, which pervades our subconscious, and through passive acceptance these disparate figments accumulate to enforce our pre-emptive conjectures regarding the sonic makeup of whatever a loudspeaker throws at us. When some genuinely degraded sonics are heard, it casts a big spanner into the workings of this process, which is both shocking and difficult to accept for the recipient.
The thought of touching a stranger in this way turns me on... in every sense. To cut costs, I used cassette tapes, which mercifully, lessen the extent of the aural sandpapering (you'd automatically expect tapes to sound more 'dirty' than CDs or MDs).”
In various episodes of the Shew, as well as in his latest tapedropping manifesto, Dan talks about taking obscure revenge on school bullies and unfriendly teachers by leaving anonymous tapes for them to find. It seems to be an old habit.
“I began making very sick, shouty, horrid and violent tapedropping music (a la Whitehouse) for teachers and people I didn't gel with at school. Since I was always a very quiet person, it was never ever traced to me! There was no reason for this... I suppose it was just boredom, frustration and directionless aggression. Since then I've come to realise that people are more receptive to less 'assaulting' music... so I try to be ambiguous and weird instead. Somehow incompetence makes you likeable (eg. Frank Spencer: ooo Betty). My theory on noise is that it is most effective when produced by very quiet non-verbose people (by whatever means, laptop, dustbin lids, hacksaws). Loud boisterous blokey people should not be making noise as music, for it is simply a substitution of one kind of rowdiness for another. These people should be playing football, rugby or joining the armed forces instead. That's just my opinion though.”
Do you know of many other artists who work in the medium of abandoned tapes?
“Through the Hellebore Shew, many people have emailed in with tales of their own CD-droppings and video-droppings (not Hellebore-inspired mind you, just coincidental artistic collisions), which makes me quiver with delight! It's nice to know that there is a circle of people out there who drop original music specifically for random audiences.
It's a difficult and unrewarding thing to fine-tune the content to satisfy such a blurred contingent. Sadly, in the wider domain, music dropping has not proved as successful as book-dropping or Bookcrossing (see www.bookcrossing.com). This makes me slap coffee tables in despair! Grrr! These Bookcrossers don't even write the books themselves!
But there have always been blithe spirits with whom I've exchanged tapedropping blueprints. One such spirit is Paul Westwood (whom I have never met), the drummer from Geiger Counter and Foe, has sent me countless tapes. I began corresponding with him in 1996 for reasons I cannot remember - lost in ASCII mist. He is a true genius and his tapedropping music is pure gold. Pauly W drops a few tapes now and again, but what he has excelled at is honing the art of tapedropping music down to a tee. Highly minimal, lo-fi, but deeply inventive and it can be appreciated on many different levels. His tapedropping fodder frequently sounds like an outsider music pastiche, but there is something strangely refined about it that makes me want to jump out windows with glee. Gripping.”
It seems that the messy and messed-up aesthetic of the content of Dan's tapes also extends to their appearance. This is about startling the recipient from the first instance of their engagement with a tape.
“Early tapes I dropped simply bore the tapedropping email address, but it subsequently evolved to handwritten poems and throwaway doodles. The tapes need to be encased because oh baby baby it's a wild world out there. One day I acquired a second-hand, five-at-once tape deck, and realised that mass production would harvest many more replies. The illustrations were scanned and printed. The images varied from the edgily delightful to the overtly obscene. Mothercare catalogues fused with hardcore porn was quite horrid. Stuff drawn in my own blood always looked nasty. Nicer ones included Bob Hoskins with a telephone, cutouts from the local newspaper ('Man Arrested for Stealing Bee Hive') and drawings of moths with Leslie Ash's stupid lips. Be nice and people will respond.
Also, sometimes the tapes were deliberately given misleading titles in felt-tip such as 'My Love of Kettles', 'Bad Chiropody', 'The Awful Ones', 'The Facts: MMR Jabby', 'Buddhism: A Different Perspective' and 'Saffron Walden Ferrous Alloy Enthusiasts Bi-Annual Meeting'. Obviously these were all completely irrelevant since the music was typically unintelligible noise.”
“The music should always be quite… distu-u-urbing”, says Dan during the Hellebore tapedropping special. It's understandable that the routes of his tape-‘losing' habit lie in a sort of cathartic vengeance, but surely nowadays it's enough to bewilder his potential audience by just leaving a tape for them to find. The theory behind my own tapedropping project was that, hopefully, unexpectedly finding a tape in a public place, the cover of which instructed "its for you TAKE IT", might inject a tiny drop of magic into somebody's daily grind, and that alone would be enough. Though essentially Dan Wilson and myself are partaking of the same theoretical pie, his vision is typically darker than mine.
Why is the act - the prank - not in itself enough? Why is it so important for the tape's content to squeeze its recipient's brain?
“Yeah… tapedropping will always be rooted in pranksterism no matter how much long-winded waffle it's tarted up with. But sometimes it's not enough to merely bemuse people, but to go further and actually reach out and throttle them with thoroughly 'awful' music. Definitions of 'awful' vary from person to person. I use the term loosely to describe music tottering on the brink of intelligible form. To me, plucking elastic bands stretched over a tin box whilst mumbling about an embarrassing incident/biting toenails/lack of friends/self-harm is the most you or I could possibly 'get away with' in the fishing-for-quasi-complements field of tapedropping. This strain of minimalist, ultra-lo-fi toss-off stanza is the upper limit of general listenability, redeemed perhaps solely by its brazen audacity to challenge recognised musical customs. Beyond this, you start getting into actively 'repulsive' territory. I certainly don't want to go that far! Tapedroppers should acknowledge the listening tolerances of the recipient before committing anything to the public domain. You must believe me, I have spent a brain-curdling amount of time working in this field to the detriment of any tangible social-life. I've forgotten how to converse.”
Have you ever made your music with the more traditional singer-songwriter motivation to express yourself, or has it always been means-to-an-end pieces for other people to find lying around?
“I don't know anything about singer-songwriterism. It sounds funny when you stretch your cheeks and say it, go on, try it... minger-mongwriter. Singer-songwriter implies there is some ambitious poser behind the craftings. This is not the case, all the songs are just detached dramatised enactments of exaggerated neuroses and bite-size nightmares. Ie. bollocks.”
Though it's always messy and homemade, Dan's music falls into several categories. Some of it is what you might call ‘difficult', awkward vocals accompanied by loosely strummed homemade string instruments. Some of it is what you might call ‘obtuse', cacophonous pots-and-pans racket occasionally interspersed with synthesisers or electronics or some other unidentifiable clatter. Sometimes he sounds like Xiu Xiu without the pop-noir dramatics. His more melodic creations are easier to like – earnest like a London-outskirts Why?, often vaguely referencing – no, parodying - pop or underground styles. The best stuff is the starkest, the creepy art-brut semi-autobiographical sonic finger paintings.
“I don't enjoy music as such. But I am drawn to outsider stuff. Sexton Ming is great. At the moment I'm listening to a Merzbow CD picked randomly from the Merzbox, Jandek, Meshuggah and Einsturzende Neubauten... all at the same time (but not in a pretentious way - just out of curiosity and boredom, I dunno.)
Nowadays I seek to avoid melody. The reason all pop music is popular is down to its insidious pre-programming and censoring. To be deprived of truths such as mistakes, dud notes and mispronunciations is gravely offensive as these blemishes form part of our ancient listening heritage. It's a bit bollocks really.”
"Tapedropping will always be routed in pranksterism"
The Hellebore Shew saw Dan's work take the dramatic step away from exposure to a mere handful of perplexed individuals, and towards a mass audience (that is if you can consider the listeners of Resonance FM as ‘mass'). Suddenly, fans of experimental music and outsider art the world over found themselves confronted with half-hour segments of what at first seems like a low-fidelity, low-brow chaos.
However, the Hellebore Shew is much more than a compilation of pre-recorded music. It's a submerging experience of the world from the perspective of Dan Wilson, a melding of the real and the surreal that mixes up modern-day truths with hallucinogenic sorties into a parallel existence. A close listen reveals its countless layers of intelligence, references, cynicism and earnestness. Dan introduces tracks, plays them, gives us insight into their personal context, as more often than not the music has been made to mark specific events in his life. He tells neurotic stories – what are essentially brilliantly and painfully recounted anecdotes about brief instances of public awkwardness that would otherwise go unnoticed and forgotten. He holds staged conversations with his future self, or with a domineering robot voice. He takes excursions into the outside world (deepest, darkest Hertfordshire) with only a tape-recorder for company, documenting minute interactions or exploring the acoustic potentials of inert objects around the town, evidence of amazement with our world; an approach of child-like exploration to human-made things mixed with a scientific sobriety.
Dan voice – a gentle not-too-far-from-London dialect, endearing indeed for its imperfections – is anything but a disembodied commentator: Everything he says is shot through with an honesty that can often be quite uncomfortable, almost claustrophobic, as if you're present in the room while he records. I cannot understand how people can accuse him of pretentiousness. Any pretence – that is, any stray from his usual persona – is so transparent that it only works to reinforce our image of him. And he makes apparent through minute details his awareness of everything he presents. The time spent alone is no doubt taken up by meticulously over-thinking these very details.
How did the transition from tapes to Shew occur? Is it something you planned before it happened, or did Resonance seek you out?
“Resonance FM was on my ‘hit-list' for a long time because I got the impression that their (in my uneducated opinion) slightly inflated values needed to be punctured via lo-art tapeshit bombardment... but they quite liked it. In 2002 Knut Aufermann asked me to do a show but I declined because I had lots of college work and panic attacks to finish. But eventually, I got bored and regretted this so I came crawling back to them and asked if I could have a show, and they generously granted me one.
Yeah, I did start to wonder how tapedropping was going to translate onto radio. In the end I just threw my ‘shit at the fan' and let the blades do the spraying henceforth.”
Someone called Ed from Resonance replied to an email of mine saying “there are no layers of irony in the Hellebore Shew. It all happened.” I found this to be missing the point slightly.
“Hehe! [Sigh], people just don't understand. Ed is the all-powerful Resonance boss who protects me from demonic forces, but perhaps he didn't latch onto the irony because I disguised it. Yes, it did all happen, however, everything is trussed up. Of course there is irony: big fat paving slabs of irony, camouflaged under the thin gauze of post-post-irony. Stand back and look at it this way: a radio show where the host saturates the slot with his own work! In writing it looks ridiculous, but the ridiculousness can easily be amplified by the tiniest gestures, the loveliness of incompetence, wonky stories, and subsequently smattered with ambiguities in the true tapedropping tradition. It's all intended to be vaguely amusing. Besides, if it wasn't for irony I wouldn't have a clue how to present all the work.
Incidentally, Ed wants release an album of some Hellebore stuff soon under the Meadow House pseudonym. He runs Alcohol Records. Having said that, I doubt it will be released because the thought of people purchasing the music and enjoying it without me knowing(!) is highly distressing to me (in a post-funny way).”
(Despite this, all 30-something episodes of the Hellebore Shew series are available for download from the website.)
There are times when the Shew seems almost conversational, too fluid and lucid to be pre-scripted.
“The fluidity of the delivery all depends on who else is in the room at the time. Sometimes I'm scared of people. Occasionally I have a clear vision of how something should be, a situation or a gag, but in practice when you adhere to the vision it sounds a bit pre-planned. It was all very experimental really and sometimes the bits which seemed cringeworthy during the moment of delivery seem golden, and the rest is utter zinc.”
Are you keen to avoid sounding too am-dram or stagey?
“Any arty stagey stuff is my attempt at appealing to an audience which I felt was tiring of the numbskull pranks. Also, the Shew was wedged between Ben Watson's show and Rob Holloway's 'Up For Air' - so that's why I felt more 'wordy' material such as The Lift Situations should appear in the Hellebore Shew. Although The Lift Situations were performed a few years prior to the Shew; intended for poetry-tapedropping in various lifts. Any other stagey stuff is just my complete inability as an actor!
Funnily enough, I did briefly study BTEC Performing Arts (dropped out due to repulsion) and BTEC Popular Music (expelled for burning a microphone) respectively, which were terrible terrible terrible terrifying mistakes. Sometimes in moments of weakness I yearn for the carefree life of a popfan, but my ears and cynicism slap me back to reality.”
Although it seems to be an intrinsic part of Dan's character, self-deprecation is as vital to the Hellebore Shew as the weirdness.
“Yep, the self-deprecation keeps all the pretentiousness at bay. I am a stupid bastard at heart and this must be at the forefront. Also, listeners are fickle and pick up on the most bizarre things, so displaying silliness and surrealism is a ploy to mash-up their potentially embarrassing judgements before they even form (hopefully). I think everything is self-indulgent to a degree, but you can hear sometimes that I'm not enjoying myself. Does this perceptible mood of misery cancel out the self-indulgence?”
Indeed it does. It works as a clause, whereby if he acknowledges his own weaknesses, we can appreciate them rather than getting annoyed.
During ‘Goodbye!', the final episode of Hellebore in the series, while Dan is out testing the resonating power of various sets of railings around town, he utters “I'm just a bit bored, really”. This is typical and brilliant, and without these very human admissions, the Shew would be a whole lot more disposable. But these quips seem so natural, not at all staged, and so typical of his personality. Even with his earlier talk of the minute details, it's not always clear to what extent Dan intends every turn of phrase to have such an important impact on how his work is perceived. I wonder, to what extent is he self-aware of the effects of self-awareness.
“Hmmm… that's a good question. Like I said, I just hurled the shit at the fan, sometimes the shit came flying back at me unexpectedly. Sorry, this is a terrible metaphor! I wasn't totally conscious about how it came across. I don't care too much - but it disturbs me how people grab the wrong end of the stick so easily. People have interpreted the Hellebore Shew in all sorts of cock-eyed ways. Somebody asserts that it's a facet of Resonance's "diversity" programming: showcasing mental illness, someone reckons there's a theme of repressed homosexuality, someone else detects socio-political undercurrents... Fuck this for a lark, it's massively disturbing that people can be so mistrusting and deaf! It's only a 21-year-old piping his skewed choons onto (supposedly) experimental-friendly airwaves! They're reading far too much into it. There's nothing untoward happening, except the attempted confusion of the entire population of London by tapedropping (too ambitious in hindsight), resulting in capitalism being supplanted by fair trade-based shenanigans and everybody singing together holding hands. Or perhaps not. I only aim to restore peoples dwindling listening sensitivities to a rawer state… wiv sum bad shit.”