Gnarnia isn’t hard to find. Just head south on Southeast 11th Avenue, until the smell of grease radiating from the Burgerville on Hawthorne Boulevard gives way to bong smoke. It’s home to a universe of enthralling characters, but upon entering, “magical” isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind. The only negotiable path to the basement—filled with broken drums and half-strung guitars—is choked with busted microphone cables. The kitchen is covered in graffiti. The living room serves as a shambolic testament of defiance or laziness, the kind of pit you’d expect a stoned teenager to leave booby-trapped with trash to ward off parental units.
“I don’t walk barefoot in this house,” says resident Erik Gage, a heavyset dude in a thrift-store button-down shirt and wispy mustache, his beer gut folded over cut-off jean shorts. “That’s a fact.”
If it weren’t for the stack of mismatched tape decks towering over the rubble and filth in the living room, this would be just another flophouse for wayward 20-somethings. And while it definitely is that, it is also, more crucially, home to Gnar Tapes and Shit. As its name implies, the label, which Gage started with a small group of friends in 2008, releases music almost exclusively on cassette tape, a recording medium that seemingly went extinct in the early ’90s. In recent years, however, the indie-music world at-large has rediscovered cassettes in ever-increasing numbers—to the point that the movement now has its own national holiday, dubbed Cassette Store Day. While the world was questing for an alternative to iTunes, the tape scene grew from a nostalgic niche market to a boundless universe of pop-loving weirdos. And in Portland, the center of that universe is Gnarnia.
“Tapes are cheap, easy and fast,”
Gage says. “I’ve been doing this since 2007, and since then there’s been
an evolution where a lot of artists will approach the tape and will
make an album just for tape and try things, because it costs so much
less to make than a vinyl record.”
Next to the mountain of thrift-store production implements stands a cache of recent releases, arranged in cardboard boxes with tags like “Weedsmokers” and “Love Cop” scrawled on the sides in permanent marker. The labels have been crossed out and scribbled over several times. When you produce an average of five tapes per week, organization takes a backseat.
But Gnar Tapes isn’t just prolific: It’s also remarkably consistent. Beneath the tape hiss, the label’s banner acts—Unkle Funkle, the Memories and White Fang—display a ramshackle charm and erratic sense of melody. They’re all still weird as shit, but their warped lo-fi aesthetic is less a shield to hide shoddy songcraft than it is a byproduct of the crew’s spastic work ethic. The label’s makeshift production technique allows them to literally do everything from the comfort of their own squat: put it on tape, sell it on the Web, move on to the next one.
“We’re not really so much about sound quality,” Gage says. “We don’t really choose between lo-fi and hi-fi. It’s about songs. A song can be played a million different ways. Whole bands start from goofing around on tape, and they end up developing this voice they feel, this character.”
“Addled punker” is Gage’s character when he’s fronting White Fang, arguably the most noteworthy branch of the Gnar Tapes family tree. Pitchfork gave the group’s 2011 album, Grateful to Shred, a positive review and dubbed the group “the boisterous beating heart of the Portland DIY punk scene.” In addition to getting the attention of the national blogosphere, White Fang also roped in Casey Gordon and Dan Stump, a pair of 21-year-old students from Brown University. After hearing a White Fang tape last summer, the duo was taken aback by the dissonance between the collective’s stoner aesthetic (including a cheap-looking website decorated with pot leaves and neon alien skulls) and its dedicated work ethic.
Gordon and Stump pitched the idea of following the Gnar Tapes crew around for two months this summer, with the intent of filming a documentary about how the label pairs a once-abandoned analog recording format with modern digital networking techniques to spread ideas on the cheap. Brown, an Ivy League school, took the bait and awarded them each a $4,000 Royce Fellowship to live in the Gnarnia basement for two months. While other Royce fellows were conducting research to cure osteoarthritis and studying the art of female expatriates from World War II in Mexico, Gordon and Stump were sleeping on air mattresses in the bands’ basement practice space. To escape mold and two inches of standing water, the duo eventually abandoned their basement post and moved to a tent in the backyard. In the first month Gordon and Stump were there, Gnar released 20 tapes.
“It’s an important thing they’re doing,” Gordon says. “I think it’s really admirable that it’s taken on as a community project or even a civic duty than a business plan. Someone has to carry the torch and be the mainstay of art in these places where labels aren’t going to do that most of the time. I think the blanket of encouragement you get from this scene is something you don’t get from a lot of other places.” Other labels are starting to take note of Gnar as well.
“We love everything
they do and how they do it,” said Sean Bohrman, co-founder of Orange
County’s Burger Records, which has put out albums by the likes of Ty
Segall, Thee Oh Sees and King Tuff. Burger and Gnar frequently share
bands, personnel and tour routes, and have released more than 250
cassettes together since
meeting through mutual friends in the Portland punk group Mean Jeans a
few years back. “It’s very cool how they do everything in-house,”
Bohrman says. “That’s a dream of ours that we haven’t achieved yet. They
record it, dub it and sell it from Gnarnia. It never leaves the house.”
Back at Gnarnia, the living room gradually fills with the rest of the crew, all dressed in what is best described as “Salvation Army chic”: hectagonal librarian glasses complete with beaded strap, a T-shirt with Super Mario World characters printed on it, a pair of red spandex shorts that likely have not seen a gym since the previous owner donated them in 1991. I ask if they hold down day jobs to keep their empire afloat.
“No, man,” Gage replies, gesturing toward the stack of cardboard boxes. “We live meagerly and don’t ask for much, and we make enough money to pay for our weed and rent. We do what we need to do and put our money in the pot, and nobody is wanting. There’s always weed, always food, always electricity. We’ve all made promises to each other and we never lie, and it’s never about the money. We never fight about girls, we never fight about any of that stuff. All the distractions and the things along the way—nothing is blocking our path. I guess it’s worth rolling the dice, because you can always go back to McDonald’s.”
As I prepare to leave, a few more groggy band members trickle in, cereal bowls in hand. Gage asks me if I’d like to stick around and smoke a bowl, to which I decline. It’s 3:45, and I have to go to work. Then again, so do they.
GO: Cassette Store Day is Saturday, Sept. 7.
PORTLAND CASSETTE STORE DAY EVENTS
1465 NE Prescott St., 360-1268, beaconsound.net
—Peter Broderick (Horse Feathers, Loch Lomond, Efterklang) signing copies of 2008 album Float, which is being reissued through German label Erased Tapes, 10 am-2:30 pm.
1931 NE Sandy Blvd., 239-7610 & 1313 W Burnside St., 274-0961, everydaymusic.com
—“A whole bunch” of tapes out from their warehouse for sale.
—An artist signing with Charles Bradley (downtown location), 5 pm.
3158 E Burnside St., 231-8926, musicmillennium.com
—Special cassette-only releases from Xiu Xiu, Guided By Voices and more.
—Thousands of cassettes on sale starting at 99 cents.
—A contest to win Beats By Dre headphones.
—The first 15-20 people in the door will receive a gift bag filled with free cassette tapes.
8 NE Killingsworth St., (971) 544-7685, recordroompdx.net
—A cassette tape fair, featuring material from Gnar Tapes, Cassingle & Loving It and more, and a “mystery mixtape swap,” 4-8 pm.
2293 N Interstate Ave., 233-7478, stumptownprinters.com
—Releasing a hot pink, limited edition line of their DIY cassette tape packaging. More info here.