On the occasion of Jim making available the four tapes he released through the Sonic Bunny label in Guelph, like, twenty years ago, I said some things about what those tapes are, where they come from, and the sort of historical documenting that they're – somewhat unbeknownst to them – connected to. I missed the boat on the original release of these, found them backwards after the release of Jim's – ahem – monumental A Thousand Songs, which contains and reshuffles some of the material on these guys. As someone who had to basically lie, cheat, and steal to get my hands on this stuff back in the day, I can't understate how amazing it is that Jim's early work is just sitting there on the internet now, available for all.
If you were in and of Guelph in the 90s, you probably know about these four tapes: Home Is Where The Rock Is, Victim of Lo-Fi, Documenting Perks Part 1, and Some Things You Should Know About Sound and Hearing. Maybe you owned them at one point and have subsequently misplaced them over years of moving house, or you accidentally left them to melt on your dash and are still kicking yourself, or you’re a preservationist/hoarder and still have them but don’t have a deck in which to jam those Jims. If any of the above is the case, then you’ll probably not want or need to read anything some random dude has to say about said tapes. Probably you’ll want hop into the time machines that they are and blast back to the halcyon time and the place you were first listening to them. Thanks for reading this far.
But if these tapes are news to you, if you come to Jimmy Guthrie through his soundtrack work, or his high-pop-water marks, then a bit of context might be helpful. To begin to fully appreciate what these tapes are and where they come, we’ve got to back to – bear with me – the twilight of the 19th century:
At the dawn of the technology, the pioneers of sound recording had differing opinions about what exactly they meant to capture. What kind of literal record were they making? Was it the live performance that they were documenting or was it the piece itself? With the former as the goal, the time and the place and the performer should be secured, blemishes and boners and all in an unaltered reflection. Favouring the latter, though, fidelity would be to the piece of music itself, to creating a sort of ideal version and an ideal space. Over a century of sound being gouged into wax, or being zapped onto magnetic tape, or converted to 1s and 0s, recording has mostly sought perfection. These days, records are rarely those literal records anymore, but more craft than performance.
Thanks to further monkeying by the likes of Les Paul, the original catchall recording techniques opened up to recording multiple tracks, so the live-ness of a recording could be fudged. One person could jam with herself all of sudden. Building on this newfound freedom, recorded music moved further away from being conventionally live, producing early tall poppy examples like The Beatles, who strove to create music in the recording studio that had no relation to live performance. As the technology got more slick, became more digital and less analog, capturing a live performance became less important. The song became more built than performed, sort of in the same way that oral storytelling was gradually corralled into structured, honed narrative prose.
But as mainstream music embraced this sonic perfection, a subset of artists eschewed polishing all together, for both economic and artistic reasons embraced a type of record-making much closer to that original avenue of document making, of making a record of a time and place and people, and the unique result of those convergences and combinations. An offshoot of the DIY punk surge of the late 70s and early 80s – more recognizably kin in spirit than sound necessarily – this type of scrappy, basic music-making could be done by anyone. The making became more important than the product. Just so we don’t get too soaked in specifics, we’ll pop up the lo-fi umbrella over this movement.
These four early Jim Guthrie records are record-records. Put to tape between 1992ish, when Jim had only been playing music in his basement for a few years, and 1998ish, when he had become something of a figurehead in the local music scene of Guelph, Ontario – this is between the ages of about 19 til 25 – these are documents of personal, creative, and technical growth. But they also double as a record of a specific time and place, of the maturation of a sound and an experience of that mid- to late-90s home rock movement in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
Recording for Jim started out as just a literal record his progress. Any time he successfully transitioned from a D to C chord, he’d hit record on the pink boombox he started out with. Eventually, he got a Fostex X-18 4-track, which would allow him to, as the name implies, record 4 tracks of himself. Now that every Mactop comes with GarageBand, it might be a bit difficult to understand how revolutionary home recording technology like the 4-track was. They amounted to a pretty cheap learning tool, offering a fairly idiot-proof way to break down songs are learn how they’re constructed. For the most part, they’re a tool for demoing songs, sketching them out, before heading to the studio to create that perfect version. But early stand-out lo-fi acts like Sebadoh, They Might Be Giants, Pavement, and Ween set a precedent for having the moment of creation come as close as possible to the final product. Lo-fi elevated the learning and fumbling process, argued that an original sketch is as good, if not better, than the final painting. So yes, Jim is sloppy and awkward on these early albums, though less and less so, but working in that lo-fi comfort zone, there’s an aplomb to that inelegance. If nothing else, listen to these albums for that gusto.
Like a lot his lo-fi contemporaries, Jim is all over the map on these tapes, experimenting with random instruments and random genres, throwing anything he can get his hands and interest on at the wall to see what’ll stick. when you’re working with the idea that there’s a worth to everything you try, this permission gets created to try anything you want. With this in mind, these four tapes become a sort of Cradle of Civilization for Jim’s career. These tapes are full of tangents and tests, of Jim trying a little bit of everything. He doesn’t always succeed, but he often does. I’m no rock doctor, but I’m willing to diagnose Jim’s continued success as a product of his adaptability. Over the time period of these albums, Jim tries a bit of everything: field recordings, pop songs, jingles, slow-burn post-rock, noise collages. In his twenty years of making music, Jim’s dipped his creative wick into a bit of everything. If you’re a fan of a particular instalment of Jim’s many interests, you can find the early, primordial experiments on these tapes.
But these tapes also fall into a local context, make for a few significant, influential drops in the ocean of lo-fi home rock. These albums were part of an impressive swell of music-making in Guelph, where everyone with an impulse to make music could and did, whether or not they had the prowess, or whether or not they were interested in getting better, in growing and learning the way Jim did. In the timeframe of these tapes, Jim himself was a supporter and facilitator of kids up to like hijinks. Whether he was playing the basement recordings of strangers on a local radio show, or recording kids in his basement, or playing in their bands, or hosting your band for shows in that same basement, he and these albums were major gears in making that scene work.
Getting your ears on this material might give you a little idea of the galloping creativity of that time and place, both in Jim’s life and in Guelph’s life. But downloading the material, there’s a physical specialness that will inevitably get lost. These tapes were released on the Sonic Bunny cassette label, run by a couple of comparative youngsters, Stewart Gunn and Colin Clark. For each physical copy of each album produced, either Stewart, or Colin, or Jim, had to handmake that copy. They had to hang out for the full length of the album to transfer the tape, had to photocopy the insert, had to cut it out, had to glue a label onto each cassette. In the same way that the crumby audio pointed to the closeness and the personalness of the songs, the crooked label, or the wonky insert, or the cracked case, represented the closeness of the production. That’s a unique, individual feeling that’s hard to represent digitally.
Jim making the material widely available is exciting as hell. While this music may not be objectively astounding, it’s subjectively exciting. It’s easy to pin the lo-fi stuff to a specific social or economic or artistic context, but there’s something essential about these scrappy, scruffy gems. On the whole, music has favoured that record of perfection, but all manner of listeners still find something fascinating and special about the rough records that may not sound great, or may not be performed perfectly, but still capture those rare, unreproducible qualities that we want from out art. Whether it’s Alan Lomax’s field recordings or Bruce Springteen’s favouring his original demos over the full band version of Nebraska or Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes being desired over the hits they eventually became, we connect to this rough material in a way we don’t to the smooth stuff. If you’ve ever worked with clay before, you know you need to score the surfaces of any two objects you want to bind together. I think we ultimately glom onto to perfect imperfection because we are ourselves, in whatever way, all scuffed up.
Go forth and cram your ears full of the rough gems: https://jimguthrie.bandcamp.com/
And don't forget that that Jim's just re-released A Thousand Songs! You can read more about Jim's flurry of releases over at Jim's house: http://www.jimguthrie.org/news/2015/4/21/a-thousand-things.html