At 24, Gabe Holcombe is just old enough to remember when a trip to the music store meant that you came home with cassettes. He's not sure what his first tape was. Maybe R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction. Whatever it was, he dubbed his favorite songs onto another tape. "I would just buy a lot of blank tapes," explains the founder of Lawrence's Lillerne Tape Club.
Over coffee at Henry's on Eighth, Holcombe says he can't remember precisely what he put on those old tapes — or even what happened to them. But he says the small town in upstate New York where he lived with his parents had a great college radio station. And in elementary school, he recalls holing up in the garage for hours, pressing the record button when the good songs came on.
"Trading mix tapes has always been a big part of people's lives that I know," he says. Which is kind of why he started the tape club last fall. BMG it ain't — Holcombe puts out about one cassette a month. And unlike the 12-tapes-for-a-penny national mail retailer that suckered so many of us back in the day, Lillerne showcases all local tunes without a tricky subscription agreement.
"I wanted a way to put out my friends' music in a way that was cheap," Holcombe says. Cheap for him and for listeners, that is. Holcombe buys tapes wholesale online, records them in his living room and gives them away or sells them for a couple bucks each. Folks can place orders online at Myspace.com/lillerne.
So far, Holcombe has made a couple of tapes for Baby Birds Don't Drink Milk and a compilation of other Lawrence bands, including Bandit Teeth, Boo and Boo Too, Coat Party and the Armory. Over the next two months, he plans to release tracks by Al Qaeda and Rad Skeleton.
At a time when digital technology rules the music industry and new cars don't even come with tape players, it may seem strange for someone to cling to the analog format. Why not just burn some CDRs?
"I think the tape is just a little bit more personal," Holcombe says. Someone has to advance the leader, press the buttons. "Every tape has to be handled and written on," he adds. Plus, tapes aren't as sensitive as CDs or as ephemeral as MP3s, which can be deleted with a wayward keystroke. Holcombe, who doesn't own a TV and doesn't have Internet access at home, speaks with pride about the toughness of tapes. "Unless you play them a million times, they'll hang in there for a long time."
Holcombe isn't alone in his analog addiction. Tape clubs exist all over the country; he trades with some of them.
Eventually, Holcombe may start working nonlocal underground acts into his mixes. But don't expect Holcombe to get too professional. The Lillerne Tape Club couldn't get any more DIY — and that's how he likes it.
"Dubbing tapes is time-consuming," he says, "but it's kind of a background operation." For the first Baby Birds tape, he borrowed as many boom boxes as he could and set up shop in his living room. The band provided artwork and helped stuff tape cases. Through the whole process, the tapes were never in the hands of anyone who wasn't directly involved in the project.
Holcombe applies the same ethos to the 'zine he occasionally puts out, titled OK, Fine. The second and more recent issue includes photographs and poetry by local Lawrence contributors. He hopes to start putting out the photocopied chapbook monthly as a creative journal for Lawrence.
Holcombe's motivation is to help out his friends. "I just feel like there's a lot going on in Lawrence and not a lot of outlets sometimes. Everyone's doing something — taking pictures, making music. It just feels like if you're in a magazine or you're on a tape, it legitimizes what you're doing."
One of the tapes Holcombe has handed out contains his own original noise rock. And some of his own writing made it into the first 'zine. But the petite guy gets a little shy when he talks about that. "I don't really like being in the front of anything," he says. "I just like to be in the background."
Every good scene needs some quiet go-getters behind it.