Reality can be a drag, jobs can feel like a broken record, and people can be straight-up jerks sometimes. But even when they all are, we can mellifluously find the solaces and net positives in life when we’ve got buds to vent to, friends to hook us up, and a community to feel a part of and support us. Community is one of the most lyrical intangibles we can touch and feel its textures.
Over the last four years, Den Tapes – started by Kay Redden (“Mama Kay”) in August 2015 – has cultivated a hyper-local and prolific version of that type of community within the Seattle indie punk/rock scene. Recently, for NPR, Den Tapes were included in a KEXP-curated list of Seattle emerging labels. They’ve released over 40 albums on cassettes for over 20 local bands – like Wild Powwers, Dusty, Mud on My Bra, Nordra – and continue to demonstrate how DIY culture creates and promotes an inclusive voice to slowly move the social needle towards life being more rad.
In 2016, Willy Walker and Dan Spaulding (of the band Porn Bloopers) joined Kay at Den Tapes. Somehow, through some independent cosmic fate, Kay (from Dallas), Willy (from Olympia), and Dan (from Brookings, SD) all moved to Seattle about seven years ago. Willy and Dan joined Kay after Porn Bloopers released an album on Den Tapes and they realized it was a great way to kill time, plus be able to support their friends. One presidential term later and they’re celebrating their fourth anniversary on Aug. 29 by throwing a patio show at (essentially) their second, La-Z-Boy living room, Add-a-Ball, Fremont’s arcade and pinball paradise. Amping the patio later tonight will be the Den Tapes’ hitmakers Tourist Activities, Meanderthals, and Happy Times Sad Times.
The Den Tapes crew are quite the colorful commodities to pin down, understandably so. In true Den Tapes character, after Kay sobered up from DJing at Revolver the night before and Willy confirmed details for his charmingly spontaneous wedding coming up in three days, I was able to catch up with them in the upstairs, sensory-extravagant mise en scene of Add-a-Ball. They were happy to share all about the challenges and rewards of running a local cassette label in Seattle, McDonald’s Country Hits cassettes, their roster band Antonioni recently playing at KEXP’s Concert at the Mural, and their insight as to how/why cassettes have successfully survived into 2019.
KEXP: You two are good buds now. How did you two meet?
Kay: We met at a Wimps and Pony Time show at Chop Suey, actually. Willy and I were the only ones dancing during the show and then we kind of just became friends after that.
When you’re not slingin’ blood, sweat, and tears down in “the den” for the label, what are you up to in the wild?
Willy: I’ve been doing a carpentry apprenticeship for the last year and a half, plus some freelance audio production on top of that.
Kay: Unfortunately, we work a lot just to make ends meet. I’m the local talent buyer at Sonic Boom, and I work at The Sunset occasionally as well. I’m the resident DJ at Revolver every second Wednesday night for Real Good Music Party. Also, Willy and I practically live at Add-a-Ball.
Favorite games to play at Add-a-Ball?
Kay: Ms. Pac man.
Willy: Dan, Kay, and I all play Ms. Pacman together, and Medieval Madness is my fav pinball.
Add-a-Ball shows seem like very one-of-a-kind shows in Seattle, and you’re having your 4th Anniversary show there. Tell us about what we can expect to hear and enjoy.
Kay: So every band that’s playing the show has put out a record with us in the last year. Tourist Activities, Meanderthals, and Happy Times Sad Times are all so fun to watch! I always say that if you’re under 21 you can still enjoy the show right outside the patio.
Willy: We’ll also be DJing. The vibe is super chill and people kind of come in and out. They’re free shows and everyone is just there to have a good time.
Y’all work with “bands doing cool shit”, but I’m curious, outside of music, who you think is doing cool shit in Seattle?
Kay: So, before I got involved in music, I did comedy for a little. Actually, the first Den Tapes release is a two-joke cassette, the same on both sides, that I put out for my friend. I feel like Seattle comedy can be pretty great, but also really bad (laughs). I still know a lot of people in comedy doing cool shit. Skate culture is great. You can really find cool shit in every scene here, which is rad.
Willy: I bike a lot and spend a lot of time out in the woods. [Kay: nice brag, Willy (laughs)] No, I mean that’s what I like about living here! I think it’s what makes living here worthwhile for me. I think other cities would be tough to live in without quick access to what Seattle has to offer.
How have you seen the music scene change since you started the label in 2015?
Kay: I think it’s changed, I would maybe even argue it’s gotten better. People are still here, and they’re trying to make music as a lifestyle work for themselves. Sure we’ve lost a few bands from the city and scene, but new bands are coming up all the time.
Willy: Cost of living has gone up significantly in Seattle in the last four years. We haven’t actually lost too many people who have been on the label, surprisingly, but it definitely puts a strain on living. It’s sucks because we can’t actually support the bands as much as we’d like to financially, plus, a lot of bands on the label can’t afford to tour and gain new exposure and audiences.
How has the cost of living affected the label?
Willy: We’ve definitely still had to operate on a shoestring budget. Unfortunately, we’re not really able to finance all of the releases ourselves, but bands are always excited to have a platform to start out on.
Kay: It would be amazing to have the financial capacity to invest more in the bands, but also, in a lot of ways, I feel like the emotional and physical support outweighs the monetary support for the bands. It’s nice to have a group of people behind you pushing for the thing you put all of your time and energy into.
Willy: The cost of living has made us a pretty tight-knit community that I think has definitely allowed us to grow organically through meeting people and making friends, not through random people knowing about us because we’re not able to afford a publicist. Also, that’s why we do tapes because it’s so cheap. It’s the one format we can make ourselves that actually looks like a product in the end. A tape is something that we can make on a small budget and be like, “I’d buy that!”
One thing I’ve realized is how much music there is in Seattle, and how saturated it is.
Kay: You think?
Willy: Well, yeah, I’m sometimes surprised how it feels like there are more bands then there are people going to local shows.
Would you say the music scene is competitive?
Willy: I wouldn’t say it’s competitive necessarily, or cutthroat. Everyone is super supportive of each other. Especially within the group of people, we interact with on a daily basis. I see all bands posting about other bands. It very much feels like everyone is trying to support each other.
Kay: Everyone loves each other, that’s part of being in the family!
What’s one of the biggest hurdles of a DIY business and culture in Seattle?
Kay: The usual. Time and money. I’d like to say there aren’t any hurdles, but just being able to keep things going is tough.
Willy: I think a hurdle of DIY music is leaving your bubble. It’s nice to have a community, but I think a lot of doing this is about sharing it with a broader audience.
What was your first introduction to the physical format cassettes? In the age of digital music platforms in every direction and 2019 is another year of record-breaking vinyl sales, why or how do you think the cassette has managed to survive?
Kay: My dad was really, really into cassettes. That’s where my love comes from. He was a cassette and 8-track guy. The cassettes are in my blood. As a vinyl junkie as well, I think the fact that vinyl has come back in such a strong way has helped other formats...but no one is fucking with 8-tracks...noooo one. Cassettes have been coming since about 2009. It’s been a much slower rise. I always tell my friends that Seattle is a cassette city, but only because of us (laughs). I'm joking of course.
Willy: I started collecting records in middle school and while doing that started collecting like Black Sabbath tapes or whatever at yard sales. I didn’t realize bands were putting out tapes until high school and college. It was a cool experience to buy a tape from a current band and realize that it was an accessible way for bands to put out music. After that, I told myself I wanted to be a part of doing that. Also, the best part of cassettes is how small and portable they are. You can just buy it at the show, put it in your pocket, and bike home.
First cassette you had?
Kay: I was first gifted B*witched...I was obsessed with them when I was young.
Willy: I remember McDonald’s used to put out singles like N*SYNC and Brittney Spears. I think one of those was actually my first cassette.
Kay: What? (Googles said cassettes)...Oh my, I have to have these! McDonald’s Country Hits Volume 1, 2, and 3. You can get them for $8.99 right now on eBay! I can’t believe they have country hits. Couple more drinks and I’m going to buy these.
Any notable blind buys?
Willy: Silver Jews were a blind buy for me…
Kay: Ugh, let’s not. I’m gonna cry. I blind buy country a lot. One was a Leo Kottke record. It was very old school, kinda looked like it could be a Mac Demarco record, but way before his time.
Favorites in your collection? The story behind it?
Kay: So 2009 – deep Tumblr days – I followed this guy who made upper-East Coast into Canada compilation tapes on a label called Wonder Beard Records. I bought everything he put out, which had to be about fifteen tapes. He put out two comps that are my favorite things on the planet and now those tapes go for so much on Discogs. He’s another reason why I felt like I could start a label and do this.
Willy: Mine is also a compilation. It’s Well, I Don’t See Why Not, which was put out through Antiquated Future Records. There’s a lot of Olympia music on there. There was a healthy DIY scene in Olympia in 2009 when I got there and was able to see a lot of great DIY music and people – who weren’t necessarily well off – just doing and creating things, and that helped me realize that I could also do that.
In a similar vein, are there any never-letcha-down labels you trust with anything they put out?
Kay: I actually think about this a lot. There’s this old 80’s label called Homestead records. They put out so much good music, but both of their comps are so so good. But pretty much anytime I see a Homestead label I’m like “ Ok, yuh got me!” Probably goes without saying, but old K records, of course. If there was ever a label that made me want to make a label.
Willy: Agreed, that’s a label with a story that definitely makes sense. I’m a huge fan of Goner records and anything that they’ve touched.
Let’s talk about Den Tapes recently being featured on NPR that highlighted Seattle music labels. First off, congrats! What was it like to first hear the news? Has there been a noticeable momentum or increase in opportunities that have stemmed from that exposure?
Kay: I’ll you where I was! I was lying in bed. Probably hungover. Probably confused about life and then I got a text from our roommate Roger that said, “Did you see this?!” and I’m like “Huh?” Completely astonished. It was super tight and was an achievement to ride on a big high on for about a week. Afterward, every single person I ran into at shows for the next week was like “Dude, congrats!” I’m a slightly modest person when it comes to success or gratitude, but it was definitely a feel-good moment. I mean, National Public Radio, moms love that shit!
Willy: By all means, we were stoked, but also, everyone assumes that just because we were mentioned in NPR that means we’re going places now, but really...it was just a conversational high. It didn’t really translate into an uptick in sales or anything too significant, but we also didn’t expect it to. I will say, one of the biggest values about having an esteemed publication take you seriously is feeling and having the legitimacy to show to people who just consider this “some stupid little thing we do.”
If Den Tapes could have released any non-local album what would it be?
Kay: [looks at Willy] Oh, you know.
Willy: What? French Vanilla?
Kay: Yes, but no. Goblin Mold. They’re not a band anymore. When Willy and I first met no one I knew who Goblin Mold was and so it was kind of a bonding experience.
Willy: They were on the East Coast. Even though we only really focus on releasing local bands, but we would have made an exception.
How far do you cast your net for the term “local bands”?
Kay: I’d say it’s kind of the Audioasis-sized net from Vancouver B.C. to Portland and then Boise.
Willy: It’s hard to work with bands that we can’t meet up with. Also, we don’t want to create extra and inefficient costs for bands who don’t have much money in the first place. They could just use the money they’d spend on shipping our things to just make tapes themselves. I’d say we’re pretty hyper-local.
Kay: But it is our dream to not have to be hyper-local, though.
I saw one of your label babies – Antonioni – just opened up for Cherry Glazerr at KEXP’s Concerts at the Mural! You’ve released two of their first EPs. What it’s like to have a band that’s been your under your wing for a couple of years get that to that type of stage in their career and get those types of opportunities?
Both: So sick! They deserve all of it.
Willy: There are several bands on the label that have been working really, really hard and it’s cool to see people putting in that work to have it start paying off. And by pay off I mean, getting people to see and love their music. All they need is to be put in front of people and people are going to love it because it’s really good music. It’s just the challenge of getting that music in front of people.
Kay: Also, on Nada Mucho’s “41 Seattle Bands We’re Watching in 2019” they said that Antonioni is “poised for a breakout year, and deservedly so.”
Are you going to put out Antonioni’s upcoming full-length?
Kay: We’d love to! But also, we always tell bands, especially ones pushing past emerging, to shop their album around first and to dream big with it.
Willy: Part of what I’ve always hoped that Den Tapes could be is a jumping off label for bands that don’t have an audience yet and/or are trying to find a community to be a part of. I feel like that’s really the best part. To offer a platform for bands to at least let them say that they’ve released something on a label and then keep growing and growing. We’re definitely aware of our limits and if we think a band can find a label that is more financially viable for them then we’re stoked!
Kay: Like when Coach Phillips approached us with their new record Never Is Enough. They’ve been on NPR and have been played on all the college radio stations, but it’s tough out there! So we're happy to do it because it’s an amazing album.
Willy, your band Porn Blooper just released a new album Send Noodz this month? Care to share anything about that?
Willy: It’s a fun one. We're a slop punk band and it’s our third release with Den Tapes. Kay made us do all the work ourselves (laughs). Our instrumentation changed a lot. Our other albums didn’t have trumpet and keys. It reflects the way the band sounds live now, which I don’t think the other albums did necessarily. We recorded it with Sean Dwyer – of Choke the Pope (also on Den Tapes) – at Hazy Bay. Paul Davis (also in Choke the Pope) is involved with recording there. We’re really proud of how it turned out.
If you could describe the Den Tapes community vibe using a movie/tv show to what would it be?
Kay: Oh maaaaan, I’ve got nothing. I don’t think it’s ever been televised to have people supporting each other and everyone’s not being a piece of shit (laughs). It wouldn’t be very fun to watch because everyone’s so nice. So much love. We’re just a mumblecore movie with a great soundtrack.
If you had to define you two’s business relationship/friendship through a pop culture couple or reference who would it be?
Kay: Definitely...the Three Stooges.
Willy: Or even like Three’s Company.
Kay: Ohhhh. It’s definitely like Three’s Company. Except two dudes and one chick. And I’m definitely Jack Tripper.
Willy: Three’s Company definitely makes sense because it’s a live-in situation. Kay and I are roommates, also. It’s like Three’s Company if they ran a business.
Round out Dan, the third Stooge, for us a little more.
Kay: Dan is our resident slacker. JK, Dan. He came on at the same time as Willy.
Willy: He’s my bandmate [in Porn Bloopers], also. We both came on to help Kay with the Porn Bloopers release.
Who does what? Do you have distinct roles or is it all pretty equally shared?
Kay: Relatively equal. I do most of the social media stuff because Willy comes off like a crazy uncle most of the time.
Willy: Yeah...kind of a crazy drunk uncle on social (laughs). Basically, the keys have been taken away. Kay does a lot of the publicity. I’ll do a lot of the design and layout stuff...the master tapes. Dan’s really good at meeting and connecting with people.
Y’all both have jobs on jobs to make ends meet. How much time goes into running a small DIY cassette label?
Willy: It varies a lot based on releases. We also just try to balance it out with our day jobs and social lives. It takes at least a full night of all three of us working to really get done what needs to get done.
A statistically high amount of small businesses don’t make it past their third year. So congrats on defying the data! Any big plans for the next year? What’s percolating for Den Tapes?
Willy: Distribution is going to be a focus. Finding opportunities for financial growth so that we can invest it back into the bands and the business. We want to be able to grow locally, nationally, and internationally, plus have more time and energy to reach out to book bands for cool gigs.
Kay: You can’t ignore the fact that we’re here, and it feels good to reach a four-year mark. I’d like to get more of our bands on festivals. Also, I want to put together a bigass package deal and road trip where we can all hang out and have the best Den Tapes time.
And to reference Uncleholic, the satirical supergroup on your label, what’s gonna be a part of your five-year plan?
Willy: Ironically, we’d love to put out vinyl. Den Tapes Records is too good not to do (laughs). It’s something we’ve been looking into for the right release. Also, we’d love to see people paying more attention so that more bands can get in front of new audiences. More events, plus doing more DJ nights that Kay gets asked to do.
Kay: There’s a store in Portland that I love called Tender Loving Empire. They are a store and music label. The front part is all artists selling their wares, and the back part is for selling music. So if anyone wants to invest in us so we can do something like that then hit us up. Also, Den Tapes records is too funny.
Anything last thoughts to send us off?
Wily: It’s really important to have fun because there’s no reason to do it otherwise. But you have to also be respectful.
Kay: New Retrospecter in September. No jerks. Inclusive pits are possible.
Check out more from Den Tapes and the bands on their label here.
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