tsss tapes is an Italian tape label created by the percussionist Francesco Covarino. The imprint melds together the worlds of free form/abstract music and DIY ethics with Francesco not only mastering all of the music himself but also designing, printing and folding the album covers all by himself.
Through his dedication and hard work as seen from the label’s visually and aurally beautiful releases, in the year since its creation, tsss tapes has gotten a lot of attention from the press with many of the albums ending up on numerous end-of-year lists and not only.
On the occasion of tsss tapes’ newest releases, “Bistre” and Zarabatana’s “CUM RAIO,” we contacted Francesco to ask him about what made him start a tape label, the process of releasing tapes, and the future of the label. The interview was originally conducted for the Amek Newsletter but we decided to publish it here in full as we thought more people should discover tsss tapes.
Can you please introduce tsss tapes to our readers? What made you start a tape label, what is the concept behind it and its unique name?
tsss tapes is a tape label that got started a year ago, our first release came out in February 2019.
Having my own tape label was something I had been thinking about for quite a long time since I make music myself and have always bought a lot of music—CDs when I was younger, then LPs later on, recently I got most of the stuff on Bandcamp and this put me in contact with a lot of very small, often one-man operated labels that put out wonderful sounds.
So this idea of starting my own label was always there, I was giving it a lot of thought but kind of wasting my time and not really moving forward, until I had the idea of starting off with a free form solo percussion compilation and right away I started writing emails to artists I already knew and admired—the very first ones I wrote to were claire rousay, Rie Nakajima, and Simon Camatta, if I remember correctly. They replied saying ‘yes,’ sent me their track almost right away, and that was it, I started working on the compilation. It took me more or less three months to gather all the tracks, in these months I listened to all the percussionists who were making solo improv I could find, from the original 7-8 artists I had planned, the number grew to 12.
I enjoyed the whole process immensely—watching it grow little by little, talking to the artists, thinking about the tracklist, having it mastered, outlining the sleeve… All of the good things that I had thought running a tape label might have, turned out to be true. And one of the parts I loved the most was, and still is, preparing all the packages and run to the post office to mail the tapes, maybe because it is the most physical part of the whole process, the part where I hold the tapes in my hands and carry them around, I don’t know…
One thing that was quite painful was choosing a name for the label. I did not feel comfortable using a word that would convey any message beforehand, and I definitely wanted to avoid anything that could sound sarcastic, I just wanted a name that would be like a sound, a noise. I guess what I pursue with tsss tapes’ releases goes in the same line—the beauty of small sounds, the tactile feelings, the organic textures, the fact of dealing with artists who set up to improvise in front of a microphone and while they play they are in control of what they’re doing but not 100% in control (Ted Byrnes put it in a much better way in an email exchange: “Trying to stay in control while acknowledging your lack of control”), they know that spontaneous and unpredictable sounds will happen, and not only are they perfectly fine with it, but part of the beauty of their recordings will lay precisely on those unexpected events.
Apart from the amazing music, it was the idea behind some of the releases, together with simple, yet elegant and strikingly beautiful cover art, that attracted us to your label. Can you please tell us what made you want to release collaborative releases of improvisers who have not met before?
For our second release, I had Marco Serrato in mind. he is a wonderfully open-minded double bass player who lives in Seville, Spain. At the time when I started the label, I was living in Granada, Spain. I’ve lived there for 14 years and just last summer I moved back to my hometown in Italy. Marco and I had met once to record a double bass/percussion improv which eventually came out on Raw Tonk, so I wrote him to ask if he would be interested in doing a tape for my label, and we agreed it would be fun to record together with Masayuki Imanishi, whom I was a fan of.
Marco and Masayuki did not know each other before. They started sending each other sounds via email, Masayuki sent a first draft to Marco, who recorded his double bass parts and sent it back. When Masayuki received the double bass parts, he decided to completely rework all of his own parts, and the final result became “Caura.” I enjoyed the whole process of doing this tape a lot, so I thought I would try and put in touch artists that I liked and see what would happen if they worked together: Graham Dunning/Edward Lucas (although they already knew each other and lived in the same city), Matt Atkins/Danny Clay, and a few more releases I will put out in the next few months and that are already in the works.
I think when two artists work together, they push each other to get a little out of their usual comfort zone and experiment more, be more curious and bold. Also, improvising in a duo rather than alone allows more space for the unpredictable I mentioned above.
What is your process for choosing the artists for the collaborations? Also, what is your role in the whole process? Do you simply get them in touch with one another or you give suggestions for the direction of their work?
The first step is contacting the artist individually to propose a release on the label, then we start thinking about other artists for possible collaborations, and once both artists have agreed to record something together I usually disappear, maybe I just write them a couple of meaningless lines like “Look for textures! Be organic!”, but I prefer to stay out of the creative process. Sometimes I receive the finished album ready to go to the factory for pressing, other times they send me all the recorded material and together we decide which tracks to include, the tracklist… But no, I don’t like to give suggestions about the direction in which their work should go. I am a fan of all the artists who release on tsss tapes, that’s the reason why we are doing this tape, so I know I am going to love what they end up recording.
As a final step, I always offer to do the mastering myself, for free. Our editions are small and there is not a lot of money which would come back to the artists once they sell all their copies, so most of the time the costs for a mastering done by some sound engineer would simply be too high and not worth it. Also, when I master an album, I feel like I am going so much deeper inside the music and that a small piece of me becomes part of the whole album—I did not mean to sound so New-Agey with this one.
Tell us a little bit more about the artwork of the releases? Who makes it and how?
I love the DIY ethic, so I am the one making the sleeves. I use Microsoft Word for this purpose, not because I want to stay minimal but because I never learned how to use more sophisticated graphic software like Photoshop or things like that. All tapes have the same font and the same layout and for each release, I use some minimal shapes, I let the artists choose the color of the tape and then I start working on the sleeves accordingly. Then I buy the cardboard paper, and I let a typography print and cut the sleeves. The very last part of the process is truly DIY again: at home I fold all the sleeves one by one inside their case.
Also, the two newest tsss tapes releases feature printed text on one side of the tapes, which is very beautiful. Is that something you plan on continuing with the next releases or more of a one-time experiment?
Yes, I will keep on doing that. The first releases did not feature any text because I really like how the tapes look in their solid color, but I understand it is not something very practical to have stranded, unnamed tapes around your house, or more simply not to know which side you are listening to. So, for the 2020 releases I started printing a small text, as discreet as possible and only on side B.
What have you planned for the future of tsss tapes? Can you tell us more about some of the new releases? Also, is the current pandemic and lockdown going to affect in a major way the release cycles of the label or you’ll continue expanding the horizons of the listeners through releasing new music despite the current situation?
In May two tapes will come out, one is a duo between Giovanni Lami and Chemiefaserwerk, the other a collaboration between Andrea Borghi and Sardinian percussion duo Salis/Sanna, I am working on the masters just these days. I hope I can release them in May, the factory where I press the actual tapes is in Czech Republic and for what I understood is pretty much one-man operated, so there should be no problem as far as receiving the tapes. But right now, I am self-confined at home like everybody else in the country, and shops are closed, so I am more concerned about the sleeves, where to buy the cardboard paper and where to print them. Hopefully we will go back to some kind of normal life within a few weeks, right now I am confident I will be able to release both tapes as scheduled.
All releases until spring 2021 are already scheduled, right now there are a few tapes in the works: a duo between kNN and Tom White, another by Abby Lee Tee and claire rousay, a solo tape by saxophonist Tapiwa Svosve, one by the Argentinian Bardo Todol, and just yesterday I spoke with Danny Clay and he came up with an idea for a solo release which I think will sound beautiful. Plus, a couple more duos should be confirmed soon, and of course sometime, I would like to work again with artists who have already released a tape on my label.
Then I have a long list of new artists I would like to contact sooner or later, too, even though the idea for the future is to escape a little from this US/Europe dynamic I’m into, and release music by artists from places like Africa or South America, who unfortunately don’t usually get much attention when it comes to free form/abstract music.