Eats Tapes are truly old school. Antiquated equipment—analog synths, early MIDI sequencers, classic drum machines—forms the backbone of the San Francisco duo's live setup and shapes their uniquely lo-fi sound. Their sophomore studio album, Dos Mutantes, is their best yet, benefiting from Kit Clayton's masterful production, resulting in some of the cleanest noise to ever come out of Eats Tapes' distressed machines.
The first time I saw Eats Tapes was in the basement of a punk house. Marijke Jorritsma and Gregory Zifcak spread all their gear out on the floor, knelt down, and started hitting switches and turning knobs. They made a ridiculous racket: a combination of bargain-bin acid-house, crusty noise, and headbanging rhythms. A few kids got down, a lot of confused punks watched from the sidelines, and a few people tried to figure out what the hell the duo were doing down there. Because to understand Eats Tapes, you must understand their mess of machines.
The band's current arsenal features looped cassette tapes, a MIDI-fied Nintendo Entertainment System, several circuit-bent electronic toys, a pair of Drum Modules, a pair of Roland synthesizers, a Korg ESX-1 sampler, an Alesis MMT8 sequencer, feedback loops, and effects (whew!). Of course a band called Eats Tapes must employ and destroy the occasional magnetic strip; in fact, cassettes were one of the band's first instruments.
"I make loops by opening the cassettes and splicing the tape," says Zifcak. "A lot of the loops were just me whistling into the mic on the Walkman, changing the speed, and turning it on and off. The degradation of the loop after a few plays, coupled with the inferior microphone quality and the pitch control and the inferior playback of the tape, gives them so much character."
Cassette tapes also serve as a kind of data backup for some of the band's more outdated equipment.
"The MMT8 is totally flawed, but in kind of some awesome ways," says Jorritsma. "The only way you can back it up is to a cassette tape, and when its memory gets full, a message flashes up on its little screen that actually says, 'Bummer, dude. Memory full.'"
Modification, or circuit bending, plays a major role in Eats Tapes' creative process. They rewire everything from used toys to professional instruments in their quest for unique sounds. "Sometimes the modifications will work really well and then sometimes they're nightmares," says Jorritsma.
"What?" says Zifcak. "Give me an example."
"Well, there's been a few situations where everything's great, we're about to go tour, and then all of a sudden the nightmares start happening. It's like the Tower of Babel," says Jorritsma.
Which is when a little simplicity goes a long way. "I like gear where the interface is absolutely direct," says Zifcak. "Like, 'This knob is always this function' so you can develop a totally unconscious relationship to it, you just learn where you need to have your hands at any moment. Then you can instantaneously decide to reach for something and grab it without having to think about it at all."
"If you get drunk, that can be a real problem," adds Jorritsma. "We look for something that's more intuitive and immediate. Though nothing's ever as immediate as blowing on a trumpet or something."
Dos Mutantes does, in fact, feature a trumpet, announcing the space aerobics of "Band Practice"; Matmos's Nate Boyce shreds guitar over the scrambled synths of "I've Become Cretin." The trumpet won't be coming along on tour, though. The band will be moving to Berlin for the summer immediately after their U.S. trek and they can't afford to bring all of their toys.
"[The SH-101] is too big to tour with," says Jorritsma. "So we replace it with the MC-202. The other weird thing we use is the Nintendo. We have a MIDI/NES cartridge (made by chiptune musician XK) that triggers its sound chip. It's on the album quite a lot, and it has a very distinct sound. It's indispensable—we have to travel with it."
"I've already ruled out some things for sheer size and weight," Zifcak says. "I have a 909 that I recently finished modifying, and I really like it. I would use it all the time, but it's the size and weight of one carry-on."
"You wouldn't be able to bring anything else," says Jorritsma. "You'd have to buy all new underwear."
Underwear is replaceable; Eats Tapes' mountain of uniquely modified MIDI isn't even replicable. Jorritsma and Zifcak are the operators and composers, but the bent magic of Eats Tapes is really in the machines.