Being part of Seattle’s sprawling underground music scene can be fun and fulfilling, but it’s hard to be a DIY musician without the money to fund your art, or the people to lift you up and support your unconventional passions. That’s where people like Kay Redden come in.

As founder and head of local tape label Den Tapes, Redden’s been championing underground artists for almost a decade. The label, founded in 2015, has grown into a beloved, trustworthy source of solid Seattle-based music. This year alone they’ve done cassette runs for fantastic releases by emo-rock band Tourist Activities, dream-pop trio Coral Grief, heavy shoegaze brooders Fell Off, and country-rock act Lightweight Champion. 

Redden, who also works at Sunset Tavern and Sonic Boom Records in Ballard, currently runs the entire operation herself after co-heads Willy Walker and Dan Spaulding departed in 2020. She discovers the bands, negotiates the cassette releases, and spreads the word to outlets who might be interested. Through and through, she’s an ardent supporter of the city's underground, and it's better for it.

Redden grew up in Garland, TX, a suburb of Dallas. "It’s what King of the Hill was based off of,” she said. “It was amazing. I know a lot of people would say, ‘Wow, I’m so sorry you grew up in Dallas,’ but, I mean, I turned out fine.”

Though she’s a proud Texan, her appreciation of PNW bands like Built to Spill and local labels including K Records, Kill Rock Stars, and Sub Pop led to a deep affinity for Seattle as a musical haven. After making her first trip as a teenager in 2010, she fell in love with the city immediately. “I was telling the person I was with that they should just get a plane ticket home and leave me. I loved it."

Eventually she moved to the area in 2012, working at a Whole Foods in Bellevue as she pursued her passion for music. "It was bigger bands at first,” she recalled of the first Northwest shows she attended. “Every local show that I went to, I felt very much like an outsider.” Nevertheless, she began to ingratiate herself with the local rock scene, at the time spearheaded by Capitol Hill bands like Chastity Belt and Tacocat. Though she juggled the idea of starting a tape label, the typical hurdles—money, effort, potential failure—kept her from taking the plunge.

Then, a couple of years later, her mom suddenly passed away. Redden said the catastrophic impact of the tragedy prompted her to start Den Tapes. “There was a direct correlation. I thought, ‘Fuck it, the most important person of my life is gone. Nothing can hurt me ever again.’ I still believe that, to this day.”

Some heroes wear tapes. Photo by Rob Moura; Graphic by Anthony Keo

The label began with an extremely small run of tapes for Invisible Hand’s I’m Here Right Now, along with a comedy EP by Albert Kirchner. Later, at a Wimps/Pony Time show, she ran into Walker and Spaulding of the garage punk band Porn Bloopers, and she agreed to release their first EP, Sex Tape. The pair soon agreed to help Redden with the label, and after Walker moved in with Redden, the operation quickly turned into an in-house project. Together, they’d handle the arduous process of duplicating the recorded music to individual cassettes, occasionally holding tape-making parties where the bands themselves would help.

From the beginning, Redden held three criteria for the acts she wanted to support: comedy, dumb party bands, and punk. (“I love the comedy scene so much,” said Redden, who used to perform stand-up herself, “and that’s a thing that can be crossed over to the music scene so easily.”)

The “comedy” part soon revealed itself in the “dumb party” bands (Smoker Dad, Uncleholic) and the punk acts (Happy Times Sad Times, Choke the Pope) that refused to take themselves seriously. Yet, as Den Tapes progressed, more serious acts began to find their way onto the label, including Don Piano’s tender acoustic guitar, Antonioni’s gorgeously poetic alternative, and Coach Phillips’ emotive rock.

Each of these acts gets tireless support from Redden, who’s also a constant presence at live shows. You’ll usually find her bespectacled self up front, camera in hand, urging on the crowd and instigating the mosh pit. She’s been keeping up the zeal for eight years now, and the effort has led to coverage of the label from both NPR and Bandcamp (whose staff declared Tourist Activities’ Off My Mind a 2019 standout).

The biggest challenge running the label? “Money,” she said, unsurprisingly. “It’s not easy. I hate crowdfunding—as a person who grew up poor, it’s hard for me to ask.” Redden hasn't ever made a profit from Den Tapes, and she doesn’t desire to. Whatever money she makes from sales gets funneled right back into the label’s future projects.

The point of the label, instead, is the community of artists and fans she can help build within it. Last year’s Den Fest, a packed two-day run of bands held in the now-defunct Victory Lounge, exemplifies that aim. Redden delights at the prospect of the label being a conduit for that community, as well as a rare place for artists to feel validated in their efforts. 

To that end, she doesn’t see herself stopping anytime soon. “My favorite thing is when I see a band for the first time, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what your plan is for the future, but I’m fucking here for it.’"

Den Tapes' catalog is available on Bandcamp. You can follow the label on Instagram at @dentapes.