steering clear of the mainstream
since 2001

june 2010

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scotch tapes' al bjornaa

Operating out of the remote community of Batchawana Bay, Ontario, artist, musician, and one-man label boss Al Bjornaa has been one of the experimental scene's most industrious members, putting out tapes, CDRs and records at a feverish pace. As Bjornaa explains, his demanding day job as a fisherman leaves him with his winters free, meaning the colder months give way to batches of new releases, each one hand-made and super-limited. Even so, this past summer saw the Scotch Tapes enterprise extend its reach to vinyl and 8-tracks, with some serious new names joining the stable - including Karl Blau, Mike Shiflet, Onieda, and even Mike frickin' Watt. This interview, which took place a few months ago, sees us discuss the daily plight of the average fisherman/label head/experimental musician.

The view from Batchawana Bay


It seems as if Scotch Tapes has really been amping things up lately, with everyone from Oneida to Casper and the Cookies to Karl Blau to Mike Watt getting involved. What do you think accounts for the recent upturn in success?

I think it all started when Al Qaeda (the band... not the international terrorist organization) came to me with a really amazing project. They were recording a 7" collaboration with Mike Watt, Gabe Serbian (The Locust), Chris Carrico (Aarktica) and hip hop act, Occasional Setroit. I have no idea how they swung this project but when they asked me if I was interested in releasing it on a 7" I basically had to say yes. I have been a fan of Watt's for like 20 years and to be able to release a record with him on it was sort of surreal. After this record was announced, it sort of gave Scotch a little more street cred and bigger artists started to take me seriously as a label.

Seems as if you've earned your stripes quite serendipitously! So as far as the releases that followed the Al Qaeda split 7", did you get in contact with the others (eg. Casper and the Cookies, Oneida, etc...) or did they seek you out?

Well yeah... I mean it kind of did just fall into my lap. But I think my hard work might have had a little part in it as well. I think putting out quality music that not only sounds good but looks good helped a lot when it came to gathering "bigger" names. The Al Qaeda 7" basically just showed these names that I was legit as a label. I hope once they actually looked at my other releases, they felt comfortable releasing music with me. Plus having 8-tracks as an option release is also a huge drawing point.

After the Mike Watt thing, I felt that I could land larger acts so I just started messaging bands I love. And no one said no. So now I have this insane summer of amazing releases... fingers crossed.

What are your plans following this latest outburst of releases?

After this little summer of insanity I plan on focusing more on my music and maybe doing a small tour in the winter. Europe? Anyone want to book me a gig in Antarctica?

How did you first become interested in unconventional music?

i guess I started liking weird music when I was a kid... like 7 or 8. I grew up in a really tiny village in northern Ontario with no real access to different music. but when I was about 7 or 8 a guy named Richard moved here with his mom. He was from a larger city and about 7 or 8 years older than me but seeing as there was really no one to hang out with I sort of became like a little brother to him. He introduced me to lots of amazing stuff from early punk to noise to new wave.

Am I correct in assuming Scotch Tapes was your first label? Why the interest in cassettes to begin with? How do you perceive your tape releases in comparison to your CDRs?

Actually Scotch Tapes is my second label. I used to run a label called Low Brow Music but I think it tried to do too much too soon. It failed miserably. But I took that experience and learned from it. I started Scotch with the idea that I didn't want it to get too big. I still feel the same way. I never want to start releasing 1000 copies of anything. I see my CDR label, Frequent Sea Records, as a way of releasing experimental sounds that might not transfer to tape so well. Scotch is my main label but FSR is a pet project that is very dear to me.

Where do you get your blank tapes from?

Well I release some albums on old, recycled tapes. Every once in awhile when my stocks get low on those I will send out some emails and post some bulletins on Myspace... send me 6 tapes you don't want, I will send you a Scotch release. But I buy all my new ones online from various sites. Boring I know... but it's not easy to find them in retail shops anymore.

MCPIBTYCP's Wool Sweaters CS

Recently you've been delving into vinyl in addition to tapes and CDRs. A considerable investment, no doubt! What has the experience been like so far? Do you see many records in the future? Will you need to create another label to maintain segregation between the formats?

Well I have only released one 7" so far. It's a split between me (My Cell Phone Is Better Than Your Cell Phone) and Sunken Landscapes. There are two more 7"s in the works for the summer. I mentioned the Al Qaeda 7" and I am also putting out a split from Tayside Mental Health and Endometrium Cuntplow. It is a bit of an investment but I see it as a natural progression. I love vinyl. I used to own a record store and vinyl has always been my favourite format. I recently bought a lathe so I plan on releasing a lot more records in the future. And I think there will be more vinyl in the future as well. I don't see another label coming from this because well... I really don't have the time. Vinyl and lathes will never be my main format. Tapes will always rule at Scotch Tapes. Vinyl and lathes will just be little bonuses littering the catalogue.

Maybe you'll become the Peter King of the northern hemisphere! Doesn't making lathe records entail quite a bit of construction and preparation? Do you have it all set up? Is it not difficult to put the whole apparatus together?

Haha... I seriously doubt that. This is for personal use only. I JUST bought it. It just got here a few days ago and I haven't even tried to set it up yet. I really want to wait until I have some time to commit to it. I think once my work is done for the season I will really focus on that part of the label. So hopefully this winter I will be able to release some cool records. The machine I have isn't nearly as complex as Mr. King's. He is the master of lathe cuts and I don't think I will ever come close to his work.

As was mentioned earlier, you also record under "My Cell Phone is Better Than Your Cell Phone." I've wondered this quietly for awhile now... how and why did you choose that name?

I chose the name to sort of poke fun at people who see cell phones as their new religion. People nowadays worship these contraptions. It's hard not to laugh when you see people sleeping outside the Apple Store for 3 days to buy the new iphone. I mean they are sleeping outdoors just to have the opportunity to get a $150 monthly bill for a three year term. I never thought I would ever see a day where phones became a must-have fashion accessory.

How did you become involved in making music yourself? What do you see as the future for MCPIBTYCP?

I have been playing music forever. I got my first drum kit when I was 4. But I started MCPIBTYCP about a year ago. I was incredibly ill and was confined to my bed for a couple months. I needed some sort of outlet. So I started dabbling in electronic music with my laptop. And I was hooked. I started making some 8-bit stuff and then it just progressed. Once I got back on my feet I tried incorporating electronics with my guitar, drums, keys, whatever was laying around. and now I just use the MCPIBTYCP moniker for all my music whether it be electronic, ambient, folk, indie...

What has the response been to your MCPIBTYCP stuff so far?

It's been far better than I ever imagined. I mean I keep the MCPIBTYCP stuff fairly limited... sometimes only to one copy! but I usually sell out fairly quickly of all my releases. I don't know if its people who are fans of my music or fans of my label. I guess I have both. its hard to tell why people buy my music. I mean I have some customers who basically buy everything scotch puts out. I hope they are doing it because they like the music.

Do you see yourself putting out your music on other labels in the future?

I have a release coming out sometime soon on Nihil Underground. I like the thought of releasing stuff on other labels but I am kind of choosy. I don't think my stuff is so great I can dictate where it gets released or anything. I just like making my own packaging and stuff. But there are a lot of great labels out there that do amazing work... so ummm... if anyone at Ecstatic Peace is reading this... CALL ME!

Plastic Crimewave Sound Extended Haze 8-track

Nihil Underground is a solid label. It seems like they overlap a fair amount with Scotch actually. Anyhow, on the flipside, what do you suggest to the aspiring soundsmith looking to get a release out on Scotch Tapes?

Don't become a Nickelback cover band... I really have no criteria. If I like your music, I will release it. I don't really care if you have 30,000 Myspace friends or 13. I don't look at Scotch as a popularity contest. I like releasing bands that have similar views about the music industry, bands that work hard and bands that are good people. If a band or artist sends me a demo, I will definitely listen to it and I always respond to them. Saturdays are usually my "listen to the weekly demos while working on packaging" days. But please... if you are interested in releasing with Scotch, don't send me a link. That's lazy and I won't listen to it.

What would be your dream release to put out?

If time/reality doesn't exist, a collaboration 12" (180 gram vinyl, of course) between Sonic Youth and Jimi Hendrix. But if I need to choose someone living, a Sonic Youth/Sebadoh split would be pretty effin' rad.

Oh man, Sebadoh's one of my favorite bands of all time. What are your thoughts on Barlow's recent material?

Well... I am really down with the new Dinosaur Jr. stuff since the reunion. Most of those bands that get back together after long layoffs never seem to get it right (Pixies, anyone?). But I think they have. I feel Barlow and Mascis are like the Lennon and McCartney of lo-fi fuzz college indie whatever rock. They work so well together. But basically anything Barlow touches is gold. He is still really approachable after all these years and I think that adds to why I love him as an artist.

Your old Scotch Tapes releases were often limited to under 20 copies. Realist necessity or obscurity fetish?

A little of both. I mean with my first label I tried going to big too soon. I would do a run of 200 for a band who, although talented, never toured or even played many gigs. With scotch, I wanted to stay small. And, I mean, releasing a dead format sort of limits your client base. I started releasing unknown artists and I didn't want to make a bunch of tapes that were going to sit on the shelves. It's not that these bands weren't talented. They just weren't known. But as the label grew, so did these artists. The obscure release has always appealed to me as well. It's always been cool to get a tape/7" that was really limited. I never really cared much about the eBay culture that surrounds these types of releases. I just love knowing that I have a Wolf Eyes album that only 50 people in the world get to listen to. I feel Scotch releases special music and I want my customers to feel like they are getting a special copy.

Do you ever see yourself putting out larger scale releases? As in, 100s of copies or more?

I really don't see me ever releasing more than 100 copies of anything... well... apart from vinyl. I don't want to move into that "real" label category. I like being this little underdog label from the middle of nowhere in Canada. If the right artist comes along, I would likely go up to 100 but nothing larger than that. I released a Shearing Pinx CDR on my other label and it was a run of 99 copies. That's my largest so far.

With digital music proliferation, has the personal charm of owning a limited-edition release diminished? More broadly, do mp3s devalue music as a whole?

I think digital music has increased the personal charm of cassette/ vinyl releases. A CD is basically an mp3 in plastic form. But an analog format can't easily be transferred and sent to a million people. It takes time and commitment. I think mp3s are a great way to share music and to collaborate online with other musicians but I feel that it takes on a whole new "soul" once it's put on a physical release. The music is only part of it. Packaging, art, liner notes. The whole package is what makes physical releases still relevant.

It's true, although the appeal of the handmade package still only seems to apply to a select niche. The average U2 fan is probably just as content with a 128kbps rip of the latest album as with a beautifully hand-designed release. I guess the greatest danger to the DIY scene is that the technology will disappear at some point (e.g. cassettes players/dubbers).

I'm impressed you've managed to track down an functioning 8-track recorder, for that matter... I've heard those things break down after every tenth tape or so...

Yeah... that is always a problem with "dead" formats. I get a lot of people asking me for "bootleg" cd-r copies of releases because they don't have a tape player or an 8-track player. I am sure Scotch won't last forever because this format won't last forever. You will eventually have to break into the Smithsonian to crank out Tayside Mental Health tapes. But maybe electronics manufacturers will notice the little tape renaissance and start making cassette players again. I agree about the average U2 fan though... but U2 isn't on my label so I have no problem with that. But Adam Clayton... if you're reading this... grab the Edge and Mullen (leave Bono) and release something on Scotch! All proceeds will go towards buying me new socks.

Al Qaeda Jesus Died For Your Rims CS

Ha ha, I think I see a C-30 in the future. maybe have them do a split with MCIBTYCP... Going back to the 8-tracks - where did you get the 8-track recorder, and where do you get your tapes from?

I got the recorder from a family friend. My folks were talking to him and mentioned I had started a tape label. He asked them if I would be interested in an 8-track recorder and they just brought it to my place one day... I never even considered releasing 8-tracks but I said what the hell... it would be something different. I searched around online and although I saw a few recent 8-track releases from bands, I couldn't find a label that was still releasing them consistently. It's been a huge selling point for the label when approaching bands I want to release. They love the idea of throwing out a few copies of an 8-track on their merch table. As for the tapes themselves, up until about 2 months ago, I had to use blank tapes (which are pretty rare and expensive) but after talking to a few 8-track gurus on different forums and such, they taught me how to modify my recorder so it would record over old tapes. So now I can erase the music (and hopefully the memory) of Air Supply. I can grab my tapes from thrift stores and garage sales now instead of on eBay for a ridiculous amount.

I've always felt that Ontario is something of a black hole in terms of experimental and unconventional music, although I suppose things are gradually improving. Do you have any local comrades who are into unusual music? What are your thoughts on the Ontarian scene?

Not really. I mean it sort of is a black hole. But I feel that has a lot to do with geography. Ontario is a HUGE province. I mean unless you live in the greater Toronto area, you have to drive 6 hours to get to a decent gig. I mean every small city has some sort of scene, but experimental music has never really taken off in most areas. If I played a gig in the little village where I live, they would have a priest there in an hour performing an exorcism on me.

With that said, does anyone in Batchawana Bay share your musical tastes? Or at least seem to understand the music you put out? What's the Sault Ste. Marie scene like?

The Sault scene is OK. I used to run a small record store there and we would get as many touring bands in as possible. Because the Sault is 8 hours from Toronto and 8 hours from Thunder Bay, it's an obvious stop for bands. So I was able to pull in acts that normally played for hundreds of people... and my crowds were like 10. So that was cool. There are still a couple of cool venues there that get great bands. As for Batchwana Bay, I have always been viewed as the smart, weird, "don't look into his eyes" guy that had a huge vinyl collection... but I can live with that. I could have been the stupid, drunk, "did he ever hit on your sister?" guy who listened to Trooper.

My parents/family never really understood what I was doing at first with the label but when they started visiting my place a little more often and noticed that I was totally committed to the labels, they were on board and now my mom helps out a ton. She goes to the post office almost daily for me.

Canada Post must make a killing off you!

Yeah. They have raised rates TWICE since I started Scotch.

What do you do when you're not making or releasing music?

Sadly, work. I am a fisherman on Lake Superior and that takes up a huge amount of my time. Luckily, it allows me a lot of time to work on the label/music. I don't work winters and since it's a family business I can take whatever time off I need. But I guess if you are asking if I have any hobbies outside of music. Ummmm... I watch a lot of hockey, I paint (time permitting) and I am planning on releasing two books of postcards featuring some of my collage work later this year.

Don't tell me you're a Leafs fan... Will the postcard books be releases through Scotch Tapes? What sort of material is in the collages?

Ha ha... noooooo... I am a hockey fan. That's all. I like watching fast, hard hitting hockey. If the Leafs are on, I will cheer for the other team... even if its Hamilt... I mean Phoenix. The books WILL be released through Scotch Tapes. They should be out this summer. You can see a bunch of my really old ones at That site hasn't been updated in years but I recently got back into making them so I wanted to get some of them out there. So they will be available in postcard books. Each book will have a dozen cards.

Does your job as a fisherman intersect in any way with Scotch Tapes or MCIBTYCP? any plans for a nautical-themed release?

As for being a fisherman, I am releasing a tape from The Big Drum in the Sky Religion and the packaging is made from an old pair of the PVC bib pants I wear on the boat... I get a lot of my ideas while I am out there. It's a great place to just think. Nothing around for miles and miles. As for a nautical themed release, I think the Rogue's Gallery release a few years back did it better than I ever could... amazing sea shanties!

How long are you on the water each day? And where do the fish end up?

I am usually on the water for about 12-16 hours a day. It's not the easiest of jobs and is quite physically demanding but its been the family business for generations. I don't think I really had a choice. We sell most of our catch to a local wholesaler who then ships the fish worldwide... so I couldn't really tell you where the fish goes other than in someone's belly.

What's your favorite type of fish?

I love all fish. Every one I catch puts me one step closer to releasing another tape/record (and one day... retirement). But if you mean what type do I like to eat, it doesn't really matter. I like them all. Fish tastes like fish.

Which label do you model Scotch Tapes after?

Well American Tapes comes to mind. And Goaty Tapes is a label that I admire a lot. They make beautiful stuff. Oh... and David Geffen rules (that's sarcasm...)

American Tapes is pure art. Goaty's Zully Adler is a great guy, he runs the label out of his dorm room! which is amazing considering how terrific everything looks. He also seems to pay a lot of attention to the printing process. Do you see yourself getting your inserts professionally printed in the future?

Yeah... I plan on getting some stuff screen printed and I also plan on using nicer paper. After seeing Goaty Tapes and what they have been doing, I decided I had to up my game. I think my release of We All Inherit the Moon was the prettiest release I've done so far. But that's only the beginning. The packaging for the upcoming Our Love Will Destroy the World tape is going to be pretty sweet and I imagine I will come up with something fancy schmancy for Oneida as well...

What's your favourite on the cheap meal?

I don't know why but I have been eating a ton of toast with peanut butter lately. But I dig Asian fare quite a bit... whether it's Chinese, Japanese, Indian... I like it all.

Even more importantly, what's your favorite colour? How come?

Is clear a colour?

interview conducted by Michael Tau
published October 2009
photo credit Al Bjornaa



all content copyright 2009