The Cassettes: Steam Punk in a Slow City State of Mind

The The Cassettes photophoto of The Cassettes courtesy and © Shamus Fatzinger

In a world that continues to get smaller, faster, and crueler, some communities around the world, notably at least thirty-three towns through Italy, have initiated an idealistic reactionary movement. Many self-professed “slow cities” are placing cultural priority on the simpler things in life, harkening back to an idyllic time before omnipresent fast food chains and the explosion of information technology.

The Cassettes are a D.C. five-piece that reflects this world view through a completely contemporary lens.

“It’s everything that looks back to a simpler time, about the simpler things in life,” said singer/guitarist Shelby Cinca, “Being with people, having tea, slowing things down in the fast pace of the modern society.”

The current Cassettes lineup is a flagship of the members’ diverse backgrounds and down-to-earth musical foundations. Cinca, for example, was born in Bucharest, came to the US as an infant, and grew up speaking Romanian. He is the only remaining member of his family in the United States (his parents returned after the fall of the Iron Curtain). Percussionist Saadat Awan, a Pakistani by heritage, wears the traditional salwar kameez onstage and sings backup, occasionally in Punjabi or Urdu. Multi-instrumentalist, part-time vocalist, and facial hair impresario Stephen Guidry is a Louisiana native, whose Boncajun accordion was handmade by Larry Miller, one of the biggest names in Cajun music. The band’s onstage attire is a staple of their image, but they could perform successfully, with nothing lost, no matter how they dress. While “vaudevillian” is a good way to describe the essence of what The Cassettes do, Cinca hates getting labeled with terms like “retro.” “We’re not really caricaturizing or trying to recreate anything, we’re just telling stories, and not trying to be anything other than what we are,” he said, addressing the apparent irony in the band’s dual fascination with mixing the modern and the antique, “Even though we record digitally, we don’t go down ‘the path of evil’ where you start just fixing snare drums [digitally], and the next thing you know, you’re doing Photoshop-style filtering, and you end up with a version of yourself that’s not even representative of how you really are.”

“I think that the name ‘The Cassettes’ and our music, speaks to the simple beauty of mechanical things,” said bassist Tom Bernath, “Even down to something like the rhythm section.”

Bernath plays an original 1961 fiberglass Ampeg upright bass that he bought directly from the inventor, Jess Oliver.

“[The Ampeg Baby Bass] was one of the first attempts at amplifying an upright bass,” Bernath mentioned.

Cinca’s guitars are reissues of 1930’s models, including the National Steel Guitar. He acquired an antique Hawaiian lap steel from an estate sale recently, which he has been integrating into a couple of new songs.

Awan alternates between the ordinary drum kit, tablas from India, and if the performance space permits it (as it did during their Oct 9 performance at The Black Cat), a chair nudged through the crowd, accompanied by a bicycle horn.

Arthur Harrison, the band’s resident Theremin virtuoso and occasional crooner, builds his own Theremins like the 151 Model he often uses onstage, and he distributes Theremin schematics and parts through his online company, Harrison Instruments.

“I became interested in Theremins a decade ago, so I put up the page on the internet with a bunch of designs for people to build,” said Harrison, mentioning how his site has become one of the most-viewed Theremin sites on the internet. “People kept emailing me asking me where they could find the parts [for the models], so I started to sell them through my own company.”

He and Guidry both came to The Cassettes from the Parlor Scouts, another DC indie band. While Harrison enjoyed the Parlor Scouts, he saw The Cassette’s organic, spontaneous musical infrastructure a better fit for his Theremin.

Their appeal has no boundaries either. In late October, they played a pair of shows at the Takoma Park Planetarium, and when the lights came up, the band was amazed to see that not only was every seat filled, but so was most of the standing room.

“The best story out of the whole thing,” began Awan, “was this family who had seen us a couple days previous, at Clarendon Day [in Arlington], busking on the street, and all five of them showed up [to the Planetarium show]. We enjoyed the fact that a whole family [could] become fans of ours and come to our show.”

Their universal theme and appeal notwithstanding, the Cassettes are definitely a part of a movement reactionary to the excesses of modern society, but are content to rely on the power of music.

“There’s a certain innocence lost in music, I feel,” said Guidry, “Modern music is just not appealing to me anymore, because if you go from old Indian music to old Romanian music to old Brazilian music, you hear a certain honesty, a certain innocence to those songs, which I think is lost in music nowadays.”

The Cassettes, like the dozens of slow cities around the globe, are doing their part to recapture that honesty while both embracing and entertaining what the modern age has to offer. In fact, Awan’s laptop is almost like a sixth member of the band. He uses it to write set lists, experiment with beats, and destroy Storm Troopers, often all in the span of one practice. Two Cassettes songs, “Be Quite Still” and “Our Whispers” were inspired by computers and failed online relationships, respectively.

“[The good thing] about this band is our musical sensibility,” said Guidry, “We can have a song about anything, and it never really seems like our ‘joke song’ or ‘serious song.’ Our subject matter goes all over the place, sometimes it’s lighter, sometimes its heavier.”
Their set at IOTA on Friday night ventured between country/folk-tinged pieces like “Small and Tired,” to songs like the Zydeco/rockabilly-influenced “Rogue Gnome” to straight-ahead rockers like “Lady Faire” seamlessly.

“We’re basically a steam-punk band. Once the infrastructure falls, [and] all the power grids fall, we’ll be fine,” half-joked Cinca, as he and Harrison interjected that the Theremins can run on 9-Volt batteries.

“In a worst case scenario,” he continued, “we’ll be fine, busking on the streets of cities and towns, for petrol. We’ll have a way of entertaining and sustaining ourselves, while other musicians will be trying to find a way of rewriting their punk rock songs on acoustic guitars.”

2 Comments

  1. […] The Cassettes describe themselves as “rock ‘n roll vaudeville inter-galactic western troubadors!” We have our own description of these steam punkers. They are playing the Iota Club & Cafe on Friday with Cateract and Kitty Hawk. FREE MP3: “Some Kind of Monster” by Kitty Hawk […]

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