Interview Zack TAYLOR – Filmmaker (USA) – 2020
Image Courtesy of Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape.
In early 2020, RecordingTheMasters sat down with Mr. Zack Taylor for an interview at our New York office.
Zack Taylor is the filmmaker behind Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape – a documentary that tells the story of the development of the first cassette by Philips. In the documentary, Mr. Taylor also interviews Lou Ottens (inventor of the cassette tape) and give us an intimate portrait of the man and his team behind the first cassette tape.
Why did you decide to make this film? What made you interested in telling the story of the cassette tape?
I was in grad school for film in 2011. I was scrolling through Facebook and saw an article that said the Oxford English Dictionary was taking out the term ‘cassette tape’ and I just thought – ‘somebody should offer a eulogy’. I was studying film at the time and I thought: “let me be the one to say a few words so that we can bury cassettes in peace”. In 2011 it seemed London was really the center of the cassette revival, where there were plenty of bands doing all sorts of really cool stuff – Earworm Records was the big one at that time. And soon I found labels like that all over the world.
So you started out to make a eulogy – a proper farewell to the cassette tape, did you feel it was still a eulogy by the end or did you walk away with a different impression?
It took me six years to finish the film. My first impression was: ‘shame on me for thinking this format was dead’, just because I hadn’t heard about it for a while. All these great record labels soon come onto my radar – such as Burger Records. But because it took so long, I was ready at any moment for this to die – which never happened, and where we are now, in 2019, we see more of an upswing than we did even in 2011”
Were cassettes a part of your childhood?
I grew up with four older sisters, so cassettes were ubiquitous, they were always around. I always had these grand plans of being a musician or recording something. But it turns out I can barely play a radio. I can’t play anything. It was because of the cassette: I couldn’t make a song – but I could make album. And through these tapes, through these pieces of plastic I could really imprint myself on these inanimate objects and give that to people, not just as a collection of music, but also as a reflection of myself, and that really took hold of me. I had a friend in high school, and we would constantly exchange cassettes.
Did you make mixtapes back in the day?
I’d hit record while the actual tuner was going through the station, as if the process was almost encapsulated in the final product. As a young kid not being able to make any music, mixtapes were the next best thing, and they were very, very effective for me.
Throughout the film there are small recordings from cassette tapes, people speaking, recording children, singing. Even though these recordings are spaced throughout the documentary, it is almost as if they are their own main character. Where did you collect these recordings?
When we were helping our parents move, we found an old box of cassettes from the early ‘70s, when my sister was born, and a lot of the stuff that is in the documentary is from my family. That’s why we’re still talking about cassettes; and that’s why despite their numerous limitations cassettes will always be relevant and they will never go away.
In your documentary, the author Anna Grossman defines the process of “becoming obsolete” as when people have discovered a “better way of doing something”, but quickly qualifies that by asking “what’s better?” Do you think either digital or analog is better? Or are they just “different”?
I’m gonna say yes, analog is better. Yes, analog is better. In the past I’ve been afraid to say that, but I’m going to say that right now. I will qualify that by saying I mostly listen to digital music, but analog to me sounds better. I’m not an audio guy, I’m not an engineer, and I’m not a psychologist either. But I just know that when I put in a tape, my heart kind of skips a beat when you put in the tape and you hear the hiss between the songs – how can I say that’s not better – that is better, that’s inspiring, that’s why we’re still talking about cassettes over 50 years later.
So you got to meet and feature heavily in your documentary Lou Ottens – the inventor of the cassette tape, what was that like?
Last time I saw him was about a year ago, my wife and I went out there to go sailing with him. He loves to sail. He’s 94 now. He was not very nostalgic. He was prouder of the CD because of the sound quality. Right off the bat – his mentality was and still is – when you find a new and better thing; it’s time to move on. In the film he’s quoted as saying “I don’t believe in eternity”.
In your own words, do you believe the medium of music reproduction used fundamentally affects our appreciation of the sound?
We get out of music what we put into it, just like anything else. Music in the 21st century is much more disposable than cassettes ever were, because today it’s just clicking a link. Or in the case of algorithms, a computer clicking a link for you. Cassettes took a little more legwork – let’s say in the case of a homemade mixtape. If you make a C-90, it’s at least that much time to make, because it’s real time – plus a lot more thought. Of course it affects our appreciation of the music, in most digital means the work is done for us. And there are listeners who want that – they don’t want to think about it. But if you’re like me, and you want to think about music then vinyl’s, cassettes, and even reel to reel – then the reward is so much greater than what you put into it.