Even for the most avid of musical aesthetes, cassette tape collecting is a mostly off-the-map activity. Also off the map—at least, I’m guessing, for most of Thrdcoast readers’ music sensibilities—is the Central European country of Slovakia. Filip Zemčík, though, doesn’t care about either fact. For the past few years, he has run the label Z Tapes, which exclusively produces cassette tapes, out of a studio in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava.
As I learned over email, Zemčík seems to possess near-limitless energy to get things done. On top of Z Tapes, which has now released more than thirty tapes of lo-fi bedroom pop and rock from artists all over the world, he has also started the music blog start-track.com and United Cassettes, a site promoting the “cassette movement” (in addition to some culinary pursuits and the sales work that pays him). Here’s a bit from Zemčík on his label and how he’s putting tapes back on the map.
Thrdcoast: So, first of all, who are you? Where are you from and what’s your background?
Filip Zemčík: I am a boy running a cassette label. I am ‘90s child. I live in the small city, Bratislava, Slovakia, where I also work as salesman for my father's company. Food industry stuff—something on the opposite side of my hobbies. I was into music since childhood and remember listening to cassettes with music by The Offspring and Bloodhound Gang. My passion for music turned into my blog, start-track.com, which has been alive for more than five years.
TC: How did Z Tapes start?
FZ: While doing my blog, I have been following many cool labels such as Crash Labels, Spirit Cat, and, of course, Orchid Tapes. I loved what they were doing and wanted to join them. First, I planned to collaborate with Spirit Cat Tapes but ended up starting my own cassette label. Cassettes quickly became my favorite medium, and I have been collecting them since. It's almost three years from the point when I started. It's been a great journey.
TC: What draws you to cassette tapes over other mediums?
FZ: They’re cheap, they’re small, and they look cool. Also, the fact that tapes are not meant to last forever makes them more alive. I like that. Also for me, as a label manager, the production costs, the accessibility, and the fact they are still part of a niche market made me choose them. I do not have money for pressing vinyl. I want to stick with tapes forever, but vinyl might be an additional bonus, like the 10" lathe cut we are currently doing.
TC: What’s the status of cassette tapes these days? Do you see them more as collectors’ items, or is there an argument to be made for how they make music—particularly the “bedroom music” on the Z Tapes label—sound?
FZ: I love the sound of tapes. It's different; it's lo-fi; it's real. But people do not buy cassettes because of the quality of sound. People just collect them or want to have something from bands they like. Also they look so nice. Cassettes are pieces of art. And they suit bedroom music 100%.
TC: Can you give a little overview of what's involved in the recording and production of cassettes? Do you have a creative say in how the music and cover art will translate to the cassette medium?
FZ: I usually ask bands just for music; sometimes I ask my friends to master it; and sometimes bands do it themselves. It depends. Then there is art, which is done by my friends or by bands or by some designers. I am always open to the wishes of bands for artwork design, cassette color, or any other things connected to release. As I am not a designer, my input is only as a critique. But I always have a clear idea about how the tape should or should not look. For dubbing, I use amazing services of a guy from the Czech Republic running Headless Duplicated Tapes. The collaboration with him is very good and it makes the whole process of creation very easy. Also, it is more professional than home dubbing.
TC: Along those lines, are many of your releases cassette versions of albums already released, or are there also some cassette-only releases?
FZ: To use an example, split is released on 10" Lathe Cut and cassette. Also, Ashland by EP was released on vinyl though my friend's label Paper Dove Records. All of my releases are available online for free (excluding few). I am not doing reissues, but might in the future.
TC: You also started United Cassettes (UC). Tell me about this “cassette movement.”
FZ: Last summer I had an idea to unite cassette labels and create a platform that could be all about cassettes. I thought cassettes deserve more attention than they are getting, so we created a site and we made an awesome map, where we have more than 150 labels that are releasing music on cassettes. Now, the site is run by Mia. She is the best "CEO" I could have ever hoped for for UC. There are many reviews, interviews, and other stuff going at this moment. We want to work on more things, but it is hard to manage it beside all the things we do. I am personally working on European cassette distro, but that will take some time.
TC: I think everyone who grew up pre-Internet music sharing remembers his or her first cassette/record/cd. What was yours?
FZ: As I have mentioned above, The Offspring and Bloodhound Gang are in my memories. Also, this Slovakian band called Ine Kafé. With my brother, we used to record songs from radio onto cassettes and listen to them over and over. Cassettes were at my beginnings. It was a good time.
TC: I’m guessing you have a pretty sizable cassette collection. What’s the crown jewel of the collection? Are there any tapes you have been looking for but haven’t been able to find yet?
FZ: I used to buy more cassettes when I was not doing my label, but now most of my money goes towards producing cassettes. I still buy cassettes, though. My favorite pieces are from Orchid Tapes, Sports Day Records, and Fox Food Records. It is hard to choose one, but anything with Elvis Depressedly/Coma Cinema music is dear to me.
TC: I’m based in Brooklyn, where there tends to be some music-scene tunnel vision; you sometimes forget that there are other fertile music scenes in the rest of the world (beyond Philadelphia, PA). How would you describe the music scene in Bratislava for us narrow-minded Brooklyn folk?
FZ: The scene in Bratislava is not present. Maybe few years ago there was some small scene, but now there are just a bunch of bands and some electronic producers. I do not listen to Slovakian music at all. It's not my cup of coffee, but bands like Queer Jane or Elections in Deaftown and producers like Foolk or Whithe are worth checking out. I’m planning to work with them in future. Hopefully one day I will be proud to say that the Bratislava scene is cool and I am glad to be part of it. Maybe one day.
TC: It seems you have collected a pretty diverse roster of artists from all over the place. How do you find the bands that end up on your label?
FZ: Mostly through Bandcamp. Without Bandcamp there would not be Z Tapes. I always write to bands or musicians that I want to release. Most of the time it is successful. More over past weeks I have been getting many submissions, but I do not want to release something that I am not 90-100% sure about.
TC: What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on with Z Tapes?
FZ: My two favorite things are our Theme Song Benefit Compilation FRY YR BRN that we did this spring together with the blog Cereal and Sounds. I am very proud of every single cover of a theme song featured there. Also, the fact that it was for a cause makes me so happy. I have always wanted to give something back to people that need it more than us. My second favorite thing is our last, split. It is our first not-only-cassette release, and it features music gems. I am very proud of it, too. But I love every single release I did. I do not regret any of them.
TC: It seems that you stay pretty busy doing a lot of different things. What other kinds projects are you working on now? What’s next?
FZ: I have tons of things that interest me. I am taking 35mm photographs; I work as a salesman; I am starting a blog about Slovakian gastronomy; I am offering marketing services; I am a huge coffee geek; and I like to travel. I always have many things in my mind, but so little time. I want to do more stuff for UC, write reviews, do vlogs, work on UC cassette distro, go to more events to promote tapes, etc. Also I am planning a wedding soon, so there will be a lot happening. I am thrilled.