Chris Phinney has a long and varied homemade music/cassette culture history. From zinester, to local Memphis, Tennessee scenester, to homemade recording artist, Harsh Reality Music label head, and well beyond Earth’s orbit, Phinney’s contributions to the dawn of post-punk home recording and networking beg documentation.
I am excited about working with Chris and Hal on the Harsh Reality Music historical web site that will be housed at haltapes.com. Hal started the site with a label discography:
A personal side note is that my introduction to both artists was through a review submission of their 1997 Homemade Alien Music Volume 2: Ancient Astronauts collaboration. In 2000, Chris sent me a copy of the CD for review in Aural Innovations, and the cover art and accompanying comic book immediately grabbed my attention. Here is the review I published in the online edition of Aural Innovations (issue #13, October 2000).
Little did I know at the time that this set of space exploratory music was only the beginning of what would be a glorious tsunami of submissions that would find me well steeped in both Chris and Hal’s experimental, electronic, space, noise, cut-up worlds for years to come.
Our approach (so far…)
I am listening to and making detailed track notes for every tape in the catalog. I’m in my element here… My love of deep dive, total immersion into music and writing about it is what drove my passion for running the Aural Innovations web zine for 18 years.
We started with the first ten tapes in the catalog. Check out the Harsh Reality discography and you will see that Hal has the first several releases, including the first of Chris’ ‘bands’ - Pungent Odor and several Skoptzies tapes - digitized and available to stream.
I sent my track notes to Chris, whose memory of these early 1980s efforts needed jogging. With the cobwebs (more or less) cleared, I called Chris on December 5, 2018, and we took a two hour stroll down Harsh Reality memory lane. We discussed his publication of the Malice fanzine, each of the first ten tapes in the catalog, and his efforts to inspire, provoke, and promote a local punk/experimental music scene in Memphis.
Talking to Chris was fascinating.
Chris (and Mike Honeycutt’s) publication and local/ international promotion of Malice, their efforts to promote both local and national touring punk acts in Memphis, and Chris’ international networking/trading/collaborating efforts with Harsh Reality straddle and intertwine with the punk and cassette culture histories that unfolded throughout the 1980s.
“We started Malice with Bob X and Xno. They were both cartoonists. Mike Honeycutt wrote some stuff and I wrote some stuff. When we started the zine it was a mutual thing. We had artwork from all over the place. We wanted it to be comics, and reviews, live stuff and photos. And we paid for it with ads. As we got closer to the end everyone pretty much kind of quit. The last issue, number 9, I did all by myself. I was talking to Honeycutt and we said, you know, why are we reviewing all these other people’s stuff when we could be doing our own stuff, even though we don’t have the gear to do so? Basically we got burned out on the publishing. So I started a label and started recording with no gear hardly at all.”
The Harsh Reality label released tapes by an exciting array of international artists, including a country specific series of compilations. But beginning with the first Harsh Reality tapes was of particular interest to me because of the very first recorded experiments by Chris and some of his Memphis cohorts. It’s crucial to understand that despite the range of international artists on the label, there was always a local Memphis element, featuring numerous bands and collaborations by a group of musicians that Zan Hoffman dubbed ‘The Memphis Mafia’.
When I was introduced to Chris’ music in 2000, he was already a seasoned home recording artist and knew his way around synths and keys.
But listening to the first recording under his Mental Anguish moniker aka — HR001: Better Pull That Plug — was a shock and awe experience. The young artist noodling at home and exploring the possibilities features a fun glom of banging on objects, primitive percussion, power tools, ranting vocals, and even some organ and acoustic guitar. All were recorded real time with an Akai 4-track open reel-to-reel.
“The organ was an organ that my dad had. It was an electronic organ that you plug in. And of course I had an acoustic guitar. A Spanish flamenco. And everything else was basically trash can lids, sheet metal, horseshoes. I was just trying to make my own stuff and see what would happen. It was all pretty much just improv really. Mostly real time, recording as you’re playing it.”
The rest of the first ten releases include collaborations with Mike Honeycutt (Non Religious Sect), Richard Martin (Macroglossia), the Pungent Odor and Skoptzies tapes, another Mental Anguish set, and Chris’ first experience with releasing music by an international artist (Konstruktivists - Psyko-Genetika 2).
And this is just the tip of a 338 tape iceberg. Interviewing Chris by phone about the first ten releases went really well, so I think we’ll continue to attack these in chunks. We allowed the discussions to be sufficiently free-form that all kinds of interesting and important historical bits crept in. I imagine the discussions will always be more detailed when it comes to the local releases that Chris and his mafia cohorts collaborated on. And, indeed, I see the local Memphis component as being a story in itself. Stay tuned for further updates…
Jerry Kranitz published Aural Innovations: The Global Source For Space Rock Exploration from 1998-2016. AI started as a printed zine (nine issues from 1998-2000) and then went online for the duration. The web site also included regularly broadcast editions of Aural Innovations Space Rock Radio.