Reel to reel revolution: In coversation with Chelsea Sawatsky

Mattie - Sara Hembree

Cassettes are at once the most derided and beloved form of music media. A holdover from the days of 8-tracks, and a predecessor to Sony’s short-lived Mini Disc experiment, cassettes have consistently drawn the ire of self-ascribed audiofiles who loudly decry the format’s sonic limitations, warbles, and tendency to spill long black gut into the fast moving wheels of Walkman. But some of us are reluctant to let go. We resist the urge to replace our cassette collections with CDs or MP3s, preferring analogue sound even in a form most suspect. Some, such as Shake! Records founder Chelsea Sawatzky, have gone a step further; in 2009, Sawatzky launched a record label featuring cassettes as its primary medium.

Shake! Records unofficially began as an imaginary branding. While designing the album art for her band, Durban Poison, Sawatzky decided to throw the logo of a then-non-existent record label in as a joke. The image stuck, however, and has been affixed to every one of the band’s subsequent releases. Sawatzky soon started helping her friends’ bands with their own independent releases under the Shake! label.For Sawatzky, the format of such recordings was never an option.

“We would go on tour a lot and we wanted to listen to our friends’ stuff in the van — the only way to do that was to put it on tape,” Sawatzky explains. “That got the whole thing rolling, and over the past couple years, we have gained a lot of momentum with the label. It’s been kind of weird.”

Shake! Records has certainly grown. The label’s 2014 compilation tape features tracks by more than twenty bands including Monster Treasures, The Backhomes, The Electric Dates, and Tranzmitors. While Sawatzky continues to expand in terms of roster and format, Shake! Records’ releases are consistently analogue: the label has released 45s, and recently embarked on a limited issue run of VHS tapes. Sawatzky also makes and distributes a wealth of other merch such as buttons and t-shirts, regularly loading up her table at the Fernwood Flea Market with a plethora of goods.

As Shake! Records grows, Sawatzky continues to refine her aural aesthetics around tape. Whereas many prefer the ease and infinite possibility of digital methods of recording such as Pro Tools, Sawatzky’s own sensibilities look back as Shake! Records looks forward.

“I love the sound of tapes,” Sawatzky says. “It is more organic, warmer, and easier to crank up on my stereo. I think CDs are a flawed medium: people love the sounds of 60s and 70s records because they were all recorded on tape, on reel. Digital recording cuts down the sound quality and creates a barrier between the music and the listener.”

“I am gravitating toward a more lo-fi sound these days,” Sawatzky continues. “I love bands like the Sonics who recorded their albums with one mic set up in their living room. I find that a lot of bands “evolve” in terms of recording techniques… I guess you can say that in a way, I am regressing, but progressing in terms of capturing the sound that I want.”

Predictably, reactions to Shake! Records penchant for cassettes and lo-fi sound have been mixed. When Shake! Records started distribution in 2010, many record shop owners were puzzled, and some were even enraged by the label’s throwback to tape. But, as Sawatzky explains, attitudes are slowly starting to shift.

“I’ve noticed over the past few years, more and more people are coming around. Even in this one record shop, where the owner was really anti-tape two years ago, changed their tune when I went back this past year. They ended up buying a bunch.”

Shake! Records’ lo-fi aesthetic will be on full display this June when the label hosts its very first music festival. SHAKE/ARAMA will celebrate the release of ten new tapes including a limited edition festival tape which will be given away for free at certain shows. Featuring artists including Catholic Girls, Soupcans, Defektors, and many more, SHAKE/ARAMA will be held at venues as diverse as Lucky Bar, Logans, Copper Owl, and at secret locations across town. The festival will be prefaced by a smaller-scale festival which runs from May 8 to 10 at the Copper Owl in Victoria and Crace Mountain in Nanaimo. The merch tables of these festivals will inevitably be lined with cassettes, proving the staying power of a once derided format.


words by Nicholas Oswald Lyons, photo by Sara Hembree


originally published in analogue magazine’s May 2014 issue