In the same way as Belgium’s gems often operate beneath the surface, far removed from the glare and glitter of mainstream spotlights, EE Tapes exists on the fringes of fringes. A tiny one-man band based out of founder Eriek Van Havere’s (1957) Sint-Niklaas home, the label – which emerged from Van Havere’s minimal means and trading tendencies – has since the mid-80s been releasing small runs of cassette tapes that, most often than not, would probably never have seen the light day were it not for his indefatigable and, to some, inexplicable obsession for the more experimental sounds coming out of the country’s underground. Here, in a rare interview, the near-recluse talks tape swaps, his love of compilations and why he continues to release Alain Neffe music.
Can we begin by discussing your background?
I live and work in Sint-Niklaas. I studied translation and interpretation in Ghent, but ended up working for the East-Flemish CAW welfare centre since 1983. I started out as a youth tutor, but gradually got plodded into administration. I’m two years away from retirement now. Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette?
Not at all, no. Have you always lived in Sint-Niklaas?
Yes, born and bred. With the exception of a couple of years in the 90s, when my old house was sold off and I moved to the Netherlands. I still went to work in Sint-Niklaas with my scooter every day though. It was about 25km away, and with the Belgian weather, it wasn’t an ideal situation. I’ve lived on my own ever since I started working. The first two years were in a flat, but that wasn’t really my thing – neighbours everywhere… I like to listen to my music on full blast, you know. Then I moved into a little old working-class cottage, just like this one. It had no bathroom and almost no electricity. I mean, this living room does have one plug, but at some point the walls got damp and it started sparkling. I don’t use it anymore.
When did you become interested in music? While you were studying in Ghent?
When I was 13 or 14, I became obsessed with progressive and symphonic rock. Bands like Yes, early Genesis or Earth and Fire. I can’t really explain why, but music has always been an emotion for me, something which allows me to escape. At that time, I would spend all of my pocket money on records. There weren’t all that many stores, and usually only with limited stock. If you wanted a new record that had to be imported, you’d face six weeks of waiting time. So you’d only get it two months after its release. I now know that was rubbish: stores just waited until they could place a bigger order, to limit costs. There wasn’t much you could do about it, except go to London or Berlin yourself. Which I did do once – but I’m not much of a traveller.
Were you surrounded by like-minded people back then?
Pretty much, but like me, they were mostly listeners, not musicians. I never played music, although I did have a classical guitar at one moment. And at some point I bought a synthesiser, but never really used that either, so I passed it on to minimal synth musician and boss of experimental cassette label Insane Music, Alain Neffe. He’s worked with it for close to 50 years now – he knows how to handle them. I’m not much of a keeper anyway. Last year I threw away 99% of my archive of correspondences and flyers, which had accumulated over three decades.
When did you evolve from prog-rock to other, more experimental stuff?
Between the ages of 16 and 18, I began to listen to anything with a bit more experimental leaning. I wasn’t really into chart-toppers if you catch my drift. I was also going to a lot of gigs at the time: Peter Hammill, Van der Graaf Generator, Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Jethro Tull.
How did you find out about this more experimental stuff? Through record stores?
Yes and no. When the smaller independent labels started booming in the late 70s, early 80s, I basically wrote to the artists directly – that’s how I met Alain Neffe, for instance. I had found some of his cassettes in Ghent’s Music Mania Records shop and wrote to him. I discovered so much thanks to the compilations he was releasing. I think that must’ve been around 1982 or 83: Pseudo Code had disbanded and his other band BeNe GeSSeRiT was already very popular. It lasted until 1985 when we actually met in real life for the first time. Now we see each other two or three times a year. Every time I release some of his music, he picks up copies and then I take him and his wife out for dinner in Sint-Niklaas, out of appreciation for all his work.
If you wanted a new record that had to be imported, you’d face six weeks of waiting time.
Do you ever visit him?
It’s like the Illuminati of minimal synth around one table!
(Laughs) Nadine Bal, Alain’s wife and musical partner, is a really good cook. Alain too probably – but he’s always busy in his studio. The crazy thing for me is that they’ve never stopped making music. That’s one of the reasons I keep releasing his stuff. People always like to comment on the fact that the music I release is old, or a reissue, but Alain continues to make new music – contrary to some groups who reunite for some stupid ass 80s festival.
Were you already involved in the music scene before launching your own imprint EE Tapes?
I used to put up shows for a now-defunct youth house in Sint-Niklaas. It was called Clichee at first, before becoming Kompas. I mainly programmed local bands, but also some international ones, like Trespassers W or Crawling Chaos. They had released on Factory Records and were good friends of mine. We would correspond with each other and swap homemade cassettes. And around 1983, the first – and last – independent record shop opened up in Sint-Niklaas: the Kitchen. It was my playground. I helped out once a week. I remember going with them to Pias or Boudisque to pick up records. The latter was crazy: a massive Amsterdam-based storehouse where you could drive around in a shopping cart.
All the money I made at the Kitchen basically stayed at the Kitchen – it was simply a means for me to finance my hobby. I often helped them out on Saturdays too, selling tickets for the stadium concerts around the country. Before the Internet, you had to get your tickets for Prince or U2 at local record stores, you know. We also ran a non-profit for a while, organising concerts in a venue on the market of Sint-Niklaas with bands like the Klinik, the Bollock Brothers and Executive Slacks. It was a good time: I got to meet so many like-minded, music-obsessed people in this store, and people who were making cassettes too. Anyone could drop their releases off in our shop, and come back a couple weeks later – or years – to collect an envelope. But you need to keep in mind that cassettes were never hugely popular. The Kitchen was still all about records. I’ve also collaborated on a pirate radio – sometime late 80s, early 90s – called Progres. I was the sidekick in TouchTone, a friend’s radio show. I’ve never DJed myself; it’s not in me to be at the centre of attention. I prefer to work behind the scenes. I like to travel alone, in my mind. Very different from today’s young kids. They’ll travel anywhere for their music… I’ve always preferred to stay in Sint-Niklaas.
When did you decide to start EE Tapes?
Jo Verbruggen of the Kitchen started KK Records in 1987. I always wanted to have my own label too, but since I lacked the money, I decided to release cassettes instead. I had enough contacts, like Front Line Assembly, Attrition, and Insane Music. My first cassette Notre Dame came with a booklet. I had given the musicians a theme to work with, which went something like, “The dark imaginary soundtrack of your inner mind.” It pushed me into the corner of dark ambient music, which still lingers in my mind – although I have released a whole array of different things by now.
What was in the booklet?
Information and discographies of the musicians on the cassette, and artwork from local artists. Art with a small a though, as they say: poetry, drawings, little aquarelles.
How did you manage the sales? Through magazine ads?
I sent out flyers, and there was quite some word of mouth involved. You really had to get behind your project. In the 80s everything had to go through the post office, with pen and paper. Now I can reach a thousand people with one email. It was basically a part-time job on its own: I was constantly busy with orders and packages.
Did you have a plan when you started?
(Laughs) No, not at all. I tried to limit myself to a maximum of four releases per year to not overdo it. And today with vinyl it’s even less because it’s so expensive. I release a CD too, with bonus tracks, so people can access the files digitally. Customers always ask for download codes, but I can’t be bothered. I’m not a digital person, I hate technology.
I do see a laptop though! Do you sell online too now?
Yes, with a mailing list! I get a lot of help from Jan Van den Broeke. He’s an architect but is also actively involved in the label. He’s in charge of the technical side of design and audio. I’ve also released some of his music, as part of Absent Music, June11 and the Misz.
By “technical side”, you mean mastering?
That’s usually already done by the artists. When someone like Alain does it, that’s cool, I don’t have to worry about it. But the quality of mastering isn’t always that great, and so Jan lends a hand. And thank god for that: there was a huge mistake with the test pressing of the first LP I released, a Pseudo Code double album. I didn’t know vinyl needed an extra, separate mastering. So making new test pressings all over again cost me an extra 1,200 euros. Nowadays you can learn all that stuff, but I had no clue at the time. As for the cover art, I usually talk to Jan about what I have in mind, and he makes it. Some, like Alain, will already give me the final product. I enjoy that less, but I understand – it’s their baby. Before Jan was around, it was more haphazard, like the booklets with artwork from locals that came with the first four releases. I also published a couple of books with certain releases, but I won’t be doing that anymore. Nobody buys them through my mail order service. They should probably be in bookstores anyways.
Do you always give the musicians an assignment?
No, only for the first four compilation cassettes. The concept thing watered down after a while, and I opened up the label to more genres. You can’t keep drawing water from the same well. I also started releasing albums from one group or artist in lieu of compilations, since many cassettes and demos were sent my way once I had put down my contact details in the first releases.
How many copies were you releasing at the time?
I was making 200 cassettes at first, but I eventually halved that to around 100, because in the 90s no one cared about them anymore. The only people who did were running a cassette label themselves. So we would swap amongst ourselves, which wasn’t really bringing in any money of course. Running a cassette label was basically just another means of coping with my addiction.
Did you make the cassettes yourself?
At first, I had them made in a series of 100 or 50 through an outsourced company, which cost quite a lot. I thought it was very professional of me, but it went wrong a couple of times because the cassettes weren’t recorded loud enough. So I ended up copying the cassettes myself, using two or three cassette decks. A very slow process, but it worked and didn’t cost anything! Of course, the master tape wore out faster because I had to constantly play it, which is another reason why I limited myself to 100 copies – more wouldn’t have been possible.
What’s your take on all the people who are now obsessing over the 80s, with the resurgence of minimal synth, ambient, and all?
I think it’s crazy. Back then, Kraftwerk weren’t considered “real musicians”. And now their music is deemed the highest art.
Running a cassette label was basically just another means of coping with my addiction.
What did this sudden interest in 80s music mean for EE Tapes?
I have a lot more Belgian customers now. But I guess that also has to do with the switch from cassette and CD to vinyl, which is also more popular now. Before, my audience was more international: Japan, Australia, Brazil, the US. I would get mail orders from everywhere, especially for Insane Music related stuff.
Did other labels ever contact you to do something with your back catalogue?
I’m in touch with Minimal Wave, Vinyl-on-demand, OnderStroom Records and the likes. But that’s just to help them out whenever they have questions. This is my hobby, not a job. I’m not looking to make a living out of it and I enjoy helping people out. Many of the addresses I handed out in the past are no longer in use, but thanks to the Internet it’s become much easier to find people anyway. Jan has just made a Facebook page for EE Tapes, for instance – I wouldn’t know where to start – where some 200 people follow what we do. It’s very handy for promoting a new record too: a little picture here, a YouTube clip there. And I buy him dinner in return, essentially so we can moan and complain about everything and everyone.
Would you say you’re a natural born complainer, like a lot of older music heads?
No, I’m very optimistic by nature. It’s just that sometimes the work stress gets the better of me.
Did you ever put a lot of effort into convincing a certain artist to release with you?
Not really. The thing with a cassette label is that you’re in a rather weak position: there’s not much to offer. Especially in the 80s – you weren’t fully respected if you didn’t release records. But I’ve always managed to find enough people that I found interesting to work with. I also don’t need big names, that’s never what it was about. At a certain time, shops wouldn’t even accept cassettes anymore. That’s when I switched to mail orders. It must’ve been around the time when CDs were in full swing. At first, I did a whole series of CD-Rs, but those were also considered “inferior”. My first real CD release was a compilation called The Walls Are Whispering… in 2003, while the first vinyl record must’ve been The Misz in 2010. All the singles from that series are gone by now, except for Kloot Per W – EE Tapes isn’t exactly your typical rock-oriented label. If I press 300 copies of a record, around 50 of those go directly to the artist. I sell the majority of what remains through my mail order, while some shops sell copies too, like Music Mania Records and Vynilla in Ghent, A-Musik in Cologne, or NEdS Records and Meditations in Japan.
I don’t need big names, that’s never what it was about.
Have you considered working with a distributor?
I prefer to do everything myself. My business model is to break even, that’s all that counts. I’m operating on the margins anyway, you know. 10 years ago, you could easily sell 500 CDs of my stuff, but not anymore. Now I aim for a run of 300 copies, which costs me around 700 euros for a double CD – depending on the cover, the material and whatnot. I sell them for approximately 7 euros wholesale, and for 10 or 11 through my mailing, depending on who I’m dealing with (laughs). And people who buy more items get a discount.
Do you have a ritual for listening to music?
If I’m working on a new release, the master tape is on repeat all day, just to be sure. And even once it’s been sent out to the pressing plant, the tape’s still playing. As you can see, my TV is always on too, but on mute. And so I carry on with my day, processing orders and such. You’ve probably also noticed that I collect all the cardboard boxes I can get my hands on.
Do you still visit record shops?
I’m staying away from them as much as possible – self-protection. I need to hang on to my money to finance the releases. I occasionally sell on request some of the stuff I’ve collected over the years. Especially compilations, since I bought tons of those back in the day. It was one of the best ways to find new music. And some cassettes: I fetched 80 bucks for a Tara Cross cassette recently. A way to feed some money back into the label.
I’m intrigued by your love for compilations, it’s not something you often hear.
It’s the crème de la crème. At least, it should be – even if a lot of them are crap… But they always offer something different, and I like that variation.
I saw you also have a sub-label.
I don’t, actually. Some guys on Discogs just made a separate entry for a series I released under EE Tapes. Everything falls under just one label, but I can’t be arsed to correct it. That’s something for people without jobs who like to spend their days behind their computers.
That’s pretty relativist for someone who’s been running a label from his living room for 30 years.
I’ve always been like that. It remains a hobby. I just want to be able to continue what I do, so I like to make enough money to fill my next financial pit.
Have you ever wondered if you’d be forced to quit due to an unsuccessful release?
During my tape days, constantly. I was just investing, then saving, and investing again. But I did end up with an insane collection thanks to all the swapping.
Did you ever involve other people in the label?
When EE Tapes was still primarily a cassette label, my friend Sven Vercauteren was involved for close to a decade, when I was still out and about more and saw the bands I released perform, like Maeror Tri and Zoviet France, if I remember correctly. I’m sorry, my memory is fading a bit, I often have to look stuff up online – even my own releases.
Don’t you have a digital archive?
No, all my masters are on cassette, CD-R or MiniDisc, because for a couple of years I thought it would become the “next big thing” – but it didn’t.
What do you have coming up for EE Tapes?
There are two vinyl releases planned. First up is Volume 5 of 4in1, an LP and a CD with bonus tracks, featuring Human Flesh, BeNe GeSSeRiT, I Scream and M.A.L. So basically Insane Music related bands. And there’s a Brume LP coming too.
Do you have other hobbies, besides music?
(Laughs), Not really, apart from my family and friends, my life is all music-related. The only other thing I regularly do is go out for dinner or lunch with my sister. Every Saturday we dine in a different restaurant in Sint-Niklaas. And after a couple of weeks we have to start all over again because Sint-Niklaas isn’t that big.eetapes.be