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A Short Run: A Collection of Lathe-Cut Records

Luke Wood

1. Needles and Plastic

I didn’t know it for many years but I grew up with a lathe-cut record—one my father had made as an aspiring folk singer in Christchurch in the late 1960s. It looked like a normal, black 7-inch record, but it was slightly heavier and felt colder to touch than a normal record. It also wore out and is almost unplayable now. It was
made by Robbins Recordings of 173 Gloucester Street, Christchurch, and was not actually a vinyl record as I knew it, but an aluminium-cored disc coated with cellulose nitrate laquer. As a kid I assumed dad had made a bunch
of them and used to tell my friends; “my dad made a record”. Years later I found out he only made the one. My father’s record is a survivor from what was once a fairly common service; you could go into any one of a number of recording studios and record—or ‘cut’—your very own one-off acetate direct to disc.

In 1877 Thomas Edison famously recorded sound by using a stylus, a special sort of needle, which when vibrated by an audio signal scratched an impression into a piece of tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder. Ten years later Emile Berliner invented the lateral-cut disc, a flat circular shaped object that we would now recognise as a record; and lathe-cut records—discs which have the audio directly etched or engraved into them in real time—while varying in popularity, have existed ever since. As opposed to ‘pressed’ vinyl records—commercially manufactured in large numbers via an expensive and complex industrial stamping process—lathe-cut records were usually produced as quick one-offs. Often to record important events, like the gallops on Sunday for example; so that, after a quick drive across town, they could be played back and broadcast on the radio.

This exhibition, however, takes as its starting point records that are the result of the innovations of one man working from a remote rural area in New Zealand’s South Island. Lathe-cut acetate discs were largely superseded for sound recording by magnetic tape during the mid to late 20th Century. And so it was that in
the late 1980s, while working as a session drummer recording commercials for Television New Zealand, Peter King acquired two obsolete lathe cutting machines belonging to the New Zealand Broadcasting Company.
Over the next decade, Peter King set about essentially re-engineering the lathe-cutting process in an attempt to more effectively and reliably produce multiple copies of a record, which—importantly—would not wear out as quickly as the old acetate discs. Peter experimented with a variety of different plastics—perspex, plexiglass, and polypropylene—before settling on a more durable transparent polycarbonate plastic. His timing was also good in that the last New Zealand based record pressing facility, Lower Hutt’s EMI plant, closed down in 1987.1 Not that Peter’s product really replaced the commercial pressing of vinyl, but at a time when such a closure was seen as “the ‘death knell’ for New Zealand’s backyard bands”2 , what Peter offered worked as a catalyst and distributor for a new kind of music emerging from the radical margins of New Zealand culture at the time.

2. Message in a Bottle

“Like a handful of others outside of New Zealand, I first learned of Peter King’s lathe record operation when I was clued in that The Dead C.’s Michael Morley had been quietly releasing these exotic 7” singles in tiny editions by his project Gate.”3

Peter King’s work made ‘short run’ records—records produced in small numbers, often in editions of between 10–100 copies—cheap and available to local artists without access to large amounts of money. This was immediately appealing to musicians disinterested in commercial success, and more focused on less popular but arguably more innovative, alternative, experimental, and ‘underground’ practices. Peter’s contributions
to the music scene in New Zealand have been recognised internationally and have been well articulated by
the Californian-based producer, writer, archivist, and musician Dan Vallor in his essay for the excellent book Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand. Significantly Vallor highlights the role Peter’s records played in turning a previously disparate, “isolated and marginalised” scattering of individuals and bands, into a “countrywide network”, a “community of artists trading lathes, tapes and letters...”4. As Tim Cornelius—member of Sandoz Lab Technicians and the Blunt Instrumentals record label—explains to Vallor:

“The trade and exchange of these ‘products’ then helped foster the artistic links and relationships which would lead to gatherings of musicians to convene at such events as Dunedin’s marvelous ‘Lines of Flight’ festival, and often forge collaborative and collegial relationships which would continue well into
the future.”5

Operating via a virtual ‘gift economy’ both locally and internationally, these records express a humble desire to communicate a shared enthusiasm that has nothing at all to do with financial achievement or celebrity. As such these artifacts appeal to me, as being somewhat at odds with the overwhelming, pervasive, and now surely out-of-date attitudes of late capitalism and consumer culture. As Jon Dale, writing about the Wellington scene in Erewhon Calling, points out:

“World Resources also picked up on the way micro-released artifacts liberated cultural production from
the deadweight of excess product: The last thing World Resources wants to get into is doing big runs of a release and then spend the next three years trying to get rid of them. I’m not sure if the others feel the same way, but I like the idea of working quickly, releasing something and then moving onto the next project. (Paul Toohey, in Cain, 38)”6

Having spent much of my professional life as a disenchanted graphic designer—a veritable industry of ‘excess product’—these ideas resonate with, and interest me. Nothing at all to do with the exclusivity or perceived value of the ‘limited-edition’, I find I am drawn to both the politics and practical opportunities of small- scale, short run publishing. (Or maybe I’ve just come to terms with the fact that the things that I like aren’t
very popular?).

3. Design Thinking

“Many of the elaborately constructed New Zealand lathe packages were as much art objects as they were records. The opportunity to explore visual art with the lathe disc was not lost on early King clients Michael Morley (also an established visual artist) and Julian Dashper (primarily a visual artist experimenting in sound with lathe discs).”7

When I first thought about putting an exhibition like this together I only had a few lathe-cut records in my collection, mostly made by me or my friends from the garage rock and roll scene that I’d been connected with via various bands I’ve played in over the years. But via a long developing friendship with Bruce Russell—of the now defunct but legendary New Zealand record labels Xpressway (1988–93) and Corpus Hermeticum (1993– 2004), and most well known as a member of bands The Dead C and A Handful of Dust—I’d seen and heard quite a few more of these strange artifacts while being taken on late-night whiskey fueled journeys into ‘non-standard’ audio practices. In particular one record had really knocked my socks off—Surface of The Earth’s self-titled debut album from 1996; two 12-inch transparent lathe-cut discs housed in a sort of transcendently blue sleeve with a simple Russian diagram printed in black. This record was produced in a run of 20–30 copies (depending on who you believe), and is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen and heard.8

As a graphic designer by trade, seeing and hearing have always been important interrelated activities to me. It’s practically a cliché for anyone my age to say we discovered ‘graphic design’ on the back of an album cover; and yet here I am, and I did. Ever since I was a teenager in the late 1980s I have wallowed in the resonance I find between listening to a record and looking at, reading, and sometimes feeling, its cover. There’s something magical I find there that I don’t want to try and articulate too precisely lest I shatter the illusion.

“In the years to come, artists utilizing design techniques (Eso Steel’s Richard Francis), comic art (Pumice’s Stefan Neville and CJA’s Clayton Noone) and other art forms would abound; among the most impressive was the outsider, Witcyst.”9

Dan Vallor’s singling out Witcyst’s artwork as “most impressive” is, I think, easily proven by his work included in this exhibition. Witcyst’s employment of found materials in particular represents a shining example
of the opportunities afforded when working with small production runs, no budget, and a gift economy. The limitations of large-scale commercial production processes and the reciprocal ‘market forces’ are glaringly obvious, and I am embarrassed by my own attempts to make my own lathe-cut covers look like, urgh, ‘real’ record covers. In fact some of the cover art that has excited me the most has been made up of second-hand or left-over ‘real’ record covers; cut-up, cannibalised and redeployed—best represented here by the work of Alan Holt and Stella Corkery (via the label Pink Air), and Stefan Neville (Stabbies and The Rocket Recordings, and Stabbies Etc.)—a palimpsest of visual and sonic mutation.

As I worked my way around the country—via some very generous peoples’ record collections— certain people’s work, especially via ‘record labels’ began to stand out to me. Small, one-person run operations that have, over time, deployed and developed consistent aesthetic approaches to their releases. In particular the work of Clayton Noone (Root Don Lonie for Cash, and Heavy Space), Campbell Kneale (Celebrate Psi Phenomenon), Antony Milton (PseudoArcana), Benedict Quilter (Independent Woman Records), and Noel Meek and Olivia Webb (End of the Alphabet), represent impressive bodies of work.

One of my greatest misgivings about this exhibition is that you cannot pick up these records, feel the cover materials, take out the discs, and put them onto a turntable yourself. Of course that was never going to be possible, and so bringing this selection together here in the gallery hopefully has some other value—to see these records, often produced in very small editions and quickly dispersed, bought together here in this room for a brief moment. Most of the records in this exhibition have cover art, liner notes, and other ephemera designed and produced by the musicians and artists themselves. And it is probably worth pointing out that only a very few of the people represented here would call themselves ‘graphic designers’.

4. Cutting into the Future

This exhibition could easily have been made up only of records cut by Peter King. Much of it already is, and at times I considered it. However, instead, I have attempted a broader view. In part this is because I’m not only interested in lathe-cut records, but rather more in what other people do with them. This is also because I have recently worked with other people producing lathe-cut records. And so, as someone interested in the distribution of sound by physical means, perhaps most importantly I am interested in what the future might hold for these kinds of processes—particularly those that represent accessible opportunities for practitioners working in niche areas with/for small audiences.

In the wake of the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes James Meharry travelled from his home in Lyttelton to Hosskirch, Germany to purchase a new T560 record lathe cutter from Souri’s Automaten. James returned
home with his set up at around the same time that Ben Edwards and Hamish Thorpe set up their label, Lyttelton Records; and so James was well placed to cut small editions of records for local artists, including the then relatively unknown Aldous Harding. James, with a background in electronic music production, is constantly modifying and improving his equipment and his records are easily the most ‘hi-fi’ lathe-cuts I have heard so far, achieving a fidelity on par with high-quality pressed vinyl.

A different approach is represented by another Christchurch local, John Harris—aka Johnny Electric—who has more recently been obsessively toiling away at developing his own home built, and largely 3D printed, lathe cutter with the intention of being able to produce small runs of records cheaply for local bands. John’s approach, similar in production to Peter King’s, is interesting in his experimentation and openness. John shares his work via the online forum The Secret Society of Lathe Trolls, and has discussed his intention to develop technology that others might be able to easily use.

There are also two records cut by Nathan Sawford of Small Run Records (Melbourne) in this exhibition, and one cut by Pirates Press (Czech Republic). In each instance however, the commissioning artist has been from New Zealand. I have framed this research nationally to limit its scope, but also, and more importantly, because I am interested in the innovations of Peter King, the agency his work provided for a marginalised underground music scene, and the ripples of influence this work created. Of course, other people and other facilities have emerged, but too late for me to be able to include them in this exhibition. This research will carry on and this exhibition is in no way definitive. It is an edited snapshot of what I have seen as I travelled the country visiting peoples’ record collections.

Having been produced in such small numbers, these records are hard to find. And we have only been able to bring them together here thanks to the following people: Stella Corkery, Tim Cornelius, Richard Francis, John Harris, Campbell Kneale, Sam Longmore, James Meharry, Antony Milton, Dane Mitchell, Aidan Moody, Michael Morley, Stefan Neville, Clayton Noone, Gwyn Porter, Benedict Quilter, and Bruce Russell. I would also like to thank Dan Vallor, who, while living 11000 kilometers away in sunny California, is an actual expert on the topic of New Zealand lathe-cut records.

1 Now, in 2019, for the first time since 1987, you can actually get vinyl pressed again in New Zealand. Holiday Records in central Auckland, set up by Ben Wallace and Joel Woods following a long and steady resurgence of interest internationally, has opened up with a brand new Canadian-built pressing facility.

2 Tom Hunt, ‘Flashback: The Day The Music Died and The EMI Plant in Lower Hutt Shut Down’, Stuff [website], 16 September 2016, dominion-post/news/84278862/flashback-the-day-the-music-died-and-the-emi-plant-in-lower-hutt-shut-down, (accessed 1 October 2019).

3 Dan Vallor, ‘Transparent Spirals: King Worldwide and the Art of The Lathe Cut Record’, Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand (Eds. Bruce Russell & Richard Francis), Audio Foundation and CMR, Auckland, 2012, P. 65.

4 Dan Vallor, ‘Transparent Spirals’, P. 66.
5 Tim Cornelius in communication with Dan Vallor, ‘Transparent Spirals’, P. 66.

6 Jon Dale, ‘Section across Wellington: nothing here now but the recordings...’, Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand (Eds. Bruce Russell & Richard Francis), Audio Foundation and CMR, Auckland, 2012, P. 91.

7 Dan Vallor, ‘Transparent Spirals’, P. 67.
8 This album was subsequently reissued on CD by Corpus Hermeticum in 1997, and then again by Utech Records in 2011.

9 Dan Vallor, ‘Transparent Spirals’, P. 67.
Image on reverse side: 7-inch lathe-cut record by Peter King. Image by Haru Sameshima

7-inch lathe cut record by Peter King. Image: Haru Sameshima