Tape Recorder And Synthesizer Ensemble - T.R.A.S.E. Musician Interview

Manchester in 1981 was a grim place. Shuttered factories butted up against derelict lots, as dole queues wrapped around the block. A recession was rocking England; inter-class tension was running high, which would finally erupt into full-on riots in the summer of that year. Here, amidst the ruins of the Industrial Revolution, the future was being born. Factory Records was in full swing, defining what would become post-punk and new-wave. The synthpop of Duran Duran, New Order and the Human League was floating on the breeze, as The Fall were quoting sci-fi dystopians like William S. Burroughs.

Being a kid at the time, Andy Popplewell was largely unaware of his bleak surroundings. He had his own struggles, like losing his father at the age of ten. An interest in music and electrical engineering helped him cope. Popplewell experienced the same media that much of ’60s and ’70s Britain did; he was reared with the music of Star Trek and Doctor Who, beginning his love of electronic music from an early age, and a rich, active imagination. Inspired by the synthetic sounds of the day and engineering magazines full of DIY projects, Andy Popplewell resolved to build a modest studio in his bedroom, with funds raised from odd jobs and a paper route, and the Tape Recorder And Synthesizer Ensemble (T.R.A.S.E.) was born.

TRASE - Finders Keepers

“I didn’t want to be a great musician, just someone who made music. I was more into how the sound felt and a sizeable proportion of the entire project was very much trial and error,” explains Popplewell.

This is ironic, because much of the music that makes up Tape Recorder And Synthesizer Ensemble – which is finally seeing the light of day on the esteemed crate digging imprint Finders Keepers Records – is great music.

The weightless, ethereal synthesizers, funky basslines, and crisp, dusted drum machines were laid to cassette over the span of two years, mostly at Poppelwell’s home. T.R.A.S.E. was mostly a solo pursuit for Popplewell, who sometimes mixed, sang, and played at the same time, only enlisting his younger brother for rythym guitar duties on the track “War Machines”. Songs like “Harmonium” (which Popplewell considers a highlight of the sessions) stand up next to classics of the period like Eno’s instrumentals on Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. Not bad for a lad of 16, using a hand-built Chorosynth synthesizer!

Chorosynth
(R) Chorosynth photo
Via The Quietus

But what may not be evident in listening to the record is just how emotional the recording process was for Popplewell. He recalls of his father’s sudden passing and its influence on him at the time, saying, “It was truly devastating to all the family. I still bear those scars today. The wounds heal but the pain is always with me, just attenuated. Don’t get me wrong, after nearly 40 years, I’m okay; but at the time of recording the album, life was… difficult. I was a teenager going through adolescence, dealing with grief, loss, still trying to find my place in this crazy world…”

“With hindsight,” he continues, “I can see how the emotions of my grief [and] depression manifested themselves in the music. At the time the album was recorded, this just poured out over a very short period, like a release valve.”

Though the T.R.A.S.E. material was left unreleased for quite some time, using the experience Popplewell gathered during his musical experiments, he trained as a radio engineer for the BBC and eventually became a studio technician in the late ’80s. He developed the technique known as “baking tapes”, where analog tapes are literally put in the oven, which temporarily removes their moisture and allows them to play like new for a few weeks. It is an example of cosmic justice, that an archiving position would result in Popplewell’s music being discovered, thirty years later.

Andy Votel, patron saint of crate diggers and co-founder of re-issue labels Finders Keepers, Twisted Nerve and the B-Music Collective, dropped off some tapes for restoration at Advanced Media Restoration, and got to talking to Popplewell about the music industry. Despite thirty years in the industry, Andy Votel was the first person to ask Popplewell about his own music – and luckily, Poppelwell had just recently transferred his T.R.A.S.E. tapes to digital, and was met with Votel’s characteristic enthusiasm. Votel and Doug Shipton, the other founder of Finders Keepers, set about designing, packaging and mastering the record, creating a lavish, lovingly curated artifact that was released on the label in 2013.

TRASE - Tapes
(R) Demo photos, via The Quietus

T.R.A.S.E. is pure music; music made for the right reasons – “unhindered by adult concepts like self-consciousness, popular snobbery, fashion, pride and fear of failure,” as the press release phrases it. Popplewell’s music drips with emotion and imagination; it is curious and inquisitive, rather than claiming to know it all. He would go to impossible lengths to realize the sounds in his head, chasing pure sounds that would make him go “wow” while sending shivers down his spine.

“An active imagination is what mattered to me at the time, still does. Never lose your imagination,” says Popplewell.

Tape Recorder And Synthesizer Ensemble is the future as it was being dreamt up in Manchester, a future of craftsmanship and curiosity and experimentation. This future is still being born today. It is an antidote to cynicism, to ennui – and we need more of it. Andy Popplewell, T.R.A.S.E. and the tireless curators of Finders Keepers, deserve to go platinum.

With this re-release, Andy Popplewell has started making music again. As before, he’s now working with his younger brother Phil, who has developed into quite an accomplished guitar player, as The Artist Taxi Driver and also High Bias. There’s even talk of new T.R.A.S.E. recordings, possible live performances, and restoration of his Chorosynth. While not (yet) achieving the fame his schoolboy self had dreamed of, Andy Popplewell is a satisfied man.

“When I left school, there were three things I wanted to do before I die. Work for the BBC, work for myself doing the job I love, and record and release an album. Until December last year, I’d settled for two out of three. Now, it is with a deep sense of irony, I have achieved all three, and the third was recorded before I’d made those choices over 30 years ago. A humbling experience,” says Poppelwell.

“I have to say thank you to everyone who likes/loves T.R.A.S.E. and has bought the record,” he continues. “I have worked as a tech in the music industry, on and off, for over 25 years and it has certainly been a unique experience from my perspective, an honour also. I never expected the ongoing events regarding my music to have produced such positive reactions.”

Tape Recorder And Synthesizer Ensemble is out now on Finders Keepers.

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