Special Issues » Made in Michigan

Heath Moerland: Music is a natural high

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A 38-year-old Detroiter who grew up in Grand Rapids, Heath Moerland is a visual artist, musician, and entrepreneur. "My parents liked to jam records and there was MTV," the plain-spoken Moerland says. He has the appearance and demeanor of a grown-up surfer. "There were pianos and a jukebox at my grandparents' house and a drum kit around; listening to music became fascinating, which then pointed to wanting to figure out how to make it. Skateboarding blew my mind and opened up my eyes to a million things."

Begun in 2005, his label Fag Tapes has over 400 releases (409, to be exact) plus a handful of T-shirts and other items. These are artisanal and handcrafted items — highly limited CD-Rs, DVDs, and hand-dubbed cassettes. Moerland was making cassette tapes well before there was a resurgence in the medium a few years ago, brought about by West Coast labels like Burger and Mississippi.

It's a vital label and situated in one of contemporary experimental and electronic sound's ground zeroes. Michigan is a prime place for noise/experimental music, and has been since the ONCE Festival in the 1960s. Moerland's own project Sick Llama is among the best projects of its kind. Wolf Eyes, Andrew Coltrane, Odd Clouds, Tarpit, Aaron Dilloway, Cygnus, Emeralds, Fossils, and Slither — these are all huge names in this scene, and all have tapes on the label. He also plays in the long-running art-garage group Tyvek and the newer and slightly heavier band the Intended. Both acts have albums due soon on the celebrated Los Angeles-based label In the Red.

There is a punk/slacker aesthetic behind the label's unfortunate name. "It came about by horsing around in a crew think tank," Moerland says. "Didn't want the label to be too serious or anything and so Fag Tapes just stuck like a nickname." The music presents a wide swath of experimental sound, from pounding and scraping noise to heavily textured ambient swirly stuff, and any space in-between those zones you can think of.

The artwork for each release was created and executed by Moerland himself, encompassing multiple styles and methods. They are each clearly hand-made, often with swaths of acrylic and stenciled spray paint on them. They may be released in as few as six copies. "It depends on supply and demand, how many tapes I have around at the time and other intuitive business decisions," Moerland says. "They are art objects and the hand numbering is a kind of signature." A box set with three unlabeled CD-Rs might come with original ink drawings, for instance. "I just use a one-to-one real time dubbing process [to make the tapes]," Moerland says. "It's a raw style. Keep it rude!"

The labels' biggest seller might be t-shirts that read "Music is a natural high."

"Handcuffed to the neck of a guitar, you are a prisoner to music," Moerland says, referring to the image at the center of the shirt. "Everywhere is the same, and everywhere is different. But Michigan has something shining about it. It's my home planet away from home and Fag Tapes are my travel documents."

To purchase tapes, CDs, shirts, or artwork, go to fagtapes.bigcartel.com.

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