Joey Pizza Slice turns audio trash into pop treasure
Joey Pizza Slice
Joey Pizza Slice is getting loose. He’s sitting on the floor of his apartment, leaning against an old, stained mattress and holding his hand out the window as he smokes a cigarette. His belly pushes out a bit from under an inside-out, indigo-colored hoodie. A few stubby dreadlocks stick out of his head like tentacles. The scent of cheap-pot smoke hangs in the air.
He takes another puff off his cigarette, blows it out the window and explains that, no, there isn’t any mixing on his new album, A Study in Eraser Headless Tape Recording.
“It’s all kind of live mixing,” says Pizza Slice, who is uninterested in divulging his real name. “There’s no postmixing of any kind. There wouldn’t be any possible way to do it.”
That’s because Pizza Slice, 29, didn’t record his album the way most artists do, using gear that allows them to record until they get great takes and then create a meticulous mix. Instead, he used a technique he discovered in 2005, when he bought a beat-up cassette recorder at a thrift shop in New Jersey. Pizza Slice worked at a gas station at the time, and recorded musical ideas during his downtime in the service booth. He realized his new recorder was different when he rewound a tape to record over some earlier ideas and the old audio didn’t erase. The recordings just overlapped. He figured out pretty quickly that he could sing something, then go back and record harmony vocals or keyboards or percussion over it. Anything he wanted to, really.
The only thing was, he couldn’t go back and make any changes. Once something was on the tape, it was permanent.
He promptly recorded an entire “revolutionary” album and gave it to a bunch of his friends. When they came back to him and told him the album was amazing, he just laughed and said, “I have no idea why it does this!”
It wasn’t until a few months later that someone at a party told him the recorder was probably missing its eraser head. The head normally engages when you press the record button on a tape player and erases old audio milliseconds before the record head records your voice. His original recorder had died, so, after the party, Pizza Slice went home and removed the eraser head from another machine. It worked.
A few months later he moved to Burlington and began volunteering at Jamba’s Junktiques, a thrift store in the Old North End. There he began to appreciate what he calls “junk music and equipment.” Pizza Slice started spending all his money on old, cast-off gear such as Panasonic Slimline tape recorders — his favorite — and cheap plastic Yamaha keyboards from the 1980s.
He also started playing around town with his band, Nose Bleed Island. In 2007 they released an album, More Tales From the Blood Island, and a 7-inch record, all recorded on a digital four-track. It wasn’t until Pizza Slice was trying to finish songs for a second Nose Bleed album that he decided to dedicate himself to eraser-head-less tape recording.
“It was driving me nuts. I had 30-something songs, and I just couldn’t finalize them,” he says. “I was getting more and more into the tape stuff at that time, and it was becoming so liberating that I didn’t even want to look at my digital four-track.”
Pizza Slice burned out editing the 27 songs that appeared on Nose Bleed Island’s Opposite Hitler Mustache. It was the last time he recorded in digital. The band eventually broke up, and Pizza Slice started playing solo shows, singing karaoke-style to tracks he had recorded using his tape machine. They were rough, lo-fi and catchy.
To him, karaoke was the ideal way for a home-recording guy to perform: The tracks were perfect and there was no band to deal with. But one night a friend disagreed with him, dismissing karaoke as “lazy bullshit.” So Pizza Slice rose to the occasion.
“I said, ‘All right, I’ll fucking record the song live, then sing over it,’” recalls Pizza Slice.
And that’s exactly what he did — and still does, combining music and performance art in a way that can be simultaneously bizarre, exciting and confusing.
At shows he sits at a keyboard with one of his Panasonics nearby and literally writes and records a song on the spot. He presses record on the recorder, then plays a programmed drumbeat or taps out a beat on the keys. Then things get strange.
Pizza Slice rewinds the tape, hits play, listens to a few moments of the beat, then presses record again. The beat disappears and he plays a keyboard part. Then the high-pitched whir of rewinding tape fills the air, and he hits play. You can hear the drums again, as well as the keyboard part. Then he’ll add a bass line. He keeps doing this — recording, playing, rewinding, singing, rewinding — until he’s declares that he’s finished.
It’s hard to know what he’s finished, exactly, as the only thing the crowd — or Pizza Slice himself — has heard is a few seconds of music at a time while he assembled the song. But when he plays the tape, more often than not, a wild, demented pop tune blares out. Afterward, he tosses the tape into the crowd.
“He’s pretty much making music in a blind way,” says Toby Aronson, a Burlington-based experimental musician and co-owner of cassette-tape label NNA Tapes. NNA recently released a boxed set of Burlington music that included some of Pizza Slice’s songs.
“He’s amazingly good at this rare technique,” Aronson continues. “It’s not that no one else is doing this, but I’ve never heard of anyone making militantly eraser-head-less pop music. It’s totally wacked out and awesome.”
Those are two adjectives that describe A Study in Eraser Headless Tape Recording, recently released on vinyl by Feeding Tube Records in Northampton, Mass. Whether you think it’s more wacked out or awesome depends on your taste. However, Pizza Slice, who recorded A Study as Son of Salami, has an undeniable talent for writing pop hooks. Even amid the sonic chaos, it’s hard not to sing along to lines such as “I know that we’ll get together / my penis is a fortune teller,” or “Pretty girls is a waste of time / ’cause they’re boring and they don’t have to try.” But one thing’s for sure: It’s a fantastic journey through 21 songs of eccentric — and occasionally overwhelming — lo-fi trash-pop. And some of it is pure gold.