Andrew Tham, 31, is a composer and performer who grew up in Edgewater. He’s a founder of art-music cassette label Parlour Tapes, a member of performance collective Mocrep, and an occasional sound designer for the Neo-Futurists.
As told to Salem Collo-Julin
I grew up in Edgewater and went to college in Iowa and then immediately came back after graduation in 2011. I went to a really small school called Cornell College, maybe ten miles from Iowa City. I went there for music and English basically and tried to fit in some theater classes.
My dad is a conductor. He used to conduct the Civic Orchestra, and he’s also worked as the conductor of the orchestra at DePaul. I tried to take piano and I could not hang with it, but then in the middle of high school I came around to classical music again. Because I had been playing bass in grade school and in my own bands, I started playing jazz at school as well. And then I started playing tuba for the wind ensemble. It was all bass, all the time for me in high school. Every Sousa march sounds the same, but it was kind of fun.
In school I played in rock bands with my friends. In the band I had in high school, we played our last gig at the Empty Bottle, and none of our friends could come because it was the Empty Bottle. So the audience was literally just our parents and their friends.
I was a music director at our college radio station and I booked this band called Volcano! from Chicago, and Sam Scranton—he’s a good friend of mine now and a composer—he was the drummer in the band. He told me about Access Contemporary Music (ACM), who do a lot of composer-advocacy stuff for contemporary classical music. That was my first gig that let me go back to Chicago. I moved back in with my parents and I started interning at ACM, and then I just started going to all these contemporary classical concerts.
One of the first gigs I went to in that period was the Spektral Quartet at the Empty Bottle. And I was blown away—it seems outdated now, but at the time I was like, “Oh my God, a string quartet at a punk venue, that’s so crazy!” I started interning for Spektral Quartet too. It was sort of that initial seed, just finding those shows and seeing the same people at every show and then finally stopping being awkward for a second to strike up a conversation.
That’s how Parlour Tapes started, at shows. Kyle Vegter and Jenna Lyle and I knew each other from meeting at shows, and then Kyle and I shared a coworking space. None of us had run a record label before. We didn’t really have a lot of funds, so we thought tapes would be cheaper to make. We also thought that doing a cassette would give us an avenue to create an art object of sorts with each release, to collaborate with artists and designers.
Later, I fantasized about putting out a mixtape on floppy disk, which became our release Mini MIDI Mixtape. That was a high-concept project where I e-mailed ten composers and told them to make a track that is only MIDI—it’s only MIDI playback, and you can post it on Finale or Sibelius or whatever composing software you use. And then you forward it as a MIDI file, and it has to be under 3.4 MB because I’m going to put it literally on a floppy disk. People really ran with it.
We haven’t really released that much in the last couple of years. It’s slowed down to maybe one or two releases a year. Our Parlour Tapes project in 2021 is that four of us who also work with the Mocrep collective (me, Zach Moore, Deidre Huckabay, and Jenna Lyle) are all going to make our own record, and we hope to release it as a quadruple-tape set. Really go big.
We just put out this record by Zachary Good and Lia Kohl (who are also in Mocrep), and we did a record-release party on the Experimental Sound Studio’s Twitch series. We all decided to create prerecorded video. We wanted to create a series of demos, like “Here’s an instructional on how you might listen to the album.”
- Parlour Tapes’ online “release party” for Zachary Good and Lia Kohl’s Standing Lenticular, originally broadcast in September
I don’t think we think of ourselves as a classical-music label anymore, but we’re still in that realm no matter what, just because those are a lot of our friends. All of us who are in Parlour Tapes joined Mocrep, and the Mocrep vibe is also very much like that. Mocrep started out as a contemporary classical-music ensemble, and then they were performing in ways that were further from just a concert where you sit down and play your instrument. It felt very much like a merger when they asked us to join the group.
In terms of solo stuff, I had to go into quarantine for two weeks because I was exposed to somebody with COVID (I’ve tested negative since). I was just livestreaming myself from my room for eight hours a day, just to see what it felt like. It was weird. That kind of endurance is sort of discipline exploration. I really like the artist Tehching Hsieh. I feel like I’m always thinking in that vein a little bit for myself.
The Sims soundtrack is in my desert island discs. I e-mailed the composer, Jerry Martin, to ask if he had sheet music I could borrow. And he responded, which is amazing. I’m on his personal newsletter now, so like once a month I get “Here’s an old demo I did for SimCity 2000” or something.
Jeff Kimmel (who plays in Aperiodic) and I have done this set a couple of times where we DJ Weather Channel music. There’s a website of these people who host old Weather Channel videos and make emulators where you can create your own TV broadcast in the style of the 1980s and 1990s Weather Channel. It’s unreal. These people are really good about crediting all the music that they find, and they note down playlists—so Jack and I ripped all the music off YouTube, and we’ll just do like an hour-long set.
- Performing as Current Conditions, Andrew Tham and Jeff Kimmel mess with Weather Channel music at Elastic Arts in 2019.
The Sims I have a nostalgic attachment to—I played The Sims growing up. But Weather Channel music, which is mostly smooth jazz—I have no relation to that. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been primed by Sims-type music or something, but now—I cannot get enough of it. I discovered the Rippingtons last year and I am obsessed. I listen to one track for like a week. So now I’m thinking, “Do I just like smooth jazz?” v