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jason on 02/05/2010 at 08:45AM

Smersh: NJ's Prolific Legends of the Cassette Underground

Smersh: Mike Mangino and Chris Shepard

When Mike Mangino and Chris Shepard started writing music together in the late 1970s, their goal was not to develop a repertoire and play gigs, or even to perform live in front of any audience. Everything they needed was right there in Piscataway NJ: a basement full of musical toys and instruments, novelty space microphones, a TR-606 (the same "Roland" who was listed as a member of Big Black), a SH-09 (Cabaret Voltaire's favorite synth), and -- perhaps most importantly -- a tape recorder. Every Monday night, they'd write a new song from scratch. A couple hours later, the song was recorded, never to be performed again.

By 1981, this dedication to spontanious creativity had already produced countless recordings, and the duo began releasing cassettes as Smersh via their own Atlas King label. A definitive Smersh discography may not even be possible, but this one lists more than 30 Atlas King cassettes. As these tapes traded their way across continents, Smersh developed a devoted following in places far beyond Piscataway, leading to releases on dozens of other labels from across the globe. A 15 song sampler featuring some of the many highlights from Smersh's vast discography, spanning 1983-1993, is now available here at the Free Music Archive.

My obsession with Smersh began relatively recently, when I first heard the song "Sweet Little Bishop" in the WFMU library, off a 7'' released by Sweden's Börft label in 1991 (listen). Then it got stuck in my head for several days straight. My subconscious couldn't remember what it was at first, mixed it up with some bizarre Prince song. But then i remembered that mysterious Smersh 7'' -- the one that stood out amongst the other Börft stuff in the library (Swedish artists like Frak and Enhänta Bödlar, who are also uncategorizable and each worthy of their own post!). I set about tracking down as much info as possible find about Smersh...

The Smersh story is one that's been told in bits across the blogosphere -- just as it originally unfolded through tape trading networks in the 1980s and college-community radio stations. In fact, Smersh were guests on WFMU one evening in 1986, and Mike remembers, "we played records and insulted the listeners who called in. We were not asked back."

KEXP recently posted this photo of their library copy of Smersh's 1987 album "The Part of the Animal That People Don’t Like", complete with DJ comments from over the years (it's part of the KEXP Blog's awesome Review Revue series)

Then there's this 1988 video interview shot by Frank Edward Nora (host of the Overnightscape) -- a fascinating look at Smersh's recording environment. Frank learned about Smersh through their shared appreciation of Quality Comics in Somerville NJ, and eventually asked them to record the themesong to his show at Drew University, which you can listen to here:

This Vinyl Mine blog post from 2005 describes Smersh as "proto-laptop/electro-clash", and includes a review of their 1986 RRR Records LP The Beat From 20,000 Fathoms...on which WFMU DJ Pseu Braun was a guest! Pseu met Chris while working at Jem Records Imports in South Plainfield NJ, and wrote lyrics for a song off The Part of the Animal that People Don't Like, "Herman", that made the charts on CBC Radio's "Brand New Waves" program.

Here's an interview with Mike from 1999 by Godsend Online. And another interview from 2000, by a Electronic Music Magazine from Russia (where Smersh seems to have quite a few fans, perhaps because SMERSH refers to the Soviet counter-intelligence department)

Mutant Sounds has a timeline of Smersh's early days, including overlap between The Pop-Tarts and Pink Noise. (Not that Pink Noise, though come to think of it the Canadian Pink Noise does sound very Smersh-inspired at times).

Chris Shepard struggled with cystic fibrosis and passed away in 1995. Mike Mangino continues to make music as The Flowering Trees, as part of The Dirty Outlet. These and other Smersh-related projects are now available from Mike's cd-r label, Mirandette Popular. I recently picked up a few of the Smersh Output compilations, they came with detailed notes and cool trigger covers, and I'd highly recommend you check them out if you enjoy these Smersh Library Sampler tracks. The sampler was curated by Mike Mangino for the FMA, and we are honored!



jessibird on 02/05/10 at 04:38PM
Smersh, Smersh, Smersh. They had me already at the name.
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