Landon Caldwell and Mark Tester are no strangers to the ever-changing Midwest music landscape.
Having formerly been a part of Indianapolis psych-rock bands like Burnt Ones, Learner Dancer, and more over the past decade, the pair of long-time friends now make ethereal music under the moniker of Caldwell/Tester, which in one way or another led them to start their much-loved cassette label, Medium Sound.
Dedicated to releasing experimental tunes from Indianapolis and beyond, Medium Sound now has distribution in Japan and the U.K., in addition to their Bandcamp store. With a catalog stretching back to 2016, the label recently released their third compilation in October 2021 entitled Program 3: Sonic Communications from the Circle City, Midwest & Other Far Off Places. Featuring 28 tracks of strange electronics, free-wheeling aural experiments and more, Program 3 serves as a proper introduction to the Medium Sound family of experimenters, with contributions from Drekka, Magician Johnson, Rob Funkhouser, and Caldwell/Tester themselves.
In light of the label’s continued stream of successful releases, our Seth Johnson caught up with Caldwell and Tester for an extensive interview, discussing their longtime friendship and how it led up to current endeavors with Medium Sound. Read their conversation below.
SETH JOHNSON: I’ve never interviewed the two of you together before, so I’d be curious to know how you first met. Do you remember?
LANDON CALDWELL: Probably that show in Elwood.
MARK TESTER: Yeah. My old band played with his old band when he was like 15 or something.
CALDWELL: My arty hardcore band. [laughs]
TESTER: And I was in a band called Ari Ari at the time.
CALDWELL: There are probably just 10,000 people in Elwood, but there were like 300 kids at the show. It was insane.
JOHNSON: Did you guys actually “meet” there, or was it more of a passing moment?
TESTER: It was more of a passing moment. I can’t really put my finger on the first time that we really…
CALDWELL: I remember a show at DK’s skate park in Kokomo where we played together and hung out a little bit. But it wasn’t really until I moved to Indianapolis when I was 18 that I feel like we started hanging out a lot.
TESTER: And then, it was definitely a lot more when I was living in California, and Landon moved to San Francisco.
CALDWELL: That’s when we really started hanging out.
JOHNSON: What were you two doing out in California at the time, and what did you bond over?
TESTER: I was out there playing music in the band Burnt Ones. Landon came out there with his band, Learner Dancer. They played a show, and it was a really fun show. I think a lot of people in his group were like, “We should move to San Francisco,” but Landon actually went through with it.
He got there, and we were looking for someone else to join our band. But then, we also needed a new van, and Landon’s van kept getting impounded because he wasn’t used to moving it every week. So we basically paid to get it out of impound, took it on tour, and then asked him to be in the band.
Around that same time, we had a studio space with our friend William, and he had gotten a tape machine. This all happened around the same time, probably in 2012. From there, we spent like two years in this tiny-ass room, recording Burnt Ones, Creeping Pink, and early Caldwell/Tester stuff. All just in this attic, bedroom-sized space in San Francisco.
JOHNSON: I believe you, Landon, were the first of you two to move back to Indianapolis. Can you reflect on what prompted that move?
CALDWELL: I lived in San Francisco for two years, and then we moved to Los Angeles, where I lived for a year. I loved San Francisco, but my living situation was always really volatile. Like, I think I lived in five different places in two years. [laughs] But then, there was some combination of moving to Los Angeles and also realizing, “Oh, all my friends in San Francisco are pretty much from Indiana.” There was sort of an identity reckoning I had where I was like, “Damn, I’m a Hoosier.”
Mark and I also shared this moment on tour driving through Belgium, where it was just flat as hell. We were like, “Damn, this is beautiful.” But then, it was like, “Oh, this looks like the Midwest.” [laughs] It’s like you have to be away from a place to realize what’s cool about it.
We talked on the phone one day and were both dancing around the idea and thinking the other was going to be like, “Hey. I’ve been thinking about moving back.” And then, there was this moment, where we were both like, “Oh, we’ve both been thinking about moving back.” For me, that coincided with Jimmy opening up State Street Pub, which was a pretty fun thing to settle into.
TESTER: I moved back maybe a year later. It was much the same thing for me. L.A. was cool, but I wasn’t really feeling an intense connection to stay. I was also getting disillusioned at the time with playing in a band. Burnt Ones had been hitting it so hard, but I was just really enjoying being in my bedroom and making music intuitively. The more I started doing that, I started thinking I wanted to move somewhere out of L.A. It was just like, “I want to go somewhere that’s affordable, where I can have space. And I want it to be a place where people are friendly.” And then, I was just like, “Oh shit. I already moved away from that place.”
When I lived here before, I just didn’t see the windows of opportunity, and I feel like a lot of people have also been realizing that in the last few years. Here in Indy, if you have a good idea, the pathway to make that happen is pretty easy. Whereas, if you live in L.A. and have a cool idea, someone else might already have it covered, or hold some kind of claim over doing stuff like that. Here, it’s free rein. If you have the ambition to do something, it’s a lot easier than it is in a lot of other places.
JOHNSON: You mentioned that you two started making music as Caldwell/Tester back when you were in that tiny room in California. What was the project like then, and how has it evolved over the years?
CALDWELL: It’s experimentation with process. A lot of the stuff just arises from talking and geeking out with each other. We keep a notepad that we share, where we jot down ideas. When you’re experimenting with process, equipment is also a big part of it. I kind of hear the project in these different phases of what we were using.
TESTER: When we were starting, it was essentially a 4-track cassette machine with a bunch of auxiliary outs going into guitar pedals. Our means were pretty limited.
CALDWELL: Cheap keyboards too.
TESTER: We had a couple trusty things that would be around. Like, the Moog has always been around.
CALDWELL: One of the most recent things we’ve done was the Little Flower tape. We did this session. We did overdubs a year later, and then we mixed it a year later. We’re just always poking at the process.
JOHNSON: Why was the Medium Sound label something you wanted to start?
TESTER: Around when it started, we both had stuff we were feeling really good about. I had this tape called El Sereno Melodies that ended up being the first release, and I was just like, “Man, I think I want to start a label to put this out.” Landon was also like, “I want to start a label too.” We were both talking about our ideas for a label, and I think we had a similar idea of what we were trying to accomplish. We also just wanted to document stuff so it didn’t get passed by — to not sit on stuff just because it didn’t have a home.
By the time I moved back here in mid-2016, the natural extension was to start documenting groups around us that we didn’t think were necessarily going to have a long lifespan. We were just trying to very honestly get recorded documents of stuff we thought was good.
CALDWELL: Some of that early stuff was just us asking friends to come to the bar [State Street Pub], and we’d bring a mobile rig to record them.
TESTER: There’s stuff we recorded that didn’t last long enough to be released.
CALDWELL: Yeah. [laughs] There were several bands we recorded that broke up before we could release anything.
JOHNSON: What are some examples of that?
CALDWELL: Flesch, which was an F.Y.C.’s spin-off band. They were pretty Chrome-inspired. Part of what we were trying to do with the label was embrace the immediacy of cassettes. Some of the early stuff we put out within a month. Unfortunately, manufacturing has changed, and that’s really slowed it down.
JOHNSON: With the compilation tapes Medium Sound has put out, it seems you’ve started expanding what you release to include artists from outside of Indy. When did that expansion take place, and what prompted it?
TESTER: The first group we worked with outside of Indy was probably American Cream Band, who are friends from Minneapolis. Outside of that, there’s not a ton of other stuff that isn’t from here.
A lot of the early releases that weren’t just Landon and I were pretty by the seat of our pants. Like, we’d see Rob Funkhouser or Jacob Gardner play at State Street and be like, “Dude, let’s do a tape.” So it’s really been an honest, real-time reflection of what we’re around and this thread we’re trying to weave through what we’re hearing.
JOHNSON: You recently released your third compilation via the label, Program 3: Sonic Communications from the Circle City, Midwest & Other Far Off Places. When did you put out Program 1, and what did it consist of?
CALDWELL: That came out in 2018. The comps are an avenue to use stuff where it’s like, “Oh, there’s this sick live track from this set I recorded on my phone. I’m going to cut up a three-minute section and see if we can put it on the next Medium Sound comp.” I also view it as this way to build relationships, and to maybe make other players aware of each other regionally.
TESTER: The most recent compilation is definitely a pretty big reflection of the people we’ve connected with throughout the Midwest, especially in the experimental scene. Those are people from Louisville, Chicago, Portland, Asheville… They’re just people we’ve played with and booked stuff for.
CALDWELL: It is actually about connecting with people and trying to make these bridges with people who have a similar aesthetic. For me, part of the aesthetic expands into this whole worldview.
TESTER: In forming the label, a lot of it had to do with this utopian sound that we were trying to curate.
JOHNSON: It would also seem that Medium Sound strives to represent the weirder sounds coming out of the Midwest. Do you feel that’s something you both are passionate about as well?
CALDWELL: Oh yeah. There’s also this “Wikipedia effect” that I admire in other labels too, where you’re weaving through all these connections. I think there’s something about that, in terms of being a documentarian, that’s appealing to me. We’re just trying to connect the dots so you get the bigger picture, and a big part of that is documenting these bands that would get lost in time otherwise.
TESTER: A big part of our reality is sometimes being In a room with only two other people, and just being like, “I can’t believe more people aren’t seeing this.” That’s a big-time thing with Midwestern underground — just being in the right place at the right time. Catching lightning in a bottle with just four or five other people.
CALDWELL: That’s what inspires us.
JOHNSON: Lastly, what are the two of you working on individually right now?
CALDWELL: I’ve mainly been working on this residency with Rob Funkhouser (taking place through Dec. 19 at Cat Head Press). It’s a multi-faceted thing with a recital, an all-ages experimental sound workshop, and then ending with an exhibition of installation and sculptural work.
I also have an LP and a tape in the pipeline through other labels, and then Mark and I have two LPs in the works for other labels.
TESTER: I just put out a record called Oblivion Rhythms Revisited. I have a couple tapes coming out — one I’m finishing up right now for this label called Industrial Coast. I have a couple other tapes coming out too.
CALDWELL: We have a lot of stuff lined up for Medium Sound too — probably 10 or so releases. In no particular order, the next three are Solid Squares, Evan L, and David Brown.
Cover photo by April Knauber