No one likes a sad sack. True, your friends may listen to you mope and complain a few times. But they are doing you a favor. They are stoking their own altruism, which probably feels okay for a little. Enjoyable? Not per se.
Same is true of the mix tapes you made people when feeling blue. They may have received some pity plays. But I guarantee that if your friend was not feeling down, she didn’t want you to bring her there with your “gift.”
I made a mix tape for a pen pal the year I graduated high school. I was probably scared, like many young people feel when they are plunging into a set of unknowns. It manifested in sadness. Deep, dark, regrettably self-indulgent sadness. And the tape I made was a doozy. It kicked off with some Mary Magdalene singing “Try not to get worried….” on “Everything’s Alright” from the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and limped along to a grim Cat Stevens song. I made a morose cover for it of all smoky-hued amorphous shapes; it looked moldy. It sounded moldy. I could barely give it a listen, myself. I scrapped it. Its dismal force was so real that even now I remember it.
Every time I made a mix since 1999 when feeling sad, there was a particular song guaranteed for it. One Year by Warn Defever. In the song, Defever asks his listener without judgement, “If you had a year to live, do you know who’d you like to spend it with? Or would you like to be alone?” When I Want You To Live 100 Years [www.lorecordings.com] came out, it grew on me quickly. A solo project by a guy whose band, His Name is Alive, was also like a solo project— this was stripped down. This was earnest to a fault. This wore its heart on its sleeve.
Around the same time, I was trading music with a college professor; he was dumbfounded by how I could see anything redeeming about this record. Defever sings out of tune. The guitar playing is not accomplished. I lamely defended it, embarrassed. Years later, I listened again and recognized that all those criticisms may be true. But the purity behind these songs win the day for me. And recently I have revisited that record again, fondly, like revisiting an old lover, savoring every gray hair and wrinkle that I hadn’t noticed before.
When you are taken hold by a record, there may be no way to fully share why. And maybe you shouldn’t try, especially if you can recognize that you are stewing in your own peculiar time-in-place. Sad songs are not always welcome songs. Your All-Time Super Sad Mix might be best left to yourself. Enjoy it and push past it. Give your friends a break.
This holiday season, let’s enjoy the time we have with the flesh and blood people in our lives who are patient and kind to us– the people who hear us out even when they may much rather be listening to something else. Sometimes all we really need is patience and kindness, especially at the end of a year. Especially with ourselves. Bless us, every one.
Elke K.W. is one of the most intrinsically creative people I have ever met. She has a magical way with words, spinning wordplay into every few sentences of conversation. And she perceives all of life’s tasks big and small to be an opportunity for beauty and inventiveness. Nothing need be conventional in her world. That is what allures people to Elke. With tattooing, she brings sly humor to her tattoo designs, with visual puns and clever thematic twists. When drumming, she fills every beat and half beat and quarter beat with constant surprises; she does not waste the space, and the drums thump forward like lead guitar riffs instead of predictable old rhythms. I have had the pleasure of being Elke’s friend for nearly 20 years. We met in Baltimore and instantly bonded over record collecting and show-going and thrift store shopping. We lived together for several years and constantly shared music. These were good days.
In June, I had the privilege of visiting her at her home in Berlin. I was particularly interested to revisit my memory of the recipe box she kept full of index cards, each with a mixtape playlist that she had made for someone else documented and filed away. This interview picks up en media res, with Elke explaining why she has habitually kept documents of each mixtape made.
sarah and elke in berlin june 2017
Elke: Sometimes it comes about because I make a thing just so I can proofread it, proof-listen to it, and hear if it works. And then sometimes you discover flaws. Or with CDs nowadays too, sometimes what I want won’t fit on a single disc and then I’ll have to do some rearranging. Or I’ll decide at the last minute that I want something other than what I had, and then I’ll save my initial rough draft copy.
Sarah: For what?
Elke: For my own listening pleasure because obviously I like what I put on there. [laughter] And also–I know definitely in your case– I like to listen at the same time to something that I think that the other person could be listening to, especially when distance is involved. I remember driving down to wherever you were living to deliver “Something Awesome Really Already Happened” [laughter] –the original copy. And I remember then also listening to it later myself back in Baltimore.
And, it’s cool to think that the person could be experiencing these songs that you know intimately, that they could be discovering them for the first time on your mix and then you’re listening to the mix. Because it’s like a whole experience, the sequence. I mean, plus for practical reasons you wanna check and make sure that the flow is right and that it’s a winner.
Sarah: I remember every time you made a mix for somebody, you would write down the song titles and put them in a recipe box.
Elke: I think it’s in the other room.
Sarah: Yes, so what was that for?
Elke: Well, for one, for just purely practical reasons so that I would have a record and wouldn’t repeat songs. Because I was desperate not to repeat songs because that would be very uncool, I think. And it would prove that your skills were lacking in mix tape making. So it was supposed to prevent that. That was the chief reason.
And we had no computers, so everything had to be written down. I still don’t have a database of these things other than my lil’ box.
Sarah: So how much have you consulted the recipe box of index cards of mix tape listings?
Elke: Let me get this here box. Hold on. Wait, how much have I consulted it in future mixes? I used to consult them every time. You know, like you definitely don’t wanna repeat songs, and if you’re making frequent mix tapes, then it’s possible, because you’re into the same stuff. And if you’re making them for multiple people you don’t want to get confused because you’re probably gonna put your fave hits from that time period on multiple tapes, of course. That’s normal.
And also then I would consult other people’s mixes. Especially like this. [The Pixies play in the background.] This was a classic closer, you know, the cover of the Lady in the Radiator Song from The Pixies. This was always perfect for a closer because it sounds like the end of all time or something. [laughter] And also it’s short and so it’s a good thing to tack on to the end and leave them with a quick lil’ jolt. But because I, during this period, was doing that a lot, I had to make sure I didn’t do it on two tapes for one person.
elke holds some examples of documents of mix tape playlists
It was good to consult, because I kept a running library of these little, tiny songs that I liked to put at the end of things in the minute or two that you would have left on the end, so you wouldn’t waste tape. I would often forget my library of tunes and have to consult. And then you always have a record of what works at the end. I probably used In Heaven by The Pixies more than maybe I should have. I should have come up with something else. But there’s that Sinking Body track I believe winds up on the end of quite a few.
Sarah: What is Sinking Body?
Elke: Sinking Body was that – somehow they’re Men’s Recovery Project-adjacent. I think that’s how I learned about them was because Men’s Recovery Project had a record that was a split with Sinking Body and they were on Vermiform. But I think it was just one dude. I don’t know much about them, their history at all, but they had this beautiful track that was on a 10 inch, and I can picture it. I think here I acquired maybe a YouTube, an MP3 version of it because I didn’t otherwise have it anymore because I have no means to play vinyl here sadly. But I do have it again and I’ve returned it to its mix-making glory. [laughter] And I think it’s quite short and quite repetitive, but it’s awesome. It’s one of my favorite tunes of all time.
But I would always put it at the end either of one side or the other – because you could even break it down to songs that were good for the end of side A, you weren’t ready to say goodbye, but it was like a good closure to the first half of something.
Should I put on Something Awesome Really Already Happened?
Elke: It’s not a tape, but I have this one.
Sarah: But it – was it a tape at some point? It was a mix CD.
Elke: No, it was always a mix CD because this was into the era – we can look at when it was. Check it out, it’s the most recent. I think it might be the most recent one that I made for you. Which is 7-7-07, this is ten years ago. Have I not made you a mix in ten years?
Sarah: I think that sounds right.
Elke: That’s fucked up.
Sarah: Yeah, it is. [laughter]
Elke: I think I lost – to be honest I think I lost my –
Sarah: Joie de mix-making?
Elke: Oh, yeah. Maybe a little bit of that, but also in relation specifically to you I might have thought that I wasn’t gonna be showing you anything you didn’t already know.
Sarah: Oh, well that wouldn’t have mattered to me, even if true, which wouldn’t be true.
[Elke and I start looking at the tape case for the mix tape she made me around 1999.]
Elke: This is interesting paper.
Sarah: So this case reminds me that when I mentioned this project to you, you said something about the artwork on tapes. And this is quite elaborate artwork because you cut out images from the instruction manual that came with this lamp that you called “the testicle.”
Elke: On there it looks like a hairy potato, but it could be a hairy testicle. It looks like if a testicle was mounted in a museum exhibit to remind us what testicles looked like. [laughter] Just sit it on a little platform: “Behold, the testicle. Once necessary.”
Sarah: [laughter] Well, in any case, it illuminated my evenings in Baltimore. And you turned it into a tape case.
Elke: But I don’t know what else is going on there. And there’s no title and there’s no track listing, for which both things I apologize because they’re signs of – probably not laziness but – well, maybe a little bit of laziness. That happens to be something that I have noticed winds up being the first thing to be absent even in the ages of making mix CDs, maybe especially then– because you don’t have to keep track, yourself, while you’re making it.
That was the thing. I think these were the final – like I think I would first do it by–I’d have like a worksheet, just a scrap of paper, because you would make mistakes. You’d have to work it out. And the most painful thing is that you got to the end of the 45 minutes and things hadn’t worked out the way you wanted them to. And I had to always write down times and add times up.
Sarah: Were you ever making mix tapes from tapes?
Elke: Very occasionally. Yeah, and also vinyl and other people’s mix tapes. That’s like what we were talking about earlier. I remember –I definitely took single, individual tracks that I really liked from other people’s mix tapes– I wasn’t into the overall musician or band enough to invest in a whole record of theirs, but I just liked particular tracks and would then subsequently pass them onto other people.
I remember [an ex-boyfriend] made me this mix tape with Roxy Music mostly – which was great – but then it started with this mysterious track that I couldn’t identify. I was obsessed with the song. It starts out too fast and then slows down. And I’ve since realized – well I’ve figured out, this was before I knew the Magnetic Fields actually – or maybe I knew the Magnetic Fields only when Susan Anway was singing.
And then this was Stephen Merritt singing a Magnetic Fields song called I Don’t Believe You and I was obsessed with this song. And plus it was appropriate for the relationship that I had with the boyfriend anyway. It was ironic that he had given me this song. But then I figured out eventually who it was, and it was on this 7 inch, which I think I did eventually acquire, but it also proved elusive somehow, the 7 inch, by the time I worked out what it was.
I’m not sure if I ever really got the record, but because I didn’t have the record for a long time, I don’t know if I even could credit it on mixes when I would put it on mixes. And I’ve recently acquired it again in digital form from the Internet and put it on new mixes.
Sarah: Wow, it persists.
Elke: But I realized that the 7-inch that it’s from really has this flaw, or whatever you want to call it. The version of it on YouTube also has this little, not hiccup, but it’s a second where his voice sounds chipmunk-y because it’s playing too fast. But it’s not just because the person on YouTube played the record at the wrong speed initially. I think it is recorded that way; it’s a recording thing.
Sarah: On purpose you think?
Elke: I don’t know. We would have to consult with Stephen Merritt. [laughter] But –yeah, I don’t know. But I really liked that song. And I discovered recently I still really like that song. He had made me this mix tape and at the time – because he lived in D.C. and I had the old [Dodge] Dart and the “Take-a-long” [tape player] and I would listen to that tape on the Take-a-long while driving, either going to or coming back from DC. I just remember it being summertime and at night and I associate those with the Roxy Music.
And it all sounded like it was from 100 years ago because it was on a tape, on a cassette tape. It was recorded from, in his case most definitely vinyl, because he was pretty devoted, I think, to having things in their original form. But it was somehow the perfect, I don’t know, scenario for that music, the Take-a-long. But, you know, wait, what question were we addressing?
an image of the same type of “take-a-long” that elke played in her car in 1990s
dodge swinger dart much like elke’s old car
Elke: But you did also ask about taking tunes from other tapes. Oh, yeah. I never had a lot of tapes. Like you had an extensive – you had the most admirable collection of like Dischord and other punk rock stuff on cassette, which I thought was amazing. Whereas I – the first music I ever acquired was on cassette, but it was Sinead O’Connor, The Lion and the Cobra.
Sarah: There’s no shame in that.
Elke: And also a couple of early, early mind you, U2 records on tape because my sister was obsessed with U2. And I stand by those, like October, for one.
Sarah: I think actually, if you would consult your recipe box, you would find that you put a lot of U2, October-era U2, on tapes for me.
Elke: Did I really?
Sarah: I’m pretty sure.
Elke: And I also had this single that was super cool, Stories for Boys.
Sarah: Like around ’99, I think. There was a lot of U2 listening.
Elke: But I don’t have the right dates for these then. I wonder if I missed a few. It’s possible I did – which would pain me. But I know I’ve missed some mix CDs that I’ve made for people because then it got much easier. You could make them much faster and if you weren’t being diligent about writing down what you’re doing– the thing with tapes, there was no readout of what was happening anywhere unless you wrote it down. Which is something I’ve forgotten about, but that’s pretty crucial and that’s really why things started to get written down.
And when I was making them, I would be inspired by one song to put another song on and it’d be like, “Oh, I have to write that down,” or I would forget. So I’d have this jumbled list of things– like of ingredients that should be on there. But then they’d have to be sorted and organized according to time. And also, you don’t wanna put like a block of really long songs that would get somehow exhausting for the listener. You gotta break it up, but then you gotta save your little bits and pieces to tack onto the end. And you gotta always have the right intro tunes, also.
Sarah: Oh, first song is critical. You have to hook them.
Elke: Yeah, the first song’s critical, but also side B’s first song, almost, like in a secondary position of criticalness.
Sarah: Yeah, you have to say, “Stay with me.” [laughter]
Elke: Yeah, exactly. “Like here we go again. How’s this gonna end?” [laughter] We don’t know.
Sarah: So how many different people do you have mix tape listings for in here?
Elke: Okay, this is – well, let’s see what I don’t have. Nobody starts with B, never made a mix for anybody whose name starts with B.
Sarah: We need to work on that. I have some friends with B’s.
Elke: But do I? [laughter] Not very many. Okay, no D’s, surprising. Lots of E’s it seems. I think that’s because of certain Eriks. Yeah, it’s mostly Erik. And there’s one for Ezio, poor Ezio. And one for Enno. One for F.
You, by the way, take up the vast majority of S.
Sarah: I should.
Elke: Yeah, you really do. There’s only a few more in here. I made mix tapes for myself as well. And some of those are in here as well.
Sarah: Do tell… Under E?
Elke: I don’t know where I found them. I think they might be under like M for myself. [laughter] Oh, I think they’re at the very beginning here. Sometimes I think I got a winner and I like to listen to it myself.
[Elke continues to look at the mix tape lists and talk about the people for whom she made tapes. She finds a playlist for a tape for an old high school friend.]
Elke: This one I remember, I actually had a mix tape label for myself called More Nakeder Records and this is one of those. I remember because I made elaborate cases for those. But then I think that’s why it petered out. And this one is called Guided by Couscous and I think that’s because I put a lot of Guided by Voices on it and –it was during a time when we would always get the Fantastic Foods couscous box mix, as if couscous is a challenging thing to make. But I think we didn’t realize that you could just buy the couscous by itself and do the same thing. We were eating a lot of couscous at the time because it’s a pleasing thing to eat and easy to make.
Let’s see what else we got here. And I know this was another More Nakeder Records release called the Darjeeling Feeling. But I remember the case to that had a carefully reconstructed, but miniature, teacup stain on it. It couldn’t be a full-size teacup stain because it wouldn’t fit appropriately on the tape case. But I remember staining the paper that I was using somehow – using some object that had a smaller circular bottom on it. There was somehow a small spoon involved too, but I think it was just like – I found an image of a spoon and cut it out and put that next to the stain. And that one has a date. I guess I actually wrote the day that I made these things, which in this case was 15 of August 1995.
Sarah: What grade would you have been in starting fall of ’95?
Elke: Actually I graduated in ’95 so I guess this was right after high school.
Sarah: Maybe that period of time was making you wanna make a lot of mix tapes.
Elke: Yeah, well definitely. Because I feel like that was the time when one has confidence in their music taste. And I know I was constantly discovering stuff that I thought was the awesomest. It was like a period of much discovery.
Sarah: How does that compare to now?
Elke: Oh, I have much less, I guess, confidence in what I like. Or there’s much less discovery. But I mean, that, I think, is a natural course. But there’s more rediscovery of stuff– like looking at these things made me realize how awesome this music is. And I guess that’s helpful because I have this problem with not liking very much stuff, I feel like.
[Elke pulls out another index card.]
I remember this had elaborate packaging too. It was called Main Course. I’m missing the other pieces because it was a three CD set and there was a main course and that was the only one that I saved for myself I guess.
I only have a vague recollection of maybe there was some napkin involved. But there was a main course and a dessert definitely, and an appetizer. But I only have the main course now.
Sarah: So what do you think, predominantly, your motivations have been most of the time for making mixes for people?
Elke: Well, this is not the predominant reason. I have to admit that definitely sometimes it’s to communicate stuff.
elke checks telephone
Sarah: Like what?
Elke: That is, something you’re having difficulty otherwise communicating. This has happened maybe even recently. I know it wasn’t a mix tape, it was a mix CD where there was no response to the message. [laughter]
Sarah: So you gave someone a mix CD that you felt was communicating something very specific and the person –
Elke: Didn’t really react almost at all. I mean, I think they said thank you [laughter], but I didn’t get acknowledgement until later. Then they, of their own accord, remarked on [the mix]– and then I knew that they had actually listened to it. But, yeah. I think sometimes you’re trying to say it with songs. –Do you think I made those when you were still living in the house?
Sarah: Well, these tapes are from when I moved.
Elke: Because we probably wouldn’t have really made each other tapes while we were living together.
Sarah: Yeah, I don’t think so.
Elke: Because we spent so much time together not only in the house, but also in the car listening to music. And mix tapes were really good for being in the car. That’s probably where I listened mostly to mix tapes. Although I probably received my first mix tapes before I could drive, I think. But then I definitely started driving in cars that had tape players and that was the way that I listened to music, including people’s mixes.
I have this one mix that I also have a copy for myself because I was really in to all the tracks that I put on it and it was also good to run to, I think. But I made it specifically for More Dogs when they were gonna go on tour. So it was for all those dudes, and I made it specifically for them to listen to while on tour in a van. And it was just called…[Elke consults the index cards]… Boyfriend’s Road Mixture, here we go. But so, I remember doing that. But I would often think – I think for other just general use mix tapes that I think I thought of them being played predominantly in cars somehow.
cover of first album by baltimore band more dogs
Sarah: When you were making them, you were thinking about how this would be played in a car?
Elke: Maybe. That probably wasn’t super conscious I guess, but now that I think about it, that was probably because that’s how I listened to them most, I think.
I think that’s what I would think about if I thought about how you would use a mix tape. I would imagine it would be in a car, in your station wagon. Because I think that’s how I’d experienced – even like driving around with other people, playing tapes. And that, I think, has happened before, maybe with us, where you’ve played a tape that I made you in a car while I was sitting there– and that always makes me nervous – because it is like a communication thing and you’re like, “How are they gonna react?” [laughter] Even when it’s not communicating a specific thing other than, “You’re my pal” and “Check this out.”
sarah and elke in station wagon 1998
Because it’s basically saying check out this stuff that I feel speaks for me and this music that is obviously stuff I like so it has something to do with me. So it is a bit of a risk of rejection, because if they reject the music you like then they’re rejecting a little part of you! [laughter] Even though it’s super silly to think that someone’s gonna like every single thing. And you wouldn’t want them to like every single thing because then there would be less room for other stuff that they could turn you on to that they like.
And of course you want them to like the mixes that you made them more than other people’s mixes. [laughter]
We were talking about purposes of making them, right? I don’t know how conscious this is either, but it’s like a snapshot of yourself and what you’re listening to at that time, and you wanna get that down for this other person too that your life is being shared with– especially if they’re away. That’s the thing. Like I find that it’s usually people that are either going away or are already at a distance, so it’s good to have snapshots of different periods.
Sarah: So one thing I definitely wanted to hit on in this interview was the artwork piece because I think I’ve gotten the most elaborate tape case covers from you.
Elke: That’s cool. Although I’m sure I dropped the ball a few times. But that was a point of pride, I guess.
Sarah: How so?
Elke: Well, because I think the packaging maybe is not half the thing, but it’s still a big percentage of the potential value. And I guess I also like to make things. And usually a tape, I think, has sort of a conceptual thing. I mean, some of the earlier ones obviously have more to do with things going on between the person I’m making it for and me – like the couscous, things that were being eaten or consumed otherwise.
But definitely already with the tapes, I started this thing where it was very important that I have a title, and the title would be a lyric, a key lyric from one of the tracks. And choosing the title sort of set the tone for the visuals also, sometimes. Although in the case of these things, it was obviously like a phase where I wanted to take elements that I knew you would recognize– the little guy here, is from a Hanahreum package, something we would have gotten at the Hanahreum [Asian supermarket].
Sarah: Awww. To eat together. Aww.
Elke: Yeah, I’m pretty damn sure. And then I guess just – I mean, I guess I’ve always liked to make things from [other materials]– and that’s how I make CD cases now. But if I think about it, it’s from like cheap advertising paraphernalia collaged together. And I think I had those Rotex things. I love those Rotex labels.
Elke: Remember that tape? I call it that, but it’s not the generic name. It’s just that the first one I ever had, I’d borrowed permanently from my father. And it was called a Rotex, the thing where you feed tape into it.
Sarah: Oh, the traditional label makers.
Elke: Yes. And when I worked at the Ross Dress for Less, I acquired two that had an interchangeable disk– maybe this was originally meant to do that, too– where you can pop in this other disk and one of them does cursive and one of them does vertical writing.
Elke: And now I have some German ones that have the little umlaut letters.
Elke: Yeah. I kind of collected these.
We belong to the generation of people who had objects relating to music and collected these objects. And they were obviously a part of the music that they would also have sort of their own value and worth. And I think I just transferred that to making tapes.
Because it’s also your product, you know? The mix is your product even if it’s made out of other people’s music. So then you want there to be a visual product that reflects the “you” part of the whole thing. And I think that was the idea. But then it can get out of hand. And I think that’s why I started to slip a little bit in the visual thing because if you have set such high expectations of the packaging, and it’s for somebody’s birthday or something, you’re not able to produce in time– or if it winds up holding up your production of the mix itself, which I’ve had happen, then it gets pretty ridiculous. The person never gets the mix.
Sarah: [laughter] Because you were laboring.
Elke: Because you still didn’t make the packaging. It’s been a long time where my packaging pride had to significantly be diminished because I was just failing. [chuckles] And I’ve even given people mixes with no track listings and no information whatsoever. Which I also think can be interesting because then they really are going in blind. And maybe they recognize a few old friends or they’re completely bewildered [laughter] by new things. But it always pains me a little bit if I don’t have time to produce. It seems cheap to just hand over just the music I guess is what I’m saying.
Some of the first mix tapes I ever got were from a friend when he worked at Art Things and he also worked at Toad Music in Severna Park, MD, which is probably the first cool record store that I ever had any contact with or exposure to. And I started collecting records from specific labels that the people that were there turned me on to, including this friend. He also worked at Art Things, which was this art supply store in Annapolis. So he had a lot of access to various visual crap that could be assembled to make cool packaging.
And he made pretty professional, but specific to him and his tastes, looking tape cases. They were elaborate and admirable. I think that sort of set a standard as to what defined a proper packaging for a mix tape. And I think somewhere I definitely still have his mixes, but maybe not with me here. They were pretty elaborate and so that set the benchmark that you had to reach. But it can get ridiculous. And if it gets ridiculous enough that you fail to make the mix at all because you’re hung up on the packaging, then you have failed overall. [laughter]
But, it’s also fun. It’s very fun. And I think that’s one of the things that–when I have ideas that come as a complete notion—or the times that I feel the best about something I’m making, I can remember, is when it’s like I got a complete packaging idea, and it all came together.
Sarah: Do you have another outlet now to use that same kind of creativity?
Elke: Oh, sure. Yeah, I mean my job has to be. I don’t always get that same sense. There’s only a
shark pin-up person: recent tattoo drawn and tattooed by elke
few times that I can think of where the whole package comes together. I just remember making mixes late at night and being giddily excited and working on the package at the same time as I was making the tape, too, because you had to wait. That was the other thing about tapes that’s pretty crucial. So you had to wait for the song to play and you had to listen to every song to its completion.
That’s a really big difference between the CD era because sometimes – nowadays when I do the CD thing I’ll just listen to bits. I’ll listen to the beginning and the end of songs to make sure that there’s an acceptable flow, according to me. [chuckles] But yeah, the tape making was really a much more potentially grueling process. You could be working on the packaging while songs were playing out, especially if you included longer-winded jams, you had more time. But then there was a lot of running back and forth.
And then you also had to chronicle what you were doing and that’s how these guys came about. [Elke points to the index cards.] Yeah, that is another interesting facet that I’d forgotten about. It’s kind of amazing that we did that as much as we did, that we made so many tapes. I wonder how many hours are involved- because it’s way more of a time investment. And if you screw it up you’d have to go back over it.
But it’s weird that this one doesn’t have the things punched out because I remember there was also a satisfaction when you did have it done. Then you would remove the ability to tape over it unless the person was really determined and put tape over it, but that would be sad.
Sarah: I forgot about that ‘til this morning for some reason, that it was like you’re controlling what the recipient will be able to do with this thing you’re giving them. “I have made this permanent.”
Elke: Yeah, but I know I did that and I used to even save them. For a while I saved those things.
Sarah: The little –
Elke: The little tabs.
Sarah: –punch out tabs?
Elke: Yeah. I just remembered that. I don’t think I still have them, that would be really weird. But I didn’t punch them out of [this tape I made for you]. Maybe I thought you’d wanna use it to tape over.
Sarah: Oh, yeah, they’re there.
Elke: Yeah, I didn’t do it.
Sarah: Maybe you trusted me.
Elke: Either that or I thought maybe she’ll hate it so much she wants to use it as a blank tape. Yeah, I think that was a short-lived –
Elke: And admittedly pretty stupid thing to be collecting. [laughter] But you can see that I saved all of the blank [tape label] stickers in case I needed some more. Just a few more.
Sarah: So this whole lunch box is mix tape materials?
Elke: This used to be my “technology tin.” I don’t know. These are supposed to clean your cassette heads. A couple different varieties.
What else is in here? Instructions– I had a little voice recorder that was digital which was such a pain in the ass. Here’s a record player needle. Weird. It says “OLD.” I guess it’s an old record player needle. [laughter] You’re making a really funny face. I have an old, used record player needle in case anybody wants one. [laughter] Next flea market I’ll have to put that one out there so someone can pick that up. 99 cents.
Then I have – there could be some little secrets in here. Oh, yeah, look. I don’t know what this was for but I must have had some high hopes of making some packaging, elaborately cut out. But, yeah, weird stuff in here. This was the More Nakeder – look see, it’s the More Nakeder official–-
Sarah: Oh, this is your record label box. [laughter]
Elke: Yes, my mix tape label box. [laughter] Yeah, it does consist mostly of unused labels for cassettes.
It’s clear that friendship and love or even simple thoughtfulness were important aspects of mix tapes that made them so special. To know the music that someone loves is to know that person better. “We are closer now. We share this, and it is in our hearts.”
But there’s another reason mix tapes make for a good listen. The artists who touch us form some integral kernel of our experience with the world. And they in turn were influenced by other artists. Are you hearing a song or a scene?
In one song, you may hear the product of a burgeoning late 1970s San Francisco glam-turned-punk scene. In the next, you may hear the mid-eighties Athens, GA party scene. And next, the output of a Senegalese woman raised in West London who listened to soul and rap records growing up. A landscape of culture and creation shifts for you from track to track– each song a reminder of very different people from very different places united by the commonality that they decided to make something. It’s a reminder that there are pockets of beauty in every corner of the globe, from every era.
There always was and always will be people who get up in the morning and decide to do something brave and wonderful by creating something new. The ripple effects are unknowable and overwhelming. These makers may germinate a local music and art community. They may help someone through a difficult time. They may inspire someone many decades later, many miles away to also create something.
So to listen to a mix tape is to hear one person’s personal take on the high notes of music history–the actors and events that impacted her. She is the author of her own personal history lesson, and you are the lucky pupil. I’m not sure that there is a better way of learning about the world than this.
In the late 1980s, there was a group of music fans who all worked in the graphics department of a regional newspaper in Maryland. They listened to tapes, traded tapes, and talked about tapes; the music was a tool of their trade as much as the graphic design equipment. When I started working on this website, my friend Dennis Kane began regaling me with stories about the graphic arts department of a newspaper and what a huge influence the mix tapes he received from coworkers there had had on his taste in music and his own eventual musicianship. One Sunday morning in late March, Dennis and Melissa Quinley and I met up with one of these mix tape makers for a reunion. As we talked, it became clear that the evolution of technology in the graphics department of this sleepy regional newspaper, from manual craftsmanship– albeit perhaps a bit muddied with youthful transgressions– to work that happens digitally and at home without the workplace community, was a perfect metaphor for the transition from mix tape culture to digital music streaming.
Sarah: I want to start by asking, when was the last time you guys actually hung out with each other before today?
Dennis: I think the last time that we hung out was when I visited [John] in Philly. But right before that, we were living together.
Sarah: And how long did you live together?
Dennis: Two years?
John: A year and a half?
Dennis: It was this debauched house.
John: It was the early- to mid-nineties, too, which was very much like, say, the early- to mid-seventies.
Dennis: Yeah. The house was pretty debauched even before John moved in. But certainly after. We’d have a lot of parties. So that’s really like the last time that we hung out.
John: Yeah, you came up to Philly a couple of times. You came up for my wedding and you came up that other time. It’d been a while. Then we saw each other for a few minutes at The Cure show last year.
Sarah: So how did you originally meet?
Dennis: For 20 years—I’ve always wanted to know John’s take on this. [laughter] Twenty years? 25 years! Well I’ll tell it from my side first.
John: Yeah, you’d better, because I’m older.
Dennis: So, I think it was my first day at the newspaper. And John’s friend was the boss at the time. And he was kind of like showing me the ropes and introducing me to everybody and then John comes walking through, and I was like, “Who is that?”
John: I was night shift then.
Dennis: You were night shift, yeah. And I was going to be on night shift. And of course all the memories of night shift come flooding back. The exacto knife throwing. The sitting in the stat camera. I’m surprised we’re not riddled with cancer from that camera. So John comes walking through, and you have to understand that I was 16, 17, and I hadn’t really seen a whole lot of the world at that point. I was a sheltered kid. So John comes walking through, and he has huge haystack hair. And he’s 6’3”, 6’4.” Tall. Probably reeking of patchouli at the time. I probably smelled him before I saw him. And I was like, ‘What’s up with that dude?” [The boss] probably had a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, and said “That’s just John. You’ll get to know him.”
example of a stat camera
John: Yeah, we could smoke in the office then.
Dennis: So I guess the first interaction I had with you was “Oh, what’s in your case?” Because he had a tape case with him. And he opened it up and all the covers were hand-lettered and colored in. So all these tapes were immaculately labeled and colored in. And I think that the very first thing that I said, which is sort of ironic now in hindsight, was, “Echo and the Bunnymen? Who’s that?” But it was like, “Cocteau Twins. Who’s that? This Mortal Coil. Who’s that?” I didn’t know anything.
Melissa: So you thought Dennis was a total dummy. Not knowing anything.
John: Yeah. At first. But as soon as he brought in his tapes—he actually turned me on to a lot of things that I had sort of snubbed my nose to. Like The Smiths. And The Beatles. One of my favorite tapes that I ever received was that Beatles mix that you did for me.
Dennis: Glad that I could reciprocate.
John: R.E.M. I completely had written them off. And he got me in to them.
Sarah: I want to hear about the tape case. What was that tape case, and why did you have it at work with you?
John: Oh! Well, when I started working there. This was back in ’83 or ’84. It was a bunch of little old ladies cutting things out with scissors, not even using the exacto knives. And it was AM radio around the corner. I could run circles around these women as far as doing graphic arts. And I did. And I think when it got to the point where I was doing about 70 percent of the workload, I decided it was time for me to be in charge of the music. I brought in a boom box. And a decent-sized one, too. That’s when the tapes started. I started bringing in my case every day. And as those little old ladies got retired, dead, or just gave up, I started saying, “Hey, I know people.” So I got them to hire my sister, and I got them to hire my friend who was my boss but who had absolutely no experience in the job. I trained him. Then he became my boss. And my friends from high school [were hired]. And it just kept rolling. And then the friends that I hired would bring in their friends. And everybody ended up bringing in their case of tapes, every day. And we would take turns in the rotation. So, my turn to play a tape and then your turn to play a tape and then your turn to play a tape and then your turn to play a tape. And that’s how the workday went.
Dennis: And we all bitched about each other’s tapes.
John: Nonstop! [laughter]
Dennis: There was a point when our friend was really in to 10,000 Maniacs and Edie Brickell. So she brought in the Edie Brickell record. And I still remember this. And it was like a Saturday and she was playing the Edie Brickell tape. And I ended up going over and stopping. Ejecting. Handing it to her. And then putting in something else.
Melissa: That’s so mean.
Dennis: No, because [our other friend] was like, “Thank you!” That was before he was sleeping with her. That was the other thing, too. It was so incestuous in there.
Melissa: I feel like you’re describing summer camp or something.
Dennis: It was [like that]! The thing is- that job is still the funnest job I ever had because whenever we didn’t get our work done, John would just do it. [laughter] He’d be like, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of this.” But that was usually after like a 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best while sitting in his truck listening to more tapes.
John: That’s true. Yeah, but we were only paid like $5 an hour to do this crap. We stretched it as best as we could. But we had a lot of fun. I think we were really more focused on listening to the music than on doing the work.
tape from john to dennis
Dennis: But there was also Cliff who was there, who made the 4AD tape for me that I showed you. So he would bring in his tapes, too. But he was always sort of like– Joy Division, Bauhaus—he was really big in to Bauhaus at that time. And super darker gothy stuff. That was him. He was a real dour sort of guy. He was kind of like a nazi, really.
John: Well he was a drummer. And he spent many years in marching drum bands and drum corps and all that. Those guys get like that. Either they get totally nuts or—he was kind of like Neil Peart. [laughter]
Sarah: Do you remember deciding to make a tape for Dennis?
John: I made many tapes for Dennis. That’s what I’m really curious about is what tape we are talking about here.
Dennis: You made so many tapes, but [my ex-girlfriend] ended up with half of them.
So I made that cover when I was working at Kinko’s and learning Photoshop 3.
Sarah: Did it come with a cover originally?
Dennis: Probably. John was meticulous with his covers. He made sure that there were no abbreviations. The foldout flap—that was always used even if there were only three songs on there. And then I would ask him, “Oh, what record did that come off of?” And then when I would go on my album-buying rounds, which always started at Yesterday and Today in Rockville [Maryland] and worked my way down to Olson’s in Alexandria [Virginia], I would look for those records. And I still have a bunch of those records from that time.
It’s a pretty crazy mix, but it’s a good one.
Sarah: Was this the first one he made you? Do you know?
Dennis: I couldn’t even tell you what the first one was, but it was probably a Cure mix. Because I knew a couple of the hits.
John: And Echo and the Bunnymen, early, too.
Dennis: Yeah, that was probably the first one, an Echo and the Bunnymen mix. It took a few years but then [Echo and the Bunnymen] obviously became my life for way too long. But around this time is when [The Cure’s] Disintegration came out. And John played it incessantly. I remember John going on and on about how awesome that record is, and now that record is in my DNA, as I’m sure it is in yours from listening to it a million times.
John: Plus, there was a good 7 months when there was just the Fascination Street single that I had gotten. And I recorded that and the B-sides, and we listened to that over and over. When it was my turn [to choose a tape to listen to], that’s what we were listening to.
Sarah: Do you remember, Dennis- did you ask John for a tape? Or did John just start volunteering: “Hey I think you might like this!”?
Dennis: Both. Probably a little bit of both.
John: It was kind of the culture back then. I mean, through high school, anybody you met—it was kind of like how you got to know people was you made tapes for each other.
Dennis: And you judged somebody by their taste in music. [laughter]
Dennis: We used to have these lists over by the waxer—
Sarah: What’s the waxer?
Dennis: It’s where you put either a half-tone photo or printed out text.
John: All the type and everything had to go onto the page, and we ran it through waxers to get everything to stick to the page.
Dennis: Yeah, that’s why they call it a “paste-up.”
John: There were hot waxers with a big vat that had a temperature control on it. You would turn it on in the morning and it would heat up the wax. And it had rollers. And you’d feed the sheets of paper through to get a little coat of wax on the back of them. And it sucked when you got that wax on your tapes. [laughter] It would get on everything because it would be on your fingers all day when you were working. And everything you touched would just get a little waxy. [laughter]
Dennis: But John would put up these lists of like “Best albums ever” or “Best Siouxsie record” you know. And then we would get in fights about it. “Tinderbox isn’t the best. Hyena is the best! Obviously!” [laughter]
Sarah: So it was like before Internet memes, you were basically doing Internet memes on the walls of the workplace.
John: Yep, we also did lists like “Songs with the word ‘love’ in them” or “Songs with the word ‘hate’ in them.”
Sarah: So Dennis, why did you pick this specific tape [to talk about]? What is it about this one that is special?
Dennis: Well I think that’s the only one I have left. Over the years, they disappear. Either I started using them for 4-track recording—
Sarah: You recorded over them?
John: Emergencies happen.
Dennis: I definitely did it with comps that I made myself. But also, my ex ended up with 75 percent of my music, including the tapes, and she wouldn’t give them back. So I have this and I have that 4AD comp [made for me by someone else] and I think that’s it.
John: This is a really good one though. This has a lot of good stuff on it.
Sarah: Is there anything that particularly stands out to you about that one?
John: It’s really odd that I repeated groups so many times on this one. Normally, it would just be one song per group. But this one, I had one of those things where it’s just a collection of a few groups but it’s a number of songs by the same group. And I’m trying to remember what the pattern here was because I always had some kind of weird pattern. See how Gang of Four is at the beginning here and at the end here. And Angst is in between Rain Parade—
Sarah: Is it like a palindrome?
John: I did things like that- yeah.
Melissa: That’s clever. You end right where you started.
John: When all you do after you get home from work is sit around and play music and make tapes, you get creative with it! We got creative with it. I can’t remember the last time I did something like that.
Dennis: But I think this one started with me asking about the Paisley Underground. And John was like, “Oh I got all that shit.” And then it spiraled from there.
John: It’s weird that I mixed Comsat Angels into that though. But, it works! And had I known about the Chameleons back then, they would have been in there too.
Remember that tape case that I had? Remember I sold you that tape case?
Sarah: I think it’s funny that a tape case was a commodity during this period of time.
Dennis: They are again.
Sarah: They are? Was it one of the travel tape cases with the strap and the zipper?
Dennis: No, it was like a brief case.
John: It was the brown one, right?
John: After that I switched to- I bought a new paint box for my art class, and I switched to my old box, which was actually perfect because those old wooden paint boxes that flip up and they’re compartmentalized—cassette tapes fit perfectly in them. And you could section them.
Sarah: So you’d split them up by genre in your case?
John: O yeah. Plus you could fit a good ten more cassettes in that than you could in one of those regular cassette cases.
Dennis: I had two like that. One for tapes and one for art supplies. And the one for tapes didn’t have a handle on it, so I’d have to, like, carry it under my arm. [laughter]
Sarah: So I have a question for John. You were making these tapes for Dennis. Who else were you making tapes for in the office at that time?
John: Everyone I knew.
Sarah: Do you remember it waning?
John: Yeah, when cds came out. That was really when it started. But at that point I became obsessed with making mix cds. And the tapes were actually just gone to the wayside. They were hard to find. They just weren’t out there anymore, or at least the decent quality ones. The—
John and Dennis in unison: Maxell XL-IIs.
John: They held out forever.
Dennis: They still play as perfectly.
John: The TDK D-90s lasted a long time, too.
Dennis: The Memorex though—the ones with the yellow and blue squares on them. Crap. Especially the 120 minutes ones. You might get one play out of them.
I remember with Memorex and Maxell, you could go to People’s Drug and buy your tapes. And then you couldn’t find them anymore, so you had to get them from Maxie Waxie’s or The Wiz or something. And then they stopped carrying them. And then at that point everybody had CDs.
John: Yeah, the only place to still get them was at Costco and places like that. Sam’s Club.
Dennis: Yeah but “Kirkland tapes” just doesn’t do it. [laughter] Do you have any more questions?
Sarah: I was hoping one of you could give a description of the newspaper. Does it still exist?
John: Yeah. I’ve gone back to working for them.
Sarah: You currently work there?
John: Shamefully, yes. They’re paying me slightly less than I made when I worked there in ’99. But I do get to work from home, so that’s decent.
Sarah: So is the layout being done differently now than when-?
John: O yeah, it’s all computer. We’re actually using InDesign. Surprisingly. After all these years. And they just two years ago gave the layout of editorial back to us. Because Editorial was doing it for the past twenty years. They just sort of cut our jobs and our department away because that’s what we used to do. We built the ads but we also layed out all the pages. Twenty years ago they decided that we were too stupid to learn computers and they gave our jobs away to the editors. So they finally gave that back to us. Which is a good thing.
Sarah: Are there other folks working there that were there back in the days when Dennis was working there?
John: My sister is actually still there. But we’re not anywhere because we’re actually at home now.
Sarah: Ah. “There” means something different.
John: The last company that bought us—the previous owner was Jeff Bezos. Because we were owned by the Washington Post. And when he bought the Washington Post, he also got us.
Sarah: Do you have parting thoughts or parting reflections on this time period?
John: I’ve heard rumors that tape culture is coming back. But I haven’t really investigated. I’m kind of psyched to make a mix tape right now! But I’m not sure how I’d go about it. Actually, I do still have a really nice Sony tape-to-tape that I’ve barely touched.
Sarah: Does your tape-to-tape still work?
John: O yeah, I had bought it brand new at a discount probably 15 years ago and it’s been traveling around with me. I kinda couldn’t get rid of it because I still have a lot of old band jam tapes and things like that I plan to eventually digitize. So it’s nice to have one of those. But I don’t have a receiver…I have a USB turntable. And if I can figure out a way to get the tape deck into the computer—I’m sure there’s a way.
Dennis: Yeah, and then you’ll just make a mix tape in your computer. [laughter]
Sarah: Oh no!
Dennis: Well that’s just it, isn’t it? I think the tape culture could only have existed then because it was the only way you could do it. It was the only portable medium at the time. And all your other stuff was on vinyl, so once it became easier, especially making mix tapes from cds, it was just sort of like “What’s the point?”
John: Yeah, that’s actually what inspired me to get more into dee jaying. Because once that tape culture died, it was like [sigh].
Dennis: But dee jaying is sort of like making a mix tape.
John: Yeah. It’s very much like it. It was training for it.
Dennis: When you only have 30 seconds left of your night, you know what you’re going to play. That was the best part—trying to figure out how long you have for each song. And then maybe you have that one minute at the end, and you know what song you’re going to put on there.
John: A lot of times I did pre-mapping.
Dennis: Oh I always did!
John: Yeah. Lay out/time out what’s going to be on there to make sure that it fits with no extra space because you wanted to use every last second. So you sat there with the calculator and you added that shit up. [laughter] You made sure you filled every last second.
Dennis: Unless it was for an on-air dee-jay, they didn’t have times on a lot of records. So you had to sit there with a watch or the clock. Or I used the read-out on my tape deck. If I knew that at 18:53 it was going to be cut off, then I always knew how much time I had. But the best part was- aside from figuring out how much time you had- was what order to put [songs] in and where you were going to go with this thing, which was the fun.
John: And there were different styles, too. You could do the pre-map thing, where you lay it all out. Or you just go freeform. Cross your fingers. See where it goes.
Dennis: And then, [our coworker], he was a musician so he always had gear. He would take either a tape or vinyl, put it through a mixer, and then add reverb to it, and then mix them together, and then fade in or fade out. So it was like a super pro-style mix tape.
John: A lot of my later mix tapes, I used to do that, too, when I had the dual cassette deck. You could take and mix and fade one song over the next, which was a pain but it was worth it.
Dennis: It was totally worth it. Although there is something to be said about missing the last half second of the reverb tail, and then a new song comes in—
John: Like taking Bauhaus Ziggy Stardust, and that last note is the same note as the beginning of Dark Entries. If you can get them right on, it’s just seamless.
Dennis: But that’s all the stupid shit that you keep from that time. It’s so good.
John: Those were the days. [laughter]
Dennis Kane is a musician and jack-of-all-trades audio guy; formerly the sound guy at the Black Cat in DC, perennial recording engineer (Ex Hex, Benjy Ferree, etc…) and lately, sound designer/audio engineer @ nat geo. He’s currently part of the duo, Domingues and Kane, and does a solo guitar thing, as well. Aside from music, DK’s a devoted horror movie fanatic, and avid cat lover and is married to the most amazing person in the world (hi, Melissa!), so he’s got that going for him.
Jeff McGrath and Eric Hatch have been friends since the mid-1990s when both were wide-eyed youngsters in the Baltimore music scene—Jeff as a zine-maker and emerging musician, Eric as a music reviewer for Baltimore City Paper, both as obsessive record-shoppers and show-goers. In the mid-2000s, their friendship took on a new dimension as they exchanged a series of mix tapes as a way to get further inside each other’s minds and ears. Some twenty years after first meeting, the two are still good friends, still music-obsessed, and still active in Baltimore culture—Jeff as a member of such influential bands as Practice Finger, Thank You, and current outfit Permanent Waves; Eric as the director of programming for both Maryland Film Festival and the festival’s soon-to-open year-round Parkway Theatre. One March night, Eric sat down in Jeff’s home in Baltimore’s Ednor Gardens neighborhood to talk about life, music, friendship, Baltimore, and beyond, with one of the tapes Jeff made Eric as the conversational core. While the tape’s cover and track listing are lost, the tape itself is still in Eric’s collection and back in heavy rotation on his stereo.
Eric talks about using Shazam to recreate the mix tape tracklist:
The first piece on both sides I couldn’t place myself and Shazam struggled to identify. And one time it came up with something that obviously wasn’t it…I could identify John Fahey but wouldn’t have ever been able to pull this song title. [Shazam] brought up “Serious Chicago Basketball Rockers.” [laughter]…which I opted not to purchase on iTunes.
Eric: As a way in, I just wanted you to reflect upon tapes in general. Even commercially produced tapes. Was there a moment in childhood where tapes were your primary format for consuming music? And if so, like what age would we be talking about?
Jeff: I remember my very first memorable gift was a 12-inch record. And it was from a woman named Elvira who was a student. She was living with us for a brief time and babysitting us and stuff. And she and her sister were from Africa. And we were living in Omaha.
Eric: What age do you think we’re talking here?
Jeff: Yeah. I think I was like 5, and I was given a copy of Thriller on vinyl as a gift from Elvira and the other lady whose name I forget. I guess they were African – either exchange students or study abroad, international students, maybe. But they were only there for a semester. Anyway, they were really nice. But I remember thinking this thing is great, and I love Michael Jackson. And this is exciting because it’s so big. But it wasn’t contemporary. Like, my sister had tapes.
Eric: Right. Okay. You thought tapes were cooler?
Jeff: I thought tapes were cooler essentially. Yeah. I guess tapes seemed like the real thing. And this was like my parents’ kind of thing. They had a shelf of records. And this [record] related to that. And it was strange to see Michael Jackson – Thriller on this giant 12-inch –
Eric: You wanted the tape.
Jeff: I wanted the tape, which seemed real. And my first tape was – well, the first tape that came into my life was- my brother got the Ghostbusters soundtrack. Which we listened to over and over.
Eric: This was like in the early 2000s or – [laughter]
Jeff: Yeah. [laughs]. [My brother] got the Ghostbusters soundtrack. And I didn’t have my own tape for many years.
Eric: You would play it like on a shared deck?
Jeff: I would play my siblings’ – there are four of us, and I would play everyone’s tapes. And then I would listen to the radio and stuff. But my first tape I remember distinctly that I was at the store – I know you didn’t really ask, “What was your first tape?”
Eric:Oh, no. I was getting to it. So, you saved me a question.
Jeff: I went into the store with my mom to a Walgreen’s and I picked out the Stand By Me soundtrack. Which I don’t know if you guys have seen that movie or heard that soundtrack, but that’s a cool soundtrack.
Eric:It’s all early 50s and early 60s pop, right?
Jeff: Yeah. And I listened to that thing over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.
Eric:Had you seen the movie?
Jeff: No. I wasn’t allowed to see the movie. I think it was too adult or something.
Eric: So, do you think you had developed an interest in classic pop already at that point? Do you know what provoked your curiosity?
Jeff: Yeah. I picked it out because it had kids on the cover. Or on the poster or something there were kids and they were my age. And I thought that was cool.
Eric: That was a big soundtrack. I bet it sold a couple million copies.
Jeff: It definitely sold one. [laughter]
Eric:And do you remember what age music started consuming your life? Like you really just became an addict and music was a big source of happiness for you? Maybe I’m assuming that happened.
Jeff: [laughter] Music is the first thing I remember as my way of orienting myself to reality. As many can relate, I’m sure. Once again, my parents had records. And I remember being kind of confused about the mythology of rock and roll and the mythology of my parents. And confusing the two things and thinking that they knew Elvis and that they were Elvis. [laugher] Or that my dad was Elvis or that my mom – I didn’t understand. That’s how young I was.
So, that’s saying something. Because that’s not 5, that’s like 2 or something, I think. I don’t know. Maybe [my wife] can tell you what child development looks like. I mean, I remember just spreading them all out – the records. And then playing them and being perplexed by the mythology of the whole thing. The Grease soundtrack– I thought that was Elvis. And Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
Eric:So, it sounds like you were really in to soundtracks that were mix tapes basically. Things that would expose you to a lot of different artists with one purchase.
Jeff: Yeah, sure. That’s a good point. I never thought of that. Yeah. That’s true. Those were like collage-y kind of things.
Eric: American Graffiti, I’ll throw that out there. Woodstock.
Jeff: I never heard American Graffiti then. But yeah, Woodstock was a big record in my house. My parents would always have the Woodstock record on. And I remember – it’s funny to talk about it. It seems like I’m trying to be cool or something. But I had older siblings. And so, when I was in third grade, I got really interested in the fantastical quality of music. Meaning like this music sounds like it’s from another world and I’m curious about that other world.
Eric:And you’re not talking literally about experiencing international music. You’re just talking about getting a sense of production and bombast, and the excitement of music?
Jeff: Yes. Well, to be specific, I remember the Depeche Mode tape People are People. My sister had that. And for me, a little kid in third grade in Baltimore County, it sounded so exotic, and so worldly, and so intelligent and sophisticated. And they knew something. And they seemed to be experiencing something that I didn’t have any access to.
Eric:Yeah. I’ve felt that way about Depeche Mode too, actually.
Jeff: Really? They had a powerful-
Eric:Yeah. They were exotic and emphatic, you know what I mean?
Eric:They believed what they were saying. People are people.
Jeff: Yeah. Right. That was a good example. And that was also – that message, that song may have been written at a third-grade level [laughter] so I could absorb it. Not to slight them or their song. I heard their new song the other day.
Eric:So, we started creeping into like middle school, high school. So, as you start getting into music that may be like alternative music, maybe even punk music, is tape a format that you were going for? Were you taping records with friends and trading tapes?
Jeff: Here’s an interesting thing. I think that same year, third grade, my brother Jim – my oldest brother – he had – and I’ll never forget it. It was a black – I forget the brand, so I will forget it. But it’s a black tape with a white and orange sticker. And it was old school before they were clear- a dub tape for dubbing. And it was a dubbed copy he got off of a friend of his of Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist, which had just come out. And to a third grader, all that sounds so exciting. It sounds like monsters. And Kennedy was a word that floated around my house quite a bit. And to hear the “Dead Kennedys,” it just fit right in.
So, my brother had this dubbed copy from his friend of Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist. And I got a hold of a blank tape from the store or something. And I made my own copy, like fourth generation of Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist, which sounds like AM radio when you record it four times. And so, that was my first copied intentional dubbed thing, was Frankenchrist.
Eric:And you’re already responding to music like Dead Kennedys. And beyond just liking the name, you were taking that kind of music in in the third grade?
Jeff: Yeah. I was lucky or maybe unlucky. Whatever. I don’t know.
Eric:I mean, I was listening to Genesis in third grade, so-
Jeff: I had a very early exposure to things like punk rock and new wave because of my siblings. And because North Wind Road, where the nexus of Loch Raven Reservoir and the Perry Hall area is a real nexus of music culture. Especially for the third-grade community. [laughter] There’s a lot of history there. The High’s and the Video Mania, it’s like CBGB’s.
It’s cool the way that music traveled back then. And I think we all had the same or similar experience where it was a special coveted journey to wind up with something. And the Dead Kennedys tape was a good example of that. Where it was like this thing that was kind of like a covetous gem. Like I’ve got a little piece of punk rock. It’s real. It wasn’t purchased or anything, but it’s real. And it came from someone who purchased it. Some source is out there glimmering somewhere.
Eric:Yeah. And I think tape culture, like punk, really embraced it the way maybe other genres didn’t. You wouldn’t be cool for having a dubbed Debbie Gibson tape. You know what I mean? But you would be cool for having a dubbed Dead Kennedys tape.
Jeff: Yeah. Or the Debbie Kennedys. [laughter]
Eric: So, as we’re getting into middle school and high school, are you making mix tapes for friends? Are you receiving them?
Jeff: I’m trying to remember. Good question. The earliest memory I have of making a mix tape is embarrassing, I guess.
Eric:This is meant to be embarrassing.
Jeff: Okay. [laughter] So, I had a ritual for a couple of years wherein I – my sister had a big stereo like this. [Points.] It’s like a stereo receiver with a turn table.
Eric:Yeah. Like a one-piece furniture stereo.
Jeff: Yeah. She had a thing like that in her room. And she did a lot of extracurricular stuff. So, she got home from school really late, even though she was in high school. So, when I was in middle school, I would come home from school. And I would untuck my uniform shirt and I would get a big bowl of chips or something. And then I would go in my sister’s room – where I was welcome – and she wouldn’t be home. And I would lay on the floor and I would open up her big Case Logic thing of cassettes. And I would listen to all the tapes. Because she had a lot of good tapes.
And I would bring – I had my own Case Logic thing of tapes I would bring in. And I would just be surrounded with all the tapes like this, and I would lie there. My bookbag far away. Homework not being done. And I would just lie there with Combos or Cool Ranch Doritos or something. [laughter] And I would drink Coca-Cola constantly. But sometimes I wouldn’t do that. But most of the times, I would. So anyway, I would just – that was my activity. I think most kids – a lot of kids played sports that I knew. Or hung out with friends or did things at school, or did homework. Or succeeded in some way at something. [laughs] But I laid on the floor listening to tapes and obsessed about it.
Also, because when you’re entering teenage years, I started to have a little self-consciousness about maybe I’m different or something. But anyway, it was then, that period of hanging in my sister’s room in the afternoons. She had two tape decks. So, you could tape off of tapes. And that’s the first time I realized that in seventh grade. And I tinkered with it and figured out you could do that. No one showed me. So, I’m a genius for figuring it out. [laughter]
Eric:The record button.
Jeff: Yeah, and it says “record” and has an arrow floating over it. [laughter] But it didn’t occur to me to – and this is what I referred to the embarrassing thing. It didn’t occur to me to make a regular mix tape. Like song, pause, and song, pause. I made these tapes that were like – so I would have all these parts in my mind of the parts of the songs that were the most exciting parts of the song. Or the great moments in the song or whatever it was, little passages that were really exciting. And I would cue them up and then I would record that part. And then I would pause it, and I would take out that amazing part. It would be like a sound bite that was like two seconds long. And then I’d put the next one in.
And you could hold the pause button down in such a way that it’s seamless, you know. So, I made these 60-minute tapes of just all these parts that would just be like [makes noise sounds].
Eric:Literally like two second snippets?
Jeff: Literally. Like two seconds.
Eric:So kind of too hard to process.
Jeff: Totally bizarre behavior. And so, it ended up sounding like something you’d never want to hear. [laughter] And then I’d remember something. I’d be like, “All right. There’s like a really cool part of that.” Like from some music that I didn’t really know very well. And then I would work really hard at trying to figure out what it was, what the song or the music was. And I would ask people at school. If it was an old song, I’d ask my mom or something. And I would try to get it so that I could put it in my bizarre tape of parts. Yeah. Really weird.
Eric:Do you have any of those, do you think?
Jeff: I doubt it.
Eric:Yeah. Those would be great to get your hands on.
Jeff: That would be really fun. And they’re probably really stupid. God, I remember thinking that – I had this vague – maybe you do things when you’re a kid that you never really think about what you’re doing. But I do remember thinking, “I’m going to get good at this. And these are going to be these incredible super songs.”
Eric:Would you have heard The White Album at this point? Do you think you were thinking about Revolution Number 9 or something?
Jeff: I hadn’t heard that. But certainly, I heard weird things in passing. But I do remember coming across one in high school and playing it. And being like, “That’s weird.” And it was so careful, you know.
Eric:But I like what you said about hearing little bits and then trying to chase after a song based on a little passage that excited you. Thinking about when we were in middle school or high school, something that you don’t experience too much anymore is the idea of hearing a song you love, having no idea who the artist is, and if it’s a new song, maybe you wait a week before you hear it again. And hopefully, the radio announcer says who it is. Or it’s on a friend’s tape and they tell you. But maybe a month – a year if it’s an older song – until you hear it again. And the rush of excitement you’d have –
Jeff: To finally be hearing it.
Eric:– when you hear it again. Whereas now, it’s this instant gratification. You wear it out in a day, typically.
Jeff: Yeah. And that makes you sort of ask the question, how much of it is in the chase? Or is in the experience of suspense, and anticipation, and potential disappointment? How much of the experience of this kind of treasure hunt of music and whatever it is is wrapped up in that? And not in the actual value of the music itself. I don’t know. I know that it’s boring for me to search around on the Internet for music, typically. Well, boring – it’s not boring. It’s cool. I’m like, “Neat. This sounds great. I like the way it sounds.” But what I mean is to actually scroll around and click, that part doesn’t –
Eric:It doesn’t feel good.
Jeff: It doesn’t feel good. [laughter] But it’s good to discover stuff.
Jeff: But that part is weird and feels strange. I still tend to enter into music now the way I did when I was a kid. Someone will say something like, “Have you heard such and such? You ought to check it out.” And I’ll take that and I’ll say, “Oh, I should check that out.” And then I’ll wait until I see it at Normals or something and I’ll buy it. But I also find stuff online.
Eric:The impulse behind those tape collages isn’t that different than the impulse of creating hip-hop with identifying open beat passages and mixing them and stuff. It’s just that your result was unlistenable, but theirs was the foundation of hip-hop. But it might say something about a young attention span that you want to not just enjoy a song, but identify the emotional surges that you were experiencing.
Jeff: I think so. And the difference obviously, those early hip-hop people were geniouses or whatever. And I was just a goofball in my sister’s room. But I think the impulse was similar. Because the tools were similar.
Eric: Yeah. Early beats were made with pause buttons. You know what I mean?
Jeff: And it’s interesting just how the arc of technology, and history, and music – you can’t really escape from it.
Eric: I want to ask you about this tape in a minute. But the one thing that is being left unsaid, I think, was were mix tapes – whether making or receiving – ever part of your courtship rituals when you were younger?
Jeff: Yeah. When you mentioned waiting for the song to come on the radio–There was a girl in high school that I really liked in ninth grade, the first day of school. And I remember it was the first time I had the idea that I’ve got to make a mix tape to express all of my feelings. And I really wanted to find the – god, what is it called? It’s a Cure song.
Eric:Just Like Heaven.
Jeff: Yeah. The one that Dinosaur Jr. covered. And it’s funny. I’d never heard it on the radio very often. But WHFS played it. WHFS – as you guys may know – used to be kind of cool. I don’t know if you knew that up in Pennsylvania. [teasing] But we had the Weasel down here, okay? We had Rob Thomas. The Weasel is the guy.
But the new Cure album at the time would’ve been Wish. So, it wasn’t like it was new. But Just Like Heaven, I heard it on the radio and I was like, “What a knockout.”
Eric: Yeah. It’s a great song. That was big for me.
Jeff: I was like, that song has got to be on my mix tape for this girl that I obviously need to be with. And so, I waited for it to come on. I had the tape cued up to the part where I would put that song on. So, I had a few mix tape songs, and then it was time for that one. And I had the tape paused and the radio on every night. It was kind of like the radio was on in my room. This would be in my room, not my sister’s room. So, it was a big deal.
But it’s crazy to think in a way now how technologies changed. So, the tape turned out being like of course, I was in the hallway getting a towel or something and I heard it start. I was like, “Ugh.” I ran and I un-paused it. So, you don’t hear the beginning, but you hear most of the song. And that was on that mix tape, which I’ve never heard because I gave it to Emily Butler and she never talked about it. And then later told me that she couldn’t date me because when we held hands, it felt like I was her brother. [laughter]
Eric:Well, you got to – I think holding hands is like third base in ninth grade.
Jeff: I spent my gym uniform money on buying her a Smiths tape.
Jeff:She introduced the Smiths to me, but I was like, “What’s your favorite Smiths tape? Which one should I buy? Which is the best one?” And she was like, “The best one is Louder Than Bombs. I don’t have it, but I have a copy of it. But that’s the best one. And that’s the one that you should get.” So, I took my gym uniform money and I went to Sam Goody, or The Wall, or Listening Booth, or something. And I bought Emily Butler a copy of Louder Than Bombs.
Eric: Well, that’s a life changing moment for you. I mean, yeah. Getting into the Smiths is a biggie. If I know my McGrath lore. [laughter]
Jeff: Yeah. Totally. I know. Again, for better or worse.
Eric:Yeah. I never really received one myself. But that must have been pretty common to mix tapes that are made off the radio- are going to be missing the first 10 seconds or 15 seconds of songs often, right? Because you’re like oh, this is the one I want.
Jeff: Here it is. You have to hurry up and get it together. It’s like taping movies off HBO when you were a kid. If you ever did that. But I made mix tapes after that first one in ninth grade and after my weird proto-hip-hop, collage, art of noise period. I made mix tapes incessantly throughout high school.
Eric: For all genders.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, yeah. I went through different phases, you know. And then wanted to share it with everyone. I think a big part of it too is like when I think about – I’ve never told anyone about the art of noise collages thing. But as I think about it now, out loud, I think it was an impulse to get involved, like to do it. Do you know what I mean? Like I felt like this stuff has all this power over me. And there were no instruments in my house, or no belief that it was possible to play an instrument. So, I think I wanted to do a thing. I wanted to do the magic that I was hearing.
So, that was how I learned. Where I thought I could do it. Well, not thought. I just did it. So, I was doing it the best way I could know how to do it or whatever.
Eric:Yeah. There’s an authorship of sorts to making a mix tape. It’s a curation. Looking over this track list, would you – from the songs that are on there, if you were to guess what year you made this tape roughly?
Jeff: That’s a really good question. A lot of this stuff is interesting and cool. And I don’t remember some of it. “I Want You” by Bob Dylan is a perennial favorite of mine.
Eric: It seems like in a way, a lot of these artists are kind of like the Jeff McGrath canon. You know what I mean? Like Fugazi, Lungfish, Kate Bush, and of course, Morrissey. These are all – we can’t say all. But most of these are classic artists that have resonated with you for a really long time. And the most recent song on here would probably be Fugazi or The Warmers, I’m thinking?
Jeff: I think that Lungfish song at the time – so that’s kind of a giveaway. That Lungfish song is from an album that came out in – Love is Love. That came out in 2003? And, let’s see. I’m just kind of a little embarrassed that I put such trite music on. I mean, the music is beautiful. But why did I think Eric Hatch needs to hear Sweet Jane by The Velvet Underground? [laughter] “Let me turn you on to this band, Velvet Underground.”
Eric:So, here’s the thing. I got really in to tapes again in a moment when tapes were out of vogue and were not becoming cool again. And I’m going to guess this was maybe even a couple years after that Lungfish came out, like ’05 or ’06, or something like that. I remember getting deeply back into mixes and never really enjoying mix CDs. And making tapes for people. And I put something up on Myspace, I think, that was like if you make me a mix tape, I’ll make you one. I had been writing music reviews for a while, and burned out on music basically. I got kind of sick of it.
I quit writing music reviews and a couple years later, had this rebirth of loving music in headphones specifically. And this idea that if my friends made mix tapes for me, I would understand them better and hear the world the way they hear it basically. And you were one – I mean, a lot of people took me up once. And I think you and I maybe exchanged three or four mix tapes.
Jeff: Yeah. I definitely still have some of yours in the box that [a friend] has.
Eric: I know we made specific, curated tapes for each other. And I think you made some that were like “cooler”. That were like –
Jeff: [Turns to microphone:] “Yeah. Make sure you get that. Okay?” [laughter]
Eric:What I mean is they were more like the music that would’ve influenced you as a musician the most. Like This Heat or things like that that were a lot of post-punk, a lot of soundscape stuff. And I feel like this must have been a conscious attempt on you to be like, “These are my classics.” Does that sound legit?
Jeff: Okay. That sounds – I think that must be the explanation. I do. Because this is such a – it’s also so all over the place. “America” by John Fahey, I remember when that song really hit me. It’s a long song.
Eric: Yeah. That piece takes up – I mean, this is a 60-minute tape and there’s less songs on side two. It’s Fahey’s fault.
Jeff: And “That’s All Right, Mama” is probably like a minute-and-a-half long.
Eric: But I will also say, maybe these are more your go-to songs by these artists. But it also, in many cases – with the exception of maybe Sweet Jane – I would never pick any of these as the most well-known songs by any of these artists. So maybe you were also trying to give some deeper cuts or something like that.
Jeff: Well, I can glance at this and say that I remember these being my favorite tunes by these people. I don’t think I was consciously trying to do deep cutting. But I did probably want to impress you and not do the nerdy thing and give you the songs you’ve already heard. For instance, Sweet Jane. [laughter] But I do remember also at the top of side two was a really cool Smithsonian CD that I got, like folk music of the Pacific Islands and stuff.
Eric: When I Shazammed that it said like seven other people have Shazammed this, like ever. [laughter] It gives you the number. And for most of these, it was like 140,000 or whatever, and that one was seven.
Jeff: Maybe this is off the record. But this is interesting to look at too like – just between friends I’ll say this, not to the blog – a lot of this music at the time, in the early 2000s, was not – what’s the word? It was refreshing at the time or novel to be listening to a Kate Bush record at that time.
Eric: Let’s put this on the record.
Jeff: Yeah. Well, I’ll say it’s interesting to look at this now in 2040, or whatever year it is, and look at how Kate Bush is absolutely – like Pitchfork talks about her like every week. And then even though Kate Bush doesn’t probably do very much- well, she did that live show. But my point is that a lot of this stuff felt really special and kind of sub-culture-y. And now it doesn’t look that way to me.
Eric:Well, I think like Scott Walker and John Fahey – not that those were unknown artists – but those are a bit like outsider or ahead of the curve to be listening to that in the early 2000s. But I also have always thought of you as a guy like – when there’ll be moments where it’s uncool to listen to music that’s not obscure. Where everyone’s trying to outdo each other to listen to the deepest obscurity. And I think you’ve always owned like, “I love Morrissey,” or “I’m going to put on INXS at the party,” or whatever. [laughter] You have a deep love of –
Jeff: That’s true.
Eric: You don’t get caught up in that bullshit is what I’m saying.
Jeff: I don’t. But I surround myself – I think I have that as a luxury because I surround myself with a lot of people who have a very rich knowledge. And people like you who have a great, richer understanding of things that are less available or lesser known. So, I do absorb a lot of stuff that friends have shown me and stuff like that. And so, there’s plenty of room for Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy.
Eric: I think I had also maybe even specifically challenged you to put a Morrissey song that would win me over to Morrissey solo. Because I was a big Smiths fan, but Morrissey solo had never clicked with me. And also, I think I must have requested Lungfish as well. Because I knew you loved Lungfish and I had seen a lot of their live shows. But at that point, I don’t think their records had really clicked with me.
Jeff: I remember we had lots of conversations about Lungfish.
Eric:Yeah. I feel lucky to have seen them so many times. But in a sort of cruel irony, their music clicks with me a lot more now than it did then in a way. You know? I was more Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, and the trance-like state of Lungfish worked for me live, but didn’t work for me as one record back then as it does now. Do you feel bad for sending me these mixed signals with “I Want You” followed by “Leave Me Alone”? [laughter] I remember being sad about that.
Jeff: I just thought it was part of the game. “Leave Me Alone” is another. That’s a really good New Order song. It has a really cool beginning. I think the underdog on this tape is “Mad at The Man” by The Warmers. I think The Warmers are such an underdog band. I love that band. I think they’re such a cool, awesome band.
Eric:Yeah. I mean, the mid 90s D.C. – you know. There’s bands like The Warmers and Monorchid and stuff that I would go see them pretty much every time they played the same as I would with Make-Up, or Fugazi, or something. Or even sort of more art punk. You had a noise punk band like Metamatics who were so important to me at the time. And I feel like as the histories get written, they’ve got to find a place for these bands.
I was just going to ask if there were songs of these you had heard recently.
Jeff: Well, I played a Warmers song in the van. I think it’s funny too to look at this and see that I put Charles Ives, and I would never do that now. [laughs]. I mean, I’m laughing at myself. I’m not laughing at that music. The music is great, I’m sure. But I would never do that now. I think that was – well, you go through phases and stuff. I think was being influenced by friends and hearing a lot of classical music from them. And so, it’s not phony or anything. But it’s just funny to think like, wow. It’s a peculiar thing to thing that I owned classical records. It’s just funny. It’s an interesting time capsule.
“Funeral Tango.” I don’t remember that song by Scott Walker.
Eric: Hmm. Yeah. I think it’s on one or two. It’s not on four, which is the record I know best.
Jeff: Right, four is the one with the Jacques Brel songs and stuff?
Eric: I believe so. Yeah. Four is the darkest. Now that tapes are sort of coming back and kids who never experienced them out of necessity are buying them as a trend, do you have any sort of engagement with the return of tape culture?
Jeff: Yeah. Well, a couple years ago, I had a band with friends.
Eric:You played just a couple shows, right?
Jeff: Yeah. We did two shows.
Eric: It was an awesome band.
Jeff: Thanks. I thought it was awesome. We recorded a record. That was a long, painful, fractured process. But we’re making a tape right now. So, my involvement or connection to the tape resurgence is that now it’s like a viable, non-laughable way to release something. That just seemed absurd. Like ten years ago, it would be absurd to try to make a real release on a cassette, I think. But now–
Eric: And this will come out only as a tape?
Jeff: Yeah. I think so.
Eric:Any mp3s or?
Jeff: I think it will probably have a download or whatever. But it’s probably like 25 minutes long. But it’s funny that everything about it is like the band hardly existed. It hardly existed a while ago. And then there’s this tape thing as another feature to make it more alien to me. Like a disembodied band that doesn’t exist, that barely existed, that now is going to make a release on a format that seems archaic. But I’m told is not archaic anymore.
Eric: But could end up being a really lasting trace, you know what I mean? If you don’t decide to release that, it’s binary, right? If you never released anything, there’s a pretty much absolute certainty no one will be listening to it in 50 years. But this tape, someone may.
Jeff: And it’s cool because I do love tapes. Do you remember, did you guys ever have a problem with a tape and have to take it apart?
Eric:Oh, yes. Yeah. Absolutely. I didn’t have great success with that though.
Jeff: Oh, man. My brother showed me how to do that. His Run DMC Raising Hell tape broke. He had a purple one. There were different colors. You could get like green, purple, yeah. And he had purple, as I recall. And it broke. This is like, again, third or fourth grade. And he had the whole – like my dad’s eye glasses kit with the little screwdriver. And he had the lamp behind him. He had this little station where he took it all apart and put it all back together. He took the tape from one of my parents’ bullshit tapes from their car or whatever. And replaced the little felt pad and did it all. Just tinkered his way into replacing it perfectly. It was impressive.
Eric:What a magician, man. That’s amazing.
Jeff: Yeah. He’s a beer brewer now. I think the height of my mix taping was I remember feeling like I had a real skill for it at one time. And I think – and every mix tape maker will remember – the discovery of the input level. So, if you have a stereo with an input level when you’re dubbing, you can control it. And it’s like a visual thing. I don’t know how to describe it.
Eric:You’re talking about taking things into the red just the slightest bit to boost the dynamics. Yeah.
Jeff: Yes! Ever so slightly. If you have an EQ thing that shows you the input levels, it’s like a visual guide to see how hot the signal is going from one tape to the other or from the record to the tape. Because multiple sources are going to have a different input level. So, if you have a vinyl record – you have this song on a record that you’re going to record on a mix tape, and then you’ve got a song on a tape or a CD, they’re different. You have to adjust it as you go so that it’s all – it’s like mastering. It’s like you’re a mastering engineer or something.
Eric: Yeah. If you were making a mix tape that had tape, CD, and record sources, you had to adjust them to get it to come out at essentially one volume. Or else the tape to tape stuff would sound so tinny and shitty. And the vinyl to a certain degree too, depending on the system.
Jeff: I made a tape for a friend one time. He asked me, “I need someone to show me how to like Fugazi. I don’t get it. It’s all this screaming and yelling. What’s the big deal?” And I was like, “I’m the guy for the job. So, I’m going to show you.” And I was living on St. Paul Street. And I remember setting up my mix tape station and making the coffee. And I got all my Fugazi records and a couple live bootlegs I had at the time. This was before Internet stuff. And certainly, before the Fugazi Live series.
And I was like, “There’s this version of –” what was it? It was like a version of one of their demo things from their movie that was so cool. But of course, it was the only piece of music in the movie that they didn’t put on the record.
Eric:You’re talking about Fugazi: Instrument?
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. Instrument.
Eric:Because the Fugazi song here is from the Instrument soundtrack.
Jeff: Right. So, this would be from the same movie, but didn’t make it to the soundtrack. It was a version of the song Break. I remember now. It was like a slower version of it slightly. And it didn’t have any vocals. To me, that was the thing that was going to be the first song on the tape. Had to be. And that was going to get him to like Fugazi. And so, it was only on the video, which I had a VHS of. Or maybe I got it from Video Americain which would have been one block away when I lived there in St. Paul. And I was like, “How am I going to do this?”
And I thought about a microphone. I had one for band practice downstairs. I was like, “Maybe I could hold it to the TV.” Because I went to MICA, where I worked, and I got the RCA cable thing that would go from VHS, VCR sound output and go into my stereo input. And it worked. That was a revelation. It worked, and he still has that tape.
Eric:Did he fall in love with Fugazi?
Jeff: He likes them. He really likes their later albums. But the funny thing about that particular mix tape is I made this masterpiece of a Fugazi side of a tape. And I didn’t want to mess it up. I didn’t want to – I felt like it was finished. I was like Michelangelo looking at David [laughter] and being like, “Should I make the top of his head not flat like that?” And so, I made Side B, I made it an all Elvis mix tape.
Eric: Equally perfect. Right?
Jeff: Yeah. It was really good. He told me that he liked the Elvis side better. I mean, he is The King. But that was a moment I remember. That was an achievement in my mind, getting the movie onto the tape. On the topic of input levels.
Eric:Yeah. I remember when I had my DVD player hooked up to my stereo and realized I could record from DVD to audio tape, I was so psyched. But I remember, I would record a lot of my favorite soundtrack music. But in movies, you don’t usually hear a complete song from start to finish. You hear like a 20 or 30 second passage. So, the results, I enjoyed listening to. But I gave one to a friend and she was like, “No.”
But I think it was pretty much similar to those tapes you made as a kid where it’s just like– she didn’t have the connections to those movies, or the moments, or whatever. It just didn’t have the effect I hoped.
Jeff: Yeah. It’s all very personal. A mix tape is also – I hate to think that it’s gone. I got a wonderful mix CD from Sarah as part of a wedding gift. And it’s great. I listen to it all the time. It’s great because it’s in the car. And also, it’s fun to hear the Kurt Vile song that we had such a nice time together hanging out watching him play. And it’s cool to hear that. I think of that when I hear it. It has a personal texture to it the way mix tapes did. But there’s nothing like a mix tape. And it’s strange, but I don’t know.
What if it has something to do with the mechanical quality or the – I don’t know what it is. Or maybe it’s because of our age group and tapes were the beginning of our connection to music. If I’m correct in saying that for you two. I don’t know.
Eric:Yeah. Tapes were my format. I didn’t get into records until my 20s.
Jeff: Same. So, I don’t know. Yeah. It was really hard for me to let go of tapes and admit that CDs were part of life. The Internet is like the new CD.
Eric:Sarah and I talked a little bit about how making a mix tape was so time consuming, but therefore more special because you – you’re not creating an iTunes playlist that you just burn and the whole thing could take 15 minutes. You’re listening to the song. Maybe you put it on double speed with tape to tape. But otherwise, you’re listening to the song. And you might decide it’s the wrong one and rewind and tape over. And what jogged my memory was you talking about levels.
Because I remember I would always listen to a portion of the song on pause and watch the levels to make sure I get it. And then turn the knob up or whatever. If you’re going to do that, you’re talking about – it’s a whole afternoon at the very least to make somebody a mix tape.
Jeff: The last time I made a mix tape – when you said whole afternoon, it made me remember that I was living in a warehouse in downtown Baltimore and it was pouring rain. And I didn’t have a job or anything. So, I was hanging out by myself. And a friend was like, “I want someone to prove to me that The Beatles are worthwhile.” I know. Like literally out of all of western culture hadn’t tried that already. [laughter] But I was like, “I’ll be the one to show you. Because I’d be happy to.” So, I had this great idea that I would make a really cool object that would be Beatles Side A and Side B for her. And Side A would be black and white Beatles. And Side B would be like color Beatles. That was my thought. Meaning black and white Beatles is like the first couple of years.
Eric:Hard Day’s Night era.
Jeff: Yeah. Exactly. And it had a picture. You take the tape out and it had a two-sided picture. And it had a really “All You Need is Love,” hippie, Beatle, colorful picture and then had them in the suits. You know, like side-by-side. And I spent all day making that tape because it was so important to me that she come over to the Beatle’s side. And it was such a fun afternoon. That was such a fun way to spend time by myself. And that’s the last time I remember making an actual mix cassette mix tape was that Beatles tape.
I was really proud of that Beatles tape. And again, I really worked on it. I had this Beatle anthology. You’ve probably seen the anthology. And I found little funny takes that weren’t the takes that they used in the album. And I was like, “That’s a cool take. [This friend], who’s never listened to The Beatles will really appreciate this alternate take of Mr. Moonlight.”
But then that makes me think – not to be too tangential. But that makes me think how much of making mix tapes is really just like a – I don’t want to say the word “vanity.” But is a way to experience yourself. A way to be with yourself. I was having such a great perfect thing. Rainy day, making tea, and hanging out. And surrounding myself with my favorite music and showing myself how I understood my favorite music. And exhibiting it presumably to a friend. But really, I’m having a chance to kind of curate – you used the word “curate” earlier – and stitch it together in a way that it – and sometimes, it has something to do with changing reality.
But yeah. I think it has a lot to do with, as music lovers, it has something to do with understanding our relationship to our thing we love. Like it’s a way to spend time with it, or meditate with it, or something. And that’s sort of nourishing. I mean, it’s certainly nourishing. But maybe it’s a missing piece. Because you know also the feeling you get when you listen to music in your car by yourself? That can be also nourishing in a similar way. Because it’s just you and the music. And it’s interesting. But the mix tape thing is doubly interesting because the whole point of it is to share it. But I think what’s at the heart of it is something that it’s about – like the joy of it is that you’re spending time with yourself.
Eric: Yeah. While I’m picturing that, I’m thinking of times where I’ve made someone a mix tape. And their experience is those 90 minutes, but our experience are those six hours or whatever. And when we think of them listening to it, we’re also thinking of those six hours.
Jeff: Totally. Absolutely. And also, making a mix tape can resonate in strange other ways. Like I remember when More Dogs would go on tour. And I would be like, “Hey, you guys are going on tour? I’ll make you a mix tape.” And you would put jokes in it, you know? Or something to kind of be like are they listening? Are they paying attention? [laughter] That kind of thing. Or wait with anticipation for them to come home. And be like, “Well, go ahead and tell me what you thought of the thing.” And so, that would be cool.
The band Love. I remember being really proud of myself that I turned people on to Love. The band, not the experience.– I think right now, I’m turning Godfrey [the cat] on to love. But yeah.
Jeff McGrath is the guitarist for Permanent Waves, an art handler for the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and an infamous fan of the works of Stephen Patrick Morrissey. He lives in Baltimore with his wife Sara and two cats.