A Letter is a Vote for the Future

One afternoon in October, I left Dischord House in Arlington, VA feeling inspired. The premise for meeting up with Ian MacKaye was that Michael Honch, former member of Hunger Artist among other bands, had a tape that Ian had made for him before they had ever met. This fact alone astounded me. In 1987, Michael wrote Ian a letter to ask for a recording of the Washington, DC band Dove. In response, Ian made Michael a tape with Dove, Deadline, Scream, Fugazi, and Press Mob and sent it back to him in Rochester, NY.

The letter and tape exchange had happened long before any of us knew one another, when Ian was seven years in to co-running a landmark independent record label and just beginning to play shows with Fugazi, when Michael was struggling with his first year of college, and when I was struggling with my first year of middle school. Nevertheless, when Ian and Michael and I met up to talk about the tape, we whiled away the time like old friends. The same culture of camaraderie and music sharing that encouraged the 1987 exchange inspirited the afternoon.  Our conversation meandered through punk and Dischord anecdotes to the meaningfulness of true connection with others. It was the kind of conversation that leaves you changed, renewed, affirmed. It is an honor to share it.

The conversation begins after Ian blows our minds by throwing the letter that Michael had written him onto the table in front of us.

Page 1 of Michael’s letter to Ian

Michael: This is incredible. I was telling Sarah, the first time I’d ever heard of the Internet, a guy I knew in Rochester who was a little older, he worked for Xerox, said, “I met someone on the network, and he has the Embrace demo.” And I was like, “Okay forget about the ‘network.’ What?” And he was someone who was communicating with this early tech communication.

Michael and Ian

Ian: You actually say in there- you say my lyric writing’s gotten better [laughter], which I appreciated. But you also say that you’re looking forward to hearing this new project of mine, which was Fugazi. You’re very well-versed in DC punk.

Trouser Press magazine cover with Bad Brains
From trouserpress.com/magazine

Sarah: Yeah, so how would you have known about that stuff happening?

Michael: Growing up in Rochester in the pre-Internet days, it was hard to get information. I’d hear about things. I think one of my introductions to punk rock – I liked David Bowie. I liked Iggy Pop. I liked the Ramones, things like that. But I wanted to know what was going on right now. This all seemed like way in the past. I remember going to a bookstore and reading in Trouser Press magazine about the Bad Brains. And I was like, “Oh! This sounds like what I’m looking for.”  I couldn’t find this anywhere. But I bought the magazine. My dad was taking a business trip to Boston, and I said, “If you see the Bad Brains tape in Boston, will you buy it for me?” And he found it.

Ian: He must have gone to Newbury Comics.

Michael: Yeah. So he bought the Bad Brains ROIR tape, brought it back, and me and my friends all gathered around that tape. That’s where it all started for all of us. So when you’re trying to learn and figure out your own deal based on recordings, you’re still behind what’s going on right now.

Ian: What does that mean?

Michael: Just playing music- to write your own songs. Because there really was no blueprint for playing hardcore punk rock.

Ian: Right. And that’s exactly the point of it. To me, punk was, the idea was, that the audience was there for the new idea. And that was the difference. Actually, the problem today is that, the way things are structured now, the people who have access to stages either have to be known or they have to have some referential thing- they have to be known from somewhere or have done something OR they play a certain kind of genre, because obviously, audiences are clientele and for clubs to bring you in, you have to have an audience. New ideas don’t have audiences because they haven’t been thought of yet.

But what I love about punk and why I think punk is still alive is that there is an audience—it’s small—that’s just like, “Okay, what do you got? We’re here for the new idea.” So in a way, the blueprint was that there was no blueprint. And unfortunately, the longer you’ve been involved, you can see, somebody comes up with an idea and then people just start doing that thing. And it becomes calcified in a way, or it becomes  an orthodoxy. But then you just have to keep moving, keep going, keep the new idea, keep it coming.

It’s interesting. I was just talking about that ROIR tape today with these guys at my kid’s school. And I was talking about how for me, the ROIR tape was weird.  I grew up with [Bad Brains] here, and Black Dots, that era, that stuff was like the greatest recording ever. And I remember just thinking, that ROIR thing is just so weirdly fast. They were playing super fast and it sounds so shitty, but I said to the guys today–I said to those dads– this tape was a fucking game-changer. This is the tape that changed people’s minds. People’s minds were exploded. The Black Dots tape was like the Dove tape. The only people who had the Black Dots tape were like me, Henry [Rollins], and eighteen other people around town. It didn’t get out. Not ‘til later.

Like the Dove thing. That is so obscure. The fact that you have the Dove tape, is so bizarre to me. Like the Black Dots. Way more people had Black Dots than Dove. I think the ROIR thing, that’s where most people first encountered the Bad Brains. And it’s kind of an incredible recording. But from my brain, from my perspective, it was sort of like, “What have they done to their incredible sound?” It’s alright. I can listen to it now and really respect it. And I’m happy to hear you talk about it because I was just telling those guys that this tape was like a bomb that exploded all over the place. It was pretty incredible.

Sarah: So it was just that the ROIR tape had gotten distributed further than anything else had?

Ian: The only thing they had put out prior to the ROIR tape was the Pay to Cum single. They put out 1,000, and that was on their own label, Bad Brains [Records]. Henry and I lent them some of the money to do it. That was before Dischord. So you’re talking about hard-earned pet shop money. You know, [meekly], “Here’s 50 bucks.” [laughter] But then they went to New York and they did this ROIR cassette.

[ROIR was] a cassette-only label. And that tape just got out. They managed to get it into important record stores. There were these distributors up in New York. You just had different access. And it was also just unimpeachable. It was just a mind-blower of a tape.

I used to be so angry. People would talk about Husker Du, and they’d say, “Fastest band in America!” We’re like, ‘Really? Because we’re from DC and we have the Bad Brains.” And then I thought, “I want to hear these guys.” And I heard Land Speed Record. And I thought, “Yeah, okay. They’ve got a fast tempo but they’re sloppy.” The Bad Brains were precise. So I just remember thinking, “A fie on Husker Du!” [laughter]

Michael: So there was no place in Rochester at the time to find this music. Very few people were into it. I was flipping around on the radio dial—someone had mentioned that some of the college radio stations play some cool stuff. And the Rochester Institute of Technology, WITR—it was like a life-changing moment—they had this show, it was called “The Friday Night Filet,” where a deejay, at 11:30, would play everything by one artist. And there was a commercial for the Minutemen. And I was like, “What the fuck is this?” So I taped that.

Ian: Was it Double Nickels or something?

Michael: It was before Double Nickels.

Ian: I think Project Mersh was out by then.

Michael: The radio show played everything leading up to Double Nickels on the Dime, which was due out soon. I rode my bicycle up to the record store and bugged them every Tuesday for a few months until the singles came out.

Photo of Record Archive from recordarchive.com

Ian: What was the name of the shop up there?

Michael: The one I went to was Record Archive on Mount Hope Avenue. That’s where I bought Double Nickels when it came out. That radio station started a punk show. And one of the deejays was from DC. His name was Jon Hull. There’s a picture of him in Banned in DC in a crowd shot. It’s a Jim Saah photo of Void playing. He’s one of the people in the audience. He brought his record collection with him. One of the other deejays was from the New England scene- a lot of Connecticut and Boston hardcore in there. So, I started hearing stuff that you couldn’t find in stores. So I started taping the radio and sometimes sitting down and playing guitar along with these recordings. I took some guitar lessons.

Jon Hull circled in photo of Void by Jim Saah from Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground (79-85) by Connolly, Clague, and Cheslow

Ian: You’d been playing for seven years when you wrote that letter.

Michael: Yeah!

Ian: You said that in the letter. He says there, “I’ve been playing for seven years.” You got that in there. “I’ve been playing for seven years.”  [laughter]

Michael: This is so sweet that you—I can remember writing this letter.

Ian: Before you guys go, I’ll show you the archive room.

Sarah: Yeah, how would you have dug that up, out of all the letters that you receive?

Ian: You will find out. I’ve been doing my work here! I’ve been working hard. You know how I found it? I typed in “Michael” into a database—

Michael and Sarah: WHOAH!

Ian: –that led me right to the folder and box which it’s in. We’ve been working for the last eight years in archives, and I have 35 years of correspondence. And I figured when I saw that he had the tape, I was like, “I bet you…” The letters that got tossed are usually like, “Send me a catalog.” So anyone that actually engaged—was engaging—I’d probably hang on to that thing.

Then for years and years and years, I kept boxes of mail. And they’re literally in the eaves. The eaves of this house, I lined them with pressboard cedar just to keep the bugs out. And there were the boxes. And then about eight or nine years ago I started working with different people on archiving projects. We first worked on the audio stuff, then we organized the posters, and we started working on the correspondence about three years ago.

[Ian fields a telephone call.]…Ian: So how are we doing on this thing?

Sarah: We got Michael to the ROIR tape. Now we need to get Michael to the letter and the tape.

Michael: Right! I can remember vividly writing this letter. But what I can’t remember is what on earth would give me the gumption to write to you. Because even now I feel very mindful of other people’s time. Like, “I don’t want to bug them.” I know people are busy.

Ian: I think the discourse was open. I think people wrote to each other all the time. I actually don’t think probably at that time—I wouldn’t say you weren’t mindful. But it wouldn’t have been mindless to write somebody. I think that people think that now. I find it shocking that with all the development in communication, that people find it so difficult to write. Or talk. Or respond. I find it amazing. Everyone seems to be so busy, but what they’re really busy at is looking at things. I don’t know what else to say about it. It just seems strange.

Ian explaining

Look at that. You sat down and wrote a three-page letter. Part of it—you’re pleading your case. You want this tape bad. And this is what you have to go through to get it. What I find startling about that—I don’t know if you looked at the whole letter—but at the end of the letter you say, “Yeah, we made a tape. I’d love to send you one but I’m poor. If you want to buy one, it’s $3.” [laughter] Meanwhile, you’re asking me to fucking make YOU a tape! [laughter] You said, “I’m poor, but if you want to buy one, it’s three dollars.” I mean, why didn’t you just send me a tape? And then trade it? It’s a little startling!

Michael: Amazing.

Ian: But I think probably—who knows what you were thinking. One thing about punk in general and me specifically is that—and it’s still the case—I’m accessible. And people felt comfortable getting in touch with me. I’m still in the phone book, but people always say, “Man, I’ve been through so much to try to figure out how to find you.” It’s so weird.

So I think that I’ve always been accessible.

Sarah: Yeah, has this changed over time?

Ian: No!

Sarah: Because it’s one thing when Michael’s writing you this letter, and it’s the late 80s–

Ian: it’s just the work. It’s just my work. It’s what I do. People contact me one way or the other and I respond, one way or the other. I think there’s a couple things at play here.

There’s a different sense of what the value of recordings are now. I’d be much more loathe to send a tape now because someone would just post it. And that’s a big problem. I’ve actually made little demoes. Amy and Joe and I have been working on something, and a friend of mine said, “Oh, I’d love to get a copy.” And I said, “Yeah I’m not going to give you a copy.” “Don’t you trust me?” “I trust you. I don’t trust the person that you give a copy to.” And once it goes, it goes. You can’t take it back. It’s like the genie is out of the bottle. When you showed me I sent this, I was like, “O my god, that could be out there.”

I think at this point in time, a band like Dove, they recorded—I would say it wasn’t a great session. It was interesting. And the results—I would say it’s the best they did. I think the later stuff they even lost the plot more. But it wasn’t really something we could release. And people don’t understand, at Dischord, we were broke. Broke broke! People say, “Why didn’t you put this out?” Because we didn’t have money! We were hand to mouth. We put out a record. Then we had to wait to sell them to make enough money to put out the next record. I couldn’t put it out. But I liked it. I thought it was kind of a cool recording.

Click to view a facebook post from “Brian D. Horrorwitz:” September 17, 1983 footage of Dove playing a house party

So when someone actually expresses an interest in something that’s that obscure, I’m like, “Thank you for asking. Here’s a copy.” I made a lot of tapes for people. Mostly because, speaking from my own work—people say, “How do you feel about file sharing?” Every song I ever wrote, I wrote to be heard. So, if no one wants to pay for it, that’s fine. But to know that somebody wants to hear it, that’s the point. It’s not the dollar. It was always to be heard.

And I figured, “Well, the letter’s sincere.” I could tell he’s not some scummy bootleg guy. He’s genuinely knowledgeable. He’s clearly a student of music and specifically a DC fan. You reference Marginal Man and Double O and all this shit, so I knew that you knew. So I’m happy to share.

It’s a good tape, too. What did I give you? I gave you Dove, Deadline.

Tape insert, photo courtesy of Michael Honch

Michael: That was there for my health and improvement.

Fugazi show flyer from October 16, 1987 show at d.c. space.
Click to download show from the Fugazi Live Series on Dischord.com

Ian: This is the second tape, right? It’s the 8 or 9 song tape. And then I put Fugazi on there! So you’re talking about that [in the letter], “-your new project.” And I’m like, “Well there it is!”

So you heard this. This would have been our fourth show, probably.

Press Mob were good. I like that song Sundays. That’s on the DC Rox comp.

Yeah, I love this song P.T.S.R. That’s a good song. That was written by Toni Young. Of Red C.

Michael: The bass player. Yeah.

Ian: Peer Pressure also did a version of that song. It’s a good jam. Toni was a good person. She shuffled off in ’86. So it goes.

So I just wanted to share music. I was happy to do it. People sent me stuff, too. So I’d occasionally get tapes from people.

I remember going across the country. I saw the Butthole Surfers for the first time in 1981. I saw them in L.A. Maybe ‘82. It was before they had a regular drummer. They were just a four-piece. They were so fucking weird. We saw them in L.A. and then we went to Austin. And we’re hanging out with the Big Boys. I said, “What do you know about the Buttholes?” And they were like, “We got these tapes.” I was just making tapes!

Actually, I’ve been typing up my ’84 journals, and I write that Henry was visiting, but spent all of his time sitting upstairs making tapes. ‘Cause that’s all we did. You’d go to someone’s house, you’d make tapes because you were getting back on the road. You’d need to have tapes. So he was just copying tapes. And that’s what we did. Everyone had stacks of tape decks and were making tapes. That was the discourse.

Michael: Now that brings back really good memories, too, of all the tapes from my bands—I’d go over to my parents’ house and use their dubbing deck. And we’d get orders from Maximum Rock N Roll and be making copies of them one at a time. But also- that radio station- WITR where I first heard punk rock- my first band, we recorded ourselves with a boom box and then showed up at the radio station with it. They were like, “Wait, there’s a punk band in this town?” And they played it over the air! That was when [I thought,] “I think I found where I can grow here.”

Michael Honch, 1987, Rochester, NY

My first show was opening for Beefeater. That was the first time I really had to fight hard with my folks because I was a sophomore in high school at a bar.

Sarah: You had to fight [your parents] just to get there to play the show?

Michael: Yes. I was a little terrified. That was an intimidating band to play with. But Fred Smith [guitarist of Beefeater] came up to me before the show. I’m talking to him. And I said that this is my first show. And he said, “Show ‘em what you got!” And then my vivid memory of that is that I had this ridiculous solid state Marshall amp. It was like a mini stack. And he was crouched behind it, with his fist in the air, screaming “Yeah!”

Ian: That was your first gig!? Your first gig playing with them, or your first gig, period? You didn’t play a party before that?

Flyer for the first show Michael played, in Nuns on Death Row

Michael: The only show that I’d ever played before that was a battle of the bands at the local Jewish community center.

I had missed them the first time they played in Rochester because I was grounded. And they played with Dag Nasty at RIT with Shawn [Brown] still in the band.

Beefeater – “Need a Job” with Fred Smith solo

Sarah: …To circle back, when was the last time someone has asked you to make a tape for them?

Ian: A tape? Today I was talking to a guy—this will give you an idea of who I am. I was just over at this My Organic Market over here. And there’s a kid who works there who I see around, and he’s a nice guy. And he was wearing a Cramps shirt. I said, “Hey, that’s the first band I ever saw!” That’s the poster for the first show I ever saw right there [gestures to wall] that Cramps show.

Cramps poster at Dischord house

Sarah: Wow!

Ian: February 3rd, 1979. So then I said to him, “That’s the first band I ever saw. 1979.” And he’s like, “No way!” He’s probably 19 or something. And I said, “I think I have some live stuff. I’ll make you some copies of it.” So I saw him today, and I was like, “What do you want by the way? I don’t know what medium you want.” I was thinking I’d make him a cd or something. He said, “Anything’s fine.” I could easily make a cd for him. Or I could make a thumb drive. I can’t make vinyl. And I’m not really inclined to make a cassette. It’s a pain in the ass.

BUT, to answer your question, there’s a Japanese guy who works at the market at 17th and U. And he is a very enthusiastic guy, and he loves ska. He loves ska so much. He’s a trombone player. I’ve seen him in his band. So we were talking about it, and I was like, “You only listen to ska?” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, only ska.” And he goes, “Maybe a little reggae.” I said, “What about rock steady?” And he says, “Oh yeah.” I said, “Do you want some cds?” He said, “No, cassettes only!” So I have these cds, which I think I made from cassette years ago. This guy from New York just sent me these compilations. So I made cds. Or maybe he made me cds of his cassettes. I can’t remember now. He sent me so many things over the years. So I took the cds and I made this kid three cassettes of rock steady. That was maybe three weeks ago.

Sarah: Wow!

Ian: You see these boxes behind [Michael]? Those are filled with cds. I have literally thousands and thousands of pieces of plastic that have music on them. And they’re inert unless they do something. So when someone says to me, “I like this.” I’m like, oh shit, let me break this out of its fucking tomb. Give it some reason–

Michael sitting in front of boxes of cds

Even the letter! Honestly, I’ve spent so much money and so much time on this fucking project upstairs. And to actually have a reason—like, “Oh, there you go!” Just for the moment where you guys were like, “Noooo!” That’s the pay off, right?

That’s the fucking point! Why else did I keep it? What reason on Earth would I keep it if it weren’t to show you that letter? What’s the point? What’s the point of it?

That’s why I do everything I do. It’s just potential. You just do the work. Then someday it shows up. The reason you did it will show up. I don’t know. That’s how I operate. That’s how I’ve always operated. I just do my work, do what’s in front of me.

Like this morning, I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ll look for that letter.”

So yes, I think the idea of spreading the word. I’m not a formatist. Cassettes. There’s an aspect of cassettes which I think is really valuable. First of all, they’re hardy. Let me show you something.

I was typing up my 1984 journal. And in that journal I came across a thing where I spent an evening at the Connollys’ house. I had just typed about it. And I was going through trying to look at some tapes today for this thing. And I came across this tape. And it says [reads the cassette label], “Ian, Anna, and I arguing March 7, 1984” Oh shit. That is incredible. That she had this tape. And I have the tape.

The deal with tape is, the tape itself is very, very hardy. What is not hardy is the mechanism.

[Ian demonstrates to Michael and me his tape transplant method.]

Felt pad

So you can see in here there’s a felt. And the felts on these things, typically, they’ll dry out or they’ll fall off. And the point of the felt is to apply pressure on the back of the tape. Because when you push play, it pushes the head into the tape, and you want to have a nice firm contact. When you have this felt drop off, there’s no firm contact, so you get the [imitates muffled voices]. So, what you do then is—this one unfortunately is not a screw tape, so I actually was just in the process- whilst waiting for you to show up- I was in the process of using a screwdriver. I started just splitting the tape open. Which I will do. I will split this tape open.

Then, these are C-Zeros, there’s no tape on them. These are screws. So, you take the top off. Take this little zero tape. There’s nothing on there. See? And you just drop these hubs in. Boom.

C-Zero photo from www.duplication.ca

They fit perfectly. Because when they made cassettes, there was an argument about what the format would be. You know how there’s beta and VHS and HD and Blu-Ray, all that kind of crap? Well cassettes had the same kind of thing, but the manufacturing people decided to agree on a standardized format.

So this is Cynthia [Connolly]’s mom’s tape when she was in law school in the mid-70s. This is a 40-year old tape. This will fit perfectly into this [C-Zero cassette]. Uniform.

Sarah: That is pretty amazing.

Ian: Upstairs I can actually give you an example of the difference it will make. But you can see, that felt is fine. The spring is still there. So when I do that, it will make the clarity of this mind-blowing.

So cassettes. There’s a practical component to them. They’re very hardy. They’re also democratic. Everybody can do it. A band like [Michael’s late-80s band] Hunger Artist could record a practice and take it over there. But you couldn’t make a record. Making a record, that was some next-level shit. Also, making a record requires you to make a financial commitment and also a commitment into creating multiple pieces of plastic. You don’t make five records. You’re going to make 500 or 5,000. And if you make 1,000, that’s a lot of records. There’s a lot of people in this world who have under their beds boxes of records they couldn’t sell. Because you had to make 1,000 or 500 at the minimum. That’s the way those pressing plants used to be. It’s not worth the origination because there’s a whole series of steps leading up to the creation of the pressing itself. You have to master it. You have to make plates. You have to make stampers. There’s all this stuff that went into that. So, it wouldn’t make any sense to only do a small run. You have to kind of speculate, like “Well, we could do 1,000, and then it would cost x amount per record.”

Cassettes are one to one. That’s the populist way. Here’s a tape. And you could just make the tape. So it was the people’s format.

And it’s finite, which is nice. The problem with digital is that it’s not finite. It never ends. Online or digitally, you could have something that’s 100 hours long. But cassettes are like C-30, C-60, C-90. C-120, but you’re starting to stretch it out. They are finite.

And they have sides, which is also important. The distinction between vinyl and cds was that with vinyl you had two 15 to 20 minute sides, which meant that– you might listen to side 2, you might listen to side 1. So when you sequence an album, you would always think about what leads off side 2. Because that’s also significant. It’s the first song.  So you would think about the sequencing.

Side twos

CDs have one side, and they’re 70 minutes long. And people don’t listen to music for 70 minutes. They listen to music for about 15-20 minutes, and then it becomes background. So sequencing for a CD was just front-loaded. And then they put a bunch of drivel at the end, basically. Vinyl and cassettes had sides, so you knew, “O yeah, turn it over.” That’s that side. It was an interesting format. And it was easy to do.

It’s generational, which is a problem. Like when you make copies of something- a copy of a copy of a copy. It just starts to sound shitty. That’s why digital kicked ass on that front. I mean for bootlegs, God, the digital format was amazing. I mean, I have hundreds of Beatles and Hendrix bootlegs that have come through the internet or digital, and they’re incredible quality. Cassette bootlegs just sound shitty because they’re copies of copies of copies. Vinyl bootlegs sound shitty because the people who would press them had to be a back-alley operation. You weren’t going to get good pressings.

Sarah: Yes, I have some of that. Before I understood any of that, I bought some Clash bootlegs from Phantasmagoria [Records].

Ian: Yeah, and then the thing about those is that those were pressed from probably cassette recordings that had been copied and copied and copied. So there’s an issue there.

Ian with Dove masters

For instance, what [Michael] has there, the tape I sent him, is a copy of a copy of the master. So, when we did that session, we mixed it, and then Don [Zientara] had a tape deck in the room, and he’d say, “How many tapes do you want?” And here’s the thing about how many tapes you want. Let’s say the tape is 30 minutes long. This is probably 30 minutes long or something like that. If you have a 30-minute tape, and Don says, “How many tapes do you want?” well, people who are in the band all want first-generation tapes. So there’s four people in the band. Well that’s four times 30. So that’s two hours. And you’re paying Don per hour. So you’re paying for the tape, and you’re paying for the time. So you’re never going to make a tape and then say, “I’ll just give you a copy of our tape.” People don’t want that. Everybody wanted a first-generation copy.

So the Dove tape I have upstairs would have come right from the deck, from Don’s, and then I would have made a copy from that. The other thing about cassettes is that every time you play a tape, you lose a little something. So that’s the other issue. They’re hardy. But most of us had shitty decks. And the bias would be bad.

Ian’s Dove tape

Here’s the thing about this tape [of Cynthia, Anna, and I arguing.] This is a shitty recording on a shitty tape deck. You can tell how shitty it is because there’s no screws in it already, so you know it’s just going to be a shitty tape. It’s old. But the thing about it that makes it really priceless is that it’s the only one that exists in the world. It’s the only existing recording of us having an argument on March 7, 1984.

So taking that over the alternative, which is nothing the fuck at all, it’s pretty valuable. So, that’s documentation. That’s the idea.

So that [Dove] tape, it probably didn’t sound that bad.

Michael: It sounded great to my ears.

Ian: But tapes do, they start to get wonky. Good luck writing all this up. I don’t know what you’re gonna write about but—

Sarah: [laughter] What was Dischord like around the time that this tape was made?

Ian: Let’s see. Fugazi would be practicing here at that point. And Happy-Go-Licky was still practicing here. I think 3 were around. Everybody practiced downstairs. So we had this full-on constant—the whole house would be like bbbbwwwwwwrrr. The bands were practicing in the basement while people worked on the label upstairs.

[Ian shows photo.]

Shipping office at Dischord house, circa 1990

Sarah: Well it looks very organized.

Ian: Pretty organized. Always been pretty organized. But Dischord was thriving. I’ve been typing up this ‘84 journal, and the amount of people socializing and the amount of people coming and going. Everyday, people are showing up. My brother, Chris Bald—and then The Meat Puppets and Black Flag and everyone just constantly coming through. Many of them practiced in the basement. It’s one of my great regrets that I didn’t keep a guest book. I actually don’t even remember all the people that have stayed here. And I remember thinking about three years in- I should have kept a guest book. And then at that point- ah well. I’m not going to start now. But I probably should have.

But the amount of circulation was fascinating. People were just coming and going, coming and going.

These days, it is so rare. People will come here on a formal thing now. Like, this is a formal arrangement. We took weeks of cc:ing each other to fucking have a sit-down. But the sort of spontaneous, the sort of “I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by,” that almost never happens anymore.

Sarah: Really? I would think it would happen more because with the Internet there would be more people aware—

Ian: More people show up to take their picture on the porch. That’s different. That’s not the same thing. That’s just people wanting to take a picture because it’s like sightseeing. I’m talking about tribes forming and people making the connection and appearing.

I have upstairs a lot of the tapes from the answering machines.

Sarah: Whoah, you saved the tapes from the answering machines?

Ian: Right, ‘cause I would use cassettes, and I would just let it run. And then occasionally, I would pop it out and put a fresh one in and throw it in a box. Just to have. So I had, like, 20 of them. And I was listening to one of the first ones we had. Some of the tapes actually have messages from people where it’s like, ‘I would keep that!” But in most cases, it’s just random stuff. I’ll play you some.

But one of the tapes I have—at that time, on that machine, the phone would ring and the answering machine would go off. Remember how people would say, “Hey it’s me. I’m here. Pick up! Pick up!” The fancy machines would cut off at that point. But the old machines just kept running. So you had to remember to turn off the machine. So, I have a tape where Amy Pickering is calling looking for me. And at this time, we had five phone lines in this one house. So Amy calls the house line. And she’s like, “Hey! Ian are you there? Ian are you there? Are you there? Are you there?” And then Mark Sullivan picks up, because he’s living upstairs at the time, and he’s like, “Hey it’s Mark. Is Ian there?” “No, he went out.” “Shit.” “How you doing, girl?” [sigh] “Really? What’s going on?” “Kind of a shitty day.” “What’s been going on?” And then they start talking. I was thinking about it. That’s a spontaneous conversation. And that has been terminated. If I call you, I’m never gonna get [your husband] Chris. He’s not answering that fucking [cell] phone.

Sarah: No.

Ian: If I call you [on the cell phone], I’m not gonna talk to your kids. That is a really interesting social change.

Sarah: Definitely.

Ian: Because when you think about calling group houses, or even calling your friend and talking to their parents. There’s real transference there. And also, there’s an intimacy that develops. It’s how you become friends with people. You call a group house and then someone else answers the phone and you’re in a conversation. You’re like, “Hey let’s have a cup of tea sometime!” It’s very interesting. I’m not a Luddite. I’m not against progress or whatever you want to call it. It’s just something to think about, the effect it has on the interactions. It’s like- so much online community, in isolation. It’s fucked up.

Sarah: Yeah, I think a lot of the people you think you’re in a community with online, you wouldn’t really want to hang out with.

Ian: Right. That’s the stuff I’ve been thinking about. Among the millions of other things I’ve been thinking about, that’s something I’ve been thinking about.

Sarah: Are you going to do anything about these ideas?

Ian: I just did!

Sarah: [laughter] Well I guess I do wonder- is there something to do about this? I mean, you conduct your own life in a certain way. I guess that’s step one.

Ian: First of all, I don’t have any social media at all. I get it. I just can’t get involved. It’s too much. The media component of social media is toxic. I feel for people who are being traumatized by the perpetual weirdness coming out of the White House and Capitol. Take it out of your pocket! You don’t need the needle over and over and over. Goddamn. I don’t see the benefit.

A friend was saying, “The problem with the newspaper is that you can’t update it.” The paper-paper doesn’t update. And I was like, “Yeah, that’s not a problem. That’s okay.” He is traumatized by the Twitter. I’m just like- stop. What’s the point of it?

Shitty things have always been happening always in the world at all times. While we’re talking right now, something horrible has happened to somebody somewhere. And it’s not within our control. It’s not at our beckoning. We didn’t do it.

Why did we have to learn about a car crash a mile away from here and not about one that happened in Omaha? Why is a car crash where one person was killed on Key Bridge more important than a car crash where eight people are killed in Des Moines? What’s the difference? The curation of news and the way information is given to us is really to make us feel terrible, by and large.

When this motherfucker got into office and all this shit was going on, I said to people, alright, they got the House. They got the Senate. They got the White House. Don’t give them your joy. Don’t fucking give up on joy. If you don’t have joy, then fuck it, what’s the point? They can’t take your joy. So I feel strongly that people should stop engaging in feeling terrified. Fuck fear! Don’t be scared. These are jerks. They’ve always been jerks. Always. These are more demonstrative jerks. But, it’s gonna pass. It always passes.

A friend once said to me, “Bigotry always falls on the wrong side of history.” You just gotta wait it out. And it didn’t start with them! They’re the end of this particular strain. The same friend also once told me—you ever hear about this thing called extinction bursts?

Sarah: No.

Ian: It’s a great term. An extinction burst is the burst of energy right at the end of something’s existence. When animals die and then all of a sudden, rrrrrrvvvvrr, they do that thing. Or another great example is when there’s a bully, and you tell your kid, “Just walk away! Don’t give them that power!” But when you walk away, the bully attacks. The bully does that because he or she knows that their power is at the end. It’s an extinction burst.

This is an extinction burst. This is what we’re seeing. It’s the end of the Vietnam-era, White men problem. And it’s a bummer. And I’m sorry we have to deal with it. But that’s the way it goes. It’s not my doing!

Ian and teapot

I’m also the guy that on September 11th, I was sitting here and Amy Pickering was at the office across the street, and she called me and said, “Do you see what’s going on?” I said, “No.” “Turn on the tv.” Then I saw, yeah, someone crashed a plane. How terrible! And then I saw the other plane come in, and “Oh, this is not an accident. Oh shit! Alright.” I turned the tv off. What can I do? I’m just fucking sitting here, right? And then, a call: “They just crashed the Pentagon!” “Really?” I walked up to the top of the street to look and see the black smoke. I’m like, “Wow! Okay.”

Then I come back and people are calling, like, “What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?” And I just said, “I’m not gonna do anything.” “I’m gonna do my work.” And people are like, “Should we go? Should we drive somewhere?” “Where? Where would we drive?” People are like, “There’s still eight planes out there!” Okay. We had zero control over this situation!  I had nothing to do with whatever led to it. I had nothing to do with the actual event of it. So I thought, “Well fuck it.” I had a bed in the back room that summer, and I was lying downstairs, and I saw the trees, and I saw the birds in the trees, and I thought, “They don’t give a fuck. The birds in the trees don’t give a fuck about this. And I’m on their side. I’m not going to get caught up in the brutality of human folly.”

I don’t know why humans do this shit. They’ve been doing it forever. Just some of them. Not most of them. But enough to terrify the rest of us, I guess. I’m with the trees and the birds. That’s life. That’s the real deal.

So then everything was fucked up. They had closed the bridges. We couldn’t go out. We were stranded here. And I was sitting here by myself, and I was like, “Fuck. I know. I’ll answer the mail.” So I get a big box of mail, and I sat here, and I was just writing, and I was like, “Oh! I should date it September 10th, because I don’t want people to think I’m insane, right?” And also because I saw it as a vote for the future. Because that’s the thing about letters. Like when you wrote that letter, it was one day, but when you sent it to me, it would be a different day. So you believed in the future.

Michael: Yeah.

Ian: And that’s how I thought. I thought, “I’m writing letters because I believe in the future.” Right? Because I knew when I wrote that letter, they’re gonna get the letter in two days.

And about four or five months ago, I got an email from a guy, and he said, “You know, I was just going through my mail. I have a box of old keepsakes. And I found a card from you. And it’s dated September 11th, 2001.”

Sarah: [laughter] Oh no.

Ian: And he’s like, “Were you really answering mail on September 11th?” I’m like, “Shit!”

I wrote back and said, “I can’t believe you got that!” But that’s the thing- I didn’t watch television [that day]. What’s the point? It’s incomprehensible, right? The brutality. It would never make sense why people would do that. I don’t want to see people jumping out of buildings! I don’t want to look at that kind of shit. The only thing you can achieve, really, by looking at it is becoming numb to it. And I’m not interested in that. So I was like, “I’m not gonna watch it.” So I may have been one of the five people in America who didn’t watch it all day. And therefore, I was like, “Okay. Here we are.”

I’m for joy! That’s my gig. I want to be well. I want love. That’s it.

When Ian stepped out of the room, Michael had this to offer about the effect that receiving this tape from Ian had on him.

Michael mid-thought

Michael: I look at that letter there and what he said about [what I wrote], “I’m really poor. It’s three dollars.” I’m mortified seeing that but at the same time I think—one of the things that impressed me about this so much was the generosity of it, without expecting anything in return, except to listen. But it’s something that I carry with me. It’s one of those ripple effects. I think about ways in which this changed how I think about sharing work with other people—that it’s possible to communicate with people in ways in which there wasn’t an economy to it. There wasn’t a quid pro quo. It was really, really encouraging.

 

 

Michael was born and raised in Rochester, NY. He played guitar in Nuns on Death Row (1985-1986), one of Rochester’s first hardcore punk bands. He also played guitar in Hunger Artist (1987-1989) and Powerline (1990-1991) with Zach Barocas, who would go on to drum with Jawbox.

Michael quit playing music in the early ‘90s, moved to the DC area in 1994, and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland at College Park, where he also taught as an adjunct. He ended up working in the used book business for the next 20 plus years.

Michael bought his first bass guitar in 2008 and joined ex-Circus Lupus guitarist Chris Hamley and ex-Crownhate Ruin drummer Vin Novara in 2011 to form Alarms & Controls. The three made the “Reanimus Cataract” single (Mud Memory 007/Dischord 174.5) and the “Clovis Points” LP (Lovitt 75.5/Dischord 181.5). Michael was also a member of the two-bass duo Argos; they collaborated with BELLS≥ on a track from their “Solutions, Silence, or Affirmations” LP, which reunited him with Zach. Michael currently plays bass in Numbers Station, a 2-bass instrumental trio. https://numbersstationdc.bandcamp.com/releases

Michael went back to grad school and earned a Library Science degree from UMD in 2015. He is now a librarian at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

His favorite Dischord release is still Faith/Void.

Michael

Ian MacKaye was born and raised in Washington, DC. He is the cofounder of Dischord Records and has been the member of myriad bands including Minor Threat and Fugazi. His most recent band played its first show November 11, 2018; it is a collaboration with Amy Farina and Joe Lally. In the photograph below, Ian is holding a copy of the first mix tape he ever made.

Ian


 

The Long Way Round Pt. II

Part II picks up where Part I left off–in the midst of an online chat (in several installments over 2 months) between Wrence and John focusing on a mix that Wrence sent to John in Berlin in January of 1993.  John had not listened to the mix for many years.  Wrence had not heard it since he made it 24 years ago.

Wrence: I had been recording Wilson’s shows on ‘ZBC for years before I met him.  I didn’t even know he was the same person as my fave DJ until around the third time he and I met.

John: Do you remember sitting around the apartment and pulling drawers from that desk where I kept my 45’s?  Each of us would take a different drawer (A-F, G-M, etc.)  And one of us would get Wilson’s box of 45’s.  And we’d take turns playing 7-inches.  That would have been in 88/89 I guess.

Wrence: Yeah, I remember you and I both were so energized by playing records, basically.  We’d only just met back then and that was about our only shared activity at first.  Others surely will know the activity, it was basically alternating turns at the turntable and saying, Oh yeah!  Great one!  Now I suppose it’s what we do with Facebook, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and whatever apps.

John: I liked your Mekons records.  Of course we shared a love of the Beatles.  You turned me on to Eric Dolphy, who I previous only knew as a Mingus side man.  I did not “get” all your 70’s Stones records at first, but came to appreciate them.

Wrence: You still have my meager vinyl collection, right?

John: You know, I also recently pulled out a WZBC aircheck from 2006.  I was back in Boston and back on the air for a few years around then.  Wilson was visiting Boston.  He sat in with me for a great show!  When Wilson came back to the states, he took your records and his.  He talks on the 2006 aircheck about going to sell some of the records, but then changing his mind.  He says you told him to sell them.  But he couldn’t do it.  I think he put the lp’s in storage for you somewhere.  I think he still has the 45s.

Wrence: What was in that collection?  Do you remember?

 

John’s desk, which still contains cassette tapes

John: Off the top of my head… La Peste, Candy Flip, Virgin Prunes, Paula and Paula … I’m running to that same desk, which I still have, with my 45’s and old tapes….

… From a mix  called, “John, Wilson and Wrence’s Jukebox, Vol. I”:

The Neats, ? and the Mysterians, Todd Rundgren, The Nazz, Mission of Burma, Colin Newman, Jane and Barton, Durutti Column, Bongwater, Eyeless in Gaza…

Vol. II track list seems to have gone missing.  But Vol. II was apparently taped over my little brother’s cassette of Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins!

Should we turn to track list of PRESIDENT CLINTON tape?

Wrence: The track I treasure most from the PRESIDENT CLINTON mix is Tina Harvey’s cover of “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows?”  This is kind of a tangent but I posted that cover to the FB group called “scattered smothered & covered: songs by others” and it didn’t get the applause I expected.  But, that group really is the most fun group for music on all of Facebook.  Recommended.  The contributors there are all top notch lovers of great, rare music.

Sorry for the detour. We can get to the track list now. 🙂

John: Tina Harvey is a track I was never able to place when I got the tape back in ’93.  I was guessing she was someone like Marianne Faithful or something.  How did you and/or Wilson discover her?

Wrence: Wilson loved that track.  We never knew where she came from.  It may have been her only release.  Wait, let me check Discogs…

Very minor, but so great.  It was a real find.  Wilson had the lp.

John: Cool!  And what about the classical piece that begins the tape?  I never knew what that was, but it’s something I’ve since heard in the soundtrack of big Hollywood movies.

Wrence: Yes, it’s in many film soundtracks.  Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.  It’s the kind of thing you listen to when thinking of 9-11 or Hiroshima or The Holocaust.  Very somber.  I mean the bombing of Hiroshima.  The city itself is actually a pleasant, vibrant metropolis now.

John: So then you follow Samuel Barber’s Adegio with all of side 2 of Peter Jeffries & Jono Lonie’s At Swim 2 Birds lp…. and near the end of that you start switching to the NPR broadcast and back…  Do you remember actually making this tape?

Wrence: At first I didn’t remember at all.   But…  As I kept listening it did happen that 1993 came back to mind.  I would say I don’t recall the actual session of making the thing, but I recall the time when all of these would have been my listening, my personal playlist in the apartment.  At Swim 2 Birds especially is something that I hadn’t heard since that time, 24 years ago.  And it sounds great even now, doesn’t it?

John: Amazing!  And I must say it was wonderful to hear it in 1993.  That was one of my own records, which you and Wilson were keeping for me.  It was a favorite of mine that I had not heard in about 2 years!

Wrence: Ahhhh! that explains why I hadn’t heard it since.

I think WZBC listeners would feel right at home with this tape.  Very “NCP” (No Commercial Potential), yeah?

John: Well, the mix runs the gamut.  Wire, Undertones, Television Personalities, Mekons… all very consistent with the kinds of rock that ZBC would play during the day.  At Swim 2 Birds more nighttime “NCP.”  But million-selling artists like John Lennon and Neil Young would not get featured very often on any show on WZBC.  The Eric Dolphy thing would have been fine on NCP, but as a practical matter, WZBC did not feature much jazz on NCP.

Wrence: Yes.  Very eclectic.

John: Back then, I had not listened to much Hi Records stuff besides Al Greene.  The Ann Peebles on side 1 was a door opener for me.  Great track!

Ann Peebles photo from I Can’t Stand the Rain

Wrence: “I Can’t Stand The Rain” has one of my favorite grooves ever.  God that is a good recording!

John: I visited Memphis.  Got a tour of the Hi Studios by Willie Mitchel’s grandson, who runs it now.

Happened impromptu.  He just happened to arrive while my girlfriend and I were gawking outside.  He had some time and invited us in for a quick tour.  We got to take our pictures singing into Al Green’s mic and stuff.

Royal Studios photo, from www.royalstudios.com/history

Wrence: omg

John: Stuff like that happened to us every day in Memphis.  Show up after the BBQ joint is closed.  They invite us in and feed us anyway….

Wrence: Ann really is like a female Al Green, eh.

John: I’ve bought stuff by Ann Peebles since.  I don’t think anyone is a female Al Green.  We went to his church too.  He gives 2 services every Sunday.  One for the real congregation.  One for tourists.  Pretty bad ass.

Wrence: Wow!

John: I’m wondering how spontaneous the NPR mix-ins were.

Wrence: I think it was very spontaneous.  For kids reading now, these were the days before social networking apps and “gays in the military” felt very big and controversial at the time.  Now it’s kind of a big yawn.  I probably just switched the hifi from turntable to radio spontaneously, as you say.  The tape itself, by the way, is in places not so fun to listen to.  All the scratchiness over the Adagio for Strings at the intro.  The radio crap interrupting the musical flow…

John: Yes, the radio switches are a bit jolting.  The final song from the Jeffereis/Lonie lp gets butchered!

But the Wrence spontaneity shines through.  I had to laugh.  It was like I was right there in the living room watching you do it!  And imagining Wilson yelling from the next room, “Wrence – what the hell are you doing out there?”

Wrence: Were you living in Kreuzberg 36 at the time?

John: I was living with a pastor at the time – near Alexanderplatz – in the downtown heart of East Berlin.  I can remember listening in my room in the pastor’s flat in Mitte.  He was divorced.  He had a place big enough for a whole family, but he lived there alone.  He let me live there for free for a year or so.  He was one of my English students.

Crappy iphone photo of East Berlin in 2017, from Sarah’s tourist photographs

Wrence: Did the pastor hear the tape, too?

John: Oh yes.  He loved listening to the NPR passage and talking with me about it.  He was very interested in learning what NPR was relative to commercial media like CBS, NBC, etc.  And discussing the content of the piece.  And getting to the point where he could understand the reports.  It was perfect.  They speak very clearly, but not in a childish way.  And the content was also interesting.  … and he could rewind it and listen again to the parts that were hard to understand at first.  He was less interested in the music!

Wrence: Großartig!

John: Ha!

Wrence: Thinking about how funny memory works.  I can remember some moments from 1963 better than 1993.

John: Yes, that’s why rediscovering artifacts like this can be so powerful.  Music seems to be especially powerful when it comes to memory.  I was at a wedding recently.  The groom’s uncle was pretty far into Alzheimer’s.  He couldn’t speak.  He couldn’t leave his wife’s side.  He would peer long and hard at every face, knowing it was someone he probably knew, but could not place.  But he could sing along to Irish drinking songs!  They played a bunch of those and everyone gathered around him and sang along with him.  It was quite moving.

Wrence: Many of us must have brains that function along that continuum someplace.  My memory seems both great here and lost there.

The connection between everything from the opening Adagio through to Eric Dolphy on side 1 of the mix sort of indicates to me that all that Widows Walk and Kraft-o-Matic listening probably added some new sophistication to the musical culture I’d taken as my own by then.  I was rock and soul as a kid, then punk and dub in early 20s, then this period.

John: Some of the other tapes you sent me had typed track lists.  You gave each side of the tape a title.  Raucous, Out There, Blue, Soulful…

Wrence: That sounds like me.

Do we need to get the other tracks covered here?  Or let the readers just go and listen if they like?

John: I don’t think we need to do song-by-song.  But if there are any stories that come to mind for a particular track or sequence…  Actually, do you have any photos of us from back then?  I have almost no photos of myself from the 80’s and 90’s.

Wrence: I’m going to be sorting through photos (stored up in the attic) today in preparation for the family gathering in Boston next week.  Maybe I’ll find something.

Editorial note from John: Wrence did not find any photos of us.  But here are a couple photos of us taken in Boston about 1 week after this conversation:

John: I’m now listening to the “Jukebox” tape that was missing a track list.  I’m just going to blurt out the songs as they come on – non-sequiter style.  But we can keep talking about whatever else.

Wrence: OK, go.

John: No Surfing in Dorchester Bay right now.

Wrence: Richie Parsons, Future Dads

I actually have to go soon and get packing for the trip and setting up my new iPhone before I leave for the states.

John: The reunions next weekend during your visit are going to be something!  There are so many people in Boston who I met long after meeting you, but who knew you years before you and I met each other.

Wrence: Right, it is funny how two people in a vaguely common set of circles of friends know some of the same people from different periods.  I know what you mean.

John: I’m going to lie down to sleep listening to this mix of our old records!

Chat Conversation End

Go to Part I of this story for more about John and Wrence and WZBC, Boston College radio in the last 1980s.


 

The Long Way ‘Round

A note from Sarah: We are a year into the Trump presidency and the only thing I can tell for sure is that hindsight, while it may or may not be 20/20, certainly feels better than the uncertainty of the present and future. My friend from around Washington, DC here, John Straub, engaged in this online chat with his old friend during the first months of the Trump administration. They reminisce about politics in the early 90s. And music. And Boston. And friendship. It’s a pleasure to share their story.

Editorial introduction from John: My friend Wrence and I met in Boston in 1989 or so.  I had moved to Boston in 1984 to attend Boston College, where I became very active at the student radio station, WZBC.

Boston is blessed with a lot of college radio stations that can actually be heard in large areas of the city.  MIT (WMBR), Harvard (WHRB), Emerson College (WERS), Tufts University (WFMO), and Boston College (WZBC) all devote significant airtime to punk, indie and avant-garde music.  With so many “competing” alternatives on the dial, the different stations have organically differentiated their programming.  There was plenty of overlap in the 80’s (everyone played Joy Division and Husker Dü).  But WMBR tended to favor “less pretentious” punk and indie stuff.  WERS devoted more time to reggae than the other stations did.  WZBC, where Wilson and I were DJs, devoted more time to avant-garde music – with 40 hours of programming per week set aside for music with “No Commercial Potential.”  Wilson and I both had No Commercial Potential (NCP) programs in the 80’s and early 90’s.  Wilson’s was called The Widow’s Walk.  Mine was called The Kraft-o-Matic Bed o’ Nails.

Wrence grew up in Boston and sang in a local punk band called 007 (later Dub 7).  I graduated from college in 1988.  In 1988/89 I shared an apartment with a fellow WZBC alum, who we will call Wilson.  In 1989, Wrence and Wilson moved to a different apartment together, where I was a frequent guest.  We spent a lot of time listening to each others’ records in those apartments.

In 1991 I moved to Berlin.  I left all my records with Wrence and Wilson for safe keeping.  They sent me mix tapes, which featured a combination of tracks from all of our collections – including my own!  In 1995 I came back to the States for grad school.  Wrence and Wilson happened to be moving abroad that year, so I took the combined record collections with me to grad school, and sent occasional mixes to them.

Wrence still lives abroad.  Wilson has since moved back to the states and reclaimed his records.  The 3 of us are still in touch, but not always regularly.

The following online chat (in several installments over 2 months) between Wrence and myself focuses on a mix that he sent to me in Berlin in January of 1993.  I had not listened to the mix for many years.  Wrence had not heard it since he made it 24 years ago.

JAN 28TH, 1:46PM

John: Hey Wrence, … look what I found in a DC record store yesterday:

Dub 7 7″

 

Wrence: Wow!  I’ll upload the Dub 7 pic to the 007 Facebook page

John: I’m currently listening to a cassette you sent me in early ‘93 when I was living in Berlin and all my records were back with you and Wilson!  The mix is called PRESIDENT CLINTON.  I’m burning it to CD-R.

Wrence: Cheers! I’m going to dig out old cassettes someday and get digitizing!  That mix is from back when we still believed in Bubbah.  Haha!

John: Clinton had just been inaugurated.  The eventual “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” compromise had not yet been conceived.  Clinton had said in some speech as President-elect that he planned to issue an executive order to keep his campaign promise about ending the ban on homosexuals in the US military.  The Joint Chiefs and Congress were freaking out.  George Stephanopoulos and Bill Clinton are quoted in the NPR piece saying they were going to consult the military about how to do it – but it was going to get done.

Wrence: Right, it’s all coming back now.

MAR 7TH, 5:59AM

Wrence: Did I paste Bubba’s face on the tape like that, or did you?

John: Writing on spine is definitely you.

Photo of Clinton is clipped from a newspaper by you.  It was cut to exactly the size of a cassette cover.  I took it out of the cassette case and turned it sideways to scan it for the cover of the CD-R I sent you, just so the face and the cassette spine would be oriented the same direction.

Wrence: Excellent.  You saw my excessive attention to detail and raised me some.  Haha!

MAR 8TH, 11:40AM

Wrence: PRESIDENT CLINTON mixtape posted to Mixcloud in 2 parts.  Anyone can hear the mixes (side 1 and side 2) at these links:

Side 1:

http://bit.ly/PRESIDENT-CLINTON-part1

Track List

  1. Samuel Barber (composer), String Quartet No 2, Op. 11: II. Adagio,

performed by I Musici, Album (Label, Year)

 

Peter Jefferies & Jono Lonie, Side 2 of At Swim 2 Birds (Flying Nun, 1987)

  1. Tarantella
  2. Where the Flies Sleep
  3. The Standing Stone
  4. Aerial
  5. Short Was Fast
  6. Piano (two)

(Intermittent radio announcer: Central Artery Northbound clogged up, NPR, All Things Considered Headlines: Lifting Ban on Gays in the US Military, Fighting between Serbs and Croats, Weapons Inspectors in Iraq)

  1. Ann Peebles, I Can’t Stand the Rain, VA: The Hi Records Story

(song released in 1974)

  1. NPR – All Things Considered, Lifting the Ban on Homosexuals in the US Military
  2. Wire, Feeling Called Love, Pink Flag (Harvest, 1977)
  3. Undertones, You’ve Got My Number, Why Don’t You Use It?, 7” (Sire, 1979)
  4. John Lennon, Jealous Guy, Imagine (Apple, 1971)
  5. Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch, Out to Lunch (Blue Note, 1964)

Side 2:

http://bit.ly/PRESIDENT-CLINTON-part2

Track List

  1. Can, Butterfly, Delay 1968 (Spoon, released 1981, recorded 1968)
  2. The Beatles, It’s All Too Much, Yellow Submarine

(Apple, 1969 – song recorded in ’67)

  1. Television Personalities, How I’ve Learned to Love the Bomb,

12” (Dreamworld, 1986)

  1. Television Personalities, Sad Mona Lisa, Privilege (Fire Records, 1990)
  2. Mekons, Slightly South of the Border, The Edge of the World (Sin, 1986)
  3. Mekons, Oblivion, The Edge of the World (Sin, 1986)
  4. Neil Young, Tell Me Why, After the Gold Rush (Reprise, 1970)
  5. Neil Young, Birds, After the Gold Rush (Reprise, 1970)
  6. Tina Harvey, Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows,

                                                                                  Tina Harvey (UK Records, 1973)

  1. Tina Harvey, The Long Way ‘Round, Tina Harvey (UK Records, 1973)
  2. Galaxie 500, Cheese and Onions,

VA: Rutles Highway Revisited (Shimmy Disc, 1990)

  1. Intro to someone’s version of Pere Ubu’s Final Solution?

Finally – The Actual Chat: SAT MAR 25TH 10:56PM

Wrence: So, why this tape in particular?

John: Well, what’s interesting on Sarah’s blog are the connections between the people who exchanged the tapes.  Often the tapes were part of courtship.  And now they’re artifacts left over from personal relationships that may or may not still be intact.  The music itself is fun to discuss, but especially in the context of the personal connections.

The stories around the tapes that you and I exchanged are not stories of courtship – at least not between you and me.

And the fact that you mixed in NPR stuff about then recently-elected President Bill Clinton – it struck me as quite a contrast to the recent election and inauguration that we just experienced here in 2016/2017.

Wrence: True, we weren’t courting in the romantic sense (maybe sort of a bromantic admiring of each other’s record collections, right?).

I won’t veer us off into national politics too much, but it is interesting that Trump just yesterday suffered his first major defeat from Capitol Hill with rejection of Trumpcare.  In the news excerpts from 24 years ago, we hear the joint chiefs had to discuss gays in the military the very first week of Clinton’s presidency.

At the time, much of the left probably had hopes for the Clinton era.  Now we’re all so fed up with that neoliberal, sell-out Dem crap.

TO BE CONTINUED… Continue reading

If You Had a Year to Live

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 wins 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.

For more about Sarah, see If We Keep In Touch


 

You Got Your Good Thing And I’ve Got Mine

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?

Sarah:   Yes.

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

Sarah:   Artwork.

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:   Really?

Sarah:   Yeah.

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:   Really?

Sarah:   Yeah.

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.

Sarah:   Rotex?

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.

Sarah:   Whoa.

Elke:   And now I have some German ones that have the little umlaut letters.

Sarah:   Neat.

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 –

Sarah:   Collection?

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.

Elke K.W. is a multi-media artist who is currently focused on making tattoos and illustrations in Berlin, where she lives and works. http://secretsurfacetattoo.tumblr.com/

elke