It’s clear that friendship and love or even simple thoughtfulness were important aspects of mix tapes that made them so special. To know the music that someone loves is to know that person better. “We are closer now. We share this, and it is in our hearts.”
But there’s another reason mix tapes make for a good listen. The artists who touch us form some integral kernel of our experience with the world. And they in turn were influenced by other artists. Are you hearing a song or a scene?
In one song, you may hear the product of a burgeoning late 1970s San Francisco glam-turned-punk scene. In the next, you may hear the mid-eighties Athens, GA party scene. And next, the output of a Senegalese woman raised in West London who listened to soul and rap records growing up. A landscape of culture and creation shifts for you from track to track– each song a reminder of very different people from very different places united by the commonality that they decided to make something. It’s a reminder that there are pockets of beauty in every corner of the globe, from every era.
There always was and always will be people who get up in the morning and decide to do something brave and wonderful by creating something new. The ripple effects are unknowable and overwhelming. These makers may germinate a local music and art community. They may help someone through a difficult time. They may inspire someone many decades later, many miles away to also create something.
So to listen to a mix tape is to hear one person’s personal take on the high notes of music history–the actors and events that impacted her. She is the author of her own personal history lesson, and you are the lucky pupil. I’m not sure that there is a better way of learning about the world than this.
In the late 1980s, there was a group of music fans who all worked in the graphics department of a regional newspaper in Maryland. They listened to tapes, traded tapes, and talked about tapes; the music was a tool of their trade as much as the graphic design equipment. When I started working on this website, my friend Dennis Kane began regaling me with stories about the graphic arts department of a newspaper and what a huge influence the mix tapes he received from coworkers there had had on his taste in music and his own eventual musicianship. One Sunday morning in late March, Dennis and Melissa Quinley and I met up with one of these mix tape makers for a reunion. As we talked, it became clear that the evolution of technology in the graphics department of this sleepy regional newspaper, from manual craftsmanship– albeit perhaps a bit muddied with youthful transgressions– to work that happens digitally and at home without the workplace community, was a perfect metaphor for the transition from mix tape culture to digital music streaming.
Sarah: I want to start by asking, when was the last time you guys actually hung out with each other before today?
Dennis: I think the last time that we hung out was when I visited [John] in Philly. But right before that, we were living together.
Sarah: And how long did you live together?
Dennis: Two years?
John: A year and a half?
Dennis: It was this debauched house.
John: It was the early- to mid-nineties, too, which was very much like, say, the early- to mid-seventies.
Dennis: Yeah. The house was pretty debauched even before John moved in. But certainly after. We’d have a lot of parties. So that’s really like the last time that we hung out.
John: Yeah, you came up to Philly a couple of times. You came up for my wedding and you came up that other time. It’d been a while. Then we saw each other for a few minutes at The Cure show last year.
Sarah: So how did you originally meet?
Dennis: For 20 years—I’ve always wanted to know John’s take on this. [laughter] Twenty years? 25 years! Well I’ll tell it from my side first.
John: Yeah, you’d better, because I’m older.
Dennis: So, I think it was my first day at the newspaper. And John’s friend was the boss at the time. And he was kind of like showing me the ropes and introducing me to everybody and then John comes walking through, and I was like, “Who is that?”
John: I was night shift then.
Dennis: You were night shift, yeah. And I was going to be on night shift. And of course all the memories of night shift come flooding back. The exacto knife throwing. The sitting in the stat camera. I’m surprised we’re not riddled with cancer from that camera. So John comes walking through, and you have to understand that I was 16, 17, and I hadn’t really seen a whole lot of the world at that point. I was a sheltered kid. So John comes walking through, and he has huge haystack hair. And he’s 6’3”, 6’4.” Tall. Probably reeking of patchouli at the time. I probably smelled him before I saw him. And I was like, ‘What’s up with that dude?” [The boss] probably had a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, and said “That’s just John. You’ll get to know him.”
example of a stat camera
John: Yeah, we could smoke in the office then.
Dennis: So I guess the first interaction I had with you was “Oh, what’s in your case?” Because he had a tape case with him. And he opened it up and all the covers were hand-lettered and colored in. So all these tapes were immaculately labeled and colored in. And I think that the very first thing that I said, which is sort of ironic now in hindsight, was, “Echo and the Bunnymen? Who’s that?” But it was like, “Cocteau Twins. Who’s that? This Mortal Coil. Who’s that?” I didn’t know anything.
Melissa: So you thought Dennis was a total dummy. Not knowing anything.
John: Yeah. At first. But as soon as he brought in his tapes—he actually turned me on to a lot of things that I had sort of snubbed my nose to. Like The Smiths. And The Beatles. One of my favorite tapes that I ever received was that Beatles mix that you did for me.
Dennis: Glad that I could reciprocate.
John: R.E.M. I completely had written them off. And he got me in to them.
Sarah: I want to hear about the tape case. What was that tape case, and why did you have it at work with you?
John: Oh! Well, when I started working there. This was back in ’83 or ’84. It was a bunch of little old ladies cutting things out with scissors, not even using the exacto knives. And it was AM radio around the corner. I could run circles around these women as far as doing graphic arts. And I did. And I think when it got to the point where I was doing about 70 percent of the workload, I decided it was time for me to be in charge of the music. I brought in a boom box. And a decent-sized one, too. That’s when the tapes started. I started bringing in my case every day. And as those little old ladies got retired, dead, or just gave up, I started saying, “Hey, I know people.” So I got them to hire my sister, and I got them to hire my friend who was my boss but who had absolutely no experience in the job. I trained him. Then he became my boss. And my friends from high school [were hired]. And it just kept rolling. And then the friends that I hired would bring in their friends. And everybody ended up bringing in their case of tapes, every day. And we would take turns in the rotation. So, my turn to play a tape and then your turn to play a tape and then your turn to play a tape and then your turn to play a tape. And that’s how the workday went.
Dennis: And we all bitched about each other’s tapes.
John: Nonstop! [laughter]
Dennis: There was a point when our friend was really in to 10,000 Maniacs and Edie Brickell. So she brought in the Edie Brickell record. And I still remember this. And it was like a Saturday and she was playing the Edie Brickell tape. And I ended up going over and stopping. Ejecting. Handing it to her. And then putting in something else.
Melissa: That’s so mean.
Dennis: No, because [our other friend] was like, “Thank you!” That was before he was sleeping with her. That was the other thing, too. It was so incestuous in there.
Melissa: I feel like you’re describing summer camp or something.
Dennis: It was [like that]! The thing is- that job is still the funnest job I ever had because whenever we didn’t get our work done, John would just do it. [laughter] He’d be like, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of this.” But that was usually after like a 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best while sitting in his truck listening to more tapes.
John: That’s true. Yeah, but we were only paid like $5 an hour to do this crap. We stretched it as best as we could. But we had a lot of fun. I think we were really more focused on listening to the music than on doing the work.
tape from john to dennis
Dennis: But there was also Cliff who was there, who made the 4AD tape for me that I showed you. So he would bring in his tapes, too. But he was always sort of like– Joy Division, Bauhaus—he was really big in to Bauhaus at that time. And super darker gothy stuff. That was him. He was a real dour sort of guy. He was kind of like a nazi, really.
John: Well he was a drummer. And he spent many years in marching drum bands and drum corps and all that. Those guys get like that. Either they get totally nuts or—he was kind of like Neil Peart. [laughter]
Sarah: Do you remember deciding to make a tape for Dennis?
John: I made many tapes for Dennis. That’s what I’m really curious about is what tape we are talking about here.
Dennis: You made so many tapes, but [my ex-girlfriend] ended up with half of them.
So I made that cover when I was working at Kinko’s and learning Photoshop 3.
Sarah: Did it come with a cover originally?
Dennis: Probably. John was meticulous with his covers. He made sure that there were no abbreviations. The foldout flap—that was always used even if there were only three songs on there. And then I would ask him, “Oh, what record did that come off of?” And then when I would go on my album-buying rounds, which always started at Yesterday and Today in Rockville [Maryland] and worked my way down to Olson’s in Alexandria [Virginia], I would look for those records. And I still have a bunch of those records from that time.
It’s a pretty crazy mix, but it’s a good one.
Sarah: Was this the first one he made you? Do you know?
Dennis: I couldn’t even tell you what the first one was, but it was probably a Cure mix. Because I knew a couple of the hits.
John: And Echo and the Bunnymen, early, too.
Dennis: Yeah, that was probably the first one, an Echo and the Bunnymen mix. It took a few years but then [Echo and the Bunnymen] obviously became my life for way too long. But around this time is when [The Cure’s] Disintegration came out. And John played it incessantly. I remember John going on and on about how awesome that record is, and now that record is in my DNA, as I’m sure it is in yours from listening to it a million times.
John: Plus, there was a good 7 months when there was just the Fascination Street single that I had gotten. And I recorded that and the B-sides, and we listened to that over and over. When it was my turn [to choose a tape to listen to], that’s what we were listening to.
Sarah: Do you remember, Dennis- did you ask John for a tape? Or did John just start volunteering: “Hey I think you might like this!”?
Dennis: Both. Probably a little bit of both.
John: It was kind of the culture back then. I mean, through high school, anybody you met—it was kind of like how you got to know people was you made tapes for each other.
Dennis: And you judged somebody by their taste in music. [laughter]
Dennis: We used to have these lists over by the waxer—
Sarah: What’s the waxer?
Dennis: It’s where you put either a half-tone photo or printed out text.
John: All the type and everything had to go onto the page, and we ran it through waxers to get everything to stick to the page.
Dennis: Yeah, that’s why they call it a “paste-up.”
John: There were hot waxers with a big vat that had a temperature control on it. You would turn it on in the morning and it would heat up the wax. And it had rollers. And you’d feed the sheets of paper through to get a little coat of wax on the back of them. And it sucked when you got that wax on your tapes. [laughter] It would get on everything because it would be on your fingers all day when you were working. And everything you touched would just get a little waxy. [laughter]
Dennis: But John would put up these lists of like “Best albums ever” or “Best Siouxsie record” you know. And then we would get in fights about it. “Tinderbox isn’t the best. Hyena is the best! Obviously!” [laughter]
Sarah: So it was like before Internet memes, you were basically doing Internet memes on the walls of the workplace.
John: Yep, we also did lists like “Songs with the word ‘love’ in them” or “Songs with the word ‘hate’ in them.”
Sarah: So Dennis, why did you pick this specific tape [to talk about]? What is it about this one that is special?
Dennis: Well I think that’s the only one I have left. Over the years, they disappear. Either I started using them for 4-track recording—
Sarah: You recorded over them?
John: Emergencies happen.
Dennis: I definitely did it with comps that I made myself. But also, my ex ended up with 75 percent of my music, including the tapes, and she wouldn’t give them back. So I have this and I have that 4AD comp [made for me by someone else] and I think that’s it.
John: This is a really good one though. This has a lot of good stuff on it.
Sarah: Is there anything that particularly stands out to you about that one?
John: It’s really odd that I repeated groups so many times on this one. Normally, it would just be one song per group. But this one, I had one of those things where it’s just a collection of a few groups but it’s a number of songs by the same group. And I’m trying to remember what the pattern here was because I always had some kind of weird pattern. See how Gang of Four is at the beginning here and at the end here. And Angst is in between Rain Parade—
Sarah: Is it like a palindrome?
John: I did things like that- yeah.
Melissa: That’s clever. You end right where you started.
John: When all you do after you get home from work is sit around and play music and make tapes, you get creative with it! We got creative with it. I can’t remember the last time I did something like that.
Dennis: But I think this one started with me asking about the Paisley Underground. And John was like, “Oh I got all that shit.” And then it spiraled from there.
John: It’s weird that I mixed Comsat Angels into that though. But, it works! And had I known about the Chameleons back then, they would have been in there too.
Remember that tape case that I had? Remember I sold you that tape case?
Sarah: I think it’s funny that a tape case was a commodity during this period of time.
Dennis: They are again.
Sarah: They are? Was it one of the travel tape cases with the strap and the zipper?
Dennis: No, it was like a brief case.
John: It was the brown one, right?
John: After that I switched to- I bought a new paint box for my art class, and I switched to my old box, which was actually perfect because those old wooden paint boxes that flip up and they’re compartmentalized—cassette tapes fit perfectly in them. And you could section them.
Sarah: So you’d split them up by genre in your case?
John: O yeah. Plus you could fit a good ten more cassettes in that than you could in one of those regular cassette cases.
Dennis: I had two like that. One for tapes and one for art supplies. And the one for tapes didn’t have a handle on it, so I’d have to, like, carry it under my arm. [laughter]
Sarah: So I have a question for John. You were making these tapes for Dennis. Who else were you making tapes for in the office at that time?
John: Everyone I knew.
Sarah: Do you remember it waning?
John: Yeah, when cds came out. That was really when it started. But at that point I became obsessed with making mix cds. And the tapes were actually just gone to the wayside. They were hard to find. They just weren’t out there anymore, or at least the decent quality ones. The—
John and Dennis in unison: Maxell XL-IIs.
John: They held out forever.
Dennis: They still play as perfectly.
John: The TDK D-90s lasted a long time, too.
Dennis: The Memorex though—the ones with the yellow and blue squares on them. Crap. Especially the 120 minutes ones. You might get one play out of them.
I remember with Memorex and Maxell, you could go to People’s Drug and buy your tapes. And then you couldn’t find them anymore, so you had to get them from Maxie Waxie’s or The Wiz or something. And then they stopped carrying them. And then at that point everybody had CDs.
John: Yeah, the only place to still get them was at Costco and places like that. Sam’s Club.
Dennis: Yeah but “Kirkland tapes” just doesn’t do it. [laughter] Do you have any more questions?
Sarah: I was hoping one of you could give a description of the newspaper. Does it still exist?
John: Yeah. I’ve gone back to working for them.
Sarah: You currently work there?
John: Shamefully, yes. They’re paying me slightly less than I made when I worked there in ’99. But I do get to work from home, so that’s decent.
Sarah: So is the layout being done differently now than when-?
John: O yeah, it’s all computer. We’re actually using InDesign. Surprisingly. After all these years. And they just two years ago gave the layout of editorial back to us. Because Editorial was doing it for the past twenty years. They just sort of cut our jobs and our department away because that’s what we used to do. We built the ads but we also layed out all the pages. Twenty years ago they decided that we were too stupid to learn computers and they gave our jobs away to the editors. So they finally gave that back to us. Which is a good thing.
Sarah: Are there other folks working there that were there back in the days when Dennis was working there?
John: My sister is actually still there. But we’re not anywhere because we’re actually at home now.
Sarah: Ah. “There” means something different.
John: The last company that bought us—the previous owner was Jeff Bezos. Because we were owned by the Washington Post. And when he bought the Washington Post, he also got us.
Sarah: Do you have parting thoughts or parting reflections on this time period?
John: I’ve heard rumors that tape culture is coming back. But I haven’t really investigated. I’m kind of psyched to make a mix tape right now! But I’m not sure how I’d go about it. Actually, I do still have a really nice Sony tape-to-tape that I’ve barely touched.
Sarah: Does your tape-to-tape still work?
John: O yeah, I had bought it brand new at a discount probably 15 years ago and it’s been traveling around with me. I kinda couldn’t get rid of it because I still have a lot of old band jam tapes and things like that I plan to eventually digitize. So it’s nice to have one of those. But I don’t have a receiver…I have a USB turntable. And if I can figure out a way to get the tape deck into the computer—I’m sure there’s a way.
Dennis: Yeah, and then you’ll just make a mix tape in your computer. [laughter]
Sarah: Oh no!
Dennis: Well that’s just it, isn’t it? I think the tape culture could only have existed then because it was the only way you could do it. It was the only portable medium at the time. And all your other stuff was on vinyl, so once it became easier, especially making mix tapes from cds, it was just sort of like “What’s the point?”
John: Yeah, that’s actually what inspired me to get more into dee jaying. Because once that tape culture died, it was like [sigh].
Dennis: But dee jaying is sort of like making a mix tape.
John: Yeah. It’s very much like it. It was training for it.
Dennis: When you only have 30 seconds left of your night, you know what you’re going to play. That was the best part—trying to figure out how long you have for each song. And then maybe you have that one minute at the end, and you know what song you’re going to put on there.
John: A lot of times I did pre-mapping.
Dennis: Oh I always did!
John: Yeah. Lay out/time out what’s going to be on there to make sure that it fits with no extra space because you wanted to use every last second. So you sat there with the calculator and you added that shit up. [laughter] You made sure you filled every last second.
Dennis: Unless it was for an on-air dee-jay, they didn’t have times on a lot of records. So you had to sit there with a watch or the clock. Or I used the read-out on my tape deck. If I knew that at 18:53 it was going to be cut off, then I always knew how much time I had. But the best part was- aside from figuring out how much time you had- was what order to put [songs] in and where you were going to go with this thing, which was the fun.
John: And there were different styles, too. You could do the pre-map thing, where you lay it all out. Or you just go freeform. Cross your fingers. See where it goes.
Dennis: And then, [our coworker], he was a musician so he always had gear. He would take either a tape or vinyl, put it through a mixer, and then add reverb to it, and then mix them together, and then fade in or fade out. So it was like a super pro-style mix tape.
John: A lot of my later mix tapes, I used to do that, too, when I had the dual cassette deck. You could take and mix and fade one song over the next, which was a pain but it was worth it.
Dennis: It was totally worth it. Although there is something to be said about missing the last half second of the reverb tail, and then a new song comes in—
John: Like taking Bauhaus Ziggy Stardust, and that last note is the same note as the beginning of Dark Entries. If you can get them right on, it’s just seamless.
Dennis: But that’s all the stupid shit that you keep from that time. It’s so good.
John: Those were the days. [laughter]
Dennis Kane is a musician and jack-of-all-trades audio guy; formerly the sound guy at the Black Cat in DC, perennial recording engineer (Ex Hex, Benjy Ferree, etc…) and lately, sound designer/audio engineer @ nat geo. He’s currently part of the duo, Domingues and Kane, and does a solo guitar thing, as well. Aside from music, DK’s a devoted horror movie fanatic, and avid cat lover and is married to the most amazing person in the world (hi, Melissa!), so he’s got that going for him.
Jeff McGrath and Eric Hatch have been friends since the mid-1990s when both were wide-eyed youngsters in the Baltimore music scene—Jeff as a zine-maker and emerging musician, Eric as a music reviewer for Baltimore City Paper, both as obsessive record-shoppers and show-goers. In the mid-2000s, their friendship took on a new dimension as they exchanged a series of mix tapes as a way to get further inside each other’s minds and ears. Some twenty years after first meeting, the two are still good friends, still music-obsessed, and still active in Baltimore culture—Jeff as a member of such influential bands as Practice Finger, Thank You, and current outfit Permanent Waves; Eric as the director of programming for both Maryland Film Festival and the festival’s soon-to-open year-round Parkway Theatre. One March night, Eric sat down in Jeff’s home in Baltimore’s Ednor Gardens neighborhood to talk about life, music, friendship, Baltimore, and beyond, with one of the tapes Jeff made Eric as the conversational core. While the tape’s cover and track listing are lost, the tape itself is still in Eric’s collection and back in heavy rotation on his stereo.
Eric talks about using Shazam to recreate the mix tape tracklist:
The first piece on both sides I couldn’t place myself and Shazam struggled to identify. And one time it came up with something that obviously wasn’t it…I could identify John Fahey but wouldn’t have ever been able to pull this song title. [Shazam] brought up “Serious Chicago Basketball Rockers.” [laughter]…which I opted not to purchase on iTunes.
Eric: As a way in, I just wanted you to reflect upon tapes in general. Even commercially produced tapes. Was there a moment in childhood where tapes were your primary format for consuming music? And if so, like what age would we be talking about?
Jeff: I remember my very first memorable gift was a 12-inch record. And it was from a woman named Elvira who was a student. She was living with us for a brief time and babysitting us and stuff. And she and her sister were from Africa. And we were living in Omaha.
Eric: What age do you think we’re talking here?
Jeff: Yeah. I think I was like 5, and I was given a copy of Thriller on vinyl as a gift from Elvira and the other lady whose name I forget. I guess they were African – either exchange students or study abroad, international students, maybe. But they were only there for a semester. Anyway, they were really nice. But I remember thinking this thing is great, and I love Michael Jackson. And this is exciting because it’s so big. But it wasn’t contemporary. Like, my sister had tapes.
Eric: Right. Okay. You thought tapes were cooler?
Jeff: I thought tapes were cooler essentially. Yeah. I guess tapes seemed like the real thing. And this was like my parents’ kind of thing. They had a shelf of records. And this [record] related to that. And it was strange to see Michael Jackson – Thriller on this giant 12-inch –
Eric: You wanted the tape.
Jeff: I wanted the tape, which seemed real. And my first tape was – well, the first tape that came into my life was- my brother got the Ghostbusters soundtrack. Which we listened to over and over.
Eric: This was like in the early 2000s or – [laughter]
Jeff: Yeah. [laughs]. [My brother] got the Ghostbusters soundtrack. And I didn’t have my own tape for many years.
Eric: You would play it like on a shared deck?
Jeff: I would play my siblings’ – there are four of us, and I would play everyone’s tapes. And then I would listen to the radio and stuff. But my first tape I remember distinctly that I was at the store – I know you didn’t really ask, “What was your first tape?”
Eric:Oh, no. I was getting to it. So, you saved me a question.
Jeff: I went into the store with my mom to a Walgreen’s and I picked out the Stand By Me soundtrack. Which I don’t know if you guys have seen that movie or heard that soundtrack, but that’s a cool soundtrack.
Eric:It’s all early 50s and early 60s pop, right?
Jeff: Yeah. And I listened to that thing over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.
Eric:Had you seen the movie?
Jeff: No. I wasn’t allowed to see the movie. I think it was too adult or something.
Eric: So, do you think you had developed an interest in classic pop already at that point? Do you know what provoked your curiosity?
Jeff: Yeah. I picked it out because it had kids on the cover. Or on the poster or something there were kids and they were my age. And I thought that was cool.
Eric: That was a big soundtrack. I bet it sold a couple million copies.
Jeff: It definitely sold one. [laughter]
Eric:And do you remember what age music started consuming your life? Like you really just became an addict and music was a big source of happiness for you? Maybe I’m assuming that happened.
Jeff: [laughter] Music is the first thing I remember as my way of orienting myself to reality. As many can relate, I’m sure. Once again, my parents had records. And I remember being kind of confused about the mythology of rock and roll and the mythology of my parents. And confusing the two things and thinking that they knew Elvis and that they were Elvis. [laugher] Or that my dad was Elvis or that my mom – I didn’t understand. That’s how young I was.
So, that’s saying something. Because that’s not 5, that’s like 2 or something, I think. I don’t know. Maybe [my wife] can tell you what child development looks like. I mean, I remember just spreading them all out – the records. And then playing them and being perplexed by the mythology of the whole thing. The Grease soundtrack– I thought that was Elvis. And Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
Eric:So, it sounds like you were really in to soundtracks that were mix tapes basically. Things that would expose you to a lot of different artists with one purchase.
Jeff: Yeah, sure. That’s a good point. I never thought of that. Yeah. That’s true. Those were like collage-y kind of things.
Eric: American Graffiti, I’ll throw that out there. Woodstock.
Jeff: I never heard American Graffiti then. But yeah, Woodstock was a big record in my house. My parents would always have the Woodstock record on. And I remember – it’s funny to talk about it. It seems like I’m trying to be cool or something. But I had older siblings. And so, when I was in third grade, I got really interested in the fantastical quality of music. Meaning like this music sounds like it’s from another world and I’m curious about that other world.
Eric:And you’re not talking literally about experiencing international music. You’re just talking about getting a sense of production and bombast, and the excitement of music?
Jeff: Yes. Well, to be specific, I remember the Depeche Mode tape People are People. My sister had that. And for me, a little kid in third grade in Baltimore County, it sounded so exotic, and so worldly, and so intelligent and sophisticated. And they knew something. And they seemed to be experiencing something that I didn’t have any access to.
Eric:Yeah. I’ve felt that way about Depeche Mode too, actually.
Jeff: Really? They had a powerful-
Eric:Yeah. They were exotic and emphatic, you know what I mean?
Eric:They believed what they were saying. People are people.
Jeff: Yeah. Right. That was a good example. And that was also – that message, that song may have been written at a third-grade level [laughter] so I could absorb it. Not to slight them or their song. I heard their new song the other day.
Eric:So, we started creeping into like middle school, high school. So, as you start getting into music that may be like alternative music, maybe even punk music, is tape a format that you were going for? Were you taping records with friends and trading tapes?
Jeff: Here’s an interesting thing. I think that same year, third grade, my brother Jim – my oldest brother – he had – and I’ll never forget it. It was a black – I forget the brand, so I will forget it. But it’s a black tape with a white and orange sticker. And it was old school before they were clear- a dub tape for dubbing. And it was a dubbed copy he got off of a friend of his of Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist, which had just come out. And to a third grader, all that sounds so exciting. It sounds like monsters. And Kennedy was a word that floated around my house quite a bit. And to hear the “Dead Kennedys,” it just fit right in.
So, my brother had this dubbed copy from his friend of Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist. And I got a hold of a blank tape from the store or something. And I made my own copy, like fourth generation of Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist, which sounds like AM radio when you record it four times. And so, that was my first copied intentional dubbed thing, was Frankenchrist.
Eric:And you’re already responding to music like Dead Kennedys. And beyond just liking the name, you were taking that kind of music in in the third grade?
Jeff: Yeah. I was lucky or maybe unlucky. Whatever. I don’t know.
Eric:I mean, I was listening to Genesis in third grade, so-
Jeff: I had a very early exposure to things like punk rock and new wave because of my siblings. And because North Wind Road, where the nexus of Loch Raven Reservoir and the Perry Hall area is a real nexus of music culture. Especially for the third-grade community. [laughter] There’s a lot of history there. The High’s and the Video Mania, it’s like CBGB’s.
It’s cool the way that music traveled back then. And I think we all had the same or similar experience where it was a special coveted journey to wind up with something. And the Dead Kennedys tape was a good example of that. Where it was like this thing that was kind of like a covetous gem. Like I’ve got a little piece of punk rock. It’s real. It wasn’t purchased or anything, but it’s real. And it came from someone who purchased it. Some source is out there glimmering somewhere.
Eric:Yeah. And I think tape culture, like punk, really embraced it the way maybe other genres didn’t. You wouldn’t be cool for having a dubbed Debbie Gibson tape. You know what I mean? But you would be cool for having a dubbed Dead Kennedys tape.
Jeff: Yeah. Or the Debbie Kennedys. [laughter]
Eric: So, as we’re getting into middle school and high school, are you making mix tapes for friends? Are you receiving them?
Jeff: I’m trying to remember. Good question. The earliest memory I have of making a mix tape is embarrassing, I guess.
Eric:This is meant to be embarrassing.
Jeff: Okay. [laughter] So, I had a ritual for a couple of years wherein I – my sister had a big stereo like this. [Points.] It’s like a stereo receiver with a turn table.
Eric:Yeah. Like a one-piece furniture stereo.
Jeff: Yeah. She had a thing like that in her room. And she did a lot of extracurricular stuff. So, she got home from school really late, even though she was in high school. So, when I was in middle school, I would come home from school. And I would untuck my uniform shirt and I would get a big bowl of chips or something. And then I would go in my sister’s room – where I was welcome – and she wouldn’t be home. And I would lay on the floor and I would open up her big Case Logic thing of cassettes. And I would listen to all the tapes. Because she had a lot of good tapes.
And I would bring – I had my own Case Logic thing of tapes I would bring in. And I would just be surrounded with all the tapes like this, and I would lie there. My bookbag far away. Homework not being done. And I would just lie there with Combos or Cool Ranch Doritos or something. [laughter] And I would drink Coca-Cola constantly. But sometimes I wouldn’t do that. But most of the times, I would. So anyway, I would just – that was my activity. I think most kids – a lot of kids played sports that I knew. Or hung out with friends or did things at school, or did homework. Or succeeded in some way at something. [laughs] But I laid on the floor listening to tapes and obsessed about it.
Also, because when you’re entering teenage years, I started to have a little self-consciousness about maybe I’m different or something. But anyway, it was then, that period of hanging in my sister’s room in the afternoons. She had two tape decks. So, you could tape off of tapes. And that’s the first time I realized that in seventh grade. And I tinkered with it and figured out you could do that. No one showed me. So, I’m a genius for figuring it out. [laughter]
Eric:The record button.
Jeff: Yeah, and it says “record” and has an arrow floating over it. [laughter] But it didn’t occur to me to – and this is what I referred to the embarrassing thing. It didn’t occur to me to make a regular mix tape. Like song, pause, and song, pause. I made these tapes that were like – so I would have all these parts in my mind of the parts of the songs that were the most exciting parts of the song. Or the great moments in the song or whatever it was, little passages that were really exciting. And I would cue them up and then I would record that part. And then I would pause it, and I would take out that amazing part. It would be like a sound bite that was like two seconds long. And then I’d put the next one in.
And you could hold the pause button down in such a way that it’s seamless, you know. So, I made these 60-minute tapes of just all these parts that would just be like [makes noise sounds].
Eric:Literally like two second snippets?
Jeff: Literally. Like two seconds.
Eric:So kind of too hard to process.
Jeff: Totally bizarre behavior. And so, it ended up sounding like something you’d never want to hear. [laughter] And then I’d remember something. I’d be like, “All right. There’s like a really cool part of that.” Like from some music that I didn’t really know very well. And then I would work really hard at trying to figure out what it was, what the song or the music was. And I would ask people at school. If it was an old song, I’d ask my mom or something. And I would try to get it so that I could put it in my bizarre tape of parts. Yeah. Really weird.
Eric:Do you have any of those, do you think?
Jeff: I doubt it.
Eric:Yeah. Those would be great to get your hands on.
Jeff: That would be really fun. And they’re probably really stupid. God, I remember thinking that – I had this vague – maybe you do things when you’re a kid that you never really think about what you’re doing. But I do remember thinking, “I’m going to get good at this. And these are going to be these incredible super songs.”
Eric:Would you have heard The White Album at this point? Do you think you were thinking about Revolution Number 9 or something?
Jeff: I hadn’t heard that. But certainly, I heard weird things in passing. But I do remember coming across one in high school and playing it. And being like, “That’s weird.” And it was so careful, you know.
Eric:But I like what you said about hearing little bits and then trying to chase after a song based on a little passage that excited you. Thinking about when we were in middle school or high school, something that you don’t experience too much anymore is the idea of hearing a song you love, having no idea who the artist is, and if it’s a new song, maybe you wait a week before you hear it again. And hopefully, the radio announcer says who it is. Or it’s on a friend’s tape and they tell you. But maybe a month – a year if it’s an older song – until you hear it again. And the rush of excitement you’d have –
Jeff: To finally be hearing it.
Eric:– when you hear it again. Whereas now, it’s this instant gratification. You wear it out in a day, typically.
Jeff: Yeah. And that makes you sort of ask the question, how much of it is in the chase? Or is in the experience of suspense, and anticipation, and potential disappointment? How much of the experience of this kind of treasure hunt of music and whatever it is is wrapped up in that? And not in the actual value of the music itself. I don’t know. I know that it’s boring for me to search around on the Internet for music, typically. Well, boring – it’s not boring. It’s cool. I’m like, “Neat. This sounds great. I like the way it sounds.” But what I mean is to actually scroll around and click, that part doesn’t –
Eric:It doesn’t feel good.
Jeff: It doesn’t feel good. [laughter] But it’s good to discover stuff.
Jeff: But that part is weird and feels strange. I still tend to enter into music now the way I did when I was a kid. Someone will say something like, “Have you heard such and such? You ought to check it out.” And I’ll take that and I’ll say, “Oh, I should check that out.” And then I’ll wait until I see it at Normals or something and I’ll buy it. But I also find stuff online.
Eric:The impulse behind those tape collages isn’t that different than the impulse of creating hip-hop with identifying open beat passages and mixing them and stuff. It’s just that your result was unlistenable, but theirs was the foundation of hip-hop. But it might say something about a young attention span that you want to not just enjoy a song, but identify the emotional surges that you were experiencing.
Jeff: I think so. And the difference obviously, those early hip-hop people were geniouses or whatever. And I was just a goofball in my sister’s room. But I think the impulse was similar. Because the tools were similar.
Eric: Yeah. Early beats were made with pause buttons. You know what I mean?
Jeff: And it’s interesting just how the arc of technology, and history, and music – you can’t really escape from it.
Eric: I want to ask you about this tape in a minute. But the one thing that is being left unsaid, I think, was were mix tapes – whether making or receiving – ever part of your courtship rituals when you were younger?
Jeff: Yeah. When you mentioned waiting for the song to come on the radio–There was a girl in high school that I really liked in ninth grade, the first day of school. And I remember it was the first time I had the idea that I’ve got to make a mix tape to express all of my feelings. And I really wanted to find the – god, what is it called? It’s a Cure song.
Eric:Just Like Heaven.
Jeff: Yeah. The one that Dinosaur Jr. covered. And it’s funny. I’d never heard it on the radio very often. But WHFS played it. WHFS – as you guys may know – used to be kind of cool. I don’t know if you knew that up in Pennsylvania. [teasing] But we had the Weasel down here, okay? We had Rob Thomas. The Weasel is the guy.
But the new Cure album at the time would’ve been Wish. So, it wasn’t like it was new. But Just Like Heaven, I heard it on the radio and I was like, “What a knockout.”
Eric: Yeah. It’s a great song. That was big for me.
Jeff: I was like, that song has got to be on my mix tape for this girl that I obviously need to be with. And so, I waited for it to come on. I had the tape cued up to the part where I would put that song on. So, I had a few mix tape songs, and then it was time for that one. And I had the tape paused and the radio on every night. It was kind of like the radio was on in my room. This would be in my room, not my sister’s room. So, it was a big deal.
But it’s crazy to think in a way now how technologies changed. So, the tape turned out being like of course, I was in the hallway getting a towel or something and I heard it start. I was like, “Ugh.” I ran and I un-paused it. So, you don’t hear the beginning, but you hear most of the song. And that was on that mix tape, which I’ve never heard because I gave it to Emily Butler and she never talked about it. And then later told me that she couldn’t date me because when we held hands, it felt like I was her brother. [laughter]
Eric:Well, you got to – I think holding hands is like third base in ninth grade.
Jeff: I spent my gym uniform money on buying her a Smiths tape.
Jeff:She introduced the Smiths to me, but I was like, “What’s your favorite Smiths tape? Which one should I buy? Which is the best one?” And she was like, “The best one is Louder Than Bombs. I don’t have it, but I have a copy of it. But that’s the best one. And that’s the one that you should get.” So, I took my gym uniform money and I went to Sam Goody, or The Wall, or Listening Booth, or something. And I bought Emily Butler a copy of Louder Than Bombs.
Eric: Well, that’s a life changing moment for you. I mean, yeah. Getting into the Smiths is a biggie. If I know my McGrath lore. [laughter]
Jeff: Yeah. Totally. I know. Again, for better or worse.
Eric:Yeah. I never really received one myself. But that must have been pretty common to mix tapes that are made off the radio- are going to be missing the first 10 seconds or 15 seconds of songs often, right? Because you’re like oh, this is the one I want.
Jeff: Here it is. You have to hurry up and get it together. It’s like taping movies off HBO when you were a kid. If you ever did that. But I made mix tapes after that first one in ninth grade and after my weird proto-hip-hop, collage, art of noise period. I made mix tapes incessantly throughout high school.
Eric: For all genders.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, yeah. I went through different phases, you know. And then wanted to share it with everyone. I think a big part of it too is like when I think about – I’ve never told anyone about the art of noise collages thing. But as I think about it now, out loud, I think it was an impulse to get involved, like to do it. Do you know what I mean? Like I felt like this stuff has all this power over me. And there were no instruments in my house, or no belief that it was possible to play an instrument. So, I think I wanted to do a thing. I wanted to do the magic that I was hearing.
So, that was how I learned. Where I thought I could do it. Well, not thought. I just did it. So, I was doing it the best way I could know how to do it or whatever.
Eric:Yeah. There’s an authorship of sorts to making a mix tape. It’s a curation. Looking over this track list, would you – from the songs that are on there, if you were to guess what year you made this tape roughly?
Jeff: That’s a really good question. A lot of this stuff is interesting and cool. And I don’t remember some of it. “I Want You” by Bob Dylan is a perennial favorite of mine.
Eric: It seems like in a way, a lot of these artists are kind of like the Jeff McGrath canon. You know what I mean? Like Fugazi, Lungfish, Kate Bush, and of course, Morrissey. These are all – we can’t say all. But most of these are classic artists that have resonated with you for a really long time. And the most recent song on here would probably be Fugazi or The Warmers, I’m thinking?
Jeff: I think that Lungfish song at the time – so that’s kind of a giveaway. That Lungfish song is from an album that came out in – Love is Love. That came out in 2003? And, let’s see. I’m just kind of a little embarrassed that I put such trite music on. I mean, the music is beautiful. But why did I think Eric Hatch needs to hear Sweet Jane by The Velvet Underground? [laughter] “Let me turn you on to this band, Velvet Underground.”
Eric:So, here’s the thing. I got really in to tapes again in a moment when tapes were out of vogue and were not becoming cool again. And I’m going to guess this was maybe even a couple years after that Lungfish came out, like ’05 or ’06, or something like that. I remember getting deeply back into mixes and never really enjoying mix CDs. And making tapes for people. And I put something up on Myspace, I think, that was like if you make me a mix tape, I’ll make you one. I had been writing music reviews for a while, and burned out on music basically. I got kind of sick of it.
I quit writing music reviews and a couple years later, had this rebirth of loving music in headphones specifically. And this idea that if my friends made mix tapes for me, I would understand them better and hear the world the way they hear it basically. And you were one – I mean, a lot of people took me up once. And I think you and I maybe exchanged three or four mix tapes.
Jeff: Yeah. I definitely still have some of yours in the box that [a friend] has.
Eric: I know we made specific, curated tapes for each other. And I think you made some that were like “cooler”. That were like –
Jeff: [Turns to microphone:] “Yeah. Make sure you get that. Okay?” [laughter]
Eric:What I mean is they were more like the music that would’ve influenced you as a musician the most. Like This Heat or things like that that were a lot of post-punk, a lot of soundscape stuff. And I feel like this must have been a conscious attempt on you to be like, “These are my classics.” Does that sound legit?
Jeff: Okay. That sounds – I think that must be the explanation. I do. Because this is such a – it’s also so all over the place. “America” by John Fahey, I remember when that song really hit me. It’s a long song.
Eric: Yeah. That piece takes up – I mean, this is a 60-minute tape and there’s less songs on side two. It’s Fahey’s fault.
Jeff: And “That’s All Right, Mama” is probably like a minute-and-a-half long.
Eric: But I will also say, maybe these are more your go-to songs by these artists. But it also, in many cases – with the exception of maybe Sweet Jane – I would never pick any of these as the most well-known songs by any of these artists. So maybe you were also trying to give some deeper cuts or something like that.
Jeff: Well, I can glance at this and say that I remember these being my favorite tunes by these people. I don’t think I was consciously trying to do deep cutting. But I did probably want to impress you and not do the nerdy thing and give you the songs you’ve already heard. For instance, Sweet Jane. [laughter] But I do remember also at the top of side two was a really cool Smithsonian CD that I got, like folk music of the Pacific Islands and stuff.
Eric: When I Shazammed that it said like seven other people have Shazammed this, like ever. [laughter] It gives you the number. And for most of these, it was like 140,000 or whatever, and that one was seven.
Jeff: Maybe this is off the record. But this is interesting to look at too like – just between friends I’ll say this, not to the blog – a lot of this music at the time, in the early 2000s, was not – what’s the word? It was refreshing at the time or novel to be listening to a Kate Bush record at that time.
Eric: Let’s put this on the record.
Jeff: Yeah. Well, I’ll say it’s interesting to look at this now in 2040, or whatever year it is, and look at how Kate Bush is absolutely – like Pitchfork talks about her like every week. And then even though Kate Bush doesn’t probably do very much- well, she did that live show. But my point is that a lot of this stuff felt really special and kind of sub-culture-y. And now it doesn’t look that way to me.
Eric:Well, I think like Scott Walker and John Fahey – not that those were unknown artists – but those are a bit like outsider or ahead of the curve to be listening to that in the early 2000s. But I also have always thought of you as a guy like – when there’ll be moments where it’s uncool to listen to music that’s not obscure. Where everyone’s trying to outdo each other to listen to the deepest obscurity. And I think you’ve always owned like, “I love Morrissey,” or “I’m going to put on INXS at the party,” or whatever. [laughter] You have a deep love of –
Jeff: That’s true.
Eric: You don’t get caught up in that bullshit is what I’m saying.
Jeff: I don’t. But I surround myself – I think I have that as a luxury because I surround myself with a lot of people who have a very rich knowledge. And people like you who have a great, richer understanding of things that are less available or lesser known. So, I do absorb a lot of stuff that friends have shown me and stuff like that. And so, there’s plenty of room for Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy.
Eric: I think I had also maybe even specifically challenged you to put a Morrissey song that would win me over to Morrissey solo. Because I was a big Smiths fan, but Morrissey solo had never clicked with me. And also, I think I must have requested Lungfish as well. Because I knew you loved Lungfish and I had seen a lot of their live shows. But at that point, I don’t think their records had really clicked with me.
Jeff: I remember we had lots of conversations about Lungfish.
Eric:Yeah. I feel lucky to have seen them so many times. But in a sort of cruel irony, their music clicks with me a lot more now than it did then in a way. You know? I was more Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, and the trance-like state of Lungfish worked for me live, but didn’t work for me as one record back then as it does now. Do you feel bad for sending me these mixed signals with “I Want You” followed by “Leave Me Alone”? [laughter] I remember being sad about that.
Jeff: I just thought it was part of the game. “Leave Me Alone” is another. That’s a really good New Order song. It has a really cool beginning. I think the underdog on this tape is “Mad at The Man” by The Warmers. I think The Warmers are such an underdog band. I love that band. I think they’re such a cool, awesome band.
Eric:Yeah. I mean, the mid 90s D.C. – you know. There’s bands like The Warmers and Monorchid and stuff that I would go see them pretty much every time they played the same as I would with Make-Up, or Fugazi, or something. Or even sort of more art punk. You had a noise punk band like Metamatics who were so important to me at the time. And I feel like as the histories get written, they’ve got to find a place for these bands.
I was just going to ask if there were songs of these you had heard recently.
Jeff: Well, I played a Warmers song in the van. I think it’s funny too to look at this and see that I put Charles Ives, and I would never do that now. [laughs]. I mean, I’m laughing at myself. I’m not laughing at that music. The music is great, I’m sure. But I would never do that now. I think that was – well, you go through phases and stuff. I think was being influenced by friends and hearing a lot of classical music from them. And so, it’s not phony or anything. But it’s just funny to think like, wow. It’s a peculiar thing to thing that I owned classical records. It’s just funny. It’s an interesting time capsule.
“Funeral Tango.” I don’t remember that song by Scott Walker.
Eric: Hmm. Yeah. I think it’s on one or two. It’s not on four, which is the record I know best.
Jeff: Right, four is the one with the Jacques Brel songs and stuff?
Eric: I believe so. Yeah. Four is the darkest. Now that tapes are sort of coming back and kids who never experienced them out of necessity are buying them as a trend, do you have any sort of engagement with the return of tape culture?
Jeff: Yeah. Well, a couple years ago, I had a band with friends.
Eric:You played just a couple shows, right?
Jeff: Yeah. We did two shows.
Eric: It was an awesome band.
Jeff: Thanks. I thought it was awesome. We recorded a record. That was a long, painful, fractured process. But we’re making a tape right now. So, my involvement or connection to the tape resurgence is that now it’s like a viable, non-laughable way to release something. That just seemed absurd. Like ten years ago, it would be absurd to try to make a real release on a cassette, I think. But now–
Eric: And this will come out only as a tape?
Jeff: Yeah. I think so.
Eric:Any mp3s or?
Jeff: I think it will probably have a download or whatever. But it’s probably like 25 minutes long. But it’s funny that everything about it is like the band hardly existed. It hardly existed a while ago. And then there’s this tape thing as another feature to make it more alien to me. Like a disembodied band that doesn’t exist, that barely existed, that now is going to make a release on a format that seems archaic. But I’m told is not archaic anymore.
Eric: But could end up being a really lasting trace, you know what I mean? If you don’t decide to release that, it’s binary, right? If you never released anything, there’s a pretty much absolute certainty no one will be listening to it in 50 years. But this tape, someone may.
Jeff: And it’s cool because I do love tapes. Do you remember, did you guys ever have a problem with a tape and have to take it apart?
Eric:Oh, yes. Yeah. Absolutely. I didn’t have great success with that though.
Jeff: Oh, man. My brother showed me how to do that. His Run DMC Raising Hell tape broke. He had a purple one. There were different colors. You could get like green, purple, yeah. And he had purple, as I recall. And it broke. This is like, again, third or fourth grade. And he had the whole – like my dad’s eye glasses kit with the little screwdriver. And he had the lamp behind him. He had this little station where he took it all apart and put it all back together. He took the tape from one of my parents’ bullshit tapes from their car or whatever. And replaced the little felt pad and did it all. Just tinkered his way into replacing it perfectly. It was impressive.
Eric:What a magician, man. That’s amazing.
Jeff: Yeah. He’s a beer brewer now. I think the height of my mix taping was I remember feeling like I had a real skill for it at one time. And I think – and every mix tape maker will remember – the discovery of the input level. So, if you have a stereo with an input level when you’re dubbing, you can control it. And it’s like a visual thing. I don’t know how to describe it.
Eric:You’re talking about taking things into the red just the slightest bit to boost the dynamics. Yeah.
Jeff: Yes! Ever so slightly. If you have an EQ thing that shows you the input levels, it’s like a visual guide to see how hot the signal is going from one tape to the other or from the record to the tape. Because multiple sources are going to have a different input level. So, if you have a vinyl record – you have this song on a record that you’re going to record on a mix tape, and then you’ve got a song on a tape or a CD, they’re different. You have to adjust it as you go so that it’s all – it’s like mastering. It’s like you’re a mastering engineer or something.
Eric: Yeah. If you were making a mix tape that had tape, CD, and record sources, you had to adjust them to get it to come out at essentially one volume. Or else the tape to tape stuff would sound so tinny and shitty. And the vinyl to a certain degree too, depending on the system.
Jeff: I made a tape for a friend one time. He asked me, “I need someone to show me how to like Fugazi. I don’t get it. It’s all this screaming and yelling. What’s the big deal?” And I was like, “I’m the guy for the job. So, I’m going to show you.” And I was living on St. Paul Street. And I remember setting up my mix tape station and making the coffee. And I got all my Fugazi records and a couple live bootlegs I had at the time. This was before Internet stuff. And certainly, before the Fugazi Live series.
And I was like, “There’s this version of –” what was it? It was like a version of one of their demo things from their movie that was so cool. But of course, it was the only piece of music in the movie that they didn’t put on the record.
Eric:You’re talking about Fugazi: Instrument?
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. Instrument.
Eric:Because the Fugazi song here is from the Instrument soundtrack.
Jeff: Right. So, this would be from the same movie, but didn’t make it to the soundtrack. It was a version of the song Break. I remember now. It was like a slower version of it slightly. And it didn’t have any vocals. To me, that was the thing that was going to be the first song on the tape. Had to be. And that was going to get him to like Fugazi. And so, it was only on the video, which I had a VHS of. Or maybe I got it from Video Americain which would have been one block away when I lived there in St. Paul. And I was like, “How am I going to do this?”
And I thought about a microphone. I had one for band practice downstairs. I was like, “Maybe I could hold it to the TV.” Because I went to MICA, where I worked, and I got the RCA cable thing that would go from VHS, VCR sound output and go into my stereo input. And it worked. That was a revelation. It worked, and he still has that tape.
Eric:Did he fall in love with Fugazi?
Jeff: He likes them. He really likes their later albums. But the funny thing about that particular mix tape is I made this masterpiece of a Fugazi side of a tape. And I didn’t want to mess it up. I didn’t want to – I felt like it was finished. I was like Michelangelo looking at David [laughter] and being like, “Should I make the top of his head not flat like that?” And so, I made Side B, I made it an all Elvis mix tape.
Eric: Equally perfect. Right?
Jeff: Yeah. It was really good. He told me that he liked the Elvis side better. I mean, he is The King. But that was a moment I remember. That was an achievement in my mind, getting the movie onto the tape. On the topic of input levels.
Eric:Yeah. I remember when I had my DVD player hooked up to my stereo and realized I could record from DVD to audio tape, I was so psyched. But I remember, I would record a lot of my favorite soundtrack music. But in movies, you don’t usually hear a complete song from start to finish. You hear like a 20 or 30 second passage. So, the results, I enjoyed listening to. But I gave one to a friend and she was like, “No.”
But I think it was pretty much similar to those tapes you made as a kid where it’s just like– she didn’t have the connections to those movies, or the moments, or whatever. It just didn’t have the effect I hoped.
Jeff: Yeah. It’s all very personal. A mix tape is also – I hate to think that it’s gone. I got a wonderful mix CD from Sarah as part of a wedding gift. And it’s great. I listen to it all the time. It’s great because it’s in the car. And also, it’s fun to hear the Kurt Vile song that we had such a nice time together hanging out watching him play. And it’s cool to hear that. I think of that when I hear it. It has a personal texture to it the way mix tapes did. But there’s nothing like a mix tape. And it’s strange, but I don’t know.
What if it has something to do with the mechanical quality or the – I don’t know what it is. Or maybe it’s because of our age group and tapes were the beginning of our connection to music. If I’m correct in saying that for you two. I don’t know.
Eric:Yeah. Tapes were my format. I didn’t get into records until my 20s.
Jeff: Same. So, I don’t know. Yeah. It was really hard for me to let go of tapes and admit that CDs were part of life. The Internet is like the new CD.
Eric:Sarah and I talked a little bit about how making a mix tape was so time consuming, but therefore more special because you – you’re not creating an iTunes playlist that you just burn and the whole thing could take 15 minutes. You’re listening to the song. Maybe you put it on double speed with tape to tape. But otherwise, you’re listening to the song. And you might decide it’s the wrong one and rewind and tape over. And what jogged my memory was you talking about levels.
Because I remember I would always listen to a portion of the song on pause and watch the levels to make sure I get it. And then turn the knob up or whatever. If you’re going to do that, you’re talking about – it’s a whole afternoon at the very least to make somebody a mix tape.
Jeff: The last time I made a mix tape – when you said whole afternoon, it made me remember that I was living in a warehouse in downtown Baltimore and it was pouring rain. And I didn’t have a job or anything. So, I was hanging out by myself. And a friend was like, “I want someone to prove to me that The Beatles are worthwhile.” I know. Like literally out of all of western culture hadn’t tried that already. [laughter] But I was like, “I’ll be the one to show you. Because I’d be happy to.” So, I had this great idea that I would make a really cool object that would be Beatles Side A and Side B for her. And Side A would be black and white Beatles. And Side B would be like color Beatles. That was my thought. Meaning black and white Beatles is like the first couple of years.
Eric:Hard Day’s Night era.
Jeff: Yeah. Exactly. And it had a picture. You take the tape out and it had a two-sided picture. And it had a really “All You Need is Love,” hippie, Beatle, colorful picture and then had them in the suits. You know, like side-by-side. And I spent all day making that tape because it was so important to me that she come over to the Beatle’s side. And it was such a fun afternoon. That was such a fun way to spend time by myself. And that’s the last time I remember making an actual mix cassette mix tape was that Beatles tape.
I was really proud of that Beatles tape. And again, I really worked on it. I had this Beatle anthology. You’ve probably seen the anthology. And I found little funny takes that weren’t the takes that they used in the album. And I was like, “That’s a cool take. [This friend], who’s never listened to The Beatles will really appreciate this alternate take of Mr. Moonlight.”
But then that makes me think – not to be too tangential. But that makes me think how much of making mix tapes is really just like a – I don’t want to say the word “vanity.” But is a way to experience yourself. A way to be with yourself. I was having such a great perfect thing. Rainy day, making tea, and hanging out. And surrounding myself with my favorite music and showing myself how I understood my favorite music. And exhibiting it presumably to a friend. But really, I’m having a chance to kind of curate – you used the word “curate” earlier – and stitch it together in a way that it – and sometimes, it has something to do with changing reality.
But yeah. I think it has a lot to do with, as music lovers, it has something to do with understanding our relationship to our thing we love. Like it’s a way to spend time with it, or meditate with it, or something. And that’s sort of nourishing. I mean, it’s certainly nourishing. But maybe it’s a missing piece. Because you know also the feeling you get when you listen to music in your car by yourself? That can be also nourishing in a similar way. Because it’s just you and the music. And it’s interesting. But the mix tape thing is doubly interesting because the whole point of it is to share it. But I think what’s at the heart of it is something that it’s about – like the joy of it is that you’re spending time with yourself.
Eric: Yeah. While I’m picturing that, I’m thinking of times where I’ve made someone a mix tape. And their experience is those 90 minutes, but our experience are those six hours or whatever. And when we think of them listening to it, we’re also thinking of those six hours.
Jeff: Totally. Absolutely. And also, making a mix tape can resonate in strange other ways. Like I remember when More Dogs would go on tour. And I would be like, “Hey, you guys are going on tour? I’ll make you a mix tape.” And you would put jokes in it, you know? Or something to kind of be like are they listening? Are they paying attention? [laughter] That kind of thing. Or wait with anticipation for them to come home. And be like, “Well, go ahead and tell me what you thought of the thing.” And so, that would be cool.
The band Love. I remember being really proud of myself that I turned people on to Love. The band, not the experience.– I think right now, I’m turning Godfrey [the cat] on to love. But yeah.
Jeff McGrath is the guitarist for Permanent Waves, an art handler for the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and an infamous fan of the works of Stephen Patrick Morrissey. He lives in Baltimore with his wife Sara and two cats.
How often have you let multiple hours pass by submerged in the Internet? One more successful search and you might uncover something revelatory, something that amazes or transforms, something that unlocks a new meaning in your life, something that shines a new light on the unknowable. All of those, “I always wondered…” thoughts now seem answerable. Verifiable. There is a promise that is unfulfilled, and this boundless Internet expanse might just deliver, if you can only get that search term just right.
A few years ago, I dove deep into the Internet one afternoon on a mission. I had the house to myself; the family was away. I started thinking about what happened to the person who made me this tape. It was about 1996 when I received it. I wondered about his family. I never met them but I studied for a sociology exam with him once at their house. He told me about how they never lock their doors and I wondered if almost twenty years later they had the same habit.
I’ll call this person Shane. I went to college with him. And even though I thought that every sociology class should be packed with fellow punk rock-influenced kids learning how to subvert the system along with me, there was only one kid like that, and he was it. He was quiet and kind, despite a loud appearance punctuated by a hairdo that looked like a troll doll’s, black framed glasses, and a thick silver ring in his nose. He was in a band which I avoided going to see because they had a terrible name and I was pretty sure they sounded terrible and I just didn’t want to have to think about what to say to him about it. And ostensibly, we had an academic-only relationship, so it didn’t matter if I supported his band anyway. We studied together. We sometimes palled around campus together. He talked about his girlfriend. I talked about my boyfriend. And that was it.
In high school and early college, I listened mostly to what are considered by some to be the duds in The Replacements catalog- Don’t Tell a Soul and All Shook Down. That must have been what inspired him to make sure I had a copy of Pleased To Meet Me. The Rolling Stones debut album was his favorite album of all time, which opened my Clash-obsessed mind, because, you know, “No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones.” And he often told me about his love of rockabilly, about which I knew nothing.
By the time I received this tape from him, I was probably brewing at least a mild crush. I remember talking to him on the telephone while sitting on my parents’ bed one summer afternoon. I was marooned back home between college semesters with nothing much happening but work in a plastics factory. He was considering driving to visit me. He had found out that a local store sold drugs out of the back room. He really thought I should give that Rolling Stones record a try.
I thought about how to warn my parents about Shane’s appearance before his visit. I listened to this tape and daydreamed about how much fun I would have showing him around where I grew up and talking about music. But he never showed up. And we didn’t talk much after that either. We weren’t in any classes together anymore. I didn’t see him around campus much. Our paths just didn’t cross. I bought that first Rolling Stones album a few years later after graduating from college. He was right; it was good.
That afternoon a few years ago, the minutes melted away as I tried every possible search engine combination to find out where he was now. It felt like a puzzle to put together. No one is so absent from the Internet that you can’t find some trace of them, I thought. I was not making much headway. I found some old webpages for that band he was in. Nothing remotely current. I had expended over an hour before I remembered that his older brother had been an athlete in that suburban neighborhood with the unlocked doors. Searching for his brother’s name along with his name is how I found him. He had died of a drug overdose shortly after his brother’s wedding. His girlfriend recounted the night of his passing in a blog post in which she clearly just needed to get. it. all. out. All the gory details were laid bare.
I wished I could tell his family and his girlfriend how sorry I was, but I was a small blip in the story of Shane’s life. Without the Internet, I would have never known what happened to him. I should have never known what happened to him. To reach out to them now just would not make sense.
In the last few years, I have bought rockabilly records now and then, always with a silent salute to Shane. The Internet may seem like a place of permanence, where obscure decades-old factoids are retrievable, but it lacks the endurance of our perfectly imperfect moments together. The music that we love and the way we feel about the people with whom we share it transcend temporal boundaries. Even when we can’t be with friends anymore, the songs they shared with us will still ignite our hearts. Permanence defines those feelings, which sure as hell can’t be googled. I am grateful to have a few artifacts to help me keep the tune alive.
And so, this one’s for Shane—one of my favorite songs on the tape he made me, performed by someone who also left this earth too early, Eddie Cochran- C’mon Everybody. Cheers, man, wherever you are.
Sarah Grady is a statistician in the Washington, DC area. She makes this website in her spare time. Twitter: @1976_sarah
If we are lucky, we have friendships in life which help us connect where we came from to where we are going. Mat Darby is that friend for me. We met during high school in small town PA and became almost instant high school sweethearts. I was 15 and he was 18, and our teen romance did not survive his move away to college. In the years after, we built an enduring friendship that has lasted through moves, jobs, marriages, children, good news, and bad news. Sharing a love of music has been a constant theme in our friendship, and we exchanged dozens of mix tapes and mix cds over the decades. On Sunday, January 22, we sat down with the mix tapes that we made for one another. We mused about making them and about how the tapes we made for one another evolved over the years along with our friendship.
half full box of mix tapes
Mat: I’d forgotten this thing that I did was oftentimes–I didn’t do this with all of them, but a lot of times when I made people tapes, I would make a dub of the tape I was giving away so I could listen to it, too. So it was like I was making you a tape, but I was also making me a tape. Well, the intention was always to make you a tape.
And I remember this tape for your sister being just kind of a weird mix of songs, but also sound bites and weird things.
Sarah: Yes, I remember a lot of sound bites.
Mat: I think I remember your sister saying at the time something like, “Well, you didn’t really make me a tape, it was just a lot of- ”
Sarah: A sound collage.
Mat: Yeah. Also, thinking about in doing that, the mechanics of recording it, and having to be at the ready with the play and the record, and figuring out that way of, “Okay, you press pause, and you got the play and the record on, and you release it gently so it’s not that ccckkk sound.” –-And I don’t remember, did I call her Al at one point?
Sarah: I think you did that to bother her. [laughs]
Mat: Oh, okay. That’s nice. And I have no idea what the reference here is: “large curd cottage cheese side.” I’ve got a quote each from Emerson and Shelley on the tape. That’s verging on pretentious.
Sarah: Well, I’m looking at a tape that I made for you where I reference Hole so that’s—[laughter] – that’s great.
Mat: I think this is the first tape. Is it the one
with the duct tape? Yeah, that’s the first one. Which one of these [tapes that I made you] do you think is one of the first ones?
Sarah: The first one you made me is this one.
Mat: I remember I was really in to naming the sides of tapes, and I cribbed that idea from R.E.M. because they would name the sides of their albums. Oh, man, and just seeing the songs I chose to put on these tapes.
Sarah: Which ones are you thinking about?
Mat: The Gorilla Biscuits. I probably haven’t listened to the Gorilla Biscuits since right after I made this tape.
first tape – Mat to Sarah
Sarah: Mm-hmm. I’m looking at these first few tapes that I made for you, and – well, maybe I probably was trying to seem cool, but they’re mainly just very dramatic songs.
Mat: Well, I think, too, it’s that whole idea of are there rules for making mix tapes? Whether there are capital R rules, or rules that you set for yourself, but I think later on, I never would have put two songs by the same band on a tape because that just seemed like you were ruining the potential variety of what could be on a tape.
Sarah: Right. Yeah, there were a few bands that you were very heavy on at that time.
Mat: Yeah, like what?
Sarah: Like R.E.M. A lot of Camper Van Beethoven.
Mat: Yeah, that makes sense.
Sarah: A lot of Dag Nasty, actually, I think. Dag Nasty, Government Issue, that sort of variety of bands.
Mat: Not Dag Nasty specifically, but definitely Government Issue – was [because of] hanging out with friends [who were] listening to a lot of Government Issue.
Is that your handwriting there on the date, or is that mine?
Sarah: No, that’s you. I probably wouldn’t have done anything to these because I would have felt like that would have somehow sullied the original.
Mat: “Music for old women and their dogs.”
Sarah: Yeah, I made this list of the tapes you made for me, and pretty much all of them have titles.
Mat: This was April of 1992. Wow.
Sarah: Okay, so here is the tape I made for you on the back of the inside of an envelope, which I say is subliminally to get you to want to write to me.You must have already gone to college by the time I was making this tape for you.
Mat: I bet. Does it have your address on it? Is it the one with the address?
Sarah: Yes. Well, that’s not so subliminal, is it? [laughs]
Mat: Yeah. Okay, so this is Mat Darby Compilation No. 2 because I indicated it as such. Did I put a date on this one? Maybe not.
Boogie Down Productions. That’s amazing. It’s interesting, too, in a lot of these early tapes, it seemed really important to provide at least a little commentary on the song. It’s like, “Here’s the reason I’m putting this really important song on the tape,” rather than letting the song speak for itself.
Sarah: Yes. Yeah, I just saw a note that I made on one of these songs for you that says, “You’ll probably hate this, but- ” Like, “Let me justify this for you.”
Mat: “Let me just assume how you’re going to take this.” Oh my god, I used the worst tapes for these.
Sarah: [laughter] Yeah, I was struck by how many different brands of tapes and tape holders you had. Why was that? Were you just foraging somewhere?
Mat: I mean, if I had to say where these tapes came from, I have no idea. I had a lot of tapes from when I was a kid because – this was maybe Christmas of ’84, I got a boom box with the double tape decks, and I think it was the first time that I had something I could record on. This one in particular seems really just like crappy, crappy tapes. Laser.
Sarah: Yeah, I don’t even know what that is.
Mat: That’s not a brand, no. I remember getting these, and I don’t think these tapes had cassette cases; they came in a sleeve. They’d be hanging up [laughter] – I’m sure these came from Radio Shack, and there’d be five tapes, and they’d be hanging on one of those little hooks. I wasn’t really thinking about audio fidelity in any way, shape, or form.
I like this tape case that kind of – it’s L-shaped –
Sarah: Yeah, that one’s cool. Where’d you get that one?
Mat: I have no idea. What year is this?
Sarah: This one kind of needs to be repaired. I haven’t repaired it yet.
Mat: Yeah. A little glue stick will take care of that. That’s the other thing. Well, this is the thing I know now, or should have known at the time: don’t use rubber cement on anything. It’s going to ruin whatever it is you’re trying to do.
Oh, this is a good one. This has gotta be later. Oh, this is your birthday in 2001. Because I put a date on it, which makes sense. It’s funny because knowing I’m an archivist, and dates are important – at that time, I had already gotten out of grad school. [Dating the tapes] would have been an important thing.
I mean, this is a really good one.
Oh my god, my handwriting hasn’t changed much.
Sarah: I have to say I spent a lot of time trying to have nice handwriting on these, which I probably never do now.
Mat: Oh man. “I am punk rock.”
Sarah: [laughter] That one’s an early one.
Mat: Yeah, definitely. I can tell that I was probably trying to impress you. Well, “This is Ocean Spray, Mat Darby Compilation No. 3. Every song on this tape falls into one or more of the following categories: 1.) a cover song, 2.) a song about an animal or somehow related to an animal, 3.) a song about that crazy little thing called love, or the lack thereof. Sorry, no, ‘I was so dicked over songs.’ Listen and enjoy.” I don’t know what that’s about. Man. I can also tell the things that I had probably purchased recently.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s kind of a nice thing, too. I feel like making tapes was a really nice way to engage with the music that you are listening to at the time. It’s like you start to think about how the songs that you like on a certain album fit or don’t fit with the other things you’re listening to, and what they add.
I think I pretty much just kept putting the same bands on these tapes, just choosing different songs. Oh, man, this one’s not even readable anymore.
Mat: Oh, is it fading out?
Sarah: Yeah, I guess the paint on the one side degraded the paper and the ink on the other side. It’s kinda cool.
Mat: Oh my god, GG Allin. That and the Yo La Tengo song on this came from this Homestead Records compilation. It was called Human Music. There were lots of bands that I’d never heard of before, and I think this was probably close to the first time I had listened to Yo La Tengo, and then had sought them out. And this was a cover of – which I don’t think I knew until later – was a Jackson Browne song.
Sarah: Really? Wait, what song is that?
Homestead Records compilation
Mat: Somebody’s Baby.
Sarah: Oh, okay. Yo La Tengo. I thought you meant the GG Allin song.
Mat: No, no, no, no, god.
Sarah: I was like, “He was covering Jackson Browne? That was GG Allin’s Jackson Browne phase?” [laughs]
I just noticed that on this tape that I put two unidentified songs on here. I’m trying to think of how that even would have happened. Maybe I had taped something off of college radio, and I didn’t even know what it was, but I thought I should put it on a mix tape.
Mat: You really liked it?
Sarah: Yeah. I actually just discovered what something like that was a month ago when I was at a record store around here, and the person put on a Connells record, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I know these songs.”
Mat: I think what I’m seeing here is as it’s gone on, a greater mix of diversity in the songs that I’m putting on here.
Sarah: Mm-hmm, and the genres, maybe.
Mat: I got Winnie the Pooh on here.
I’m pretty sure that this art here was in the – I remember I went to DC, and I think these came out of the DC City Paper.
I think this photo here is a statue on the campus of Penn State University.
Sarah: Did you take that photo?
Sarah: Because it’s a really nice photo. It’s very blue in a nice way.
Mat: I think it’s just a shitty disposable camera. Oh, okay, here we go. Yeah, I got into typing out things because I was really in to the typewriter. This fabric is these pants that I made into shorts.
Sarah: I remember. I really liked those.
Mat: Yeah, I wish I still had those. I could probably wear them now. I think I outgrew them at some point.
Oh, man, I love this Naked Raygun. “This is a Stiff Little Fingers song. It’s called Suspect Device.”
Sarah: The diversity of genres that you would put on these tapes. For example, Bobby McFerrin, and Burl Ives. Do you think that was representative of the kinds of full length albums you were listening to, or –
Mat: What Bobby McFerrin did I put on there? I remember the Burl Ives. My mom had all of these old 45s, and I think there were two Burl Ives songs that I remember putting on a bunch of tapes for people. One was A Little Bitty Tear, and the other one was Lavender Blue. It might be that those were the A and B sides of that 45. I think it’s part of my inherent sappiness in some respects, but I don’t know, I just like the songs.
I think that’s what it came down to. I wasn’t putting on Burl Ives compilations and listening to them around the clock. I think it was just I picked up on certain songs, and they just stuck with me for whatever reason. What was the Bobby McFerrin?
Sarah: I didn’t find it in here. It might have been on a CD later, but to me, it exemplifies something about the mixes you’ve made over the years, where there’s always something kind of unexpected.
Mat: Yeah, I noticed that, too, in looking at the early ones. The first few are really homogenized in terms of some of their genres and things, and then it gets really mixed up. A lot of that’s probably just, one: feeling probably more comfortable in expressing myself with music, and not feeling like if I put this song on, then “She’s not gonna like me anymore,” or something. Then, it’s like, “Well, even if she doesn’t like this song, it’s not a big deal. It’s something I like, and I feel fine letting her know that.”
—Did you lose the tape?
Sarah: It’s somewhere! I was really afraid of doing this interview from the standpoint of me maybe not having taken as good a care – actually, I woke up the other day in the morning and just remembered, I must have been dreaming about it, but remembered that there was a tape that is not here that you had made me. I can visualize it, but I don’t know where it is at this very second. It’s somewhere. I thought, “Oh, I hope Mat is not mad at me.”
Mat: Well, but really, think of all of people you’ve made tapes for, who you’ve given those tapes to, and those tapes are long gone, or that they listened to it once, and they never listened to it again.
There’s one that starts off with “Hate Your Friends.” Yeah, and Arson Garden. This might be a tape I listened to more than any other one.
Sarah: Why do you think you listened to that tape more than any other?
Mat: I don’t know. Let me look. I remember in my dorm room, the bed was up on a loft, and I didn’t have a roommate in my dorm. Underneath the bed was a little shelf where I put the tape deck, and so I could listen to it as I went to bed, so it was really close to the bed, I didn’t have to turn it up very loud.
Then, if I woke up in the middle of the night, I would reach down and turn it back on. It was just music all the time, and I don’t know. There was just something about it. I think a distinction between the tapes you made me at the time and I made you is that yours, I think, there were a lot of softer songs, and so I think it made for a–
Sarah: Good to sleep to.
Mat: Well, good to sleep to, but also good to just sort of listen to and not have it be kinetic, and loud, and distorted.
Yeah. Then, this first one. This was always concerning to me because I think more than once it got stuck in the tape deck in my car.
Sarah: Oh. Yeah, I wouldn’t put this in a car tape deck.
Mat: Well, I did, and it was not pleasant. You had to get a screwdriver or something in there to kind of pop it out, but it always came out.
Yeah. I don’t know, there’s always a lot of bands– let’s see. A lot of bands that would show up, like Arcwelder. You were really in to Arcwelder–
Mat and Sarah in 1992
Sarah: I was.
Mat: – and Caterwaul.
Sarah: I was really in to Caterwaul.
Mat: Caterwaul is one of those bands that if I’d heard it today just out in the world, “Caterwaul, oh, that’s a Sarah band.” Arson Garden, that’s a Sarah band. I mean, even if you didn’t really listen to them all that much, it was definitely just a thing that was sorta connected to you in that way. Warlock Pinchers, definitely. This is the holy grail right here. Seriously, though. Well, the whole question of, “Made you a tape.” You probably said that to me, “Oh, made you a tape.”
Throwing Muses. Throwing Muses are on here, I think the first song, maybe. Are they on here? Yeah they are, Dragonhead. Yeah, I had heard of the Throwing Muses, but I had never listened to them before meeting you. Man, that first Throwing Muses record, some intense shit.
Sarah: How do you think growing up in York, PA in the ‘80s and ‘90s influenced your interest in music, if at all?
Mat: I mean, I think the thing was – I don’t know, I feel like I was inclined to reject a lot of what was happening.
I think a lot of my interest in music came about because I didn’t like – I think it came from not necessarily capital P politics, but looking at the people that I went to high school with and seeing the music that they listened to, and rejecting it because they were either bullies, or hunters, or football players, looking at that and saying, “Well, that’s not what I’m about.” And then thinking, “Okay, what am I interested in musically,” and then – I think a lot of it was listening to music where I knew something about the band or the people, about their politics, and then sort of following it that way.
Sarah: Yes, yes. I think that’s a big difference between the tapes I made for you and the tapes you made for me, is there’s a lot of animal rights-related stuff on these tapes.
Mat: Oh yeah, that makes sense. Also, thinking about – you mentioned Dag Nasty. I remember in, I wanna say 1990, taking the bus from Red Lion and going into York to the library. But down the street from the library was this record store called Flash & Trash.
Yeah, and I still have the tape. It’s Dag Nasty, Wig Out at Denko’s. I remember buying that tape there and just thinking, “This is different. This is a thing that’s different,” and it was probably the first thing I ever bought on Dischord, the first time I ever knew about Dischord, and then seeing the address in the back, and knowing that you could order – just the idea of being able to order music through the mail was a huge thing. And that someone would write you a handwritten note back. That was a huge thing.
Dag Nasty – Wig Out at Denko’s
Yeah, but just being exposed to in that store, seeing all of the different kinds of music that I’d never heard of, and then slowly going back and buying other things, and getting into buying seven inches, all of that. It was kind of a huge thing.
You know how far York is from Red Lion. It’s not that far. I think the first time I went, I didn’t tell my parents I was riding the bus, but it was seen as sort of a dangerous thing.
You got on the bus, and you went in, and, I mean, I was admittedly sort of not freaked out, but a little bit like, “Well, I don’t really know what to expect.” Also, from the standpoint of walking in this store and not knowing if I’m gonna be called out as a fraud. Well, they’re gonna know that I don’t really know what I’m doing, and I’m looking at all these records, and I’m like, “I don’t know what any of this stuff is,” but at the time, knowing, “Okay, I’ve heard of this band, Dag Nasty.”
Sarah: Dag Nasty was your gateway into Dischord and to indie rock records?
Mat: I think a little bit. I mean, before that was ninth grade, R.E.M. This is very telling, but the whole reason I bought an R.E.M. tape was the girl in front of me that I had a crush on was really in to R.E.M., and I heard her talking about it. I’m like, “Well, I gotta check this band out.”
Sarah: Which record was that? Was it Document?
Mat: No, that was Green, so it would have been ’89. Yeah, and so that was – yeah, that was sort of a gateway into that, college radio, and then Dag Nasty was kind of the gateway into punk and indie rock and all of that.
Sarah: It’s funny; I made this chart of the frequency of tapes that we made each other. Did you think that was interesting at all? Yeah, so when we first met, and we were high school sweethearts, we made a ton of tapes for each other.
Sarah laughing at Mat and “ideal man” doll 1992
Mat: Oh yeah, and then it depletes, yeah.
Sarah: Then, there’s the dead year where we probably weren’t even talking to each other because it was right after we broke up or something, and then there’s this comfortable a-few-a-year kind of thing, which I think is very reflective.
Mat: Oh yeah. Well, I think the first year of tapes were – I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I mean, particularly the first couple are like, “I’m going to try to impress this person.” I’m going to try to impress this person both with the songs themselves, and then my whole commentary about them.
Just the act of devoting time to making a tape seemed– and it’s sort of silly thinking about it now a little bit, but it’s like, “Well, I’m devoting time not only to making this tape, but it’s in service to this person.” You’re taking the time to do this, whether it be an act of love or an act of friendship, you’re doing this thing for this person.
You and I have probably both made tapes for people where you’ve put a lot of time into it, and they just don’t care. And there’s always that awkward thing of, “Okay, you made the tape for someone,” and then you see them again, and you’re like, “Do I ask if they’ve listened to the tape? Well, they haven’t brought it up. Does that mean they haven’t listened to it, or they’ve listened to it, and they’re just like, “What is this about?” The “made you a tape” [phrase] is, in a lot of ways, sort of a weird shorthand for, “I’ve made you this tape because I’m really in to you.”
Sarah: Right, or at least, “I wanna share something with you.”
Mat: I wanna share something with you. And there’s always this – I mean, not always, but I think there’s always sort of a self-consciousness of making a tape and saying, “Okay, this is not just the tape. This is part of my being, and I’m giving it to you.”
Sarah: Yeah, I noticed with the tapes I made you, those early ones are like, “How can I put my heart on a platter?” The later ones are like, “I bought these seven inches. I think you might like some of them.”
Mat: Yeah. Well, here’s a question for you. Can you imagine our friendship without these tapes?
Sarah: Well, that’s a good point. Probably not.
Mat: Yeah, I mean, this – at least here- a year’s worth of tapes, that’s pretty significant. Again, the time that it took to make the tapes.
Sarah: Well, I think it’s also – some of these tapes represent a time period. This was college [for me].
Mat: Yeah, yeah. This one in particular, I just noticed. “You’re leaving for good now, huh?” I think that was in response to me saying – because I think one side is “Pennsylvania”, and the other’s “Delaware”– yeah. That was in response to me saying “Oh, well, I’m not coming back. I’m just gonna do my thing now.” It’s sort of grandiose in whatever statement precipitated this.
Sarah: Right. Yeah, dealing with that transitional period of time.
What’s the frequency with which you make mixes at this point in your life?
Mat: Well, see, it’s interesting because we talked a little bit about this the other night. I’m not buying a lot of music, and if I wanted to – I still have the ability to – I have a computer I can play CDs on. I don’t have anything to play tapes on right now, so I can’t listen to these tapes.
Interestingly, we were talking about Spotify; I’ve actually gone back, not all of these, but I’ve gone back– and this is the other thing I wanted to say about mix tapes. Probably, I think everybody says it. But if you ever had a mix tape, and I don’t have a good example, but there’s a part of a song that drops out, or there’s that sound at the end where even if it’s not harsh, you can tell that it’s sort of an audible cue that someone, like you, had pushed a button.
If you hear that song in another context, you wait for the click. It’s so weird. There are songs that I know that I’m almost waiting for it. It’s like, “Oh, at the end of this song, there’s a click,” but there’s no click. That’s not part of the song. But it’s sort of part of the song in the context of the tapes. Also, you’ll hear a song, and you know what the next song should be, but it’s not that song. One of the things that I’ve done is gone back and created playlists, digital playlists.
Here’s the other thing, though, I think my tapes are a little more idiosyncratic than yours – particularly the earlier ones, where I put a lot of little snippets of dialogue and –I mean, it’s probably overkill to a certain extent.
Sarah: No, no, it does have kind of a sound collage quality about it where it’s different influences flying at you quickly.
Mat: Yeah, but I was really in to Henry Rollins’ spoken word stuff, so I’d pull out little things, Jello Biafra, all that stuff that was kind of floating around at the time, and kind of just throwing them in there, which is a lot. I mean, you can do it with audio software, and pull out – but there was just something, again, going back to that physical act of pulling out snippets, and – and also, the juxtaposing of things is always fun.
Sarah: You’ve recreated these tapes in Spotify?
Mat: Well, I mean recreating them in the sense of, “Okay, if I go through the list of songs, is this available?” Because obviously, not all songs are available on there, and if there’s any kind of – that’s what made me think of the idiosyncratic nature of some of the tapes, is when the song cuts off, you can’t recreate that. There are some songs, I’m not kidding you, where it would cut off, and I hadn’t actually ever heard the entire song, and then later, I hear it. It’s like, “Wow, that’s a totally different song, and I only knew the first two minutes of it.”
Sarah: For some reason, I always thought it was okay to do that with instrumentals, which is a very naïve way of thinking about music. It’s like, “Oh, it’s an instrumental. It can be cut off.”
Mat: On one of the tapes, it’s Gridlock by The Pogues. Yeah. That’s one of them I hadn’t heard the full version of until later.
The other thing, and I don’t know if you wanna call it the genealogy of mix tapes, but hearing a song that you’ve put on my tape, and then adding it to a tape that I make for somebody else. You’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know about this band before, but this is a great song.” I think the other thing– and I’ll cop to doing this over, and over, and over again, is there’s these songs that I have probably put on every mix tape that I’ve ever made for someone I was dating.
Mat: I don’t know if I put it on one of your tapes, All her Favorite Fruit by Camper Van Beethoven.
Sarah: That’s my favorite Camper Van Beethoven song.
Mat: It’s mine, too, and I heard them play it a few years ago at South by Southwest. Did they play it when –
Sarah: Yes, I just saw it two weeks ago.
Mat: Yeah, and it was one of those things where it took it way back. Yeah, but that’s definitely one that comes to mind. It was one of those things where, “Am I just being a hack? Is this a song that I’ve sort of spoiled it by using it over and over again?” I think it’s this thing where it’s all about the context, and about – it’s a thing that means a lot to me and then it’s like, “Okay, I think I’m there. I’m gonna share it with this person.” I mean, frankly, I hope I’m not – cheapening isn’t the right word, but I remember putting that song on a tape for a first girlfriend because I remember buying that tape– I think I bought that tape at a Camelot Music because I had seen them on probably 120 Minutes, or postmodern MTV. I was like, “What is this band about?” Then, that was the song that I kept going back to.
Sarah: I don’t think it cheapens it.
Mat: I don’t either. It’s imbued with a lot of life, and lots of different memories, yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s on a playlist I made for [my wife].
Sarah: Mm-hmm. The original question to catalyze that was how often are you making mixes now?
Mat: I mean, not terribly often. We were planning on making a road trip mix. We just never got around to it.
Sarah: Yeah. You think it’s time, mainly, is the factor?
Mat: I think it’s time. I think my relationship with music is different in the sense that I tend to listen to new music, but the amount of new music I listen to is less than it was maybe five, ten years ago. I tend to gravitate toward the things that I’ve always listened to, or maybe revisiting things that I hadn’t listened to in a while.
I mean, often just out of curiosity, it’s like, “Does this even hold up anymore?” That kinda thing. I went back and listened to that Miracle Legion album, Drenched. Totally different, just because of age and listening, maybe, a little more closely. It’s a totally different record because you’re seeing it from probably an –
Miracle Legion – Drenched
Sarah: An adult’s –
Mat – an adult’s perspective, yeah. Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff like that.
Sarah: Yeah, definitely listening to that record when you’re like 15, those words mean something totally different than when you’re an adult and you listen.
Mat: Yeah. Also, thinking about when they made that record, they were probably only in their 20s. They weren’t as old as I am now. Is that true?
Sarah: I think they might have been a little older, but I’m not sure.
Mat: Really? Yeah. Well, I guess Mark Mulcahy is what, in his ’50s? ‘60s?
Sarah: I don’t think it’s clear. [laughter]
Mat: [laughter] Indeterminate age. The beard is confusing. I don’t know, though, but I’ll go back to the thing I said before about just keeping the tapes. I have these tapes. I don’t think I ever got rid of a mix tape that anyone gave me. I have a seven-inch box. It’s full of tapes, and I dug these out. I have tapes from my brother. I found a tape from [an old friend from York]. Yeah. Yeah, probably every girlfriend I ever had. I found some tapes that people had recorded songs on one side, and recorded them talking on the other.
Sarah and Mat in 2004
Sarah: Weren’t you part of a mix tape exchange club at some point?
Mat: Actually, you know what? It was CDs. And I’m glad you brought that up. There was a theme every month, and then we’d meet at a coffee shop or a bar, and just exchange our mixes because the idea was that you would show up, and you would make the same mix for everybody, and –
Sarah: You would leave there with ten mixes or something? Whoah, that’s a little overwhelming.
Mat: Yeah, and I got rid of a lot of them. There was maybe one or two that I kept. I did it off and on for maybe a year, but I think the thing that I realized is that I don’t wanna do it this way. You know what I mean? The reason I keep these, it’s because of the music, but it’s also because it’s very much an artifact of a period in my life, of a connection to you or whoever.
Yeah, these CD mixes, like, “Oh, these are all songs from 1983.” Okay. I don’t know this person. Oh, the other thing I think I didn’t like was it was a little bit like the early things where I was writing stuff about the songs.
Sarah: Like, “This makes me cool because I’m about to tell you something that you didn’t know.”
Mat: “Hey, let me tell you what I know about Steely Dan.”
Sarah: [laughter] Did that really happen?
Mat: No, actually, I think it was King Crimson. [laughter] But then, I also realized – I got a CD once where I’m like, “I could have made this. This is my sensibilities,” and then I’m talking to the person, and I’m like, “I don’t really like this person at all.” Musically, we like the same things, but—. I’m glad I did it for the time that I did it, but it wasn’t really a thing that I felt the need to keep up.
Mat Darby is an archivist at the University of Georgia’s Richard B. Russell Library who focuses on documenting the intersection of politics, activism and the public good. Born in Missouri, raised in Pennsylvania, and educated in Delaware and Texas, he currently lives in Athens, Georgia, which he would argue is one of the best college towns in America. He shares a house with his wife, Kristy, and cats Winston and Pippa. And no, he doesn’t know Michael Stipe, but he sees the bassist for Pylon in the neighborhood all the time. Twitter: @matdarby Instagram: @tadmabry