Some Notes on Making a Mixtape

mixtapeTime is moving faster.  Or, at least I perceive that it’s moving faster.  It’s because I’m getting older, or because collectively our culture is nearing its inevitable end.  As postulated by deep thinkers and sci-fi writers alike, time is a fluid thing, and it’s moving in a circular fashion as if down a drain, going faster and faster as it gets closer to the center (the end).  Days, weeks, months, years pass in a blur.  Seconds, minutes, and hours fly even faster.  It wasn’t so long ago that I was unmarried, that I was single, that I was a college student, a high school student, in grade school, an infant.  The days were huge and expanding.  I had an eternity.  All activities were simple specks of time and space strewn out before me.

As a child (and a teenager), I could sit for hours dubbing tracks from my father’s record collection to a blank cassette tape, pressing pause and dropping the needle on my favorite songs over and over again.  The end results of these musical analog collages were well worth my afternoons spent.  I loved my tape collection.  I played them until the plastic cracked and the sound warbled, like someone playing music underwater.  But there was always a new tape to be made and more hours to be used.  At least until the advent of each new technology made the whole process obsolete. Why would I go through the process of listening to each tune, waiting to pause at just the right second when I can burn the same songs to a CD-R like that?  Why oh why would I spend hours making a mix when in just minutes I can create a playlist using Pandora or Spotify or whatever other streaming service has popped up to replace the one that came before it?  Well, I didn’t.  I made mix CD’s and playlists just like everybody else.  Until yesterday.  Yesterday I made a mixtape…and it was glorious.

SIDE A

1.  Banco – “Chorale (from Traccia’s Theme)”

I start with something that has an intro-like feel, an instrumental or something that has a slow build to it.  As a kid, my mixtapes consisted of whatever pop songs I happened to like from my parents’ or my older sister’s collections…Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Dixieland jazz, whatever.  But since I’ve gotten older and my own collection is now spreading through my house like a fungus, the idea for my new “mixtape project” is to use songs from my records that cannot easily be downloaded in seconds from the computer.  This lends itself to using more random, obscure, or deeper cuts.  And so we have an Italian prog-rock jam to start us off.

The process begins: press the record button, press the pause button, cue the record track, drop the needle, release the pause button, listen to the selected song, pause again, repeat.

Grab a drink, we’re going to be here for awhile.

2.  Quintessence – “High on Mt. Kailash”

I used to record skits with my brother in between music tracks when we were in grade school.  It’s something most kids do, or at least it’s something that most kids growing up in the middle class suburbs do.  We would pretend to be radio deejays or performers, sometimes introducing a song or segueing into another, sometimes talking through horrible comedy routines, sometimes ruminating about the topics our preteen minds were concerned with.  As I got older though, my recordings became a little more ambitious, if not pretentious.  Bits of poetry, dialogue, and conversations with people who did not know they were being recorded made their way into the cracks and crevices between songs, an aural confessional with a musical score.

Pause.

3.  Max Roach and The JC White Singers – “Motherless Child”

On the subject of confessions, I have one to make.  I am not extolling the virtues of the cassette tape as a viable music medium.  I am not a revivalist.  Aside from their affordability and portability, tapes suck.  They break easily.  The tape thread gets stuck in the player.  The sound is kind of “meh,” and it’s hard to find the song you want to listen to.  Fast forward.  Rewind.  Fast Forward.  Rewind.  As far as convenience goes, CD’s, mp3’s, and music streaming kick cassette tapes right in the teeth.  And if you’re looking for a better audio quality, vinyl is the way to go (for about a million reasons that I don’t understand and won’t go into right now).  For cassettes and for this project in general, it’s all about the nostalgia and my attempt to recapture something by making a new mixtape.  Something meaningful.

I don’t really know what that something is.

4.  Lalo Schifrin – Burning Bridges

I like to think of the mix as a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist.  Flow is very important.  To create the right tone or theme, the tracks must be arranged in such a way as to tell a story, or set a scene, or evoke a mood.  You don’t want to cluster too many of the same sounds in one section or to have abrasive shifts in musical style or genre, unless of course, that’s what you’re going for.  I like to keep the mix fairly diverse, but it all depends on the story you’re trying to tell, or the sonic palette you’re trying to create.

Due to the cinematic intentions of my music mixes, I use a lot of songs and pieces from actual scores.

5.  Chad Mitchell Trio – Stewball

It’s like creating a piece of art from the existing art of others.  Our modern culture loves that.  There are only a handful of us who have ever had an original thought.  The rest of us just borrow from them, so everything is remade, or re-imagined, or recycled, or rehashed, or just sampled from everything that came before it, be it literature, visual art, film, or music.  We’re deejays remixing beats and breaks to make new songs.  We’re painters spreading new paint onto old thrift store finds to create new beauty.  We’re storytellers riffing on the old lore.  We’re artists pulling at bits and pieces of the cultural aesthetic to tell our own stories and purvey our own opinions about the world at large or within.  Mixtapes are pop art.

But then, maybe it goes deeper than that.  Maybe it’s more than pop.  Maybe it’s more than fun.  Maybe it’s just a way to create something personal, even on the most insignificant of levels.  We’re proud of what we make.  Every part has its purpose and nothing is left solely to randomness.

Control the chaos around you.

6.  Skeeter Davis – The End of The World

My dad made tapes all the time.  He had a briefcase full of them.  The interior of the case was divided out into compartments to hold each tape.  Before we would go on a trip, he would record a new one, and that tape was the first thing played as we rolled out in my parents’ white station wagon.

All of those songs have ingrained themselves into my subconscious in the particular order in which my dad arranged them in his collection.  And while they are not something at the forefront of our culture’s attention (he listened to a lot of old folk, jazz, and bluegrass), I’m relatively positive that if I were to hear one of those songs now, out of context, my mind would expect it to be followed by my dad’s next choice.

Even when I didn’t like the songs, my dad understood flow.  His mixes were good.

7.  The Beach Boys – ‘Til I Die

There’s always something to enjoy.  Don’t be pompous or callous.  Sometimes it’s good to not be too obtuse.  Sometimes it’s nice to just be honest and pick something you like.  Sometimes, you just gotta listen to The Beach Boys.

Stop.  End Side A.

mixtape2 SIDE B

1.  Emerald Web – Flight of The Raven

So maybe I lifted this song from an online mixtape created by the late, great Trish Keenan of Broadcast, but so what?  It’s an excellent song and a rarity to boot.  One cannot expect to be filled to the brim with original ideas all of the time.  Borrow where appropriate.

I’m making an audio collage.

2.  Nico – Vuelo Quimico

One of the things that modern music technology has all but erased is the process of dividing albums into different acts or sections.  We can play them all the way through without any breaks.  With cassettes and vinyl records before that, once a side finishes, the music stops and we have to get up, turn the side over, and begin anew.  Each side carries its own distinguishable sound, characteristics, mood, and attitude.

I used to make tapes with hard sides and soft sides.  A side to drive to and a side sleep to.  A side to run to and a side to read to.  There are two blank canvases to work with, and thus two moods to create with an overarching theme.  The first tape I ever made for my wife was like this.

3.  Henry Mancini – Experiment In Terror

When my dad would make mixtapes for himself, a process I observed and participated in on too many occasions to count, the entire act served as a kind of disconnect from the normal day to day bullshit he might have to contend with, a proverbial calming elixir to soothe the nerves and reset the brain.  Of course, the recording process generally involved an actual elixir of one sort or another to soothe the nerves and reset the brain as well.  (I did tell you to grab a drink earlier, did I not?)  So, with a cocktail in hand and a tape to make, my dad was ready to unwind.  It was a small project that made him happy, like creating art for yourself.

He would set aside the records and 8-tracks and cassettes he wanted to pull from (and eventually CD’s too) and write the songs down on a yellow notepad as he put them to magnetic tape.  Upon finishing, the track info would then be transferred to the cassette insert, and my dad would title the project usually after the first song on Side A.  And I did the same, until I became a teenager and started to use movie quotes or nonsensical and random phrases as titles instead.  “This Town Needs an Enema.”  “Your Mom’s an Astronaut.”  “I’ve got The Biggest Balls in Cow Town.”

I still do this.

4.  The Pandoras – Haunted Beach Party

I am a sucker for instrumental music.  Melody evokes a much more visceral response from me than lyrics do.  I don’t know why.

5.  Gonzo – I’m Going to Go Back There Someday

But then there are songs with lyrics that just kind of punch you in the gut, especially when combined with a melancholy melody.  While I am a sucker for instrumentals, I am also a sucker for The Muppets, a trait that goes back as far as I can remember.  They were a big part of my childhood, and so this whole experiment of making a mixtape again becomes an act of nostalgia on my part, an attempt to reconnect with my youth because I miss it.  An attempt to remember what my dad was like.  To gain perspective now that I’m a father myself.

My dad died almost five years ago.  My son was born over six months ago.  The two will never meet except in story and song.

6.  The Mike Curb Congregation – Burning Bridges

Cross your fingers and hope that there is enough room for the last song on the tape.  You’re either ending on part of a song, or something just short enough to squeeze in.  I kind of like to round the whole thing out and end on a high note.  Leave yourself wanting more.

I think my dad would approve.

Stop.  End Side B.

- “Grand Bob Was a Pop Artist.”

 

Thomas H Williams

Thomas H Williams

From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.blogspot.com.

One Response to Some Notes on Making a Mixtape
  1. […] that certain someone might like?  I did.  I used to do it all the time.  I even wrote about it on... joup.co/endless-loop-playground-love

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