Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mixtapes and Direct Hit!

On December 1st, 2009, Mixtapes was not a band.

Singer and guitarist Ryan Rockwell had already started writing songs with Maura Weaver, his musical counterpart; they may have even written an entire record’s worth of material. Still, it’s important to emphasize that Mixtapes was nothing more than a project—two friends informally strumming out songs on acoustic guitars—and not a band.

“We had a lot of acoustic songs written, but we weren’t really sure what we were going to do with them,” Rockwell explains with Weaver giggling behind him. “My friend’s band was on tour and had a few days off, so they were staying with me for a few days. Their drummer heard us practice and really liked the songs, so he said he wanted to come down play drums on them, and we decided to record an album.”

Mixtapes ran through their songs the night before entering the studio and, for the first time, Rockwell and Weaver heard their songs at full volume with drums and distorted guitars. “We were so surprised by how they sounded,” Weaver adds. “It sounded completely different from what we thought it would.”

The resulting record, a ten-song full-length called Maps released in February of 2010, would thrust project into existence as a legitimate musical group. Less than a year later, with a full lineup that includes Kamal Hiresh on drums and Josh Condon on bass, the band has also found the time to record and release two EPs titled Thought About Growing Up and A Short Collection of Short Songs. And, of course, they also released a four-song split with Direct Hit!, a band whose story is unsurprisingly similar.

By December 1st, 2009, Direct Hit! had just solidified their line-up.

It took singer and guitarist Nick Woods a year or two to do so. The band began as a side project while he was working at a call center in Madison, WI. “In between calls,” he explains, “I started writing little thirty-second hooks to keep my mind off of the crappiness of the job.” These hooks turned into pop-punk songs, which Woods put to tape in 2008 just for fun. “It actually turned out way better than I thought it was going to,” he says. “I thought it was going to be some piddly little thing that I did on the side.”

Direct Hit! continued inconsistently—even after Wood’s other band, the Box Social, broke up—until Woods met drummer Danny Walkowiak. When the duo added bassist Robbie Schroder towards the end of 2009, Woods found what felt like a full lineup. “That’s when I started feeling comfortable telling people I was in a band,” he laughs. Direct Hit! would later add Mike Esser on guitar and keyboardist Alex Hill, a decision that helped them turn each song into a trademark wall of sound.

Both Direct Hit! and Mixtapes have more in common than their recent and rapid inceptions. Both bands were approached by Scotty Sandwich, owner of Death to False Hope Records, to release their records on his digital, donation-based label. Woods, who had worked tirelessly to self-release his first three EPs, was contacted by Sandwich just after the release of #4. “I told him that we already released it,” Woods explains, “and he said, ‘No no no, we’re basically doing the same thing that you guys are, and that’s just putting these rad tunes on the internet for free.’”

Woods, who was still skeptical, wanted to check out his website to see what other bands were on there—“To make sure that it wasn’t just a bunch of Juggalos and nu-metal bands,” he says with a snicker—but was surprised to see consistent collection of interesting, punk-influenced artists. “I sent him a note right back saying, ‘If you put our name next to all the rest of those groups, that’d be fucking incredible,” he says.

Death to False Hope released Direct Hit! #4 (and, a few months later, #5). Despite being a donation-based label (where many records are downloaded without donation), Woods was elated at the attention Death to False Hope brought the band. “All of the sudden,” he says, “the record started showing up on websites and people I had never met before were sending me notes saying how much they liked it.”

One such individual was Rockwell; Death to False Hope released Mixtapes’ Maps around the same time as #4 and Rockwell wanted to reach out to Woods right away. “We listen to Direct Hit! when we’re in our van,” he explains. “One day, Maura came to band practice and I was like, ‘I burned you this CD. This band is awesome.’ Those guys really like us and we really like them.”

Another listener that liked Direct Hit!’s Death to False Hope debut turned out to be Lisa Garelick, who was forming her fledgling label Kind of Like Records. “Lisa said she had been listening to Direct Hit! basically since #3 came out,” Woods recalls, “and asked if we wanted to put out a seven-inch record. And I said, ‘Fuck yeah!’ I had never put out a record before on vinyl, so I was really excited about that.

“And she said, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be a split with this band called Mixtapes,’” he continues, “and that’s when I really hit the roof. I was really, really excited about being on a release with those guys.”

Garelick’s idea seemed simple: Each band would provide their own original songs, plus a cover of the other band’s original. The idea itself has been done before but, as Rockwell argues, “I think the way we did it hasn’t been done as much. The way we did it, we hadn’t heard each other’s songs. Nick sent us a version of him playing ‘Werewolf Shame’ in his bedroom acoustically. There was no guitar solo, no drums, no bass.” Rockwell and Weaver altered the tempo of Woods’ original, as well as the key, the structure, and (subtly) the style of the song. Likewise, Rockwell and Weaver recorded “I Was a Teenage Poltergeist” on acoustic guitars using a cheap mic and sent this rough demo to Direct Hit! for them to reinterpret. “If you heard the versions we sent each other,” Rockwell says, “you’d be amazed when you heard the final seven-inch.”

Because each song was developed independently from one another, both versions of both songs are nearly unrecognizable from the other. “Werewolf Shame”, Direct Hit!’s intense contribution, kicks off the record’s first side. A strange combination of control and overpowering passion, the song is driven by a furnace of chords. Hot and harsh, the guitars seem to radiate through the song, complimented by the groan of Hill’s organ, as Schroder’s bass meanders behind this barrier of sound. Woods’ heartfelt howls don’t detract from the catchiness of his song, especially as he screams, “They left me on the highway / stepped on the gas drove away.”

“I had this hook in my head, the whole thing about ‘they left me on the highway,’” Woods says. “I got picked on a lot when I was in school when I was a kid. I couldn’t write a song about getting picked on because that’s a total downer. I thought, ‘What is the most flamboyant way that I could write a song about being picked on?’ So I wrote a song about growing up as a fucking werewolf and being picked on for it, and how a person can be this freak to everyone else, but that there are qualities to everybody that makes them powerful and interesting and worthwhile.”

There’s something somber about Woods’ werewolf story, but Mixtapes’ swifter interpretation of “Werewolf Shame” is uplifting; the guitars seem more optimistic and lively, like Woods’ character isn’t a tragic hero but a bitter lycanthrope ready to tear his antagonist’s face apart. Whether we feel sorry for this werewolf or are anticipating his aggression, it’s interesting that both songs seem to tell different stories.

Side B opens with “I Was a Teenage Poltergeist”, Mixtapes’ bouncy and bold contribution. Rockwell and Weaver’s back-and-forth vocals, a signature of their sound, seem to reach in desperation from behind the growl of guitars, beneath the spastic explosion of Hiresh’s drums, before coming together during the chorus. The song’s attack, though, is tame—keen, even, and clean—compared to Direct Hit!’s version, which is thicker, straighter, slightly slower, and closes side A. Woods’ singing isn’t as crisp as Rockwell and Weaver’s, but his shouts give the song an ardent power. “I like how energetic their version is,” Rockwell says.

“It’s like a million people yelling at one time,” Weaver adds.

“Yeah,” Rockwell continues, “we do kind of delicate harmonies and quieter songs, but they just rock. Like it’s upbeat and Nick’s screaming his head off. It’s awesome.”

It’s records like these that make these two pop-punk bands (and their innovative record labels) noteworthy, and why it shouldn’t be a surprise that on December 1st, 2010—less than one year after these bands established themselves as something serious, something more than just another bunch of ambitious musicians—Mixtapes and Direct Hit! are bands about which people are talking.

But, at least for Rockwell and Weaver, the speed at which Mixtapes has made a name for itself is sort of scary. “It’s crazy that this all happened so fast,” Weaver says.

“I feel like there’s pressure,” Rockwell adds. “It doesn’t affect the way we write songs, obviously. It’s just weird, I guess.” But, at the same time, the experience has been exhilarating for Rockwell and Weaver. “I definitely think that we have some sort of buzz out there,” Rockwell concludes. “We’re obviously more thankful about it than we are stressed and worried. It’s the coolest thing ever that anybody would want to hear any song that we sit and write in my bedroom. I wouldn’t replace it for the world."

It does make one wonder, though, how much bigger both bands will be on December 1st, 2011.

Rockwell and Weaver met on an autumn evening to record their songs and conduct their interview. For some reason, though, the phone in Rockwell's home that they used to record their tracks garbled their songs too much. On the date that the two planned on rerecording, Rockwell called to say that Weaver got stuck at work and, the next day, the band began a short tour on their way to the Fest; Mixtapes was unable to rerecord until a week after their return. During the most recent recording, while Weaver prepared for recording, Rockwell spoke of his gun collection and hiding McDonald's plush dolls in locations where Weaver would find them and scream in terror.

Woods' session was conducted a couple days later from the landline phone at his girlfriend's grandparents' house. Though there were fewer technological hiccups, it wasn't without its delightful oddities; friends Nick Berg and Shane Olivo, who also records all of Direct Hit!'s releases, can be heard grunting (or something) in time with the bridge of "Werewolf Shame".

"I Was A Teenage Poltergeist" and "Werewolf Shame" both appear on Mixtapes and Direct Hit!'s 2010 split. "Soundtrack 2 My Life" is a Kid Cudi cover; the song originally appeared on his 2009 record Man on the Moon: The End of Day. "Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)" is a Robert Palmer cover; the song originally appeared on his 1978 album Secrets.

Visit Death to False Hope Records to download Mixtapes' Maps and Thought About Growing Up and Direct Hit!'s #4 and #5. Please donate to both bands if you enjoy their music. Also, please visit Kind Of Like Records' web store to purchase Mixtapes' split with Direct Hit!

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.