Part of the reason I love the format of the “mixtape” over that of the “playlist” – misnomered though mixtapes mostly are these days – is the built-in constraint. With a playlist, you can do any ol’ length; if you have enough covers or “songs with jewels in the title” or “auditory anachronisms” (all playlists I have) you can make a playlist as long as your individual storage capabilities can handle. There’s no laboring over the tough edits and tougher calls, and there’s really, at least to my mind, none of the requisite storytelling – thematic, atmospheric, or otherwise – that comes with construction of a mixtape. Sure, any mixophile worth their salt will be minding their transitions, regardless of format, but a mixtape forces a certain degree of choice, whether one wills it or no; the meaning is built in, and because for whatever reason you chose those specific songs, a mixtape can, I think, always be deconstructed, parsed, in a way that a playlist simply cannot. Put another way, if the difference between a writer and a playwright is more than the spelling, is the requisite emphasis on the holistic crafting of a work due to the nature of the medium in which it will be consumed, I’d argue that the distance between a mixtape and a playlist, as I define them, can be measured in much the same way.
In my world, then, the things that make mixtapes great are their limitations, the cardinal rule of which being that a mixtape is not to exceed the size of the most common media on which it can be played, or 80 minutes, the length of an actual, honest-to-goodness CD.
The fact that people consume media in so many ways that are no longer necessarily temporally constrained in such a manner is irrelevant. I’ve never made a mix that couldn’t fit on a single standard-sized compact disc, because as far as I’m concerned, without the time limit, there’s basically nothing separating us from the animals, the mixtapes from the chaos.
Why did I bother explaining all of this? Because Fireside Chats marks a one-off detour from my normal mixing, uhh, norms in many a way, but none so dramatic as the fact that it is 82 minutes (and 4 motherfucking seconds) long. I engaged in all manner of shenanigans to get Fireside Chats to make weight, but no. friggin’. dice. This mix is, no matter how cringeworthy I personally find it, an unrepentant 2:04 over, and I’ve given up trying to make it change. (I love you just the way you are, sugarbean.)
Other things that make FC an unusual mix for me is that it’s independent – my musical language being as burdened with an excess of verbosity as my regular one, the 80 minute limit normally means that I make the vast majority of my mixtapes in series, self-contained but part of a planned larger story arc or thematic moment or concept, and with the requisite transitions to match. If we look at past practice: A Sociopath’s Guide to Obsessive-Compulsive Love is a four disc storyline with only one mix actually completed; Whistle Along If You’re Not Immortal: Syllabus to a Summer Saturday’s High is also four discs, but is finished, albeit lacking liner notes; Check YES/no/maybe needs its two less optimistic compatriots; I have a 5-disc series loosely based on the stages of grief in the works, as well as the double-to-triple disc This Morning I Woke Up A Revolutionary; both The Smokiest Bars Are In Hell (two discs plus three in the works) and Monsters and Gods (four discs plus two in the works) are completely open ended on how many of those mixes will actually be made – hell, the latter already has at two two-disc sets within the larger thematic unifier. (It’s a toss up as to which mixes of mine will end up on RIE next, but the odds are fairly decent that it will either be an M&G double disc originally commissioned by Rikka or the long, long, long awaited Back in the Day, the mix that has probably suffered most under the 80 minute rule.) And that’s not counting the playlists.
For me to make a mix that was conceived to stand entirely alone is so unusual, it took me actually poring over my not inconsequential collection of mixes for more than a li’l bit to figure out the last time I’d done it. (Answer: A Mixdisc for the Gently Brokenhearted, over two years ago, and maybe The Penned Soundtracks, Vol. 1 four years ago, if anything with “Vol. 1” in the title can be presumed a standalone. That’s it. One and a possible. Ever.) Fireside Chats is thus unusually overlong and oddly self-contained, and it doesn’t stop there – it also has fewest vocals/comprehensible lyrics of any mix o’ mine, and perhaps the most in the way of genuinely subtle dichotomies. Of the 25 tracks included, two have no music, three are unintelligible (at least to me, maybe you have them special ears), and five have no vocals – fully 2/5 of the mix entire. There are three different artists with two tracks, something I generally try to avoid. There’s classical, jazz, electronica, alt/indie, folk/neo-folk, hints of funk and bits of rock – for all that, FC comes across, in my opinion, with a notably country flair . . . a distinct and irrepressible twang, if you will, with nary a “country” tune to its credit.
So what’s it all about? I honestly have no idea, which might be the weirdest thing of all. I’d collected a few tunes, maybe six or seven, cobbled together under the working title of “Cowbois In Dios” that sat around in my desktop music player of choice – we all know which one, but I hesitate to give them the satisfaction – for more than a few months. The idea was something that felt middle-of-nowhere outdoorsy, something that was sparsely populated, slightly lovelorn, and more than a little wild and lonely while occasionally soaringly majestic, though I doubt I could have articulated that quite as well at the time. Then, one night, Hannes introduced me to a side-project from a member of one of his favorite bands (kuhrye-oo, who contributes track 8, “Old Son”) while I was cruising for new Bonnie Prince Billy and listening to Billy Collins recite his work; a feverish 24 hours later, Fireside Chats had wafted in like smoke from a campfire previously thought extinguished, persistently lingering longer than the time allotted. Which isn’t to say I didn’t try – this mix has been done for weeks but for my constantly turning it ’round and ’round, looking for cuts that refused to manifest themselves. (Though I did manage to trim a healthy four+ minute overage down to the scant two you see here.) Eventually I decided to let it be; I like FC just the way it is – somehow open spaced and deeply personal in equal measure – too much to trim for pride’s sake.
Perhaps it’s the Big Sky Country in your soul, if I can be forgiven that level of ambitious hyperbole. Regardless, it’s probably time to let Fireside Chats speak for itself – give it a listen here, or make it for yourself (heads up: you only need the first 2:19 of Brian Blade’s “Folklore,” so edit accordingly), and tell me what you think.
(Wait, wait, lemme guess. Too long, didn’t listen? Y’all’re so mean.)