The Mix Tape: Art and Artifact Before the iPod and the random playlist of the MP3, there was the original: the mix tape. Thurston Moore, of art-rock band Sonic Youth, discusses a new book he edited that explores the art and magic of making personal musical mixes.
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The Mix Tape: Art and Artifact

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The Mix Tape: Art and Artifact

The Mix Tape: Art and Artifact

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But right now we want to talk about music mixes. A big part of the popularity of the iPod is that it plays your music, MP3s you pick in the order you want. And yes, the technology is new, but the idea is more than 30 years old. When cassette tapes--Remember those?--first became available, people quickly discovered the power to play deejay, to mix and match individual songs to a completely unique album. And even better, mixes make the perfect personal gift--music you spent time to choose and record for a specific person--a playlist with a message.

We suspect that more than a few of you have your own tape-mix stories--a worn Memorex with a raft of memories behind it. Tell us about the special mix tape you made or received. Our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. You can send us e-mail:

Musician Thurston Moore explores the magic of mix tapes in his new book, "Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture," and he joins us now from the studios of member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts.


Mr. THURSTON MOORE (Musician; Author, "Mix Tape"): Thanks.

CONAN: What--was there a first mix tape for you?

Mr. MOORE: The first mix tape for me--it would have to be sort of around the, I guess, late '70s. It was sort of about the advent of when you could actually sort of buy portable cassette Walkmans at the time. And, well, I was living in downtown New York at the time as a poor, starving musician, and so the--all of a sudden, it was like there was these machines you can actually sort of afford to buy, and you could sort of make tapes on them and put music on them, and it was like this real revolution for a lot of us, in a way.

And the first mix tape I remember having--I think making is when I lived in this apartment on Eldridge Street in New York City, and above me was the conceptual artist Dan Graham. And he was a incredible record collector. He bought every avant-garde rock record and jazz record there was, and he had written for Crawdaddy! magazine and he had this incredible archive. And I didn't have any records because I couldn't really afford to buy them, so I would sort of sneak up to his place, and he had one of the first sort of Walkmans. And I would get these cheap cassettes I would buy on Canal Street. You'd get packages of three of them for a dollar. And I just would record all of his records, and it was an incredible learning experience for me as far as, like, you know, hearing a lot of music I wouldn't otherwise hear...

CONAN: Well, when...

Mr. MOORE: ...on these...

CONAN: When did you make the transition from, you know, making a copy of, you know, the Thelonious Monk record, or whatever it was...

Mr. MOORE: Yeah.

CONAN: going in and saying, `Well, you know, this song would sound really good after this song, and that would sound even better right after it'?

Mr. MOORE: I think you just sort of did that because you--I actually started doing that because--especially when punk rock and hardcore punk rock--all the songs were sort of like one minute and two minute long...

CONAN: Right.

Mr. MOORE: ...and you could fit so many of them on a cassette. And, to me, it felt like you were actually--you were creating this gig, because in those days, especially, like, local punk rock bands and hardcore bands, there would be, like, 10 bands on a bill, and there was some quality there that you really liked. And everybody sounded the same, but everybody sort of had a slightly different aesthetic. And so making the mix tapes, in a way, was almost like you were kind of curating a gig, in a way.

CONAN: For...

Mr. MOORE: So that's how I got really into it.

CONAN: So the modern equivalent of, you know, the old Murray the K show at the Brooklyn Paramount, where 87 acts--you had to go at 10 in the morning to see The Who.

Mr. MOORE: You know, it was less precious, in a way. I mean, you were talking about the iPod earlier. It's like, you know, if you break your iPod, you've broken, like, a $300 machine or something.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MOORE: You know, with a cassette, you know, they would wind out on you or you'd break them; it's like, hey, you could buy another one for two bucks or something like that. And, you know, Walkmans were fairly cheaper. You know, there was a certain economic factor, and the sound was also--it's quite different than sort of the digital sound you're sort of getting off of an iPod or even like a CDR mix.

CONAN: And the key point, though, was at some point you began to realize these were cheap enough to mail to other people.

Mr. MOORE: Oh, yeah. Yeah. They were love letters, in a way. They were really--they were the classic sort of courting ritual, I thought, all throughout the '80s, of people making mix tapes for people they had crushes on.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Was there one...

Mr. MOORE: But that was always the case.

CONAN: Was there one killer song that you always put at the end, hoping to cinch the deal?

Mr. MOORE: "Love Comes in Spurts" by Richard Hell and The Voidoids. That was a big one.

CONAN: Yeah. I'm not familiar with it, but I think I get the picture.

Mr. MOORE: Oh, it's a classic. Yeah. It sort of--it was--I really identified with that song.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. If you've either sent or received a mix tape, give us a phone call: (800) 989-8255. Our e-mail address is And let's begin with Jennifer. Jennifer's calling from Portland, Oregon.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi. I used to actually make mix tapes with my boyfriend in Michigan, and it was a long-term relationship. And, you know, it's hard to read letters; they make you really sad. So we would each record a song and then send the tape across the country, and he would record a song and send it back to me. It was a really great way to communicate without getting a...

CONAN: Do you remember any song in particular that had you either weeping for joy or maybe sadness?

JENNIFER: One that I really liked, actually, is a Sonic Youth song called "Sunday Morning," and I really, like...

Mr. MOORE: "Sunday."

JENNIFER: We used to spend Sunday mornings together, and it's just kind of sad and happy at the same time; just mellow and--so I really liked it. It always made my heart feel warm inside.

Mr. MOORE: You mean the song called "Sunday"?

JENNIFER: Yeah, "Sunday."

Mr. MOORE: (Singing) Sunday comes along today--that one?

JENNIFER: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. MOORE: There's a Velvet Underground song called "Sunday Morning."

JENNIFER: Right. No, it's not Velvet Underground.

Mr. MOORE: (Singing) Sunday morning...

JENNIFER: It's your guys' song--`Ten thousand leaves' or `in a thousand'...

Mr. MOORE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.


Mr. MOORE: `A thousand leaves.' I hate to correct her. Oh, yeah. Thanks. That's totally awesome.

CONAN: There...

JENNIFER: Yeah, that...

Mr. MOORE: That's so cool.

CONAN: There was an ep...

JENNIFER: I'll never forget that experience. It was just the best way--and the relationship ended up ending, but it was really the best way to end it. It just kind of fizzled out with music.

Mr. MOORE: Mm-hmm. Do you still have the cassette?

JENNIFER: I actually don't. He has it.

Mr. MOORE: That's the thing. When I was doing this book, I asked so many people and they said, `Oh, I had the coolest cassettes. They were such--so sentimental and I had these relationships, but I threw them away' or `They're gone' or `I yard-saled them.' And yeah, I mean, it is a really--they are lost mementos.


Mr. MOORE: There's very few of them around. I love going in thrift stores, and sometimes you'll see them stacked and you'll see these kind of like--obvious they were these kind of love-letter cassettes, mix tapes.

JENNIFER: Those are the ...(unintelligible) that you just get a little...

Mr. MOORE: Totally.

JENNIFER: ...insights on other people's relationships. But yeah, I do keep quite a few. I have quite a collection of mix tapes from other suitors.


Mr. MOORE: Oh, yeah?

JENNIFER: They're fun to listen to every now and then and be like, `Oh, yeah, that's when I was 22. That was so fun,' you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Jennifer, there's another song, "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and just be glad you didn't get that one.

JENNIFER: Exactly.

Mr. MOORE: Ooh, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

JENNIFER: Got lucky.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.


CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Rae Howard(ph) in Idaho. `My husband made a mix tape while we were dating, and it was always playing while I was at his house. After we were married, he told me he made it to woo me. I didn't even realize at the time that I even heard it playing. My husband passed away from cancer several years ago, and I treasure that mix tape. Every time I hear it, the memories come flooding back. Anything from Chicago is romantic music to my ears.' So...

Mr. MOORE: Sounds great.

CONAN: Yeah. So even if you didn't get it at the time, if you got it eventually, hang on to the tape. I think you'll appreciate it as time goes down.

Mr. MOORE: There's a whole generation now that doesn't--I mean, mix tapes are not even existing for a lot of young people now, which is, you know--big deal. I mean, it's like they have their own techno-culture.

CONAN: Yeah. What's the difference between a mix tape or a mix iPod?

Mr. MOORE: Well, there really is no difference. I mean, it's--the attitude is still the same. You're sort of putting the--and yet the original title of this book that I wanted to use was called "Love and Ego," and it's--pretty much, that's what it's all about. And so yeah, I mean, it's your gift of--and the whole idea of giving this gift is like, well, are you making songs that are songs that are really special to you and that you want to share with this person, or are you making songs that you know this person really likes and you're giving it as a gift as thus? It's usually the former. There's only one person in this book, Mike Watt of The Minutemen, and he plays with Iggy & The Stooges now. He's the only one in this book I know who actually made a tape of music that he knew this girl that he liked, liked. And he didn't know the music, and so he had to find the music and he made this tape for her and gave it to her, and it tripped him out because he was, like, learning about this girl through music that he knew she liked and he was making this thing and hearing it for the first time. So he was the only one I know who worked in that capacity, which I thought was really interesting. He--you know, that was kind of a new step for men.

CONAN: Well, let's get back to technology. I'm on solider ground there. If you're making a mix tape, obviously, this is, as we would never have said then, analog. It takes--if the song is 3 minutes and 40 seconds on the record, it takes you 3 minutes and 40 seconds plus some fumbling around as well to transfer it to a cassette tape. Does this make any difference, other than, perhaps, philosophically?

Mr. MOORE: That I don't know. I mean, to me, making tapes from just records--I mean, there's a certain--there's a rough-and-ready aspect there. For me, analog is not--you know, it's not a perfect aural situation because it's like, you know, the analog wave is sort of, like, not considered perfect the way, like, a digital signal is, numerical. And my whole--the whole idea that I have, which I sort of picked up from an interview I read with Neil Young once, was that, you know, your brain sort of processes digital information once and for all. When it hears it, it has processed it and knows what it's heard, and when it hears it again, it's already territory that it knows, and you sort of--it's kind of--it's kind of boring, because you've already heard it before, whereas, like, analog, it's like you're always kind of hearing new things in the cosmos of analog, because it is sort of a mysterious kind of wave.

And there's a certain comfort factor when you're listening to vinyl records and cassettes and audiotapes and such, because you're hearing it a little bit different each time, and so the process is not always complete. And there's something kind of--there's something really nice about that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we can...

Mr. MOORE: You know, there's always--you know...

CONAN: Yeah. Let's see if we can get one more caller on. I didn't mean to interrupt. This is Nancy...

Mr. MOORE: (Laughs) That's OK.

CONAN: ...calling from Sacramento.

NANCY (Caller): Hi. Thank you so much for having me on your show.

CONAN: Sure.

NANCY: I have a mix-tape story to share. I was putting together an `I like you' tape which was for a young man I was interested in years ago, but I didn't have a very large music collection of my own, and so I had fun hanging out at different friends' houses and listening to their records and CDs. And one fellow in particular had the equipment that I needed to make this tape, 'cause I didn't even have a proper stereo. And anyways, I ended up spending a lot of time at his house and got to know him quite well, and never sent the tape to the first fellow and married the second guy.

Mr. MOORE: Ahh!

NANCY: And I--but I held on to the tape for years, and I really enjoyed listening to it periodically and kind of reminiscing about another time.

Mr. MOORE: And wondering whatever would have happened, maybe, if the...

NANCY: Well, funny you ask, because I had a reunion with the first fellow just last year, and, you know, we had kept in touch and had common friends, and I brought him the tape and told him the whole story about...

Mr. MOORE: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

NANCY: I'd made this. And anyways, I was able to hand it over, but, frankly, it was hard to let go of it.

CONAN: And that young man's name was Donald Trump! No, I'm just...

NANCY: Pardon me?

CONAN: No, I was just making a joke, Nancy.


CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. Thank you. Appreciate it.

Mr. MOORE: Great story.

NANCY: Thanks for having me. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And, Thurston Moore, we appreciate your time today. You've been great.

Mr. MOORE: Yeah. Thanks for having me. It was fun.

CONAN: Thurston Moore is the editor of "Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture." And when not writing, you can find him playing with his group Sonic Youth, and he joined us from the studios of member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. To read an excerpt from the book and to hear some of the songs Thurston put on one of his own mix tapes, you can go to This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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