The most identifiable thing about Ryan Rockwell is not his voice. It isn’t his guitar playing or the melodies he writes. The most identifiable thing about Ryan Rockwell actually doesn’t have to do with his band at all. It’s not even the Jughead Jones tattoo on his left arm.
“That guy is always wearing flip-flops.”
“I love that he never takes off his sandals.”
These were quotes overheard around Gainesville, Fla., on October 30, a day perhaps better described as “the Sunday of Fest.” As one walks down Main Street, outside the CMC where Rockwell’s band, Mixtapes, is about to play an acoustic set during The Fest 10, there is a large group of friends talking about his attire.
Later that night – in paltry 50-degree weather, which is more or less tundra status for an October eve in Gainesville – Rockwell is again seen at an after-Fest party, still sporting his signature footwear. This time, there is a group of members from other bands talking about his sandals. Most everyone at the party was wrapped up in at least a hoodie. Rockwell’s explanation? “I don’t really get cold,” he says, months after Fest is over, on the phone from his Cincinnati abode, as I swear to him that the questions I’m asking are relevant. “In the winter, I wear a hoodie just for comfort, flip-flops and shorts. I only own one pair of pants.”
The flip-flops don’t tell much of a story themselves, but they do provide a decent reference point for Rockwell’s character. When the going gets tough, it’ll be okay. Whatever’s wrong probably isn’t really as bad as it seems. Sandals and a tank top at the end of October seem lighthearted enough to get that message across.
Who knows for sure what Rockwell will be wearing when he, guitarist/vocalist Maura Weaver, drummer Boone Haley and bassist Michael Remley head into Moonlight Studios near their hometown of Cincinnati to record their first full-length album with Eric Tussendsam. You can rest assured that he’ll be wearing whatever the hell he wants to wear, though. Mixtapes has always done exactly what it wanted.
Older fans of the band may find a problem with that last paragraph; Maps, a 10-song record that weighs in at a whopping 18 minutes, was released in 2010. That, technically, is Mixtapes’ first full-length record. But not if you ask the band.
“Maps was written so hastily – it was never meant to be an album and was only worked out with a ‘full band’ the night before we recorded the whole thing,” Weaver says. “Ryan probably wrote three more songs to add and make it an album the night before [we recorded] because he always does that because he's crazy. Since then, we've been wanting to make a real full length but I guess since we started touring, winter 2011 has just seemed like the best possible time to make it.”
Rockwell agrees, saying recent writing sessions were Mixtapes’ first chance to actually make a cohesive record, rather than just a collection of a few standalone songs. Maps wasn’t even written with the current incarnation of Mixtapes – Weaver and Rockwell wrote the songs on acoustic guitars before Tymm Rengers, drummer for Detroit pop-punk group Fireworks, decided he wanted to play drums on them.
“I’ve known Fireworks for a while,” Rockwell says, “and I don’t remember why, but they stayed at my house for like three days once. We were hanging out, Maura and I were working on acoustic stuff after a huge game of dodgeball, and Tymm was just like, ‘I’m gonna play drums on these.’ We were like, ‘Oh, okay.’”
Although it surprised Rockwell, Rengers actually did end up calling Mixtapes a short while after to schedule recording time, and it’s a good thing he did – those songs may never have been recorded otherwise.
“I got home from the tour I was on, drove down and they taught me the songs the first day and then I tracked everything the next day,” Rengers recalls. “I didn't really think much of it, to be honest. I thought it was more just a ‘fun thing we did that one time.’ A while later I get an email with the master of the record. I was honestly impressed. I remember showing everyone in Fireworks that evening on a drive and we all agreed that the songs came out great.”
Although Rengers treats the happening fairly lightly – “I will forever hate them for kicking me out of the band,” he jokes – it’s possible that without his assistance, Rockwell and Weaver might still be writing acoustic ditties after working their day jobs in Cincinnati. Given the duo’s history before Mixtapes, it isn't a stretch of the imagination to think so.
An Accidental Beginning
Maura Weaver had never been in a “real” band before Mixtapes – her only musical experience was “playing bullshit Blink-182 covers with some friends” – and Rockwell, jaded with the community he was a part of, had hung up his guitar and was performing in a rap group.
“I was just in so many bands where I liked the music, but was never comfortable with the people or the bands or the indie/underground/punk scene in general,” Rockwell says, explaining his departure from the community. “It wasn’t just everyone else’s fault; it was my fault just as much. I just got tired of it and it left a real bad taste in my mouth, so I met a few guys when I was working at a shoe store and we started recording rap songs, just because it was fun and we didn’t really have to deal with anyone else.”
The rap group, called Small Time Crooks, may have started as a joke in a Journeys shoe store, but it was probably Rockwell’s most significant experience as a performer before Mixtapes. The seven-piece ensemble got the chance to perform with Gym Class Heroes and Kid Cudi, and Rockwell says they recorded over 100 songs over the course of a year.
But Rockwell’s outlook on music, and life in general, changed dramatically in January 2009, when his father passed away the night before his birthday. Rockwell says dealing with his father’s death and watching his mother grieve got him back into writing the kind of music he used to write.
“My dad and I were very close,” Rockwell says. “He passed away the night before my birthday, and it just had such a huge impact on my life. It was hard to see my mom deal with it so I just started writing these songs and they were coming out like crazy, even if they didn't have to always do with that one situation, they were just impactful.”
Rockwell says he reverted to his old songwriting habits, taking influences from his favorite bands like Counting Crows and The Weakerthans. But Mixtapes didn’t take full form until he started writing with Weaver, whom he knew from working together at The Mad Hatter, a popular Cincinnati venue.
Weaver says partnering with Rockwell provided her with a concrete opportunity to create large quantities of music in a more serious and organized fashion than she had done before.
“I spent a ton of time in my room piecing together songs but not much time actually putting anything legitimate together. For a while I was really down about the fact that I was having trouble finding people to be in a ‘serious’ project with, and any motivation I had just seemed to be mine,” Weaver says. “I was lost in the overwhelmingness of feeling alone against the odds and no opportunity to play music seemed like anything really worthwhile.”
Since Rockwell didn’t care about Weaver’s lack of experience in bands, the two were able to bounce tons of ideas off each other and writing came fluidly. His experience and her new ideas created what Rockwell calls a “gimmick-less” songwriting style. Out of those first writing sessions, Maps was born.
When Rockwell talks about those writing sessions, he describes them as “a mess, but in a good way.” The result, for that record and for the numerous Mixtapes releases that have come after it, has been a sound that can’t be pigeonholed by just one genre. Rockwell and Weaver certainly have the voices to pen pop hits, but the band’s repertoire ranges from short, simple acoustic tracks to full-band, gritty pop-punk. For every sing-along hook, there is a punk edge in the production. For every silly song about an ex-girlfriend, there is a darker song about something much more serious.
“We didn’t talk about whether we wanted to be diverse or not. Maps came out good because we had an opportunity to do what we wanted without being scrutinized,” Rockwell says. “There was a lot of accidentalness about it.”
Part of the reason Mixtapes has yet to be thrust into one genre is because of how the communities have changed over the years. To some, bands like Fireworks and The Wonder Years are prominent pop-punk groups. Mixtapes tours with bands like that regularly, so kids in that community have become familiar with the band. On the other hand, fans of older pop-punk bands like Screeching Weasel and the Copyrights, which Rockwell cites as influences (he has a Screeching Weasel tattoo, to boot), have learned to appreciate Mixtapes as well.
“It seems these days everyone is so eager to throw a title on the music they listen to and invest so much of themselves into that said genre,” Rengers says. “Mixtapes seems to really understand that there is a world bigger than the music scene you participate in. It's refreshing to find a band that really doesn't care about what 'entitled' kids on the Internet have to say about them and just do their own thing.”
Sticking out of one genre is due in part to the band’s sound, of course, but also to their extreme do-it-yourself approach to their writing, touring and management. The reason Mixtapes has worked its entire career doing exactly what it has wanted to do is because, for the most part, they’ve done it all themselves.
“Since [Mixtapes’ beginnings], it seems like they have really buckled down and started to take the band seriously,” Rengers says. “Ryan especially has everything orchestrated in his head. I like his ethics and his mentality about approaching this band. No management. No crew. Self-sufficient. It really is the way more bands should be doing it. We have since toured together and it’s great watching their chemistry come to life. They play 15-minute sets with no setlists and they do it all with no shoes on. It's brilliant.”
“I wouldn't have done this any other way than the way we've done it,” Weaver says. “Being without a label has allowed us to do basically whatever we want. I think it's a popular myth that being signed equates success.”
One thing is certain, though: Although Mixtapes’ start-up might have been full of accidents, their rising popularity is anything but. Like Rengers says, the band knows what it’s doing – and its attitude has helped it grow quickly.
10 Releases. No LPs.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Mixtapes’ early career is its astounding collection of songs and releases, all before a proper debut LP. With over 40 songs in its catalog and a total of 10 different releases (if you count a new song contribution to Adeline Records’ The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore compilation), Mixtapes has written enough music for at least three full-length records.
With its material spread out across a variety of splits and EPs, Mixtapes has just never felt it was the right time to record an LP until now. Part of the reason for this is the lack of a true record label to back the band, and a desire to avoid some of the negative aspects that come with certain parts of the music industry.
“Gimmicky bands in general, I just have a distaste for,” Rockwell says, sounding like he’s told this bit to more than one or two people. “Everyone can do their own thing, you know, I’m not the scene police. I just don’t get it. I’ve never sat around with a marketing plan on a major label. Some bands do it around here, but it just seems foreign to me.”
Weaver agrees wholeheartedly with Rockwell, and the fact that the two are on the same page that has helped Mixtapes’ early career take off. She says if Mixtapes had been on a label from the beginning, nothing would have gone quite as well as it did.
“Yes, if you're signed, it's more likely that someone is going to pay for your record to be made and that an ad for your band will end up in some big magazine. When it comes to the politics of the music business, I guess it's also more likely that you're going to end up on a big tour,” Weaver says. “Note the ‘more likely.’ I think if you're making good music and there's easy access to it, people are going to hear it and share it no matter what.”
Weaver’s points have been backed up by Mixtapes’ growing influence. The band has used a unique distribution system; a lot of its music has been given away courtesy of Death To False Hope Records and physical products have been made with Animal Style Records.
Rockwell points to the success of Mixtapes’ physical products as proof that maybe the industry isn’t in as much peril as most people make it seem, especially for independent bands. “We had Maps available for free download on our website for the longest time, and we still sold all of our CDs on tour,” he says. “Kids would tell us they downloaded it but still wanted to buy it to support. It’s good to see that. The CD was also a top-seller on Interpunk for weeks and weeks. Kids could have gotten it for free a click away but still wanted to buy it.”
Mixtapes has built a fair demand for its vinyl releases on Animal Style, but has worked with the label primarily because of its tendency to give the band free reign with its decision-making. They prefer to stick to themselves, doing everything from booking tour dates to scheduling recording times. No managers, no tour managers. Just Mixtapes.
“It's certainly not hard to do things yourself. If anything, it makes things more interesting and gives us a better connection to people who like our band,” Weaver says.
One of the few people who has actually helped Mixtapes throughout the past year or so is Dan “Soupy” Campbell. Best known as vocalist for Philadelphia pop-punk act The Wonder Years, Campbell has taken on a role as an unofficial booking agent for the band. By his own admission, “I'm more of a friend acting as an agent until they blow up and someone with way more influence than me wants to bring them on board.”
But until that happens, Campbell is happy to help the band book shows, and he thinks Mixtapes’ independent attitude has contributed immensely to their modest success.
“Mixtapes literally give zero fucks,” Campbell says, as the adored lyricist sums it up more eloquently than most. “They do whatever they want, whenever they want. They say what they want. They write what they want. They are exclusively themselves and it works well for them.
“I've said a bunch of times that the world is getting tired of being served pre-packaged entertainment. We have the option now to listen to or watch anything we want … Mixtapes have a ton of personality. They're some of the most fun people I've ever met and people attach to that personality. They like that Mixtapes do things their own way.”
As much as Mixtapes has forged its own path with help from close friends at Death To False Hope, Animal Style and The Wonder Years, there arguably comes a time when an unsigned band hits a point where it stalls. Established record labels can provide immense help for growing bands – from distribution to booking bigger tours to advertisement and marketing, a record label could give Mixtapes everything they’ve been doing themselves this whole time, in a more efficient way.
Weaver and Rockwell are the first to admit they’re willing to do what it takes to get their band heard by as many people as possible. Talking with the duo, they have big dreams; much bigger than those an average unsigned band can attain.
“I’m obviously not against being signed, or more people hearing our music,” Weaver says. “I want as many people to hear it as possible. I just think if you're going to jump to a label, you better make sure the offer you're getting is worth it. It was worth waiting for an offer that felt right to us.”
The offer Weaver is referring to is Mixtapes’ decision to partner with California-based independent label No Sleep Records for the release of its full-length later this year. The band’s decision to pair up with No Sleep, Rockwell says, ultimately just came down to a matter of who they trusted and who would let the band continue its familiar ways of going about most of their business on their own.
“We talked to a decent amount of labels, and the main thing was knowing so many people that have worked with Chris [Hanson, owner/president of No Sleep] and knowing he does good work,” Rockwell says. “Some other labels, we know we’d have ideas and there would be red flags. Chris knows we kind of operate on our own. If we signed to a label with a lot of hoops, we would just end up parting ways.”
Although it may seem just a minor detail in the long run, Rockwell points to a specific example for evidence as to why a larger label wouldn’t have worked out for his group. When the band was getting ready to release Maps and Companions on vinyl late in 2011, Rockwell put one of the new songs on an Internet message board for fans to hear and get feedback.
After a short while, the song was floating around the web and Matt Medina, owner of Animal Style, called Rockwell about it. “He just basically called me and said, ‘Did you do this?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Okay.’” Rockwell is correct when he says most labels wouldn’t have been okay with that.
Justin Oscapinski, a longtime friend of Mixtapes who resides in the Philadelphia suburbs, says No Sleep wasn’t just the best fit for Mixtapes – it was the only fit.
“For the entirety of my relationship with Mixtapes, every decision they’ve made has been for the health of their band. There aren’t many bands that have gone on for the period of time that Mixtapes has in accord with their own vision, with no outside influences,” the 24-year-old Oscapinski says. “The honesty in their music and vision is something that [will grow best] with No Sleep.”
A New Venture
With all the changes going on in the Mixtapes camp and a bright hope for continued success in 2012, the one constant that has stayed the same is the band itself. Always willing to say what’s on their mind, even when it may offend others; always being true to themselves and what they want to do; and always doing it how they want to do it, Mixtapes isn’t changing a damn thing despite any increased pressure or expectations that accompany a label signing and a looming LP.
Rockwell and Weaver agreed that writing for the full-length didn’t bring much more pressure than normal. However, the LP will certainly be the first time many listeners discover Mixtapes. With the album coming out on No Sleep, a larger demographic stands to be reached, and although some have listened to this band intently for over a year, many will be listening for the first time later this spring. Much like Into It. Over It.’s Proper, the first “real” full-length is a springboard to greater acclaim.
However, Mixtapes is writing off whatever effect that anticipation comes with. Rockwell repeats many times that he just wants to organize the best possible sequence of songs and make sure that those who hear his band for the first time are hearing his band’s best songs ever.
“I think the first time bands start thinking about signing to this label, or that tour, or what these songs will be like in those places, they mess up because it isn't natural,” Rockwell says. “All we really do is write down our thoughts and put them to music and anytime that isn't real or natural I think people can see that.”
Although it seems idealistic in an industry with so many manufactured parts, Rockwell and Weaver write purely as an outlet, instead of something planned or pre-organized. In fact, nothing is ever really planned. Whatever patterns are seen in the band’s writing is just characteristic of the writers themselves; they never stop writing, and it all comes out in tidal waves.
“I just know that one thing I like about us is that we never ‘tried’ to be something from the beginning, so it always seems easy to write. We don't have some standard we have to fit because we made our own,” Weaver says. “I just know that whenever I've sat up at night thinking about what this person or that person thinks or says about me or my music, that's the second it starts showing when I write and it doesn't make for easy, or good, writing. Or even easy living.”
Despite their dislike for gimmicky bands or anything manufactured, Mixtapes has developed something of a reputation for themselves in some ways. For one, the band’s music is almost always bright, cheery and catchy. Whether it comes out in the form of an acoustic number with an underlying guitar part or a full-band jam with a hook-laden chorus, a pop accessibility is stressed in every Mixtapes release.
For every grungy crust-punk who listens to the band because of their DIY attitude and punk edges, there is somebody’s girlfriend, who knows nothing about punk rock but who just happens to like the wittiness of the lyrics in “Hey Baby.” But that’s not a gimmick – that’s just how Mixtapes turned out.
Also known for “getting weird” at live shows, according to Rockwell’s own phrasing, Mixtapes has also strangely cornered itself into another classification. As can be seen by the band’s personal stories and how Rockwell and Weaver use their writing as an emotional outlet, many of the band’s songs have somber lyrics that directly contrast their bright musicianship.
“Most of the songs come from sad places but also involve a lot of looking at things from a different perspective and making yourself feel better,” Rockwell says, reflecting his outlooks on life. “The content is some of the same ideas as [previous releases], but every time Maura or I brought an idea to the table, we just wanted to make it the best we could. Then when we all got together we'd just make sure everything was perfect and we were happy with it. It's cool being in a band with three other people that make music that you'd like to listen to, then you are like ‘Oh hey, this is my band.’”
The group is planning on recording 19 tracks for the full-length, with a rough concept of including about 13 on the release. The rest will be kept as B-sides or perhaps turned into a future EP release.
“At the beginning stages of writing [the new record], Ryan told me he knew exactly where he wanted it to go with it,” Oscapinski says. “He never said anything about experimenting with different sounds or changing the writing process. Mixtapes’ vision of the full-length is a reflection of the band and how far they have come. The only difference was the desire to release a cohesive piece of art.”
While for many bands, a first LP is, in a way, a lifetime in the making, the same does not hold true for Mixtapes. With so many songs and different projects before this band, this is a case where the songs had to come together in a normal timeframe. As a result, the lyrical content presents something of a slice of the band’s personal lives – and a lot of it comes from darker places. Many of Rockwell’s lyrics are about his recent personal trials and how they’ve shed a light on the rest of life’s everyday problems.
“I've dealt with death the past few years more than anyone I know, and it sucks, but it also puts things in perspective. For me, instead of just being bitter, all these people that have passed away have helped me rationalize actual life and made me realize how most normal things aren't a big deal,” Rockwell says.
“We worry about so many things and complain when really most of it is fine and will get better, so it's a bittersweet mood to a lot of the songs. Traumatic things in your life, at least for me, helped me realize, like, ‘Hey, there are these five things I really care about, and they might not be the same as what you care about, but that's okay, that keeps the world going around for better or for worse.’ ... Personally, I’ve never been the type to write about girls all the time or anything. It came to a point a few years ago where I had these favorite records that all seemed to be concept records about girls breaking up with you. But when people close to you pass away, you realize that a lot of that stuff isn’t really that big of a deal.”
Weaver empathizes strongly with Rockwell's sentiments, but she also writes in themes more common to the punk community.
“I guess the content for each song just depends on how we were feeling at the time – some are apathetic, super passionate, or an attempt to make sense of the two,” she says. “As for the whole album, a lot of [my] lyrics deal with feeling disenfranchised in our town but express pride in what we've made here and how we've grown as people. It's just about growing up.”
If those themes sound familiar, it’s because they probably are. To Weaver’s own admission, the concepts of growing up in a boring town and trying to get out of it, and by extension feeling disenfranchised in a place one used to call home, are fairly common among Midwestern punk bands. “Living in, not necessarily a smaller town, but there’s kind of a stigma where people who live [in the Midwest] don’t necessarily fit in with the larger culture,” Weaver says, choosing her words carefully. “Lots of things make me feel super out of place. People who like The Wonder Years like us – they write about stuff like that a lot. Punk bands like Dear Landlord and Banner Pilot, they all write about all that too.”
As dark as the band’s lyrical content can be at times, their positive vibes spread wildly throughout their music and energy at live shows. And, as always, there will be a few songs that err to the side of being sillier or more cheerful than the rest of the pack. For example, Rockwell mentions songs about “getting arrested in a parking lot” or “sitting under a bridge with someone and trying to rationalize life.” It’s that balance, and the band’s genuine, chin-up outlook, that will keep them afloat through 2012 and beyond, even when the going gets tough.
Whatever they’re singing about, the one common ground the two songwriters came back to is how much they already love their own record. Weaver and Rockwell consistently went back to talking about how the other was writing songs much better than everything they had written before – and at the end of the day, they just want people to give it a chance.
“I just want people to hear it and come to a show and be our friends. We like to hang out and meet people who can relate to any of the same things as us. I think we have managed to get where we are because we just write these songs, play shows, and meet people and become friends,” Rockwell says. “There is no cool factor to our band – we are who we are and that's it. We don't have an image or a style. We just want to be your friend, and sing you songs.”
Although that sentiment might be so vague it seems cliché, Weaver and Rockwell really don’t want anything else. They don’t really seem to need anything else, either. When Weaver goes on a rant about not fitting into a specific scene, and therefore not having concrete goals for the record (“Maybe if we use more auto tune? Or should we use less? What does the scene want?”), she debates the merits of selling 10,000 copies of the new album and saving up to “buy fingernail clippers” and getting sponsored by Walgreens.
“People can tell when they hear your music, whether it’s sincere or not. It’s only when I’m sitting in my room and listening to a record I like that the writing comes. You can’t be thinking about the people who like your band and the anticipation they have for what you’re writing – it doesn’t make for good writing,” Weaver says. “When you’re listening to the record, and you can tell that the band really fucking believes in what they’re saying, that’s you’re going to care about it more.”
As down-to-Earth as they might be in person and as silly as they might be on stage; as sarcastic as they might be on Twitter and as accidental as their conception might have been, Weaver and Rockwell do have a lot to say. And they just want everyone to hear it.