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Influenced: Erin Wolf Revisits Her Favorite Mixtapes

Jul. 18, 2014
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You might know Erin Wolf as the music director and DJ for 91.7 WMSE, or perhaps you know her as a member of Altos and Hello Death. Or maybe you’ve attended a show booked by her and Brandon Malacara. Whatever the case may be, Erin Wolf has made endless contributions to Milwaukee music over the last 10 years and continues to do so. For this edition of Influenced, Erin talked with us about the format that introduced her to some of her favorite music, the mixtape.

What are some of your earliest memories of music?

Growing up I was really into a lot of the pop and top 40 stuff, which is typical when you’re eight or nine years old. Around the same time, I started getting pretty into the grunge thing. My older brother was a big influence on me, too, and we discovered music in the same way, which was through MTV and radio. We weren’t technically allowed to watch MTV or VH1, but we’d do that when our parents weren’t around. Even bigger than that, though, was New Rock 102.1. That was inadvertently my introduction to mixtapes.

You’re quite fortunate, too, as the state of radio in southeastern Wisconsin around that time was pretty great.

Yeah, totally. Oldies 95.7 was actually oldies radio and played '50s and '60s pop, which I loved, but then you also had the opportunity to listen to classical radio like WFMR. So between those two and New Rock 102.1, I did a lot of radio listening.

Of course. New Rock 102.1 was great back then, too. It’s kinda crazy thinking about the sort of stuff you’d hear on commercial radio back then. Like I remember hearing stuff like Dinosaur Jr.’s “Feel the Pain” on there when I was a kid.

That’s such a great song! But yeah, exactly... It was just a great time and it seemed like everyone was kind of tuned into it all, so when you went to school and you’re hanging out between classes or at lunch or whatever, you’re talking about music. It was everywhere. I was in track and cross country, and even like in the weight room there was music playing. I remember hearing stuff like Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots in there and thinking it was cool, but it was probably just an adrenaline rush [laughs].

Was it really everywhere?

Honestly, it was. Music and movies and pop culture had this really amazing synergy for a few years there in the early '90s. They all became a huge part of youth culture and the lives of adolescents around that time. Movies that were successful also had equally successful soundtracks-like Clerks and Empire Records and Romeo and Juliet. I remember seeing that movie and buying the soundtrack and stuff, but also reading Romeo and Juliet in English class at the time. For me personally it was a really interesting time where it seemed like everything seemed to line up. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think a lot of people who grew up then had pretty similar experiences.

You mentioned earlier that your introduction to making mixtapes was through listening to the radio?

Yeah. I spent a lot of time listening to the radio while reading or doing homework or whatever, so I developed a knack for dubbing stuff off the radio and putting songs back to back. And I would tape stuff from my dad’s record collection like the Beatles and whatnot, too. I got really into Simon and Garfunkel through that, too. Listening to music and reading is one of my favorite things to do, so I did a lot of that and made tapes while doing so.

So what in particular do you remember taping off the radio at that time?

I was into like “weirder” stuff, or at least what I considered to be weirder. I remember digging Tori Amos around that time. I liked her piano playing a lot and I thought her songs had this really haunting kind of feel to them. Like that song “God” especially, I remember being really into that. All of that girl band stuff was getting big around then, too, like Belly and Garbage and the Breeders.

When did your tastes start to develop?

After graduating high school in '98, I moved to Milwaukee for college and started working at County Clare. Working in kitchens is awesome for hearing new music. My coworkers introduced me to a lot of new music and made me tapes and stuff. One of my coworkers made me a tape of Ida’s “I Know About You” and Compound Red’s “Always a Pleasure." The Compound Red side was cool because they were local, but what really resonated with me was the Ida record. I remember listening to it over at home on Thanksgiving break from college. I was a sophomore, kinda going through the typical things you go through at that age, kinda had the winter blues and whatnot, and that album was perfect. It was really introspective music that spoke to me at that moment, and I had never really heard much like that at that time.

Was hearing music like Ida kind of a shift from listening to a lot of the '90s alternative stuff?

I think we all go through phases in relation to what we want to hear, and during high school, I loved stuff that was really loud and energetic, be it alternative or pop or whatever. Around the time of hearing Ida, I started being drawn more to things of that nature after listening to louder stuff for so long. It comes and goes in waves, at least with me. I think now my tastes are something of a hybrid of both loud and quiet sounds.

How do you feel about those sort of unspoken mixtape “rules," such as no two songs by the same artist, etc?

I wasn’t even aware of those [laughs]. I would never follow any kind of rules in that regard; I was way more concerned with how things sounded overall. Like what kind of emotion or feeling am I getting from this, or if it sounded good at a certain spot, then it would be included. It was simple, just like “well I like this and I hope you like this too."

Do you approach your DJ sets in the same way?

Absolutely. I’ve been doing it for nearly ten years now, and only a few times have I had sets that were planned out. It’s more fun for me that way, it’s more active and involved. I don’t really like planning things when it comes to artistic endeavors, whether its playing music or DJing, there’s something really fun about doing it on the fly.

Did you think the effort kind of died when CDs came around?

I don’t think so. You search through things and you see if things work and click and drag and stuff, so there’s still some effort there. It takes less time because of not having to play the entirety of each song, but there was still that element of craftsmanship there when it came to good mixes. I used to be a part of a mixtape club with Michael Seidel and Brian Kirk and Brandon Malacara. We’d each make a mix and trade them with one another. By that point, I think cassettes were more or less obsolete, so everyone made CDs because everyone was able to play them.

In your opinion, what makes for a good mixtape?

I like mixes that are all over the place, too (like the one I made), but have this specific feeling to it. It takes a lot more effort to make something like this because you can't get caught up in rules. It's more visual in that the songs on the mix have to belong to the same color palette. While I like mixes that are made especially for me, with my tastes in mind (and also have familiar songs, mixed tastefully in), the mixes I've liked most are ones where I get caught off guard by something I might have kind of heard a bit about, but never made a point to explore on my own accord. I usually end up being wholeheartedly into those artists after hearing them on a mix.

What are some of the best artists that you’ve discovered through mixtapes?

A lot of stuff that I’m still really into, actually, like Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, The Sundays. I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot, but those are what come to mind immediately.

Are there specific mixes you’ve received that you’ve particularly enjoyed? Made for others?

Aside from that Ida/Compound Red tape, a few that come to mind:

—a mix of all New Zealand indie artists

—a mix of all local music which was made for me by an intern at Rock 102.1 in the late 90s

—a mix of dance music that Haven at WMSE made for me

—pretty much any mix from the mixtape club crew. There was so much good indie pop on those. Plus all of Brian Kirk's Bus Stop Label mixes that he’s made me.

One of the favorite mixes I ever made for someone wasn't very concentrated by genre, artist or anything, it was just labeled "wintry mix" and had a lot of snowy, blizzardy sounding songs on it (some black metal stuff, some stripped down folk stuff, Mogwai, Sigur Ros, Human Bell etc). It never got to the person, actually, but I’m pretty sure I still have it in my iTunes, though.

With your busy schedule, do you find time to still make mixes?

I make mixes for the car, like if I have a longer drive to do, I’ll make myself a mix or two. More than that, though, I make mixes for people who no longer live here and send them through the mail. Those friends that I used to do a lot of sharing with, it’s a way of keeping up with them even though they aren’t close in proximity. It’s like having a conversation through music in a sense.

Even though the cassette and CD are in some ways things of the past, do you feel like the concept of the mixtape is something that will continue to thrive?

I think there’s always going to be people that want to share music with other people and the mix is a great platform for that as its completely customizable. The assembling of it is really exciting and receiving one is exciting. It’s an accessible way to introduce people into things you like. Everybody wants to be a radio DJ, and the perfect way to do that without actually being one is to make a mix tape.

Erin Wolf’s Rockleidoscope Show can be heard on 91.7 FM WMSE Tuesdays from 12:30-3 p.m.


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