Whenever Rockwell and Maura Weaver, Mixtapes’ guitarist/vocalist and Rockwell’s songwriting partner, would hit on a particularly resonant tune, they would then relegate it to a slush pile of material for an album they intended to serve as their full-length debut.
“The songs weren’t all written at once, but it’s cohesive because we had what we wanted in mind the whole time,” says Rockwell over burritos at The Comet in Northside. “It still sounds like Mixtapes, just a better version. Every band’s going to say that the new album is the best album, but I feel like the fact we had songs written almost a year ago shows that I’m not just saying that because it’s the new stuff. We went with the best ones.”
Mixtapes’ song bank proved to be an effective strategy. Even on the Worst Nights, the Pop/Punk quartet’s first proper full-length album and their debut for the No Sleep label, was recently released to a good deal of critical acclaim as well as the unexpected and welcomed news that Worst Nights had cracked Billboard’s Heatseekers chart.
Predictably, not everyone was impressed.
“A lot of our older songs are shorter, and there are longer ones on this album,” Rockwell says. “A few people online were like, ‘Oh, longer songs, bigger label …’ And I’m like, ‘That was written before the album you thought was great.’ ”
Even on the Worst Nights amplifies all of the infectious seriocomic Pop/Punk energy that Mixtapes has exhibited over the past two years; the title track, the album’s first single, has the potential to be a Green Day-like summer car radio anthem. And just like the past two years, none of Worst Nights was planned to any great extent.
“We‘re definitely not one of those bands that thinks about, ‘We need to sound like this or do this,’ ” Rockwell says.
“It was more in the time we had. Our previous EPs, it was literally ‘We’ve got to record six songs in three days.’ This time, we were signed to a bigger label, they gave us a budget and we had all of January.”
Through a string of excellent EPs, most available early on via free download, one of Mixtapes’ most captivating qualities was the dynamic created by the guy/girl vocals of Rockwell and Weaver. Typically, the duo establishes their vocal roles in the songwriting process but there’s no set formula for who does what.
“Maura was the better singer and still is, but I don’t care because I like to sing,” Rockwell says with a laugh. “We split it up evenly, but we don’t do it to the point of ‘I should sing this part because you sang that part.’ We just do what’s best. It usually just happens naturally, and we realize ‘OK, this is how this should go.’ ”
Before Mixtapes, Rockwell found himself disillusioned with the Punk/Hardcore scene and started a Rap group called Small Time Crooks. But the death of his father forced Rockwell into an intensely reflective songwriting mode.
“I started writing these serious songs that became Maps,” Rockwell says. “How much I cared about the situation is what really stepped up my songwriting. It was like, ‘These songs are for my dad, they have to be perfect,’ so there was a lot of rewriting. It’s kind of bittersweet. Any success we’re having right now wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t gone through that. Mixtapes wouldn’t be a band. It’s weird to think about that. I guess it’s just me trying to think on the positive side.”
When these songs began to surface, Rockwell thought that female harmonies might be a nice counterpoint, and his friend Josh Condon was dating Weaver and introduced them; their creative chemistry was immediate. At first, Rockwell and Weaver intended to do Mixtapes as an acoustic duo, but Rockwell’s friend, Fireworks drummer Tymm Rengers, suggested that the songs needed a rhythmic kick. Mixtapes morphed into an actual band with a solid rhythm section, incorporating influences like Screeching Weasel, The Weakerthans and Rockwell’s self-avowed favorite band, Counting Crows. All they lacked was a clear vision of what might happen next.
“After Maps was done, we said, ‘Let’s play a local show or two,’ ” Rockwell says. “We started getting tour offers and we were getting downloads in the thousands. Maura had literally just started UC, I was working at the Mad Hatter, and we were like, ‘Let’s go for it.’ Maura dropped out of college and I quit. There was no plan. (The rhythm section) had to quit; it wasn’t on bad terms, but it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not really what we want to do.’ ”
In short order, Rockwell and Weaver added bassist Michael Remley and drummer Boone Haley and began pursuing a serious amount of touring opportunities; this past spring they embarked on full U.S. tours with Set Your Goals, Cartel, Fireworks and Hit the Lights, and they’re preparing for a two-week European jaunt. And while Worst Nights is being marketed by No Sleep through more conventional commercial channels, Mixtapes just posted a 40-minute jam recording titled Songs to Start a Revolution for free download on their site (www.mixtapesohio.com).
Rockwell’s stints with Small Time Crooks, Black Tie Bombers and other bands have all been marked by a certain reticence for the spotlight, perhaps fueled by a dread of failure, or success, or both. So far, Mixtapes has been Rockwell’s most high-profile band and he shows no signs of retreat.
“I’d be in bands and we’d start to do good and I would just quit,” Rockwell says. “It would always stress me out because I don’t like all the attention, I just like writing songs. With this band, it’s been easier not to feel that way. Maybe it’s just because of the nature of the songs. I can be happy with what we have now, because we‘re lucky, you know?” ©
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