As a junkie to his fix, as Santa to milk and cookies and chimneys, so is Andy Cirzan to Christmas music. The 57-year-old Chicago native has been making influential mixtapes (his 2014 mix has just been posted) for more than two decades and, for the last 15 years or so, has been making annual appearances on Chicago radio to spin holiday music that most humans never knew existed. He keeps on digging and digging and digging, and somehow he keeps managing to sift out the gems from the vast winter-wonder-wasteland.
Cirzan recently appeared in the new documentary Jingle Bell Rocks!, which traces the spiritual (really) journey of filmmaker Mitchell Kezin as he tries to make sense out of his life through holiday music. Cirzan never planned to become one of the world's foremost collectors (his archive numbers in the thousands of records) and authorities on the genre. Fortunately for those who share his love of the best of seasonal sounds, his obsession had other ideas.
Gimme Noise: OK, so where does this begin with you? When did you first realize you had a Christmas music problem?
Andy Cirzan: It's not necessarily a problem specifically, but at times it could be. I've decided I'm going to accomplish the task of putting out an annual mix that gets exponentially bigger every year. And with expectations being what they are, and the blogosphere being what it is...it didn't start out with that goal in mind, so I have to face it. So that part is a problem. But the basic concept is just something I like doing it.
The beginning came out of when I was a kid. My parents had the holiday samplers and all that stuff that was all over the place back then in the '70s. As a kid, there was no way I thought about Christmas without music. I was a musician growing up, started violin in second grade, violin in orchestra, and I still dabble in that. And music is what I do for a living. The mixtape culture was a big part of my life. There was a point in time where you'd gather up your favorite records and stack them up and record them to a cassette. You'd do thematic things and give them out to friends. It was a big part of the culture in the '70s. I did it all the time and had friends who did it too.
When the holiday thing wore off, when you have to leave childhood behind and live some quasi-adult life, it's just not the same. You would think as a kid, "This is so great! Let's play that record! The A&M records holiday comp, the one with Herb Alpert on it!" It was kind of inappropriate for a teenager to be into that. But then I started collecting vinyl. I always bought records and never stopped. I would go to vinyl shows and make it my business to build a pretty big vinyl archive of old jazz and blues stuff. Every once in a while in my crate-digging mania I'd come across some odd-looking records in whatever genre. I started to grab a few of them. Sometimes I'd buy stuff just for the album cover, not just Christmas albums. I was looking for psych-rock and jazz LPs.
But then when I had enough Christmas-related stuff I decided to make a mixtape. This was 27 years ago or so. I did it on cassette. And it kind of sucked. It was lame. I had the same idea then as I do now: It's not about a genre; it's about a concept. It could be jazz-based, blues-based, pop; it could be a children's record, it could be super serious. As long as it's tied into the concept of the holidays, I was into it. That's the one thing that separated what I was doing from the idea of the compilation that had always come out. Those were more genre specific: Christmas blues, Christmas jazz.
The first guy that really led the way in this whole thing is a guy named Eddie G. [producer and writer Eddie Gorodetsky]. The concept that he had was a template for a lot of people. So I give him all props. I was monkeying around with this stuff before then, but that was the first time I saw someone else was doing it, with the same idea. It doesn't have to be all about jazz or blues or a single genre.
When you say that first mix sucked, what sucked about it?
I was working with the records I had. I wasn't actively going after them. That whole part of it came into play probably about three or four years later. By that time, I was basically -- it was so crazy that I had my cassette dub device in my bedroom and I would sit there all night, copy, go lay down, copy, wake up, copy, go lay down. At a certain point I couldn't do it anymore, so I farmed it out to some guys who could duplicate the tapes.
Eventually it became something bigger than just me trying to amuse myself and my friends. I could either walk away from it or I could figure out if I want to pursue it at the level that it seemed headed towards. And I do. In my mind these songs are great musical statements. Whether they are silly or super serious, they are primarily not in the canon of holiday music, which is almost completely populated on a mass-appeal level with some of the worst shit I've every heard. Why are the great songs rolling around in the dust bin of time? I knew why, and I had the opportunity to do something about it.
When Chicago public radio, ten years ago or so, decided to actually post my mix online for download, that was when it kicked in. Now I could do what I really want to do: Put these songs in circulation, whether someone tapes them from the radio or downloads the CD, which is free of course. Every once in a while when I'm bored I'll look at holiday blogs to see what other people are doing, and I'll see songs from my mixes on their blogs. Some guy made a mix of "Andy's Greatest Hits." And that's OK. Now the songs are out there. A dialogue has started about holiday music and what it could be. It doesn't just have to be a diet of what you're fed by the music machine. There's a subculture there, just like every other kind of music.
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What's interesting about holiday music is that a label might release a Bessie Smith recording of a Christmas song, and it's promoted that year, or for a short time around the holidays, and maybe people are going to buy it, but then the holidays are over. Nobody wants to hear it. When someone's looking for a rare blues or R&B artist, they aren't trying to dig up the great Christmas song.
Christmas songs are something that any artist can keep in their back pocket, and roll it out when they're having a career slump. The record company might say, "It's time to do your Christmas album, because the new material you sent us sucks." It's there, and it's almost guaranteed to sell X amount of copies. I don't pay that much attention to that part of things. Almost everything I'm doing is not off an album. It's off a 45. This year's mix is almost all off 45. Maybe one track is from an album.
Back then, even up until the mid '70s or so, no one was letting an unknown artist make an entire album of Christmas material. To move that kind of a record you have to be an artist of a certain stature already. When an artist gets to that level I'm not even interested. I don't think I have a single artist on this year's compilation that people would even know.
My thing is: Did this person go all in on the track? They aren't trying to have a pop hit. It's more, "This is my song about Christmas. It's maybe the only record I'm going to put out." That's what I'm looking for. I'm pretty knowledgeable, but sometimes I'll find something, and I've never even heard of the label or the person or the song. So I'm going to check it out. The attrition rate is ridiculous. For every twenty records I actually buy, just like anything else, 90 percent of them suck. It can be frustrating. You think it's going to be perfect, but I have no idea what I'm looking for. I'm not looking for any artist on any label. I'm so far past that. I don't even have a wish list.
It's a crapshoot. The only way to do is it is to look at a physical piece of vinyl and say, "Looks right, I'm going to take leap on it." And shit, it's only two bucks or a buck or a dime. And then you take them home and realize that most of them are terrible. But sometimes you say, "Whoa, hold on." And it goes in the inbox.
The new movie, Jingle Bell Rocks!, follows filmmaker Mitchell Kezin through his relationship to Christmas and to Christmas music, specifically the song "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot." And what's nice about it is that it isn't so much about being just a collector, a crate digger, but it's about someone who has an emotional drive to resolve or make sense out of his life through the music. It's a bit Oedipal in Kezin's case, because of his relationship to his father, but it rings true. My question is: Do you see any of yourself in that story?
Uh, no. [Laughs] Mitchell is a real character, let me tell you. You want me to talk about the film?
Out of the blue I get this call. He says, "My name is Mitchell, I'm making this film about holiday music. I know about you and what you do, and I'm wondering if you'd be willing to participate in the movie." That was years ago. The number of shoots that went on in the early days, there's so much footage on the floor. I hope that a bonus disc comes out. There's some amazing stuff that I was involved in, going to record conventions and crate digging, and talking about music. But at the end of the day you have to make a movie that is going to resonate and is going to be concise.
Crate digging is a lonely pursuit. Watching a guy fumble around looking for records -- talk about a niche! Early on I thought, "I hope this guy can get this movie made. He's so committed to it." His tenacity and wanting to go after stuff made me want to help him make his movie. I got my nose in there in a couple of things. I'm friends with the Flaming Lips. Wayne [Coyne] and I know each other. I told Wayne that he should talk to Mitchell. That kind of thing. I gave him access to film from the WBEZ sessions and whatnot. I still knew the challenges Mitchell was facing. At some point the film changed from being about record collectors into this theme. My first reaction was, "This is a good thing." There was something that could connect the dots for people who are not necessarily so disturbingly into this micro-niche of music. It's more about a story, a guy's journey and how Christmas music played an integral role.
You were saying before, and it's been said by others, that the worst music of all is bad Christmas music (I think it's actually bad Columbus Day music), but maybe the best music is great Christmas music. Is there really anything in popular music more sublime than Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" or Phil Spector's Christmas album? I'm wondering if discovering new Christmas songs, or records you've never heard before, if it's partly about that for you. A Christmas record that's really good shines more brightly because of how much dreck is out there.
I can only say, not really for me, because I've been involved in music and the industry for a long time, and I've been a record geek since day one. I get just as big a kick out of finding an obscure psych-rock track from the mid '60s. "That's fucking awesome. I never knew this thing existed!" The difference for me is that when I find a holiday gem I know I'm going to get to share it with people. I get an extra personal boost out of that. I cannot wait to play it on my radio shows and put it in on my mix so everyone else can hear it.
I want these songs to live another life. The listeners can be the judge of that. That's the end game.
So desert island time: If you could only take one Christmas record to the island, what would it be?
I wouldn't use the desert-island analogy, but if it's one record I hope to one day find, it's the Esquivel Christmas stuff. You might be familiar with him, but I don't know if you've heard the Christmas stuff. It's these spectacular arrangements of holiday classics, turned upside, put through a psychedelic washing machine by this guy. You can find it on CD online. But I've never seen the record. When I said I'm never looking for a specific record, I'm always looking for that one in the back of my mind. If I ever find it, I'll fall over.
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