Alex’s Def Jams

Aug 01, 2012 By Alex Brown Church
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I did my last Sea Wolf tour supporting the 2nd Sea Wolf album, White Water, White Bloom, in Germany in December 2010.  It was a solo acoustic tour, and I was out there by myself supporting a Danish band called Kashmir, whom I'd never met before. They were all great guys, and it was a lot of fun overall, but I got a little bit of the tour-blues just before the very last show in Hamburg. 

The show was the 5th floor of this giant building that was built during WWII as an air raid bunker for the citizens of the city. It was an amazing cement hulk of a building, and we (my tour manager Nicole and I) were given the full tour by the promoter. For the grand finale of the tour, he took us up to the roof. It was dark and icy and blizzarding, but there was this incredible 360 view of the city. Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was that I'd been on tour for too long by myself, or maybe it was that I knew this was going to be the last show for a long time, but despite the view and the fascinating historic building, I suddenly felt lonely and homesick and sad all at once.
The memory of that night in Hamburg struck me the other day when I'd dug up an old mix tape. I think I was probably in 6th or 7th grade when I made it (or a friend made it). I was primarily listening to hip hop at the time. I lived outside of a small town in rural northeastern California until I was eight, and when I moved to 'the big city' (Berkeley) I was introduced to hip hop. Thereafter I became obsessed with the genre.  

That was in the late 80's. Hip hop's popularity was exploding in urban areas but hadn't yet spilled into the suburbs and beyond. It wasn't really played on the radio (in the Bay Area, at least) outside of a few specialty, late-night programs, but otherwise it was just something you knew from your friends passing tapes around. Erik B and Rakim, EPMD, BDP, Public Enemy and the Native Tongues (De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, JB's) were my favorites. But I had tons of tapes.  Mostly east coast rap. Slick Rick, Doug E Fresh, MC Shan, Steady B, Audio Two, Kool Moe Dee, Stetsasonic, Whodini, Run DMC, T La Rock, Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Ultramagnetic MC's, Mantronix, Dana Dane, Big Daddy Kane… The list goes on.

Over the years, going from cassettes to CDs to MP3s, almost all of my old tapes disappeared, my taste shifted away from hip hop, and finally my tape deck was gone. Then one day while recording the new Sea Wolf album, Old World Romance, I got into a conversation about old cassettes with Zac Rae (who helped out with the recording here and there). He said he'd recently bought some old Wendy Carlos tapes at a garage sale and had rediscovered his tape deck, and we talked about how nostalgic and cool tapes were in general. I got all excited to revisit my own tape collection and decided to buy a tape deck. 

I'd known tapes had been having a mini-revival for a while, so I wasn't sure if finding a used deck would be easy. But it was. I found an old Sony cassette deck for $30 on Craigslist, and then dug out the last of my dwindling tape collection. First I played some tapes of old songs I'd written and recorded on a 4-track. We're talking 12-14 years old.  Embarrassingly bad. I quickly moved on to the old hip hop. Holy shit. So good. I know I once had a lot of tapes that were better, much better, and was sad that I no longer had those. But nonetheless, the nostalgia hit me like the clichéd ton of bricks.

I was swept back to that time, that age, that place, how it felt and how it was the first time I was really, overwhelmingly excited by music. Hip hop was so new and fresh and exciting and different from anything I'd heard before, and was still new enough that all my new "big city" friends were as excited about it as I was. Even though I don't listen to a lot of hip hop anymore, I still owe it a debt of acknowledgment. It was a primary reason I went on to become a musician.  

Back in Hamburg, after we'd come down from the roof we went back to the greenroom. I went into the bathroom to soak my freezing hands in hot water at the sink and to collect my thoughts. I remember feeling discouraged by my sudden loneliness, and thinking, "I hope I can get over this and put on a good show." Then, just as I was turning to leave, I saw something that would change my night around completely. There on the bathroom door, was a tag in thick black marker, by one of my all-time heroes, KRS-One, from Boogie Down Productions. Reading what it said, and knowing he'd only been there a few weeks before me, I suddenly felt all the weight and worry disappear. I felt like that middle schooler again, excited and awed by music and at (it's a little sappy, I admit) the wonder of life. I realized where I was. In Hamburg, Germany, about to play a show in front of a sold out crowd. It cheered me up no end.





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August 1st 2012

Thanks - loved reading your entry.

Ann Ireland
August 1st 2012

I love this, Alex. So evocative of time and place and memory, and how they all sweep together at such random moments.

August 15th 2012

simply beautiful. i love going through my drawer of cassettes… and listening to the mix tapes.

November 13th 2012

Alex- I think I may still have one of your mix tapes if I dig deep sad to see you had a show in sf recently..would love to make it next time around.