Many musicians will tell you that songwriting can be an unpredictable process. A song may take weeks, or even years to complete. However, the members of Sad Boi Mix Tapes are used to being on a time crunch.
Miriam “Mim” Stoner, Isaac Gamoran, and Noah Stieglitz are all students at Macalester College, where they recently competed in the 24-hour performance art competition, Macroburst. This is the first year that the college has held this particular competition. For the past two years, the school has hosted a 24-hour songwriting competition called Funkathon.
The three students, who have all been friends since their freshman year at Macalester, decided to join forces to tackle this all-night songwriting saga and compete under the name Sad Boi Mix Tapes.
They stopped by Macalester College’s radio station, WMCN, to perform their finished product, “Shapes,” and talk with me about the process of writing it. You can listen to this live recording of “Shapes,” using the player above.
Colleen Cowie: You wrote the song “Shapes” as part of Macroburst. Do you want to explain what Macroburst is and how it got started?
Noah Stieglitz: Yeah, sure. This is the first year that it’s called Macroburst, actually, it used to be called Funkathon. It’s basically just to get together with friends and record a song in 16 or less hours. This year instead of recording it we performed it, which was cool.
CC: Yeah, it used to be called Funkathon and it was just dedicated to music, and now it’s just about performing arts in general. So this year the entries were a lot more varied in their approach. One group created a children’s book, some were more performance art-based; there’s always a big mix. And you all had done Funkathon before, right?
NS: All three years!
CC: But your group has changed up over the years?
Miriam “Mim” Stoner: We’ve had various permutations of the group. One year we were called Bleeding Kansas.
NS: Yeah, our name is better this year.
CC: Did you have a different approach going into this year since it was not just music-focused, but rather based on performance? Did you think about incorporating other elements, or did you go in thinking that you were going to record a song for this year?
MS: I think we were really looking to make a song. That’s really where are strengths were. We toyed with the idea of maybe doing some type of performance or video to go with it, but that was going to be extra, after we got a good song nailed down.
NS: Isaac had the idea of doing tap [dancing], but they didn’t want us to tap on the stage. So that part wasn’t incorporated.
I think that something we did go in with was that we didn’t really have a lot of instrumentation. Miriam is the one who is very talented at an instrument, so we just had to be creative in other ways.
Isaac Gamoran: I would say that it was a lot of us figuring out what made the most sense. I play guitar, Noah plays banjo, I play piano. But all of those instrumentations are maybe less confident than Miriam with guitar, so we used our strong suits and rolled with them. We also combined a lot of different music styles throughout the process, [such as] musical theater and a capella.
MS: I have a singer-songwriter/folk background, so that’s what I brought to the table mostly.
NS: I wasn’t quite as specific.
MS: Noah was the glue.
CC: This folk influence is something that I heard in your song from Bleeding Kansas, one of your earlier Funkathon groups. The song “Bodies” [by Bleeding Kansas] definitely had the same cohesive, folk, narrative, poetic feel to it, so it definitely seems like you have an established sound.
Did you have a different approach also, because this year was the first year that they introduced the idea of a theme into Macroburst? Before, there really was no prompt to it; you could just go in and create whatever you wanted in 24 hours, and this year they added a theme to it. This year’s theme was “stories.” It was pretty open-ended, but all of the groups had to create something that related somehow to this theme of stories. What was your reaction to this theme?
NS: Honestly I thought about the theme like 0.5% of the time. I didn’t really think about the theme very much, to be honest.
MS: I got kind of freaked out because my style of songwriting isn’t very clearly narrative-driven. I guess through the course of the night we started thinking about narratives in a different way, more in terms of how the listener makes a story from the images that they’re given. So that’s kind of the direction we went in with stories.
IG: And also our song really combines a lot of themes that we’ve all been thinking about this year, like where we’re going and what we believe in, and what things we can hold on to as we move through these transitions.
I think we were all pretty nervous about having a theme and didn’t really want to [have one], and we had no clue how we would incorporate it into what we were doing. But I think “stories” was a really, really awesome theme. It was much more open-ended than some others would have been, so that really helped us in dealing with the theme and using it to our advantage.
CC: Macroburst is a 24-hour competition, which is pretty intense. It’s pretty unique in the way of songwriting, it’s not something that I would do a lot of the time. What have your experiences been like doing this competition, because it can be pretty grueling — some teams stay up, some get sleep — what has your approach been, in how you tackle this massive event?
NS: Sleep. We go to bed. I think we got five or six hours. That was going into it, a requirement for us.
MS: I think starting out, the beginning of the night is the scariest part, because we’re starting with nothing. There’s a scramble to see if we can come up with anything before it gets too late. After that we got over the hump and things started getting exciting, we started adding lyrics to pieces of melody, and things started coming together and we were more excited about things. Probably around midnight or 1 o’clock.
IG: I think it was easy to shut down ideas early because you don’t feel like you have an idea until it’s done, a lot of the time. A challenge for me, at least, was being able to say, “Even if this idea doesn’t feel like something that can actually become something, you should go with it because you never know.” And sleep is super important. But that’s something that I personally thought a lot about.
NS: It was kind of stressful before we got our chorus. Once we had a structure, I like tweaking way more than I like creating something out of nothing. It’s also a cool process; it’s a cool bonding experience. I was already friends with Miriam and Isaac, but afterwards I was like, “that was so cool,” and I definitely feel like we bonded a little bit.
MS: Definitely moments of frustration and irritation, over a single word in a single line, or something really particular.
IG: I think that it’s definitely a bonding experience, and it’s pretty unique in that sense.
NS: And we got a medal!
IG: Yeah! How ‘bout that? I think definitely for me, at least, I didn’t think our song was anything, I was just like, “Ok, well, we have something!” I really had no clue what the bar was for how good a song is, or what the listener is actually like, so I was pretty shocked when we won.
CC: So you didn’t necessarily go in with the goal of, “We’re going to be in this place;” you just went in to create something for the sake of creating?
NS: Yeah. I think the medal is fun because it’s validation, but I was telling Miriam and Isaac this, but the difference between first and third meant nothing to me. It felt like we had won the whole event. You get your medal, and you already know you did a good job. It’s cool to get that validation, especially from the judges, who you think are cool.
CC: What is your music background like as individuals, and how do you think that fuses into Sad Boi Mix Tapes?
IG: Choral music, musical theatre, pop music, that’s where I come from. And then also Jewish songs, kind of more of campy Jewish guitar songs. So I come from all of those realms and meshing them.
NS: I’ve done choir all the way from elementary school through high school, to college, but I actually stopped in college. I played the oboe all the way through middle school and halfway through high school. And I’ve done radio all through college also. My musical interests are pretty varied. I really like choir, I like choral music. I think there’s a lot of cool experimental contemporary choral music that I really like, like Morris Miley is one of my favorite composers. I like rap, I like weird rock. I also like folk and I’ve listened to a few show tunes. I think I’ve overlapped with a lot of Miriam and Isaac’s interests.
MS: I grew up in a pretty musical household. My parents wanted me to take piano lessons growing up, but I wasn’t super keen on having a teacher. So I picked up the family guitar and started playing a little bit. Sometime in my early teen years I had a cousin and some different friends who introduced me to the up-and-coming folk/indie music scene in our town in Indiana, South Bend Indiana. So I kind of just got into that— got into songwriting. I started writing my own songs and listening to some songwriters like Joan Baez, Anaïs Mitchell, Joanna Newsom were some of my favorites. I just kind of went from there. I also really like rap.
NS: I also really like soul. I think “Stand By Me” is probably my favorite song of all time— by Benny King, not the John Lennon version. That’s a good one too, but it’s not as good.
CC: It sounds like even within you as individuals, you all have really different diverse music tastes.
MS: Yeah, eclectic.
CC: Do you feel like that impacts your songwriting process, because you have a pretty cohesive sound as a band, I would say, but do you feel like you incorporate all of these different genres when you’re making music?
MS: Yes, somewhat.
NS: I think for me, going in, I was just like, “I want the song to be kind of strange, or at least not normal.” I really value music that’s a little odd or experimental. So that’s not so much a genre, really, because you can do that in almost anything. But that idea.
MS: And Ike [Isaac] brought some harmonies that are maybe more typical of pop and some chord changes that, as a folk artist, I haven’t really experimented with too much.
NS: It sounds good together. It was cohesive. And I think we needed to do something a little off to make an impact, just because we didn’t have a whole lot of instrumentation.
CC: Do you all as Sad Boi Mix Tapes have plans for the future? Do you plan to continue this band, and if so, what would that look like?
MS: The other night we had some friends in town and did some impromptu jamming, so that was the next iteration of this group.
NS: I don’t think we have concrete plans at the moment. We’re all going partially separate ways next year.
IG: Unknown ways.
NS: Unknown ways, really. But we have time later this year, maybe we have time next year. I think we have to take this as it happens; see what’s possible.
MS: We definitely have fun getting together and making music.
IG: Yep, always a blast.
You can find Sad Boi Mix Tapes, as well as Mim Stoner’s solo work on Bandcamp.