When I became a father this month, I decided to honor the moment by making a new mixtape. I’ve made mixes in all sorts of genres for all sorts of moods, but this time I had a new, very specific aim: to capture the feeling of being an exhausted, mildly ecstatic new dad.
To that end, I decided to make my first dad rock mixtape. But I couldn’t start with just any old stereotypical “dad” music. This had to be my vision of dad rock. So don’t expect any Springsteen or Steely Dan. This is another flavor entirely.
Tracklist appears as the songs play, and at the bottom of this post.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I love Steely Dan. I could wax poetic about their effortless mixture of jazz interplay and pop hooks or their astonishing attention to detail in the studio, but this isn’t the place. Dad rock, to me, is extremely personal. It taps into nostalgia and comfortable memories, buzzing with the glow of remembered optimism for the future. It’s the sound of burgeoning tastes, broadening awareness, and a newfound sense of mortality.
There’s no existing genre name for this sound, but it’s as acutely recognizable as anything I’ve ever heard. If you’re of a certain age, it might sound familiar.
What Is Dad Rock?
When I looked to Google for help, I found the definition of dad rock below. I’d say the shoe fits:
rock music that appeals to an older generation, or that is heavily influenced by that of an earlier era.
I’m turning 35 this year, and in addition to all the other weird stuff I love, I’m definitely into modern bands that ring with the echoes of ones I grew up with, in the 1980s and early 90s. I was never a big radio kid. My strongest musical memories link to places like the white-carpeted living room where my father played music LOUD. He loved his hi-fi stereo and I was the constant beneficiary, being allowed into the room for listening sessions. I can still close my eyes and picture spinning on the floor, feeling the sumptuous bass of Genesis’ self-titled album or Pink Floyd’s mediocre-but-exquisitely-produced 90s output. I wielded a He-Man sword as an electric guitar, jumping and shredding all over the house. I played keys on the back of the sofa. I rolled and rolled until I was dizzy, and then I rolled again.
Like most kids, I went through a period where I hated everything my parents listened to. The Beatles sucked, Peter Gabriel was bullshit, and oh god, Motown was the worst. I had my own tastes, man. I was into nothing but grunge, then gangsta rap, then jam bands and trance, but eventually curiosity had me circling back around on every childhood touchstone. I ended up reevaluating a few, pushing back the ingrained emotions and listening with clarity, honesty. I liked what I heard. I realized that the roots of that sound reached far into the music I enjoyed all along and ever since, shaping the experience in some undetectable way.
I’m not just saying that my childhood listening influenced my tastes. That part is obvious for everyone. What I’m getting at here is the idea that this very narrow set of sounds, this non-genre, informed the music I always gravitated toward, no matter what style it was. It’s a whisper in the periphery, a nearly invisible lens, a slight framing in the production, but it’s there. Connect the dots and you’ll find the truly formational music of your own life. For me, it wasn’t what I’d been telling myself all along. I felt liberated, unshackled from any predisposition – positive or negative – to the early music of my life.
A Mixtape Is Born
Like always, I ended up discovering artists adjacent to the ones I’d actually known as a kid. These were the bands that swung around the borders of what I knew, growing up in the midwestern US without MTV or even a dream of the internet. They would have been my favorites, if only I’d been able to hear them. These artists did what I could only imagine with the limited sounds I knew. Time never mattered, so I was into them as much as anything else being released new. The best part was, I could hear those echoes in much of the brand new music I was into.
The cyclical nature of music is true, always. In the age of the internet, it’s never been more apparent. I can effortlessly leap between ages, tapping the wires running between then and now, throwing the connections into the spotlight.
Thus, the idea for this mixtape was born.
I’ve put together a set of music reflecting both my nostalgic heart and my dreaming head. Time traveling anthems glide alongside recent creations with no apparent relationship beyond the invisible lines I’m pulling. It seems indefinable, but it’s there. Just like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography in 1964, I know it when I see it. Or rather, you’ll know it when you hear it.
“Life’s What You Make It”
Because the whole “dad rock” directive emerged as a concrete way to express my new life as a father, I incorporated several tunes that speak directly and obliquely about my situation. Images and lyrics crop up throughout, describing my ongoing state of mind both metaphorically and literally. Wandering foggy, neon-soaked streets after dark. Spiraling into daydream nostalgia under a raven sky. Talking half-asleep with a lover at the first blush of dawn. “Another sleepless night for me,” a ghostly sample of Tracy Chapman’s Behind The Wall, repeats through the heart of the mix during The Durutti Column‘s 1989 stunner, Otis. It’s a little on-the-nose, but it hits so hard for anyone who’s lived through this time. Raising a brand-new human is no joke; it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I know I’m not nearly as exhausted as my amazing partner, but it’s still remarkably tough to adjust to a new nighttime normal.
Speaking of my partner, Kaitlyn is on the cover of this mixtape. That’s her in the blue glow of a man-made waterfall in Dublin, Ireland. The shot was taken in November 2016, just days after we found out we were going to have a baby. We were riding high on hope and dreams. Despite the gritty reality of raising a surprisingly loud little boy setting in, we’re still loaded with those feelings. This shared mind state has been deeply important for maintaining a positive outlook this year. When you become a parent, you suddenly play host to a whole new piece of the future that you never knew would exist.
Our son is named Miles. The title of this mixtape came to me late last night as I helped rock him to sleep. It’s part of Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, and it’s become a sort-of anthem for this new journey in fatherhood. The poem famously ends on this portentous passage:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I’ve been writing about my experiences as a dad on my new website, Brave Dadshaw. Yes, the title is joke on my name. If you’d like to read a completely different side of me, or if you enjoy my writing, or if you just want to laugh at some of the misadventures that come along with creating a new person, please take a look.
As for the mixtape, I believe jumping in blind is best. But if you prefer to know what’s coming, that’s totally understandable. Here’s the full track list:
01. Jonny Nash – Exit One 
02. The Blue Nile – Downtown Lights 
03. Prefab Sprout – When Love Breaks Down 
04. David Sylvian – Silver Moon Over Sleeping Steeples 
05. Steve Forbert – Cellophane City 
06. Talk Talk – Life’s What You Make It 
07. Arthur Russell – That’s Us / Wild Combination 
08. The Durutti Column – Otis 
09. Tornado Wallace – Voices 
10. CFCF – Lighthouse on Chatham Sound 
11. John Cale and Brian Eno – Spinning Away 
Thank you so much for listening.