Andy Cirzan Keeps Going All In For Christmas Music

Dec 16, 2014 at 3:20 am
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 (and now digital compilations; his 2014 mix has just been posted) for more than two decades and, for the last fifteen years or so, has been making annual appearances on Chicago radio (WXRT (93.1 FM), WBEZ (91.5 FM) and WGN (720 AM)) to spin holiday music that most humans never knew existed. To say he's devoted to discovering Christmas music -- the weird, wonderful and totally wigged-out -- is to say a beachcomber has sand in his toes. 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.

Roy Kasten: 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 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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