The National and Erik Flannigan Capture the ‘Juicy Sonic Magic’ of Legendary Taper Mike Millard
photo by Bill Kelly
Matt Berninger became fascinated with bootleg culture by accident. During the National’s early tours, his bandmates Scott and Bryan Devendorf would dominate the driving—with the perk of controlling the stereo. So they’d blast Grateful Dead and Phish bootlegs, subjecting their indie-rock-obsessed frontman to nuanced debates about the superiority of particular shows and jams.
“I was kind of on the periphery of those kind of bands, but Bryan and Scott would always talk about shows from certain dates and this and that,” he says. “It’s fascinating—its like collecting baseball cards or something. It’s not all about just trying to remember specific events and shows, although there is real magic that you find in incredible performances that they never did that way. With bands who do hundreds and hundreds of shows in one year, sometimes thousands over a career, to go through all of those and try to find the best version of whatever song, like Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’—’What’s that one where [that moment] happened?’ It’s really satisfying. It’s like looking for fossils.”
The National showcase that love of audio paleontology with Juicy Sonic Magic, a limited-edition three-cassette box set out November 29th, as part of Record Store Day’s 2019 Black Friday event. The unique release documents a two-night stand in Berkeley, California at the end of the tour promoting their seventh LP, Sleep Well Beast—but the methodology was intentionally old-school, almost an art project in itself. You could almost call it a concept album: Producer-engineer Erik Flannigan captured the concerts using the same techniques (and vintage equipment) as near-mythic taper Mike “the Mic” Millard, who painstakingly recorded hundreds of shows—including Springsteen, Rush, Pink Floyd and his heroes Led Zeppelin—around Southern California from 1974 through the early 1990s.
Flannigan was fascinated by Millard in every sense: his enigmatic presence (little information is known about his personal life), the consistently high quality of his recordings, his sense of artistry (including the hand-drawn covers on each tape), his genial approach to the medium (despising commercial bootleggers, passing around his tapes to friends) and the reverence he achieved within taping circles before his death from suicide in 1994.
Another part of Millard’s legend was his clever approaches to hauling equipment past security—most famously, hiding gear in the cushion of a wheelchair (despite not being physically impaired).
“The wheelchair was a method they used to get in gear for many shows,” Flannigan says. “It was not the only way they got equipment in—in the early days, really, you could just bring a bag in and tell somebody it was photo equipment and walk right in. One thing he would do was always top the bag with a pair of underwear. When he would walk up to the door he would say, ‘Oh, I’m spending the night at a friend’s house.’ They would open the bag, see the underwear and no one wanted to move past that—that would be one of the ways they got in. [laughs] But, they were always modifying their methods—there were certainly times when they used the wheelchair, certainly times when they brought it in that way and then times when someone would get bribed to bring it through the back door. Security would get paid off in some way, and there was a way to get it in through sympathetic employees, let’s say.”
Though Flannigan—who says he’s been “immersed in the [taping] culture” for over two decades and even “taped R.E.M. back in the day”—has known of Millard’s work for years, he only started to conceptualize his new project after making contact with some of the late taper’s friends. (Diving deeper and deeper, he eventually teamed with his filmmaker friend David DuBois to create an upcoming documentary on the subject.)
“I knew he was real,” he says of Millard. “I knew he was just a legend, but how is it that this guy made all these tapes, and how come you can’t find out anything about him except this internet mythology? At one point a few years ago, I tried to track down some of his friends, tried to figure out how to get to his family, but I was really struggling to crack the code. Separately, at one point I realized that I had access to some tapes that Mike made, and inside the tapes Mike actually wrote down—in his kind-of notation—what kind of equipment he used. He used the Nakamichi 550 cassette deck which was released first in 1975. And he used these AKG-451E mics. I had the notion at that moment to be like, ‘Wow, I wonder what it would be like to record a show today, using that gear?'”
Flannigan, who lives in the same neighborhood as Berninger, batted around the idea with his frontman friend. Both became equally engrossed by the Millard ethos.
“I saw how he went to all of his favorite bands, had hundreds of tapes from Bruce Springsteen and all of these different artists from that era—it was, like, holy,” Berninger says. “I’d heard some of those recordings and listening to those, they do sound unique. Someone like an audiophile, or someone at the stereo store might tell you, ‘This is too wrong about them,’ but you genuinely feel more present, I think. I’ve heard a lot of live recordings of things, and they’re amazing. A lot of it is the system you’re playing it on, but there’s something about Mike’s recordings that just really feel like you’re in the sync of it a little bit more. It feels like the the room is right up to your neck, you’re kind of soaking a little deeper inside the space. It sounds like you’re in something, either in an arena or an amphitheater or a club. Some things just have a sense to them, and it’s probably audio and it’s hard to define what it is. Even the tapes themselves, the cassettes, in his handwriting, has a sense to it, has some sort of more cosmic presence. The detail he took to do all that stuff creates a greater whole than just the one or the two.”
The National agreed to let Flannigan test out his Millard Method during the two Greek Theatre shows—selected because the venue remains unchanged since the tape legend recorded there in the 1970s. There were obvious technical challenges: Due to the physical limitation of needing to flip the tape, he utilized a back-up digital rig to fill in the gaps. But the strain was by design—an effort to conjure the sweat and strain it took to document a concert decades before the iPhone era.
“The Stones played the Rose Bowl two weeks ago,” Flannigan says. “85,000 people were at that show. We can conservatively estimate that 60,000 of those people, maybe more, pulled out a phone and recorded a part of the show in some way. Yet at Led Zeppelin at the LA Forum in ’77, one, maybe two people, risked it all to record that show.”
“Now it’s absolutely commonplace among everybody in the general population,” he continues. “So the fact that we’ve come from, like, fear of Peter Grant beating the shit out of you to every single person at the Stones show filming the show, it’s a remarkable change in our culture … All the tapers I know who recorded in that era—and I’m sure this is true in the Dead world too— really, at some point, they started as fans and then they actually feel like they’re chronicling history in some way, that they have to be there to document, they have to be there to preserve it.”
For Berninger, the Millard mission was a noble one.
“The whole collection of work he did, and how much sound he collected, and moments that he collected with so many people to collect in one space—[it’s] happy people together,” he says. “That’s what I love about rock and roll—in a sports game, you get a lot of people angry together. Or they all come happy, but half of them leave angry. But at a rock show, everybody’s—unless you’re dragged to see a show you don’t want to see (get the hell out)—because everybody else is there to be happy. So you feel that. You feel that in the room. When you walk out on stage, there’s something. And it’s not just the sound of people screaming. Yeah, you can hear it, but also if I was deaf and blind, and I walked out on the stage, I bet I would feel a sense of thick happiness in the room.”
Find out where you can get Juicy Sonic Magic on Record Store Day Black Friday at recordstoreday.com.