Brad Stiffler on punk rock, academia and Condominium

Brad Stiffler on punk rock, academia and Condominium

Finn Odum, Staff Writer

At Macalester, visiting instructor of media and cultural studies Brad Stiffler ’07 is notorious among his students for his involvement in the hardcore punk band Condominium, a band he started while he was a Macalester student. Many unsuspecting students are baffled, wondering how the seemingly mild-mannered professor could play in an underground rock band. 

But there’s more to Condominium than Stiffler’s students realize. Stiffler spent the majority of his life immersed in the punk scene. From his childhood in Ohio to his years in graduate school, the cultural theorist has devoted a lot of time and money to punk music. He’s worked punk into his role as a college professor and amassed a floor-to-ceiling record collection. He sat down to talk about the collection, tape-trading and punk in academia in the following Q&A. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

The Mac Weekly (TMW): How far back does the record collection go?

Brad Stiffler (BS): Well, I started collecting records in the late ’90s, when I was a teenager. I think the first records — the first records I bought with my own money — were from Chris’s Warped records in Lakewood, Ohio. Probably 1996 — ’95 or ’96. And since then, I’ve just been collecting records with as much money as I could make in whatever job I had. I spent almost all of it on records when I was a teenager. 

I still collect records today.  That’s how long it’s been going on. I guess as far [in time], I mainly am interested in stuff from really only as far back as the ’60s or ’70s. As far as stuff that I’m interested in collecting, I have some of my mom’s old record collection, but those are mostly 60s records too. Her extremely partied-on Neil Young records and so on. There’s probably something older in there. I’m really only that interested in stuff as far back as the ’60s, probably.

TMW: How many genres does that encompass?

BS: Well, I don’t have a genre split really, so I don’t have a specific sort of count as far as how many there are. I will say that like the vast, you know, probably 75% of my records are like punk and hardcore metal records. I do have a lot of rock, like ’60s and ’70s, like psychedelic stuff. It’s not a very wide range, I don’t have very eclectic tastes. 

TMW: What got you into punk music?

BS: I had two babysitters when I was a little kid that were into it. They were in bands and would take me to shows. When I was, 11, 12, in that range, my babysitters  — Rick who was in a hardcore band called Choice in Cleveland — and Adam who was in a band called Invasion, would bring over tapes and stuff to listen to and I would record stuff from them. They took me to the first shows that I went to. I got clued in to all that through them and then started from there, tape trading and doing stuff like that.

TMW: Tape Trading?

BS: Tape trading is when, in the ’90s, you would have someone that you would write to. And you meet people through like, “oh write to my friend” or some people would have ads in punk zines and you could write to them. Even when I had early access to the Internet, you could look up people’s addresses and you would send them a list of stuff that you wanted to hear. Like, “I don’t have these records, I want to be able to hear them,” and if they had them, they’d record them for you on a cassette. They’d send you the cassette and then they would have a list and if you had something, you’d send them that. 

Sometimes it would just be random things. You’d just send a mixtape and you get a mixtape back from people. You could do it locally with people or a lot of times, with people you’ve never met, either through the internet or through a kind of pen-pal type of situation. I got interested in and found out about a lot of stuff that way. People would have handwritten, photocopied lists of everything they had on tape and then you could say, “Oh well you take this, this and this for me and I’ll send you a tape of anything that I have.” 

A lot of times you could also send somebody money, a couple of dollars in the mail and just be like, “Would you please record these records for me,” because, you know, you couldn’t just look it up on YouTube or Spotify. The only way to find out about stuff was to find a record store that had it, or somebody you knew that had the records or something like tape trading.

TMW: What was music culture like in the  ’90s?

BS: It really depended on what you were into and where you were. I was living in, for most of that time period, the Cleveland suburbs. If you were into stuff and got a ride into Cleveland, you could go to a bigger show. I saw plenty of — not a lot — bigger concerts at big established venues. Or you could go to smaller clubs if you could get in. Back then it was a lot easier, you could go to a show in a bar if you were a kid if you went with an adult. It wasn’t super age-restricted in Cleveland at least. My mom would take me to the Euclid Tavern so I could see Marky Ramone and the Intruders. That’s kind of what got me most interested in the scene. 

Having my babysitters take me to shows at a garage or a VFW or in someone’s backyard. A lot of times we [would] go to this indoors State Park in a strip mall in North Ridgeville, which was a 15-minute drive from where I live in the suburbs. It was always no one I’d ever heard of. That was what got me super into the scene. Knowing people who are in bands and being able to go to the shows, these small shows, and be right next to what was happening. 

As far as the records and buying part of it, you just didn’t have really good access to a record store that had cool stuff. In the suburbs, you could go to the mall and go to Sam Goody, but it was mainly like tape trading, knowing people who had stuff. You could mail order things if you got a catalog of stuff that you wanted, or you could get a ride into the city and go to an actual cool record store that would have something you’d be interested in. Like Chris’s Warped records in Lakewood, which was 20 minutes away from my house, but I couldn’t go there all the time. Unlike now, there was the main mainstream music — what was on the radio and MTV — just a handful of things that everybody knew. And if you were into stuff that wasn’t that, you had to know somebody.

TMW: You probably knew this is going to come up — let’s talk about Condominium. How did that get started?

BS: Technically, I think the first thing that had the name Condominium was a radio show on WMCN. We had a radio show called Condominium the Radio Show. When I was maybe a junior or a senior. I had known Matt — he used to be in a band that I filled in for a couple of tours called Formaldehyde Junkies. After that band was kind of breaking up, we wanted to do something, and he had been writing some songs and recording them himself. So this was probably 2007. And I, just for a while, would just help him record. I played the guitar parts when he would do the drum tracks. Eventually, we decided we should turn it into a real band and I convinced Matt that Condominium was a non-ridiculous name, or at least an acceptable name, so he kept it from the radio show and applied it to the band. I think we probably started playing shows as a full band in 2007 or 2008.

  TMW: How long was [Condominium] together?

BS: We’re not technically broken up. We haven’t played a show in two years. Joe our drummer lives in New York and he’s lived there for five years now, so we haven’t been a super regular band since 2016. We’ve done a bunch of stuff since then. We did a tour, recorded some stuff, but it’s been really on and off. 

We’re just kind of in hibernation mode. We might do something in the future, we might not, just sort of depending on what happens. Somebody we know asks us to do something every once in a while. Obviously, since COVID there are no gigs. I think the last thing was during Mayday, an outdoor show during Mayday in 2019 would have been the last time we played.

  TMW: How has punk rock been incorporated into your career as an academic?

BS: My dissertation was related to punk in the sense that the TV shows I wrote about were somewhat connected to the punk scene, but it was also about cable access as a media environment. I’ve done my pre-research, it’s the stuff I’m interested in. When I was in grad school, I had to figure out what to write a dissertation about and I knew that I was interested in the history of discourses surrounding alternative media or media technologies in general. And then it was like, well you have to have something to do research on or to write about that nobody else has written about. My main way I come across obscure stuff is through listening to music and reading about it and talking to people about it. It’s something easy in my cultural experience to kind of pull from. 

Other than that, I’ve done a bit of things; I’ve taught one or two classes that are pretty related. A lot of my references and case studies of stuff oftentimes end up coming from that side of things. Honestly, it’s a helpful set of references. Essentially I’ve done a bunch of research, even though I didn’t think about it as academic research because it was just stuff I was interested in. So it ends up being what I go back to.

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