Mega Q&A: Author Dave Tompkins on His New Book, How To Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop
A few weeks ago, the music writer Dave Tompkins took a podium in one of NYU's many windowless annexes to promote his upcoming book, How To Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II To Hip-Hop. Behind him was a still from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms frozen on the projector screen. In front of him, he displayed a record called You're a Peachtree Freak on Peachtree Street. A typical aside: "You hear a lot of that from crypto-engineers from World War II." A typical setup: "Hey, this is my brother's '69 Camaro." [laughter] "No. This is important."
The talk turned out like the book: scattered and exhilarating nonfiction that feels like a Pynchon novel of almost-conspiracies; piles of information that make less sense the deeper you crawl into them. Electro tracks about Japanese raccoons with huge testicles, leaders of the free world complaining that vocoders made their voice sound too high, young black men who wore powdered wigs and wrote ominous songs about Pac-Man--these things could be made up, but it's comforting to know that they're not, and that the world was willing to accommodate them.
Tompkins, who has written for Vibe, Wire, Stop Smiling, Ego Trip, Wax Poetics, and loads of other publications, has been researching the vocoder and its use--both in hip-hop and the military--for over a decade. How to Wreck a Nice Beach, out April 6 on Stop Smiling/Melville House, almost reads like a mini-anthology of his work (which is actually what he'd set out to compile before getting lost in the vocoder). His writing style is restless--it's like he can't let a sentence go without playing with it. (Vocoder godfather Homer Dudley "invented the vocoder when he realized his mouth was a radio station while flat on his back in a Manhattan hospital bed, eyes on the ceiling, a goldfish as his witness.") But his jokes are good, and most importantly, his love for the material is evident. He puns because he loves. He hugs the facts with both arms. A few weeks after the talk, we talked.
Were there people who you weren't able to contact for this?
Giorgio Moroder and Stevie Wonder were two big ones. Giorgio Moroder because, well, he was the big Italodisco vocoder guy. I had some Moroder-inspired dreams, probably from neurotically being like damn, why won't Moroder email me back? There's also some good studio footage of him doing "Baby Blue." You know, it's all filtered through his moustache. [Pauses, thinks.] On the military side, there was this guy Dave Coulter who'd passed away. His partner, Frank, was amazing, but it would've been interesting to talk to Dave about meeting Bob Moog. The head of the A/V department at the Bavarian insane asylum that played whispering vocoder water drops for patients while they slept. Them, Solzhenitsyn, Roger Troutman, and the guy who intercepted those Allied transmissions who thought they were bee frequencies and sent them back into the ionosphere as a jamming frequency.
Oh, you know the main one? Bruce Haack. 'Cause he--the record that came out before Electric Lucifer used this thing called a Farad, which sounded like a vocoder but technically wasn't one. And that was out before A Clockwork Orange. I mean, "Party Machine," that track he did with Russell Simmons.
Yeah. Russell Simmons came to him and according to legend, saw Haack's skull collection and suggested they record in Russell's studio.
[brief story about Russell Simmons and Bruce Haack meeting, and their collaboration, "Party Machine."]
Some of the stuff in this book has appeared in different venues going back a while--Stop Smiling, Wax Poetics, places like that. Had you just been working on vocoder-related stories for a while and then decided to put them together?
Well, it was supposed to be a chapter for a larger book of essays, but the vocoder thing took on a life of its own. It kind of gave me a focus, even though it might not seem that way when you're reading it.
I mean, some of these interviews were done as long as ten or twelve years ago.
Yeah. The first time I spoke with Michael Jonzun was in '99, and that story was in Vibe when Pete Relic was still the editor there. When Jonzun called me up, the first voice I heard was him on the vocoder over the phone. Bell Labs could afford to have a full archive staff at that point, and the archive staff had sent me some information about the vocoder's invention and origins. That's when I thought, this thing's been around.
There's an essay that Ralph Miller had written in here [passes over a book called A History of Science & Engineering in the Bell System] about SIGSALY [an early vocoder-like machine], and he's one of the first people who'd talked about its military use.
So you didn't know about the military use until you spoke with Michael Jonzun?
Courtesy National Archives The SIGSALY WW II vocoder system with turntables. This is the Manila terminal, photographed in 1945.
No, that was actually after I moved up here and went to New Jersey and met with Manfred Schroeder. I drove out there during a blizzard and played him the Jonzun Crew record, and he was talking about how FDR, Churchill, and Truman had used the vocoder.
Was the non hip-hop history of interest to you before you started researching?
Well, I think growing up listening to hip-hop in North Carolina--I mean, I couldn't see Wild Style or anything. I had no access to information about how these sounds were made, other than Shazada Records and Les Norman, the sadly late Night-Time Master Blaster at WPEG. And then you learn about sampling and you track down who the artists are and who produced it, and it kind of creates this research-obsessive, collector-obsessive mind that spills over into other things, and applying this sort of--these correlations between terms and events and things from the past. In tracking all these things down, it kind of creates a conspiracy mindset--you think, all these things have to be related. I think that helps generate ideas and sends you down a lot of different paths. Rap records--the first search engine!
I thought about conspiracies while you were reading the book--there's this feeling of all these facts that keep piling up, and there's a sense that they'll come together, but they don't. There's a lot of resonance and coincidence, but nothing linear.
Yeah, there was no way to follow a trajectory.
Did it bother you to not find some kind of missing link?
Ralph Miller [Bell Labs crypto-engineer, age 103] was the link, when he said "Crosstalk can sneak between the pulse," the morning after the US invaded Iraq. And I was really happy to find a wooden replica of SIGSALY sitting in a former cocktail lounge in Fort Meade, Maryland. It was like, oh, okay.
So much happened at the very end. Certain things about the TICOM interrogations [where Allied intelligence officers interrogated German speech encoders] were declassified this past June. Also, getting access to Homer Dudley's notebooks--that was really late. It took forever to get to Florian Schneider. What was the question? Oh yeah. The point. The point was to get to tell some childhood stories.
Well, there's a lot of that, but there's a lot of other narratives, too. But I'm wondering, when you say something was declassified, how did you find out? I mean, I'm assuming there's not a mailing list for stuff like that.
Well, David Kahn (The Code Breakers) was a great resource. He's really generous about sharing information, and so much goes through him. I really wanted to find the godfather of the German vocoder because Germany had such an impact on the whole narrative--I mean, Kraftwerk. So the TICOM stuff was like, oh, there's an actual laboratory. A lot of folks who are still alive on the Axis side are reluctant to talk about anything to do with the war. So cryptology historians from both sides were very helpful.
So you just tracked these people down?
Yeah. There's actually a lot on the web now. Some people are more forthcoming than others--the NSA criteria for clearance seems to be ever-shifting, as the octopus expands. For a while, the SIGSALY (WW II vocoder system) was so restricted that many of the officers wouldn't even discuss it at reunions. Some weren't aware it had been declassified. (Patents had been released in 1976).
You write about how mysterious all this vocoder-based music sounded to you when you first heard it. Has demystifying it changed the way you hear it?
I think it makes it even weirder and even more mysterious. At first, I just applied it to whatever was around--reading a ton of science fiction and watching movies. It's a pretty simple machine, and a lot of people say it's cheesy and misused. But the songs I grew up with still sound mysterious to me. It's almost like I'm hearing them with new ears, because I imagine what someone like you, or someone from some other generation would think when they heard them for the first time. I had to keep some naiveté in that respect. Demystifying it helped on the technical side--just understanding how the hell the thing worked. But most of the people I interviewed still were in that space with it.
The magic space?
Yeah. I might've said this already, but I wanted to hear about how mysterious it was to them back then, and what it triggered in them. I felt like at some point during each interview--way too soon, in some cases--I asked "Did you ever encounter someone with an electro-larynx? Or singing into an electric fan? Or maybe your grandfather's sore throat--something that would make a monotoid, monotone thing that would alter the voice and serve as a trigger. Like the guy at the door on Halloween who says [in a post-tracheotomy rasp] WHAT DO YOU WANT?
Someone like Rammellzee is such a vocoder polymath in a way--having all these theories, how it's such a core part of him and his personality, and the fact that he really put himself in physical harm to use it [as mentioned in the book, R. once barfed while reaching too deep with his voice while vocoding]. You won't get that from a lot of old-school guys; that deep appreciation for getting a certain effect, with total disregard for one's innards.