Interview With Dave Tompkins About His New Book - How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, the Machine Speaks

Posted by Billyjam, April 13, 2010 04:50pm | Post a Comment

"Ever since the first bored kid threw his voice into an electric fan, toked on a birthday balloon, or thanked his mother in a pronounced burp voice mutation has provided an infinite source of kicks," writes author Dave Tompkins in his just published new book How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, the Machine Speaks (Melville House/Stop Smiling). The recommended hardcover Dave Tompkins How To Wreck A Nice Beachbook is an exhaustive in-depth study of the history of the vocoder (and other voice mutating and vocal altering technology) that the author, who has been obsessed with the sounds and effects emitted by vocoders ever since he first heard "Scorpio" by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and "The Raven" by the Alan Parson's Project, spent a full decade researching and writing.

The result is a unprecedented historical study of the vocoder that should appeal equally to music fans, tech heads and also history students. Currently on the road promoting the book, Tompkins will be doing a lecture and slide show and playing music tonight in San Francisco at SOM Bar at 2925 16th Street along with hometown DJs B-Cause, Centipede, and Freddy Anzures. His set is at 10pm and on Thursday he will be at the HotWax party at 222 Hyde St. in San Francisco. Earlier today I caught up with the author to ask him about his book and the obsession that led him to write it.

Amoeblog: What inspired you to write this book?

Dave Tompkins: The double life of an anthropomorphic machine that tore speech to pieces -- plus childhood memories growing up with hip-hop. It was a good excuse to find the people who made these records that freaked me out as a kid. (Electro-funk followed John Carpenter movies, the divorce, and The Human League's Travelogue.) Anyway, here was a device originally developed to improve telephone communications only to be deployed as a military scrambler and that ultimately made me want to dress like Monty Moir from The Time. Crypto-terminology has a mind of its own. Words have enough trap-doors on their own. Then this thing comes along. The vocoder had quite an effect on information theory -- Claude Shannon and Werner Meyer-Eppler. Pack Jam!
The Human League
Amoeblog: Can you explain how you got the title for the book?

Dave Tompkins: It's a homophonic deaf con -- how to recognize speech misheard [as how to wreck a nice beach] -- the difference between what you hear and what you think you hear. It was also inspired by a Solzhenitsyn metaphor for speech scrambler from his book The First Circle, based on the vocoder's function of build and destroy -- pulverizing a Russian beach resort, placing these particles in a billion matchbooks, relocating and reconstituting that resort at another location -- ocean, unvoiced hiss tide froth, and sunset included. Not to mention some nice seashell sub-woofers.

Amoeblog: When the average person thinks of the vocoder's use in music what is the most common artist that typically comes to mind?

Dave Tompkins: It depends -- usually something awful, like "Mister Roboto." Some lucked out with KraftwerkKraftwerk or New Order or [Afrika Bambaataa's] "Planet Rock" (the latter isn't a vocoder, the word spread as a meme, referring to any sort of electronically altered voice: talkbox, auto-tune, ring-modulating, Bruce Haack's Farad).

Amoeblog: The vocoder, before use in music, was used during World War II, as your title implies. Can you briefly explain this for Amoeba readers?

Dave Tompkins: It was used for the Allies' top secret transatlantic phone system (codenamed SIGSALY) during WW II. Churchill, Eisenhower, Manhattan Project foreman Leslie Groves, Truman, and FDR, all had their voices shredded by the vocoder.

Amoeblog: What role did the vocoder play with the early cross Atlantic telephone lines?

Dave Tompkins: The inventor, a beekeeper named Homer Dudley, wanted to use the vocoder for speech compression to Homer Dudleyreduce bandwidth costs on the underwater transatlantic cable. (The TSA had suffered a Kraken-attack during its installation.) Ironically the primitive vocoders were massive while speech engineers were, in a sense, really trying to save space--and expense, before the copper used for bandwidth conductors went to war.  According to Homer, compression was heresy back then. He wanted to electronically mimic the articulators (tongue, mouth, lips etc), as those frequencies are significantly lower than the final speech output--human conversation. This was unsuccessful due to garbling and the cost of having a vocoder on each end of the line. Also, wireless radiotelephony rendered speech compression obsolete. Compression wasn't cool again until the early 1980s, with early cell phone research.

Amoeblog: Considering how much historical and technical data is included in your book, who do you see it appealing to -- World War II students or Zapp fans, or both and more?
Dave Tompkins: Zapp fans will be interested to learn about Dr. Zappe, a German vocoder engineer who worked for the Laboratory Feuerstein in Bavaria in WW II. A student of WW II might wonder what the army was doing with two turntables. The mix was automatic.

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five "Scorpio"

Amoeblog: Was the vocoder used in sci-fi movies and cartoons (as that robotic voice) before it was widely used in music?

Dave Tompkins: Homer Dudley envisioned the vocoder in film and music since its inception. German composer Peter Thomas used it in 1966 for the TV serial Space Patrol. Then Wendy Carlos in A Clockwork Orange. The Cylons and Transformers of course came later, while electro-funk and hip-hop artists went 'coder nuts.

Amoeblog: Why did it lend itself to funk so well?

Dave Tompkins: Freaks and Synthesizers. (George [Clinton] had already been mutating his voice). Also Sly Stone, Larry Graham and Rufus were already using the Talk Box... though the vocoder was more expensive, it was easier to use.

Amoeblog: You dedicate a lot of space to Pumpkin in the book. Can you tell me why?

Dave Tompkins: Well, I love Halloween and October. Pumpkin is one of my favorite hip hop producers. He adapted from live band instrumentation (Spoonie Gee, Treacherous, Disco Four "Get Hot Off The Music") and ended up producing two electro monuments: Fantasy Three's "Biters in the City" and "It's Your Rock." Apparently he was a really nice guy who became a music biz tragedy. His story hasn't really been told. One of my best memories is Larry Smith -- producer of Whodini and RUN-DMC -- sitting in my room listening to Pumpkin tracks, as well as his own stuff. I'd just moved to New York. I thought it was customary for rap legends drop by your home and listen to records with you.

Amoeblog: What would compile as your top seven electro funk records that utilize vocoders?

Dave Tompkins:
-BBQ Band
-Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
-Geno Jordan
"You're a Peachtree Freak On Peachtree Street"
-Fantasy Three "Biters in the City" (Dub)
-Jonzun Crew
"Space is the Place"
-One Way
"Mr. Groove"
13 min Demo of "Computer Age"

One Way "Mr Groove"

Amoeblog: You spent quite a  long time working on the book -- what kept you focused during the difficult times?

Dave Tompkins: Friends and all kinds of things; a movie called Taste of Tea helped get me through a loss. "Banshee Beat," "Good Lovin Is Good Livin" by Creative Source, "Late Night Hype" by Compton's Most Wanted, The Kenneth Patchen poem "Where 2 O'Clock Came From," 45s, lots of modern soul, sweet soul, northern soul, the Dark Crystal bog burp, Emerson "Sending All My Love." The stories and steady glut of vocoder intel served as a distraction. The city of Miami -- and what it had been up to throughout the 20th Century -- was a huge distraction. I was also having trouble balancing the signal to noise ratio. I think I was having too much fun writing it, such that I'd sometimes forget that the book had to be stopped. I even faked myself out a couple of times, thinking I'd finished. A Capricorn One hoax.

Amoeblog: I understand that your research took you far and wide. What were some of the more interesting items or individuals you discovered along the way?

Dave Tompkins: The tattered man I once saw interrogating an air conditioner: "I hear you in the shadows! I don't care about your DNA. I just want to see your f**king heart!"  Frank Gentges, a Cold War vocoder engineer. Rik Davis of Cybotron, Rammellzee, discovering that HP Lovecraft was down with the vocoder and didn't even know it,  declassified WWII docs about German vocoder activities. Finally, hearing things like the BBC broadcast of the Bradbury story and the old Bell Labs tests. The vocoder on Somebody Else's Guy that says "When the stuff hits the fan" Malcolm Clarke (BBC) was a genius -- so generous and funny. I hate it that he's not alive to see this thing done. I think he would've gotten a kick out of it.

Amoeblog: Does your book include AutoTune, and if so, how deep do you go into that topic?

Dave Tompkins: Yes, I guess I had to since everybody was running around calling it a vocoder. But I felt like I had little to add on the subject; I loved Sasha Frere Jone's piece in the New Yorker. I was inspired by that and junior high speech delirium, the histrionics--and emo myopia--of the instant.  Re-teen to set zero?  And  I love hearing it gargling from cars. There's an Auto-Tune thing in the appendix. Auto-Tune kind of revived the word vocoder, despite being so maligned (as if saying wait -- you've got the wrong guy! I thought this was cool!). So I, um, went to the earth's core, like Peter Cushing and Doug McClure. Seismo-acoustics and the Limited Testban Treaty of 1963.

Amoeblog: The early 90's BOMB Hip-Hop magazine by Dave Paul out of San  Francisco, which later Talk Boxmorphed into the label of the same name, was the first publication you wrote for. What influence did that experience have on you as a writer and why?
Dave Tompkins: Summer of 93, I was teaching at a boarding school in Orange, Virginia. One student was a powerlifter from Taiwan named Tik. According to the lore, Tik gambled away two cars playing pool and got exported to Orange. He was a really sweet kid though -- loved Dr. Dre. I made him listen to YaggFu Front demos. There was also this smart-ass kid from Sarasota. He had a copy of Rap Sheet, in which The BOMB ran a small ad: "Send photos of your grandmother buck-naked break-dancing etc..." Perfect! DJ Shadow, Peanut Butter Wolf, Jazzbo and yourself were contributors. Dave Paul (publisher) had the same Pumpkin song on his answering machine for 10 years. It was a big deal for me to fax in a handwritten story about why the Tuff Crew was so dope -- all the way to the Bay. I was so proud. I was mainly inspired by Funkenklein's columns (Bozo the Clown's real name is Morty, or something to that effect). I was living in North Carolina and discovered that one could run up some mean-ass phone bills talking to people about rap.

The Alan Parsons Project "The Raven"

Amoeblog: Is it true that you are doing (or have done) a mix CD to go with the book?

Dave Tompkins: It's a collaboration with Monk-One, who I may have driven nuts. The mix is pretty creepy, honestly. Never sing "Candy Girl" with strep throat.

Amoeblog: You will be DJing tonight in San Francisco. What can people expect in your set?
Dave Tompkins: Actually, it'll be my first power point experiment, customized for the Bay, home of THX (Thanks Freddy!). There was a SIGSALY terminal in Oakland during the war. Looking forward to B Cause's set. He killed it at Sweaterfunk the other night -- played "Fly Guy and the Unemployed" [by Ramsey 2C-3D]. And I never get sick of hearing "Encore" either. Be sure to come to the Hotwax party with Monk-One Thursday night. You will hear "Mr. Groove."

Amoeblog: Anything to add?

Dave Tompkins: As my grandmother often said, "All you have is your teeth!"

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Pumpkin (2), Hip-hop (209), Interview (341), Dave Tompkins (3), Vocoder (3)