Dave Tompkins, Author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach, on Adam Yauch, Siri, and Freakathons
The vocoder, created by AT&T's Bell Labs in 1928, was originally invented for speech compression to reduce bandwidth costs on undersea phone cables. The device was soon co-opted by the military during WWII who used it to scramble communications between world leaders like FDR and Churchill. The legacy of the vocoder remained closely linked to the industrial-military complex up through the Vietnam War, until the music industry discovered its spaced-out and cosmic robotic splendor. The technology, truly some mad-scientist stuff, has been used by everyone from linguists (think Stephen Hawkins' voice-box) to Hollywood, who used the vocoder in the '50s and '60s for freaky sound effects and Martian and alien voices.
How to Wreck a Nice Beach, a sentence constructed from a mis-hearing of the vocoder-rendered phrase "how to recognize speech" lives up to what New York magazine called "an intergalactic vision quest fueled by several thousand gallons of high-octane spiritual intellectual lust." Encrypted with a century of knowledge and truth, Tompkins' meticulously detailed opus is as engaging as it is dripping in historical context. It's an important book.
To be a little critical, some of this shit may fly over your head, spin you out, take you down, or even leave you scratching your ass wondering, what's the point? The book and the author's lectures are a little spastic, discombobulated, and funky -- and while some may find these features trite, others may deem them charming. We're in the latter camp. Cultist caught Tompkins last week at the Miami Art Museum and looks forward to the presentation at Lester's. His lectures are bugged the fuck out.
Tompkins is in town working on a book that's likely to become the definitive text on Miami bass music. The writer, who signs all of his e-mail correspondences from Bell Labs, was quick to reply to a few of our questions.
Cultist: Imagine three things Homer J. Dudley (AT&T mad scientist and vocoder inventor) would ask the iPhone's Siri.
Tompkins: Homer -- the inventor of the vocoder -- was also a beekeeper. He'd ask why cell phones are harming the bee population. Siri, in a conflict of interest, might try to distract him and suggest he watch Wax: The Story of the Bees Who Invented Television.
Homer would ask for directions to the house of Ralph Miller, his Bell Labs coworker, 105 and still alive in Concord, Massachusetts. Ralph attended a recent talk I did at MIT. We listened to the Beastie Boys' "Intergalactic."
Homer would ask why our voices aren't considered synthetic since they are, like, man-made.
Why did Bell Labs name its first Voder Pedro?
Pedro was named after the Brazilian Emperor, who in 1876 believed it was the telephone itself that talked, not the person at the other end.
Video above: Pedro, the first voder, invented by Homer J. Dudley. This machine was operated by special AT&T operators, mainly female, who trained a whole year to learn its secrets.
Is the vocoder truly what freaks like to freak to?
Freaks pretty much freak to whatever's laying around the house these days. Though it helps to have "How Deep Is Your Love." The term "Freakathon" was invented in Miami, with the help of Pretty Tony and the vocoder.
The military tested the vocoder device in Arizona. They'd use sample sentences like, "That guy is a writer of a few banned books." What's your favorite test sentence?
"Smile when you say nasty words." Make teeth!
How many times did you interview Rammelzee?
He was a friend, so we had many conversations. An interview with Rammellzee often ended up being an interrogation of your soul. I always left there thoroughly char-grilled. I was fortunate to have those times with him. "No guts, no galaxy!" he'd say.
Ever interview anyone deeper? Think his depth came from the sea?
Not to play evader, but everyone was deep in their own way. Donald Wahlberg was deep. Rik Davis from Cybotron blew my mind, relating his experiences in Vietnam to [the short story] The Dunwich Horror. To steal a hook from a cut-out bin Divine Styler album, Ramm had a lot of width in his depth. His depth was somewhat fathomless, which can lead to compression issues and TMI. Luckily, the vocoder was invented for bandwidth compression. Diver down!
Would you call your relationship with the vocoder an obsession?
I'd just say it was a lot of fun. As with any relationship, it drove me crazy at times. Drove me to the record store too. We're in paperback now!
In your opinion, who sounds more like a natural prototype for a vocoder? Vincent Price or William S. Burroughs?
I met Vincent Price after he did an Oscar Wilde reading, so I'm loyal to Phibes. Plus my mom put me onto him. He had a great southern affectation in Preminger's Laura. With Price it was one character. Burroughs harvested more mutant strains. Words tend to have a mind of their own when left to their own devices. And we like our devices, though they don't always reciprocate. Technology is a convenient scapegoat for misunderstandings.
Video above: Dr. Phibes as a vocoder prototype
I read your obit on Adam Yauch in The Paris Review.
There's no iller communication than drive-thru intercom distortion. Those loudspeakers become characters themselves. Your food is transformed into an exchange of noise bursts. I highly recommend Cook-Out, a southern fast food chain that offers around 75 different kinds of shakes.
Bugged. How long did it take you to write How To Wreck a Nice Beach?
I didn't have a publisher until three months before it became a book. Three months sounds better than eight years.
What are you working on next?
A book about how Miami Bass preceded mankind. How Bass subsumes the world around us. Gothic bottom tales. It'll be dark and bio-luminescent.
So, what's going on, exactly, at Lester's this Thursday?
Doing a slideshow, talking about robot voices and World War II "indestructible speech" technology. Then playing records. Lester's is great. I already met someone there who designed a bazooka that launches florescent light tubes. And another who can take me to meet the ghost of Bloody Watson. Thanks Miami. Way to mess with my head.
In your book, there are a few great opening sentences that draw the reader in. Sentences like, "Ralph Miller says the letter Z is a noise not a sound," and "Sun Ra sits in darkness, starving for photons and wishing for ice cream." Can you think of a first sentence or two as to why Miami heads should come see you speak on Thursday?
Come listen to the sound of the castle wind telling you to drink more rum in German. Dance to an unreleased Dirty Mind-era Prince goodie pressed up on vinyl. Come learn about the phonetic pharmacology behind "ass effects." Stories about Jam Pony Express or Miami are encouraged.
Tompkins' freaky lecture starts Thursday at 8 p.m. at Lester's. Admission is free. For event info, visit the website.
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