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Jack Dangers: The Mind of Meat Beat Manifesto

By Published: October 24, 2005
AAJ: I think there's also a unison flute/piano phrase on that song that sounds very vocal.

JD: No, I'm doing a vocal on that! I'm doing the sort of quintessential sixties female spy vamp through a spring reverb, just doing a falsetto thing, following one of the instruments. Actually, I'm doing vocals on almost every track. They're just through vocoders. I'm a big vocoder collector. I've got like eight, really big, full-on vocoders [laughing]; they all sound different and I like to pump different things through them. Drums, anything. You can throw a drum beat in there and a string orchestra in the other channel, and what comes out in the summed output is something completely different. So all the electronic stuff on the record is all through vocoders; I didn't use any samples at all.

AAJ: I don't think anyone besides you is using vocoders nowadays in that way.

JD: No. Everyone always goes to the vocoder thinking it's going to be the robot Kraftwerk voice, but electronic music basically started with vocoders when [Bell Labs research physicist] Homer Dudley took a vocoder to an exhibition in Germany in 1948. [Electronic music pioneer] Herbert Eimert was in the audience and that was the introduction of electronic music in Germany. And what those guys used to do back then would be to send different things through the inputs and what comes out sounds completely different—where the French school was more into pure, purest sound. Miking up instruments and using it in its pure form.

The Germans were all into changing the sound into something unrecognizable, and that was mainly through the use of vocoders. Then, of course, Kraftwerk were the first rock band to use a vocoder in any form. So the classic way to use it is by singing into it and playing a synthesizer, but you can sing into it and play anything through it. So I was doing some of that with Peter's flute and Craig's keyboards: chucking them into one channel and using my voice as an envelope. Yeah, I don't know a lot of people who really use vocoders in that way anymore.

AAJ: You've quite a variety of these vintage ones. Are they particularly unwieldy?

JD: Well, they're basically massive synthesizers without the controls because you're using natural sound as the envelope; you don't need a keyboard, you don't need envelope generators for them to be controlled by humans. They're controlled internally, they're all automatic. If you've got a 20-band vocoder, you've got 20 high-pass filters, 20 low-pass filters, 20 envelope followers and 20 envelope generators—and if that was set in a normal synthesizer package, the thing would be massive. But because you can chuck all that stuff into a box, vocoders tend to be quite small, but they're very, very powerful.

AAJ: It seems like you take a certain amount of pleasure finding various spoken-word soundbites to incorporate into your tracks, whether it's William Burroughs saying "towers, open fire on the song "Horn of Jericho on RUOK, or all the different voices that are having a sort of constructed philosophical debate on "What Does It All Mean? on the same album. On the new CD, "Want Ads One and "Want Ads Two use a 1957 recording of Kenneth Rexroth reading some very odd want ads. I have been particularly obsessed with one phrase: "I offer permanent space in a tomb.

JD: [laughing] I like "we stand behind our budgies! That was almost the album title.

AAJ: That would have been fantastic. Where'd you get this tape of Rexroth and, in general, what inspires your use of found vocals in your music?

JD: Well, it's not actually Rexroth. That was a typo that made it out on the first releases. It's actually Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the beat poet from the fifties; he used to run [bookstore] City Lights in the city. So that's actually him. The way those recordings came about was, I live just outside San Francisco in Marin County in a place called Mill Valley. Back in '99, a friend of mine bought a house in Mill Valley, and it turned out that this guy called Henry Jacobs used to live there. He released some records on Folkways in the fifties; he was a Bay Area deejay at KPFA. He was very open-minded—sort of the John Peel of his time. He'd play very, very strange music, whatever he could get his hands on, a lot of world music. And he also did these shows at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco: it was an audiovisual extravaganza called Vortex. It was all electronic; he had like thirty speakers and a big dome.

AAJ: He sounds way ahead of his time.

JD: Yeah! He worked with John Cage in the fifties. And this was the first audiovisual thing of its kind, really—they even went to the Brussels World Fair in 1958. So, he lived in Mill Valley and had a record label with Alan Watts, sort of a private label. Anyway, my friend bought this house that he had lived in. She was having some renovation work done on one of the rooms and the floorboards came up and lo and behold: there were 64 reel-to-reel tapes. I was the only person she knew who had a reel-to-reel player, so I went over there and got the tapes. I went through them and it turned out to be an old tape stash of Henry's.

I didn't know the guy at the time, but around a year later, got around to meeting him, because he's still in the area. He's like eighty now. I told him the story, and he told us how the tapes might have gotten there; there was a fire there, and they built over a part of the house, and at that point no one really cared—so these tapes were under the house for forty years. Now, they've recently come out on CD and DVD on Important Records. Me and Henry were on NPR a couple of weeks ago going through this very story, which was very strange—he hadn't been in a radio station in fifty years. So one of the tapes was labelled "Kenneth Rexroth and the recordings were what you heard. But they were mislabelled and actually turned out to be Ferlinghetti, who actually, a week-and-a-half ago, for the first time since 1961, went over to Henry's house. They met up and are going to be doing some stuff again.

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