Swinging Modern Sounds #29: The Museum of Broken Things
Last year in The Believer music issue (July 2010), I published an excerpt from a long essay I’ve been working on for a year that argues against the use, in contemporary music, of the drum machine. This is a purely rhetorical argument, really, sort of like Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and totally out of date, because few people really use drum machines anymore. They use samples of drum machines. They use computers to play the drums, to play the keyboards, and just about everything else, including, if you’re T-Pain, the vox. Still, I made my argument nonetheless—get a live drummer!—and I am unrepentant. However, my friend Moby (he and I grew up in the same town, Darien, CT, and were marked by it in similar ways) got wind of this piece, and wrote to me not long ago asking if I wanted to see his drum machine collection. Yes, he collects drum machines, but not the really slick ones that hip-hop producers employ, but the early, cheesy, slightly homely ones first used mainly by guys who played in church basements and in the lounges of Holiday Inns. Moby likes broken drum machines, and ones that were built from a kit, and Moby has a dream… Well, he will tell you about his dream himself in the interview that follows here. While Moby’s collection of drum machines didn’t inspire me to revise my arguments on the subject, I do admit that if there have to be drum machines, they should be like these ones in Moby’s collection. Let me, meanwhile, remind you that Moby is best known as a composer of electronica and popular music more broadly construed, including records like the runaway hit Play (1999), and my personal favorite The End of Everything (under the name Voodoo Child). This interview immediately precedes his new self-released album Destroyed, which comes to light next month (on May 9). The photos and videos contained herein—of Moby in his drum machine lair—are the work of Laurel Nakadate, who also has a career retrospective up right now at MoMA/P.S.1 in Queens, which you should definitely see.
Rick Moody: So when you say you obsessively collect drum machines, just how obsessively do you mean?
Moby: There are seven billion people on the planet, and I realize I will never ever be the best at anything. But I can potentially have the world’s largest collection of drum machines. So when I say obsessively, it’s obsession with a purpose. Ultimately, I want to have one of every drum machine made up until 1982. After 1982, they became more digital, and I sort of lose interest. But the old analog ones, I have always loved them.
Moody: What would the last one be, in 1982, the Roland 808?
Moby: The end point would be the very early digital drum machines, like the Linn Drum. So I collect the early digital ones like the DMX, which is an early hip-hop drum machine, and the 808 and the 909, but then, after that, the digital drum machines started to get a little too fancy, and a little too slick.
Moody: So when you collect all these things is it with the intention of actually using them in your own work or is this a collection just for the sake of a collection?
Moby: I love to use them in my own music. The great thing about a drum machine is that you just kind of turn it on, and it does quite a lot of the work for you. But the old drum machines were never that good. The drum machines post-1982, 1983, actually sort of tried to sound like drummers. But what I liked about the old drum machines is that they never sounded like a drummer, they sounded like a drum machine.
In the sixties and seventies, drum machines were just compared to other drum machines, they weren’t compared to real drummers. And they were never supposed to replace a real drummer. And then, in the eighties, with digital technology they could actually have drum programs that in a crummy sort of way tried to sound like a real drummer. That’s when I lost interest. I liked them when they sounded more synthetic and electronic. Also, nowadays, a lot of electronic music is produced exclusively on the computer, so there’s no physical sound production. So no one makes drum machines anymore.
I’m almost a custodian of these old drum machines that have been in church basements and lounges at Marriott hotels, somewhere in New Jersey. And a lot of them have notes written on them, like this one, I don’t know if it works or not, but someone at some point put masking tape on it, with a little note to himself. This one, down here, see, someone again, someone wrote their own little codes in pencil. Samba, here, they put a red X there, and wrote a note that says, “No.” Clearly, whoever it was hated the samba?
Moody: It’s really the most bad rhythm, isn’t it, the samba?
Moby: Down here, this one, he wrote like the tempos for different rhythms. Like, here, it says, “Fox Lindy.”
It’s not just collecting them, it’s when they arrive in the mail—because I buy most of them on eBay. They’re not being shipped to me by hipsters. They’re usually shipped by a lounge performer, who realized he had a drum machine in the basement that he might have used in the seventies and hasn’t used in a long time. And so it comes in the crummy packing material with the old newspapers and the pencil marks, and that’s part of what I love about them. The winsome anthropology of the drum machine.
Moody: What was the first old one that you bought?
Moby: The granddaddy is the Wurlitzer Sideman.
Moody: Which came with the organ of the same name, right?
Moby: Originally, drum machines were invented to accompany church organs. And the church organist would play at the dance, so they’d bring the organ and the drum machine downstairs for the dance. This one, it actually has built-in speakers, and it doesn’t quite work, because it needs a tube. Most drum machine collectors, and there aren’t many of us, would see this Sideman as being like the first commercially produced drum machine. And I have two, I have one in storage that someone painted black to make it look cool, but I like this one because it’s still got like the original wood.
Moody: That’s one of the first you got, or that’s simply the oldest?
Moby: That’s the oldest I have. The first one I got is probably, is probably the Rhythm King. I remember, years ago, a friend of mine had one of these sitting in his studio, and he hadn’t used it forever. “The Rhythm King.” I was, like, wow, Sly and the Family Stone used it, Blondie used it, everybody used this drum machine. And he was like, “Oh, if you want to, borrow it.” So I borrowed it, and I sampled it, and I just loved it so much, I had to get one for my own. What’s great about it is that you can play the rhythms, but you can also play the individual sounds.
Moody: Can we hear a demo of that one?
Moby: If it works. Let me get it down.
Moody: You seem to have two of them.
Moby: There was a problem. I’ll go on eBay, and sometimes people will take photographs of drum machines from very different angles, and so I’ll think that I don’t have one. You know, like they’ll take a picture of this, from down here, or a close up on the button. And me, being crazy, I will look at the picture and be like, I don’t have that drum machine, so I’ll order it, and it’ll come and I’ll be like, oh, I already have two of those. So I actually have three Rhythm Kings. And there’s the Rhythm Ace, which I have four of.
One of my dreams—because everybody has to have a dream—is I want to have the world’s first drum machine museum. I want to rent a space somewhere, maybe in LA, because rent is cheap there, and actually have a museum.
Moody: But are there enough of them, model-wise? For a museum?
Moby: No one really wants them. There are the cool ones, you know, like the 808. Like the 808s, if you buy them on eBay, it’s like two or three thousand dollars to buy an 808, because everyone wants an 808. Very few people want an Olson Solid State Rhythm Instrument, so you can usually get those for twenty or thirty dollars. That’s one of the other reasons why I have extras.
Moody: People still sample the 808 a lot in electronic music now, right?
Moby: Every hip-hop record. The 808 is still used constantly. It’s like an old synthesizer. People collect old synthesizers, because old synthesizers, you can make a tons of sounds with them. This Rhythm King, three sounds. No one really feels the need to buy them, because you can buy a sample disc that has all of these on them, and wire it on the box, and you can just have the sounds.
(Noise in background.)
Let’s see if it works. For some reason… come on… Oh. That. (Sound.)
Moody: Sounds like really early Kraftwerk to me a little bit.
Moby: You can hear where it’s kind of broken down, like sometimes the bass drum sound works, sometimes not.
Moody: What year is this?
Moby: Sometimes you can figure out what year it is based on what rhythms they’re trying to approximate.
Moody: So that’s a disco rhythm. Probably late seventies-ish?
Moby: This one, it might be early, early disco. If I had to guess, I would probably say seventy-three, seventy-four. Maybe seventy-two. Some of the cooler late seventies drum machines only had cool things. Like they had reggae, and country western, and six different types of rock-and-roll beats, whereas this one has slow rock. So that’s the Rhythm King. Do you want to hear another one?
Moody: Definitely. What do you think the weirdest one that you have is? The most unusual?
Moby: Well, my favorite—well, I can’t pick a favorite, because I don’t want to make the other ones mad. But there was a company out of Ohio in the seventies, and they made synthesizers and drum machines, but they sold the kits, they never—so you had to—
Moody: Make it yourself?
Moby: Yeah. You’d spend a hundred dollars; they’d send you the kit, and you’d have to install it yourself. Also, it’s orange. This is someone’s homemade drum machine, I’m guessing from about… nineteen… I don’t know, what would that be seventy? And it’s weird because whoever made it, I think left out some of the circuitry, because it doesn’t (AWFUL PIERCING SOUND!)… That’s not supposed to sound like that. Let’s try again. (Awful piercing sound, again, only not as loud.) Hmm… let’s see what… It might’ve broken even more since the last time, because it used to actually work. (Sound continues.)
Moby: Not bad, as far as feedback goes. Oh, I got an interesting one. And you can just tell me to stop talking—.
Moody: No, no.
Moby: This one runs on batteries. It runs on some weird Japanese-type battery that I’ve never seen before. So, unfortunately, we can’t listen to that one.
Moby: That’s a foot-triggered one. It doesn’t sound very good, it’s just odd. This one is actually cool.
Moody: All right.
Moby: Which seems like maybe a contradiction in terms, I don’t know. So this is Electro-Harmonix—.
Moody: I had an Electro-Harmonix synthesizer once. A little portable one.
Moby: So they made Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah pedals, and therefore, by definition, it’s kind of a cool company. So in the mid- to late-seventies, they made drum machines that actually sounded pretty great. Sometimes.
Moody: It’s from the era before the gigantic snare sound. I kind of like this one. Have you used this one on a recording?
Moby: I haven’t used this one, at least I don’t think I have. But I had a bunch of friends over, you know DFA Records, you know, James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem?
Moby: Those guys were over here, and we were playing these drum machines, and I brought this one out, and they were like, Oh… Oh, that’s actually… we could really use that. The other ones have a sort of novelty factor, but there were those—this one and the 808— where people realized they could actually get sort of cool stuff out of them.
Moody: When was the first time you ever played with a drum machine?
Moby: First time I played with a drum machine was in high school. Mattel made a drum machine called SynSonic, and my mom bought it for me for Christmas in 1981? Or ’82? And I actually used it on a song recently—I have a record coming out in May. It’s a very early digital drum machines. So it’s a digital drum machine that just sounds destroyed and messed up.
Moody: Does it have a cheeseball Casio sound? Is it that kind of toyish?
Moby: It’s not even that advanced. Every analog drum machine here, they’re all basically synthesizers. They had one oscillator that would make a sine wave that would turn into a kick drum. And another oscillator would make a noise wave that would turn into a high-hat and a snare drum. The early digital drum machines worked according to a similar sound synthesis. They had a couple of sounds, really cheap sounds that they would modify to try to make them sound like a kick drum or a snare. But the truth is on this Mattel machine, the kick drum, the snare drum, the high hat, and the tom tom all sort of sound the same. It doesn’t sound anything like a real drummer. It just sounds like a weird, broken-down old drum machine.
Moody: At the time that your mother gave you your Mattel drum machine, were you playing with live drummers?
Moby: No, when I was really young I played classical music, and then when I was around thirteen I started playing with punk rock bands. And one of the reasons I gravitated over to more electronic music was so that I could do everything by myself. Because when I was playing with bands, you could only rehearse once or twice a week. The drummer would be drunk; the bass player would be in a fight with his girlfriend, and if I did everything by myself, I didn’t have to wait for real people to show up. That was a huge reason why I chose to move more into electronic music. That sense of autonomy.
Moody: And is there any other model here that you feel a need to demonstrate?
Moby: Hmm… let me see. Well, this one, here is a CR78, I believe it was the first programmable drum machine, and with this model you weren’t saddled with the beats the company gave you. The only problem is it just stopped working. This, if I could turn it on, would sound like Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” Oh, and this is one of my favorite ones, aesthetically, and this is possibly the rarest drum machine I have because I have never heard anyone mention it, and I have never seen it for sale except for the one time I bought it. It’s like this beautiful piece of furniture, the drum machine as antique… (shows machine) Isn’t that nice?
Moby: The Thomas Bandmaster. It doesn’t actually work, but…
Moody: It goes with the Thomas organ?
Moby: Yeah. All things considered, probably my rarest one. Because I’d gone online and looked for it and only seen it this one time—when I was able to buy it.
Moody: You need an engineer to be the restorer of all the drum machines.
Moby: Oddly enough, I’m okay with them not working. You know, like sometimes people will have a horse they just put out to pasture, you know? They don’t expect the horse to race or jump or ever make babies. It just goes and stands in the field and is happy. So I don’t know if I’m anthropomorphizing or equestrianizing drum machines, but I’m okay for them just to have a nice little life, sitting quiet, by themselves. And if they work, great, but if they don’t…
Moody: Sometimes their sound is just an interval between beats.
Moby: A John Cage rhythm. Like “4’33.” All drum machines, they all have roughly the same circuitry, and up to1978 or so, they did all kind of sound exactly the same. And that’s why, in the sixties and seventies, the drum machine was the least cool musical instrument on the planet. Like it was only used by the church organists. But then when Sly and the Family Stone, wrote a song around one—
Moody: “Family Affair,” right? I think there’s one on “Family Affair,” and then, at the same time, Can, the German band, uses one, too.
Moby: Some great Krautrock people, and then, of course, Suicide. Suicide loved the really weird sound the drum machine made, but I suspect part of it was just expediency, too. You have a box this big, or you have a drummer. And the drummer was expensive, had a lot of equipment, was really noisy, and if you were playing a tiny little venue, they just thought it was easier to bring this tiny little box. By the way, Echo & The Bunnymen, as far as I know, is the first band named after a drum machine. Because when Echo & The Bunnymen first started, they didn’t have a drummer, because they couldn’t afford one, so they had a little drum machine, called Echo.
Moody: Has your investigation of drum machines ever had paradoxical results, driving you back towards live drumming?
Moby: I do both. Like the record I’m putting out in May, most of the songs have drum machines and live drums. Because drum machines are great, but they’re never going to sound like a live drummer, and live drummers are great, but they’re never going to sound like a drum machine. But if you combine the two it’s kind of interesting. I am usually the drummer on my records. I will sometimes loop a drum program, put it in Pro Tools, get the BPM, and then have a click track from that. Or, for example, Duran Duran, they would play along to the drum machine. I think what they would do is take the drum machine and then process it, and generate a click from the audio track of the drum machine, and that’s what the drummer would play along with.
Moody: Would you ever see yourself completely eliminating the drum machine from…?
Moby: Not to get too odd and esoteric, but there’s the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. Do you know what wabi-sabi is? The more entropic something is, the more endearing it is. A bucket that’s forty years old that’s been used by a lady to clean the floors of a house she’s been working in is way more interesting than a brand new bucket from Walmart. A broken down, crummy Wall-E is way more interesting than a brand new robot. And that’s part of my love of these guys, they’re all about entropy. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. They’re all dusty, they have pencil scribbles on them, none of them is cool, and the ones that sort of pretend to be cool are the least cool.
Moody: And this is the last guy, over here?
Moby: So this… is, in many ways, the drum machine that changed everything.
Moody: The Linn Drum.
Moby: The Linn Drum. All of Prince’s early records, like, you know, 1999, Dirty Mind, Controversy, all of them were made with this. And The Human League, and so on.
Moody: Could you sequence on this?
Moby: Yeah. The whole song. And I think that when this first came out, it was absurdly expensive, like thousands and thousands of dollars. Kind of like one of the early samplers, like the Fairlight, those were like a hundred-thousand dollars. And now, you basically have more sampling time on a greeting card. But this is, like, 1981, 1982, right when all the old analog drum machines were sort of put out to pasture, and they realized, Oh! This sort of sounds like a drum set. Like the kick drum actually sounds like a kick drum. So I’m sure Depeche Mode and everybody who made drum-machine-based music in the early eighties. This is what they started using.
Moody: This is the end of the line for you?
Moby: I have this because this represents the end. I’m sure there’s someone out there who has an emotional relationship to bad digital drum machines from the mid-eighties, they can collect those.