The bumper sticker on the car reads, “DRUM MACHINES HAVE NO SOUL.”
I’ve seen this for years. And if it is not a bumper sticker, it’s a t-shirt. And if it is not a t-shirt, it’s a thought rolling around in someone’s head. I have always dismissed it as hyperbole that surely could not be believed by the bearer of such a blasphemy.
I saw this bumper sticker again today after my morning radio show — a show that was themed around celebrating the 20th anniversary of Air’s mostly electronic album Moon Safari.
Listed underneath the all-caps proclamation on the sticker is an organization called Society for the Rehumanization of American Music. There is a phone number. So, today I called.
Now, cold calling in any context is not an activity of which I am fond. I am the guy that tiptoes around the corner like a spy in my house when the doorbell rings unexpectedly. I found myself slightly uneasy making this call. I am not sure what I expected, and to be honest, I did not think anyone would answer.
I was well wrong.
After one ring, a youthful sounding man answered with a loud, “Hello?” And as inaudibly loud music played in his background, I explained that I saw the phone number on a bumper sticker and thought I’d call to see what it was about. He asked, “Which bumper sticker is that?” Ignoring my immediate thought of There are others?
“It’s the one that says ‘Drum m-‘” and before I was halfway through the word machine he said, “Oh, yeah, that one. Well, let me tell you about that.” He went on to proudly proclaim that in the twelve years since forming the Society for the Rehumanization of American Music, 80,000 bumper stickers and t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase have been sold.
(Side note: maybe my own side hustle needs a rethink)
When I asked the impetus for boldly stating and printing – as musical fact – that drum machines have no soul, he told a story about music studios in the 50s and 60s and how his father had owned one. In these studios, musicians would jam together to create a synchronicity of spirit (my term), and that those were the days of good music (his term).
Enthusiastically, he expounded on the virtuosity of drummers and bass players, and having witnessed the general goodness and greatness that came with human beings connecting musically with hand held instruments. He shared that he did not own a computer, never went on the internet, and did not have a smartphone. His love of music and his story, was obvious. The cheerfulness with which he recounted what he witnessed in his dad’s studio put me at ease. He talked a little about how the bumper sticker had been inspired by his distaste for the ubiquity of electronic and rap music and that neither really had a musicality. I had not called for an argument, and he did not present these statements to provoke, so I did not challenge. He was just talking, so I just listened.
In the past, I have had this conversation with friends. Technically, the statement about drum machines is true. Yet the same is true about a guitar, or bass, or drum kit. None of them have soul without the human element. They just sit there until the human intervenes.
When I dialed the number and realized it was legitimate, I thought the connection might be a meeting of dissimilar minds. It was not, but I am not sure exactly what it was either. At the very least, it was a short conversation between two people who loved music, who may or may not agree to disagree on the merits of instruments with hard drives. I would like to think of it as a bumper sticker playing catalyst for two strangers connecting. That would feel good, right?
He asked where I lived and when I said Portland, Oregon he replied, “Ah, so you must have purchased that sticker at Music Millennium.” Before I could say anything, he shared a few positive thoughts about independent record shops, to which I agreed.
The conversation was about at the eight minute mark when he said he needed to go. I quickly stated, “Before you do, I’m curious…how many people are in the Society for the Rehumanization of American Music?”
He chuckled, and said, “We’re all members. You’ve got the sticker, and now you’re a part of it. We can call you a…member emeritus.” He laughed again, and said with a lilt, “You’re in!”
I didn’t tell him that I had not purchased the sticker. That I had just seen it on a car on the side of the road, and was not, in fact, number 80,001.
(Second side note: drum machines may not have soul, but I didn’t have the heart)
“One more thing,” I added. “Can the music made with a drum machine have soul?”
“Oh yeah, that’s no problem,” he said. “I had a bunch of drum machines in the 70s and 80s, and have made music with them before. Anyway, thanks for calling. What did you say your name was?”
“Scott,” I replied.
“Can you spell that for me?” he asked, as the music blasted in his background.
I spelled it for him, after which he said, “That’s an unusual name.”
I paused, “Really?”
“No, I just couldn’t hear you,” he laughed again.
”Have a good day,” he continued “I’m glad you called me…and keep supporting good music.”
Then he hung up.
That was that: a Sunday morning phone call, on a whim, and a conversation about music with a total stranger in some other city.
He listened and thanked me for calling a number for an organization that does not actually exist. And two strangers conversed and connected through and about music for about nine minutes. Genius! For the moment, I don’t care about the debate of drum machines having soul. This bumper sticker has a heart and right about now, that’s a feel-good groove.