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The Shortwave And the Calling

The Leading Edge of Rock

In the annals of recorded music, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything rivaling the ambition and absurdity of "The Conet Project." (Conet, a word he heard often on the shortwave, is Czech for "end.") Four CDs with 150 different broadcast snippets from all over the world. More than 280 minutes of white noise, numbers and beeps. Plus a 74-page booklet with background, logs, playlists and a bibliography -- the sort of treatment ordinarily reserved for platinum-selling bands with a massive fan base. Fernandez poured everything he had into "Conet." It sold in the United States for $62.

At Aquarius Records in San Francisco, co-owner Allan Horrocks keeps track of sales of the enigmatic sounds packaged as "The Conet Project." (Randi Lynn Beach - For The Washington Post)
"I wanted it to be perfect," he says. "I didn't know what it would do, if it would just sit in boxes, because nobody had done anything like this before. But it was obvious to me that it had to be done."

Akin Fernanadez, pictured on a London rooftop, turned his fixation with shortwave transmissions into "The Conet Project" recording. (Poppy Berry - For The Washington Post)

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This is a pretty succinct definition of obsession: a thing you feel you have to do, even though you don't, even if doing it will cost you everything, which is what it cost Fernandez. There were a few head-scratching reviews of "Conet" and sales of about 2,000 copies, modest even by indie standards. Fernandez closed up Irdial, and the last pressing of "Conet" was in 2001. He took a series of jobs that he'd rather not discuss.

"They were jobs," he says. "Just jobs."

That might have been it. But something happened. "Conet" slowly acquired a cult following. A fervent cluster of devotees cropped up in San Francisco, around a store called Aquarius Records, a haven for the musical avant-garde, the sort of place that crows about albums such as "Insect Electronica From Southeast Asia." To Aquarius's owners and regular customers, "Conet" was a little ridiculous and totally irresistible. They posted a chart behind the cash register that tracked the store's "Conet" sales, and asked everyone who bought a copy to pose for a photo. They stopped with a photo of customer No. 386.

"It works in a lot of different ways," says Allan Horrocks, a co-owner of the store. "It's kind of creepy and mysterious because of what it is -- this secret thing that you can't understand. We'd think it was cool if it was just an experimental drone record. But it's more than that."

Much more, actually. "Conet" gives off a whiff of the vaguely forbidden: Maybethe government doesn't want you to hear this. And your parents won't get it. And if you listen today, in the age of Code Orange, it actually sounds a little sinister, with echoes of the "chatter" the Bush administration is always warning us about. What could be more frightening than "chatter"?

"Conet," in other words, delivers a couple of the slightly subversive thrills that rock could once deliver without breaking a sweat. It feels new, a little dangerous, a ticket into a subculture of sorts. That's an experience you don't find in record stores much anymore, in part because rock has been around for 50 years -- and can anything that old really feel dangerous? -- and in part because corporate America long ago figured out there's gold in the underground, and now mines and mass-produces it faster every year. In a way, "Conet" is a measure of just how fringeward you need to head these days to find something that delivers the frisson of the margins.

Which is part of Fernandez's point. From the beginning, his label released what he calls "fine art noise" and "underground dance music," all of it made by a batch of artists you will never see on the charts. To Fernandez, Irdial's niche product occupies some of the only fertile ground left in music. It's his heartfelt belief that rock-and-roll has been dead for years.

"Rock bands now are just following the path that's already been marked," he grumbles. "Right down to the riffs, right down to the production. These people are copying their fathers' record collections.

"I think the truly creative people have left this area. A real artist would look at the canvas and find the corner that hasn't been painted yet. Nobody is doing that. . . . The first thing that anyone in a band with a guitar and drums should do is put down their instruments."

So what's a rock band to do if it wants to keep the guitars and churn new ground? How do you make something so familiar seem daring?

Enter Wilco, a quintet that started as an alt-country act and is now boldly going where no rockers have gone before. Two years ago the group released an album with a song called "Poor Places." It starts as a droopy ballad, but eventually the drums fade, the melody evaporates, and up roars a truly terrifying hurricane of sound. As it builds to a climax, a woman's urgent semaphore peeks through the noise:

"Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot. Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot. Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot."

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