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The Shortwave And the Calling

It's a track from "Conet," the voice of Ms. International Radio Operator herself. The band sampled it and used it to name the album. "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" would earn Wilco its strongest reviews ever -- it was No. 1 that year in the Village Voice national poll of music critics -- and it sold decently, too.

At various moments on "Yankee" you can hear lead singer and co-songwriter Jeff Tweedy struggling with the where-do-we-go-now question. And he finds an answer, or at least part of an answer, in the same place as Fernandez, way way out there, in the ionosphere. Which is apparently where you wind up now when you seek the unpainted corner of the musical canvas.

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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It's enough to make you think that what's left of rock's frontier isn't very pretty; there isn't even music playing there. At some point -- after punk crested, perhaps, in the late '70s -- innovation in guitar pop became a matter of creative arithmetic. Blind Willie McTell plus Led Zeppelin times garage rock equals the White Stripes. The Velvet Underground plus the Cars divided by an intercom system equals the Strokes. But this has limits, too. The Strokes' second album, "Room on Fire," is just a rehash of their first. It's redundant and kind of gutless. It's everything that Fernandez hates.

"Conet" ultimately defines the crux of rock's problem in middle age. How do you double back without seeming timid? How do you roll forward without seeming incomprehensible for its own sake?

On the Record

Though Fernandez and Wilco might sound like kindred spirits, they never exactly cozied up. The band didn't pay for that "Conet" loop, and in 2002 Fernandez sued.

For years, it's been Irdial's policy to post free downloadable versions of every song in its catalogue. (Head to Irdial.com to download any Irdial title, including the entirety of "Conet.") But Fernandez makes a distinction between personal and commercial use of his work. If you're going to make money from his labors, he thinks he should share in the wealth. At minimum, he thinks you should ask nicely. In 2001, he granted Hollywood director Cameron Crowe the right to several "Conet" cuts for use in the film "Vanilla Sky," free of charge, because Crowe requested permission. The cuts are heard in those arresting moments when Tom Cruise shows up in Times Square and discovers that he's all alone.

Wilco, the band's lawyers would eventually explain, figured there was no copyright on sound that anyone could have heard on the radio, that obviously wasn't a song and that hadn't in any way been artistically altered. Whatever the merits of the case -- and Fernandez says the law in England is clearly on his side -- Wilco settled out of court, saying it preferred to skip a drawn-out fight. That was in late June. The band's label sent Irdial-Discs, aka Akin Fernandez, about $30,000 to cover his legal costs, plus a royalty payment several times that sum. See if you can guess what Fernandez did with the money.

Today he is married, to Anne Marie, the one person who seemed to grasp the lunacy and charm of numbers stations, and they are raising four children. Some family men might take a windfall like the Wilco loot and renovate the house, or take the kids on vacation. Fernandez didn't do that.

"The kind of guy who releases 'The Conet Project' isn't the kind of guy who goes on vacation," he says.

How about a new car?

"Absolutely not," he says.

Fernandez revived Irdial with the money, and he re-released "The Conet Project." New copies went on sale July 13 and the sales chart at Aquarius Records is back in action. In just a few weeks, the store has already sold 120 more copies.

"Conet," of course, will never earn a profit, but that was never the point. Fernandez calls it a total artistic triumph because it's in the Library of Congress, because it's in the British Library and because numbers stations are less of a mystery than when he first ran into them, 12 years ago. In 1998, a U.K. government spokesperson acknowledged for the first time that shortwave radio is indeed used for espionage.

"These [numbers stations] are what you suppose they are," the spokesperson told the Daily Telegraph, in a story that was prompted by the release of "Conet." "People shouldn't be mystified by them. They're not, shall we say, for public consumption."

To the untrained ear this might have sounded like an unremarkable brushoff. To Fernandez, it sounded a lot like "uncle."


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