One Giant Leap For Music: NASA's Sonic History Inspires This Duo

Jul 23, 2017
Originally published on July 23, 2017 7:05 am

You probably have a mental image of what NASA's space missions look like — rockets blasting off into the sky, fiery clouds of exhaust after liftoff — but what do they sound like?

That's what inspired Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and art historian James Merle Thomas to form the duo Quindar, named after the signal tones used in radio communication during NASA's Apollo space missions. The duo's new album, Hip Mobility, incorporates archival sound recordings from the Apollo and Skylab eras.

"One of the conversations we had early on was maybe we could use this material as — it would sort of take the place of lyrics," Jorgensen says. "It would provide a story: some of the more humanizing, smaller moments of what life in space might be like, [such as] looking out the window as you catch a moment between some rigorous note-taking or scientific duties, and looking down at the earth hundreds of miles below."

Hear Jorgensen and Thomas' conversation with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro at the audio link.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This is Lulu's log, stardate July 23, 2017, where we consider matters of space, the stars and the universe. We all know what NASA's space missions look like. Think rockets shooting off into the sky. But what do they sound like?

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR'S "WEMBLEY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible) Commander has made a final guide...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A musical duo have been inspired by the sonic history of NASA to create a new album. It's called "Hip Mobility," and it uses sound recordings and archival material from the Apollo and Skylab missions. The group is called Quindar. And in it is Wilco's Mikael Jorgensen. He joins us from the KCRW studios in Santa Barbara, Calif. Welcome to the program.

MIKAEL JORGENSEN: Thank you for having us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The other part of the team is art curator James Merle Thomas, who is with us from the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hello, James.

JAMES MERLE THOMAS: Hello. It's a pleasure to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So James, I'm going to start with you. I have to say, this music is nerd heaven. How did this come about (laughter)?

THOMAS: Nerd heaven might be an apt description to describe the genesis of the project (laughter). And a few years ago, I was a fellow at the Air and Space Museum and was really embedded within the space history division there. I kept on encountering a lot of very rich archival material - 16 mm film, audio recordings from utterly mundane sessions. And the material was just immensely rich.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR SONG)

JORGENSEN: One of the conversations we had early on was maybe we could use this material as - it would sort of take the place of lyrics. It would provide a story, some of the more humanizing, smaller moments of what life in space might be like, you know, from looking out the window as you catch a moment between some sort of rigorous note taking or scientific duties and looking down at the Earth hundreds of miles below.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR SONG)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to say, I love the name Quindar. And I didn't realize that Quindar tones are the beeps that you hear in the old NASA communications. Let's listen to what they sound like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tranquility, this is Houston. Do you copy my mark?

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR TONES)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Roger, very good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You used one of these in one of the tracks on the new album, "Honeysuckle This Is Houston."

JORGENSEN: Well, the "Honeysuckle This Is Houston" track was written during the very first session that James and I had back in 2011. And he's like, oh, check out this clip here. You know, they're testing the telemetry systems.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR'S "HONEYSUCKLE THIS IS HOUSTON")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Honeysuckle, this is Houston...

JORGENSEN: To me - I was like, oh, that reminds me of a drummer clicking off a song in a rock band.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR'S "HONEYSUCKLE THIS IS HOUSTON")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: One.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR TONES)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Two.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR TONES)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Three.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR TONES)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Four.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR TONES)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to know if you guys were both into space and science as kids. Clearly, you were brought together by music initially. What's the science connection?

JORGENSEN: Man, it was straight up "3-2-1 Contact" for me growing up.

THOMAS: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: PBS show.

JORGENSEN: I remember recording the first space shuttle landing on Betamax.

(LAUGHTER)

JORGENSEN: I remember at the time, like, feeling like, oh, this is important. I should probably tape this.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINDAR'S "TWIN-POLE SUNSHADE FOR RUSTY SCHWEIKART")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question - any reviews from NASA (laughter)?

JORGENSEN: We're waiting.

THOMAS: My colleagues at the Air and Space Museum have certainly been pleased to know that - this is probably the first gatefold LP that's come out of a fellowship from the space history department.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can imagine (laughter). So they must be thrilled. Mikael

Jorgensen and James Merle Thomas make up the duo Quindar. Their album is called "Hip Mobility." Thank you.

JORGENSEN: Thanks so much for having us.

THOMAS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.