This Washington Post article by David Segal, dated Aug. 3, 2004, tells the story of numbers station enthusiast Akin Fernandez and how his obsession with them turned into The Conet Project, of which a new 5th disc was added to the original 4-CD set…
For Akin Fernandez, Cryptic Messages Became Music to His Ears
In a cluttered home office in the World’s End section of London, Akin Fernandez is trolling the dial of his newly acquired shortwave radio. It’s December 1992 and it’s late at night, when the city is quiet and the mad-scientist squawks of international broadcasts have an otherworldly tone. Fernandez, the owner and sole employee of an indie music label, is about to trip across a mystery that will take over his life.
Shortwave signals are bouncing, as they always do, around the globe, caroming off a layer of the atmosphere a few hundred miles above the Earth and into antennas all over the world. Fernandez can hear news from Egypt and weather reports from China. But his browsing stops when he tunes in something startling: the mechanized voice of a man, reading out numbers.
No context, no comment, no station identification. Nothing but numbers, over and over, for minutes on end. Then the signals disappear, as if somebody pulled the plug in the studio. And it’s not just one station. The more he listens, the more number monologues he hears.
“Five four zero,” goes a typical broadcast, this time in the soulless voice of a woman with a British accent. “Zero nine zero. One four. Zero nine zero one four.”
Numbers in Spanish, in German, Russian, Czech; some voices male, others female. When Fernandez lucks into hearing the start of a broadcast, he’s treated to the sound of electronic beeps, or a few bars of calliope music, or words like “message message message.” Then come the numbers. A few stations spring to life the same time each night, others pop up at random and cannot be found again.
At first, Fernandez figures it’s a prank, the work of radio pirates with a sense of humor. But you need a license for this part of the radio band, and why would anyone break the law just to read digits into the dark yonder? In England the penalties are serious. Where’s the comedic payoff?
Nobody has answers. Not the guy who sold him the radio, who claims they’re weather stations – which is crazy, because weather stations don’t hopscotch to different spots on the dial, as many of these did. Not a manual he buys about shortwave frequencies, which has a chapter on “numbers stations” and describes them as a riddle that nobody has solved. Not the British Library, which seems to have catalogued every other sound on the planet.
What’s with the numbers?
Answering that question, it turns out, would take Fernandez years, and it left him nearly penniless, at least for a while. It also brought him a horde of admirers on another continent, eventually earned him a credit in a Tom Cruise movie and sparked a legal battle with the acclaimed band Wilco.
Fernandez would study numbers stations largely because he couldn’t stop even if he tried – which is to say, he fell into the grip of an obsession. But along the way, by both accident and design, he discovered amid all that static the raw material for a point he likes to make, with characteristic zeal, about the future of rock-and-roll.
That, however, is later. In December of ’92, Fernandez is just listening. And listening. He stays up till 4 or 5 every morning, jotting down frequencies and figures, looking for patterns. He keeps a detailed log, not for weeks or months but for years, without a clue about what exactly he is logging. Sometimes Fernandez doesn’t leave his house for a week.
“You just get submerged,” he says, on the phone from London. “You get immersed in it. There are so many questions and the only answer is to listen more, because no answers are coming from anywhere else.”
The Secret Sounds
A few things you should probably know about Akin Fernandez: There’s the basic background stuff – that he’s the son of Nigerian-born parents, that he grew up in Brooklyn and moved to London when he was 15 years old. He calls himself a geek. He believes UFOs are real. More mysteriously, there appear to be grooves carved into his clean-shaven head, the origins of which he politely declines to discuss. (“Irrelevant,” he says.) He is now 41.
Also – and this is key – Fernandez hunts for audible thrills the way a shark hunts for meat, which is to say constantly and ravenously. This makes it a little easier to grasp his passion for numbers stations. They were unlike anything that had ever hit his ears.
And the radio counting wasn’t just new to Fernandez, it was beautiful. He’s a disciple of an Italian named Luigi Russolo, who argued in a 1913 manifesto called “The Art of Noises” that the bustle of city life and industrial machinery ought to be included in our musical language, alongside chords and harmonies, violins and oboes. This proved a tough sell. In 1914, Russolo held his first concert with noise-making machines he called Intoners and the show ended in a melee: performers against the audience.
“I understand that shortwave noise is a kind of music,” Fernandez says, sounding Russolovian. “And to me the numbers brought another level of beauty to the music.”
One final thing to know about Akin Fernandez: He’s prone to fixations. His first was a collection of Marvel comic books that swelled to 5,000 when he was a kid. In his twenties, he noticed that literary-minded prostitutes in London were advertising their services, and phone numbers, with saucy little poems written on cards glued to the insides of phone booths. (“Once upon a time in Earl’s Court / reigned the wicked Love Queen. . . “) For months, Fernandez would mortify friends and family by painstakingly peeling the cards off the glass, until he owned more than 600 of them. In 1984, he published the lot in a volume called The X Directory.
“My mother came to the book party,” Fernandez recalls. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Numbers stations, with their variety and quantity, triggered all of his impulses to catalogue and collect. The stations had personality, if you listened long enough. One always began with a few bars of “The Lincolnshire Poacher,” an old British folk song. On another you could occasionally hear roosters or echoes of Radio Havana in the background, as though someone had forgotten to turn off a mike. One starred a young lady with an exotic accent who dramatically read words from the International Radio Operators alphabet, somehow making inscrutable phrases – “Sierra. Yankee. November.” – sound life-and-death urgent.
While the rest of London slept, Fernandez chased these voices all over the dial, never sure when or where he’d find one. He wrote down the results in a green book bound with fake leather. A typical entry looked like this:
Sept 6 ’93
Freq Time Signal
6.201 USB 12:30 am BIZARRE German Children’s Voice
Station starts with beeps, then
GLOCKENSPIEL!! Then count
From 1 to 10 then ACHTUNG!
And message!! [expletive] Hell!!
There are a lot of exclamation points in Fernandez’s log.
“You’re listening, and all of a sudden you come across a really strong signal,” he says. “It’s the most chilling thing you’ve ever heard in your life. These signals are going everywhere and they could be for anything. There’s nothing like it.”
To pay the rent, Fernandez released music through Irdial-Discs, which by then was part of a small ecosystem of clubs and record shops selling avant-garde music in London. Finally, after three years of wee-hours number logging, he heard about a book called “Intercepting Numbers Stations” by a guy named Langley Piece. He mail-ordered it from a place in Scotland, and when it arrived he sat and devoured it in a sitting. The book confirmed Fernandez’s initial hunch – the stations were no joke.
“They’re deadly serious, in fact,” he says. “That little German girl reading numbers, she might be ordering someone to assassinate a person with a poisoned umbrella.”
Let’s say you’re a spy, out in the field, spying. You need instructions now and then from headquarters, but you don’t want to risk exposure by picking up a phone (tappable) or getting an e-mail (traceable). Face-to-face meetings carry their own risks. What do you do?
One solution, dreamed up during the Cold War: Listen on shortwave radio at a predetermined time and frequency for a message that only you can understand. Numbers stations, it turns out, are the one-way chatter of espionage agencies to their spies. This isn’t conspiracy theory hokum; it’s referenced in a dozen-plus memoirs of assorted ex-spooks and defectors. And though numbers broadcasts might sound low-tech in the age of the BlackBerry, the idea isn’t utterly cockamamie.
“In a two-way communication, you have to acknowledge the message,” says David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers, a history of cryptology. “But with a shortwave broadcast, anybody can listen, which means that nobody knows who the message is intended for.”
The numbers, Kahn explained, are translated with the aid of what’s known as a one-time pad, essentially a dictionary for a language that is spoken only once. Most pads are destroyed after a single use – some of the Soviet pads, lore has it, were edible – making them one of espionage’s rarest artifacts. In 1988, three were found in a bar of hollowed-out soap when a Czech spy, posing as an art dealer in London, was caught by authorities as he sat in an apartment and transcribed a message sent via shortwave.
For Fernandez, this spy angle was a red rag to a bull. A dozen new questions arose, such as how much was all this costing taxpayers, and what messages were being sent? It irked him, too, that no government official, at least in Britain or the United States, would acknowledge this whole system was in place. He was unmoved by the argument that if the system were acknowledged it wouldn’t be secret anymore. It didn’t matter to him that the messages were totally indecipherable, or that nobody else seemed remotely worked up about them. The more Fernandez thought about it, the more outrageous it all seemed. British citizens – and citizens of other countries – underwriting secret messages, sent to agents, telling them to do God knows what.
“Even if you assume that most of the messages are ‘pick up this money’ or ‘drop off the laundry,’ think about what numbers stations represent. The only way a secret like this can be kept is if you live in a society where everybody is obeying and everybody is a little sleepy. But if you’re a curious kind of chap you’ll wonder, if your government can keep this a secret, what other secrets are they keeping.”
If you knew Fernandez back in 1994, there was no talking him out of his numbers addiction. He claims he had a social life through his super-fixated years, but ask for the name of a buddy who knew what he was going through and he comes up empty.
Well, a girlfriend named Anne Marie came by one night and listened and her jaw dropped. More typical, though, was the reaction of a cousin who lives in London, who was perfectly baffled.
“I’d call and he’d say, ‘I’m listening to something, do you want to hear it?’ ” remembers Enitan Abayomi. “And then I’d hear a voice over the radio. And I’d think, so? I just didn’t hear what he heard in it. But he’s very, very bright, and I often feel like he’s leaving me miles behind. So I thought that people with higher IQs than mine might understand what he’s talking about.”
At some point, Fernandez began to think he’d never kick his numbers habit. It had pushed nearly everything else out of his life. He’d had enough, and in 1997, he tore himself, at last, from his radio. How did he do it?
“The Conet Project,” he says.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”