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You Need to Hack This Album to Listen to It

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By Dan Wilkinson

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Unless you’re hunting for a rare b-side from Boards of Canada or the Japanese Deluxe edition of a Flying Lotus album, the world of music is at our fingertips. Google, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and Soundcloud allow us to find music in seconds and when you actually have to track something down, the result is exhilarating - like calling up all your friend’s to find that thing they played you on YouTube or Googling the lyrics to a balearic song playing over the stereo in a back-alleyway coffee shop.

With this in mind, a band from Seattle called Netcat created an album that is extremely difficult to find. They uploaded their record to a tech website called Github, a hacker haven where computer programs can be uploaded and altered in modified format. Getting a copy is hard; you need to understand the Linux operating system and kernels. If the right kernels are inputted, the program to play the music is unlocked. 

The album mixes cello samples and complex improved noise—sort of like a mathcore record. Perhaps understanding that most people’s knowledge of code only extends to changing the colour of their Tumblr page, and barely anyone uses Linux, the band ended up releasing a stream on Bandcamp. But for those with a thirst, it’s still available to hack.

We emailed Brandon from the band to learn how to find the album, why technology goes hand in hand with their songs, and why people should enjoy a little challenge to find new music.

Noisey: Why did you decide to make an album that people could hack?
Brandon: We're all technology; people as well as musicians. It's pretty cool to think we're all using pocket-sized 90s supercomputers to essentially pass notes back and forth. Why not take listening to music, which we're all used to, and push that further toward an extreme of that kind of complexity?

Like the music you make? It all sounds pretty complex?
Yes, the idea comes through in our compositions; we use an elaborate setup involving 8 to 10 laptops, an instrumented Wi-Fi network, statistical language models, speech synthesis software, and a synth-based on computer vision algorithms. To complement how teched-out the music is, we thought it would be cool to build some complexity into how we released our album. We talked about a few other formats, too, like releasing the album as a custom hardware schematic, but we settled on the kernel module because we're all free software nerds.  

What did you expect the response to be?
People often have a taste for music that's a little out there. We thought we could use this release to connect with people in the free software world that would be into the technology, but would also like our music, too. The response was huge, positive, and amazing, and we were really happy to see that so many people in the tech and music worlds were into what we built.

I’m not too tech savvy. Could you explain what a linux kernel module is?
Linux is an operating system kernel, like Windows, or the kernel in Mac OSX. The kernel deals with all the low-level issues in your computer, letting you do things like run programs, use your hard drive, send stuff over the internet, and connect to your printer.  

Right.
A kernel module is a piece of software that you can use to extend the operating system to do something new. The best way to think about it is that it's kind of like a device driver, like you would use to make your computer talk to your printer or your iPod or whatever. Linux doesn't release their operating system with drivers for everything you might possibly connect to your computer. The company that makes the thing you might connect makes a 'kernel module' that is a driver for whatever you connected.

So how is your kernel different?
The kernel module we wrote doesn't instruct the kernel how to talk to a new printer; instead, ours includes the contents of our album and lets you listen to our tracks, passing the data through the operating system kernel first.

Do you all have tech backgrounds in the band?
We are all really interested in technology. Brandon has his PhD in computer science and is a researcher. David is a programmer by day. Andrew is an engineer in the aerospace industry. Technology is a big part of our lives, really. We're all into the idea that it's kind of inescapable and everyone is constantly using it. Our affinity for technology really shapes the way we make music. Brandon built a computer-based instrument called the Chango that uses computer vision algorithms and hand-built sound synthesis to turn video into harmonies.  As a band, we built software that watches computers talk over your wi-fi network and makes sounds that correspond to what they're saying.  

Do you feel that it has become a major part of our lives?
Most technology exists to give us the ability to do things we couldn't do without it.  We use that in our music to try to make interesting sounds and, in the case of the kernel module release, to give people an interesting way to experience our music.

How skilled do you need to be to run the module?
We have a pretty thorough tutorial that will help anyone that's a little bit tech savvy to build the module and listen to our album.That said, doing so requires you to have Linux running, which for some people might be a little bit inaccessible but totally worth it. We had an awesome reaction from people across the web and on Github especially. People wanted to help us improve the way we built the kernel module and to make the documentation better so others could build it. We had some help and some wise advice from Greg Kroah-Hartman, who is a pretty central figure in the Linux world. That was a pretty cool experience.

Do you feel the element of working to get to the music brings more value to it?
Part of being a programmer or hacker or tinkerer or whatever, is the rush you get when you mess around with something forever trying to make it work and then it finally does. We wanted to try to package up some of that experience into the kernel module release. If it takes an hour or two to figure out how to get Linux working the right way, then to figure out how to build our software, then what commands to use to play the album, listening at the end will be a well-earned reward. We hope our listeners who went through that process felt that way too.

Why should people use the kernel rather than listening to it normally?
Music is so easily accessible these days, to the point of it being undervalued by listeners. It’s really easy to just skip to another song or album on Spotify. Releasing it in a format that requires a bit of up front work can be more of a memorable experience to the listener, and maybe grab their attention a bit more. Being attentive is positive for the listener and the artist.

Is this something that's missing from modern music?
Technology is finding its way into everything. Dealing with complexity and using technology like this is central to modern life, music included.

Dan Wilkinson is always hacking computers. Hack him on Twitter  @KeenDang

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