Kathy McGinty – Kathy McGinty Collectors Edition CD (Hamburger Records, 2005)

“I had to be fast with the buttons to make the conversation seem natural, but then I’d realize there would be a guy, you know, going at it on the other end.”

When I was in high school, one of my favourite albums was Kathy McGinty, which quickly became a hit among my friends. A cult phenomenon that first spread via the Aquarius Records shop and mail order, it had an irresistible concept. The ever-excitable Kathy McGinty prowled for love-hungry men in chat rooms, luring them with sexy talk and asking them to call her on the phone. When they did, they met “Kathy,” who was nothing more than a Yamaha sampler that rotated through a handful of phrases, sexy and not. The sampler was manned by Derek Erdman, and featured the vocal talents of his friend, Julia Rickert. Kathy’s treasury of expressions ranged from the mundane (“This is Kathy,” “So, what’s up?”) to the outrageous (“Your dick tastes like bacon,” “Taco Bell tastes so good,” “I think I might be having a miscarriage”), with not much in between. The men would eventually figure out the gambit, but not before a few minutes of awkward back-and-forth.

Derek Erdman’s personal copy of Kathy.

I speak with Derek Erdman by email to learn more about this legendary disc.

“Julia and I were roommates, living in a neighborhood that was a utopia at the time,” he tells me. “It was slightly desolate on the outskirts of downtown Chicago, and a lot of our friends were living nearby, so it was a fertile time for doing things. I can’t really think of a reason that Kathy happened other than boredom. I was into the internet then — 2002 or so — so I spent a lot of time on it. Julia didn’t care so much about it, she watched a lot of Passions and Family Feud. I clearly remember her being very critical that the first two rounds of Feud didn’t matter at all; if they won only the third round, that family would take it all.”

Erdman’s first forays into the exploitation of male desperation were low-tech. “I used to place local ads for people to show up to have sex, but I’d give them the address to the house across the street,” he remembers. “I’d tell them to honk their car horn and yell for Tammy because the doorbell was broken. I’d ask them to bring eggs or a gallon of milk as a nice gesture. Dudes would show up in groups with milk yelling for Tammy, and see others doing the same. Truly awful stuff.”

At the time, he was spending a lot of time in chat rooms, “pretending to be somebody that I wasn’t, probably acting like a jerk.” Since he also was a lifelong enthusiast of prank calls, it was only a matter of time before he merged the two interests. At first, this involved pretending to be a woman and instructing men to call the house to leave sexy messages on an answering machine – promising to call them back if they were “sexy enough.” (Some of these voicemails ended up on the CD).

Erdman says that, when these calls started coming through to their answering machine, they were impossible for Rickert to ignore. “It was her idea to interact with them in a way that we wouldn’t actually have to, and Kathy was born. I had a Yahama SU-10 sampler (still do!), and we programmed the sayings into it, spliced some wires to a phone, and away we went.”

Schematic of the Kathy McGinty apparatus, drawn up by Derek Erdman.

Some of those samples are classics, including lines like “You sound like a child molester!” and “I think you might be racist.” Erdman says they were the result of inspired improvisation. “Julia and I came up with them on the fly, going for whatever would be the most jarring while callers were all worked up. It’s funny, ‘You sound like a child molester’ elicited a vague response, but when you’d call somebody racist, they didn’t like that at all. ‘I think you might be racist’ is such a funny thing to say, like the sex talk gave Kathy some clues to their racism.”

Finding men was hardly a challenge. “I’m sure we went for whatever chat rooms seemed the most explicit, ‘creeps for teens’ or whatever. There was no nuance to it whatsoever. We’d get right in a room and say something like, ‘Who wants to phone bang?’ and we’d get five takers right away. I have no idea what we called ourselves. Probably teen_for_creeps or something similar.”

Erdman says he was at a place in his life where he wasn’t worried about giving away his phone number or being traced. “What were people going to do, come to our apartment and admit to being a sex joke?” he pontificates. “This was right around the time when I first got a cell phone, so the landline was treated as a castoff. I hardly ever answered it seriously. The prefix was 666, I still remember the whole number.”

The tape recorder used to commit Kathy’s calls on tape. (Source: Derek Erdman)

I asked Erdman to paint a picture of what it was like handling those calls. “[It was] usually late at night, usually just the two of us huddled around a beige 1980s Bell Systems phone on a red dining room table. I was usually the one to control the sampler, because it was a hassle to cycle through four banks of samples. There are 12 buttons on that sampler, so you’d use them up pretty fast. Especially with time buying responses. We figured out pretty early that we’d need something like, ‘Sorry, I’m on speaker phone so I can touch myself’ or ‘Hold on a second.’ I needed that just to catch up sometimes. I had to be fast with the buttons to make the conversation seem natural, but then I’d realize there would be a guy, you know, going at it on the other end.”

On one occasion, one of those men “finished” before giving up on the call, something that apparently left Erdman with a bit of a stomach ache.

Sometimes, callers “finished” before Erdman and Rickert had a chance to alienate them.

One of Erdman’s favourite calls is “Very Large Hands.” On that track, the caller is immediately suspicious about Kathy’s phone, then cracks up and asks if the audio clips are being transmitted via computer or a keyboard. He then can’t stop laughing as Kathy commands him to “suck the shit out of my ass” and “drink my cum, fuckface!” Another Erdman fave is “I Have Somebody Else in the House,” in which a whispering caller stays on the line for over six minutes, persisting through Kathy’s cycle of absurdities (“I wanna jam my thumb in your dick hole,” “I can’t feel your dick, it must be teeny”), even when she starts speaking in reverse and a man’s voice blurts out “Kathy Robot version 2.1.”

These calls have left an indelible impression on Erdman. “I can still hear their voices echoing in my head,” he says. “They’re kind of like boyfriends of mine, in a way!”

The physical Kathy McGinty release started off life as a homemade CD-R. Erdman says that this disc was first championed by the San Franscico shop Aquarius Records, whom he commends for their honest business ethic and commitment to promoting Kathy. As that CD-R was selling like hotcakes, he learned that Kathy had been bootlegged and was being peddled at stores in Los Angeles. Michael Sheppard, who also put out the infamous Celebrities at their Worst on the Mad Deadly Worldwide Communist Gangster Computer God label, was responsible. “What a stupid thing to bootleg,” Erdman says. “But, also, he probably thought it was just an impossibly obscure thing that nobody would find out about. Also, the first versions we made were so homemade looking, why not just make your own? I guess that sort of makes sense.

“I think we had a phone conversation with Michael and he agreed to stop selling them and also send us money, but he never did. I really liked those other CDs that he did, I can see the connection to what he was selling with those and what McGinty was, so really, it makes sense. That Van Morrison CD is a revelation to listen to. ‘Want a Danish’ especially!”

Erdman also mentions setting a modem to call Sheppard’s 1-800 number on repeat “for a week straight,” but it’s hard to know if he’s being serious.

We discovered, in conducting this interview and browsing through Discogs, that someone also did a cassette bootleg at one point. Erdman also mentioned that an indie record compilation used one of the calls between songs without permission. And a band called Bell sampled it without permission on an album that came out on Soul Jazz Records. “We asked them to give us some money and went to Haiti with it,” he tells me, possibly joking. “Ethically questionable on our part, because we didn’t have permission from the callers.”

Erdman eventually pressed Kathy in an edition of 2000 professional CDs. He put it out on his own label, Hamburger Records, which was named after his “lofty house” at the time, which he dubbed Gallery Hamburger.

There were actually two releases on Hamburger Records; in addition to Kathy, there was a disc called 75 Voicemail Messages, by Simone Waters. “Simone Waters (not her real name) was a girl I dated briefly, I really liked her and she was waaaaay out of my league,” he says. “She used to call me way too much and leave messages, and they all sounded EXACTLY the same. So that CD is that. Probably so dumb that it shouldn’t exist. Very disappointing for fans of McGinty.” (He says now that he thinks this was a mean thing to do.)

(Source: Discogs)

Yet Kathy and Simone were hardly Erdman’s only forays into telephony. “I was a MAJOR prank caller as a kid — and, uh, adult,” he says. “Calling strangers screaming, anything non-sequitur, etc. I’m a huge fan of Longmont Potion Castle, Tube Bar, & the Screamer.” There are some other prank calls up on his website. He also ran a 24/7 psychic hotline for ten years:

“Derek Erdman’s FREE PSYCHIC HOTLINE, call 24/7 (206) 324 6276 for a pre-recorded message or a live psychic. Pre-recorded message changes weekly and includes upcoming celebrity news, impending disasters, lucky lottery numbers & other information. Talk to a live psychic about any subject that you desire. ABSOLUTELY FREE.”

Erdman learned, through Aquarius Records, that both Dan the Automator and Matt Groening had bought copies of Kathy and liked them – something he is rightly proud of.

The Yamaha sampler used to give life to Kathy. (Source: Derek Erdman)

Today, Kathy is a fond memory, although not one that he returns to often. “I don’t think about it much, but it is a funny thing we made a long time ago. It seems kind of early internet to me. Kathy is definitely more of a character, not a reflection of us, and she said some stuff that there’s no way we’d say now. I guess that comes with age, self censorship or empathy for other people in the world. It’s unfortunate in a way that I wouldn’t make something like these days, but I guess that’s a part of growing up. And Taco Bell does taste ‘sooooo good.’”

He does offer a teaser for passionate Kathy McGinty fans, however. He still has the old tapes in a box in the basement, and he estimates that there are about 30 minutes of calls that weren’t included on the original CD. He figures that the best calls are all included on the CD, thanks to Rickert’s curatorial discretion. But he’s happy to send the rest of the tapes to anyone who wants to digitize them…

Thanks to Derek Erdman for the interview. Visit Derek’s website, where you can learn about his paintings and various other exploits.

Various Artists – Handle With Care (Sabotage Recordings, 1996)

Sabotage Recordings was an electronic music label run by Robert Jelinek from 1995 until 1999, at which point its remaining inventory was melted down and used for the dance floor at Vienna’s nightclub, Flex. As that stunt might suggest, apart from releasing electronic music of various stripes, Sabotage also acted as a form of conceptual collective known for insidious pranks.

Jelinek and co. have concocted several past social experiments. Once, they concealed microphones in a private members club and broadcast the conversations publicly via speakers posted outside the building. On another occasion, they swapped out the guided-tour audio for an exhibition at a local art museum with audio about various art heists. They also once replaced the telephone book in a phone booth in Linz, Germany with ones from Linz, Austria.

The Sabotage Recordings label has also been home to its fair share of experiments. One particularly memorable occasion was a compilation, Handle With Care, which came out in 1996.

The back tray insert, complete with subtle warning regarding the virus.

Featuring a few artists affiliated with Sabotage and some one-offs (Zink and Line, for example, were obscure pseudonyms of a producer named Markus Brand), Handle With Care was, by Jelinek’s description, “very repetitive, loop-like” electronic music. What was interesting about it was that it came booby-trapped with a “friendly virus” which, when played in a CD-ROM drive, prevented the listener from opening the drive up to remove the CD. According to Jelinek, this virus was created by “local hackers from the Chaos Club Berlin” and was set to deploy once the first track was played. He also tells me the only way to rescue the CD was to find and trigger the manual release button on one’s CD-ROM drive. “There was no menu, no manual, no preparation,” he explains. “Program started automatically.”

Jelinek compares this booby-trapped CD to Merzbow’s famous, limited-to-one-copy Merzcar release, a fabled CDR of noise that came inside a car! According to the story, the owner of the Releasing Eskimo label, which put out Merzbow’s Noisembryo album, owned an out-of-commission Mercedes that the police had ordered him to move. So he decided to entice Merzbow fans to take his problem off his hands by rigging up the car’s CD player to play Noisembryo indefinitely, modifying the stereo to prevent users from turning it off or removing the disc. He then promoted Merzcar as an ultra-limited-edition Merzbow goodie. The interested customer was required to buy the whole car in order to obtain the CD, representing the apotheosis of elaborate packaging feats! Jelinek reflects that, much like the Merzcar, which is locked into a car stereo, doomed to be played on repeat for eternity, Handle With Care has “a romantic motive behind it: a piece of music inseparable, forever. Implemented with the technical know-how of the time.”

Back of the CD.

Jelinek tells me a bit more about customers’ experiences with the album. “It was often a nasty surprise for the ignorant and there was a need for explanation. The handling of computer viruses was new at the time and accordingly one was awkward but also careful.” He explains that people who knew that track one was booby-trapped would know they had to start the CD at track two.

Handle with Care was also given as a mean gift,” he recalls. “And some club owners contacted us because DJs played this CD and they didn’t know how to get it out of their devices. And again, it was about our patterns of action in dealing with technology, trust and manipulation.”

It’s no coincidence that the label’s name was Sabotage, and it’s an idea that Jelinek has carried forward long past the end of the formal imprint. In 2003, he established a sovereign state called State of Sabotage:

 The State of Sabotage (SoS) was founded as a sovereign state in 2003 on the unpopulated island Harakka in Finland by the Austrian artist ROBERT JELINEK. Even before it had existed the end of the state had already been planned and set for August 30 2013. Exactly after ten years. Independently from the exhibition date the validity of all documents such as SoS passports and ID cards ends with August 30th 2013.

from Jelinek’s website, sabotage.at

That state, destined to be sabotaged from the start, was, indeed, shut down on its intended date, but not before issuing passports and ID cards, and corresponding with the United Nations.

Though Handle With Care was one of many Jelinek-initiated acts of sabotage, it’s a particularly pithy one. A CD that commandeers your computer and plays itself endlessly — in today’s era of unlimited musical choice, such a state of sabotage is almost unthinkable.