In the music of John Carroll Kirby, the beat isn't usually the star of the show. His indefatigably funky instrumentals are typically a showcase for the sound of the pianist, producer and composer's dazzling keyboard chops, a talent that's seen him become one of the most sought-after collaborators in modern music: he's worked with Harry Styles, Steve Lacy, Frank Ocean and Miley Cyrus, to name a few.
Stumbling upon this live recording of Kirby's new single Oropendola, though, it's the drum machine that initially caught our eye. What exactly is that strange, bulky contraption? The sound was a little baffling, too: fuzzy and distorted but seemingly unprocessed, it didn't sound much like the raw tones of any modern drum machine.
As it happens, that's precisely because the instrument isn't a modern drum machine. In fact, it's the first commercially available drum machine ever released, the Wurlitzer Sideman. This electro-mechanical marvel was released in 1959, originally designed as an accessory for Wurlitzer organ owners. That's about as vintage as it gets when it comes to beat-boxes.
Housed in an all-wood case with an amp and speaker, the Sideman produces sound using a series of ten vacuum tubes. Patterns are sequenced through the use of a rotating disc covered with metal contacts spaced in such a way to generate preset rhythms, though players can use buttons on the top to play individual sounds, as Kirby does in the video.
After getting his groove going, Kirby sits down at the Rhodes (its sound augmented by a classic phaser, the Maestro PS-1B) to jam out the first single from his upcoming album Blowout, due for release June 30 via Stones Throw.
According to Kirby, the project was conceived during a stay in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, written "between 5am wake-up calls from oropendola birds and psychedelic sunsets" and leans towards a Calypso-influenced sound. Kirby's time in Costa Rica was documented in an episode of Kirby's Gold, his travelogue web series, embedded below.
"The oropendola is a very cool bird that lives in a sac-like hanging nest," Kirby said in a statement announcing the album's release. "There was a tree full of them outside where I stayed that woke me up every morning at 5am, so I had to write a song about them."
Pre-order John Carroll Kirby's Blowout via Stones Throw.
Revisit our feature on the history of the drum machine.