Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Dropping a Needle in the Groove of Baseball History: Sam Kulik and The Broadcast

We at Zisk love when the worlds of baseball and music connect. Usually that entails songs about the national pastime’s more memorable players and games, and we dig those tunes a bunch. But Sam Kulik’s The Broadcast? Where to begin? That’s a different cut of cowhide.

The Broadcast is an inning-by-inning, real time recreation of a Mets/Marlins game with an ever-shifting original soundtrack running beneath the play-by-play. It’s a new take on listening to music with a ballgame on. Clocking in at nearly three hours, The Broadcast is too long for a conventional LP or CD release. The Broadcast is available on download cards that double as baseball cards. Each card in the twenty-card set corresponds with a different half inning of the play-by-play call. The front of card #12, for example, depicts violinist Amie Weiss in uniform while the back has a download for the bottom of the sixth inning. Card #18 features drummer Kevin Shea and the music for bottom of the eighth. The cards come in wax packs, seven per pack. It's a labor-intensive work of genius.

Trombonist Sam Kulik conceived of The Broadcast and coordinated the music with the help of some of New York’s finest improvising musicians. Kulik also provides the play-by-play. In the spring of 2015 he gave himself a crash course in broadcasting by watching over 50 Mets games with the sound off and delivering his own call of each game.

The concept alone snared my attention, and yet the more I spoke with Sam the deeper my admiration and appreciation for The Broadcast grew. Who’d have guessed there would be a Zisk interview referencing John Cage, Frank Zappa, the theory of entropy, and the legendary Sun Lion?

Interview by Mike Faloon
Transcribed by Madeline Bridenbaugh

Zisk: What were the origins of the various components of The Broadcast—the  music, the play-by-play, the cards?

Sam Kulik: They were separate ideas, making the cards and making the record. The cards came first. I was recording with a band called Skeletons and we had a lot of material. I was talking to the bandleader and he was like, “Yeah the stuff is sounding great but I don’t know how we’re going to release it because there’s too much for a CD.” Out of nowhere I gave him a cast-off idea, “Why don’t you put it on baseball cards? Each card is a download card that you sell packs of, so people end up with a random assortment of the cards; everybody gets a different version of the album.” After we hung up I thought, Man, I hope he doesn’t do that because I want to do that. I had been given some download cards by different musicians who put time and effort into making them. I thought, This is a format that can have a life of its own right now. That was the idea for the baseball cards, it came out of thin air.
The idea for calling a game myself and setting it to music came maybe three years ago. When I’m home practicing and doing my daily routines as a brass player, there is a certain amount of upkeep I do every day. Long tones, scales, lip slurs, all this. I was watching a game and I got to a point where I wanted to put the horn down and I tried my hand at doing some play-by-play. I muted the sound and recorded a half-inning. It was Jenrry Mejia’s rookie season and it was like the best start he made that year. But I still didn’t know who he was. I was pronouncing his name wrong, saying “Jen-ree Mejia.” Obviously very rough material; I was mispronouncing the starting pitcher’s name. But when I finished half an inning and listened back to it, it didn’t have any crowd noise, and that was so weird, so different to hear only the audio track of the broadcaster without the sounds of the game behind it. No crack of the bat, no roar of the crowd, you don’t hear the peanut vendor or whatever. It sounded naked and I had a bunch of instruments within arm’s reach so I was like, I’ll improvise a piece of music to go along with it. I added a synthesizer, a little trombone.     
That half inning demo gave me the idea to do a full game. I thought it was a rather ambitious idea, so I sat with it for a while. Another season went by and I still liked the idea. I began reading a bunch of baseball books, trying to learn about sportscasting. Tried to get the right equipment, figured out what kind of microphone they were using in the booth. And then spring training I said, All right here I go. Started watching games and doing my own play-by-play. My voice was not capable of lasting more than four or five innings at first. And it’s not like talking to you here, it’s some sort of added level. My broadcasting voice is very similar to my actual voice but it’s different in ways that I haven’t fully analyzed. You slide into the character a little bit. Everything’s a little turned up.

Zisk: Were you conscious of having enough to say to last a full game or did that come with time?

Sam: That came with practice. I also knew that is wasn’t going to be a problem if I ran out of things to say because there’d be music happening. It’s not like dead air on the radio. There are broadcasters who favor long stretches of silence which I appreciate. They start to creep in, seventh inning or so. That’s when you get the pauses, later in the game. You’ve already met all the players. Unless someone is coming off the bench there’s not a lot of new information.
Watching games as the broadcaster was great, deepening my appreciation of the sport. I was really paying attention to every pitch. Do you know the book Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent? It’s every pitch of an Orioles/Brewers game, played in Milwaukee. Dan uses the game to go deep into strategy. “There’s one out and a runner at first. The count’s so-and-so. Is he going to be bunting?” That kind of minutiae. “Paul Molitor is coming up to bat. Here’s how Paul Molitor became Paul Molitor. Let’s talk about that for a few pages.”

Zisk: Cutting to backstories and such?

Sam: Yeah, it’s that sort of telescoping view of the sport. It’s very specific and very universal. Being familiar with that book, and having it as a guide to this project, that was why I wanted to do just a single game not take a highlight reel of certain innings from certain exciting games or do a famous World Series game or no-hitter. Just your everyday game.

Zisk: You chose an early game.

Sam: May 31st (2015). It’s a 4-3 win which brings them (Mets) a half game behind the Nationals. I had no idea they were going to go to the World Series. That was a fun ride because I had a deeper investment in the team. I’d been a Mets fan for ten years but this was really getting down. Reading the game notes every day, doing my broadcasts. I did fifty-some games before I got that take. That’s the fifty-first game of the season and I had done every game up to that point to bring myself up to the level of broadcasting that didn’t make me look like a total fool.  

Zisk: So you practiced each game in real time?

Sam: I did it in real time, yeah. I was recording every day. There was a game deGrom pitched against Cincinnati a couple of weeks before this series with the Marlins that I thought I did a pretty good job. That was in the maybe pile.

Zisk: A maybe pile of one.

Sam: Yeah, there was a maybe pile of one. And then that weekend series with the Marlins at the very end of May. I was about to leave town for a month to go on tour and I said, This is it. I got to get one of these games. Do it in my living room in front of the television so I’ll have the real-time aspect, and I wanted a Mets win. They lost two of three in the series but this was the Sunday afternoon game. It was a decent ballgame and they won, and I didn’t sound like an idiot.

Zisk: It turned out really well.

Sam: There are edits. If I tripped over a word, I’d just pick up where I left off and snip that out later. But the game was done in real time, sitting there with my headset microphone. The same one that Keith Hernandez wears.

Zisk: Does Bartolo Colón get a hit in that game?

Sam: Yeah. Until the end of the season this game was completely unremarkable. There was no outstanding characteristic of this ballgame, other than Colón hit a double, that’s like a little footnote. And Ichiro has a base hit, which ties him with Omar Vizquel, fortieth place (on the all-time hit list). I liked the fact that it was a totally ordinary game. Then after the season, there’s an award for the best radio call, and it was given to Howie Rose for his call of the Colón double. He said, “They’re timing Colón with a sundial.” Colón knocked it to centerfield. Ichiro was playing really shallow and the ball rolled all the way to the wall. It should have been a triple, and Colón was waltzing in to second base, no interest in third. It was a close game. He should’ve gone for third, but he was content with his double.  
Another part of my research was Paul Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary. It’s a dictionary of baseball terms. It’s got ten thousand words or something. I spent a lot of time reading that book just to bring some of these words into my mind. I know there is one that makes it onto the album, which is where I called Dee Gordon a lettuce-and-tomato hitter, a guy who’s got no meat. Dee Gordon is hitting .370 at that point in the season and I’m saying this guy is the best there is, you can’t get him out, but he’s a lettuce-and-tomato hitter; he hasn’t homered since last June. I was glad to be calling a Marlins game because Giancarlo Stanton is great. They got Ichiro, Christian Yelich, Dee Gordon.

Zisk: And Marcel Ozuna hadn’t been sent down yet.

Sam: He was a pinch hitter in that game. Ozuna is one of the few players who I’ve managed to hand some cards to. I went down to spring training, and I went to a Mets-Marlins game in Port St. Lucie. Ozuna’s the kind of player that comes out and signs autographs, and he was the one player who came over and said hello to people. I gave him some cards. He kind of looked at me. I explained what they were as quickly and succinctly as I could but you got to make a couple of leaps to really know what the thing is. He opened a pack right there and started looking through the cards. I gave him a few more and was like, “Give ‘em to the guys on the bus.”

Zisk: That’s unusual because usually players are handed cards of themselves like, “Sign this card for me,” and you are handing them a card of you, a role reversal of sorts.

Sam: These are for you and these are about you. Later that week, I was at a game that (Bartolo) Colón started in Dunedin against the Blue Jays and he drove himself home with his family after the game. I chased his car across the parking lot. We were this far away from each other, he’s driving the car and I’m all, “Bartolo, these are for you! I’m trying to give these to you! These are about you!” and he wouldn’t turn his head to look at me. Some crazy fan trying to give him some shit. Terry Collins took some. Tom Gordon very graciously took some, he was into it. Little victories. I don’t expect any of them to actually like it.
I try not to learn very much about the personal lives of ballplayers because basically they’re all like twenty-four-year-old jocks. Like, Jacob deGrom might have really long hair and be a great pitcher and seem all cool, like he’s my style or something, but he is just a jock from Lakeland, Florida who eats Chipotle Subway before every start. That’s his ritual.

Zisk: Listens to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Sam: They are not going to think I am cool because I did this. I mean maybe they will, like maybe Curtis Granderson will think it’s totally cool, give me a pat on the back, and then tweet about it and I will sell a couple hundred packs of cards. That would be great. Kevin Plawecki, though, I managed to get him to walk ten feet over to the fence so I could give him a pack of cards. Did he open it? Probably. Did he look at the codes and stream it on his phone while he rode the bus back to Port St. Lucie? Probably not. But he might’ve. I intend to keep looking for ways to engage with some of the players.
I played the national anthem at Citi Field last year so I met a few people who work for the Mets while doing that. I’ve tried to be like, “Here I have this thing, don’t you think it’s cool or interesting at all?” And they’ll be like, “Yeah, sort of,” but they don’t really care. At least they don’t try to sue me.
That was another thing I was worried about at the outset, and actually Dan Okrent, who I mentioned earlier, he’s a friend of our family’s. I saw him before I started working on the project and I was like, “Dan, I’ve got this thing in mind…” One of my only real concerns was that I would run afoul of Major League Baseball, like either they’d sue the pants off me or just make it a miserable experience somehow. Dan was like, “Dude, you’re on solid ground.” He was an expert witness in a case that went to the Supreme Court. It was the players’ association suing whatever data company has the servers that fantasy baseball statistics are kept on. The idea is that David Ortiz owns the fact that he hit 34 home runs, that’s his intellectual property. That’s the case the player’s association was trying to make, they should be able to license that information to ESPN so they can run a fantasy baseball league that makes them millions of dollars.
But the Supreme Court declared that there’s really no difference in Curtis Granderson being 0 for 3 with a walk than there is from Burp Castle opens at four p.m. and stays open until eleven p.m. That’s just stuff that happened. It’s not intellectual property or any other kind of proprietary. They are events that happened. When Gary Cohen goes to work for SNY and calls a baseball game and it’s part of a telecast, that’s a thing that they’ve created that they have control over. But they don’t have control over what happened in the game.
Like the newspaper doesn’t have to license anything to print a box score or print a summary of the game. We don’t have to pay anybody in order to sit here and talk about the Mets’ 3-1 loss in Pittsburgh this afternoon. That’s just something that happens. There’s an amazing canon of art that’s been made about baseball and I want this to be part of it, not just like some black sheep that’s of questionable legality. I want people to think this is cool.
I wanted to use one game, one complete game because of the way…baseball is a very quotidian sport. Played every day. Most games are completely unremarkable—and that’s the beauty of it. I love the Andrew McCutchens and Giancarlo Stantons of the world but it’s like, actually a historical footnote of this game is that it was the final game that Jhonatan Solano ever played for the Marlins. He was released four or five days later and didn’t get into another game before that happened. That was his final game as a Marlin and those players are very interesting to me. That’s a baseball card collector thing. I have a game with friends. There is still a lot of dead stock of baseball cards from the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. You can get a pack of ‘88 Topps for twenty-five cents. We have a game where you hold your hand over the card as it comes out of the pack. You slide your hand off and see how quickly you recognize the player.

Zisk: Like Name That Tune?

Sam: Yeah like Name That Tune, except it’s Name That 1988 Topps Baseball Card. The Nolan Ryans are easy but for some reason I’ll always love Oddibe McDowell. His name was so great. There are bit players in the game that make it interesting to follow and the everyday baseball game is the same thing. You have your standout games each season where something momentous happens but you have 150 other games where you just either won or lost.

Zisk: You called the entire game yourself. Did you consider working with a partner?  

Sam: I didn’t. I didn’t want to find another person whose schedule I needed to coordinate with or might have a different vision. I just needed to get down to business and do this work myself.

Zisk: I enjoy slaloming back and forth between your monologue and the music. A dialog might have undermined that dynamic.

Sam: I did think about having certain innings be with color commentator or certain innings be an absurdist broadcast. Like not really saying what’s going on but talking about oblique aspects of the game. Not describing the action we’re supposed to pay attention to, but describing what’s happening to one of the player’s shoes or something. I decided to be the straight man, do the best job that I could doing the play-by-play, then make the music totally weird.  

Zisk: In that sense the music becomes the partner, the music provides the color commentary.

Sam: Good observation. A lot of the music is stuff that I had sitting around already. Unreleased recordings of things that I was happy with and proud of but had never found a way to release.

Zisk: Was there some relief knowing you’d found a useable game?

Sam: Yeah, I’m was off the hook, on to the music phase. Then the production phase and making the commercials. I really wanted to have the album done by the end of the season. One of the things that draws me to watching sports is that it’s happening live. If I am going to watch TV I am going to watch baseball or if it’s the off-season I’ll watch curling. It’s live, it’s unscripted, we don’t know what the result is going to be, so tune in. You’re just watching life happen. I don’t like focusing on past games, that was partly why I wanted to get the game (The Broadcast) out during the same season. You know the rosters are going to be different the next year.

Zisk: It’s going to be a different cast.

Sam: It’s going to be an instant relic. So the faster I can get it out, the more connection it has to the current Mets. I got a bonus month, they played all through October. Printing the cards took a couple weeks longer than I wanted. I got the cards right after the World Series finished, which is still a pretty fast turnaround. I started working on the music in July and I was using stuff that I already had. So okay, I have a nine-minute piece, which inning of the game is roughly nine minutes long? Let’s listen to them together, see how it sounds. Most of the time I was satisfied right off the bat. And I had some pieces that I was writing, and I did two studio recording sessions. I got a lot done in those sessions. It was like, “Okay, we’re going to play this piece of music and it’s got to last for thirteen minutes. So either I knew how many repeats we were going to have or we were going to vamp in a certain section.
Then there were further home recordings. There’s really only one inning, the top of the ninth, the end of the ballgame, that was composed like a score. I improvised it while watching that inning.
The bottom of the seventh is probably the oldest recording, 2007 or so. It was recorded at the magician Penn Jillette’s house, of Penn and Teller. His high school sweetheart is my friend Amy’s mom, and Amy and I had a band at that time. Penn said, “Hey, if Amy’s band ever wants to come and hang out in Vegas and record, they can use my studio.” He is a phenomenal guy, the most charismatic man I’ve ever met. Can tell a story so that you’re hanging on his every word. We had hours worth of recording from that session that never made it into an album.  
There is another inning, the bottom of the fifth. It’s sort of in AB form. Each at-bat just happens to sync up at the beginning of a section (of music) each time. There’s so many happy accidents. Are you a Frank Zappa fan? On the album Sheik YerboutiYour Booty there are a couple of pieces, one of them is called “Rubber Shirt,” a bass and drum duet. It’s just a couple minutes long, instrumental. Very nice, sensitive interplay between the two instruments but they weren’t recorded together. They weren’t recorded while listening to each other. In fact, they were isolated parts from two completely different songs. He points this out in the liner notes. He was experimenting at that time with what he termed xenochronying, which was two or more unrelated recordings brought together and in many cases the result sounds intentional. So the whole idea of this broadcast project is that it’s a xenochronist result. It’s music that was not intended to go with the game, and the game which was not intended to go with any specific piece of music, but they are together and sometimes, although it’s not “Homerun-da-da-da-da,” there’s something in the music that can be interpreted as a reference to what’s happening in the action or vice-versa. And in that way like you said, the music becomes the color commentator in a certain way.

Zisk: And like a conventional broadcast there are ads, which you created.

Sam: One of them was a real ad. It’s the one for Sun Lion Tangerines. I have a cousin who lives in Florida and he met a guy at the farmers market who was getting into the tangerine business, and had this far-reaching concept for his tangerine company, Sun Lion Tangerines. He made up the Sun Lion, this mythical character. There’s this whole thousand-year backstory of the legend of the Sun Lion and how it involves tangerines. He wanted to make an animated cartoon series starring the Sun Lion. This Sun Lion man, David Gornoski, sent me a voice memo of this song idea that he had. I was like, Cool, give me a couple hundred bucks, I’ll flesh it out, I’ll orchestrate it, I’ll get some people to play on it. He loved it and made an animation of it. If you go to the Sun Lion tangerine website you can see it as a ninety-second advertisement.  

Zisk: I also like the ad for the free meal, although it’s not really a free meal.

Sam: There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Either you’ve done work that entitles you to this free lunch, which means it’s not free, it negates the idea of free. That’s the theory of entropy that the fast-talking is talking about. Or it could mean that the person wants something from you, it’s free but you have to sign up for the mailing list. There’s a string attached.
My friend Lisa has a great voice. It took a while to track that and it’s heavily edited but I didn’t speed up the tape or anything. I was like, “You talk as fast as you can, you take breaks whenever you want, and I’m just going to cut it together.” I wanted to reference and/or lampoon the various tropes of advertising on baseball games and one of the things is a car ad or some kind of medicine where there’s a bunch of fine print read very quickly. I was like, What if the ad is only like five seconds long but then it had two minutes of fine print?

Zisk: Like a Mad magazine satire. I also like the one for the bat company—“Break eight bats or nine bats and get a free ball!”

Sam: That’s something that my seven-year-old cousin was making up.

Zisk: I like the times where she stumbles a bit and you left it in.

Sam: That’s a parody of Cars for Kids. She’s great. She’s advertising for and it’s like, “For more information, go to baseball bat dot com.” [Laughs] “888-888.” She doesn’t know how many digits are in a phone number.

Zisk: You mentioned studying different announcers.

Sam: I was watching different broadcasts on the MLB package. Also YouTubing Mel Allen and Red Barber games. There’s a very strange use of tense in baseball broadcasting. Any given play may be described in the future, present, past tense. The TV guy for the Orioles I really like, but he does everything in the future tense and it’s rather annoying. “Pitch comes in, and Adam Jones will ground it to shortstop. Asdrubal Cabrera will throw him out at first base.” There are other people who use the future tense as some kind of tick but then snap back into the present tense, so the same play will happen in the future and present tense, or the present and past tense. It’s so loose that it gives an extra fluidity to baseball being this sort of pan historical, wonderful game. It’s always taking place. It’s the present, it’s the past, it’s the future. It’s history, it’s today. It’s the afternoon, it’s the nighttime. It’s the first inning, it’s the eighth inning. Every time you tune into a game you’re dropping the needle somewhere in the groove of baseball history.

Zisk: That’s like Slaughterhouse-Five, all these things are happening simultaneously. The Broadcast is kind of like that, too. You move through time in very different ways.

Sam: Also, very few people are ever going to end up with the entire game. It’s not a very easy thing to collect. So people have their own little editions of the game, and they might like particular innings or listen to them in any given sequence and it may or may not matter, which is cool. There are a few innings, like both halves of the first inning, that I made very common because I want people to get to know the players, that’s when the main introductions are, the line-ups and everything. There are a couple of innings that are very easy to digest, the bottom of the fifth and the bottom of the sixth both have very catchy music and are of a reasonable length, about five minutes, so those are pretty common. The three rarest cards are the non-game cards, the anthem, the seventh-inning stretch and the post-game show. There are probably half as many of those or fewer than the first inning cards. Then there are the error cards and the autograph cards, which are extremely rare. The error cards, there are only about twenty or twenty-five of each among 1700 or so packs. I like seeing when someone opens a pack because I don’t know what’s in it.

Zisk: Where did you order the cards?

Sam: I found this company in Rutledge, Vermont called Sidekick Lab. They specialize in vintage-style trading cards, so they have that equipment, that system worked out with the wax paper and they know the language. He said, “Give me a recipe for the cards.” And I was like, well, “Make 800 of these, make 850 of these, 600 of these, make 300 of these, make 450 of these, 800 of these…” They sent me a box of the cards and saved enough for about 100 packs or so, and I went around to the musicians who were here in New York to get autographs. So I’d get Kevin Shea to autograph ten cards, Shahzad Ismaily to autograph ten cards, and then I sent those back.  
So if people really want to get the whole thing they can work at it and get the whole thing, but one pack of cards is an hour’s worth of music and pretty well gives you the idea of what it is and if you’re not going to be a hardcore fan then you just got this cool thing for five bucks.

Zisk: You don’t have to be a completest.

Sam: Not only that you don’t have to be a completest but you’ve become more unique because the seven cards that happen to be in your pack, it’s mathematically almost impossible that someone else has those exact same seven cards and listens to the album in the same sequence that you do.

Zisk: You were telling me about an interesting reaction you had when selling the cards on tour.

Sam: On tour in Croatia I put the cards out on the merch table and some Germans asked, “Is this chocolate?”

Zisk: The sight of a wax pack doesn’t translate to all audiences. What was it like taking photographs of the musicans for the cards?

Sam: Some of the musicians were really into it; Moppa Elliot, for example, who coaches junior varsity, brought some catching equipment from his school and a couple of spare uniforms. Matt Nelson worked up a great Juan Marichal high leg kick for his card. But there were other people who were like, “I have never had a baseball glove on before. You just got to tell me what to do.” I kept going back to the thrift store seeing if they got new generic uniforms or something I could strip the logo off. I definitely wasn’t going to put any trademarked material on the cards.  

Zisk: And getting back to the music, there’s your interpretation of the National Anthem.

Sam: What I did for the national anthem is based on a composition called “Song 57” by John Cage. The directions for “Song 57” are to take a melody, a common melody that people will know, and substitute the words with names of people. Names of people who are in the room with you, names of people who are public figures. What I did for the anthem was use the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” but replace all the words with names of baseball players. And they were all foreign-born players who were on major league rosters in 2015. Those are some of the most interesting names in baseball. Adeiny Hechavarria and Wellington Castillo and Yasmani Grandal. Odrisamer Despaigne, great name. But also to be kind of cheeky, because I don’t buy into the whole patriothatred thing and half the guys on these rosters, who are out there on the foul lines saluting the American flag with their caps on their heart for the national anthem—it’s not their national anthem. They don’t get to hear the Dominican national anthem or the Japanese national anthem. But they’re out there day after day, playing here, living here, doing the American thing. So it’s a little bit cheeky toward the patriotic American thing, but also to try to be respectful of these guys. Alejandro De Aza doesn’t get to hear his national anthem when he suits up for a game. I separated all the names into how many syllables they take; there is only one two-syllable, foreign-born name player, Yoan Gomes. I broke it down by whatever the syllable count is for the National Anthem, it’s a bunch of sixes or something. And there are a lot of people with four syllables in their name, Wilmer Flores or whatever. I kept needing two to complete the thing but there is only one, there is only Yon Gomes. But it ends [in the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner”] Juan Uribe, Yon Gomes. [Laughs] That’s how it ends.

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