Jay Thunderbolt's business card is a little mysterious. It reads, "Thunderbolt - Party Naked" and gives a phone number.
Call the number and Thunderbolt will invite you over to a private strip club that he runs out of his bungalow in a working-class neighborhood in east Detroit. But that's only part of his long, tangled, and surprising story, rendered here in a hybrid of interview and song.
WARNING: As you might've guessed, this story is for mature audiences only.
The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt won the Best Documentary: Gold Award in the 2011 Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. It was produced by Nick van der Kolk and Brendan Baker with Nick Williams, for the Love + Radio podcast from Chicago Public Media.
Brendan Baker is an independent producer, sound designer, and musician living in Brooklyn, NY. He has worked with WNYC's Studio 360, The Onion News Network, Curtis Fox Productions, Antenna Audio, and El Taller Latino Americano. He studied music composition and English literature at Grinnell College and got his start in radio as a teenager, co-producing The Breakfast Club on KUOM 770 AM (Radio K) in the Twin Cities.
Nick Williams is tough to pin down, but for now we’ll call him a multi-media artist and pop culture expert currently living in Chicago, IL. He has a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he served as the Promotions Director of Free Radio SAIC, the school’s student-run internet radio station. He semi-regularly produces radio segments for Vocalo 89.5, and has appeared in Time Out Chicago and on the Vocalo Morning Amp. He keeps a good-ass blog and he doesn’t front. He would one day like to write a science fiction epic.
The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt first appeared on the Love + Radio podcast from Chicago Public Media.
Read more about what Brendan Baker is up to.
Check out other winners from the 2011 Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition.
Here's a cut from an early version of The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt...
... And here's the same cut from the final version of the story. For more discussion of how Brendan Baker collaborated with Nick van der Kolk to create a hybrid of music and narrative storytelling, read on.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Nick Williams (who discovered the Jay Thunderbolt story and helped with editing), Nick van der Kolk (who interviewed Thunderbolt and produced the story), and Brendan Baker (who composed the music and sound design)
How did you find Jay Thunderbolt and -- well, this might be obvious -- but what drew you to him? Why did you want to go and interview him?
NW: I was interning for van der Kolk, and we knew we wanted to do a story about Detroit. If you grew up in Michigan when I did (the 90s), Detroit was, in some ways, a fairytale about a lost kingdom, like Atlantis or Shangri-La. All that was left were stories and old Motown records. It’s Michigan’s best known city, and it’s forever being prefaced with things like "once great." I was, and still am, trying to find my own angle on the situation out there. So while researching, I find this incredible blog/Detroit Metro Times feature called Detroitblog, written by a guy called "Detroitblogger John." I found a lot of surreal things on that blog.
Detroit, in its current state, is a surreal place, but Thunderbolt immediately stood out. He's got sex, he's got violence, he's got that wild name and that imposing figure, he’s stranger than fiction, and I wanted to know more. I’m not the only person to say he’s like something out of a David Lynch movie; he’d fit right into Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart. When you hear about Thunderbolt, you don’t just say “well that’s interesting” and promptly forget about it, it’s something you’ll pass along, and that directly relates to what I was just talking about. He's a legend, he’s a Paul Bunyan of modern-day Detroit.
Could you describe what it was like when Jay Thunderbolt first opened the door and you first introduced yourselves? We don't hear that moment on tape, but what were your first impressions?
N vd K: When we rolled up to his home, the place two addresses down looked like it had suffered a fire in the last couple year; the one immediately next door had suffered one within the last couple weeks. There was almost the sense that the fire was very slowly moving down the block, and Jay’s house was next on the menu.
The first interaction was awkward. He asked for the money right off the bat while we stood on the front porch. When I told him that I didn’t have any, he asked “well, did you at least bring a gift?” When I said “no,” he gave an annoyed sigh and invited me inside. He sat us down on the couch in the back room, and proceeded to walk around the house, disengaged and occasionally complaining about my lack of manners (“Mr. ‘I have no fucking money’ NPR”).
I was rolling tape at that point, but didn’t feel comfortable enough to follow him around so I couldn’t pick up what he was saying on my mic. I was afraid I had offended him to the point that he wasn’t going to open up to me. It wasn’t until I sent Noah off to get the booze that he sat down that things finally loosened up and the interview got underway in earnest.
I’ve never heard a story (on public radio) with so much trash-talking and threatened violence. Did the situation ever feel genuinely out of control?
N vd K: I was never afraid for my physical safety. If I seemed nervous it was because I was afraid of seeming uncool. Part of that fear comes from practical considerations: if I piss off Jay to the point that he shuts up or kicks me out, I've just lost a potentially great interview. But probably a bigger part of that has more to do with possessing a stunted adolescent insecurity, which probably comes from my parents not loving me or something (just kidding, mom and dad!).
Although we may have played it up in the editing and scoring, I never felt physically threatened personally, not even when I was staring at a .38 pointed at my face. My first thought when that happened was "oh shit, this is such a great moment, but you can't tell by audio alone what just happened." Unfortunately, the best I could manage as a followup was "so what is that?" and I ended up having to insert narration anyway (which I usually avoid if I can help it). The tape that immediately follows the narration is pretty much unedited.
At one point, fairly early on in the interview, Jay left the room to get something from the kitchen and left his all his weaponry on the coffee table, including his revolver. It was abundantly clear from that point forward he didn't consider us a threat--the worst he might do was try to scare us. From then on my main battle was on keeping it together while continuing to slam down shots on a mostly empty stomach.
At least, that’s how it felt at the time. When I got home, I entered a manic stage that lasted several days. I had stared down a gun and come out unscathed. I felt invincible. I slept about 2 hours a night, was full of energy, and was insufferable to all my friends. It was a minor miracle I didn’t do anything especially stupid that week. Of course, I was never really in any danger, but even kabuki violence is still powerful stuff.
Could you talk about the various lines you did/did not cross during the interview? (i.e. you wouldn’t pay Thunderbolt, but you would buy him tequila and drink with him). What was it like to negotiate those boundaries over the course of the interview?
N vd K: To be totally honest, the ethical argument is really just cover for the fact that I have virtually no money for this project. I know a lot of my colleagues would disagree, but I see no ethical problem with paying interview subjects in documentary work. Unless someone has a book to sell or is trying to set the public record straight, we documentarians are exploiting people for their stories. I often feel like a hypocrite in this regard. If I have a personal story of my own that I want to pitch to a show, I expect compensation for it. Why should I get paid in that instance just because I have someone's email address? But until Love and Radio gets the full backing of Chicago Public Media or another station, I'm in pretty much the same boat as all my subjects, so I guess I shouldn't feel too bad about it. Still, when Jay says "you just think I'm just some monkey cocksucker you can pull some shit on", I don't have a compelling counter-argument.
I don't think I crossed any boundaries. I'm not a journalist. I'm not researching government policy or corporate responsibility. What I am interested in is understanding human beings, and sometimes that involves doing tequila shots at 1pm in a fake strip club in Detroit, ‘cause that's what humans do. Buying him a drink was literally the least I could do. As long as I didn’t hurt anyone, wildly misrepresent myself, or criticize without giving a chance to respond, I can sleep at night.
This story is full of dudely posturing and one of the most intriguing things about it is hearing you, the interviewer, try and play it cool with Thunderbolt. How did you think about yourself as a character in the piece? And how do you think the piece might have been different if one of the reporters had been a woman?
N vd K: The college-educated-white-person-parachuting-into-a-working-class-world is one of my least favorite stories on the radio, and consequently, I did everything I could to take myself out of the piece. Unfortunately, it would have been almost impossible to follow anything that was going on without more of me in it, and there were so many funny, amazing, and interesting moments that couldn't have been included without acknowledging how vastly different our worlds are. I rarely think of myself as a character, and I certainly don’t like to think of myself as a filter. Instead, I’m a sounding board, albeit one with my own personal background and biases. My mission is to wind people up and get them talking about why they do what they do.
It would have been a completely different interview if there had been a woman present. I think a real driving force for the story is Jay's -- often conflicting -- roles as both party host and bouncer. On one hand, he wants to make you feel special and that you're going to have a crazy fun time if you hang out with him. At the same time he has to send the message that if you step out of line, he's going to fuck you up. I wanted to cheat that characteristic out more, to highlight the swings between friendly and threatening. Unfortunately I don’t think we achieve that as much as I would have liked.
While I'm sure a woman would have brought all kinds of other interesting aspects of Jay’s personality out into the open, the dichotomy I describe would've been largely absent with a female interviewer. The violent posturing wouldn't have been there, and I seriously doubt he would have instructed us to play a slideshow of nude images of his dancers. I do think Jay kind of relishes people thinking of him as a Neanderthal, so maybe he still would have gone out of his way to be crude or shocking, but I don't think it would have carried the same 'don't-fuck-with-me' undertone. I wonder if he would have allowed himself to be more vulnerable with a female interviewer—I don’t know.
I do think he has a nurturing quality when it comes to his dancers, and maybe that would have come out with a woman, too. Whether that comes from a genuine empathy or from some kind of sexist outdated code of conduct I'll leave up to the listener to decide.
Brendan, the music plays such a strong and central role in the piece – could you talk about your composition process and how you blended Thunderbolt’s voice with instrumentation?
BB: From the outset, Nick and I wanted our collaboration to sound like a hybrid of music and narrative storytelling, so we tried to find interesting sounds in the interview tape that we could re-purpose as musical material. For example, the clicks and beeps of Thunderbolt hanging up his phone turn into an electronic beat, which leads into the story/song about Thunderbolt’s childhood dog. It’s an abrupt transition and sort of a digression from the main narrative, but hopefully it’s one of a number of sonic clues that this isn’t going to be a traditional radio story.
Before I made any of the music, though, I asked Nick to give me some “rules” or little sound design challenges just to get the ball rolling. One of these challenges was to sample excerpts of the songs Thunderbolt mentions during the interview and incorporate them into my own music. Though this is probably most obvious in the “mash-up” around minute fifteen, I also looked for other opportunities throughout the piece to hide warped samples from those songs. (For instance, when Thunderbolt shows Nick his gun, the music is built around a distorted, slowed down sample from the end of “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails, one of the songs Thunderbolt mentions later in the interview.)
Another one of Nick’s challenges was to create music based on the naturally-occurring rhythm and melody within the dialogue. I thought Thunderbolt’s voice seemed most expressive when he was quoting someone else (or himself in the past), so began there.
My earliest drafts sounded pretty different from the final version. [Ed: to hear early and later versions of Brendan's work, check out the bonus tracks above!] I began with mostly acoustic instruments, and the mix was cleaner and less processed -- and in retrospect that first draft didn’t really fit mood of the story. When I sent those drafts to Nick, he encouraged me to push things in a grittier, more electronic/warped direction -- which was absolutely the way to go. But rather than starting from scratch, I bounced down mixes of my drafts and then processed and distorted them in various ways -- so I was kind of sampling and remixing earlier versions of myself. I did this more and more often as the project developed, which forced me to commit to certain sounds and give up the ability to “undo” earlier ideas; I could only edit them further. I normally like to experiment with arranging a bunch of different versions of a piece, so forcing myself to work like this meant that the final sounds ended up in a very different place from where they started.
Have you worked with voices before in your music in this particular way? If so, how is Thunderbolt’s voice different than other voices you’ve manipulated in the past and how did the particular quality of his voice guide your composition?
BB: Yeah. My piece for Third Coast’s ShortDocs Challenge last year involved setting an interview to music made from the “Book Odds” samples. I’ve also been interested in trying to score a radio story with music made completely from sounds within the interview tape, and I’ve made a few initial attempts at that.
But I didn’t actually want to manipulate Thunderbolt’s voice all that much unless I had a reason to. So when he tells the story about dealing with violent guests, I effected his voice to differentiate between “Thunderbolt narrating in the present tense,” “Thunderbolt quoting himself in the past,” and “Thunderbolt speaking in another person’s voice.” I also tried to punctuate the end of each scene using a “tape stop” or slowdown effect in order to suggest gaps between sections of the interview.
One less obvious way I manipulated all the voices in the piece, however, was by playing with the sense of space. Nick structures his radio stories in a very visual, cinematic way, so I wanted the piece to sound more like a movie than a radio story. In a traditional radio piece, you’d try to get a perfectly dry recording of the person’s voice, then gather ambience and sound effects after the interview and mix them together during post production. But the reverberations of a person’s voice bouncing off a wall can tell you a lot about the room you’re in, and I think sound designers for film often pay closer attention to that because their audio needs to match the visual scenery. I think it’s a shame that we don’t use those effects in radio as often as we could, particularly now that so many people listen in headphones. But because Nick’s interview tape was monaural, I built my own “audio scenery” using reverb plugins, binaural panning, stereo ambiences and background sounds to try to immerse the listener in the scenes without music. Then when the music took a more dominant role, I stripped most of that scenery away to try to bring the voices into focus, sort of the way you’d use depth of field in film.
There’s a really lovely touch at the end – Noah and Nick have left Thunderbolt’s house, and then suddenly we feel like we’re back inside with him. He pores himself a drink and blows his nose. Why did you choose to end the story that way?
BB: This was another happy accident of the collaboration process, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a pure editorial fabrication. When Nick sent me his interview tape, he included a few seconds of “room tone” at the very end of the audio file. But instead of the usual room silence, this section was full of all these natural sound effects of Thunderbolt blowing his nose, etc. Because I heard it immediately following the body of the interview, it seemed like a natural epilogue and another way to mimic the kind of closing shot you might see in a film--like pulling the camera back after a close-up -- so we edited it down a bit and kept it in the piece.