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How J.S. Aurelius Used Drone-Hacking Software to Make the Year’s Most Moving Protest Music

‘Goofin’ Drones’ takes the producer’s background in programming and affinity for noise and makes a statement against "death by remote control."
April 4, 2016, 6:10pm

The sky is falling. Since 2004, per a New York Times report at the end of last year, the United States has been responsible for upwards of 400 drone bombings in Pakistan alone, not to mention those perpetrated in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan over the same period. To make matters worse, the Times article points out, due to underreporting and intentional misinformation, our government is being far from transparent about the human toll of these strikes.

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It's a reality that weighs heavily on Jes Aurelius—enough that he felt the need to to make a whole collection of recordings meditating on the impact that unmanned warfare has had on the world. In early March, the Vancouver-based experimental musician and visual artist—guitarist for the Arizona punks in Destruction Unit, and co-proprietor of avant tape label Ascetic House—released Goofin' Drones, a full-length that he calls "a statement against the use of drones."

Electronic music decrying unjust warfare is nothing new—see the entirety of Prurient's bombed-out techno work as Vatican Shadow for a recent example—but Aurelius goes beyond mere aural brutality. Goofin' Drones—released in early March on UK producer Helm's label Alter Stock—draws on his longheld fascination with programming, sourcing its sonic material from the complicated algorithms used in "spoofing," a technique used by some computer-versed civilians to fight back against drones. Basically, someone skilled enough in the inner workings of drone software has the ability to trick a drone into responding to a "spoof" signal instead of the GPS satellites that it would respond to otherwise. Methods like these that have occasionally brought down US drones overseas, but for Aurelius, they're used to generate thrashing noise blasts and vacant found sound samples, to desolate and distressing effect. Knowing that the searing sounds Aurelius is conjuring were produced with software actually used to fight back against drones makes the experience all the more chilling.

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The initial 100-cassette run of Goofin' Drones has already sold out, but as Alter Stock preps another run (tentatively due today, so keep an eye on their website), Aurelius answered a few questions about the release and the state of the world that makes it necessary.

Photo by Lane Stewart

How did you get so interested in drones?
I've been interested in drones and specifically drone warfare for a while now. Not only are they altering the fundamental logic behind who deserves to live and die on the battlefield, but they're changing the idea of the battlefield entirely. They are as psychologically and psychically damaging as they are physically damaging. It's video-game warfare, death by remote control.

For the people living in the regions where drone warfare is being employed, it's 24/7 paranoia. You can hear them overhead, but you can't see them. One moment you're alive, and the next you're not. Women are having miscarriages from the stress and anxiety of it. Friends and family don't gather in groups larger than two or three for fear of being targeted. [Drones] are wholly unethical in every sense of the word. So this album I've put together is a concept, or a statement, against the use of drones. It's me fleshing out how to live in a world where drone war exists, thinking about these things, [feeling] angry and upset.

There is a great book called A Theory Of The Drone by Grégoire Chamayou. It's highly recommended reading if any of this interests you. It's sort of the beginning of this rabbit hole for me. I think the implications of drone warfare are farther-reaching than we can even begin to comprehend. Even beyond changes in how nations, or organizations, approach war strategy, it will have a massive ripple effect on society and our everyday lives.

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What led you to seek out the Chamayou book?
I actually didn't seek out the book. I was in a bookstore looking for something else, and I came across it. I think some wires in my brain crossed when I saw the word "drone," and a connection between drone as a of music and drone as a weapon of war was made. I am constantly obsessing over methods of social and cultural influence, and how our actions on a personal level affect the political world around us, on a micro and macro scale. So these types of modern and technological issues are constantly on my mind.

How did this release come together? Obviously you have some background in programming if you were able to make it work.
It's almost entirely software based. I don't own any hardware other than a guitar, a RAT [distortion] pedal, and a delay pedal. In high school, I was very much into programming and software and technology. It's sort of the angle I was exposed to alternative and experimental music from… I remember in high school every year, some friends and I would go from Phoenix to Las Vegas for the DEF CON hackers convention. The music was all Prodigy, Massive Attack, Carl Cox, the Hackers soundtrack—that always stuck with me. So software has always been where I am most comfortable. The sounds on this tape are mostly generated through the audio programming language ChucK, developed at Princeton.

How did you get involved in the hacking stuff?
My background is mostly informal. It's really hard to say what drew me into software and programming, or noise and punk… I just didn't connect with anything else. I didn't have an older brother who showed me this stuff, but I gravitated towards it wherever I saw it. I eventually made friends with people who were into these things. I remember being in middle school and seeing a kid with a vest that had spikes and patches all over it. The backpatch was this crazy-looking design by a band called G.I.S.M. I had no idea what it was; I was probably 12 or 13. I went home that day and looked it up on Napster and was blown away. That was when I realized there was more than what was on the radio. A year or two after BitTorrent was invented, I was uploading and seeding G.I.S.M. records. I think I might have been the first person to BitTorrent a G.I.S.M. record… haha.

I also remember when I first heard of BitCoins, maybe 2011 or 2012. I bought about $20 worth, you had to send cash in an envelope to an individual who would then exchange it for you. I wanted to see if this Silk Road marketplace was really too good to be true or not. I was skeptical, but I bought some items from it, and received them. Now I'm kicking myself; I should have just kept the bitcoins and waited a couple years. I could have cashed out for ten or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. So anyway, programming, technology, punk, noise—these things have always overlapped for me.

Tell me a little bit about the algorithms that are used on Goofin' Drones. What does it mean, practically speaking, to "spoof"— or, as you put it, "goof"—a drone?
When I started researching these things, it was with zero regard to doing an album around the idea. There are various ways to "spoof" a drone, from taking measures to hide or disguise yourself from it; to jamming the radio signal so the operator can no longer control it; to altering its flight path or targeting mechanisms and confusing its internal GPS; to physically taking it over and bringing it down. There are a handful of papers published [on the subject]. The University of Texas at Austin has one called "Evaluation of Smart Grid and Civilian UAV Vulnerability to GPS Spoofing Attacks".

Were you intending for the release to feel as harrowing as it does?
I didn't set out that way. I really had no idea what kind of sounds some of these algorithms were going to produce. Most of them just flat out didn't work, they or produced [something] unusable. Some of them had to be altered or have their values changed a bit; there was definitely some artistic or aesthetic liberties taken. Same goes for the arrangement. I basically recorded hours and hours of source material, then live mixed it all in VirtualDJ. It's sort of like a four-track sampler: you can EQ and change the speed and stuff all live.

Still, I feel like it's pretty rare to see experimental music dealing so explicitly with political issues, was there any trepidation about using these sorts of recordings to encapsulate that?
I try not to be too overtly political in my art. I think it gets boring when you become too preachy—that can be left to academia. But for me, if I'm given a voice, or any sort of exposure, I think it's important to use that to amplify the voices of those who don't get that luxury. That doesn't mean talking for them, or ordering people around, but listening and reflecting and bettering yourself—pointing out new ways of framing or contextualizing these issues.

Like I said, it's a very unprecedented time, and we as individuals have more power now than ever to affect the world on a global scale. I think it is irresponsible to remain ignorant or neutral. I was just at the Ruben Museum in New York for the Genesis P-Orridge "Try To Altar Everything" exhibition. I think Genesis' life is really a great example of living your art form and living your politics. It's more powerful to lead by example—with your mistakes and successes equally as public—than to shout from a rooftop. Because people tune that out.