Dan LeRoy is an author, journalist, and teacher. He is the director of writing and publishing at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, near Pittsburgh. His new book is Dancing to the Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered the World.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in English and absolutely no idea what I was going to do with it. The only thing I knew was that I didn’t want to teach: both my parents were teachers, and I always said there was no way I was getting mixed up in that racket.
So I did a series of jobs that had nothing to do with writing, until I got my first real chance: writing music reviews for a small independent newspaper in Charleston, West Virginia, in exchange for (review) CDs. Out of that modest little job, and its connections and opportunities, came everything else that has happened since: working for a daily newspaper, then as a freelancer for a bunch of publications (The New York Times—I was a stringer for a while in Connecticut—Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Esquire, National Review, and others).
One of my first-ever magazine jobs was for Alternative Press, more than 20 years ago, and I’m proud to say I occasionally still write for them from time to time. I’ve been lucky to work with Jason Pettigrew there from the beginning. (I still remember cold-pitching Dave Segal some hip hop review ideas back in 2001. He wrote back and said, “I’ve never heard of any of these groups.” Which surprised me, because I believed he was omniscient enough to know about all records, even before they were even released. I always wondered if that was how I got the gig.)
In 2004, I cold-pitched David Barker, who was the founder of the 33 1/3 series at Continuum. I’d read the book about The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society and knew I wanted to write a book just like it. I suggested three albums to Dr. Barker—I remember that one was the first Run-DMC record, and the other was Paul’s Boutique. He kindly suggested that I do a full proposal on the Beasties. I did, and getting the acceptance email is still one of the best moments in my career.
Since then I’ve written several other books: one about famous unreleased albums (The Greatest Music Never Sold), another one about Paul’s Boutique, with my great friend Peter Relic (For Whom the Cowbell Tolls), and a history of Catholic contributors to the American Revolution, called Liberty’s Lions. And most recently, Dancing to the Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered the World.
About that racket I mentioned earlier: for the past 17 years, I’ve been the director of Writing and Publishing at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School. It’s the best job I ever had. I get to teach a bunch of great students about everything from journalism to poetry to philosophy. Guess it shows that when you run away from something long enough, it ends up meeting you on the other side :)
Can you please briefly describe the book?
Dancing to the Drum Machine is, I think, the first real history of the drum machine. I interviewed more than 130 musicians, inventors, producers, and pioneers, and tried to tell the story of how this incredibly controversial instrument came to be (it’d older than we all think!), how it changed every genre of music for good, how it quickly flamed out (as a standalone instrument, at least), and how it ultimately got the last laugh.
How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?
I’ve probably wanted to write this book ever since I heard Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “Scorpio” coming out of a boombox as a high school freshman. I’ve definitely wanted to write it since I was 15 years old and saw one of my friends playing a set of Mattel Synsonics Drums.
Partly I was interested in drum machines because I saw in them a way that I could contribute to music—an instrument that I just seemed to understand in a way that I didn’t understand, say, a guitar. But like a lot of the people I interviewed for the book told me, I think really that the sound of those drum machines was what did it. Why? I’m not sure.
The great techno artist Richie Hawtin posed this idea during an interview I did with him for the book: did the frequencies of those machines somehow connect with him in some mysterious way? I don’t know, but that idea makes a lot of sense to me.
Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.
I had worked with Bloomsbury on the Paul’s Boutique 33 1/3 book some years back, and fortunately, it became one of the better sellers in that series. I’d kept in touch with the folks there, and when I had this idea, I figured it might be something they would be interested in doing. The idea seemed a trifle esoteric for a regular commercial publisher, and my previous experience with Bloomsbury was a good one. So it just seemed like a match—and fortunately, it turned out to be.
What did the research process look like?
Like it usually does: read, read, read, and then read some more. If I interview someone, I try to read every interview with them that I can beforehand, then try to ask the question they haven’t been asked yet.
This project was also a validation of my decision to keep all those old music books that my wife would probably like to see donated somewhere. (Or maybe burned.) Sometimes I’d remember a passage about drum machines from one of those books, and be able to go back to it—to find something I would never have been able to locate online.
For example, there was a great quote from Andrew Eldritch of Sisters of Mercy in an old Dave Thompson book about goth rock. The quote always stuck in my mind, and when I started writing this book, I went right for that one and pulled the quote. (I would have rather spoken to Andrew Eldritch, of course, but that quote made up for it.)
How did you go about writing the actual book?
There are lots and lots of music books that involve people writing about why this or that artist or album is important, without any relevant input from the artist. I have to admit that those sorts of books really don’t interest me much. I write the kind of book I want to read: by trying to talk to as many people involved as possible, and then trying to put those contributions into some kind of readable context. They tell their stories; I try to tell the larger story. (This latter point is why I’m not really a fan of oral histories, either.)
I was lucky that I began this project just before the pandemic began. So for the better part of a year, lots of musicians and producers who might have otherwise been occupied with recording or touring suddenly had time to speak with me. Thus, I was able to interview many more folks than I originally envisioned.
What was the easiest thing about the whole project?
Getting to talk with musical heroes of mine about questions I’d had since I was a teenager. I still had to do lots and lots of research, of course. But many of these interviews were much easier—and more fun—than they might have been otherwise, because I’d been thinking about this stuff for so long.
What was the hardest thing about the whole project?
Cutting it down. I ended up chopping more than 65,000 words from the manuscript—practically a book in itself. Partly that’s because I talked to so many people; partly that’s because they gave me so much good material that I felt obligated to use as much of it as I could.
In the end, I got great advice from one of my advance readers, who also happens to be a friend of mine, and a fantastic writer himself. As he paraphrased that advice when I talked to him later: “Do you want to write the definitive, definitive history of drum machines? Or do you maybe want to sell a few books?” His point was that I was including too much material that, while it might be manna for the truly dedicated fan, was going to bog down the more casual reader. That’s always a balance you have to consider in a project like this one—but he was absolutely right.
What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?
I think one possibly worthwhile supplement to the book is the Spotify playlist I put together. It’s called “Dan LeRoy’s Bonus Beats,”. It collects 236 songs mentioned in Dancing to the Drum Machine. It’d take 20 hours to listen to, back-to-back-to-back (for the record, I haven’t yet!), but I think it gives a sense of the scope of this topic. Drum machines aren’t just represented by synth-pop and hip hop: they span every genre.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
My mentors for this project were really the creators who first inspired me with the music they made. But the first and most important mentor I ever had is Michael Lipton, a great musician and longtime friend of mine, who now runs the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Michael was the first guy to give me a shot at writing, back when I was an early twentysomething who had no experience and no idea of what he wanted to do with his life. Michael taught me innumerable things about writing—but just as many things about the music business. So he was truly invaluable to me on both counts, and became one of my best friends in the bargain.
The opportunity he gave me back then is something that turned into a lifetime getting to write about music. That’s a debt I can never repay, but I’m grateful to him every single time I sit down to write.
What’s one tip that you’d give someone looking to write a music book right now?
Understand that for a lot of artists, books are a potential revenue source that has become more valuable as other revenue sources dry up. Therefore, not everyone wants to talk to you these days: they’re saving their stories for their own books.
What’s next for you?
I am currently writing a history of Western philosophy from a Catholic perspective. It will be published next year by Sophia Institute—they did my previous book, Liberty’s Lions. I’m also working on a project with Jon Sidel, the legendary raconteur, who was a foundational part of the L.A. club scene during the Eighties and NIneties. We’ve been at it off and on for a while now, but I can say that it is 1) going to be out as soon as next year, and 2) it is going to be very cool!
Anything you want to plug?
For the moment, anyone interested in my drum machine book is welcome to subscribe to my Substack newsletter, Dan LeRoy’s Bonus Beats. It’s free, and I am using it to post full interviews and extras from the book. I’m also hoping to offer subscribers a chance to get the full notes from this book, as well as a chapter that it killed me to cut: about how a drum machine broke up Gang of Four. I talked to all four members, including the late, great Andy Gill. It’s a story that’s never been fully told, and I want my Substack subscribers to get the first shot at it.
I also released a companion album of Eighties-inspired instrumentals late last year, under the name Young Mister Grace. It’s called A Ghost in the Mall, and you can find it on Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon, and all the usual places. The idea was to pay tribute, through a few songs, to some of the drum machines I was writing about, but it turned into a full-fledged album in its own right. Next up—whenever there’s time—is an ambient-ish collection. I really like stuff like The Detroit Escalator Co., The Black Dog, Gas, and The Paradox, and this collection will be in that vein.