Across three decades, John Shepherd built a Nasa-style lab at his grandparents’ Michigan home to communicate with extra-terrestrials, beaming sets featuring Can, Kraftwerk and Neu! into space. Now the subject of an acclaimed film, he tells Ben Gilbert why and records an exclusive tQ mix.
“Imagine if we left behind the strife of Earth, reached Mars and built discotheques there, dancing our nights away in a state of cartoon perfection”, wrote David Stubbs in Mars By 1980: The Story Of Electronic Music. In 25 words, Stubbs mirrors the macrocosmic vision of John Shepherd’s 25-year space odyssey and the celestial soundscape he created for the lifeforms that, just maybe, call Olympus Mons, Eskimo Nebula and Caloris Basin home.
Now the subject of a rightly acclaimed and undeniably touching documentary, which won a Short Film Jury Award at 2020’s Sundance, Shepherd’s story is, in every sense, out of this world. Directed by Matthew Killip, John Was Trying To Contact Aliens covers a vast amount of ground, journeying from the banks of Intermediate Lake in the US to a distance of 500,000 miles into space, all within Killip’s measured edit, which brings the curtain down on this starry-eyed but deeply human tale in little more than 15 mins.
At the age of 21, Shepherd began to build a laboratory of instruments at his grandparents’ home in a bid to communicate with extra-terrestrials. From the early 70s to the late 90s, he used an array of technological kit more suited to a Nasa facility than a nondescript rural Michigan address to broadcast a fittingly galactic soundtrack into deep space. Shepherd transmitted DJ sets featuring Can, Cluster, Kraftwerk, Neu! and Tangerine Dream into orbit, mixing things up with Fela Kuti and Steve Reich, gamelan and jazz