Dan Warren liked Barack Obama. There was his political philosophy, sure. There was also something about the candidate’s voice, something Warren had noticed while listening to his audiobook version of Dreams From My Father in 2007.
“Obama had this habit of doing very grandiose, epic language, for day-to-day struggles or minor things that happened in his childhood,” says Warren. “And I realized: This is the language of an epic story, even though it’s not an epic story. There really is enough of that language to tell another story altogether.”
Over the next four years, Warren did just that. Obama’s soothing, clipped baritone became the basis for a 32-minute audio fable titled Son of Strelka, Son of God. (Strelka was one of the Soviet dogs sent into space.) It is possibly the strangest-ever use of the Obama brand. (I say this allowing for the Obama Chia Pet, the “Head of State” sex toy, and anything will.i.am has attacked with an auto-tune program and a Fergie solo vocal.) Warren, a 39-year old scientist who “works at the interface of evolution and ecology,” has out-weirded them all.
In it—I will try to limit the spoilers—a demigod is born from a fruit tree, sets about creating the world, and eventually mates with a human woman to produce a son, called Stanley. “I was different, after all,” explains the god-child. “A big yellow dog with a baleful howl, the body of a man, with well-defined thoughts.” Stanley’s journey is marked by armies of singing children, talking creatures with beating wings, wise Buddha, and apocalypses of falling buildings and burning skies.
It’s even weirder than it sounds. Warren, who also sells his own music, developed soundtracks for every chapter. He and his wife, Teresa Iglesias *, recorded birds and fauna when they traveled to Australia and New Zealand. (Both live in Austin.) His friend Jon Bernstein * rode BART trains in the Bay Area and taped the ambience of the shutting doors and honking horns.
“There’s percussion in there that’s me banging all the pots and pans from my kitchen,” says Warren. “When you hear that loud rooooar of the animal screaming, that’s one of my cats caterwauling, like they do.”
He needed the horrifying noises, just like he needed the sad plucked banjo notes and creepy minor chords, because he was telling an end-of-days story. This was what Obama’s overwrought prose suggested to him—something like Earth Abides or Farnham’s Freehold or one of the other apocalypse tales he used to like. He could grab phrases from descriptions of Indonesian wildlife and urban bustle and marry them to metaphors from Chicago, and come up things like this description of a terrifying beast whose arrival augers the cataclysm:
I took a step back, and saw a big, hairy creature with a small, flat head, beating its wings against the ground, poised to leap into the sky, as the puny traffic swirled around his feet.
This stuff came easy to Warren, even as he wondered about the point of it all. When he described it to friends, most of them thought he was wasting his time. He’d get tired of pulling the right words from six hours of audio and put the project on hold. Then he’d listen to what he had and decide to dive back in.
The legality of the project didn’t worry him too much. If there was any question about fair use, he had an answer. “It could be seen as commentary on Obama’s story,” he explains. “People did think he was going to remake the world. I thought he was going to remake the world! Although maybe in less dramatic terms than in this story.”
The full project went online last week, posted on torrents and file-sharing sites. There are nine chapters, two of which have already been animated and put on YouTube.
“I’d started to think, ‘What’s next?’ ” and the first thing I looked up was Sarah Palin’s autobiography,” he says. Her version of Going Rogue is picked apart for narration in the new Palin documentary The Undefeated, but even in that it sounds choppy. “I just couldn’t get anything useful out of it,” says Warren. “The way she speaks, it’s almost impossible to pull apart. There are non-natural points that you can’t do anything with.”
Besides, Warren says, “I like Obama’s voice. I like his narrative voice as well as his speaking voice. It’s pleasant to listen to for hours at a time.”
Correction, July 13, 2011: This article originally misstated the names of two people involved in the making of Son of Strelka, Son of God. They are Teresa Iglesias and Jon Bernstein. (Return to the corrected passage.)