From a Cold War missile silo in Kansas, a pedal steel guitar player makes music for peace

photo by: Frank Morris / NPR/KCUR

Nate Hofer inside the Atlas F missile base near Wilson, Kansas, where he recorded "Decommissioned."

Nate Hofer grew up in Eudora within sight of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, a sprawling complex that was once the largest smokeless gunpowder plant in the world. In first grade, he was drawing tank battles, images of World War III. His stepdad tried to ease his mind.

“He told me not to worry,” recalled Hofer. “If World War III were to happen, we would all be gone like that” — he snapped his fingers. “World War III isn’t going to be tanks and soldiers. It’s going to be nuclear bombs and that’s it.”

The end. No more Nate, no more family, no nothing. It made a lasting impression. Now Hofer has kids of his own, Russia is once again threatening nuclear war, and nuclear treaties that once helped stave off the apocalypse are falling away.

So, Hofer is doing what he can to forestall nuclear annihilation. That quest led him to set up his pedal steel guitar and make a recording down in an intercontinental ballistic missile base near Wilson, Kansas, built to withstand a direct hit from a nuclear weapon.

“I set up just on the other side of this tunnel in the lower part of the launch bunker. And then pointed my amp out this way,” Hofer said, standing deep underground near a heavy, corroded steel door at the precipice of a 150-foot-deep subterranean missile silo. “Pedal steel players have reverb effects pedals that we can use all the time. But for this recording, I didn’t do any of that because I knew that this echo here would be perfect for the recording.”

The recording is called “Decommissioned.” It’s ethereal, ambient music. Hofer layers pedal steel notes into the cavernous Cold War fortress and the heavily reinforced concrete walls keep the notes going and going. There are no other instruments and no effects, just the cathedral-like echo inside the almost impenetrable old missile base. It’s beautiful, and Hofer said that can take people by surprise.

“‘Oh, it’s gonna be dystopian.’ ‘Oh, it’s about nuclear war.’ ‘OK, it’s gonna be creepy.’ Well, no, actually, it’s just the opposite. I want to open people up with this music. I want it to be soothing and relaxing.”

“Decommissioned” isn’t Hofer’s first experience with nuclear missile bases. He’s also a photographer, and his aerial shots of decommissioned Minuteman ICBM sites in Missouri won a Global Peace Award. Some of the sites, taken out of service decades ago, are now overgrown with trees. One’s a junkyard. Farmers are storing hay on others. “That’s what peace looks like,” the judges said.

The new record includes large prints of some of these photos.

Hofer had to figure out how to use a drone to take his missile base photos. For the recording, he used something it takes years to master. Pedal steel guitar is a strange and complicated instrument. Typically, a shiny steel table with 20 strings on top played with metal picks and a metal slide, plus foot and knee pedals to bend notes. You don’t see pedal steel players hacking around on stage — playing the thing takes total concentration. And Hofer sees connections between his instrument and ICBMs.

“Both kind of develop after World War II. I think they’re both uniquely Midwestern. And the lonely sound of the pedal steel could possibly be a nice soundtrack for these missile silos,” he said.

At the silo where Hofer recorded “Decommissioned,” an Atlas F rocket stood poised to strike Russia with a thermonuclear warhead vastly more powerful than every single bomb dropped in World War II combined. It was hundreds of times stronger than the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima, killing perhaps a quarter of a million people.

“I would like people to think about specifically what’s not here anymore,” said Hofer. “This album was recorded in a decommissioned missile silo. I want to take the opportunity to focus on the fact that this is an empty nuclear missile silo, and just get people thinking about, ‘Hey, maybe we don’t, maybe we don’t need as many of these as we thought, or maybe we don’t need ’em at all.'”

The Air Force removed the Atlas F missile that once stood in the silo where Hofer recorded “Decommissioned” almost 60 years ago. But that was because it had bigger, quicker, even more powerful Titan missiles, and new silos in Kansas and other states to replace the abandoned Atlas missile bases. The U.S. is currently rebuilding its entire nuclear arsenal, with plans to deploy a new ICBM, the Sentinel, by the end of the decade.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of its “Doomsday Clock” to 90 seconds to midnight, the most dire setting ever.

Hofer’s fully aware of this, and he doesn’t think his new record is going to launch a new disarmament push. But he does hope that the soothing music he recorded in a Cold War missile silo will give listeners a little peace of mind to contemplate turning things around.

“It’s taking a look at our past to understand where we need to go with our future,” said Hofer. “If we want to continue to live. To, you know, have a human race.”

— Frank Morris reports for Kansas News Service.


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