“Oh, I love this part. I did this part,” interjects Eilish excitedly.
“She did,” he says, with the air of an older sibling used to being interrupted by his boisterous young sister.
“My Mom and I went for a walk in Sydney,” Eilish continues. “We were, like, across the street from the hotel, and the crosswalk is this little, like, you press it and it’s like ‘doop doop’, and I was, like, ‘that’s hard’. That’s the sound that it makes when you have to wait.”
“We call that file Grart,” says O’Connell.
Eilish then selects the Grart file from Voice Memos on her phone and plays a short recording of the pedestrian crossing sound, complete with background noise and her exclamation “that scared me” as the faster signal indicates it’s time to cross.
It’s that last section that is sampled in the song. But as O’Connell goes on to explain, it’s not quite the sound we hear in the finished track.
“I basically put it into a quantised bar section and then put samples on it so it was wider.” In other words, he slowed it down and spaced it out.
The altered sample can be heard in the finished song as a rapid insistent ticking sound just beneath the drum and bass line. Or as O’Connell puts it, “the chorus high hat of Bad Guy”.
A spokesman for Transport for NSW said the crossing signal sampled in Bad Guy appears to come from a PB/5 pedestrian button. The button was created in Australia in the 1980s and has since been exported to countries such as New Zealand, the United States, Ireland and Singapore.
“We’ve been raving about the PB/5 for a long time so it’s good to see the Billie Eilish sample has made it a ‘strange addiction’ for a whole new audience,” the spokesman said, referencing lyrics from the 18-year-old’s 2019 album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, which was declared album of the year at Monday’s Grammys.
“The ‘doop doop’ sound of the PB/5 has been keeping pedestrians safe since 1984. The design team was anything but a bunch of bad guys and we’d like to give a shout-out to industrial designer David Wood from Nielsen Design, acoustical engineer Louis Challis and engineer Frank Hulscher who designed the button for the former NSW Department of Main Roads.”
Caleb James, a lecturer in popular music at Griffith University, said he wasn’t surprised by the development given Eilish tends to employ “interesting, hybrid sounds” in her work. He said it also pointed to a trend where artists have turned away from sampling each other’s music to sampling sounds in their environment so as not to get caught-up in intellectual property laws.
“Billie Eilish sampled something that’s more innate [than a song],” Mr James said. “[A pedestrian crossing signal] is not a musical work. I’m not sure it’s possible for someone to have some kind of intellectual property over the frequency of its beat.”
Eilish didn’t just clean-up at this week’s Grammy awards. The singer-songwriter also made history in Triple J’s Hottest 100 over the weekend.
Bad Guy came in at number one, making Eilish the first solo female artist to ever top the Hottest 100 as well as the youngest artist to lead the annual countdown.
And almost certainly the first to do so with the aid of a traffic signal.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Broede Carmody is a culture reporter at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald