Once in a while, an artist comes along that’s as revolutionary as they are evolutionary. Beardyman, two-time UK beat-box champion, fits that mold to a tee. Not content to sit on his laurels as king of UK beat-boxers, his collaborations with the likes of DMC champion DJ JFB, MC KlumzyTung in the Gobfathers, and visual artist mr_hopkinson have pushed the boundaries of the human beat-box as an artform.
As a solo performer, the evolution of beat-boxing and the revolutionary use of technology in the medium is starkly apparent to anyone who has ever seen him. His unique act, relying on his voice as the primary instrument, a mountain of technology, and split-second timing to pull it all off , Beardyman has become a Youtube sensation and highly sought-after performer at raves and festivals the world over. His sets at Glastonbury Festival and Edinburgh Festival have become the stuff of legend in electronic music. Fusing elements of improvisational comedy, jazz, electronica, freestyle rap, and an encyclopedic knowledge of music, he has developed the unique ability to read and interact with his audience. In the days following his groundbreaking performance on the “Conan” show and an appearance at Electric Daisy Carnival in Orlando, FL, Beardyman sat down for this exclusive interview a scant few hours before his electrifying set on the Red Bull Music Academy Stage at Movement 2011.
Rudy: You’ve had a pretty amazing run here of late…
Beardyman: That’s what YOU think (laughs)
Rudy: You were on “Conan” this past week – amazing performance. Bluegrass “Ladyfingers”, I believe…
Beardyman: Oh, it had to be done. It was selected for me.
R (laughs) also, Electric Daisy out in LA – was it in LA this year?
Beardyman: No – it was in… Florida.
Rudy: Aha – I couldn’t remember if they’d moved it around this year or not.
Beardyman: Yeah, it was dope.
Rudy: And you’re here in Detroit today. You’re going to be playing the Red Bull Music Academy Stage here pretty soon…
Beardyman: You speak the truth. You are a truth-speaker.
Rudy: (laughs) yes, I actually read the program for today for a change so I kind of know what’s going on.
Beardyman: I see.
Rudy: Rahzel has been cited as one of your influences as far as beat-boxing.
Beardyman: Yeah – totally. You’d be hard pressed to find a beat-boxer that doesn’t revere Rahzel.
Rudy: I remember hearing “Do You Want More?!?!” for the first time and it bending my head to think that (those sounds) were being made with a human voice. You have so many other musical influences and styles. Who are some artists both current and past that you tend to admire?
Beardyman: Today, really… There’s so many things that will influence a person these days… My favorite bands of the moment are – bands, artists, whatever – are Gaslamp Killer, he’s ridiculous. I think he’s playing the stage after me. He’s a LUNATIC. I can’t wait to see his set. Ween are one of my favorite things in the world. The Beatles, John Hopkins. John Hopkins is amazing. Who else am I listening to? Tim Exile, Kate Bush, Radiohead. God, I don’t know – they’re the people that immediately come to mind.
Rudy: You seem to be a real fan of music in general, and it shows when you perform. Anyone who’s seen you either in the Youtube videos or perform live,either as a solo beat-box artist or with the mountain of gear you tote with you…
Beardyman: (laughs) It is INSANELY expensive. Do you know it was cheaper for them to book us a first-class flight where you get unlimited baggage than it was for them to get us an economy flight and pay baggage on top? Because there’s, like, a quarter of a ton… of equipment to take around. It’s nuts.
Beardyman: It’s insane.
Rudy: People kind of get overwhelmed by you. Here’s how every Beardyman conversation I’ve ever had goes. “Have you heard of Beardyman?” “What the fuck is a Beardyman?” “Oh, let me show you a Youtube video of ‘Live at the Underbelly’ or the Google UK gig with Nathan ‘Flutebox’ Lee.” I literally watch people’s eyes grow as big as saucers and their jaws drop because they can’t believe what they’re seeing.
Beardyman: (maniacal laugh)
Rudy: It’s pretty obvious you’ve had some formal musical training. Or have you? (laughs)
Beardyman: Yeah. I should’ve stuck with it more, I think. I got to grade 6 on piano and then gave up. Which is annoying because my music teacher had been telling me not to. She was like, “everyone does this. Everyone gets to grade 6 and then stops doing grades. Don’t do it.” I was like, “I won’t”… and then I did. (laughs) So, I should maybe go back. I want to take more piano lessons. I want to, like, take a fucking year off and just swat up on piano and guitar as well. Like, FORMALLY learn piano and drums and bass and guitar which are my main instruments, and maybe even pick up the viola again. I haven’t played viola for years. Just get back on music theory and then write some orchestral music. And masturbate a lot. And then go back on the road
Rudy: (laughs) Only then go back on the road. You’ve got to rub that one out before you get back on the road.
Beardyman: (snickers) Just rub out some orchestral music, that’s all I’m saying…
Rudy: Your live performances have elements of jazz, improv comedy. Crowd interaction is a big part of what you do, as evidenced by the “Conan” gig. The give-and-take with your audiences seems to be really special. Has there ever been particular moment where you felt like everything just clicked on all fronts?
Beardyman: Yeah, and it takes quite special circumstances for that to be the case, but I don’t know what those circumstances are yet. I’ve been trying to figure it out because I do my best before every gig to make sure that I’m as appropriately prepared as possible. You know, in the sense that I’m in the best mood I can be in, that I’ve got loads of cover songs stacked up in my mind in an appropriate order – and I’ll NEVER stick to that order, but at least I’ll try. The level of crowd interaction can be too much or too little. the amount of accuracy that I’m giving to things needs to be high, whatever happens. Like, I need to be remembering all the lyrics to these things or making them up. Some of the freestyling has to be good, which means I need to be in the right headspace to do that on-the-fly. Then, working the technology has to be right. I fucking HATE DJs.
Rudy: (laughs) Really?
Beardyman: Yeah, honestly. They turn up, press play, they stick their arms in the air- they didn’t even make the tune. It fucks me off SO hard. They have such an easy life…(laughs)
Rudy: Can I apologize for my ilk on everyone’s behalf?
Beardyman: Are you a DJ? Fuck you man…
Rudy: Yeah, I know, fuck me – sorry…
Beardyman: (laughs) No,no, it’s cool. DJing is an art form. A good DJ is just nuts to see. A DJ can tear things up more than a band ever could, I think.
Rudy: When it’s done right. When it’s done wrong, it can be the completely OPPOSITE experience. (laughs)
Beardyman: Yeah – same way with a band. Jesus, there’s so much to get right with my stuff that sometimes some elements will be perfect. The amount and sort of crowd interaction will be just right, the accuracy in terms of me musing my machines will be right, but the mix of different kinds of music will be probably more appropriate for a different kind of audience. There’s so many thing sot get right. I’ll often come off stage being like, “that was the shittest thing I’ve ever done in my life”, and whoever’s touring with me will be like “what are you talking about? the crowd was insane”. then I’ll be like, “yeah, but I didn’t do this and that”. Apparently, Michael Jackson, after he did that performance for Motown 25, and he did his famous first-ever moonwalk and then turned into the Michael Jackson that we all grew to love, he cried after that. (That performance) made him more famous and well-regarded than he’d ever been before. He came off stage crying saying, (effeminate Michael Jackson voice) “I missed the turn and I didn’t” – because he wanted to go up on his tippy-toes do his little freeze thing, but he fucked it. But no one cared because it was amazing. I get a similar thing.
Rudy: So with all the technology in your set, do you feel like you’re riding that ragged edge of disaster at times?
Beardyman: Oh, yeah. (laughs) It’s like running through the rapids, or like flying an F-16 in an air show or something. There’s a tiny margin of error, and it’s like a crazy kind of thing to be doing. The parameters that I’m working within are opaque to the audience. No one’s ever gonna know the insane fucking equations that are being solved in my head as I’m going along, whether or not I’m thinking in advance and how far I’m thinking in advance. I don’t know what’ going on in my head half the tine. Being on a stage, doing what I do, whether it’s comedy stuff or it’s a rave or whatever, that’s the only time when something has my full concentration and I’m not thinking about other things. I really enjoy that. I like being able to switch my brain off and just do the performance and make music.
Rudy: You kind of single-focus and everything else becomes secondary.
Beardyman: Yeah, and it’s nice because before I do a show I often feel myself becoming blinkered, and it’s an interesting feeling to that my brain is zoning in because it rarely ever does (laughs).
Rudy: Youtube has had a huge role in exposing you to the US audiences. It seems very fitting that technology has played a role in breaking you because the evolution of what you did, starting from beat-boxing – I’ve been telling people it’s like DJ Jazzy Jeff could scratch, and there was the evolution of that to what somebody like Q-bert does.
Beardyman: Long before Jazzy Jeff. Like Grandmaster Flash, making his OWN mixes. This is the thing: people invent technology to help them do something which is their particular dream. I know some CRAZY guys and girls who make shit and use it, and America is really good for that. People have got this kind of fucking pioneering spirit when it comes to building stuff. For example, yesterday this stage that I played on (at Electric Daisy in Orlando), they looked at the picture of the table I needed and just knocked one up out of bits of wood. You just don’t find that outside of the States, not in my experience anyway (laughs). But people are just, like, there’s some crazy Vietnam vet who’s just like “yeah, I built my way out of Vietnam – I can build you a fucking table”.
Beardyman: I met this guy in LA, on the “Conan” show, who does all their tech stuff, like builds, and he’s sort of out there – robotic props that they need and stuff. He fucking built Johnny Five! From “Short Circuit”!
Rudy: (laughs) Yeah!
Beardyman: He built, like… The Energizer Bunny. He did the original Energizer Bunny. Apparenty, “Rambo” was based on this guy.
Rudy: Oh, wow…
Beardyman: Yeah (laughs). I don’t know. It’s just different, America. That wasn’t the question you asked me at all. (laughs) You asked me about technology…
Rudy: (laughs) Well, we’re just following the path wherever it goes…
Beardyman: The irony of technology helping me. I don’t know, it’s just like that, isn’t it? People make use of whatever technology is available to them and when technology ISN’T available, they build technology to enable them. It’s always standing on the shoulders of giants. That’s why you often get – is it confluence, where people will often come up with a piece of technology based on bits of existing technology that can be put together in a certain way. Or the same with theories. People just join the dots. In fact, they’ve recently started doing, kind of cloud problem-solving in the field of mathematics, and no one had ever done it before. Obviously when there’s a research project, generally it would be the lecturer would get a bunch of student research fellow together.
Rudy: …to start grinding out the math.
Beardyman: But, like, they’d give it to one person, or they’d give one person a particular task. What they’ve tried now is deliberately not distributing the problem specifically by category amongst people, and literally just making the whole thing a wiki. In a way, that’s a lot like what technology is, where for Youtube to exist, you had to have the various platforms that exist to enable it to happen. You had to have the available bandwidth, you had to have the ability for people to shoot their one content, and upload their own content. And Flash – the interface to make it easy. The internet. All these things existed and it was just a matter of time before someone came out with a reliable and workable platform. That’s the thing with Facebook as well – you’ve got these things that just fit together. I don’t know. I’m building my own software to enable me to do what I do better, and I’m positive that I[m not the only one developing something like it. In fact I know I’m not, and it is going to be a race to see who gets a product to market first.
Rudy: Uh oh… (laughs)
Beardyman: Yeah, but I’m actually not doing it to make money. I’m literally doing it because I need the tool and it doesn’t exist. At the moment, I’m using four Kaoss Pads, a Kaossilator, which is an X-Y pad synth. I’m using a guitar looper, a voice manipulator, another guitar effects manipulator, a MIDI router, two sound cards, no computers, but it’s nuts. It can’t crash, because it’s made of hardware, shop-bought hardware, but it CAN break, it’s very heavy, and it’s prone to error because it’s not designed for what I’m doing with it.
Rudy: You are pushing the boundaries of all of that gear so much during each performance…
Beardyman: I really am, and I still keep discovering new things I can do with this equipment, which is awesome. Because I haven’t built it, there’s loads of methodologies that are just different combinations, different settings, so it’s really kind of expansive, but still. I need something which is going to be able to you know… I want to be able to restart all these loops, from the beginning, when I press a button, and I can’t do that at the moment. I want to be able to just stack loops up in a particular way or have a certain bunch of movements turned into a macro so that it reduces the number of movements.
Rudy: You’ve only got two hands…
Beardyman: (laughs) I’ve only go two hands and there’s other things I have to think about. Like, I’ve got to think about what the set is, whether I’m singing in tune, whether I’m remembering the words, whether I’m doing a decent freestyle, you know, not “where should my index finger be now”. This one setting has got something that’s always annoyed me that you can’t reduce the resonance on the high-pass filter so I’ve got to duck the volume slightly which has annoying side effects. It’s all these little things, so I’ve been designing this crazy machine with this crazy interface, and I might actually be applying for some patents. It takes six iPads to control it, two computers to process it. It’s nuts – REALLY nuts.
Rudy: Wow. (laughs)
Beardyman: That’s taking up the bulk of my focus at the moment. I’m not the one actually building it. There’s this software developer that I’ve been building it with, but he’s not just a developer. He’s a musician himself as well. He lectures in (music software development environment) Max MSP, which is this crazy, like, visual programming language for music. We’re getting bits of it sort of condensed and compiled into C blocks so eventually the whole thing will be a much more efficient program that will only takes up one computer. For the moment, it doesn’t matter how many computers it takes I’ll have to take four computers on the road with me in case one of them goes down at any point.
Rudy: …but that beats toting a half a ton of gear on an airplane half-way around the world, doesn’t it?
Beardyman: Yes, however… All I’ll say is “Pink Floyd”. “Spinal Tap”. Come on, let’s go.
Rudy: (laughs) Stuck in a cocoon – right. You’ve got a new album out, entitled “I Done A Album”. That process had to have been significantly different from what you do live. Was it difficult for you to try to commit to specific versions of stuff that you put on the album versus the very freeform nature of what you do when you perform live?
Beardyman: Yeah, and I’m guessing that’s probably slightly apparent from the sound of it. It really sounds a bit tweaked and massaged to perfection. What I’ve actually realized is that… God love the two producers who helped me make the album, but I think this next album I’m just going to do it all myself because there’s this whole music concrete thing about the fact that the balance between two sounds can be a component of the way the music is understood. The way that something is cognized is affected by tiny, tiny things. What I’ve realize, I think, is that if you give a mix over to somebody and then you try to rework that mix on a different set of speakers, I don’t like that process. I don’t think lends itself to creativity. It just opens up the doors to tweaking. I mean, I’ve learned a lot of lessons during this last album. This next album that I do, I’m going to do some more, like, mix stuff, using my current equipment. The real thing is going to be – my next album, i think I’m going to make it using only my new… spaceship (laughs).
Rudy: We’ve played both “You Want Some Samples” and “Where Does Your Mind Go” from the project. The latter had a fantastic set of remixes, and I think we ran through three of them over the course of the time we got the promo single to now.
Beardyman: Wow, that’s great. Thanks!
Rudy: How involved were you in the process of selecting remixers for that single?
Beardyman: There were some people who I wanted to remix it who weren’t able to, but I approved all the remixes and I approved the choices of the people. A lot of it was suggested by the label. There’s some wicked remixes coming out from the next single I’ve got coming out which is a double-A side. no, but I like all the remixes. The Doorly one is insane. It wasn’t really my kind of thing when I heard it but that’s the one that’s got the best feedback, so it shows you what I know (laughs).
Rudy: What’s next for you? I feel like you’re on the cusp of doing something very big here in America. You’ve done the “Conan” performance, of course, Electric Daisy, and now Movement 2011.
Beardyman: I’m back on Labor Day weekend to do either North Coast Music Festival (in Chicago) or Electric Zoo (in New York City). I’m loving the fact that now I’m coming to America and people are turning up to see me and Im getting recognized and stuff. I mean, it’s ridiculous. It’s just ridiculous, man – it’s a dream come true, and the thing is what I do is only going to get more complex and more insane and meatier and better and juicier.
Beardyman will be back in the US over Labor Day weekend, performing at Elecric Zoo in New York City and (possibly) North Coast Music Festival in Chicago.