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Imagine a machine that can let you record and mix music in real time – one that will enable musicians to get down the ideas in their head instantly, with no filter between the germs of a song and hearing it come alive straight away. Imagine the fevered genius capable of building such a perfect musical aid. Meet the BEARDYTRON_5000mkIV (Beardytron). And meet its creator…Beardyman, whose performances have been viewed over 60 million times on YouTube alone with improvisation being at the heart of the creative process.
Chances are, you already know Beardyman. He’s the lovable beatboxing champion, the festival favourite last heard playing the charismatic stoner on Fatboy Slim’s global smash Eat Sleep Rave Repeat, right? Well, yes, that was Beardyman. But the musician emerging from hiding on his startling new album Distractions is virtually a different species altogether.
It’s an album a world away from comedy, a multi-faceted collection that takes in blissed-out declarations of love, glitchy electronica and thwacking great big pop songs. What it definitely doesn’t have is straight-up beatboxed pastiches.
Three years in the making, Distractions was initially designed to showcase what the Beardytron is capable of. In doing so, it also showed what Beardyman is capable of. Having scrapped plans to release EPs themed around sci-fi based electronica, Balearic-inspired, jump-up dance and his singer-songwriter side, Beardyman has compiled the best songs together on Distractions, before taking out the dance tracks as they didn’t quite fit with the chilled out, uplifting mood that unites the other songs’ vision.
“Once I found a way to sequence these tracks, I thought ‘This really works’,” says Beardyman. “There are three different trajectories, but they hang together well as a journey. The Balearic ones seem to be about love, lust and betrayal, the electronic ones are abstract and the singer-songwriter tracks are more personal, quite angsty.”
As for the Beardytron that Distractions was made on? It requires four iPads and two laptops “running at just below the speed of light” to enable Beardyman to instantly process any song ideas he has, straight away being able to access his hundreds of presets made on myriad instruments and manipulating them in infinite combinations to record and mix live. Frankly, we should be grateful that Beardyman has used the Beardytron to make a great album, rather than create the black hole it’s probably capable of.
“Before I started making Distractions, I was using a patched-up array of different machines, and the end result was still nowhere near what I had in my head for the Beardytron,” says Beardyman at his north London terraced home, the outwardly unlikely lair for such a game-changing instrument. “It’s taken three years and three different versions to get the Beardytron properly running, but it really does let me create songs instantly, with no filter between having an idea and realising it as a song.”
To the public, the first glimpse of the Beardytron was at Beardyman’s TED talk in 2013, which has racked up a staggering two million views.
“I was going to talk about the history of mimicry, but I don’t have a PhD, so I didn’t” he smiles. “I thought ‘The Beardytron is really cool, why not showcase that?’ I think I found a happy medium of demonstrating what I’d built, whilst framing it in the context of beatboxing and my personal story.” Those suitably impressed in the TED audience included philosopher Daniel Dennett, Paypal founder Elon Musk, Bono, and Simpson’s creator Matt Groening.
Beardyman also met Herbie Hancock at TED, leading the jazz pioneer to become the only other person so far to successfully use the Beardytron. “We jammed for four hours and there are some sweet little ideas that I might use for other stuff,” he says. “There are plans to develop a commercially available version of the Beardytron. “But I’ve been talking about developing it for a long time and for now it’s time to stop developing the gear and develop as an artist instead.”
Which leads back to Distractions. One of its key tracks, Getting There, is a gorgeous euphoric-sounding pop song with the crossover appeal of Gotye that masks a more troubled lyric. “I didn’t want it on the album at first,” Beardyman admits. “I felt it was too personal. It means a lot to me.”
It’s rivalled in potential mainstream appeal by Mountain Side, a blissful track awash in bittersweet memories of lost love and the irresistibly infectious You Only Like What You Know, which describes the singer’s frustrations at being pigeonholed as a novelty beatboxer.
“There’s an element of ‘Look, aren’t I clever?’ about beatboxing,” he admits. “The crowds love it, but it felt very trapping. People were aware of me for reasons I wasn’t comfortable with. I want to change the way music can be made, get my ideas out as they are in my head, but I was doing sketches and mash-ups of other people’s songs. You can say ‘I want to be an artist’, but until you produce the music you really want to make, why should anyone else see that?“
Running alongside Distractions, Beardyman has also toured his groundbreaking interactive TV format One Album Per Hour idea, a fairly self-explanatory notion in which he creates an album on the spot based on audiences’ suggestions, chosen by a guest “producer”. So far, producers have included Jack Black, Peter Serafinowicz, Shaun Keavney, Daniel Sloss and Tim Minchin. Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with interactive TV, Beardyman has teamed up with Google to both record in multiple locations in real time and broadcast globally, a tech first that also featured the world’s first live broadcast interactive jam between Beardyman and Jack Black.
“Some of the tracks took so long to make as I wanted to start with no premeditated notions, develop loose sketches of ideas on the Beardytron and then take the time to develop those ideas and get everything perfect. With One Album per Hour I just try to make sense,” he smiles. “If I’m saying ‘I’m making an album live’, it feels a cop-out to give a rough draft.” It’s led to the memorable Queens Of The Stone Age-style jam Beelzebub’s Biscuit after Black played a Rick Rubin-style guru producer trying to delve into Beardyman’s psyche.
There’s also an ongoing international tour for Distractions. How will it differ from the One Album Per Hour shows and indeed Beardyman’s previous tours? “One Album Per Hour is heavy on audience interaction,” he explains. “At the Distractions tour, the audience won’t have much of a say in what I do. I won’t just play album tracks; I can’t be that kind of artist. So sometimes it’ll be songs as they are on the album, sometimes it’ll be weird interpretations; sometimes it’ll be new tracks on the spur of the moment. More soul and things to really feel, less comedy.” He flashes his devilish grin. “One Album per Hour is to sit down and listen. The tour is making people dance.”
Right now, making people dance is Beardyman’s ultimate distraction. And his album will distract the listener every single time.