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Beardyman Interview: A huge amount of brain

Beardyman spoke to Marko Kutlesa about beatboxing, politics, social media, spontaneous composition and his current Dream Team project.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 23rd Aug 2016

Beardyman, born Darren Foreman, is one of the UK's most innovative beatboxers and MCs. Inspired whilst at university by seeing legendary American hip hop beatboxer Rahzel, he has forged his own unique place in the field of beatboxing and music creation, filtering his voice through effects units and looping the vocals he creates to construct spontaneous compositions in the live arena.

He is a firm festival favourite and a ceaseless experimenter, having collaborated with  the similarly talented American Reggie Watts, UK beatboxer JFB, UK DJ/producer Ed Solo and musicians such as Andy Gangadeen (the Bays, Clean Bandit), Steve Lawson, Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley) plus MCs Disraeli and MC Leen, some of whom take part in his current live spontaneous composition outfit The Dream Team.

He is renowned for having, in the last few years, produced and released album quality material culled directly from spontaneous live shows, with track title suggestions provided by the audience. He also incorporates comedy and parody into his material, both of which formed much of the basis for his 2011 release I Done a Album on which references to the music of Aphex Twin and Dizzee Rascal could be heard.

He was UK beatbox champion in 2006 and 2007, making him the first beatboxer in UK history to win two championships in a row, he plays keyboards and is a self confessed technology geek. In the last half decade he has forgone the assembly of effects units and voice manipulation equipment he used in favour of developing his own software titled Beardytron 5000 MkII. He has also produced several viral videos that incorporate both his talents as a beatboxer, editor and his sense of humour.

During an incredibly busy period, Beardyman was generous enough to sit down with Marko Kutlesa shortly after the EU referendum took place to discuss politics, performing and more ahead of his gig at this year's Moovin Festival in Stockport.

Under what circumstances did you go and see Rahzel perform? What do you remember from the gig and what was it that took you there?

He was really innovative with beatboxing. He was the person that showed me you could make it a job. Up until that point I just thought it was an annoying habit. When I was at university I just thought it could be an annoying hobby, but after seeing Rahzel I was like, "Wow, this could actually be an annoying job." So now I annoy people for money.

I saw him a few times. Once on his own, which was amazing because it was just him and a mic, for an hour and he had the place absolutely rocking, which is still not something you often see done. This was 12 years ago, maybe more. I saw him again with Supernatural, who is one of the world's greatest ever freestyle MCs. And then I saw him with Mike Patton and that was weird because..... do you know Mike Patton?

From Faith No More and Mr Bungle...

He's super inventive. And the show was really weird. It was actually weirder than I could take. It wasn't what I was expecting. I think they were trying to make it really avant garde and it was just very noisey. Lots of noise and screaming, Rahzel just doing the same beat for ages.

It was an interesting pairing, but it was more interesting than it was good, I think. They didn't repeat it. I think Mike Patton's really good with his projects, he takes them as far as they can go then he moves on to something new. 

Originally beatboxing was mimicking using solely the limitations of the sounds the human voice can create. So, in terms of beatboxing, as a traditional element of hip hop, is the use of manipulation technology not cheating a bit?

Well, it depends what you mean by cheating. But, ultimately, who cares? That's what I think about it, who cares. In light of recent fucking political events, who fucking cares whether somebody's using a piece of technology to make music or not. Are you dancing? Are you enjoying it? Is it dope? Yeah. Then shut up.

Does politics belong in music?

Politics doesn't belong anywhere. Politics is fucking bullshit. It's just annoying, isn't it? There should be something else, rather than people having to choose between these two simplified, binary options every four years. Like the fucking referendum, people had such little say in what's happening in the country they're living in, they had such little power. They've become so used to their vote not counting, that lots of them voted as a protest vote, not realising that you don't protest vote in a referendum.

In a referendum you literally get the choice of what's written on the fucking piece of paper! Politics is really annoying. It should be replaced by something more modern and pragmatic, a completely new system. 

But, yeah, there is absolutely a place for politics in music. And there is a place for politics in comedy, but you don't call it that and you don't treat it as that. If you want to change people's minds, if you want to open their hearts to something, you can do it be using music to help them feel for people who they haven't felt for before, by putting someone in somebody else's shoes.

People don't always like to see things from other people's point of view. And with things like comedy and music you can 100% do that. If someone gives a political speech you won't necessarily listen to them, you'll judge them before you've heard what they've got to say or there'll be a strong bias. But, if you're speaking from the heart using music, people can tell that you're being genuine.

With comedy you can make people laugh about something that previously they might have felt uncomfortable talking about. These things are really powerful. And they can be used for evil as well. Like the lead singer of Pantera coming out with all that white power, Nazi prick stuff. You've got to use these tools really carefully.

Advertisers routinely use these techniques that are hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming that are all kinds of magic techniques that entrance people and change their minds about things. They're using music and art for Machiavellian means. You've got to be careful with it.

But, yes, there's 100% space for talking about real shit in music. Like hip hop is an amazing vehicle for that, for letting people know how they live their lives. It's poetry and it can be really powerful. Before you know it, the message kind of seeps in, like with KRS One, police oppression. You've maybe never been to New York and even if you did you maybe never had that experience, but you feel for him and you understand. But 100% there's a place for that in music. Only not like Bono does it because he's a preachy c*nt.

As so much of your work is spontaneous composition, do you ever unintentionally hit a point in a show where you think “Shit! I'm repeating myself! I already did something that sounds a bit like this”?

Yeah. I do. It's funny actually, a lot of people end up asking me the opposite question. Usually people ask if I've ever dried up on stage and the answer to that is no. But your question is actually more appropriate for what I do, because you never run out of ideas but you can chance upon old ones. And that happens a lot.

I keep developing my equipment and my music interests, so month on month what I do tends to have noticeable differences. But from show to show, if thee's two shows next to each other, there may be similarities. And, over the course of a tour, with lots of shows in succession, or if I'm trying out a particular concept, I will refine down different routines, techniques, song cycles. So, it is all improvised, but it's not entirely spontaneous, if you know what I mean. 

Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Can the same be said of parody? I ask in reference to your I Done a Album release.

Errrr... Yes!

Hahahaha. OK. Did you ever imagine that your appearances on YouTube would become as popular as they have become? Now that they are, how have you developed that aspect of your dialogue with the public?

These are really in depth questions. 

Sorry...

No, it's really interesting. I don't know, social media is really weird because it never stays the same for more than about six months at a time. Just when you've nailed your approach to social media there seems to be a new dominant platform that you either have to willfully ignore or you have to get behind, that you can't do in a half arsed way or you'd look stupid.

I'm not on Instagram, I probably should be but it all kind of confuses me and I'm too old for Snapchat. I don't like Facebook because it's just this behemoth that only seems to be interested in making money for itself and trapping people in these little cognitive bowls where they don't hear other points of view other than their own echo back at them.

And they actively stop people from promoting their shit unless they either pay to get past their algorithms or you do stuff that's lowest common denominator enough that people will share it and that means that the format of the videos has to be attention grabbing, in a way that Facebook dictates. And people steal content from content creators and you can't trace it back to the source, so videos all have to have logos in them and the name of the website.

And you can't search Facebook for content. They probably can. They can probably do all kinds of stuff that they don't want to let you do. So Facebook is kind of a problem. Although when you manage to use it to your own advantage you can suddenly love it for a second before you realise they've got you. It's a bit of a behemoth though. I love that young people are moving away from it, because their parents are on it. I really like that, because I want to see Facebook fucking die. I think it's really bad.

YouTube is not bad. YouTube is run by Google and they're really not the worst. Facebook are a problem.

There are certain restrictions any performer places upon themselves when they choose the format in which they're going to perform. Please explain the differences in the freedoms and restrictions you place upon yourself when performing solo as Beardyman compared to performing as part of The Dream Team?

Oooh. These are really good questions. So, this Dream Team thing I've put together, in the next couple of weeks I'm about to release all of the videos and the album that we made when we did our first big headline gig in Brixton. For a very new band that was a nerve-racking prospect because the whole idea of the band is that we write our material live.

I'm very much engrossed at the moment with trying to level up from that. With each member of the band we're working on the tech involved, to get it to the stage where it's possible to do what we want to do. So, we just invested in this amazing new drum set up for the drummer. Now we can do things we just could not do before. It's insane. It can instantly become any drum kit in the world.

But to answer your question, yeah, it takes a weight off my shoulders when I've got the band there. I've got a microphone there, next to my normal mic, and only the band can hear it. So I'll shout instructions to them and it'll just happen. And it'll give an unexpected result, because I might say something like, “blues A minor 2, 3, 4..” and they'll just come in on the one. But I never quite know what it's going to sound like.

It's really interesting and it's just really fun jamming with people. I'm able to take a step back from doing everything, which is a bit mental anyway. When I do my solo shows I see it as a luxury to be able to control every element. I can turn a dial and do something really crazy. With the band I can do similar things, so there's not a huge difference in what I'm doing, but there's all kinds of things I can do with the band that I can't do alone.

I've got these amazing MCs who are just better than me, I've got a cellist and I can't play cello. I can play keys and I've got an amazing keyboard in the set up. I have a whole computer dedicated to being the best synthesizer in the world. There's a violinist that also plays saxophone, a DJ and a double bassist. And they've all got effects that they can play through.

So, it's taken a lot of work, but it just means that I don't have to do everything. But I still get to arrange it. So from the back of the stage I'm still doing shit when I know that I need to. It's still a huge amount of brain that it takes to do it because you have to think like an arranger, but it's very freeing. 

Catch Beardyman at Moovin Festival alongside the likes of Lee Scratch Perry and Goldie from 26th-28th August.

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