What’s got a beard, sounds like a didgeridoo and isn’t a convicted sex offender? It has to be beatbox and sound-smith extraordinaire Beardyman! We caught up with him to talk about how making weird noises as a kid evolved into being one of the most famous beatboxers in the world.
For those of you who have never seen Beardyman in action, I suggest you stop here, do not pass go and head straight to YouTube to see what you’ve been missing out on! This set from Bestival in 2011 is a pretty good showcase –
Beardyman is a seriously talented man who can not only make quite incredible noises using his mouth, but he also compiles those noises into mind-blowing musical compositions of pretty much any genre of music you could imagine on the hoof. He’s taken the art of beat boxing and shaped it into his own form of performance. His shows are pretty much completely improvised often with audience participation, suggesting songs or genres.
I think, I’ve blown enough smoke up his arse now! Let’s hear from the man himself…
So it’s been a difficult time for the music industry, how have you been coping?
It was such a tumultuous time mentally for everyone. But like some musicians, it was particularly weird and acute because entertainment was the first thing to close because it relies solely on that gathering. It was also the last thing to open for the same reasoning.
At the beginning of the pandemic I was fortunate enough to have my streaming game to a point where I thought “this is ok”. But most musicians, were not streaming, It was only really gamers, and if you weren’t gaming, you weren’t streaming and by like, fucking may 2020, that had completely changed. Everyone had bought themselves some green cloth or whatever, a couple of different cameras and they figured out how to use OBS and all this kind of stuff. They turned to streaming.
The media landscape changed massively at that point, like suddenly Twitch, which was a gaming platform had to contend with performance royalties and publishing royalty payments, suddenly it was a problem that there were all these details brought into the platform.
Everyone had to get their shit together a buy the right kit. Part of the global chip shortage was down to the fact that like everyone in their homes, were just buying electronics, because there was nothing else you could do with your time and like Delve into computery things. And also what’s mad is that home computers in 2020 were not really fast enough or powerful enough to do legitimate home live production. For that, you would need a broadcast truck.
We’ve kind of just about got over that point where computers are fast enough, where you just don’t need a broadcast truck for totally a pro level thing. If you want to do a really legit TV station quality broadcast from your fucking house. You really can.
Your live performances are pretty dynamic as far as crowd interactions go, how did you adapt that into the streaming world?
I like to, I like to have the crowd there as a collaborator, if I can, like, I like to take individuals from the crowd and make them my collaborators randomly because I figure that you just should, if you’re doing improvised stuff, not that you need, like, you can just get into a flow of your own design, and, you know, borrow into another dimension. God knows I do that. Well, I like to find alternate dimensions and go deep and borrow into a baseline. But at the same time, I like to come up for air again.
I’ve been doing stuff on my server in my Patreon and discord, is because during the pandemic I was so desperate to connect with human people, I was like, okay, it took a whole bunch of tech session to figure out how to do this. I had to buy a new computer and figure all this out, but essentially what I ended up with is I can pull in video and audio of whoever’s listening, well I had to restrict numbers because the tech isn’t there yet to have 2000 people and see all their videos.
With Zoom you can do up to 1000 you can have pages of like 50 people at a time. But I didn’t use Zoom I wanted to use discord because it integrates well with Patreon, and you can do kind of access privileges. Yeah, and I like that Patreon is structured, because I felt like charging people a ticket to a virtual gig felt weird to me. Who’s really going to do that. I wouldn’t pay 20 quid, which is what you might pay to go out and see a concert. Would I pay that to sit in my own house and watch something? Not really! Would I be willing to pay a couple of quid? Yeah, sure. But what do the numbers make sense for me to like hype a virtual show and and sell really cheap tickets? Maybe?
Erykah Badu at the very start of it, experimented with that she was like there’s a paywall. Stream, it! It’s however many pounds. I don’t think she kept doing that either. I didn’t know how successful that model is. But Patreon was there. And I started a Patreon because I didn’t know what else to do.
But very quickly, I was won over by that kind of model. If there are people who care enough to help me continue making art and doing what I do then they get to watch the shit all the time. They get to watch the shit as I’m preparing for it. I’m always broadcasting to my patrons when I’m just practising or working something out. We have a laugh, we chat, we chill, we talk.
There are friendships that are formed in this community, these are fun people! The lines get blurred between paying patrons and friends, and it’s hard not to do that. And so this leads me on to I suppose what I was about to say, Well, firstly is a right now, I love it so much I’ve taken it to the gigs that I’m doing now.
So I’ve now got a microphone, that like, my tour manager is running up and down the barrier sampling people, and I’m sucking them into the techno and the drum and bass, whatever. So sometimes the hook comes from a member of the crowd, it just shouts some bullshit or something, or I’ll have a little chat with someone in the crowd and fuck around with their voice and sampling and stuff.
It got intimate enough, the relationships between me and my patrons it felt like maybe I should give something back. I promised that I was going to do a bespoke song for every single person on the top tier. I was thinking that I that I wouldn’t get that many top tier patrons. I hadn’t done the math and there was way, way more people on the tier! Before I knew what was happening I had overcommitted and I was like, well, there’s a tonnes of people that I’ve now got to do bespoke songs for.
So I was like, Okay, well, maybe I’ll have to put the price up. But then I kind of thought, actually, I don’t want to put the price up, I want to put the price down and I want to give anyone that submits a good idea a share of the recording revenue.
So it’s kind of a mad idea that come out of this twisted period of the pandemic where I’m now in cahoots with all my patrons. If you’ve inspired me with an idea if you’ve written to me on Patreon, and described a track in your head and if the inspiration is good enough then I’m like, Oh, hell yeah, we’ll do that!
And if it comes out and we get that going out on streaming services and I’m gonna put that out, and if it does, well, then, you know, you’ll be getting a share of the royalties from it! So it’s kind of a mad. It’s kind of a mad thing. People have done similar things recently with NFTs But I have ever growing distrust of NFT’s but personally I think everyone’s pretty wary of them at this point.
I think patreon is a great platform. What it does is it takes it out of the computer programmers and the gamers and the people that are just sat in front of their computer 24/7 into another sphere of people that are actually just consuming content. A lot of YouTubers use it for funding their exploits. I think it’s just an acceptable platform that transcended the geek’s market which perhaps it originated from.
Well, I mean, the thing that’s interesting about this thing I’m doing is actually, it’s kind of a perversion of what Patreon really is about. The beautiful thing about Patreon is that as a patron of an artist, you actually don’t expect anything back, you already got the value that you wanted.
At the same time, there is this side of Patreon is there are rewards, there’s these reward tiers, where you get sort of deeper and deeper access to your artists and that increasingly intimate access with more involvement comes with more sort of tidbits and side projects or in my case there’s technical things. Like if you’re interested in how an artist works technically, because you’re in the same game where you aspire to do what they’re doing, then in there for people who want to get tips about how it’s all done. My tier structure reflects that, you’ve got the technical tear, which is kind of – I’m a nerd, you’re a nerd, let’s nerd out together.
So that’s part of my process, which was very technical, and which I was closely guarding for years now has a pedagogical side where I, you know, now I am something of a teacher, we all learn from each other, the community is full of people who are trying to evolve best practices and tips and have a means of information exchange, as regards this kind of niche live sampling thing, which I’m doing, which is becoming increasingly not niche, as well.
So I’ve become one of the hubs for people exchanging ideas about how to do this stuff and it’s really important to me, but then you’ve got this other side which is if you want to be directly involved in the music, and you want to submit ideas. I’ll think about it, and I’ll be like, This has never been done before. Is there a reason it’s never been done before? am I opening a can of worms here? But just to not do it wouldn’t feel right.
As long as I can remember, the times when I felt most alive, are when I’m sitting about with an instrument, and everyone is around me we’re singing along, we’re coming up with ideas, we’re talking shit, people are throwing in requests, and I’m giving them a go. We’re all having a laugh. And I’m embellishing lyrics. And like, since I was really, really young even just with my family and friends those were the times when I felt truly free and alive.
Some people aspire to scoring goals at Wembley or whatever the fuck they like, but this is my thing, I like improvising, improvising with others. Over the years, I’ve done all sorts of things in bands, I’ve played with huge orchestras, but improvising with the audience themselves, that to me, is the most intimate, and hilarious and unpredictable and joyful thing you can do as a performer.
I think is when I look at Al Murray’s crowd work, when he does these gigantic shows the pub landlord, he’s wandering around the crowd in character, just laying into the void. He’s got some like prepared bit’s that he’s worked out over the years, but you wouldn’t know, it just feels like it’s off the cuff but like it’s because it’s interactive.
People like Jimmy Carr do amazing crowds work. I don’t know. Andrew Schultz comes to mind like people who you can tell that what they’re doing is vibing with the crowd themselves and that it’s just it’s fucking magic. So yeah, to do that with music is not exclusively that but like to have the option to do that. That I just find it thrilling.
Was it a conscious decision for you to take your performance to the comedy circuit? You know, like the fringe?
I’m not really sure how to answer that! I’m not really sure how it all happened… When I first started beatboxing I was two and by the time I was 16 smoking weed down the park with my mates, this thing that I had kept to myself for ages was coming to the surface, and I was recreating drum and bass tunes and they were all like “woah, what the fuck!” and then fast forward to university and Razelle is killing it, and he’s got this big album with all these huge names on it, people were playing it to me and saying “Darren, this is what you do!” and I’m like “Holy Fuck it’s a legit thing now” so props to Razelle for being the inspiration for me and a whole generation of people who all have the same story.
I was just a kid with ADHD who could shut the fuck up, and suddenly it’s a superpower rather than a disability!
Before I knew it there was this channel through which I could take my music in my head and immediately get it out to the world. I was always looking for ways to perfom or a platform to do it on. This was like 20 years ago and nobody really knew what beatboxing was or where to put it or what the right audience for it was. The sort of places I could get exposure from doing this stuff was so varied, it was a really mixed bag from corporate events where people didn’t know what the fuck this beatboxing was and they thought I was some sort of witchcraft. They were like “ how the fuck is that noise coming out of you face!” It was mind blowing for them.
But at the same time I was doing the Hip Hop circuit and breakers conventions and stuff like that with rap battles and breaking battles and shit, people are like dancing and spinning on their head and I’m doing covers of drum and bass songs and srtuff like that. I even did a super embarrassing talent show which was hosted by Graham Norton, and I came second place losing out to a fucking dancing dog! I did get some good exposure and gained lost of bookings off of that, but I did lose to a dancing dog, which was pretty shameful…
You tube has also been a big thing for me, I was one of the first people to get a million views on You Tube beatboxing, and it was brand new territory. Me and and my mate did stuff too, which was a lot of fun, and I did a lot of self hosting. So wrapping all that up, I was pretty confused! (Laughs) It didn’t seem to matter where I did it, but people were enraptured by it. I’ve been obsessed with comedy my whole life, and Iike to do gags and stuff in my performance, but you can’t do that at Drum and Bass events or corporate gigs, so I thought fuck it, I’ll have a go and do it differently, it doesn’t have to be stand-up as you know it. This shit was just funny to me, and then I ended up going to the Montreal Comedy festival in my first year, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing!
I got scouted and met all of these comedy heros like Reggie Watts and Bo Burnham and Tim Minchin and I’m thinking what the fuck am I doing here! It was pretty weird. Then before I know what’s going on, I’m appearing on the John Bishop show, and nobody knew where to put me either! Noone knew what beatboxing was or what to do with it!
Katie’s Tunstall was possibly the only significant figure that was doing anything with looping.
Everyone who saw KT Tunstall was talking about the looping., but looping is so fucking done to death now, even Ed Sheeran is a looper, he loops almost exclusively I think in every fucking gigantic stadium paid that he does is him and a guitar and a fucking looper and no one talks about it. No one ever mentions it. No one is ever like the live Looper Ed Sheeran or like, or like Ed Sheeran did three nights at Wembley with just having a loop. But no one says that. They’re just so dialled by the music, that it doesn’t seem to matter. And everyone’s seen it already.
They’ve seen it. You can’t impress people with live looping anymore, because they know what it is. These are tools you can use to express yourself, go at it and if it’s good, it’s good. If not, it’s not. Yeah.
Probably the same thing will happen to live sampling and live production in time. But right now, it’s blowing up massively. So the thing that I started doing like 10-15 years ago to really drill down on live production, it’s coming of age now. So there are gigantic competitions for beatboxes with loopers doing unbelievable things.
I have to keep my eye on these people because they are hugely inspiring, and doing the kinds of things that I’ve been sort of aiming at and doing for years and it’s becoming a thing. So it’s It’s a Mad landscape to be in where you’re sort of, you know, there are people improvising entire sets, which was never possible before the tech became available. People, those people beatboxing and like, I think maybe that will happen.
There’ll be like an Ed Sheeran style character who comes around who is a beatboxer and take it mainstream.
Coming back to technology though. What the fuck is a big Tron 5000? And is that going to? Is that going to come to life as a tool? I mean, you talked about that, you know, technology is evolving people. You know, this is moving into a genre rather than just some weird shit that you did with a microphone, it’s actually evolved into something else. Is that now a viable commercial offer? Is it something that you’re putting out there?
I’m trying to think how deep to go on this question, because I could talk about it for hours without breathing! My whole professional life, I have been dreaming of the perfect system to enable me to capture live inspiration and moments in musical time as they occur to me as they happen to grab bits of the moment, as they happen, and form them immediately into music and get ideas out of my head and out of the surrounding environment, and to craft into music in real time. The only way to do that was to try and build it. I’ve gone through multiple iterations of this, some of which never saw the light of day, they always stayed in my lab. Some of whom I got people to build the entire systems that never saw the light of day. Some of them I have systems built, which I used for years. Sometimes the approach I took was overly technical and was a drain because it took so much support time to iterate and do QA quality assurance. Yeah, I was like hiring teams of developers at one point, then I sort of strip things back and try to piece the same functionality together with like a completely different approach using Ableton and Max for Live and existing third-party plugins and stuff like that. That was actually the better approach. But it meant that there was, there were sort of holes in what I could do. Then I started to learn to code myself, because I was still frustrated that whilst I had all these amazing capabilities, I wanted more, I wanted it to be easier, more streamlined, more features.
But now there is some software that’s come out is this Australian developer, his name is Mike Tyson. He’s made this incredible thing called loopy Pro, which is literally everything that I’d ever dreamt of in terms of what a live looping system would do. Because sure enough, it’s not just me that has this dream. It turns out there are 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of amazing beatboxers who want the same thing they want to be able to produce in real time.
I gave up on learning to code when this guy released this loopy pro. For 10 years this guy who is one of the best audio devs in the world has been working on this professional solution where you can configure your own interface. I’ve now been helping with QA to try and put this thing into plugin form so I can put it into my own already gigantic template and reroute all my systems through it. That was a really fucking long answer wasn’t it!
My system is constantly evolving, I’ve even tried to dismantle it, and just go back to how normal people make normal music, but before I know it, I’ve sneaked a looper into it and I’ve built the whole thing again! I keep building it. I feel like I’m like all the all those characters in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where they just have to build these mounds, or I’m some sort of termite, I just have to build these systems. I’m a fucking huge nerd!
Beardyman is touring the UK as I write this – Check out his upcoming dates on his website www.beardyman.co.uk
If you want to find out more about Beardyman’s aptly named project “Milking the community” then head over to his Patreon page here – https://www.patreon.com/beardyman.
You could find yourself collaborating with him, get a producer credit, a one-off vinyl dubplate and a share in the master rights to the track.