Anyone less engaging, hyperactive or impassioned would perhaps have done well to say sorry but Beardyman (aka Darren Foreman) is captivating throughout our lengthy phone call. Over 45 minutes, he talks his way through his early years of beatboxing, sonic experiments with the Beardytron5000mkII and more recent collaborations with jazz ‘head hunter’ Herbie Hancock.
Taking his original vocal cues from hip hop, Beardy used his mouth to be crowned UK Beatbox Champion in 2006 and then do the unheard of and retain his title the following year. Since then he’s moved into different dance music territories. Dubstep, breakbeat, trance and techno are all fair game for his elasticated tonsils which have seen him become a firm festival favourite across the UK and beyond.
He’s spent the last three years developing the Beardytron5000mkII technology and recently spoke as a key speaker at the global TED conference in LA. He unveiled the latest stage to his real-time music production system to showcase what he believes the human voice is capable of.
M caught up with him to find out how an initial love for Lionel Richie pre-empted a gift for a gob which sees him talking a lot and saying even more…
What’s your first musical memory?
Sitting in front of a record player and being spellbound by the opening to Hello by Lionel Richie.
My parents would put that record on and I’d just sit and be carried away by it. It’s all sort of sparkly, twinkly FM synths and analogue bits and muted trumpets and jazzy guitars. It’s also obviously got the word ‘hello’ as the title which is the first word most kids ever learn. It was almost like music saying ‘hello’ to me.
How did you start beatboxing? Did it come naturally to you?
I’ve always been able to do it. But when I started I was terrible. It was very quiet and I hadn’t finessed it enough to do complex rhythms and or many different styles of music. When I was a teenager, I started getting into jungle, then started going to parties where beat boxing was a trick I’d bring out.
Were there any beatboxers you looked to for inspiration?
I discovered Rahzel - he was making it cool. Before that it was just a party trick. But he took it forward by being such a bad ass at it. He took all these different sound effects, doing all these robot noises. He made it something you could do and get both girls and money from.
Rahzel’s style made it clear to me that I’d need to make it louder and practice on a mike. I took lots of his sounds - some of them I just stole and others I made my own and suddenly saw an opening for myself in music.
Beatboxing was something I was good at and I realised I could do something with but it was still fringe at the time and came across as a magic trick. I worked very hard on having a set so it was based on novelty but with really good beatboxing within it.
Where does technology come into it for you? Is technology more important than your beatboxing ability?
I was getting involved in looping and trying to get a longer set together. Beatboxing is a novelty and monotonous. No matter what you do with it, no one is going to want to listen to it for an hour.
I was interested in taking whatever tech was available at the time and looping my voice as I went along so I could be my own backing band. I’m fascinated less by beatboxing than I am with the ability to improvise. As time has gone on, I’ve also realised there are limits to what my voice can do. There is a limit to my polyphony. The voice is a monophonic instrument and because of this I wanted to break out and do something more technologically advanced.
Can you explain the Beardytron5000mkII ?
The first version one was just a bunch of chaos pads so it was a DJ toy which enabled you to do basic looping. You could sample effects but it was very raw sounding. So for the last six years or so, I’ve been experimenting with loads of different set ups. They all had limitations.
I ended up starting a small software company and hooking up with DMG Audio to form this partnership where I was leading a design process and they did all the coding.
DMG are so good - they wrote the whole thing from scratch. We’ve now got this huge technological beast which is growing all the time. I’m constantly bringing people to come in on it to improve it. It means I can do the shows I’ve always wanted to. So when I come up with an idea live, I can just do it. If there’s a variation during a song, I can incorporate it into the live performance.
Some people say it’s very innovative. Others think it’s cheating. You always find resistance to any change. People think because you’re an artist and you’ve made music of a certain kind before, they own you and that you’re beholden to them to produce the sort of thing they want you to hear. My favourite artists are the ones who don’t give a shit about that and do whatever they wanna do.
The machine allows me to focus on producing the sort of music I’d like to make. Before I was only able to make music which was a work around. So I was more of an act than an artist. That dude who beatboxes and loops it. Now I’m something more.
What was it like working with Herbie Hancock?
He’s amazing. He’s 73 and cooler than anyone else I know. He’s fucking insane. I set all my gear up and said I was gonna go to Starbucks. He said no you’re not, I’m gonna take you in my Tesla, which is the world’s fastest and most efficient electric car. They’ve just made the first saloon and Herbie Hancock has one and it’s only been off the production line for two weeks so he wanted any excuse to drive it.
He’s also such a lovely man. But you don’t know how famous he is until you go to the toilet. On the way there are walls of gold discs which you wouldn’t know about unless you went for a piss. I’d never taken pictures of someone’s toilet or hallway before. In there he’s got like lifetime achievement awards and letters from the president.
What’s your favourite sound?
I could say something like silence which would be both pretentious and incorrect.
Ultimately it’s a meaningless question because if you’re a producer you’ll know that any sound in isolation is never as good as a sound in a context that makes it more powerful. Like a particular moment in a tune only as the emotional effect and impact it does because of what’s gone before it.
It’s not like a painting where your eyes zip around it and you’re drawn to one particular part. You have the option of looking at other things. You can’t traverse music in that way. It traverses you.