Cowboy Rhythmbox

A love for the Doctor Who theme, electronic body music and knackered synths are behind duo Cowboy Rhythmbox. We get to know them and their machines…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 26 Nov 2014
  • min read
Nathan Gregory Wikins and Richard X could be considered veterans of odd British electronica.

While Richard enjoyed several skirmishes with chart success as producer for Rachel Stevens and M.I.A, both are also known for dealing in the more obscure end of beats and weird, charity shop-sourced bleeps.

The pair initially bonded in 2001, when Nathan worked as a vinyl distributor and Richard walked in brandishing his Kraftwerk/Whitney Houston sampling seven inch bootleg, I Wanna Dance With Numbers. Working at their own pace, their release in 2012, the juddering, hypnotic Shake first appeared on Matias Aguayo's Comeme label and featured in Daniel Avery's Fabric mix album.

Now signed to Erol Alkan’s Phantasy Sound label (alongside Dan and new player Ghost Culture), the pair have unveiled their latest offering, potential club belter We Got The Box and a promise to work a bit harder. We quiz Nathan and Richard on their love of old machines…

What are your first musical memories?

Nathan Gregory Wilkins (NGW): The theme music to Doctor Who (a masterpiece) and admiring Alvin Stardust, Gary Glitter and Suzy Quatro on Top Of The Pops. I dreamt of wearing head-to-toe leather when I was a grown up.

Richard X (RX): Doctor Who would be in there, along with The Amazing Darts album and various interference ridden children’s TV theme tunes I would tape on cassette and annoyingly play back constantly in the house.

How did you both get embroiled in electronic music?

NGW: I started out at the age of five via, in chronological order, falling hopelessly in love with the theme to Doctor Who, listening to Kraftwerk, YMO and the Human League, DJing, working in record shops, working for Network Records (legendary Birmingham based house/techno label), running a record distribution company (Ideal) etc. It was my destiny.

RX: The post punk synth late seventies bands like the Human League and labels like Mute Records were the main influence. I caught up with that quite a while after the event but hearing those records and being able to buy some of the cheap analogue synths that by the mid eighties had become obsolete was my starting point. Then the later eighties, early nineties dance thing was the real revelation that kids like me were doing electronic music again all over the country with a similar setup to mine.

How did you first get together? Was there a record which you bonded over?

NGW: I was involved in running a record distribution company called Ideal and Richard popped in one afternoon to see if we'd be interested in distributing his first Girls On Top record (I Wanna Dance With Numbers). I think we probably bonded over a mutual love of the Human League?

RX: The League again, yes, I can’t escape them. It’s funny to think that the mashup/bootleg records were real trouble for stores and distributors at the time and Nathan was willing to risk all for the sake of art!

What’s the biggest inspirations behind Cowboy Rhythmbox?

NGW +RX : I think our press release says it best: Outsider house, bargain bin cut-outs, hard drive debris, rudimentary jack trax, obscure TV themes, Euro disco, EBM, Detroit Techno, the Smith & Wesson Model 3 and horses.

Your first release - Shake - was ace but was released two years ago - what have you been working on in the meantime? And why reboot the project now?

NGW: We've both been doing lots of different things. There was actually something like a five year gap between starting Shake and finishing it. We like to work at our own pace. However, we've started working together lots more often recently, so there's definitely more music in the pipeline.

RX: I often find with music I’m working on I’m drawing on musical ideas or sketches or songs that might have been around for five, 10 or 20 years in my head or on a tape or whatever. There’s often a non linear aspect to getting stuff done. Well that’s my excuse anyway. I think we’ve also been hearing a lot of modern records again that contain the spirit of what we’re doing so that encourages you to do more.

Describe the creative process - how does it work in the studio?

NGW: I bring along some peculiar records that we listen to. And some samples (I buy lots and lots of strange old records for the purpose of sampling). Then we improvise. Correction, Richard improvises while I sit there being impressed, he's a very talented chap. If it's sounding good I make a Noddy Holder style thumbs aloft gesture (as I'm from the West Midlands).

RX: There’s a lot of twiddling by both of us. I think we both like the aspect of chance that improvising or editing or throwing bits at the wall can bring. And using material or found sounds and seeing where it leads rather than insisting on making the initial idea work … that keeps things fresh. I also like the chance to be able to under-produce, keeping things raw and accidental, sometimes records I make need to be the opposite.

Is there a piece of studio kit or a particular effect or drum pattern that you really couldn’t do without?

NGW. Yes. Can you explain please Richard?

RX: There’s some old kit we use, a bespoke Modular setup, Midimoog, Junos - I seem to be constantly surrounded by old keyboards working and not working … but also for Cowboy Rhythmbox we’re trying to use constraints, like using the samplers of old where you only had a finite time to put your sounds in memory, so you could only work with those and manipulate them to get results, not have endless choice. At one point we were going to use the same drum sounds for every track we made as some sort of statement, but I forgot what the statement actually was supposed to be so we might be abandoning that plan.

You’ve both got enviable musical CVs - what have been past musical highlights?

NGW: I'm always excited about what's coming next.

RX: Hard to single out as I’ve worked with lots of great artists and been lucky to be involved with many records. Boring answer huh? I’ll just say working with Nathan Gregory Wilkins is up there.

You’re now signed to Phantasy - what are the best things about being on the label?

NGW: They're very very organised. It's like being in the army, but without the horrible bits (getting up very early, shooting people, people shooting at you etc.). Joking aside it's really lovely to work with Erol and his team, they've been able to offer us lots of much appreciated encouragement, advice and constructive criticism. And the label has an enviable and massively varied roster, we're in very good company!

RX: I agree, I’ve liked a lot of the tracks they put out so honoured to be part of that. Hoping for the return of dance area at some point.

What are you listening to at the moment?

NGW: I'm very keen on the new singles from Barnt and Quiet Village. And this German electronic/rock album from 1980:

RX: Ariel Pink’s Pom Pom for me this week.

What’s next for you guys - are you going to work on an album?

NGW: It's a secret.

RX: Triple vinyl Space-Exotica Blowout. Oh, it’s a secret, is it?