Darren Foreman AKA Beardyman is the British beatboxing, vocal instrumentalist wizard who will be gracing the stage at both Superbalist is Rocking the Daisies and Superbalist In The City in October. What was always guaranteed to be an extraordinary conversation, turned into one of the most unexpected interviews about being a weird kid, the spiritual value of clubbing and the future of genres and music creation.
Waiting patiently for the Skype call to connect, we finally make contact after some internet issues on Beardyman’s side (for once it’s not our slow internet causing trouble). After we get all the pleasantries and formalities out the way, I waste no time in getting the conversation going.
I inquire whether he has visited South Africa before and how he feels about his impending trip, he explains, “I’m excited, I have never been to South Africa before. The furthest south I have been on the African continent is Morocco, so I can’t wait to visit South Africa.” I then ensure him that being booked for Rocking the Daisies is ideal for a first visit as he gets to experience an aesthetically beautiful festival as well as our cities. The signal drops mid-description but we reconnect immediately and continue.
He jokingly asks, “Will I be eaten by lions?” and feigns disappointment when I say no and adds, “really, that’s a shame, I’d quite like to be eaten by lions.” I then suggest that he could probably be accommodated if he adds a request to be eaten by lions to his hospitality rider. It’s at this early point in our conversation that I realize the potential to joke and have fun in the interview and the ensuing conversation doesn’t disappoint. I go on to explain that if anything he is most likely to encounter cows, to which he inquires, “You can’t be eaten by a cow, can you be trampled by a cow?” and adds, “that would be a good name for an indie band ‘Trampled By Cows’”. I suggest that perhaps it alludes more to a shoegaze band and he agrees while laughing, “You’re right, what was I thinking?” There is a small body of water along the dirt road to Rocking The Daisies that is home to some flamingoes, when I mention this he calls the birds pink pelicans and we agree that they are decidedly average but deserve a shout out, “Big up flamingoes, you’re pretty cool.”
My feeble attempt at wildlife tour guiding is abandoned as I ask Beardyman how much, if anything, he knows about South African music. He replies, “Die Antwoord”. Whenever I interview international artists and they mention Die Antwoord, I do my best to explain the evolution of the act and give some context of why South Africans are no longer as enamoured with them as the rest of the world. He asks if there is an element of kitsch, which I affirm but also explain the elements of cultural appropriation to which people take exception. Beardyman’s reaction, to the insight about the tattoos and the personas they have created, is priceless, “that’s fucking crazy… that’s commitment to a role.” I go on to explain the history of Max Normal TV and Watkin Tudor Jones so he can understand the story behind the phenomenon. He then adds, “to be that skilled at marketing, that’s genius level… the music itself is good, but the whole package is so arresting and you can tell there is a level of artifice about it.” Although his first visit to South Africa will be brief, I explain to Beardyman that it will definitely be in his favour to explore the talent we have here and he agrees that he will endeavour to check out as many of the other acts as possible. I also offer to to gift him with a plethora of local music.
I’d like to say I’m surprised that we managed to veer off on a tangent again, but when I mention I will be at Rocking The Daisies we start talking about the aforementioned ‘Trampled By Cows’ band and that Daisies will be the opportune place to form that band together. When Beardyman asks if I play an instrument, I expect my lack of talent in that department to be off-putting but instead he accepts my offer of the triangle and my “guttural scream” as a worthy contribution. And so is borne, the Noisecore Shoe Gaze band, ‘Trampled By Cows’ and he decides, “ I will be singing really morose lyrics about how sad I am and you’ll just be screaming and playing the triangle in the background.” After a fair amount of laughter at the ridiculousness of this endeavour, I manage to get the conversation back on track.
Beardyman is an extremely versatile performer, in more intimate settings he incorporates his humour and is very interactive with his audience often taking cues and suggestions for his performance from the crowd. He is, however, also more than capable of holding the attention of thousands of people at a rave. I ask him how he approached adapting his performance to suit the larger scale shows, they undoubtedly need to be more high energy to keep festival hooligans happy. “I like to be a bit of a chameleon, its fun for me,” he explains, “I don’t like to plan too much, because I often find that if I plan too much I turn up and end up thinking that what I have planned isn’t quite appropriate. So I like to leave it to the last minute and go with my gut because I’ve got quite a wide gamut of things that I can employ in the field of battle.”
Without intending for the question to be funny, I’m met with laughter when I ask what kind of child Beardyman was, and also at what point he realized that rather than playing an instrument he was meant to be the instrument. “When I was really young, I was pretty weird,” he divulges, “ I used to make lots of noises, rather than talk and that was a problem for a while. I remember I also had a stammer, so I couldn’t quite pronounce my words correctly without trying loads of different ways of pronouncing it.” It was in fact this speech impediment that encouraged his fascination with the phonetics of letters and words, long after the stammer was overcome he found himself dissecting the intricacies of how vowels and consonants changed according to the speed at which they were enunciated.
He would record sounds on a tape player and speed up or slow down the playback to analyze and understand the way the sounds would be affected. As he speaks about changing pitch and timbre, I get a snippet of the Beardyman magic as he demonstrates the tape effect with his voice. “I was always just processing sounds in this weird kind of explorative manner,” he adds, “and as soon as I started learning about music technology and what waveforms looked like… I could see that you could draw all these sounds out in a myriad of ways and there are just different ways of thinking about the same thing”. He goes on to explain, “I just always thought beatboxing was kind of a weird habit.” Until the age of 20 it was just a party trick he used to entertain his friends. It was only when he started University and discovered beatboxing pioneer Rahzel that he realized that all the crazy sounds and exploration of phonetics could be used to create music and eventually a career.
Along with the technical knowledge he accrued, there was a certain element of music discovery that was necessary in the shaping of his style. Experiencing his formative years in the nineties meant that procuring and discovering new music was not even remotely as easy as it is nowadays. He describes how in the early nineties, “The only way to get music was to hear it on the radio or to buy it or to get it on a tape from someone. But it was only when illegal downloading came along… I was suddenly voraciously downloading as much music as I could. I think kids today have got it so good in terms of music discovery. I can’t believe I will be telling my grandkids about how you had to go to a shop and save up all your pocket money to buy one CD, it’s just fucking mental.”
Being a human instrument that incorporates constantly changing and improving technology, I can only imagine that the potential for creating is infinite. Beardyman best illustrates this when our conversation steers towards modern genres and ease of access to technology, “To what extent is it possible to say that new genres can be created, it’s dependent on cultural mixing and the technology available to do stuff. The technology exists now, in music, to make literally whatever sound you want for no money, that’s a crazy situation to be in. Music is a blank slate, if you’ve got the imagination to think of something that has never been done.” He reckons that music has reached so many extremes with things like speed metal, breakcore and noise/drone music, and if that is the very limit of what can be achieved then perhaps the alternative is to start exploring the gaps between the noise – the subtleties and nuances, “I feel like we’ve explored all of the outer edges of musical territory and now it’s just about walking around inside this landscape and seeing what you can build.”
We finally reach a subject I have been eager to explore, the matter of Fabric being shutdown and the whole change in UK nightlife that is currently happening. Although Beardyman has spoken with a consistent level of passion throughout our conversation, I notice a distinct shift in his energy when I bring this up. A mixture of anger, disappoint and vehemence takes over as he explains, “It’s a travesty built on a tragedy. It’s terrible that people have died taking drugs, it’s not the clubs fault. If it was just Fabric that was being closed then that would be bad enough but it’s just super depressing as its part of this move in the UK, away from clubbing. People still want to go out but there are less and less venues to do so.”
He breaks for a second before continuing, “As a performer, you need places to hone your craft and get known. There were so many places supporting the night time economy of their local areas and gifting people life long friendships and experiences that would craft personalities and grant transcendent experiences. There is an inherent value to cultural mixing, when you go to a club you never know who you’re going to meet. These days the Internet, which was supposedly going to be this egalitarian zone of mixing where ideas can mix freely and it isn’t that at all, has become this very strict space where you’re hemmed in by these bubbles.” Our online lives are so very carefully curated to feed us information based on our previous habits that things like diverse social interactions are vital to your world view. He apologizes for ranting at me and his final statement on the subject is, “People who have never been clubbing and loved it and had their life changed by it, don’t understand. In a world were religion is demonstrably false and built on bullshit, we seek other means of spiritual refuge and rejuvenation and we find that in clubbing.”
We continue to talk about Beardyman’s performances and crowd reception to his shows when our connection is cut off again, once he reconnects he reiterates his last statement, “The last thing I said was, I’m Schrodinger’s beatboxer, you never know what I’m going to be until I open the box. Which is definitely the wankiest thing I’ve ever said.” Its clear to see that he is not only intelligent but has a sardonic somewhat self-deprecating sense of humour which perfectly compliments his obsessive fascination with the stranger elements of life.
Our final subject of discussion is looping, a technique he adopted in the early years of his career – which leads us straight to Ed Sheeran, who has taken looping to the most mainstream audience its ever had. I then tell him about Jeremy Loops, no stranger to the Rocking the Daisies stage, and how he has become one of our biggest music exports. Beardyman proceeds to Google him while we chat about Ed Sheeran and the fact that you don’t need to do anything too complicated with looping in order to achieve a good result but that Sheeran is somewhat of a phenomenon. He exclaims, “His music to me, is not something I would go out of my way to listen to… but he did three nights at Wembley Stadium, with a looper and fucking guitar! So cynical old me just has to look at that and slow clap, it’s amazing.”
If you’ve not had the opportunity to witness a Beardyman performance, I cannot see any reason why you wouldn’t want to after this illuminating excursion into the brain of this man. Be sure to catch him at Superbalist is Rocking The Daisies and Superbalist In The City in October.