BeardymanBeatbox champion Beardyman has an armoury of sounds in his voice box. Now he’s added to his arsenal with an invention at the cutting edge of musical creativity, earning him fans including Jack Black, Tim Minchin and, er, Tony Blair
Darren Foreman, aka Beardyman, is standing in the kitchen of his London flat, barefoot, sporting the requisite facial hair even in the stifling heat of July. He’s talking quickly and animatedly about different subjects in quick succession, following tangents, finding new paths. “Sorry, I’m skipping around all over the place,” he says. “I’m like a Tarantino movie.” Foreman’s chat is like his music: unplanned, fast, entertaining.
He’s one of the world’s best beatboxers, sound mimickers and most prolific music-makers, and he’s at home today to prepare for a string of summer festivals, where he’ll showcase his new invention: the BEARDYTRON_5000mkIII. It’s a system that allows him to improvise and produce complicated, sublime and often hilarious studio-quality music completely live. It’s a device that has been years in the making, and moved him on from the beatboxing world to the forefront of musical innovation.
“It’s really interesting to me how technology and music can intertwine,” he says, in a London accent at the well-spoken end of the scale. “I wanted to create dance music in real time, so I set off on a mission.” At 32, Foreman’s mission has lead him to perform for Russian oligarchs, British prime ministers and American billionaires. He’s opened for Kasabian and Groove Armada, played the world’s biggest festivals, spoken at TED and done his thing for Al Gore and Matt Groening.
Foreman’s latest project, using the Beardytron, employs famous fan-friends, including Tim Minchin and Jack Black as guest producers on One Album Per Hour, an upcoming web series for YouTube. It allows Foreman to indulge his biggest love, improvisation, creating complex live tracks inspired by audience song title suggestions, in genres ranging from bhangra to drum and bass. Foreman has an uncanny ability to instantly combine beatbox skills, musical improvisation and genuinely funny, off-the-cuff lyrics, creating tracks you want to hear again. “It’s a great laugh,” he says. “But it’s about really good music, which I buzz off making live and people buzz off hearing.”
Foreman’s introduction to the verbal arts came long before he could grow a beard, and it didn’t come courtesy of ‘that guy’ from Police Academy, as his Wikipedia page states. It started with a stutter, which he developed at the age of three. Foreman had to relearn to talk, becoming a tiny linguist, analysing every sound in the English language. “I was always strange,” he says. “I remember trying to consciously reverse-engineer my mouth. I just always made lots of noises, practised and played with them.”
He was brought up in a musical household, learning the viola, piano and guitar, but it was this phonic self-education that first inspired him. As he grew older, he’d sit in his bedroom in north-west London for hours each day, incessantly beatboxing to a soundtrack in his head. He didn’t know the term for what he was doing – in 1980s Stanmore no one did. “My parents taught me to think it was an embarrassing habit,” he says. “So I kept it to myself until I got to uni, where I eventually did in public it for a laugh. Suddenly I was the coolest kid at the party.” Lots of gigging and wins at the National Beatbox Championships in 2006 and 2007 followed.
“I felt like it was my destiny to win these battles, he says, “having sublimated this bizarre skill set for years.” But when beatboxing wasn’t enough to satisfy Foreman’s ambitions, he turned to tech. “Twelve years ago I started with a little loop pedal,” he says. “I’d beatbox a loop, then sing, vocal-scratch or rap over it. It was enough for a while, but I constantly got bored of the limitations of whatever I was using and dreamed bigger.”
The ultimate dream was live, studio-quality improvised music production. It’s guided the last eight years of Foreman’s life. Today, he’s still in north London, and still spending a lot of time alone in his room, but now it’s a small studio in the basement of the Acton flat he shares with his wife and son. He’s down there, among the acoustic foam tiles and piles of wires, standing behind his newly completed Beardytron, which has taken thousands of pounds and hours to create. It comprises four iPads, two MacBook Pros running bespoke software at full capacity, a specially designed synth, a whole lot more wires and pedals and an almost inconceivable number of buttons.
In part, the Beardytron is thousands of carefully defined musical moulds waiting for Foreman’s voice or synth to fill them. These are then easily manipulated, enabling him to build up complex intertwined loops, beats and effects almost instantly. “Software makers design for people making music in their bedroom, who can go the long way around,” he says. “I want to be staring at the crowd, just making music and pressing a button to get the result I want.”
Foreman’s nodding his head to the rich bass of the hard-house track he’s creating, lifting a mic to his mouth to input new loops. His fingers skip over brightly lit buttons, his eyes dancing over hundreds of tiny option buttons on the screens in front of him. There are no pre-recorded samples in the entire rig, making it a complex arsenal of effects. It even intimidates its creator. “Every time I come in here to practise I’m like, ‘Aw sh–t, so many buttons,’” he says. “It takes practice.”
Foreman’s already had many strange adventures: making an enemy of MC Hammer after urging him to do the dance at a YouTube event; impersonating a German scientist at a Google conference for guests including Al Gore when the financial collapse hit. Last year he flew to the US to take part in a TED talk. “I was flabbergasted to be invited,” he says. “Every attendee is at least a millionaire, tickets cost $7,000. I haven’t cured a disease, but there I was chilling out with Matt Groening.” His most unexpected performance was for a tiny audience that included Bill Gates and Tony Blair. “I was asking for song title suggestions,” he says, “and Tony just blurted out ‘I desire you’. I had great fun with that. It was an entire song about us copulating. Then I thanked him for Iraq. I expected a red laser dot to appear on my chest for days after that.”
Now the Beardytron is complete, there will be more. “I want to work with rappers,” he says, his face uplit by iPad screens, “and improvise live with an orchestra, I want freewheeling, rolling gigs with no restrictions. I feel like I’m finally ready to do the shows I want.”
Check out the first episode of Beardyman’s new web series below