When you hear “Bespoken,” a track by Johnnyrandom, aka Flip Baber, a 40-year-old New Yorker now based in San Francisco, you hear a melodic, head-nodding piece of what seems like electronica. In reality, you might say it’s “biketronica”: Every element of the track is the sound of a bike part being played, struck or manipulated in some way.
THE RED BULLETIN: Most people ride their bikes. Why do you make music with them?
JOHNNYRANDOM: The idea first came to me when I was a child. I got a Huffy bike when I was 4 and began fiddling around with the spokes there and then. I wanted to know what I’d have to do to make them make music.
Did you realize at the time that wasn’t what most kids felt about their bikes?
Oh, you know, I was a bit of a loner. My favorite pastime was listening to things. You could say I discovered the world with my ears. It might not seem very exciting, but I’m really grateful for the fact that I was left to my own devices. It meant my curiosity was allowed to develop unhindered. We didn’t have a TV at home, which meant that there was time to read and to try out instruments or other things that I could make or compose music on.
What makes a bike musical?
Every bicycle has its own acoustic fingerprint. Road bikes have delicate mechanical parts, which are perfect for percussive sounds. If you play the tread of a tire spinning at a constant speed with a [pick], it sounds like a distorted electric bass. You can play the gear cable with an electromagnetic EBow. Disc brakes make an incredible noise, like a Chinese gong: It can last for more than a minute.
What’s the most surprising sound you’ve discovered?
The most beautiful sound, and at the same time the one that’s most difficult to create, comes from the spokes. I have to tune all the spokes on a wheel to exactly the same tone for each note. You have to tune spokes right, and then they make a beautiful sound. Plus, the wheel has to have straight spokes. They can’t cross over. When I tried it first time, it took me an hour to play a single note. It would take me a week to play a complete octave.
Can you play this music live?
There’s no way it would work with other musicians. There would need to be too many of them, and it wouldn’t be possible to be as precise as I’d need to be. In theory, I’d be able to perform “Bespoken” live if I had 20 bicycles and extremely high-tech robots that ran on tailor-made software, but I wouldn’t be able to afford it.
Was “Bespoken” the first piece of music you wrote with bicycles?
No. In 2006, I did a version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky that was used by the bike company Specialized in an electronic Christmas card.
Do you ever use bikes for their intended purpose?
I do. Cycling is the best way I have of clearing my mind. My favorite thing is to go mountain biking in the redwoods around the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. My favorite bike is a Specialized Stumpjumper FSR, which also provided me with some wonderful sounds for “Bespoken.”
There are lots of songs about bicycles and cycling. Do you have a favorite?
At the moment it’s “Bicycle” by St. Vincent, but I’m interested in the whole history of the bicycle in music, from Samuel Goss, who invented the musical bicycle in 1899, to Queen, Frank Zappa and Kraftwerk.
Is it true that you’re trying to make music using kitchen utensils?
My next release is called “Clarify,” and it deconstructs a complete kitchen but in a way that you wouldn’t expect. I might even have found a way of getting a waste disposal unit to make music.
Johnnyrandom runs a sound design agency that has developed noise and music for the likes of Adidas and Google. One such commission was for Doritos: making the perfect tortilla-chip crunch.
The accidental nickname
“I was having problems with a synthesizer one time. So I started pressing keys at random and all of a sudden it started working again. My name reminds me that sometimes the best way of going about things is the least expected.”