It was 16:50 on the Saturday of the ArcTanGent festival. It had been pouring down the night before and now Wellies sales were at an all-time high. Henry Kohen, aka Mylets, was about to go onstage. He had prepared everything a little earlier than expected so now he had 10 minutes to stand around and prepare himself. He seemed a little nervous. He finished his line check, came off stage, ran his hands through his hair and said ‘I need something to take my mind off things’. I had just taken some pictures on my phone of Henry with some of the local farmer’s pigs. I said ‘do you want to see the pigs again?’, to which he happily obliged. Cathy Pellow of Sargent House was there; she was offering to buy him pies, cake, anything he wanted after he finished his set. Hank Tremain of TTNG was telling random jokes to keep spirits up. After these brief interventions, Henry walked away, presumably to catch a moment with himself, then walked back onto the stage by himself and played in front of the thousands of festival punters… by himself. If Henry was indeed nervous, he had more right to be than any other musician at the festival. He was taking on the role of at least three musicians, maybe seven.
A while back we introduced you to bedroom musicians, those one-man-bands who perform, record, produce, master and distribute all their music from home. In this, the second part of our ‘Lone Rangers’ feature, we introduce you to one-man-bands who not only play multiple instruments, but play them simultaneously live on stage. Typically, this is achieved through the use of digital delay pedals and looping stations. Thus, such a feat requires not only delivering a reasonable performance on every instrument, but managing the accumulating layers of sound from each instrument at once.
Sam Knight, aka Theo, performing in Amsterdam, 2013.
“Sometimes, it’s almost like the crowd are willing me to get through that next phase of the loop. It’s like a spectator sport. ‘He’s done it! He’s bloody done it!’.” This is how Sam Knight, or Theo, rather jokingly recounts the relationship he shares with his audience. We’re sitting on a wet tree stump behind the Yokhai stage of the ArcTanGent festival. About half an hour ago, thousands of early punters walked up to the stage to see a guy jamming on his guitar in front of an unmanned drum kit. Sam uses an RC-300 loop station to stack several chord progressions on top of each other, and then moves other to these unmanned drums to add the rhythm. He uses his own ‘internal metronome’ to judge when to place his guitar loops on top of each other. “Usually when I play live, I play in the middle of the room and I play with my amps right next to me. So I just crank the volume and I can usually hear it pretty well. I don’t usually have a monitor. Today I made sure the monitors were really loud, but it got to the point where I was really struggling to hear the cue that I needed to hear. Playing live, its really quite hard to get everything to properly communicate – all the layers and all the intricacies. Your ear is only able to hear a certain amount in that environment. ” Bear in mind that Sam is doing all of this in front of an audience. Hundreds, even thousands of eyes quietly looking and forming an opinion. The pressure is bound to be intense. However, Sam has been performing as Theo for seven years and no longer worries about errors. “I used to beat myself up so much about hitches. I used to play the keyboards at the same time as playing the drums and the keyboard I was using broke during a show and I just chucked it in a bit hissy-fit and it smashed everywhere. But you can’t beat yourself up. I am who I am, I can play what I can play, and I can’t get annoyed at myself.“
Jerry Joiner, aka Girlfriends, performing on the road with El Ten Eleven in New York, 2011.
Jerry Joiner, aka Girlfriends had exactly the same approach. Jerry originally performed live as a one-piece by building guitar loops and successively adding both percussion and keyboards. He has since discarded his loop pedals and now performs as a trio. I was interested as to why he chose to make this shift. “My only looping pedal was a Boss DD-7 digital delay during the creation of the songs so there wasn’t much wiggle room on how to play with that; I would have to add the parts individually and build the loop from scratch.” Jerry released his self-titled album in 2009, and it was during this time that he had started to rethink want he wanted from his music. “When making an album, you have so much power to shape how your music is perceived… it’d be a shame to let all that creative freedom go to waste. To me, that’s equivalent to ignoring the power of time discontinuity with film edits… you inherently have more control when you’re the only content maker, but that says nothing about the quality of the work…it was clear that in all the songs I’d written, most of the post-production work afterwards was dedicated to giving dynamic to songs which had no melodic movement. You can hear it in how the drums were played; the shifts in feel are in place to give dynamics, even if I didn’t explicitly know it at the time. This is something that I was unfamiliar with to a large degree and it became clear that my tastes were evolving quicker than my ability write songs with movement. This was discouraging and playing with a band was a response to the problem.”
From what I could gather, Jerry felt like what he wanted to say in his music couldn’t be gained from the restrictions of delay pedals and ‘building the loop’. Sure, creative control was nice, but the limitations of the music making process were too great. Sam Knight aka Theo, who released his album Loom just last month, was in different minds about the restrictions and continuity associated with looping: “It’s both annoying and a good thing, because on the one hand you’ve got a ceiling and you can only do certain things in a certain way, but the other thing is that when you’re writing new material the one thing that I always think is ‘is this too much like something I’ve already done?’, ‘am I doing anything new here?’ I’ve thrown away so many riffs and ideas just because of that reason alone. But it is good to have limitations because it provides some focus. When the sky’s the limit, it’s a bit overwhelming.“
Henry Kohen, aka Mylets, performing at the ArcTanGent festival in Bristol, 2014.
Remember how I said that Henry Kohen, aka Mylets, seemed nervous? It turned out he wasn’t nervous at all. As Mylets, Henry not only manages several guitar loops at once; he is also simultaneously programming rhythms into a drum machine. Henry had forced himself into playing this way because he craved performing. Looping and executing this musical juggling act onstage was only through necessity. “It wasn’t even a choice for me. I had to play shows, I love playing shows so much. No one else was playing shows, so what was I supposed to do? I wasn’t going to sit around and wish I could do this, I had to get out and be proactive.” Henry bought his first looping pedal, a Digitech digidelay, when he played alongside his brother in the band, Over Tehran. Today, the board is far more advanced. “Right now I’m using three Digitech Digidelays which I use for either rhythmic delays or short four second loops, or long delays. Those run into a Line 6 looping pedal, which I run drums and guitar into and then out into an amp, so that is how I get the full band.” Like Theo, none of the loops are quantised, or autocorrected, so everything Henry does has to be extremely precise. “I think part of the fun is that it can mess up and it can blow up in your face. It’s more organic.” And it is astonishing to see how Henry’s live performance transcends what can be heard on Retcon, Mylets debut album. The live show at ArcTanGent was intercalated with a myriad of technical interludes, warped guitar effects, and other crazy musical non sequiturs. “Any sound I want is my responsibility, any mess-up is my responsibility. And I like that. It’s a lot of pressure and I feel like I operate better when there is a lot more pressure. And if I had someone else where I could be like ‘why did you screw that song up’, I feel like I wouldn’t be able to take it as seriously as I do playing by myself.” And at the end of his performance, the gratitude from the audience was entirely his.
I found that there seemed to be two quite disparate issues associated with being the lone ranger and performing the live juggling act. On one hand, there are technical and artistic limitations associated with being confined to continuous guitar loops, and successively having to ‘build the loop’ to achieve the full sound of a band. The freedom to launch swiftly into new choruses and bridges were not really there. For some, these limitations meant recruiting additional members, for others it meant innovating and stylizing. On the other hand, being the sole curator presents an exciting challenge. As Sam Knight alluded, being the sole entity on stage is like a captivating spectator sport. With so much on the line, all of the loops, the rhythms, and the scrupulousness of the changes; as an audience member it is impossible to look away. There is an extra dimension of performance art here, and the bond formed between the audience and that one musician on stage clearly transcends one that must be diluted across a full band. Perhaps being a one-man-band is not only a juggling act but a balancing act: musicians must choose between the depth of their music versus the intensity of their performance. At the heart of it, it comes down to how the musician wants to speak.
You can read the first part of this ‘Lone Rangers’ feature here.
You can also hear all these bands, and many other one-man-bands, by selecting the ‘one-piece’ bubble in our WWJLT tool.