The internet, as a communication medium, is as unusual as it is revolutionary. The act of using the internet is a solitary experience, yet we are granted a deity-like sense of omniscience and omnipresence. Alone, sitting in a creaky beer-stained seat in a poorly lit room, we are suddenly able to connect with people across the world, potentially ones that we have never met. Some may argue that the manifold power of the internet breeds complacency and laziness in people. Sage Francis rapped the profound lyric “technology made it easy for us to stay in touch while keeping a distance, so we just stay distant and never touch“. For better or worse, the tangled electronic land that is the internet forms the backbone of Part One in this story.
Over two Focus articles, I will be exploring the current wave of multi-instrumentalist one-man-bands, armed with the same array of instruments as any group but the motivation, art, and skill of only one figure. These musicians are their own boss; they are autonomous, self-authoritative, and completely independent. And it is probably for this reason that, combined with their musical dexterity, much of the material produced by these musicians is bold, dynamic, disjunctive and very mathematical. In Part One, we will look at what I have loosely named ‘bedroom musicians’, those one-man-bands who use home recording equipment and the power of the internet to focus their energy into solo endeavours. We will get an insight into bedroom music making from some of the internet’s most talented one-man-bands and get a feel for what it’s like being an independent musician, and how bedroom musicians go about recording and distributing their material.
In visual art, the vision and scope rests entirely with one artist, sitting alone in a quiet room and slowly realising the desires within them. I’m sure it is a little less exciting (and pretentious) than this, but to a degree the bedroom musician shares more in common with solo visual artists than bands and, arguably, filmmakers, where their product is commonly a collaborative achievement. “It’s a lot easier, financially and
organisationally, to be a DIY self-produced dude sitting in a bedroom than it would be to arrange three or five guys to successfully write, record, practice and perform music,” says guitarist Plini from Australia. During 2013, Plini was able to release three outstanding EPs and a split with fellow guitar wizard Sithu Aye. Plini and Sithu transpose soaring discordant, metal guitar melodies onto lush combinations of djent, groove metal, oddly-timed math rock and ethereal post-rock. To date, Plini and Sithu have developed a 25,000-strong legion of Facebook fans between them. Complete creative control, time and a well-established working environment appear to be the winning combo: “the only thing stopping me releasing (more) is myself, and having free time to write and record more.” Sithu has similar sentiments: “Nobody is telling me that I’m releasing music too close together in the year, or too far for that matter. No idea is too ambitious or conservative. What you hear in my music is exactly what I wanted to write and record.“
Thus, the solo musician is free to indulge in creativity on their own terms in a relaxed environment; the product is never forced out during band rehearsals or mastering. However, while the individual is in full control of their creative license, a lack of peer support may also affect the writing process. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, drummer of The Para-medics, also has solo side-projects in both math rock and hip-hop, both produced entirely from his room. “When you’re on your own you can choose whatever direction you want to go, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you make songs faster,” says Nnamdi, “sometimes I definitely begin to overthink things. I am always in an epic struggle between extreme simplicity and quirky, zany parts.” One-man math outfit Zefs Chasing Cara also concedes in the potential woes of hitting embankments as a solo musician. “When you work on something on your own its easy to fall into a pattern where you’re not progressing on a song at all, you just keep undermining yourself.” Representing your music can also be pretty intimidating when you’re the only one out on the playing field. Nnamdi admits to qualms of critical reception when making music as a sole entity. “(When) making your own songs you take all the credit and all the ridicule, which is a completely different feel from group work“.
Despite the personal hindrances, each of these musicians has been able to write, perform and produce multiple albums, oozing with complexity, creativity and experimentation. The advent of cheap audio-editing software packages provides greater opportunities for building home recording studios, and allows musicians to devote more time to making and producing material. Since 2011, Sithu Aye has produced two LPs and four EPs entirely from his bedroom. “I can use programs like Superior Drummer to reproduce drum parts while sounding like the real thing. I can use VST plugins to negate the need to record amps with microphones. I think given the tools available, it’s definitely easier to write what I feel like without considering ever having to play it live.” When recording his album, Ultra Gown, Zefs Chasing Cara recorded his instruments using a simple SM58 microphone and edited them using an old version of Cubase. “With such a lo-fi set up it was sometimes a struggle to get it to sound close to how I would like it to but…working with such limitations has given me a great level of clarity in how I approach recording now.” And, listening to Ultra Gown, one would find it hard to sniff out any shortcomings in the quality of the recordings; if anything, the reverb sneaking into the recordings gives the multifarious sounds an organic sensibility. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has released a staggering 13 albums from his recording studio. For Nnamdi, the home studio allows for privacy: “I have a PreSonus Firestudio that came with a handful of decent mics… I love recording by myself, mostly because I hate doing vocals in front of people.“
By omitting live shows, there is the advantageous abandonment of the admin and logistics associated with touring. And, if the music rings well with listeners, this may not be a shortcoming in generating a potential fan base. Legendary cult math rockers Ghosts And Vodka released critically lauded albums but only played shows for a total of two weeks across their four year career, suggesting that forming a devoted audience can still be achieved without live play. In modern times, the success of bedroom musicians rests in how well they can broadcast their craft over the internet, and develop an online fan base. Music-sharing websites, such as Soundcloud, Bandcamp, iTunes, and Last FM, have made it easy for these musicians to upload their recordings and distribute them amongst the wider internet community. Sithu Aye’s albums have been downloaded over 50,000 times on Bandcamp, demonstrating the efficacy of this platform for musicians who do not publicise their music through live shows. In addition to internet downloads and sales, both Sithu Aye and Plini sell and ship physical copies of their releases out to collectors and devoted fans, using the same music-sharing platforms. “I think there is still a place for physical media and I for one do enjoy actually owning CDs of bands I want to support,” says Sithu Aye, “it’s all driven by my fans, I probably wouldn’t have made CDs if they hadn’t asked for them, so the desire for (physical CDs) is certainly still there. For instance, I did limited 100 CD runs of Cassini, Isles EP, Invent the Universe and a 50 CD run of 26 and they’ve all sold out. I think, like me, my fans see it as a way of directly supporting the artist as they can get my musically digitally for free.” A begging question then is whether the internet-based endeavours of bedroom musicians are lucrative. “It’s not the kind of thing that I can make a living from but having the ability to earn any kind of money is always nice,” says Sithu Aye. For Zefs Chasing Cara, revenue is not important: “…there’s no monetary aspect to it at all at the moment. I’ve put out everything I’ve done for free. I don’t think this music I make as Zefs Chasing Cara is capable of bringing in significant amounts of money even If I could tour and had a bunch of merchandise. It’s a hobby.“
By being a lone ranger, one-man-band musicians can produce music on their terms, and exploit the inexhaustible horizons of the internet to generate their fan base. Neglecting live shows, bedroom musicians turn to an audience of 360 million internet users to perform their art and distribute their music. The decision to fly solo results in music gives these musicians a chance to be true to themselves and their art. As George Washington once said: ‘it is better to be alone than in bad company’.
In Part 2 of this Lone Rangers feature series, I will explore the other side of one-man-bands: performing live. Stay tuned.
You can hear all these bands, and many other one-man-bands, by selecting the ‘one-piece’ bubble in our WWJLT tool.