Mike Atkinson

Intervew: THePETEBOX

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on October 26, 2013

Originally published in LeftLion magazine.

What were you doing this time ten years ago? What was life like?

Since that time, I’ve slowly been rubbing away my memory – replacing it with new endeavours, and with loads of drugs. (Laughs) This time ten years ago, I was just starting to beatbox. I was hearing these good beatboxers – Killa Kela, Rahzel – and I was finding as many people to learn from as possible. So I was building the foundations of my musical career.

How the hell do you learn to beatbox? Are there manuals and instruction videos, or do you have to work things out from first principles?

Back in the day, all I had was these amazingly well recorded live shows, from the best beatboxers in the world. You have to tell yourself that even though it sounds mental and impossible, you can do it. But there wasn’t that much resource for actually breaking it down. Now, on YouTube, you just type in “beatbox tutorial” and there will be a detailed, in-depth visual explanation.

So because there wasn’t a rulebook, you had more freedom to develop your own style.

I think that’s still valid now. People are going to sound different. Even a guitar will have a different tone, or a different feel, from another guitar – and then it’s down to the guitarist. Anyone can play a G chord and a C chord, but someone might write a beautiful, seminal song using those chords. It’s the same with beatboxing. There’s the physical element of creating a sound – like making noise out of your instrument – and then there’s the more metaphysical, spiritual side of it, where you arrange the music. So it’s unique to everyone, although a lot of beatboxers do sound the same, and they bore the fuck out of me.

When did the looping come along?

I just heard another beatboxer, MC Xander. He posted on some forum, just going: oh, I’ve got this looper thing, and here’s what I’ve done with it, and he was amazing. That was my first exposure to that technology, and it came at the right time, because I was starting to get a little bit bored. I felt a bit limited with beatboxing. The shows were great, and getting that crazy response from the crowd was fulfilling, but not really in a musical sense.

You may have routines and cool sounds, and you’re able to do things that people don’t understand and are therefore really interested in, but you don’t have songs, for people to emotionally connect to. So when I found out about these loop pedals, I could actually start to arrange songs and music. More than that, all of a sudden your sound is ten times bigger. Frequency spectrum-wise, you’ve now got everything going on. You’ve got the bass and the drums, which are constantly going, and then you’ve got some harmonies and trumpets over the top, and then you can sing as well. So all of a sudden, you sound like a full band.

And you use guitar as well. Was that something that you added later?

I always had this double personality in my head. I was a guitar player, and that’s my favourite instrument. I write songs, and I sing about love and weird stuff – and then I beatboxed. I was in these drum & bass and techno and hip hop clubs, and I even used to speak a bit different when I was on stage. (Laughs) It was a long, slow journey to reconnect and reconcile these two sides. They were both as valid as each other, but they each seemed like completely different worlds.

The first time I did it, I did a Pixies cover, of Where Is My Mind. I was like: everyone’s gonna hate this. Beatboxers are gonna go: that’s not really beatboxing, there’s nothing technically great about that. And then the Pixies fans will think that I’ve murdered one of their songs.

But that video was your tipping point, wasn’t it?

It went massive; it went viral. Even the Pixies put it on their website, so that was a good validation. I got Simon Ellis to film it; he’s a local director from Nottingham and he’s brilliant. It sounds really simple, because he’s just filming me – but the way he’s done it, with the depth of field and the slow camera movements, is just beautiful.

Before then, my highest viewed video was about 25,000, over three years. With this one, I put it up, went to bed, woke up, and it was on 7,000 views. By lunchtime, it had gone up to about 25,000. By the end of that night, it was on 100,000, and within a week it had half a million views. I didn’t do anything.

That’s quite encouraging, because your views rely on individual internet users seeing something, liking it, and wanting to share it with their friends.  It’s quite organic, but also quite gutting, because it’s entirely non-replicable. You can’t go: well, I’ve had a viral video now, so I’ll just make another one. There’s no rhyme or reason for making it happen again. You just have to hope that what you make resonates.

Your Future Loops album came out last year, with a corresponding set of performance videos, featuring four originals and five covers. How did you select the covers?

The covers are just bands that I really fucking love. It’s as simple as that. So it’s Nirvana, Pixies, Crystal Castles, MGMT. They’re my favourite bands.

When I arrange a cover, I don’t listen to the original and work it out. I just play it as I remember it. That means that when I listen to the original, mine sounds nothing like it! Everyone’s like, you’ve totally made it your own, but I’ve just done it a bit wrong.

You also did a Beach Boys song, I Get Around. I heard it was a childhood obsession.

I had a 45 minute tape, and with my dad’s CD player, I recorded I Get Around over and over and over again. I had an entire tape on this little Walkman, and I’d just listen to the song over and over. So it was quite apt for the “Future Loops” concept.

What have been your recent gigging highlights?

I just played a festival in Lithuania, and that was mega, just brilliant, and a packed house. I toured Russia at the end of last year. It’s quite daunting when you’re travelling to another country for a headline tour. You’re like: who the fuck is going to come and see me? But at the same time, YouTube has this global reach. So, yeah, packed out shows every night – to see me! (Laughs)

Wasn’t there a time when you played Abu Dhabi for Formula One, and it was a total five-star treatment?

That was bonkers. I’d just been touring with Swimming, supporting Carl Barat around Europe. It was a budget affair, with five of us piled into a little hotel room. We’d have to sneak in through the windows. Then I flew straight from Bologna on the last date of the tour. I arrived in Abu Dhabi, someone met me at the end of the plane, and I didn’t have to go through customs. They were like, welcome to Abu Dhabi, here’s your phone, which you can keep, and that’s your car, and that’s your driver – anywhere you need to go, he’ll be waiting outside. We got in, and it was this posh BMW with those blackout things that go up. Then we went to this fucking seven star bonkers hotel, and Sophie Ellis Bextor was there, chilling in the foyer. I was like, who do they think I am, Kanye West?

The first night, I was invited to go out and watch Flo Rida. When the Formula One’s on, they have these huge pop-up clubs, and I was playing in one of them. They’re like huge mini-stadiums, with all these tiered tables. Prince played there. I was on my own, and they said: Mister Petebox, here is your table. There was a massive bottle of Grey Goose, and I’m like, sweet, does anybody want any?

I played my show the next day, right before the headliner, who was a huge local superstar. So I was there for 30,000 people, and they were all fucking hanging on everything I was doing. The next day: VIP booth at the Formula One. Dynamo was in front of me, and I had my lunch with Gabrielle.

To top it off, I had a girlfriend for the weekend who was this Brazilian model. I finished my show, and everyone was going, oh, there’s this Brazilian model looking for you. And I’m wandering round, and I met this beautiful girl. She said: Petebox! Oh man, I watched your stuff, I’m a singer, I love your music! I was like, please come this way to my dressing room, would you like a drink, or some fruit? I did actually have all this stuff. And then I was like, what are you doing later? I’ve got VIP tickets to see Prince, do you want to come? I’ll have my car pick you up.

And then, after three days, I left and went back to normal life. I was amazed at what was going on. Nothing was anything that I was expecting, or used to.

It’s funny, because I might be lying. You don’t know that. I always think about that. I was at my best mate’s wedding the other day, and I was like the vicar – I was delivering the ceremony. I turned down about three shows that day, but around 10 o’clock, I was like, I’ve got to go. I was dead emotional to leave, because there was all your friends and family and loved ones. So I’m going round to everyone saying goodbye, and they’re partying to the early hours, and I’m just driving on my own to this festival. And I just thought: they know I’m going to do a gig, but no one really knows what it’s like for me. It’s a weird thing.

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