A cross between Thomas Dolby and synth DIY expert Ray Wilson, Sam Battle of one-man-band Look Mum No Computer is famed for creating synth bikes, flamethrower keyboards and an organ made out of Hasbro Furbies.
Hot on the heels of his latest EP, These Songs Are Obsolete, Battle is planning to open The Museum of Everything Else to showcase his musical inventions and various other retro technologies.
On March 27, Battle will also be taking part in Thomann’s Keys & Frequencies event. where some of the world’s top synth YouTubers will be gathering to talk shop via product presentations, performances, talks and workshops.
The event is live, interactive and free to attend and can be viewed via your web browser or mobile device using Run the World’s virtual conference community.
What lies behind your fascination for dismantling technology?
"I’m not sure because I’ve done it ever since I was a kid. My parents told me that the first time I was given a push kart I immediately tried to take the wheels off, so they had this genius idea of getting me see-through toys that I wouldn’t take apart. Everything I own I have to take apart, which is never good for the warranty.
Gadgets are harder to break into these days – do you think kids are missing out?
It’s tough to say because I don’t have much experience with kids, but maybe they’re a bit more wired up to things like Minecraft.
"That’s fine, but working with computers doesn’t give them those real-world limitations that are quite a valuable life lesson.
"The thing about the right to repair is that as everything gets smaller it becomes more difficult to fix."
Parallel to that, what interested you in music-making?
"I got a bit bored of Lego so I picked up a guitar when I was 12 and got obsessed. When I was 16, I built some pedals because I loved Brian May of Queen and heard this weird story about how John Deacon made a pedal for him.
"My pedal was awful and hardly worked, but it gave me this magical feeling of owning something I’d built myself that I could actually use to play in front of people. That feeling still hasn’t left me. "
You built your first synthesiser; how much of a task was that?
"My friend Lapalux and I bought a load of toys from town and broke everything. That’s when I started circuit bending and discovered Ray Wilson, who’s very influential in the DIY synth world. That snowballed into building synths.
"I really wanted a Korg MS-20 but couldn’t afford one, so I bought a broken MS-10 and built an MS-20 from random circuits I found on the internet. I called it Kosmo, and from that point kept building modular synths.
What’s been your most difficult synth-building project?
"Making my first oscillator was a challenge and I’ve spent a couple of years building a machine based on 50 Game Boy DMGs to make an analogue, polyphonic hybrid synthesiser. That’s turned into an unending project of wires and building.
"My 1,000 oscillator megadrone was challenging from the standpoint of the labour required. I’m a very stubborn person who wants to do things myself, so having to sit down and solder all that stuff was quite difficult mentally."
Did you ever attempt to create anything that was too ambitious to pull off?
"One way or another I try to see ideas through, but I built an organ flamethrower that ran on methane rather than air and that was a nightmare.
"I’ve shelved a few projects, but they always get pulled up again. It’s chronic, but I’ve got to make sure they get done."
In terms of music-making, do computers hold any appeal for you?
"I can’t remember the last time I installed an external plugin and haven’t used a soft synth since I started building my own gear. If I need to use a DAW, I’ll just use the stock EQ and compression on Logic.
"If I’m coding an arduino-powered sequencer then needs must, but I don’t have any seats in my workshop because sitting in front of a computer saps the creative feeling out of me."
What’s behind the choice of gear on your latest EP These Songs Are Obsolete?
"I’ll play the sequences in a song over and over, get the good bits and slice them together using Logic as a tape recorder.
"There’s a song on the EP called Desperado Vesper that was recorded at one of the gigs. I just recorded everything in on my X32 Rack mixing desk, pressed record and that’s what I ended up using, but my vocals are usually dog shit so I have to re-record them."
Do you have any electronic music influences?
"I’m really behind on music and a bit stuck in the ‘80s. I used to like Elvis Costello and The Human League, because the synths were pure and seem quite unaffected. The last thing that blew me away was Kavinsky’s OutRun because I liked the sound palette he used.
"The new Prodigy album was pretty good too - or was that out last year?"
You have a reputation for being a bit of a ‘mad scientist’, but would you like to be taken more seriously as a musician?
"I’m not that fussed. As long as I’m able to do what I do in a sustainable way I couldn’t give a hoot what other people think."
What attracted you to take part in Thomann’s forthcoming Keys & Frequencies event?
"They seem to be up for any of my projects and I’ve bought a few racks from them and about 250 four meter guitar cables for my 1,000 oscillator megadrone.
"I had a really good time at their Synth Reactor event a couple of years ago, which was cancelled last year, annoyingly. Keys & Frequencies is a continuation of that, except we’re doing it on the internet."
What do you have in-store for the event?
"I was looking at everyone’s roster and there wasn’t much DIY, so I’ll jump into chatting about composing, sequencing and performing live with a DIY modular synth.
"I’ll be playing a few things, showing how they work and the trials and tribulations of touring with gear that’s broken most of the time. I’ll probably make it up on the spot because that’s what I do during my gigs."
What’s your live modular setup?
"My Kosmo format is not Eurorack, it’s bigger than that. It’s about a metre tall by a meter wide and it’s got big jacks. Eurorack is great because you have such a plethora of modules but it’s a little bit fiddly for playing live with and 5U is quite a bit more expensive – I guess I’m spoilt by being able to build whatever I want."
Are you offering synths kits to consumers?
"About 18 months ago I started the Module a Month project. Every month I’d design a panel and a circuit board for people to purchase and build an oscillator, LFO or filter in the Kosmo format, which is gaining traction with other manufacturers. Modular Perfection, which makes high-end wooden Eurorack cases, are now offering Kosmo-format ones with metal rails."
What can you tell us about The Museum of Everything Else?
"I build a lot of stupid, impractical things – like my Furby organ, but after a while they start gathering dust so instead of having them in storage I thought I’d use that money to make a museum.
"I’ve been contacting people who also build things and gathering test equipment that’s heavy, useless and not worth much but still cool - I got a level recorder printer the other day for £2 off eBay; it’s amazing but weighs 60kg and would normally end up in the dump."
Can you see any obsolete technologies making a comeback?
"You never know – nobody wanted to go near analogue synths in the ‘90s and then ‘boom’. I did a video about old computer consoles like the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Atari 2600 because you can music with all of them and still use those sounds in a contemporary setting. Maybe combo organs will make a comeback – it would be nice if people made more out of the junk that’s still about."
What’s your latest invention?
"I’m putting together an electro-magnetic sequencer. It’s a cassette tape play head spinning around on an arm that reads from little ferrite coils that basically act like electro-magnetic speakers. I’m trying to figure it all out right now, but it’s pretty silly."
For more information, visit www.lookmumnocomputer.com.
Details of Thomann’s Keys & Frequencies event is available here.