The Guardian / one man bands

‘I get to keep all the cash’

Collaboration be damned – why bother with clashing egos and split royalties when it’s easier than ever to make music single-handedly these days? By Kirsty Allison

Kirsty Allison

The Guardian, Friday 19 June 200

“It’s cheaper to tour,” says Ben Nicholls, matter-of-factly. “The scheduling’s not a nightmare and I get to keep all the cash.” He’s explaining why he does what he does: perform and record dark and intense garage rock as a one-man band, under the name Dennis Hopper Choppers. Not a solo artist – one man with an acoustic guitar, a line in heartfelt melancholia and, possibly, a beard – but a one-man band.

Being a one-man band no longer means having cymbals strapped between your knees, a bass drum on your back, a mouth organ suspended around your neck and sleigh bells tied to your ankles. These days, one-man bands are using technology to realise their musical vision, and to take control of what they do. These new one-man bands are not novelty entertainments.

But how do we define the one-man band? Adam Clitheroe, director of the documentary One Man in the Band, puts it this way: “For me, it’s someone willing to go and try to make the noise of a band. If you’re a one-man band in your head, you’re big enough to do it.”

The godfather of the modern one-man bands is probably Hasil Adkins, a rock’n’roller who claimed to have written 7,000 songs, was a forefather of the punk-rockabilly hybrid known as psychobilly, and who died in 2005. “I saw Hasil Adkins, the founding father of the contemporary one-man band scene, and his rockabilly surf twang made me realise it was time to stop arsing around with other people,” says Nicholls. As a child, Adkins assumed that the records he heard on the radio in rural West Virginia were all the work of one-man bands, and he never relinquished his individual approach to music – he once recorded an album of songs about chickens, entitled Poultry in Motion. But Adkins, obviously, was far from the first. There are records of multi-instrumentalists in England and France going back to the 13th century. By the 19th century, the social historian Henry Mayhew noted blind one-man bands busking on London’s streets. In the following century, the one-man band was often part of a clown act, as well as being common among hillbilly communities of the sort that produced Adkins.

What Adkins had that his successors share was a desire to be the centre of attention, even if there’s also an element of necessity, given that few of these artists would be able to pay backing musicians. Bands just don’t allow individual expression, says Johnny Halifax, who performs on his own as Honkeyfinger. “The very nature of having a democratic songwriting process dilutes any ideas from individuals, and unless the warring egos create something as significant as Jagger/Richards or Lennon/McCartney, the concept has to come from the mind of one person.”

Where the Roland 303 gave acid house its sound, and the Roland 808 gave hip-hop its beats, the piece of technology that has done most to liberate a new army of one-man bands is the Boss Loop Station sampler. Combine that with a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection, and you’ve got everything you need to make music as a band, without the hassle of bandmates, A&R men, or distributors. “It’s amazing and revolutionary,” says the Tokyo-based one-man band Merce Death. “Since the Boss Loop Station sampler came on to the market seven years ago, it’s opened up the scene. Before, there was only a delay pedal; this sampler allows us to create and control our own layers to play against.” His setup means his improvised space-metal-jazz sets ricochet across the internet from his suburban home as he broadcasts online.

Johnny Halifax chose to become the one-man band Honkeyfinger four and a half years ago, fed up of the “control-freak behaviour” in bands. He, too, uses technology, but in his case it’s to create new music from the roots of rock: the blues. He loops and layers lap-steel guitar, kick drum and harmonica, with his voice processed through a vocoder, while playing guitar solos on top – and it all goes through a single bass amp. Having the ability to sample and loop enables him to recreate the sound of a 60s power trio, like Cream or the Jimi Hendrix experience, without the hassles of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker spitting blood at each other, or Noel Redding wondering why he isn’t the lead guitarist.

But if technology has liberated some, others have chosen to remain resolutely lo-fi and insist on a purist approach to being a one-man band. Dennis Hopper Choppers, for example. “I lug all the gear on and off stage and do not use any form of technology,” says Nicholls. “That’s got to be part of the challenge, playing everything at once, all by yourself. That’s what people want to see. I am a whole band – I do it without cheating. I make that much sound and it becomes part of the whole live experience watching someone create that. I think the sampler is a compromise: it lacks the true ingenuity which I deliver. It’s the sound-defying logic of watching a one-man band struggle to deliver that’s got to be a large part of the attraction.”

Thomas Truax, too, rejects electronics, preferring to invent his own instruments to provide the sounds he wants. The hornicator, for example, is made from the horn from an old gramophone, a kazoo, strings and a microphone. Something he calls Mary Poppins features two arms that fly out to provide a train-like rhythm. He travels from gig to gig by public transport, a wandering minstrel. And when he performs, it is a spectacle – the originality and seeming impossibility of what he does is much of the appeal.

There’s even a case to be made for human beatboxers being urban music’s version of the one-man band. “In another life, I would have been in a band,” says Killa Kela. “When I started I was going into drum’n’bass or a jungle clubs, and the DJ just stopped, it would go silent, and I’d have to fill that – it was a bit of a circus act. Now I can deconstruct what I’m doing, record it, and on my new album the song has to outweigh the concept.” Kela, though, has moved on – he tours with live musicians and has just announced a new live band, but, he says, “I still turn up at clubs and wait for that silence. The one-man band element is nostalgic, and the performance is intimate because it’s so physical – it’s come a long way from doing the Lambeth Walk with a kick drum on the back. I’m still a one-man band, I like to collaborate, but there’s a saying that with restriction comes creativity.”

Kela’s journey is echoed by Amy Turnidge, whose debut album as Theoretical Girl is coming out soon on Memphis Industries. Theoretical Girl started as a one-woman project, but has expanded. “I am a one-lady band, yes,” she says, “but I’ve lately started to get a band because there’s only so far you can go on your own, and outside input is good. It’s a romantic feeling being on a train, alone on the road. It’s freeing, but then it gets to a point when you want your friends with you and someone to share it with.”

Even the most committed one-man bands feel that sense of loneliness sometimes. After all, it’s hard to be a rock’n’roller if there’s no one else to indulge in rock’n’roll behaviour with you. As Johnny Halifax puts it, somewhat wistfully: “The problem I now have is not being able to blame anyone else for smashing up the dressing room.”

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