Monday, 21 October 2013

Soundhog Interview

The whole purpose of Beatles Songwriting Academy is to tap the genius of the Beatles by taking their songs apart and using what we learn to create something new. With that in mind, let me introduce to you Soundhog, a self-described 'Beatles-obsessive of 35+ years standing' who is the creator of the wonderful Whole Lotta Helter Skelter mashup.

Who are you and what do you do?

My real name is Ben Hayes, and I'm a resident of a fairly small town in north Wales. I've done many things over the years, at the moment I work in a garage as a 'proper job', but still like to think that I'll be able to do something more creatively rewarding and make some sort of living from it, one day. I suppose everyone thinks that, though... get real, eh?

How long have you been creating mashups?

I started making things from other people's music a long, long time ago - back to cutting up 1/4" tape when I was 10 years old - but I've been doing stuff in the form of Whole Lotta Helter Skelter for about 12 years now.

Do play any conventional musical instruments?

I'm certainly not a virtuoso on anything, but I can play a bit of guitar, drums, keyboards, triangle etc. Occasionally this can be heard in my Soundhog work, and I also do other projects when I can find the motivation like Loose Capacitor ('70s analogue synth based) and The Secret Agent Five (my take on twisted '60s guitar instrumentals). I wish I could play one thing really, really well, but I do my best under the circumstances.

The Led Zep/Beatles mashup was something of a viral hit, yet you seem a bit down on mashups generally – why is that?

When I started out with this sort of thing, around 2001, you could count the number of other people doing it on your fingers and toes, and probably have the odd digit to spare. It was genuinely an underground thing. We called it 'bastard pop', or just 'bootlegging'. You couldn't find it very easily, the music press dismissed it as worthless novelty and only one or two UK radio shows gave it a platform. Visiting the one tiny club night in London dedicated to it genuinely changed the way I thought about music.

It only really went 'overground' when Richard X's welding together of tracks by Adina Howard and Gary Numan was re-recorded by The Sugababes. Once it went to number one in the UK singles chart suddenly everyone and their tone deaf dog started downloading cracked music software and making dreadful combinations of dreadful pop/rap records. Over-hyped nonsense like the Grey Album started clouding the waters and 10 years on, there's nothing clever or new about it and frankly it's all quite tedious. But it happens to almost all forms/genres of music eventually, I suppose.

The Beatles have a reputation for keeping tight control over their catalogue, yet they 'sampled', quoted or just plain ripped off other people's music. Led Zeppelin were even worse. Does old music need to be 'recycled' in order to create new music? Where do you stand on the whole copyright/intellectual property issue?

The biggest influence on music is the technology and tools available. It changed when new instruments were invented, when recording onto cylinder/shellac became possible, when multitrack tape machines appeared, when fuzz pedals and loud amplifiers showed up, then synthesizers, samplers, digital processing tools, etc. But you're still pretty much dealing with the same notes, scales and chords. There are very few musical forms around today which you can't trace back somehow to 50, 60, 70 years ago. I don't hear much today that I can't pick apart and identify where the various bits came from, or who they were influenced by.

As for copyright... erm... Obviously things like Whole Lotta Helter Skelter run roughshod over established copyright laws, however I've always been of the opinion that doing what I do doesn't actually harm the original works or their authors/performers at all, and it's not taking away a potential sale or whatever.  Nobody's going to stop buying The Beatles or Led Zeppelin II because they've downloaded my creation. I did get slapped with a nasty letter from the BPI (UK based record industry type thing) around 10 years ago, demanding that I removed certain stuff from my website but now if you're uploading your things to YouTube or Soundcloud you usually get knobbled before the file has finished uploading.

I'm surprised that Whole Lotta Helter Skelter' hasn't been wiped from the internet so far.  Perhaps some 'people who matter' actually liked it. Who knows? Jimmy Page's official website even featured the track on the front page a few months ago.  That was a big surprise.

In short, I believe in copyright, I think people's ideas and works in their original forms should be protected, and people should get what they're entitled to.  However, if other people can twist those works in other ways, with valid results, then they should at least be allowed to try.

Other than the two original tracks what were your sources? What was your actual process in terms of adjusting tempos, pitch shifting?

The sources were copies of the Helter Skelter and Whole Lotta Love multitracks - one came from a video game, the other from a bootleg CD. I didn't use anything else apart from a few bits of Beatles studio chat, as far as I can remember.

A lot of people probably assume I just slapped McCartney's vocal over some loops from the original Led Zeppelin record, but there was a hell of a lot more to it than that as you can see from the screengrab.

The thing was constructed on a PC using an old version of Ableton Live. Both original songs are in the same key, which helps massively as you don't end up with awkward sounding vocals through pitching up/down. Helter Skelter's a fair bit slower than Whole Lotta Love, so the Beatles audio parts were sped up to Zep tempo - as the latter track forms the backbone of the thing, it was important to keep time-stretching artifacts (i.e. horrible glitchy noises) to a minimum. Ableton allows one to do this fairly easily, but you've got to keep an eye on the details, which means a lot of manual work - because I was working with a lot of separate multitrack parts they all had to be carefully tweaked to keep them in sync with each other. Then there's stuff like having to EQ the bass parts from the two songs so they matched up as closely as possible sonically and replicating the panning of the guitar feedback noises in the middle section.

Are mashups brand new pieces of music?

Good question. I think it varies from track to track. The best examples, are the ones which sound like they could always have existed if the course of pop music had been different. If Jimmy Page had actually been in The Beatles, or the two groups had actually recorded together, rather than "this vocal" being put over "that music" by someone in his bedroom. Not really something 'new', therefore, but something from a history which didn't exist. (That all probably sounds very pretentious, sorry).

Is there anything conventional songwriters can learn from mashup artists?

A big part of it in the early days for me was mixing up styles, putting things together which normally wouldn't fit.  I do honestly think that what we did in the early 2000s has had a significant impact on pop music today in various ways, for better or worse. I'd just say, don't be afraid to get outside of the box.  Music's always been at it's most interesting, for me, when it goes blundering around trying out new things.

You can find Soundhog on Soundcloud or at his own website. You can download Whole Lotta Helter Skelter here and I'd highly recommend you also check out Ben's beautiful mashup of A Day In The Life and the Kid Loco Mix of Tracy by Mogwai. And if that's not enough Beatles related remixing for one day, take a look at my interview with the brain behind the Beastles DJ BC.

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