Rocky Horror Show

The Petebox

20 September 13 words: Mike Atkinson
"There’s the physical element of creating a sound, and then there’s the more metaphysical, spiritual side of it"
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Photo: Carla Mundy

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

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

As there wasn’t a rulebook, do you think 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 or 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. It’s unique to everyone, although a lot of beatboxers do sound the same.

When did the looping come along?
I heard another beatboxer, MC Xander. He posted on a forum saying, “I’ve got this looper thing, and here’s what I’ve done with it.” He was amazing. That was my first exposure to that technology, and it came at the right time, because I was feeling limited and starting to get a little bit bored. You have routines and cool sounds, 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 and you sound like a full band.

You use guitar as well. Was that something 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. It was a long, slow journey to reconnect and reconcile the two sides. They were both as valid as each other, but they seemed like completely different worlds. The first time I did it, I did a Pixies cover, of Where Is My Mind. I was worried everyone would hate it: beatboxers would think it wasn’t really beatboxing and there wasn’t anything technically great about it; then the Pixies fans would think that I’d murdered one of their songs.

But that video was your tipping point, wasn’t it?
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. This one got 100,000 in 24 hours, and within a week it had half a million views. I didn’t do anything. It just happened. It’s now on nearly three and a half million.

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 love. It’s as simple as that. So it’s Nirvana, Pixies, Crystal Castles and MGMT. 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 I Get Around by The Beach Boys. I hear it was a childhood obsession...
I had a 45 minute tape, and with my dad’s CD player, I recorded it 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’ve 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 wonder who is going to come and see you. But at the same time, YouTube has global reach. So yeah, there were packed out shows every night. To see me (laughs).

There was 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 as support to Carl Barat around Europe. It was a budget affair, with five of us piled into a little hotel room. We had 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 straight off 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. We got in, and it was this posh BMW with those blackout things that go up. Then we went to this 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?”

How was the show?
I played in front of 30,000 people as the support act to this big local star, and they were all hanging on everything I was doing. Then the next day we were in the 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 a Brazilian model. I finished my show, and everyone was going, “Oh, there’s this Brazilian model looking for you.” I’m wandering round, and I met this beautiful girl. She said “Petebox! Oh man, I watched your stuff, I’m a singer and I love your music!” So 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. 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.”

Sounds utterly surreal...
I was amazed at what was going on. Nothing was anything that I was expecting, or used to. Then, after three days, I left and went back to normal life. It’s funny, because for all you know I might be lying. I always think about that as part of this touring life. I was at my best mate’s wedding the other day. I turned down about three shows that day, but around 10pm I had to go. I was dead emotional to leave, because there are all your friends and family and loved ones. So I’m going round to everyone saying goodbye, and they’re staying to party to the early hours, whereas I’m just driving on my own to this festival. And I thought that although they know I’m going to do a gig, no one really knows what it’s like for me. It’s a weird thing.

Petebox will be on tour throughout Europe during October. His debut album, Future Loops, is available to buy.

The Petebox website

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