Melding electronic soundscapes with clever, compact horror flicks, I Speak Machine are bringing live soundtrack-to-picture performances to the masses once more.
It’s an unlikely pairing. A Welsh musical entrepreneur-come-filmmaker and a musician from North Carolina, who met at a music trade show in Miami and proceeded to fall in love, get married and make sweet, sweet music together. But after many years of working together on and off, Maf Lewis & Tara Busch seem to have finally found a project that utilises and showcases their talents together in equal measure. Not that equality has ever been an issue. But as Maf points out, when asked about their creative process, “Tara’s in charge of the music 100% and I’m in charge of the film 100%”.
It’s a bi-partisan democracy that seems to work well and has yielded some amazing results which have caught the attention of not only Gary Numan, with whom they’ve been touring and supporting throughout most of 2016, but of the likes of YouTube Red, who have heavily invested in a project that features I Speak Machine alongside animator Tommy Lee Edwards that will launch on that premium channel in 2017.
But it’s on the UK leg of Numan’s 2016 “retro” tour that I catch up with this industrious and much-lauded couple (they count not only Numan as a fan, but the likes of John Foxx too), backstage ahead of their show at the Nick Rayns LCR, housed on the campus of the University of East Anglia in my native Norwich. It’s a regular Numan venue when he returns home to tour and signifies the beginning of the last leg of his sell-out tour and what he claims to be the last time he’ll revisit his former glories, ahead of a new album in 2017.
In true anti-rock and roll style, Maf & Tara arrive in their little Jeep hire-car, with Maf at the wheel and their minimal gear in the boot. A brief negotiation with the local on-site techies ensues and the gear is unloaded in the same time one takes to unload the weekly grocery shop. After helping setup the projector screen and loading Tara’s minimal synth rig on to the stage, Maf & I retire to their dressing room which is well stocked with an incredibly healthy rider of fresh vegetables, dip, honey and water, tea and just the one bottle of red wine (Tara swore off the booze some while back in a bid to be fresher and more alert).
At this juncture, it is probably worth describing exactly what I Speak Machine are all about. They are, at the simplest level, an audio-visual project, combining original music and film around, typically, the horror genre. But don’t expect to find overtly grizzly or gory content, and don’t think you’re going to get some faux John Carpenter or Hollywood style soundtrack either. At the heart of this collaboration is the central tenet that the script and score are written at the same time. Normally, a script is written and finessed, given to a producer and director, who hire a cast and crew that make the film. At some point, a composer is approached but it is usually only when the film is shot and moving towards completion that the composer is given a rough cut to which they begin scoring. The director will provide input so that the composer creates the right amount of tension or other emotion through their music to suit the on-screen action. But ISM take a very different approach. Maf & Tara work closely together to formulate the script and score concurrently, each feeding their creativity from the other’s ideas. A plot line might fuel a musical idea just as much as a melodic refrain might stimulate an action sequence. It’s almost akin to the relationship Sergio Leone had with Ennio Morricone, evolving musical ideas on set during shooting. The driving force behind this method is a more coherent experience for the viewer, one which delivers the score as much as a character as any of the on-screen talent.
This approach is as intriguing as it is divisive. The response to ISM’s set on this tour with Numan has been largely positive, but has also garnered some distinctly acerbic criticism from the die-hard ‘Numanoids’, especially when Tara performs her version of ‘Cars’. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of a support act performing a cover from the main act’s repertoire on the same night, but it’s a bold, brave move that comes complete with the blessing of the song’s composer himself.
Because ISM are somewhat of a niche act, they find themselves treading that fine line of sourcing funding and support from numerous places. Given their host’s new venture into crowdfunding (Gary’s new album is launching via PledgeMusic), I begin to ask Maf about his experience with covering production costs for the most recent project, ‘Zombies 1985’, which stars Numan’s three daughters, as well as being executive produced by Mr & Mrs Numan themselves. Is it the way forward, in 2016, for acts to go to market?
“I think it’s horses for courses. At that time, for that particular thing we were doing, which was to fund a couple of days shooting, it paid for our equipment and gave some money to some of the people that worked on it, although a lot worked for free. Clearly, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that it will ever be a big money making project. It’s an incredibly niche film and music. I’ve worked on many things for free in my career. I would’ve cut my arm off to work on a day shoot of a zombie movie so I had no qualms in asking some people to work for free. Other people, like make-up artists, who have materials that deplete, and on a zombie film it’s not just eyebrow tints! It’s a lot of stuff that gets used so those people got paid.
We did really well with the campaign. We initially looked for $1000 and ended up getting four times that which meant we could do more things. Some stuff we funded out of our own pockets, because we’re lucky enough sometimes to be able to do that and other times we’ve had other people fund stuff, like Lex Records (the label that issued the soundtrack LP to ISM’s last project, ‘The Silence’) who have given us funding over and above the costs of releasing the soundtrack to enable us to do some really interesting projects. It’s always good to try and get someone else to pay for stuff you’re doing, but if you can’t then do it yourself.”
There’s often a big debate about artists getting paid properly for their work, and the propensity for commissioners of work to ask for artists to work for free because the ‘real’ currency is exposure and attachment to a popular project. I wondered, given his previous comments, what Maf thought about this.
“It is a hard thing to do. To me, it’s just a massive grey area. There are clearly instances where I see people asking others to do stuff for free and I’m like, “You’re just arseholes!” I mean, BIG, multi-million dollar companies saying, “Can we use your music in our TV show and it will give you exposure” and it’s like, “FUCK OFF! Pay them some money, they deserve that!”. But then there are people making indie movies, and they might only have a $100,000 budget and you know the people making it are losing, literally putting their life & soul into it and losing money, selling their car or remortgaging their house and they approach an artist and ask them to use some of their music and the artist turns around and says, “Well, I want $5,000 for that track!”, you know? Maybe IF that movie goes into profit, which it won’t because it’s an indie movie and it’s a one in a million chance of that happening, like Blair With or something, then I would let my music be used in those circumstances. It’s about weighing all the factors up and making a decision based on that. It’s interesting to me— I live in Hollywood, and the worst people are the rich people in the industry. The really rich people EXPECT you to do stuff for nothing, because they’ll tell you that you can say that you’re gonna be the guy working with “so-and-so” and you can use that on your resume. They’re the WORST. I NEVER work for those people for free. In fact, I always try and charge them MORE because they don’t deserve to have people do stuff for free because they genuinely have money. It’s especially funny when these people say, “Oh, we literally have no money for this project, and then they drive up in their Aston Martin and throw hundreds of dollars down for a bottle of champagne during this meeting they’re having with these people, but they don’t have a couple of grand for the photos they want you to take, or the writing they want you to do.”
And would you crowd-fund again?
“Oh god, I found it very stressful, but yeah, I would if the right situation came up. Not necessarily because of the stress of, “Would we hit out target” because on this project, it was very clear, very soon, that we would, but the most stressful thing is getting stuff on-time to people, and in some ways we’ve been successful at that. We originally shot the footage for Zombies in the UK, and it got fucked up. So we had to come home to L.A. and re-shoot it here and fund that second shoot completely out of our own money and I was happy to do that, not only because I WANTED to do it, but the thought of letting people down that had given us money already to do this was terrible. But that screwed up all of our timing. We promised an EP by one date, and then the movie three months later, or something like that. But then what happened was the music came together really quickly, and then the EP turned into an extended EP because Benge (Ben Edwards; John Foxx, Wrangler) and Tara were getting really excited about what they were coming up with, and then THAT turned into an album, and with an album comes a whole other deal because that’s a bigger release than an EP. It’s a far more serious thing. And that’s been going on for what feels like 24 years! But it is finished. It’s done. It’s mixed and it’s—”
It’s at this point that Maf turns the interview on its head and asks me a question, as someone who was a funder of the Zombies 1985 campaign—
“So Rob, as a funder, do you think I should send those mixed, but unmastered tracks out to the other funders now, or should I wait another month or so and just send the mastered ones out? In fact, I’m going to take your decision and do it! Because I can’t make my mind up, so whatever you say, I’ll do. Either way, funders will get the mastered version, but you decide whether they get something extra or not! You now represent every single kickstarter!”
At this point, with Maf revelling in my squirming, I try and reconcile each outcome to myself and after initially thinking that we’ve waited this long, a few more weeks won’t hurt, I decide to be greedy and ask for the mixed tracks first!
“OK, we’ll do that”, he says with a smile.
Moving swiftly on, I decide to ask what Maf thinks of the current state of the music business as I’m keen to hear his thoughts from the ISM angle, and also because their tour host has gone on record a number of times saying that he thinks the industry has never been better, particularly for smaller artists.
“Quite simply, Gary is right. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot. It would be so easy for him to turn around and pine for the good old days, like a lot of his contemporaries do, because it was easy for them. One of my all-time favourite bands is Pink Floyd, and the guys in the band were from very rich families with incredibly privileged upbringings and were able to buy synthesisers that cost thousands of pounds, the equivalent of, like, four houses, which is insane, and most people growing up back then would have no idea what a record label did or how to record anything beyond playing in a room with a cassette recorder in the middle, on the floor, so for the average person, the chances of getting listened to or getting signed was, quite literally, impossible, and we only remember the rare, incredibly lucky individuals or bands that sent a tape into a label and got a deal. I mean, I actually ran a record label, albeit a small one (Plastic Raygun) and we’d get bucket loads of tapes sent to us and we were so insignificant compared to the likes of EMI, so imagine how many tapes they got! And no-one would listen to them. I mean, WE didn’t. In fact, we would only listen to stuff that was given to us by people that we trusted. The sheer volume of stuff we got meant we just couldn’t listen to them all. On a rare occasion, I’d try to listen to some, but invariably it was not very good, so your enthusiasm for listening to more wanes. So, in terms of what Gary is saying about the industry being better now, I think on some levels it is. We certainly wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing because the technology today allows us to do it, because access to other people who can help us who we wouldn’t have been able to have access to before, including potential fans and access to the industry. It’s easier now for us, as general unknowns, to contact people with money and people with the ability to market and finance stuff than it was back when I first started in the music industry in the early/mid 90s.”
I ask whether it is still necessary, in this age of technology where everyone has access to powerful design tools and the internet, to farm out such tasks as artwork and marketing, when most people have the ability to knock up some cool graphics and use social media to spread the word, even from a smartphone.
“Gary is in a privileged position, and I believe he understands that, where he has a great fanbase which, if he is sensible, and he damn well is, can sustain him as an artist and allows him to continue to produce work, which is a fantastic situation to be in. Most people don’t have that privilege. We don’t. But what it does mean is that we do have an opportunity to go in that direction. But to answer your question, you can write, record a song in a day, at home, on a laptop, master it, put it up on iTunes, knock up some cover art, shoot a video on your iPhone and it will be pretty good. You couldn’t even dream of doing that 20 years ago. So it’s great, and it’s fantastic that people can do that. Gary is very self contained. We start a project by saying we’re going to do and pay for everything ourselves, and we talk to other people who might have access to other money or opportunities and if they happen to come along and go ‘oh, we like this’, then I invite them to. I’m not going to turn away someone with money who is going to make my life easier. You set up to do only stuff that is, artistically, what you want to do. You’re not doing stuff for a label because they sign that kind of shit, or you’re not doing something for a ‘fanbase’ because you think it might get played on the radio. This days are over. We used to do that with our record label. We’d hear the big hits and figure they were using harder break beats or whatever and then think we should do more of that, or Radio 1 has been playing these artists and they’re crossing over so we should do more of that. We just don’t do that now. If you listen to I Speak Machine stuff, that ain’t gonna get in the charts. That would never happen. It’s just odd stuff. But that is genuinely what we are.”
So, with all that in mind, I point out that they have this freedom to do what you want, how you want, when you want with who you want. They have the interaction with the audience who are there because they want to be there and they can directly access them without barriers. BUT— can it generate a survivable income for an artist to carry on doing what they do, and just live. Not necessarily in mansions with monkey butlers, but eke out a modest existence.
“Possibly. It’s very difficult. You have to be incredibly prolific AND very good AND probably very lucky! That’s our dream, to do that. But we still have to look out for opportunities, even down mainstream routes, things like publishing, people that will push your music in to films and TV which isn’t hard if you’ve got a decent body of work that appeals. It’s really tough though, but then it always has been. The farcical situation of sending a CD off to somebody who says, ‘This is the greatest music I’ve ever heard! Get them in the studio right now, we’re gonna sell a million of these.” just never happened, except for the immeasurably small number that did. But the thing is, people think it did happen because those are the ones we remember. Mathematically, it is off the scale, beyond impossible. Imagine going into any industry, like— i don’t know— whatever— and being told that less than 5% of people that go into that industry actually manage to make a basic living— it’s insane. Imagine going to University and studying for something that has a 95%+ failure rate!!”
After all that doom and gloom, Tara returns to the dressing room, post-soundcheck. She comments on how the sound guys are all about 12 years old but they all understood her accent, which was nice. I bring the conversation’s focus back on to I Speak Machine. I point out that they are pretty much unique in what they do. And not only is it a unique performance, but also a unique creative process, writing the scripts and score side by side. It harks back to the silent movies of the 1920’s, where someone would play the soundtrack live, in the cinema. I’m curious to know if they drew inspiration from that and was it their intention to deliver a modern day version of that?
“I think— on some levels yes. The difference is, and a big one, is that those movies were made “silent”. If you look at ‘Joan of Arc’ or ‘Metropolis’, I don’t think— maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think the director had a soundtrack in his head. I’m sure some movie geeks will correct me on that!
Tara, mid-make-up application chips in—
“Back then, it was improvisational. A lot of theatre’s had different people accompanying the films, so there were loads of different interpretations, which is kinda cool, but ours are created in a very specific way.”
Maf takes up the reins as Tara continues to apply eyeliner in the mirror—
“We borrow a lot from silent film in the way I shoot, because the music is a much bigger than than it would be in a regular film in the cinema because we want the audience to focus, in certain parts, much more on the music, so there’s a lot more space in the films. Like, if I was going to do a cut of, say, ‘The Silence’ [ISM’s project before Zombies 1985] to go online, instead of 35 minutes, which it is live, it would probably be 15 minutes or thereabouts, so there’s got to be more space for the live score and the film is sometimes more of a backdrop to the music and there’s no story being told at that moment, or maybe there’s a bit where someone is walking down some stairs for 5 minutes, or down a corridor for 10 minutes, and the audience don’t need to be told that part of the story for that long, but the point is it’s visually quite beautiful and the music is there to be heard, so at that point you already know what’s happening— he’s heard a weird noise and he’s walking down the stairs to investigate it and we don’t need to tell the story any further, so at that point, it becomes a visual backdrop to a piece of music. And then the story takes back over and something else happens.
Some years ago, 2007 to be precise, Tara released her debut solo album, the remarkable ‘Pilfershire Lane’ (https://tarabusch.bandcamp.com/album/pilfershire-lane), to much critical acclaim on both sides of the watery divide, so I am curious to know what made them decide to work together, and so closely, given that they’ve been married a long time and mixing work and home life can often be a perilous blend.
“Tara will jump in here, if I’m wrong, but Tara did this thing called ‘The Red Balloon’—
Tara takes over—
“After doing the Pilfershire album, it was a really intensive thing. It was the first album where I got into technology and used synths and produced myself which was something I wanted to do for a really long time after being frustrated working with lots of different producers that wanted the polar opposite of what I wanted everything to sound like. So that was a really intense process and it felt a bit anti-climactic after it was done. I think I had a very old-school idea of what was supposed to happen after that record, like it was going to commercially explode and we’d take this big band on the road and it never happened and I felt like we kinda had to regroup after that and at the same time think of something more interesting to do because I think the reality of having made that album, as much as I love it, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations as to the life it was going to take on. It was a good record but I think, after that, we both wanted not only to work together more, and we wanted an avenue for more of Maf’s ideas, we wanted to do something more holistic, more visual, something strange and weird. Do our own thing and not have to worry about some sort of outcome that we had to conform to with the traditional album cycle.”
Wary of the time, Tara continues her stage prep, and I am acutely aware at this point that, despite this being an incredibly democratic and harmonious partnership, there is a huge amount of pressure and expectation on Tara as the lone performer on stage. So we let her carry on getting ready. At the same time, I am equally aware of the sound of Numan and his band sound checking with the title track of ’79’s ground-breaking long player, ‘Replicas’ the other side of the dressing room wall. It’s a surreal moment for this long time Numan fan but other matters are more pressing at this time. Maf continues—
“We wanted there to be less compromise with our output. So we then came up with the idea of ‘The Red Balloon’ which is largely a silent movie, though officially not, and Tara, pretty much off her own back went and wrote a score for that just to see if we could do it. We’d known of other people who had done scores for silent movies but I didn’t want to do the classic ones that everyone always does because they’d already been done so well by brilliant people, like Adrian Utley and Will Gregory’s soundtrack for the aforementioned ‘Joan of Arc’ (http://www.thepassionofjoanofarc.com/). So we decided to do something that hadn’t been done and little did we know that the reason that ‘The Red Balloon’ hadn’t already been done is because of that fact that it isn’t officially a silent film and you can’t get the rights to perform it with your own score, so we thought screw that and went and did it anyway! And we did it in a couple of small venues and it was great, people loved it so we thought we’d do some more. And then Birds Eye View (an organisation that promotes film by and about women) commissioned Mica Levi, Imogen Heap and Tara to score three horror shorts made by women and ended up performing that at places like Latitude and the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. We really enjoyed that, especially as we were with some pretty eminent musicians with bigger profiles than we’d ever had and I’m sat there directly comparing Tara’s work to theirs and I’m realising how great her stuff is and how great the response is and how we simply need to be doing more of this! We started to look at working with other directors and people making movies at the time but it’s such a boy’s club so my initial thought was that it would never happen. I could see us running after all these directors, telling them how much we loved their work and how we’d love to work with them and then at the last minute, in comes the standard guy who’s done eight films that year. They’ll love what Tara does but they’ll crap themselves because it’s someone new and the film industry is archaic in that sense. So that when we decided we’d do our own movies and that was the best decision we made because we didn’t want to be waiting for other people, so fuck it, let’s do it ourselves. We literally didn’t want to get anyone else involved and just wanted to be in control of every aspect, but when you make that decision, when opportunities present themselves to work with other people, like photographers, designers and so on, you only use them if they fit perfectly with your vision, because you don’t need them but then when they come along and are so enthusiastic to work with you, it’s fucking great. When you have this control, you’re never hoping for people to do stuff. So we’re trying to make ourselves as good as we possibly can be so that other people will come along and want to be part of it. That’s what happened with Benge on Zombies who said, “I want to write with you on this. Come along and use my ARP 2500 & Moog Modular”, and so on. And why would you turn an opportunity like that down?! And that was Tara’s decision to take or leave.”
I suppose it’s almost cliched to ask a married couple who also work together how that’s all working out for them, but I’m genuinely interested because Maf & Tara, whom I’ve known for a long time, always seem to have such a harmonious relationship, both on and off the job. So, I throw caution, and a modicum of journalistic integrity, to the wind and ask them both right out—
“Well, the original Tara was killed and decapitated and this is her replacement. A bit like the Paul McCartney thing— (Ed: For those that don’t know, there has been an ongoing conspiracy theory that Macca died and was replaced by a look-a-like. This theory is backed up by “facts” such as the number plate on the VW Beetle on the Abbey Road cover and various photographs that “conclusively” show that the Paul we know today is not the one who our parents knew in 1964)— so basically I find look-a-likes— I mean— anyone can sing like that (Ed: no, they really can’t). Seriously though, it’s easy working together. We met at a music conference where we were both looking for the things the other had to offer, in a musical sense, and we were both into the same kinda music and that kinda led to Dynamo Dresden (with Producer/Musician Rohan Tarry— check out their album, ‘Remember’) so it’s always been quite easy. But there is a clear distinction in our working life in as much as she’s the boss of the music and I’m the boss of the film. We’ll give each other feedback and input, and tell each other if we love or hate something that the other is doing.”
Before we run out of time, I want to ask about the fact that Tara has been performing a Numan cover in her pre-Numan support act, namely ‘Cars’, which is a dark, twisted and utterly fascinating rendition, with Gary’s personal blessing. On the face of it, this is an audacious, incredibly brave and ballsy thing to do in front of an audience of devotees, known to be fiercely protective of their idol.
“Tara’s a big fan of Gary’s, maybe not as much as some of the people that come to see him, night after night, who are amazing fans by the way, and she just did this version of ‘Cars’, Gary heard it, liked it and suggested she do it at one of his shows. It’s not a regular part of the set. She plays it on a whim, when she feels it might be particularly suited to the audience.”
I remind Maf of an incident that occurred a few weeks before, on Twitter, where some Gary Numan fans really went to town on their expression of disgust at what I Speak Machine do and how they were unfit to support him. I’m interested to know how that affects them—
“I’ll tell you exactly how that feels, to hear stuff like that. I walked into a room and saw Tara literally doubled up, in tears of laughter and assumed she was laughing at a silly picture of a Daschund dressed as a hot dog or something, and after she gathered herself, she showed me this post from a guy who has a Twitter profile that claims he runs a business helping people achieve their goals and dreams and he just wrote this nasty little comment about how she should give up making her horrible music and it was that juxtaposition of who he claimed to be and who he actually was that made it ridiculously funny! It really is just water off a duck’s back for people like us who’ve been in the industry this long and been subjected to far worse.”
And at that point, various technical crew are seeing the attention of the band and so we leave it on that note.
I spent the rest of the pre-show wandering around, hoping for a chat with Gary himself, but with show-times being brought forward, there was an air of urgency around the corridors, with people rushing around, trying to get everything in place. I passed my idol a couple of times and he gave me a friendly smile and nod of the head, but that was all I got from my hero. I was painfully conscious of the fact that one of my predecessors here at Sounds had once said something pretty awful about Gary back in the day. It was along the lines of a disparaging remark towards Gary’s mum and how she should’ve taken steps to prevent Gary’s birth in order to spare us of his musical offerings. It was a pretty vile comment, and one I found pretty awful myself. I mean, I’m happy to use strong sentiments to convey my opinion, but there are lines. Anyway, Gary had reminded Maf of this during some preliminary emails that were exchanged when setting up this interview, and whilst he was certain that I would not be the same guy, or indeed have the same sentiment, his recollection told me this was something he hadn’t easily forgotten. So in some way, I was glad we didn’t meet because I’m not sure I could’ve handled the hereditary shame of one of my historical colleagues.
Come curtain up, Tara swept onstage, Maf fired up the projector and for 40-ish minutes, the I Speak Machine experience proceeded to enthral, disturb, amaze, disgust and entertain the 1500-odd audience. Sure, I heard some comments from locals regarding the fact they couldn’t see the point, but for the main part, the audience bought in, cheered and clapped and had their artistic appreciation muscles stretched for a while.
I Speak Machine have a busy 2017 coming up. Their next project is a new sci-fi horror animated series, ‘Strata’, in conjunction with Lex Records that features illustrator Tommy Lee Edwards. I get the distinct impression that, regardless of where the industry is going, in spite of not playing corporate games, Maf & Tara have a very promising, and wholly rewarding, future ahead of them.
As for Gary, well, he just did what he does, and has been doing for a long while, so very well indeed. He rattled through classic after classic, singles and album tracks, with virtually no conversation with the audience, aside from a “thank you” here or there. Just raw, hard passion and a man, in the moment, giving it his all. The audience, of course, lapped it up. As did I, from the side of the stage, next to the sound engineer. A rare privilege indeed.