Monday, 28 March 2011


This is a one man show. It’s not the best in town, but it would leave you utterly in love with a strange, charming London geek. This is James Sargent, a 21-year-old bass player who’s adopted the trendy Mark Zuckerberg speed-talking style while turning old Game Boys into synthesizers to pay for lunch.

To James, music is noise. It’s anything that makes a sound. Until he takes it apart and changes its sound. “Synthesizers are designed to make music, whereas a Game Boy was never made to play all these notes: It was made to play Super Mario. So I’m tricking it into making sound, getting a completely unique sound out of it,” he explains, while examining the potential in my digital recorder.

How does one engage in such an attempt to fiddle with music, I wondered. James was eight when he started taking stuff apart, just for fun. “I remember it clearly,” he said. “I spilled a drink over my sister’s toy, and it started making these crazy noises. I thought, I’ve gotta know how that works.”

And as James quickly found out, sugary drinks have the same effect as your thumb. “What you do is open it, find the circuit board and just rub your thumb through it, until it makes a contact with some points and changes the way it makes the sound,” to put it simply. “Then you make different interfaces on it. I used to cover them in copper foil to get certain noises. It took me three days the first time I did it, and about a half an hour now.”

From then on, James was addicted, filling his pockets with “old broken toys with five-buttoned keyboards on them”. At 14 he discovered a whole community in America as fascinated about it as he was. But it wasn’t until he met Luke, his band mate in Omega Undigital, that he started making music out of it. “We spent a lot of time listening to Daft Punk, Justice and those French electro genres. We started loving it, brought some toys around, made a drum machine and just jammed out with guitars, basses and these crazy instruments.“

Omega Undigital was James’ first electro band amongst many, until starting his current one, Overlooked, which he describes as “Led Zeppelin meets Foo Fighters, progressive grungy American”. When I asked him about the sudden change in genres, he modestly replied: “As much as I like electro music, I don’t think I’m good enough to achieve the craziness of this electro sound that’s going on in my brain.”

So at 18, inspired by Muse’s “Hysteria”, James bought the cheapest bass guitar eBay had to offer, and taught himself how to play. “My mom made me play the trumpet when I was ten, which taught me how to read music. It’s like a language: how you generate it requires different skills, where actually it’s all the same 12 notes.”

He also sings back-up vocals, plays guitar and “rules” the bongos, apparently. Not bad for a 21-year-old ex-drama student, who discovered his frustration with the education system after an A in physics and an F in arts. “The system isn’t designed for wild, crazy people like me. Getting an A in physics doesn’t mean I know anything about it.” Is this why you ruled out the theoretical way of learning instruments? “Possibly. I may have earned some deep instinctual hatred of learning,” he noted, laughing. “I teach myself. People say I can talk about stuff, and I guess there’s nothing I can’t tell you about chromatic aberration or diffraction, that I just learned off Wikipedia or asking people. If I enjoy something and I don’t understand it, I have to know everything about it, and I don’t stop researching.”

Overlooked was only created three months ago and already rehearsing a 30-minute set for a gig in New Cross Inn on April 6th. But James seems quite blasé about it all. “I don’t think we have the determination to play Wembley. I always thought living in a mansion and having a harem of beautiful women and a swimming pool on top of a mountain top is just an added bonus,” he said. “It’s all about enjoying the music. If you have fun just getting up there and playing then that’s it, you’ve achieved nirvana.”

But what about the old drama student, who in the beginning of our interview declared his yearning to be recognised and have people applauding him, I asked, the boy who put aside his unique passion of electronic discoveries for his greater passion of performing on stage? “I always preferred being in the chorus line. I’m a nervous individual,” he bashfully admitted.

So, are you still doing it, I asked curiously about his strange hobby. “That’s the reason I bought food this week: selling one for £70,” he replied with a winning smile. “It’s fun. It’s a bit of money. Nothing’s a challenge with electronics, it’s absurdly simple. Slap Pop bass line is a challenge, that’s incredibly hard. The electronic stuff is like bread and butter. It got me into music, and now I’m just making money off it.”

The one man show, ladies and gentlemen: the autodidact electrical artist, still wiping the milk off his lips.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Students, welcome to the jungle

“Welcome to the jungle,” Axl Rose chanted in 1987 about Kingston, Washington, as he realised how scary that strange town could be. Well, the 1980s have long passed, none of us shares the Axl Rose survival skills and London is certainly no Rural Town, USA. London embraces thousands of foreign students every year, most of whom in their early and innocent 20s, seeking a home away from home while adapting new lingual and cultural skills. Welcome to the jungle, version 2011, London, UK

Over the past 15 years, the number of Chinese students in the London School of Economics increased from 20 to more than 600. As a foreign student myself, I’m no stranger to the social anxiety one adopts in such a strange milieu. We come here to study, enrich our distant worlds and explore a new culture. But how much are we allowing ourselves to taste?

“I don’t see myself fitting in socially. Nada, Zero,” said Noga Kaplan, Tourism and Planning student at the University of Westminster, originally from Israel. “It’s a combination of having no opportunities and the locals not giving you a chance. I thought being in university would make me socialise with them, but it didn’t happen. They don’t share the same mindset.“

Noga wasn’t the only one facing the culture shock. Iranian student Talieh Zarezadeh told me of her experiences at South Thames College. “I honestly didn’t know how to talk to people or react to some of the things they said: are they kidding me or is it serious? Should I laugh or should I just listen to them?”

Thames Valley University music student, Julia Kalnobricka, from Latvia, experienced a more culturally suitable welcoming: “My first encounter with the culture was having drinks in a pub, at noon, which is weird. The local students were always bragging about how much they drank the night before. To them, for some reason, I seemed like a posh and extravagant stuck-up girl who doesn’t like them, which wasn’t the case.”

Apparently binge drinking is a consensus when it comes to British things one has to get used to. Mor Bakal, Israeli student at Goldsmiths College, told me: “Whenever we go out, it’s always drinking in a pub. It’s very British. I find it lovely, from a distant perspective. Like a need for a catalyst to express feelings and lose control. They all tell me they really want to see me get drunk – I don’t usually keep things inside, so I don’t feel I need this alcohol to let go. It’s nice every now and then, but I couldn’t do it too often. I’m not used to it.”

Daiki Ichikawa, Japanese student at Goldsmiths, sees it as a blessing: “I’m a typical Japanese character, so pretty shy. Pubs are a good opportunity for us to get friends, socialise.”

Julia isn’t particularly fond of “pub crawls”: “That’s just not for me. That’s a big difference between my culture and the British one: it’s all about getting drunk.” Indeed, a resistant liver is one of the most crucial things one must equip himself with when arriving to the Kingdom. But there is more to the British culture than alcohol. 
During the 1970s, the Chinese students living in a university residence in London shared one TV set with the British ones, and were only interested in watching current affairs. They set up a rota of guarding the TV from the British students, who wanted to watch football. But it seems like times have changed: most of the foreign students I talked to enjoy the ball chasing culture. Even girls: “It’s charming, being part of a community and belonging to a group,” said Mor.

So, is it as scary as we make it out to be? Apparently the major difficulty for most foreign students is the language barrier, which makes them seem less accessible to the locals. “Nobody likes waiting until the other person gets a sentence out,” Noga testified, understandingly. “It’s tiring.”

But the cultural barriers go beyond that. “Even though I speak English, the whole mentality is hard to get into,” said Nicole Micha, design student from Greece. “They have their own slang and celebrities, which I don’t know, so I don’t always get the jokes,” Noga added. “I copied them by observing them,” Talieh explained her way of coping, “researching words like ‘chav’ and ’posh’.”

Accordingly, the famous British “quiz nights”, where us students might find ourselves sometimes, socialising with the locals, could be tricky. “I refuse doing pub quizzes because I didn’t grow up here,” Julia explained, “so I don’t know the TV personalities and politicians. My British friends don’t realise it, as I spend a lot of time with them so in their minds I’m one of them.”

And yet, at the end of the day, this forging experience is invigorating. As Nicole stated, “you learn something new all the time.” Talieh even increased her appetite to go around the world and experience different cultures. “I haven’t had this feeling before I came to London,” she admitted.

So maybe not all of us always fit in, or it might just take more time than we expected. One thing is for sure– the best way to survive the jungle is to fully engage in it. And don’t forget to have fun.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Where has all the music gone?

You better keep up, or you’ll end up like me. I used to be a professional music enthusiast, the go-to girl when it came to music news. But the digital age overpowered music as I knew it faster than Paris Hilton’s singing career, and left me hanging behind this new tech-revolving world.

Long gone are the days of the mysterious singer/songwriter knocking on the doors of record companies and recording studios with his guitar. Today’s new striving artists barely need to leave their bedrooms, assuming those are accessorised with a computer, broadband and an affordable mixing and editing program, instruments optional.

I was triggered by Tomer Run’s story, a friend of mine who gained exposure to a new American series, Bar Karma, from the comfort of his humble home in North London. In a matter of days he set up a track with a 1960s sound, using the help of some friends and a lot of technology, and enrolled on an online competition. He was announced a finalist the next day.

“I'm starting to do more of that now,” he enthusiastically announced. “I'm getting loads of work opportunities through The website, which arranged the competition of composing a soundtrack to Bar Karma, is a great way to pitch as well, he told me. “It offers fantastic opportunities like remixing John Legend and The Roots.”

The home recording techniques are no secret to any musician: with the right programs you could easily record, edit and mix your own material. “The last time I recorded was with my iphone,” said Omri Ran, long time musician owning his own mini recording studio at home. “That was amusing, I was surprised by its quality! It’s nothing professional  and won’t sound as good as something recorded on your computer, but it’s a nice option.” And when it comes down to publicising, well, the options are growing fast.

We all remember Myspace, the ultimate platform for any beginner artist seeking to share his music with a worldwide audience. “The tide really turned with The Arctic Monkeys, who were the first band to be signed to a major label on the strength of their Myspace following, which opened the doors and ears of the people with the power,” Jon Jefford told me, the guitar player for DeepSeaGreen, a London garage rock band. “Music has shifted and the days of the 60s and 70s are almost gone. People don’t go out to listen to unsigned bands unless they are hyped up in a music magazine, so the only way to reach them is through online means.”

The funny thing is, Myspace is not the hottest thing anymore. That too evaporated quickly, as Gil Zausmer, an acknowledged musician and sound designer revealed. “It completely died out. People  aren’t online anymore and it all seems like one big cacophony of monologues instead of networking.”

While Myspace is ‘yesterday’s news’, it did leave its mark on the evolving industry. Websites like allow you to get your music into online stores such as iTunes and Amazon.

Whether this is a positive change to music publishing or not is debatable. “Getting songs online is essential, but there are so many acts out there it just gets lost,” Zausmer explained. “There isn’t enough focus for a decent period of time – it’s all too instant. With main firms or channels 15 years ago, propagating music to segmented assemblies, you'd have certain groups listening to certain genres at a certain time, with not as many options as we have today, therefore a 'buzz' or a trend could exist. But what you have now is just a mess, defragmentation of those assemblies and main channels, causing inflation in music conveyance. So no trends, no scenes, no buzz – just mainstream regurgitated crap.”

We could choose to look at it as a new age to music industry, for better or worse. I choose to see it as a new genre of music: artists like Jackson and his Computer Band and The Arctic Monkeys, setting up a milestone in home recording and self publishing, created a fresh sound to modern music. Music is swiftly catching up with technology, and we better hurry up as well.