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.