The PeteBox on live looping, writing music, getting gigs and life on the road
The PeteBox is a beatbox and musical sensation who has travelled the world and racked up millions of views for his videos online – Mandy News talks to him about his creative process, touring, business and more.
Tell us who you are, where you’re from, when you started getting into music and what people can expect from a show.
My name is Pete. Formally known as The PeteBox. I’m a primarily beatbox-led musician, in that I’m best known for making music using sounds from my mouth and a whole bunch of technology; loop pedals, samplers etc. I create full sounding tracks in this way to sound like a band… but it’s just me. Then I play my guitar and sing as the front man of that band. Of mes. My live shows and albums reflect this process.
So, where and when did you specifically get into that style of music? How did playing in that specific way come about?
Well, I discovered Nirvana when I was about 13. Kurt Cobain was already dead so I never got to see them live but that was when I fell in love with music in a whole different way and was inspired to create.
I got myself a guitar, learnt myself the guitar, bought a four-track recorder and played and played and wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs. I also played drums in a band with my bro. We played a lot. A few years later I discovered beatboxing through listening to Rahzel. I’d heard my mates do it but it was Rahzel who introduced me to beatboxing in a truly skillful and musical sense so turn that mind to learning, discovering the mechanics of it and the human voice and the capabilities therein.
Over the years I kind of established myself as a bit of a live performer, which beatbox kinda suits but it was in getting my first loop pedal where I really found my process as I could use it to arrange songs using just my voice.
It was around 10 years ago when, for me Beat-boxing was all about the fat bass and heavy beats at the same time and a lot more dance-music led stuff but the loop pedal allowed me to explore my writing and so I started to create my arrangements and that’s what led me to create the world’s first - actually I don’t know if it’s the world’s first but I certainly did it before Beyoncé – video album.
It’s a live, studio, looping, beatbox, video album called Future Loops – my debut – which has amassed tens of millions of views to date and caused me to travel the world playing my music.
Tell us how you ended up doing these huge festivals. What was the process of achieving that?
I would say it’s an inherently joined experience, really. I never really had an aim, as such. I think when you’re compelled to create in any way, you don’t really think about it. Yes, you want to have a master plan, but you don’t really think about the next step other than kind of immersing yourself in what you do.
I’d been doing shows – big shows – for a long, long time before my debut album. Before that, it was performing anywhere and whenever I could. I began at school band nights and then did open mic nights and that led on to club nights. It’s just hustling and hustling, networking and grabbing the mic whenever you can. I played all the major festivals, tons and tons of shows, toured Africa and played a lot in Europe because of my live shows.
With beatboxing, it’s very easy to get a crowd when you’ve started but then it’s down to you as an individual to sort of exude some kind of personality and musicality and stagecraft. I spent many years playing shows, I ended up touring with Foreign Beggars and I learnt a lot from them about live stagecraft and I just made sure that every single club night I played – whether I was bottom of the list or not – that I brought something to the night, no matter what.
You have to bring something to the night. Then you get heard, promoters talk and you get booked for more shows. It’s ongoing. I haven’t finished. I want to make my music. It’s the only thing that I’ve learnt that I can have control over. You can’t control if a video goes viral or if you sell 10,000 copies of your next single, or not, all you control is your creative output, that’s all I really think about.
Once something is done, you want to get it out to as many people as possible through the channels that you kind of organically build through creating content.
Tell us about the realities of touring and playing shows.
Preparing for a show is down to you. You want to be prepared for shows wherever you are in your career but while you’re trying to make a name for yourself, you need to go up and be the dude who blows the band you’re playing before out of the water. You need to bring it. You can’t be blagging your way through stuff. So, yeah, be prepared, know absolutely what you’re doing, even if part of your show is to be freestyling you need to know your setup, you need to know your instruments. You need to bring your A-game, because that’s your language, in that process, in that moment and in that time in your career. That’s where you speak loudest, it’s where you hit hardest.
The physical reality of touring? I spend a lot of time getting flights – so many flights – and it’s tiring. I think the only way you really get exhausted is if you indulge a little too hard in the surrounding excitement, shall we say, playing club nights. You travel around, city to city and you’re playing at nights that have been prepared and anticipated by promoters and partyers for the last month. Whereas for you, you’ve just played a huge show the night before. It can be tiring but at the same time if you really zoom out of these moments where you might be frustrated and tired and hungover, and just really appreciate what you’re doing, realise that there’s something to be learnt from every experience you have – like in the holistic process of pursuing your creative impulses and your masterplan – then, it’s all good.
Tell us about your online output. Your videos aren’t just standard videos, you’ve done a Library Bounce and some other interesting things. What led you to do those? And what other work do you do?
My first big project was my Future Loops album. Before then I had a few live videos out. I would take my girlfriend around and she would film every show that I did. I had a few of those on Youtube and that certainly helped to get shows but I then came up with the concept of Future Loops. As a looper, as a beatboxer and having beatboxing as my method of creating, I thought ‘right, well, people need to see what I’m doing.’ I created videos of songs – with a full frequency spectrum of sound – in one take. People need to understand what I’m doing, so I thought alongside the audio, which I spent a long, long time with mixers, separate compressors, and often different microphones going through different EQs and effects into the same loop pedal, essentially it’s the stereo out that I’m recording, I wanted to have this visual element so that people could see exactly when I’m sampling a note, when I’m looping a beat.
So, alongside my director friend Simon Ellis I produced Future Loops – a nine track album of one-take created songs, in studio environments, half of which were covers, by bands that have accepted me enough to make music and half of which were my own tracks. I put that online and all of the videos went viral. We’ve had like 30 million views around the world from that, which is nice because it sort of validates that the idea was strong and that the time I spent on the meticulous detail was received well. That made me think ‘this is a great way of releasing stuff through YouTube,’ and since then I’ve done a few EPs of similar kinds of things.
I write music for adverts and I’ve just written the music for a film. You get commissions to get involved with them. It still is very important to explore different avenues because they often have money behind them and it stretches you creatively when you have somebody saying ‘here’s some visuals, we want you to write something like that’. It’s something that you don’t really come across in your own process but it takes you out of your comfort zone. I really relish and enjoy that experience.
The video you just referenced – the Library track – was part of a series for a brand. You get approached by certain brands who want to create awareness of what they do and tap into what you do, so you don’t have to sell anything, you just make a video doing what you do and it’s just associated with them.
I’m just finishing off a new album as well. What I’ve done for the new album is create a sample set with a company called Spitfire Audio, who release stuff. They do the Hans Zimmer string sample library and Roger Taylor drums and the PeteBox beatbox sample library. I’ve used multi-tracked everything but the drums I’m playing on a v kit, like a Roland, and a digital kit of samples of myself. I record the drums, with the dynamic range of a full kit, but playing samples of my own beatboxing. Same with a keyboard, I’ll map my beats over the keyboard and then I can perform them with the keyboard again. You can get more complex stuff with it than you ever could with your voice and that’s the premise of my new album which will be out later in the year.
You’re very self-sufficient as an artist. Is that something that you recommend to up and coming artists and musicians?
I always have been and still am DIY. I have my own record label, publishing company and release everything through myself. I’m not rich by any means but I’ve only recently had budget to work with other people, like video editors and producers. I never had any money before, so if I needed a video I had to learn how to do it myself. If I needed to make a poster, I had to learn how to do it myself. If I needed to record anything, I had to learn how to do it myself.
The musical aspect, the recording, was just naturally part of the process of discovering my instruments. I took classical piano lessons when I was super young but it was to pass an exam. The guitar was the instrument I fell in love with. As soon as I could play two chords I was writing music on it and was like, “How do I record this music?”
So I bought a cheap little four-track recorder, and would use that and slowly – I couldn’t afford a computer or any more fancy digital stuff, for ages and ages – but as soon as I could get more, a little bit more gear, we were getting what me and the band that I played with, we were getting what we could and slowly getting our head around the recording process. So yeah, I started beatboxing after the guitar and it was quite a long time after that that I started using a loop pedal, but by then I was already a producer and I was a sound engineer, just off my own back because it was a necessity to do it myself.
Then, my live setup now, I have nine devices that all communicate with each other in my live show, and that was a process. I started out with just the microphone, and then I got a loop pedal, which was just a one-channel loop pedal. I would do festivals with that, and then slowly I would build and build and build, so it’s kind of a very organic process of just being into wanting to maximise a sound or wanting to record yourself. Then also through that and the whole process of being a musician and marketing yourself and everything, I was like ‘I have to learn how to edit videos, I have to learn how to alter a DVD, I have to learn how to design and edit photos and stuff,’ and that all kind of came just through sheer will and passion and necessity, because I never had any money.
It’s still very much in the mindset of new musicians and young musicians that you have to get a manager, you have to get a booking agent, that you have to get a record label. All of these things can be very good and great if you get them and even better if you get a good one but they are by no means a maker or breaker. You do not need any of them. You don’t need a manager, you don’t need a booking agent, you don’t need a record label that’s somebody else, because you can do it yourself. You want to build a team when things get a bit more busy, but you don’t wait, and you don’t project the idea that when you get these things you can take your foot off the gas. Because that’s the other side of it.
Even if you do sign up to a booking agent, management company and even worse a record label, the chances are you are still going to be the one driving the ship, and are going to need to be maintaining the steam and doing most of the work. You know, with the internet being as it is now, you can do stuff in your own right a lot more. I think that’s fantastic, because you just don’t all these kind of old models of what it takes to be a surviving, let alone thriving, musician.
What advice do you have for musicians starting out?
You’re the only one who’s definitely going to get anything done. What I mean by that is that all you need is yourself. It’s an extension of what I said before. You need to just work. Spend the time honing your craft, whatever that is. You need to learn how to use your tools, you need to learn how to use your brain.
Have a sense of business. Allow yourself to want to earn money from your art. This is a big one. As soon as I was 17 and I was booked for a show somewhere, I’d ask 20 quid for petrol. Friends might’ve said “Dude, why are you asking for money? You should be grateful.” Well, no. I feel like I should get paid for petrol. There’s that stigma of “what are you doing this for, the love or the money?” Well, I’m doing it for the love, so I want to make sure that I can do this and only this forever and not work in a Tesco.
Keep part of your mind on the business of what you do, because you need to be self-sufficient. That’s about it. That alongside what I said before about record labels.
You’ve done so many awesome things. Has there been a favourite moment?
The times I feel good are when I’ve just finished a project of creation. I’m nearly there with my new album and no matter how far it reaches or how many people like it, or all of that stuff, it’s having completed something – a creative pursuit, that you’re proud of – that I love. That’s when I feel best.
It’s also all about when you’re on stage. You’ve heard it before but that is the time that is like a true meditative experience. You are immersed in that moment and only that moment. There’s times when you look out and if you do catch yourself for a second, you’re sort of able to go ‘Yo, Peter. Look where you are right now, doing this thing’ and you have the crowd just going wild. That can be quite moving. You think “look at this, dude, you’re in this moment of just pure being, surrounded by energy which translates to just this power in the room, throughout everyone.’”
That’s the moment where I feel “This is good, isn’t it?” All you’re thinking about is that moment. Forget all the shit life throws at you when you get older. Broken thumbs and dead dads and shit. That’s the moment for me.
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