You may know one man band Look Mum No Computer for the synth bikes, the flamethrower keyboards, or, most recently, the organ made out of an orchestra of Furbies – yes, Furbies, Hasbro’s classic hamster-owl-toy-hybrid. But before any of that, there was just Sam Battle, from London.
“I was the class clown,” giggles Sam, “always getting told off at school. My dream was to work in a garbage dump. I wanted to be a binman, I wanted to own all this stuff that other people didn’t want anymore. Because at home all I wanted to do was sit in my room and make stuff out of rubbish. Actually, at first I didn’t even make stuff. Often I’d just dismantle stuff…”
And he’s off giggling again.
“My parents couldn’t buy me a toy without me dismantling it, he continues, manically, inciting sympathy for his poor mum and dad. “Then I moved onto irons, any household appliances. The best toy I ever had was a screwdriver…”
Why Sam? Just why…
“I’ve just always been fascinated by how stuff works. You know how serial killers cut up animals? I was like that, but with kettles. And I couldn’t always understand how they worked. I’d break stuff far more than I’d come away understanding how something worked…”
Thankfully, this interest in pulling things apart (it’s worth noting that for a while, Sam studied taxidermy) coincided with a love affair with music that was starting to flourish in the fledgling Sam’s mind.
“I remember the very day I realized I could make my own music,” he says, bashfully. “It’s really not very cool, but I was listening to The Offspring’s Americana album, and I thought, “I could do that”. I nicked my sister’s acoustic guitar out the loft and taught myself how to play that album. But I guess my other key influence was my dad fixing the car…”
“Yeah. My dad. He’d always be under the car, fixing it, improving it, doing cool things to it. He’d tell me how you could save money if you made things yourself. He’d make engine gaskets out of paper, and so I think I applied that to music. Not being able to afford something stopped being a problem. I just made it.”
Case in point, his first proper project was a synthesizer. A thousand pounds’ worth of synthesizer, far beyond the money Sam could hope to have. And so he built it himself. Before that, there had been an attempt to fuse an acoustic guitar with an electric piano – “I nicked the parts from my Design Technology class, I’ve never told anyone that before. I think I might have got away with it now” – but the synthesizer was the road to… a lot of mess.
“It sounded like utter shit”, he laughs. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever built, excluding the piano-guitar. But I used it. I actually used it very recently on a bass line of one of my new songs. What’s great about making instruments is that if you make them, and they’re wrong, they sound different. They sound like you. Cool things come out of mistakes…”
Before Look Mum No Computer there was five months studying chemistry at university (“but it just made me really unhappy”), there was a stint studying Music Technology, then there were a string of “dickhead record labels” who signed him for more conventional (if still interesting) musical output. But after being dropped for the third time, Sam realized he’d always elicited more interest for the silly things he worked on in his bedroom. Not only that, but being surrounded by stuff, cooking up mad plans, was what really made him happy. Look Mum No Computer became his focus, his primary concern.
“Making things started to become more musical in focus because I played guitar in bands for ten years,” he recalls. “I was touring the UK and writing songs on guitars, and the two things slowly moulded together, becoming Look Mum No Computer…”
“I started making my own instruments, just because I was interested in what they’d sound like,” he continues. “Now, I’m kind of just making things for the toss of it. I’m thinking, ‘what is the most stupid thing I can make?’ The one that people seem to like best is the Furby Organ…”
Ah yes. The Furby Organ. Sam’s most recent project – two and a half million YouTube views and counting – the sound of insanity. The sound of cherubic mania.
“I actually drew the plans up for it in 2011”, he chuckles. “I tried building it then, but I didn’t have the know how. Where did I get the Furbies from? eBay. I live on eBay. I’ve got an excellent eBay rating…”
Then there’s the Flamethrower Organ…
“Yeah, that’s one of my favourites”, he says. “Instead of air going through the pipes, it’s gas. I just wondered if fire would sound different to air. It kind of sounds different. The gas is heavier than the oxygen, so it’s kind of a more shrill sound. But more importantly, when the fire is spouting out, it looks really, really cool. And it’s an adrenalin rush making something like that, let alone playing it, and not blowing your arm off…”
And let’s not forget the Synthesizer Bike…
“I thought of that one on the tube!” says Sam. “A whole synthesizer on the front of a 1970’s Raleigh Chopper. That one is pretty crazy. I just don’t know when to stop. I remember when I was a kid getting some woodlice and putting them in rockets and sending them off to space. I wanted to try getting a gerbil into space, but my mum got wind of it and it never happened…”
“Er… how did we get onto the subject of gerbils?”
Sam took his musical menagerie out on the road in Europe and the UK last year – “they come for the machines, and stay for the music!” – and hopes to do more touring soon. He’s incredibly proud of his new songs, and can’t wait to share them with people.
“I don’t make weird music, really,” he muses. “My music is pretty straight down the line. I like big choruses and things you can sing along to. I can’t get away from that, I just love catchy songs. So I let the machines be the weird, and the music can speak for itself…”
And catchy they are. Groundhog Day sounds a bit like The Flaming Lips gone hip-hop, Modern Gas is a big Blur-like ballad, the tones coming from Sam’s made in London larynx sounding deliciously wet. But how does he write?
“I uusually sit down and jam out some sequences on my machines,” he shares. “I leave them running in the background and then I come up with melodies and keep singing over them until some sort of song comes out. The words come out of my brain box and slowly start to make sense. They’re most usually about day-to-day things I see and think about. A lot of them are about the mundane things in life. I like singing about the bits in the middle of the really good bits and the really bad bits, because I think that middle ground is what life is, really…”
Not that life on the road is ever without a dull moment. Sam stresses just how difficult it often is to keep his creations intact on the road.
“They always break in soundcheck. The problem is, if you break a guitar string at a gig, chances are another guitarist will lend you a string, or even a guitar. If I break a Furby… who else has a spare Furby on them? Thankfully nothing has broken during an actual gig…”
“I think I might have a bit of ADHD,” says Sam, serious for the first time. “A few years ago I decided I wasn’t going to try to make my brain work how maybe people thought it was supposed to work, and instead just let it be how it is. To make the most of what I’ve been given. I’m so much happier for that. And Look Mum No Computer is the happiest I’ve ever been making music…”
“Wee-tee-kah-wah-tee” is “sing me a song” in Furbish, the Furby’s language. Give Look Mum No Computer (and his Furbies, flamethrowers, bikes and god knows what else) a chance, and Sam will be happy to oblige…