COVER STORY: Look Mum No Computer

Mad Scientist/Synth Guru/Circuit Bending Champ Sam Battle (aka Look Mum No Computer) Gives us a Peek Inside His Brain

If you’ve ever been on YouTube at like 3:00am searching for, oh, I don’t know…how to circuit-bend an original Simon toy from the 1980s, the good ol’ YouTube algorithm might just decide to serve up a heaping helping from Look Mum No Computer. LMNC is the nom-de-plume of one Sam Battle, the UK’s leading mad scientist when it comes to making old, analog (and some might say, though they’d be wrong) obsolete kit useful again in a modern electronic music workflow. We had a chance to sit with the rising YouTube superstar (and Ted Talk alum) about all things video, electronic and weird. Enjoy!

Can you give a little background on where you come from? I’d ask for the boring bio that most artists give, but something tells me you’re anything but boring 🙂

I spent most of my childhood in a place called Peterborough where I spent most of my spare time building things and playing guitar. I was always into putting things together, even tried to build a couple of Robot Wars robots but it was so rubbish — I had a thing for rockets too. I only merged my love for music and building when I tried building my first effects pedal when I was 16 or so, I heard Brian May had a homemade effects pedal (later found out I heard it wrong) so I thought if he can do it, I can do it too, so I spent a couple of months trying to build a copy of a pedal called a Dallas Range Master.

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When I finally got it working I was so amazed by what I had done; it sounded awful and I don’t think it worked the way it was supposed to, but the fact it worked was amazing, especially how bodge job it was. I went to uni to study chemistry then realized I was really not cut out for that and jumped over to a music tech course at the same uni in the same year and caught up. It was interesting enough, I left halfway through to join a band in London, however. Which was a good three years — we signed a record deal and ended up in a confusing situation where we were sort of stuck with an album that wasn’t being released and no gigs. I used this time to learn electronics.

How did you get your start merging music and electronics?

I first got into music when I was about 12, I just decided one day I was going to learn guitar so got my sister’s old acoustic out of the loft and tried figuring it out. Later that month my dad took me to a music shop to get a plectrum, and the music shop seller talked him into getting me this secondhand Yamaha Pacifica, which I learnt back to front. As for electronics, it was a mixture of that and my very young years of just taking absolutely everything apart which I had done for as long as I could remember, wanting to know how things worked.

I heard Look Mum started as a zine, but soon morphed into what it is today. How did you get going with video production?

Yes, it was a zine, in another band of mine called ZIBRA I put together some zines called ‘look mum no computer.’ Before this I had been experimenting with doing videos, by this time I had been making random music videos and such for my musical projects, so I already knew how to do videos and all that malarkey, in the ZIBRA project, we put up one short musical video every other Sunday, about a minute long, it was usually a cover, but could be anything really, and one of those near the end of the band I put up a video of me playing a Gameboy triple oscillator I had built which people seemed to really like. It was a video version of the zine, so it had the zine’s logo at the start of the video, the same logo I use today. After that I decided there might be something in this, so I chose to keep experimenting with videos about what I was building.

When did you realize this YouTube thing was taking off for you?

I didn’t really take my YouTube channel particularly seriously, I used to keep forgetting to put my videos up on YouTube, funnily enough, initially it was purely a Facebook kind of project, I just kept on going at it and experimenting, I took it quite seriously after a few months of putting videos up, figuring there would be something in this.

You’ve done a number of creative things with electronics, including circuit-bending Furbies, Game Boys and most recently making a Giant FM synth out of Sega Genesis parts. How do you get inspiration for your various projects?

Not sure really, some are born from conversations with friends, for instance the flame throwing Henry hoover was just a conversation with me and a friend called Johnny, or the fart box was a tweet from an artist called Kursa, but many have varying origins, for instance the Furby organ I had the idea since I started circuit bending but it was such a big task and it seemed pointless to build for no reason! Sometimes ideas come when walking around and I just feel I need to make it happen, others have been sitting around for ages. It’s tough to say really!

Being that you’re a bit younger than a lot of the old kit you take apart and work with, what attracts you to these vintage (and some might say obsolete) bits of machinery?

I’m not sure, I have always been like it since a young age, going to my grandparents and playing with the old strange things they had, the feeling of old brittle plastic, questionable functioning condition. I don’t know, it just seems so much more interesting and appealing to me, there was a point where products just got crap — their need to be more and more functional and practical overtook the ergonomics and overall aura of the machine, which are byproducts of the design of older machines.

I’m sure if back in the day they could make things smaller and cheaper they would, but old products are so much nicer. Not to mention easier to maintain when broken. Another thing is they are simpler, and in my opinion a simpler machine is a much quicker and easier to use machine, a lot of things now a days are crammed with functions, which hinders them. When I design things, I like them to be big and simple, which make them extremely impractical, but very useable.

Unlike a lot of YouTubers, you actually put out your own original music and perform live. How do you balance your own creative outlet with the ever-increasing demands of putting out quality videos on a regular basis?

It’s difficult. Very difficult. I go through phases of being very focused, and phases of being a confused and frustrated mess. I’m having one of those weeks right now, I just can’t seem to get anything done, everything is a cloud of brain fluff. I sit down and look at my compositions and I can’t seem to figure out what to do to them, and I’m at a stalemate with projects I’m working on, but that’s the thing, weeks like these are very tempting to slack off but I just have to keep on persisting, and hopefully next week I will be back on the focus train.

The good weeks are easy, everything falls into place, I do some electronics work and design some things, then I can go over and work on music then go home and sit in bed and edit a video. When it works it works!! As for gigs it was rather hard last year; tours are great as they squeeze gigs all into a pocket of time. I have found one-off shows use up a lot more time than you would want, I need to practice, make sure everything works, then play the gig, before you know it you’ve lost three days for one show. So, I’m trying to make an effort to designate pockets for each aspect of the project, so I can maximize my time.

What’s the project that you’re most proud of?

I don’t know. Creating is a strange one, you spend so much time building something that it just ends up getting on your nerves — when I look at my projects, I see the bits that is wrong with it. I’ve made a very conscious effort in the past few years to ditch my perfectionist attitude as I would not get anything finished, my joy from the machines comes from when I see other people enjoying them — either trying to use them or just looking at them. I get to see the machines through their eyes, instead of the memories of how much of a pain in the ass they were to build!!! Haha. Maybe the synth bike is my favorite possibly because it’s the most useable. Also my touring synth, as I have been finessing that for years and I’m proud of how it sounds.

What’s the one that didn’t turn out as well as expected?

Usually with the big projects they tend to turn out as I expect or better, I’m usually surprised by them myself. I tend to not think of the finish line until it’s there, as most of the time the design of the finished project is wholly dependent on many technical decisions along the way. The flame thrower organ, however good it was for indoor use, was useless outdoors. It went out of tune all the time. And well…it’s not every day you can use a flamethrowing organ indoors!!! Hence getting to do it in a church.

I know you recently worked with Doctor Mix on a cool Commodore synth project. If you could collaborate with anyone on an upcoming project of yours, who would it be?

 Always wanted to think of something to do with Colin Furze, we have chatted a couple of ideas about some things, but nothing has yet come to fruition. I’d love to collaborate with some musical artists, but I’ve never found myself in a position to contact. One day hey!

What are some of your favorite analog synths of all time?

I have been trying to save up (unsuccessfully) for a long time for a Memorymoog. To me it seems like the ultimate. No pointless fluff. Just a 3-oscillator-per-voice beast. Not the most in tune, a little bit temperamental… Mix that in with some wonderful 1980s design choices, it is truly the ultimate in synth design in my eyes, to me it doesn’t make sense why you would buy an analog synth that is made to be good. May as well use a plug-in, the charm comes from the scratchy pots, the oddness in tuning, the hums, the imagination you get from playing it and how that bleeds into the song you try to make.

The channel is called “Look Mum No Computer” but you sometimes do work with computers (albeit old ones) as part of your process. Most recently an ancient Mac that you got drums and sequences working on. Is there something inherently more satisfying about older computers and their simplicity that modern machines don’t afford as part of the creative process?

As someone who has written with a number of artists and seen a lot of creative flows, you can get into a rut sometimes. Where maybe the compositions and sounds are good, but man they are bland or safe. Sometimes it’s worth trying something different or odd. For these videos I use them as an opportunity to mix a few of my interests together. I love old machines as you know, and trying to make music on them just goes hand in hand with that. So, making a part for a song on an old computer then dragging it into a new project, sometimes is worth it.

Would you have any advice for people out there getting started in repairing or modifying old synths, drum machines and the like? 

Best thing to do is try it all. If your scared of breaking stuff you’re probably not into it. Because in order to not break things you’ll either need to go to years of college, or just take a load of stuff apart and break it.

All photos by Bree Hart

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