Think Outside the Beatbox 

Tech-geek Jamie Lidell undergoes an electrifying, soul-singing, crowd-rocking transformation.

Jamie Lidell had a serious funking problem. He'd gotten halfway through a mind-blowing live set in Austin, Texas, last October when his one and only instrument — a custom-built keyboard/synthesizer/sampler he'd programmed himself — suddenly shorted out. One minute the skinny, tall, white British dude in the pimp outfit was sweating buckets while belting out funky, soulful vocals over totally improvised backbeats. The next beat: SCREEEECCH! Followed by complete silence.

"Everything dies," Lidell recalls. "Everything goes down, down, down. And it wouldn't come back again."

The crowd stared at him, looking for any sign of weakness. Murmurs of disapproval circulated. It's the point where a musician of a lesser mettle might freeze up, mutter "Thanks, sorry," and slink offstage. But Lidell had long ago cultivated a theory, and putting it into practice at that precise moment, it changed his life: "The more gizmos and shit you hide behind on the table, the further you are from the audience."

The air was loaded with anticipation as the self-taught singer grabbed the mic, stepped out from behind his busted gear, and stopped hiding.


Lidell's folksy theory of audience connection makes sense to some, but it's also sacrilegious talk from a bloke who bought his first sampler at age sixteen, and by the late '90s had made a name for himself in the UK as a laptop artist in the group Super_Collider. Well-versed in mathematics, physics, and programming, by 2001 Lidell had even taught himself a program developed in San Francisco called Max/MSP that basically allows you to personally program synthesizers, putting Lidell in the top 99th percentile of nerdy gearheads.

But in summer '05, Lidell radically changed directions with his second album, Multiply (Warp), stripping away a lot of the tech and, just as he suspected, finally connecting with a larger audience. Fueled by a sour breakup, a big new Berlin studio space, and friends who could play actual instruments, Lidell cut Multiply quickly, and wound up with forty minutes of party-down synth-funk solidly built on the foundations laid by Al Green and Michael Jackson circa Thriller. This quintessential summer album has catchy guitar riffs, tambourine splashes, danceable two-steps, and super-fun choruses that take all of three seconds to learn and love. The title track grooves and sways like a beach drive. Meanwhile, on "Game for Fools" and "What's the Use," Lidell croons about lost love and fucked-up senses of identity with the confidence and poise of a male diva — the 32-year-old sacrificed cigs and weed for Multiply, thereby gaining the pipes to make your girlfriend swoon, and she hates electronica.

In fact, your girlfriend was probably there last fall when Jamie rolled into San Francisco and blew the bum off the Independent. The audience was split between head-bopping dancers and mouth-agape gearheads trying to figure just what the crap Jamie was doing with that keyboard/synth/sampler contraption while wearing what looked for all the world like Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Lidell also danced maniacally, sang soulfully into two different mics, twiddled knobs, and pounded out keyboard lines. No one had seen anything like it.

"Basically the costume is to take me out of myself," Jamie explains. "A man's got to step outside himself to get it on." Furthermore, he favors getting it on to a profoundly intense degree. "I favor really light, thin undershirts — something I can hang up backstage to dry, because I sweat buckets," he adds. "It's basically the only exercise I get. The toxins go in, and I sweat them out."

Lidell wrings out liters of water from his clothing because playing his "instrument" essentially involves doing the work of four bandmates. "It's a keyboard with a computer attached, and it's listening," he explains. "Basically it's like a fancy four-track that you can loop. I start with a blank canvas and then I say, ÔLet's see what's in my mind.' I might have had a harrowing journey and start with a little country ballad, or I might slam straight into some anglicized funk."

Regardless, Lidell seeks to reconcile his techno-geek acumen with very real, very personal emotion. Because you never know when technology will fail you. Like that night in Austin.


Ideally, Lidell uses his specially-made contraption to record and layer percussion, bass, and vocals on the spot, allowing tracks to develop organically and uniquely, all on the fly. It's a very elaborate form of human beatboxing; Jamie even indulges in actual beatboxing from time to time, electronically dropping his voice several octaves to sound like Isaac Hayes singing Shaft's praises.

The overall effect hypnotizes, but the screeching halt in Austin almost broke the spell. "Well, fuck it, man," Lidell thought. "Just me and a microphone." So he grabbed a kid from the audience at random and asked him to beatbox. The kid was good, so Jamie got him his own mic and concentrated on playing his new instrument: the crowd. A few minutes later the front row was clapping for percussion, while the kids in the back sang the chorus. With his own mic, Lidell then sang, beatboxed, and improvised over the top.

The ballsy gambit worked. "For his courage alone, he garnered the gushing admiration of the crowd," raved online crit site PopMatters.com. "He was able to roll with the punches of circumstance and commit himself to the show with his entire backdrop bombed to bits."

"It was one of the best nights of the tour," Lidell concurs. "It was a very, very heartwarming way of playing. The best way for me to do a show is to stand in front of the fuckers and belt it out. If you can do that and maintain interest, you're really in good shape."

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