Kris Halpin - Gloves Off
Kris Halpin is a composer, producer and musician who performs live using the Mi.Mu Gloves - the wearable musical instrument created by MTFers Imogen Heap and Dr Kelly Snook. And the reason he uses the gloves rather than his original instrument of choice, the guitar, is his disability.
Kris joined Music Tech Fest Berlin back in 2016 to perform some of his original music - just as the story of his use of the gloves as an accessible musical instrument was gaining a lot of attention in the media. Four years on, his disability is not what’s restricting his movement. It’s the lockdown.
Kris Halpin’s Dyskinetic
Photo: Josefa Torres
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF Podcast. Birmingham musician Kris Halpin is a professional glovist, which is to say he’s a live performer and recording artist and his instrument of choice is a pair of Mi.Mu Gloves, the wearable musical instrument created by MTFers Imogen Heap and Dr Kelly Snook. And the reason he uses the gloves rather than, say, the guitar, his original instrument of choice, is his disability.
Kris joined us at Music Tech Fest Berlin back in 2016 to perform some of his original music live, and it came at a time when his use of the gloves as an accessible musical instrument was starting to become something of a real buzz in the media and public attention. And because of the way interesting stories work, the story of a disabled artist using a new, very cool, high-tech, wearable musical instrument was interesting in such a way that it also raised awareness of the very cool music of Kris Halpin. And so now Kris has travelled the world performing on stages to audiences that love his tech and to audiences who love his music. But now, of course, we’re in lockdown. So I chatted to Kris about the experience of making music when your movement is already restricted to a certain extent and then a pandemic takes it completely away. From one of my hometowns, this is Kris Halpin.
Dubber Kris Halpin, thanks so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast today.
Kris It’s very exciting. I did wonder if they might ask me one day, and here we are.
Dubber Here we are at episode… What are we? 84, 85? Something like that.
Kris Wow, exciting.
Dubber And we’ve finally got around to you. Your history with MTF, I remember you being at MTF Berlin in 2016. That was cool.
Kris That was more than cool. Yeah, that was a hell of an experience, wasn’t it? The Funkhaus, that really… That’s the largest purpose-built studio in the world, wasn’t it?
Dubber Something like that, yeah. It has phenomenal acoustics and all the rest of it. But we had you up there on the stage, but also you were the interest of many a camera person and interviewer, and…
Dubber So you were busy pretty much all the time.
Kris Yeah, that was fun. Paul Wu, who’s a director who’s done some stuff with… He’s done some really big stuff, actually, with BBC2 documentaries and things, and he was making a film for The British Council about disabled musicians so he was following me around with a Steadicam all week, which looked pretty odd. But that film came out. It’s really weird how you… You probably know how those things work. We shot hours and hours of footage and the final film is three minutes long. But there’s tonnes of cool stuff in the can which I think I’ve got somewhere. Yeah, it was good. Most of that whole year was documented really well, actually, which is… Really cool that I’ve just got piles and piles of stuff.
I’ve got this big anxiety at the moment because I’ve been torturing myself flicking through these videos of tour footage and stuff, and with the lockdown situation and feeling like “Was that it? How is this going to work with travel and stuff?”. You know the Facebook thing when it pops up with “Here’s what you were doing a year ago.”? And we were just going into lockdown, and then it’s pictures of me at teamLab Borderless in Tokyo with my gloves on. Yeah. I was really rolling at one point. Now I haven’t left the house for, what, four months? It feels really weird. And there’s no news. There’s no thought. When are we going to be able to perform and go back to whatever our lives will look like in the “new normal”? Because playing live is my whole thing. That’s how I put food on the table.
Dubber Yeah, for sure. And have you made any adjustments in that…? You seem pretty well set up to work from home for a lot of the stuff that you do.
Kris Working from home, yeah, to a point. But I think the thing that’s been a big bump for me is I’m really firmly a live performer and a touring artist, so consequently going into this situation a lot of people have just said to me “Oh, you can just put stuff on Bandcamp.” and that sort of thing. It’s like “Yeah, but I’m not actually that together as a recording artist.”. That’s the thing for me. So I looked into dipping my toe in the whole thing. I think everyone was quick to try and do some sort of live performance thing online, and I was thinking “Yeah, I’m just going to wait a minute for that.” because I could see that production values were going to creep up pretty quickly, and jumping on your iPhone camera with your acoustic guitar was going to get old pretty quick. Steve Lawson, our good friend, he actually had a good blog post, I think, about this, saying “Musicians, don’t rush this. Don’t try and start doing a Zoom gig on day two of lockdown. Get your head around what’s happening first.”.
Dubber Yeah, for sure. But to be fair, you are a recording professional. You know how the gear works. It’s not a particularly steep learning curve for you, right?
Kris Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that’s really weird for me is that I have that frustration of being not a shabby producer in terms of what I’ve done with other artists, but there’s definitely… Yeah, I’ve learned a lot about myself in this situation, actually, because there are some just mental barriers. I used to think that having a perfectionist streak was a good thing, and I just completely now see how useless it is.
Dubber You’re describing every recording engineer in history. You know that, right?
Kris Yeah. To have that bar as a producer but the objectivity that you didn’t write the song is one thing, but to actually produce yourself is really, really difficult. The last single that I put out, for the first time ever it was mixed by someone else, and the weight off my mind to hand that off and just be… And then it came back and just sounded amazing. I was like “Cool. This feels like a step.”, but of course then that enters a whole other world of budget and time, and you get into a whole different thing.
It’s weird talking about it because I do feel in some ways quite naive as a recording artist, because wrapping my head around being a recording artist of myself, that’s definitely a challenge. But there’s stuff out there, obviously. There’s a few songs that trickle out. But the last, what, two or three years? It’s just been… My life was starting to look like a Casey Neistat vlog. I’m just in airports doing my thing. It’s been amazing.
Dubber Wow. Well, let’s start at the beginning. We probably should have started with this, but describe who you are and what you do for people who are not familiar with the Kris Halpin oeuvre.
Kris Wow, yes. I’m a singer-songwritery type person, cut from the same kind of cloth. In my college days… I was explaining to my partner only yesterday, weirdly enough, listening to Automatic for the People, saying “When I was 15, I think I thought I was going to grow up to be Michael Stipe.”. And massive Radiohead fan at that age, and just in that world doing my thing with… Really early on, even though I was playing guitar and doing the very cookie-cutter singer-songwriter thing, I was experimenting with beats and sampling at a really, really early age. I had an Atari ST and that kind of setup when I was… This sounds ridiculous, I’m talking eight years old. Really, really early. I used to sample breaks with a CD player that if you pressed it just right you could loop things, so I got into sampling that way and just copying it onto a cassette. So I was always trying to embellish the music beyond just the guitar thing. But then, yeah, that was all going all right. Tom Robinson was playing some of my stuff.
But I have cerebral palsy, which had an increasing effect on my musicianship, and it already had a big effect on what I could do in terms of playing gigs and stuff. I’ve got a mobility impairment but also a hand impairment. And the very long story shortened was that the hand impairment was just getting much worse, and the going out and earnestly playing guitar, what, where are we now? What, five years ago? That was just getting really, really hard for me. I was really struggling in terms of not being able to play songs. I remember, there’s a song that if anyone follows my music is called Ratted Me Out. That was a song that people would expect me to play, and I remember at a little acoustic thing in Coventry taking that out the set because I knew I couldn’t get through it, and I thought “Okay, now I’m in trouble.”.
That started the process of… It sounds awfully dramatic now, but it was starting the process of me thinking that maybe my career was going to come to an end, because I was making a record as well, or trying to, and I was doing my first attempt at vlogging. So this was about five years ago, and I was vlogging the studio sessions for this very Nick Drakey introspective folk record that I was playing around with at the time, and the vlog became not about recording but about disability, really, and about the hand impairment. I was just… Lots of footage of me just being incredibly stressed and scared and realising that I couldn’t even record the parts, let alone go out and play them live.
So, yeah, it was a really weird and scary time. I’d put on… As you do, you go to Twitter and you go… Well, I don’t know. That’s what I think, “I’ll ask Twitter.”, thinking, well, I can’t be the only disabled musician. I can’t be the only person facing physical barriers to playing music, so who’s out there? And people kept saying to me “You need to talk to this charity called Drake Music in London. This is what they do.”. So I did, and that’s when I started on the journey of playing around with accessible technology and trying to work out “Could I circumvent these barriers to traditional instruments?”. So we started playing around with accessible tech at the time… We’re just going deep in here, right? Is that what we’re doing?
Kris Yeah. So I’ve got to say, and this is something that’s been talked about a lot at Drake Music and something that people at Drake Music have said publicly, so I’m not being disrespectful in any way, but to say I was underwhelmed about accessible technology at that time would be an understatement. At the time, the idea of going from thinking of myself as quite a serious guitarist to moving my hand around in front of a light that could play a C major scale was pretty underwhelming.
And Gawain Hewitt was the music tech wizard at Drake Music at that time, and he totally got this. He’d seen my music. He really got behind a song called Hand At Emotion. Really tenuous link, you’ll know, because it was shot in your old neighbourhood in Kings Heath, the video for that. Many years ago, actually. That’s a long time ago. What, seven or eight years ago? And he was the first person who was like “You’ve really got something here. This is really great.”. Because I hadn’t left Birmingham at this point, so to go to London and be told that I was doing something good, that was a really big deal.
And it just was really incredibly good timing that Drake Music also backed themselves into a little bit of a fun but scary corner for them, because they’d been talking to a lady called Kelly Snook who was working with Imogen Heap at the time developing the magical Mi.Mu Gloves, which Gawain had seen the gloves in action and thought “This is an amazing bit of accessible tech.”. And around the time, Mi.Mu had tried and not succeeded with a Kickstarter programme to get the gloves funded. I’m just going to work with the assumption that people know what the gloves are for a minute, and we’ll come back to the gloves.
Dubber I think we’re at a point now where if you’ve been listening to the Music Tech Fest Podcast for any length of time, you’ve encountered the concept of the Mi.Mu Gloves.
Kris Right, exactly. Yeah.
Dubber Can I interrupt with the really stupid question?
Kris Please do.
Dubber What’s cerebral palsy?
Kris Okay, that’s a good question. So it’s a neurological impairment which manifests in a physical one. Your brain is damaged in such a way that you then can’t control your movements in a useful… It obviously varies from mobility impairment to complete paralysis. In my case, I’ve got what’s called hemiplegic cp, so one half of my body is primarily affected. So the right-hand side of my body is pretty flaky, wobbly. I don’t know what a suitable… I’m allowed to be un-PC about myself, I think. It’s just a bit rubbish and wobbly, and it’s quite painful. What’s weird about it is…
Dubber Sorry, that was going to be my question. Is there a great deal of pain associated with it? Because this is something that a lot of people don’t talk about. You can see and identify cerebral palsy in some extreme cases but you don’t know what’s going on from the outside. So describe the experience a little bit.
Kris Yeah, it’s really painful, actually, and it becomes increasingly painful. I think one of the problems with cp is that the old medical model of disability, looking at it as a physical mobility impairment, but because the brain damage doesn’t progress it’s been treated as a non-progressive condition historically. Which now, slowly, people are coming around to the idea that that’s not accurate because, as in my case with my hand impairment with the guitar thing and moving towards the gloves, as we’ll pick up in a moment, there’s wear and tear. My body becomes less able to do things. When your movement isn’t working right in the first place, you’re… I’ve got so many injuries as a result of this because my brain can’t, for example, control my gait very well, so because my gait’s wobbly I’ve damaged my feet, I’ve damaged my knees, I’ve got what’s called a labral tear in my hip where some of the muscles have just given up. And so the physical aspects become… Yeah, they really progress quite quickly.
I’m reaching a point where I’m like “How much mobility have I realistically got left in my life?”. It’s a big thing to think about. And, yeah, it’s pretty painful, and pain management is the big headline for my life at the moment, especially with the lockdown thing because the most successful strategy for me has been to go swimming, which of course I’ve now not done for four or five months. And that is literally really eroding my wellbeing in pretty profound ways, actually.
Dubber Right, okay.
Kris So there you go, there’s my honest answer. Sorry, that was a bit blunt, but there you go.
Dubber No, no, it’s exactly what we’re after. But then you come across these gloves.
Kris Oh, yeah. Gloves. Well, I didn’t, Drake Music did, and Gawain was… So the way that Mi.Mu had decided to get around the Kickstarter not working was to do what they called the Collaborator Programme. So they developed 15 pairs and then they were selling them with the view that people who joined at that point would be the pioneers, the first people to have the gloves. And it was £5,000 to have a pair, and Drake were really excited about this. And as Gawain once said to me, in front of an audience, he was like “Yeah, we were looking behind the sofa for that £5,000 because we were just like ‘Oh, we’ve told them we’re going to do this now’.”, so it was a big gamble for them. And then it was a very…
So they ordered the gloves, and then it was just a really casual conversation with Gawain because at this point we were playing around with iPad apps and things, and I was still just not clicking with the accessible tech thing at all, and he was like “You know, dude, you should just try out these gloves, man. I think it could be a thing.”. And I was like “Okay.”. And then he mentioned it again, and it was really sold to me as “So there’s going to be a party at Imogen Heap’s house. We can have a few beers and chill and we can see these gloves, yeah? Are you coming?”, and I was like “Yeah, I’m coming.”. And, yeah, it was that, and it was a big… A bit of back story, I was a massive, massive Frou Frou fan, so Imogen’s had a big influence on my career anyway. Going way back, what, 2002? Details came out, and I used to work, here’s another blast from the past for you, in the Virgin Megastore on Corporation Street, which you’ll know. And I remember that record coming out, and that was just my obsession. I was just… Yeah. Such a big influence on me, and so it was like “Right. This is a big deal, right?”.
Dubber So going for drinks at Imogen Heap’s house was not something that was otherwise on your calendar?
Kris For someone who was used to playing to ten people in a pub in Digbeth and that was a big gig, yeah. To be whisked off and doing this whole thing… A thing I’ve said many times, I did an interview with Wired which came to be a two-page spread, a massive thing, and I hadn’t even opened the box to the gloves. The buzz of “They’re going to be used as an access tool.” was just… Yeah, that really captured people’s imaginations. And that’s when Gawain was like… We’d had a beer, we were chatting, and he was like “This is what I see, man. This is my vision, yeah? You, gloves only artist, the headline disabled artist. This is going to be massive, man. Are you going to do this?”, and I’m like “Yeah, I’m going to do it.”. I didn’t really have an opinion at that point. I went there thinking I could borrow the gloves for a couple of weeks and get a blog post out of it.
Dubber Sure. At that time what did you think the gloves could do?
Kris Yeah, I’m trying to put myself back there. So I think that initially I was having just thoughts about “Well, what could I…? Could I replicate a part or something? What could I do that would allow me to at least…?”. There was this baseline of me going out and playing the guitar, doing the chords and the vocals, and it’s very… Well, it’s not particularly original, is it? As a format. And how could I replace that baseline, because I was struggling with the hand impairment? Could the gloves fill in that gap and just be the chords, or whatever? So it wasn’t super ambitious in terms of where it went.
I think the big thing for me with the gloves was, jumping very quickly along the timeline, it was really apparent that… The best accessible tech should get out of the way. The access thing left the narrative for me with the gloves really, really early because what it became about was an artistic process that I just hadn’t considered at all. Because I was making records, and getting more confident in the studio, and playing more instruments, and using software instruments a lot, so I had facsimiles of strings and orchestras and things in my records, and then going out and playing C, A minor, and G in a pub on an acoustic guitar. It was quite a scaling down if you heard my records and then you saw me live. You’re trying to ride on the back of “Oh, well, it’s stripped down.”, or whatever, but it’s not serving the vision of the song.
And it was like suddenly I was like “Wait, I can have the orchestras and the drums and the 10,000 overdubs on stage and play them all with the gloves?”. Well, that’s where my head immediately went with it, which wasn’t really what people were doing with them at the time, but I just went “Oh, it’s like a one-man band. Yeah. I could just have all the instruments on stage.”. And in my head, it was like “What if I just took a drum kit and two guitars and synths and an orchestra with me? Well, I could do that, right? Because I could just use the gloves and do it.”. So that one-man band thing and that big production was the lightbulb moment. Very quickly just like “Oh, yeah. That’s what I’m going to do with them.”.
Dubber Is that part of the capabilities of the gloves? I mean as an expressive musical instrument in that way?
Kris Yeah, yeah, totally. I think so. Imogen was doing a lot of vocal orientated stuff which was her thing at the time, and it was just really beautiful stuff. I remember seeing her on that weekend, she did a demo where she sang a note and then she seemed to catch it in mid-air, and then she turned her hand and it was as if she was scrubbing the audio, and it was this physical manifestation of… Sound almost becoming this tangible thing that you could actually hold in your hand.
Because she was trying to solve a really different problem, which is why she developed them, because she was making this very electronic music but in a singer-songwriter format. She’s singing over that stuff, she’s not a DJ. And she put it, in her own words, she’s like “You’re watching a woman singing with a laptop, and for all you know she’s checking her emails. Why is the laptop there? What’s going on? Where are the sounds coming from? How do you manifest that in a visual way that means something to the audience?”. So that was the problem she was trying to solve with the gloves, and which she does beautifully.
Obviously, we came at it with this view that it was quite accidentally an incredible access tool because you couldn’t… My right-hand locks up, and if I play piano it gets quite difficult and I can’t move the keys on the piano to be where I want them to be, but with a glove, of course, I can do whatever my impairment needs.
Dubber Right, because this is the bit that on the face of it seems confusing, is that in order to make accessible music performance for somebody who has hand mobility issues, you give them a glove. And to me, that on the face of it doesn’t seem right, but how you described it then about putting the keys where you want them to be, that seems to be the key to it, right?
Kris Oh, yeah. Sure. It’s not a… What I started to get frustrated with is that for all my musical ideas there’s a bottleneck in the sense that making music becomes a… Ultimately, you can pin it down to a dexterity thing, right? Making music requires dexterity. Very few instruments can be operated without… Operated? That’s an unusual way to put it. Played, I’ll go with played, but operated sounds more interesting. Most instruments need two hands, right? Two well-working hands, of which I don’t have two well-working hands. But the idea that any movement could be valid with the glove… The glove isn’t…
And this is where some of the press at the time, I was grateful for the hype, but some of it got a bit distracting. There was definitely a narrative of like “Hey, Imogen Heap’s solved the problem for disabled people.”. Well, it’s not that simple. There will be musicians who don’t have hands full stop. A glove isn’t always the solution but it was a good solution for me, for someone with reduced mobility, to go… Okay, I can’t do anything. I’m showing the camera, we’re doing this in audio, but for your benefit only I’m going to… I can’t move my finger so much on my right hand but I could make a fist, and that fist could be a meaningful musical event. It could be an arpeggio, it could be a chord sequence. It could be something so even the very limited movement, you take the “What can I do?” and then you teach that to the gloves, and then you output what you want to do. So, yeah, it made complete sense to me straight away. But it was a good access barrier for me. Access solution.
Dubber So gloves aside, has accessible music technology moved on in the five years since you were looking at this?
Kris Yeah, I think it definitely has. I think we’ve had a lot of interesting developments. One thing that… And I’m saying all this about Drake Music being completely on the record because it’s all stuff that Gawain has said very publicly, and they’re a wonderful organisation in the sense of self-analysis, and they felt that before they worked with me in an artistic capacity they had a prescriptive approach, as they put it. And this was how accessible tech worked at the time. You would come up with something that you thought might be a solution, and then you take that to disabled people and say “We’ve got this.”, and my work with them was the first time they looked really closely at “Well, what do you need?”, and we’d try different things and, yeah.
Obviously, it’s more than a bit fortunate that the glove thing happened at the time that it did because I could be experimenting with other stuff for a long time. But this, what became in Drake Music’s language the idea of a ‘bespoke approach’, that you really had to listen and understand the individual’s barrier and there isn’t going to be a ultimate solution to “Here’s the accessible tech that everybody needs.”. What I’ve seen since then, and where MTF comes into this, is the bubbling of the hacker mentality. Of this partnering of people who just want to invent something cool and interesting and know their code, and they know how to make some kind of new musical instrument and some kind of new interface, and then there’s disabled people who go who were there like “Well, we need new interfaces because instruments aren’t designed for us.”, and it’s been just such a beautiful marriage of minds.
Seeing how Drake Music, especially, has really facilitated that connection between the right tech people, people with a vision of something, just to do something new, often, and saying “Hey, there’s a whole community of people here who need something new.”, and that has been really exciting to watch. I’ve been involved in some really major projects with funding. We’ve been able to award funding to technologists to develop new instruments on a bespoke level for an individual. Yeah, it’s massive. And getting out of the idea… I think at the time there was a bit of a… I’m not poking any fun at anyone else’s technology, but there’s a thing called a Soundbeam which is ubiquitous in, I hate the term, but what we call in the UK special education, which is what schools will buy as the accessible instrument. It relies on a light beam and you can move your hand and it can play some notes, and I’m certainly not saying it’s not valid, but that mentality at the time of “Oh, this is the instrument for disabled people.” was… That’s not really a reflection of the instrument, but there was a culture around that stuff of “Oh, here you go. We’ve got that problem solved.”, and it’s like “No.”.
Dubber We’ve solved that now, yeah. Yeah.
Kris Yeah, you need a much more bespoke approach. And that narrative picked up again around the gloves which was really frustrating at one point because I was… Yeah, it’s really hard to articulate just how fast that story snowballed in terms of the interest in the idea of using the gloves to conquer an access barrier. It seemed so ridiculous. I was on BBC prime time news. It was silly, the excitement. But there was also this undercurrent of “Well, they’ve fixed that. Cool. Hey everybody, come and get your Mi.Mu Gloves. Disability solved.”.
Dubber Yeah. Was there a nice knock-on effect for the popularity of your music at the same time?
Kris Yeah. It was just really bizarre because I was playing to… So once I’d got the gloves and I’d got my head around how to play them… Which was funny in itself because I remember getting them home and sitting down to work with them, and in my mind it was just like “QI Klaxon, abort, abort.”. It was just like “What have I done? I’ve agreed to take this £5,000 instrument this charity’s paid for. I’ve got one of my favourite artists really betting on me. This is going to be awesome.”, and I’m just sitting there going “Oh, yeah, I don’t… I’ll just play guitar. I don’t know how to program this thing. I don’t know what I’m doing at all.”. So I was briefly way, way out of my depth because I’m not that… Like I said, I was experimenting with technology using drum breaks and stuff, but programming something like that was really, really new to me.
But once I’d got my thing together and once I knew what I was doing with my one-man band approach, then, just shamelessly plugging all the charities, I started working with a charity called Attitude is Everything who are doing amazing work to make music more accessible for audiences. But what they were trying to do at that time was think about it from an artist perspective, and for the first time they had the idea of a headline tour. What would a tour look like if the artist headlining it was disabled? What would that mean in terms of access? And they partnered with Independent Venue Week in the UK which is a thing that runs at the end of January celebrating that grassroots, up to 200 capacity, those great venues where everyone comes up through.
So that was my big break really. I got offered that tour, got a bit of Arts Council funding to put it together. And the speed at which it went from bottom of the bill at an acoustic night in Digbeth to ten people, to packing out places like The Half Moon in Putney, that’s the one, a place where everyone’s been through, whether it’s… All the big bands. They’ve got pictures of U2 and The Stones and all sorts on their walls, and for me, that scale-up was pretty rapid. And then there was the TV things and the I’m in Sainsbury’s and people are like “You’re that guy with the gloves.”. It’s like “Right, okay.”. So it really got people’s imagination, but as I say, there was also this problem of “Hey, we’ve fixed it.”.
Dubber Yeah, because I think of something like an acoustic guitar and the number of ways in which you can play that, and the different approaches to it, and how expressive that is of what somebody’s trying to get out as a musician, and I wonder if something like the gloves can have that level of expressivity, if that’s the word.
Kris Yeah. They’ve definitely evolved in that sense. You’re battling with the… There’s two things to that, really. There’s the amount of information the gloves can gather about your movement, and then there’s also the quality of the software instrument and how much thought went into the expressiveness at that end, because if it’s… I do get asked this a lot, about… People say to me “Oh, the gloves sound really good, don’t they?”, but they actually don’t have any inherent sound. They’re just a controller. They’re just churning out MIDI information based on movement. So you need instruments that are expressive enough, that have sampled… You have sampled instruments now, which I use a lot of. They’ve been around for a good few years, where you’ll have a concert piano and somebody has gone to the trouble of playing every single note at every possible velocity, so you’ve got every nuanced way of every note being hit. It has what’s called a round-robin, so you play one note and you play the same note again, it won’t play exactly the same piece of audio because the ear knows that they’re hearing something repeating. Because our ears are much more sophisticated to this stuff than people would realise, and it’s really easy to… It’s like bad CGI in a film. If you hear a software instrument that’s off then it just takes you out of the song. So you have to pair it with that right stuff.
But in terms of expressivity, yeah. I think, as well, it depends on the instrument. A guitar is a really fickle thing because there’s so much nuance in… Like I say, before the gloves I was making a record that was in debt to local hero Nick Drake, and I would listen to Pink Moon and I think I know all these guitar parts really, really well, and then I would notice mistakes, if you want to call them mistakes. Little things. Notes, timing issues, or maybe a bit of fret buzz or something. And those kinds of instruments, the more nuance for that stuff, that’s much harder to recreate digitally. A piano seems to lend itself quite well, drums lend themselves quite well. And then that in itself took my music on a bit of a journey because a synthesiser is easier to manipulate with a glove than a guitar, so the sound of the music was then very quickly informed by the technology as well.
Dubber Which brings me to, because we’ve spent the last half an hour talking about how you make music and why you make music that way, let’s talk about your music. Let’s start with what’s Winter of ’82? What’s Dyskinetic? How do these things fit together?
Kris Oh, yeah. There’s so many things. So Winter of ’82 was loosely a solo project, and then it quickly became a duo thing. So that was just fairly straightforward indie-ish. We’re 90s kids, so we were listening to OK Computer and talking about The Beatles and things and blah, blah, blah. So we were, yeah, I don’t know. That was an interesting chapter. I’m massively underselling it because it seems like 100 years ago, but I had a record out as Winter of ’82 called Bless This House which made a little bit of noise. This is all pre-gloves. Tom Robinson was playing it quite a bit on BBC 6, so. It sounded like a thing that was supposed to be on the radio at that time. Dyskinetic, obviously, it’s much more the solo stuff. What I felt very clearly, apart from the fact that Lee and I didn’t have time to make records so much, weirdly because Lee was…
Dubber Sorry, sorry. Lee?
Kris Lee Cogswell was my musical partner in Winter of ’82, who also directed the film The Gloves Are On because he then came on tour with me, because he’s now a really super successful director of documentaries and things. I think this is news, he’s got a thing about The Style Council coming out on Sky. I’m sure I’m allowed to say that now because it’s been advertised. So he’s doing really well, but one of the first documentaries he ever made was the one about me which is called The Gloves Are On, and he came on tour with me. But, yeah, so we weren’t doing the band thing so much at that time because we were just really stretched out with this. And I felt that, for one thing, the name itself is… Looking back, it’s Winter of ’82, it’s in the past, and, yeah.
So Dyskinetic was born out of just acknowledging that I couldn’t shoehorn my slightly funky, indie guitar pop into this glove format, into these digital realms. It just seemed silly to say “Oh, this is Winter of ’82 and it’s turned into this.”. It felt like “No, this is a whole new beginning in terms of how I make music.”. So Dyskinetic was the rebranding exercise that I undertook, what, a couple of years ago? To be like “Right. This is how I make music now, and it’s going to sound quite different to that other thing that you’ve been following. Apologies in advance, but this is where we’re going.”, and people seemed to be okay with that.
Dubber And so how do you describe it to people?
Kris So one of the things for me is, obviously the name Dyskinetic came… I thought I was clever enough to have made up a word. I was thinking about the movement being impaired, right? But then I discovered that it’s an Americanism for cerebral palsy. It’s often described at dyskinetic, so it’s actually a medical term, and I thought “Well, how neat is that?”. The music-making itself is born out of this impairment which is literally dyskinetic, so it seemed like quite a good serendipitous bit of branding because the movement that I have, or the impaired movement that I have, is the thing that informs composition, it informs how the music is performed, and I really liked the idea of it being so literal. And also in terms of the music I’m wearing a lot of my influences.
One of the things I was trying to solve with Dyskinetic, which I think I did quite well on the last thing that I released, Koi No Yokan, was I was really into metal as a kid, and I got really back into very heavy metal much later on. A few years ago I went to see Metallica expecting to be wearing my nostalgia glasses, and just being like “No, this is it. I want to do this. How do I do this?”. Just having this mind-blowing near-religious experience, and I was like “Why is it that only dudes are allowed…? Dudes with guitars, why have they got the monopoly on heavy? Why can’t a digital thing be heavy?”. So I was trying to solve those kind of things. What’s the DNA of my musical roots? Between very harmonically ambitious stuff like the way Imogen had influenced me with Frou Frou, being a singer-songwriter who likes to play on the darker side of things, being up to my ears in Radiohead and R.E.M. and Smashing Pumpkins as a teenager. And also how do you get some weight behind it?
One of the things that frustrated me on the tour was… It was going really, really well. For some context, I booked that tour, which… The first leg of the UK thing ended at The Half Moon in Putney which was the biggest gig I’d ever played, but that was booked as a week-long thing, and then people started ringing. You got in touch. You had me out in Berlin, which was like “What? How is this happening?”. And then stuff like that just kept happening and I was going around, didn’t have time to change anything because it takes ages to program anything with the gloves, so I was going around with this thing that I’d put together for a few gigs in the UK and then a year later I’m still flying around doing the same kind of set, and I was getting increasingly dissatisfied with it. And then I had the gig offer that was like “Right. This is my chance to kill it. I’m going to…”. My mate Grant, he was like “You’re doing so well. Why now? Why shoot the cash cow now? You’re doing amazingly well.”. I was like “No. It’s got to stop now. I’m really not artistically that happy.”.
So I headlined the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, about 18 months after that first gig in the UK, and I was like “Right. This is… For something that was a week-long experiment, to be flying to the US 18 months later…”. These are the free concerts that they have at the Kennedy Center, and they told me afterwards that the last crowd to break mine in terms of attendance was Norah Jones. And I was expecting like five people, and this was silly. This is just a sea of people. And that was the end of it. I went “Right, I’m not doing this anymore. I’m killing this show, as it was called, The Gloves Are On.” because I just didn’t like the sound.
I didn’t like that I’d tried to take my indie guitar songwriting stuff and I’d had to pack it into sounds that I could get my head around making with the gloves. I felt like it sounded quite amateur. I felt like it was very My First Day with Ableton. I hadn’t used Ableton Live, for example, when I started this, so I felt like I sounded pretty amateur compared to some of the stuff that was out there, and I was like “Right. I’ve got to rethink this.”. And that was when I got back to the idea of “What are the problems I want to solve? Well, I don’t want to make this sound. Or how do I make it heavier? What do I…?”, and that’s when it started to feel like it has to be a new thing. I have to reboot and rebrand, and that’s where Dyskinetic became the thing.
Dubber Right. Because I was watching the video for Koi No Yokan just before we did this interview, and two things really stood out. One is you get quite power chordsy on it, which is very cool.
Kris Yeah. That’s always been the ambition. How do you make this really rock? Do you know Robin Valk?
Dubber Oh, very well, yeah.
Kris Oh, okay. Great. So, yeah, the problem that’s always been on my mind… Because when I first got them home…
Dubber Sorry, just not everybody listening will though, so we should probably say who he is.
Kris Yeah, so I was just going to talk as if it’s just between you and I. Robin Valk is former head of BRMB many years ago. He was on Rhubarb Radio at this time. He’s just a bit of a Birmingham based champion of new music.
Dubber But has been for many, many years.
Kris Many years.
Dubber He was a local radio legend for decades, but also a consultant for how radio stations should pick their music. So that’s Robin Valk.
Kris Yeah. And a massive, massive champion of mine long before the gloves came along. The first person outside of my little bubble to be like “This is great. You’ve really got something.”, and he came and he interviewed me for his podcast at the time. Yeah. And when I’d got the gloves home, my partner was like… I’d showed her what they could do, and then she said to me “Yeah, it’s cool, but is it metal?”, and I was like “That’s an interesting question.”. And I relayed this to Robin at the time, this was just a few weeks later, and Robin was like “It’s totally metal. It’s so metal. It’s so big shapes and power chords, it’s obviously metal.”. I was like…
Dubber Not only that, but I’m a cyborg now.
Kris Yeah. So that sound I had on that first tour, I felt like “I’m not delivering on this at all.”. So finally to get that big smashing heavy thing working.
Dubber Right. So the second thing that really struck me about Koi No Yokan is that there’s a Japanese influence. And you went to Japan with Drake Music and you’ve got Japanese tattoos I can see on your arm, and so there’s an influence going on there. Talk a little bit about the influence.
Kris Yeah, the Japanese thing. I could talk about this all day. It’s been a massive, massive influence on me, and I’m not even sure really what it began as because it’s been there for so long. There was just something about… So I flunked out of music college to do… There’s a confession, that’s public for the first time. But I totally flunked music and I went and did art on the basis that David Bowie went to art college, I’m sure this’ll make me a better musician. I’m going to art college. I’ve no talent for art at all. Remember being obsessed with Japanese typography. I was just obsessed with…
There was just so many things about Japanese culture that really fascinated me. I was really into the YO! thing before anyone ever knew what I was talking about. There was just a big… There was also, we could get really deep on this, there was some big spiritual stuff going on in my life as a teenager. I was really influenced by meditation and some of the spiritual aspects of what was coming out of Japan. This is really early on when I was 13/14. Because I left home when I was 13 to go and live with some people who were really out there, meditating and reiki healing and all that kind of stuff. Yeah. So I had quite a strange tangent that I went on with that.
Kris Pause there.
Dubber Lets go down that tangent just a little bit because that’s got to be a formative influence on everything you do. Leaving home that young and…
Kris Yeah, it seems weird saying it now. Yeah, so my parents were separated, and I just had this… I remember my best mate when I was about ten, he said to me “Look, if my parents ever split up I’m not taking sides. I’m out of there.”, and then it happened in my family and I went “No, that’s a great idea. I’m not going to… I’m out of here. This is ridiculous.”. I thought “Yeah, fine. I can go out on my own”, and I fell in with a crowd that meant that I could. So really weird, scary decision to make. My oldest son is six. The thought of him leaving home in seven years time is like “What? I actually did that? That seems intense.”.
So I was living in this house where there were… Small disclaimer, I’m not sure that… I’m not standing by this stuff now. I think I’m a little more scientific in my old age, but it was big on reiki healing which is a big thing that came. That’s a big Japanese influence. Yeah. It was really out there. I didn’t go to school much. I just thought I could meditate and play guitar and sort my life out that way. I didn’t have time for such silly distractions as my parents getting divorced, and also going to school. What an obvious waste of my time when there’s riffs to learn, songs to write, and spiritual journeys to go on. None of this is an endorsement, by the way, of anything that… I’m definitely saying you should stay in school, kids. I’m not sure…
Dubber This is just a description of what happened. Yeah.
Kris Yeah, yeah. I was one of those kids, I thought I knew it all. I was like “Yeah, I don’t need this system.”.
Dubber And do you?
Kris Do I know it all? Definitely not.
Dubber Yeah. Not anymore.
Kris Not anymore. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know enough, right?
Kris Something like that.
Dubber Tell me about it.
Kris Yeah. I think that’s the thing. The more you learn, you feel less and less confident. But that’s the way to live, right? You need to be inquisitive and not so sure and trusting. Question your instincts sometimes, and, yeah.
Dubber So I’ll release you from this diversion a little bit. You were in art school interested in Japan.
Kris Yeah, where was I doing that? Oh, yeah. So we were talking about Japan, weirdly enough. Yes. So just a big fascination with Japan and Japanese culture, and it’s always just been, and I didn’t really know why, there was just always this pull of this feeling of wanting to be in Japan. And then I got the call… I remember I did a demo in London and some people from the Arts… Sorry, the British Council in Japan were over visiting and looking at stuff, and they saw me perform and then there was a bit of buzz and people were like “Oh, yeah, you should expect a call. They really liked you.”. And then a couple of years passed and I was like “Oh, that Japan thing just never happened, did it?”, and then a week later it was like “Oh, can you, yeah, are you up for this? Can you come to Tokyo fairly soon?”. So I was going to Japan.
And there was this incredible sense of being in Japan and feeling… It couldn’t be more different to where I’m from. There was nothing familiar, language or anything, and yet it felt really familiar. And I felt like getting off that plane and just going out, we got there in the late afternoon so we were just wandering around like tourists in Kawasaki city, and I just thought “I know this place.”. But not only did I know this place, but I felt like this place got me. There was a really strong and really powerful connection with Japan that became… Yeah, that obsession then really started and really fuelled because I felt that there were just so many things happening for me while I was there.
One of the things that was really exciting, and I think is relevant in the world that we’re talking about with music technology, I often find when I’m performing I can… Like I say, I went to art college. This is art with a capital A. At the risk of… I’ll die on that hill, man. I might be a bit pretentious for some people, but I’m trying my best here. This is meant to be the real thing, and I pour so much into these performances, and you finish a song and then people in the UK are like “So is it Bluetooth or WiFi?”, and you’re like “Okay, that’s not what we’re here to talk about. That’s not what I’m doing here. This isn’t a tech demo, this is…”.
And in Japan it was like nobody cared about the technology, nobody saw that it was technology. All the questions and all the discussion was about the movement and the story and how graceful it was, and they seemed to just see it as art. And I think, obviously, it’s not a cliché to say that in Japan the relationship with technology is different to how it is in the West, and I think that the idea of a gestural technology like this probably seemed less impressive. That the idea of… From a technical point of view, it just seemed like they were like “Oh, yeah. We get what the tech is, but isn’t it beautiful? Doesn’t it work amazingly well?”. And that connection with that audience felt really, really good and really strong, and really validated, actually, what I was trying to do because I did feel like for a long time some of that stuff was not landing. Do you know what I mean?
Kris Because I’m just like “Oh, okay, cool. I’m really trying here.”, and it’s like “Oh are you on a 5G router?”. It’s like “I don’t care. Sorry to disappoint.”. But, yeah.
Dubber What’s really interesting is, apart from the grace of the movement that was discussed, the idea of it as narrative is interesting because you describe yourself on your website as essentially a storyteller.
Dubber What do you mean by that?
Kris It’s funny you ask me that now because this has been opened as more of a professional discussion now. I’ve had some consultation and a bit of stuff going on with my career plan. I should plug I had some funding during lockdown from Help Musicians UK. One of the things they did was hook me up with some business consultants. I’ve had some advice, social media strategies and blah, blah, blah. One of the things we kept talking about was the idea that it is a story, ultimately, and that music… I could see really early on that people were engaging with this, what I was doing, as a story, as an event, that wasn’t necessarily about the music, and I’ve always been totally fine with that.
People always say to me “Oh, it’s such a great story.”, they don’t say to me “You make great music.”. It’s not that they don’t like my music, they talk about my music, but even people who I know really like my music will come back to “It’s just such a great story.”. And it’s like “Yeah. This is a…”, yeah, those are the words that I always come back to. It feels like a narrative. It feels like a thing that’s happening. It sounds good in an interview to be able to say I was on… Gives a good quote when I say that my career was on the rocks and now I’m really on the ropes, but I’m not exaggerating. I was done for with this stuff because just couldn’t play anything. So the idea… Yeah, I get it, it’s cute. An artist that I…
Dubber Does it have a happy ending? Or is it going somewhere?
Kris I don’t know yet. I hope so. The fact that one of my favourite artists came up with this technology and I got hooked up to do this, and then all the things that started happening, and the phone kept ringing, yeah, it’s been a hell of an adventure. I don’t know that… The thing that I’m obsessing over at the moment is that I’ve really lived for the transient nature of it, and so I’ve just been really in the moment, going and playing all these shows and doing all these talks, and then the lockdown thing happens and it all just stops, and I realised that I didn’t have a lot of stuff that was set in stone.
One of the things that came from these Help Musicians UK meetings was how thin the back catalogue is, for example, and that frustrates people. And I sympathise with that when people say to… Mates are like “I love this song.”, a particular song that I play in the show, and he’s like “Why can’t I hear it on Spotify?”, and it’s just not been in my headspace to do anything about that. I’ve just enjoyed being in the moment and having a break from thinking about recording songs because I had such big anxiety about performing live that was all wrapped up in, I now realise, my impairment and the amount of access barriers I was facing on stage. So getting over that, having that anxiety lifted, and because the technology allowed me to get over those things…
Because this is the really weird thing for me, is it’s real seat of your pants stuff in terms of… The gloves, my first pair of gloves, they were prototypes. It was a little shaky at times and it’s gone wrong in front of big crowds and stuff, and I used to think “People are just going to boo me if this doesn’t work.”, but the opposite thing happened. People really got behind the idea. People seemed to get that it was bleeding edge stuff and that it wasn’t always going to work, and we got through it. I remember before that first tour sitting around Imogen’s, and she was like “But are you really going to do the whole thing just with the gloves?”. She wasn’t sure that they were ready for that because no one had done a headline tour where the gloves were the only instrument. There was no safety net for that thing. There were no backing tracks, there were no guitars I couldn’t do anyway, yeah. So if it hadn’t have worked it was just… And it mostly worked, but the fact that it didn’t work perfectly actually wasn’t a problem. People totally got with that.
Dubber And that is what made it part of the story.
Kris Yeah, I think so. The fact that it was… I remember doing a thing… I sound like I’m being really nostalgic about my… You can tell I’ve been in for four months. I did a thing at Abbey Road. It was a big event, performing, and I was doing drum loop things and I made a mistake and then it got stuck in the loop, and I just was like “Hey, well I guess you know it’s live, right?”. And somebody came up to me after and it was like “That’s the best thing ever, the fact that you made a mistake.”, and he said “I thought it was just the music plays and you do an interpretive dance. I didn’t know you were actually…”. It’s like “Oh, yeah, yeah, no, I’m really busting a gut up there. It’s really real.”. So it gave people some confidence in it, that it was…
Because that’s the thing that people always say to me is “But you could…”. I’ve got a little bit of a troll on YouTube who’s like “But you could just mime. How do we know this is real?”. You’re just going to have to take my word for it at this point. I’d guess I can’t convince you, but it’s a real thing.
Dubber Yeah. So what’s post lockdown for you? What’s the next chapter?
Kris Well, I think the problem with the situation at the moment is, obviously, we don’t know where travel is. It’s forced me to look at things in a new way, obviously. I am actually recording music, which is exciting. I feel like I’m able to get my head around that. With the Help Musicians UK funding I was looking to… Everyone has all been asked the same question, “Can you do it on the internet? What can you do online?”. So as I said at the start, I didn’t want to rush into that, but now I’m getting set up with… With the funding, I’ve been able to get a home studio together.
I didn’t have a home studio at all, I rent a studio. So when this started I had no way of doing anything, actually, because I can’t go to my studio at the moment, obviously. So I had to get started again with working from home, and I’ve got a bit of a setup now with the cameras and things, leading towards the inevitable thing because the inquiries are now coming to perform and do stuff, do events, but do them remotely. I’ve got some talks and gigs coming up, actually, which are going to be happening right here, and that is cool I suppose. That’s strange. It’s got to be done. We’ve got to find ways around it. Things aren’t changing around live music any time soon, are they? When’s the next time we’re going to a gig?
Dubber It cuts down on your carbon emissions, anyway.
Kris Certainly here, I don’t know what policies are like in different parts of the world, but here it’s been made very clear with the changes to the lockdown over the last week or so that live music isn’t changing. There’s not going to be any gigs, and people are adapting. My brother runs an events agency and they’ve done a big production over the weekend of having bands and artists in a studio and they’ve been streaming that, but it’s been a real high standard of production and it’s been interesting to watch that unfold. Yeah, we’ve got to completely rethink this, and how do you make it look like something? Because for me, I’m very old fashioned. I just like the engagement of meeting people, and I love going out and playing shows, and I’m all for hanging around and people wanting hugs and selfies, I’m that guy, and so the idea that you just can’t do any of that is really scary to me.
Dubber But to be fair, you’re at a massive advantage over everybody else because you’ve already adapted to overcome a real, serious challenge, and so you know how this plays out.
Kris Yeah, I should think about that, shouldn’t I? I hadn’t really thought about that. Now I’m just nervously thinking about how to make it make sense on a screen because that’s just completely… Well, not completely new to me. I made the video with Josefa, the Koi No Yokan thing. An ongoing project that I have at the moment is with my choreographer Ayaka Takai who’s been… It’s been interesting because we started that project remotely. She lives in Tokyo, so we’ve been doing this kind of thing for a long time anyway, so that was the one aspect of my work that actually didn’t change that much because we were already working remotely.
But that’s one of the things that we’re talking about a lot at the moment in terms of designing new work for the gloves, because this thing with Ayaka is about solving for me the problem of how do you really make it really refined? I wanted that… Again, it was the Japanese influence of wanting something much more graceful and much more visually stimulating than just… I think the early stuff that I did was very straightforward. Like “Oh I can point up and I can play a chord, and I can point down and play a different chord.”, and I wanted something much more artistic which is why I started working with Ayaka. And the extra layer to our work now is what can we do in this movement that is relevant to the camera, and really thinking about where my hands are positioned and what that means visually because all of the things that we’ve been working towards were stage-based performances. We’re obviously not doing that any time soon, so thinking about this space…
Dubber But all the ways that you’re describing what you do now, you’re describing a dancer.
Dubber Do you describe yourself as that?
Kris I’m starting to. Yeah. Obviously, I had some Arts Council funding last year to support this partnership with Ayaka, and I just wanted to get… The problem I got really wrapped around, and what was really interesting to me, was I was playing music that I’d already thought about and then going “How can I use the gloves to make those sounds come out?”, and I was like “Okay, that’s cool, and that’s been fun, and it’s paid the bills, but now how do we go at this the other way? What does my impaired movement sound like? How do we start with movement and then make movement inform composition?”. We designed something from a choreography perspective and then find out what that means as a way of composing music, so that’s been the brief for that, and I do think about it.
There’s so much funny irony to this because I’m mobility impaired. I’m a physically disabled person usually sat on a stool. Five years ago sat on a stool in the corner of a pub, not moving around much, obviously, and my whole show, the whole thing that I do, everything that I’ve worked for now is so physical. It’s so demanding. I have to really think… I love it, I’m not complaining at all, but the nature of performing with the gloves has influenced my exercise, my diet, my whole fitness. It’s a full-body thing to do. I’m not sat, I can’t have three pints and smoke ten fags and sit on a stool and just churn out songs. It’s physically demanding work, and especially when you, you can see I’m being really nostalgic about this, but normally when you’re travelling as well and you’re dealing with time zones and stuff you’ve got to be on top of your game. But I love that.
For me, that’s a really exciting challenge, and I’ve always got really wrapped around this delicious irony that for someone who’s lived with a physical impairment of being sheltered from physical activity, and then having this music becoming this really vigorous, physical thing. Yeah. It plays into a lot of stuff in my head about… These are the narratives that only serve me, but for me it conquers a lot of stuff in terms of growing up feeling very weak and very vulnerable, and then going out on these big stages and throwing my massive rock star shapes, and it’s like “Yeah, that kid did all right, actually.”.
Dubber Brilliant. Kris, thanks so much for your time today.
Kris Thank you. It’s been great, and hopefully not too… I’m sounding really glum about the lockdown thing, but, hey, maybe we’ll be allowed to go out and play some gigs soon. But in the meantime I’ll be playing some gigs online soon.
Dubber Let us know when.
Kris Thanks for having me.
Dubber Cheers Kris. All right, have a good one.
Kris Thank you.
Dubber That’s Kris Halpin, and that’s the MTF Podcast. You can check out Chris’s music at www.dyskinetic.net, I’ll link to that in the show notes, and you can also see the video of his Koi No Yokan song on the podcast page too. The MTF Podcast is out every Friday, so hit the subscribe button and that will turn up in your player of choice each week without you having to do or pay anything. You can also share, like, rate, and review, and if you know someone who might find this interesting, feel free to mention it to them. The show was edited by Sergio Castillo, with music by Tomas Novoa and airtone, and Rani Dar, aka Run Dreamer, made the MTF audio logo. I’m Andrew Dubber, @dubber on Twitter. Music Tech Fest is @MusicTechFest absolutely everywhere.
You have a great week, stay safe, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.