deep dive

“This is My Machine” : Leon Michener Makes Techno on a Piano

No samplers, no sequencers, no loopers, and no laptop. The only instrument at Michener's fingertips is a grand piano.

by Robert Barry
18 June 2015, 3:15pm

When Leon Michener took the stage of the Roundhouse in London last August, he kicked off his set with a rippling bass motif syncopated with a crisp closed hi-hat, before dropping a huge thud-crack-thud-crack of four-to-the-floor kick and snare drums. But there were no synths on stage. The 909 the audience thought they could hear was nowhere to be seen. There were, in fact, no drum machines at all. No samplers, no sequencers, no loopers, and no laptop. The only instrument at Michener's fingertips was a grand piano and a vast cobweb of wires and cables.

Michener's Klavikon project has been five years in the making but it's the culmination of a lifetime spent in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde existence: going out to techno clubs, then coming home to practice for a piano recital; studying classical piano and composition at the prestigious Trinity College, but using his free time to programme beats on his Atari. "Then one day," he told me, "I was just sick of it. So I sat down and I thought, right, I'm gonna make a kick drum. I'm gonna make the piano into a drum machine."

With a new album out on Nonclassical Records, Michener is set to support techno legend Juan Atkins in London later in the year. I caught up with him in a Muswell Hill beer garden to talk about minimal techno, classical piano, and making synth pad sounds by leaving a motorised toy gerbil rolling around in your soundboard.

"I'm interested in this history of rhythm in the left hand," Michener tells me whilst sipping tea and forking satay chicken sticks. Like the boogie-woogie and stride pianists of the 1920s, Michener keeps his rhythm going with the left hand, down in the bass end of the piano keyboard. But in his case, it's one finger for the kick drum, one for the snare, another for percussion – each hammered string augmented by blue tack, splinters, contact microphones, and cheap guitar effects boxes to give it the punch of classic techno. With his right hand he'll thump out the riffs. Finally, something motorised — an electric toothbrush, or a child's toy — can bootle about of its own accord in the top end, swamped in echo and reverb. "It's like a third hand," he says of the fluffy animated toys he sets loose in the treble strings, "and it's nice to have a sort of playful, not-take-yourself-too-seriously sort of vibe."

It's a set-up he's gradually honed to perfection but when he first set out on the project he found himself navigating blind. "I googled it," he admits, "and there was no how to make a kick from a piano. It didn't come up with anything. I had no gear, no money, no idea what I was doing. In the end I just started getting bits and pieces from Maplins." The ultimate solution proved to be a precise combination of mundane objects and cheap electronics, arranged just so. The precise configuration took years of fine tuning but he refused to take any short cuts. "I wanted it to be physical," he insists. "So when I hit it, it was in the room. Like a 909 – it had to have that presence and that power."

Born to a working class family in north London, Michener sought from an early age to make an impact. One of his earliest memories involves spreading all his grandmother's pots and pans on the floor and "bashing them for hours." There was a piano in his parents house and "music" he tells me "was always part of the family." From an early age he was encouraged to take lessons, but was, he admits, "a bad piano student. I got really bored of it." Musical inspiration came from another source.

A neighbour in Highbury was Jamie Bissmire, later of John Peel's favourite techno-jazzers, Bandulu. "As a kid, we'd make tracks together. I had a little four-track and I had my synth." Michener got his first synth at the age of 12 — a monophonic Moog Rogue because he "couldn't afford the [Roland] SH-101, which was what I really wanted." He had saved up for a year to get it, with a discount thanks to an uncle that worked at a music shop, "but I was a bit disappointed that it didn't have a sequencer on it."

If Michener's early piano studies were characterised by a certain reluctance, it was jazz that finally made a good student of him — particularly the electro-fusion of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit". Only then did he really start taking the instrument seriously. "You know," he says. "Went for it. Bunked off school to practice." He scored a place at Trinity "and just started working my arse off, really. 'Cos I was rubbish at all the normal things. Couldn't sight read. Had my own way of playing." He grew to love playing piano – but still he felt out of place in the stuffy confines of the conservatory. Most of all he missed electronic sounds, the energy of night clubs. Hence, Klavikon.

He had first heard of John Cage's pioneering works for prepared piano whilst still a student and "loved it." But his favourites were always the more rhythmic tracks, like the 'Bacchanale' Cage wrote for the African-American dancer Syvilla Fort in 1940. Formerly a composer chiefly interested in works for percussion, in the late 30s Cage and his wife had moved from California, up the West Coast to Seattle. Having left his arsenal of percussion instruments and metal sheets behind, he set about inserting bolts and screws, bamboo wedges and bits of rubber, between the strings of his piano in order to create a sound that, for Cage, evoked African pitched percussion ensembles.

Today, there are countless prepared piano experimenters. The method has been employed in countless classical pieces, as well as by jazz pianists, film soundtrack composers, and even rock bands like the Velvet Underground (using paper clips, on 'All Tomorrow's Parties'). Michener's approach is different. "That's not where I'm at," he says. "I like noises, but I'm making a track. If there's a sound I want, I'll look for it. I'm not just chucking stuff in and seeing how it sounds."

In fact, as much as he liked some of Cage's music — and especially the music of Cage's long-term collaborator David Tudor — Michener was never interested in preparing his piano. Until, that is, the day he sat down to try to try and make piano sound like a kick drum. "All I wanted to do was make a kick on that note," he gestures with the finger of his left hand, prodding the wooden table between us. "It's my synthesizer. It's my sampler. It's my machine."

What's fascinating about spending a bit of time talking to Leon Michener is that after a while you start to realise that he approaches classical music as though it were techno, and techno as though it were classical music. His favoured composers and pianists are people like the Italian virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni who once wrote a manifesto called Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music in which he advocated the use of electronic instruments and microtonal tunings that would split the standard twelve-note octave into 16, 32, or more, distinct notes. And this was in 1913.

"I like there to be a concept behind it," Michener says of Busoni's music. "He's got an idea, and it's sci-fi. Like Drexciya, you know, you don't get the whole vibe unless you immerse yourself in the whole mythology of it."

At the same time, he'll complain that "the classical lot" are "ignorant of all the decades that have gone into production, the depth of how you control sound. You get this stuff and it's not balanced. But there's a legacy and a history of work — like piano playing." And when he talks about how he achieves the sounds he uses, it's with the dedication and patience of a good piano student putting in the hours. "I'm still getting fresh sounds just out of credit cards," he claims. "Just one credit card on a string like that. You can put it on there, you do that, you make a sound. But if you stuck at that for a month, doing it every day, something will happen that wont happen if you just do it once. It's like a violin: when you pick it up it's like, yeah, wow, crazy noise. But if you spend twenty years on it, you can play a sonata."

"I'm into that," he tells me. "The one thing over and over and over and over and over and over again. See what happens. Keep going at it."

So it was the kind of persistence and dedication more associated with getting to Carnegie Hall that brought Michener, instead, to the Roundhouse last autumn, to Bloc last November, and will bring him in turn to XOYO in support of Juan Atkins this coming November. But as the crowds at Bloc and the Roundhouse started whooping it up and jigging around to the propulsive rhythms of Klavikon, it wasn't a buzz Michener himself was able to share in. "I'm too preoccupied with playing," he admits.

"I've always had a terrible time as a piano player," he continues. "I don't groove. I really don't. I have no good time." The elusiveness of that legendary state of immersive flow becomes however, in Michener's hands, less a bug than a feature. "I realised that I could play like a machine if I practiced enough. I don't have a real funk, you know? The great thing is, the way I play now, I don't need it. In a way I'm doing the opposite of what everyone's trying to do. While all the electronic guys are trying to put in this great looseness. I'm going the other way. I'm never going to get there, because I'm not a machine. But it gives it a quality, like chikachikachikachikachikachikachika..."

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