Adopting the dishevelled persona of a satanic Libertas, I SPEAK MACHINE is an audio visual project fronted by Tara Busch.
She released her first solo album ‘Pilfershire Lane’ in 2009 having previously been a member of DYNAMO DRESDEN alongside Maf Lewis and Rohan Tarry. Today, Lewis acts as Busch’s visual partner in I SPEAK MACHINE and together, they have worked on numerous horror / sci-fi film projects including ‘The Silence’ and ‘Zombies 1985’, giving their specialisms equal prominence.
Constructed remotely between Los Angeles and Sheffield over a three year period, ‘War’ has been co-produced by Dean Honer of I MONSTER, THE ECCENTRONIC RESEARCH COUNCIL and INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP fame. A severe but rather appealing and cerebral listening experience, ‘War’ offers cathartic joy despite a discomforting exorcism of demons.
Just before setting off to open for Gary Numan on the European leg of his ‘Intruder’ tour, Tara Busch spoke to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about why I SPEAK MACHINE declared ‘War’…
‘War’ is quite different from previous I SPEAK MACHINE albums in that it’s not a soundtrack, it’s much more personal and entirely comprises of songs ie no instrumentals or interludes?
Yes. I wanted the songs and the voice front and center as the main elements. This album’s been brewing for a long time; it does have a lot of film-music DNA in it as well, and I feel like it would be a very different album without my composing experiences and live scores with Maf Lewis and I SPEAK MACHINE over the past 10 years. The deep dive into creating and performing live scores felt different and fresh, and I really craved exactly that. I’m glad we were able to just “follow our noses” and indulge ourselves in that concept, basically do whatever the hell we wanted.
So, in keeping with following our noses, I simply craved writing an album again. ‘War’ is simultaneously very much of the moment, yet a sort of anthology of everything I’ve done, all the versions of myself, including when I first started out in rock bands in the 90s. I actually did write interludes for a few of the songs at first – but it eventually felt like overkill as the album is already so dense. There needed to be some space.
The voice is very much central to this album and it features quite a bit of eerie vocal processing using Korg MS20 and vocoder?
Yes. This album was done 100% remotely, so any real-time analogue vocal manipulation was created, recorded and comped by me (the latter being not nearly as much fun). The topline of melody of ‘Santa Monica’ was created by singing through my MS20 through the external signal processor, which takes a lot of patience to get it just right – you have to really boost the signal first (which I chose to do with a Moogerfooger Ring Modulator). I then ran it into a Moogerfooger 104Z Analog Delay.
The very distinctive gnarly bass sound on ‘Ruined Me’ is also done by me singing through the MS20, oscillators 2 octaves down. The whole rest of the song was built around this bass. Comping the bass recordings together in a cohesive way was another story… quite gruelling picking through 2 hours of me grunting into a synth and improvising, which takes a whole other mindset – certainly the pragmatic “editor’s” mindset.
Using this process for voice is particularly fun as it picks up all the breathing and other noise… when you stop singing, it does this really odd sounding, crumbly drop, as if it’s somehow defeated and in some sort of distress. It brings such a human element to it. As for vocoder – here’s a really subtle bit of vocoder in ‘I See You’ that you can barely register, the Roland SVC350.
How did Dean Honer become involved? Were there any pieces of work of his that you admired?
Dean and I have known each other for quite some time, met probably somewhere around 2007 – I think it was Myspace! I was a big fan of I MONSTER, and dug a bit deeper to find out about his previous projects as well. We also played together in Sheffield at the Sensoria Festival, got to horse around in his studio for a bit when Maf and I were in town… he’s responsible for my Oberheim Two Voice obsession!
THE ALL SEEING I, MOONLANDINGZ, THE ERC and his work with ADD N TO X were big ones for me – but it was really I MONSTER that sucked me in, as well as a few projects he had done with Kevin Pierce. I’ve been involved in a few projects of his – I always knew our styles would be complimentary and I totally trust his judgement and he’s really straightforward, no bullsh*t. Plus the art direction on all his projects is always so f*cking cool, he has great taste. To boot, he’s also a killer mixing and mastering engineer.
Aside from that, I had been self-producing for many years since 2005, and really wanted to bring in a co-producer – but was a bit hesitant at first – production-wise, as a woman, you have to prove you can do EVERYTHING or it’s assumed you’ve done nothing. Very exhausting. I was sick of that sh*t, all the stupid double standards – yet sick of working alone… I really wanted to work with Dean and that superseded all the discrediting I’d possibly have to put up with. The album being what it needed to be, was of course more important.
I sent the songs to Dean after they were written, the later ones like ‘Beat Down By Heaven’ and ‘Rats Rise’ were produced to a point where I felt the gist / vision of the song was in there – but leaving him space to mangle it and have fun with it as well, plus some very general notes. Once we got some traction on the process, it flowed quite nicely. It did take a few years, as I also had a few film projects pop up so it slowed us down a lot- and of course Covid. It was hard to work (especially in 2020!) with so much anxiety and uncertainly around but we took it easy and got there.
I wanted and, dare I say, needed to be compassionate with myself. And I miraculously still loved the songs as time progressed. Some of the songs, like ‘Santa Monica’, ‘I See You’ and ‘Left For Dead’ existed for quite a few years, and were quite far along production-wise, whereas ‘Rats Rise’, ‘The Metal of My Hell’, ‘Beat Down By Heaven’ and ‘Until I Kill The Beast’ were written in a different timeframe and he had much more of a hand in those – especially ‘Beat Down by Heaven’ and ‘Rats Rise’. He really made those shine. Drums are his superpower, among many other great elements he added. I can hold my own programming drums and machines and experimenting with sounds, but he’s another level totally. Basically in the end, we were communicating mostly by WeTransfer files!
The ‘War’ album has this harsh sound but it is listenable and accessible, did you define distinct roles in how it was going to be made?
Not really; we didn’t need to do that once we got going. After the songs were written, I initially asked Dean to help with drum sounds, and add some sorcery on the programming if possible – but if he really wanted to try other sounds and experiment, have at it! Some songs like ‘War’ and ‘Beat Down By Heaven’ started out with weirdly processed drum machines as their basis (‘War’ being a Casio and Heaven being a Drum Brute Impact – both run through a Moogerfooger ClusterFlux whose feedback provided fundamental notes), which were very important elements, and Dean worked with those.
I was revisiting a fair bit of industrial music like MINISTRY, PRICK and REVOLTING COCKS – as well as properly discovering SUICIDE, CURVE, THE CRAMPS and ADD N TO X. And there’s always the ubiquitous Judy Garland and Doris Day running on a loop in my head as well. I wanted to blend in my film music sensibilities as well as very dense rhythmic elements. There is definitely an indescribable sweet spot with how this album feels. It is an odd bird.
As mentioned before, I gave Dean some limited notes to describe where I was coming from, but it really came down to just doing. There’s only so much you can do to describe what you haven’t made yet, you just have to give it space to become its own thing, I guess. The second one “tries” to sound like something specific, it drains any kind of magic out of it. You know the “essence draining” scene in ‘The Dark Crystal’? That.
The Oberheim Two Voice is probably the most featured. Most of ‘The Metal of My Hell’ was made with the on-board sequencer (though some think it’s guitar, it is not.).
Also ‘Santa Monica’ is mostly Oberheim Two Voice and the vocal MS20 line, which was originally written for piano!
Otherwise it’s quite a big flurry of machines – Polyvoks on ‘Bloodletting’ and ‘War’, 808 and Minimoog Model D on ‘Rats Rise’, Arturia Drum Brute Impact through a ClusterFlux on ‘Beat Down By Heaven’. ‘Dirty Soul’ was created on a very old and banged up Rhythm Ace through a ring mod and delay, and a few top lines with a Roland SH5. Then ‘Until I Kill The Beast’ is all ARP 2600 and the 1613 Sequencer. The onboard spring reverb is so beautiful and ghostly. Dean added a bunch more too, of course. Polyvoks, WASP and OB6, I believe.
The ‘War’ title song that opens the album states its intentions, but had you been subconsciously channelling Gary Numan’s ‘Metal’?
Glad you caught that! It definitely has ‘Metal’ in there as an influence. It came about from me messing with my Casio SK1 (the “Pop Drums” program, I think) and then running that through a Moogerfooger ClusterFlux to make it all bendy and provide actual notes from the feedback.
‘War’ is a fierce body of work with songs titles like ‘The Metal of My Hell’, ‘Left For Dead’, ‘Ruined Me’ and ‘Dirty Soul’? What was your mindset?
Basically, for better or worse, I had to verbalize a bunch of sh*t so that it would stop destroying me. ‘The Metal of My Hell’ and ‘Left for Dead’ is addiction. ‘Ruined Me’ is the snarled confusion and fear from growing up with Catholic parents with a bit of dysmorphia and self-loathing thrown in. ‘Dirty Soul’ is basically shedding the self-loathing with a bit of mockery, bitterness and sarcasm. These may seem like done-to-death themes (addiction, mental illness, religion, shame, body dysmorphia) but they are new to me as far as expressing them. It’s basically external and internal war.
I had been battling an alcohol addiction since I was 25, and one day I just realized it was ultimately going to be the thing that kills me, plus the years of panic attacks, anxiety and depression, and not seeking help (I have luckily found the right meds now!); that plus the horrible state of the world politically and socially, I wanted to try and bring some light into my corner of the world via a bit of catharsis – maybe it could make someone else out there feel less alone, too. The only way I know how to feel better these days is make a noise (sorry, I really meant to keep it light!). In the back of my mind I knew I’d want to perform it live as well.
The sparser moods of ‘I See You’ allow for reflection, is that a real harp being used?
It’s harp samples with the built-in “tape delay” in Logic. Nothing fancy. I was obsessed with Clint Mansell’s ‘Moon’ score (‘The Nursery’) and Johan Johansson’s ‘The Sky’s Gone Dim’ – those certainly inspired me. That gentleness and very deep melancholy. I felt that way very often (melancholy) and it need to be part of the story.
Were ‘Santa Monica’ and ‘Push The Grease’ co-written with Kendra Frost of KITE BASE conceived when you both were on the ‘Troika’ tour in the UK back in 2016? How did the songs develop to the finished tracks they are now?
Kendra co-wrote ‘War’ and ‘Push The Grease’, not ‘Santa Monica’ – she sang backup and contributed vocal arrangements on ‘Santa Monica’. ‘War’ was originally created as part of a short film called ‘Deep Clean’ that KITE BASE and I worked on, and she came up with the “la-la-la-la” part, and I pulled together the weird bendy Casio part and verse / chorus with her la-las in mind… the ‘War’ lyric just happened as a result of how relentlessly awful living under the Trump Administration was. Anyway – never would have thought of any of it without her.
‘Push The Grease’ was when she visited me in LA on a stopover during KITE BASE’s support slot for NINE INCH NAILS in 2018 – and we were horsing around with her Tempest through the ClusterFlux. We had originally set out to cover ‘I’m Looking Through You’ by THE BEATLES, but it turned into something else. We sat and glued that one together over a few days; then began the production process with Dean – I love the drums he added on ‘Push The Grease’.
The cover of ‘Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)’ by CONCRETE BLONDE fits right into the concept of ‘War’, you’re no stranger to reinterpretation having tackled ‘Cars’, ‘Our House’, ‘Let’s Go To Bed’ and ‘My Sex’ in the past, but what drew you towards this song?
This came about from a horror film I did the score for, ‘Jakob’s Wife’. The director Travis Stevens asked if I would be into covering ‘Bloodletting’ for a scene in the film, and it all rolled from there. It’s got stacks of Polyvoks and is another one make with the Arturia Drumbrute Impact through the ClusterFlux pedal. Same process – passed to Dean with some production notes and that was that! We were going for a bit of SLADE-like 70s glam. I actually was going to drop it from the album but Dean convinced me to keep it! There’s two versions out there – one on the ‘Jakob’s Wife’ score that Lakeshore Records released, and there’s the ‘War’ version.
The album closer ‘Until I Kill The Beast’ indicates that the fighting isn’t entirely over yet?
Well, this is going to sound a bit sappy, but here goes – the “beast-killing” that I refer to is really forgiveness and self-acceptance, not really a “fight”, per se. I think other tunes like ‘War’ and ‘The Metal of My Hell’ are more a result of the raw emotional shredding one goes through with addiction and mental illness. I had to get sparse and gentle with this one, which really is difficult for me. All voice, backing vocals and one instrument.
I SPEAK MACHINE is an audio visual project, so how did you decide which songs you would do promo videos for and the imagery that would be portrayed? Are there any interesting or funny stories from filming?
I’ll just say that these videos were really fun to make… incredibly tough physically, but fun. Handing this over to Maf Lewis, who is the wizard behind all of our visual elements:
“The first step is for me to fully understand the songs and any of Tara’s visual ideas. Keeping that in mind, I just listen to the songs in different environment – hiking, driving, in bed etc… and images come to me, or are expanded on. For ‘The Metal Of My Hell’ for instance, I felt it has to be a furious and fast video with lots of cuts, movement and aggression. I had visions of frantically and maniacally running through woods and tunnels. I had access to a Snorricam that was used in a short film I’d shot in the UK in 2011 – it straps to the actor and basically enables you to shoot a constant moving selfie. It’s great for a very dynamic and disorientating shot, and perfect for that idea. As the budgets for these videos are effectively sub $100 but wanting them to look like we’ve spend $20k, we’re always looking to use equipment we already have, locations that are free, and making good use of the things that we find – I like to think I’m the David Lynch of ‘The Wombles’.”
“As we’re generally shooting guerrilla style in Los Angles, we tend to encounter some weird stuff – an 18 wheeler truck racing around the LA river flats in the exact spot that the ‘Terminator 2’ truck and motorcycle chase scene was filmed, a naked man on horseback galloping through the woods (we reckoned it was an actor), and someone hitting golfballs at us from a nearby practice range. But none of that is particularly odd for LA. Ultimately we’re just lucky we didn’t find a body in the woods!”
You’ve been opening for Gary Numan on his US tour and are returning for the European dates, how has it gone so far and will you be making any adjustments for this next leg?
I’d never been on a tour that big and I had no idea how, at 48, I’d hold up – but it turns out it’s nothing short of electrifying and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had – especially since I’m in a place where I can be lucid and grateful. The US tour has been infinitely beneficial for us, just immense. We had so much fun. I mean, it’s been my dream to sing at the Fillmore where Janis Joplin once took the stage.
I’m so grateful to Gary and the whole crew, band and family for how wonderful they are to us. We luckily resonated well with the crowd, and were a really good fit. ‘War’ is a fun yet intense one to perform and I hope it shows. I’ve been dying just to go utterly batsh*t on stage again and these songs pretty much demand that. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s gone exactly as I wanted it to.
It helps infinitely to have Dean’s amazing ears mixing and mastering those backing tracks for live. For the EU, I’m dropping the synth and just running my backing tracks and voice. It took me a long time to get over any kind of inhibitions about doing it this way, but I wanted to be completely free to perform. I’m very inspired by artists like Billy Nomates that just use playback and f*cking destroy. It feels right to me now. It’s a thrilling, slightly scary leap into new territory, but I really want these songs to come across with the vocal and performance at full power, and I don’t want to do that from behind a synth.
Anyway, I couldn’t be more excited about the next tour, and incredibly grateful to be here doing this.
I SPEAK MACHINE will be opening for Gary Numan in May and June 2022 – for further information, please visit https://www.ispeakmachine.com
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
Photos by Maf Lewis
23rd May 2022