BB Video: Micachu and "maker" music, the Russell Porter interview

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Today's a Russell Porter double-header on Boing Boing Video. In this episode, our UK-based music correspondent introduces us to minimalist/electro/glitch trio Micachu and the Shapes. 21-year-old songwriter/musician/MC Mica "Micachu" Levi leads the band, with Raisa Khan on keyboards and Marc Pell on drums.

They're destined to win a Grammy for best use of a vacuum cleaner in a melodic noise composition. Well, whatever, maybe not, but I love that they use a "hoover" as a voice modulation accessory on-stage, and they build or mod other instruments from odd origins.

In our Boing Boing video interview, they joke about the vacuum cleaner thing being a gimmick, but it's cheap and punk and I like it. Micachu's debut record is due out in a couple weeks (early February, 2009), and was produced by the acclaimed electronic musician Matthew Herbert.

As is the case with many of the bands Russell introduces us to in these Boing Boing interviews, his timing is prescient. Music critics in the UK are using headlines like "Is Micachu The Next Big Thing?" which probably means: yes. But we wouldn't hear about them in the US otherwise for months.

Here's a snip from the band's Wikipedia entry which delves into the "maker" aspect of their act:

Micachu describes the music she performs with The Shapes as pop, but the term may be misleading, as her music veers away from much of pop's defining characteristics, including obvious choruses, and accessible lyrics, and often makes use of unconventional playing styles and use of noise like bottles breaking or a vacuum cleaner. There is also little or no bass line in much of her music, which is very uncommon in pop music. For these reasons, her music has been widely described as experimental, and difficult to categorize.

Inspired by experimental composer Harry Partch, Micachu uses unorthodox instruments which are sometimes customised or even homemade. These included a modified guitar played with a hammer action called a 'chu' and a bowed instrument fashioned from a CD rack. She also uses improvised instruments, such as glass bottles or a vacuum cleaner.

Here's more about Harry Partch, (June 24, 1901 - September 3, 1974), the pioneering American electronic musical instrument maker and composer Micachu cites as an influence. At left, an image of his "cloud chamber bowls," described here as "sections of 12-gallon Pyrex carboys, suspended from a redwood frame on ropes... difficult-to-find and impossible-to-tune glass gongs played very carefully by a percussionist who risks the anguish of splintered disaster." Partch obtained the original bowls at the Radiation Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley, where they'd been used as cloud-chambers to trace the paths of sub-atomic particles.

Björk is said to be a fan of Micachu and the Shapes:

[O]ne of her mix tapes brought her to the attention of the east-London grime scene. But ask her about Bjork calling her up after a gig and she scrunches her face. "Yeah, that was nuts. We spoke but she didn't call me up. It's not like she had my number or anything. "But I spotted her dancing and I kind of stopped for a second."
Below, a promotional video about the band from their label, Accidental Records.

* Boing Boing Video Archives
* Previous posts with Russell Porter music interviews
* Russell's Porter Report website.


  1. Harry Partch wasn’t an electronic composer, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he was emphatically opposed to the idea. See, for example this.

  2. Excellent choice – I saw Micachu and the Shapes at the LOOP Festival in Brighton this summer, and they were definitely one of the highlights. Great fun.

    Micachu is the cover feature of this month’s consistently excellent independent UK music magazine Plan B (

    Great cover, too:

    (Note: I don’t work for Plan B. I know some of the editors and writers casually, but only through being an original fan of the magazine).

  3. this is like that moment when i walk into an institution of modern art and look at a piece in puzzlement thinking, “a child could do this!” — except in this case a child ACTUALLY did it. sort of like elephants painting… a novelty act.

    and since when did playing a vacuum cleaner on stage provide instant “maker” cred? so many bands have done this, from ween to iggy and the stooges, that it is no longer original.

    if this is the “next biggest thing”, i’m going to hang with my buddy miniaturization while we wait on the hubris to subside.


    1. @tuktuk, arguing on the internet about which bands suck/don’t suck is tiresome and futile. So I’m not going there. Regarding this part of your whine:

      since when did playing a vacuum cleaner on stage provide instant “maker” cred?

      The “maker” part of this story is the fact that these guys “make” stuff. Not the vacuum cleaner, which is a repurposed non-musical instrument being used as a musical instrument, but — they do actually build instruments. And, yes, duh, as I wrote in the post, that is definitely not new or rare, either. Hence the reference in this post to a composer who was born nearly a hundred years ago who also liked to “make stuff.”

      Not everything we blog about here is going to be 10000% new, that’s not the point of Boing Boing, or of art itself. Nothing is completely new, really, is it? But this, for me, was an interesting story about adaptation.

  4. @ #4 TUKTUK:

    So because a) you are puzzled by it, b) it was made by young people, and c) the band occasionally (one song, really) use a self-professed gimmick for noise effects, you dismiss the whole thing as “dumb”.

    There’s so much wrong-headedness and ill-informed prejudice in that assessment, it almost seems that this band would be better off without your support.

    First of all, it is often no bad thing for art or music to puzzle people. Much music we now consider massively influential and ground-breaking puzzled people when it was first brought (sometimes literally) kicking and screaming into the world. Second, despite your ridiculous ageism being unjustifiable in the first place, Micachu is 21, and therefore not a child.

    Lastly, I feel sorry that the usual lazy music journalists have to make such a big deal out of the self-professed vacuum cleaner gimmick.

    For every great, ground-breaking band (it’s too early to tell if M&TS are that) there are open-minded supporters and stuck-in-the-past detractors. I guess you someone has to be in the latter group, so it might as well be you.

  5. @13strong,

    I feel sorry that the usual lazy music journalists have to make such a big deal out of the self-professed vacuum cleaner gimmick.

    Well, honestly, it’s one of the more colorful things about these guys. If you were tasked with putting together a story, particularly a video episode, about this act and trying to encapsulate what they’re doing in a compelling way, you’d probably hit the hoover, too.

    In fairness, though, I think even the band is kind of sick of everyone focusing on the vacuum cleaner bit, which is apparently a very small part of their act.

    I don’t know that their style of music is totally my cup of tea, but I do think they’re interesting, innovative, and unashamedly weird. We like that around here.

  6. Sorry, Xeni, I wasn’t trying to label you, or even Russell, as a “lazy music journalist”. Russell is obviously not that!

    But living in the UK and being interested in the alternative/DIY music scene, I have heard the vacuum cleaner thing brought up A LOT by journalists who have patently not bothered to find out much about the band or their music. Having seen them live, I know the vacuum cleaner thing is a tiny, amusing skit-like part of their show (though the effect is cool). But it doesn’t take much to discover that there’s a lot more to this act than that – the music is wildly diverse, spanning from glitchy electronica to skiffly ukulele pop-punk. She’s written orchestral pieces for the London Philharmonic, too!

    Anyway, didn’t mean to gripe at you or Russell. It’s nice to see Boing Boing covering some interesting music.

    Talking of which – when you gonna get DJ Rupture in as a guest blogger, eh?

  7. @13strong, that’s definitely fair. It sounds like a lot of writers are just hitting that one aspect of the band’s live show, and forgetting about all else. I agree, that is the very definition of “lazy journalist.”

    And I’ve been listening to Micachu all day long now — I think they’re growing on me.

    DJ Rupture is a great idea!

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