Q&A with 50 Man Machine
In this Q&A, we visit with L. Collier Hyams, who plays guitar and sings for 50 Man Machine. The band will be on our Field Stage from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., and their rhythms are sure to get heads swaying, shoulders rolling, and feet shuffling.
Question: What’s up with your band name? There are only six of you, and you’re not all men.
Answer: Ha, good question and one that always raises an eyebrow. We often get…“Where are the other 40 plus men?” I love the “you’re not all men,” and I will say that we have had a full masked contingent on the occasion. We may get deep here.
I tend to think in images. Two that fertilized 50 Man Machine are a German bank advert I saw as a teen and “The Roadrunner” cartoons. One important group of images related to the music is a smiling child, a set of gears, and a faceless figure in a tie and business suit. Most people are familiar with the Acme machines in Wile E. Coyote exploits. Imagine a happy-go-lucky student entering one end of the machine and exiting as a black-and-white line drawing in a tie and without facial features.
A lot of this stuff has to do with my upbringing abroad in various cultures and then coming to the States as a fully formed teen with years of preconceived notions of what it would be like to come “home.” The term, Third Culture Kid, has become a catch phrase for a recently recognized phenomenon.
Question: Your sound is a fusion of many types of music. Can you describe the underlying style and how the other styles embellish it?
Briefly? “50 Man Machine taps an indescribable vein of musical internationalism…” writes New York’s Metroland.
A local club labels us as “Celtic ska reggae rock” on its roster. I think it comes down to a Third World dance beat and Americana style songwriting with jazzy World Folk instrumentation.
As a foreign service dependent being brought up and immersed in the cultures of Thailand, Bavaria, Ghana, Scotland, and Louisiana by a New Orleans French former Dixieland Jazz musician father and a Scottish ancestry mother, my musical foundation is a bit of a mix. A gumbo? I started making up songs and playing chopstick drums on guitar strings as a wee one. I played undergrad jazz band with the Louisiana Tech and Grambling State University guys as well as a college scholarship pop showband. For several years, I played with International Dub Corps, starting at Grambling amongst my Caribbean friends, and learned so much. While in New York I toured with an ethnic-ambient-future-music and virtual reality computer visuals ensemble led by Jaron Lanier, and with Living Color drummer Will Calhoun, Persian singer Sussan Deyhim, film composer Richard Horowitz, and Peter Scherer of Ambitious Lovers. During that time, I started several years of gritty nonstop touring in the Celtic rock festival circuit with former members of Seven Nations while recording and performing 50 Man Machine music. That period culminated in an invitation to play a series of concerts as a French Breton style bagpiper with The Chieftains a couple of years ago.
Each member of the group has very important influences. Kristen Jones trained as a classical cellist, was the musical director for Panmasters, and plays edgy folk with IlyAIMY. Trevor Specht studied electronic/computer music yet plays sax and flute in the African Jazz and Grateful Dead groups and Chopteeth. John K. Paul Dudley has a D.C. funk and reggae foundation and has toured with bluesman Corey Harris. Scott Ambush is well known for his jazz fusion work with Spyro Gyra. Andrew Dodds, Iona, is a championship fiddler in the Scottish, Irish, Cape Breton and Scandinavian traditions. Additionally, painter Scott Hutchison and I collaborate on the live interactive visual projections we use which seem to influence our playing and color the music.
Question: You blend that sound with a social message, too. Tell us about it.
You noticed that? Yes, we do, and I had a funny thing happened just the other day. As I passionately sang heady topics to a bunch of joyous dancing children at an outdoor festival, I found myself wondering how appropriate the lyric I sang might be for 3- to 8-year-olds, what their parents thought, and if I should improvise a quick rewrite! So, we quickly followed “Flagwavin’,” a song about hypocrisy and tolerance, with “Hush Little Baby/Hambone” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider…then had to end the set with “Racewar.” Oh well!
Question: Something for everyone, keeps everyone happy.
We, most of us, want to be happy. We want to dance and be free, yes? That magic euphoria can be shared. It’s what’s in my blood. But, so is an idealistic need for justice. For some reason, I can’t seem to write truly happy lyrics and feel passionately honest when singing them. There are stacks of attempts, though. I think everything is about balance; maybe it’s my Thai upbringing. I enjoy the irony of a happy feeling body capped by a furrowed contemplative brow. Even with the major key tunes “Cleanspace” and “Little Games,” there is a touch of darkness.
Question: You seem to have a big following in Northern Virginia. Is this your first Maryland gig?
Hmm, you know what, now that you mention it, I think you may be right. I’ve done a ton of Scottish and Irish festivals up and down the East Coast and in Maryland over the last several years. But, this might be the first 50 Man Machine experience in the Great State of manly deeds and womanly words! Wonderful!
Question: Where can the Festival’s visitors find out more about you?
The first place might be our web home http://www.50manmachine.com as well as our Facebook page and Twitter. We have a couple of albums available on iTunes, CDBaby, and Amazon, including “50 Man Machine” (the baby record) and “Off d’Boards: Live at Whitlow’s on Wilson.” I understand you can hear us on most of the online services including Spotify, Sony, Reverbnation, Rhapsody, LastFM, etc., but that is kind of beyond me! There are also http://www.vimeo.com/50manmachine and http://www.youtube.com/50manmachine for video clips. We have a monthly residency at Whitlow’s in Arlington, Va., if you want to pop in for a pint!