Bike orchestra marry man and machine to harness chaos

Band members at a recording session.

Band members at a recording session.

One man carries a bass, one a keyboard, and the other two carry a cannibalised bicycle which they gingerly set on its handlebars before adjusting the mic stand. It’s not often that centre stage is reserved for a push bike, but Levenshulme Bike Orchestra is no ordinary band.

Industrial, ambient, harmonious, chaotic – it’s difficult to pigeonhole LBO’s sound. This is partly down to the fact that every performance is improvised, and each performance is driven by the musicians’ humour and the ambience of the venue. Added to that is the volatility of vocalist Zeke Clough, who sometimes finds himself rolling around on the ground making animal noises, or standing with his back to the audience reciting a story – all subject to his mood of the moment.

LBO begin the set testing each other with different sounds. Huw Wahl taps the bike tyres with drums sticks until a rhythm slowly begins to emerge, Josh Kopecek on the synthesizer and David Birchall on base meet each other with drops of noise. The chaos slowly evolves into a heartbeat, and vocalist Zeke spits noises into the mic. The energy starts to accelerate, and words can be discerned in Zeke’s enigmatic recital (something about a porcupine) and soon he is writhing on the ground completely overcome by the momentum of the music.

Musos in Hackney borough got London’s first taste of the quartet last week when they played at Bardens Boudoir in Dalston. It is the start of a promising year for the Manchester-based foursome, who are about to release their first album via Concrete Moniker in the next few weeks. They are also planning a European tour in June with funding from PRS Foundation.

LBO first came together in 2005 when Dave and Zeke were experimenting with the sounds of different inanimate objects. “You know when you are going to sleep and you have a good idea,” Zeke says. “That’s when we thought of the bike orchestra.”

Dave continues: “You can make musical sounds with anything, but bicycles are the most musical machines. The bicycle is the best combination of man and machine.”

Bikes have thousands of moving parts which the band harness by using two machines on stage. The first bike has three standard contact mikes on it which pick up vibration straight into a speaker, just like most other instruments. Huw batters the tyres to summon rich textural percussions sounds. The stand-up bike, which is stripped down to a bare wheel, has two single-coil magnetic pickups. As the spokes of the bike pass through the magnetic field, they make a frantic tinny sound.

It isn’t just the unusual texture of the music that gives LBO their depth. It is also the strategy of their improvisation and their seamless intuition when complementing each other’s performances. “It’s all about cohesion,” Dave says. The band members know each other very well, and have yet to have any serious arguments.

They also come from a variety of different backgrounds, which in turn compliments what they bring to the band. Zeke is an artist, Dave is doing a PGDE with the intention of becoming an English teacher, Huw is a bicycle mechanic, and Josh, the newest member, is doing a PHD in musical composition at Manchester University.

Intuition is tantamount. “One of the problems with the modern age is that people don’t listen to each other. Modern culture is very visually orientated,” Dave says. Huw adds later: “There’s no leader. We just follow each other.”

It is this unbridled, collective energy that defines LBO’s music. They release it, unguarded and mould it into something cathartic. In an interview with Resonance FM at the gig in Dalston, Huw was asked: How do you harness chaos? To which he replied: “It’s knowing when to stop.”

LBO’s interview with Resonance FM can be heard on the Bike Show at 18.30 on Monday 25 or thereafter on podcast.

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