A while back, I put a sticker on my looper pedal that reads “I am stupid” (referring to the pedal). I can admit now, it was a pretty passive-aggressive move. Doing solo shows with electronics, I found that people mostly want to talk to you about what loop pedals you are using and not – as your fragile ego might hope for – the sublime genius of your compositions and performance.
Before long, I realised the looper was the star of the show and back in the noughties, the instant gratification of a looping pedal firing phrases back was still enough of a novelty to capture the attention of a room full of people.
By the time KT Tunstall and Ed Sheeran took the looper mainstream, I was getting uncomfortable with the ‘looping musician’ tag and had stopped doing gigs on my own or working on this aspect of my playing, retreating to the studio and only really bringing out the looper for live use on my regular gig with ‘live animation’ pioneers The Paper Cinema.
Now whenever I see someone turn up to a gig with a guitar and a loop pedal, I dread a predictable set of layering post-rock riffs and textures. This sort of self-abusive snobbery is problematic for a pursuit I’ve invested so much time in (and have got reasonably good at) and recently I’ve found myself wanting to reclaim it for myself, but how to do it? To Loop or not to Loop?
Yes, at these gigs I’m the one edging self-consciously towards the stage to get a look at their set-ups.
You don’t have to look far for inspirational use of these magic little boxes, I’ve heard Meryl Garbus (tUnE-yArDs) make insanely funky drum loops under perfect layered vocals, Owen Pallett (performing as ‘Final Fantasy’ pre-2010) creates beautiful long violin lines filled with counterpoint and complexity, and Bill Frisell, who’s perfectly tasteful spectral approach was my original motivation to buy a looper. And yes, at these gigs I’m the one edging self-consciously towards the stage to get a look at their set-ups.
I have found that live looping can become formulaic. What was originally a freeing journey of discovery can quickly become a rut, hemmed in by built-in constrictions like being stuck in one key and tempo or endlessly building layers, but ultimately not really going anywhere. Repetition is a beautiful thing, but if used irresponsibly (which I am definitely guilty of) it can induce madness.
I found myself looking for answers in the technical side of things – pedal functionality and signal paths to integrate other sound sources and devices (I have lost sleep over signal path issues)…
Things quickly got complicated and I was thinking more about the gear than the music, all of my creativity was going into making systems out of chains of effects that would have more possibilities but when I finally started to play I would realise that I had nothing to say or that the system was so complex I struggled to get it to work.
It’s hard to force creativity, especially if you have just spent ages fault tracing that one dodgy lead that was causing a buzz
When it does all work, it is quite dreamlike. I start to play and ‘wake up’ sometime later when I notice I’ve made a thing or written a tune or programmed something. I’m pretty sure this is what some people refer to as ‘flow state’ where you are unhindered with the usual head noise and have laser focus in the present trance-like moment.
The tightrope-walk nature of live looping creates excitement. If it goes wrong there’s not much you can do – so it requires a high degree of focus. I find that performing in front of an audience in particular induces flow state. The track ‘Send Back’ was a bit like that, just an improvisation that came out the way that it came out.
Recently, my studio based work isn’t focussed on looping but will usually incorporate it in some way. Often using some sort of live sampling initially to get an idea and then fleshing out an arrangement with other sounds.
My track ‘Tremulants’ is a good example of something that started as a simple idea played on loop and grew into a bigger production with other instrumentation layered on later.
The magic in the ‘sound on sound’ approach, whether it’s Les and Mary Paul’s live tape loops from the 50s, or Daniel Lanois creating lush reverberant textures, is all in how sounds change as they are layered with each other and their frequencies mingle and interact, blending or cancelling each other out as they decay.
There is an undeniable creative magic to hearing this happen in real time and for that reason, live sampling/looping is here to stay.
So to my looper, I’m sorry if we fell out. You are not stupid. I might have been a bit harsh. I’m ready to play again.
Chris lives in Bristol UK with his family, is a guitar player and composer for film and television and Musical Director of The Paper Cinema. He currently favours the Boomerang 3 looping pedal, but is equally fond of using Line6 DL4, Kaoss Pad 3, Max/MSP or Ableton live.