50 Man Machine
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50 Man Machine

Burke, Virginia, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2014

Burke, Virginia, United States
Established on Jan, 2014
Band Alternative Reggae

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"Takoma Park Folk Festival's interview with Collier Hyams of The 50 Man Machine"

Q&A with 50 Man Machine

For your weekend reading and listening pleasure, we introduce 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 3-8 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! - Takoma Park Fok Festival


"Top 10 Best Local Recordings (Album PreRelease version)"

You’ll never listen to world music the same way again once you hear what those Celtic, Caribbean and hi-tech instruments can sound like when they’re all played together. - Metroland NY


"Straight-ahead world music, without any gimmicks (Eponymous Debut Disc Review)"

The eponymous debut disc from 50 Man Machine offers one of the most diverse, if not perverse, instrumental attacks ever captured in a recording studio, as steel pans, turntables, bagpipes, double bass, experimental sound collages, mandolin, clarinets and even an udu or two slug it out for sonic space. In less able hands, such an eclectic mixture of textures could lead to an auditory train wreck-but under 50 Man mastermind L. Collier Hyams' able direction, the results are strikingly effective, never smacking of instrumental gimmickry or musical oddness for musical oddness' sake. Hyams' songs are, for the most part, strong and straightforward, and his guitar and vocal work underpin the whole project with a twang-flavored Americana feel, one that provides ample room for the army of other instruments and players to find, explore and exploit their own acoustic niches. Tracks featuring Scott Smallwood's steel pans and Neil Anderson's pipes generally evoke the Caribbean or Celtic flavors of those instruments' homelands (although this is as much a function of pre-conditioned listening reflex as it is a function of the songs themselves), while the remainder of 50 Man Machine taps an indescribable vein of musical internationalism without the lowest common denominator reductiveness that renders so many so-called "world music" discs so completely disposable. All told, this is a challenging and rewarding record from artists who seem willing not only to color outside the lines, but to toss the whole damn coloring book out the window, drawing instead in burnt umbers and sienas and taupes and heliotropes and fuchsias on the walls of places normally decorated in simple primaries and pastels. Worth a peek, for sure. - J. Eric Smith, The Metroland


"50 MAN MACHINE CREATES NEW FORMS OF ‘WHIRLED’ MUSIC"

Calling forth existential reflections that roll swiftly across a cerulean sky, this debut album from 50 Man Machine is an auditory outing for the extreme musicologist, an acoustic picnic with the Cat in the Hat, only the cat’s wearing a broad skull cap crudely fashioned with aluminum foil. Don’t get me wrong. This is a highly intelligent assembly of original songs that are provocative, striking and even humorous. But to stuff this compilation into a single genre, even the all-inclusive generic “alternative” box, does it a grand disservice. I’d be willing to bet, however, that you won’t be hearing these wildly refreshing compositions on Top 40 radio any time soon — and thank Buddha for that. Not because these songs don’t deserve airplay. But this is not music for the average, station-surfing masses. This album is refreshingly rational and straightforward, questioning everything from capitalism and duplicity to the passive-aggressive dance between love and hate. The lyrics conduct this interrogation with intelligence, irony and wit. While expressing reality’s departure from idealism, the songs are a far cry from the predictable, angry rants we have grown accustomed to hearing from self-proclaimed “alternative” bands. Collier Hyams, founder of 50 Man Machine, weaves thoughtful and metaphorical allusions throughout his compositions, making even openly critical statements with poignancy and intellect. In the disc’s second track, Flagwavin’, Hyams mixes clever puns into his lyrics to lance home a brutal point about hypocrisy:
One third of analysis is ally. ?One half of analysis is anal. ?And you, you’re like a bunch of rats. ?You’re quiet when the cat comes.
But Hyams demonstrates that honesty also can alternate between the unruly and the poetic, as he expresses sad truths that can surface when love is severed in The Ant Hill, the fourth track on this disc:
I think about the towel, skin-so-soft, the ant hill, the moon so very,?very bright; dew on the grass, curved hips, so lovely. The dew on?the grass so right. I spent and spent, you always took. Spoiled you?are and spoiled the look of sheer want and need and need and?want and need. Of sheer want and need and need.
The Ant Hill is one of my favorite cuts off this disc, particularly because Hyams’ wonderful lyrics are delivered in an electronically distorted, rapid-fire narrative, mimicking the tachycardia of emotional loss. And the mandolin behind the voice provides delicious lightness and tumult to the piece. One of the most common questions folks ask musicians is “Who are your influences.” Clearly 50 Man Machine has a voice uniquely its own. But in listening to this album, each song flashed across my psyche essences of artists who reside in the atrophied cobwebs of my musical memory, including U-2, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Crowded House, even a little bit of Three Dog Night. Really. But then I date myself. And name-dropping comparisons hardly do justice to this wholly distinctive compilation. These tunes not only invoke for me a sort of mental time travel, they also take me around the globe on the wings of steel pan drums, Uillean bagpipes, clarinet and pennywhistle. I think of the Kremlin and hand-painted Russian nesting dolls, Dublin under gunmetal skies, the Andes Mountains misting under a full Peruvian moon, Manchester in the 1960s, a Caribbean beach at highest noon. I think of this music as “whirled” music in the keenest, multi-dimensional, eclectic sense. While listening to this release, between the subliminal and non-subliminal lyrics, a slightly modified pop phrase spontaneously raced across my brain — What Would Jethro Tull Do — given today’s historical perspective and mixing room technology? Throughout the music there is whispered subtext. Or, could it be . . . conscience? To be profound and worldly probably was not Hyams’ intent when he wrote these songs and assembled 50 Man Machine to record them. I imagine it came together much like a pick-up baseball game. Most likely the players simply wanted to play. For fun. For practice. For free beer. Whatever. The serendipitous result, however, is an inventive, engaging addition to the musical archives. - Kristine Hartvigsen, The Independent / PowerPulp


Discography

Still working on that hot first release.

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Bio

"50 Man Machine taps an indescribable vein of musical internationalism..." writes New York's Metroland.

Think Punky Reggae Party. Simply put, 50 Man Machine is an eclectic mix of reggae, celtic, folk, caribbean and alternative rock with pop sensibilities. There is a healthy dose of jazz, New Orleans funk, social consciousness and experimental electronica on top keeping the bodies moving and the minds happy. Members of the DC group have spent a number of years in the festival scene honing their craft on Celtic, folk and international music circuits including an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Jaron Lanier's Chromatophoria, The Smithsonian, and guesting on stage in concert with The Chieftains.

What began at The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Mass MOCA, in Building 1 as an iEAR MFA performance art and installation piece about education, identity, hope for the future and freedom, became a unique fusion ensemble. The groups eponymous album met with great success spending 3 months in the CMJ music charts. 50 Man Machine just completed Live at Whitlow's on Wilson and are set to begin recording an exciting new studio album in the ensuing months.

The eponymous debut disc from 50 Man Machine offers one of the most diverse, if not perverse, instrumental attacks ever captured in a recording studio, as steel pans, turntables, bagpipes, double bass, experimental sound collages, mandolin, clarinets and even an udu or two slug it out for sonic space. In less able hands, such an eclectic mixture of textures could lead to an auditory train wreck-but under 50 Man mastermind L. Collier Hyams' able direction, the results are strikingly effective, never smacking of instrumental gimmickry or musical oddness for musical oddness' sake. Hyams' songs are, for the most part, strong and straightforward, and his guitar and vocal work underpin the whole project with a twang-flavored Americana feel, one that provides ample room for the army of other instruments and players to find, explore and exploit their own acoustic niches... All told, this is a challenging and rewarding record from artists who seem willing not only to color outside the lines, but to toss the whole damn coloring book out the window, drawing instead in burnt umbers and siennas and taupes and heliotropes and fuchsias on the walls of places normally decorated in simple primaries and pastels. Worth a peek, for sure. METROLAND

The group's live shows are passion filled and highly interactive with the audience playing a key role. Singer/guitarist/bagpipe player L.Collier Hyams shares the stage with cellist/Trinidadian steel pan player Kristen Jones, saxophone/flute/vocalist Trevor Specht, bassist/vocalist Scott Ambush, and drummer El Torro Gamble. 50 Man Machine delivers a tight, visceral performance while leaving the space and freedom to explore new sonic avenues.

Much of the groups foundation is built on Hyams' fertile upbringing as a foreign service dependent living in Thailand, Bavaria, Scotland, West Africa and other culturally rich parts of the world. This includes that uniquely strong musical influence and home to his French Creole roots, New Orleans, LA, where Hyams cut his teeth in funk, jazz, and truly caribbean reggae bands. After spending time on both sides of the US he formed 50 Man Machine in New York while touring with Jaron Lanier's Chromatophoria virtual reality and international music group including collaborators Sussan Deyhim, Will Calhoun (Living Colour), Peter Scherer (Ambitious Lovers), film composer Richard Horowitz, Duncan Sheik, Sean Ono Lennon and others. Somewhere in the middle of that experience he asked rock bagpiper Neil Anderson (Seven Nations) to be a part of 50 Man Machine and after recording an album ended up touring in the celtic rock circuit for 6 years forming the group Rathkeltair, putting 50 Man temporarily on hold. However, 50 Man Machine music was continually performed with these ensembles resulting in approximately 10,000 CD sales of various titles from festival stages during that time.

Classically trained on cello, Kristen Jones (Pan Masters, IlyAIMY) discovered the steel pan at Oberlin College and has performed with steelbands in Trinidad, Brooklyn and the DC area. Trevor Specht (Chopteeth, Junkyard Saints) has a BS in Jazz Performance/Composition and has indulged his technical and academic interests as a graduate student in the Electronic/Computer Music Department of The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Scott Ambush made his name as the bassist for Spyro Gyro. His credentials are enormous. Drummer El Torro Gamble rounds out the group with percussionist Mosno Al Moseeki.

Band Members