To fight the ordinary, Paddy Steer does the extraordinary. Surrounded by knobs, wires, keys, and wearing self-made, Sun Ra-inspired costumes, Paddy Steer looks and sounds like a music wizard from another universe. Diving into the realms of lo-fi pop, acid jazz, and cosmic funk like a kid with a new box of crayons, this sonic tinkerer is able to create almost orchestral-like music as a one-man band.
Last week, we had the pleasure to link up with Paddy Steer via Skype, to talk about his unique approach to music and his odd collection of instruments and costumes. Blessed with jolly humor, the meet-up became – just like his live-performances – a pleasantly chaotic event overall, in which Paddy tried to explain to us how synthesizers work and did an attempt to show us his attic studio and its machinery, using his webcam, which – off course – failed miserably. Nevertheless, it became quite a memorable conversation.
Unintentional solo career
First of all, there's Paddy's lengthy career. For over thirty years, Paddy has been a familiar face within the underground music scene of his hometown Manchester. Energized by the everybody-can-play ethic of punk rock, which gave him a lifelong impetus for a DIY ethos, Steer first became involved in the local music scene with his post punk band Biting Tongues. Countless musical collaborations and projects would follow, eventually leading to the release his first solo album 'Dragon's Breath' in 2009.
Discussing the start of his solo career, Paddy reminisces: "Well, I was maybe 45 years old at the time. I was always running bands and being in bands as a musician or as a semi-producer/writer type-thing. We were running a big band, like a twelve piece, called Homelife and it just got to difficult, to confusing and I wasn't enjoying music anymore." He continues: "So, another friend Graham Massey [also a founding member of 808 state] got me playing on a sort of moon landing party, where we were celebrating the anniversary on the moon landing. It just grew from that, really."
Creation of Weirdcraft
From the start of his solo career, the talk shifted to Paddy's alien musical gear, which ranges from a glockenspiel wired up to twelve guitar pick ups, to six handmade synthesizers, all together weighing a stunning 250 kilos. In the video below, Paddy Steer explains one of his home-cooked instruments – the Royal Beefeater Minature Tea Caddy Electric Shaker – in his very own, distinctive way. Weet Wharka Wahh!
So, let's get technical. Astonished by his impressive and stacked array of instruments, you'd almost forget that the drum kit is a central element of Paddy's act; it quite literally provides a foundation for all other instruments. Originally being a bass player for more than thirty years, Paddy Steer started playing drums when he reached the age of forty. Instead of using an traditional-sounding drum kit though, Paddy hooks his drums up to something he calls 'The Mega Percussive Synth', which is attached to his high hat to trigger a snare-type of sound and to his kick to create a deep sounding bass drum. Besides this adaption of instruments, Steer also started to build his own guitar pedals. All of this quickly evolved into the craft of constructing handmade synthesizers: another central part of his music.
Exclaiming a loud "Oh, god!", we see Paddy lifting up a supposedly weighty piece of machinery from underneath his table via Skype. "Maybe I should do you a demonstration," paddy jokes, as he holds one of his synthesizers in front of the camera. "With the actual synthesizers, there are six kind of voices and they're all taking MIDI. Some off the oscillators [which are responsible for creating certain soundwaves and produces different sounds depending on the shape of the wave] are set similar. They all got their own character,' Paddy explains. "In the heat of the moment it's kind of like: which one is doing that. Then it's just a matter of controlling levels, making them module less, opening filters or turning them down. That's one of the basic elements of what I’m doing."
So, while he's playing the drums, glockenspiel, and many other instruments, Paddy also uses an iPhone to trigger different sound sequences, "which put out MIDI signals into all the synths". Because of this, Paddy is able to create melodies and alter them with the various levels on his synthesizers, without using any looping stations or having to deal with band members. "It's very basic, compared to what a lot synthesizers enthusiastics do," Paddy reveals. "They are stuck in their bedroom forever with huge amount modules and stuff. So these are just basic oscillators, just so I can make melodies and shape them a little bit."
Now we've covered most of the basic elements of Paddy's futuristic, DIY approach to music, we move over to yet another striking element of his act: his flamboyant costumes. Sprung from his early punk rock years, in which Paddy sewed his jeans in the way his "legs looked like bird legs", Paddy finds it enjoyable to work on a sewing machine: "It's just nice to make stuff. It's like improvising as well. So, there are failures, things fall apart and things get moldy."
After Paddy recently made some costumes for a Sun Ra homage band called "The Part Time Heliocentric Cosmo Drama After School Club" and some quirky papier-mâché helmets for another band, Paddy decided to make his own version of that. "It saves you having to think of what t-shirt you’re going to wear or having a manager tell you what posh clothes to wear and what’s the band image is like," he points out. "It's a disarming thing with your audience and with you. They laugh as soon as you put the stuff on. So, they know it's not a serious stylish-type thing." Then, to round it up: "It's just a bit theater. That's probably the fun."
Armed with six homemade synthesizers, hot-wired glockenspiel, buffed-up drums, an iPhone and a bunch of other alien attributes, the marvelous Paddy Steer turns his acid-infused sound into a charmingly chaotic performance where it's not only about the performing, but also about damage control. Or, as Paddy puts it: "Half the time I'm trying to figure out what's going wrong. It's kind of confusing with so many things in the system. I can't smoke weed before [a performance] at all."
Paddy Steer's performance at Le Guess Who? 2018 is curated by Shabaka Hutchings. This curated program also features a.o. Sons of Kemet XL, The Comet is Coming, Kadri Gopalnath, BCUC, King Ayisoba, Sibusile Xaba, Ill Considered, Hello Skinny, and many more.