Whether it be via two wheels or two turntables, patch bay or drive chain, music and cycling are both, at their core, about discovery. Discovery of the new, the uncharted, the enigmatic. To the DJ, musician and humble fan alike, music provides a gateway into a world of possibilities. The humble bicycle opens up our world in much the same way. The early bike opened up Victorian Britain to those who had previously been bound by the daily distance their feet could carry them, bringing the countryside and neighbouring towns into orbit. Around the same time, the invention of rudimentary recording techniques would kickstart a journey towards a deep, rich and shared musical enlightenment.
As a lifelong music nut and, in recent years, an enthusiastic peddler, I have long been drawn by the similarities bridging two of my great passions. The minimalistic, durational and motorik rhythm of the bike speaks to the music I adore, as does the quest for new experiences and the parallel journey into yourself that both hours in the saddle and at a turntable cultivate.
The fixie-hipster and the Rapha-clad mamil are now familiar city sites and show cycling’s recent drip into popular culture. Yet, despite the sport’s booming popularity, the relationship between music and riding is pretty much an untold story. Through a series of articles, podcasts and off-grid cycle-powered live events, WAX & GEARS – a new project from Bido Lito! – will celebrate cycling and music’s unique shared sense of discovery.
And what better way to start than a trip to the desert of Uzbekistan and a meeting with two musicians on an audacious and downright ludicrous journey, as they make an album while peddling across the globe…
Tim Stephens and Adam Faulkner are dusty and disheveled. Understandable, really, given that they’ve spent the past four days cycling through the desert in 45-degree heat. “We’re in Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s second-biggest city,” Adam tells me, from the marble interior of an expansive looking hotel lobby (gatecrashed for its wi-fi, I’m assured). “It feels a bit like a normal temperature again so I might put a jumper on,” he adds. It later transpires that it’s actually 37 degrees. I’m overheating just looking at them.
Long-time friends and musical collaborators Tim and Adam are on a journey like no other. Having left their snow blanketed homes in London earlier this year, samplers and synths stashed in their panniers, they are riding their humble bicycles over the next 12 months to Tokyo. Along the way they’ll chart their adventures in sound, making an album combining their experiences with their love of electronic music.
“We’re going to head across the border into Tajikistan, then into Kyrgyzstan and onto the Pamir Highway,” says Wirral-ex-pat Adam. “It’s one of the highest roads in the world that you can cycle and splits from the outside edge of Europe to Central Asia. Then we’ll be heading across to India. Once we’ve completed that we’ll be halfway through, which is a big deal, I guess.” A big deal indeed. I am fascinated to find out what drives two musicians from the relative comfort of the East London gig circuit, to cycling along Afghanistan’s northern border. It seems like an extreme search for a muse?
“We were both getting stuck in London,” says Tim, who with his auburn beard in full bloom looks every inch the intrepid explorer. “We’d lived there for 10 years doing that classic thing of trying to juggle full-time work with being in a band. As time went by, the band was just dying a death. More and more time was being taken up with work and it was all getting a bit serious. We both got to a point where we were looking for something different, looking to really get our teeth stuck into writing music but not being able to through the grind and the expense of London.”
“You feel like you’re on a treadmill” he continues. “It was ‘leave London and work on a band project’ or it was ‘do a big, serious amount of travelling’. We both always wanted to go to Japan and eventually just landed on the fact that we could probably do both. It was about ejecting from the lives that we had and really focusing on the music and travel. Adam sent me an article about two people who cycled across the world, and it just snowballed from there.”
True. But there’s a world of difference between a romantic idea and a practical reality? Surely this has all got a bit out of hand?!
“To be honest with you, we left my house in Hackney and were just thinking, ‘What the fuck are we doing here?’” admits Adam with wry laughter.
“The first day was by far and away the worst,” confirms Tim. “We bit off way more than we could chew. We were cycling for about 12 hours straight, all loaded with bags, and you just suddenly realise how difficult it is. But you learn, rein it in and slowly but surely you pick up the speed again.”
As a keen cyclist, I’m familiar with tales of physical endurance and ludicrous, two-wheeled adventures. I’ve enjoyed some mad-cap journeys myself (though nothing on the scale of the case in point). But, Adam and Tim have been driven to this place by the desire to create, to make music fuelled by experience and produce an album charting their adventure. Great records tell stories and if they can capture the scale and wonder of their ordeal, we should be in for a thrilling listening experience. I wonder how the record is gestating?
“When we first started out, we thought that we would be able to release music as we go and it’d be snapshots of the different locations,” says Tim. “What we found was that it’s very, very hard to get the music to a certain quality whilst you’re in between places and…”
“…in a desert!” Adam interjects.
“In a desert, yes, and on top of a mountain,” offers Tim. “There’s just no way of getting it up to studio quality. Actually, what’s happened is we’ve flipped it. We will have the rough sketch of the album by the end of the trip, all the parts collated. Then we’ll put it together over the course of a month when we get back.”
Spending time to digest and deconstruct their experiences, before shaping that into a record feels like a shrewd move from the pair. Especially given the nature of the experiences they are looking to make sense of within the album.
“We’d spent a long time in Istanbul, played a couple of sets then cycled back to Bulgaria to play at a festival then back to Istanbul again,” Adam says, without realising how exhausting that sounds. “So, we’d been in and around Istanbul for probably the best part of three weeks. A couple of days after we left Istanbul, heading east, we climbed up this mountain and when we were going down the other side we could hear somebody playing drums from this village.”
“You think you are imagining it, to be honest,” Tim adds.
Adam continues: “We carried on going down this mountain and, lo and behold, this guy was just sitting there with this drum kit playing. We instantly got all our kit out and we were playing with him for ages until everything ran out of battery.”
“His name was Berkei,” says Tim, “and he was going back to Istanbul the next day. We would have gone back with him but we’d been sucked into the place for three weeks and really needed to carry on. But we carried on chatting on WhatsApp and he was like, ‘I’ve got some friends who want to want play our music, just meet us in Trabzon in 10 days’ time.’ We were going that direction anyway, and thought it was worth a punt. When we got there it basically transpired that Berkei wanted to make a piece to apply to drum college in London and California and his friends ran a production company. They had a full production crew, we went into the mountains and set the instruments up and just played on the fly, making stuff up as we went. It was exactly what we wanted to do for the trip and almost like we’d pre-meditated it. It was crazy – so, so good. I think we did 1,000km in 10 days.”
“It felt a bit like a dream,” says Adam. “As soon as you get the instruments out and you start playing with people, despite the fact Berkei doesn’t speak English, there’s a connection. The freedom of that is actually really quite amazing, because it removes the idea of trying to write music for a purpose; trying to get it somewhere, trying to get it out, trying to get people to listen to it. Here there’s no agenda.”
“I never thought that the influence of what’s around you, the people around you, would bring out a certain sound,” continues Adam. “It’s changing what we used to do. We met a guy playing the tulum, which is this Turkish instrument that sounds like the bagpipes. Again, he didn’t speak English, but you don’t have to speak the same language to make music together. I think that’s quite amazing.”
“We were with a guy in Macedonia,” interjects Tim, full of excitement, “and he started playing this weird traditional scale. I listened back to it the other day and now we’re a bit further east and being in the desert it sits a lot better with where we are. I’m really excited about revisiting that.”
“We were in Nice playing with this drummer called Omar and I was just messing around with the OP-1 synth sampling the radio,” Tim continues. “I was flicking through the channels and this Jane Birkin song came on. Because of the way that the sample was chopped it sounds a bit like ‘Janis Joplin is a T-Rex’. That’s it, just like a sloppy old hip hop track that we liked. Omar plays drums and synth on the track.”
“Like Berkei and another musician that plays the flute who we spent a lot of time with in Italy, it was just one of those meetings that have kept us going, really,” says Adam. Tim and Adam both admit to having previously had little more than a loose interest in cycling and that this was galvanised over a recent three-day ride from London to Brussels (with plenty of brewery stops on the way). As well as a taste for trappist beer it also seeded an appreciation of the freedom cycling presents, as Tim explains. “Riding allows us to bypass using other forms of transport. As soon as you have to get a train, bus or a plane, it’s a real pain in the arse. It’s difficult compared to just being, you know, master of your own destiny.”
And this overrides any interest in the technical specifications of the machine itself. I’m reassured to learn that our intrepid audio explores are not bike-kit nerds, yet Adam’s admission that he’s “not a big cyclist” could be somewhat perplexing, given their current situation. He clarifies: “I don't know a lot about bikes, the ins and outs of them, the technical bits. I don’t actually find it that interesting. I just want to get on the bike and ride. I use the bike as the means of transport, but I’m not a cyclist, I’m a traveller. It’s funny really, because to everyone else who’s cycling we’re like them, but we’re looking for something else; for opportunities to either make music together or make music with other people.”
“I think the actual ins and outs of a bike are quite dull,” agrees Tim, “but it enables people to have the tenacity and strength to do these ridiculous journeys. I think there’s an inner strength that it takes rather than a physical strength. Just being able to be like, ‘OK, well this is it now, we’re going to cycle through the desert for a week and it’s going to be pretty bleak’, but when you do it you’re, like, ‘Yes, we did it!’”
The idea of an inner strength – and any notion of creativity – are aspects we need to uncover within ourselves. It is the sieve of experience which provides the catalyst and route map for discovering this inside each of us, charting a path of self-discovery.
“When you’ve got so many new things being thrown at you, the inspiration that you find is fantastic, isn’t it?” Tim questions. “Every day we feel like we’re discovering something new. We have a creative process, which is basically funnelling or channelling the things that we see or discover into music. It’s weird when the sound that is coming out actually feels like it’s representing the things that you’re discovering on the bike.”
“It is powerful,” Adam agrees. “We just wouldn’t have been able to do it without the bike. We were on the beach in Amasra and we just started playing music and the sun was going down and it was emotional. You’re like, ‘this fits this’. This is the 16th country that we’ve cycled through and we know that the more we go through it’ll be different again, more things to discover. But what you create musically and who you create it with changes as well. Every step is an opportunity to discover something new.”
Listen out for the first instalment of a regular Wax & Gears podcast, as Tim and Adam keep us abreast of their musical adventures from the road. Janis Jopin Is A T-Rex is available as a free download this month as part of our Bido Lito! Members Bundle.
WAX & GEARS IN SEFTON PARK
As we look to distil and celebrate the spirit of music and cycling, Bido Lito! team up with HSBC British Cycling to present Wax & Gears, an off-grid, cycle-powered stage at this year’s Let’s Ride Cycling Festival in Sefton Park on Sunday 23rd September.
With all the power for the stage provided by the spinning pedals of the public (no diesel generators here), we need plenty of music heads and cycling fiends alike to join us, jump on a bike and keep the turntables spinning. DJs from Bido Lito!, MELODIC DISTRACTION and DIG VINYL will lead us on a voyage of discovery through music’s deepest valleys and highest passes before audio-explorer-extraordinaire JACQUES MALCHANCE presents his hypnotic Synthwerks.
Wax & Gears is presented as part of HSBC British Cycling’s Let’s Ride – a street festival for anyone on a bike. With a route that circles Sefton Park and Princes Avenue all completely closed to traffic this is a festival encompassing cycling, music, fantastic food and drink, demos, giveaways and activities for everyone on two wheels. It’s free to take part and is a brilliant opportunity to see our city from a different vista. There’s no mountain highways to traverse here, just a family-friendly day out based around a five-kilometre loop, so it’s the perfect excuse to get back out on the bike. You can ride as much or as little as you like and you don’t need to be an experienced cyclist – there are no cars on the road so you can wobble, zig-zag and stop as much as you like. And Wax & Gears will be there to soundtrack your ride.
If you would like to take part in Wax & Gears, come and peddle with us in the Let’s Ride Festival Village, Sefton Park all day on 23rd September.