I Speak Machine is the duo of musician Tara Busch and filmmaker Maf Lewis. Combining their crafts, they create haunting short films with equally mesmerizing soundtracks, designed to work in perfect symbiosis. We caught up with the duo following their performance at music, art, and tech festival Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina, to talk about their collaboration process, their live setup, and the transition from day job to passion job.
The Collaborative Process
Tara and Maf communicate through an invisible third eye. I Speak Machine has been together since 2013, but the two have known each other through various creative endeavors for much longer — 15 years, actually. “We had been doing the more traditional thing where you make an album, put it out, tour, make an album, put it out, tour. We wanted to do something more multi-media,” says Tara. “But not traditional multi-media,” says Maf, completing the sentence.
The project’s origins came together over time but its roots can be traced to the 1956 Albert Lamorisse classic short “The Red Balloon.” “It has a score on it, but we thought we’d have a go at re-scoring that,” says Maf. “The score is cool, but it’s a little bit deliberate. When someone’s climbing up the stairs, it’s like ‘diddly diddly dip’ [singing ascending major scale], and when someone’s going down the stairs, it’s the opposite. It’s quite beautiful and quaint. But we looked at that and thought, ‘Wow, that score really needs updating. There needs to be more drama.'” Tara took a shot at it, and they toured with the result, had some fun with the new idea, and decided to take it further.
“We’d seen a lot of other people do scoring before,” says Maf. “I like that, but I’ve seen it so many times. We just thought, ‘Do we want to be another band that’s going to do the same thing?’ I also didn’t want to do visuals behind the music. There are some amazing people doing visuals behind electronic acts. It’s fantastic, but I just don’t think we had anything to add to that. We would have come in late to that scene and not added much to the art form.”
“I know there are a lot of bands that do live scores to films,” Tara adds. “I’ve done some of that; it’s really fun and cool, but we wanted to do our own films. It gave us the spark to want to do it completely on our own. We just had some ideas and stories we wanted to tell our own way.”
The artistic process the duo developed from there is a give and take, from conception to ideation, between which media is doing the inspiring. The basic concept comes first — a sentence or paragraph. “For example, our film ‘The Silence’ had a one-line description in the beginning: A guy just wants to be left alone. How does he get to that point where he’s alone? And when he is finally alone in the world, what’s the problem with that?” says Maf. “Then we write a story, and while we’re writing the story, Tara will come up with some music and sounds.”
“I write ideas on set,” continues Tara. “That way, there’s a little push/pull between which source is doing the inspiring and leading the race. We switch off.” Sometimes the music is the influencer of a mood or scene and Maf will rewrite the scene to work better with it. “It seems like this would be really time-consuming, but it’s actually been really easy. Having the back and forth really propels us forward, and it’s been an interesting way to work. So far, it’s been pretty lucky that it’s been pretty much the first idea that we’ve hitched onto.” So far, I Speak Machine have produced three short films: “1985 Zombies,” “The Silence,” and “Gagglebox.” A full length feature, Strata, is currently in the works.
For I Speak Machine, the live performance itself has a lot of moving parts, including the film, audio coming from the film with dialogue and ambient noise, and Tara’s massive live setup. As much as it’s a collaborative process leading up to the performance, when the lights go down, Tara is alone on stage with her gear, steering her craft through a strange, spooky landscape that only she understands. “I practice these things so much that I’ve got it memorized. It’s crazy,” she says. “A lot of the sound comes from sample triggering in Ableton; there’s a backing track; I play a lot of synth bass; do a bunch of weird sound-design stuff on the Moog — I have a Moog Cluster Flux, a ring modulator, and a delay. My vocal goes through the ring mod, delay, a vocoder, and reverb which provides a lot of fun mangling with the voice. I use a Moog voyager that goes through the Cluster Flux which gives it a lovely crazy, bendy, warpy sound. It’s a nice marriage of analog and digital. Of course, Ableton is incredibly useful, I like having a computer up there.
“The actual setup is not terribly complicated,” she continues. “The complexity comes into play during performance, but again, it’s just lots of repetition, lots of practice. I’m definitely not a great keyboard or guitar player. My voice is my instrument, so I have to really practice to be able to play bass and sing and feel good doing it in front of people. I have to manage my nerves, make everything else work, feel natural, and ultimately give a good performance. Getting it in your blood takes a lot of time and patience. Only recently have I felt like I should be up there doing what I’m doing, like I have a right to be up there and am presenting the best version of what I can do.”
The Moog Cluster Flux
Meanwhile, the live aspect is carefully considered in the way the visuals play out. “The film is designed so that emphasis goes between the film and the performance,” explains Maf. “These films are not the edits I’d want you to see online, because there would be too much space — scenes would go on too long, and there would be places you’d probably lose a bit of interest. That’s specifically designed in there so the music and performance takes over. There’s a point where the viewer says, ‘I’ve seen enough of this scene here, and I want to watch the performance,’ because now the brain is telling you that the performance is more important. Then, suddenly, something will happen and it’s back to the film. Hopefully you forget there’s a performer there. It’s a very difficult thing to accomplish. And it’s always been very difficult for me to watch my own films. I like to watch the audience watching the film. It’s fun to see, at the right moment, the heads go between the performance and film.”
From Day Job to Passion Project
As well as creating multimedia art, I Speak Machine also know very well what it’s like to have a 9-to-5. “I worked for a company called Flying Monkeys in Los Angeles for quite some time with a couple of great people,” remembers Maf. “We worked on movies, ad campaigns, and a bunch of other stuff. I get the whole day-job thing — we still do a lot of that. It was difficult, very difficult. If I had a 9-to-5 job and then worked on films on the weekend, sometimes I couldn’t do it, I found it so difficult. So I would try to take big chunks of time out to write or film, and that was the best way for me. We are very, very lucky that we can do that to some extent.”
“It’s like literally switching compartments in your brain,” adds Tara, confirming the importance of being able to work when the inspiration strikes. “I’m constantly recording and sampling stuff. There’s never really a good time to go sit and write something. It doesn’t happen that way. You have to be open whenever it comes.”
“If you’re earning a living out of photography, film, music, any of those combinations, you need a freakin’ gold medal and giant pile of cash,” concludes Maf. “That’s amazing. You make no money as an artist. Even at fairly high levels, you make nothing. Everyone sees the few hundred people on Earth who make hundreds of millions in the arts, but there are so few of those. The number of people actually doing stuff, losing money, and doing it for the love far outweighs the money-makers. I take my hat off to anyone who’s doing any creative stuff and living on it!”