At Home With the Groovebox

Air, Beck, Sonic Youth Get Into The Groovebox

Experimental album pairs big names with little sequencer.

It's a conceptual music project that would've made late pop-art icon Andy Warhol proud: Send a weird-looking sequencer to Beck, Cibo Matto and other musicians, ask them to write a song using it and little else, and collect the results on an album.

At Home With the Groovebox, due April 4, features an all-star cast of musicians creating new songs on the compact, programmable Roland Groovebox, which can reproduce sounds from such classic Roland instruments as the 808 drum machine and the 303 bass machine. The experiment yielded 14 strange and unexpected tunes from such musicians as rockers Sonic Youth and Sean Lennon and electronic-music pioneers Dick Hyman and Gershon Kingsley.

"The Groovebox is a little toy, so we wanted to do something not serious with it," Nicolas Godin, half of the multi-instrumental French duo Air, said of "Planet Vega," the track he and partner Jean Benoit Dunckel created with the device.

"But I think the song is quite good. It was not a problem for us; we knew that we [could] make that [kind of a] toy song. We like to have fun with instruments"

The artists were allowed to add vocals to the eight-track mix that the Groovebox allows, although most went the instrumental route.

Among those adding vocals were Beck, on his electro-funk tune "Boyz"; Japanese duo Cibo Matto, on the bouncy pop number "We Love Our Lawyers"; Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus, who busted an unlikely rap on "Robyn Turns 26"; and Palace leader Bonnie "Prince" Billy, on the downbeat ballad "Today I Started Celebrating Again."

How The Project Began

The project's originator, Bill Mooney, said he first learned about the Roland MC-505 three years ago in a British DJ magazine. Mooney, 32, owns the Raleigh, N.C., rock merchandising company Tannis Root, whose clients include Beck, Sonic Youth and Pavement.

"It interested me because it had a lot of collectible equipment on it," he said, "like the 303 bass machine and the 808 and 909 drum machines that are early hip-hop staples, [and] that sold for a lot more separately."

Air's Godin, 30, said "Planet Vega" is a parody of the music of French composer Francis Lai ("Love Story"). Since all the participants were allowed to keep their $800 Grooveboxes, the acclaimed duo - who recently recorded the score to Sofia Coppola's film "The Virgin Suicides" - have made good use of the synthesizer in their live show and on their upcoming album, Godin said. Mooney said he originally planned to send the machines out on the road with artists one at a time, collecting their songs after the tour was over. He changed his approach, though, when funk-obsessed folkie Beck held on to the Groovebox for six months.

Fearing the workload of getting clearances from all the artists, as well as the cost of buying a dozen Grooveboxes, Tannis Root hooked up with the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label to compile a list of artists for the project, Mooney said.

An Open Approach

"We had a letter which explained that we wanted the artists to approach the Groovebox with an experimental mindset," Mooney said. "We told them they could use samplers, external effects and vocals, but that they should try to avoid the use of outside instruments."

Mooney said he wanted the project not only to produce interesting music, but also to explore the dynamics of a band crowding around a small box with a single, small LED readout window and fashioning a song.

In Pavement's case, it didn't happen; bandleader Malkmus did the track on his own. Sonic Youth, however, managed to collaborate around the briefcase-sized device to produce an abstract, ambient piece with crackling sounds befitting its title, "Campfire."

Moog Pioneers

The album features songs from three pioneers of the Moog synthesizer - Dick Hyman, Gershon Kingsley (who did a new version of his composition "Popcorn," the 1972 synth-pop hit); and Kingsley's collaborator on the landmark 1966 electronic-pop album The In Sound From Way Out!, Jean Jacques Perrey. Mooney said a streaming RealAudio track from the album will be posted on the Grand Royal Web site ( every week until its release, although no start date for the posts has been announced. At least one of the album's tracks will be offered as an MP3 file, Mooney said.

The full track listing for At Home With the Groovebox:

Jean Jacques Perrey, "The Groovy Leprechauns";
Buffalo Daughter, "303 606 = ACID";
John McEntire, "J.I.H.A.D.";
Air, "Planet Vega";
Pavement, "Robyn Turns26";
Money Mark, "Insects Are All Around Us";
Beck, "Boyz";
Sean Lennon, "Winged Elephants";
Gershon Kingsley, "Popcorn";
Sonic Youth, "Campfire";
Bis, "Oh My";
Cibo Matto, "We Love Our Lawyers";
Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "Today I Started Celebrating Again"
Dick Hyman, "Glass Slipper."