Founder Rick Walker on what makes the inventive Y2K-X Live Looping Music Festival a global hit. And why it will be his last.
Rick Walker can’t sit still. Sporting a black Nine Inch Nails T-shirt and sipping his preferred drink of choice, a cosmopolitan, the local drummer tells an endless supply of stories with animated hand gestures and impassioned sound effects. To illustrate his points, he spontaneously acts out air drums, air guitar, air maracas, air sitar, air (insert remote African instrument you’ve likely never heard of before).
When he goes over his 40-year music career, it’s like he’s reliving the excitement of each chapter; there’s the time in college at UC Santa Cruz in the early ’70s when he witnessed a Central African pop band and it made him discard his rock records for world music and, he says, “changed my life;” and then the time decades later when hearing Aphex Twin jolted him further into electronic-infused music and, again, he says, “changed my life.”
It’s no wonder the 57-year-old drummer has a healthy cache of anecdotes to let loose. He was a mainstay in the World Beat movement and also pummeled the drumkit for Santa Cruz staples Tao Chemical, Worlds Collide, and Rhythmical (among others), during the ’80s and ’90s. He’s a local music teacher, performer, festival producer and promoter, and his enthusiasm is as big as his hits on the skins. As a local bassist/keyboardist recently told me, “If you’re a musician from Santa Cruz, you know who Rick Walker is.”
But musicians far from Santa Cruz also know the guy. For many of the million users on the mecca website Looper’s Delight (Loopers-delight.com), Walker is the devout mad scientist behind the annual Y2K Live Looping Music Festival series (Y2kloopfest.com)—an underground phenomenon that juxtaposes a wide breadth of organic musical talent with the utmost in technology. It’s a grassroots, high-tech musical onslaught that’s brewing this week in Downtown Santa Cruz. The festival is running Thursday, Oct. 14 through Sunday, Oct. 17, with the majority of the performances at Pearl Alley Studios.
In its 10th installation, and thus known this year as the Y2K-X Live Looping Music Festival, it’s an international convergence of many who’s who in the cutting-edge world of looping. And it’s come a long way since Walker first spawned a looping festival solely for bassists at the Rio Theatre, and then put on the initial “Santa Cruz Live Looping Festival in 2001.”
This week, more than 70 musicians will clone themselves onstage by recording snippets of their instruments with digital devices that will then loop (repeat) the sound so that they can play over the part to make a layered song. The result is a multi-tasking orchestration of sounds manned by one performer at a time. There will be instances when an artist will perform the simplest of instruments while prodding the most complex of buttons and pedals.
Let’s put it this way: looping gives musicians the freedom to, well, play with themselves.
While there’s been looping since before the dawn of hip-hop, with samplers and machines that can trigger a patch of sound to repeat, Walker’s fest focuses on ‘live looping,’ during which the performer is playing an instrument or working with a vocal part created in that moment. The music certainly pops, but it’s not about pop hooks; it’s all about intricate improv.
Live looping isn’t limited to guitarists or traditional instruments: solo tuba players, a cappella singers, musical comedians, even circuit-bending abstract artists have all performed alongside jazz, rock and world music aficionados during the Y2K Festival’s decade-long history. Frisbees, spoons, and brass candy dishes can be tapped for their musical abilities. Quirky? At times, yes. Not to be taken seriously? Think again. With at least 17 countries represented this year, including Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Croatia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, England, Germany, Italy, Brazil, and Canada, musicians are flying in from around the globe on their own dime to partake in the annual live looping extravaganza. Each act has a half-hour set during non-stop, all-day lineups on two stages.
This week’s Y2K-X will be the last festival with Walker at the helm of his brainchild as he moves forward to focus on other projects. With a staff of 10 volunteers, including his brother Bill Walker whom he credits as being “a world-class guitar player who could headline the festival every year because he’s so talented,” Walker has put together the festival as a tiring labor of love. It’s given him more than a few memorable moments. In 2008, Santa Cruz Mayor Emily Reilly presented Walker and the festival headliners with keys to the city. “I just lost it and broke down crying,” Walker recalls of the occasion. “Probably part of it was I was just so exhausted because doing this festival is such a marathon (I MC for 36 hours on the weekend). But it also just really touched my heart.”
Walker’s life, like his looping festival, has encompassed a rainbow’s array of music, people and places. Splitting his early years between Texas and Tripoli, Libya, he then spent his formative years in San Jose before planting himself in Santa Cruz at the age of 17. He calls himself an “OCD compulsive kinda guy” because when he discovers something new that moves him—a technique of drumming, a genre of music, an electronic device—he dives right in with complete abandon until he pretty much masters it.
As an inventive found-sound looping artist in addition to drummer, Walker can mine musical potential in the oddest of places. “The staff at Camouflage sees me coming from a mile away because I come for batteries and day-glo dildos that vibrate to make bitchin’ music when I loop it,” he laughs. And then there’s the teeny bopper stores, where he has to explain to people working the counter at Claire’s Accessories in the Capitola Mall that he’s “an avant-garde electro artist, I’m not a pervert,” when he buys plastic day-glo combs and bracelets—meant for young girls—to turn them into instruments. The bracelets make sweet-sounding shakers, he says.
Surprisingly, despite a cornucopia of music expertise and savvy high-tech knowledge (his living room walls and floor are covered with instruments from around the world, and he’s working on a new looping invention) one of his current projects putting together a solo singer/songwriter album is the most daunting. He admits, “Singer/songwriter stuff scares the shit out of me.” He’s loving Sufjan Stevens right now and is inspired at the moment by the album Illinoise. He feverishly recommends reading the autobiography of Bill Graham. (He makes every recommendation feverishly.) He’s a self-described hippie who adheres to the thinking “Let your freak flag fly,” and changes up the color of his hair with nearly each gig he plays.
Walker says he’s part of a generation “that believes you have to push boundaries and pass on knowledge” to create revolutions. “People forget that Elvis Presley scared the shit out of parents,” he begins. “There’s always been to me this kind of scary aspect to new music. It’s new, it challenges you, it threatens you, but it also makes you think and grow. I love the revolutionary aspect of rock ’n’ roll.”
Having made artists think and grow with the Y2K Live Looping Music Festivals for the past decade, Walker is happy to explain how it has made his world (and can make your world) go ’round … and ’round … and ’round.
GT: Why did you first start putting on looping festivals?
RICK WALKER: I started doing little looping festivals for only one reason: I was so in love with this new mode of communicating and of making music, and it so changed my life. I was a drummer, and to be able to loop some kind of rhythmic thing freed me to go and use my mouth to create other things, or found instruments, or bass, or keyboards. Now I play about a dozen instruments—flutes, brass instruments, string instruments, bowed instruments—specifically because looping freed me to be able to do it. I can’t go out in a [regular] gig and play all those instruments, but I can go do a looping gig with them—and fake people into thinking I know how to play them. (Laughs)
Technology changes so rapidly. How does that affect the festival?
We have technology premieres and software premieres every year. The very existence of this community has lit a fire under people designing things. The cool thing is that the people who invent the stuff come and many even play as artists. You don’t have many musical communities in the world where the designers and the artists are the same people.
Why are you adamant about inviting beginners to play the festival alongside professionals?
There can be a world-class guitar player with tremendous technique, and then you can have some people who don’t have a lot of facility—you’ll even have people who play found objects who don’t have a lot of technique on their instrument, but they’re extremely creative. You look at really intricate textile weaving, or finger painting, or oil painters, and everyone’s using these different mediums to create visual art. You can have a masterpiece in any medium, and that’s how I think of this. … It’s interesting in this culture because we have a really competitive music industry and people have a strong tendency to be judgmental about people’s skill levels, and sometimes I think we forget that creativity is something that any human being can do on any level. One of the things that separates this environment [at Y2K-X] from a lot of other musical communities, is that when the newbies that are the most inexperienced play, the top loopers in the world are in the room cheering them on.
Why did you decide that this year’s festival is your last?
Three years ago it took me six months of hard work to do it, last year it took me seven and a half months, and this year it took me 12 months. For the last two years when I was tearing my hair out and having no social life and not putting out records—which I really want to do, I threatened that it would be the last year for the last two years. I have people telling me, “Oh yeah, well you threatened before, but you’ll do it next year.” But I just realized that 10 was kind of a magical number. I wanted to get to 10 and I want it to be fucking big. So I went nuts trying to make it work.
What’s the first thing you’ll do when the festival ends?
Tuesday we’ll send a whole flotilla of cars from Santa Cruz to SFO and we’ll drop off all the performers. And every year I take a week off at the end of the festival. I will probably drool for a week. I’m just spent. I’m the MC and I perform, and I’m the head honcho in charge of the schedule and the venue. We’re putting 15 people into my house and Bill’s house. Every floor space is going to have people sleeping on it. We’re going out to buy a ton of blow-up mattresses and sleeping bags. My wife and I cry every year on Tuesday night. We just hug each other and cry because it feels so empty when everyone’s gone. Some of my best friends in my whole life have been people who put me up in Italy or Finland, and now all these wonderful people are coming this year because they know it’s the last.
Y2K-X Live Looping Music Festival
Headliners at 2010’s Y2K-X Live Looping Music Festival in Santa Cruz are Andreas Willers (Germany), David Cooper Orton (England), Randolf Arriola (Singapore), and Amy X Neuburg (USA). The “Headliners Concert” is at 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16. Local performers throughout the festival include Gary Hull, Steve Uccello, John Connell, Glenn Smith, Gary Regina, Bill Walker, Chris Cohn, Jack Schultz, Bob Beede, Soren Wagner, Tim Thompson (inventor of the first live visual looping camera), Bob Amstadt (inventor of the LP-1 and LP-2 audio loopers) and, of course, Rick Walker. The Y2K-X Live Looping Music Festival concerts are Thursday, Oct. 14 through Sunday, Oct. 17. Thursday venue TBA. Friday through Sunday performances will be at Pearl Alley Studios, 120 Pearl Alley, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10. For more information, go to Y2kloopfest.com.