It's been seven months since Kris Halpin and I had a chat about his gloves. Boy, have things ever moved on.
There's been a quite a burst of publicity lately about Mimu gloves. They're one of Imogen Heap's latest projects: hugely dramatic sci-fi things. Wave your hand - cymbals crash! Point - a horn section blasts out. Waggle your wrist - strings and keyboards obey, playing the melody you map out live... by waggling your fingers. It's thrilling.
Heap is front and central in a range of tech-creative initiatives: you can catch videos of her gloved up to the max. She's very open source, collaborating globally.
In Tamworth, musician and songwriter Kris Halpin is pushing glove tech to new heights, writing new software when needed, forging new configurations. It's quite something for Kris to be one of the first 15 selected to test the gloves, a serious feather in his cap. But the MiMu folk weren't quite expecting that with Kris. He got the gloves for a very specific reason.
So it's time to see what's what Kris has been up to. This time, I'm recording.
Kris's studio is a small stuffy room, lined with sound proofing foam squares, and rammed with kit on all sides. It's getting hot: there's four of us – me Kris, Lee who is filming the session separately, and another Robin, here to watch, who works for the MiMu people.
We're taking breaks to run the aircon. We're using two recorders, one for the interview, and one taking sound output from the desk. The desk itself is taking a feed from an ancient Apple Macbook, processing signals sent to it by wi-fi from the gloves. When we talk, Kris sits down facing me; when it's time to do a song, he's up on his feet.
In the not too distant future, you'll be able to hear a full one-hour documentary with Kris and the gloves. Right now, that work is in edit phase. But the beauty of a blog is that it lets you publish a taste really quickly.
Kris is a disability rights campaigner as well as a musician. He is disabled, and his condition is getting worse. It got to the point where he had to face dropping a song from his live repertoire as he not longer had the fine fingering control he needed for this song.
Kris: "That was the defining moment, that moment when I thought I had to stop, when I had to take Ratted Me Out out of my live set. I'm not unusual in that though. People stop for all sorts of reasons, they have to face that moment...
"....but I knew people at Drake Music – a charity set up to enable disabled musicians. A lot of that is through technology."You knew of them how?
"Twitter! I was feeling quite frustrated that I was a musician with a disability. I hadn't spoken to any musicians with disabilities... it was just a case of firing out: was anyone listening?' And that's how I discovered the charity. Met with them a couple times. It was really inspiring, really exciting.... but we hadn't found an opportunity to get on board and do something. That went on for two years. We kicked ideas back and forth – maybe we could so something with loopers, put them on my arms, that sort of crazy stuff.
And around this time they were also talking to Imogen and her team to see if they could do something with disabled people, round about the time they were looking for their fifteen collaborators. They were thinking gestural music making..."And so you popped up in the conversation?
"...and the penny dropped: Mimu gloves were, in fact, accessible technology like nothing else. Normally, instruments for people with disabilities are quite simple. But the gloves? It's a whole other world. And when we were having our chats, they said 'You Know what? You should have the gloves!'"
Kris cut a single last year; he crowd-sourced backing vocals on Facebook. I joined in, croaking the chorus line twice into my portable and emailing him the file. It took me three minutes tops. I love that kind of tech ease. But the song he cut, as Winter of 82, had a serious point.
"It was election day – we'd all been out to vote. And there was a wave of expectation that things were going to change. For me, this was focussed on what the Conservative Government was going to do to disabled people. And then the exit polls came in. And it was really, really scary. For somebody living with a disability, it's a very scary time. I'm going to call them attacks on the welfare state: the idea that disabled people are scroungers, and that you need to remove support as the best incentive."
"So that was the kind of stuff that was racing through my mind as I saw those exit polls. I'm a songwriter. The only way I can make sense of this is to get it down. So I wrote those lyrics that night, and then woke up the next morning to find the biggest fear of the last five years was confirmed. There's a lot of campaigning going on now, and I guess that song was my contribution."It's a bitter bitter song.
"I get no joy from performing it. It's serious."The dark side of what's really been a fantastically optimistic period for you, Kris.
"I know. Most of what's happening is so fantastic! But what's happening with my career, as it's progressing is that we're having a conversation about disability, about art and disability. I'm not the first disabled performer, obviously. But we don't see many people with disabilities in the music industry. That's where it's got momentum. People know about the gloves, how I've got a handle on it. There's a double-edged sword of controversy about that song. Perhaps it's an inconvenient truth for some people. But that's how it is."
Do people come up to you and say 'Oh, you poor thing', now that your disability is more widely known?
"No. Quite the opposite. I don't get any of that any more. It feels like I'm much more respected, none of that 'it's kind of a shame for him' thing. More like 'Oh wow! Cool! Look at what he's doing!' Hugely positive!"
Kris is touring in January with a full live show – entirely with the gloves. That's happening for Independent Venue Week. He'll be all over the place. Watch for the dates: they're not fixed yet. I'll be sure to flag the local ones up on the gig ticker at the top of this blog page.
The full audio version of Kris Halpin - In The Studio will air on Brum Radio this Autumn. I'll post a link when it's up.