Listening to the eponymous debut album from French DJ group Birdy Nam Nam, you would have no idea it was recorded by four turntablists with vinyl as the only sound source — that is, if you hadn't just read it here. From the opening sound collage — including Peter Sellers' quote from the 1968 movie The Party that became the band's name — to the rare flourish of scratch wizardry that closes the album, Birdy Nam Nam (Uncivilized World, 2006) covers a wide spectrum of head-nodding styles such as the jazzy swing of “Kind of Laid Back” and secret-agent breaks, anthemic marches, ethnic-tinged grooves and bust-your-head-open synth-hop slow bangers. What ties it all together is the feeling that it's more likely an instrumental opus from a sample master such as Pete Rock or DJ Spinna than a record put together by a group of highly decorated battle DJs.
After successful runs as solo competitors, DJ Need (Denis Lebouvier), DJ Pone (Thomas Parnet), Crazy B (Nicolas Vadon) and Little Mike (Mickael Dalmoro) formed Birdy Nam Nam in 2002 and promptly won a DMC world team championship. Leaving the competition behind, the foursome dedicated itself to creating an all-turntable album that would stand on its own as fully realized music, beyond the flashy skill displays that have dominated DJ crew records. In the journey, Birdy Nam Nam also took the concept of a DJ group performance to a new level.
“The goal of the album was that everything had to be done with turntables,” says DJ Need. Other than some experience Crazy B had with samplers, Birdy Nam Nam's members had no production experience and taught themselves to use Digidesign Pro Tools LE with a Digi 001 interface to record tracks into an Apple Mac G4. Most of the sounds came from their LP collections, and they often began songs by performing beats from single drum hits or recording longer patterns as loops.
From there, each DJ searched for complementary bass, synth, string, piano, brass, guitar and other sounds to perform and layer over the foundation. With no budget for sample clearance, samples were often kept to single notes and pitched, scratched and rearranged meticulously to create the illusion of entirely new songs performed by instrumentalists. “We aren't musicians,” Need says, “so everything was done by ear. We knew everything was pretty on point; there was no wrong pitch or wrong notes.”
Extra source material came from friends playing Rhodes piano, Roland Juno synths, accordion and guitar. But even those recordings were pressed to vinyl so the DJs could play the sounds in their own style. While some tracks came together in a single (albeit long) night, others lingered for six months before completion.
A long period of record-deal hunting followed the album's completion in February 2004, and in the meantime, Birdy Nam Nam set out to perfect its live set. In order to perform the songs, which generally took 15 or more tracks in Pro Tools, the group pressed a special set of vinyl records that culled the many samples that each DJ would need for each song in order. The DJs perform the most exciting parts live, while other key rhythmic tracks and loops play from either a CD or Boss RC-20 Loop Station pedals.
The group also performs with Numark TTX turntables and Numark DX-series mixers. Because of the precision required for playing sounds at the right pitch, Need says they need turntables with motors that reach full speed almost immediately. “The engine on the Technics [1200s] does not have enough torque,” he says.
While Birdy Nam Nam makes for chill listening on almost any occasion, watching the group perform shows its real achievement as a band. A bonus DVD that comes with the album proves that it's the interplay between the members — not the prodigious skills of each DJ (which they certainly possess) — that makes for a great show. For example, “Too Much Skunk Tonight” contains a synth breakdown that could have been recorded at Orbital's old MIDI studio, but seeing Birdy Nam Nam handle each note individually on four turntables is stunning.
In the future, Birdy Nam Nam plans to drop the vinyl-only doctrine and collaborate more with musicians. The group has already expanded its horizons, creating six to seven minutes of music for last year's movie The Transporter 2. “It was not a good movie, but it was a good experience,” Need says. Currently, the band is working on a somewhat secretive live-theater project in France, wherein Birdy Nam Nam will perform new music with a live orchestra. The group's traditional live sets can extend to as long as three hours and are being scheduled throughout 2006. Catch one before that bird has flown.