Saturday, 4 October 2014

My tribute to Robert 'Bo' Boehm

A tribute to my friend and collaborator Robert ‘Bo’ Boehm.

I am trying to finish a new album and for the first time in my recording career Bo won’t be around to offer comments, produce, or completely rebuild any of the tracks. It is a strange feeling.

For almost twenty years he was a friend and for fourteen or so he was a collaborator in various different capacities. And for thirteen of those years he was a very ill man. Some people are aware of the enormous body of work he did earlier in his career, producing some of this nation’s best indie rock bands. Some know about his psychedelic act Clowns Smiling Backwards. And some are aware of his dub influenced electronic music outings with WindUpToys. Less are aware of the recognition our collaborative work achieved overseas, especially in the US.

But more of that later.

I first came to know Bo when he was doing a lot of live band sound mixing at venues like the Punters Club and Empress Hotel. He was one of the few sound engineers who understood how to mix music that combined electronics with organic instrumentation. Most engineers would mix all the electronic beats much in the same way as a drumkit in a normal band. This always sounded weak. Bo understood that the electronic beats had to completely dominate with the organic elements mixed into them, rather than being more equal in a normal band mix. He took it further by tweaking the bass as much as the system would allow, making for a sound that was crushing – which was exactly what I wanted with Ragewar.

We toured interstate a lot and it was always frustrating to have to ‘educate’ a new engineer about how to do all the stuff Bo did so very well. As Ragewar lumbered on I became increasingly interested in electronic downtempo music, and after finishing a couple of demos with Josh Abrahams I was lucky enough to get signed, firstly to local label Angel’s Trumpet and then iconic UK label Matsuri Productions. A very intense period followed with constant live shows as ‘Psyburbia’, and plenty of compilation appearances. Around this time I began recording demos with Bo for a new album. And I gather he had begun his adventures with dub inspired experimental cut and paste approaches – the embryonic version of WindUpToys.

I am not sure of exact dates – it was all a bit of a blur, but sometime around the turn of the century we started working together more closely. At some point he suggested remixing one of my tracks, and the result was mind blowing. We generally worked on the basis that I would present him with a finished track, or something very close, and he would re work it. Sometimes the change was subtle – sometimes radical. 

In 2001 while I was in the studio with Bo he had his first heart attack. I’d been concerned about his health for some while and I know his girlfriend Kate had also been concerned and convinced him to make some changes. Bo’s fascination with sound took precedence over everything – even his own wellbeing. He was a vegetarian which was in keeping with his deep compassion, but his diet seemed pretty terrible, and when he was in recording mode he survived on sugar from what i could tell. He got very little exercise and almost no vitamin D – he usually stayed up almost all night. I had tried to gently influence him in terms of making a few changes and he had started taking regular walks during day time, and it seemed to be agreeing with him. But on one of these walks about a week before his heart attack he had a fall and injured his left shoulder quite badly. It had been giving him a lot of pain all week. So when the pain of the heart attack started he initially thought it was his shoulder. It soon became clear that it was more serious, and his housemate took him to seek medical attention, but I gather that entailed further delay. By the time properly qualified people got to him a considerable amount of damage had been done.

When he returned from hospital he seemed better than ever and determined to make the changes he needed to make. A very creative period followed and he worked with Jeremy Smith on the WindUpToys material. This resulted in a critically acclaimed album – ‘Double exposure’ – which was very successfully launched at Bar Open to a packed house. Seeing how happy he was at that point was incredibly gratifying.
Meanwhile we continued with our collaborations and decided that we would do at least one entire collaborative album. Subsequently he had another heart attack – once again whilst doing music – but this time when he re emerged from hospital it was clear that his health was now severely compromised. Around this time I had to take a bit of a step back from music both for career reasons and because of a record label that was stuffing me around. We did however collaborate on a number of tracks for my first release as ‘Sunsaria’ in 2010.

The ‘Australien’ became album of the month of August on ‘Musical Starstreams’ in the US – an electronic music radio show syndicated to over 200 commercial stations. Better still the album made it into the Top Twenty albums of the year in 2010 alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto, Kaya Project, Steve Roach and Blue Tech. A lot of this was due to the popularity of the track ‘Revolutionary’ which Bo and I collaborated on. This track was then used by a number of compilations such as RMG’s ‘Chill Out Vol 3’.

We were justifiably proud.

But in terms of our collaboration album things had slowed right down. Bo had completed a dizzying array of tracks, but he found deciding which ones to use, track listings and so forth very hard going. Music in general was a slog for him and emotionally fraught. It was tough to see his decline. There were times when I would catch up with him and be genuinely shocked by the changes. He went through a number of procedures that must have been horrifying, including one where they electronically reset the tempo of his heart. This then had a flow on effect with elevated anxiety. 

Despite all this we agreed that we had at least two complete albums. Right before he went into hospital for the last time I caught up with him and he was far more upbeat and had started working on music again. Despite his ongoing ill health it was almost a shock when he was admitted to hospital this last time. Seeing him in the ICU was heartbreaking. He wasn’t coherent and I didn’t expect to see him again. I sat there holding his hand because it seemed to comfort him and I didn’t know what else to do.  But then they moved him to cardiology and when I visited him there he seemed much better and was even making me laugh. It didn’t seem right – a man that ill making me laugh. But that was Bo. It seemed like he might hang on quite a bit longer, but it was not to be. A few days later he was dead.

Bo has left behind a huge body of work. His released work is the tip of the iceberg. He meticulously recorded and catalogued everything, and I do mean everything. He had kept every release we had ever worked on and every release variant. He had kept every mix he ever did – sometimes literally a dozen different versions of a tune.

I will aim to release two albums initially – ‘Swampland’ and ‘Darkness Descends’ – and will curate the rest as time permits. There is a huge amount to go through and digest. It is all of a high quality. Listening to it is hard going at times – music is an emotional thing and each track defines a moment in time and a neural pathway to some particular experience. 

The night after Bo died I woke up around 3AM and had the strongest impression of his presence. He seemed happy, almost relieved. I was reading that quantum physicists believe they have evidence that something of us continues after we die, and I like to think of Bo’s spirit floating through the ether, making fine adjustments to the sonic vibrations of Creation. 

He will be missed is the biggest understatement I can think of.

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