This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of WIRED magazine. Be the first to read WIRED’s articles in print before they’re posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online.
There’s a touch of Wall·E’s bunker to Zibra frontman Sam Battle’s studio, a former classroom in an abandoned east London school. Obsolete machines line the walls: eviscerated Macs and Speak & Spells, which demonstrate an urge to tinker that began at the age of eight, with his mum’s broken iron (which he fixed), and culminated in the homemade modular synth that fills the corner opposite his bed.
“I can’t help but take things apart,” he says. Then he starts unscrewing the instrument’s components which, bolted together, occupy the footprint of an upright piano and produce a huge array of sounds. To build something this complex from off-the-rack parts should cost as much as a car. Battle estimates his at £600, courtesy of cheap Chinese parts and salvaged circuit boards. “I found a job lot in a skip,” he admits. Which is why each module is the same size, with the same distinctive inset corners.
Battle’s bespoke synth is testament to his nous with a soldering iron, which he honed by first deconstructing keyboards and then children’s toys, transforming them into 8-bit noisemakers that he could control with a Game Boy, circumventing the need for a band. But circuit bending is a niche scene so, after meeting fellow synth enthusiast Russ Harley in his previous squat, the pair recruited pal Ben Everest and formed Zibra.
The band blends electronic jams and earnest lyrics – showcased on the band’s self-titled debut album, out May 27 – and has already picked up buzz, including a spot on FIFA 16. But Battle is fighting more pragmatic issues; getting his delicate, increasingly complex machine ready to tour. “It’s really unpredictable,” he says, hammering at a repurposed organ keyboard that sporadically spits out bursts of white noise. “But that’s why a machine like this, that you’ve built yourself, is so much more fun.”