Gobsmacked Ball-Zee

UK beatboxer Ball-Zee provides the beats in "Gobsmacked," a tour stopping in Overture Center on Feb. 8.

Sometimes that early high school nickname really sticks.

Patrick Hirst, born in West Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, earned his professional nickname while a young teenager newly into beatboxing. He got his first break at age 14 at an outdoor event called “King of the Jam,” when he did his first competitive beatbox, a one-minute solo.

“I ended up winning this little competition,” said Hirst. “The guy presented me with a jar of Victoria plum jam and he said, ‘What’s your name?’

“I thought, I can’t be a beatboxer called Patrick.”

Hirst, 29, now performs as Ball-Zee, inspired by the fact that when he lets his hair grow it goes straight up and spiky, like the anime character in “Dragon Ball Z.” He plays a character called the engineer in “Gobsmacked,” an energetic contemporary a cappella show imported from the U.K. that plays Overture Hall on Thursday.

“A lot of people in the beatboxing community heard that I’d won, so I kind of got stuck with the name Ball-Zee,” he said. “I was given the name so quick, I sort of accepted it. And I really love it now.”

Ball-Zee spoke with The Capital Times from near Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where “Gobsmacked” was set to play one of 120 performances on its current U.S. tour. He talked about muscle memory, the value of practicing and what it’s like to play a character within a character.

As for the jam, “my mom had it on her toast the next day.”

The Capital Times: How does a person become a beatboxer? Were you a drummer as a kid? When did you first become interested in complex rhythms?

Ball-Zee: Complex rhythm came later, but the art form of making silly noises definitely came first.

I was always one of those kids who could replicate the sounds I would hear. For instance, making gun sounds like every kid but actually trying to make them really good, realistic, to go with the toy guns.

When I was 14 years old I started replicating drum sounds with my mouth but really poorly. I didn’t actually know there was a thing called beatboxer at the time, the only thing close I’d heard was Michael Winslow, who was “Motor Mouth” Jones in the “Police Academy” movies.

I have an older brother who is an inspiration to me in everything, but especially music. He came home from work with a CD, like “oh my god you need to listen to this.” It was a CD of a guy called Killa Kella, who was one of the best beatboxers in the world, a true pioneer of the art form.

That blew my mind. I went online and typed in beatbox battles, beatbox community. I found there was a huge worldwide community, international competitions, massive online forums and communities.

When I uncovered all that, I thought, “This is what I want to do.” I want to be one of the best in the world at this thing.

How do beatboxers keep their voices in shape?

Whenever anybody asks me how to become a good beatboxer, I say it’s important to beatbox with other musicians — if you have friends who play the guitar and bass, it helps your musicality and timing and your instincts with the music, to practice with other people.

For singers, the voice box is the tool. With my art form, I could lose my voice and still do the show. A lot of my sounds are muscle based. (Demonstrates a beat) None of that is voice — I could literally have no voice and not be able to talk to you but still be able to do that because it’s lips and it’s tongue. It never incorporates “ahh.”

My warm-up is completely different. One of the main things is trying to stay healthy. If you have a cold or flu, then it hurts. It’s such a muscular thing, muscle memory. If you have swollen glands ... a toothache is the worst thing for a beatboxer.

Does your face hurt after you’ve been practicing for awhile?

It’s the exact same as any other muscle in the body. If you’ve never been to the gym before but you start bicep curling a heavy weight, you’d have to put it down to rest before you could do it some more.

As you practice, you’re growing the muscles in that part of the mouth. A lot of what I talk about in the workshops is just to give people confidence and inspiration, to let people know how accessible this art form is to everybody.

People hear me do it and say, “That’s crazy, that’s inhuman.” But it’s literally just practicing. I make lots of my sounds on the right side of my mouth. If I tried to do the same on the left side, it would sound sloppy and not clean and almost comical.

I say in the workshops, I’m this champion beatboxer but I’m trying to do these sounds on the wrong side and I can’t do them. Both the sides of your mouth are like my left side. If you practice your mouth will retain the muscle memory and get stronger. You’ll be surprised in 12 months how you can improve.

Beatboxing is a completely blank canvas. You can do sound effects or get really good at drums, or work on bass sound. You can work on groove and be a jazz beat boxer. There’s so many different things. It’s amazing.

“Gobsmacked” has characters, and kind of mashes up musical theater and an a cappella concert. What are the most challenging elements for you? In a lot of traditional a cappella, they don’t call a beatboxer a beatboxer, they call it vocal percussion. When I spoke with (producer and “Gobsmacked” creator) Nic (Doodson) in the early planning of this show, I said I’ll do at as long as I can work with the musical arranger. He beatboxes a little himself, he’s watched beatboxing his whole life and he knew certain sounds I specialized in, not just kick snare and high hat.

That keeps it fresh for me, and it makes a better show in general to do vocal acrobatics not done before or not used together before.

In the show I don’t want to get rid of my Ball-Zee personality completely. But I also have to work in the narrative of my new character, an engineer, puppeteer guy. It makes it easier because everyone else in the show has specific characters whereas I’m the engineer, which gives a free will to roam around. I’m in charge, so I can freestyle and do what I want and play off the audience, which is very important. It keeps the show fresh. 

Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.