Musician Johnnyrandom Tells Us About Making Music With Bikes, and His Famous Doritos Crunch

When Johnnyrandom's debut single "Bespoken" hit iTunes in January, the music community collectively took notice. After all, it's not everyday a musician creates something so beautiful out of something so commonplace.

The artist, who studied at both CalArts and the Berklee College of Music, admitted this was just a dream when he started out — but he knew he might achieve it one day. "If I could have gone back and talked to myself then and tell me what I’m doing now, I think I may have believed myself," he says. "I always knew I wanted to do something different."

At the outset, Johnnyrandom wanted to be a film composer — and he still pays the bills with that kind of work. In fact, that's his day job, he explains. "My spare time is doing all this weird cool stuff."

Check out "Bespoken" below, and keep reading to find out exactly how he was able to make a bicycle sound like that.

Bustle: How did you get started with this kind of music?

Johnnyrandom: It probably started when I was a kid. I started composing when I was about 6 years old. I played a bunch of instruments, but I always wanted to harness the sound of different objects, but I never really knew of an efficient way of doing that.

I just get really inspired by finding sounds that no one has ever used and turning those into minor instruments.

You studied at two different music schools, did you always set out to create music like this?

Actually no, if I could have gone back and talked to myself then and tell me what I’m doing now, I think I may have believed myself. I always knew I wanted to do something different. I get bored too easily with a lot of things. I loved traditional instruments but I always want to hear something new. It’s always this struggle to hear different sounds, different timbres that can be utilized. I just get really inspired by finding sounds that no one has ever used and turning those into minor instruments.

What led you to working with a bicycle?

I started out on piano and branched out to a lot of different string instruments, but mostly percussion instruments. It’s probably up to about 40 instruments now. But with found objects the challenge is that instruments are designed by nature to be versatile and to sound really good. And that’s because they have a very organized overtone system. Because of overtones, you can play a note on a piano and it will sound good, but with found objects, it’s completely unpredictable. You never know what you’re going to get until you start recording it.

So how exactly did you make a bike sound this beautiful?

You never know what you’re going to get until you start recording it. When you pluck a spoke on a bike tire, those have really weird overtones because they’re all tuned to different pitches. One of the ways I got around that is that I would tune every spoke to the same note, that way there wasn’t any clash.

I would record every single way of recording those notes, and then I’d have to tune to the next pitch. It took a couple weeks probably just to record the spokes. There are tons of sounds you can get out of a bike, but at the end of the day there’s also a lot of weird, hokey sounds. Like going over a handle bar with a cork in one end kind of sounds like a pan flute, it ended up sounding very cheesy.

There were a lot of percussive sounds that I was using as well. I kind of went toward the ones that were more expressive and more beautiful sounding.

Outside of Bespoken, chances are people have heard your work before — like the crunch in the Doritos commercials.

Well, that crunch thing was sound design. I did that back in 2006, it's what they call audio branding or mnemonics, it’s a big part of the identity of that brand. That sound has been in every commercial and Super Bowl spot since 2006. It’s definitely the most heard thing that I’ve ever done and it’s just me eating! These are the most heard things in advertising and there’s a lot of thought that goes into that, you wouldn’t believe how many versions you come up with for it. For the crunch thing, you’d think it was pretty straight forward but there were probably 100 versions of that.

What other unusual tools have you worked with?

Right now I’m working on a full-length album using all of San Francisco. So there’s no limitations, it’s not a closed system like a bike. Yeah, it’s wide open right now. I’m not even done going through the stuff in my kitchen.

I’m hoping to make it beautiful so you don’t have to know that it’s all found objects.

There are lot of things around the city that I’m going to be recording as well. And that can pose a problem, the other day I was recording things on the BART and I was wondering if anyone might tackle me using puddy and sticking things to the side of the train. You know, security concerns, people might get freaked out by stuff like that.

Will you have another single come out before the album, or will it be a big release?

I was thinking of doing another single, but I was convinced otherwise by my wife. She was like, you should do a larger body of work and I was like, yeah you’re right. So I’ve been formulating that and it’s going to be kind of heady. I’m hoping to make it beautiful so you don’t have to know that it’s all found objects.

What are some of your favorite found objects to work with other thank bikes?

You know, I found this wine glass the other day that was amazing. It was a crystal wine glass, it’s enormous, and it has a beautiful shimmery tone. It’s just this one glass and I’m not playing it like you use your finger on the rim, I’m actually playing it with a violin bow — using different techniques to get a sustained tone out of it.

But there are a lot of really weird objects. I think one of the cool objects I’ve recorded is actually our garbage disposal. You would think it sounds awful, but it’s actually incredibly beautiful.

Photos: Johnnyrandom (4)

Written by Ashleigh Schmitz