Ben Mirin is the world’s only (at least, that we know of) wildlife DJ. Known by the name DJ Ecotone, he’s been lucky enough to combine his lifetime love of beatboxing and bird noises, but his main goal has always been to educate people about the larger world around them. Between his National Geographic show Wild Beats, his residency at the Bronx Zoo and his many expeditions,saying Ben has been incredibly busy in the last year and a half is an understatement. I called him while he was in the middle of preparing for an upcoming trip to Madagascar, and we talked about lemurs, New York’s vibrant beatboxing scene, and what exactly gave him the idea to combine two wildly different interests anyway.
You can see DJ Ecotone perform and talk about being a National Geographic explorer on September 9 at our very own Freaks and Greeks Nat Geo After Hours.
How did you get started at Nat Geo?
I started at National Geographic as the creator and host of a kids show, called Wild Beats. I met a couple of producers who saw the YouTube videos that I was making, in late 2014 and early 2015, they really appreciated the combination of passions that were on display in the videos. So I was making music out of bird song and beat boxing, two things I’ve been doing and studying my entire life essentially. And they got together with me and said, “We want to help you craft a pitch for the kids network.” We worked on that video, submitted it for their consideration, and they liked it. In one fell swoop I was green lit to do this show and I was also a part of a National Geographic Society grant project in the fall of 2015, to go to India and record bird song and make music from it. So very quickly I had two different kinds of projects going on at National Geographic at the same time. So I think it kind of goes without saying, I hit the ground running, but I also had a good chance to learn a tremendous amount about the organization early on.
What were you doing before they reached out to you?
I was working a science journalist and translating my written stories into songs. I found it especially engaging to convey a story that was interesting to me in a new medium. I was doing podcasts, I was writing articles for Smithsonian, Slate, Scientific American, and a couple other magazines like that. I had started to make these videos, really without any intentions. Very early on a couple of senior producers expressed interest in them, just because they stumbled across them in one of our email conversations. The plan was not to make a career out of this, initially, it was just an honest expression of two things I love and willingness to experiment with them in a public setting. On YouTube. That’s what really precipitated all these amazing developments since. At the same time I was paying the bills by writing about science stories and I found myself wondering well… none of my musician friends are reading these articles, but they are beat boxers, they are into hip-hop… so maybe I can translate what I’m so fascinated by into a musical context. It’s also a better way to cut the cake. If you think about trying to make music from animal sounds, there’s just so much out there you have to think of a way to narrow the focus and this was a great way to do that. So that’s what I was working on in the beginning.
How did you get into beat boxing and bird watching?
I discovered bird watching when I was very little. My mom bought me a book on penguins when I was three and a half, or four, and it just took hold of all my attention. I became quite obsessed with it. I started to read all kinds of bird books avidly and go bird watching… no one else in my family was a birder, but they are academics, physicians and academics. It’s people who appreciate the sciences and people who appreciate indepth study of anything, so they wanted to encourage that curiosity. They really helped me develop that passion. Both of my parents did.
I discovered beat boxing completely by accident. I used to imitate cartoon theme songs when I was eight or nine years-old watching TV, just waiting for the breakdown to come up. I was just making noises. In the house. I imagine both my parents must have found it clinically fascinating to come home and find their son making these beats at the TV. Like, I don’t know what to make of this kind of behavior. I wasn’t in an environment where anyone could tell me I was a beat boxer. Then I went to college and a bunch of acapella people came up to me and said, “Hey! You’re that beatbox kid.” And I said, “ Sure uhh.. You mean that thing on the Internet? I guess I do beatboxing a little bit.” I came across a couple of “beatbox videos” when I was maybe 17 or 18 and saw people doing things that I had previously just done in my shower. So I was like, oh! Other people do this! Wow! So It was really an organic development of both passions side by side, but never together. Ten odd years later I am synthesizing these two previously separate sides of myself into a singular passion and it’s really exciting and rewarding. The fact that people express such enthusiasm and are also willing to pay me to do this, so I can make it my full time job, is astounding and I’m really incredibly grateful for the opportunity because it really is an expression of who I am as well as what I love to do.
What was the catalyst that brought those two separate interests together?
If you want to trace that moment… that moment itself was spontaneous. There was no plan, I just sat down and said, I want to try this, but over the past year or so I’ve been living in New York City and connecting more deeply with the beat boxing scene. It’s one of the best in the world. I’m very good friends with a lot of people who are now world champions of such and such contest. There are the world championships, there are a lot of different battles that they go to/. I’ve been in the company of excellent musicians for a little while now. I didn’t really connect with beatbox battling. I have a deep respect for it as a motivator for other people to try out the art form, but for me it was about building community. I found that when I shared who I was as a science enthusiast and a birder through and through, beatboxers found that fascinating and that was not something I expected. I think everyone in New York has this inner urge to reconnect with nature on some level, so the fact that all these other musicians could say, “Well I know this guy who knows everything about birds…” There words, not mine, makes you feel like you’re connected to something else. What birding is for me is a connection to the actual world. I felt cut off from nature in a new way when I moved to New York and decided music could be my bridge into nature because I feel like I’m isolated in some ways, but I am beatboxing all the time. I’m kind of a vocal acrobat, but birds are also vocal acrobats and if only people knew how amazing they sound! So those were kind of the ideas in my brain that were fermenting at the time.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Huh. That’s a good question… I guess I haven’t thought about this question… Any answer I give you will probably change in a week or so.
I was just wondering if you ever imagined yourself doing anything close to this.
Well, I had the fantasies of being a rock star, like many people do. That feeling has changed and evolved. By the time I was in… college I had these moments of epiphany where I realized I really enjoyed teaching people and being a “rock star” is the same as being a teacher. My dreams really started to materialize when I realized what I was actually good at. When you’re young, you just have these ambitions that are not really based in reality. So I loved music my whole life, and of course, dreamed of being a rock star… but the way to do well in the beatbox world is to win all the battles and that did not appeal to me at all. In college I started to realize, nature, music, here are two things I love. Maybe I’ll stick with them, maybe I won’t. I thought about being a voice actor, actually. That’s probably a good answer. I’m a mimic and that’s, I think, where my beatboxing skill comes from. There’s musicality, of course, but the ability to imitate other sounds has been something I’ve always been good at. Ever since I was a little kid people would ask me to do animal impressions. It was my one time to shine before I returned to being the awkward kid in the back of the room. Or on the edge of the dance floor. I think that’s probably the most true to life dream that I had, among many I’m sure. To this day, that looks like so much fun. Going into a studio with a microphone and just acting ridiculous and trying to sound as crazy as you possibly can, but also stay in a certain character. That seems like a blast. I still have dreams of doing that, but it will be part of this larger package now of being a host, a presenter of a TV show, and combining music and nature together through that context, which is what I’ve done with Wild Beats.
When I was in college, I thought, of you know what would be great? To have a TV show. That would draw on my skills as a writer. I could be funny and I could also do voice acting and it could be about whatever I wanted. So maybe nature. Maybe music. Turns out, it’s about both.
What kind of music did you listen to when you were younger?
I grew up playing guitar. I listened to a lot of classic rock and blues. To this day nothing pulls at my heart strings like listening to an amazing guitar solo. All my friends will tell you, “Oh god, don’t give Ben a guitar. He’s just doing to solo for an hour.” I still have my guitar and all my pedals and my amplifiers. I can’t really play it because I live above a family with two toddlers. I put on my headphones and say, oh this is sweet! To bad nobody else can hear it. I grew up listening to Clapton, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King, a little bit of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Led Zeppelin after a little while, carlos santana, people who I admired as guitarists. When I was in middle and high school, I started doing more choir stuff. I got really into classical singing. I’m trained as a classical singer and sang in five different groups in high school. Then the acapella bug kind of took hold right as I was discovering that I was a beatboxer, all these people in acapella were saying, oh you can do this thing we need you to do.
As I was in college I started to listen to a lot of pop and R&B and definitely more hip-hop. Now, I draw a lot of inspiration from the hip-hop mentality. The beatbox culture is one that emphasizes and rewards originality. You don’t accomplish anything unless you’re pushing the art form. I’d like to be an ambassador for the artform that got me started by bringing it into this new context.
I lived in Japan after college, and at that point my beatboxing was in full swing and I performed with a lot of underground rap and hip-hop groups. Dancers, rappers, other beatboxers, it became an international language that I was already familiar with. So then I got much more into the idea of hip-hop culture, so when I moved to New York City, it was the one thing I could immediately connect to. I felt disconnected from nature, but the hip-hop element was what I used to anchor myself in the city.
What’s an average day like for you?
I do a lot of performances. I just finished a residency up at the Bronx Zoo, so I was performing there quite regularly on the weekends. That would be almost like street performing. I would go up with my gear and pull people aside, or invite them over and get them to try making music through nature sounds. It’s a lot of performance in a variety of places. Most recently, zoos and museums. Then I’m composing a lot of music right now. I am working on a piece about elephants. I’m booking additional shows and I’m planning for my next expedition. I’m going to Madagascar in a month. So it’s hard to say if there is a consistent baseline day in the life of DJ Ecotone. It’s a constantly evolving career. Everything changed so fast in just a year and a half. Once I get my gear together for this Madagascar exhibition, I plan on spending a lot of time outside, trying to get to parks whenever possible to record and start building up my personal library. When the bird migration starts, of course, I’m outside.
Is there any particular animal or location in Madagascar you’re the most excited to record?
Oh man. Yeah. I’m extremely excited for all of it, but I’ve planned one excursion right in the beginning of the trip to Andasibe. there’s a lemur there’s a lemur there called the Indri. You have to look up this sound. Some people associate it with a clarinet. Other people liken it to a siren or a brass horn of some kind. It’s actually one that I’m quite good at imitating as well. It has a sort of ascending OOOOOOHweeeeee kind of sound, but they do it in a chorus together at dawn. I’m extremely excited to get up at four in the morning and listen to them wake up and warm their voices up and capture that n audio. That’s going to be one of the highlights. I’m also looking forward to ringtail lemurs at Anja. I picked locations that each have their own distinct blend of voices because, what’s so special about tropical rain forests, and Madagascar in particular, is that there’s a common rule in biodiversity that in more densely packed ecosystems organisms find a niche that is smaller in area. I don’t know as much about lemurs but they’re exclusive to Madagascar, which is predominantly tropical. So my impression is that for every little patch of forest we visit we’re going to get an entirely different orchestra to record.