Shaper: Roland Lamb

Show aired on 28th April 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Good morning this is Jazz Shapers I’m Elliot Moss. Thank you very much for joining. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside them we bring someone in who is shaping the world of business. We call them Business Shapers. I am very lucky today because my Business Shaper is none other than Roland Lamb and Roland is the Founder and CEO at ROLI and the difference today is that ROLI is a music business. They are transforming the world of playing musical instruments both from a hardware and a software perspective and very shortly, in fact by 10.00 o’clock you will know exactly what I mean I hope. Lots coming up from Roland. Also a new element coming to Jazz Shapers called the News Sessions, it’s where we take a look at the hot topic of the moment with Mishcon de Reya lawyers and Paddy O’Connell will be your host and this weeks’ subject will be GDPR and what it means to you and on top of all of that we have got some brilliant music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul including Lee Morgan, Marcus Miller and this from Lalah Hathaway.

The lovely version of Little Ghetto Boy from Lalah Hathaway. Roland Lamb is my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers and he is the Founder and CEO at ROLI and as I said earlier they have, well they’re transforming to me the world of music and the world of instruments and it isn’t just the stuff in front of you it’s also the stuff behind you which is technology doing its clever stuff. Roland, hello and thank you for joining me.

Roland Lamb
Hello. A pleasure to be here, thanks for having me.

Elliot Moss
Now immediately people will know that you are probably from America and I know because I’ve got a lovely report here telling me that you’re from rural New Hampshire. Home schooled for a part, father a jazz pianist and you have been playing piano since you were very, very little. Just tell me a little bit about your upbringing because I think it says a lot of things that define the way you are living your life and indeed have lived your life up until now.

Roland Lamb
Yeah so as you said I was born in New Hampshire and I grew up in a very rural environment and was home schooled so kind of like a lot of my time was you know playing in the woods, reading books and playing piano and my father played but I was largely self-taught. I would just spend time at the piano trying to kind of figure out the chords and scales and what not and actually I spent a lot of my first few years playing piano, just on the black keys and then gradually I remember I introduced like an F and a C so I was in you know basically into model jazz from when I was about six. I also actually went to school in England even though you know I am American I came over here when I was ten to a school called Summerhill which is based in Suffolk so I’ve had quite a lot of time you know living in this country over the course of my life.

Elliot Moss
Now I’m going to come on to 2009 in a moment but before we get there because I kind of think this is important. You have spent some time in Japan. You are a scholar from I think Harvard. You’ve been a faculty member at the Vermont Governors Institute of the Arts. In fact you were teaching at Harvard University. Quite a lot of things that happened way before the wacky world of business went on. Give me a little sense of if there is a thread of how you got from such a specific area of enquiry and such a relaxed upbringing and education as it were to eventually setting up a business which indeed involves engineering and things which you are not.

Roland Lamb
Yeah so it was the music, well it was a first love and then the music that brought me into business – totally like by chance and totally by surprise. To be honest I never had even a bit of interest in business and you know was something of an anti-capitalist you know growing up but here I am.

Elliot Moss
But that’s all changed now. You’ve seen the light, enlightenment of a different sort isn’t.

Roland Lamb
Well you know what happened was I decided I would attend the Royal College of Art to sort of study design. But at the Royal College of Art where I was studying with a really great designer named Rod, I had this idea that I could reinvent the piano because I’d been a lifelong piano player and I was sitting at the piano and I thought what if I could make it so I could play the sound of all instruments from the piano. What if I could use very intuitive gestures and you know to control pitch band and the timbre of the notes just like you would when you slide along you know the neck of a bass or you pull a string on a guitar or you, you know, change your armbature with a saxophone to kind of change the sound. I thought I could play something just like a piano but then use these very simple gestures like pushing into the keys or moving left to right or moving up and down the key to kind of change the sound and model the sound and I had always wanted to be a singer but I wasn’t a good singer and actually growing up I had tried to learn a bit of bass and a bit of saxophone so I thought if I could make it so I could play all of the instruments basically in a piano like format then I could kind of extend my own possibilities of expression and I got so excited about the idea that I started learning about the engineering and learning about the design and the material science and I just started building prototype after prototype and at first you know they didn’t work, they were just these models and I would then over dub the sounds and create videos to sort of like make it look like I was playing and over dub the sounds and then eventually I figured out how to do the electrical engineering and they started to work but they sounded like it was a horror film sort of sound track, a lot of weird noises and sounds and then eventually I had some really good prototypes and at that point you know I thought maybe I could see this to another music company and someone else could make it. But I was so excited about it, I thought I have to start a business it’s the only way I can make this a reality in the world.

Elliot Moss
The upbeat great sound of Lee Morgan with Mumbo Jumbo and Roland has confided that he likes Lee Morgan and why not, I do too. So we’re talking about these prototypes and just for a moment if anyone gets a chance and you’re near a computer now ROLI.com have a look at them because actually sometimes when anything new comes along and it is genuinely new and it is category breaking it is hard to envisage it unless you’ve seen it and I urge anyone right now to go online and have a look at that. It sounds like such an old phrase, go on line have a look on your phone or whatever it is that is in your hand or nearby. So these prototypes didn’t work, you got interested because basically you were on a mission, you were greedy, you strike me as a greedy guy in a good way in the sense you wanted to do all these things. Why can’t an instrument do everything I want it to do in my hands? When did it occur to you that it might actually just work and that you definitely were going to do it yourself?

Roland Lamb
Well I was greedy and I was jealous as well because so I, you know kind of came up through jazz. I played professionally a bit and piano was the instrument I was good at. I started out kind of being interested in jazz and blues and my father was like, was and is very into Fats Waller and kind of earlier jazz and so in an act of great rebellion I became interested in slightly later jazz like Bebop. But a lot of the expression that you get through jazz piano comes through like a proliferation of notes. You know with Bebop you have these very sort of fast and complex lines and you know saxophone players and other soloists use those too but they can slow it down and deliver a lot of expression through sort of simple notes and then variations in timbre as they play and so I really, I wanted this for myself to be able to kind of, because musically I was in a place where, I was playing very kind of complex jazz but I wanted to slow it down and simplify it and deliver a great deal of expression. So with that kind of sense of mission for myself at first, you know as soon as I had the idea I knew it could be real because what happened was I started taking apart a piano and trying to think about how I would make the keys move on a different axis so it’s like you would press a piano key and then you know move it left to right but it felt like it would be a bit unwieldy if it was a mechanical instrument and at one point I think I was in India at the time, I was drawing pictures of a piano and I had this idea that I would change the separate keys into a wave. So instead of having individual keys you would have this kind of continuous wave and if you played it along the tops of the waves you would be you know playing the notes of the piano but then if you would slide along the waves or push into the waves you would be able to modulate the sound in this very intuitive way and at that time even just based on the first sketch before I built any prototypes or had any idea how to make it real, I thought you know this is going to be a great thing and soon after I decided to call it the seaboard because it rhymed with keyboard and I kind of picked up on this idea of the waves and I just had this sort of inner confidence that this was going to be a great thing.

Elliot Moss
And I think the best way to bring this to life is to have a little listen here this is a good example of the seaboard in action.

That was the seaboard in action and it has actually been used I believe by Hans Zimmer, Stevie Wonder and even the DJ Steve Angelo – how about that. Lots more coming up from my Business Shaper, that’s Roland Lamb the Founder of ROLI and he will be back in a few minutes but before that we’ve got a brand new element to Jazz Shapers, it’s the News Sessions with Paddy O’Connell here on Jazz FM.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday I meet someone who is shaping the world of business. Sometimes they’re in the world of music too and today is just that person; its Roland Lamb, Founder and CEO at ROLI and if you were listening earlier you would have heard the seaboard in action. The seaboard as used by famous people like Stevie Wonder and Hans Zimmer. Hans Zimmer actually Roland has a whole team of people doesn’t he I believe, a whole team of people composing it isn’t just him.

Roland Lamb
Yes he works with a great team and it allows him to do amazingly ambitious work because he can draw on you know so many different sort of sources and you know he records a lot of live music, he works with a lot of really excellent musicians and instrumentalists as well.

Elliot Moss
In terms of that collaboration that’s why I mentioned it, you talk about the beginning where you took concepts to execution. Along the way have there been some critical people that have turned your ideas into reality and if so what kinds of people have they been?

Roland Lamb
There’s been a whole host of different people who have been huge contributors to the business you know over the years and the thing that got me into business because as I said originally I wasn’t super interested was realising that business can be a very powerful vehicle for sociological change. Institutionally a lot of other kinds of organisations have real constraints on them, you know in the Government, there’s a set of rules and regulations you have to follow. In academia you know there’s a very fixed kind of institutional structure. In business if you can build something and sell it to people and make money with that you can kind of do whatever you want. You have a lot of freedom in terms of how you organise the business and what you build and why you build it and so I realised that I wasn’t just building the seaboard you know for myself but that lots of other musicians were attracted to that same idea. Lots of other pianists wanted them same capability to express themselves. But even more so with the seaboard you can make it sound like any instrument you know if you play a saxophone on it or a cello on it many people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a cello played on the seaboard or a real cello if we played a little clip of either of those some of the listeners may not know the difference. So I thought this isn’t actually just about me and like showing off and doing a cool new solo on the seaboard. Actually if we can take that technology and bring really expressive music into the sort of digital age then we can empower more people to make music and that sort of larger social mission and the opportunity to have that bigger impact is what got me really excited about a business and I think it’s also what brought a lot of the different people on who have been transformative and that includes you know folks who have joined the team. Other designers I have worked with, engineers, you know investors, artists a whole you know wide group of people who I think you know really are excited about the products but even more so they’re excited about the mission.

Elliot Moss
I mean on that mission point have you found it difficult to convince people that this is just a whole new way of looking at the world of music and music making because you’ll obviously have the people like Pharrell Williams who is your Chief Creative Officer for example who is kind of to me like a Will.i.am in the sense that he’s going to try and do things, he’s going to be out on the frontier of where new music goes. You’ve had a lot of money invested in you, a lot of funds that people are happily putting their money in because obviously you’ve got to make money at some point. It probably isn’t making money now the business but I am sure it will. But is it difficult getting people to buy in to that transformative power that you believe this business is going to have?

Roland Lamb
I don’t think so I think with some sort of very traditional musicians they will look at new devices much in the way that say a traditional analogue photographer might have looked at early innovations in photography with you know DSLR cameras or with sort of earlier iterations of Photoshop there was a lot of scepticism like will this ever be really like a powerful new way for people to take photographs and obviously now that sounds a bit funny because even great photographers will use iPhones and take amazing photos. So there’s a little bit of that but generally the argument for the mission is very, very simple which is that most people love music. Many people try to learn music and fail and feel frustrated in that failure and it’s because the instruments are very difficult to learn and the physical properties of all you know traditional instruments are based on the acoustics of natural materials like wood and string and so forth and that just means the actual physical constraints that you have to train your body to you know play different chords or inversions or you know what not, finger positions is incredibly difficult. Now if we can deliver a way to make music which is equally expressive and equally deep from an emotional point of view but that makes it much easier for people to learn and play surely that’s a great thing?

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper today, Roland Lamb, he is somewhat shaking up the world of music and music making. Time for some more music this is Marcus Miller with Lonnie’s Lament.

That was Marcus Miller with Lonnie’s Lament. I am talking to Roland Lamb, Founder and CEO at ROLI. Over these few years since you set this business up you said yourself that you’re not a business guy but you saw that there was an opportunity through business to transform. You’ve won tonnes of awards in design and all sorts of related things. It strikes me you’re a bit like James Dyson in the sense that you just had this vision and you’re going to make it. Who are the other critical people around you that you’ve needed in terms of skill base because obviously running a business and there’s a, you’ve got a fair number of people working for you, you’ve got a turnover to look after. Give me the top two or three most critical capabilities that sit alongside you to enable you to do what you do best?

Roland Lamb
Well I should say that over the years I have you know become very passionate about running a business and love doing that and you know spend a lot of time on the business side. The majority of my time is now running the business and looking after and overseeing elements of the finance and the operations and you know a whole range of different activities around sales and marketing and so forth so…

Elliot Moss
And you’ve enjoyed that I mean you found that that is actually something much more interesting than you initially thought.

Roland Lamb
Yeah its super interesting because again it’s sort of we have a mission which is to make a difference in people’s lives by empowering everyone to make music but then how you actually execute on that mission is really interesting and how do you create those changes and create the right partnerships. You know I think in terms of you know, the particular functions all of those functions are key we have to you know have the right kind of finance team and operations team, sales, marketing you know my personal time is still spent largely on product you know sort of inventing new products and working on the design of different products and kind of being engaged in the product experience. So that’s still the area that’s you know closest to my heart and to my skill base but you know the whole range of different activities from engineering to quality to customer support all those things like shape the overall experience that someone has when they go out and buy a ROLI product.

Elliot Moss
And where does the invention happen best for you when you want to really create something new that hasn’t been conceived before. Is a solo effort in the same way that academia is? Is there a similarity that you need your quiet space?

Roland Lamb
Yes I think that there is an important role for kind of individual thought to play in invention and the further you are trying to go from what is known the more important individual work and accident you know is in the process. So if you like just want to take say a pair of headphones that’s in front of me and make them 5% better a good method might be to get ten people in a room and they can all talk about how to make it 5% better. But if you want to like completely re-imagine you know the headphone, what it is, what it could be sometimes it takes a spark of a genuinely new idea. Now of course that can happen with a group of people you know in a room together and people talking and chatting and you know we all, the sort of social side is an important component but often if you’re looking for something that’s a big jump from what has existed before individual thought is important and sort of accident is important as well just the unexpected clash of different ideas or somehow coming up with something that changes the grooves of your thinking.

Elliot Moss
As you look forward to the next few years what is in store for you and the business because to me it seems that this, the world has never changed so rapidly. I mean I am sure people have said this before in different times though. Just looking back even the last few hundred years this moment of technological transformation is happening everywhere and I’m sure it’s happened at stages in different businesses but right now there’s an opportunity to do anything I imagine. For you what might anything be?

Roland Lamb
Well for us we want to empower everyone to make music and we think that the sort of mobile and software revolution that we’ve seen, the revolution in digital technologies will come to music but the key is that digital music can’t just sound like electronic music. Like you have to be able to play jazz you know in a fully digital way or rock or any you know any kind of instrumental music, classical music so it shouldn’t be limited to a certain kind of genre. Once you can do that and make the barriers to entry very low for people, make it into this seamless and smooth process where you can start with your phone, start learning a little bit of the basics of music gradually you know build a simple, easy to use kit, easy to learn kit to play with and we’ll see many, many more people engaging in music and I think it’s actually a really important objective not just because music is fun but because music is a universal language and it’s very important that we develop that as part of developing a global civil society. So you know part of the age that we live in is one of great technology but it’s also one where technology is in many ways outstripping our kind of ability to have political discourse across sort of national borders and we’ve seen that in a lot of different ways right now where a lot of the political debates are national but the technological issues that we are encountering are global and you know for me the political side is connected to civil society and civil society is connected to human communication and so you know people often speak the same language within a given country and so their politics, you know are focused within that country. So music’s role as a universal language is an important part of the emergence of a more global sense of civil society and I think digital tools can make a real difference in that regard so I am still somewhat of an idealist in terms of you know the function of music in society and that’s why we want to work hard to make sure that our tools can make it easier for everyone to pick up a phone anywhere in the world, start making a little bit of music, share it with their friends or share it with people across other borders and start a more global musical conversation.

Elliot Moss
And I think that’s really well put and I hadn’t thought about music having that kind of role in as you said the political discourse but it must be right. Just really briefly before I ask you your song choice and we conclude today’s chat, the record label that you’ve created again is testament to the fact that you believe in new music coming through ROLI records. Do you expect to make money on that or is that again not the point can it be funded from other parts of the business?

Roland Lamb
Yeah that’s not the point at all. It’s more just that we discover people around the world who are making music using our products and we wanted to create a way that we could help them to get their music out further into the world and in many cases then they may move onto other labels and that’s fine. The point of it is more about discovery and if possible empowerment of the creators on our platform.

Elliot Moss
It’s been a real pleasure talking to you Roland. A true innovator and I don’t say that lightly, fabulous stuff. I really do hope the political discourse is affected by the power of music because boy we need something to make things change around the world and not just in this country. Thank you so much for being with me. Just before I let you go what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Roland Lamb
Well thank you for having me, a pleasure to be here. I chose I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You) by Thelonious Monk because Monk was really the artist that inspired the idea of the seaboard which was sort of the first blush was about wanting to bend the pitch on the piano and you know because Monk uses a lot of like you know chromatic inversions in his chords it’s as if he is bending the pitch. You know there’s this sense of where’s the pitch and I was really, I think once Monk said or someone said of Monk that he was trying to find the space between the keys and in a way my career and my work with the seaboard has been about trying to find the space you know between the keys of the piano and this kind of, extending that expression outwards and so since he was such a big inspiration I thought it would be lovely to listen to that track.

Elliot Moss
Here it is just for you.

That was I’m Confessin’ by Thelonious Monk the song choice of my Business Shaper today the extremely intelligent and interesting Roland Lamb. He talked about the space between the keys which is what Thelonious Monk said of what he was trying to do. He talked about the sociological impact of music and believing that that would drive his mission that sense that everyone should be empowered to be able to make music and really interestingly in terms of creativity he believes in individual thought. It’s great sitting in meetings with lots of people but sometimes you just need to be alone. Really, really good stuff. Do join me again, same time, same place that’s next Saturday, 9.00am sharp here on Jazz FM for another Jazz Shapers.

Roland Lamb

Roland Lamb grew up in rural New Hampshire, USA. His father is a jazz pianist and Roland started playing the piano when he was a toddler. It was whilst attending Summerhill School that he started his first business, a jazz cafe for other students. At 18, Roland moved to Japan to live in a Zen monastery. He later travelled the world for several years working as a visual artist and a jazz musician. In addition to English, he speaks fluent Chinese and Japanese. A passion for cross-cultural thought is said to have resulted in his return to the USA, where in 2008 he attained a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Philosophy from Harvard University, focusing on Classical Chinese and Sanskrit philosophy, and graduating with summa cum laude. Roland then moved to London to attend the Royal College of Art, where in 2010 he earned an MA with distinction and later in 2014 a PhD, both in Design Products. Prior to founding ROLI, Roland was a Faculty Member at the Vermont Governor’s Institute of the Arts. ROLI is a company that develops and manufactures musical instruments that interact with the user. The company’s main products are: the Seaboard, a digital keyboard that replaces black and white keys of a piano with a pliable, touch responsive surface; and Blocks, a modular percussion controller that can plug into a mobile phone and other Blocks to increase capability.

Follow Roland on Twitter @RolandLamb.

“I grew up in a rural environment and was home schooled, so a lot of my time was playing in the woods, reading books and playing piano. My father plays but I was largely self-taught.”

“I had the idea that I could reinvent the piano. I thought what if I could play the sound of all instruments from the piano, or use very intuitive gestures to control pitch bend and the timbre of the notes just like you would when you slide along the neck of a bass or you pull a string on a guitar.”

“I started learning about the engineering, the design and the material science. I built prototype after prototype and at first they didn’t work, but I would then over dub the sounds and create videos to make it look like I was playing. Eventually I figured the electrical engineering out, but they sounded like a horror film sound track at first.”

“I played professionally a bit and piano was the instrument I was good at. I started out interested in jazz and blues, and my father is very into Fats Waller, so in an act of great rebellion I became interested in Bebop.”

“In business if you can build something, sell it and make money, with that you can do whatever you want. You have freedom in terms of how you organise the business, what you build and why.”

“If we could take technology and bring expressive music into the digital age then we can empower more people to make music. A larger social mission and the opportunity to have that bigger impact is key.”

“Many people try to learn with traditional instruments but feel frustrated. We deliver a way to make music which is equally expressive and makes it much easier learn and play – surely that’s a great thing?”

“We want to empower everyone to make music and we think that the mobile, software and digital revolution that we’ve seen will come to music.  The key is that digital music can’t just sound like electronic music.”