The muscles in Michael Janson’s neck look like they are about to burst through his skin — rippling and convulsing along with those in his face.
It’s a grotesque sight, but the sounds he is producing make his strange facial contortions worth it.
Janson is a beatboxer. With little more than his mouth and his throat and his sinuses, he can imitate anything from a simple drumbeat to complete songs – making beats while simultaneously singing the melody. Known on stage as “MJ,” Janson is capable of both, working all the muscles above his shoulders to create a one-man percussive symphony.
Janson says it all started in the 7th grade on the school bus. He had a friend who could make drum noises with his mouth. Janson bugged him to show him the basics. And when he knew those, he practiced tirelessly. By the time he was a freshman at Lewis and Clark High School, Janson was good enough to perform his own beatbox version of “Amazing Grace” in front of the whole school.
But he says he reached a turning point while he was grounded the following year.
“I went online and really started researching beatboxing,” Janson, 23, says. “I found a website that teaches you — then studied that for a month, two months, three months.”
He took what he learned online and began to practice compulsively, pacing around the house, generating the same noises over and over again. Like any kid learning an instrument, Janson’s rehearsal annoyed his mother. But six months in, as he began to develop a “beatbox vocabulary,” Janson says even she noticed a change.
“My mom started actually saying, ‘Wow you’re doing really good’ instead of ‘Shut up,’” Janson says, laughing.
He’s now been performing for almost seven years. He even won the Spokane’s Got Talent contest in 2009. That, he says, was the biggest boost for him.
“It showed people that I wasn’t messing around,” he says.
“After that show, I don’t have fear. Of anything.”
But there are some obstacles he doesn’t want to tackle. Not again, anyway.
Four years ago, Janson was challenged to a beatboxing battle. “I kinda wiped it from my memory,” he says, squinting behind his glasses when he thinks about it.
At the time, he was up against a more experienced local beatboxer. He lost, based on a crowd vote. He says he learned a lot, but he just doesn’t have the desire to try it again.
“If you want to join me and make music with me and put on a show with me, that’s fine,” says Janson, who has lately been broadening his musical style and collaborating with local acts Flying Spiders and Little White Flies. “If you want to battle and call me out, then you can have a nice day.”
MJ performs every Tuesday at New Taste Tuesdays • Every Tuesday through February at 8:30 pm • ZOLA • 22 W. Main • zolaspokane.com • 624-2416