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A Conversation with Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel

If Felix & Sabina of PANArt invented this art form, it was Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel who launched the handpan era. On this episode of the podcast, Sylvain & Kyle revisit the inception of the Halo handpan and how it forever changed handpan history.

The Evolution of the Halo:

New Era Halo Unboxing:

Podcast Transcription

Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain and this is The Handpan Podcast.

Sylvain: If you just read the title for today's episode, you know it's coming. I promise I'll keep this intro short so we can get to it. But let me say this: If Felix and Sabina of PANArt invented this art form, it was Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel who launched the Handpan era. The Halo was the second commercially available instrument after the Hang and Pantheon Steel's influence cannot be overstated. They came up with the vast majority of scales (or sound models) which are now made by handpan makers throughout the world. They fostered a culture of kindness and generosity by participating to the first hand pen gatherings and they shared knowledge, empowering many people to pick up the hammer and start making handpans. So... On today's episode, you're about to hear from the second most influential person in the handpan art form, someone to whom we owe so much. Here's my conversation with Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel.

Sylvain: The handpan podcast... What would this podcast be called if it weren't for you? Kyle Cox, welcome to the podcast, which owes you its name. It's good to have you on, man.

Kyle: Hey Sylvan, how's it going?

Sylvain: Good. Thank you so much for accepting my invitation. This is really special. In fact, I try to make each and every episode very personal asking questions I legitimately and genuinely want to hear the answer for, and this episode couldn't be any more personal for a couple of reasons. First, yesterday I received my new era halo and it's so amazing that I almost didn't show up for our call today. And, second, you know, when I started this podcast, your website Was a really big inspiration because you verbalized some things that have helped me define the theme for this podcast, which is the simple joy of creating. On your website, you talk about the halo offering, the rarest of gifts, creative freedom, and this is lingo that's very common on the podcast. So for these reasons and so many more, it is so good to have you on.

Kyle: Thanks so much, man. I appreciate you asking me to be on and I really love what you're doing here. Uh, having good meaningful discussions with people about not just about the handpan, about who they are and how they use the handpan and their daily lives. I think it's, I think it's deep and rich stuff you're doing there.

Sylvain: Thanks. Appreciate that so much. Um, so in the short amount of time that we have, I want to take a trip down memory lane and here the halo story because it's my understanding that you've got a pretty big anniversary coming up.

Kyle: Yeah. Uh, mid March is actually the 10 year anniversary or the 10 year birthday of the halo of when we released it to the public. It's crazy.

Sylvain: Wow. Man. 10 years.

Kyle: It's gone amazingly fast, but there's so much in those 10 years. Uh, it's hard to believe that it seems like it's happening fast, but man, it's been, it's been quite a ride.

Sylvain: Yeah. You've gone through so much. Um, and we're going to talk about it, but maybe my first question is who was Kyle Cox before the hand pan?

Kyle: Uh, professionally speaking.

Sylvain: Yeah.

Kyle: Something like that. I was a steel pan maker before getting into making the halo.

Sylvain: Okay. So, obviously it's, there's so much overlap. Yes. But at the same time, you come from, in my understanding of classically trained background in an institutionalized or at least very structured industry.

Kyle: Right.

Sylvain: Is that correct?

Kyle: That's, yeah. That's very true. And hold on, I'm getting another call. Let me end that.

Sylvain: Okay. We're back on.

Kyle: Yeah, my bad. I just had to turn the phone on do not disturb, so nothing comes through. Sorry.

Sylvain: No worries.

Kyle: I don't think that's happened on any of your podcast yet.

Sylvain: No, you're right. You're a busy man. I understand.

Kyle: Okay. Where were we? I was talking about institutionalized beginnings of my music, I guess. Was there more to that question just so I get it right.

Sylvain: Well, I guess, um, what drew you to pursuing this new form of, of the steel pan?

Kyle: Oh, man. Yeah, we have 20 minutes. Huh? Uh, I don't know how I can make that a short answer. I will certainly try, um, well, from my beginnings, yes. To learning music and the Western culture, uh, learn the theory, uh, learn all of your techniques, have a, a teacher student relationship. Um, and you know, I lived and breathed that. Uh, I actually thrived on that. But when I got into playing steel, drums and college was the first time that I was able to experience a freedom and music that I hadn't experienced since I was really a young teenager. Um, we had a piano at home and then one day I decided I wanted to, uh, to play something of my own on this piano. I'd always taken lessons and I hated it. So I sat down and started composing, had no idea I was able to do anything like that. And for the first time I felt like a real artist or a real musician. Um, and so I did that as kind of a release to the normal music scene of which I didn't, uh, I didn't have a problem with because it's really all I knew up until that point a bit, it kind of helped me stay balanced in this world of music. So I go to college to study music, very, uh, regimented, organized, structured, intense experience of learning music. But I had lost that, that freedom of creating. Um, and I had, I, I guess I was kind of out of the flow of playing piano. They weren't, even though I was in a school of music, they weren't really that accessible, come to think of it. But it wasn't until I joined the steel drum band, um, did I re realized this musical freedom. So steel band is a lot like a jazz band, but there's a lot of Improv. So my first year playing steel drums, I just played in the group. I played the notes that were written but still loved it. And then the next year, another guy who played beside me, who was a great player, his name was also Kyle. He left the school, went somewhere else. And um, well my teacher said, okay, Kyle, you gotta be Kyle. You got to be the old Kyle and start taking the soul. It was like he used to, and I looked at him like deer in headlights. I said, Nah, I don't think so. And he's like, well, you don't really have a choice. You're going to be this guy. So kind of a trial by fire, I began to explore improvisation. And it opened up an amazing new world to me of yes, there was some confines with chord structure and whatnot, but I can make my own melody and I love that. So that was what kept me balanced, just as I as a younger music student in college, steel drums is what kept me balanced as a creative person. So anyway, um, began my career in making steel drums and then we had heard about the Hang early in its days, 2001 or so a video was circulating amongst steel drum tuners. This was before youtube. Um, and it was a very grainy, a low quality video. Certainly not low quality instrument, but, uh, it was hard to really get the essence of it, but I could see something there that was really interesting, which was immediately I recognize the less is more concept and a lot of steel drum tuners, they saw it as, oh, these guys just don't want to, they don't want to make steel pans anymore that have 30 something notes and are full of chromatic, they're taking the easy way out. And uh, you know, that rubbed me the wrong way. I didn't, I didn't like that, that judgment. Um, but I started looking into it a little bit more and really thought that what they were doing was revolutionary and a simplistic instrument, certainly not simple to make or to tune, but for the person to play was so freeing, not confined to anything. You got to do exactly whatever you wanted to. And there really was no right or wrong other than playing too hard and you know, things that could possibly damage it. But musically it was very simplistic and not just musically, but just creatively. It was simplistic. It broke down so many barriers.

Sylvain: Well, it's my understanding that when you've performed at handpan gatherings, you've, you're always improvising, right?

Kyle: Oh yeah. Well, once I got into this and how I was brought up through the whole music, uh, programs of, of the regiment, the steel drums broke me free of that. And then getting into making the halo, um, reinvigorated that concept. And I kind of vowed to myself that, well, since I have the, uh, the blessing of always being in contact with various Halos, a various sound models, um, I was, I was lucky in a sense. I didn't have just one that I had to do the most with or to go out and perform on it. I didn't have to write pieces, which there's certainly nothing wrong with that. I mean, there are some amazing handpan pieces out there that I'm glad we're composed and learned to be able to be repeated because that's amazing.

Sylvain: Right.

Kyle: I was a little bit different. Um, and kind of that I didn't have to, nor was I able to have one halo here always to always play because they're in and out. They're created and then they're gone. They're created and they're gone. So it keeps it very fresh for me. And I kind of made a vow to myself is I'm seriously going to resist, uh, a planned performance, a a rehearsed performance. I love creating so much. I love making music so much that I'm going to be much better just at improv because I always was as a, as a musician, I always did much better in the moment. So music on Halos for me, um, is improv and it probably always will be an anytime I've tried to recreate a past performance, it was a horrible failure. So I've learned my lesson anyway.

Sylvain: Well, I find that incredibly profound and inspiring because I think as musicians or as artists we tend to gravitate towards controlling the art. Um, so anyways, I just think it's really interesting. Um, okay. I alluded to it at the beginning of this conversation, but you came up with the term handpan.

Kyle: Yeah.

Sylvain: Do you have a recollection of the moment when you did that?

Kyle: Well, uh, I suppose so. Um, back when there was only the Hang, I actually happened to call it the HangPan because when the first time I saw the Hang, I knew that they were also steel pan makers or they had been still paying makers there. There's the word pan and PANArt and they made steel pans. I enveloped the Hang into the steelpan world because it is the hand pan is part of Trinidad. And I just inherently felt that. So it just came out in the way I even categorize the Hang the Hang Pan. Yeah. Well we all know that Hang means hand. It's very simple. I don't think I did anything super profound there. Um, but I also knew that Felix and Sabina, I didn't want Hang to be a generic term. Uh, and I wanted to respect that. Um, so there, and at that time there was already Hang drum. That's all you knew and heard of and they disliked that. Um, and it, it isn't a drum, but they also didn't want Hang to be a generic term. So I also felt an obligation since we were basically the next people after them to come out with something. There had to be a generic term created anyway. So it was honestly a very simple decision there. There wasn't much thought put into it. Um, so yeah, that's how handpan came to.

Sylvain: Yeah, that's amazing. And for, for many years handpan and Halo, the name of your instrument were synonymous, but now the handpan defines this entire art form. It's misused, it's abused and used properly. How does feel to see your term having just blown up like this?

Kyle: Sylvain, I really don't know. I'm not surprised and it's not because it's anything that I did, I knew how powerful this art form was and was going to become. And just by my placement and the whole thing coming up with the name, uh, knowing that one had to be created. I'm, I'm not surprised that this, this term has become one of those. And again, it has nothing to do with me. Um, it's just, it was me being in that place at that time and things that came after that have, uh, I guess brought the term to where it is.

Sylvain: How has the halo evolved over the years from 10 years ago to today?

Kyle: Aw, man, well, to start off with, um, also out of respect to PANArt, we didn't want to do things exactly how they did it. Of course, the, the form of the instrument was proven. And obviously if you look at a halo and a Hang back, then, um, uh, there are some similarities because they had proven that this form and how they laid the notes out, uh, made a tremendous amount of sense. And so we went that direction. But then as far as the, uh, under the hood of how the halo was made, it was about as different as humanly possible to make the halo compared to how the Hang was made. We didn't do deep drawing, which is what they did. And it was a great, uh, development for steel tuning in general. Um, but back in the early days of Patheon steel, in the early days of Jim and i's relationship, he watched me make a steel drum and he realized that there had to be a better way to make this bowl, at least instead of air hammering it down. Um, and that's what he was, was an engineering and he loved to solve problems. So he wanted to come up with the better, more consistent manner. And it wasn't so darn loud. He stood and watched me without earplugs in, without headphones in and I thought it was going to blow his eardrums out. And he just stood there and watched me kind of in, um, uh, an amazing, I guess amazement, but amazement that there hadn't been a better way yet to do this certain thing. So we started with the rolled technology for steel drums. It was not through the halo. We had wanted to reengineer how we made steel drums. And so fast forward to the halo, of course the halo is roll formed and that was a technology that we came up with and later patented. Um, but it just, that way of forming the shell created a new texture and sound landscape possible. Uh, and the fact that the halo was larger than the Hang by about two inches. Yeah. And that we went to a C3 where, uh, they had done a D3. Um, it just opened up a whole new world of sound textures. Uh, the instrument was heavier, it was bigger, it was lower in pitch was I guess real earthy sounding. So that was the original halo. Um, and then as time went on, we really did a lot of work in how we made the notes, how we shaped the notes, how we formed them out of nothing, how we stamp the domes. So we explored every last avenue of what we could get out of the rolled shell technology. Yeah. And I had made a comment early on, I said, I'd never want to depart from this rolling technique until I have exercise every last bit of variety and sound that I could get from this platform and only then will I be willing to look forward to towards a different method of making the halo. So of the original generation halo, there were different varieties of it, so it was made from the same shell, but of how we made the notes and also how we tuned the notes went through a lot of variations, a lot of iterations. And then later in the, the, at the end of the OG Halo, we started using the, we took another step forward with the roll process or the role of technology and started rolling the interstitial metal between the notes. With a new machine, but it's based off the same technology. Um, and we've proven that, that that was able to shape the stich' which is what we called in short, uh, adequately and very evenly better than I could ever do air hammering. And I've been at this 20 years now. Um, and I got to the point where I could not be as good for myself, is what I needed myself to be as a craftsmen, to be good enough to me as the tuner. So that's when I realized we needed some help for consistency. We came up with this new machine that rolled around the notes form the metal down. So the last few, Oh gee, Halos had this interstitial rolling technique. And then when they moved forward into the hydro formed Halos, that's one remnant of the original generation that we've kept is the advanced rolling technique that still does the same thing and the new era halo as it did in the original generation.

Sylvain: Yeah, And it creates this beautiful aesthetic decorative pattern, hints at the OG Halo, which is super exciting. And then have you moved towards only having impex center notes?

Kyle: Uh, well we've been doing that for several years. Okay. You know, that was a technique that I wanted. There's one thing about the OG halo was around the rim of the, the impex or the apex. Um, since it was thicker steel, it was really hard to tune those well. Um, and it was hard to get them to sound good, especially in a novice his hands. So it required the player to change their technique for that note alone. And what I wanted to see was someone, because in the early days, most everyone that got a halo was a Newbie. Okay. That was the, the landscape back then. And I wanted them to have the best success possible to make good sounds right out of the box, which is the whole concept of this whole art form in my opinion, is instantly you're able to create something great and you feel good about yourself, you're encouraged. So I decided to, to invert the apex to an impex because people would not have to change their playing technique to play that note. They could just run over the whole instrument, not change their technique. And in doing so, it helped tune those rim tones, uh, more adequately. And I thought that it had a pretty good sound to it. So that's why we went from apex to impex. And it also further separated us from the, the traditional shape that Felix and Sabina created with their ding. Yeah. So that, and then at that point if you saw a halo and you saw a Hang or other instruments, you would know that that was a different thing. So, so that was kind of a side note, the way it looked cosmetically.

Sylvain: Yeah. So my new era halo is the first impex center note of any handpan I've owned and it takes a little bit to get used to. Um, but I like that there is this, uh, architectural integrity because all the other dimples are impacts notes as well. And then a quick comment on what you said about the halo and the handpan in general, being sort of this experience right out of the box. So when my wife came home and tried it for the first time, try the new era halo, she said, "wow, wow. I didn't even do anything. And it sounds so good".

Kyle: Mission accomplished that, that that's it. That's the whole thing to me right there. Yeah. Thank you, Jill.

Sylvain: Yes, thank you. I'll tell her. And the cool thing is, you know, I've been playing hand pans for over 10 years. So, you know, I could get caught up in, I want the instrument to be hard so that I can show my level of mastery. But no, I mean it's the joy of creating and it's right. It's such a satisfying handpan playing experience.

Kyle: That's very encouraging to hear. It really is. Yeah. Um, we'll go ahead. Go ahead. You were ready to ask something.

Sylvain: So one thing that I feel drawn to with the halo and your company Pantheon Steel is that you're both on the one hand, very cryptic and secretive and cool machines. Yeah. I mean, remember the, the, all the rumors about the halo and the cool tech that you guys were coming out with.

Kyle: I suppose.

Sylvain: Okay. So we've got that on one hand.

Kyle: Okay.

Sylvain: And on the other hand, um, you're very generous and down to earth. Even your being on this podcast reflects that. And you've had this, this great culture, appearing at handpan gatherings, spending time with, with the handpan community being involved from day one. So the question is what gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you doing what you do?

Kyle: That's a good one. Well, we always want to continue to be forging new ground, a pioneering new things, um, in light of just improving period. I mean, my life is that way. So the way our business runs and the way our halo is made to follow suit, that there's always a better way. And if for once, if for once one time, even a brief moment, you think you've made it, well then you might as well just hang up your hammers. There's, well, I've been making tuned steel for 20 years. We've been making the halo for 10 years and I feel like just getting started, I've just scratched the surface. And that is what gets me out of bed every morning. That this is just a continuous journey just as life is. And that's exciting to me that there's always going to be a better way to do something. Um, and not to mention, you know, the physical realities of making this instrument. It's very grueling. Uh, it's very hard on your body and I think most tuners out there that would be listening to this would agree. Um, it's very hard work that's very worthy. Uh, uh, it's, it's definitely a good thing to work hard for. It's very rewarding to see someone play your instrument and enjoying themselves and it makes it all worth it. Um, but the realities of how physically demanding it is to make these instruments, because I started, uh, learning how to make steel drums basically the way Ellie Mannette learned how to make steel drums back in the 1940s. Yeah. And I'm, I'm very happy and thankful that I learned that process of making pans. But the very first day, the very first day I was an apprentice with Alan Coil of coil steel drums. Um, I'm beating on these steel drums barrels. I was loving every minute of it. I mean there was, there's blood, sweat and tears all over that, that barrel. But at the same time I was loving it, but I could not shake this thought in my mind that there has to be a better way to do this. So, um, in my mind like okay, you have to learn this legitimately the way the originators of this art form learned, but at the same time it was 50-50 respecting that, but also knowing that you have to see if there's a better way to do it, at least in the one sense of if we can make these that are in a way that's healthier for the human body, well the world can make more of these instruments and affect more people by the beauty of both art forms, but steel drum art form and the handpan art form that we have to figure out a way so we can do this work for a long time and also in turn it will help us make more instruments to get more to the world to share this awesome experience.

Sylvain: Wow. Well, I'm so grateful that you are creating that kind of an experience for people, like me. Oh, and so many others. And you've played such a huge part of this handpan community. I am so grateful you took the time to be on the handpan podcast. I know you've got a busy day, but really from the bottom of my heart, thank you for what you've made. Thank you for your time and maybe see you again soon on the handpan podcast.

Kyle: I would be happy to. Thanks for asking me. Um, I love talking about this stuff so I can, I can do this every day.

Sylvain: Thanks again, Kyle means lot.

Kyle: My pleasure.

Sylvain: All right, have a good one.

Kyle: Thanks brother.

Sylvain: All right, see you!

Sylvain: Uh, wow. I may sound like a broken record by now, but this is more than just about handpans. I love this community. I'm totally overwhelmed by it. At the same time. Yesterday I just came back from Pantasia, a handpan gathering taking place in Joshua Tree, California, where I got to spend time with many of my handpan friends. In fact, many previous guests from the podcast were there. There's this wonderful thing Judith Lerner said on the podcast a while back that summarizes how I feel. It's a statement of amazement that it goes like this: "The places you'll go, and the people you'll meet, and the things you'll do". It's a wonderful thing and I'm so grateful to Kyle for the handpan and I hope you enjoyed hearing directly from him. On today's episode of the podcast, their instrument is called the halo, and their website is where you can learn more about this philosophy of creative freedom and maybe even join the halo family.

Sylvain: That is it for this episode of the podcast. Talk to you in the next one.

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