Programmed for action

Techno whiz-kids don't have to be anorak-clad nerds. Harvey McGavin meets two who disprove the popular image

Behind bedroom doors, plans are being hatch-ed, songs are being written and computers programmed. Without the help of teachers and unknown to anybody but their closest friends and family, some self-taught and self-motivated teen-agers are doing it for themselves.

Daniel Pemberton is one of them. Sipping Coca-Cola in a Soho cafe, he's explaining why he doesn't want to go to university. "I don't really fancy it. The general activity of most students seems to amount to taking advantage of the cheap beer and listening to bad rock bands."

Daniel's not stupid. With 10 GCSEs and four A-levels, three of them grade As, he could walk into almost any campus in the land. But he is reluctant to take the usual route for someone with his qualifications. "He's already got a pretty amazing CV for someone his age," says his Mum, at home in Hampton, Middlesex, and she's right.

At 13 Daniel was earning extra pocket money writing for computer games magazines. At 16 he recorded his first album, Bedroom, on a four-track machine bought with the proceeds. While his peers were busy revising, Daniel was being courted by record labels keen to cash in on his precocious talent. One Belgian company offered him a five figure sum for his signature.

"That was when I really began to take it seriously," he says. "They flew me out to Belgium one day . The next, I was back at school thinking 'no one knows where I've been.' " In the end, an obscure German label pressed 1,000 copies of Bedroom and despite a limited release and next to no publicity, Daniel was soon gracing the pages of style magazines and the music papers. Even The Times and The Guardian picked up on it, and suddenly he was a "prodigy". But all the fuss didn't go to Daniel's head. He kept a deliberately low profile at school, telling only a few close friends about his extra curricular career.

"I would just go to school and come home and do my other stuff. The music I was making was really weird and no one would have got into it. It was more fun keeping it to myself. I used to go to clubs on my own because no one else at school was into the same kind of music. I had a really cool piano teacher but in the end she said 'you might as well teach yourself.' She encouraged me to explore my own music."

Which he did, lifting snatches of sound from the television, the street, anywhere he heard anything interesting, layering and overdubbing them into atmospheric soundscapes. Word got round of his talents and he was asked to write the theme music for Channel 4's Without Walls special on Technonerds. At the age of 19, he now has a string of credits to his name that would be the envy of his elders.

Between collaborating with musicians twice his age, contributing to techno compilations, and writing for i-D magazine, Wired, Harpers and Queen and GQ he has made a second album, due for release any day now. He's confident and articulate, buzzing with ideas and big plans, including making a documentary on nightlife with his newly-purchased super 8 camera. Traditional academia seems unable to accommodate his creativity.

"I applied to a couple of film schools but they just laughed at me when I told them how old I was. A lot of those places want you to have fantastic talent in musical theory. But technical knowledge is really undervalued. In some ways I'm a child of technology," he admits. "When I was growing up I remember there was a QED special on computer games but now it's so ordinary. It's a part of everyday culture. Mario is better known than Mickey Mouse."

He has a website on the Internet but even so, he says: "I'm not a total computer buff. The equipment I use is quite basic. My bedroom isn't some kind of shiny techno palace. Anyone could do what I'm doing and make a record for about Pounds 500." His long-term ambition is "to get into writing film scores. The thing I like about film music is that the cinema is the only place where someone will really listen to your music properly without distraction. I haven't done anything for television yet that I'm really pleased with - I want to do something a bit more epic. I've got a very clear vision of what I want to do. I like the idea of making lots of money but I'd rather be well respected. "

Around the time that Daniel Pemberton was being courted by record labels, Tom Shepherd was hassling his Mum and Dad at home in Brighton to buy him a modem for his 16th birthday. Eventually, they agreed to go halves. "They were very sceptical at first - they thought it was going to be another computer gadget to waste money on." Instead, it has turned out to be a sound investment.

Tom hooked up to the Internet two years ago. "I have been on it and into it ever since." At first he was just checking out sites, playing games and having on-line conversations. Then, despite never having studied computing at school, he began to explore the possibility of designing pages on the World Wide Web and taught himself the programming language HTML.

His first client was a Brighton theatre. Now he charges Pounds 25 an hour to set up Web pages for clients including Brighton and Hove Council, and the Centre for Languages in Primary Schools, employing friends ("none of us is over 18") to help with the graphics and software programming.

He has also written on computing for several national broadsheets, starting when he sent an article on spec to the Independent on Sunday. Tom has wanted to be a journalist since he was 10. "What happened is that the Internet got in the way." For the time being, both these things are taking second place to the rather more mundane business of revision for A-levels in government and politics, economics and history at a local sixth-form college and (he hopes) a place at university.

"In the first year of my A-levels I didn't do as much work as I should have done. But I'm not taking on so much Internet work now and I have stopped writing for newspapers so I should do all right in my exams." Having to do college work is, he says, perhaps the only drawback of youth.

"My age isn't a disadvantage at all. Perhaps it's actually an advantage because I have grown up with computers and I am more at ease with them than someone of the next generation. Because the Internet has only been around for a couple of years what that means is that someone twice my age doesn't have a headstart on me. I can have the same knowledge and the same skills as them. "

But he is far removed from the anorak-clad nerd of popular myth. "The side of computing I'm interested in isn't dry and boring - it's all about communication. You have to be able to get on with people."

Once his exams are out of the way he plans to make a go of the business full-time during his year off, taking on new clients and setting up a web site giving school leavers advice on careers and things to do in their gap year.

"It's impossible to predict what I will be doing in five years' time. Two years ago I would never have believed some of the things that have happened to me. I hope to make a business out of the Internet. It's a wonderful opportunity and I don't want to miss out on it. But even if it flops I won't be left behind because I am so young."

Daniel and tom can be contacted respectively at: ukpe mberton

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you