Hans Lo and Jack Featherstone interview
Simian Mobile Disco present a rare, large scale AV disco set of their latest album at The Brighton Dome this December. This will involve the duo’s analogue-led beats complemented by an impressive visual show created by regular collaborators and art directors Hans Lo and Jack Featherstone. By using a bespoke hardware system, Featherstone and Lo will feed live generated digital content through an oscilloscope, filming its screen and processing the image to create an immersive, reactionary backdrop. We caught up with Hans and Jack to find out more:
When did you guys first start working together and what were you doing before then?
We started working together last year on Simian Mobile Disco’s (SMD) ‘Tong Zi Dan’ video. Before then Jack and I worked separately in our own practises as designer and film-maker.
Do you each have separate roles to play in the production and performance of your work?
For [SMD’s latest album] ‘Whorl’, we brought our own skills to the table and fed off each other creatively. Jack would take the helm with the designing of the artwork and packaging. Then I would focus more on the video side of things. However since we’ve been friends for six years and worked side-by-side the majority of that time, we were very aware of each other’s strengths/weaknesses and approach to all the elements within this project. So in the end, we instinctively worked as one unit.
When did you first make the link with Simian Mobile Disco and decide on collaborating?
We’ve been lucky enough to have worked with Simian for the past five years on pretty much all their video content. Also we were working with our good friend Kate on their last record ‘Unpatterns’. So when James and Jas (SMD) mentioned a year ago they are making this special psychedelic album, we couldn’t help ourselves but to initiate the conversation for collaborating. Then everything just clicked into place and evolved organically for the past eight months.
For ‘Whorl’ you built an entire analogue system with the express purpose of generating all of the albums visual elements such as music videos, sleeve design, etc. How did you go about building the system, and what technology does it consist of?
At the beginning our research was heavily focused on looking at analogue visual synthesizers and testing their capabilities. Ultimately, we were underwhelmed with video synthesizers of the past and they were very expensive to build and customise. Until we came across the classic ‘Rutt Etrra Video Synthesizer’ – it was an analogue method to manipulate video in real-time using an oscilloscope or a CRT monitor.
However it was very apparent this process was entirely analogue so the hurdle was to figure out a way to reproduce this in a digital realm. To help achieve the Rutt/Etra-like effect, we enlisted the help our frequent collaborators, Artists & Engineers, to develop a special piece of software that would allow them to send video content from our first laptop out of VDMX through a sound card and into the oscilloscope. We utilised the scope’s vector analysis capabilities to transform video into sound, these waveforms would then generate the image and we would recapture this in real-time (a camera and tripod in front of the scope’s screen). Then the feed will relay back into the second laptop for colourisation before the final output to a projector.
You have previously stated that you wanted to achieve an alternate reality with the visuals and a sense of the world being scanned. How did you come up with these ideas and do you think anyone is scanning us?
I guess these ideas just evolved through the project. At the beginning we wanted to make sense of the rough audio snippets James and Jas had. We knew they wanted to strip back their live setup so that only encouraged us to simplify the content we capture for system. We felt it was the perfect opportunity to literally go back to the basics, using the primal beauty of nature as our starting point. Hence the world we created is somewhat familiar and organic but yet alien and synthetic.
Without getting into too deep into this, we are constantly being scanned no doubt. Everyday we wake up to check our emails, update our social media presence, search on websites, picking up groceries with your plastics, get searched before going into clubs, etc. Our physical and virtual presence are infinitely scanned and passed through some form of system. Looking at this from the other side, we are also the ones examining and trying to make sense of the reality around us by taking pictures, reading, watching movies, having deep and meaningful conversations etc. We are scanning ‘them’ as much they are scanning us!
Why did you specifically go for an analogue system?
There is a certain tangible quality with using analogue gear because it’s such a physical system. The production of images are rough-around-the-edges and completely distinctive – those warm fuzzy glowing lines and highly saturated gradients. Maybe there were nostalgic reasons too as we grew up just at the end of the VHS era, so it made sense for us not to use an entirely digital system. Also when we travel with it on tour, we never know if our machine might have been pumped or affected by the humidity/temperature change. The surprise element is always present when it arrives at the shows. Every time we feed images through the scope, the images are never exactly the same. The unpredictability is what makes every Simian show we play unique!
The visual elements ran parallel to the album itself. Can you tell us about the collaboration process?
The process was organic and an ‘organised chaos’. As they were experimenting with their sounds, we were testing the boundaries of our imaging system. We would come together and talk about our progress and at times rehearse which helped us to cohesively combine the two entities. James and Jas gave us complete freedom to do our own thing but they were also critical when it came to sculpting all the visual elements. In turn we gave them feedback throughout their song writing process. Hence when the music and visual were finalised, it was impossible to separate and talk about one without the other. Fundamentally because all four of us have worked together for such a long period of time, we understood each other’s methodologies and committed to actually have as much fun as possible.
I understand that you will be bringing the entire system to the Brighton Dome for the show on 12th December 2014. How does the system travel and does having it in a live environment bring any challenges to overcome?
As I mentioned before, the system will always have its natural touring forces to encounter. One thing we do make sure is that we continue to rehearse and check the system before we play every show. We of course have a back-up plan if something goes wrong (fingers crossed) but that’s the pleasure of performing live, it consistently keeps us on our toes and second-guessing our abilities to adapt to any stage setup.
And finally, what other projects are you currently working on?
There are several projects in the pipeline creating live ‘pretty pictures’ for a couple of new artists (not sure if I am allow to mention whom). 2015 might even be a BIGGER year with Simian Mobile Disco….
Simian Mobile Disco will be performing a rare live AV show with visuals by Hans Lo and Jack Featherstone as part of earsthetic at Brighton Dome on Fri 12 Dec, 8.15pm. For more information about this, to find other events at The Dome and to book tickets click here.
Interview by 25ThC