Musical Eyes: PEPEPIANO on Retro Futurism

PEPEPIANO is a made up band name from David Bird’s past, plucked from his imagination to impress and perhaps perplex his schoolmates. Today, PEPEPIANO is this Cali native/Midwestern space argonaut/student of sound’s alias under which he produces some of the richest bedroom/laptop/electrospacefunk around. He’s also a lover of art, with an eye for envisioned futures of our not so distant past and contemporary disconnected narratives on the same theme. David’s taken some time before beginning his final year at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music to share with us a couple of his favorite visual artists, Kilian Eng and Syd Mead.

Graphic Adventure "Graphic Adventure"
Gym Mystique "Gym Mystique"
Fire Hands "Fire Hands"

I’ve read on your tumblr that Syd Mead was a family friend. What was it like growing up surrounded by his art, when at the time it wasn’t necessarily retro future but still very much future? What about it sparked your imagination?

What’s most immediately striking about Syd’s work is the pure functionality of his designs; I mean, I guess that’s why he was hired to do the early designs for Tron and Blade Runner. It’s that kind of attention to detail and faith in design which makes one’s initial subscription to the “Mead”-ideal so real and effortless. It’s the same sort of investment necessary for ones enjoyment of any piece of fiction–science fiction included.

His “A Portfolio of Probabilities,” commissioned by U.S. Steel, was something I encountered as a child, and I had a very viscerally inspiring experience mulling through them. I ended up using them for the cover of ‘Babes‘. The collection doesn’t allude to or get off on any common science fiction tropes, and I never experienced his work that way. Mead doesn’t propose a possibility of the future, he’s too confident. Mead’s art is more about design, highly rational, blueprints, single handed models of what, with any luck, might be down the road.

…and knowing the history of the steel industry soon after that commission; as if they were buying the inspiration. It’s so very (tragically) American, I can’t handle it.

How has Mead’s vision effected you as you began exploring sound as an art form of your own?

There’s a large element of fiction in my stuff, but there’s also a lot of nerdy musical quotes: truisms, in some sense. The balance is difficult I guess, but mostly it’s about making it all feel real, or functional in the same way Mead’s work operates. There’s a dickish persistence which sorta undermines all my stuff; I can’t explain it, but it’s there. I’d only hope it evokes a vivid enough environment that people can envision or involve themselves in (in much the same way Mead’s work creates such immediately plausible futures).

There is a distinct color palette used in most retro futuristic art that seems to be embodied by your sound, almost as if it could be its modern soundtrack. Was that ever a conscience effort?

I think a lot of my work w/r/t production comes from an interest in orchestration; Stravinsky and Berio’s work especially. For me, it encourages the type of color balance you’re talking about. But it’s more of an expectation for myself than a conscious effort, framed by things I’ve dug (or not dug) in the past, biased towards a sorta bold ideal, vivid and really saturated. It’s super powerful, or I suppose it can be. Color is super important.

Both Mead and Kilian weave rather complex visual narratives into their work, how do narratives come into play during your writing process?

I don’t use narrative as a formal device, and lyrically it’s devoid of it as well. But the lyrics in my tunes can often trigger a troublesome metaphor when positioned against its musical counterpart. I kinda get off on this stuff. It’s like an invented implementation of tastelessness weaved so tightly into the structure of a track that it often goes unnoticed. I see a similar shade of this when I see these paintings. Mead’s placing a white 1950s American family at the center of these futuristic ideals, while Kilian is playing with and distorting nostalgic devices, implanting darker themes at the heart of work. There’s nothing subliminal about it, but it gives it strong character.

Are there any other visual artists you’d like to collaborate with? Any dream collabs?

I’d love to work with Theo Anthony again, I think his music videos are super inspiring, and weirdly get at the heart of what PEPEPIANO is. Kilian also makes neat videos. Dream collab may be something with David Firth, but I might explode if that happens.

Images from top to bottom:

  1. Title image: Kilian Eng - untitled
  2. Kilian Eng – untitled
  3. Kilian Eng – untitled
  4. Kilian Eng – Dollhouse Journeys
  5. Syd Mead – from USS: a portfolio of possibilities
  6. Syd Mead – Water Sports from USS: a portfolio of possibilities
  7. Syd Mead - Sentinel 400 Limousine from USS: a portfolio of possibilities
  8. Syd Mead – Space Wreck from “Flight of Icarus”

Listen, stream, download several PEPEPIANO albums on bandcamp, explore more on tumblr and check out the end of summer 2011 mixtape he created for Think or Smile.


Musical Eyes: Mutual Benefit on Contemporary Ephemera

Old broken music boxes, warped circuitry, blogger cameos, banjos, pianos, (insert anything else that’s capable of creating sound waves here); now combine them with the voice and mind of Jordan Lee and you have Mutual Benefit. Often simply described as boyish crooning, Mutual Benefit, to me is so much more, it’s a heart-driven exploration into the mind as it finds it’s way in this world – arms and fingers outstretched. Sure, the journey may take detours along the way disguised as toy instruments, Midwestern basements and an existential crisis or two but I assure you the intentions are pure. In the dissonance there is beauty, in the beauty there is all of us.

I’ll leave you to look, listen and explore with words to live by from Jordan himself, “remember to do cool stuff and be kind to each other.”

Wishing "Wishing"
Animal Death Mask "Animal Death Mask"
Birdwatcher "Birdwatcher"

In a sentence or two, tell us why you love each of the four artists whose work we see above.

Betty Blue – With Betty’s work she creates her own specific aesthetic universe using all the materials around her; innocent things become occult while disturbing imagery is twisted to become cute again.

M. Foster – I am always immediately drawn to M. Foster’s interesting color choices and but I also enjoy her sly social commentary.

Stephanie Bonham – While photography may seem to not fit in perfectly with the other three artists, Stephanie Bonham’s pictures captured an emerging diy music scene in Austin that influenced my sounds immensely. Her attention to the little details that make everyday life so absurd as well as the little moments that are so beautiful make her pictures special to me.

Whitney Lee – My sister Whitney Lee’s work is made from found latch-hook rugs which she uses as a canvas to hook an era specific nude model onto…  I love how it blurs the line between art and craft, makes an interesting statement on feminism, and just looks really cool.

Of the artists you’ve chosen to share, many work with materials most would not consider suitable for “art,” such as markers, stickers, rugs… What draws you to their love for the unconventional?

Pieces that incorporate everyday imagery with consumer-level art supplies are definitely the most compelling to me. I like the idea that there shouldn’t be any entry barriers to expressing yourself and being creative. I see a lot of parallels between the art and music that I enjoy. Both could be considered “lo-fi” in a sense. I think there’s a lot of priviledged seclusion and hot air in the fine art world and its nice to see some people ‘stick it’ to any sort of remaining conventions.

Why is it important for you to surround yourself with contemporary, working artists instead of looking to what established greats have already accomplished?

It’s important to me to be able to connect the art to a person. Every day my computer spits out hundreds of images and at this point its hard for it to have a real impact on me unless I see it in real life. I’ve been lucky enough to talk extensively with the four artists featured here so I’m inspired equally by their personality and work.  It gives everything much clearer context. I definitely appreciate the greats as well but its become so commodified. Until I saw Starry Night at the MoMA it existed in my mind as a mousepad. Duchamp and the other surrealist troublemakers did really amazing and important work but its still people making art now that inspire me most becomes now is now and now is real!

We had talked before and you mentioned that Spanish artist Betty Blue (who designed the drifting ep cover, as well as, I saw the sea) was the most influential to your work, even inspiring the music as you wrote. How important is it for you to bring visual art into your process rather than searching for album art after the fact?

In between releases there is a time where I’m just looking for inspiration to make subject matter for next album. Visual art can definitely provide a lightbulb going off in my head or a couple rogue neurons accidentally bumping into each other. For example, the idea of enso played a strong role in conceptualizing I saw the sea. Anything can spark song ideas though, a quote from Deadwood, bird documentaries, scary truckstops in new jersey, a girl talking in nonsense in her sleep, epitaphs of famous people…

You also run the cassette label Kassette Klub, often creating much of the handmade insert art yourself. Are you ever making art of your own while conceptualizing an album? If so, are your visions ever fully realized through your music?

I’m a terrible visual artist! I was hand-making the covers for a while out of financial necessity and it was nice but I’m discovering more and more that there are people out there who are so gifted at crafting imagery that it would be silly for me to try to do everything myself. On the other hand, I have found that getting a bunch of crazy books from the thrift store and having people come over to make collages is so much fun.

Images, from top to bottom:

  1. Title image: Betty Blue – untitled
  2. Betty Blue – untitled
  3. M. Foster – Quips: Directions
  4. Betty Blue- untitled
  5. M. Foster – Telebots at the Playground
  6. Stephanie Bonham – untitled
  7. Stephanie Bonham – untitled
  8. Whitney Lee – Venus of Urbino by Titan
  9. Whitney Lee – Afro

Listen, stream, download several Mutual Benefit albums here on bandcamp.


Musical Eyes: Pandit on Vast Landscapes

Pandit is Lance Smith, a songwriter/musician/producer hailing from Lumberton, Texas, where, alone in his room, he experiments with pop music. What he’s discovered is a sound that weaves in and out of various realms of the soul, scoring the soundtrack for an introspective journey within, navigating an unknown landscape.

I’ve always been interested in what types of visual art musicians were surrounding themselves with, which artists may have inadvertently influenced a sound. Lance has been gracious enough to help me form this new series, Musical Eyes, where we’ll begin exploring the favorite art/artists of musicians and perhaps gain a little more insight into the vision behind the sound.

I invite you to listen to as you take in the images and read his responses to a few questions I had on his interest in vast landscapes.

Kathryn, My Love "Kathryn, My Love"
In Love With a Fool feat. Foxes in Fiction & Coma Cinema "In Love With a Fool feat. Foxes in Fiction & Coma Cinema"
Human Qualities "Human Qualities"

Why do you think you are drawn to landscape photography?

My father introduced me to Ansel Adams when I was very young. He had bought a book consisting of various famous photos while he was stationed in San Diego in the late 60′s, waiting to head for Vietnam. My father was able to hold on to that book to this day, and I tend to pick it up quite often.

I’ve always been so interested in the Old West, especially 1800′s Texas history. I look at these photos that were taken nearly 70 years ago, and picture myself in another time period. A period in American history where there were millions of acres for the taking. I’ve consistently had those types of dreams since I was in my early teen years where I would be riding across country looking for a place to settle. This Ansel Adams photo in particular is one of those places where I could have seen myself establishing myself.

Do you feel your song writing is ever influenced by these vast open spaces, consciously or otherwise?

Most definitely. I spend a large amount of my free time out in the woods where I fish and explore. There are a ton of creek beds and wide spread fields, lots that just so happen to influence how I write a lot of my music. The words themselves in my songs don’t necessarily depict any of that, but I believe the music itself does. The elements of isolation and nature itself tend to come out a lot in what I might be playing. Whether its a guitar being played or a synth section, it relates quite accurately to where I’ve been and what I’ve seen in a lot of landscape photography.

Your music always conveys a distinct mood, do you ever have a specific vision of what the final sound might look like?

Never cohesively, no. A lot of what I write is based on letting go of really trying to write anything in particular. I never actually go into something thinking “Ok, this is what I intend on making.” It always turns out to be unexpected and even a surprise to myself. I really enjoy the process of never knowing what I’m going to end up with. There’s this intense adrenaline rush that sets sail through me when that takes place. If I write a song on an acoustic guitar, I can pretty much tell how its going to end up on record. But allowing myself to be free with what I’m doing and never setting any direction or goal, it always pleases and stimulates me much much more. There’s just something about it that makes me happier and in awe than anything that could have been written beforehand. Something you make that you cannot explain afterwords is the beauty of how far advanced the human brain and soul is. We will never understand it. That’s what makes me so passionate about continually making art. To never know what I’m going to end up with.

Being a musician, do you feel you see art differently from say, an oceanographer?

Everyone sees and interprets art in a different manner. I don’t think anyone ever really sees the same thing. If that is the case, then it just isn’t that interesting. Where I might look at a photograph of underwater life being somewhat of a nightmare or a phobia in a sense, an oceanographer might see it as a world of hope and light. I believe everyone takes what they see or create and interprets it completely different than what anyone else might relate it to. That to me is very special. Its yours. If no one else has that same interpretation, its your own belief. You control it.

Are there any visual artists (past or present) that you wish you could meet? What would you talk about with them?

I’ve always found Andy Warhol to be extremely interesting. I have a ton of old footage from some early Velvet Underground shows in the 60′s where he did all the visual work. A lot of the visual stuff done or thought of from that time period might be associated with the hippie movement. A ton of chemical colors flattened on a projector. Andy’s work was very very moving with real footage that he would tamper with. I read where he would cut certain parts of film and connect them with paintings he would do. He would leave the film outside in the heat for a matter of hours and allow the film itself to burn. When played it was this hellish interpretation of what everyone seemed to be going through back then like the draft and the overabundance of assassinations in those days.
If I could talk to Andy, I would try to figure out where he got a lot of his ideas from. The man was a total innovator of how art is perceived to be today. In a ton of Hollywood films that depict Warhol, he’s shown as this tripped out dope head. But from what I’ve read and have been told by people who knew him, he was the complete opposite. He was there mentally and would talk for hours about the meaning of life and what kind of times that they were living in. The man was a true artist.

Images, from top to bottom:

  1. (Title image) garmonique – untitled
  2. Kim Holtermand – Icelands
  3. Tim Navis – Sandia Peak, NM
  4. Ansel Adams – Mt. Moran, Teton National Park
  5. Ashley Oostdyck – Forever
  6. Janice and Nolan Braud - Field of Texas Bluebonnets, Lupinus texensis, and Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja indivisa, near Whitehall, Texas.
  7. Tim Navis - Death Valley, CA

You can find Pandit’s music here: Full length debut ‘Eternity Spin’ | Free ep ‘Strong Nerves and a Steady Heart’ | Free 17 track demo


Musical Eyes: Sound on Vision

It’s no secret that music is a common well of inspiration from which artists drink, taking in audio, exporting image. But I’ve often wondered if the source is flowing in both directions. Do musicians use the visual arts in a similar fashion as artists use sound?

Musical Eyes is the beginning of a new feature exploring just that, the relationship musicians have with visual art. I’ll be asking them to share with us art that they find intriguing enough to be influenced by or surround themselves with or simply love. Are there direct correlations between paintings and albums? Are they making art of their own simultaneously? Do visions of their own sound ever become fully realized?

Musical Eyes. I think sometimes that my lack of Musical ear, is made good to me through my eyes. That which others hear, I see. All the soothing plaintive brisk or romantic moods which corresponding melodies waken in them, I find in the carpet of the wood, in the margin of the pond, in the shade of the hemlock grove, or in the infinite variety & rapid dance of the treeptops as I hurry along.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson (Journal entry, 1838)

Imagine, if you will, what Emerson might have talked about with Chopin on an afternoon walk. Or asked Schumann in a hand-crafted letter? I can only hope the two would be better for having talked and walk away from the experience with more to think about than they arrived with. Let’s see where this thought leads us, let’s explore sound on vision.

Look for the first edition next week, when Pandit discusses landscape photography.


Tatiana Plakhova conjures Light Beyond Sound

Tatiana Plakhova is a data visualization magician, conjuring up paths, nodes and vectors; creating a spectacle to behold. Dense and complex, Tatiana’s illustrations map out information that exists solely in her own mind, with to my knowledge, no scientific merit. Perhaps she sees a world to come or fragments of what may have been, eons in our past. Regardless of time and space collected, the data now exists. Its here for us to analyze and each discover new meaning within. Observe and let yourself wander, then make your way over to her geosphere for another journey.



Think or Smile | Nathaniel Whitcomb © 2011