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.


Mid-century modern illustration: Imagined futures of the past

I came across these illustrations over at Wanken, who has dedicated this week (Jan 3-7) to mid-century design. Shelby’s site is always a great resource to browse if you’re in need of some design inspiration, or if you simply want to marvel at all things mid-century. I’m consistently amazed by the architecture he finds and want to live in nearly every residence he shares, not excluding the drawings above.

What I love about these illustrations is the glimpse they give you into the future as it was imagined in the past. These are scenarios that artists in the 50s-60s dreamed would be commonplace today, or even years earlier. Unlike visions of the future we see today (with the exception of prominently placed television sets) they are devoid of robots or machine integration into everything it can get its circuits into. Instead, they paint a picture of human life and nature melded together, co-existing. Lounging in the canopy, hearing the flow of water beneath your floorboards, naturally formed rock as pool walls, all examples of respect for the natural world around us. All environments I’d like to spend some leisure time in, illustrated or not.

See the rest of Wanken’s collection here.


Life in 2050: Artists imagine 40 years into the future

Life in 2050 is an exhibition coinciding with the Sci-fi London film festival. Design studio Transmission and Proud Central Gallery have asked 22 artists to imagine how life would be in 2050, 40 years from now. When you think about it, it really isn’t that far away, but in context of the past 40 years and the exponential change that has already occured, I don’t think these are all that far fetched. I love how different the work is too. There are reinterpretations of a 1970′s past future (one of my personal favorite themes, which I even did my thesis on),  fragments of psychedelia and the obligatory Star Wars inspired driods.

I couple of my favorite pieces are Dan McPharlin’sYear One,” Tom Gallant’sdoubleplusungood.” Gallant uses the newspeak term doubleplusungood, meaning the worst, to help paint the picture of an Orwellian dystopia. According to his artist statement,”In 2050 Newspeak becomes the official language of Oceania in Orwell’s 1984.  By then, according to UN figures, the world population, estimated to be 9.3 billion, will be unsustainable leading to use of vertical farms.” Scary to think about but necessary if we’re to rise above it. I’m drawn to McPharlin’s work because it draws directly from past-future visions that obviously have not come to pass. The catalog states, “His work pays homage to mid-century modernism, 70s sci-fi and surrealism but reimagined and reorganised into a past-future that never was and never will be.” This is something I’ve always touched on in my own work.

And now for the winner as chosen by the curators… “‘Modern Romance’ by Arnold Steiner is a meditation on man kind’s quest for perfection. This post apocalyptic vision shows an extreme time where people have sacrificed their humanity and Natural resources in the ultimate quest for freedom from death. The blissful robots dancing celebrate the end of the human spirit and the biological world. Both seductive and repulsive, this image toys with our false hopes of a technologically brighter future.” Who doesn’t love a sepia toned robot dance surrounded by ancient technology? Complete with laser beams.

Food for thought.. enjoy.


Think or Smile | Nathaniel Whitcomb © 2010