Vinyl Williams

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Vinyl Williams

I’ve never had an interview with a musician as thoughtful, coherent, and creative as Lionel Williams, who creates music under the name Vinyl Williams. The grandson of composer John Williams, Lionel operates on a level that is sometimes difficult to grasp but never far out of reach. Listen to a few samples of his latest LP, Into, and it’s clear that you’re in for a head trip in the best possible sense.

But using reductive language such as that doesn’t do Williams or his art any justice. He creates music that operates on different levels other than what we may be used to; comforting, ambient music that brims with positive energy and a visual aura. No surprise then that Williams is also a visual artist who has amassed quite a large catalog of work in the visual arts field and attracted likeminded musicians such as Django Django, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Toro Y Moi, with whom Williams has just released a collaborative EP.

So, now is your chance to enter into the multiple, synesthetic worlds that Williams creates with open ears, eyes, and hearts. But you might need to open up to absorb all of what Williams offers in conversation. It’s ok, though. It’s good to move out of your comfort zone sometimes. Trust me.

Stereo Subversion: The music and everything that goes with it on Into is both aural and visual. How do you reconcile the two or are they inseparable?

Vinyl Williams: Well, I was a musician long before I was a visual artist so I really have to try to make the visual work. That’s why I use a lot of collage techniques to create visual environments and explorable landscapes. Especially now for my job as a freelance interactive psychedelic video game maker—which is the narrowest niche market I could possibly conjure up for myself. But with that being my job, I have to make work quickly and I have to work on three to six projects a month to stay afloat. It’s a fun, easy process to create these worlds and it totally informs my sound practice that I’ve had my entire life growing up in a musical world and family.

If you make music and artwork through the processes of improvisation, then it just sort of ends up coming out as an expression of your untainted self...

I don’t think I have synesthesia, but I have been trying these past few years to develop it. I learned the concept and then tried to obtain it by interrelating the senses in deliberate ways. So that’s where you’re getting that from. And it’s also pretty obvious how my artwork comes out; they seem totally cooperative and that was my intention—to expand that realm into the interrelated. The interrelatedness of the senses.

It’s actually not that hard to do it because if you make music and artwork through the processes of improvisation, then it just sort of ends up coming out as an expression of your untainted self. These are the forms, colors, and objects that resonate with my fundamental being and these are the things that will come out. So they will always come out very cooperative with each other.

That’s why I step away from the narrative and context of the objects I’m using. I use a lot of multi-religious objects and I just try to separate context from resonance. If something gives me an uplifting or divine feeling then I’ll just use it. I’m forced to. It’s through deliberate process; the process is improvisation but the intention is deliberate. It’s like opposites working together to create something outside of my compositional abilities.

You stumble upon treasures when you work in collage and that’s what a lot of artists and musicians are doing right now. I want to amplify that aspect of contemporary music and art making. It’s like scavenging in the ether and finding treasures in there. It’s really, really fun.

SSv: Are there visual artists, musicians, or authors who are on that level with you, who inspire you?

Vinyl: Absolutely. Lawrence Leitch is an artist from the UK. He also makes music and he’s more on the critical side of the spectrum. He recreated the Museum of Modern Art in London as a virtual video game environment where you can actually put up your own art on the walls. I thought that was brilliant.

One person who influenced [me] was James Ferraro. He made an album that is kind of making fun of New Age concepts, but I approached his albums without knowing about that concept first, so they took the form of these transcendent ambient pieces. And he thinks those are funny, which is what he said when I read interviews with him later. [Laughs] He conquered my obliviousness and created something that was really beautiful. His album Clear put me in this incredibly soothing space that felt like healing.

After that I really wanted to make that kind of ambient pop music that feels good and feels healthy to listen to, sort of. He also made an album about Los Angeles and since I’m from Los Angeles I found that hilarious. It’s really anti-music, but I take music very seriously. I have to be aware of what I’m doing and listen to music and art that is fairly opposed to what I do.

SSv: That dichotomy helps inspire you?

Vinyl: Yeah, and I listen to really dark, scary music and that also informs my blissful music and balances out the scale so that there are no scales. I feel like my entire practice is about dissolving dualities. It’s a hard thing to do and it takes a lot of tables of correspondences, emotions, words, and having them all in front in me and trying to dissolve the opposites of each other while in the process of making.

SSv: For someone who approaches this record, to you, is there an ideal mindset or setting for your music to unfold for a listener? Or do you feel like it should be available anywhere?

Vinyl: Well, I could tell you the least ideal setting, that’s for sure. I’ve listened to my album on laptop speakers and it sounds so terrible. The melodies are all in the bass and without that the songs just sound like one ambient chord with a beat over it and vocals that are really far away. I think driving to it or moving to it, traveling to it, it best. Headphones are great, of course but that’s not totally necessary. I wish I had mixed the album for laptop speakers, but I don’t have the engineering to conquer that. (Laughs) Good vehicle speakers and headphones are the best.

SSv: Well, once you start mixing to laptop speakers I think you’re degrading something on purpose.

Vinyl: I don’t care much about production, I care about aesthetic, the ornamental forms of music that don’t have to be pristine. And if it just happens to come out in the bassline then there’s almost nothing I can do to make that come out on laptop speakers. On the vinyl release, how every record player is different and how every speaker is different, that’s important, too. Like how the speed changes with every turntable, too. I like that spontaneity a lot. The more imperfect that is, the more surprised I am. I find crazy harmonics that I didn’t even put in there. Those uncanny elements that are unpredictable are the most important.

SSv: Do you have to be in a certain mental state to compose the music or…

Vinyl: Oh yes. Oh yes. I can’t just come home and make music that is releasable. I live with ten people now, so that’s not really an option. My father has this house in Utah and I would go there every summer and just lock my self in the studio for a month and just eat peanut butter and jelly and just not leave and make music as a hermit. That’s the only way I can get in the zone. It requires a lot of isolation for me.

I have been able to improvise and collaborate with others and make great stuff, but to be able to make music that is totally in line with my ultimate goal, which is to create a shield… The Vinyl Williams symbol is a square vortex that goes into itself, it’s an Egyptian symbol that means shelter. And my last name, Williams, also means “shelter.” It comes from “wilhelm” which means “shelter,” “shield,” or “protection.” People’s names are very important to their roles in life. And I feel like my role is to transmute detrimental energies into beneficial ones. To be able to do that not arbitrarily it takes a lot of concentration. And hermitzing, I call it.

SSv: A lot of artists talk about having to create in that sort of space—being locked away.

Vinyl: I know a lot of people do it. And it takes a couple weeks for your mind to get into this flow, to get beyond thought. Just the physical actions that you’re making spontaneously can create things that are beyond you. The best songs of the record came in the last few days of that monthlong process.

It doesn’t come as natural to me because I’ve negated my entire musical upbringing. And when you have everything from when you’re at zero, you take it for granted so long. And I’ve only in the past few years been reconciling with the true magical nature of music and to get back in touch with what that really is. Because I studied classical music and always had an organ and Rhodes in my life and, I thought, “I don’t need to play those, they’ll always be there!” [Laughs] But then they went away and I needed them immediately! Which is how things are.

SSv: It’s strange how we take things for granted—like the music we’re surrounded with. We can only appreciate it when we don’t hear it any more. And then it’s gone.

Vinyl: Absolutely. And if I could make something that was like a subconscious addition to the immediate moment of experience—that presence of immediate experience—that’s all I need to do in life. I don’t want to demand people’s attention. That’s not part of my personality.

SSv: You mentioned collaboration earlier, and you just had a collaboration with Chaz Bundick. How did that happen?

Vinyl: One day I got an email from Sean Patrick Maylone that said, “Hey, I like your artwork!  Would you be able to design a flyer for a Toro Y Moi tour that I’m bringing to Korea?” And he was going to pay me a lot of money—that was 2011 and I wasn’t really making money off of graphic design. I said, “Well, instead of paying me to make the flyer, just book my band in Korea and let us open up for Toro Y Moi.” And he said, “Okay!” [Laughs] And I was totally kidding, but he was down for it. So that happened.

We were staying at the hotel with [Toro Y Moi] in Seoul. And at first it was pretty awkward. We didn’t know each other and we went out to get Korean BBQ and we weren’t really talking to each other, we were all on our phones. And I’m obsessed with Chaz, I’m absolutely obsessed with his music. His music puts me in this blissful modality that no one else can do. It’s perfect bliss for me.

And I sort of started the conversation by trying to describe his music in visual terms, complimenting him on that. We talked about pedals, his writing process, which is similar to mine, then we played the show and he said, if you’re ever in Berkley, we should jam. And Ian, my guitarist, who is amazing, we just happen to be in Berkley one day with some of our equipment. So we rang him up and went to his house-studio and just decided to make an album in a day. We spent three hours making the Trance Zen Dental Spa record just by improvising in the studio for three hours.

It’s funny, because at the very end of the creative process, that’s when the true beauty comes out. And just at the last ten minutes were the best.

Tags: Interviews


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