Interview: David Wexler Talks VR, Making 3D Visuals for Flying Lotus, The Weeknd & More
David Wexler of Strangeloop Studios gives us an in-depth look into life as one of the biggest concert visual artists in the world.
It was a strange sight. Not the usual mass congregation of hipsters wearing costumes. That was to be expected at a Flying Lotus concert in Austin on Halloween. People wearing costumes and 3D glasses to see live music, though? That was weird. Few concertgoers dancing during an electronic music show because they were so immersed in the background visuals? Even weirder. But this much is the norm at a concert with graphics made by Strangeloop Studios.
From partnerships with The Weeknd to Kendrick Lamar, Strangeloop is one of the leading concert visualist companies in the world. Their mind-bending visuals are created by David Wexler, the company’s founder, and creative director. David comes from a family of filmmakers and has been obsessed with manipulating visuals into video art since he was little.
Not a fan of “The Matrix” sequels, Wexler decided to make his own, combining his favorite moments from the 2nd and 3rd films into one that Wexler described to me as “far superior” when I met him prior to the Flying Lotus’ show last week.
Wexler brings this type of cinematic flair to the live concert arena. His application of narrative and concept represents a departure from the more decorative light shows that became common after the rapid rise of EDM called for more immersive concert experiences.
With each concert, Strangeloop continues to pioneer new standards for the art form. The Flying Lotus tour uses new technology from 3D Live to create an astonishing audio-visual experience. During each song, I felt like I was introspecting my own sub-conscious as I journeyed into that of FlyLo’s and Wexler’s. The visuals helped me achieve this by depicting abstract living elements and symbols of the human body being unwired and deconstructed. Each song existed in its own world with life forms conceived by beats in an atmosphere of melodies.
Flying Lotus’ silhouette occupied the bottom half of the screen, appearing to direct the experience as a conductor would his orchestra. In reality, the show is a collaborative effort. Although not visible to the crowd, David Wexler and visual artist John King A.KA. Timeboy are operating the visuals live, jamming with FlyLo using the video-mixing software Resolume as their instruments.
When I texted you asking to do this interview, a couple of days went by before you answered saying “Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I’ve been in VR for most of the past five days.” I couldn’t tell…were you joking?
No, I wasn’t. I spend a lot of time in VR.
What do you do in there?
I’ve been working on making concerts in VR. We’ve done Ash Koosha’s show, Tokimonsta’s show…There’s times I’ll be in VR for 5 hours straight.
When you say you’re doing these live shows in VR, what do you mean?
It’s a new kind of thing. We work with WaveVr to create VR shows. People can tune in from anywhere in the world. Basically, you can tune in and have an avatar with whom you see other people at the show. The musician can have an avatar, I can have an avatar.
It’s a shared experience. It’s like when you go to a real concert with a bunch of people, except they’re avatars. It opens up a ton of possibilities because you’re constructing these worlds from the ground up. Things you simply couldn’t do, or budget for at a real concert. You can have stages that are a mile high and it’s fascinating. You definitely can have a shared experience with people even if you’re in the same place as them physically.
It’s kind of an “Ah-ha moment when you actually experience it because it seems kind of out there otherwise. But we actually have the technology to do those things.
How has VR changed your art?
Basically, once VR arrived, I knew it was the medium I wanted to make audiovisual experiences for where I’m wielding the whole thing. Otherwise, I might make some music or visual shows for artists and that’s a collaborative thing. VR allows me to show more of my own audiovisual work.
We could talk VR for hours, but let’s get into Strangeloop. What was your original vision for it and has it become what you originally hoped it to be?
The basic idea is to make mind-blowing visual shows. Mind expanding art. It was always about trying to pull meaning out of all this chaos that you can discover through video experimentation and experimentation with graphics.
When I started out, the things I was really interested in were very esoteric. Underground stuff. It wasn’t mainstream at all, but now it is. We do shows for artists like The Weeknd. I didn’t foresee it exactly like this. It’s weird to say anything we do is mainstream because I want to be involved in the most esoteric experimentation of video. But it’s cool that we can bring those things to larger audiences with live shows.
When did VJ-ing become your profession? What was it like at first?
I started professionally doing video stuff for shows when I was probably 22. Initially, it was a process of discovery. To me, it was a completely wide open medium that people weren’t treating with the same reverence as cinema. You had people like Pink Floyd or a couple of groups that showed what you could do. Some artists that did their own thing that was really phenomenal and used video well, but it wasn’t the norm.
So I wanted to push it as far as it could go and think of it as something that was completely art. And now I feel like that’s more the norm, to have a visual show to go with the music, especially since the rise of EDM and big electronic music. The DJ’s needed to be able to fill out their presentation and bring people into their world using technology. I kind of got in at that time, where a lot of things were becoming possible. When people began desiring visual stimulation alongside the music.
I would go to those type of EDM shows growing up and I often thought the visuals were cool, but at times they appeared more like decoration than conceptual art. Do you think there’s still a lot of this in the field or are people starting to make live show visuals the way you do, with vision and concept in mind?
That’s a good way of putting it. Traditionally, I think it was an approach to do it decoratively. But now I think artists are realizing we have a universe that we can bring you into it at a show. So there’s a lot more conceptual stuff in there.
There’s still groups where it’s just decorative. But you know, there’s also an argument to be made, that sometimes you don’t want a visual show. Maybe it’s a certain group where it makes sense to focus on them over the visuals. But there is a certain kind of artist that benefits from having a visual component that is an immersive experience that you can be brought into.
Like Flying Lotus?
Yeah, Flying Lotus is great, he takes use of it very well. I love working with him because he’s such a cinematic fellow and is really into all these ideas we can bring into the visual show to sort of take you into his world.
So what’s the difference between how you approach a Flying Lotus show versus how you approach a show for The Weeknd?
I think Steve (Flying Lotus) wants to be embedded in this spectacle, and I think someone like the Weekend wants to go out and be the center of the show. Both are totally viable. Being a backdrop is not always bad. I respect those shows as well when it’s not about us trying to impose our vision. We can be a backdrop, but hopefully be a powerful vessel for what’s going on with the performance as well.
Let’s get into this Flying Lotus 3D Tour. In an interview with Pigeons and Planes, Flying Lotus described the show as a “live jam session” between you and him. How is it that?
When you see the Flying Lotus 3D show, it’s the whole thing, it’s the music, it’s the visuals, everything together. We’re taking the lead from Flying Lotus, but it’s in real time, building the syntax and the architecture of it as we go.
It’s a very natural process. As we play more shows, I start to get used to his material and absorbing it. I just get into the mindset of what he’s doing and eventually, we’ll know every beat of the track and we can match visuals to it. But it’s definitely an organic process. He changes the set all the time, so we need to be in a perceptive place. It’s just I’ve been working with him for so long, it’s rarely a stretch of my imagination. We’ve got to the point where we can read one another.
This is the first time we’ve done a real 3D show. In the past, we did different versions of a 3D show but it was almost fake 3D using multiple screens. Now we’re doing it with real 3D glasses, which I wasn’t interested in at all until I saw this new patented technology that’s not what you see in theaters. It uses a 3D LED wall, you’ll see it tonight, it’s pretty insane.
What do you expect the audience to feel while experiencing the show?
I think it’s very subjective. I hope people enjoy it, the whole thing is a big collaborative effort from a lot of people trying to make something that I think breaks through the noise a bit.
Ultimately, it’s about the ideas and the vibe. It’s a spectacle, but it’s not just about the spectacle. So I hope people walk away having questions, I love imagery where you can’t put your finger on it right away. That’s what I’m always looking for. Stuff where when you see it, part of you is going to wonder, what is that, what am I experiencing.
I want people to walk away, hopefully in awe of some kind. Wondering what they just saw, and wanting to see it again. Because it’s always different. The worse thing would be if you saw it and were like that was okay. Or to feel that you knew exactly what you saw. I want people to be pleasantly baffled.
I’d say that was an apt description for how I felt leaving the show last Tuesday. I was so satisfied I lost all my urge to trick or treat. Maybe next year…Until then, I’ll be keeping an eye out on the projects coming out of Strangeloop Studios and you should too. Speaking of which, check out their most recent work with Micah Nelson’s band, Insects Vs. Robots, whom Wexler collaborated with to create this genius video for the track, “THEYLLKILLYAA.”