How Prism House appropriates Tumblr GIFs and Vimeo videos for a psychedelic spectacle.
About a month ago I saw Prism House live at the Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn. I wouldn't say I was skeptical, but neither was I expecting a mind-melting experience. Yet that's exactly what Prism House gave me.
Brian Wenner's fractured, asymmetrical beats, vocal samples and melodies blasted out of speakers in radial waves, mingling with Matt O'Hare's liquid, geometric visuals of colorful fractals and hypnotic tunneling. The overall aesthetic evoked an intensely beautiful psychedelic experience. For me, it was very cyberpunk. The duo proved to everyone in attendance that they are into audio-visual experimentation in a serious way, and not because electronic music is suddenly fashionable.
In a recent conversation with the two, we talked about the band's origins, open source innovation, and the benefits of a minimal setup vs. a studio of endless equipment.
The Creators Project: How did Prism House come into existence?
Matt: After I met Pia Blumenthal at graduate school. We started making music visualization together, where there was a clear correlation between the two forms. I've already done this in a way as a sound designer for theater, which is all about marrying recordings or music with imagery.
Pia started showing me all this stuff—Max/MSP/Jitter and Processing. I realized I could create my own visual content and then make music for that. But when I met Brian I was like, Oh, he can just write the music. [Laughs] It's worked out pretty well. We have complimentary styles but we're different enough to keep it interesting.
Brian: I met Matt through classes and then we played a show or two together and it was cool. I was working under my old moniker Shapeless Shadow at the time, which was harder IDM stuff, but I wanted to transition into something different, like found-sound, collage-type music. I already had the Reflections EP. Things changed with Pia's situation, and then Matt wanted to start making visuals. So it was pretty seamless.
I know that Matt essentially “samples” Tumblr videos and remixes them. Brian, are you doing something similar with sound?
Brian: A lot of it is just manipulating samples as opposed to playing synthesizers, although I do play the rhythms on a keyboard. A field recorder is used to get sounds around New York. The only other option would be to use vinyl, but I don't have a record player nor the money to buy vinyl. I realized that Vimeo is a really good source for internet sampling because the codec sounds really good. Some of the samples are laid out melodically on the keyboard, so that when I play it back it has a melodic tone.
GIF by Daniel Naman.
So with a track like “Need You (Part I),” for example, were the beats sampled from Vimeo?
Brian: I recorded a lot of beats in a studio space that we used to have. I released a lot of those sounds in this sample pack that I put up online for free, so people can just use the sounds for whatever they want. We shared the space with a woodworker, so there was a lot of cool stuff lying around that made weird sounds. And I would also record the sounds of doors and hallways.
The vocal sample is actually from a Motown a capella track. My college friend, a hip-hop producer, gave me all of these a capella tracks and I thought I'd never use them. I actually forgot I had them and then realized they were really great.
What about the spoken word sample toward the end of the song?
Brian: Yeah. He was saying how it was very strange to be staring at a screen all the time, and so he started using modular synthesizers instead. Pitched down, the sample has this weird German dude sound. [Laughs]
What's the process like when sampling from Vimeo for a live video mix?
Matt: Basically, I'll go through Tumblr trolling for interesting animated GIFs. I have different folders like “Goth Black & White” and another one called “Girls” and stuff like that. [Laughs] I wrote a script that allows me to compile all of these GIFs into a movie file, and then I do some pixel stuff where I screw up the images a little bit and put my mark on them so I'm not shamelessly recycling internet content.
Max/MSP/Jitter is the final stage of manipulation and how I tie it to the music. The way I like to think of it is that I'm back in my old situation of playing an instrument live, but it just so happens that this instrument manifests itself digitally.
Brian: You've kind of moved away from the straight-up GIF usage live toward a more crazy psychedelic type visual.
Matt: That's a good point. I've always been really interested in alternative experiences. One of my major goals in Prism House is to really make the suggestion that the space we're in is much larger than just the venue. People aren't taking advantage of the fact that they have this window into something different. A lot of effort lately has been spent in tunnel imagery, suggesting an infinite horizon.
What other techniques do you use for live video?
Matt: I've been into something sort of analogous to what Brian is doing with his field recorder and sampling from real life. I've really started to move in this direction of using live camera in combination with the visuals to create feedback loops.
GIF by Daniel Naman.
The live video feedback loop with the fractals and disintegrating patterns are really hypnotic. Before Brian told me you were using a webcam, I thought it was sorcery. I thought, 'What dark magic is this guy using to reprogram my mind?' All joking aside, I knew it was a feedback loop, but I wasn't completely sure how you were creating it. I thought it was some sort of visual theremin.
Brian: Way less interesting than that. [Laughs]
Matt: We're both sort of lo-fi individuals. Neither one of us has gone super hi-tech.
But you're both essentially hacking existing material, whatever it may be.
Matt: We're just taking advantage of what's around. It's like Hip Hop, which is really revolutionary music. It just came from the sheer will of wanting to make shit.
Brian: It's like, we have a microphone and a turntable, how can we make something cool out of that? That's a prominent thing with this project as well—using what is around and not getting too crazy thinking that if we had this the show would be so much better.
So, what's next for Prism House?
Brian: I think I want to do a longer EP, something in the 28 to 30-minute range. Anything longer than that would be too much. We're going to put that EP out later in the year and then another EP next year.
It's like Burial's method of releasing music over the last few years. He's really smart in how he approaches EPs. The listener ends up not caring that he isn't releasing full albums.
Brian: He doesn't overwhelm you and he gives it to you at the right moment. We're more of an EP-style band anyway. Give people enough that it feels like a cohesive work, but not so much that becomes too dense and people just get turned off and don't listen at all. Eight years ago the EP was something you didn't really do. Now it's like, “Wow, you're going to do a full length... really?”
I am really interested in doing a limited-run USB drive release, where you buy the USB drive with all the music on it and you can download it and then have the USB drive. That was something I saw in college that noise guys were doing. We want to do physical at some point, but it seems like right now digital is the best way to go.
What sort of enhancements are you planning for the live show?
Brian: We do want to enhance the live show. It's cool as it is, but it can be better. We want to start integrating lights alongside—
Matt: Holograms. [Laughs]
Brian: And costumes and then pods we emerge out of at the beginning of the set. [Laughs] There was a period of time when we were talking heavily about doing installation stage design stuff, but it became a logistical nightmare, so we just kept it simple. But, I would love to get back into having objects on stage that enhance the show.
Matt: What we want to do totally overlaps with the Open Source movement that's happening now. A lot of people want to escape the logic of someone else's system, either for making music or making visuals; kind of moving in this direction of not being confined by someone else's definition of what a virtual synth should be. One of my big frustrations with virtual synths is that it is so hard to make them fuck up, whereas with an analogue synthesizer you can just twist a knob and you get some weird sounds. People are so protective when it comes to making things sound bad.
For anyone who is interested in being innovative, yesterday's mistakes are today's awesome shit. What's noise yesterday...
Brian: ...is poppy as heck now.
Prism House's Reflections EP is available now through Ceremony.