For the second of our Back In The Day series we speak to a Los Angeles based artist with boundless imagination.
With his grandfather a double Oscar winner, and his father a two time nominee, there was always a degree of inevitability about Strangeloop aka. David Wexler’s eventual involvement in the visual arts. Although he briefly followed the path of his family through working in the silver screen, Wexler eventually found his calling lay outside of the confines of cinema and into decidedly more open ended and experimental territory. Honing his craft at the Academy of the Arts in San Francisco, Wexler met Steve Ellison, later known as Flying Lotus, with whom he bonded over their shared love of ‘avant-garde anime’ and ‘sci-fi’, starting a working relationship that has gone on to define his career.
Invited to VJ at the first ever live show by Ellison’s Brainfeeder label, Wexler began to visually manifest the sonic dreamscapes of the label’s head spinning music with aplomb. Going on to work with artists from the Brainfeeder stable such as The Gaslamp Killer, Samiyam, Ras G and Nosaj Thing, as well as Erykah Badu, Amon Tobin, Hudson Mohawke and Kode9, Wexler has built up a reputation for visuals that amaze and astound with their psychedelic visions of world’s imagined and undiscovered. As well as touring with the aforementioned artists and being one third of FlyLo’s jawdropping Layer 3 live show, Wexler, who has been producing since the age of 14, also releases experimental electronic music on Brainfeeder.
Catching up with him a little while back, Wexler spoke to Hyponik about his musical and visual inspirations, including a lengthy discussion about the indelible impact that Stanley Kubrick’s visionary masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ has made on him.
His ‘Math Rock’ past in the band Mr. Scratch as a teenager
“That’s from way back in the day! It was kind of early on that I got in to sort of really weird Math-y Metal like Lightning Bolt and Dillinger Escape Plan. That was some of the first stuff that really really inspired me, but I sort of realised that there was a point at which it could only get so heavy before you had to actually go in and destroy the sound somehow, to get something crazier out of it. That’s when I discovered people like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher who were really taking the audio and using electronics to destroy audio in a whole new way, and to me some of that more experimental Jungle-ish stuff was almost the next step from some of the Math-ier Metal that I was interested in. It was kind of a natural progression to get in to those guys.
We played a few gigs (as Mr. Scracth), we didn’t tour or anything – this was high school. We played talent shows and silly little events, although I felt like for just being some 16 year olds we probably could have taken it a lot further, but I think all of us in the band had different directions. I was so interested in electronics and visuals and stuff that I went in that direction, Joe (the bassist) was this kind of avant-garde Poet, even though he was an incredible bassist, that’s what he does now, he publishes these crazy very conceptual poems. John (the drummer) is actually still into music but doing a lot more sound design stuff, as far as I know he still does some Metal drumming. Its funny because I really haven’t been too much into playing instruments in bands and stuff for a long time but that was definitely how I started.”
Early musical influences
“You know it was kind of between the Math-Rock and stuff like Nine Inch Nails, Tool and Radiohead. All those were kind of the pillars of musical brilliance for me. Then all the electronic stuff like Amon Tobin, Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. I really liked the visual stuff associated with them.
I think I was like 14 or 15 or something and I saw Aphex Twin’s ‘Come To Daddy’ on MTV late night-it was when MTV would play that kind of stuff (laughs), I was just blown away, I didn’t know what to think. I guess I was so young too so I didn’t have any context for it whatsoever. It was just like: ‘How is this on TV?’, ‘What is it all about?’. I think Chris Cunningham managed to create such a unique visual experience coupled with this really bizarre music. I thought at the time this was the hardest core stuff that could exist, like I thought it was more hardcore than any Metal that was going on, it was more psychological and bizarre. Much deeper on a lot of levels for me.
It was scary too, but it was funny cos I felt less scared and more like we were being played with as a viewer and it was kind of a joke. There’s that element to a lot of Aphex stuff, where there might be this disturbing aspect but you get the sense that its like a big kind of a joke and also a transgressive joke, in that it’s doing something that you don’t see a lot of people doing in media.”
“It was weird because while I was influenced by a lot of stuff culturally, I also tried hallucinogens at quite a young age. That was like a whole other thing because while there was all this madness associated with that, there was this transcendental component that I couldn’t ignore and I was trying to understand and have really been trying to understand over the course of a lot of my life. I saw this imagery and felt sort of linked, this sounds really clichéd and stupid, linked with the cosmos and everything in a sort of fractal way, before I even knew what fractals were. Video feedback is a really clear way of creating fractal imagery just using very simple tools. That was really inspiring at a pretty young age and I felt like there wasn’t a lot of media especially at the time that had any sort of sense of those kind of spaces that people could reach on hallucinogens. Anything that was kind of trippy was just that, it was basically this more superficial kind of attempt at illustrating these really profound states.
I knew that as I started growing up that other people had experienced this stuff and we could all talk about it, but I looked at what was going on in the media at large and it seemed that were so few points of reference for anything that related with those states in any convincing way. As I say, you had trippy stuff but nothing that got to the heart of it, so that’s been one of my pursuits as well. That inspiration wasn’t anything cultural, it was from very personal experiences. I knew other people had had similar experiences on these substances and whatnot but I kind of just had to go inward to explore that stuff and figure out if there was ways of bringing it in to media and culture and how to do it.”
Did he and Steve Ellison (Flying Lotus) bond over a shared interest in ‘altered states’?
“I think so, definitely, and since we went to art school together I think we were both interested in altered states and media that could invoke altered states, not just illustrate them. In retrospect I think Steve and I, and a lot of the LA music community, craved some sort of mysticism in what was going on without it being some hokey new age thing or anything like that you know? We wanted the real mysticism and were looking for that real spiritual quality going on in music today and obviously sometimes the world of mass media seems really devoid of that and so I think a lot of what’s happened in LA, and I’m sure places all over the world, in the past 10 years has maybe been like a search for that.”
Why he was so inspired by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’
“When you contacted me and you said ‘inspiration’, I immediately thought ‘2001’, especially because its almost clichéd in that so many people that I work with reference it for their visual shows. Back in the day I remember it was one of those things that myself or other VJ’s would put on at clubs as a kind of default thing. It was just like ‘2001 is just always dope’ and its always great as background imagery or music, specifically the last sequence of the film, the ‘Stargate’ sequence. I’d been writing stuff on this and I thought that I could get together some quintessential tomé of philosophical musings about ‘2001’, but it ended being this kind of endless, like the sequence in the film, tunnel of craziness. I couldn’t totally pin it down into one quintessential statement about it.
I did find it really interesting how everyone started referencing it and it almost became a joke after a while. Like ‘what show am I going to work on where I don’t get asked for ‘2001’-esque imagery?’ On one level I definitely don’t have a problem with it because its my favourite film and I love the imagery and philosophy behind it, but I started wondering: what happened? How did it effect everyone so deeply and continue to effect everyone so deeply? So I started picking apart the sequence and the aesthetics and kind of had to for some of the shows I was working on because they wanted imagery like it. So I was wondering how did they do all this stuff, and not just from a technical standpoint but like what was the thought process behind coming up with this imagery?
I think in ways ‘2001’ is presenting a new perspective. The whole sequence at the end is almost the roots of a lot of live visual art today I think, it sort of blurred some lines and I know that people like my Dad were going to ‘2001’ kind of like it was a concert you know? There was a lot of people at that time that were taking drugs and going and seeing this movie (laughs)! The last 30 minutes might as well be this prolonged, totally psychedelic music video. Its not about the dialogue anymore, its just this kind of experiential thing, where I feel like the audience member is kind of the main character. I feel a lot of the imagery is assembled in a way that the person viewing is supposed to be David, the astronaut main character. You’re just put right in the centre of it and you’re on this roller coaster ride. I think that a lot of live visuals – the better live visuals – approach that territory where its more like the audience is cast as the protagonist, the first person in this kind of ride.
Everything about that sequence is kind of mystical on some level, it really is an example of something profound and uncategorizable in mainstream cinema and that was in the 60’s! I mean its ridiculous. On a lot of levels I think why I’m hearing ‘2001’ all the time is because we’re still playing catch up on certain levels. Now we have all this technology to create all these massive live experiential events on a scale that I think was hard to comprehend back in the day but aesthetically and philosophically there’s stuff in ‘2001’ that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around and are still reaching for. Its kind of just one of those anomalies in cinema and I think its had an effect bigger than we even know.”
“I’ve always been like a film maniac in part because of my family. When I was interested in something my Dad or my Grandfather would tell me, ‘oh you should watch these movies’. I got way into Kubrick very early on and saw all of his stuff. Maybe that stuff wasn’t necessarily intended for a super young mind as its so intense and violent and crazy, but for me it was really important to see it when I was really young as it put me on a certain trajectory. Like a lot of people, I sense that in Kubrick’s stuff that there was something more going on than just good film making. Kubrick obviously was this kind of mad genius that somehow got all the resources in the world to manifest whatever he wanted in film and was just almost in a solely unique position. I don’t think there’s many people that have been in his position where he has been given a blank cheque by MGM to do whatever he wanted to do in his films. If you go online there are masses of people trying to take apart things like ‘2001’ and ‘The Shining’ and find all the subliminal cues. Some of it gets really, really silly and its just like ‘you’re just reaching’, but the fact that his films could incite that kind of fervour is testament to his genius.
There’s enough in his films so that people go back over and over again and find a million different interpretations, down to just minute edits in the film. Like ‘this cut meant this’, people just go way into it. I sensed that early on with his films where I thought that these are like road maps or something for our whole evolution or our history. Like crazy big stuff. ‘2001’ is obviously one of the few films where the reach of it goes from the dawn of our self reflecting consciousness to the transcendence of our human-ness into some other being or transcendental form. How many films can we really look at that try to tackle that kind of time line? I can’t even think of another one really (laughs). So it sort of stands alone.
I always got intrigued because although I’m a young person dabbling in all these different forms and I can’t hope at this point to get near the brilliance of some of these people that I’ve adored, its still like an invitation to explore really big ideas in art and I’ve always loved that idea that you could theoretically tackle this stuff. That you could talk about evolution or the singularity of ideas about whats happening in artificial intelligence and the future of our human-ness and all this stuff, I love that aspect that can be discussed in media, which is something that Kubrick showed me.”
The purpose of his work: Entertaining or Thought Provoking?
“That’s definitely a conflict because I know that sometimes I’m there to make something that just looks interesting, that’s a part of my job and that has its merits too. I’ve learned so much about 3D animation and just technically ways of creating things which I had in my mind, but definitely my pet projects in a sense are things that I worked on not always associated with visuals shows, but just art projects that have a tint of that – of trying to deal with bigger concepts. Sometimes the bigger concepts get dealt with through something thats very personal, you don’t have to over-intellectualise it, its just there. I think maybe more now, at least at this point in my career, it just naturally shows up somewhere in there, no matter what I’m doing. I’m not as much trying to engineer some intellectual statement. It’s funny you should ask me this because recently I did get interested to the point where I actually got obsessed with ‘The Shining’ and all the subliminal information that is theoretically within this film. I just thought, ‘God, it would be so fun if someone made an album that was like that, that had all this almost mathematical information embedded within it and stuff about culture’. I always try to do that with projects that I work on, but I hadn’t really tackled anything like that for a while, so I’ve been engineering something like that for a while. Maybe something I might release on Skrillex’s label or Brainfeeder, I’ve been working on something like an audio visual project that could tackle some things that I’ve been thinking about (laughs).”
Music listening habits
“Its funny, I listen to a lot of the same stuff over and over again. I need my friends to actually break me out of that (laughs) I hear new stuff from hanging out with musician friends of mine, but I listen to Steve Reich a lot and I listen to more kind of minimal stuff at my house. I listen to older music a lot too, things like Django Reinhardt and things that one wouldn’t expect. I’m experimenting with sound all the time as well, making strange sounds on Ableton and whatnot.
As far as contemporary music, I love Machinedrum, James Blake. I do love some contemporary music, but I also tend to tune out and go back to what I know and be in sort of like a meditative place, if that makes any sense? (laughs) Its kind of funny ‘cos I feel like I should be more tapped in but a lot of times I kind of revert to things I found interesting for a long time in terms of music. But you know Mount Kimbie, I love Mount Kimbie. Basically the whole Warp Records catalogue is always interesting to me…. Amon Tobin. I guess I listen to a lot of contemporary electronic music but I don’t have a good nose for finding a lot of new material and I kind of rely on my friends to show me stuff. It always takes someone to be like, ‘Dude, you have to hear this!’, then I’m like ‘Ok fine’ (laughs). Usually I stick to what I know.
I guess its great that I have the friends that I have, ‘cos some of them are much more amped about finding new music. Timeboy or ‘Lotus or my buddy Ian, he shows me new stuff all the time. I dunno, I have a funny relationship with culture in general, where sometimes I find it easier to do my work and innovate when I’m not continually letting myself be bombarded with what’s new, even if its good. I like having some space from whats going so I can find my own approach to something, ‘cos I find that often if there’s something that I really like I might be trying to do something that is similar to that and it just clouds my normal process. The positive side of that would be being inspired by something, but I find that there’s so much out there right now, that once I go into the vortex of looking at new music its like this kind of din of stuff that’s going on. Sometimes I like having some space just from culture in general.”
Top image: Grace Oh
Bottom Image: Kyle Depinna
(All other imagery courtesy of David Wexler)