A/V Candy: An Interview with Zebbler
13 May 2011

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If you’ve seen Shpongle or EOTO lately and had your mind blown by the visuals, then this interview is for you.  The mastermind behind the Shpongletron and co-mastermind of the Zebbler Encanti Experience gave Sparkleberry Lane a much appreciated look inside his life, inspirations, challenges, and favorite movies.  Without further adieu, Zebbler speaks 🙂

SBL: You grew up in Belarus, what kind of environment did you grow up in?  Were the arts supported or were you exposed to different types of art growing up?

Z: I grew up in the rural outskirts of Grodno, a city of about 300,000 people.  My village was pretty poor – no running water, no plumbing, no telephones.  It really reminds me of the movie Gummo.  But within those hardships my inspirations were my friends and nature.  Exploring, being daring and reckless, writing poetry and keeping journals to keep sane.

My mom introduced me to drawing and writing early on in my life.  I kind of stuck with it ever since.  It’s almost like another language, that’s always accessible to me now – translating life into art – visual and verbal descriptions of my reality.

You have said that your work, at first musically and now visually, has been influenced by the oppressiveness of Belarus.  How do you think your heritage now inspires you?   Once it provided you with angst, how does it now influence you positively?

It’s the struggle.  I’ve been detained by the Belarusian police, who have searched me, found my journals and poems and specifically told me:  “Those seem like free-thinking poems to me.  If we find you again with these on you, you might regret being alive!”

It all seems like a joke.  But it wasn’t.  They had reloaded an AK-47 right behind my head just an hour before, making a very serious statement.

So my struggle is to break down all of the taboos that don’t hurt anyone.  I think people should be as free as possible, as long as we don’t hurt each other.  I just try to be free with my art, explore the side of me that’s currently seeking to be expressed, with no regard for political opinion or currently trending topics, just to get really personal with it.  My art is my therapy, my tool for growth.  And hopefully I can take some other people with me, along for the ride.

But really, that crude oppression of the Soviet and then the Post-Soviet Belarusian dictator’s oppression just made me grow callous when it comes to other people telling me what’s right and what’s wrong in art.  Everyone has to make that decision for themselves.  We are our own gods.

How did your passion for a/v entertainment evolve?

I always liked to “act out”.  I was the only kid in my class in Belarus who got up and danced to a record our teacher was playing for the class.  I didn’t care.  I also did a lot of visual art, drawings and video were my passion.  So ultimately I wanted to combine the feeling of being in a band with the feeling of expressing myself visually.  Live A/V performances was definitely the way to go for me.  I realized that as soon as I entered Massachusetts College of Art in 2000, shortly after programming my own A/V software in Director.

Often in picking careers we may feel that what we’re “supposed” to do gets in the way of what we are passionate about.  How, starting up, did you support your hobby monetarily and time wise?

I got in trouble with that from the get go.  Back in Belarusian high school, I was sent to a career councelor, who asked me what I wanted to be when I graduated.  I answered simply “I want to be free”.

After coming to US, I realized that this capitalist society doesn’t believe in free education, but does believe in loaning money freely.  So I am in a lot of debt right now.  That’s how I financed getting all of my a/v gear, my college education and my first pro-bono gigs.  I am in a slightly better position now, starting to slowly pay all of it back, but it’s still a bit rough.

But such is life.

I think pursuing what I love was worth all of the loans and expenses.

How did you wind up touring with Ozric Tentacles?

A bit of chance and a bit of skill, kind of how it usually is with those things.  I was friends with Oliver Seagle, who was hired to play drums on their 2006 US tour.  He saw me do some interesting VJ work at one of his house parties and was impressed enough to recommend me as their VJ.  I stepped it up, created a ton of original content and bought some new gear to make it happen – and sure enough they chose me to go on tour with them.  I hopped on the tour bus and got my crash course in VJing and touring immediately after I graduated art school.

We love stories…You’ve done over 300 shows so far in your career, what have been some of your favorite experiences?

I’ve been touring non stop doing close to a show a day for the past 2 months, have another two months of touring ahead of me as well…  As far as favorite stories go, there are quite a few I suppose.  Generally tour memories end up smearing into a blur, sort of like watching the trees go by, when you drive past them at high speeds – you no longer see the individual leaves, just kind of a general green blur.  Here are some of my memories:

Building Shpongletron:  We had no indoor venue available to us to build and  test the 3 story tall scaffolding structure.  We were also under a really tight deadline to try to finish everything in time for the 2011 NYE show in New York.  I remember setting it up outdoors with my friend Blake Courtney at 4a.m. in super frigid (5 degrees F or so) December Boston, pulling out my projector and laptop and climbing on top of a roof of a nearby building so that I could get enough of a distance to line up my projections.  I am still surprised I didn’t get frostbite from that experience and that I could line everything up with my frozen equipment.  It was super critical for me to finish the line up test that night, as we had no other chance to do this.  Sometimes these things get pulled off by a near miracle.  The entire December of constructing Shpongletron was full of those “wow, did this really just work out?” moments.  I am grateful to my fates for that.

Ozric Tentacles 2006 Tour:  One of the most surreal moments of the tour was seeing Brandi Wynne lose her temper at the Fillmore West.  The venue was asking Ozrics to cut their set short due to another co-headliner, and Brandi refused to do so, along with the rest of the band.  Our sound was cut from the main speakers, yet the band continued to play through the monitors, finishing the song.  Afterwards, enraged Brandi kicked a giant hole in the green room door and had to be escorted out.  It was a rather surreal moment for me – to be in this legendary venue that so many of my musical heroes have played in – and to witness something as surreal as the band I represented destroying things there in the most punk-rock of ways.

Shpongle Tour 2009:  I was asked to drive myself and my gear everywhere.  Some of the drives were ridiculously long and exhausting.  I remember after a particularly long night of performances and raging, I was driving 12 hours straight to Flagstaff, AZ.  I was pulled over right before arriving in town for looking suspicious, driving too slow/erratic.  I was so out of it, that the cop that pulled me over asked to take my pulse.  To this day I keep joking that he did this just to make sure I was still alive behind the wheel.  It was a very challenging tour for me.

You and Encanti, your cohort in the Zebbler Encanti Experience, seem to share a similar vision.  How did you guys meet and what was the start of your collaboration like?

Back in 2006 I first started experimenting with performing in surround sound and surround visuals, Encanti came to one of my large-scale shows at Massachusetts College of Art.  His slightly altered state of mind was blown in the best of ways.  Later that night, his girlfriend introduced us, making a point to say that we should collaborate.  The opportunity to test that relationship came soon enough – I booked myself for two nights at the Firefly Festival’s SMGU stage, while not getting any audio ready for the second night on purpose, hoping to find a performer to collaborate with.  That’s when I ran into Encanti, walking through the woods with his G5 computer tower.  “Sure I can do surround!  I’ll even improv everything, generatively creating it in my MaxMSP patch!”  It was a seriously insane performance, challenging the minds of everyone that came to see me with its extremes.  And it was exactly at that time when I realized: “We should collaborate, this guy has an amazing talent.”  We’ve been full-on collaborating ever since.

The EOTO show I saw in Richmond with Z.E.E. Visuals was the best, most cohesive EOTO show I’ve seen to date.  What was the most rewarding thing for you about the EOTO tour?

I think the most rewarding thing was how close I became to these guys while touring with them.  Our entire crew had a pretty unprecedented bond between each other.  We’ve had some crazy adventures together and have helped each other out like one insane, but somehow, perfectly functional family.  It was also very rewarding to open for EOTO on tour with our all original a/v Zebbler Encanti Experience performances.  Lots of kids bugged to our music and visuals in the best of ways.


All in all – I view this last tour as an opportunity to get to know each other and how we work.  This is just a first step to something yet bigger and more impressive to happen next year.  These are my hopes and plans coming out of this tour.

When running visuals for a tour, your work is mostly behind the scenes.  How do you most get feedback from fans, and does their feedback affect future performances?

Sure, I love hearing what works and what doesn’t.  I listen to all feedback carefully and try to adjust my visuals to further match our fan’s ideas, if they ring true to me as well.  A lot of scene kids know who I am at this point, come up to me wherever I perform and offer some thoughts.

What was most helpful to me during the tour with EOTO was actually the band itself.  Often times, Jason would sit down with me and discuss what worked and what didn’t – continuously seeking ways to make the show better.  It was very helpful.  The band would mostly offer me requests/suggestions for how to make something trippier and more in tune with their music.  For example – the Pacman turning 3d, then turning into a human being, then turning into a disco ball – was one of those mental collaborations with Jason.  It all usually starts with “…wouldn’t it be cool if…”  It feels amazing to be capable of going from an idea to reality so quick.  EOTO made it possible for me.

What kind of obstacles have you had to overcome to realize your goals with Z.E.E.?

We constantly need to hustle to make money.  We find ourselves naturally constantly drawn to making more music and visuals all the time, and honestly speaking – money is the only constant obstacle.  Encanti and I worked really well artistically, and have almost no conceptual and work flow disagreements, which is pretty rare and is a gift we both cherish.  But having to constantly hustle to make ends meet has been slowing down our exponential madness a bit.  We’ve almost burst through to the other side though.  Almost.

How do you benefit from Boston’s creative collective?  How are you inspired by others, and more fundamentally, how do your projects depend on cooperation and help from others?

I co-habitate with a bunch of technological geniuses at the Glitch Loft in Boston.  It’s hugely beneficial to everyone involved I think.  We constantly surround ourselves with highly self-motivated people, who excel in coding, art, design, video, sculpture, robotics, carpentry – that combination of talent all pooled in one place is hugely inspiring and gives us all an ability to have our questions answered and assumptions challenged.

Moving on to the Shpongletron: How does the venue affect the execution, or how the Shpongletron works out from your point of view?

We’ve been amazingly lucky so far.  Every single show has worked, most worked very well.

It’s of a huge importance to place our projector at a precise distance and angle from the Shpongletron.  Most venues don’t really realize that fully, so we make it a point to figure out all of our venue dimensions ahead of time, and if something seems challenging – do our best to figure it out before we even get into a venue.

What are your favorite parts of your 3D mapping and of the show?

I think the end of Divine Moments of Truth (DMT).  This is when i first reveal the “joker” version of the Shpongle Mask.  It comes alive, moves about, sticks out its tongue and seems to crackle and pop in the trippiest of ways.  This treatment is programmed to follow the amplitude of high and low frequencies of the track – so the whole structure sort of wakes up and pulses to the music at this moment.  I often feel this collective crowd gasp at that moment, feels like everyone’s whispering – “Holy shit, this is for real…”

The other moment is the opening to the show – when a 3d replica of the Shpongle Mask in the form of a tentacled underwater… You know what… I have no words to describe this.  You just have to see it.

Here’s a great video interview with me, that features this opening and other clips that would let you see what I mean much better than any words:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9K4nbPCiaQw

For those of us not so familiar with the logistics of your visuals, are there live elements of mixing or are the shows preplanned?  With a band like EOTO, who improvises constantly, how do you coordinate to the music?

EOTO are hugely unpredictable as they are fully live and improvised.  But even though – they still tend to follow certain themes, there are transitions and drops.  That’s what I try to follow.  When I sense a transition, I move on, tuning myself finely to be able to predict what kind of a mood they’re about to drop into.  I watch their body language as well, as it offers some hints.

But what’s really helpful is that I already have certain banks of visuals that are triggered live by their music – these tend to make really good transitions and peaks.  I ride over that with longer treatments, that often pulse at a specific bpm that I can adjust on the fly to match the live tempo.

Are there (subliminal) messages to the Z.E.E. visuals? Does each show have a theme?  Does your work overall have a message?

We certainly have themes.  Embrace of nature.  Re-emergence of darkness and re-discovery of the demon in us all.  Meditation about that.  Technological evolution.  Embrace of the positive and the real.  And, most of all – pure uncensored fun.  And bass.  Lots of bass.

Tell me about the Vermin label you co-founded.  What was the motivation behind starting it and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

As I have mentioned – I’ve always been surrounded by really talented artists.  It was natural for us to try to start a label to help define ourselves and help channel all of the talent in our community via a common cause.  Vermin Street was our answer to that.  Why wait for someone else to come and find us, when we have everything we need right here at home?  The motivation and work ethic of Vermin Street’s founder Nick Colangelo (aka Vinyl Blight) is truly unparalleled.  I love it.

Audio/Visual entertainment has gotten pretty advanced, what lies ahead?  Are there possibilities of audience interaction?

Infinity lies ahead.  With computer consciousness soon being able to match that of a human and then surpass us in many ways – we are going to see more and more interactive technologies affecting a/v performances.  Brain-controlled interfaces will become common place.   Robot VJs would scan the crowd to see when the most eyeballs are watching the screens and will maximize the visuals to keep most of the eyeballs glued to the screen, reaching into a near infinite video libraries on the soon-to-be really fast internet.  Humanity will become a mind-hive, unpredictable and beautiful.

How do you cope with the impending doom that the world seems to be facing?

How do you cope with your own mortality?  Either fight it (which at this point is mostly pointless) or embrace it.  There are no in-betweens here.

I am a strong realist.  I view our human anthill as something rather unpredictable, full of erroneous memes, but yet something rather awe-inspiring as well.  We’ve figured out how to split atoms.  There’s a chance that we can figure out how to co-evolve and cooperate as well.

What are your favorite type of movies?

Many different types.  I like good sci-fi, eye candy action.  I like complicated nerve-tickling plots.  I like really really campy movies.  I like a good horror.  I deeply love some insanely psychedelic movies, something akin to The Holy Mountain.  I like some dark reality ones, like Gummo or some good genocide documentaries.

I hate all movies that leave me thinking “that’s totally not plausible in any way”.

Interesting books read recently or movies seen:

I would encourage everyone to look into the new meanings of the world uncovered by quantum physics.  What do all of the quantum paradoxes mean to us as humans?  Please help me answer these questions.

Do you prefer to work in the genres you have been working in, or do you have plans to branch out to different musical genres?

I’ve been in a few rock bands, singing and doing visuals.  I love progressive and psychedelic rock.  I love painting and installations.  I love sculpting.  Gardening, frisbee, survivalism and philosophy and travel.  I won’t be bored any time soon.

At some point I plan on releasing a solo all vocal album of some weirdness.  Or do some forms of art yet unseen.  The world is huge, and there’s no point of being confined to any one thing, even if it’s as lusciously delicious as “full on bass” music.

What advice would you give aspiring VJ’s?

Learn how to make your own content.  Break out of a 2d screen.  Find some good coders or learn to interface with midi instruments.  Work really really hard and prepare to be broke.  Know what your end goals are and keep your finances at bay.  Be ready for the long haul.

Bonus Content Recommended by Zebbler!

 

THE FINAL SIGN: a new dark psychedelic neon colored music video by Zebbler Encanti Experience

EOTO Spring Tour Compilation (a collage of some of the fun moments from the recent EOTO tour)

Shpongle interviw/coverage: (a really good video interview/coverage of our Shpongletron show/tour)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9K4nbpciaqw

 

Websites:

http://zebblerencantiexperience.com

http://www.zebbler.com

*Credit Zebbler for Photos*

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