Achieving a Space Age Utopia with Vinyl Williams

We spoke with psychedelic spa musician and visual artist Vinyl Williams about his new set, Into, along with theories of universal oneness.
Vinyl Williams

Vinyl Williams, née Lionel Williams, has lived an especially sensory existence. As the son of professional musicians and the grandson of a famous cinematic composer, he was kinda born make music. As he moved from playing movie themes on piano to banging on the drums, an infinite universe of improvisation opened up to him.

The now 25-year-old Angeleno currently makes a sort of acid relaxation music, something like the music of his neo-psychedelic contemporaries but with a distinct ambient atmosphere. Simultaneously capable of whirling vastness and gentle fuzziness, Williams channels acts like the Flaming Lips and MGMT as well as chillwave music, greatly developed by Carpark labelmate and collaborator Chaz Bundick, aka Toro y Moi. In 2013, the two collaborated on what became Trance Zen Dental Spa, a free, downloadable EP of meditative yet electrified tunes.

To complement his musical mind, Williams also he works as as a video artist, having creating about a dozen music videos for the likes of Tears for Fears, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Clarence Clarity. He has established himself for his unique brand of interactive, audiovisual creations, allowing viewers to navigate fantastical realms. Williams’ art is informed by his unique perspective on the world — a harmonious place, full of esoteric architectures and mystical symbolism. He draws inspiration from his conception of oneness and his mind’s limited yet valid perceptions of it.

Vinyl has toured with Mount Kimbie, Toro Y Moi, and is currently on tour with the Unknown Mortal Orchestra, playing almost daily shows in support of his second full-length record Into, which came out late July on Company Records (Chaz Bundick’s offshoot of Carpark). When I spoke to him, he was in a van somewhere in the desert Southwest, not too far from his home and surrounded by his bandmates. Williams comes across wide-eyed and industrious, utterly sincere about his craft but with a deep sense of humor about his not-so-normal profession. He knows he knows a lot but would probably be the first to admit he has so much to learn. Likewise, his music is full of beauty, happy accidents, and potential to grow in all possible directions.

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Your mother is a classical pianist, and your father worked with a number of notable rock and pop artists over several decades. How much would say your musical style developed through them and how much in spite of them?

Well, I did grow up playing classical piano from five to ten. But growing up in whatever sensibility, the natural sense that everyone has is to negate and react against it. So I definitely had periods of doing something inverse from my upbringing, as everybody does to some extent. It always proves extremely vital to an art practice. It’s funny how things have come full circle. In a way, I play psychedelic-ish soft rock, which is sort of what my father has always played and also composed for himself, music that is very soothing, soft rock, adult contemporary music. I wouldn’t lock that as the category of my music, but it is inevitably influenced and hereditarily formed out of that. And also from studying classical piano.

But when I was ten I actually quit classical piano to play drums, and that was a very necessary negation of traditional musical values that I had. That was the beginning of an archaic revival of a new sensibility, of music playing that is more improvisational, intuitive, and, I would say, animalistic. I try to remove myself from the compositional equation as much as possible so the music can create itself. And that was the first aperture for doing that: leaving playing the Titanic theme over and over again on classical piano for the drums and just improvising on the drums, finding strange groove patterns and pockets.

You once described yourself as “Enya with a strap-on.” Do you still see yourself that way?

Definitely, yeah. Any art form that can have an inexplicable affect on the artist or listener must include its opposite, and I really enjoy the process of employing opposites in music and art. So I think I do inevitably make meditative music, but what I call it is “abrasive meditation” because it’s extremely loud and heavy, but the chords and timbres are meant to be very soothing, and it’s supposed to be as balanced as possible so that those dualities are hopefully dissolved. But I’m pretty sure nobody has discovered a perfect state of harmony ever. [laughs] Neither has somebody discovered something that is normal, an object or a human being. But yeah, I said that statement, and I think it still holds true. There are probably more poetic explanations that I can describe now.

That’s pretty poetic. So you’re currently in the middle of a US tour with Unknown Mortal Orchestra? Are they surrounding you right now?

No, we’re in a different van.

So I can ask, how’s the tour going?

It’s splendid. It’s the best tour ever. We’ve been extremely blessed to go on great tours — Mount Kimbie, Toro y Moi, and now it’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Yeah, we really look up to Ruban [Nielson] and his process of making music, which is extremely interrelated to the way that we think about music. It’s almost been so harmonious that there aren’t any stories to tell. [laughs] It’s just a field of bliss being on tour with them, and even days off, when we have to drive from place to place, it’s been pretty awesome. And now we’re in familiar territory. We’re in the west coast, where we’re from. So it’s pretty pristine.

You have a new album out called Into. What can we expect from it that we haven’t seen from you before?

It was more generated out of a self-generative pattern, you could say. The previous record was made of songs that I had worked out before we recorded, which is a different process completely from how Into was created. Which is through essentially allowing a guitar to resonate in a certain key signature for the length of a pop song and then hearing the natural changes of harmonics and overtones that occur that resonant chord, and then producing a melody that doubles those harmonics and then basically just improving drums and bass intuitively, mostly one take overdubs over those ambient, resonant chords.

And through that, the songs start to just happen, in ways that are very surprising. And I’ll often be surprised by something that is my own creation, which I almost wouldn’t call my creation. It had a lot to do with the room that it was recorded in, which was a nice studio at 8000 ft. elevation in Utah. It had a lot to do with the barometric pressure. There were storms happening almost every day when I was recording, and I would leave the window open and let those just bleed into the mics. The song you can hear that most obviously on is the second to last on the record, “Allaz”.

You use stream of consciousness in your lyric writing. How did you start doing it that way?

Just one day, about six or seven years ago, I decided to start writing more. And I found it more fluid and easier if I automatic wrote, which I had learned of about that time through David Lynch and through some strange books I was reading. And I just tried to appropriate the technique, which is almost a technique-less technique. [laughs]

And I found it to be extremely fluid and easy, and I have only been able to improve from there. What comes out is very surprising, usually a visual explanation of a realm that has nothing to do with human existence at all and is extremely foreign. In a way, I feel like part of my role is to simulate that place through composition and lyrics. The way that it does exist is veiled, even to me, in its figurative form, so the lyrics are veiled as well. You can’t hear a word I’m saying cause there’s so much reverb on my vocals, and to be honest, that wasn’t intentional, but I’m just figuring this out as I go along. And it ends up being cooperative with how I experience the inexperience-able when I automatic write.

Interesting, because I was going to ask, how important is it for listeners to comprehend the lyrics?

I don’t know about comprehending. But the lyrics are very grounded in the context of pop songs. I re-appropriate many popular axioms into very concentrated statements that ring true for everybody, which is an incredible thing that you can do. I don’t know what the implication of my writing is or ever will be. I don’t know if they should be comprehended or can be. Ultimately, I would want the music to be read with lyrics, but it’s not absolutely necessary because the veiled form can produce imagination in the listener to create his or her own phrases and words. Which is sort of an entrance to more levels of complexity in the form of gibberish that can expand the forms and architecture of this world that I try to create. And I really like to hear translations from my friends and colleagues, which is completely different, but it’s always really interesting. They’re revealing more things about the form and architecture of the song than I could ever understand.

It’s nice to hear a lyricist say they appreciate when their listeners mishear the lyrics of a song.

Yeah, I probably make that easier than 99% of people though. It’s supposed to be a mutually creative process, I guess.

In addition to making music, you’ve also done a lot of visual art. Would you consider yourself more of a visual artist than a musician?

I would definitely consider myself more of a visual artist than a fragrant artist. I haven’t really tapped into that sense yet.

C’mon, man.

[laughs] Yeah, I gotta get on it. I do have a crazy collection of strange incenses to cover up the smell of cat residue all over my studio. I basically combine five different types of incense to create this big, foggy cloud of otherworldly scents. But for me to actually create them myself, that would be a whole other story. So as an actual answer to your question, I’m working more visually now than I am recording because it’s sort of my job. I’m a freelance video artist that’s making music videos for bands, so I do that pretty much every day, and I only get to record every so often. It’s pretty rare when I actually get to record, actually sit down and have time by myself. The last time I was able to do that for three weeks straight was making this record, and I haven’t really been able to get in that flow since then because I haven’t had the time.

It’s been a strange road making these ridiculously narrow, psychedelic, interactive, explorable worlds for bands, but there’s a good reason why I started focusing more on that, and that is to balance the scales a little bit. I’m really excited to actually release the interactive pieces I made for all the songs on the record. Only one is released right now, [“World Soul”]. The other ones that I’ve developed over the last few years are really crazy. There are many, many known possibilities of compositional creation within those worlds. Instead of being a graphic designer and making something from scratch, you can just make compositions in these realms and then take a screenshot. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure, art-creating tool.

So the music videos you make contain these elaborate, psychedelic environments for viewers to navigate. Can you try to describe how you make these to someone who knows nothing about animation?

Yeah, I’ve had to do that a lot recently. Let’s see if I can do it sequentially. So I use two programs, one called Unity 3D, which is like Photoshop for making for making videogames. I highly recommend it because it’s free, anybody can use it. And I use another program called 123D Catch, which is an iPhone app where you can take 3D pictures of any object and then it turns it into a 3D model. So I make a bunch of these 3D models, and I also find the majority of models I use in free archives of open source, royalty-free, 3D model websites. I just build up a huge library of every kind of multi-religious architecture I can possibly find on the Internet, as well as create my own models of little figures that can ultimately be any size, and then I just arrange them in 3D space.

I’m not very good with code, and you don’t have to make these. I use templates of premade, first person controllers or panorama animated camera template or a driving car simulator template. I just released a video for this band called The Quincey from Italy, an interactive, psychedelic driving game where you navigate really fast through a rainbow landscape over the mountains and discover tiny, nestled cities and stuff. And it’s super easy. It’s an infinite field of possibilities. You can make an incredible video in a day because there’s no rendering. I can just walk around and make a video in real time. And if it’s just a one-shot thing, and I’m spending four minutes walking around in an environment, it takes four minutes to make that video, except for the few hours it takes to make the world. It’s an incredibly intuitive, efficient way to make infinite possible realms at your will.

And I haven’t found a lot of people that are using it in the way I am, which is a bit irrationally. Most people make games with goals, but I’m trying to make compositional arenas where you can, you know, feed objects back into the sky, make time trails with objects, create your own 3D panoramic compositions, just by moving around.

Very cool. So not really part of the interview, but are you familiar an artist named Clarence Clarity?

Yeah! I just did a video for him!

Oh, you did?

Yeah, I just finished a video for him. Did you know that?

No, I did not know that.

What the hell? That’s so weird!

I’m just a huge fan of his music and videos, and I noticed some similarities between your visual styles.

Whoa, you’re a psychic. That was my most recent video project.

What song was it for?

“Will to Believe”.

Dude, I love that song. I was just listening to that earlier today.

That’s crazy! He’s such a good guy. He just let me go crazy. He was like, “Just make some wild, interactive, explorable realm. And if you could film it and put it through your video synthesizer so it looks like lo-fi, VHS footage of this interactive realm, that’d be awesome.” So that’s what I did, and it turned out great. I basically made this creepy hotel that you can check into, and you go through this strange abysmal, grey area and go onto this subway, which takes you into this mythical temple. It think it’s gonna be released in the next couple weeks.

I’m excited to see that. I also just realized the other day that you made the video for Tears for Fears’ cover of “My Girls” [by Animal Collective]. How’d you get that gig?

That was one of my first videos ever. My friend T.J. Petracca, who I grew up with in Utah, we were in a bunch of bands together when we were like 14 or 15 years old. He is my age, he’s 25 years old, and is an extremely charismatic person and became one of two managers for Tears for Fears. He just had the idea to ask me to a do a video for their cover of “My Girls”. It might have been his idea for them to do that cover in the first place.

Would you say your visual art informs your music?

Yeah, they are the same place, and the only way to make both of them is through the filter of my subjectivity. The more I attempt to interrelate the senses, the more it seems to actually happen. It seems like a form of delusion where I try to correlate visual things with sonic things. I don’t have that natural correlation within me, but just trying to and finding new ways of description can actually change how you think. It really becomes one and the same process. The main difference is that the visual work is very collage-based and while in recording, I record all the sounds myself. I used like three samples on the record, but the majority of sounds you’re hearing are self-recorded sounds.

Would you mind telling me which samples you used, or is that a secret?

Yeah. I used a drum sample from Night Jewel’s first record. I believe the song is called “Weak for Me” from her first record. I used a sample of a drum part from a band called Laika. And I used a sample from the Hotel Rwanda soundtrack actually, this African call which resonated with me so much. It’s one of the most eerie and beautiful things I’ve ever heard, one of the best encapsulations of extreme opposites, so I had to include it.

How have psychoactive drugs influenced your music?

I mean, I’ll never know really. I can’t go back now. I feel like taking it in the past in small to medium doses has absolutely expanded my awareness of possibilities for all creative mediums and realms. But how that is put through a structure is very difficult to say because the only structure that was revealed to me in those psychedelic experiences is a structure-less structure. And that highly influenced me to start making music beyond my compositional abilities.

But I know that a lot of people can have much more structured experiences where they can experience highly geometrical, mathematical models in front of them or maybe just traces of those models that can influence their practice. But it’s funny, I have definitely been given what I deserved throughout a lot of my psychedelic adventures. You never really get what you want; you get what you need to get. And those experiences have absolutely increased my ability to describe things, and through new words and new relationships between words, many new plateaus of music making have been revealed to me.

You’ve mentioned mathematics and science to be significant in your creative process? Can you describe how these affect your artistic practice?

Yeah, I’m really into theoretical physicists like Nassim Haramein who are extremely discredited in the physics community and their mathematical concepts ring true with me, and I don’t know why. In a way, Nassim Haramein and a few other theoretical physics have in a way proven concepts of oneness; even beyond concepts, I would say they have mathematically proven oneness in a way. I guess I could mathematically explain that to you right now. Essentially, Nassim Haramein revealed the truth which was found over a hundred years ago in the physics community, which is that the density inside a proton is the largest number we’ve ever encountered as a society in history … [He continues to discuss the findings of Haramein’s paper, The Schwarzschild Proton, in great depth.] Again, I try to have no dogma: I find his theories stimulating to listen to, and it supercharges me into thinking I can have beneficial results with music and art.

Your art contains a lot of mystical and religious symbolism? What’s up with that?

These enchanted lands that I’ve been touching are ones I’d like to explore through improvisational means and automatic writing, and are extremely harmonious and multi-religious. There are many temple structures of ancient architecture that are actually modular that are able to change realm at whim. They’re actually constantly morphing, and the only way for me to depict that is to recreate them using known means and known concepts of this architecture, and I put it into a new context, which is outside of the religious, cultural context that they come from. They’re supposed to represent the tone of this realm that is extremely harmonious, as I mentioned.

What’s it like working with Chaz Bundick [aka Toro y Moi]?

It’s amazing. He’s a really personable guy, very intelligent, but also very rational and responsible. He gets things done, and he’s very on time. Just really, really good energies coming off of him. [Regarding their split EP, Trance Zen Dental Spa] We just went into this tiny room and improvised for three hours, and the last hour ended up being the EP. We just wanted to let loose our love, and just play and see what kind of tones can be combined together in the room. It just sounded like us in a room. It was so peaceful, so I decided to put it in the context of making an interactive spa out of it because it just sounded like spa music to me. [laughs] But being around Chaz is incredible. It’s kind of like being in a mental spa.

You make a sort of psychedelic music that is experiencing a revival. How would you say psychedelic music that so vividly harkens back to the ’60s and ’70s is relevant to today’s musical climate?

Well I think it’s being harnessed in a much different way. It’s definitely a revival, but the new context that it exists in is extremely alchemically concentrated with this new form of blissful music that started to come out of the mid- to late-’70s with a lot of new age and ambient music. And it took a surprisingly long time for that to actually influence the timbres and chords changes and melodic structures of psychedelic rock music. And even most of the revivalist bands are doing the pretty standard, ’60s and ’70s psychedelic pop formula. But to step outside of that and stretch out a jazz chord for three or four minutes or include some serial, indescribable ambient noises is, I feel like, a semi-new element of that revival of the genre. And I don’t even know if I’d categorize my own music anymore as just psychedelic — whoa, we just entered a crazy wind cloud right now. The most psychedelic music for me sort of dissolves all boundaries of genre. The album that Brian Eno has with Jon Hassell, called Possible Musics, transcends all genres in the exact way I want to, ultimately. Even though it’s so old, it’s providing momentum for the evolution of psychedelic music.

Who do you consider your musical contemporaries? And do they inspire you?

Oh yeah! Turk Dietrich. He’s from New Orleans. He has a project called Belong, which is also on Carpark. He’s not really making music right now, but his music has put me into states of ecstasy that I can’t ever describe to anybody. I could probably just make a moaning sound that’s really disgusting. Turk Dietrich is one that has really transformed the molecules of my brain. [He recommends “Different Heart” and “I Never Lose. Never Really”. About the latter:] I describe it as the God tone because it sounds like everything that is. I also would like to say HOTT MT, a band from LA that I know and live with, has inspired me so much and set me on a musical course that has been incredibly beneficial.

Very cool. What inspirations do you have that we’d never guess?

Observation. Long, prolonged terms of observation have inspired me more than anything. Sitting and observing, and being all things in your view instead of separate things can do incredible things for any creative process, whatever it may be.